We begin this new season of Lent by journeying with Jesus into the wilderness of temptation. The gospel today begins with Jesus being driven immediately into the wilderness of Israel – perhaps into the Judean desert, or into the southern desert of the Negev. Immediately refers to happening straight after the baptism of Jesus. It is as if Jesus had to first hear the words of the Father declaring that “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” – words that we will hear again next Sunday at the Transfiguration – and having the reassurance of the presence of the Holy Spirit, in order to have the strength to face the dry, arid and barren desert. A place of lifeless hopelessness. This is the place where Jesus goes to confront himself and ‘the Satan’ – the adversary, who stands opposed to the way of God. He spends forty days in the wilderness – a symbolic number in Hebrew meaning a long period. In the gospel of Mark there are none of the details that we find in Matthew or Luke about the specific temptations that Jesus faced. Mark only provides the raw details. He does tell us that ‘the wild beasts were with him’ – and at that time there were bears, leopards, wild boar, cheetahs as well as many ibexes in the deserts of Israel. So we probably have read this as somewhat scary and frightening – yet perhaps this is meant as a reminder that now that Jesus the Messiah has come, the prophecies of, for example, the Prophet Isaiah are now coming true and “lion and lamb will lie down together.” The wild beasts may then simply be there as friends and companions of Jesus, alongside of the angels who ministered to him.
Jesus returns to his ministry and begins to preach repentance for the kingdom of God has drawn near. Mark doesn’t tell us the details of what that good news was about, but if we read the letters of Saint Paul we are told that the good news means the announcement of ‘truth, hope, peace, promise, immortality and salvation.’ Jesus calls us to repent – to change our minds (metanoia in Greek) and return to the way of the Father (t’shuvah in Hebrew). But this way of repentance cannot only happen when we have been caught out and the consequences of our sin is now known (which seems to happen in the lives of public figures who are sorry because they were caught, or are sorry because their sin is now known) – no, true repentance happens when we are sorry for the sin itself and all the ways that it leads us away from God.
Sunday Lent 1, Year B. Mark 1:12-15
Jesus Heals a Man with Leprosy
A man with leprosy came and knelt in front of Jesus, begging to be healed. “If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean,” he said.
Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!” Instantly the leprosy disappeared, and the man was healed. Then Jesus sent him on his way with a stern warning: “Don’t tell anyone about this. Instead, go to the priest and let him examine you. Take along the offering required in the law of Moses for those who have been healed of leprosy. This will be a public testimony that you have been cleansed.”
But the man went and spread the word, proclaiming to everyone what had happened. As a result, large crowds soon surrounded Jesus, and he couldn’t publicly enter a town anywhere. He had to stay out in the secluded places, but people from everywhere kept coming to him. NLT
Jesus is on the move from Capernaum. He travels to the nearby villages of Galilee, wanting to preach there as well. A man with leprosy comes and falls at the feet of Jesus crying out with a pitiable plea. For lepers in that society are not only pitied but greatly feared.
People did not know what caused this wide range of diseases which included what we today call leprosy — but they knew that they were contagious — so the only solution was to isolate the victims and not allow them to have any contact with other people. Although the disease caused an appalling physical disintegration of body and limbs, the real pain of the disease was the resulting social isolation. It is also tragic that many of the people who were forced to be ostracized may not have even had the disease but some other non-contagious skin complaint.
The response of Jesus today is odd. Jesus is deeply moved by the leper – some translations say with compassion or pity, but others say with anger. The Greek word can be translated either way. But once he heals him in a very matter-of-fact way, then Jesus warns him sternly not to say anything about the healing. Perhaps this is simply because before the man can be reintegrated into society, he has to be seen to be clean by making the appropriate offering that is prescribed in the Book of Leviticus.
Perhaps we can take great courage from the Gospel today, knowing that when we bring any of our complaints and diseases before the Lord, he will respond to us in the same way that he responds to this man: “Of course I want to, be made clean.” Jesus is never constrained by social conventions or legalities that prevent him from being part of our lives.
+ Lord Jesus, if we have isolated ourselves away from family and friends, call us to reconnect with our church family or offer your healing touch to someone we know. Amen.
Sunday 06B. (Bishop-elect Brian Mascord delivered his Lenten Message in place of the homily today)
One of the great dangers of modern life is our obsession with proving how valuable we are. This is seen in the busyness with which we surround ourselves. Being “so busy” becomes this strange and perverted badge of honour. Even though Jesus may well have been extremely busy – and we see it very clearly in the continuing description of the first day in the public life of Jesus that the opening chapter of Mark describes. Yet, even though he is healing and driving our demons in the synagogue, in private homes, in the crowded streets – he never loses his primary focus. As this first crazy Sabbath day concludes and the next day begins with the descent of darkness, Jesus escapes from the house while it is still dark to find a deserted place where he could be alone with his Father. If Jesus needs to find this space in his life to pray – and each Gospel is very clear on the strength of the personal prayer life of Jesus – how much more do we need to do the same.
The prayer of Jesus is interrupted by the disciples who come searching for Jesus, telling him that “everyone is searching for you” wanting more of that special Jesus touch and his unique teaching authority. But even though it would make logical sense to go back to the synagogue in Capernaum, he announces that it is time to move on. Jesus has this strong orientation towards the ultimate good in his life – God. All of his focus is directed at God and the goodness that life in God offers. He is not distracted by the crowds who only want the signs and wonders and not the deeper call to life in God that discipleship provides. Se he moves on. And he invites us to do the same. To recognise that often all of the seemingly good things that we crowd our life with can sometimes crowd out the only truly good thing that matters.
+ Jesus, help us to make space in a deserted place to be alone with you in prayer, that we may reaffirm our fundamental yes to life with you.
Sunday 05, Year B. Mark 1:29-39
As we begin a new education year today, it is interesting that the readings of the day provide significant guidance. The first reading (from 2 Samuel 15-16) provides the odd description of David discovering that his son Absolom has now won over the majority of the people and was gathering troops against the King – so David flees in sadness to avoid a bloodbath in the city of Jerusalem. While on his way on the Mount of Olives, a member of Saul’s clan comes out and begins to curse him and throw stones at him. Charming behaviour! But rather than allowing one of his soldiers to kill Shimei, David takes the criticism and cursing as being from the Lord. Very noble.
In the Gospel (Mark 5) we have the powerful story of Jesus arriving on the south-eastern shore of the Sea in pagan territory and being greeted by a demon-possessed man. He is so deranged that he spends his life (day and night) without clothes, howling and cutting himself with stones. Jesus begins to free the man, while the demons protest. When asked to identify itself, the demon names itself as Legion “for there are many of us.” It could be a reference to the presence in that land of the Tenth Legion (which has the Boar as its emblem). A Roman Legion contained between 2000 and 4000 soldiers. The presence of Jesus in this pagan land is still bringing cleansing to the land by bringing dehumanised people to freedom. When the now clothed and calm man asks Jesus to follow him, Jesus tells him instead to stay in his local community and be a witness there to the mighty works of God.
Monday in Week 4, Year II.
Over the last few weeks during the readings from the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, we have heard of the first teaching and preaching of Jesus in his call to repentance because of the breaking in of the kingdom of God. Last Sunday we heard the call of the first four disciples. Today, Mark takes us to the beginning of his actual ministry on the first day in the life of Jesus. He goes, on a Sabbath day, to the local synagogue in the town that becomes his new home base, K’far Nahum (Capernaum), and begins to teach. The Synagogue was a relatively new reality in Judaism, beginning most likely during the period of the Exile, after the destruction of the temple of King Solomon, and before the exiles began to return to Jerusalem under the Persian King Cyrus and the building of a new temple. Many Jews did not return and remained in the diaspora, perhaps because life was better and more stable there, and perhaps because they found the synagogue service to satisfy their religious needs.
Synagogues could be buildings, but their basic reality was the coming together of a community, which could meet anywhere, including in private homes. The service was somewhat fluid, but it generally was comprised of only three components: a time of prayer, a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Tanakh (most commonly from the Torah), and then an interpretation of the reading. As a teaching institution, the focus was on the instruction that was offered. Usually, there was no music and no songs were sung, and no sacrifices were offered. Each synagogue (and at the time of Jesus there were as many as 480 in the city of Jerusalem) would have three positions: a leader or ruler who ensured the orderly running of the service, a collector and distributor of alms, and a minister (Chazzan) who cared for the Tanakh scrolls and made them available. There was no regular teacher or preacher. It was up to the leader to find someone to teach each week, or invite someone to teach during the service. That person could be a member of the congregation, or a visitor; they might be a recognised scribe or rabbi, or someone who seems to have the necessary teaching gifts, like Jesus. Scribes taught the Hebrew scriptures, but did so based on earlier interpretations – either written in the Tanakh, or in the body of oral teaching such as the Mishnah, or the oral teaching of earlier Rabbis or scribes. What Jesus brought to this teaching was personal authority: “you have heard how it was said, but I say to you…”
Mark wants us to know that the healing ministry of Jesus when he displayed his mighty works and authority was constitutive of his whole ministry. In fact, more than half of the public ministry of Jesus in Mark is comprised of miracle stories. A significant example of these are the release and healing of people possessed by demonic powers – with four major sections of his gospel taken up with these stories – see Mark 1:23-26; Mark 1:39; Mark 5:1-20; Mark 7:24-30; Mark 9:14-29. In a typical account of an exorcism, there are six stages:
- The meeting of Jesus and the possessed person
- The resistance of divine power
- Powerful response of Jesus (‘Be muzzled’ or ‘Shut up!’)
- A Command to leave
- The Departure of the demon
- The Reactions of the witness – usually astonished, amazed or afraid.
Jesus still has authority over our lives and every area of sin, darkness, addiction, shame and evil in our lives. As we pray for our country on this long weekend, let us allow the authority of Jesus to bring healing into every area that needs his love and mercy.
Sunday 04, Year B. Mark 1:21-26
Last Sunday we were invited by Jesus in the Gospel of John to “Come and See” and this week when we resume in the Gospel of Mark and hear the first words of Jesus in this Gospel, we are invited to “repent and believe the Good News” and to join with Jesus as he walks along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, inviting two sets of two brothers to “Follow me.” All four of the men immediately leave their possessions, their trade and their families to follow Jesus.
The first reading from the Book of Jonah provides a counter example of this immediate response. Although Jonah is included in the collection of the 12 Minor Prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, the book is not a collection of his sayings (thankfully) but rather a satirical story of his call and ongoing failure to fully respond to the call and word of the Lord. This short book with only 4 chapters and 48 verses provides comical relief to us in those times when we struggle to respond to the Lord and his call to be faithful to his word, and invites us to reflect more deeply on our own response to pagan enemies and their conversion to God.
Sunday 03, Year B. Jonah 3:1-5,10; Mark 1:14-20
The first Gospel that we hear as we plunge back into the season of the year with Mark in year B is not from the Gospel of Mark, but from the first chapter of the Gospel of John (John 1:35-42). The Gospel opens with John seeing Jesus walking by and John declares to two of his disciples “behold, the lamb of God” – and they began to follow Jesus, instead of John. When Jesus sees them following after him, he turns to them and asks them a brilliant question: “What are you looking for?” I like their answer – in part because it seems like a very awkward question and not the one that they are really wanting to ask – “Rabbi, where are you staying?” I guess that they really want to ask something like – “Can we become your followers?” Jesus responds to their question, not with a direct answer, but he doesn’t ask them another question – which as a good Rabbi, Jesus is very good at. No he offers a lovely invitation to “Come and See.” It is an invitation that leads to life with Jesus, and it is the beginning of an answer to the first question of Jesus (which are also the first words of Jesus in the Gospel of John). The invitation to life with Jesus opens the door for one of the disciples, Andrew, to then invite someone else. The Gospel is never really experienced until we extend the encounter that is central to the gospel to another person. So Andrew invites his brother, Simon, to also come and see the one the one who is the Messiah. Simon comes into the circle of Jesus’s influence and into the gaze of his love. When Jesus gazes at Simon, he doesn’t only see what has happened in the past, he also sees the full potential of the person who stands there before him, and Simon is no longer only the son of John, he is now called by his future destiny to be Cephas (in Aramaic), or Peter (in Greek).
Sunday 02, Year B. John 1:35-42; 1 Sam 3:3-10,19; 1 Cor 6:13-20.
The key to understanding what this feast day of the Epiphany is all about is not so much in the specific details of these strange visitors from the East coming to offer gifts and worship to the newborn king of Israel, but in the bigger picture of what these magi represent. We heard last Sunday about the promise that the Lord made to Abram when he called him from his own people and his own family to go to a new place, a land that God will show him, where God will make Abram to be the patriarch of a new people, and a new nation, but also to be the source of blessing for all the nations.
God began to reveal this plan for all the nations slowly. Just as a human baby takes time to develop and mature, so also the human family who received this message of covenant love and faithfulness needed time – generation upon generation – to make sense of the radical call and identity that God was inviting them into. We should not be surprised that when we read the ancient Hebrew scriptures now that many of the teachings and claims strike us as crude and perhaps barbaric. But they were mere steps along this journey towards what God originally intended for all the nations to be part of.
So what began with one family, gradually developed into a larger and more complex reality that became one tribe, then twelve tribes, which grew into a new people during the time of slavery in Egypt, so that as the people escaped and made their Exodus journey through the wilderness and into the promised land, they became a new people and then became slowly one nation and one kingdom during the days of King David. But this was only the beginning. Paul (or one of his disciples) tells us today in Ephesians 3 that the original plan of God, that was hidden for so long, began to be revealed in glimpses through the Prophets, but in our time was finally revealed through the birth, life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul saw himself as the great evangelist of this new announcement: that what was understood as exclusive and particular, was now to be experienced as inclusive and universal – a blessing that belongs to all people, nations, languages, cultures, genders, sexuality, colours, social status, education levels, ethnicity and creeds. A message that some magi from the East happened to stumble across in Bethlehem, was now made available for all people. But now the work of Christmas needs to begin – to bring this inclusive and universal gospel into the lives of all people.
Feast of the Epiphany. Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6.
When we first meet Abram, it is in Genesis 12, and he is invited by the Lord to leave his kindred and his father’s house and go from that country to a land that God will show him. Abram is mostly faithful to this – he probably brings to many of his possessions and his kindred along for the journey – but at least he sets out. He is promised that he will become a great nation, with a great name – a name that will become a blessing for the nations and for all families of the earth. Yet, when we meet Abram in our reading today from Genesis 15, it is not just 3 chapters and many adventures that have passed – it is also many years later, perhaps more than two decades. So when God appears again to him, and the word of the Lord is addressed to him (a phrase that is unique here to the Torah; normally it is only used in the Prophetic writings) we finally hear a reply from Abram (rather than only passive listening). And his question seems valid – where are my descendants that you have promised?
At this stage, God invites Abram to take it outside. Go outside and count the stars – if you can – for such will your desendants be. Now, as difficult as it is to count the stars on a very clear night – and having spent time in the southern Negev desert away from electrical lights and pollution I can attest that you can see many stars there on the typically clear nights – it is even more difficult during the day. It is only in verse 12 that we are told that the sun begins to set, and verse 17 that the sun fully sets. So when Abram goes outside to see and count the stars, he can only see one star – the sun. The other stars are still there, but hidden from his eyes. It is a beautiful image of faith. Sometimes we cannot see the promises of God being fulfilled, yet that doesn’t mean that the stars are not still there beyond our ability to see them. And it is for this reason, that Abram is able to trust in God even when he doesn’t see the answer that he is hoping for, that God takes on a priestly role to declare that he is justified, and his faith is reckoned to him as righteousness.
It is often in being faithful to God in these small details in our lives that we can encounter God in the great things. Joseph and Mary demonstrate this in the Gospel today. They just go about the ordinary details of the law of the Lord, naming and circumcising Jesus, and then presenting him at the temple as part of the purification ritual that was required of women after they had given birth. Rituals help to remind us that God is part of our ordinary lives. There is no great division between the secular and sacred aspects of our lives. In praying in thanksgiving our morning offering, or in offering thanks for the food that we are about to receive, we remind ourselves that God is part of our everyday lives.
Christmas can be a very confusing time. We have mixed together a veritable plethora of traditions, myths, consumer ideals and cultural detritus along with vestiges of gospel stories and religious music and artwork to create this weird celebration of this annual holiday. The end result is not very satisfying for anyone.
During the month of November, I was privileged to be in Jerusalem staying at the Tantur Center for Ecumenical Studies on the southern edge of Jerusalem, looking out over the towns of Bethlehem, Bayt Jala, Bayt Sahur, Beit Safafa and the settlements of Gilo and Har Homa. The problem is that the dry and rocky landscape as you look out across it is dominated by only one thing – the so-called Separation Barrier, or the Apartheid Wall that began to be built by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) during the second Intifada. It was meant to follow the 1949 Armistice Line, commonly called the Green Line, but it often strays many kilometres into the territory of the occupied State of Palestine. So for example, while I was staying there, our group visited the Wi’am Peace Center which has no access to half of its lands, because they are on the wrong side of the wall. A large section of wall juts into Bethlehem to provide access for Israeli citizens to Rachel’s Tomb, which is located next to a Palestinian Cemetery and is therefore a source of constant tension – as I discovered firsthand when I strayed in between members of the IDF and Palestinian youth on my first visit to Bethlehem. Nevertheless there are signs of hope in this very depressing situation, and there are many Jews who do pray the Torah and Ketuvim (Prophets) and know that they have moved far away from the situation of being a remnant people, to the occupying oppressors. Street artists such as Banksy also provide continued hope for change.
Unfortunately, we are not able to look on this situation and speak of how foreign such oppression is to us. The Australian story of abominable treatment of refugees, both onshore and in our offshore processing centres on Manus Island (even if now closed) and Naura remain as a significant stain upon our social conscience.
On Friday an article was published in the New York Times entitled “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas”, written by Stephanie Saldana. During my time at Tantur I was very privileged to meet and become friends with Stephanie, who is married to the program director at Tantur, Frederic Masson. Stephanie is American, from San Antonia in Texas; her father is the Diocesan director of Caritas and has been working successfully for decades to find homes for refugees from all over the world, but especially from the middle east, among the Catholic community there. Frederic is French, but since they have been married they have decided to live in the middle east, in Iraq, Syria and most recently in Jerusalem. Frederic is now a Syrian Catholic and is studying to be a priest. They have three wonderful children, JoJo is the oldest, then Seb and the youngest cutie is Carmel. The whole family is fluent in French, English and Arabic. Through a grant, Stephanie has been able to devote the last two years trying to document and save as much of the cultural and social heritage that she can, by visiting and documenting the stories of refugees in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Greece, as well as visiting other refugees who have managed to now settle in Europe. I want to quote from three sections of her article – which is linked below, as also is the website where Stephanie shares some of the stories of heritage restoration – Mosaic Stories.
I have visited many refugee camps in the Middle East, but never have I seen anything like Moria, a place Pope Francis has likened to a concentration camp. I have also never understood the true meaning of Christmas — a story in which Jesus was born into a family that became refugees — until I visited the people who are now forced to call it home.
If we want to imagine the Nativity, we needn’t go farther than the tent of Alaa Adin from Syria, who left his home just days after he married. Now his wife is pregnant, and when I met them they were living in a tent outside of Moria, because there was no room for them inside. If we want to see today’s flight to Egypt, we needn’t look far: Nearly every refugee I’ve ever met has a story about escaping in the middle of the night.
If we want a miracle, I’d suggest looking at Anwar, who despite crying while recounting the destruction of Mosul, still paused in the middle and offered me a clementine. [A fruit like a mandarin] As we live through the largest migration in modern history, Christmas invites us to recognize our story in the millions who have been displaced by tyrants, war and poverty and to see their stories in ours.
Christmas continues to challenge us to be faithful to these much deeper stories. Once we have looked into the eyes of our brothers and sisters, we can no longer treat them only as statistics, or problems that are over there. We continue to be challenged to see Christmas as a story of a God who loved the world too much to allow it to remain locked in despair and hopelessness. Christmas reminds us that God wants to be involved in our messy world.
Christmas – Vigil Mass; Midnight Mass; Mass during the day
The Gospel from Luke 1:26-38 presents the familiar scene of the Angel Gabriel being sent by God to announce to Mary that she would become a mother to the Son of God. This is one of the passages that I spent many hours pondering during my recent thirty-day Ignatian retreat, and the first thing that really struck me is the opening line. Luke takes us from the universal and the general and slowly reveals more and more details about the circumstances and locations and people until we finally zero in on the person of this virgin Mary. I also developed a system of highlighting the scriptures, using different colours and symbols to highlight the words that signify location, the words spoken by God or an Angel, other key characters, as well as the different responses of people, ranging from positive, through neutral to negative and even sinful and demonic responses. This passage features the Angel acting as a direct instrument of God, and Mary, responding as best as she can. We will see the dialogue is almost entirely that of Gabriel, with only two responses recorded of Mary – yet both continue to resonate very strongly with those who follow the way of Jesus.
Despite her confusion, fear and doubtless anxiety, Mary becomes for us the perfect model of Advent and thus of Christmas. She questions the basic possibility of a virgin conceiving, yet her final answer calls every Christian to a similar response of trust and openness.
Read more: Advent, Sunday 4, Year B. Luke 1:26-38
On the third Sunday of Advent there is the cry of joy and the imperative call to rejoice and be glad. In the midst of the craziness of this time of year it might all seem to be too much. Yet Paul quietly calls us to focus in the series of short commandments that he offers in 1 Thessalonians for our second reading. Let us take time to listen to each of the eight short teachings that Paul offers, all of which can help us to focus on this call to rejoice always, keep on praying, give thanks in all things while remaining open to the work of the Spirit, and testing all things.
The Gospel of Mark was written, most likely, around the year 65 in the city of Rome. It was a very turbulent period, after the great fire that had raged for seven days through the city in July 64. The Emperor Nero needed someone to blame for lighting the fire – although many suggest that he was the most likely arsonist – and the Jewish Christians who lived across the Tiber and were untouched by the devastating fire were an easy target. A persecution against the followers of Jesus began, that resulted in many, including both Saints Peter and Paul, being martyred.
The death of so many of the early leaders is the likely catalyst for wanting to put down in writing the good news of Jesus the Messiah. The oral stories of the life and ministry of Jesus that kept the faith alive, now needed to be kept for future generations as well.
What a story it is! Many people in the Jewish world had been looking for signs from God. Most of them wanted a Messiah that would lead them in a revolt against Rome. Few if any expected the sign would be a prophet like John the Baptiser calling them (in Hebrew) to t’shuvah.
Across the pages of the Jewish scriptures is told again and again a story of freedom from oppression and slavery. John is retelling the story of the Exodus and inviting his hearers to join in the action, to come down into the water and find life and freedom for themselves.
Just as Moses had invited the people to leave behind the slavery of Egypt, so John is now inviting anyone who will listen to leave behind their world of sin and rebellion against God. God had invited them to walk along the straight path of freedom, but they had wandered away and forgotten who they were created to be. John invites them to ‘come on home’ – to return to the path that leads to life, joy and wonder. This is what t’shuvah means. John invited his people then, and we are invited today to turn around and stop going down a road that will only lead to destruction, pain and hurt. T’shuvah he says. Stop dreaming and wake up to the new reality of the bright light of the one who is to come. He will lead you into the new life of the Holy Spirit.
+ Jesus, you call us to wake up to the good news that you are the Messiah, the Son of God. Thank you for the freedom that only you can offer. Amen.
Advent 2, Year B.
Happy new year! (Such a geeky liturgical thing to say!) We begin this new season of Advent today, and with this Sunday the whole cycle of the church’s year begins again. We switch from listening to the gospel of Matthew and begin to listen to the first of the gospels to be written, the gospel of Mark. It has been three years since we have heard the unique voice of Mark as part of our Sunday readings.
But wait, if we begin reading from Mark’s gospel today in this season of Advent, then why aren’t we beginning with the opening verses of the Gospel? Why are we in chapter 13? And if Advent is all about preparing for Christmas, why aren’t we reading about the birth of Jesus – you know, from the infancy stories that Mark tells?
In fact, if you open to chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel, you find there are no stories about the birth of Jesus. The opening lines – which we will hear next Sunday – are brilliant, but they are all about the ministry of Jesus and John the Baptist.
Today Jesus uses an image of the fig tree in full blossom as a sign that summer is near. He points to all the events that were going down around him as a reminder that the community needs to stay awake, be alert, and keep watch. The image is like soldiers standing on the fortifications that surrounded the towns of old, keeping vigil as they gazed across the landscape.
There will be no signs that we can read to know when the Son of Man will come again. Jesus is very clear that only the Father knows when the right time will be – so our task is simply to remain faithful to God, no matter how dark the night, and to keep awake, watching for the new day to dawn.
+ Jesus, keep us focussed on the new dawn of your day of justice, and help us to be attentive to all that really matters in our lives. Amen.
Advent, Sunday 1, Year B. Mark 13
Justice is something that we learn very early as children. We have this strong instinct for when something doesn’t just seem to be fair. Perhaps as a result, justice is one of the most profound longings of the human race. When there is no justice, then we know that something is wrong from deep within ourselves. Justice is both hard to define and hard to enact. This has never stopped humans from seeking it, praying for it, and working hard to find better ways of doing it. Justice means bringing the world back into balance.
The scene of the last judgement that is presented in the Gospel of Matthew in chapter 25 has burned itself deeply into our consciousness – not least because of its depiction in many paintings. The Son of Man is identified as the king who sits on his glorious throne admitting on one side the righteous to the final kingdom of God – prepared from the foundation of the world. In contrast is the other side with the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. The common image of a shepherd separating the sheep from the similarly coloured goats is used.
In this present moment, these two kingdoms are interwoven and confused through the ambiguities of history. But the kingdom of God is the only true kingdom. What appears to be the present struggle between the two kingdoms will not last forever, because ultimately only God is King!
Part of what is proclaimed in this gospel is that in the coming of the son of man, justice will at last be done. This passage comes as the climax of a whole series where Jesus has denounced his own people and especially the leaders for their failure to live as God’s people should.
What Jesus wants the church to know is that he is already ruling the whole world as its rightful Lord. This is especially true where the kingdoms of this world treat many of our brothers and sisters with contempt, torture, abuse and too often with death. Then, as now, this passage provides great encouragement for all who work for justice in the name of the kingdom of God.
+ Jesus, as this year draws to a close, help us to rest in your amazing love. Take away any fear or anxiety, because we know that you’ve got this whole world under your care and protection. Amen.
Sunday 34, Year A. Christ the King. Matthew 25:31-46
** This month I am in Jerusalem as part of my sabbatical program. Please pray for me! **
When you get to the end of the year, there are always tests and exams and assignments for students. Some of these may be less serious – merely serving to help teachers know what they will need to spend more time revising in the new year. But for others, these tests will assess everything that the student has learnt over the whole of their schooling and the results will shape much of the life for the student for some years.
Some people think that God has given us a syllabus to study, rules to follow, and lessons to learn. They think that when God returns he’ll set a test to work out who will fail and who will pass. We might imagine that the really good people will get a special award; the really bad ones a decent kick up the pants.
Jesus today tells a parable about a rich man heading abroad, who entrusts his property with three of his servants. A talent was a measure of money – equivalent to what a worker would earn over the course of 15 years – think of it as a million dollars. God wants us to be wise and shrewd in using the talents that he has given us. But this is not a parable that encourages capitalism or becoming an investment banker. The treasure that is spoken of is the good news about the love of the Lord.
While we must read this parable – like all of them – in the light of all that Jesus says about coming for the sick and the sinner, this parable is certainly making a positive judgement on the first two servants who have heard the message of Jesus and have responded to all that God has given to bring about something new. The parable also judges the ones who have hidden their light and kept it for themselves – the worthless servants who do not share the good news of God’s love with others.
+ Jesus, you are such a treasure for us. Help us to freely share the abundance of your love with all those around us. Amen.
Sunday 33, Year A.
** This month I am in Jerusalem as part of my sabbatical program. Please pray for me! **
What we come to when we wish to ponder the place where Jesus has gone, and where our beloved dead have gone to – it is not another where, not another place, but another way of being. Heaven is not some place elsewhere, but it is a different way of being – the place where God is and where the will of God is always done. It is important in this month of November that we spend time reflecting on the nature and reality of heaven. Using the beautiful writings of Pope Emeritus Benedict in his encyclical letter Spe Salvi, and reflecting on the images that St Paul uses in the second reading today, we can reflect upon purgatory, hell and heaven as part of our hope for ourselves and all our brothers and sisters who have gone before us.
** I am currently away in Jerusalem on sabbatical leave. This recording is from the Archives (recorded in 2011) **
When you are setting out on a great adventure, you want the guide who is helping you to choose all the gear, plan your route, and help you train to have hiked the same planned journey – not just watched a video about it on YouTube or Discovery Channel. All too often we have guides and teachers who are more concerned about their outward show and appearances than authentic practice.
The reading today begins the fifth and final section of teaching that you find in Matthew’s gospel. This section, which runs for the next three chapters, is full of woes and judgements and the last things. Which makes sense for it takes place during the final week in the life of Jesus, only days before he dies.
Jesus offers three criticisms: that the leaders and teachers say but do not do; second, that they burden others but do not act; and third, that they act for the wrong reasons – to make an impression. So, Jesus says what they teach is good – but they need to practice what they preach.
The warnings that Jesus makes in this chapter certainly apply to the leaders in the church – the Rabbis, Fathers and Teachers – but it also applies from top to bottom of all modern societies. No one is completely immune from the criticisms that Jesus levels here. All of us are social creatures who want to be known and liked and accepted by our peers.
When Jesus makes these criticisms, he wasn’t sitting on a great throne. He says these things when the cross that will kill him is already looming large. On the cross he will humble himself and be the servant to all, carrying the heaviest burden of all, so that his people would no longer have to be weighed down by all our garbage.
+ Jesus, help us to get over our little show and appearance. Help us to see that you call us to live an authentic life of service, and to follow you each day along the way of the cross. Amen.
Grace and peace.
Sunday 31, Year A.
** This month I am in Jerusalem as part of my sabbatical program. Please pray for me! **
The question that Jesus is asked in the gospel today from Matthew 22 was a common one that the Rabbis of the day would be asked – “which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” Since in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures, also called the Torah, the Rabbis had discerned a total of 613 commandments or mitzvot, there were many possible answers to this question. A mitzvah is a commandment – much more than a good deed or work that you can do. They were broken up into 248 positive prescriptions – things you must do, such as to keep holy the Sabbath and to honour your parents, take care of the poor; and 365 negative prohibitions – things that you shall not do, such as do not murder, do not steal and so forth.
Jewish teachers were often asked to summarise the law in a brief statement – some have said that it was a summary that you could say while standing on one leg. The answer that Jesus gives, drawn from chapter 6 in the Book of Deuteronomy – is also common. This commandment – to love the Lord your God with all your heart, life and strength – is not just among the things that the Jews were supposed to do. It was a central part of the daily prayer of every devout Jew morning, noon and night – a tradition that continues to this day. The prayer is called the Shema – from the Hebrew word to hear.
To this greatest commandment Jesus quickly adds another, taken from the Book of Leviticus, chapter 19 – to love your neighbour as yourself.
Knowing the commandments – and living them are unfortunately often two very different things. Far too often we try to obey these commandments in our own strength. But when you see them in the light of the larger Gospel story of Jesus dying for the sins of the world and rising to bring new life – along with the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit to empower us to be changed – then these commandments become invitations and promises of a whole new way of life. When we live them like this, then bit by bit we can slowly allow our hearts to be transformed by his grace, so that all those bits of darkness – pride and hatred and impurity and selfishness – all of these things can be left behind and the love that lies at the heart of our faith can become a reality.
+Jesus, may we be caught up each day in your amazing story of love. Help us to receive your love by diving deeply into your love, so that we can live each day in the freedom to love you and love others. Amen.
Grace and peace!
Sunday 30, Year A.
** Please pray for me as I undertake an Ignatian thirty-day retreat during this month near Boston, MA **
As an Australian, we can often feel small and forgotten, because we seem to be so far away from where all the action is happening. Our population is relatively small, we don’t have a huge army, or nuclear weapons to protect our vast land area. Yet we are also one of the wealthiest nations, with high income, good health, long life, and enviable lifestyle. And we have an alliance with and the protection of one of the greatest military superpowers the world has ever seen. Which means that we often miss the point of many things in the bible.
For the bible was written by a tribe of Jewish people that had experienced hundreds of years of suffering and abuse living under a whole series of more powerful and oppressive empires. And the Jewish prophets kept reminding both people and leaders that the oppression they experience and the freedom they seek is for a specific purpose – to maintain justice and righteousness and to care for the weak – the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the refugee.
Apart from many trips overseas, I have lived in Australia my whole life – which means that the capitalist system has been whispering subversive messages into my ears my whole life.
The main message is: More… You need more…
You need more stuff. More money. More land. More influence. More power.
Because more, we are told, is always better than less.
Except when more is actually destructive and damaging. Sometimes more is in fact evil.
So, when we read this confrontation between the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus today with this question about taxes – we need to wade through all of our social background first as members of the victorious dominant western culture rather than the underclass.
A few revolutionaries had tried – and failed – to overthrow the Roman occupiers. Most people hated having to pay so much in tax, leaving almost nothing to feed your family. So, the question that Jesus is asked is explosive.
He begins to answer by asking for a coin. The Jews knew that they were created in the image and likeness of God, so it was wrong to put images of people or gods on things, because it could confuse people.
But the coins that people had to pay their taxes with not only had an image of Caesar on them, they also had an inscription around the edge that proclaimed him “Son of God … high priest.” So, his questioner has to admit that he carries around these hated coins that bear such a distasteful and terrible picture and title.
Jesus answers this specific question brilliantly: give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God. He doesn’t provide a policy for all time about how we must resolve every economic question that we will face as we navigate our way in the world.
The mission of Jesus was not to be another revolutionary like the others around. The kingdom of God would defeat the kingdom of Caesar, but only because the love and power of God will always conquer not only Caesar but the even greater power of death and destruction itself.
+ Jesus, help us to be reminded of your constant call to care for the weak and oppressed, and to always make serving your kingdom our first daily priority. Amen.
Sunday 29, Year A.
** Please pray for me as I undertake an Ignatian thirty-day retreat during this month near Boston, MA **