Little Zacchaeus

Before I begin this gospel reflection, there is one thing that you should know about me: I am not height challenged – in fact I am much more likely to be asked to move out of the way so that others standing in a crowd behind me are able to see the action. So the story that is told only in chapter 19 in the Gospel of Luke about this height-challenged bloke Zacchaeus having to climb up a tree to see Jesus doesn’t really connect with me.

I’ve also sometimes joked that the bible may well be sexist, but it is also heightist – it is the little runt of a kid David who wins over the tall Goliath, and is chosen by the Lord in preference to the tall king Saul. But I guess you can’t win them all.

The encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus stands fittingly as the last episode of the long journey that Jesus and his disciples have been taking from Galilee to Jerusalem. Along the way Jesus has been mocked as a friend of tax collectors and sinners, so it is appropriate that the final act of Jesus is to eat in the house of not just a tax collector, but a chief or senior tax collector. These characters were really entrepreneurs – they were required to pay the contract amount in advance, and then employ others to help them to collect all the taxes, with a tidy profit built into the collection system. While all tax collectors right across history have never been the winners of the most popular awards, these chief tax collectors were especially despised by their fellow Jews. The other people in the town no doubt had watched as Zacchaeus walked around town in ever finer clothes, with more servants at his beck-and-call, attending to his every need in his ever more beautifully furnished and grander house – and all at their expense.

Luke carefully weaves this story into the ones that have gone just before it. In the Gospel that we heard last Sunday – of the Pharisee and another tax collector – Jesus had declared that “all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Today we see this very thing in the person of Zacchaeus. He casts aside all regard for his own dignity by climbing a tree in order to be able to see Jesus. Also in the previous chapter, Jesus had challenged the rich ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor, but that man went away sad.

Here, as soon as the eyes of Jesus met the eyes of Zacchaeus, there was a meeting of souls. Jesus had seen that look in many others that he had encountered before, and he knew that it revealed a sickness in the heart of Zacchaeus that only Jesus could touch and heal. But rather than providing the opportunity for a parable as the people in the crowd complain and groan about this meeting, we hear Zacchaeus himself speak to us in front of Jesus and the whole crowd, bearing witness to the extraordinary and extravagant repentance that has happened in this instance. Zacchaeus knows that words alone are not enough – so he makes a lavish offer to make amends. His offer to sell half his property and to make a four-fold restitution will impact his fortunes deeply. But he knows that in the person of Jesus he has found something of untold value – because today, salvation has come to this house. Now he is restored where he is as part of the renewed Israel. For the son of man has come to seek and save what was lost.

Play MP3

Recorded for Journey Radio Program (3 mins)
Sunday 31, Year C. Luke 19:1-10.

Jarred awake

If your image of Jesus is of Mr Nice Guy, always meek and mild, then the Gospel today will come as a massive shock. In the Gospel, from Luke chapter 12, verses 49-53, there doesn’t seem to be a hint of gentle Jesus, or even nice Jesus, but instead a wholesale picture of family feuding and fighting. Maybe we always imagine Jesus as the gentle prince of peace. But in this passage it seems Jesus is more the prince of division than prince of peace.

Maybe we are like the contemporaries of the prophet Micah, who reminds us in chapter 7 at the end of his book, that family dysfunction is a sure indication that everything is not the way that God originally intended. Micah laments about the many things that are going wrong in the world, and that there is only one way forward – which is to trust in the Lord and wait for the God of salvation.

Many years ago, I was in the habit of falling asleep while listening to music on my headphones, and mostly it was pretty quiet and gentle kind of music. One of my mates, knowing that this was my habit, decided it would be rather funny to add some extra music to the end of the tape. So just as the music was doing its trick, and I was calmly and gently falling asleep, it was all rudely interrupted by loud heavy metal music – which immediately jerked me wide awake.

Perhaps my friend’s trick was a bit cruel, but the shock of the crash of those notes interrupting the gentle melody is a great image of the warning that Jesus gives us in our Gospel today. Jesus sees a crisis coming. He says ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress till it is over!

The crisis that is coming will centre on him – the baptism of his own suffering and death – and he can’t believe that the people around him can’t see the massive storm that is brewing. Perhaps we are being invited today to really wake up and take a long and hard look at all that surrounds us in the world. We have to read the signs of the times and act accordingly.

We pray in the Our Father for the kingdom of God to come on earth as it in heaven. Surely the church is called to ponder the events on earth and address them with the truth of heaven. Maybe we need to wake up with a crash so that we don’t remain asleep on the job.

Journey Radio Program recording
Sunday 20, Year C. Luke 12:49-53

Mercy and Mission

The gospel that we have today is taken from the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of John. It is another resurrection appearance, but this time, it is not in Jerusalem, but up in the Sea of Galilee. Seven of the disciples, led by the apostle Peter, decide to go fishing. While seven are described, only three are named: Peter the denier; Thomas the doubter, and Nathaniel the skeptic. When Peter says he is going fishing, it could be simply because he needs time out for himself, to get away from all the crazy events that have been happening in Jerusalem. So they get into the boat, cast their nets, and spend all night in the effort, but catch nothing. As dawn breaks, they see this stranger on the shore. He calls out to them: ‘my friends, have you caught anything?’ When they answer, ‘no’, he invites them to put out their nets on the other side of the boat, and you will find something. So they drop their nets, and sure enough, they catch this extraordinary number of fish – which they later count as 153 large fish – so many that all seven of them can barely haul the net back into the boat.

That’s enough for the beloved disciple, the disciple that Jesus loves – and he tells Peter, “It is the Lord” – and with these words, Peter, who has stripped himself for the work, wraps himself in a cloak and jumps into the water to swim across the remaining hundred metres or so to the shore. There he finds Jesus, standing next to a charcoal fire, cooking some fish. It is very likely that the fire would have immediately evoked that night before Jesus died, when Peter had been warming himself next to a charcoal fire, besides which Peter had denied that he even knew Jesus on three separate occasions.

Jesus then invites the disciples to bring their fish to add to the already abundant supplies of bread and fish cooking for breakfast. After the meal, Jesus takes Simon Peter aside and asks him a most personal and no doubt painful question: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?” Simon answers, ‘Yes Lord, you know I love you.’ Three times the question is placed before Peter, and three times he answers and receives a commission from the Lord to care for the sheep and lambs of the Lord. Peter needs to know that even in that darkest of nights, when he claimed so much bravado, but acted with such timidity and fear – even that act of denying Jesus is not beyond the mercy of the Lord. Three times Peter hears the work of redemption being spoken into his life. Three times he receives mercy that is transformed into mission. This gospel helps us during these Easter days to know that there is no sin, no shame – that is beyond the mercy of the Lord. All that we need to know is that the Lord will continue to call us to follow him – and his love and mercy will always be enough for us.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am. (8 mins)
Third Sunday in Easter, Year C. John 21:1-19

Journey Radio program also available.(text above)
Video Reflection: Igniter Media, Consuming Fire

Submission to the Messiah

risensunThe Gospel this Sunday concludes our readings from John 6 where Jesus now addresses himself only to his disciples, rather than to the whole crowd. We hear that many of his disciples draw back and grumble and complain about the teaching of Jesus. Not because they could not understand what he is saying, but because what he is saying completely upended their whole world-view. If everything that you’ve ever been taught to believe has just been demolished, and you are being forced to think about the world in a whole new way – many people will just politely excuse themselves and never return to listen to the message again.

A few weeks ago we heard in Exodus 15 about the Hebrew people grumbling in the wilderness out of hunger. The disciples who grumbled then are like those who grumble now that we should only be interested in the spiritual truth that the gospels present. The whole of the Gospel of John is about the Word becoming flesh – not the Word becoming only an idea, or a spirituality, a feeling or an experience. Part of what John is telling us is that history matters; the actual story of Jesus matters.

Verses 62 and 63 remind us that the flesh by itself is of no value; but when the flesh is indwelt by the life and spirit of God than anyone who eats this flesh is able to be as equally at home in both earth and heaven – just as Jesus as the Word of God is and was.

We are urged to go beyond a one-dimensional and basic appreciation of all that Jesus is saying and doing. We need to break through to truly listen to the Word that is within the flesh. The only way to do this is with the help of the Spirit of God – which John will write so much more about later in his Gospel. It is only when we receive the life of the Spirit that we are able to move beyond the unbelief of the crowd.

When we are open to the Spirit, then we can join Simon Peter in his declaration of faith: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Play MP3

Recorded at St Columbkille’s (Vigil and 9am, plus radio program – text above)
Sunday 21, Year B. Ephesians 5:21-32; John 6:60-69

Flesh and Blood

takeandeatThe Gospel this Sunday once again from John 6 presents a most remarkable promise: anyone who eats his body and drinks his blood will live forever. Jesus will raise us up on the last day. One of the reasons that this is so remarkable is that one of the best known prohibitions in the Jewish regulations about food and drink is that blood was absolutely forbidden. The very complex system of kosher butchering has the primary aim of ensuring that no blood should stay in the animal to avoid any blood being eaten or drunk.

The fact that Jesus tells his listeners that they should eat his flesh and drink his blood in this setting gives us important clues. Clearly he does not intend that those who follow him should become cannibals nor that in eating and drinking him should followers of Jesus break the Jewish law against consuming blood.

Jesus, as the true Messiah is not only going to put his own life at risk, he will actually lose it so that his followers will profit from that death. They will ‘drink his blood.’ They will have their ultimate thirst quenched by his death and resurrection.

It should also be clear that what Jesus means is so much more than a merely spiritual eating and drinking whereby we only think about these things in an inner, non-physical meditation. Such things are important, but the language that John uses in this gospel force us to conclude that actual physical eating and drinking is involved. The word for eat is a solidly physical one, meaning something like ‘chew’ or ‘munch’ and is often used to describe the sounds that animals make when they ate.

The best way to understand this rich passage is using the language of sacrament, where Jesus offers his body and blood to the church to be eaten and drunk. Let us always be grateful for such precious gifts.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Col’s (10 mins)
Sunday 20, Year B. John 6:51-58

Radio Program, Vigil and Sunday morning


Proclamation, Worship and Compassion as the heart of the Church

IMG_20140903_145639_15137057752_lSometimes it can be helpful to return to first principles and ponder more deeply about the purpose and deepest nature of things like the Church. Thankfully our readings today provide us with this opportunity. After the Second Vatican Council, reflection upon the nature of the church has revealed that the reality of the church can be expressed in three closely related terms which describe her purpose and pastoral reality: kerygma-martyria; leitourgia and diakonia. For example, Emeritus Pope Benedict in his first Encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est (2005) expresses the reality of the church is this way (n. 25):

The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable.

The first reading (Exodus 22:20-26) expresses the call of the community to share in the compassion of the Lord for the poor and vulnerable (diakonia): Foreigners, widows and orphans. The second reading is an example or the fruit of the kerygma – when the Gospel is proclaimed, then people are set free from all manner of idols to become servants of the rel and living God (I Thessalonians 1:5-10). Finally the Gospel, which allows the rabbi Jesus to provide his answer to the commonly addressed question: which of the 613 mitzva / commandments is the most important and which can help to provide a summation of all that is important in the law and the prophets. In answer, Jesus quotes first from the greatest prayer text of Israel, the Shema, to declare that to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind is the greatest and first commandment; but the second is also essential: to love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:34-40).

Play MP3

Sunday 30, in Year A. Radio recording also available.


Peter’s Confession of Faith

TheRoadLessTraveledToday we honour the apostle Peter, who represents that part of the Church which gives it stability: its traditions and the structures which help to give consistency and unity to the Church, spread as it is through so many races, cultures, experiences and geographical diversity.

In the Gospel today from Matthew chapter 16, Peter’s confession of faith begins as a dialogue between Jesus and the disciples. Jesus asks about popular speculations regarding his identity, and the disciples list some current opinions. Then Jesus moves the discussion to be much more personal, with the question that every one of us needs to answer: “who do you say I am?”

Peter appears as the spokesman for the group and proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah which is a Hebrew word that means “anointed one”; its Greek translation is Christos. Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah reflects the disciples’ hope that Jesus would deliver Israel from its enemies and establish God’s kingdom on earth. To this declaration, Peter adds further specification of Jesus’ identity – that he is “the Son of the living God” which helps to correct and transcend any false implications present in the title “Messiah.” What Peter was saying was: you are the true king. You’re the one Israel has been waiting for. You are God’s adopted son, the one of whom the Psalms and prophets had spoken.

In reply, Jesus gives a blessing to Peter declaring that Peter’s confession was a revelation from God. The next verse in very Semitic language promises that Peter is the rock on which the Christian community will be built after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Peter, with this declaration of faith, will be the starting point of a new community. Peter has much to learn, and many failures to overcome — including one in the very next passage. But even this is part of the process. Jesus’ new community, after all, will consist simply of forgiven sinners.

Play MP3

Solemnity of St Peter and St Paul (8’46”)
Radio Program recording also available here.

  • The Sacrament of Confirmation was conferred upon 247 children from the parish this weekend across five ceremonies. I celebrated the Sunday evening Mass and recorded a homily – but the SD card containing the recording has been misplaced! If St Anthony helps me to find it, I’ll post the homily here.
  • Update – the SD card re-appeared and the recording is now available (10 July)

Journey and Encounter on the Road to Emmaus

country_road_near_TamworthIn the final chapter of the Gospel of Luke, chapter 24, there are three stories about resurrection appearances of Jesus: all of them take place on that first day of the week – the first Easter Sunday, and all of them take place centred on Jerusalem. In this well-known story of the road to Emmaus we join these two down-hearted disciples who have travelled with Jesus and experienced his public ministry and know that he proved himself to be a prophet mighty in word and deed, but their own hope that he would be the one to set Israel free from the Roman occupation had obviously proved to be illusory because Jesus of Nazareth had not been mighty enough to escape death of a Roman cross. So as evening approaches, these two disciples – Cleopas and his unnamed friend – trudge along heading back into their old lives after their experience of being part of this failed revolution. They want to make some distance between themselves and the revolutionary turmoil that would continue to sweep through Jerusalem until all the followers of Jesus were rounded up and had been given their fate. But their ordinary lives will have to take a rain cheque. Because on this day, even though they were headed in the wrong direction, the stranger who has joined them along the road will begin to retell the very familiar story of the history of Israel and their desire for the coming of the Messiah in a whole new way. And when they finally knew the story of God’s people in the right way, they would also have the chance to understand who the stranger of the road really was, and then their eyes could be opened by something as simple as a piece of bread being broken.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (9’20”)

Easter, Sunday 3, Year A. Luke 24

A sorrowful journey; suspense; the interpretation of scripture; a meal, a slow then sudden dawning and a mysterious disappearance. Today’s masterful and rich Gospel, from Luke 24, allows us to join with two downcast disciples who had been with the Eleven on that first Easter Sunday morning, as they make the slow pilgrim journey back from Jerusalem towards the village of Emmaus, described as being ‘sixty stadia’ away – about 12km. Jesus joins them along the way, but they can’t recognise him and take him as just another pilgrim who is surprisingly and ironically ignorant of all of the events that have been taking place the last few days. ‘What things?’ the strange pilgrim asks.

Cleopas and his unnamed companion – it may have been his wife Mary – express their conviction that Jesus was a mighty prophet but also their dashed hopes that he might even have been the Messiah. They talk of the empty tomb and the witness of the women, but they cannot see beyond the harsh and devastating reality of the crucifixion. Unspoken is the assertion that the Messiah should have defeated the pagans, not died at their hands.

The stranger then begins to show them that they had been reading scripture the wrong way round – it is not the story of how God will redeem Israel from suffering, but instead the story of how God would redeem Israel through suffering. He proceeds to retell the whole story of scripture – from the first verse of Genesis to the final verse of Chronicles (which is the end of the Hebrew Bible) which pointed to a fulfilment that could only come about when the anointed of God took all the world’s suffering on himself and died under its weight. But that was not the end of the story, because the anointed one also rose from the dead as the beginning of God’s new creation and God’s new people.

In some ways it is not strange that they couldn’t recognise Jesus in all this. Perhaps he can only be recognised when we read the story of God in the right way. Only then will we be able to see him in the breaking of the bread.

Changed into glory with the Lord

above-the-cloudIn the journey through Lent each year, the Church leads us first out into the wilderness to be with Jesus during his temptations, and then on the second Sunday of Lent his three closest disciples join Jesus as they journey up a high mountain. The strange event which the bible calls Jesus being transfigured is told today in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 17.

Sometimes we think that it is on this particular mountain that the divinity of Jesus is revealed when he shines brightly. In fact, the writers of the New Testament knew that humanity itself was a rather glorious thing, and that the perfect humanity that was Jesus was the model for the glory that all his people would one day share.

Early Christians would tell us that if you wanted to see the divinity of Jesus, you must look at the suffering and shameful death of Jesus – even if this continues to surprise us. So, to understand what happens here on the mountain of the transfiguration, you need to meditate on the other mountain – the place of the crucifixion.

On this mountain, Jesus is revealed in glory; there, on that hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus is revealed in his shame. Here, the clothing that Jesus is wearing is shining white and bright; there his clothes have been stripped away. Here Jesus is flanked by the two great heroes of Israel – Moses and Elijah; there he only has two brigands to flank him. Here a bright cloud covers them with its shadow; there the land is covered in darkness. Here Peter declares how wonderful this all is; there, Peter and the others have run away and hide in their fear. Here the booming voice of God declares that this is His beloved son; there, it is left to a pagan Roman soldier to declare in his surprise that that really was God’s son.

Perhaps it is only when we begin to really see that the glory of God can be revealed in sorrow and shame that we begin to understand how strange and wonderful is this story of Jesus. This Lent we are invited to move deeper into this story, as we listen to the voice of Jesus calling us into life.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Paul’s, 6pm Vigil (10’57”)

The text above is from the Journey Radio Program:

Resurrected temple

JerusalemSiegeThe long journey that we have been on with Jesus which began in chapter 9 of the Gospel of Luke – the journey from Galilee in the north down to Jerusalem has finished and Jesus has made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem – which the church celebrates each year on Palm Sunday. So all the gospel passages over the next few weeks take place during Holy Week – those final days leading up to the events of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Tensions, therefore, begin to rise!

The Gospel today is from Luke chapter 20. This is the only time that we meet this strange group called the Sadducees in this Gospel. The Sadducees were the conservatives and the aristocratic group of the day who scorned the more progressive views of the more popular Pharisees. The Sadducees only accepted the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, known as the Torah.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, in chapter 25, we find the law of levirate marriage, whereby a brother was supposed to raise up an heir for his childless dead brother. This was meant to protect the property rights of a family. 

Here, the Sadducees pose a case of a succession of seven heirless brothers that they think will force Jesus to renounce the resurrection by showing the absurdity of it. Instead, Jesus replies that the succession of husbands is a problem for the Sadducees, only because they have not thoroughly comprehended the meaning of the resurrection.

Resurrection life will not be exactly the same as the present one. Death will have been abolished, and so sexual relations, and especially the need to continue a particular family line, will be irrelevant. Those whom God counts worthy of ‘the age to come’, as opposed to ‘the present age’, will have bodies appropriate for the new world in which death will be no more.

And this continues to be good news for all who work for justice in this present world.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Paul’s (8am & 5.30pm; 8’47”)
Sunday 32, Year C. Luke 20:27-38.