by Br Julian McMahon cfc
Amos said to Amaziah: “I was a shepherd and looked after sycamores: but it was the Lord who took me from herding the flock, and who said: “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” Amos 7, 12-15
Jesus summoned the twelve and began to send them out in pairs, giving them authority over unclean spirits. And he instructed them to take nothing for the journey except a staff… Mark 6, 7-13
The Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) is loaded with snippets of wisdom. One such is a statement about friendship: “A loyal friend is a powerful defence: whoever finds one has indeed found a treasure. A loyal friend is something beyond price, there is no measuring his/her worth. A loyal friend is the elixir of life, and those who trust the Lord will find one (Sirach 6, 14-16). While this might be seen as an unusual introduction to a reflection on today’s gospel reading, it is something that Jesus may well have had in mind as he sent the twelve off to practise the ministry he had entrusted to them. Surely, he reasoned that, by going off in pairs, they would be a support to one another, especially whenever they were made to feel less than welcome. In the process, bonds of friendship were likely to grow. Jesus had already invited them to be his friends. By implication, all who accept friendship with Jesus commit themselves to be in a relationship of friendship, not only with those whom Jesus has invited to be in his circle of friends, but with everyone about whom he cares. Being a follower of Jesus is not about a cosy “Jesus and me” relationship. It is about engaging with respect, care and integrity with everyone we encounter.
True friendship involves mutual support, a readiness to encourage, an openness to be honest, a preparedness to challenge and a readiness to affirm and celebrate as appropriate. That is why Sirach describes a true friend as priceless.
Today’s readings highlight the difficulties that are encountered by those who are invited to proclaim to the world what is involved in calling people to live with integrity and to treat others with the respect, dignity and equality they deserve as people created in the image of God. The recent Sunday readings from Mark make the point that many people don’t want to hear anything about what is meant by living with integrity. Prophets of God and disciples of Jesus are often rejected not only because of the message they bring, but also because of their humble origins.
Amos, the subject of today’s first reading, was at a distinct disadvantage simply because he had worked as a shepherd and a tree-surgeon who scraped the worms from under the bark of sycamore trees. He was further disadvantaged by the fact that he had come to challenge the people of the economically rich Northern kingdom of Israel who had seceded from their southern neighbours. Amos’ message of social justice was anathema to the people of the north. His day-time job of ridding trees of their worms was a very appropriate metaphor for ridding the prosperous society of the northern kingdom of the injustice and corruption that had infected their way of life. So, he was told to go back home where he belonged. What provoked Amaziah to send Amos packing was the fact that his message had threatened the comfort of the people Amos had challenged: “You people hate anyone who challenges injustice and speaks the whole truth in court. You have oppressed the poor and robbed them of their grain. And so you will not live in the fine stone houses you build or drink wine from the beautiful vineyards you plant. I know how terrible your sins are and how many crimes you have committed. You persecute good men, take bribes, and prevent the poor from getting justice in the courts” (Amos 5, 10-12). There was little doubt that words like that would have sent the worms of corruption scurrying for cover. Amos went even further, criticising the people of the north for trying to mask their cheating with a façade of religious worship and practice. No wonder he was run out of town!
In the gospel of today, Jesus makes the point that, to be credible disciples of his, we have to unclutter our lives, get rid of attitudes, prejudices and practices that are obstacles to our witness to the message he invites us to proclaim. Our words and actions are meant to reflect the acceptance, forgiveness, encouragement, mercy and justice that God holds out to everyone. If we do not behave like that we will not be credible witnesses to anything, we will not be messengers of the Gospel.
In sending his disciples out in pairs, Jesus was acting on what he had learned through his own experience. He knew that they would sometimes be accepted and welcomed. He also knew that they would know rejection, but that their faith to be strengthened it would have to survive the criticism of those who would hear their words as alien, remote and unacceptable. That very experience would help them to clarify for themselves exactly what and in whom they placed their faith. Faith that survives testing and opposition eventually becomes more real for those to whom it is proclaimed.
But let’s not conclude that the Gospel of God’s love, acceptance and encouragement can be proclaimed equally effectively in both word and action. Sometimes actions speak more loudly than words. We don’t all have to become preachers and prophets in the style of Amos or by going door-knocking in pairs. Taking time to sit and listen to lonely people in nursing homes, volunteering at a soup kitchen that welcomes street people, providing music and singing to brighten the lives of the elderly, coaching children who struggle to get their homework completed are all effective ways of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus. They might not always be received with expressions of appreciation, but they recognise that all are welcome in God’s kingdom, that we are all sons and daughters of the God who loved us into life, and sisters and brothers to one another, as we heard in today’s second reading from Ephesians.
Being witnesses to the Gospel will rarely be plain sailing. But we can take comfort from the fact that we have companions on the journey, will be fortified by the friendships we make along the way, and have the assurance that God’s Spirit will be there to guide and encourage us.