Gay Walsh

First Sunday of Advent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Put on the armour of the Lord Jesus Christ and stop paying attention to your sinful nature and satisfying its desires.”   Romans 13: 11-14
“Stay awake! For you do not know when your Lord will come.”   Matthew 24: 37-44

Advent was included in the Church’s calendar as a period of reflection intended to engage the Christian in giving attention to the significance of the fact that, in the person of Jesus, God demonstrated unequivocal solidarity and identification with all of humanity. Two words which occur again and again in the prayers and readings of Advent are “Emmanuel” and “incarnation”. Emmanuel is one of the names attributed to Jesus and literally means “God with us”. It first appears in the Bible in the prophesy of Isaiah, who proclaimed how Jesus would be born as a child and take a place in human history. In a prophesy to Ahaz, Isaiah declared: “Watch for this: A girl who is a virgin will become pregnant. She’ll bear a son and name him Immanuel (God-With-Us)”  (Isaiah 7:14). We will have to wait till the Fourth Sunday of Advent to hear this reading.

“Incarnation” is a word that is rarely used outside the context of religion. It is derived from the past participle of the Latin verb incarnare, which means “to make/become flesh”. From about the year 1300, the noun incarnation was used quite specifically to mean “the embodiment of God in the person of Jesus Christ” (Chambers, Dictionary of Etymology, p. 517, Harrap Publishers, N.Y. 1988). The word also appears in the flower name carnation, flesh colour. Advent invites us to reflect on the enormity of how God touched humanity in the person of Jesus and how, as a consequence, we are able to encounter Jesus in and through our human experiences. The prominent Catholic theologian and Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius (c.295-375) wrote a treatise on the Incarnation entitled DeIncarnatione, in which he stated: “God became like us so that we might become like him.” (sic). The implication of this is that Jesus grew and developed through childhood, adolescence and adulthood like every other male. He asked the kind of questions about his origins and development as every one of us has asked. He had to learn how to befriend his body and make his way through the challenges and traumas of adolescence as every other adolescent has. He had to deal with the whole gamut of human emotions within himself and in everyone he encountered. He experienced grief and rejection, loss and acceptance, illness, suffering and the depravity of humiliation, torture and execution of the kind experienced only by a minority. And he died as we all must.

Regrettably, Advent in the world we know has almost become a non-event. The world of retail commerce has already begun selling for Christmas, and Christmas carols can be heard already in shopping malls the world over. For any of us to set aside time for Advent prayer and reflection requires special effort and discipline.

There is an additional irony in some of the readings set down for this First Sunday of Advent. God’s incarnation in human flesh in the person of Jesus not only points to the value and dignity of human flesh and blood – the fact that Jesus adopted our human flesh and blood implies that – but it suggests that this is worth celebrating. In today’s reading from Romans, however, the human body seems to be the object of some severe criticism. The problem we face here is that the Greek word for flesh used in Romans can have two meanings. Sometimes flesh is equated with our sinful nature, while at other times it is used to refer to our human condition, worthy of our reverence and admiration, despite its fragility. The fact that God, in the person of Jesus, has identified in the incarnation with our flesh, in the sense of something to be reverenced, gives us every reason to celebrate. At the same time, we all know the temptations we experience when we let bodily urges and desires get out of control, when we fail to treat our bodies with reverence, respect and self-control. But that does not mean that there is something about our bodies of which we should be ashamed or embarrassed. We, with our bodies, talents and emotional life, are gifts from God. It’s important that we stop from time to time to remind ourselves that all of God’s gifts are good, and so worthy of respect and reverence. We also know that gifts can be misused, and today’s reading from Romans is simply a reminder to us to use our gifts for the purpose for which they are intended.

That complements the call in the gospel-reading from Matthew to be alert to what is happening within our own lives and in the world around us. That does not imply that we are insensitive to, or burdened with despondency by, the prevalence of violence and the injustice of events taking place in the troubled parts of our world. We also know of many people, including ourselves, whose generosity is at work to bring relief and healing to our sisters and brothers who are victims of injustice, prejudice and neglect. The Gospel call to stay awake is also a reminder to us to recognise the presence of Jesus in everyone we encounter in the course of each day. The corollary of that is that we take care to avoid slipping into living our lives as though each day is just a matter of business as usual. That can so easily lead to complacency and dulling us from being surprised by God’s unexpected revelation in very ordinary events.

Still there is one more image in today’s gospel-reading that cannot be ignored. It strikes me as something of a shock that God will come into our lives like a thief. Yet, apart from the extended metaphor of God as thief in today’s gospel-reading, there are two similar references in the Book of Revelation (Rev 3:3; and 16:15) and another in Thessalonians, where Paul wrote: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night”  (1 Thessalonians 5: 2). I have to admit that I am more comfortable with Jesus as the Light of the world, the Bread of Life, the true vine, the door, the Good Shepherd, the Resurrection and the Life, and God as the potter. But thief? In real life, there are many who believe that their bank accounts, their houses, their cars and their health insurance are their guarantee of lasting security. But God has a way of stealing from us the false sense of security we can create for ourselves. Thieves who break into houses don’t advertise their coming, and when they do invade our homes, we can feel violated. God, on the other hand often comes unannounced into our lives. We experience God’s presence in the kindness of neighbours who turn up with meals when we are grieving the loss of a loved one, and in the many other acts of kindness extended to us by friends, neighbours and strangers. Moreover, God is ever intent on “stealing” our hearts and our allegiance, not by deception, but through the insights we get, from time to time, into God’s love for us expressed in very ordinary events. We may even have found ourselves resonating with the experience of the prophet, Jeremiah who acknowledged how God had captivated him: “You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced”  (Jeremiah 20: 7) In this context, I am reminded of what a friend said to me after losing all his treasured family photos and other possessions in our recent floods: “In a very real sense, it was a blessing, because those things were distracting me from making sure that my heart was in the right place!”

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

ThirtyThird Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Some of the disciples were talking about the Temple, how beautiful it looked with its fine stones and gifts offered to God.”    Luke 21: 5-19

The disciples’ appreciative remarks about the ornateness of the Temple elicited from Jesus a list of comments that they probably least expected. After all, it is likely that they were repeating comments of the kind made by countless visitors and pilgrims who had come to the Temple before them.

Jesus, however, gave them a list of weighty issues to ponder and digest. What is worthy of note about this section of Luke’s Gospel is that it parallels similar passages in both Mark and Matthew that are something like Jesus’ final thoughts to those close to him before he was arrested, tortured and sent to his public execution. Today’s gospel-reading is a summary to his disciples of what they could expect if they committed themselves to practicing everything he had taught them.

In a response that must have deflated the disciples, Jesus offered a list of grim and unambiguous assertions, the meanings of which are probably best paraphrased:

The first was a grim reminder that the beautiful Temple which the disciples so admired would one day be nothing more than a pile of rubble. Shocked by his prediction, the disciples wanted an indication as to when such destruction would happen. But Jesus bypassed their question and proceeded to give them a further warning.

He warned them about expecting too much from organised religion that can sound as though it is able to offer quick answers to people’s hopes for instant salvation. He also made reference to religious charlatans who would come offering false hope by claiming to speak on behalf of Jesus himself: “Take care not to be misled. Many will come in my name saying: ‘I am he’ and ‘The time is at hand.’ Do not follow them.”   (Luke 21:8)

Then, without so much as a pause to breathe, he launched into a third point about war and violence. Extreme abuse of power resulting in war and conflict deter all our efforts to bring peace and calm fear. But we need to remind ourselves that such violence is bound to occur when greed and competition rear their ugly heads. “Be sure”, he said, “not to let news of such events paralyse you with fear.”

Then, as though he were running out of time to say everything he wanted, he had moved to his next point about the inevitability of the occurrence of natural disasters that would turn people’s lives upside down. “But don’t rush to interpret such events as signs that the end of the world is near. Wars between nations and natural disasters such as earthquakes, famines and plagues will all come and go, but, ‘for you who would be my disciples, even worse experiences await you!’”  (Luke 21:11)

Then followed a brief comment on how government institutions can pervert the law to destroy the lives of those they are meant to protect. Acutely aware of people intent on ridding their world of him, Jesus warned that similar injustices awaited his disciples: “You will be arrested and persecuted and brought to trial before kings and governors” (Luke 21: 12).
The final point that Jesus made was to be alert to the possibility of animosity and betrayal coming even from family members, some of whom would stop at nothing. (Luke 21: 16).

Some of us may conclude that this outburst from Jesus was the result of the emotional pressure he felt as he reflected on his own experience of rejection, injustice and prejudice levelled at him by those whose lives he had made uncomfortable by the challenges he put to them. I’m inclined to think that he was more intent on urging his disciples to be alert to the painful forces that could be loosed against them not just by a violent and greedy world, not just by forces of nature, but by those who controlled the power of the religious institution to which they were adherents. There is something attractive about the flowers, the icons, the statues, the music, the incense and the rituals that are part of our religious practice and worship. But some of us have had experiences that make these things pale into insignificance. There comes a time for some of us when more painful events impinge on our religious consciousness. We all know of someone who has been emotionally or even sexually abused by religious people in whom they placed their trust. Such abuse does not belong only to our religious world. It has invaded the fabric of our political, institutional and sporting worlds.

Sometimes, we can delude ourselves into thinking that religion is meant to desensitise us to the painful issues at work in our Church and our world. Jesus and his Gospel are surely intent on encouraging us to face openly and honestly those painful issues, however complex they happen to be. God’s Spirit is present and at work in the complexity of our own lives and in the complexity of the world around us. While we might be inclined to want to simplify complex situations and challenges, it is vital that we try to face them openly and squarely. In today’s second reading Paul gives us a good example of mixing reality with genuine love and care. He seems to have no hesitation in speaking the truth in love to the Thessalonian community to whom he wrote: “Indeed, when we were with you, we used to lay down the rule that anyone who would not work should not eat”  (2 Thessalonians 3: 10).

However we choose to live our religion, it is empty if it fails to lead us towards discipleship of the Jesus who taught us to live with courage, compassion, integrity and fearlessness, ever conscious of God’s Spirit somehow present under the messiness of the troubles which surround us.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

ThirtySecond Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“The lord is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all are alive.”   Luke 20: 27-38

While today’s gospel-reading looks to be fairly complicated on the surface, it carries a message of great hope and encouragement for all of us and, by implication, shows us how to live our lives with meaning and purpose. In the process, it discloses the insincerity of the Sadducees in formulating a question to Jesus that seems to be motivated more by sham and mockery than a desire for an answer to a genuine real-life issue. As is so often the case, an appreciation of context helps us in unravelling the complexity of this gospel-reading.

In the time of Jesus, the Sadducees were fewer in number than the Pharisees with whom they had differences of opinion on matters relating to the Law. Sadducees, for the most part, belonged to the upper classes of society and favoured literalist, fundamentalist and traditional interpretation of the Law. In their view, Torah and Moses were synonymous. They believed that the Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) were all formulated and dictated by Moses himself. They had little time for the theological and legal explorations and debates engaged in by the Pharisees. The Sadducees did not believe in life after death simply because it was not specifically mentioned in the Torah. Moreover, in the time of Jesus the concept of life after death or resurrection was relatively new even in the thinking of the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed in life after death but the Sadducees rejected it as totally out of hand.

The law to which the Sadducees referred in framing their question to Jesus was one that existed in other ancient cultures as well as in Judaism and was known as the levirate law, which derived its name from the word levir, meaning a husband’s brother. The levirate law stipulated that if a married man died leaving his widow childless, the dead man’s brother was to marry the widow and treat their first son as the son of the man who had died. There are references to this law in both Genesis (38:8) and Deuteronomy (25: 5). The purpose of the law was to ensure that family property remained in the family that generated and owned it. The kind of afterlife to which the Pharisees subscribed was that it was an improvement on the earthly life with which they were familiar rather than a completely different kind of life. Jewish men believed that the greatest blessing in life was to have sons who, in their turn, would keep the family name well and truly alive. Consequently, they saw the afterlife as a state in which they would have an endless array of sons. Some decades later. notable Jewish scholars reinforced this view of the afterlife in their teachings. Rabbi Gamaliel II asserted that, in the afterlife, “Women will give birth daily”. And a descendant of his, Rabbi Eliezer, stated: “Every Israelite will have six hundred thousand sons”. I wonder if Jewish women imagined that as their understanding of the afterlife. The farcical question which the Sadducees put to Jesus regarding the woman who married seven brothers in succession (all of whom died), entailed presenting the proposition that, even though Moses had promulgated the practice of the levirate law, he could not have subscribed logically to a belief in an afterlife.

In responding to the riddle the Sadducees put to him, Jesus described the afterlife as something like the life of angels – endless and very different from the life of human beings, a life in which marriage, conception and childbirth would not be necessary for the propagation of the human race. He made the point that God was capable of creating an utterly different kind of life, nothing like the kind of life humans experience. The rules, practices and customs of human life would no longer operate. Having said that, he then engaged with his questioners on their own ground, quoting to them from the Torah (the only Scripture to which they adhered) the section describing the encounter Moses had with God in the burning bush, in which God says: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” (Genesis 3, 6). This implies that, if God is the God of those Patriarchs, they are still alive. Moreover, the Sadducees knew well that God’s love is endless. Logically, then, they could only conclude that those whom God loves must still be enjoying some kind of life, different in kind from human life. In their efforts to force Jesus to provide textual proof of an afterlife, the Sadducees had forgotten to take into account the nature of God as eternal love for all whom God had loved into life.

The logical consequence of all this is that the God who has loved every human being into life, the God whose love is unconditional and eternal, continues to love all of us endlessly. We, in turn, know in the depths of our heart that we are made for love and that after we experience human death a different kind of life awaits us, allowing us to continue to experience God’s love. That surely leaves in the dust any theory that our lives are meant to be endurance tests in which we earn or forfeit God’s love through our efforts and failures.

In all of this, there is, I suggest, an implied corollary. I have long held the view that gifts reach their full potential only when they are shared. In that context, indelible in my mind is the memory of a comment made to me years ago by a young man who was dux of the College he attended. In conversing with him, I asked if other students came to him seeking assistance with their work. This was his reply: “I don’t give help to anyone. If I did that, they might get more marks than I in our examinations!” The most precious gift we have is life. The challenge for all of us is surely to live our lives to the full, sharing who we are and the other gifts with which we have been blessed to make our world a better place and to enrich the lives of everyone we encounter by the way we affirm, encourage and accompany them to grow into their best selves. Life’s journey is not a quest to get to heaven, is not about accumulating merit or brownie points to qualify for entry through the “pearly gates”. It is about living to the full the love that has been planted deep within us.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

ThirtyFirst Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I mean to stay at your house.”  Luke 19: 1-10

There is no doubt that Luke, in his Gospel, presents us with a Jesus who has a preferential option for the poor and needy. As we have followed the Sunday readings throughout the year, we have read of the woman who had unsuccessfully spent all her savings on doctors, and, in desperation, reached out in faith to touch Jesus’ cloak (Lk 8: 43 ff). There was the story of the rich man who feasted every day but ignored poor Lazarus who was wasting away at the rich man’s door (Lk. 16: 19-31). There have been multiple accounts of Jesus reaching out to ostracised blind people and untouchable lepers (eg Lk. 5:12-16 and Lk. 17: 11-27). And then, there was the story of how Jesus urged a gathering at a celebration in a Pharisee’s house to invite to their banquets poor people who could not return the favour (Lk. 14: 12-14). A close second to Jesus’ preference for the poor was his outreach to those who had been labelled as public sinners, especially tax-collectors, who were universally despised and treated with contempt. Tax collectors have been the focus of the gospel readings of recent Sundays, and this coming Sunday we have the story of Zacchaeus, “a chief tax-collector”.

There is a touch of humour about this story in that it describes the undignified behaviour of a high-profile public identity who resorts to shinning up a tree in order to get a good view of Jesus, the prophet, whose reputation had preceded him. We can only wonder what it was that prompted Zacchaeus to risk further public embarrassment and ridicule by an action such as that. After all, he had already earned the contempt of almost everyone for his collaboration with the Romans and his extortionary methods of bleeding rich and poor alike. He would have been almost friendless. Had he reached the point of being sickened by the man he saw when he looked into the mirror? Had his conscience started to get the better of him? Had he come to realise that accumulation of wealth at the expense of others had given him neither joy nor satisfaction? Was he merely curious?

Whatever it was that possessed him to climb the sycamore tree, it seems to me that he somehow had come to the conclusion that the Jesus he wanted to see might be his only source of inner peace. Jesus, in his turn, somehow sensed that the man he saw up the tree was longing for his hollowness to be filled. Without hesitation and without stopping to consider that, yet again, his critics would condemn him for associating with public sinners, Jesus invited himself to lunch in the house of Zacchaeus. Both Zacchaeus and Jesus pushed to the side personal reputation and human respect.

For whatever reason, Zacchaeus went in search of Jesus. In his turn, Jesus responded to Zacchaeus, affirming that there was some good in him despite his reprehensible past. Whatever Jesus said to Zacchaeus was enough to trigger in him a change of heart, an experience of conversion.

Every gospel-reading we hear calls us to move from the stance of observers to that of active participants. We make that shift by acknowledging that the experience of Zacchaeus is our experience, too. While few of us have earned a reputation for advancing ourselves by gouging the poor, there have been times in our lives when we have compromised our personal integrity, when we have not been true to what we know to be the deepest desire of our heart. We have felt the needle of conscience prodding us to mend our ways, to address whatever is in need of healing in our lives. That is the experience of all humans, be they people of a particular religious faith or of none. We all know in our heart the feeling of dis-ease whenever we fail to live with integrity, whenever we fail to treat others with reverence and respect, with the dignity they deserve as our sisters and brothers.

Those of us who call ourselves Christian, commit ourselves to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to live in accord with his Gospel. We know from experience that conversion of mind and heart is a life-long journey. It is rarely the consequence an instant, life-changing event similar to the dramatic experience that turned the life of Saul of Tarsus upside down. Still, in different ways, Jesus says to each of us: “I mean to come and stay in your house.” Perhaps we are hesitant, even reluctant, to give him entrée. I suspect that’s because we don’t believe we are good enough or because we fear what he might ask of us. Life experience has taught me that most of us are slow to admit that we are good. God doesn’t make junk. And my experience is that there is good in everyone I have encountered, and that human decency is to be found in everyone.

We don’t know whether Zacchaeus’ change of heart in the direction of being magnanimous was complete or lasting. Implicit in his promises was an admission that his conduct had been less than exemplary and that he was resolved to make amends. What this story of his meeting with Jesus does tell us is that Jesus has the ability do deal with the ambiguities evident in the lives of everyone. As he dealt with Zacchaeus in the circumstances of his life, so, too, is he ready and willing to deal with us in the ever-changing circumstances of our lives. We need to be courageous enough to prepare ourselves to listen for the times when he says to us: “I mean to join you in your house for lunch today.”

 

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“The tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed: ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’”   Luke 18: 9-14

I want to suggest that the cleverness of this parable is that it draws us into identifying with the tax collector while, in actual fact, we are probably more like the Pharisee. There is some wisdom in the aphorism “All comparisons are odious!”, especially when we slip into comparing ourselves with others. The big difference between the prayers of the two men who had come to the temple to pray was that in his prayer the Pharisee measured himself against the performance of people around him (‘I am not like the rest of men’), while the tax collector looked only at his own life.

Surely, it comes as no surprise to us that we find ourselves quick to identify with the tax-collector. After all, we squirm whenever we hear anyone trumpeting a list of his or her donations to charitable organisations or their extensive involvement in volunteering activities. What’s more, centuries of conditioning have left Christians in no doubt about the reputation they are expected to attribute to Pharisees. Despite the error inherent in the label ”Pharisee”, we take Pharisees to be self-opinionated, self-righteous, hypocritical legalists intent on finding fault with almost everything Jesus said and did. They prided themselves as self-appointed guardians of religious law and practice. At the same time, history attests that many Pharisees did what was expected of them, with integrity, and respect for those around them.

Throughout history, peoples and groups have had their names universally tarnished because of the actions of a few of their members. Nigerians, for example, have been labelled as belligerent, Jews as usurers, Moonies as brain-washers, Real Estate agents as swindlers and so on. The labels simply reveal the prejudices of those who attribute them. Tax-collectors in the time of Jesus had a reputation for being extortionists and collaborators with the Romans. Yet, today’s parable presents the tax-collector’s prayer as much more to our spiritual liking than the prayer of the Pharisee. The tax-collector, recognising his sinful history and acknowledging that God’s graciousness is beyond his ability to earn it, throws himself at the mercy of God. The Pharisee, in contrast, lists his good deeds as adding up to a curriculum vitae that is bound to earn God’s approval.

We have all grown up in cultures that have taught us that competition is a worthy pursuit. We compete in scholastic exams and sporting activities with fellow students throughout our school and academic lives, working to achieve better results than our peers. That overflows into our religious activities in such a way that we can delude ourselves into thinking that we earn God’s approval by our good deeds. Rather than thinking that we earn God’s love through the good we do, we would do well to remind ourselves that the good things we do are a result of God’s empowering us to do them. The genius of today’s parable is that it impels us to look into the mirror, and to acknowledge that we see in ourselves a greater resemblance to the Pharisee than to the tax-collector.

While we don’t brag about our achievements and hard-won qualifications, we list them and our published papers in our CVs and have our university degrees and professional qualifications displayed on our office walls and business cards. We provide evidence of how we are apparently better than others. What we so easily forget is that all our achievements and successes are attributable to the blessings we have received from God.

What inspires and encourages us about the way in which the tax-collector presented himself to God was his honesty in acknowledging his weakness and his complete dependence on God’s gracious mercy.

The assertion Paul makes in today’s reading from his second Letter to Timothy reinforces the gospel message of the need for us all, when we pray, to come into the presence of God with openness, honesty and humility. Like the tax collector in his self-assessment, Paul gives a self-evaluation to Timothy that has no hint of comparing himself with others. Using a metaphor from athletics, he asserts: “I have done my best in the race, I have run the full distance, and I have kept the faith. And now there is waiting for me the prize of victory.”  (2 Timothy 4: 7-8).   His honesty is echoed by top-rank athletes who can look at their performances relative to their nearing or exceeding their own personal best. They make no comparison with those against whom they have been competing.

In this context it is important that, whenever we engage in self-evaluation, we don’t ignore our truth. Let’s not deny that we may well be intelligent, creative, talented, generous in sharing out time and talent, faithful, loyal and honest. There is nothing admirable about cultivating the disease of low self-esteem. The debilitating habit of always wanting to run ourselves down is a mockery of the truthful stance of the tax-collector before God. The practice of perpetually belittling or underestimating ourselves becomes an obstacle to ever coming to appreciate that we are loved by others, even by God. That does not mean we are perfect. We all carry human flaws and frailty. But having been created in the image of the God who loved us into life, we must accept that, like God, all of us are good, creative, loving and free when we are at our best. Sure, we need to acknowledge to ourselves and others that there are times when we are sinful, but such acknowledgement is meant to lead us to put our hope and trust in God, who not only respects and treasures us, but trusts us to be instruments of peace, compassion and mercy for others.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

TwentyNinth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“As long as Moses held up his arms, the Israelites kept winning.”   Exodus 17: 8-13

“Once there was a judge in a certain city who neither feared God nor respected any human being. A widow in the same city kept coming to him and saying: ‘Give me a just decision against my opponent.” Luke 18: 1-8

One of the things that fascinates me about those of us who regard ourselves as card-carrying Catholics is that we seem to have little difficulty accepting Jesus as divine and, at the same time, are hesitant to accept him as fully human. Maybe we are not fully convinced by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews who asserts: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with us in our weakness, but one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet never sinned.” (Hebrews 4: 15) One aspect of Jesus’ personality that we can easily overlook is that he had a sense of humour, and it’s on display in today’s gospel-reading in which, after giving the meaning of the parable he was about to tell, he begins: “Did you hear the news about the widow who gave the judge a black eye?” He went on to explain how the poor woman was so frustrated at being ignored by the judge that she took to him. And the judge himself admits: “I care little for God or man, but this widow is wearing me out.” (The literal meaning of the Greek phrase that Luke puts in the mouth of the judge is: “She keeps hitting me under the eye.”)

The judge who describes himself as “caring little for God or man” is not accustomed to taking backward steps for anyone, but by giving into the widow he gives us an insight into her fired-up determination. She is more than determined. She is feisty, belligerent and wants more than impartial justice. She wants to emerge from her tussle with the satisfaction of vindication and triumph. As far as the judge is concerned, the widow is a pest who bludgeons him into acceding to her demands. However, there is no indication that the judge feels even a scrap of compassion for her. So, Jesus is certainly not suggesting that the judge is a figure to be admired.

What he is saying is that if the persistence of a very vulnerable widow can force an unjust judge into delivering justice, how much more will the God of compassion and justice reach out to those whom he loves endlessly and unconditionally. I suggest that Jesus is also making the point that prayer and action go hand-in-hand. Genuine prayer to God eventually leads us to get clear in our minds what God wants for all of humanity. As a consequence, our prayer will lead us to make efforts to bring justice to the poor and powerless who, all too often, are discounted and even entirely forgotten.

God, we know, has a passion for justice and a preference for the poor. We know, too, that the Christian community to which we belong has a priority for social justice. In that context the persistent widow is a model for us. Her passion in confronting the unjust judge is both inspirational and admirable. The manner in which she confronts the judge pressures him to deliver justice to her. There are times when being faithful to Jesus and his Gospel calls us to raise our voices in protest in the public forum, in situations where our civil leaders and politicians will learn that we are not prepared to be silent witnesses to the kind of injustice that saps the life out of people who have been pushed to the edges of society.
Hidden in this story of the widow and the unjust judge is the clear message that authentic prayer, the basic meaning of which is to stand in the presence of God, allows God to see us for who we really are – needy, vulnerable, open to being assessed – but also capable of being God’s agents of justice, mercy and compassion. One of the psalms reminds us that “God hears the cry of the poor”, of orphans and aliens and vulnerable widows. We are called to be the ears of God and to do something constructive in response to what we hear.

This parable challenges us to prove in action the kind of people we claim to be when we assert that we are followers and disciples of Jesus. We are all familiar with prayers of intercession and petition, prayers in which we ask God for any manner of thing. The kind of prayer that is central to this parable is a prayer in which we acknowledge our preparedness to give willingly to God whatever in our hearts we discover God is asking of us. In case we have forgotten, the prophet Micah reminds us: “What God requires of you is this: “Act justly, love goodness and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6: 8). Walking humbly with God calls us to accompanying God wherever in our world God’s presence is most needed. – among the poor. If we fail to do justice, do we not distance God from us?

The punch line in today’s gospel-reading, is to be found in the very last sentence where Jesus asks: “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on the earth?”  (Luke 18: 8)   Jesus is voicing his doubt about everyone who claims to be his disciple, asking if all his efforts have come to nothing. While the story of the judge and the widow compels us to stop and look at our world and its endless succession of injustices – at its prison systems, its power abuses, its exploitation of the poor, at its neglect of first nation peoples – in its conclusion it turns its focus on those who make up the community that claims to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. We belong to that group, and we are being pushed to ask ourselves if we will be found wanting. The answer will be “yes”, if our prayer does not lead us to work for justice for those who are being denied it.

 

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

TwentyEighth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“One of the lepers, realising that he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. This man was a Samaritan. Jesus took the occasion to say: ‘Were not all ten made whole? Where are the other nine? Was there no one to return and give thanks to God except this foreigner?’”    Luke 17: 11-19

If this Sunday’s gospel-reading has done nothing else for me, it has made me reflect, yet again, on a question with which I have often wrestled: Where did Jesus get the ability to cure people and breathe new life into them? Moreover, the question that Jesus asks of the Samaritan who returns to thank him, makes me wonder if he expected a word of appreciation from those he helped. There seems to be a bit of an edge of personal hurt when he asks aloud to anyone within earshot: “Were not all ten made whole? Where are the other nine? Why is this foreigner the only one who came back to give thanks to God?”   (Luke 17: 17-18).

I cannot find anywhere else in the Gospels where Jesus expects to be thanked for the cures and healings he worked. What’s more, given that he was fully human, he did not have at his disposal some store of divine power on which he could call whenever he encountered people who were sick or physically and mentally disabled. I am convinced that the power he had over illness, disability and evil spirits came from the depth of his prayerfulness and his extraordinary faith in God. I can find nothing else in the stories of Jesus’ miracles to suggest that Jesus ever went looking for accolades or expressions of gratitude either for himself or for God.

So, what is behind his lament that the Samaritan was the only one who returned to thank God? I suspect it has something to do with the ongoing frustration that Jesus had with the religious authorities who repeatedly accused him of flouting the Law and the Prophets. In response to their allegations of his breaking the Law, Jesus had questioned their inability to accept that the spirit of the Law mattered more than adherence to the letter of the Law. He was critical of there inflexibility when it came to interpreting the law and their fundamentalism when it came to applying the Law. The very fact that he had stopped to listen to the group of lepers when they called out to him was a breach of the Law in the eyes of the religious leaders. The lepers themselves had dared to cross the line of the isolation imposed on them, and Jesus had broken the law by engaging with them, even though it was from a distance.

The Book of Leviticus clearly stated the restrictions imposed of people suffering from leprosy: “The person who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out: ‘Unclean, unclean!’ As long as the sore is upon him, he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”   (Leviticus 13, 45-46)

In a world in which medicine was not a well-developed science, the measure of quarantining lepers as described in the above excerpt from Leviticus appears to be a wise public-health measure taken to prevent contagion. In time, however, a view developed in Jewish society that serious illness was visited on people as a divine punishment for personal sin. Lepers came to be regarded as sinners themselves or as being punished for the sin of a family member or ancestor. Eventually, anyone suffering from any single one of a number of skin diseases was categorised as a leper and, as a result, was segregated from the community and labelled as an untouchable. What began as quarantining developed into unjustified punishment for sin. Anyone who recovered from a skin disease could be readmitted to the community only after his or her recovery was authenticated and certified by a priest.
By directing the ten untouchables to present themselves to a priest, Jesus was making sure that they were adhering to the only process that would free them from stigma and readmit them to the community from which they had been expelled. However, the twist in the tale was that these ten lepers clung to life on the edge of a village that bordered both Galilee and Samaria. Serious illness acts as a leveller in a group in which every member has become an untouchable. The Samaritan leper was effectively no different from his companions. However, there was deep and long-lived enmity and bitterness between Jews and Samaritans. They refused to engage with one another. So, while ten untouchables were cured, only nine would be acceptable in Galilean society. Even if a Jewish priest were to grudgingly certify the Samaritan’s cure, the latter would still be regarded as ritually unclean and expelled from a Galilean village community. So, he probably saw no point in presenting himself to a Jewish priest and, instead, went back to the only Jew who he believed would accept him.

The welcome which Jesus gave him was: “Your faith has made you well.” Might Jesus have been referring to a wellness of mind and heart, a cure from intractable racial division? After all, here was a Samaritan approaching a Jewish rabbi to express his gratitude. Rather than commenting on the thoughtlessness or ingratitude of the nine who did not return to him, Jesus was expressing his frustration with a society that would readmit them and scorn and reject a man whose ethnic origins were different.

During his public ministry, Jesus repeatedly reminded the religious leaders, who watched him so intently in the hope of catching him breaking the Law, that compassion trumped inflexible legalism. In healing people and restoring them to community, Jesus reminded them that they, in their turn, had a responsibility to live differently, to bring life and love, compassion and understanding to people around them.

We, too, have all been recipients of God’s gracious love. Surely, that compels us to give our time, attention and energy to chipping away at whatever creates divisions among us, be it ethnic difference, gender, sexual orientation, academic qualifications or religious affiliation. What in our minds and attitudes are the boundary lines which have become uncrossable? Whom do we regard as untouchable or unapproachable because of our deep-seated fear, our ingrained prejudice or blind ignorance?

Without further comment, Jesus cleverly asked: “Were not all ten made whole? Where are the other nine?” Might he not have been suggesting that they were in their new-found comfort zone on the side of a border where prejudice and bigotry were rife? Only one had been cured of mind, heart and attitude as well as of leprosy. That Samaritan claimed his true freedom and turned away from bitterness and prejudice. Is there not in the Samaritan’s action a similar challenge for us?

 

 

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

TwentySeventh Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree: ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you…When you have done all you have been commanded, say: ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we have been obliged to do’.”    Luke 17: 5-10

In Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, the aging king, on the edge of dotage, set out to judge which one of his three daughters loved him the most. Somehow or other, he had come to think that love was something like a substance that could be measured or quantified. So, when Lear asked his youngest daughter, Cordelia, how much she loved him her reply rightly expressed her filial love, explaining that such love is not easily put into words: “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less.”   Act 1 Sc. 1

In today’s gospel-reading, the request from the disciples to Jesus to increase their faith suggests that they saw faith as something measurable to which more could be added. Rather, like love, it is an intangible aspect of relationship. Faith, then, belongs to the feeling, emotional, relational part of our lives. We recognise the presence of both love and faith when we see them in action in the lives of real people relating to others, including God. The faith we have in God, the relationship we have with Jesus draw us into a vision of God’s dream for our world in which we are invited to work to make peace and justice real. Yet the very thought of that can daunt us, and leave us longing for something more comfortable, something which we can more easily grasp. In this context, I suggest that the following story, which I have borrowed from the scripture commentator Jay Cormier, is a good illustration of what I’m struggling to explain. The members of a Catholic University admissions committee were hard at work assessing enrolment applications from high-school graduates. The applicants were expected to write a few paragraphs on why they might be given a place in the faculty of their choice. Committee members found themselves dealing with an endless list of submissions from young people who had visions of themselves as having the qualifications to become medical practitioners, politicians, research scientists and lawyers. But one application grabbed their attention for its surprising lack of pretence. This is part of what the applicant wrote:
“I’m neither a high-performing student nor a a leader. You could say that I am average. I work very hard to get pass marks in all my subjects. However, over the school holidays during the last three years I have worked as a volunteer at camps for children with cancer. At the beginning, I was terrified that I would say something insensitive or do something stupid that would add to some child’s pain. But it wasn’t long before I became surprised at how much I really enjoyed working with these kids. I’ve been even more surprised at everything I have learned from them about life and death, coping with illness and setbacks, about what is really good and important.
Eventually, I would like to work with children who are chronically ill and physically challenged. I hope to pursue a degree in education and psychology so that one day I might be able to offer these children something of what they have given me.”

That application found its way to the top of the Admit Pile.

When we come to appreciate in humility that the faith we have is pure gift from God not earned, we begin to realise that, like every other gift we have, it works only when it is shared. Like the mustard seed it becomes a source of abundance in the lives of others when it is patiently nurtured.

While Jesus seems to be quantifying faith in his response to the disciples when he says: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree: ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you”   (Luke 17: 6), he is gracious enough not to launch into a discussion about whether faith is quantifiable or not. With the word “size” he uses a quantifying word that matches the language of the disciples. However, he twists it. The disciples seem to think that more is better, that they would be better equipped to follow him if they had more insight, more knowledge, more understanding, deeper faith.   Jesus’ reply is a bit like a shock tactic. Effectively, he tells them that, if they had any faith at all, they would be able to do the impossible, like uprooting fruit trees and planting them in the ocean. “Any faith at all” implies that they really have no faith worth speaking of, at all.

But Jesus didn’t stop there. He added a comment that, on the surface, looks a little bewildering: “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field: ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him: ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?’  (Luke 17: 7-8). I suggest that the point he is making is that faith, like lots of other things, develops into maturity by living it. One does not grow in faith by asking for it to be doled out. The only way for faith to grow and mature is to practice it, to live it. So, be wary of thinking it’s going to grow by practicing it just once. It’s a life-long process.

Luke views faith not as a list of theological notions or dogmas to which we are expected to give our assent, but rather in terms of giving our allegiance to the person of Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus is committing ourselves to live in imitation of him. Many of us can remember a time when we described our Christian faith in terms of what we were expected to believe in order to qualify as Christians. I believe that there has been a shift from what we believe to being devoted to the one in whom we believe, to embracing Jesus Christ as our brother and embodying his Gospel in our living.

We know that we all struggle at times to live faithful to Jesus and his Gospel. We know, too, that there are times when the struggles we encounter in life – life- threatening illness, loss of employment, break-up of family, sudden death of a loved one – lead us to question the very existence of God. There are times, too, when we encounter people who are intensely attached to doctrinal correctness that their living seems devoid of compassion, mercy, tolerance and peace of mind and heart.

So, let’s not forget that God’s presence in our world is radiated through creation and in and through the people around us, in the people beside whom we sit when we come to worship. When we live faithful to Jesus, God’s presence becomes visible. The responsibility of all who are part of the people of God is to reveal something of the goodness, love and compassion of God to our world. When we can manage that, we are living in faith. Moreover, our lives will be enriched, as the young man who worked with kids with cancer found his life enriched.

 

 

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

TwentySixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Lying at the rich man’s door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.”    Luke 16: 19-31

Today’s gospel parable of the rich man and Lazarus requires little by way of explanation and analysis. While its principal message is clear: that every follower of Jesus has a responsibility to care for our needy sisters and brothers, it leaves us in no doubt that this responsibility is not a take it or leave it option. Care for the poor and needy is a Gospel imperative, for some, an uncomfortable and challenging one, but one to be embraced as an essential expression of our humanity and Christian discipleship.

In exploring this parable of the rich man and Lazarus, I suggest it is worth noting what is said and what is not said. For instance, there is nothing to suggest that the rich man was evil or that he became rich through exploitation or extortion. Nor is there any hint of his belittling or abusing Lazarus. Moreover, the parable does not have the simplicity of a morality play in which a good person is vindicated and receives the reward of justice, and a bad person gets the punishment he deserves. It is more like a Shakespearean tragedy, in which the character flaws of a rich man lead to action (or inaction) that has consequences.

The rich mas was so caught up in self that he just didn’t notice Lazarus. There is not even a hint that the rich man knew the slightest thing about mercy and compassion, thus resulting in his inability to empathise with Lazarus, even if Lazarus’ presence at his gate caught his attention. Moreover, when the rich man ends up in Hades, he doesn’t grasp the consequences of how he has lived. He asks for mercy rather than for forgiveness for what he has failed to do. He asks for water, but not for life. To give him some credit, however, we must acknowledge that he cares about his family. He seems to realise that they are as insensitive as he has been, so he asks that they be given a wake-up call from Lazarus, visiting them from the after-life.

The power, of course, of this parable, like the power of every good tragedy, is that it impacts on us, challenging us to look at ourselves and our ability and willingness (or our inability and unwillingness) to hear the promptings of God’s Spirit at work in our own lives.

The prophets of the First Testament, followed by John the Baptist and then by Jesus himself, called us all to a change of mind and heart, to conversion. The first step in the journey towards conversion of mind and heart is to notice. The genius of this parable is that we are pushed to look at a poor man who has a name. We are further compelled to look at Lazarus because of the graphic description of the state of his body, which is covered in sores that he cannot prevent the dogs from licking. He is not just an anonymous member of a mass we call the poor. The description given of him reminds me of a picture displayed by media across the world exactly seven years ago. It was of the lifeless body of a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a beach in the Turkish tourist resort of Bodrum. His name was Aylan Kurdi. With his five-year-old brother and parents and twenty other refugees he was heading for the Greek island of Kos which offered safety. Their boat sank and Aylan and his brother both drowned. These two youngsters were the sons of heart-broken parents. Lazarus and these two little boys force us to move from thinking of poor people as an issue to seeing them as persons. They are not just statistical casualties. The poor and destitute are our sisters and brothers who offer us a way to conversion of mind and heart.

It is all too easy for us to focus on the issues of homelessness, destitution and refugees without encountering real people whom we classify as belonging to those categories. Today’s parable invites us to actually see these people in and through the man who is identified as Lazarus. In his Gospel, Matthew reminds us that, when we see the Lazaruses and the Aylam Kurdis of our world, we see and encounter Jesus (See Matthew Ch. 25) To put it another way, through this parable Jesus is nudging us to face our own vulnerability and to take the risk of relating to, and engaging with, the people who beg on the corners of our city streets, the newly-arrived refugees from Afghanistan and Syria and the Sudan; and to share with them something of our possessions, our time, our skills, the benefits of our education and whatever else we have to offer.

We can take consolation from the fact that we are not caught in the kind of fixed situation to which the rich man was confined when he died. While we credit him for pleading with father Abraham to send Lazarus to bring his five brothers to their senses, we need to listen to father Abraham’s answer: “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if one should rise from the dead.” That response is arguably the kernel of this parable as far as we are concerned. We are still alive in our world, able to hear the voice of God in Moses and the prophets and to encounter the risen Jesus, very much alive in the people we encounter every day, and in his message embodied in the pages of the Gospels. Both Amos in today’s first reading and Jesus in the gospel-reading are inviting us to reach out in love to others by sharing our possessions and our gifts and skills. They are inviting us to do the right thing with all we are and have simply because it is the right thing to do.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection