Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“I’ll give him (Eliakim) the key of the Davidic heritage. He’ll have the run of the place – open any door and keep it open, lock any door and keep it locked…He’ll secure the Davidic tradition.” Isaiah 22, 19-23

Jesus pressed them: “And how about you? Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter said: “You’re the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responded: God bless you, Simon, son of Jonah! You didn’t get that answer out of books or from teachers. My Father in heaven, God himself, let you in on this secret of who I really am.” Matthew 16, 13-20

Today’s gospel reading is, at one and the same time, inspirational, challenging and puzzling – inspirational in Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus, challenging in that, if we dare to be participants in the story, not just observers, we, too, are called to answer Jesus’ question, and puzzling because, having accepted that Peter had identified him correctly as the Messiah, Jesus tells him and the other disciples not to breathe a word to anyone about his being the Christ, God’s anointed messenger.

While all the Evangelists (Matthew 16, 13-20; Mark 8, 27-30; Luke 9, 18-21; John 6, 69) record Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus, Matthew is the only one to record in any detail the exchange between Jesus and the disciples that followed Peter’s textbook accurate answer to Jesus’ question to them: “And how about you? Who do you say I am?”

It was not by accident that Matthew set the scene of Peter’s extraordinary profession of faith in the district of Caesarea Philippi. In the city itself, there was a panoply of shrines and temples dedicated to various gods, including Pan, the Greek god of nature and the Syrian god, Baal. In the centre of the city there was a huge white temple built by Herod and dedicated to the “divinity” of Caesar. It was in this context that Jesus asked the disciples what the gossip was about him. Predictably, they began with what a fearful and superstitious Herod had been reported as saying: that Jesus might be John the Baptist who had come back from the dead to haunt him. They then advanced to the rumours that were circulating about Jesus being a reincarnated Elijah or some other prophet. That was not surprising because they were able to rely on the prophet, Malachi, who had quoted God as saying: “Behold, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 3, 23).

It was then that Jesus took the risk of turning to those closest to him and asking: “And how about you? Who do you say I am?” It was a risk, because he exposed his own vulnerability. He stood to being deflated. Moreover, we know deep down that that’s not a question that we human beings dare to ask anyone, even our closest friends. We’re also familiar with the hurt teenagers sometimes inflict by posts they put on twitter about one another. We know a bit about the reality of cyber bullying, and its consequences. We adults would run a mile rather than risk asking family and friends: “What are people saying about me? And who do you think I am as a person?”

So, I imagine that the disciples were taken aback, and that there was probably a long silence as they struggled with how they might respond. Fortunately, Peter came to the rescue with a response worthy of a reputable theologian: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16, 16), and in line with God’s affirmation of Jesus at his baptism by John: “This is my beloved Son. My favour rests on him” (Matthew 3, 17).

Affirmed and encouraged by Peter’s words, Jesus concluded that he had been inspired by God, and immediately appointed him to lead all those who would commit themselves to walking in Jesus’ footsteps. Moreover, using the image from Isaiah of “the power of the keys” Jesus conferred on Peter the authority to “bind and loose” – to call people to their responsibility to live with integrity and to free them from fear and oppressive legalism (cf Isaiah 22, 22 “I, the Lord, will give to Eliakim the key to the Davidic heritage. He’ll have the run of the place – open any door and keep it open, lock any door and keep it locked”. Church leaders through the centuries have been quick to limit this power of binding and loosing to the sins of the people in the pews. Rather, binding and loosing are all about freeing people from all that oppresses them and helping them to appreciate that law is not about stifling people and tying them up in knots. Rather, law is about helping us all to preserve our own dignity and respecting the dignity of everyone we encounter.

Christians of my generation will have vivid memories of Parish Missions, in the course of which preachers set out to motivate us by threatening us with the fear of hell because of our sinfulness. The sad consequence was that many good people ended up being somehow obligated to a God of fear instead of being freed to grow into their true selves and to know that they are loved unconditionally by the God who had loved them into life.

I suggest that it well worth our taking the time to read the part of Matthew’s Gospel that follows immediately after Peter’s profession of faith. Jesus informs the disciples that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly there at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be put to death, and raised up on the third day” (Matthew 16, 21). True to form, Peter has a rush of blood to his head and launches into using his newly acquired power of binding, protesting: “Impossible, Master! That can never be!” (Matthew 16, 22) For his outburst, Peter his severely reprimanded: “Peter, get out of my way. Satan, get lost. You have no idea how God works” (Matthew 16, 23).

I dare to suggest that binding and loosing are two aspects of the process of helping people to grow. They complement one another. When we understand the role of law and the need to live as thinking, responsible, human beings we are on the way to healthy human and Christian maturity. It is a bonus when we are loosed from the oppression of legalists and fundamentalists, and the fears encouraged by those who think they can frighten us into conformity. In entrusting Peter with the authority to bind and loose, Jesus was calling him to see the need for compassion and encouragement in his role as leader.

In the piazza at the front of St Peter’s basilica in Rome there are two huge statues of Peter and Paul, giants of faith in Jesus. Yet both had their failures and human weaknesses. Peter denied Christ and Paul persecuted Christ’s followers. They both discovered the need to change and to grow, to seek forgiveness for their failures; they both learned the way of compassion and encouragement. In today’s second reading from Romans we hear Paul lamenting the fact that so many of his fellow Jews were unable to recognise that Jesus was the Messiah, the messenger of God to the world. Yet he was able to see that force could not compel people to believe and to admit that the ways of God are not our ways. Peter grew out of bumbling and opening his big mouth out of turn, and came to know in his heart that Jesus forgave his act of denial. They are both wonderful leaders for us all because their very lives are testimony that they were both wounded healers for their Christian communities.

If we care to think about it, everything we do and say in our lives is meant to be a response to Jesus’ question: “Who do you say I am?” Most times our words and actions testify to our belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ of God. Sometimes we falter and miss the mark.

And as for the puzzling part of today gospel-reading, the answer as to why Jesus told the disciples not to broadcast the fact that Peter had rightly recognised him as the Messiah, these men had not yet grown to the point that their words and actions did not yet fully match. True witness requires credibility. Moreover, those not so close to Jesus would not have been able to cope with such a startling truth. There is still room for growth and conversion in all of us on the journey to becoming fully credible witnesses to the Gospel.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“As for the outsiders who now follow me, working for me and loving my name…they’ll be welcome to worship the same as insiders…” Isaiah 56, 1, 6-7

Jesus said: “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.” She was quick: “You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table.” Matthew 15, 21-28

Today’s gospel-reading clearly indicates that Jesus was truly a man of his own time and culture. It demonstrates that he was well aware of the racial and religious prejudices that were very much alive in Jewish society and in the cultures of surrounding nations. Matthew even gives the impression that Jesus was influenced by those prejudices. It matters little whether this story describes an actual event in the life of Jesus or whether it was framed by Matthew to encourage the Gentile members, especially the women, of his fledgling Christian community. It also points to the fact that Jesus, unlike so many of those around him, was sufficiently open-minded to allow his opinions to be modified by the wisdom of others, even by the wisdom of the most unlikely – a foreigner, and a woman, to boot.

This gospel-story of the Canaanite woman is an appealing one, because it relates to experiences that many of us have had. Who among us has not had to deal with the loud and persistent bleating of somebody demanding attention? And hasn’t our response been something like that of the disciples: “For heaven’s sake, give her what she wants. That will shut her up!”? Moreover, we have all known what religious intolerance and sectarianism feel like. People of my generation will probably remember tensions between Catholics and Protestants in the 1940s and 1950s. As Catholic, primary school students, we used to taunt students attending State schools with: “Catholics, Catholics ring the bell while the Publics go to hell.” Youngsters who changed from Catholic to State schools were labelled by some teachers in State schools as “Weeds from the Pope’s garden”. As children, we were told by the Sisters and Brothers teaching us that it was a sin to stop and listen to the Salvation Army band playing in the local park on Sunday afternoons, or to accept “holy cards” from them. Religious prejudice still survives in more subtle, sophisticated forms.

Fortunately, Vatican II ushered in changes that not only led to a marked decrease in religious intolerance, but also acknowledged that God’s Spirit had been present in some ways in cultures and religions throughout the history of humanity, and that God wished to embrace all people. Today’s first reading from Isaiah states explicitly to the Israelite people who had returned home from exile that God wants to include everyone: “And as for foreigners who now follow me, working for me, loving my name and wanting to be my servants – all who keep the Sabbath and hold fast to my covenant – I’ll bring them to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer” (Isaiah 56, 6-7).

This reading paves the way for the story of the encounter between the Canaanite woman and Jesus that is the focus of today’s gospel-reading. It is important to note that this story comes immediately after an argument Jesus had had with the Pharisees when they complained about the disciples failing to wash their hands before eating. After calling the Pharisees hypocrites, Jesus announced to the crowd who had witnessed the argument: “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and it is these that make a person unclean. For from the heart come evil intentions…These are what makes a person unclean” (Matthew 15, 18-20). In today’s gospel-reading, what comes out of the mouth of the Canaanite woman comes from her heart.

The encounter that she and Jesus had was not for the faint-hearted. In confronting Jesus directly, she broke all the rules of the social etiquette of the time. Women were regarded as unreliable, so had no right to speak out. It was certainly seen as inappropriate for a woman to address a man directly, especially in public. She was a foreigner, and, as such, had no credibility. Worse still, she was a Canaanite, belonging to a nation that had the reputation of being Israel’s bitterest enemy. Yet she came out fighting so vigorously and persistently that the disciples urged Jesus to give in to her demands, just for their own peace. In her outburst, she tried to shame Jesus into doing what was regarded as his duty to people who were foreigners. The books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy make repeated references to that duty. For example, Exodus states: “Don’t abuse or take advantage of strangers; you, remember, were once strangers yourselves in Egypt” (Exodus 22, 21).

But Jesus seemed to meet fire with fire. After initially ignoring her, he went on the attack with a racially insulting slur: “It’s not right to take the food of sons and daughters and throw it to dogs” (Matthew 15, 26). This response reflected the attitude of Jewish men of his time. But the Canaanite woman, refusing to be silenced, ended up besting him in their verbal jousting. Her response came from her heart: “You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table” (Matthew 15, 27). Jesus was humbled into submission, for he recognised in the way she had responded that her words echoed the message he had earlier given to the crowd: “The things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and they are what makes a person clean or unclean.” Effectively, the woman told Jesus that “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” were not all hearing and accepting his message, and that she would take advantage of the scraps they were dropping. That extraordinarily brave woman opened Jesus’ eyes, and he came to admire her intense love for her daughter and her deep faith that he could drive away the demons that were troubling the child.

But where do we fit in all this? None of us is ignorant of the rising swell of rejection directed at the refugees of wars and conflict to which many of our countries have contributed, or have ignored by doing nothing. We are familiar with the fear-mongering created by politicians whose popularity at the ballot boxes is increased in proportion to their rhetoric about barring refugees and asylum-seekers. After all, there might be terrorists among the largest number of refugees our world has ever seen. It would be strange if there weren’t. But why punish all because of a few? Today’s readings prompt us to ask ourselves what kinds of bigotry or racial and religious prejudices do we harbour within our hearts. Do we applaud the fear-mongering of our political leaders as a way of rationalising ourselves into justifying a “me first” stance? Somebody once asserted that the way in which western society and our Church have dealt with the issue of child abuse would be very much better had we invited the women among us to address it. Are we as open to the voice of women as Jesus was to the voice of the Canaanite woman? I leave the final words to Pope Francis who, in a mid-flight interview from Mexico to Italy in 2016 said: “A person who thinks only of building walls – wherever they may be – is not Christian”. What do I wall in and whom do I wall out? Today’s readings call me to reflect on questions like these.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

When Elijah saw how things were, he ran for dear life to Beersheba…
1 Kings 19, 3

“Courage! It is I! Do not be Afraid.” Matthew 14, 22-33

There is little doubt that Covid 19 has demanded the attention of people all over the world because of the devastation it has created on a global scale. The result is that some of us are living in fear, others find comfort in denial, and others, still, believe that it has been fabricated by powerful governments conspiring to use their muscle to control the world economy and reduce to dependence nations living in freedom. Stress and fear often cause some of us to imagine all kind of possible explanations. Just last week I was confronted by a neighbour who insisted that the pandemic was God’s way of either bringing the world to its senses or punishing the world for its sinfulness.

I can find nothing in the Gospels, or, for that matter, in the New testament to suggest that the God of Jesus has any trace of vindictiveness or is intent on putting obstacles in our way simply to test us out. Yet, the readings for this Sunday are timely, because they invite us to give our attention to the role that fear plays in our lives. Another aspect of our behaviour is the way in which we can use our imaginations to create expectations. In fact, fear is just one kind of expectation. It’s the expectation that what we have come to fear will actually happen. The person who told me that Covid 19 is either a punishment or a wake-up call from God had either turned his expectations of God into reality or was looking to God to approve the prejudices he had developed about some human behaviour of which he disapproved. What we fear and the expectations we create can so easily be transformed into reality, paralysing us or tranquillising our ability to take the kind of risk that being disciples of Jesus demands of us.

Today’s first reading about Elijah unfortunately leaves out the circumstances that prompted the prophet to run for his life. Elijah had been making fun of the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah, who had the support of Queen Jezebel. When they could not light a fire to sacrifice an ox, Elijah taunted them with insults: “Maybe your god has gone off to meditate or got involved in another project or gone off on holidays.” He was out to prove that the God of Israel was better than all of their gods. To further humiliate them, he built an altar and had it doused three times with buckets of water. Then he called on his God to send down fire. As the story goes, Elijah’s offering was totally consumed by fire. However, he then went to extremes and directed his followers to take hold of the prophets of Baal and slaughter them. Jezebel was less than impressed, and sent a messenger to Elijah: “The gods will get you for this and I’ll get even with you.! By this time tomorrow you’ll be as dead as any one of those prophets” (cf 1 Kings 18, 22 – 19, 2).

A threat like that would make anybody run for cover. That’s exactly what Elijah did, and headed for Beersheba. But the running exhausted him, and he fell into a depression and wished he were dead. But an angel of God intervened, provided him with food and water, and directed him to set out for Mt Horeb (Mt Sinai) where he would encounter God. We are told he walked for forty days and forty nights. Manifestations of the Divine were often associated with spectacular natural events. On the mountain, Elijah experienced a hurricane, an earthquake and a bushfire, all of which frightened him. But contrary to all his expectations and still gripped by fear, he ventured to the opening of the cave in which he was sheltering, and experienced God present in a gentle breeze.

I want to suggest that today’s gospel story of the storm on the lake parallels the Elijah story in its message. Imagine, for a moment, that you are with the disciples on their boat at 3.00 am, being tossed around in a violent storm and suddenly a familiar figure appears out of nowhere. My first reaction would be similar to that of the disciples: “It must be a ghost or a poltergeist!” I, too, would be terrified. And then everyone on the boat hears the familiar voice of Jesus: “Get hold of yourselves! It is I. Do not be afraid” (Matthew 14, 27). We and the disciples create one reality with our very understandable expectations and fears, and Jesus creates something very different with his calming assurances.

Not for a moment do I think this is a story that is easy to understand. No ordinary human being walks on water, so Peter was bound to sink when he jumped overboard, despite the fact that, as a seasoned fisherman, he was probably a good swimmer. I suggest that this event recorded by Matthew ranks side by side with the story of the Transfiguration recorded in Chapter 17, 1-8. They are both glimpses into the fact that Jesus really was from God and was, in fact, the Messiah, the Christ of God. Somehow, that realisation struck Peter like a ton of bricks, and in his enthusiasm to commit himself to Jesus and his mission he became oblivious to his surroundings and leapt out of the boat to stand with Jesus. Then, when he was going under, he called for help and Jesus responded as he had previously to everyone else’s cries for help – he came to Peter’s rescue.

There are glimpses of the goodness and love of God all around us, but we can often miss them because they are to be found where we don’t expect them. Isn’t it true that such goodness, love and selflessness are reflected in the very ordinary kindness of the people out there testing all those who are lining up for Covid 19 tests, in the welcoming smiles of the women and men driving buses, trams, trains, ferries and taxis, in the friendliness of those checking out our purchases at stores and supermarkets? And let’s not forget that God does not send hurricanes, bushfires, earthquakes and viruses to test us out, but, when they do come, it does not take us long to unconsciously disclose what kind of God we believe in and just how strong our faith in that God really is.

Similarly, none of us can credibly claim to be wishy-washy disciples and followers of Jesus. By jumping overboard Peter demonstrated in action that discipleship of Jesus calls for nothing less than total commitment. But one does not switch on total commitment. Rather one grows into it. It’s comforting, however, to know that Jesus can cope with our human weakness, with our moments of doubt. In fact, if we don’t experience doubt, we will not grow into mature, adult faith. However, we can be sure that Jesus will not ignore us whenever we are courageous enough to call to him: “Jesus, save me. I’m going under.” Lastly, our faith in God will be seen at its best when we find the courage to take the risk of reaching out to the stranger, of daring to go against the crowd when adhering to truth and integrity demand nothing less than that.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

As evening drew on, the disciples came to Jesus with a suggestion: “This is a deserted place and it’s already late. Dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy some food for themselves.” Jesus said to them: “There is no need for them to disperse. Give them something to eat yourselves.” Matthew 14, 13-21

Jewish people have acquired a reputation for being blunt and direct in what they have to say. Perhaps this comes from their history of struggle, persecution and tragedy. They find little time for wasting words on trivial niceties. Today’s first reading from Exodus gives us a glimpse of them at their bluntest best. When Moses and Aaron assured them that God would save them from starvation by providing both quail and manna, there were no complaints about the flocks of quail that landed in their camp, but they certainly questioned the manna’s suitability for consumption: “Man-hu, what on earth is this stuff you’re expecting us to gather and eat?” Researchers now tell us that it was probably a mixture of glucose and protein contained in the cocoons of beetles/grubs, but could not be stored because it attracted flies and quickly became fly-blown. In retrospect they came to appreciate that the provision of the manna was an example of God’s providence in their history. Over time, they explained to the younger generations how they had survived very difficult times and circumstances, how they had done it tough in the wilderness, and how God had cared for them. But, when things were at their worst, they were not slow to complain. In turn, their leaders were not slow in urging them to draw on their own resilience, and to make the most of the small mercies that came their way.

There are important messages implied in this story. While the people find all the quail they need and have an adequate supply of manna (even though they are mystified by it), the God who comes to their assistance does not spoon-feed them. They are clearly expected to work together to gather what they need to survive, and quickly discover that the manna has to be carefully handled. Growing into freedom calls for both responsibility and accountability. These wandering people have been pushed into learning what is required to build themselves into a community. Isn’t it true that all communities are built by people rolling up their sleeves and involving themselves, from the start, even in the very ordinary activities of subsistence-living. In the isolation of the wilderness, these former slaves learned the first steps in the process of reinventing themselves into a people who would be responsible for themselves, to one another and to the God they were coming to know.

Today’s gospel-reading contains another set of lessons in responsibility and accountability for those who would be disciples of Jesus. Having been involved with his disciples in a demanding schedule of teaching and preaching, and having just heard the news of John the Baptist’s execution, Jesus saw the need for time out for himself and his disciples to grieve, to reflect and to rest. His plans were defeated by an ever-demanding crowd. Then, when his disciples wanted to get rid of the crowd, Jesus challenged them to act responsibly and draw on their own resources. Mark’s Gospel has a parallel account of “the first miracle of the loaves”. It is preceded by a brief description of the disciples reporting to Jesus on all they had done and taught during their own first excursion into ministry. Jesus’ response was not to congratulate them. He simply said: “Come by yourselves to an out-of-the-way place and rest a little” (Mark 6, 31). Mark, too, records how the demanding crowd interrupted their plans. There are lessons in all this for us.

Many of us have allowed ourselves to be seduced, by employers and by the organisations to which we belong, into over-performing. While both Matthew and Mark report that Jesus did show compassion for the crowd, we would do well to take notice of Jesus’ plans to take time out. Real rest. – not “time-out” about which we feel guilty. – is a necessity that is built on trust. We all have to learn to trust that our colleagues actually can manage what we temporarily step aside from. We all need personal, family and community time and space, but sometimes fear prevents us from taking such. Still, these two stories from Matthew and Mark do remind us that our decisions to take a break are important and, in fact, might enhance the effectiveness of our efforts when we return. I certainly don’t subscribe to the view that God wants us to wear ourselves out. Daring to take a break is a reminder to ourselves that we are not indispensable, and that, ultimately, God is in charge.

The story of the “miracle of the loaves” occurs in all four Gospel, twice in both Mark and Matthew and once in each of Luke and John. In all except John, these stories are preceded by reference to Jesus’ compassion and care for the vast crowd in front of him. Mark, Matthew and Luke all refer to Jesus’ giving of himself to the point of exhaustion. – a forerunner to his total self-giving at the Last Supper. So, all these “miracle of the loaves” stories are pointers to what Eucharist is, and what it means in our day-to-day life as followers of Jesus. Mark, Matthew and Luke all integrate the importance of service in the way they tell the story. John integrates the importance of service with the symbolism of the dish and towel when he describes how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper.

Integral to the message of today’s gospel-reading is the challenge Jesus puts to the disciples when they want to send away the crowd: “There is no need for them to disperse. Give them something to eat yourselves” (Matthew 14, 16). An essential dimension of Eucharist is that all people are our sisters and brothers, and that living out Eucharist in practice involves offering nourishment in word and action to everyone we encounter, especially those who, because of the circumstances of their lives, are unable to feed and nourish themselves. Jesus effectively tells his disciples that, if they want to be part of his enterprise, they have to reach out to others and take responsibility for their welfare. Hospitality is an integral part of living Eucharist credibly. What we participate in when, as community, we celebrate Eucharist must flow over into our daily living.

We all have the capacity to reach out in welcome and acceptance to friend and stranger, to everyone in the crowd; to those with whom we are comfortable, as well as to those who look different, and who are different because of their circumstances, their culture, their country of birth, their religion. An essential dimension of Eucharist is hospitality, in reference to which St Paul wrote: “Make hospitality your special care” (Romans 12, 13). Let’s not forget that hospitality is first and foremost an attitude of heart, but it requires practice. Perhaps we can make a habit of it by asking ourselves at the start of each day: “How can I be Eucharist – bread broken and given for others, today?”.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Seventeenth Sunday In Ordinary Time – 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. For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?” 1 Kings 3, 5, 7-12

If there is anything we learn from today’s readings, it is that everything comes at a cost. In today’s first reading from Kings, we hear the story of how Solomon, responding to God’s invitation to ask for what he wanted, chose the gift of wisdom. However, just like every human being before and after him, Solomon allowed human weakness to get in the way. His weakness for concubines and his longing to accumulate wealth and weapons of war prevented him from using the wisdom God had given him. Whatever our gifts, and we all have them, it is important that we use them with integrity and enduring commitment. Solomon displayed admirable selflessness in asking God to give him the wisdom he needed to govern his people, but, with tragic consequences, he allowed self-interest to get in the way.

The readings of the last few Sundays, and again today, have given us a succession of Jesus’ parables in which he imagines a world governed and guided by the values of God; a world in which people actually practice mercy, forgiveness, equality, sharing food and universal access to safe shelter, clean water and sanitation; a world in which people enjoy freedom and treat one another with respect and dignity. Yet, we’ve heard these parables so often that they don’t fire us up to pursue that kind of a world with commitment and passion. We say we believe in freedom and dignity and equality and compassion and reconciliation and justice, but somehow we cannot bring ourselves to pay the price required to invest ourselves in pursing the things to which we give only nominal assent. We say we believe in what Jesus proclaims but we lack the passion, energy and drive to make it happen. We just can’t bring ourselves to imitate the person who stumbled on the treasure in the field or the jeweller who came across the flawless pearl to sell up everything to purchase what they discovered. A world in which God’s values hold sway just doesn’t look attractive enough; it doesn’t capture our imaginations. Moreover the cost for such a way of living is beyond what we’re prepared to pay.

Many of us, I’m sure, have heard the story of the group of teenage boys who had come together to celebrate the birthday of one of their number. After the party, they decided to play football in the back yard. There was a bit of rough and tumble until the birthday boy lost one of his contact lenses in the grass. The game came to a sudden halt, and they were soon all down on their hands and knees searching for the lens. After five or six minutes, the lens had not been located, so the boy who had lost it went and told his mother the bad news. She immediately began her own search in the grass, and, within a few minutes, found the missing lens. “Mum, how come you found it in no time, when the five of us had no success at all?” asked the lad whose lens had been dislodged. “Because we weren’t looking for the same thing”, his mother replied. “You were looking for a small, round, clear piece of plastic. I was searching for $300!”

All three of today’s parables are about perspectives and priorities and the urgency with which we approach them. Jesus is inviting us to unclutter our lives, to readjust our priorities and to put the things of God at the top of our list. Therein lies the kind of wisdom that is at the focus of today’s first reading. In fact, Job described that kind of wisdom as more valuable than any amount of flawless pearls and precious stones:
“Wisdom can’t be bought with the finest gold; no amount of silver can get it. Even famous Ophir gold can’t buy it, nor even diamonds and sapphires. Neither gold nor emeralds are comparable; extravagant jewellery can’t touch it. Pearl necklaces and ruby bracelets – why bother? None of this is even a down payment on Wisdom!” (Job 28, 13-18).

Wisdom helps us to distinguish what is of lasting value for our lives and what is simply attractive on the surface but lacking in substance (the parable of the dragnet). But wisdom has to be accompanied by faithful commitment and adherence to the agenda of Jesus and his Gospel.

By accepting the agenda of Jesus we grow into putting ourselves second, and giving our attention to the people and values that were at the centre of Jesus’ life – the needy, the lonely, the forgotten, the neglected, and we invest our energy in making sure that mercy, compassion, justice and reconciliation are central to the way in which we live and act. But there is a price to be paid for choosing to live like that.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“The kingdom of God may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep, his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat…The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants…The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until the whole mass of dough began to rise.” Matthew 13, 24-43

What we now call Matthew’s Gospel is a collection of stories and parables about the origins, life and teachings of Jesus. The writer had put them together to affirm and encourage a Christian community that was less than popular with a much larger community of traditional Jews, who could not accept that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ of God. Seemingly, Matthew wrote as he did to encourage his community to see that they were the ones entrusted with keeping alive God’s promises to Israel. Matthew wanted them to realise that they were the good quality wheat threatened with being choked by the destructive weeds that surrounded them; that they were the mustard seed that would grow into a large shrub offering shelter; that they were the yeast that would rise to provide bread and nourishment to feed the world. It is these three parables. – of the wheat and weeds, the mustard seed, and the yeast in the dough. – that make up today’s gospel. We need to tread warily as we negotiate our way through them, especially the first about the wheat and the weeds. If we were to take that parable literally, we could end up thinking that the world is made up of only two kinds of people – good and bad – and that, in the final analysis, the bad will all be burned up. To begin with, that flies in the face of Jesus’ earlier description of God and his exhortation to the disciples: “My command to you is: love your enemies, pray for your persecutors. This will prove that you are sons of your heavenly Father, for his sun rises on the bad and the good, he rains on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5, 44-45). Moreover, we believe that every human being is created in the image of God, and we know from looking at ourselves that we are all capable of good and evil, that there are wheat and weeds within each of us. So, one very clear message from this parable is that we ought not rush to make categorical judgements about who is good and who is bad, and who is to be excluded and punished.

Many of us can probably remember times when the process of training, education and formation in trades, professions and even in religious life and seminaries was all about pointing out our mistakes, with little attention being given to affirmation and praise when we actually got things right. In my early years of religious life, we all spent fifteen minutes of every day reflecting on one of our particular faults, and working on how to eradicate it. It was called “the particular examen”. There was no encouragement given to celebrating our successes or deeds of kindness and compassion.

A second message we can take from this parable is that it is entirely appropriate that we leave to a God who is infinitely kind, merciful and forgiving the role of judging who’s worthy and who’s not. Then, we can get on with living our lives in the style of disciples and followers of Jesus. – acting with compassion, tolerance, justice and mercy, and being humble enough to seek forgiveness when self-interest, nastiness and bitterness are at the root of some of our actions. Jesus recognised the internal struggles that go on within each of us. He called Peter to task when he stepped out of line. – “Get behind me, Satan!” – yet affirmed his potential by nominating him to lead his disciples unto an unknown and precarious future. There are times when we can all be “wheat” for a community, an organisation, a world that is threatened with being choked by “weeds”.

The meaning of today’s gospel is elusive because the three parables told by Jesus don’t fit comfortably together. Each of them offers a partial view of what the kingdom of God might look like as it takes hold in the world. The first parable acknowledges that not everyone in the world will be open to the values of God. There will be good, open-minded, receptive people, and others who want nothing to do with the values of God. But the tension and opposition are not fixed by violence. The man who sowed the good seed had to restrain his servants when they discovered that an enemy had contaminated the crop. The owner called for restraint, patience and common sense. His motto might well have been: Live and let live.

Perhaps to stress our need to learn tolerance, Jesus, in the second parable, told how a man deliberately planted a mustard seed. Mustard bushes grow quickly and in abundance in Palestine, and they are weeds. True, the kingdom of God will grow, but it might not have a good look about it. It will offer shelter to the good and the not so good: to people like you and me.

The third parable likens the kingdom to the action of yeast in three measures of flour. Notice that it wasn’t three cups of flour, but three bucketsful, producing enough dough to provide bread to feed an army! The kingdom of God will provide sufficient nourishment for everyone.

So in presenting these three parables in succession, Jesus is giving us some sobering messages: forget about judging and categorising others; focus on living with faith and integrity; accept and respect everybody, even those we might be inclined to describe as “weeds”; God excludes nobody, and has no tolerance for class-distinction; God’s nourishing love, care, mercy and forgiveness are boundless.

A brief story to conclude: In her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, doctor and counsellor Rachel Remen tells how her grandfather gave her a paper cup when she was only four years old. Expecting a surprise, she was disappointed when she found the cup contained only black soil: “Mummy won’t let me play with dirt”, she said. Her grandfather quietly put the cup on Rachel’s windowsill and told her to use the teapot from her tea-set to water the soil every day and wait for a surprise. Bewildered, she still did as her grandfather had suggested. But, after a week, she asked him if it was time to stop. “No”, he said, “keep watering a little bit every day.” Then, one morning after watering for thee weeks, Rachel discovered two little green leaves that were not there the night before. She was sure her grandfather would be surprised as she rushed to tell him. But, of course, he wasn’t. Carefully he explained to Rachel that life is everywhere, hidden in the most ordinary and unlikely places. “Then all it needs, Grandpa, is a little water?” Patting her on the head, he replied: “No, Rachel dear, all it needs is your faithfulness.”

Together, today’s parables challenge us to see the potential for good in everyone and in all of life’s circumstances, and to summon up the courage and perseverance to unlock that potential. Even mustard-seed sized faith allows space for the kingdom of God to take root and grow from very ordinary acts of justice, kindness and love.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

The disciples came and asked Jesus: “Why do you tell stories?” He replied: “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever a person has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge people towards receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it.” Matthew 13, 1-23

The parable of the sower is a parable with a difference. To begin with, it is the only parable to which Jesus himself gives an extensive explanation. Moreover, as he begins to explain it, he refers to it as “the parable of the sower” (Matthew 13, 18). Yet, the main focus of the parable is on the seed and the soil. Interestingly, the word parable comes from Greek parabolē, which means “to throw alongside”, and a lot of the seed thrown by the sower in the parable seems to end up alongside or only near where it would be most productive.

In our reading of the parable itself and in our considering Jesus’ explanation of it, on which images are we being invited to reflect – on the sower, the seed, the soil or, indeed, on all three? In this parable, Jesus takes images from daily life, with which his hearers would have been familiar, and “throws” them next to a new idea – the kingdom of God – which he wants his audience to think about. Many in the crowd would have been living in the hope that, when the Messiah eventually came, he would restore Israel to its former grandeur. In the parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of God, the new Israel, to something less spectacular. Put simply, Jesus is saying that God will sow the seeds of the new kingdom of God, but the harvest will depend on the receptiveness and quality of the soil on which the seed lands. This calls for further explanation.

To those of us who have a part-time interest in gardening or an invested interest in crop-growing, the parable sower’s style of broadcasting seed might seem extravagant or wasteful. But perhaps Jesus is holding up to us a sower who is the image of a lavish and extravagant God whose generosity knows no bounds. Perhaps Jesus’ sower represents the God of the creation story in Genesis, the God of abundance whose graciousness, love, mercy and compassion are limitless.

With that in mind, one meaning we can take from this parable is that Jesus is inviting us to imitate the God of abundance who scatters everywhere the gifts of mercy, love, compassion and forgiveness, so that they are available to everyone, even to those who are hiding away in the most unexpected of places. We have all had the experience of seeing flowers and other plants blooming in places we least expect – in cracks on well-used footpaths, in crevices on building walls, in roof guttering. The way of nature is very different from that of well-organised gardeners. Seeds are scattered by wind and insects, and through bird droppings, sometimes falling on rich soil, at others landing in places where they simply do not stand a chance.

In these times when Covid -19 restrictions are being loosened in some locations, we see people returning to the familiar security of their churches and places of worship. I wonder what might happen if we were to move out instead of in, and take the seeds we carry – seeds of concern, of compassion, of listening ears, of encouragement, of brotherhood and sisterhood – to those who have been starved of healthy, wholesome human contact and of the simple items of food and toiletries they have done without. That doesn’t look much like restoration to power and glory.

When needs become apparent in times of crisis, we are often inclined to place on government the responsibility for addressing them. And that is how it is now in many nations around the globe. Citizens are calling on their governments to feed the hungry, to protect the most vulnerable, to provide benefits for those whose jobs have been lost. But our default position is that help is to be provided only for “the most deserving”, and it lands to politicians and bureaucrats to decide who belongs in that category. We give lip service to the need for fiscal responsibility and watch as available resources are spent on where, when and how public money is to distributed. Yet a close look at this parable of the sower, seed and soil reveals that this is a parable that flies in the face of over-cautious, over-careful, calculated regulation. God gives freely and without calculation in the hope that divine beneficence will find good soil, but with no assurance that this will actually happen. After all, when we look at our own lives, we come to see that we have not always been good soil for the seeds God has scattered in our direction. The extravagance of God’s distributing is surely a challenge to all of us who call ourselves Christians to distribute extravagantly in our turn.

But there is still one more facet of this parable that calls for exploration: What exactly does good soil look like? In what conditions does the seed that both God and we scatter actually flourish? These are questions that Jesus does not address in his explanation of the parable. But surely a proper understanding of this parable implies that we have to take measures to stop the troubles and problems of our life circumstances from stifling our growth and the growth of those who depend on our care. It is surely our responsibility to create the conditions that will allow God’s word to take root in our lives and produce the fruit that will transform our lives and convert our minds and hearts.

In his explanation of the parable, Jesus seems to equate the seed with the soil (the person) that receives it: “What was sown among briars is the one who hears the message, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of money choke it off. Such a one produces no yield” (Matthew 13, 22). Yet, isn’t it true that when seed germinates both it and the soil combine to produce something totally new? However, on reflection we can conclude that good soil needs nothing more than an openness to hear, the imagination and creativity to envision something new, and the conviction and resolution to act.

The source of good seed for all of us is the Gospel. It contains all we need for our growth and development as disciples of Jesus. Yet, we know that God’s word can be stifled by our own assumptions and prejudices, and contamination by the expectations our culture can impose on us. While we all have our own favourite parts of scripture and our personal understanding of God, we still have to be ever open to be surprised by the ability of God’s Spirit to show us new meaning in the readings we encounter Sunday after Sunday when we sit expectantly in the pews. How open are we to being surprised this week?

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“You have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, and have revealed them to little ones…”
“Take up my yoke and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart…”

Matthew 11, 25-30

The following is a story that I have shared several times over the years of writing these reflections, but I believe it bears repeating:

Towards the middle of the 17th century, the Japanese Zen Buddhist master, Tetsugen Doko embarked on a project to have printed 7000 copies of a Japanese translation of the teachings of the Buddha. To raise funds for his venture, he travelled around Japan seeking donations. After ten long years of collecting, he had enough money to meet the printing costs. However, just as the printer was about to embark on the job, the river Uji flooded and broke its banks, leaving countless people without food and shelter. Tetsugen halted the printing and spent all his collected funds on bringing relief to the flood victims. When the crisis was over, he set out again collecting for the printing. After ten more years, he had collected enough, and returned to the printer. However, just as the printer was about to begin a second time, a plague broke out across the land, claiming many lives and leaving many others sick and disabled. Tetsugen spent all he had collected on relieving the suffering of the sick, and burying the dead. When that crisis eased, he set out a third time on his collecting rounds, and years later realised his dream of seeing the sacred texts finally printed. The printing blocks are still on display in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto. Those who practice Obaku Zen Buddhism recount how Tetsugen actually had three editions of the sacred texts printed: the first two are invisible, but far superior to the third.

What Tetsugen did effectively models for us the exhortation of today’s gospel-reading: Jesus’ message is best proclaimed not in fine rhetoric but in the way in which we reach out to others through our compassion, care and generosity. It is through our actions that justice and mercy come to life.

Both the English word “yoke” and its Greek equivalent carry the meaning of something that is a burden. As Jesus looked at the way in which the Jewish religious leaders of his time expected their people to live, he came to see that ordinary people had been taught to see the Law as an endless set of rules and regulations that affected every aspect of their lives. Religious practice became such a heavy burden that it was almost impossible to be faithful to it.

It is important to remember the political context in which Matthew’s Gospel was written. Matthew was writing for a newly-formed Christian community that was coming together shortly after Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman Emperor Vespasian. The traditional, orthodox Jews of the time had their hopes set on the restoration of a Jewish State. The members of the new Christian community had their hearts set on the “reign or kingdom of God”, which Jesus had proclaimed in his life time. While those belonging to the Christian cult spoke of gentleness and humility, those who adhered to traditional Judaism had a very strong political agenda. The image of the ”yoke”, which Matthew put into the mouth of Jesus, was a very fitting one. Those who owned oxen had yokes specially made to fit their animals, so that they were not too heavy, but rather, fitted comfortably. So, Matthew’s Jesus speaks of a way of relating to God which fits comfortably on people. Jesus was inviting those who would be his disciples to relate to God and to the people around them not in a measured, legalistic way but in a way that is built on the gentle, compassionate way of God’s love for us. It is a love that grows out of gratitude and hope; a way that looks more like the way in which children love and relate – with directness and optimism, free of the kind of self-interest, rationalisation and complexity that are often features of the way in which adults relate.

As today’s gospel-reading concludes, Jesus invites all of us who would be his disciples to learn from what he has learned from God: “Take my yoke upon your shoulders and lean from me, for I am meek and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for my yoke is easy (comfortable) and my burden light” (Matthew 11, 28-30). This invitation follows on immediately from his comment that all he is and has comes from God. If he is “meek and humble of heart”, so, too, is God meek and humble of heart. To be like Jesus, to be like God is to be meek, gentle and humble – a far cry from the way our world wants us to be – people of power, control, status and importance.

In contrast to all this, we can probably remember times when we tried to live our lives conforming to what we thought our Church and the people we knew expected or wanted of us. Being a Christian is not about trying to live in accord with a set of rules we fail to follow. Rather, it is about following in the footsteps of Jesus who was a law-challenging, justice-promoting, selfless, loving, and generous-hearted person who had been labelled by his critics as a glutton and drunkard because he ate and drank with sinners. He challenged unfair and unjust social and religious systems. He had the ability to enjoy life even as he critically engaged with it.

In today’s gospel-reading, Jesus makes reference to things hidden from the wise and intelligent and, yet, revealed to ordinary, little people. Perhaps those “hidden things” are things we have failed to grasp: that we can set aside the burdens we and others create and come to Jesus. We can stop being weary of our own inadequacies and failings and rest in a God whose mercy is limitless. We can get so trapped in “Catholic guilt”, so preoccupied with the belief that we are not good enough, that we don’t even recognise that we contribute to systems, structures and practices that dehumanise and harm our sisters and brothers whom God has loved into life. Our social sins get buried under our own personal efforts to be perfect.

There is nothing to be gained from trying to hide from the world of which we are a part nor from letting ourselves be drawn into submitting to the status quo. But, if we were to live our lives with meekness, gentleness and humility high on our list of priorities, we might find ourselves involved in transforming our world and ourselves into the dream Jesus had for us all.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God’s messenger. Accepting someone’s help is as good as giving someone help…Giving as little as a cup of cold water to someone in need will not go unrewarded.”
Matthew 10, 37-42

Today’s gospel-reading brought back memories for me of my first excursion into a classroom for practice teaching. Like other beginning, would-be teachers, I experienced a mixture of anxiety, butterflies, and doubts as to my ability to measure up to the task. Today’s gospel records what looks like Jesus’ pep-talk to the disciples before he sent them off to door-knock, preach, and test themselves out as prophets. Prophets were not fortune tellers, seers or predictors of the future. Rather, they were people of integrity, who took the risk of proclaiming a truth that was aimed at disturbing the comfort of those who would listen to them. Inherent in this gospel-reading is the double reminder to us that we, too, are meant to be prophets by the way we live, and that our message might well meet with rejection, criticism and even the threat or reality of physical violence. As we all know, Jesus’ message is not popular with some audiences. We are being challenged today to look at ourselves and decide if there is a close correlation between the Gospel of Jesus and the way we live and act, allowing us to say as Gandhi did: “My life is my message”, and a message worth hearing.

The writer and scripture scholar Jay Cormier recalls a story he came across in The Boston Globe. It recounts the reflection of a young doctor, given to a reporter on her return from volunteering at a tent-hospital in Haiti in the wake of the January 2010 earthquake, which claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people. Cormier wrote:

A young woman oncologist was one of a group of doctors from a Boston hospital who went to Haiti in January 2010 to offer their help in the wake of the deadly earthquake.  She told of being totally overwhelmed by the situation in a very primitive tent hospital.  There was a seemingly endless barrage of impossible medical traumas, and they were without proper medicines or instruments.  At one point, she became paralyzed by her helplessness and fear.  It was all too much.  Unable to function any longer, she began sobbing uncontrollably, burying her face in her hands.
She was at the bedside of a little boy, whose leg had been amputated a few days earlier.  The little boy, about six or seven years old, saw her tears and her trembling and, with a smile, lifted his head from his pillow and encouraged her to move on to some other kids nearby who he knew needed her attention more than he did.

And remarkably, she found she was able to do so.  For in that moment, the power of death and her overwhelming sense of horror and hopelessness were broken open.  She witnessed in that little boy the triumph of love over pain and fear.

The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (in Latin, Lumen Gentium – Christ, the Light of the Nations) is often referred to as the foundational document of Vatican II. In its second chapter, it speaks of all baptised people as participating in the priestly and prophetic role of Christ. In other words, as followers of Jesus, we are all expected to lead other people to holiness by the way in which we live, and to play a prophetic role by acting with integrity and always speaking the truth in love, even when those around us might be uncomfortable with hearing that truth. However, the reality is that people, who use their power to keep others in dependence and servitude, and who mete out injustice, don’t like their comfort being threatened or their power being challenged. They seek to punish and silence the prophetic voice that challenges them.

The role of prophetic disciples of Jesus is to bring the kingdom of God to reality in whatever situation they find themselves. To be numbered among those disciples, we, too, need to bring God’s love, compassion and peace to everyone with whom we engage. The young Haitian boy who encouraged the distraught doctor to pick herself up and to reach out to patients in greater need was a true prophet of compassion and love. While his tender age and innocence shielded him from disapproval by anyone, his words were enough to reignite that young doctor’s hope.

Jesus reminded his disciples (and us) that there will always be those who benefit from keeping fellow human beings victimised, oppressed and trapped in misery. The very act of challenging such oppression will often result in reprisals, punishment and hatred. The Cross will be their reward. Yet, the challenge that Jesus puts to each one of us is to use every resource we have and every opportunity that comes our way to make the love and compassion of God accessible to everyone with whom we engage.

As Jesus concluded his exhortation to his disciples, he used an expression whose significance had long escaped me: “Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me” (Matthew 10, 40). As I reflect on my own role as a disciple of Jesus, I can so easily slip into convincing myself that I’m the one who is meant to be the welcomer of those who are struggling or in need. Yet Jesus makes it clear that there are times when I need to be open to being welcomed. There are times when I don’t have all the answers or don’t hold all the aces and am not in control. He reminds his disciples that, even though they carry the good news of God’s kingdom, they will be reliant on the hospitality and goodness of those they visit for shelter, a bed and a meal to eat.

I wonder if Jesus is telling us, too, to be wary of being in positions of power. Needing to be in charge can blind us to our own vulnerabilities. Perhaps this is Jesus’ way of telling us to consider walking in the shoes of the disadvantaged, the forgotten, the outcast and the refugee. Then we might come to see that we are the ones in need of assistance, encouragement and support. It may well be that we will become more effective witnesses to the power of God’s love from our own positions of vulnerability.

At the same time, we surely need to recognise that, while the Gospel challenges us to be wary of the kind of position and power the world applauds, we have to cultivate the power that comes from being truly centred in God, from being in touch with God’s Spirit planted deep within our hearts. It will be from that place that we will grow into genuine and prophetic witnesses to Jesus and his message.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Do not fear those who deprive the body of life but cannot destroy the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.”
Matthew 10, 26-33

Today’s gospel reading is all about personal integrity and how we can allow fear to erode it. So, let’s start with a poem:

Burn the witch! The outcry came.
So end the drought her sins inflame!
Tickle her with tongues of fire,
sear her flesh like hot desire.
Burn the witch.
Upon her head we heap the blame. Burning her, we burn our shame.
End fear upon the funeral pyre!
Burn the witch.
In childhood dreams, the sugarcane
burns. Craving sweetness, there we maim
the wildlife, which is set afire
and dies, for sugar and a buyer.
And now the world, itself aflame
Burns the witch.
Kimberley Starr, Drought (from her novel Torched, p.97)

Even a cursory look at what is happening in our world at present will lead us to conclude that there is a lot of human activity that is being driven by fear. We are afraid that we will succumb to the ravages of the coronavirus. Among the people of Hong Kong there is a palpable fear that the Chinese Government is going to severely curtail their freedom and remove the option of democratic elections and the freedoms of movement, speech, voicing criticisms, choice of entertainment and practice of religion, all of which have long been accessible to them. Underlying the rioting, demonstrating and civil disobedience linked to the issues of “Black Lives Matter” and imprisonment of refugees and asylum seekers is the deep-seated fear that politicians and law-enforcement agencies will continue to cheapen the value of the lives of every citizen and act as though the lives of people whose race and skin-colour are different from theirs are of less value. There is a fear that some people have less entitlement to respect and dignity simply because of their colour. Fear seems to be becoming contagious.

All this invites each of us to stop and reflect on the role fear plays in each of our own lives. What is it that I fear? Today’s first reading offers me a good starting point for finding an answer to that question. Jeremiah tells us exactly what it is that has put the wind up him: “Yes, I hear the whisperings of many: ‘Terror on every side! Denounce! Let’s denounce him!’ All those who were my friends are on the watch to catch me out for any misstep of mine. ‘Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail, and take our vengeance on him.’ (Jeremiah 20, 10)

Jeremiah is afraid that those who supported him are now out to get him. He is frightened about the gossip that is going on and gathering momentum. He is afraid that people he knows will turn on him and treat him as later generations treated witches. But he fails to appreciate the irony in the action he takes to retaliate against those who are frightening him with their threats. He wants God to come and terrorise them with “utter shame and lasting, unforgettable confusion”. Moreover, he wants to be around to witness their destruction.

Another human failing has long been to turn on those in the community who dare to express their integrity by speaking the truth. We even resort to putting labels on others, to attributing evil to them, to scapegoating them and have even burned some of them at the stake as witches. We human beings get drawn easily into blaming others for the problems that threaten and strike fear into our hearts.

Over centuries, there have been so-called religious people who want to attribute natural disasters and severe climatic events to God. Their cry is that God uses drought, fire, tsunamis and tornados as punishment for humanity’s waywardness and sin. Their call to us is to appease an angry God by beating our breasts, acknowledging our sinfulness and adopting morally acceptable lifestyles.

When we get the urge to place the blame on others for misfortune, disaster and our own failures, we are motivated by fear or are lacking in personal integrity. While we are afraid that others might think less of us if we admit to our mistakes and failures, we also know that if we can shift the blame to others, if we can turn others into witches, there is for us the false reward of satisfaction and self-justification.

It was the fact that Jesus himself came to discover the paramount importance of personal integrity that led him to say to his disciples: “Do not fear those who deprive the body of life but cannot destroy the soul”(Matthew 10, 28). He came to understand that compromising one’s integrity by cheating, dishonesty, deceit, playing favourites and turning a blind eye to injustice were soul-destroying, selling out on life and becoming a shell of a human being. His own life demonstrated that he preserved his integrity and put his trust in a God who would stand by him no matter what threats were directed at him. That does not mean that he did not experience fear. Arguably, the greatest struggle he faced was during his inner struggle in Gethsemane when fear enveloped him and he prayed that God would come to his rescue. His triumph was that he came through ready to face torture and execution. Yet even just before he breathed his last, he struggled to hold firm to his faith in God. It is indeed fear that is the very opposite of faith.

All this explains why, in today’s gospel reading, after speaking of the fear of violence and the prospect of death, he can add: “Rather, fear him who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna”. The “him” certainly cannot refer to God who loves us endlessly and unconditionally. It is a reference to the spirit of evil that we can allow to invade our lives and eat away at our integrity.

This is all very challenging, especially in the circumstances in which we now find ourselves. A global pandemic claiming hundreds of thousands of lives is a frightening phenomenon, the likes of which few of us have previously experienced. Racism and the devaluing of black lives and refugees from war, and other violence are evils perpetrated by abusers of power and privilege. They can threaten faith on one hand and undermine integrity on the other, once we allow fear to be a controlling factor in our lives. Today’s readings are a call to us to trust in a God who loves and cares for us in all the circumstances of life and a call, too, to live with integrity, come what may.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection