Sunday Readings Reflection

Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Ian McDonald cfc

“Let the wicked abandon their way of life, and the evil their way of thinking. Let them come back to God, who is merciful and lavish with forgiveness. ‘I don’t think the way you think. The way you work isn’t the way I work – it is God who speaks.’” Isaiah 55: 6-9

“The men who came last”, the disgruntled workers said, “have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat.” The landowner answered them: “My friend, I’m not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius?. . . Why be envious because I am generous?” Matthew 20: 1-16

In today’s first reading, Isaiah reminds us that God’s way of thinking and acting is very different from the way in which we think and act. That makes the first reading a very appropriate introduction to today’s gospel parable in which we are told of a landowner whose generosity seems utterly illogical. In telling the parable, Jesus used the landowner to represent God. Yet, in reality, even if in theory we believe that God thinks and acts very differently from the way we do, I suspect that we expect God to somehow be an extension of us human beings, to behave in the way in which we want God to behave.

I am not for one moment suggesting that we start praying differently. We surely need to pray like the human beings we are. Nor do I want to suggest that, in our prayer, we might look at ways of outsmarting God. What I am saying is that, when God does not deliver on our requests exactly as we would like, we allow God to be God.

With these thoughts, we might be able to venture into a close exploration of today’s gospel-reading. Matthew introduced this reading by announcing that Jesus was about to tell a parable about the kingdom of heaven or the reign of God. At the outset, we have to remind ourselves that all reigns and kingdoms involve power, authority and politics. Power, authority and politics are forces that still operate in the Christian community to which we now refer as the “people of God”. They have to be used with sensitivity and justice.

Today’s parable is a puzzling one simply because it raises questions about fairness in the world of employment and labour markets. If a modern-day landowner were to behave like the landowner in the parable modern-day union leaders would launch into litigation without hesitation. For as long as paid employment and the hiring of day-labourers have been in practice, people have been taught to engage in competition with fellow workers in order to win employment and promotion. Moreover, in the arena of religion, generation after generation has somehow subscribed to the belief that God’s favour is meant to be earned by one’s personal effort.

It’s important also for us to note, in this context, that the Jewish people firmly believed that, when the Messiah finally arrived, their nation would become renowned for its adherence to and promotion of justice. The Jewish word shalom embodied the notions of justice, peace, holiness, welcome and courageous support of community. The Jews believed that the advent of the Messiah among them would lead to their becoming not only a model of justice but the envy of and inspiration to neighbouring peoples.

This parable, however, with its extravagant depiction of the boundlessness of God’s beneficence and love would have sent shockwaves through Jesus’ audience because of the perceptions of unfairness which it evoked. It is a parable that has also troubled Christians for no other reason than the fact that Christianity has inherited its understanding and practice of justice from Judaism. The way in which the landowner in the parable remunerated all the workers he hired without considering the hours they had invested in their labour raises questions about both justice and mercy.

Let’s for a moment consider how we would like God to treat us at the wash-up at the end of our lives. Would I prefer God to treat me with mercy or justice. Without hesitation, I would opt for God’s mercy for me and God’s justice for everybody else. On reflection, I think that reflex option comes from the reality that I and nearly all of my sisters and brothers in the Christian community have learned to compete with those around me in almost everything I do. Yet, in this parable, Jesus taught that there is no place and no need for anyone to compete in order to win God’s favour. God’s love is for all – free, gratis and without cost.

If we want to examine this parable through the prism of logic or sound strategy, we could reason that the landowner might have saved himself a whole heap of criticism and ill-feeling had he decided to put at the top of the wages-line the labourers who had worked all day long in the heat. He could then have paid them first and sent them on their way. But Jesus was/is not about keeping up appearances. Moreover, if the landowner in the parable had behaved like that, Jesus would not have had a parable that would shake-up his listeners.

This landowner was so intent on hiring day-labourers that the amount of work they did seemed to be almost irrelevant. He was intent on making sure that needy men would be able to keep themselves and their families fed and watered. Social justice was clearly high on his list of priorities.
This parable sits comfortably beside all of Jesus’ other far-fetched parables – the Prodigal Son, the unforgiving servant, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the Good Samaritan. They all reveal to us a God who regards us as priceless, despite our history of infidelity and failure. No first-century millionaire would have cancelled an unpayable debt any more than Mastercard, these days, would waive a debt of thousands of dollars on our credit card. No sensible housewife would turn her house upside down searching for a ten-cent coin. No sheep farmer would put ninety-nine sheep at the risk of being ripped to pieces by wolves as he went looking for one stray. No normal father would throw a welcome-home party for a son who had abandoned and disgraced him without at least putting the lad on probation. No workers who had laboured all day in the heat would feel that they hadn’t been cheated when those who had started an hour before knock-off time received the same pay. No Samaritan would go to the aid of a bashed and robbed Jew who, like all his countrymen, treated Samaritans like dirt. These are all parables that point to a God of boundless love and mercy who brushes aside all the expectations we want to attribute to God without so much as a second thought. If we could only admit our difficulty in imagining that the God who loved us into life could love us as these parables demonstrate, then we might hear Isaiah from the sidelines congratulating us with: “Yes, you’re right! God really does think and act differently from the way you expect.”



Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time: A Reflection on the Sunday Readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Then the master said: “You wicked servant, I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?” And in his anger, the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt. “And that is how my heavenly father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.”

Matthew 18: 21-35

Naomi Levy is a Jewish Rabbi who lives with her husband and family in Venice, California. She has written extensively on the place of prayer in one’s life and is much sought after as a public speaker. In the last 25 years she has published five bestsellers, suitable reading for people of all faiths. While Einstein and the Rabbi is probably her best-known book, I recommend highly To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength and Faith in Difficult Times (1999). In this, she relates the story of a mother who brought her six-year-old son, Joey to her office. The young lad was pale and shaking markedly. Rabbi Levy welcomed him with a hug and invited him to tell her what was troubling him. Joey told her that his friend Andy had died recently in a car accident. That led to an extended conversation between Joey and Rabbi Levy about death and the impact the death of a close friend can have on us. However, the rabbi sensed that there was something particular that Joey wanted to talk about. Eventually, the young lad blurted out: “When we were playing together last week, I kicked Andy on purpose.” “And now you feel bad about that?”, Rabbi Levy asked. As the tears ran down his face, Joey sobbed: “Yes”. “ And if Andy were still alive, what would you say to him?” she asked. “I’d say ‘I’m sorry I kicked you.’”

Rabbi Levy wrote that as soon as Joey said those words, he looked visibly relieved. Just being able to express his regret seemed to lighten his load.

While young Joey needed some help to articulate his problem, he had already experienced how hurting somebody else could eventually come back to hurt him. He had discovered how painful it can be when guilt ties us up in knots.

Today’s readings take us on an exploration into the wide-ranging ramifications for a community when some of its members inflict physical and emotional hurts on one another. What we read and hear today from Ben Sira and Matthew is more than a clinical analysis of offending and its consequences. It will engage us at an emotional level simply because it will confront us with hurts we have inflicted and memories of those we have endured. None of us has lived free from hurting our sisters and brothers or from being hurt by them. We have all known the anger of being the target of insult, slight and injury and we have all found ourselves plotting retribution, for no other reason than to get some kind of satisfaction or compensation by brooding over what has been done to us. Ben Sira knew this aspect of human behaviour and named it for what it is: “Resentment and anger are foul things, too, and both are found in the sinner.” (Sirach 27: 30) And then he observed how we human beings like hugging to ourselves thoughts and feelings of vengeance.

Astute observer that he was of the among whom he lived, Ben Sira proceeded to add that we all play a role in creating the communities to which we belong, be they our families, sporting clubs, worshipping communities, political parties or nations. We cannot feed anger and resentment within ourselves and, at the same time, look for forgiveness and acceptance from family members, colleagues, and God. The simple truth Ben Sira expounds is that we will get from others only what we’re prepared to give.

Another integral aspect of this topic is the longing for reconciliation we all experience on occasion. We know our tendency to cling to anger and to harbour grudges. We also know the desire to forgive and be forgiven that wells up in us. We know, too, the internal struggle required to reach those goals. It is one thing to realise that, we have been created in the image of a God of boundless mercy, and quite another to accept that we have a responsibility to reflect something of God’s mercy to one another. Coming to accept forgiveness and mercy from God and from our sisters and brothers can also be something of a struggle.

I well remember a story I heard from an Anglican pastor about one of his congregation who could not bring himself to participate in the weekly parish communion service. The Pastor took the risk of visiting the man in his home and commenting to him that he couldn’t help noticing that he didn’t come to communion. “I can’t do it”, the man said. “I can’t come to the table. You see, I’m, a Vietnam vet, and during the war there I killed a man. I don’t think God could ever forgive me for that.” The Christian communities to which we belong are somehow meant to help us realise that we are abundantly forgiven by God. They do this through the way in which they create a climate of tolerance of one another and forgiveness of each other, especially when our eccentricities and oddities become so apparent that we get on one another’s nerves. Forgiving and being open to be forgiven are practices that are meant to be integrated into the way in which we live each day. This calls for a commitment to be mirrors or instruments of God’s mercy to one another. We have to let go of any inclination we might have to leave mercy to God. In her novel Adam Bede, George Eliot attributed to her main character, whose name provided the title of the novel, these words: “We hand folks over to God’s mercy, and show none ourselves.”

In the parable that is at the centre of this Sunday’s gospel-reading, Jesus used the most extravagant exaggeration to illustrate that by asking how many times he was expected to forgive those around him, Peter was operating out of a mentality of keeping the score. His question reflected the teachings of the rabbis of his time. They taught that faithful Jews were to give an offender three times. If a fourth offence occurred, forgiveness was to be denied. Peter probably thought he was making an impression on Jesus by extending the limit to seven. Jesus countered with a number that suggested that there was to be no limit to our readiness to forgive and supported that with a parable that clearly indicated that our approach to forgiveness was to be like God’s – limitless!

At the conclusion of his book Becoming Human, Jean Vanier, theologian, philosopher, and founder of the L’Arche Community Movement, wrote that foundational to forgiveness is a three-fold conviction that we all have intrinsic value and share a common humanity, that each of us has a capacity to change and to grow, and that peace and unity are what every human being longs for. Such conviction is essential to the building of every worthwhile community. I ask myself if that’s a conviction that finds expression in my life.

Posted by superadmin in Sunday Readings Reflection

Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven…Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” Matthew 18: 15-20

‘Speech is silver, Silence is golden’ is a proverb I learned decades ago in primary school. Whenever one of our teachers wanted to quieten our class down, he bellowed only the second half of that proverb. It wasn’t until I was in secondary school that I realised how anomalous that teacher’s bellowing was. More years passed before I came to appreciate that silence can be used destructively. I can use silence to express protest and annoyance. In fact, we have all probably learned how to use silence as a weapon to hold hostage somebody who has upset us. It is then that our silence becomes deafening. Moreover, we seem to get some satisfaction from hoping that our silence will prompt those around us to ask themselves questions like: “What have I done this time to upset her/him?” Jesus clearly knew that despite our antics to get even with those we believe have caused us grief, we all seem to want reconciliation with those by whom we have been distanced and we want it to be quick and easy, even though it’s not.

To better understand the significance of today’s gospel-reading, we would do well to give some consideration to the earlier part of chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel from which today’s reading is taken. The focus of this chapter is advice given by Jesus to his disciples about community building and formation. While Jesus had given attention in his ministry to reaching out to the poor, the forgotten and the overlooked, Matthew opened chapter 18 of his Gospel with an account of the disciples asking a surprising question: “”Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” That question is surprising in that it indicates that the disciples were completely unaware of the attention that Jesus had been giving to the poor, the sick, the disabled and the needy. The attention of the disciples was given to finding out who was at the top of the pecking-order in the kingdom of God that Jesus was ushering in. Instead of dismissing their question as out-of-hand, Jesus chose to take it seriously and use it as a launching point for teaching the disciples how to go about using the power that he intended to invest in them. He singled out a small child as a symbol of those who most deserved their attention. Children represented those in society who were not listened to, like women and shepherds, those who had no credibility, those who strayed off the tracks like lost sheep, those who had lowered themselves to work for the Romans, like tax-collectors. Jesus was pointing out that true disciples would contribute to building up the kingdom of God by using their position and power to reach out to the least and the most vulnerable. Moreover, he chose to use exaggerated examples so that his disciples could learn what he was teaching without being threatened or thinking that Jesus was criticising them. The kingdom of God gives no attention whatsoever to listing who is rhe most important in the pecking-order or who is the greatest.

The section of Matthew chapter 18, leading up to today’s gospel-reading is a set of brief teachings from Jesus about attitudes needed for building healthy community. That calls for avoiding competition and vying for status. It means reaching out to the most vulnerable and giving priority to respecting the young and those at risk, making sure not to manipulate them, scandalise them or lead them astray. It’s important to search for what lies beneath the hyperboles that Jesus used and to discern what is to be taken literally and what is to be viewed figuratively. For instance, we don’t amputate our limbs or those of others because they have been instrumental in our sinning. Nor do we pluck out eyes that have been used for offending. And drowning people who have been “stumbling blocks” is not a practice to be recommended.

In today’s gospel-reading we are given another strategy for how to go about strengthening community when wrong is done to us or another. Jesus warns against going off and rallying support by gossiping about the offender and what he or she is alleged to have done. Rather, we are urged to be courageous and honest enough to speak directly, one-to-one with the person who has hurt us in order to resolve the issue. Honest dialogue is the first step in opening the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. If that doesn’t work and a meeting with community representatives produces no worthwhile outcome, the recommendation from Jesus is to treat the resistor “as a gentile/pagan or a tax-collector”. And they were the very ones with whom Jesus preferred to dine and converse. In other words, if preaching and honest exchange do not work, proclaim the Gospel through the way in which we put it into practical action, through treating “offenders” with acceptance and respect. Don’t resort to running them out of the community or out of town.

This reading boils down to exercising whatever role we have in the Christian community with accountability and a readiness to listen with an open ear and an open heart and to engage in honest discerning with those around us. To conduct ourselves like that implies that we engage creatively with the word of God in Scripture. The Bible texts which we are invited to explore each week do not amount to a book of answers. Neither are they weapons to be used for winning arguments. They offer us material for enriching our conversation with one another as together we venture to discover what it means to live faithfully in the communities we call family and Church. All the while, the Scripture calls us to look at the world beyond ourselves and to discern how best we engage sensitively with it.

Posted by superadmin in Sunday Readings Reflection

Twenty-Second Sundy in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus turned and said to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do…Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow me.”  Matthew 16: 21-27

I’d like to suggest that today’s readings offer us two clear messages. One is about how developing a trusting relationship with the God who loved us into life can free us to pray not only with openness and honesty but from the depths of our being. Jeremiah gives us a wonderful illustration of that kind of prayer in today’s first reading. Today’s gospel-reading combines with the second reading from Romans to stress that living with integrity (not dying) is indispensable for anyone who claims to be a disciple of Jesus. But it’s only when we live with integrity that we discover that there is a fairly heavy price to pay.

At first sight, it looks as though the words we hear from Jeremiah were a lament that God had hood-winked him into becoming a prophet. The essential meaning of the word “prophet” is that it was/is the designation given to a person who was courageous enough to speak the truth despite the consequences. There was a long line of prophets in the history of Israel and the Bible records how they were punished for their honesty and integrity by their own people who refused to hear the message God had appointed them to deliver. Jeremiah acknowledged that he had been so captivated by the story of God’s love for the people of Israel that it became a fire within him, so intense that he could not extinguish it. He found God’s actions and words so attractive that he came to identify himself with God’s mission to the people of Israel. Earlier in his writings he had stated how intense was the impact on him of God’s message. But, in the same breath, he had pleaded with God to protect him because he, too, had met with the same kind of rejection as had been directed at God: “You know where I am, God! Remember what I’m doing here! Take my side against my detractors. Don’t stand back while they ruin me. Just look at the abuse I’m taking! When your words showed up, I ate them, swallowed them whole. What a feast!! What delight I took in being yours, O God!…But why now this chronic pain, this ever-worsening wound and no healing in sight? You’re nothing God, but a mirage, a lovely oasis in the distance – and then nothing!“  (Jeremiah 15: 15-18).

Was there ever a prayer like that? Perhaps Job had a relationship with God to equal Jeremiah’s. Could you and I pray like that? Or do we think that to express the depth of our feelings might somehow alienate us from God? Maybe we have to remind ourselves that God is big enough to cope with anything. Jeremiah was humble enough to share God’s response: “Take back those words, Jeremiah, and I’ll take you back. Then you’ll stand tall before me. Use words truly and well. Don’t stoop to cheap whining. Then, but only then, you’ll speak for me. Let your words change them. Don’t change your words to suit them.” (Jeremiah 15: 19-20)  To be able to act as God’s prophet, he had to swallow God’s word. In return, God’s word swallowed him. Even though he was tempted not to speak God’s message or even speak God’s name, God’s attraction was irresistible. Those who could see nothing but a list of woes emanating from Jeremiah’s mouth invented the word jeremiad to encompass his complaint. It is still to be found in our dictionaries. Yet his prayer expressed his honesty to the core and his faith remained unshakeable. To walk in the footsteps of Jesus is to journey into a relationship with the God he came to know, and to experience the kind of rejection meted out to him for taking up the mission God entrusted to him – the same mission he, in turn, has entrusted to us. Centuries later, Teresa of Avila, faced with the mission of refounding and reforming the Carmelite Sisters, echoed the sentiments of Jeremiah. After a day of frustration when she had failed to get a convent of sisters to embrace her programme of reform, she was caught on her way home in torrential rain. She lost her footing on a slope and fell face down into the mud. As she got to her feet, she said to God: “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.” In 1970, Pope Paul VI proclaimed St Teresa of Avila as the first female Doctor of the Church.

While Jesus did not resort to whinging and whining to God, he came to much the same conclusion as Jeremiah: that to accept God’s mission of proclaiming to the world the message of God’s love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness would lead to rejection, opposition and persecution. That’s why, in today’s gospel-reading we hear of him telling his disciples of his intention to go to Jerusalem where he sensed further rejection, and the threat of violence and death awaited him. For him, to act with integrity meant being true to the vocation God had given him. That involved speaking the truth even to people whose comfort and closed minds he knew he would disturb. Indirectly, he was telling his disciples that to walk in his footsteps and to keep his mission alive would be a risky business.

The message of Jesus and the Gospel will always be a challenge to abusive power. While Jesus was not intentionally embarking on a suicidal mission, he was not prepared to devalue or compromise the power of God’s message to the world. To dodge what he saw was his responsibility would have been to put self-interest first. That would mean compromising his integrity. Still, when he was eventually falsely condemned and crucified, he, like Jeremiah, felt that the God he represented had forgotten him: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

Peter’s advice to Jesus not to take an unnecessary risk made good sense, and Jesus’ response seemed overly harsh. However, his equating Peter with Satan was, in Matthew’s mind, triggered by a flashback to the temptations Jesus had experienced in the wilderness prior to embarking on his vocation and his launching into public ministry. With those three temptations, Satan had tried to convince Jesus not to pursue the vocation he had discerned God was inviting him to take up. Jesus finally dismissed his tempter with these words: “Be off, Satan! For scripture says: You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone” (Matthew 4, 10)  Jesus must have heard Peter’s advice as an attempt to sway him from what he had discerned was his true vocation. It touched into his memory of his struggle with temptation in the wilderness. Moreover, he took the opportunity to stress that he was stepping into his role of leader and making sure he was true to himself, his vocation and his God. If the disciples were really intent on following him, they would have to commit themselves to doing likewise. For Jesus action spoke louder than words.

The message for us, of course is that we have been invited to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to reflect with integrity something of the love, mercy and compassion of God and to challenge in word and action power that disregards and abuses our sisters and brothers. That will inevitably bring us into conflict and be a cause of pain, humiliation and rejection. Are we prepared to take the risk of pursuing such a course? If so, to take that course will bring us a cross of some kind every single day.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus said to his disciples: “But you, who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus replied: “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. And so. I now say to you: You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”  Matthew 16: 13-20.

Today’s gospel-reading complements and builds on the story of two Sundays ago (19th Sunday in Ordinary Time) in which Matthew described how Jesus came across the water to rescue his disciples who were battling a furious storm on the lake. After Jesus had rescued Peter from sinking beneath the waves and deposited him back in the boat, he stilled the wind and calmed the waters. Matthew concluded that story with a description of how the disciples reacted: to what Jesus had done: “The men in the boat bowed down before him and said: ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.”  (Matthew 14: 22-33)

In today’s gospel reading, we hear how Peter formally expressed the conclusion the disciples had reached concerning the identity of the man they had claimed as their leader. The opinion they expressed in the boat had not changed. When Jesus put to his close followers what was a very risky question, Peter replied without hesitation on behalf of the whole group: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  (Matthew 16: 17)

This also provides us with an insight into the care Matthew invested in shaping his Gospel. He understood that it took time for the disciples to come to the conclusion that the man who had invited them to throw in their lot with him was really the long-awaited Messiah. Coming to that conclusion took time and, very clearly was the result of ongoing discussion among themselves as they reflected on what they had seen Jesus do and on what they had heard him say and teach. And isn’t that how we come to know and appreciate the people who become our friends, associates and mentors? So, when it comes to knowing and appreciating Jesus, let’s not be too self-critical when we experience doubts and uncertainties. Our growth into knowing and appreciating Jesus takes time and the quality of our relationship with him fluctuates. The disciples had had the advantage of a direct, flesh and blood, relational experience with Jesus over what was, at most, a three-year period. And it took a considerable part of that time for them to reach the conclusion that Peter articulated on their behalf. We have not had the benefit of their direct experience. Our experience has been an intangible one based on the accounts of Jesus’ words and actions as they have been recorded in the Gospels and other commentaries, together with our own reflections and our sometimes vacillating faith experience. Moreover, that involves venturing into the life-enduring puzzle of how we can change and still remain the same person. But let’s not drift too far from today’s gospel-reading. Suffice it to say that Jesus was extremely patient with his disciples and is equally patient with us, if not more so.

The focus of today’s gospel-reading is provided by the two questions Jesus put to his disciples when they had gathered in a city that boasted shrines to a whole panoply of gods. The city of Caesarea Philippi, located close to the springs of Banias (springs which have flowed for thousands of years right up to the present day) had been built by Herod’s son Phillip, who had been placed in charge of the northern region of Palestine. Phillip named the city after himself and Caesar, ruler of Rome, who was given the status of a god. While there were temples to lots of gods in this city, it was especially well-known for its large temple dedicated to Pan, the shepherd-god. It was here in this “city of gods” that Jesus chose a very unusual way of involving those close to him to assist him in disclosing his identity.

Instead of putting to his disciples a simple, direct question such as: “Who do the people you meet up with think I am?”, Jesus framed a question in the third person, attributing to himself the title of “Son of Man” which he borrowed from the Hebrew scriptures. So, he put to his disciples the quaint question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” By attributing to himself that title, he was giving the disciples a hint of what he had come to discover about himself and his mission. After hearing from several of his friends the gossip they had picked up around the traps, he then framed a question that most people would never dream of asking: “But you, who do you say I am?” Fronted with that question, the group probably felt like running for cover. Fortunately, Peter, who was rarely short of a word, piped up with a response that would fit any catechism: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus was so impressed with what came out of Peter’s mouth that he concluded that it could only have been inspired by God. In essence, Jesus replied: “Simon, son of Jonah, God bless you! You didn’t learn that from a book or a teacher. It was God who disclosed to you the secret of who I really am.”

By answering as he did, Peter revealed that the disciples themselves had been engaged with one another discussing how they, too, had been puzzling over who Jesus really was and that they had eventually agreed that he was the Messiah, the Christ of God. By implication, Peter was also affirming that the identity of the disciples lay in their dedicating themselves to keeping the mission of Jesus alive. Jesus, in his turn, by giving Peter’s response the stamp of approval, acknowledged that he had the qualities needed to shape and lead the community that would be instrumental in perpetuating the message of God’s love, mercy and compassion for our world, and withstanding whatever forces of opposition and evil presented themselves. By implication, in choosing for leadership a man whose human frailty sometimes got in the way, Jesus also acknowledged a clear message in today’s second reading from Isaiah: that God’s power could rescue human leaders when their human frailty led them into error.

Furthermore, by bestowing the authority of “binding and loosing” on Peter and his successors, Jesus was disempowering the religious tyrants of his day, who had invented rules and regulations that were distortions of God’s Law and kept good people bound up by religious oppression in the shape of fundamentalism. Fresh in Jesus’ mind were the debates he had not long before had with scribes and Pharisees over senseless applications of laws to do with the Sabbath and purification laws.

Before we leave this gospel-reading, we might well ask ourselves why Jesus concluded this particular exchange with his disciples by giving them “strict orders not to tell anyone that he was the Christ” (the Messiah). The only explanation I can offer is that he knew full well that there would be political consequences for him if his true identity as Messiah were to be noised abroad. He was already a target for his own religious leaders who were intent on discrediting his teaching and on finding fault with almost everything he did. Were he to be publicly named as the Messiah, he knew he would be challenged to deny it. Silence or refusal to deny the truth would put his life at risk and he had not yet finished preparing his disciples for the challenges that lay ahead of them. So, his true identity was best kept secret.

Finally, let’s not forget that the risky question that Jesus put to his disciples near the springs of Banias, he also puts to us. What might be our answer as we also reflect on the circumstances in which we find ourselves in the Church community to which we belong and in the country in which we live and work? And how might our answer be translated into action? Those questions could well occupy us for at least another week.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Lord”, the Canaanite woman said, “help me.” Jesus replied: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs.” She retorted: “Ah yes, Sir; but even house-dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.”  Matthew 15: 21-28

A relatively simple way for anyone of us to begin engaging with today’s gospel-reading is to ask ourselves the question: “With which of the two main characters in the story do I identify? Is it with Jesus or with the Canaanite woman or with both?” Whichever answer (s) we give ourselves will then require us to invest some time in reflection.
But first, it’s important that we note that what led into today’s gospel reading was an account from Matthew of a spat that Jesus had just had with a group of Pharisees over purity laws. Jesus, fresh from that spat, in which he had called his critics hypocrites because of their pettiness and intransigence relating to purity laws was seemingly preoccupied with what it was that motivated religious leaders to be intent on setting boundaries as a way of controlling peoples’ lives. While some might think that Jesus was using the pleas of a screaming woman demanding attention for her daughter as a way of teaching his disciples that working with him might involve them in questioning and crossing traditional boundaries, that is no justification for anyone, least of all Jesus, to engage in verbal and emotional abuse of a woman in order to teach any kind of a lesson to anyone.

So, before exploring just who it is in this story with whom we might identify, we might turn our attention to pondering why it was that Matthew included in his Gospel a story that seems to present Jesus in an unfavourable light. After criticising the Pharisees and Scribes for their hypocrisy and for big-noting themselves as boundary setters, Jesus gathered his disciples and headed for the region of Tyre and Sidon, territory that was synonymous with “defilement” for it was inhabited by Canaanites, people who had no affiliation with Israel’s God and who were regarded as untouchable. They had been dispossessed of their land when Israel overran them and were subsequently labelled by Jews as detestable and unclean. Jesus and his disciples chose a path that would inevitably bring then into confrontation with one or more Canaanites and put them at risk of being defiled.

Providentially, they were confronted by a screeching woman who must have heard about Jesus and who knew that she, too, was crossing cultural boundaries in approaching him. She was intent only on getting help for her daughter, and she was certainly not going to take “no” for an answer. Regrettably, Jesus’ preoccupation with the residue of the spat he had left behind had kept him focussed on thinking that his vocation as teacher and preacher was to work at bringing a change of mind and heart to his own people, including their religious leaders, with some of whom he had just tangled. While we can conclude, from the way in which he had dealt with those leaders, that Jesus would have been an asset to any debating team, he was no match for this Canaanite mother. The hullaballoo she made, and the insistence of her pleas stopped Jesus from ignoring her. So, he resorted to insult, in an attempt to be rid of her. He stressed the exclusiveness of his mission to Israel by declaring: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”. When she, in response, came and knelt at his feet, pleading: “Lord, help me!”, he retorted: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

Equal to the challenge, she returned fire with dignity and style, reminding Jesus that dogs would never pass over a chance of getting scraps. My limited knowledge of biblical Greek tells me that Jesus used the word kunariois (little doggies) instead of the shorter, harsher sounding word for dogs. The Canaanite woman echoed his words when she responded sensitively with: “But even the little doggies get the little crumbies that fall from the master’s table.” That was the ace that won the game. Effectively, she had trumped him by stating that the doggies would be more appreciative of the food Jesus had to offer than his own people who had already begun to reject it. She succeeded in convincing him that what he had to offer was more than enough for everyone willing to plead for it. This woman had dared to cross the entrenched boundaries of race and religion, even addressing Jesus as “Lord” and “Son of David” (titles the Jewish religious leaders avoided) and she expressed a level of trust and belief in Jesus that won his public admiration: “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”
This story is testimony that God’s love, mercy and forgiveness are for all peoples, exactly as Isaiah had asserted in today’s first reading: “Foreigners who have attached themselves to God, to serve God and to love God’s name and be God’s servants. – these I will bring to my holy mountain I will make them joyful in my house of prayer…which will be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56: 6-7).

Above all else, this story is an affirmation of the humanity of Jesus. We Christians have little difficulty in believing that Jesus was divine. That comes from the almost endless accounts of the miracles he worked and the people he healed. We are slower to accept that he was fully human, experiencing the full range of feelings, emotions, desires, frustrations and temptations that we experience. Psychology was not heard of in his lifetime. The Gospel writers did not have the skills to describe his emotional growth and development, though they did give accounts of his getting angry and fed-up with petty-minded, religious leaders, money-changers and vendors in the Temple and those who exploited the poor and needy. Today’s gospel-reading points to the fact that there were times in his life when, to preserve his balance and integrity, he had to change his mind. Change is integral to human growth and development and Jesus was not exempt from change, growth and development. The Canaanite woman who challenged him through her insistence, perseverance, sharp- wittedness and sense of humour taught him something about questioning boundaries. Moreover, the story of her encounter with him informs us that, while as a mature adherent of the Jewish faith he knew he had a serious duty to care for orphans, widows and foreigners, circumstances, the vagaries of daily life and having to deal with intolerant people can distract flesh and blood human beings from their responsibilities. Jesus was no exception. He was fully human. The Gospels give us two examples of his changing his mind. – one was at the wedding celebration in Cana and the other was in hostile territory in Phoenicia. Those who prompted the change were both women!
All this reminds us that God works through all kinds of people and events to shake us out of the boundaries we can create for ourselves and the boundaries and restraints that others may want to put on us. Change of mind and heart will be a ceaseless challenge for all of us this side of the grave. We can still ask ourselves “With which character in today’s gospel-reading do I identify?”  And let’s not forget a 2016 reminder from Pope Francis: “A person who thinks only about building walls (boundaries?) and not building bridges is not Christian.” (Press Conference, Flight from Mexico to Rome, Feb. 18, 2016)

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

At once, Jesus called out to them, saying: “Courage, it is I! Do not be afraid.” It was Peter who answered: “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.” “Come” said Jesus. Then Peter got out of the boat and started walking toward Jesus across the water, but as soon as he felt the force of the wind, he took fright and began to sink. “Lord! Save me!”, he cried. Jesus put out his hand at once and held him. “Man of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And as they got into the boat the wind dropped. Matthew 14: 22-33

We human beings spend a lot of each day telling stories, reading stories and listening to stories. We are story-telling beings. Most of the stories we tell, read and hear are about human behaviour whether those stories are conveyed to us through the voices of other people or through print or electronic media. We also know that the motive that drives all human behaviour is every bit as important as the behaviour itself, if not more important. Most of the stories we read and hear every week in our churches are about human behaviour.

So, all this week I have found myself puzzling over what it was that motivated Peter to call out to what he thought was the ghost of Jesus, and then to get out of the boat in response to the invitation to come that he recognised as coming from the voice of Jesus heard amid the howling wind. But it was the force of the same howling wind that sapped his confidence, leading him to begin sinking beneath the waves. And what was it that motivated Jesus to ask, as he held out a rescuing hand: “Man of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Jesus was not in the habit of big-noting himself or even drawing attention to himself or the miracles he performed. So, he surely wasn’t saying to Peter: “Why did you doubt me?” And when he rescued Peter from drowning, he put him right back into the boat out of which Peter had stepped. That prompted me to ask if Jesus was challenging Peter to reflect on why he had left behind the companions whom Jesus had told him he was destined to lead. After all, doesn’t the best kind of leadership involve having trust and confidence in the people we are privileged to lead?

I wonder, then, if, in the act of rescuing Peter and putting him back into the boat, Jesus was giving him an object lesson that leading his companions was about sticking with them in difficult times as well as in good; and that approaching leadership as a collaborative venture meant being present to encourage and support them and welcome their contributions. By extension, does that not mean that those called to leadership in the community we now call the people of God have a responsibility to acknowledge that all the people in the pews have something to contribute and that their contributions need to be recognised and their voices heard?

However, I want to suggest that this gospel-reading is not quite as simple as it seems. In a moment of rash over-confidence, Peter might have been drawing attention to himself and saying to his companions: “Look at me. I can do extraordinary things.” But when over-confidence intrudes, things can become messy. We can end up attributing successful ventures to ourselves rather than to God who has inspired us to act in the first place. There is also the reality in the lives of most of us that faith in God is not a one-shot, life-lasting experience. At some time or another, every follower of Jesus experiences doubt. We wonder, at times, if we have been hood-winked into embarking on a journey to nowhere. It is then that we have to remind ourselves that it is only through struggling with doubt that our faith in God becomes strengthened. Doubt is natural. But we also must remember that, when we falter and doubt, the rescuing hand of Jesus is held out to us. We have to find the courage to reach out to take hold of it. We even delude ourselves into thinking that, when we reach out to grasp Jesus, we are doing something virtuous. In reality, it is Jesus who takes the initiative of reaching out to grasp us.

As we grapple with this gospel-reading, it is worth remembering that, in the Book of Psalms, there are numerous examples of drowning being used as a symbol of our need for God. Matthew, teacher and scribe that he was, would have been very familiar with the psalms. Moreover, in relating this dramatic story of Jesus coming to the rescue of his friends in the storm on the lake, he can still add a touch of humour by playing on the meaning of Peter’s name and role. Peter the “Rock” stepping out of the boat in a fit of bravado quickly becomes petrified with fear and begins to sink like a stone Like Matthew, we have all learned to chuckle in retrospect about the rashness we have at times displayed in grave and risky situations from which we have emerged unscathed.

In all of this, there is a message for us, and context is, once more, a great help for discovering that message. Today’s story of the storm on the lake follows fast upon three significant events. Jesus had just been rejected by the people of his hometown and was then confronted with the news of the Baptist’s execution. He must have felt discouraged and very likely afraid for his own safety, in light of the fact that Herod thought he was John the Baptist reincarnated. Despite all that, Jesus continued on his mission of reaching out to the poor and needy. Evidence of that was his care and concern expressed in feeding a crowd of “five thousand men, not counting the women and children”. Before doing that, he had clearly stated to his disciples that feeding the needy was also part of their ministry: “There is no need for them (the crowd) to go: give them something to eat yourselves” (Matthew 14: 16). Immediately after that, he put the disciples in a boat to row themselves across the lake, while he went off by himself to pray. It was then that the storm broke, prompting him to go to their assistance.

Today’s gospel-reading then, is a story about what is needed for discipleship. It’s clear that Jesus was telling Peter and the other disciples that over-confidence is a hindrance not a help. But trust in God is absolutely essential, as is a readiness to call on God for help when the going gets tough. To call on God for help is a demonstration of both faith and humility, as is the readiness to recognise and accept that God also comes to our help through our companions and associates. But we will be confronted inevitably by storms and challenges. All of us who dare to be disciples of Jesus to a world in need are challenged to hear Jesus’ words: “Give them something to eat yourselves”. That world is drowning under the waves of consumerism, crippling poverty, terrorism, gun violence, domestic abuse, exploitation of the weak and vulnerable. Somehow, we, together, have to find the courage to witness to that world through our practical expressions of care and compassion that God’s love will eventually dispel the chaos, dissolve the injustice and bring a promise of hope, peace and security. We are God’s instruments of grace in that world.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

The Transfiguration of Jesus – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light…From the cloud came a voice that said: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Matthew 17: 1-9

As we try to make meaning of this Sunday’s gospel-reading which gives an account of the extraordinary event to which we refer as the transfiguration of Jesus, I suggest we stop to review the criticism that has been levelled at Peter, one of the principal participants in the story that Matthew presents. Through the centuries, preachers and commentators on the Gospels have labelled Peter as impetuous, ill-disciplined and rushing in to make suggestions with little or no thought. In chapter 16 of his Gospel, Matthew recounts how Jesus had asked his disciples what people were saying about him: “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he put this question to his disciples: ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’” (Matthew 16: 13) After hearing some of their responses, Jesus turned to the disciples themselves and asked: “But who do you say I am?’ Without hesitating, Peter spoke out and identified Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. And Jesus praised him for his insight and rapid response, before proceeding to inform Peter of the responsibilities that awaited him and to predict the violent death towards which he himself was headed. Peter objected by stating that a dead Messiah would be of no help to anybody. For his trouble, he was sharply reprimanded by Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.” (Matthew 16: 23)

While Peter may have been subdued by the reprimand, his protest was eminently sound, clearly expressing the concern of a man who had come to respect and admire the Jesus he had chosen to follow. Moreover, Peter had not been schooled in thinking the way God thinks and had learned that God did not approve of anyone’s resorting to violence as an acceptable method of settling disagreements. Jesus had also made it clear that tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation paved the way for living in harmony with one another and that getting even, seeking retribution and pursuing revenge were foreign to the way of God. Contemplating the thought that Jesus would be the victim of violence plotted by leaders of the religious tradition to which they all belonged was inconceivable. No wonder Peter protested the way he did, even as he was aware of the fact that Jesus, too, knew that violence and evil were plotted, planned and perpetrated by people whose comfort was threatened by the values and message that Jesus proclaimed. Evil can still be inflicted on people who live with integrity, courage and respect for others. Inflicting violence on anyone can never be excused or justified, even if the one for whom that violence is designed knows in his or her heart that it is well-nigh inevitable

Jesus had, indeed, asked his disciples how they and the general population saw him. He was encouraged by the fact that Peter had recognised that he was the Messiah. The Transfiguration event was a divine articulation of Jesus’ true identity – fully human and truly divine. But it was not a process of identification by theological thesis but rather through the light of revelation. The Transfiguration revealed Jesus as the light of the world.

That revelation was so powerfully spectacular that the writers of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) searched for metaphors to describe it. In today’s gospel-reading we hear Matthew state that the face of the transformed Jesus shone like the sun and his clothes were dazzlingly white. Luke says that the light experienced by Peter, James and John was like a flash of lightning and Mark claimed that Jesus’ clothes were whiter than the strongest, known bleach could make them. In today’s second reading, Peter describes his personal experience as one of “majestic glory” (2 Peter 1: 17). Matthew was, indeed, presenting Jesus as the light of the world.

What happened on that mountainside was so surprising to Peter, James and John that they were clearly stunned. Accordingly, they responded like stunned people. James and John were left speechless, and Peter began to babble confusingly about setting up some kind of monument to mark the event. That’s typical of us all when we experience overwhelming shock or surprise – we don’t know what to say. But despite their confusion, all three heard the same voice of God from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him.” There’s a message for all of us here. While we rarely, if ever, experience mountainside, transfiguration events, every day holds for us a surprise of one kind or another. God does touch us in fairly ordinary ways. So, let’s be open to each day’s surprise whether it comes to us in sorrow, in laughter, in some unexpected kindness or in blinding light. Such events can open in our hearts a space into which we can welcome new-found friends and old acquaintances and celebrate with them our shared humanity.

If we are the kind of people who rush to speak before we think, we might remember that in God’s presence, mediated to us through ordinary people, there is no need for us to do or say anything but to simply listen. If we are the type who goes into a flap or who is prone to panic, all we need do is to stop and listen. If we imagine that we are out of place, not meant to be where we are, all that is required of us is to pause and listen.

The first message of this account of the transfiguration of Jesus is that this one-time carpenter from Galilee, pursuing the call of an itinerant preacher is the Christ of God, the light of the world, fully human and truly divine. Secondly, to listen to him is to allow ourselves to be enlightened by him and to come to know him. Knowing him, will change forever how we live, how we face the reality of life’s burdens, disappointments and hurts and how we will begin to see what awaits us beyond the grave.

The starting point is to be open and ready to hear the invitation of God to stop and listen to God’s Son who surprises us every day of our lives.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field…The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls…The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea that brings in a haul of all kinds…Have you understood all this? They said: ‘Yes.’”      Matthew 13: 44-46

Nobody knows who exactly was the person who compiled and presented what we now label as The Gospel of Matthew. What we do know from Scripture scholars is that Matthew’s Gospel relies heavily on The Gospel of Mark. For the sake of convenience, we refer to the author of most of the gospel-readings of this year as Matthew, who was apparently the leader of an emerging group of “Jewish Christians”. They were Jews who were faithful to synagogue worship and Jewish cultural practice but who also accepted Jesus as the Messiah and the message he lived and proclaimed. That meant that they were not high on the popularity list with the traditional Jews of their day.

For the last three weeks, we have heard seven parables in succession about what Matthew called “the kingdom of heaven”. Mark, in his Gospel called it the “Kingdom of God”. Being a Jewish teacher from a traditional background and steeped in the Law and the Prophets, Matthew was hesitant to refer to God by name. So, he substituted “heaven’ for “God”. Having described how Jesus had presented seven parables in quick succession, explaining some to his disciples, Matthew concluded with a humorous comment about the slow-wittedness of those disciples. He had Jesus put to them the question: “Have you understood all this?” Their response was an unhesitating “Yes!” That same question is put to you and me. If I were to proffer a “Yes”, I would have to plead guilty to fudging. But we also know that Jesus’ disciples demonstrated that they were slow on the uptake whenever Jesus tried to explain anything to them.

Matthew concluded this thirteenth chapter of his Gospel with a snippet of self-revelation: “Well then”, he said to them, “every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his storeroom things both new and old.” In attributing this comment to Jesus, Matthew was also indirectly identifying himself as the scribe who had compiled this whole Gospel. Matthew was, in fact, a man whose professional expertise was that of a scribe – a man with a knowledge of the Law and the Prophets but one who was also committed to proclaiming that Jesus had ushered in a new way of living that called for a complete change of mind and heart, a way of living in accord with the values of God, a way of living neatly summarised by the caption “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven”. Matthew had given a prelude to that as early as chapter four in his Gospel where he described Jesus, after emerging from his wilderness experience, as launching into the public forum and preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand”  (Matthew 4: 17). He was piggy-backing on the work of the Baptist, who had already called people to repentance, conversion of heart, metanoia (turning one’s life upside down): “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”  (Matthew 3: 2).

Jesus’ entire mission was about opening the minds and hearts of people to the realisation that God is present in the here and now, in everyone we encounter, in all our interpersonal engagements, in the created world, in everything we experience, even in the challenges that life serves up to us. We don’t have to do anything to make God present. All we need do is to be present to God present in everyone and everything we encounter. By doing that, we learn to live and practice mercy, kindness, compassion, tolerance, encouragement, all the values of God.

Parables are not the stuff of textbooks; they don’t contribute to our store of knowledge. They are teaching tools used by Jesus, and by other teachers, to get us to ponder and explore the experiences of our lives. Aesop, for example, centuries later created fables to help us to do something similar. Were we, for instance, to stumble on something unexpectedly that we quickly realised was a treasure that would really transform our lives, why wouldn’t we sell all we have to get it? The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God has the status of treasure. Our faith in Jesus is a treasure we have to share, a treasure we have to nourish our lives and the lives of others. It is not the religious knowledge we accumulated over years of catholic-school education. Through his Gospel, Matthew sensitised his community to the message that Jesus proclaimed: that God was present to them and working in their lives through their everyday experiences. That’s the stuff of faith! From his storehouse he also shaped reminders for them that God had already worked in the lives of their ancestors through national experiences like their being freed from slavery in Egypt and their decades of wandering in the desert. God was present in those experiences, too.

Today’s other readings from Wisdom and Romans echo the message from the gospel-reading. We learn from the first reading that the wisdom that was synonymous with the name Solomon had its source in God and was used by Solomon for the benefit of the people he was privileged to lead. It had a truly social dimension which was appreciated by the man whom God had entrusted with it: “Here I am among the people you (God) have chosen to be your own, a people who are so many that they cannot be counted” (1 Kings 3: 8). Were we to realise that the faith with which we have been blessed is shared by countless Christians the world over, we would be slow to judge others or to be intent on wanting to sort the “weeds” from the “wheat”.
Then, in today’s second reading from Romans, Paul reminds us of God, ever present to us in all our experiences: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God”  (Romans 8: 28). When we allow our lives to be turned upside down by the values of the kingdom of God, we become a power for good in the lives of those among whom we live and work. The consequence of that is that we, in turn, grow and flourish.

Matthew brought out of his storehouse of experience things old and new. I suspect that some of the comments about the final judgement which he attributes to Jesus belong more to Matthew, the traditional scribe. Jesus’ understanding of God’s compassionate way of dealing with people in their human frailty was so prominent in his teaching, preaching and healing that he had little interest in threatening anyone with everlasting hell-fire and punishment. There are some things in a scribe’s storehouse that are better discarded than stored.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Parables of God’s Kingdom: The wheat and weeds, the mustard seed and the yeast.  Matthew 13: 24-43

Scripture scholars have sometimes referred to Matthew’s Gospel as “the Gospel of the Kingdom” simply because it contains more than fifty references to the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. Today’s gospel-reading consists of three parables used by Jesus to teach his disciples and the crowds gathered to hear him about the reign of God which he was intent on establishing. It’s important for us to understand that the “kingdom of God” to which he referred was not a political entity or a physical territory or a state on the map. Rather it was a way in which people might live together intent on putting into practice God’s dream for humanity. It was all about people doing all in their power to treat each other with respect and dignity, making sure to protect those most at risk and reaching out to one another with justice, mercy, compassion and forgiveness. The three parables that make up today’s gospel-reading are about the virtue of tolerance – not rushing to push aside those who don’t measure to our standards, those we label as weeds; the virtue of attending to the small, ordinary things of everyday life that are needed for harmonious living together, making sure to pay attention to almost insignificant things of daily life, the mustard-seed size of things; the virtue of attending to little things like compliments, words of encouragement, giving time to listen to others – doing things for others that almost imperceptibly can build vibrant communities, rather like the way in which yeast turns dough into nourishing bread. It is also worth noting that Matthew wrote his Gospel at least half a century after the death of Jesus for an emerging Christian community that was struggling with the reality of strenuous opposition from a Jewish community intent on having nothing to do with Jesus and his message. Matthew was setting out to encourage his community to believe in themselves as a people entrusted with the mission of establishing God’s dream for the world, to value themselves as “good quality wheat” that would have to live patiently side-by-side with pesty weeds or as a tiny seed that would grow into a large organisation to influence the world and a group that would nourish others with a rule for living in peace and harmony. With that as introduction, we can look closely at some of the details of today’s readings.

Today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom, prepares the way for the next two readings by introducing us to the God Paul describes in today’s second reading from Romans and the God whose guide for living is outlined in the three gospel parables. The writer of the Book of Wisdom describes God as having nothing to do with oppression or compulsion. Addressing God directly, the writer declares: “There is no other god in existence who is like you. You are a God who cares for everybody equally. Your might is the source of justice; your mastery over all things leads you to be lenient to all” (Wisdom 12: 17-18). We live in a world in which dictators, potentates and terrorists use naked power to destroy, to oppress and control. At the same time, we witness on a daily basis the power of those who reflect something of the power of God by the way in which they use their power to nourish and care for others. They are those who assist and encourage others to grow into their best selves, to become the people they want to be. They are the teachers, the carers of the aged and infirm, the nurses, doctors and psychologists who breathe life into those they accompany without creating dependency. This reading concludes by reminding us that we live true to our best selves when we use our power, talent and expertise to imitate the God to whom we give our allegiance.

Today’s second reading from Romans is encouragement to all of us who at some time or other struggle to pray. And isn’t that all of us? Paul reminded his community and us, too, that our very efforts and intentions to contribute to the building of the kingdom and the reign of God are all that really matter. Paul assures us that God’s Spirit, alive in us, will assist us by stepping in to make good our weaknesses and inadequacies. Paul urges us not to be self-critical when we can’t find the right words with which to pray. He assures us that our efforts to pray will be supplemented by God whose Spirit will pray in and for us.

The three parables that constitute the gospel-reading, like all parables, are open to a wealth of interpretations. They are parables which we can use for reflecting on our own lives, on the world in which we live and on the church and communities to which we belong. For instance, people who are inclined to rush into the task of pulling out weeds represent those who believe they have knowledge of how God wants the world to be ordered. In their view, there is no place for “weeds”, literal or metaphorical. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time were the self-appointed arbiters of rule observance. Their modern-day equivalents are the people we refer to as “temple police”, who make it their business to check on the observance of ritual in the liturgy. In the life of the Church. In the history of the Church, there has been no shortage of religious perfectionists in any period. They seem to think that anyone who does not adhere to strict observance of the rules dear to them might contaminate them. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day could not tolerate Jesus because of his insistence in reaching out to sinners, in daring to put healing hands on people who had a disability or were contaminated by skin diseases. Jesus was also labelled by them as being non-observant because he cured sick people on the Sabbath.

The first reading from Wisdom describing God as one who uses power to nurture, guide and encourage and the second from Paul’s Letter to the Romans speaking of God’s Spirit intervening to optimise our desires and attempts to turn our minds and hearts to God in prayer, convince me that the parable of the weeds and wheat, which is about God’s patience with human beings who can resort to devious means to get what they want. It is surely not about reminding us or them that God will give them their come-uppance in the long run. God is just as patient with human perversity as with the human frailty and inconsistency evident in our day-to-day lives.

In conclusion, we might spend a few moments reflecting on Jesus’ ability to be realistic about how his audiences might make sense of, or struggle with, his parables. In his presentation of the parable of the mustard seed, I can imagine him chuckling inwardly in anticipation of the prospect of the legalists of his day interpreting his message of the coming reign of God as nothing more than the sudden appearance and hasty growth of a noxious and unwelcome weed. They would have considered the reign of God as a mere nuisance to be rooted out and thrown aside. Jesus was sufficiently aware of the inflexibility of many who bothered to look critically at the message he and his disciples proclaimed to conclude that they would choose to ignore it, no matter how creatively that message was presented.

As for the parable of the yeast, there is a humorous side to that too. Three measures of flour plus the amount of yeast required to make it rise would have made enough bread to feed a village. There would have been people in the audience wondering just how many people the baker-woman thought she was going to feed. By deliberately exaggerating the measures of the ingredients, Jesus was making the point that there was sufficient imagination, generosity, goodwill and creative energy alive in ordinary people for them to be active participants in establishing the reign of God. We, too, have gifts and skills. Today’s readings leave us to ask ourselves why we are short on passion and intensity for doing our bit to bring the reign of God to life where we live, work and worship.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection