Days of Darkness

Peace_for_ParisThe darkness of the readings today appropriately match the mood of despair and darkness after yet more senseless and violent attacks over the past few days in Beirut and especially in the city of light – Paris. The Gospel is taken from the longest discourse in the Gospel of Mark – the whole of the thirteenth chapter features a single discussion by Jesus and four of his disciples about the looming destruction of the temple and the days of darkness that would follow. It should be obvious that although this chapter is sometimes called a mini-apocalypse, the form is very different from the book of Daniel (our first reading) or Revelation. The predictions that Jesus is making relate to the immediate events that lie ahead for the community as relations between the Jewish people and the Roman occupiers would continue to deteriorate leading into the Jewish war of 66-70 CE, which would result in the siege of Jerusalem and the utter destruction of the city including the temple with an incredible loss of life. As the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus points out, the large death toll can only be partly blamed upon the Romans – infighting between the various factions led to more deaths than those inflicted directly by the brutal Roman soldiers. It is no wonder that Jesus encourages his followers to flee into the hills to escape such carnage.

Such predictions and the events overseas cause us to ponder deeply upon the meaning and reality of evil. There is never an adequate answer to such horrors. The best that we can do is remember that freedom brings with it certain responsibilities. The fact that we are free means that we can at any stage choose to exercise our freedom to cooperate with God’s invitation to the good or instead to choose to do evil.

Let us pray with great fervour for a true and lasting peace built in a genuine experience of mercy – for only in this will the wounds of past evil begin to be healed.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am. Vigil Mass also available.
Sunday 33, Year B. Mark 13:24-32

Despair and Providence

Elijah-WidowBoth the first reading and Gospel feature widows – one of the most vulnerable groups in Israel and the ancient world. When there is no social safety net, widows relied on other family members and the wider community to provide the sustenance that they could not earn themselves. Their lot was even worse when times were bad – such as during the ninth century BC famine that is the setting of I Kings 17 and the general destitution of life under the Roman Empire in the early first century AD.

At the end of I Kings 16, we are told that Ahab, the son of the evil king Omri comes to the throne of Israel in Samaria, and he also does what is evil in the eyes of the Eternal One. Not only that he is in fact the most wicked King of all the wicked kings who went before him. To make matters worse, he marries the even more wicked Jezebel, daughter of the Phoenician king Ethbaal. One of the first acts that Ahab does is to make a shrine to the god Ba’al Hadad in Samaria. Soon afterwards a drought occurs resulting in widespread famine which spreads beyond the borders of Israel to include parts of Phoenicia. Chapter 17 opens with Elijah escaping to the Wadi Cherith east of the Jordan River, where he finds refuge and is able to sustain himself with water from a spring and food provided by ravens – bread and meat both in the morning and the evening. It is interesting that the Lord chooses to use an unclean bird to sustain Elijah: crows and ravens are listed among the many unclean animals in the Torah in Deuteronomy 14:14 and Leviticus 11:15. When the water runs dry he falls into a depression (a common state for our hero Elijah). Verse 8 opens with the word of the Lord being addressed to the prophet: “Arise, go to Zarephath in Sidon and stay there. Look, I have commanded a woman there, a widow, to sustain you.” So, in response to this word from the Lord, Elijah travels into the foreign territory of the Ba’al worshipping Sidonians, where he encounters an unnamed widow gathering sticks near the gate of the town, to prepare a final meal with the last of her meagre food supplies before her inevitable death from starvation.

Elijah bizarrely asks this woman for two things – rather than offering her assistance. First, in a request that we hear as an echo of the one that Jesus makes to another foreigner, the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4), Elijah asks for a drink of water. Then, in an act of black Jewish comedy, he asks her to bake him a small cake after she announces that she only has enough food for her son and herself to ward off starvation for a few more hours. The fact that the woman responds in generosity shows something of her true character. Although she has nothing to give, she is prepared to make this incredible sacrifice, trusting somehow in the graciousness of a God that perhaps she has only just met through the words of this strange prophet of the God of Israel.

Likewise, when the praiseworthy widow in our Gospel is reduced to two lepta – the smallest of the coins in circulation in that day – she chooses to offer them to the Lord as an act of worship. Although her small offering cannot compare to the large and noisy contributions that the rich men are making, the Lord observes that they are giving from their excess and abundance, but she is giving all that she has to live on even though it is so insignificant, meagre and pathetic.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am; 7.30am
Sunday 32, Year B
I Kings 17:10-16; Mark 12:38-44

Saints and Blessings

sinaiWhen we hear the eight beatitudes that begin the Gospel of Matthew’s sermon on the mount in chapter 5, we can easily drift into very well-known territory. Every Christian is very familiar with these sayings, and this gospel or one of its many sung forms is used at weddings and funerals, graduations and dedications. Some dear soul has embroidered the text of the 12 verses and they are placed in our church next to a similar frame containing the ten commandments. But these blessings that accompany our remembrance of this day of all the saints are not new Christian commandments. These declarations are only good news for us if we realise that a beatitude is a statement that declares that certain people are fortunate, or are privileged, or are simply in a great place – because God’s future kingdom is beginning to break into our present reality now.

Beatitudes are unconditional. They do not simply describe something that you hope will one day be true. They do not take the form of ‘if you will do x, then y will happen’ but unconditionally declare that those who are x will be y. In this sense, a beatitude is a prophetic declaration, because it effects what it says and brings into being what it states. So they are nothing like mere laws, because to declare a beatitude is to announce the gospel.

For the beatitudes to be true depends on the truthfulness and authority of the speaker. In this case the speaker is no mere prophet, but our Lord and Saviour himself, and it is on his authority that the church can continue to proclaim and declare the blessedness of anyone who finds themselves already to be poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for justice, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers or being persecuted because of righteousness.

The declarations that accompany these beatitudes do not make much sense according to simple human wisdom. Rather they pronounce blessing on any authentic disciples who are living in Christian community. As such, these beatitudes do not apply to eight distinct groups of good people or individuals who will be going to heaven, but to the whole group of Christians together in the church who are striving and struggling to be authentic disciples and indeed saints.

Happy feast day.

Grace and peace.

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Journey Radio Program; Sunday Message now also available

 

Blind Faith

Although the idea of journey is not as strong in the Gospel of Mark as it is in Luke, the disciples have still been following Jesus along the way for many kilometres now. And still they are struggling to make sense of who Jesus is and what it means to follow him on the road. Now that their journey is almost ended, they meet another blind beggar outside of the town. This man is called Bartimaeus and he manages to attract the wrong kind of attention by shouting out after Jesus for mercy. It is enough to make Jesus stop and call the man to him. The voices of the crowd that had been asking him to be quiet now change to voices of affirmation and courage.

The faith of Bartimaeus becomes clear. He doesn’t wait for the healing to throw off his protection as a beggar from the cold and the elements – and indeed his whole identity and purpose. No more waiting, no more confusion: he throws aside the cloak and jumps up and runs to Jesus, perhaps still with the cry for mercy upon his lips.

Jesus wants to know what his deepest desire is – so even if it is abundantly clear what this man’s need really is, Jesus takes the time to ask him the obvious question: what do you want me to do for you? Perhaps the question is necessary because Jesus knows that if he does this for Bartimaeus that his whole life will change. Perhaps his question is really – do you want to give up begging and find a completely new way to live, a new job, new friends, a new place to live?

Bartimaeus becomes in his simple determination to see and follow the Lord an example of faith and discipleship. Unlike the disciples who in their blindness wanted glory, prestige and power, this man wants to know the only one who can save him. He is able to give the right answer to this question. What about us? What do you want Jesus to do for you?

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Journey Radio Program
Sunday 30, Year B. Mark 10:46-52

Cross of Glory

cross-sunsetA few verses before our passage today we read that “And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.” (Mark 10:32, RSV) Then Jesus takes the twelve aside and announces to them what is about to happen when they arrive in Jerusalem – being handed over to the Jewish authorities, who will condemn him to death, deliver him to the Gentiles (Romans) who will mock him, spit on him, scourge and kill him; and on the third day he will rise again. So this is the background to the question that James and John request of Jesus – to sit on his left and right when he comes into his glory. Amazed and afraid. And stupid!

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Recorded at St Paul’s.
Sunday 29, Year B. Mark 10:35-45.

 

Generous giving and freedom

boy-coinsThe Gospel today should probably carry a warning message before it is read. So many saints across the centuries have been cut to the heart when they have heard this proclaimed, and realise that Jesus is looking at us, no gazing with love at them and you and me. He is going to redefine the first three commandments for us in the same way that he did for this running man: go, sell all you have, give the money to the poor and come follow me. This is what it means that there are no other gods, no idols, no graven images, no other name that can claim our allegiance. He is the one. And he wants it all. Not because God needs our stuff – but because we will never be truly free until we can let go of everything else and cling to him alone.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, you find the idea first with Abraham and Melchizedek in Genesis 14, then developed in the book of Deuteronomy in chapters 12, 14 and 26 (offering of the first fruits of the harvest) and then a much more carefully defined idea in the final minor prophet Malachi where the teaching on the tithe (ten percent of income) is presented the most clearly. In the Christian scriptures, although the idea of the tithe may still be presumed, the notion of giving back to the Lord is much more radical – to give it all away. So what should we make of all this?

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Recorded at St Paul’s (with a heavy cold – sorry)
Sunday 28, Year B. Mark 10:17-30

Hard Hearted Divorce

rocky-heartToday we get to reflect on everyone’s favourite topic: divorce. The verse before our Gospel begins today provides a little more context when it tells us that Jesus was travelling with his disciples and the crowds down through the Jordan Valley into Judea and onto Jerusalem. When the Pharisees approach Jesus and ask the question: “is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife?” we need to read this against the historical and political background of the time. The Jordan river should remind us immediately of the ministry of John the Baptiser – who had recently been executed for daring to challenge the so-called King Herod on his illicit second marriage with his brother’s first wife. So the question is a test, because it was so politically charged. In general, no one was very concerned about divorce. It was at the time of Jesus generally accepted and practiced within Jewish society. What was disputed was the exact grounds for a divorce.

There were three schools of thought and Rabbinical interpretation concerning the only passage in the Hebrew Scriptures that deals with the question of divorce (although other passages do condemn the practice) – namely the first 4 verses in Deuteronomy 24. This somewhat obscure passage suggests that a man was able to provide a decree of divorce to his wife if he found something objectionable about her. It then indicates that she is free to enter into a second marriage, but that if the second marriage ends, she is not able to remarry her first husband. This seems to be a protection for the woman; her first dowry would have been kept by her first husband in the divorce; if her second husband died, then she would keep the second dowry, but the first husband may only be offering to marry her to get his hands on this money – so don’t let him.

What this ‘something objectionable’ or others translate this as ‘sexual immorality or indecency’ was was the subject of much discussion. There were three major schools of thought. The first is associated with the generally hard-line and conservative Rabbi Shammai who indicates that the only grounds for divorce is infidelity by the woman. The more liberal leaning Rabbi Hillel (who Jesus usually follows in his interpretations) provides an example that could be a cause for divorce: if the woman spoils a dish while cooking! An even more extreme example is offered by Rabbi Aqiba who says that the only thing necessary for a divorce is if the husband finds another woman to be more beautiful. So, even though Jesus normally follows the thought of Hillel (as also does St Paul), in this instance, once he is able to speak to the disciples alone (and not the crowd) he follows Shammai and even places significant restrictions on that teaching. He indicates that the only reason that Moses even provides the exception for divorce was because the people were so unteachable, or more literally, have hard-hearts (or uncircumcised hearts), which in the Greek is sklerokardia – which, by the way, could make a great insult if you are in the market for such things – as in, Richard, why are you being so sklerokardic?!

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Recorded at St Paul’s (9.30am)
Sunday 27, Year B. Mark 10:2-12

Chronicles of struggling disciples

mountain lookout bushwalkWe have fairly appropriate readings today to help me to reflect on my new role as parish priest as I am formally installed into this ministry today. The Gospel has some very strong reminders about service and humility. The Gospel of Mark continues to highlight the deficiencies of these clueless disciples who continue to get things wrong. Not that we should be too hard on them perhaps – Jesus is making things a little harder than he may have by telling them to keep looking below the surface level of things that he says to draw out the hidden kingdom message in his sayings – but then he says things that are clearly meant to be read only on the literal surface level. Once again the Lord continues along the way towards Jerusalem – no longer working multitudes of mighty deeds and signs, but now concentrating on teaching the disciples. Once again he tells them about the passion that awaits him in the days ahead, telling them that he will be ‘handed over’ (paradidotai) – a word that will punctuate the narrative another 15 times. As he tries to get through to these slow disciples, he patiently sits down in the way of a Rabbi to offer further examples to them – taking a small child (talya’ in the Aramaic that he spoke – which is the same word used for a servant) as a sign of what they should be.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 7.30am (9min)

Who is this man?

WhoisJesusThe Gospel of Mark is both the shortest and earliest of the gospels written. It is also perhaps the most primal and simple of the gospels lacking some of the sophistication of the later offerings. But scholars have discovered a new appreciation for this gospel and its more raw and basic presentation of both Jesus and of his first followers. The disciples are regularly presented as a rather dense lot who ask the wrong kind of questions and keep getting things wrong. But I like it because the disciples are so often like I am!

We arrive today in the very centre of the Gospel – not just because we are in the middle of chapter 8 of this 16 chapter Gospel – but because there is a stark turning point. It is not as clear as the similar point in the Gospel of Luke (9:51) where Jesus “resolutely points his face towards Jerusalem” but true to Mark’s style it is clearly present. Until this point there have been miracles upon miracles as the mighty works of Jesus to heal the sick, cast out demons and bring order to the chaos of nature have helped to frame the question of “who is this man?” – now we are ready to begin to answer it. First the disciples will report what the crowds are saying, then Peter will have a go, then Jesus himself will explain what it means to follow him along the way that this journey will take as he begins to move from the very north of Israel down into the heartland of Judaism on the way to Jerusalem.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (13min)
Sunday 24, Year B. Mark 8:27-35

Taking the long way round

decapolis-mapWe are told in the Gospel today that Jesus made his way from the region of Tyre towards the Sea of Galilee to continue his ministry. The bizarre thing is that Mark tells us that Jesus goes by way of Sidon and the Decapolis region. Now Tyre is on the southern coast of Lebanon, and the city still exists today. It is not far from the border with modern Israel. From there to Galilee, you would normally travel in a south-east direction, because that is the straightest and most direct route. So you might presume that Sidon is on the way from Tyre to Galilee. But this assumption would be wrong (cue the saying – sometimes, to assume only makes an ass out of u and me). In fact, Sidon is the completely opposite direction – heading north further up the Lebanese coast, going towards the modern city of Beirut. To make matters even worse, to go from there to the Decapolis region takes Jesus even further out of his way. Most of the ten Greek-speaking, mostly Roman cities/towns of this region were located on the eastern side of the Jordan valley, well away from Galilee. Again, rather odd direction and navigation skills being demonstrated by the good Lord today. Perhaps part of the answer lies in the encounter between Jesus and the so-called Syrophoenician woman which takes place immediately before our Gospel today, but which we have skipped over in this cycle of readings. You may remember that she begged the Lord for help to cast out an unclean spirit from her sick daughter. But Jesus initially had dismissed her, comparing her cruelly to a dog, adding that his mission is only to the children of Israel. But she has one of the all-time great retorts that even the house dogs are able to eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table – and she is given her wish. Perhaps it is the encounter with this woman that provokes Jesus to take the long way back to Galilee, to see if there are others with similar strong faith. We don’t know. All we know is that somewhere along this journey a deaf and mute man is brought to Jesus and he brings healing to the man in this carefully described very physical healing.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, Albion Park – my first weekend in this new parish as Pastor. All three Masses are available.