Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s it like looking into that mirror?

Posted by superadmin in Sunday Readings Reflection

Twelth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2017

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

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

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

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

The Body and Blood of Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by superadmin in Sunday Readings Reflection
The Ascension

The Ascension

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1, 1.11

 

“The Ascension of the Lord is not the marking of a departure, but the celebration of a presence.” That statement by writer, Jay Cormier captures in a nutshell what the Ascension is all about. Yet, we can easily be distracted from this central message if we get drawn into sympathising with the disciples who were paralysed by self-pity and grief. To do that is to miss the whole point. The angel’s message to the disciples is for us, too.

Today’s story from Acts describes how the angel, who appeared to the disciples after Jesus had disappeared from their sight, summed up the situation perfectly and confronted them: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing around, dawdling? Get going, for you have a job to do. Your best friend, who helped you to find real meaning in your lives, has just given you a mission to accomplish. Moreover, he has empowered you to continue his mission of witnessing to the wonderful works of God. So, get a move on!” Luke’s angel is a little more polite than that. But that was the substance of the angel’s message. Yet the disciples took time to digest that message.

Ascension is a difficult celebration in the Church’s calendar because of the way in which Luke talks about Jesus being “taken up to heaven” as though it was literally a physical transfer from one place to another. However, if we were to accept that literally, we would be subscribing to the simplistic cosmology of the ancient Israelites, who believed in a three-tiered universe, with the dead down below in the bottom tier, the divine powers up above in the heavens, and the living between them in the middle tier. Indeed, some biblical poetry (So think “metaphor”!) pictures the might of the universe as something/somebody beyond our knowing, as if it were a throne room in the sky. For Matthew, “heaven” is another word for God. But we have to blame the Medieval mystics for giving us the notion that heaven is a place “up there somewhere” to where we will go after death and see God face to face. Earlier, the Greek philosopher Plato introduced the idea that humans were made up of two parts – a body and soul fused together, and that after death the soul would enjoy a place called heaven. Relics of these ancient cosmologies still survive in the creed we recite on Sundays, which situates the risen Christ “at the right hand of the Father”. And believers and non-believers alike often speak as if God is “up there somewhere”.

Like all great metaphors, the picture is an engaging one: a deity, sitting on a throne, surrounded by supernatural powers, with Jesus, God’s Prime Minister making sure everything and everybody are in their right place, and justice and peace are flourishing. Despite all this imagery, as early as the 5th century, no less a person than Pope St Leo the Great stated that “Christ has ascended into the sacraments”. Today we say that Christ is alive and active in the Christian community, in all of us who live and proclaim the Gospel entrusted to us. That very message is encapsulated in the final few lines of today’s second reading from Ephesians (cf Ephesians 1, 22-23).

I think the real clue to understanding the Ascension is to be found in the three verses of Acts that follow on from today’s first reading. They tell of how the disciples, after Jesus had been taken from their sight, returned to the upper room in Jerusalem and joined together in prayer. That is Luke’s way of telling us that they were bewildered, fearful, and just didn’t know what to do next. They were a leaderless, shattered community. So they went into hiding to give themselves time to decide what to do, hoping that somehow the promise Jesus had made – “you are going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1, 5) – would come true. They found themselves in an in-between time, caught between loss and promise. And that’s an experience we have all had, and we know how uncomfortable and disconcerting it can be. Most of us, for example, have felt the pain of losing a close family member through accident or terminal illness. It’s as though we are in a vacuum, bewildered, hurting, yet trying to hold ourselves together as we strive to get our life back on track.

Others know the in-between time of going away to boarding school or leaving home to take on full-time employment or study in the big city. Securities they have taken for granted have evaporated and the pall of homesickness envelops them.

Still others find themselves no longer needed in their place of work. They are casualties of an economic downturn. They are too old to retrain for something new and too young to retire. They fear they may not get another job. And then there are those whose marriage falls apart, and those who find themselves wondering if they will ever recover from a debilitating physical or mental illness. All these people know what it is to struggle through in-between times.

Implicit in today’s reading from Acts is a recipe for how to pull through: pray, find support from close friends, accept that one can survive without living in luxury, and don’t lose hope. That’s what the disciples did. And living like that is not beyond us either. The essence of it is to live with authenticity and integrity.

Maybe, we can all learn something from the German tennis star, Boris Becker. At the age of seventeen, he had already won Wimbledon. Despite his youth, he had come realise that the German people were beginning to idolise him. In reflecting on that, he made this extraordinary statement: “The German people wanted me to live for them…When I entered my home town people stood and gazed at me as if they were expecting blessings from the Pope. When I looked into the eyes of my fans at the Davis Cup matches last December, I thought I was looking at monsters. Their eyes had no life in them. When I saw this kind of blind, emotional devotion, I could understand what happened to us a long time ago at Nuremberg” (Heather MacLachlan, The Telegraph, London, Nov 26, 2001). Boris Becker wanted to be authentically himself.

The readings for Ascension are a challenge to us to be authentic witnesses to the values we have learned as disciples of Jesus. They are a call to us to involve ourselves in the life of the Christian community to which we claim to belong. Am I able to hear and respond?

Posted by superadmin in Sunday Readings Reflection