Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Then, taking Jesus aside, Peter started to rebuke him. “Heaven preserve you, Lord”, he said, “this must not happen to you.” But Jesus turned to Peter and said: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because you are thinking not as God thinks, but as humans do.” Then, he said to his disciples: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Matthew 16, 21-27

I want to suggest that today’s gospel reading gives us another incident in which we see Jesus in his full humanity. Peter had just publicly acknowledged Jesus as Messiah and affirmed him in his ministry. After acknowledging Peter’s enormous potential for leadership, Jesus proceeded to predict that, instead of being a popular Messiah and an acclaimed liberator of Israel, he would be executed in Jerusalem. Moreover, anyone who wanted to follow him as a disciple would encounter pain, humiliation and rejection rather than popular approval.

Repeatedly throughout his ministry, Jesus had urged his followers not to be afraid, pointing out that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear. I want to suggest that, while Jesus could clearly see that the Jewish leaders, whom he had alienated, were planning for him a bloody end, the prospect of what they were plotting terrified him. Understandably, he was afraid of what lay ahead. And that’s why Peter’s interjection was a powerful temptation for him. Humanly speaking, and Jesus was fully human, he did not want to die the violent death he could see was being planned for him.

To state that Jesus was actually tempted by Peter’s interjection – “Heaven preserve you, Lord, this must not happen!” – is to honour Jesus’ humanity. Jesus was afraid, and why wouldn’t he be?” Yet, deep down, he knew that the easier way that Peter urged him to follow was not a real option. He knew that he had to keep challenging the Jewish religious leaders and the unjust burdens they continued to put on the shoulders of the people they led, especially the poor. It was his conscience and his sense of mission that made clear to him the way he had to follow. That’s why he saw Peter’s easier solution as a seductive temptation. And that’s why his rejection of it was so forceful.

In stopping by Caesarea Philippi and asking his disciples who they thought he was, Jesus was looking for reassurance and the courage to continue along the path he had chosen. Peter uttered the encouragement Jesus needed to hear, but just as quickly chipped in with an unrealistic expression of support and reassurance – that bad things should not happen to good people. Peter acted in a way that we, too, are inclined to imitate.

Pause for a moment to listen again to some of the things we find ourselves saying: “Don’t talk like that, grandpa, you’ll outlive the rest of us!” “Don’t be silly, grandma, you’ve never said a bad word about anybody!” If we delude ourselves with the view that there is nothing wrong with the people we love, that they never do wrong to others, we are really protecting ourselves from the difficult challenge of speaking the truth to them in love. If Jesus could have been stopped from being crucified, Peter would not have had to even consider the possibility of crucifixion for himself. Discipleship is not about us, but about following the lead that Jesus gave us, and accepting his invitation to walk with him. It is about naming injustice and evil and delusion for what they are. There is a cost to that. And the cost is rejection, humiliation, loss of popularity. And Jesus described that cost with the metaphor of taking up the cross ourselves.

Peter reminded Jesus of his humanity. That was his gift to Jesus, and that is his gift to us as well. The easy way will always seem attractive, but against that we know we have committed ourselves to the difficult path of discipleship and that we need the help of God’s Spirit to keep us on that path. When we reflect on the fact that right now in Yemen a child is dying every ten minutes of the day from malnutrition or cholera, that people seeking asylum from war are being denied shelter, safety respect and dignity, that millions of people in developing countries do not have access to clean water and sanitation, we begin to doubt whether our voices and actions for justice can make a difference. We wonder whether the difficult path of discipleship of Jesus is worth the effort to walk it. But if we stop pursuing justice, peace, healing and wholeness for our world and for ourselves, we become supporters of the very things we oppose.

But let’s not forget that we have other disciples to support and encourage us along the true path. In 2001, Dorothy and Gwen Hennessy, two Franciscan nuns who were siblings went to prison in Iowa for trespassing in protest on the grounds of a military education institution (Fort Benning, Georgia), built to train Latin American soldiers to fight in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras. Two of the graduates of Fort Benning were the notorious General Manuel Noreiga of Panama and Roberto D’Aubisson, of El Salvador, who were both linked to human rights abuses in their respective countries. A brother of the two Franciscans, Ron Hennessy, had worked for many years as a Maryknoll missionary in Guatemala. In letters to his family, he described how many of his parishioners, Mayan Indian peasant farmers, were being terrorised and murdered by Government soldiers. He had urged family members to become active in efforts “to help stop this madness.” Sisters Dorothy and Gwen became active, and for their efforts were imprisoned. Meanwhile, Fr Ron and Archbishop Oscar Romero had become close friends, and Ron was present in the crowd of mourners at Romero’s funeral when the military fired live bullets at them (New York Times, June 24, 2001).

The way of the cross is the way of faith – of claiming life and truth in the face of everything that tells us not to. Once we have seen and heard too much, once Jesus has come too close, then the only thing we can do is to witness to the truth, follow and keep on the path. But remember that this path of the cross is never lived outside of God’s love. That’s the promise in which we live, and that’s the promise that keeps us keeping on.

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus said to them: “But who do you say I am?” Simon Peter said in reply: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And I say to you, you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.”
Matthew 16, 13-20

Today’s gospel, like every other gospel reading, is designed to involve us as participants rather than spectators. The question Jesus put to his disciples – “But who do you say I am?” – is directed to every one of us. Whatever reply we make in words has to be confirmed by the way we act. What then are the implications for the way we live that follow from whatever proclamation we make to Jesus’ question? And if we dare to identify with Peter in his response, how do our words translate into action? To be authentic, any kind of profession of faith has to find expression in the way we go about our daily living.

While Peter’s response was welcomed and affirmed by Jesus, it very soon became clear that Peter himself did not understand the full significance of his words. In the very next section of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus predicted his own suffering and death, and Peter’s response was to take him aside and point out that what he was saying was nonsense: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matthew 16, 22). In the space of a couple of verses, Jesus goes from telling Peter that his proclamation has been inspired by God and that he will be the rock on which he will build his Church to reprimanding him as an obstacle in his way, as one who thinks “not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16, 28). In the blink of an eye, Peter had gone from the penthouse to the doghouse.

For dramatic effect, the Gospel writer has deliberately placed together two separate episodes in Peter’s life. One inspired moment of partial insight on Peter’s part prompted Jesus to affirm Peter on his potential for leadership. But, while Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah, he held to the popular belief that the Messiah would be a powerful liberator who would free Israel from foreign rule. He had not yet come to appreciate that the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus would be a way of living by which people would reflect the love and mercy of God in their relationships with one another, and that the Messiah who promoted such a way of living would be tortured and murdered for daring to challenge inflexible religious leaders, who could find no room in their lives to accommodate justice, compassion, tolerance and care of the poor. Peter proved to be a rock of support for Jesus by reinforcing Jesus’ unique sense of mission. Jesus expressed appreciation and respect for Peter by calling him blessed. He also added that all those who identified with his vision would need the support of people like Peter who could recognise, promote and affirm them in their gifts.

All those called to leadership in our contemporary Church would do well to take the lead from Peter and make affirmation and encouragement an integral part of their leadership style. We have all encountered leaders who can tie people up in knots and stifle their gifts. We have met others who know how to set free those whom they lead. It was precisely because Peter was not the kind of man who stifled the giftedness of others that Jesus could say to him: “What you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven; and what you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven” (Matthew 16, 19).

I think there’s something more we can take from today’s gospel. Jesus put a question to all of the disciples, but it was Peter alone who responded, and his response stood in stark contrast to the silence of his companions. Isn’t Jesus’ question one that calls for a personal response from all who claim to follow him? Surely it’s not enough to respond with the words of others! Are we not being invited to express our own commitment to Jesus and his Gospel in our own distinctive way? And if we dare to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ of God, what exactly is involved in making such a confession? Perhaps we have to acknowledge that Matthew was not only saying that Peter did not fully understand what awaited Jesus as Messiah, but also that he was never meant to understand what lay ahead for Jesus, and for anyone who would follow Jesus. If our faith in Jesus is genuine, we will commit to following in his footsteps, even into a future whose demands we do not know. The question that Jesus put to his disciples at Caesarea Philippi came at the mid-point of his ministry. It was not his first question to them, nor would it be his last. We hear his question part way through our own following of him. Our world is so messy and unpredictable that we can hardly guess what will happen next or what the following of Jesus will demand of us tomorrow. However, we do know that whatever eventuates, we will still be required to change, to be flexible, to grow; to take up some kind of cross, to somehow lose our lives in order to find them again – but we can be assured that we will find ourselves changed, renewed and better for the experience.

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

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

In one way or another, all three of today’s readings raise the question of how we relate to people whose religious practice is different from ours. While Isaiah proclaims that Israel will become a “house of prayer” for all nations, it is clear that foreigners will be welcome on condition that they leave behind their own religious practices, and accept Israel’s traditions.

In the second reading, Paul laments the fact that the Jews with whom he had previously worshipped in the synagogue have not come to share his convictions about Jesus. His hope is that his reaching out to the Gentiles will make his fellow Jews jealous, especially when they realize the worth of the message the Gentiles are receiving. However, he does concede that God’s mercy, so prominent in the life and message of Jesus, will eventually be welcomed by his fellow Jews.

The encouraging thing about the gospel reading is that it contains a reluctant admission by Jesus that great faith can be found beyond the religion in which he grew up. It took the persistence and faith of a despised Canaanite, and a woman, to boot, to bring him rather begrudgingly to acknowledge that his ministry was not confined to the Jewish people. This story held a special significance for Matthew’s community, which was predominantly a Gentile one, even though it was a mixture of both Jews and Gentiles. Matthew was surely using it as a model for bringing together those who had come from different religious traditions.

The encouraging aspect of all three readings is that they contain no directions as to how those from different religious traditions are to go about relating to one another as they make the transition from one tradition to another. That leaves the way open to discuss their differences and to discover for themselves how to come to a shared way of living in harmony and with integrity, as they pursue their way to God.

All this has some relevance for us who belong to a Church that has not always been at ease with other faiths and religions. However, one of the less known documents of Vatican II, The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, (# 2), offers some guidance for us: “The Church, therefore, urges her children to converse and collaborate with the followers of other religions in order to preserve, indeed to advance, those spiritual and moral goods as well as those socio-cultural values that have a home among people of other religious traditions.”

We are urged to acknowledge, learn from and engage with Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Mormons, Moonies and Jehovah’s Witnesses. And without setting out to convert them to our way of living, thinking and worshipping! It takes big-mindedness and big-heartedness on our part to be secure in living our own Catholic faith and, at the same time, to look for what is good in those who are different.

Now, for a closer look at today’s gospel. The woman at the centre of the story knows that she is a despised outsider. The disciples immediately see her as a nuisance. They are disturbed by her loud and vulgar yelling, and by her persistence. They want Jesus to send her about her business. Yet it turns out that Jesus is the one who ends up being disturbed. He acknowledges that he sees his mission to the Jews, and nobody else: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Initially, she had called out: “Hey, Jew (Son of David), what about showing some mercy to the likes of me?” Moreover, she’s not going to be put off. She comes back by dropping the reference to their ethnic difference, and addresses Jesus more politely: “Lord, help me.” Effectively, she appeals to Jesus to set aside name-calling and racial slurs. Pushed off balance, Jesus continues to play the race card, referring to the woman as a “dog”, an insult commonly used by Jews for foreigners and outsiders. Here, it is important to note that Jews did not allow dogs into their houses. Scraps from the meal table were picked up and thrown outside to any waiting dogs. Jesus asks her if she wants him to get up, take food that was intended only for Jews, and throw it to an outsider like her. However her quick-wittedness catches Jesus off guard. In a flash, she comes back with: “Please, Lord, for even dogs (like me) eat the scraps that fall from the tables of their masters.” And Jesus admits defeat. He acknowledges the woman’s faith, but, more than that, he knows that she has taught him to let go of his narrowness, and to accept that his mission is to all people, irrespective of their race, colour or religion.

What drove this Canaanite woman to risk rejection and scorn was the fact that she was the mother of a tormented girl. Her love for her daughter and her conviction that the girl needed to be spared a life-time of prejudice and rejection moved this mother to risk all. Ethnic division was just not going to stop her. If this Jewish rabbi was as good as the reputation that preceded him, she was not going to let her opportunity pass her by, she was going to call him to account. This woman is every mother who is determined to protect her children from whatever can destroy their lives. There is something of the tigress in her. She will stop at nothing to ensure that those she loves are not harmed, neglected or led astray. She is a model of fierce determination, boundless love and hope that will never say die. The risk of humiliation and personal rejection is as nothing to her as she seeks to find a better future for the love of her life. She is an inspiration for every parent and teacher, for every guide and mentor who has a passion for justice, fairness and compassion.

She is an exceptional woman who stopped Jesus in his tracks and expanded his understanding of his mission in the world. There is nobody in all of the Gospels quite like her. She is a model for us all.

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

By Br Julian McDonald cfc

A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks…but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake – but the Lord was not in the earthquake…but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a gentle, whispering wind. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face. 1 Kings 19, 9-13

At once Jesus spoke to them: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Matthew 14, 22-33

Today’s first reading and gospel give us two examples of men who, in different ways, were struggling with their faith in God. To understand the first reading, we have to look at it in the context of the whole story of why Elijah was in the depths of depression and despair. Threatened by Elijah’s honesty and his decisive action of putting all the false prophets to the sword, Queen Jezebel set out to do away with him: “May the gods do thus and so to me if, by this time tomorrow, I have not done to your life what was done to each of them” (1 Kings 19, 2). Elijah fled across the desert, and was soon physically and emotionally exhausted. He became so depressed, that he even contemplated suicide. At the end of his tether, he sat under a broom tree and asked God to take his life: “Enough already; I’m ready to die:”

While we may not have reached the point of contemplating suicide, we can all find some consolation from Elijah’s story simply because we can resonate with some of his feelings. We know what it is to be down in the mouth, to be at the end of our tether. Loss, grief and fear touch us all, at one time or another, at the personal and communal levels. We struggle with the unpredictability of war-mongering political leaders, and taste the fear of unknown consequences that could come from decisions motivated by narcissism. We look with dismay at the plight of millions of refugees begging for shelter from nations deaf to their pleas. We are aghast that a football club will pay a transfer fee of 222 million euro to gain the services of a Brazilian player and pay him 550,000 euro per week, while tens of thousands of fellow human beings die daily from starvation and lack of clean water and sanitation. At the personal level we know the loss of loved ones through separation, imprisonment, divorce, disease and death. We know directly or vicariously the hurt that comes from job loss, broken trust, addiction, loneliness, betrayal and depression. We all have Elijah moments. We all know of friends and family who seem to have lost the will to keep going, who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Today’s story of Elijah is a reminder to us to step back from trying to control what is hurting us either from the outside or from within our own minds, hearts or imaginations. It’s an invitation to stop and listen for the presence of God who is not to be found in the spectacular but rather in the quiet of our hearts or in the gentle whispering of the wind. Uplifted by the encouragement of an angel, Elijah picked himself up and journeyed forty days and nights to the mountain of Horeb, where he took shelter in a cave. And there, the presence of God was revealed to him, not in thunder, lightning, earthquake or fire, but in a refreshing, gentle breeze. God was present to him in a way he least expected. And God comes to us, too, in ways we least expect.

While there are still people around who want us to view cataclysms, tsunamis and earthquakes as dire warnings and punishments from God, their threats and warnings don’t fit a God whom Jesus revealed as merciful, compassionate and loving. The American poet, Grace Noll Crowell surely got it right when she wrote: “Hold up your cup, dear child, for God to fill. He only asks today that you be still.” (Prayer for One Who Is Tired) If we’re patient enough, we will find God in the depths of our own hearts.

Today’s gospel story uses a different metaphor from the one we find in the Elijah story. We hear of a rather spooky encounter between Jesus and his disciples on a turbulent sea, where they are being battered by the waves on the outside and fear on the inside. Peter is us as he steps out of the boat in response to an invitation from Jesus. But as he gets closer to Jesus, he begins to sink. We have a desire to be open to Jesus’ invitation to come to him, but falter when he gets too close for comfort. He might ask too much of us. Perhaps it’s safer to know him from a distance.

There is real irony in all this, for our faith in Jesus matures as it is challenged in the rough and tumble of everything happening within us and around us. Moreover, closeness to Jesus will often mean venturing into turbulent waters, and taking the risk of “rocking the boat”. Living the way Jesus invites us to live, translating his message into action will involve us in actively confronting some of the agents of fear, disruption and injustice that unsettle our faith in the first place.

One of the obstacles we encounter as our faith struggles to grow and develop is to be found in the excuses we can make when the Gospel looks to be too demanding: “I’m not good enough, I’m not properly qualified, I’m no saint, I don’t have what it takes, I can’t do what’s expected”. We know we can put God off and shrink from the demands of the Gospel by a false humility that proclaims that we are not worthy. We want to forget Paul’s observation in his letter to the Corinthians: “God chooses the weak to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1, 27). Perhaps one of the reasons why Peter faltered and began to sink was that he did not have enough self-confidence, he did not think he was good enough for what Jesus wanted of him.

Even if our faith in God, Jesus and ourselves might not be all we would like it to be, we can find consolation in Jesus’ words of encouragement to Peter and to all of us: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection

The Transfiguration – a reflection on the Sunday Readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

From the cloud there came a voice which said: “This is my beloved Son; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him.”…Jesus gave them this order: “Tell no one about this vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” Matthew 17, 1-9

There must be something quite important about this story of the transfiguration of Jesus for no other reason than that it is put before us twice each year – during Lent and on the annual celebration of the Transfiguration. What message is so important that there is a need to have us deliberately reflect on it twice a year?

Occasionally, most of us have moments when we feel close to God, experiences that remain etched indelibly in our memories. They are few and far between, but they help us to deal with disappointing and hurtful experiences when they come our way, remembering that God is always with us, even when life looks bleak. Psychologists refer to our uplifting “God moments” as peak experiences.

Today’s gospel story of the mountaintop experience we now call the Transfiguration is Matthew’s rewrite of a story that was passed on to him. It’s also his way of trying to make sense of that story. What Matthew has put together operates as a parable, even though he does not call it a that. This story is loaded with symbols. There’s a mountaintop, because it was on mountaintops that prophets and other holy people encountered God. There’s a face, shining brightly, calling to mind Moses’ meeting with God on Mt Sinai. There’s a voice from heaven. Included are the great champions of the Jewish Law, Elijah and Moses. Where there are symbols, there’s an invitation to explore them for their meaning. The characters of parables like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan represent much more than the individuals involved in the story. They stand for actions that we are all capable of doing, and they act as mirrors into which we are invited to look. For example, in the characters who ignore the man who was beaten and robbed in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we can see something of ourselves. In the same way, the story of the transfiguration carries a message for us to reflect on. Just in case we missed that message on the second Sunday of Lent this year, we are invited to ponder it again this week.

We have to remember that Matthew was writing for a community that was experiencing rejection and persecution because of its adherence to Jesus and all he had taught. Peter, James and John were names well-known to Matthew’s community, and the story of their intense religious experience on the mountaintop when they were given an assurance that God was really with them was meant to remind Matthew’s community that God was with them as truly as he was with Peter James and John. The inclusion of Moses and Elijah, giants of faith in the history of God’s love for their people, is a double reassurance that God was with them and would continue to be with them. The voice from heaven urging the apostles to hold tight to what Jesus taught them, followed immediately by an unexpected reference to the death and resurrection that awaited him, was intended to be a call not to lose hope, even when things looked bleak and hopeless. That was the message of this parable for Matthew’s community, and that’s the message for us, too, as we struggle to stay faithful to Jesus and his Gospel in a world that is gripped by fear and confusion, in a Church that looks to be faltering and whose morale has been seriously dented.

There is a message for us, too, in the stunned response by Peter, James and John to what they had experienced. They could hardly be blamed for wanting to linger on the mountaintop after such a revelation? There were plenty of examples in their tradition of others building monuments and altars at places of divine encounter. But perhaps there was more than that to their wanting to linger. As they had accompanied Jesus in his ministry, they had seen an endless trail of human brokenness and need, and could anticipate that there would be more to come. Staying where they were would give them some respite from the heartbreaking human longing that awaited them back down the mountain.

Aren’t there times when we find ourselves wanting to distance ourselves from a world whose needs are unable to be addressed, a world gripped by fear, battered by frequent acts of terrorism, and overwhelmed by wars, racial conflict, starvation and disease? While our urge may well be to retreat from strife like this, we also know that it is often only the privileged who have the means to do that. Right now, we know that there are millions of refugees fleeing the civil strife that has descended upon countries like Syria and South Sudan. We know, too, that many of them are being turned away by nations and governments unwilling to respond to their plight.

However, it seems to me that the disciples’ desire to stay on the mountain came from their thinking that what they had experienced was the pinnacle of God’s revelation in the person of Jesus. But Jesus was quick to make it clear to them that God’s ultimate revelation was still to come – in Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. That is how God’s love and power would be put on full display – not in self-importance, not in glory or dazzling whiteness, but in self-emptying, in standing in solidary with the forgotten, the down-trodden, the poor and the suffering. Maybe, that is why the only thing Jesus said in this whole story was an instruction to the disciples not to tell anyone about their mountaintop experience until after his resurrection – so that others wouldn’t make the same mistake. And that’s precisely why Matthew sandwiches this transfiguration story between two predictions of Jesus’ passion and death, along with a reminder that the cross will be a part of the life of everyone who wants to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

Jesus put to one side the brilliance and exhilaration of the transfiguration, and headed down the mountain to listen to the pleas of a man whose son, gripped by mental illness, was repeatedly endangering his life by throwing himself into the fire or into the water. He rejected personal privilege, nailing it to the cross for the sake of the needy, the forgotten and the dispossessed, indeed, for every one of us as well. While his transfiguration on the mountaintop was intended for his disciples and for us to be a reminder not to lose hope, no matter how bleak life may become, Jesus made it clear that lasting transfiguration would come for us and our world through his cross and ultimate resurrection. In laying aside privilege and special treatment, he reminds us to do the same for the sake of others and the good of our world. In today’s gospel story, that message is reinforced by the voice of God: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

And let’s not forget that there are many other transfiguration moments in our lives as we respond to Jesus’ invitation to reach out to others in love: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” (Victor Hugo, Les Miserables)

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection

17th Sunday Ordinary Time 2017 – a Reflection on the Sunday Readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

God said to Solomon:  “Ask something of me and I will give it to you”.  Solomon replied:  “Give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.”               1 Kings 3, 5, 7-12

 

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field…a merchant searching for fine pearls…a net thrown into the sea…”      Matthew 13, 44-52 

 

In today’s gospel reading, we are offered three more parables.  The first two, the parables of the buried treasure and the pearl, highlight, at one level, the need for disciples to be totally attached to Jesus and his message, and detached from whatever gets in the way of our Christian commitment.  The parable of the net cast into the sea is a reminder to us to seek the things of God, camouflaged in the clutter of life.  In encouraging us to be builders of God’s kingdom in our world, Jesus reaches for parables and illustrations that capture his experience of God’s presence and action in the world.  Perhaps we can only hope that his comparisons about God’s final judgement limp a little.

 

However, I would like to suggest that we try to look through the eyes of Jesus at the parable of the treasure buried in a field.  For starters, Jesus would see exactly what everyone else looking at a field sees:  soil, grass, weeds, litter.  But he knows that underneath the surface, under the dirt and grime and weeds, there lies a treasure  –  you and I and all the people around us.  So he gives away all he has, including his divine connections, comes down to our level and invests his energy, his talents and his life in buying the treasure that is us.  We are so precious that Jesus spends all he has and is to bring us to himself.  The parable of the merchant buying the precious pearl carries a similar message.  From these two parables we can conclude that Jesus is our biggest fan.

 

I also want to suggest that there is something to be gained from delving into today’s first reading about Solomon.  If we can acquire even a little of his wisdom, we might not be in a rush to judge others.  The writer of this story makes it clear that Solomon’s wisdom was at work in a social context:  “I serve you, God, in the midst of the people you have chosen, a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted.”  This is a reminder to us that we must always see our faith development in conjunction with the faith development of all those around us.  If we really looked at ourselves and the people around us, all of us with our complex personalities and behaviours, our fears and our emotional upheavals, we might moderate our views of God’s final judgement, and be a little less hasty to want to separate the “weeds” from the “wheat”.

 

It is telling that Solomon asks God for wisdom, for an understanding heart to distinguish right from wrong.  In the years that have elapsed since Solomon’s time, the bearers of wisdom have come to appreciate that it is over-simplistic to view people and their actions in terms of right and wrong, black and white.  We all know that there are shades of grey between black and white, and gradations between right and wrong.  Yet, we still fall into the trap of categorizing others as traditionalists or radicals, as liberals or conservatives, as leftist or rightist.  Over and over, we slip into articulating our political, social, cultural and, even, theological realities and concepts in exclusive ways.  Such discrete categorization is a neat way of avoiding the difficult and complex work of discovering subtle differences and  modulations in the views and opinions of the people with whom we engage.  Crude categorisations of others and their views imply that we engage with our world as spectators rather than as participants.

 

Reflection on our own lives as individuals, as members of communities and groups, and as citizens of nations demonstrates that what we have become is considerably more than an accumulation of right and wrong decisions or the result of participation in liberal or conservative social, religious and political groups.

 

We live in a world gripped by fear, a world that seems over hasty to separate terrorists from pacifists, radicalized from those who are “middle-of-the-road.  Yet, it’s a world in which some have become extremely wealthy through injustice, exploitation and violence, while others have become destroyed by those very same practices.  Somehow, we have to learn from engaging with one another around our various histories  –  histories of our family of origin, of our local communities, of our nation  –  and exploring how those histories interconnect with our economic, cultural, political, geographic and military histories.  We have all been touched by these various histories and, along the way, some of us have been advantaged by them, others impeded by them, and others still, strangled and impoverished by them.

 

This is not easy work leading to simple solutions.  It is work that calls for patience, insight and creativity; work that ultimately calls us to strive to change some of the social, economic and political structures that obstruct freedom, self-determination and the common good.

 

Discipleship of Jesus demands that we challenge and work to dismantle structures that enslave people and systems built on the accumulation of power and wealth through injustice, violence and destruction.  The irony, of course, is that working for justice, challenging unjust structures, advocating for refugees and collaborating with those made poor will attract labels like radical, liberal.  Solomon looked at the legacy he had inherited from his father, David, reflected on its implications for his people, and responded by asking God for wisdom.  We could do a lot worse than to imitate Solomon.        

 

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection

16th Sunday Ordinary Time 2017 – a reflection on the readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“We do not know how we ought to pray; the Spirit pleads with God for us in groans that words cannot express.” Romans 8, 26-27

Matthew’s Gospel is notable for the fact that it contains just over fifty references to the kingdom or reign of God. Because of that distinguishing feature, some Biblical scholars refer to Matthew’s Gospel as “the Gospel of the Kingdom”. But for both Matthew and Jesus, the kingdom of God is neither a place nor an identified and named area of land. Rather, it is a way of living and relating, built on practiced values such as justice, compassion, tolerance and reconciliation. The kingdom of God grows out of the coming of Emmanuel – “God with us” – in the person of Jesus, and is made up of people living in communion with one another, respecting one another, living good and decent lives, and reaching out to one another in care, compassion and support. It has nothing to do with temporal power, control or subservience to authority. Today’s gospel offers us three short parables which illustrate different characteristics of God’s kingdom on earth – the parables of the wheat and weeds, the mustard seed, and the yeast, and the first of these parables is not quite as simple as it looks.

The parable of the wheat and weeds strikes me as contradictory, presenting God as someone who is patient and considerate in dealing with evil and those who do it, but, in the long run, dispatching them. So I would like to suggest that the parable is more than an attempt to underline the patience of God. Might it not be a way of reflecting back to us our own desire and tendency to deal with evil things and evil people by trying to exterminate them summarily? After all, they are, at best, obstructive and, at worst, harmful and destructive not only of our growth, but of our very survival. Yet, Jesus himself would probably be urging us to be less hasty and more tolerant, if only to give us time and space to come to the realization that the world is not made up solely of black and white, good and evil, but that there are weeds and wheat existing side by side in all of us. We know that we are equally capable of both heroism and treachery, of the very best and the very worst. Perhaps we might even come to believe in a God, described in today’s first reading from Wisdom, as one who is not hell-bent on taking out revenge on those who do evil.

But, we are still left with the less comfortable parts of today’s gospel which suggest that God will eventually come up with a “final solution” to rid the world of evil and those who do it. The only plausible explanation I can offer is that there is a little bit of Matthew mixed in with the thoughts of Jesus. Matthew was writing for a community struggling with persecution, and, understandably, flagging under the pressure. He wanted to stiffen their faith and assure them that the God of Jesus would eventually triumph over those causing them grief. So, we may need to overlook his zeal to have God come up with a violent solution.

At the same time, today’s gospel challenges us to reflect on the ambiguities that are part of real life, and on a God who is merciful and patient on the one hand, yet impatient and decisive on the other. That might well explain why Paul, in the second reading from Romans, refers to our prayer as sometimes sounding like groaning that simply cannot be put into words. We find of the existence of evil in the world, and, consequently, unable to pray as we would like.

The parable of the mustard seed suggests that God’s kingdom grows out of the smallest, most insignificant and humblest of beginnings, and that we contribute to that growth through very ordinary acts of kindness, care, compassion, affirmation and encouragement.

The parable of the yeast emphasises that we often don’t realise the impact that a very ordinary act of kindness or encouragement can have on those for whom it is done. Just as a tiny quantity of yeast can transform dough into bread, so simple acts of kindness can have an impact for good far beyond what we can imagine.

By way of illustration, I offer a couple of stories for both of which I am indebted to retired parish priest, William Bausch. An elderly parishioner, conscious of her approaching death, penned the following to the usher in her parish church:
“Dear Harry, I’m sorry I don’t know your last name, but then you don’t know mine. You’re at the ten o’clock Mass each Sunday. I’m writing to ask a favour of you. I don’t know the priest too well, but somehow I feel close to you. I don’t know how you got to know my first name, but every Sunday morning you smile and greet me by name, and we exchange a few words – how bad the weather is, how much you like my hat, and how I was late one particular Sunday. I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to remember an old lady, for your smiles, for your consideration, for your thoughtfulness. Now for my favour. I am dying, Harry. My husband has been dead for 16 years, and the kids are scattered. It’s very important for me when they bring me to church for the last time that you will be standing there at the front entrance. It wouldn’t be right if you didn’t say: ‘Hello, Gert. Good to see you.’ If you are there, Harry, I feel assured that your warm hospitality will be duplicated in my new home in heaven. With love and gratitude, Gert.”

The second illustrates how we can all rise to the heights, despite out human frailty:
During the decades when East and West Germany were separated by the Berlin Wall, thousands of people met their death attempting to escape to freedom across the wall. One day a small, chubby boy arrived at the wall, his hands held apart in an expression of pleading. The East German guard who encountered the lad had a reputation for being a thief and a drug-dealer. However, he was so moved by the boy’s pleading that, after checking to see that nobody was watching, he lifted the lad over the wall to freedom. Shortly afterwards, the young soldier was arrested and executed by firing squad for an act of compassion for a young boy to whom he had not said a single word. Nevertheless, they had met heart to heart.

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time – a Reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“The seeds sown in good soil stand for those who hear the message and understand it.” Matthew 13, 1-23

In today’s first reading from Romans, Paul describes an experience with which, I suspect, many of us can identify. Using the image of the slow rate of change in the created world, Paul applies it to the frustrations we experience and the lamenting we do about how slow we are to let the action of God change our hearts and minds. While we express the desire for the kind of conversion of heart needed to be genuine and committed disciples of Jesus, we know our frailty and the struggle we have to change, even a little. Embracing the “glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God” proves to be much more difficult than it sounds. Perhaps the slowness of our progress has a lot to do with the way in which we relate to God. God loves us extravagantly, yet so often we find ourselves hesitant or even cringing at the very thought that God really does love us in our weakness and human fragility.

Today’s gospel is decidedly more optimistic. It speaks of our faith in God growing and developing like a seed sown in the ground. While the dangers facing the seed are listed, our faith is described as something that grows, sometimes even laboriously, over time. With the care of a patient “farmer”, who knows how what is planted develops and changes shape, we are assured that our spiritual and personal evolution is underway.

Like all of the stories that Jesus told, the parable of the sower is multi-layered. Within this parable there are meanings tucked away, which sometimes don’t register with us for years. Paradoxically, the parable of the sower is so well known to us that we can probably repeat it in its every detail. But knowing the details so well, of any story, means that we can miss the hidden meanings. Yet, if we consciously set our imagination to work on it, some of those hidden meanings might well come to light. The simplest meaning of the parable is that that we are invited to mirror both Jesus, the story-teller and the Sower in the parable. We are invited to scatter the seeds of the Gospel by the way we live it, and we just don’t know what kind of ground they will land on, or how long they might take to germinate. And we are asked to share our stories – the stories of our lives, of where and how we encounter God each and every day of our lives. Stories, by nature, create ripples in the minds and hearts of those who hear them. They fire not only our own moral imaginations, but the moral imaginations of others.

Jesus grew up and was educated in an oral culture. We, too, belong to an oral culture, but it is being squeezed out by an electronic one. Many of our stories are being told in abbreviated form on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Despite that, everyone still loves a story. Maybe one of the following stories might touch your moral imagination in such a way that you will shape it as your own, expand it, and pass it on in your words to someone else:

Every day of the week, except Saturday, wonderful smells wafted up from Moishe’s bakery. Customers came early to make sure they did not miss out on Moishe’s fresh bagels. And every day old Aaron turned up, just to smell the bagels, because he could not afford to buy even one. He stood outside the shop every morning, sniffing the air, with a smile on his face. Moshe started to get annoyed by Aaron’s presence and eventually told him to get out of the way because he was getting in the way of regular customers. Aaron replied by stating that his meagre pension prevented him from buying, and that he came each day because the smell of garlic and poppy seed in the air reminded him of his childhood days, when fresh bagels were within his father’s budget. Some of Moshe’s customers took Aaron’s side, telling Moshe to stop harassing the old man. Others tried to make light of the matter, telling Moshe to take Aaron to TV court – Judge Jackson’s Jiffy Justice. “Not a bad idea”, Moshe replied, “I’ve seen that guy on the box, and he’s pretty clever!” So the following week, Moshe took Aaron to TV court. Proceedings began with the Clerk of Court calling everyone to stand while Judge Jackson took his place at the bench. The judge wasted no time, and immediately called Moshe to state his complaint.
“Well, your Honour”, Moshe said pointing at Aaron, “that man stands outside my bakery every morning, taking up valuable space and stealing the smell of my fresh bagels, and he never buys one. So, I want full compensation for the smells he steals”.
“Well, Aaron, you’ve heard Moshe, the baker’s charge, so what do you have to say?”
“It’s true, your Honour, I do come for the wonderful smells, because they remind me of my childhood days, when my father could afford to buy. Now, in my old age, I don’t have the money.”
“Thank you both”, said Jude Jackson, “I will retire to consider my verdict.”
The judge was back in no time and announced to the assembled court: “This was not an easy decision, but I rule in favour of Moshe, the baker.”
And uneasy murmur went through the courtroom. Judge Jackson banged his gavel, and turned to Aaron: “Do you have any money in your pocket, Aaron?”
“Just a few coins, your Honour”
“Will you please shake them, Aaron?” Aaron did as Judge Jackson requested.
“Moshe, did you hear those coins rattling?” asked Judge Jackson.
“Yes I did, your Honour. But when do I get my compensation?”
“Moshe, the baker, you’ve been fully compensated. The sound of Aaron’s coins just paid for the smells of your bagels.”

Now, before we hurry on to the next story, we might take a few moments to reflect on our own demonstrations of pettiness and narrow-mindedness in our relationships with others.

The second story comes from a retired policeman, reflecting on some of the embarrassing situations in which found himself. He told of seeing a middle-aged male driver being tailgated by a frustrated female driver on a busy arterial road. Suddenly, the traffic lights turned amber, and the man stopped his vehicle. That resulted in a stream of four letter words from the woman behind. She leant on the horn, produced some even more colourful language, and took out her cell phone. Her ranting was interrupted by a gentle tap on her window. She looked up to see a stern-looking Sergeant of Police. The policeman ordered her to move to the side of the road, and then took her to the police station where she was required to surrender her belongings to the duty officer, and then placed in a holding cell.

About two hours later, she was escorted back to the desk by a somewhat embarrassed arresting officer. Her personal effects were returned, and the officer explained: “I’m very sorry for my mistake. You see, I pulled up behind you just as you were leaning on the horn and cursing the driver in front of you. And then I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bumper sticker, the ‘Choose Life’ registration plate holder, and the Greek Christian fish emblem on the rear window. I naturally concluded that you must have stolen the car.”

What’s it like looking into that mirror?

Posted by superadmin in Sunday Readings Reflection

Twelth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2017

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Can you not buy two sparrows for a penny? And yet not one falls to the ground without your Father knowing…So there is no need to be afraid; you are worth more than hundreds of sparrows.”
Matthew 10, 26-33

One of the very clear messages that Jesus gives in today’s gospel is that we really matter to God. If God cares for the sparrows, God will care much more for us, who are worth more than hundreds of sparrows.

I have to admit that I’m really not an admirer of Facebook. That’s because I struggle to use it, and, besides, it takes too much time. However, I discovered recently that the chief operations officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg is rated as one of the most visible and successful women in corporate America. Just three years ago, her husband, Dave, died of a heart attack while they were holidaying together in Mexico. In April this year, a book Sheryl Sandberg co-authored with psychologist, Adam Grant was published. The book is entitled: Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, and is an account of how she and her two children – a 7-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son – dealt with their grief and loss. Early in the book, Sandberg, reflecting on the inability of friends to offer comfort or even acknowledge Dave’s death, had this to say:
“People continually avoided the subject. I went to a close friend’s house for dinner, and she and her husband made small talk the entire time. I listened, mystified, keeping my thoughts to myself. I got emails from friends asking me to fly to their cities to speak at their events without acknowledging that travel might be more difficult for me now. Oh, it’s just an overnight? Sure, I’ll see if Dave can come back to life and put the kids to bed. I ran into friends at local parks who talked about the weather. Yes! The weather has been weird with all this rain and death.
Many people who had not experienced loss, even some very close friends, didn’t know what to say to me or my kids. Their discomfort was palpable, especially in contrast to our previous ease. As the elephant in the room went unacknowledged, it started acting up, trampling over my relationships. If friends didn’t ask how I was doing, did that mean they didn’t care? My friend and co-author Adam Grant, a psychologist, said he was certain that people wanted to talk about it but didn’t know how. I was less sure. Friends were asking, “How are you?” but I took this as more of a standard greeting than a genuine question. I wanted to scream back, “My husband just died, how do you think I am?” I didn’t know how to respond to pleasantries. Aside from that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? (Remember, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at the theatre.)
…Until we acknowledge it, the elephant is always there. By ignoring it, those in pain isolate themselves and those who could offer comfort create distance instead. Both sides need to reach out. Speaking with empathy and honesty is a good place to start.” Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Penguin Random House, New York, April 2017

Posted by superadmin in Sunday Readings Reflection, Uncategorised
The Body and Blood of Christ

The Body and Blood of Christ

I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” John 6, 51-58

I find today’s gospel reading difficult because my early religious education led me to a literal understanding of Jesus’ words: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.” To take those words literally places me squarely in the same camp as the Jews, who could not comprehend the meaning behind them. One of the principal differences between John’s Gospel and those attributed to Mark, Matthew and Luke is that John’s Gospel works through poetry, symbol and metaphor, while the other three Gospels are substantially a collection of stories.

A further difficulty about matching today’s reading from Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel with the institution of the Eucharist is that John’s account of the Last Supper ignores completely any reference to bread and wine. Eucharist is all about building community, and John’s point is that the cement of community is hospitality, symbolized by the welcome that is extended to a guest through the washing of his/her feet. For the other three evangelists, close, welcoming community is nourished through the sharing of a meal. For John, genuine community is built and nourished through the ritual of gracious foot-washing. He makes it clear that the way we are in communion with one another, the way we treat one another with welcome, dignity and respect reflects the way we are in communion with God. The challenge for all of us is to match the beliefs and values we say we hold dear with the way in which we actually live. The greater the congruence or harmony between our rhetoric and our behaviour, the more authentic will be our humanity. And our model for that is Jesus himself. There was no credibility gap between what he said and what he did. Jesus engaged with the messy reality of life with integrity and credibility. The challenge for all of us is to do likewise.

In turning our attention to Eucharist, we have to keep in mind that, for Jewish people, sharing in a meal (breaking bread and drinking wine) was a demonstration of intimate relationship with one another and, consequently, a symbol of our communion with God. True hospitality to others reflects our relationship to God. In other words, if what we celebrate when we gather in our parishes for Eucharist on Saturday evening or Sunday does not lead us to treat one another with respect and dignity, does not bring us closer together as a community or parish, then we have little in common with the Jesus we claim to follow.

In today’s gospel reading, John ascribes to Jesus the words: “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven” (John 6, 51). A few verses earlier, John has Jesus say to the Jews who had gathered: “I am the bread of life” (John 6, 48). Very clearly this is poetic language, metaphors used by John to say that Jesus is the way to God. Fully immersed in our humanity through the flesh and blood realities of life, Jesus is pointing out that the way to God is to be found in engaging with and processing the earthy events of our lives. God is to be encountered in the ordinary stuff of life.

One of the real difficulties with understanding and fully participating in Eucharist is that most of us have to move into the uncomfortable territory of letting go of what we learned all those years ago when, as children, we were preparing for our First Holy Communion. If it has to be unlearned, it was poor teaching in the first place. My memory is of being told that the high point of Mass was to receive Jesus, “body and blood, soul and divinity”, into my heart and that this was a private moment between Jesus and me.

Jesus is, indeed, really present in the Eucharist, but it is not in the form of physical flesh and blood. We do not receive the Jesus who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, or the Jesus who chased the money-lenders out of the temple. Rather, it is the risen Jesus, sacramentally and spiritually present. Even Thomas Aquinas explained that the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is not a physical one, but a spiritual one. But that does not mean that his presence is less real. Somehow, we have been brainwashed into believing that the only true reality is material or physical. In the Eucharist we encounter the person of Jesus and all he stood for and proclaimed. Surely that is enough to change our lives. That encounter is a sacramental one, but still real.

When we hear the word of God proclaimed and respond with “Thanks be to God” and “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ”, we are committing ourselves to live what we have heard. What’s more, in our western world, we have lost the true meaning of the offertory. Celebration of the Eucharist in every African country involves the whole community. Everyone walks or dances to the front of the church to make his/her monetary gift, and those selected for the offertory procession itself come bearing everything from fruit to canned goods and toilet tissue. These are gifts for the support of the priest and needy people in the area. But the gifts represent the life of the community and the people who make up the community. And when those gifts, represented by the staples of bread and wine, are consecrated and made holy, it is the community that is made holy, and immersed in the life of Jesus. That is why Augustine can suggest that the priest distributing communion might well say to everyone approaching the altar: “Behold who you are, become what you receive” – See, you are the body of Christ, the way to God for others, become the body of Christ and be for others the way to God.

There is ever so much more that can be said about Eucharist. However, let’s not forget that each Sunday we gather as community to encounter the Word of God, Jesus. Jesus Christ is, for us, the way to God. By welcoming Jesus into our lives when the Word is proclaimed and by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ sacramentally at communion, we in our turn become what we receive, namely, the way to God for others.

(For many of these thoughts I am indebted to Frank Andersen, MSC whose book Eucharist: Participating in the mystery, John Garratt Publishing, 1998, transformed my understanding of Eucharist when I read it nearly 20 years ago. I hope I have not done Frank a disservice.)

Posted by superadmin in Sunday Readings Reflection