Peter asks a very valid question today: “How many times must I forgive a sister or brother (who has not even necessarily repented or asked for forgiveness) – as many as seven times?” He points to the reality that forgiving someone is not easy. It is one thing to forgive a person who asks for mercy; it is quite another to forgive even when they don’t deserve it. Perhaps Peter is alluding to the first time the topic of vengeance and revenge is spoken of in the bible – with Lamech (a descendent of Cain) who boasts to his wives (already a bad sign) about the spiralling out of control of this cycle of violence and the perpetuation of the myth of redemptive violence:
Then Lamech said to his wives,
“Adah and Zillah, listen to my voice;
O wives of Lamech, hear my words.
I have killed a man for wounding me,
Even a young man for injuring me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech will be avenged
seventy and seven times. Genesis 4:23-24
In answer to this, Jesus says: no, not seven times, but “hebdomekontakis hepta” times – which can equally be translated as 77 times or 70 x 7 times. Which doesn’t mean that we should start keeping track and we are let off the hook once we are able to forgive someone 490 times (which would be for each individual offence anyway). The story that Jesus tells next highlights the limitless quality of mercy. Two servants owe money. The first servant owes the equivalent of $10,000,000,000 to the king; the second servant owes the first servant the equivalent of $20,000 (using the rate of a daily labourer as $200). Even though after pleading the first servant is forgiven this huge sum of money, he does not learn the lesson of mercy and does not let go of the need to seek revenge. So when the second servant pleads to him in exactly the same words as he uses, he is not moved to mercy. And as a result he must face the consequences until he does.
Sunday 24, Year A.
** I leave this week for sabbatical leave, travelling first to Brisbane to take part in Ignite Conference, before travelling to Boston to take part in a thirty-day Ignatian silent retreat at the Campion Renewal Center, before going to Jerusalem to take part in the sabbatical program at Tantur Center, returning to Australia for the Australian Catholic Youth Festival in Sydney in December. **
When you are in the middle of a fight – what do you do?
Every day we see the results of not doing forgiveness and reconciliation well. On the world scale, it is the continuing threat of terrorism, wars, suicide bombs, ISIS, etc and on a more personal scale, it is seen in broken marriages and other relationships, rifts in ministries and churches, shattered families and divisions in neighbourhoods.
Usually, we just pretend that it isn’t an issue, which means that even as Christians we don’t face the facts, and swallow our pride. Instead, we paper over the obvious cracks and carry on as if everything is normal. Some of us just avoid the other person or make sure the topic doesn’t come up in conversation or in posts on our walls.
If someone has been aggressive, dishonest, bullying, or offensive to us, then we need to confront the real evil that has occurred. True reconciliation won’t happen if we pretend that nothing happened. Forgiveness is required when it did happen, and it did matter. The solution is to deal with it and desire to love and accept each other again anyway.
Forgiveness is always crucial, but often we misunderstand what forgiveness actually is. Forgiveness is more than a feeling, or a moment, and it is not about pretending something never happened. “Forgive and forget” is not a Christian message. Rather, forgiveness is often a process, a flow that we need to be part of. You may forgive someone and decide that they are such a toxic presence, that for your own health and safety they cannot be in your life. But even in this instance, forgiveness is still crucial, because forgiveness is first and foremost an attitude of your own heart. It has much less to do with others than we commonly think.
The solution that Jesus offers us is both severely practical and ruthlessly idealistic – a fantastic combination. The sequence he recommends here is vital. Firstly, go and see the person, one on one. This needs courage, prayer and humility. The other person may well respond with a counter-accusation, and there may be truth in it which you need to recognise. There are always two sides to a story, but it certainly isn’t always the case that both sides are equally to blame. If this works, it really is a wonderful thing. As Jesus says, “you have won that person back.” Even more, when you have had that courageous conversation with them, an even closer and stronger bond is often formed.
Sometimes this doesn’t work and, after further thought and prayer you know that the wrong still remains to be settled, we move to the second stage. Jesus here tells us to “take one or two others and go back again.” They should be mature enough to be honest with both of you, even if it might make everything super awkward.
If your witnesses acknowledge that you are in the right, but the other person fails to see it or do anything about it, then you can ramp it up to stage three. This final act is to take it to the church. In the time of Jesus and the early church, this would have meant little groups of his followers meeting together, praying the way he taught them, reminding each other of what he taught and trying to be faithful to this. Above all these communities were small-scale, local assemblies of God’s renewed people.
Stage Three introduces the really hard part of this teaching. We are told that if a person still refuses to accept the church’s decision, then you should treat them as “a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.” At one level, this means just continuing to love them with a fierce love. Remember, Matthew who gave his name to this gospel was himself a corrupt tax collector – but the fierce love of Jesus broke through and called him into life.
But at another level it is also clear that Jesus is telling us that if there is real evil involved, and the person just refuses to face the problem, then they have already broken the communion. There can be no reconciliation until the problem is squarely faced. This does not mean that forgiveness has failed, but that sometimes we need to accept the truth that behaviours and attitudes have consequences which cannot be resolved except through change. If someone has injured me, and they do not change their attitudes or behaviours, they cannot be truly repentant. Even if I continue to pray for them, and forgive them from my heart, reconciliation and continued relationship may be impossible.
Yet Jesus also promises us that his presence will still be with us. We will not be left on our own through all of this. Where only two or three are gathered, Jesus promises that he will be there with us. If we take this teaching seriously, there are going to be struggles and great costs – but also such joy and wonder.
+ Jesus, when relationships go south, help us to have the courage to face them squarely in your love, and continue along the path of mercy.
Just before our Gospel today, Jesus asked the disciples who the people and then who they said he was. Simon Peter, speaking on behalf of the other disciples, declared that Jesus is not just another prophet like the crowds say he is – Jesus is the true, anointed King of Israel, and the Son of the living God.
Jesus clearly has the support of the crowds – he has after all been giving them food when they were hungry, teaching them with kindness and authority and healing their diseases and sicknesses. So the natural next move for Jesus and his many followers, should be to march on Jerusalem, picking up more supporters along the way, and then with the element of surprise – launch an attack on the temple so that Jesus could be installed as the true King.
Instead today we discover that the way to the Kingdom of Jesus will be the exact opposite of this supposed wisdom. It is going to involve suffering and death. We also see an important truth about Jesus – his death occurred as part of God’s plan of salvation. It was not a meaningless accident of history and Jesus is a willing and knowing partner in this divine plan.
Just as St Peter found it difficult to understand why Jesus had to suffer and die, so also many in and around the church today still find this part of the Gospel message very difficult to swallow. The Christian life is the polar opposite of the egocentric culture that we live in. But when Jesus calls us to deny ourselves this does not mean that we should just give up more things – because that will only make us empty! The point of denying ourselves is to make room for Jesus – to allow him to be our true centre.
We are called to make a confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah and as God’s once-and-for-all act of salvation and revelation. But this confession can only happen within the context of a community of disciples.
Unfortunately, you really cannot explain in advance what the meaning and cost of discipleship will be. The only way to learn how to be a disciple is through beginning to journey along the way.
+ Jesus, we know that in every generation there are always some who are prepared to take you seriously. Help us to make the decision today to be one of them.
Sunday 22A – Matthew 16:21-27
I bought a Google Home recently – it’s a voice operated speaker that lets you geek out to control your music, lights and find out stuff. It comes with a guide to let you know the kind of questions that you can ask it. One of the questions that it suggests is: “Hey Google, who am I?” Honestly, I was a bit excited about this, because I thought if anyone knows who I am, after using the internet for most of my adult life, it’s probably Google. The answer was less than exciting. Google simply told me: “You told me your name was Richard”, which was way less significant than I’d imagined. Maybe I’ll have to stick to asking this question of friends who know me well to have any hope of getting a decent answer.
I suspect that in today’s Gospel, when Jesus asks his disciples this question, it was probably more than him having an existential crisis during a bad hair day. Many Jews at the time believed that God would send an anointed king who would be the one to spearhead the movement that would free the whole of Israel from its Roman occupation and oppression and finally bring about peace and justice for the whole world. No one knew where or when this anointed king would be born, although many pointed to the writings of the prophets to say that he would be a true descendent of King David and be born in Bethlehem (eg, Micah 5).
The word for this “anointed King” in the Hebrew language was “Messiah” – in the Greek language it was “Christ.” No one could say exactly what the Messiah would be like, or how you could tell when he arrived, but many thought he would be a warrior king who would defeat the pagan overlords and establish a new properly Jewish kingdom of God.
When Jesus asks his question of his disciples, he takes them far away from their normal lives, walking for days to arrive at the town of Caesarea Philippi. He would have known the kind of answers they would offer, but he wanted them to say the answer out loud. Firstly, they offer the opinion on the street – Jesus, you are one of the wild men of old, one of the prophets who stood up fearlessly against wicked leaders to speak and act against injustice.
But Jesus was so much more than just another prophet, as wonderful and amazing as this is. He knew that his followers had grasped this, and he wanted them to own this truth by actually speaking it aloud. Peter steps forward to be the spokesperson for the group: ‘You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.’
Jesus was God’s Messiah. He was not merely speaking God’s word against the wicked rulers of the time, although he definitely did that. He was God’s true anointed king, who would replace them and their corruption, and establish a new kind of kingdom.
Jesus wants us to answer this question ourselves. To speak it aloud ourselves. To own it ourselves.
Peter is the first to make this declaration, so he became the rock at the starting point and centre of this new community of Jesus’ disciples – all those people who have or will give allegiance to Jesus as God’s anointed king. Peter will still make mistakes and he has much to learn, but Jesus doesn’t call the perfect. Falling down and being forgiven is all part of the process of this new community of faith, this new Kingdom of God.
+ Jesus, you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Help us to find time today to answer your question aloud – who do you say I am?
Sunday 21, Year A.
This is a very difficult gospel. It is hard to listen to, and hard to pray with a gospel where Jesus appears to be so sexist and racist, especially in the light of ongoing violence in so many countries around the world, all of which is based on discrimination and hatred because of difference. We can hope that he had a smile on his face when he said such a terrible thing to the woman – but we will never know. We might remember the great line of St Teresa to Jesus – well, if this is the way that you treat your friends, it is no wonder that you have so few of them.
The only way that we can make sense of this passage is by looking carefully at what Jesus says to his disciples and the woman – “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” His mission was not to heal all of the sick people in the world at the time, or to drive out all of their demons. His mission was to reawaken Israel back to it calling as the covenant people, chosen by the Lord as the promise-bearers for themselves on behalf of the whole world. If we forget the centrality of Israel (as the Christian church often has) we forget something that is at the centre of the mission of Jesus. We also think that the church exists only for ourselves – but both Israel and the Church (and thus the sacraments and the whole life of the church) exists for the sake of the whole world. But this was only true after the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit. But this woman, with her deep faith and profound compassion for her daughter, could not wait until after Easter. She wanted to bring God’s glorious future crashing into the present. That is why Jesus can say to her that you have great faith.
We are also invited to be the promise-bearers of God’s covenant people – to bring the great things of God alive in all the small daily decisions that we make.
Sunday 20, Year A. Matthew 15:21-28.
The Gospel begins with Jesus sending the disciples off in their boat, while he sends the crowds home. Just before this passage, he had heard that his friend and cousin, John, had just been executed by the ruthless tyrant Herod. He wanted some time alone. He needed some time alone. So he went off in their boat to try and find some space to pray and think and grieve – just to sort himself out. Instead, when he arrived at what he thought was going to be a deserted place, it was full of people. I think I would have turned the boat around and found another place to go – but Jesus had compassion on the crowds, and teaches them, heals them and then as the final act, he feeds them too.
No wonder he still needs that time alone.
So he prays. And he prays. Not just for a few minutes, but for hours. From the afternoon, until the middle of the night.
Meanwhile, the disciples are in trouble, out in the middle of the lake. A strong wind has arisen and the waves were beginning to break over the little boat.
I love the next line: ‘about three o’clock in the morning, Jesus came toward them, walking on the water.’ And what did the disciples make of all this – rightly I think ‘they were terrified.’ It isn’t every dark night that you see someone – in the middle of massive storm-tossed waves – just casually strolling about on top of the water. And so they screamed out in terror. To which Jesus, as he so often does, calls them to “Don’t be afraid” – although I am not sure that would have really helped given how totally bizarre the whole situation is at this point.
And then Peter pipes up. We should be used to Peter saying something a little left of centre. He seems to have that special knack of saying – or doing – something that is kind of weird – yet still wonderful. But his question is right up there alongside his other one-liners. What was he thinking? “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.” To which Jesus naturally just says – sure, come! So, Peter just totally casually hops over the side of the boat – and joins Jesus – walking on the water. As you do.
Well at least for a while. The Gospel doesn’t tell us how far Peter got – but it seems to have been far enough that he was well away from the boat. But once he takes his eyes away from Jesus and begins to look at these massive waves that are blowing all around them – the natural consequence happens. He sinks and begins to drown under the waves and water, managing at least to cough out a “save me, Lord!” Which Jesus immediately does and takes Peter by the hand and helps him back into the boat, greeting him with the gentle rebuke – “why did you doubt me?”
We have so often focussed on the mistakes of Peter – but perhaps he is just meant to remind us of what we are all like. Perhaps the problem with Peter was that he needed to test Jesus by getting out of the boat and giving this whole walking on water gig a go. Perhaps he is gently rebuked because he was meant to just stay in the boat all along. Especially in this Gospel, the boat is a symbol of the church – the Christian community that struggles to make sense of everything that is happening around us. But even when we are being tossed around by the wind and the waves, perhaps the secret is just staying together in the community, trusting that even when Jesus feels like he’s absent, he will always be there when we need him. He will always stretch out his hand to save us, and he will always calm the waves and the wind and see us safely to shore.
+ Jesus, help us to keep our eyes on you despite the wind and the waves, and help us to be a community where we can stick together and grow in your love.
Sunday 19, Year A. Matthew 14:22-33
Have you ever had an experience that was so sublime, so magical, so amazing – that you struggled to share all its details even with a close friend? Maybe the event wasn’t even all that weird or far out – but all the elements came together in a way that you know that mere words or photos are just not going to come close to even beginning to share the full impact of what transpired in those incredible days or moments.
I suspect that the event that we listen to today from Matthew 17 is like this – only a thousand times more amazing. When the different gospel writers attempt to describe what happened – and even more so to share the emotional and spiritual impact of what happened that amazing day – they are struggling at the limits of human language.
We are told that Jesus is transfigured before them – literally, in the Greek language, he writes that Jesus is meta’morphosed (meta=change; morphe=form, so a change of form, like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly). When the disciples look at Jesus, he glows with a transcendent glory that is reserved for the heavenly beings. Jesus is joined in this splendour with Moses and Elijah – not only to represent the “Law and the Prophets” – but because they were both prophets who were rejected by the people; advocated for God, the covenant and the Torah; worked miracles and ultimately were vindicated by God as representatives of the heavenly world.
But I suspect that Bishop Tom Wright is correct, when he invites us to meditate upon the transfiguration scene – by holding and contrasting in your mind the scene of Calvary and the crucifixion of Jesus. Here on a mountain-top in Galilee, Jesus is revealed in glory; there, on the hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus is revealed in shame. Here, his clothes are shining bright; there his clothing has been stripped by the soldiers. Here, he is flanked by Moses and Elijah as two of Israel’s greatest heroes; there, he is flanked by two brigands, as a sign of how far Israel had fallen as a result of its rebellion against God. Here, a bright cloud overshadows the scene; there, darkness falls upon the land. Here Peter cries out about how wonderful it all is; there, Peter hides in shame after denying the Lord. Here the voice of God booms from the cloud declaring that Jesus is my beloved son; there, it is left to a pagan Roman soldier to declare in surprise that this really was God’s son.
Perhaps this moment of glory can only be appreciated and understood when we can also see the glory of the cross. The three disciples who accompanied Jesus to that high place that day – Peter, James and John – were rightly surprised by the sublime power, love and beauty of God. But we also need to discover a way to recognise that same power, love and beauty in the voice of Jesus when he calls us each day to take up our cross and follow him as disciples.
This is the Journey Radio recording text. Available here.
Play MP3 (10am)
6 Aug – Feast of the Transfiguration (replaces Sunday 18A). Matthew 17:1-9
Today we conclude a three-week series of readings from the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. This chapter is jam-packed with parables and their explanations. The section today has three short parables drawn from ordinary life – a treasure that is hidden in a field; a fine and valuable pearl that is found by a merchant, and a dragnet that gathers fish of every kind. Jesus concludes the section by praising the steward who brings out of the storeroom both new things and old things.
The chapter lies at the very centre of this Gospel, and it seems that we are being invited to be the scribes who draw out of our storeroom things both new and old. The new things are this brand new and magnificent vision that the kingdom of heaven is bringing; the old things are the centuries-old wisdom of the ages and the witness of the people of Israel and her stories and hopes. The way of the Gospel is about planting the new deep down within the old and allowing the ancient wisdom to come to fresh and exciting expressions in the new.
The shape of Matthew’s gospel is meant to remind the careful reader of the first five books of the Bible – the Torah, or the Books of Moses. The content, however, that Matthew gives us in this gospel is new and explosive. There is a decision that must be made urgently. It was fashionable then, as it remains fashionable now, to imagine that there were many different pearls or many kinds of treasures that you could collect in the various religions that are on offer. But Jesus says no – there is only one pearl and one treasure, which is the Gospel of the kingdom of God which Jesus was declaring and living out.
Besides all this Jesus declares that the world is not just going around in circles – but it has a clear direction and is heading in a straight line towards its goal in the final judgement. It continues to move towards that glorious day when God will remake the whole world in truth and justice, and of course, in love.
These parables continue to challenge us to both understand them and to place them into action as the wise scribes that we are urged to be. We are called in our thinking, speaking and living to be firmly rooted in the wisdom of the ages and also to be the bearers of the fresh new work that God is doing. For God is always doing a new work – but this work is always an evolution from the continuing work of God across the centuries.
Today we are invited to carefully reflect upon our lives to make sure that the fruit of our lives is both old and new.
Sunday 17, Year A. (Description from the Journey Radio Program)
In chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel, we are presented with a series of 7 parables (of the 40 or so that Jesus tells during his recorded ministry) – which provokes a first question – what is a parable? For most of Christian history, parables have been treated as allegories – with many different interpretations available. What later scholarship realised, is that parables are so much richer than this. There can be a single interpretation, but parables are more like pieces of art, music or poetry – so their precise interpretation will always allude us – yet they constantly point to the breaking in of the kingdom of God. They take ordinary images from rural society, but twist this with the radical nature of what the kingdom is always calling us into.
Today, each of the parables invites us deeper into the experience of patience. No one enjoys waiting. Yet the Lord tells us today that waiting is necessary. It takes time for a crop to grow to harvest; for a seed to grow into a tree; for yeast to do its work in the flour. We want things straight away – we want God to deal with sin and evil in the world and in our lives – but he says to wait. This is not a cop-out. God has dealt with sin once and for all through the death and resurrection of Jesus. So this is waiting for the dawn when the first light of day has already appeared on the eastern horizon. The new day will come. All we need to do is continue to wait in hope and expectant trust.
Jesus makes today a series of fairly bizarre declarations about himself and his position. He tells the disciples – who at the beginning of this chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel are commissioned and sent out to share in his mission – that anyone who prefers ‘father or mother’; ‘son or daughter’ to me is not worthy of me. This must be read in context – because other places in the New Testament tell us how to have proper relationship with our family members – new and old. This is not a recommendation to ignore our family. This is about something greater. Jesus is not telling us these thing as some ego-filled dictator – but he is telling us this to prompt us along the way of life in the kingdom, and so that we are able to share in the absolute joy that he offers to us. Although it is not explicitly stated, these statements are claims about the divinity of Jesus and his share of life with the Father – and he invites us to share in this life by our placing the worship of Jesus as the first priority of our life. In this we are able to share in true joy – joy that abides in us, and not just at passing moments. There is only one way to experience this joy – and it is through having Jesus as the first gift of our lives. By sharing in his life, and receiving his love, then we have something to share and give to others and ourselves. Many years ago, someone shared with me the secret of joy – which is spelled out by the letters of the word: Jesus; Others; You. By remembering to keep Jesus first in our lives, then we open the door to true joy.
Sunday 13, Year A. Matthew 10:37-41