Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

John spoke up: “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to drive out demons, and we stopped him because he didn’t belong to our group.” Jesus was not impressed. “Don’t try to stop him. No one can perform a miracle in my name and, in the next breath, undermine me. Anyone who is not against us is with us. Why, anyone, by just giving you a cup of water in my name, is on our side. Be assured that God will notice.”    Mark 9, 38-43, 45, 47-48

Today’s first reading from the Book of Numbers and the gospel-reading from Mark illustrate how we human beings seem determined to protect jealously what we come to regard as “our territory”. The Book of Numbers, which takes its name from two population censuses of the Israelites initiated by Moses during their years of meandering their way to the Promised Land, is the fourth of the five books of the Torah or Pentateuch. Numbers contains lots of demographic and statistical information about tribes and clans, and even details how the plunder, taken by the Israelites after their war with the Midianites, was divided up. Today’s reading, however, records Moses’ wise response to Joshua when he urged Moses to silence Eldad and Medad from prophesying, because they were not part of the in-group of seventy elders: “Joshua, son of Nun, who had been Moses’ right-hand man since his youth, said: ‘Moses, master! Stop them!’ But Moses said: ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all God’s people were prophets. Would that God’s Spirit were alive in all of them.’ ”

The truth is that God’s Spirit dwells in all of us. We have been created in God’s image and further endowed with God’s Spirit through our baptism. Moreover, we are all meant to be prophets, to witness to the truth by speaking out against things like the uneven distribution of our world’s resources, the plight of refugees, the tardiness of our leaders in addressing the rapid advances of global warming, the discrimination and injustice directed at many of our sisters and brothers because of their race and skin colour. And, even within our Church, there is still evidence of superiority, injustice and discrimination. There are some among us who insist that Catholics have a monopoly on truth. Until fairly recently, we have had Church leaders who have refused to employ women qualified with degrees in theology, and some leaders who still will not accept girls as altar servers and women as Eucharistic ministers. In this context, I recall the crusades conducted in Australia by the very capable American Baptist preacher, Billy Graham in 1959 and again in 1968-69. Catholics were urged by Church leaders not to attend the crusades lest their faith be contaminated, or they be attracted to join the Baptist Church. Claiming one’s religious teaching or practice as superior to another’s smacks of elitism and superiority. And that’s the very reason why Jesus pulls John into line at the start of today’s gospel-reading.

In last week’s gospel-reading, we heard Jesus reprimanding the Twelve for their arguing about which one of them deserved to be ranked first and best. Clearly, they were beginning to consider their place in Jesus’ inner-circle as giving them importance, power and superiority. And that’s why Jesus wasted no time in pulling John into line.

John’s haste to label as an intruder the man he saw as “cashing in” on Jesus’ name and growing popularity illustrates an aspect of human behaviour that we all are inclined to adopt from time to time. Capitalism and the world of the professions are built on competition and the struggle for promotion. Again and again, we can find ourselves drawn into comparing ourselves with those beside whom we live and work: “I’m on top of my job, but there are some in the office with me who struggle to keep up.” And when it comes to religion, we can see how the road to ecumenism is long and difficult when we regard ourselves as having an unbroken link with the Apostles, and condescendingly pray that “those others” will eventually see the light.

And yet, the essence of Christian discipleship is to spend ourselves in the service of others, especially those in need, without reservation, judgement or comparison. There is a lot of truth in the aphorism: “All comparisons are odious.” Comparing ourselves with those around us is foreign to the Gospel and to genuine discipleship.

The Trappist monk and mystic, Thomas Merton, reflecting on how even very good people can fall into the trap of comparing themselves with others, observed: “As soon as you begin to take yourself seriously and imagine that your virtues are important because they are yours, you become the prisoner of your own vanity, and even your best works will blind and deceive you. Then, in order to defend yourself you will begin to see sins and faults everywhere in the actions of others. And the more unreasonable importance you attach to yourself and to your own works, the more you will tend to build up your own idea of yourself by condemning others. Sometimes virtuous men(sic) are also bitter and unhappy because they have unconsciously come to believe that all their happiness depends on their being more virtuous than others.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, Shambhala Publications, Boston 2003, p 59-60)

Whenever we allow attitudes like that to creep into our lives, we lose our credibility as disciples of Jesus and risk becoming “stumbling blocks” (Mark 9, 42) to ourselves and others.

The essence of being an authentic disciple of Jesus is to live and act in the awareness that discipleship involves service and that everyone in need whom we encounter has a claim on us and deserves to be treated with sensitivity, care and compassion, for no other reason than that they are as dear to God as we are, that they, too, have God’s Spirit dwelling within them and that they are our sisters and brothers. The John we see at the start of today’s gospel-reading reflects to us an aspect of ourselves that we may be reluctant to acknowledge.



Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus told his disciples: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men who will put him to death; three days after his death he will rise.” They didn’t understand what he was talking about, but were afraid to ask him about it…When they were safely back in Capernaum, he asked them: “what were you discussing on the road?” The silence was deafening. – they had been arguing with one another over who among them was the greatest. He sat down and called the Twelve around them and said: “So you want first place? Then take the last. Be the servant of all!”      Mark 9, 30-37

As I look into the mirror of today’s gospel-reading, I am pressed to ask myself whether I identify with Jesus or with the disciples. Caught up with dreams and expectations of something like importance, success and status, the disciples seem to see greatness in terms of power and being-in-charge. In stark contrast, Jesus sits the Twelve down and rather forcefully challenges them with a vision of spiritual leadership which involves service of all, especially service of those in society who are easily passed over. He then offers them a model for greatness in the kingdom of God in a mere child, not a Chief Priest or a Pharisee or Caesar. To welcome a child, according to Jesus, is to welcome God. Anyone who can do that will begin to look at the world with different eyes. Embedded in the vision that Jesus offers is that whatever we pursue in life will shape our thinking and our action – our values, our political leanings, our ethics, our morality, our spirituality.

I have to admit to being intrigued by the fact that Jesus chose a child as a model of greatness. But, when I stop and recall that there are multiple occasions in the Gospels where Jesus presents children as models for what it means to live authentically in the new way that Jesus is offering, the way he called “the kingdom of God”, I am pushed to explore further. I discovered that in Greek (the language in which the Bible first came to us), the word for child is gender neutral. (Back in the days when learned English grammar with great fervour, we labelled the word “child” with the term “common gender” and “children” as “masculine and/or feminine”. Even grammar echoes the culture to which we belong. In the time of Jesus, adults, especially adult, male disciples arguing about power and position, regarded children as of no consequence. That attitude prevailed for centuries and survived in English in expressions like “Children should be seen and not heard”. Children, in the time of Jesus, had no rights, no possessions and no voice. Women, too, had almost no rights. They needed approval of their husbands to travel short distances but could go out in public when they were accompanying their children. By welcoming their children, Jesus opened the way for them to be present to hear his teaching and preaching. Today’s gospel-reading, which is paralleled in both Matthew (18, 1-6) and Luke (9,46-48) uses the child to underline the attitude to “greatness” that Jesus requires of those who want to follow him. Pheme Perkins, Professor of Theology and New Testament scholar at Boston College stresses in her book Jesus As Teacher (p.36, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1990) that Jesus, by drawing the Twelve’s attention to a child who was socially invisible, was presenting to them a stand-in for himself. In this context, let’s not forget that when we are among children, they have a knack of cutting us down to size. Unconsciously, they ignore our pretensions and blow away our defences. Yet, according to Jesus, receiving and welcoming children is the same as receiving and welcoming him. Let’s note, too, that already there were forces in play to keep Jesus invisible and voiceless, especially in Jerusalem, which was their destination. There is a clear message here for us to start seeing the invisible and hearing the voiceless in our society, simply because in noticing the invisible and hearing the voiceless we open ourselves to receive Jesus. To receive him is to welcome the God who missioned him to our world.

Jesus had just told his followers that the pursuit of power and status is meaningless in the kingdom of God that he has been ushering in; that they will find God in the service of this world’s dropouts, in the discarded and ignored, in the stranger, in the invisible, in those whom society has silenced. Moreover, he taught them this immediately after telling them a second time that he would be betrayed, executed, and then would rise from the grave three days later. And Mark recorded that, even though they did not understand what he was getting at, they were afraid to ask him to explain what he was talking about. What then was at the root of their fear? Were they afraid that they would hear something they couldn’t handle? Were they frightened by what Jesus disclosed because they could not comprehend that the Messiah for whom the world had waited would be assassinated? And still fresh in their minds was the reprimand Peter received when he protested the first time Jesus informed them of his impending betrayal and execution. It could have been any or all of these things that pushed them to remain silent. However, they did what many of us do when we can’t or don’t want to face unpleasant truths – remain silent. And in response, Jesus let them down lightly by changing tack and matter-of-factly exploding the dreams they had for status and power. Then, after telling them that they would find God in the service of the poor and needy, he gave them something further to reflect upon through his object lesson with the child.

Now we, too, are invited to engage reflectively with both those aspects of today’s gospel-reading. Do we accept that we are being invited to discover and encounter God in the service of others? Are there questions about our journey to mature adult faith, a journey of a life-time, that we are hesitant to ask because we fear that the answers to them might disturb our comfort and prod us into further exploration, which could lead us into doubt and deeper questioning? The great theologian, Karl Rahner hinted at this in a somewhat cryptic comment he made when he stated: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” In saying that, he was asserting that, even if we haven’t yet noticed, we belong to a Church that is ever evolving, changing and growing; that we will fail to make an impact for good in a world that is also in transition, if we fail to engage with our God whose Spirit is ever creating and revealing something new; if we don’t allow ourselves to be captivated by a God who is full of surprises.

Jesus told his disciples (and us) that the way to discover their (our) true selves and to find their (our) place in the kingdom of God is through selfless service. But that will not happen automatically. In time, we will begin to see the face of God, the goodness of God reflected back to us by those we serve. Rahner tells us that reflection on our service and on those we serve will lead us to grow into God. That’s not saying that we use the poor and needy to find God. Growing into God will be the by-product of our service and reflection on that service. Anthony de Mello said all this so much better in a little story: A disciple came to a wise teacher and asked: “Is there anything I can do to make myself holy?” “As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning”, replied the teacher. “Then of what use is the spiritual advice you give me?” the disciple asked. “To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise”, the teacher said.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“And you,” Jesus went on to ask, “who do you say I am?” In reply, Peter said: “You are the Christ, the Messiah!”…He began to teach them that the Son of Man had to suffer much, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, be put to death and rise three days later…Peter then took him aside and began to remonstrate with him, but Jesus reprimanded him: “Get out of my sight, you satan! You are not judging by God’s standards…” Mark 8, 27-35

If we are courageous enough to engage with today’s gospel-reading as participants rather than as side-line observers, we, too, will have to answer the very question that Jesus put to his disciples: “And you, who do you say I am?” And if other people want to find out who we really are, all they have to do is to carefully observe what we do and say in the course of a couple of weeks to see if our actions match what we say and are in harmony with the standards we claim to uphold. You and I claim to do our best to live our lives in accord with the values that Jesus lived and proclaimed. Those who know us will see whether or not we are making genuine efforts in accord with the Gospel to which we say we have pinned our colours. Others will soon be able to conclude whether or not we are the genuine article, whether we are frauds or faithful disciples of Jesus. They don’t expect us to be perfect, but they will soon see if we are making a genuine effort to live what we proclaim.
Jesus’ disciples had been given ample opportunity to closely observe his words and actions. Accordingly, Jesus took the risk of asking them the conclusions they had reached about him. On their behalf, Peter voiced a magnificent reply, but one that was incomplete because he had not fully appreciated there would be consequences for Jesus if he continued to live his life with full integrity – he would make enemies of those who were in positions of power and those enemies would want to eliminate him. When Jesus informed his disciples of that, Peter was so taken aback that he missed the point about Jesus’ prediction that he would rise from the grave.

The implication of Jesus’ revelation that he would fall foul of those in power, of those who were threatened by the values he espoused, is that a similar fate would come the way of anyone who chose to imitate him. Peter was not ready to hear what Jesus had said, and tried to silence his friend. I can just imagine this man, in keeping with the impetuosity we have come to associate with him, saying something like: “Cut it out, Jesus, we’ll never attract anyone else if you continue to say things like that. That’s not good publicity.” And Jesus was equal to Peter’s efforts to shut him up: “Steady up, Peter, you’ve missed my point. Can’t you see what I’m trying to tell you?”

This raises for me the topic of the relationship between Jesus and Peter. I suggest it’s worth delving into because, while we all claim to have valued friends, we have to ask ourselves if we trust them enough to allow them to tell us truths that might shake us up a bit. In John’s Gospel there are at least three references to John as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13, 23; 19, 26; 21, 7;), yet most of the arguments in the Gospels are between Jesus and Peter. To me, that is evidence that the relationship of friendship between Jesus and Peter was strong enough to sustain disagreements. I am reminded here of a definition of friendship I came across in the Christian Century magazine about 20 years ago: “Friends are those whom God chooses to teach us what our families can’t.” True friends are people who are prepared to challenge us to grow and change, by telling us home truths. Love involves caring enough to risk asking hard questions or confronting us when we behave irresponsibly. We sometimes hear ourselves saying that so-and-so is someone who will listen to us without judging us. But let’s not forget that there is a difference between unconditional listening and unconditional love. I find it interesting that libraries are full of books about relationships between marriage partners, about parenting and family relationships, but light on when it comes to exploring the nature of healthy friendship. Yet it’s often a challenge from an honest friend that reminds us that we are loved.
So, as I take heart from Mark’s account of the vigorous exchange between Peter and Jesus, my sympathies are with Peter, who seemed to humbly absorb the rebuke he received. The friendship between these two was sufficiently robust to encourage Jesus to put his confidence in Peter to lead that first group of disciples who would eventually grow into the Church. But let’s not forget that, among all those faithful Jews who longed for the coming of the Messiah, there would not have been a single one who would have envisioned a Messiah who was destined for rejection, suffering and death. It has been only in retrospect that humanity has come to realise that champions of justice and advocates for the poor and marginalised will be eliminated by those who will stop at nothing when their own status and power are threatened.

Peter and the other disciples with him, like the deaf man whose ears Jesus had just opened, had their hearing jolted by a message they least expected. What’s more it took time for that message to register in their consciousness. It took time for them to realise that following in the footsteps of Jesus would bring them rejection, persecution and death.
Today’s readings from Isaiah and James prepare us for the shock message of the gospel-reading. Isaiah describes how listening to God’s word is like a wake-up call, but holding firm to it brings trouble from those who cannot accept what God expects of them: “God has given me a well-taught tongue, so I know how to encourage tired people…God opened my ears and I didn’t go back to sleep…I followed orders, stood there and took it on the chin when they beat me…I didn’t dodge their insults, faced them as they spat in my face. And God stayed right there and helped me, so I was not disgraced” (Isaiah 50, 4-9).
The reading from James complements Isaiah’s testimony. James points out that it’s not enough for us to proclaim that we are committing ourselves to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. We have to match our words with practical action: “God-talk”, says James, “without God-acts is outrageous nonsense” (James 2 17). But, even in our own day, we have seen how siding with the poor and assisting them to claim their own voice and independence are anathema to those whose power is built on keeping the masses in subservience. Oscar Romero’s assassination is testimony to that, as is the disappearance of priests in Nicaragua who dared to walk beside oppressed villagers, addressing their basic needs and empowering them with education.
And what’s the implication for us here? We would do well to note that Peter was a great example of inconsistency and betrayal, that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, had their eyes on positions of status and power, that Thomas didn’t believe his friends when they declared they had seen the Risen Jesus. Yet Jesus stuck with them all despite their human frailties, as he sticks with us, despite ours. Yet, we all know people, even family members, who have walked away from the Church because some in leadership have failed to live up to the trust we placed in them. And we may be tempted to follow them. However, we’re all in this together, so isn’t it time for us to stand up and be counted? Who do we say Jesus is? Do our actions match our answer? If they do, the road ahead will not be easy.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus put his finger into the man’s ears, and spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him: “Ephphatha!” – that is: “Be opened!” Mark 7, 31-37

“God, your God, is the God of all gods, the Master of all masters, a God immense and powerful and awesome. God doesn’t play favourites, doesn’t take bribes, makes sure orphans and widows are treated fairly, and takes loving care of aliens and foreigners by seeing that they get food and clothing. You must, therefore, treat aliens and foreigners with the same loving care – remember, you, too, were once foreigners in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10, 17-19)

I begin today’s reflection with this extract from the Book of Deuteronomy because the sentiments it expresses reverberate throughout all three of today’s readings. The text I have quoted is part of a long exhortation by Moses to the people of Israel, following their failure to live up to the commitment they had made to abide by the commandments that Moses had received from God. In short, Moses was urging his people to imitate the concern, care, impartiality and love that God shows to all people, but especially to the poor, the disadvantaged and all who have been alienated, pushed aside and forgotten.

At its core, today’s first reading from Isaiah is an appeal to break out of the paralysis of fear and begin trusting in the God who cares for all, who will right wrongs and overturn injustice, who will even restore sight and hearing to the blind and the deaf. Implicit is the message that, if we can set aside our fears and come to trust in God, we, too, will find the courage needed to step out and start righting the wrongs we see around us and reaching out to the needy and disadvantaged.

In today’s second reading from James, we are reminded again that God, seemingly, does not play favourites. James takes his community to task through a bit of play-acting. He invites his community to imagine two visitors turning up in their church. One is opulently dressed (the equivalent of Goldfinger), while the second is an unwashed vagrant. James then proceeds to describe how, in all likelihood, his community would dance attendance on “Goldfinger” and consign the smelly vagrant to the back seat, or even ignore him. “But”, James asks, “are not both visitors equal in God’s sight? Don’t they both deserve to be welcomed with equal respect and dignity?” But then he goes an extra step, contradicting his earlier remark that God does not play favourites, and points out that God offers the down-and-outs first place in the kingdom (cf James 2, 5). Deep down, I suspect, many of us have difficulty with that.

Now, in order to appreciate the deeper meaning of today’s readings, we have to dig a little deeper. I suggest we look at a section of Chapter 7 of Mark that has been omitted by those who put together today’s readings. Mark7, 24-30 is the story of the Canaanite woman who approached Jesus, in hostile, foreign territory, begging him to cure her very young daughter who was possessed by an unclean spirit. I sometimes think that the writer of Mark’s Gospel had a “wicked sense of humour”, for the way in which Jesus responded initially to that mother and child hardly reflected Moses’ direction to the people of Israel: “You must treat aliens and foreigners with the same loving care as God has treated you” (Deuteronomy 10, 19). There’s a further irony here for all of us, for, like the woman in this story who was of Greek origin, we, too, are all gentiles. Now that surely offers us some scope for reflection! There’s yet more irony in the fact that the leaders of modern Israel, who continue to claim that they and their people are God’s chosen ones, continue to mistreat the Palestinians, all of whom are descendants of Abraham – one who is hailed by the Jewish people as their father in faith. And when did we last protest at the Israeli Embassy, calling for justice to the people of Palestine?

Furthermore, I am fascinated by the fact that Jesus, who was initially deaf to the Syro-Phoenician woman (of Greek citizenship) who was pleading for her daughter, immediately afterwards reached out to the deaf-mute man who was brought to him by friends. This sequence of events demonstrates that Jesus was a man of his culture and was influenced by those around him, who lived in fear and suspicion of foreigners. It also shows that he was open to learn and change as he went, and able, even, to listen to the logic of a woman, and a foreigner, to boot.

In dealing with the deaf-mute, Jesus did not shrink from the very basics – he not only touched the man who was regarded as being contaminated because of his disability, but inserted his fingers into the man’s ears and spat on his own fingers before reaching out and touching the man’s tongue. There’s something really earthy, even messy, about that. That makes me ask myself how I rate in my dealings with people who have a disability or who are afflicted with illness. Am I inclined to keep them at a distance? (I’m not alluding here to the precautionary measures we are bound to take in dealing with the Covid virus.)

A further implication of today’s gospel-reading is that it raises for me questions of my own deafness to the action and invitation of God’s Spirit calling to me from the people in the world around me and indeed from those with whom I live and work. How am I being prompted by God’s Spirit to open my ears, mind and heart to the cries of the forgotten, the displaced, the alienated, the refugees struggling in my small part of the world?

In concluding this reflection, I hearken back to today’s reading from James and share a story I read recently of a female, Mennonite pastor who set out to measure how the congregation she led had taken to heart James’ challenge to reach out to down-and-outs. This particular pastor went to great pains to disguise herself as a street-person. She purchased some second-hand clothes from a thrift shop, donned a soiled hat, put dirtied, worn shoes on her feet and ruffled her hair. When she entered the church through the back door, people, who normally would have greeted her cheerily, turned away and would not make eye contact. When she wasn’t being ignored, she was glared at. As she got near the front of the church, she could sense the ushers getting ready for a confrontation, but they relented and seated her as far away as possible from the regular attendees. The air became electric when she stood up and started to walk towards the pulpit. When she uncovered her face and revealed her identity, there was astonishment on most faces. That was followed by embarrassment and, after the service, a succession of apologies. Over the years, I have seen priests dressed as clowns deliver their homilies to effect, church ushers make clowns of themselves in their efforts to manage vagrants, but I’ve not seen a priest come disguised as a vagrant. We might need to ask ourselves if we have domesticated the Gospel and forgotten the God who looks closer to a clown in turning into guests of honour those for whom we and our world are inclined to have little regard.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Nothing that enters from outside can defile a person; but the things that come from within are what defile.” Mark 7, 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

This Sunday’s gospel-reading is complemented by the reading we hear from the Letter of James, written by someone who had a direct, no-nonsense approach to religion: “Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Come to the aid of orphans and widows when they need it, and don’t let yourself be contaminated by the world(James 1, 27). That prompts me to begin this reflection with the story of a man who grew up in another Christian denomination in which those attending the Sunday service were expected to tick six boxes on the envelopes taken up at the Offertory collection:
__ Worship attended         __ Bible brought         __ Bible read daily

__ Sunday school lesson studied         __ prayed daily         __ gave an offering

Somebody had decided that these were the essential markers for belonging to that church congregation. There was no mention of the Beatitudes or the works of mercy.
Reflecting on his time in that Church community, the man who shared this story continued: “As a teenager, I brought my Bible every Sunday and did all the things prescribed on the offering envelope, which was my spiritual scorecard. I was assured that, as long as I was doing these six things, I would remain on good terms with God. I remember one Sunday when some visitors turned up in our church and came and sat down right in front of us. I turned and whispered to my father: ‘Do you see that? They don’t have Bibles!’ ‘Must be Presbyterians or, even, Catholics’, he whispered back.”

This same young person continued to explore his Bible and, eventually, after discovering the Letter of James, came to appreciate that the ultimate test of our religious faith is the measure of the care we extend to the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged around and among us. That discovery sustained him into adulthood and led him to volunteer for a ministry in Arizona that straddled the border between the United States and Mexico. There he met another man who had volunteered to be a missionary to Mexico, quite unaware that the Gospel had been alive in Mexico long before it had reached the United States. Undeterred, he stayed with the group he had joined and was assigned to give Bible classes and show the Jesus Film (1979) to children in a desperately poor Mexican village. The man continued his story to his new-found friend: “One day, a youngster who had taken a liking to me, took my hand and started to pull me down one of the village streets. I didn’t have enough Spanish to ask him what he wanted, and he had no English. But I went with him around a corner and tagged along till we stopped at a broken down, makeshift house. The boy pushed open a door and pointed inside. I realised he was introducing me to his mother, and his brothers and sisters – five or six small children scampering around on a dirt floor. Still holding onto the hand of the youngster who was leading me, I realised there and then what God was inviting me to do with my life.”

Over the next few weeks, we will hear more from the Letter of James as he repeatedly tells us that talk about faith without matching it with good works is emptiness. We are reminded of this in all kinds of different ways – from the story above to accounts of students taking gap-years to reach out to stricken Haitians, to a delightful Kenyan proverb: “When you pray, always remember to move your feet”.

When we Catholics encounter things like the “offering envelope” above, we can be inclined to look down on its designers with a sense of superiority. But let’s not forget that when people come together in groups, they invent all kinds of markers to indicate who belongs and who is excluded. For instance, if you don’t know the Liverpool Football Team song and wear the team scarf and beret, you just don’t rate as a fan or a true believer. Without those markers, giving voice to being a fan is simply hot air. And look at all the markers we Catholics have created at one time or another to signal our belonging, our commitment and, often, our superiority. If, in the past, you were not a member of “The Holy Name Society” or the “Legion of Mary” you risked being labelled as half-hearted. At the start of Lent, you would risk ridicule from fellow Catholics if you were not displaying a smudge of ashes on your forehead. And then there were scapulars of various colours and Miraculous Medals to serve as markers of extra devotion.

In today’s gospel-reading, we hear an account of a spat between Jesus and a group of Jerusalem Pharisees who had taken it upon themselves to do the job of “observance police”. They were busy looking at Jesus and his disciples to check for signs that they really belonged. It’s worth remembering, in this context, that the Jews of Jesus’ time had their markers of who really belonged and who didn’t. Those markers were a disproportionate attention to aspects of their customs and laws: circumcision, dietary laws, purification practices and observation of the Sabbath. The Jews were well aware that central to their faith was the shema. – the great command to love God and neighbour with all one’s mind, heart and strength. But to make sure they stood apart from the gentiles surrounding them, they adopted identity markers linked to dress, washing, diet and rigid Sabbath observance regarding travel and work. Agenda like these became both political and religious, and were promoted by hard-line Pharisees.

We Catholics don’t have to dig too deep to discover some of the markers, painted in large letters, that have characterised us. One of those has been an inordinate emphasis on sexual morality. Sadly, we have discovered that many who have spelt out the rules and regulations have failed to observe them themselves. Moreover, it was not long ago that some Catholics, even Church leaders, excluded fellow human beings on the ground of their sexual orientation. And we still exclude women from preaching, as if they don’t have insights to share with us as to how to live the Gospel with authenticity and creativity. And where do we stand on the efforts of some in our Church who want to exclude US President Biden from full participation in Eucharist?

It’s worth noting that Jesus, in his outburst against the Pharisees in today’s gospel-reading, does not condemn the practices of ritual cleansing or sabbath observance. He bypassed those regulations wherever he came across a greater need. He had consistently proclaimed that the kingdom of God was breaking into human history, into the history of his own Jewish people, in a new way; that the identity markers of genuine people of God will be a circumcised heart and a diet of compassion, mercy justice and love. We, in our time and place, need to acknowledge that we all have an inclination to be self-righteous, to look a little better than we really are. The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen noted that when he observed that it’s very hard for all of us to stop being the prodigal son without becoming the elder brother. Now, there’s a tall order!

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Then Jesus said to the Twelve: “Do you, too, want to leave me?” Simon Peter answered him: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe; we are convinced that you are God’s holy one.”
John 6, 60-69

Today’s gospel-reading brings us to the end of a five-part, challenging and intense exploration of chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. That chapter is commonly referred to as the “Bread of Life Discourse”. As I struggled through it, I admit that I came away with some sympathy for those disciples who, bewildered by the complexity of what Jesus was saying, started grumbling: “This sort of talk is hard to endure! How can anyone take it seriously?” (John 6, 60).   Let’s face it. Many of us have had the benefit of centuries of analysis and exploration by reputable scripture scholars and theologians who have delved into this “Bread of Life Discourse. And we still struggle with it. No wonder those early disciples responded as they did. Moreover, Jesus didn’t ask them to give him more time to clarify what he was saying. He let them go with their questions unresolved, instead of giving them easy answers or offering them an easy way to faith in him. I have read this chapter in John over a life-time, and catch myself wondering if the real miracle here wasn’t the feeding of a crowd of 5000, but the fact that there were twelve still connected to Jesus when the dust settled.

What’s more is that I’m doubtful whether Jesus would have been totally convinced by Peter’s expression of loyalty. Effectively, he started by saying something like: “We’re not sure if there are any better options; if there is anyone else more trustworthy than you, Jesus. But where else can we go? We don’t understand you any better than all those who have just walked away, but what other possibilities are open to us?” Admittedly, he gained a bit more credibility when he finished with “We are convinced that you are God’s holy one” (John 6, 69). And let’s not forget that, not long afterwards, this same Simon Peter, in the space of a couple of hours, three times denied having any connection at all with Jesus. But are we any different? We’ve all made resolutions, promises and commitments to get involved in walking closely in the footsteps of Jesus, in treating others with tolerance, kindness and compassion and have ended up failing, simply because we have given priority to personal comfort and self-interest. We have renewed our faith commitment year after year at the Easter Vigil liturgy and it has sometimes had no more substance than the words that have come out of our mouths. Yet, despite our human frailty and failures, somehow or other we end up coming back to Jesus, perhaps for no other reason than that what he said and did has the ring of authenticity and selfless concern for others about it. While our faith in Jesus might be a bit wishy-washy at times, we just can’t shake it or him off. God’s Spirit keeps drawing us to him, exactly as he said (John 6, 64-65): “Yet among you there are some who do not believe…”He went on to say: ‘This is why I have told you that on one can come to me on his own. You get to me only as a gift from the Father.’” Even if there is a touch of ambiguity or doubt in Peter’s response, what he said could be interpreted as divinely inspired.

That leads me to look a little more closely at the question Jesus asked the Twelve: “Do you, too, want to leave me?” That question marked a critical point in Jesus’ public ministry. In fact, it was a question that risked putting an end to it. His question exposed his vulnerability, and was as risky as the question he asked his disciples at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16, 13-20, Mark 8, 27-30, Luke 9, 18-21) Again, it was Peter who spoke up on behalf of the group, identifying Jesus as the Messiah. In the Gospel’s of Matthew, Mark and Luke, this question and Peter’s response follow closely upon the account of the miracle of the feeding of the crowd. Jesus’ question in today’s gospel-reading, also asked against the backdrop of John’s account of the feeding miracle, is just a different way of posing the crucial question of who Jesus really is. Isn’t that the question that has challenged every Christian over the last several thousand years? Isn’t that a question that still challenges us? Moreover, it’s a question which contemporary scripture scholars continue to explore (notably, José Antonio Pagola, Jesus: An Historical Approximation, Crossroad Publishing, 2007), but a question that will never be exhausted because it is not a question of gathering facts, but a question of faith and relationship. Inspired by God’s Spirit, we grow in our desire to grow our relationship with Jesus through prayer, reflection and encountering Jesus in the people around us, especially in the poor, the needy and the forgotten. Another scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan, in his book The Essential Jesus alerts us to the fact that the earliest Christians, in their art, depicted Jesus feeding the multitude. That was long before their successors chose the crucifix to represent Jesus’ limitless love for humanity. We all know that art is inspired by the culture from which it emanates. The earliest Christians were, for the most part, people who struggled to meet their basic needs. One of their daily concerns was making sure there was sufficient bread for their families. Little wonder, then, that they depicted Jesus as the provider of bread for the hungry.

I suggest that, for us, sticking with Jesus is doing what Christians have done for centuries. – putting their bodies on the line for others or, as John put it, living and spending their lives, gifts and energy in the service of others (cf John 15, 13). By imitating that in our part of the world, we become food, nourishment and encouragement for others. This is the challenge which St Teresa of Avila puts to us so clearly:

Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which He looks
Compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world,
Yours are the hands,
Yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes,
You are His body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Or, as Augustine says to us as we participate in Eucharist and receive the Body of Christ: “Behold who you are, become what you receive” – the body of Christ, given for others.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Assumption of Mary – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leapt in her womb. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth cried out: “Blest are you among women and blest is the fruit of your womb”…Then Mary said: “My soul proclaims the greatness of my God…who has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.” Luke 1, 39-56

In November 1950, Pope Pius XII, somewhat unexpectedly, declared the assumption of Mary, body and soul into Heaven, to be an infallible teaching of the Church. The Pope stated: “The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (Munificentissimus Deus #44). From as early as the sixth century, popular piety had held to the belief that Mary was taken up to heaven immediately after she died. However, there is no mention of this happening in the Gospels or anywhere else in the New Testament. Despite that, Christians from the earliest times have demonstrated fruitful imaginations. There is one story, paralleling Jesus’ Ascension, that tells how Mary was assumed into heaven as all the Apostles, except Thomas, looked on. Predictably, poor Thomas was described as doubting a second time, just as he had reputedly doubted the Resurrection of Jesus. The story adds that, to dissolve his doubt, Mary provided tangible proof by dropping her girdle down from the heavens. Myths and legends associated with Mary and the other saints have been created over the centuries. The renowned Irish-Canadian Anglican preacher and hymn-writer, Herbert O’Driscoll tells a story he heard in his childhood from an elderly Irish farmer: “John Brennan was a dairy-farmer who would sit, every evening after his work, on a large flat stone outside the milking shed. One evening, pointing his pipe up at the stars, he said: “Do you know that the stars and the sun and moon move around all the time?” I said I did. “Well,’’ said John, “do you know how the angel Gabriel came to Mary the mother of our Lord to tell her she would have a child?” I said I did. “Well then,” said John, looking skyward as he spoke, with my eyes following his gaze, “Do you know that when the angel asked Mary if she would bear the holy child, all the stars and the sun and the moon stopped moving until she gave Gabriel her reply? And when she said yes, they all began to move again. Did you know that?” said John triumphantly.

That story is a fitting lead into today’s gospel-reading from Luke, a reading which prompts me to ask myself how the account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth connects with Mary’s assumption into Heaven. In case you think I have a clear answer, let me tell you that I’m still puzzled. When Pius XII declared Mary’s Assumption as an essential part of our Catholic faith, theologians got busy trying to work out what relevance her assumption into heaven has for the rest of us. The best explanation I have found comes from Hugo Rahner SJ, the older brother of the better-known Karl Rahner (1904-1984) also a Jesuit, and arguably the greatest theologian of the modern era. Mary is often referred to as the first among the disciples of Jesus (a little more about that later). She was certainly a very significant member of the first Christian community and has been dear to all Christians because of her significant role in bringing Jesus into the world as the greatest expression of God’s love for humanity. Hugo Rahner, reflecting on the intimate relationship between Mary and the People of God, asserted that the Assumption of Mary, body and soul, into Heaven is “A foreshadowing of what is to come for the whole Christian community” (that is, for the Church, for all of us)! He went on to say that Mary’s Assumption was a fulfilment of what had already happened to Jesus in his resurrection and Ascension. He concluded that the Assumption is something that is offered to the entire People of God. It is not just a special privilege for Mary: “Thus, the final glory of Mary, which we recognise with the eye of faith, is a recognition of the final glory of the Church” (the People of God, all of us). Hugo Rahner, Our Lady and the Church, Pantheon Books, New York, 1961

Hugo Rahner’s insight echoes Paul’s argument about the resurrection of Jesus in today’s second reading from Corinthians. Some members of the Christian community in Corinth apparently had reservations about the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Paul had no hesitations in calling them to task: “If there is no resurrection from the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty is our preaching; and empty, too, your faith” (1 Corinthians 15, 13-14). He goes on to argue that, while the kingdom of God has begun on earth, it will not reach completion until the final enemy, death, is completely destroyed. Then we will follow him into a new life as our bodies are raised up. But he reminds us that we will have to wait patiently for our turn. This resonates with Hugo Rahner’s reasoning about Mary’s assumption. Mary was as fully human as we are. Her assumption into God’s heavenly kingdom was completely dependent on the resurrection of Jesus (Paul’s argument). It was on account of her role in giving birth to Jesus as a full human being that she was given the privilege of joining her risen Son in glory. That same destiny awaits us. And that is the message underlying Mary’s assumption into Heaven.

Now, back to dairy-farmer Brennan’s story. It’s important for us to remember that the angel Gabriel gave Mary two messages: that she would give birth to a child and that her elderly cousin Elizabeth was already six months pregnant. That second piece of news was enough to prompt Mary to visit Elizabeth. Let’s not forget that the angel had told her not to be afraid and that Mary was as human as we are. We can all remember times when we were gripped by fear. Even though people like our parents tried to comfort and reassure us, we know that our fear didn’t immediately evaporate. A strong emotion like fear does not respond to a directive like “Don’t be afraid”, even if it comes from an angel. The message that she would conceive and give birth to a son surely turned her upside down and filled her with confusion at best, and, very likely, with all kinds of questions and concerns. Falling pregnant before she was married put her at risk of being stoned to death at the entrance to her father’s house (Deuteronomy 22, 2021). Did she decide to go and stay with Elizabeth solely to be a support to her cousin? Did she guess that the older woman would be a support and comfort for her in the dilemma into which her pregnancy had pitched her? Perhaps she was hoping for a second opinion. We are told that she stayed with Elizabeth and Zechariah for three months. Was that so she would be on hand to assist Elizabeth when she reached full term? Could Mary have headed off to join Elizabeth in order to escape the quizzical looks and intrusive questions of her neighbours as her pregnancy became obvious? And, what about Elizabeth and Zechariah? They were elderly and surely knew the risks of a first child being safely delivered by a woman so advanced in age. So, it is little wonder that Elizabeth was overjoyed when her young cousin turned up on the doorstep unannounced. In her excitement, she felt the baby inside her body give a kick, and that in itself would have been a sign of reassurance that the child she was to have was alive and kicking. In her excitement, she told Mary how the sound of her voice was enough to bring to life everything within and around her. Inspired by God’s Spirit, joy and excitement erupted from within as she called Mary “blessed” three times. We have all witnessed joy and excitement in someone we know and love, and we have felt those emotions spill over into us. There is something infectious about emotions like those. It came, then, as no surprise when Mary, too, came alive and broke into a song which echoes the sentiments expressed by Hannah after she had dedicated to God her son Samuel – the son she thought she would never have.

A close look at Mary’s song, which we now call the Magnificat, reveals that it is a song in praise of a God who will turn the world upside down, who will overturn the powerful and important, who will replace injustice and oppression with justice and compassion. And that’s a summary of the Gospels in a nutshell. Her son Jesus would, in time, echo the sentiments of her song when he proclaimed: Blessed are the poor in spirit, the hungry, the persecuted, those overburdened by oppression and grief. The message he proclaimed so threatened the religious leaders of his day that they had him executed. Moreover, his mother’s song was and is so challenging that, as late as the 1980s, the Government of Guatemala saw fit to ban it, lest it incite ideas of rebellion in the minds of oppressed peasants.

How, then, is all this related to Mary’s assumption and a similar destiny for us? In journeying to visit Elizabeth, Mary gave expression to a wide range of the emotions that define and express the fullness of her humanity: confusion, compassion, excitement and joy, integrity, daring and courage. Her life demonstrates that her actions were fully in tune with the values she proclaimed. Therein lies the challenge for all of us who see ourselves as belonging to the People of God. By living our lives as truly human – and it is human that we are meant to be – we can be confident that we, too, are on the right road to assumption.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

At this, because he said: “I am the bread that has come down from heaven”, the Jews started to murmur in protest: “Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph? Don’t we know his father and mother? How can he claim to have come down from heaven?”…”Stop your complaining” Jesus said to them. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them…Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died: this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat and not die.”   John 6, 41-51


There’s a journalist in Sydney, whose weekly offering appears on the back page of one of the Sunday newspapers. A self-declared atheist, he is often bitterly critical of Christians, Church leaders and, in fact, anyone who believes in God. Every week, his column includes what he lists as “Joke of the Week”. The joke he served up last Sunday is one that was around half a century ago. In reproducing it, he unwittingly gave us some profound theology, which resonates with the readings of this coming Sunday. I repeat his so-called joke in full:

(Dedicated to the woman holding the placard, “My vaccine is the blood of Jesus.”) A fellow is stuck on his roof in a flood. A man in a rowboat turns up and shouts, “Jump in, I can save you!” The stranded fellow shouts back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God, and he is going to save me.” A motorboat comes by and the bloke yells, “Jump in, I can save you!” “No thanks, I’m praying to God, and he is going to save me.” Then a helicopter appears, and the pilot leans out and shouts, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.” “No thanks, I have put my faith in God.” Tragically, the man is swept away and drowns, whereupon he meets his maker. “I had faith in you”, the dead man exclaims, “but you didn’t save me. You let me down. I don’t understand why!” God replies: “I sent you a rowboat, a motorboat and a helicopter. What more did you expect?”

As Christians and Catholics, we can appreciate that there are contradictions and inconsistencies in our lives. We say that we have faith and trust in God, but often fail to recognise that God is present and at work in the ordinary things around us (like rowboats, motorboats and helicopters) and in the ordinary events of our lives. However, we get a little bit ruffled when a declared outsider makes fun of our contradictions and inconsistencies. Today’s gospel-reading confronts us with those very same things as we observe Jesus confronting the crowd with his declaration: “I am the bread of life that came down from heaven.” To appreciate just what he was getting at, I suggest we take a few moments reflecting on what we mean when we talk about the “mystery of the Incarnation.” I believe we tend to look at it only as a theological concept rather than an event that can have a profound effect on how we live our lives. Its meaning is contained in the words itself: God came among us in the person of Jesus, as a human being just like us, The implication or corollary of that is that God is somehow present in us and can make God’s presence felt in everyone and everything God has created. To better appreciate the wider implications of God among us in the person of Jesus, we have to break out of our limited thinking. That was the very challenge with which Jesus confronted the crowd in front of him, who could not free themselves from their narrow-mindedness, demonstrated by their refusal to accept that God could work through a young rabbi whom they had known all their lives and whose parents were ordinary people like them.
At the time of this interaction between Jesus and the crowd, nobody really understood who Jesus was. That became clearer only after his resurrection. So, when he declared “I am the bread of life who came down from heaven”, he was pleading with them to see that God could also work through each one of them, all created in the image of God. Their insistence on seeing him as nothing more than the “kid who grew up in the neighbourhood” simply revealed them as unable to appreciate their own potential for good and their limited faith in the God who had loved them into life. Despite a long history of God’s dealing with their ancestors through life’s ordinary events, this crowd could not see that God could work through Jesus, and even through them.

There are a few other significant aspects of John’s account of the exchange between Jesus and the crowd. Jesus reminded them of the Israelites who grumbled against Moses when they accused him of leading them on a fruitless journey into the desert where they thought they would die from starvation. God provided them with “manna from heaven”, about which they were initially very suspicious. The word “manna” is derived from the Hebrew mah hu, literally meaning “what’s this?” Effectively, they persisted in their complaining to Moses by saying “What’s this stuff you expect us to eat?” Over the centuries, the manna in the desert (which was probably insect excrement and full of protein) developed into a symbol of God’s providential love for the people of Israel. Eating the manna came to be seen as a metaphor for taking in God’s love and allowing themselves to be transformed by that love.

Furthermore, in telling the crowd: “You can’t come to me and be nourished by what I have to offer, unless my Father draws you”, Jesus alerts them to the fact that they can’t respond to God under their own steam. They have to be sensitive to God’s Spirit alive and active within the depths of their being. We, too, know that there is a longing for God deep within our hearts, and that, in the long run, God is the only one who will ever satisfy us.
Manna was and is a metaphor that is expansive in its meaning. To the Israelites, it was the sign of God’s providential presence among them. For us, it is the kindness, support, compassion and care we extend to others and receive from them. It is the encouragement, affirmation and love we give and receive. It is the nourishment we give to and receive from each other on our journey to the fullness of our humanity.

Today’s gospel reading is complemented by the story of the prophet Elijah, who told God that he’d had enough of being a prophet, and asked God to let him die before Jezebel caught up up with him and killed him. Instead of giving him what he wanted, God sent an angel to nourish him with the food he needed. Nourished by that food, he was able to walk for forty days and nights and reach God’s mountain of Horeb, where he had a direct encounter with God.
In the second reading from Ephesians, we are challenged with the opening words: “Do nothing to frustrate God’s Spirit!”. If we truly believe that God’s Spirit is alive within us and is alive and active in the world around us, it is only logical that we will be alert to the Spirit’s promptings, and also acknowledge that there are times when we are deaf to them. It is our insensitivity to God’s Spirit to which Paul refers when he says: “Don’t grieve or frustrate God’s Spirit.” While we probably don’t set out to do that, there is a simple practice in which we can engage to increase our awareness to the presence and action of the Spirit. By taking a few minutes at the end of each day, reflecting on the questions: “Where, today, was the Spirit nudging, prompting or inviting me? How did I respond?”, we will sharpen our alertness to God at work in us.


Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life…I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” John 6, 24-35

I find John’s Gospel challenging at the best of times. I struggle to grasp the meaning of some of his metaphors, to uncover the implications of his message and to depth some of his theology. Having said that, I dare to suggest that today’s gospel-reading and, indeed, the whole of Chapter 6 of his Gospel make the point that happy, wholesome, meaningful living is not provided by the material resources we have and work to accumulate but by adopting the values on which Jesus built his life. Jesus could see that the crowds were flocking around him, following the miracle of his feeding the five thousand, because they had concluded that he could be a source of supply to meet their immediate needs. It seems to me that, consciously or unconsciously, they saw in Jesus the possibility of a “quick-fix” to all their problems and wants. That’s a human characteristic we can all recognise. Who among us hasn’t, at some time or other, longed for instant gratification of a want we have turned into a need? It seems that the crowds who witnessed or heard about the miracle of the loaves and fish wanted Jesus to do a repeat performance.

Are we any different? We commemorate our heroes because memories of them make us feel good. We watch replays of the victories of our favourite sporting teams because they, too, lift our spirits and leave us with good feelings. We take tickets in sweepstakes, the Pools or Lotto in the hope of a windfall, convincing ourselves that, if we win, more will be better. So, John shows us how Jesus reads the mindset of the crowd in front of him. Instead of answering the busy-body question of one of their number – “Rabbi, when did you come here?” – Jesus launches into an assertion about the crowd’s motivation in coming after him: “I assure you, you are not looking for me because you have seen signs but because you have eaten your fill of the loaves. You should not be working for perishable food but for food that nourishes your lasting life, food with which the Son of Man will provide you; it is on him that God the Father has set his seal” (of approval and authenticity) John 6, 26-27. That’s John’s way of saying that the values that Jesus proclaims and embodies in his living are guaranteed by God to nourish them (the crowd) and us for living meaningful, wholesome and happy lives.

The words attributed to Jesus by John – “You are not looking for me because you have seen signs” pick up not only a feature of John’s Gospel but also allude to the blindness of the crowd to whom Jesus was speaking and their deafness to his message. All four Gospels were attempts by their authors to demonstrate to their communities just who Jesus really was and what his coming as a human being meant for the future of humanity. The first three Gospels pointed to who Jesus was by variously putting the focus on his miracles or on what he meant by “the kingdom of God” or on his reaching out to the poor and disadvantaged or on his healing and miracles. To point to who Jesus was, John carefully set down what he calls seven “signs” to illustrate that Jesus could only have come from God, that Jesus really was God’s beloved son. Briefly, those seven signs are: changing water into wine in Cana, healing from a distance the royal official’s son in Capernaum, curing the paralytic at the pool in Bethsaida, feeding the 5000, walking on the water in the storm, healing the man who was blind from birth, raising Lazarus from the grave. In the process, John uses many images and metaphors from the Old or First Testament. As today’s gospel-reading unfolds, we can see that it has some parallels with the first reading from Exodus. John, echoing the incident of God raining down manna in the desert to satisfy the hunger of the grumbling Israelites, effectively states that Jesus is the new manna, sent from heaven by God to feed and nourish the world. Moreover, he reprimands the crowd for wanting a repeat of the miracle of the loaves and fish instead of opening their eyes to take in the real significance of the Jesus who stands in front of them. And so that the crowd does not miss the point, John quotes Jesus as saying explicitly: “I myself am the bread of life” (John 6, 35).

John is a good theologian who gives an explanation to his community of who Jesus is and how they can grow to appreciate that he is the “new manna”, God’s gift of nourishment for them and the world. However, I dare to suggest that in his eagerness to give a sound theological basis to the point he wants to make, John sells Jesus short as a teacher. One doesn’t encourage others to change their life directions by telling them that they are wrong or by making categorical assertions. John attributes to Jesus a statement to the crowd telling them that Moses, one of their great ancestors in faith, did not provide the manna in the desert, noting that Moses was only God’s instrument in bringing satisfaction to the grumbling Israelites he was leading. A little later in the exchange between Jesus and the crowd, John has Jesus assert: “I myself am the bread of life.” There are two points worthy of our consideration here. People rarely come to put their faith in anyone who makes bold assertions of grandeur about himself/herself. Maybe Donald Trump was an exception. But he turned off more than he attracted. Change of attitude and allegiance, conversion of mind and heart normally come about gradually through engagement with others that develops into relationship, and certainly not by being subjected to criticism and categorical statements. I am inclined to think that Jesus would have been more respectful of people in the crowd, even when they were unable to see the goodness of God right in front of them and all around them.

It is also worth noting that the Jews of Jesus’ time were familiar with the metaphor of “bread from heaven” being used to describe the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures so dear to every faithful Jew. For Jesus simply to say, without qualification: “I am the bread of heaven” would have been earth-shattering and soul-shaking. Maybe John, for the sake of brevity, has just given his audience the headlines of what occurred in the exchange between Jesus and the crowd.

What, then, is something we, who believe in a God who loved us into life and continues to hold us dear, can take from today’s readings? If our faith in God and in Jesus really consists of an ongoing, developing relationship with them, then we can expect it to grow and change from one day to the next. We will have to live with the realisation that there will be days when our prayer and reflection give us a real spiritual and emotional uplift, and other days when there are struggles with that relationship. We also may need to learn that God’s gifts are all around us, if we can only pause to take them in. Moreover, it’s important to use the gifts we receive from God each day, rather than try to store them up. After all, the Hebrews of the Exodus learned that they could not keep some of today’s manna for tomorrow. It dried up and became spoiled when it wasn’t used. Relationship with God and Jesus is not about accumulating merit points, preserving a past or building a tradition. That’s the sort of thing that takes the life out of relationship and militates again change, growth and new possibilities. Living faith looks forward to a future full of hope and new life.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by  Br Julian McDonald cfc

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?”   John 6, 1-15

The account of the feeding of the large crowd is the only miracle story that is recorded in all four Gospels. In his Gospel, Mark gives us two versions. It is a story that was particularly significant to the Gospel writers and their communities because of its relevance to the Eucharist. In fact, in Mark’s version, Jesus uses the Greek word eucharisteo (to give thanks) as he prays in gratitude over the young boy’s gift of five barley loaves and two fish. John’s account attributes to Jesus the very same actions: “Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and gave them out to all who were sitting ready; he then did the same with the fish, giving out as much as was wanted.” These verbs of taking, blessing, breaking and distributing are still repeated in every celebration of the Eucharist. But more of that over the next few Sunday reflections.

Today’s gospel-reading closely parallels the first reading from the Book of Kings. To underline that point, I think it is worth repeating today’s first reading in its entirety:
One day a man arrived from Baal-shalishah. He brought the man of God twenty loaves of fresh-baked barley bread from the early harvest. Elisha said: “Pass it around to the people to eat.” But his servant replied: “For a hundred men? There’s not nearly enough!” Elisha said: “Just go ahead and do it, for God says: ‘There’s plenty. They will eat and have some left over.’” The servant passed around what he had. The people not only ate, but they had leftovers. (2Kings 4, 42-44)

In today’s gospel-reading, John alludes to the close knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures that Jesus had. John observes that, in questioning Philip about how they could possibly feed the huge crowd in front of them, Jesus intended “only to test Philip’s faith; for Jesus himself knew exactly what he was going to do” (John 6, 6-7). Jesus knew the story of Elisha, and realised, in his heart, that, in this time and place, he was being asked to be the instrument of God’s desire to be the provider of plenty for people in need.

It is important to note that neither Elisha nor Jesus would have been able to feed the crowds around them without the generosity of two unnamed, ordinary people who gave what they had – a farmer and a small boy.

In all this, there is surely a message for us. As I look over my life, I can own that there have been fits and starts about my attempts to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. But in today’s second reading from Ephesians, we hear Paul’s shake-up message from his prison cell to the Christian Community in Ephesus, and to all of us, too: “I want you to get out there and walk – better yet, run – on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands…And mark that you do this with humility and discipline – not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert to noticing differences and quick at mending fences…Everything you are and think and do is to be by the one God who is alive and active within you”   (Ephesians 4, 1-6).

Implicit in today’s gospel-reading are questions for all of us who claim to belong to the very extensive community of Christians: Do we believe that God will provide us with what we need to carry out the mission in which God wants us to be involved? Many of us are good at making suggestions and skilled at planning. We make lists of what we want in order to reach out compassionately to the poor, the needy, the lonely and the homeless. But what attitudes underpin our way of reaching out and our management of the resources we have to share? Does our way of engaging send a message of hope and generosity or do those to whom we reach out see us as people who give grudgingly of our time and resources? In today’s readings from Kings and John, Elisha and Jesus reveal a God of abundance and generosity.

John makes the point that both Philip and Andrew have a measured approach to life. In responding to Jesus, Philip says: “Two hundred denarii would only buy enough to give them (the crowd) a small piece each”. Commenting on the young lad’s offering of five loaves and two fish, Andrew says: “But what is that between so many?” Yet, woven throughout John’s Gospel is the message that God’s abundant generosity can be clearly seen in the life and actions of Jesus: In his conversation with the woman at the well in Sychar, Jesus says: “The water I will give (grace, hope, life) will be a spring within, gushing up fountains of endless life”  (John 4, 14).   At the wedding in Cana, Jesus directed the servants to fill to the brim six large water pots (each with a capacity of 20-30 gallons). The result was an abundant supply of high-quality wine. (John 2, 6-7) In the opening chapter of his Gospel, John describes Jesus as generous to the core: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace”  (John 1, 16).  In his final exhortation to the apostles, Jesus assures them about the future: “There are many rooms in my Father’s house; if there were not, I would have told you”  (John 14, 2).   John concludes his Gospel with the note that he has written only a brief account of Jesus’ life and good works: “There are so many other things that Jesus did. If they were all written down, I can’t imagine a world big enough to hold such a library of books”  (John 21, 25).  In John’s mind, there is no doubt that Jesus was the personification of God’s abundant love and generosity.

Sadly, so many of us in our early years were taught that God would punish our sins severely, that hell awaited us if we persisted in our wickedness. That kind of religion taught us that God’s favour was somehow to be earned by personal effort. Yet, today’s readings assure us that God loves us freely, abundantly, endlessly; dreams that we might relinquish a faith that is measured and calculated, and grow to reflect some of God’s abundant goodness to others.

I conclude with a poem that has been attributed to an Anglican pastor and poet, John Adam (1936-20), who lived and worked for many years in Ireland, absorbing something of the Celtic approach to poetry. Our world would be different if we could see the sacred in all the ordinary things we have and use, and in everyone we meet.

Be gentle…when you touch bread.
Let it not lie…uncared for, unwanted.
So often…bread is taken for granted.
There is such beauty in bread;
beauty of sun and soil, beauty of patient toil.
Wind and sun have caressed it. Christ often blessed it.
Be gentle…when you touch bread.   
David Adam

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection