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

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“The children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light…No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.”  Luke 16: 1-13

Today’s readings highlight a view held by biblical writers that being rich can be something of a liability in that wealth can draw those who have it into the pursuit of even more possessions and money. This, not surprisingly, is not a view held by most twenty-first century financial speculators and business people. Added to that is the difficulty I have with the parable of the unscrupulous steward in today’s gospel-reading. It looks as though Jesus, in his telling of the parable, is applauding the head steward’s unethical business practice. So, how do I make sense of the readings of this twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time?

I was more than a little surprised to learn that, in Australia, the thoroughbred horse-racing industry has the second-highest cash turnover of all the industries in the country. And there’s no class distinction when it comes to wagering on horse racing. Book-makers take wagers from rich and poor alike. Nobody’s money is unwelcome. Countless people do their best to get rich quickly through gambling and through speculating on the stock-market. However, the reality is that when one person makes a killing, there are many others who get hurt. So, most of us will have no trouble with the concerns raised by Amos in today’s first reading. He attacks the hucksters of his day who were getting rich at the expense of the poor and needy around them. Unscrupulous traders fitted the prices of their products and business exchanges to the cynical assessments they had of those with whom they dealt: “We can sell worthless wheat at an inflated price. We’ll find a poor man who can’t pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we’ll buy him as a slave” (Amos 8: 6). However, what was even more outrageous to Amos was his awareness of some hypocrites who tried to make greed and religious practice sit comfortably together. While they presented themselves at temple worship services, they were itching to be involved in the business of money-making: “When will the Sabbath be over so that we can start selling again?” (Amos 8:5). In today’s gospel-reading, Jesus, too, challenges attempts to make greed compatible with religion when he says: “You cannot serve both God and money!”    (Luke 16: 13).

However, it’s the gospel parable that presents the biggest challenge. And, once again, I suggest that consideration of context is the way into understanding this parable. Chapter 16, from which today’s reading is taken, is roughly the half-way point of Luke’s Gospel, and it is entirely devoted to the use of money and other possessions in the life of anyone who wants to be a disciple of Jesus. Luke has already explained to the community for whom he wrote his Gospel that three essential requirements for being a disciple of Jesus are prayer, repentance (conversion or change of mind and heart as the way into opening oneself to receive the mercy, compassion and love of God) and using money/possessions to assist the poor and needy. Jesus warned against allowing the pursuit of accumulation of wealth sap up one’s life and energy. While the parables of Chapter 15 are all about the mercy and forgiveness of God, implicit in the parable of the unscrupulous steward is the message that it is important not to take God’s mercy and forgiveness for granted. True disciples have to base their actions on prudence and wisdom as evidenced in the behaviour of the shrewd manager in Jesus’ parable.

We now turn to a vital part of the context in which the parable is set. The culture in which Jesus lived and carried out his teaching and preaching was the same culture to which the steward and his master belonged, and it was an honour-shame culture – one in which honour was regarded as more important than wealth. Moreover, in the world of business experienced stewards and managers could make decisions and sign agreements to which their masters were bound to commit themselves. The parable informs us that there were not a few people who were in considerable debt to the master. Moreover, in the telling of the parable, we learn that there were people in the community who were gossiping about how the steward was squandering his master’s wealth. So, the reputations of both steward and master were now at risk. The master is at risk of earning the reputation of a fool who cannot control someone he has employed, a paid worker who is either an incompetent or a swindler. The master is at risk of being labelled as a failed businessman. And the steward risks losing his career as a trustworthy and reliable manager. So, in a single stroke of genius, he rescues two reputations. – his and his master’s.

But it still probably comes as a surprise to many of us that the master concludes by praising the “unjust steward” for his prudence and wisdom. This is where it is important for us to consider Luke’s intention in instructing his community in their use of money. In Luke’s day and at the time that other New Testament writers and teachers were at work, there was a prevailing view that Jesus’ second coming was not far off. So, in Luke’s view, money was to be used with prudence and generosity, especially in helping the poor and needy. There was no point in accumulating money if the end times were at hand. Money was also to be used in furthering the establishment of God’s kingdom – a way of living that treated all as equals, all as children of God; a way of living built on the practice of justice and mercy and compassion. What’s more, the steward’s prudence presented his master as a charitable and generous man. In an honour-shame society, the master would have been delighted at being publicly portrayed as a generous citizen who cared about others and even gave big discounts to those in his debt.

The snippets of wisdom and exhortation that follow the parable might be seen by some as somewhat disjointed. I suggest that every line of this gospel-reading is best viewed as contributing to a message about the wise and prudent resources that are at the disposal of every disciple of Jesus. All the bits are part of a single piece that Luke presents to his community. Money and all our other resources and possessions play a part in the promotion of good. We err when we slip into letting ourselves be controlled by our possessions. When that happens, we surrender the freedom we have as children of a good and loving God who has provided us with the skills and creativity to live our lives securely, justly and with purpose. If the work we do and the assets we accumulate as a result of that work are the benefits of God’s creative action in us, isn’t it reasonable that we consult God on where best to direct the profits?

 

 

 

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep…because I have found the coin I lost…because your brother was lost and has been found.”   Luke 15:1-32

Once again, an appreciation of context is vital for finding a way into understanding the parables of today’s gospel-reading. In the time of Jesus, there was no such institution as a nursing home or a hostel for elderly people to live their final years in comfort and care. Care for elderly parents was the responsibility of their sons. The younger son, who demanded his share of the family inheritance, cashed it in and spent it on a fruitless search for personal pleasure. His behaviour demonstrated that he saw his father as undeserving of care and attention. In the society of the day there was no greater sin. The younger son neglected his filial duty and treated his father with utter contempt. So, it’s important that we don’t simply pass off that kind of behaviour as the thoughtlessness of youth.

We also have to remember that very few of Jesus’ parables come to a clear resolution. They are deliberately left unfinished, challenging those who hear them to wrestle with what they really mean. In this context, let’s not forget that Matthew, Mark and Luke made a point of stating that Jesus explained his parables to those close to him while he left the crowds who were unmoved by his teaching to wallow in their ignorance, their lack of faith and their refusal to entertain a need to repent. Note, for instance, Mark’s record of Jesus’ comment to those close to him about his reason for using parables: “Now when he was away from the crowd, those present with the Twelve questioned him about the parables. He told them: ‘To you the mystery of the reign of God has been confided. To the others outside it is all presented in parables, so that they will look intently and not see, listen carefully and not understand, lest perhaps they repent and be forgiven’. He said to them: ‘You do not understand this parable (the Sower)? How then are you going to understand other figures like it?’” (Mark 4: 10-13). If we stop to reflect on many of the parables with which we are familiar, we soon see that they are open to various interpretations, and that they are often enigmatic and, even, quite ambiguous.

Master of story-telling that he is, Luke sets us up to make judgements about the characters in his story of the “prodigal son”. He begins with: “A man had two sons…” inviting us immediately to conclude that one was good and the other bad. Aware of his ongoing conflict with the religious leaders of his day on the topic of the real purposes of God’s law, we are set up to misjudge the Pharisees and scribes who are presented as grumbling: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Luke’s way of narrating his story sets us up to adopt the view that, whenever Pharisees and scribes are critical of Jesus, they are wrong. But isn’t there some justification to their criticism of Jesus? Don’t teachers and prophets compromise themselves by sitting at table with public sinners?

If we don’t tread warily with this parable, we can be drawn into viewing it as little more than an illustration of how notorious sinners can come to their senses, repent of their sins and find their way to embrace God’s merciful love, and an insight into those who believe that they have not strayed from the path of right living. This latter group are simply unable to bring themselves to recognise that their arrogance and pride have distanced them from God and their broken sisters and brothers. Mind you, appreciating that is no small achievement for we know that both descriptions have applied to us at different times. But there is even more to this parable.
This gospel-reading has several parables about the lost being found and rejoiced over when they return or are returned to their proper place. The fact that we are told that Jesus welcomes outcasts and even eats with them is a statement of God’s magnanimous love expressed in and through Jesus. But being welcomed and forgiven calls for repentance on the part of all who accept Jesus’ invitation to be at home in his company. “Repentance” is an interesting word that has come into our language from Greek. It’s fundamental meaning is the price to be paid for destroying someone else’s property. While we would not think of engaging in vandalism of public or private property, we need to remember that God’s property includes every human being, and we know that we are all guilty of hurting or maligning or gossiping about others, even about those close to us. But Jesus does not call us to repentance for some kind of distorted satisfaction at seeing us squirm. God’s call to repentance presupposes that we are worthwhile, valuable, worthy of being treated with respect and dignity. God’s call to repentance is rather like a very dear friend shaking us to life and telling us to wake up to ourselves. God believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. While we know that we have been created in God’s image, we often find it difficult to accept that, like God, we are good, creative, free and loving. So, too, is every other person we encounter. We have missed the point of all the parables in today’s gospel-reading if we fail to see that we are all worthwhile objects of God’s boundless love.

Still, let’s not rush to a resolution of the prodigal parable. The younger son does not get an A rating for self-knowledge. There is something lacking in his level of repentance. His reasoning to himself for returning is based on self-interest. He knows that he’ll be fed by a father who makes sure that even the servants are properly cared for. And he doesn’t get a chance to recite the speech he has rehearsed, so overwhelming is the welcome his father extends. And what to we make of the elder son? Luke has presented him in a way that forces us to see that this son is also lost. His initial reaction to the extravagant welcome his father has extended to his younger brother is entirely understandable. The way his younger brother had treated their father is nothing short of scandalous. Moreover, he knows that his brother’s conduct has destroyed the reputation of the whole family. He must have been wondering if his father had lost control of his mind. Part of Luke’s skill is that he tells his audience only how the elder son reacted in the shock of the moment. We, too, are left to ponder whether or not he was able to temper his inflexibility and live into a change of heart and attitude more in keeping with his father’s response. And the younger son’s half-hearted repentance would also have to grow into behaviours that would be more socially accepted. He would have to demonstrate the authenticity of his repentance by involving himself in the hard work needed to sustain the family farm.

While not fully resolved, this parable is a mirror into which we all might look with benefit. We might see that our efforts at repentance are sometimes shallow and that, at the same time, we can be quick to judge others. We might also see someone who is almost faultless at keeping all the rules but whose response to those around him is loaded with passive aggression. We may even see a man who just doesn’t know how to fall into the arms of a father that are outstretched to prodigals. Perhaps, too, we might see a father who has learned how to combine both justice and mercy and mete them out accordingly. What we see might give us cause to change and grow.

 

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Whoever does not carry his/her own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple…Anyone who does not renounce all her/his possessions cannot be my disciple.”       Luke 14: 25-33

By virtue of our Baptism, Jesus invites every single one of us to follow him in the way of discipleship. Today’s readings offer us insights into how we might accept that invitation from Jesus and what’s required of us when we do accept it.

Over the last few decades, Christian communities in the western world have lamented the reality of a marked decrease in candidates for priesthood and religious life. A lot of ink has been spent on articles by authors giving attention to what they call “the vocation crisis”. In relatively recent times, social analysts have been vocal in commenting on the fact that vocations to nursing, other health professions and social work are also in decline. One observer was bold enough to assert: “Nursing’s collapse is a cultural and spiritual one, a failure of the notion of charity and compassion, not the result of failed pay-bargaining rounds.”

While our Church culture has frequently regarded “vocation” as a call from God, it is important to recognise that God is not in the business of planning our lives for us. God has blessed each of us with personal gifts that are unique. God has also blessed us with freedom and the capacity to choose how we want to express those gifts in ways that are true to ourselves. In time, people among us who recognise that they have a strong sense of compassion come to the conviction that they want to contribute to making the world a better place. Those with a faith commitment to Jesus often sense that the way for them to live their lives is in service to others that is motivated by the values and ideals which Jesus lived and proclaimed. The vocation they choose, be it to religious life, priesthood, marriage or a single life, is their way of striving to express the love in their heart with integrity as they reach out to serve others with justice and integrity. They open themselves to the workings and guidance of God’s Spirit, who is ever active within and around all of us.

Of course, one does not have to be religious to have a sense of vocation. However, the materialistic culture in which many of us live promotes fame, wealth, tertiary qualifications and economic security as indicators of success in life. That’s a culture that can offer Tiger Woods a billion dollars to join a rebel golfing programme while people in helping professions can find themselves struggling to feed and clothe their families, and millions in developing countries struggle to get enough to eat.

Sometimes it takes years for one to discover and follow his/her vocation. At other times, all it takes is a sudden, intense moment of realisation. In 2015, a movie called Persona Non Grata, was released. It was directed by Cellin Gluck, a Japanese American who is probably better known as the director of Godzilla and Remember the Titans. Persona Non Grata is the story of Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986) who was the Japanese Vice-Consul to Lithuania in the early years of World War II. Sugihara was short-listed to become Japanese Ambassador to Russia. However, one morning when he opened the doors of the Japanese Embassy in Lithuania, he was confronted by a large group of people requesting transit visas for Japan. The crowd was made up of Jews fleeing from Poland in the wake of the German invasion of their country. Transit visas through Tokyo would allow them breathing space to prepare for refugee status in the West Indies and North America. Three times Sugihara cabled his superiors in Tokyo requesting permission to issue visas. Three times he was refused. The plight of the refugees pleading for help so touched his heart that he ignored orders and started issuing visas. In the space of 28 days before he was recalled to Berlin to be sacked, he issued more than 6000 hand-written visas. Sugihara found within his heart a depth of compassion and courage that drove him to put the well-being of Jews in desperate need ahead of personal prestige and self-interest. He discovered his true vocation, and, in the process, forfeited his place in the Japanese Diplomatic Corps but eventually earned for himself the title of “The Japanese Schindler”. The only job he was able to get, once he was back in Japan, was selling light bulbs.

Today’s gospel-reading reminds us that we are all invited to the vocation of discipleship. But with the proviso from Jesus: “Whoever does not carry her/his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Chiune Sugihara may never have heard those words of Jesus, but his integrity and his compassion for his Jewish sisters and brothers led him to sacrifice his career. The Cross comes to us in all kinds of shapes and sizes – in people and events we would prefer to avoid, in family pressures that force us to shelve our dreams and hopes, in the darkness of depression and loneliness, in the ostracism that follows our daring to speak the truth, in false accusations and gossip. Whatever form it takes, we know in the depths of our heart that picking it up is a condition of walking in the footsteps of the one who invites us to follow him.

Working out how best to be true to ourselves and to the Jesus we commit to follow does not come automatically or by calling for a supply of divine inspiration. We have been blessed with freedom and intelligence. Surely God’s intention is that we use those gifts. Today’s first reading urges us to cultivate wisdom. Even though we know that we can call on God’s Spirit to guide us in our decision-making, we know instinctively that we all have to work at figuring things out when challenges come our way. Today’s first reading from Wisdom points that out clearly. Then, the second reading from Paul’s Letter to Philemon illustrates how Paul had to rely on his own wits, persuasion and diplomacy to convince his friend Philemon to take back his runaway slave Onesimus without punishing him. Paul shrewdly adds that, because he has baptised Onesimus (whose name, incidentally, means “profitable one”), Philemon is now obliged by the Gospel to treat him no longer as his slave but as his brother.

This is a neat segue into the gospel-reading where we see Jesus involved in doing some of his own figuring out. Still on his way to Jerusalem, he is being followed by a large crowd, and he wants to know if they are there out of self-interest (hoping for more miracles) or genuinely wanting to be disciples. If they want to be disciples, they had better get used to carrying their own crosses and be prepared to detach themselves from possessions. Then, using Semitic hyperbole (“hate”) he points out that hanging on too tightly to family, relatives and friends gets in the way of freely embracing discipleship. Paul has already pointed that slaves are not possessions and now Jesus makes the point that husbands, wives and children are not possessions either. Moreover, life experience has shown us how some husbands and wives think they own their marriage partner, and some parents think they own their children. Finally, the two illustrations about the need for proper building-planning and logical strategy for military engagement make the point that similar vigilance and planning are required for discipleship. There’s a gentle irony here for all of us to note: Jesus himself “left home” to identify with humanity. He is simply asking us to do something similar.

 

 

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“For all those who make themselves great will be humbled, and all those who humble themselves will be made great.”   Luke 14: 1, 7-14

One could browse today’s three readings and conclude that they add up to a set of hints about how to make a name for oneself or to enhance one’s public approval. What we know of the writers of Sirach and Hebrews and of Luke and Jesus themselves is sufficient to convince us that none of them was interested in dispensing worldly wisdom.

But simply being aware that all three readings are about the virtue of humility is still not enough to give us a proper appreciation of the message we are meant to take from them. So, I suggest all three are worthy of close attention.

In the first reading, Ben Sira seems to be saying that humility is all about knowing and accepting the truth of who we are, and to be careful of pretending that we are more than who we really are. And he concludes by pointing out that the mark of truly wise people is that they know how to listen. Moreover, we all know from our own experience that we get turned off by people who are intent on big-noting themselves. True humility consists in realising that all we are, achieve and have is gift from God.

While the reading from Hebrews presents two divine visitations, the second one is described in terms that are subdued, by comparison with the description of God’s visitation to Moses. In the mind of the writer of Hebrews, God does not subscribe to self-aggrandisement or spectacular self-revelation. By implication the message for us is that big-noting ourselves is totally foreign to a proper understanding of humility.

In the gospel-reading, Luke describes the kind of humility that Jesus promoted. Luke begins by describing Jesus’ amusement when he witnessed guests jockeying for position around the table, when they were invited to a meal in the house of a leading Pharisee. Experiencing a mixture of shock and amusement at the antics of the guests, Jesus spontaneously gave them a parable on which to reflect. While, on the surface, it looks as though Jesus was giving them advice on how to get a host to offer them special treatment, he was instructing them about the futility of arrogance, self-serving and inflating one’s ego. Having completed his parable, Jesus offered a variation on the following statement from the Book of Proverbs: “Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence; do not stand in the place of nobles. For it is better to be told: ‘Step up here’ than to be degraded in the presence of the great.”  (Proverbs 25: 6-7)

Wanting to be lionised and made a fuss of risks deluding ourselves into believing that we are self-sufficient, dependent on nobody but ourselves. Mark Twain once shrewdly observed: “The self-made man is as likely as a self-laid egg.”

Setting out to win the adulation and admiration of the crowd can lead to our ignoring just how dependent we are on others. Here in Australia, the advent of covid and the destruction resulting from persistent rain and flooding have disrupted the supply of food to which many of us have become accustomed. Suddenly, we have been forced to realise just how dependent we are on the farmers who feed us and the people who transport supplies to retail stores. In reality, our lives have been built on a succession of dependencies on the parents who loved us into life and nurtured and fed us, on the teachers who accompanied us into using our intelligence and creativity, on manufacturers who have ensured the supplies we need of power, water and sewerage, and on the God who created the world whose bounty has been almost inexhaustible.

The latter part of today’s gospel-reading will not let us ignore the people around us with whom we might not be inclined to associate, the ones whom our society frequently wants to keep hidden or even devalued. – the blind, the physically disabled, the beggars, the very ones to whom Jesus urges us to extend hospitality. Being host to them is being true to the fact that they are our sisters and brothers. This fits the definition of humility as honouring the truth of the reality that surrounds us and the truth of the reality of who we are as people who will never be complete for as long as we fail to express the love in our hearts by reaching out to “the beggars and the crippled, the lame and the blind” (Luke 14: 13).

Maimonides, the great medieval, Jewish philosopher and expounder of the Torah echoed the teaching of Jesus in his assertion: “When a person eats and drinks in celebration of a holiday, he is obliged to feed converts, orphans, widows and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is not involved in rejoicing associated with God’s command, but rather in the rejoicing of his own belly.”

Come to think of it, maybe the hidden logic of today’s gospel-reading, and the two readings that accompany it, is that welcoming cripples and beggars might bring us, in the long run, to realise that, before God ,we, too, are cripples and beggars.

 

 

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Do your best to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”   Luke 13, 24-30

In order to get an insight into today’s gospel-reading, I suggest we can do two things: try to get into the mind of the person who asked Jesus: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” and, secondly, try reading today’s gospel in the context of the first reading from Isaiah.

“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” strikes me as a question that is born of the naivety of a gatherer of statistics or emanates from the presumption of someone who believes that he or she has already earned right of entry into heaven. The questioner did not have sufficient gall to ask: “Lord, will only a few of us be saved?” However, I dare to suggest that that was what he or she meant. It’s a question that was born of attitudes such as arrogance, privilege, entitlement and elitism, and suggests that the questioner had already decided that there was no shortage of people in the world who had disqualified themselves from entry through their lives of skulduggery and immorality. I even wonder if self-satisfied, ‘holier than thou’ individuals would be at ease mixing in heaven with those whom they had categorised as the dregs of society and who, inexplicably, had managed to scrape through the door. Another way of approaching this gospel-reading is for each of us to ask ourselves: “Could I imagine myself saying to Jesus: “How many others, besides me, will be saved?”

While Jesus would have been familiar with the Book of Isaiah, there is nothing in today’s gospel-reading to suggest that the question above reminded him of the extraordinary prophecy recorded in today’s first reading in which God promised to gather together people of all nations and religions, and even bestow priesthood on pagans. The people of Israel were adamant that only males of the tribe of Levi were eligible for priesthood. Isaiah made it clear that this was God’s initiative and that God excluded nobody; God’s welcome was for all. Nobody had a right to special treatment. So, Isaiah did not shrink from pointing to the openness of God who proclaimed: “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory…and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations…Some of these I will take as priests and Levites” (Isaiah 66: 18-21). Those who saw themselves as God’s chosen, with exclusive access to God, would have felt discomforted, at the very least.

In coming to terms with the gospel-reading, we have to be patient with the rapid shift in metaphors. The reading starts with the image of a statistician searching for the numbers of how many will be saved. Jesus quickly changed the focus by stressing the kind of effort required by those desiring to be saved. Luke attributed to him a Greek word meaning that they would have to go to agonising efforts. (It’s the same word used to describe the agony Jesus endured in the Garden of Gethsemane as he reflected on the suffering ahead of him on his journey to his place of execution.) In so doing, Luke introduced the image of the narrow door, through which there were many trying to enter. Then, without warning the metaphor changes to the master who gets up from a chair or a bed and locks the narrow door and refuses to be moved by those who are locked out and pleading for admission. Not even reminders that he had joined them previously in eating and drinking were sufficient to make him relent. The reading concludes with the biblical aphorism familiar to all of us: “Some who are last will be first and some who are first will be last”  (Luke 13: 30).

We have to tread warily when it comes to making sense of Jesus’ metaphorical reference to “the narrow door”. To begin with, his recommendation: “Try to come in through the narrow door” is no answer to the question that was addressed to him. Rather it was a deliberate ploy on his part not to be drawn into some kind of numbers game. He ignored the question by switching to another topic. But what he said can lead to the misunderstanding that one earns entry into God’s kingdom by one’s own efforts, thereby forgetting that all we are and have, including our successes and achievements are gifts from God.

With that clarification, we can now turn our focus to the meaning of gaining entry to God’s kingdom via the narrow door. I suggest that the starting point is one of the “I am…” statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel. Scholars debate as to whether there are seven or eight of these statements. We could probably repeat them all if we stopped to recall them. – “I am the bread of life, I am the good shepherd, I am the light of the world…”. – and they are all metaphors. The one that concerns us here is “I am the door”. The context in which John attributed this statement to Jesus was the insensitive and unjust act of excommunication visited by Jewish leaders on a blind beggar who insisted that Jesus had restored his sight by directing him to bathe in the pool of Siloam. The beggar was adamant that Jesus was a prophet sent by God. For his trouble, he was accused of not being born blind and thrown out of the temple for allegedly telling lies.

In the time of Jesus, many householders kept a few sheep, which were sheltered at night in pens adjoined to their dwellings or in the living-space itself. Returning to the sheep fold at the end of the day was to come to the comfort of home. The man who had just been evicted from the temple would surely have been comforted on hearing Jesus proclaim that he himself was the door into the comfort of home with God. His message of welcome stands in stark contrast with the proclamation of banishment given to the beggar by the temple authorities.

In today’s gospel-reading, we hear Jesus’ exhortation to his audience: “Try to come in through the narrow door.”  (Luke 13, 24). That is the metaphor used later by John when he attributed to Jesus the unqualified assertion: “I am the door. Whoever enters through me will be safe.” (John 10: 9).   Luke described the door as narrow (Lk. 13: 24) because his audience would have been familiar with the pedestrian gate in the city walls which allowed people to enter only one at a time. It also suggests that adherence to the teachings of Jesus, to living Jesus’ values of mercy, justice, compassion, selflessness and generosity required discipline and perseverance. To live in imitation of Jesus is the way into our real home in God.

We can all probably recall times when we have taken a wrong door, a door that left us considerably less than satisfied. Today’s gospel-reading is a reminder to us to retrace our steps and to rediscover in Jesus an open door to opportunity, new life and the comfort of our true home with God.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already ablaze…Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Luke 12: 49-53

The gospel-readings of the last few Sundays and for a few more to come make it clear that the closer Jesus came to Jerusalem, the more nervous he became about the destiny he was convinced awaited him. It had become increasingly clear to him that his calls for a change of heart and his invitations to people to involve themselves in working for justice, peace and compassion were not only falling on deaf ears but were being actively opposed by the religious leaders who had a set on him. Jesus sensed that the kind of treatment meted out to the prophet Jeremiah awaited him.

Today’s first reading recounts the opposition served up to Jeremiah, and explains that it was retribution for trying to upset the status quo: “This man must be put to death,” the princes said to the king; “he demoralises the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such things to them; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin.” (Jeremiah 38: 4) The second reading from Hebrews reminds us of how Jesus was treated: “Think of what Jesus went through; how he put up with so much hatred from sinners.” (Hebrews 12: 4)

The gospel-reading from Luke proceeds to give us an insight into the anguish that Jesus experienced as he tried to deal with the fate he was convinced awaited him. That gives us opportunity to reflect on how we cope with opposition when it comes our way. We know that opposition in one shape or another has already crossed our path. What’s more, if we dare to look at how we dealt with it, we will probably congratulate, and even justify, ourselves for giving back more than we received.

But first, let’s not forget that, very early in his Gospel, Luke had predicted that opposition would play a particular role in Jesus’ life. When Mary and Joseph presented him in the Temple, the prophet Simeon, on blessing them, said: “This child is destined to be the downfall and the rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed…” (Luke 2: 24) This is confirmed by all the Gospel writers who were unanimous in pointing out that Jesus was dogged by opposition from the religious leaders for the entirety of his public ministry. Yet, it is equally clear that Jesus had made up his mind to be true to himself, to preserve his personal integrity no matter how intense the opposition served up to him. Even though he was persecuted, he did not take it out on others. He seemed to have a capacity to absorb the opposition without responding with harping criticism against those who were the source of the opposition. It is true that he did confront those who opposed him and called them names to their face but there was nothing sneaky about his retorts. And in the end, he alone was the target of his enemies, he alone was the one who was executed.

That gives us cause to look at ourselves and how we deal with opposition, for any one of us who chooses to walk in the footsteps of Jesus will inevitably meet criticism, ridicule and opposition when we elect to live with integrity and resist compromise. Do we not catch ourselves wanting to be vindictive, to get even with those who oppose us? We even develop hit and run tactics in our efforts to settle the score, and sometimes hope that our long-running wars will not come to a hasty end and deprive us from getting our own back.

The opposition that Jesus offered was born of love and care for the people he confronted. The message he proclaimed was a call to all who heard him to a change of mind and heart. That meant letting go of things like adherence to the letter of the law rather than to its spirit. Legalism breeds comfort and certainty, and blocks the way to compassion, sensitivity and tolerance.

Despite our coming to some understanding of how Jesus dealt with opposition, there is still some confusion or ambiguity about his assertion at the beginning of today’s gospel-reading: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already ablaze! I have a baptism to receive. What anguish I feel till it is over!” (Luke 12: 49-50) Jesus is hardly talking about the fire of destruction that James and John wanted to call down on the inhospitable Samarians (Luke 9: 52-56). But it may have something to do with letting loose the Spirit of God in a world that needed to be turned upside down. Surely Jesus was using “fire” metaphorically as an agent of purification. Moreover, when Jesus was baptised in the Jordan, John the Baptist asserted that Jesus would one day “baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3: 16).  I suggest that the urgency in Jesus as he proclaimed that he had come “to bring fire to the earth” arose from the fact that he had discovered a world that was scarred and broken, a world built on systems that had kept people oppressed by poverty and injustice. He had come not to disturb a world of peace and contentment but one that had settled into systems that abused and exploited people. In the long run, it is context that makes it clear that his intent was to fire up the inhabitants of the world, especially their leaders, to claim their responsibility and dignity as sisters and brothers to one another, and set their minds and hearts on justice, equality, compassion and all the other values that would identify them as truly human.

In this context, it is worth recalling the personal transformation that took place in Moses when he was confronted by the fire of God in the burning bush. He was drawn into conflict with the Pharaoh not for the sake of a fight with the ruler of Egypt but because he was fired with the urgency to bring liberation and self-determination to a people oppressed by servitude. Jesus’ integrity demanded that he shake and disturb a world of abuse and oppression that was keeping people locked in by a religious system that was moribund and self-serving. He was calling humanity to open their minds and hearts to the fire of God’s Spirit. There’s a wake-up call to us, too!

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“It was for faith that our ancestors were commended. It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the call to set out for a country that was the inheritance given to him and his descendants, and that he set out without knowing where he was going.”        Hebrews 11: 1-2; 8-12

“Happy those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. I tell you solemnly, he will put on an apron, sit them down at table and wait on them.”      Luke 12, 32-48

Prominent among the multiple themes woven into the readings of this Sunday are those of living in faith and trust, and making responsible use of the gifts with which God has entrusted us. The opening sentence of the reading from Hebrews defines what it means to live by faith: “Faith”, the author writes “is confident assurance concerning what we hope for, and conviction about things we do not see.” (New American Bible, Hebrews 11: 1-2) The rest of that chapter proceeds to list our ancestral giants who lived faith-filled lives, and concludes that the list would not be complete if it did not include us who, like all those before us, know that living by faith is sometimes a real struggle. Moreover, we can add to the list in Hebrews faith-filled women and men beside whom we have lived and worked in the course of our lives so far. They are the ordinary “saints” who have encouraged, loved and inspired us in our struggles to be faithful, especially when we have struggled to cope with the unexpected griefs, troubles and disappointments that come and have come our way. Our experience has already taught us that the promises of God, about which Jesus taught us, will not be fulfilled this side of the grave. Yet it is our faith and trust in our loving God that keeps us keeping on.

Another translation of the opening line of today’s second reading from Hebrews reads: “To have faith is to be sure of the things for which we hope, to be certain of the things we cannot see”  (Hebrews 11: 1). If we care to reflect on this a little, we can come to appreciate that our faith is not a totally blind phenomenon. We actually shape something in our mind that is a picture of what we think will happen to us. It is that on which we pin our hopes. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, the Austrian Holocaust-Survivor and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl wrote that prisoners in concentration camps survived only if they created in their minds a future which they could realistically envision and hope would be fulfilled. Conversely, it also requires imagination to envision things that we believe will dishearten us. People who walk out of their marriage or away from their religion imagine a bleak future, a future in which they are unable to hope. So, it’s not only faith that is founded on a vision of the unseen God. Lack of faith is built on an unseen vision of gloom. The Abraham we hear about in Hebrews did not know in advance the land he was to inherit. He probably started to imagine what it might look like. He had the faith to keep journeying towards a promise whose details he did not know.

Aware of the fact that Jesus was fully human, we can conclude that he, too, had to picture in his mind how those who committed themselves to follow him would turn out. Take that to its logical conclusions, and we can only conclude that God puts trust in us, too; a trust that we are capable of working to promote justice, peace and mercy. When we know that somebody trusts us, we feel affirmed. If we are conscious of being trusted, loved and valued by God, we might be more inclined to put our trust in God.

The three brief parables about servants, managers and the unexpected return of their masters are all about what is expected of people who commit themselves to working to bring about the establishment of the reign or kingdom of God where they live in the world. Sunday after Sunday, we have been reminded that the reign of God is all about striving to ensure that everyone is treated with justice, compassion, respect, mercy, tolerance, and so on. That, of course, calls for selfless service from all who commit themselves to building the kingdom of God, from all of us who have committed ourselves to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

Implicit in the three short parables in today’s gospel-reading is a message that, whatever our position or status, we are all called to be leaders in one way or another. Jesus makes it clear that those entrusted with leadership have power, but the power they have is meant for service of others not for feathering their own nests. True leaders give their time, energy and talent to empower those they serve, thereby enabling them to do for others what is good and just and empowering, so that they can, in their turn, determine the best way to live their lives.

Tucked into these three parables, which, incidentally, are hard to separate, are a couple of surprises. One is that Jesus refers to both male and female servants. (This is consistent with the fact that Luke repeatedly includes women as central to his gospel story.) Almost unobtrusively, Jesus describes a head servant abusing his position and setting about “beating the menservants and the maids” (Luke 12: 45). Women in the prevailing climate were particularly vulnerable to abuse. The second surprise lies in the reference Jesus makes to a master who is so pleased with the work of his servants that he sits them down at table, dons an apron, and serves them a meal himself. In a male-dominated culture, where men were not to be found even close to a kitchen, Jesus overturns convention and tells of a man who serves his servants. This is surely a reference to how Jesus pictures God as one whose love and care know no bounds. It makes the point that slaves and servants are loved by God, and, therefore, to be treated with respect, dignity and justice.

To be committed to walking in the footsteps of Jesus is to become faithful and generous in using our gifts, talents and personal qualities in contributing to the establishment of the kingdom of God. We are truly humble when we recognise that our gifts are God-given and meant not for our own aggrandisement but for the service and benefit of others. The world will then be better for the fact that we are part of it.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” Luke 12, 13-21

While it was common practice in the time of Jesus for people to consult scribes on legal matters, Jesus made it clear to his questioner in today’s gospel-reading that he had no interest in solving any questioner’s domestic legal problems in the way in which the questioner clearly wanted. In fact, Jesus consistently addressed legal issues in ways that resonated with and fitted into the message of God’s love that he had come to proclaim. So instead of getting involved in a domestic dispute and supporting one man against his brother, Jesus hinted that they really did not need a lawyer. Rather, their attention would be better directed if they were to take the time to stop and examine what exactly they were arguing about. It was clear that each one wanted a bigger share of the disputed inheritance than the other. They were really caught up in competition and one-upmanship.

To clarify his message, Jesus told the parable of a man who believed that the only real source of security was in possessions. What distinguishes the man at the centre of the parable is that the only person to whom he talks is himself. His focus is completely on himself and on his efforts to get more and more for himself. He is so wrapped up in himself that he cannot spare as much as a thought for God and for other people. In fact, the only concern he had was trying to figure out how he was going to safely store the bumper crop he had harvested.

There is nothing especially complicated about the message of today’s gospel-reading. In fact, St Augustine summed it up in one sentence: “God is always trying to give us good things, but our hands are too full to receive them.” A corollary to this gospel message is captured in a Haitian proverb: “God gives, but doesn’t share.” The God who loved us into life is the source of every blessing that comes to us, but gives us the responsibility and the privilege of sharing those blessings with others, especially with our most needy sisters and brothers.

This message will be proclaimed and illustrated for a few minutes this coming weekend in churches all over the globe. Yet the people in the pews who hear that message will be bombarded with advertisements about the good life packaged in hours and hours of digestible sound bites. Those ads attract us to pursue sure-fire ways buying or building a luxury home, achieving financial security, purchasing the kind of holiday that will soothe all our worries and concerns. Somehow, those of us who have grown up in any one of umpteen western cultures have been deluded into buying all kinds of electronic gadgets and cluttering our lives with more and more stuff. As a result, we see those who are financially secure set out to buy or build bigger and better houses in which to store all their accumulated stuff and protect their top-of-the range motor vehicles. What’s more is that the accumulation of all the stuff that belongs to the good life, has to be insured, gated and protected. This life-style has spawned a legion of security businesses that thrive on the income generated by the wealth of those who have become financially secure. Meanwhile, 25,000 children die every day of the year from starvation and diseases spread by polluted water and absence of healthy sanitation systems.

We know that we grow and manufacture enough food to feel the world’s entire population, but lack the will to distribute our excess or are reluctant to erode our financial security to pay the cost of transporting and distributing it.

Listening deeply to today’s gospel-reading forces us to ask ourselves if our silence contributes to building bigger and better barns and houses in which to store accumulated stuff, stuff that might well save the lives of people about whom we rarely think or on whom we seldom spend a dollar.

Today’s gospel-reading contains more than an indictment of mindless consumerism. It’s a challenge to each of us to give some thought to how we use things, to the power resources we squander as we use our home appliances, to how we operate the vehicles we drive and the lawnmowers we push, to the value we attach to the stuff we have accumulated. Side by side with those challenges is an invitation from Jesus to audit our lives and examine the things with which we clutter them. It is also a call from Jesus to readjust our focus and direct it to the things of God – compassion, hospitality, gracious giving, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. None of those needs to be fenced in or insured.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“When you pray, say: ‘Father, bring it about that your name is held holy’…Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”   Luke 11: 1-13

A quick analysis of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples reveals that he saw prayer made up of three significant components: Recognition of the goodness of God, requesting the willingness to do what God asks of us, and expressing our hope and trust in God’s ongoing, providential care.

Having said that, I suggest there is benefit in stopping to reflect closely on the words of that prayer which we pray so often that we can slip into reciting it almost without thinking. For much of what follows, I am indebted to Bishop Geoffrey Robinson (RIP) from whom I was once privileged to hear a truly inspirational analysis of the prayer we label as the Lord’s Prayer or The Our Father.

The gospel-reading for this Sunday opens with a request a disciple put to Jesus after seeing the way in which he prayed: “Now it happened that he was in a certain place praying, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said: ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples'” (Luke11:1). Foundational to understanding the significance of the answer Jesus gave is his opening phrase: “When you pray, this is what to say: ‘Father, may you bring it about that your name is held holy’” (Luke 11: 2).

The English translation we have of Luke’s Gospel comes from the original Greek in which God is addressed by Jesus as patér, a word which, in its turn, was a translation of the Aramaic word abba, an intimate word meaning dad or daddy.
This reflected the intimate relationship Jesus had with God, and it seems as though Jesus was encouraging those close to him to cultivate a similarly intimate relationship with God. In Jesus’ culture there were many names for God and the names themselves were regarded as holy. That practice was later echoed in the New Testament when Paul, in his letter to the Philippians wrote: “…at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, of those on earth and of those under the earth” (Philippians 2, 10-11). In Jewish culture there was a constant practice to proclaim God’s name as holy, so it was a departure from the norm for Jesus to bypass that practice as he encouraged those listening to him to take up the practice of addressing God with an intimate term.

We use the word holy by analogy with God’s holiness, but when Jesus encourages his audience to pray that God’s name be held holy, he is making the point that God’s holiness is unique, that God is totally beyond human comprehension. And yet, he encourages his followers to address that God as daddy. To respect the name of God was important to Jesus, but even more important was the need not to distance ourselves from God but to cultivate an intimate relationship with God.

Then follows a second appeal to God, which , over centuries, has been diluted to “thy kingdom come”. The Greek word basilea, which has been translated as ‘kingdom’, is more appropriately understood as ‘the reign of God’. Biblical scholars of today suggest that a more accurate rendition of this part of the prayer would be “may your reign, God, embrace the hearts of all humanity”. If the hearts and minds of humanity were faithful to God, surely whatever God asked of us, his loyal followers, would add up to doing God’s will.

Similarly, ‘give us this day our daily bread’ is a watered-down translation of the Greek for which a more appropriate rendition is “keep providing us, day in and day out, with all that we need to nourish our physical, emotional and spiritual lives”. And then, follows a request to God to help us to recognise the need to be rescued from ourselves, from the human frailties that lead us to harm those around us, but with the reminder that being forgiven will depend on the extent to which we reach out to forgive those who have hurt us. Yet, we know only too well how long it takes us to let go of wanting to get even with those whom we feel have slighted, hurt or wounded us.

If only we could realise the importance of building an intimate relationship with God and then praying, not for our own, personal needs and wants, but that God be afforded a central place in in the minds and hearts of humankind, then the world would not be held hostage to groups and individuals bent on violence, destruction, competition and injustice.

Regarding that part of Jesus’ prayer where he taught his disciples to pray for their needs, Bishop Robinson commented: “The three prayers for ourselves that Jesus considered so important that he included them in this prayer are that we may have the necessities of life, that we may learn to forgive and that we may have the humility to recognise our own weakness. He taught us to pray for what we need, and the Western world needs to learn the difference between what we need and what we want. A sustainable future for this planet demands that the whole human race live according to needs rather than desires.”

What immediately follows the words of the prayer Jesus taught in response to a request from one disciple is a second, somewhat puzzling, lesson on the importance of hospitality. A traveller had arrived, tired and hungry, at a village and knocked on the first door he came to, requesting food and rest. The house owner, not having enough to meet the stranger’s request, but realising that, to turn away the stranger would be a dereliction of the duty of hospitality, woke one of his neighbours who sought for an excuse to deny the request of the man who had woken him. The first man was not going to let all the other residents of his village carry the shame of denying hospitality to a stranger in need. So, he persisted with his request until he shamed his neighbour into helping the man who had turned up tired and hungry. Are there times in our lives when others have to work at shaming us into doing what we really know in our hearts is right, just and merciful?

If today’s gospel-reading succeeds in doing nothing more than reminding us that we can slip into mindless recitation of the prayer with which we are most familiar, it has been worthy of our reflection. However, if it has helped us to look with new eyes at the prayer that Jesus left us, then it will be a worthwhile step towards changing our hearts and giving new meaning to what is involved in being disciples of Jesus.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection