Christmas Day – the Compassion of God

PARAY1There is an extraordinary line in the second reading today – ‘When the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any righteous thing that we had done, but because of his mercy.’ (Titus 3:4-5) We have often understood Judaism and its focus on the laws and commandments of Torah which included the 613 mitzvah to be about a religious system that emphasised the keeping of the laws and the rewards that this would merit. But this reading turns that whole emphasis on its head to remind us that to be saved is all about God’s kindness, favour and compassion – not our righteousness. And for this we can be eternally grateful.

Recorded at St Paul’s (7 mins)
Christmas, Midnight Mass (readings of the Dawn Mass)

A tradition of life

washinghandsI am sure you have had the experience of telling a joke where the execution and timing have been rather good – and yet one or more of your friends in the group that surrounds you just don’t get the point. Perhaps you have also had the similar experience of hearing a joke and while other roar with laughter you just don’t get it. At all. Now, someone could attempt to explain what the significance of some key word or missing concept that prevents you or others from understanding why the joke is so funny – but that is far from ideal. We seem to have a very similar situation in the Gospel today – although not nearly so funny as that well executed joke.

The fact that Mark takes so much time to clue his audience into the scene, providing ample additional explanatory notes and asides to them and us, is the main reason that we know that the people that Mark was writing this Gospel to were not Jewish. A Jewish audience would not need to know that they have a bit of a thing – an obsession some might say – with washing hands, dishes and pots. They knew this from their very earliest days. It was just one of those things that you did as a Jew. We might not even think twice about the good and sensible advice of ensuring your hands are clean before eating – surely our mothers told us this many times when we came into the table from playing in the backyard with the dog – but this was not commonly practiced in the ancient world. You only have to travel to other continents to realise that the obsession that we have about food preparation and handling are not quite shared with the same level of passion.

But when Jesus was asked this question about hand washing, he turns the question around to be something about human tradition. Which we will miss the full impact of if we only read the oddly shortened version of this Gospel that is presented by the Lectionary today (both Catholic and Common) which omits some key verses that remind us of the tendency to subvert scripture by human traditions – so make sure you read all twenty-three verses together like I did at Mass today. It doesn’t take long for Jesus to take this discussion about human traditions into explosive new territory.

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Recorded at St Columbkille’s Church, Corrimal (my final Sunday in this parish)
Sunday 22, Year B. Mark 7:1-23

Apostles breaking down barriers

Jesus-Shepherd-TissotWe meet the disciples of Jesus today as they return from their missionary journeys where they went out in pairs to not only proclaim the message of salvation but they were also tasked to heal the sick and bring release to those bound with evil spirits. They return no longer as disciples – but they are now called for the first time ‘apostles’ – that is ones that are sent. Seeing how tired and stressed they are, Jesus invites them to go across the lake to a wilderness area (eremos topos) – the same phrase that is used to describe the wilderness that Jesus spent the forty days at the beginning of the Gospel. But when they cross the lake they find the even larger crowd has hurried even more than they did and are waiting for them when they step ashore. Jesus models the ministry of shepherd by having compassion on the crowd and he sets about to teach them at some length. (So a long homily is a sign of the preacher’s compassion on the crowds.)

Paul also offers us an insight into the ministry of the shepherd by describing the alienation that his audience used to live in – they were both spiritually and physically excluded from the life of the Jewish people by the commandments of Moses and the wall that surrounded the inner courts in the Jerusalem temple which bore an inscription which warned any Gentiles (in Greek) that if they entered into the inner courts they should prepare to die. Sorry about that.

What happens in the life and death of Jesus is the beginning of the incredible process of reconciliation – the tearing down of all barriers to allow both Jews and Gentiles to no longer be two separate streams, but now one newly recreated humanity able to live in the grace and peace of God.

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Recorded at St Col’s, Saturday Vigil and Sunday morning (9mins)

Sunday 16, Year B

A covenant people at Sinai

sinaiOne of the great problems with a passage like the Ten Commandments is that we tend to read them with little sense of the context or the who or where of what is happening. Until we do this work, then these commandments, like the rest of the 613 mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) that you find across the first five books of the Bible – called the Torah or Pentateuch – are completely irrelevant to our lives.

So, first the where. The action – and there is lots of action – of Exodus 19-20 takes place on Mount Sinai, also called Horeb – a word in Hebrew that simply means wilderness. Remembering the principle of first mention, that takes us back to Exodus 3, when Moses is at this place, minding his own business as he looks after the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro when he sees this weird phenomena of a bush burning but not being consumed. As the curious bloke, he wanders over to get a better view, only to be told by a voice that comes from the bush to come no closer, and to take off his shoes for this is holy ground. The speaker identifies as “The God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” It is verse 7 that things really get interesting. We are told:

“Surely I have seen the misery of my people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry of distress because of their oppressors, for I know their sufferings. And I have come down to deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up from this land to a good and wide land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites…” [Exodus 3:7-8, LEB; emphasis added]

The Lord goes on to identify himself as “I am who I am” and to give Moses the additional sign, that he will bring the rescued people out of the slavery of Egypt into the freedom of the wilderness and he will bring the people back to this holy mountain to worship the Lord. We read this part of the story in Exodus 19, after all the events of the ten plagues and the great Passover in Exodus 12-13, and that it was a great mixture of people that escaped the slavery and joined the Hebrew people in the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:37-38). So this people comes to the region of Sinai and camps at the base of the holy mountain. Moses goes up to meet the Lord on the mountain and the Lord tells him to tell the people: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and I brought you to me.” [Ex 19:4, LEB] The Lord goes on to say that “all the earth is mine”, yet this people will be “a treasured possession for me out of all the peoples” [19:5] and they will belong to the Lord “as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” [19:6]

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Recorded at St Columbkille’s at 9am Mass (19mins, 36 secs); the slightly shorter Vigil Mass recording (15mins) is also available which also provides a bit of background of the whole idea of covenant and why there are two tablets.

Lent, Sunday 3, Year B.

To prevent the decalogue (the Ten Words, or the Ten Commandments) from being an irrelevant list of do’s and don’t’s we need to look carefully at the context of the covenant that is being entered into – and particularly the two questions of where this happens and with whom it happens. Unfortunately this does take time to do – hence the longer than usual homily today 😉

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Called to be perfect

No one could deny that the Jewish law sets a very high standard. In this reading from Leviticus chapter 19, we’re told to “Be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy.” Be holy as God is holy? Seriously? The Gospel today (Matthew 5: 38-48) concludes with Jesus saying: “Be therefore perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48) Does anyone here actually think that you have managed to achieve this or accomplish that? Has anyone managed to strike this one off your eternal plan ‘to-do list’ and now you are asking, okay, so what next? This extreme call to model our lives on nothing less than the moral perfection and holiness of God is an extraordinary call. It is extraordinary in part because the Lord obviously believes that we can do this; that there is something within us that enables us to achieve this in some measure, that opens to us the possibility of true holiness and perfection. What is this attribute? It is the way that we have been created with this possibility for God, this openness to the ways of God, or as the Catholic tradition has described it over the centuries: we have a capacity for God because we have been created in the ‘imago Dei’ – in the image of God. The very image and likeness of God that we have been created in calls us into the fullness of God’s very life. This incredible standard has been set by the Jewish law; yet over the centuries, the Jewish people – like us – tried to modify and redefine and narrow down the law to make it more restrictive and therefore easier to fulfill. Without this reinterpretation of the law, all that they could know was the judgement of the law and the truth of their failure before the standard of the law. For example the commandment that concludes our first reading today, from Leviticus 19:18, which is “You must love your neighbour as yourself,” was redefined. Surely, it was argued, that cannot mean that we are called to love everybody equally – surely it doesn’t mean that we have to love all of geographical neighbours because many of those people are offensive to us – the ones who persecute us, or challenge us, or worship in a different way? Surely it doesn’t mean we have to love the people who dress badly, or smell funny, or drive those cars, or live in that neighbourhood, or vote for that party and listen to that music? Surely it only means that we have to love fellow Jews [Catholics] – especially the ones who are striving like us to be faithful to the commandments? No – the Lord calls us to this extraordinary height – calling us into perfection and union in this life with God. 

Over the last two weeks, we have had these six examples where Jesus has given us new interpretations of the traditional Mosaic law, saying: “You have heard how it was said…” and then redefining them in radical ways by offering a new understanding of the law by saying: “but I say to you…” He calls us into a deeper observance and a more holistic fulfillment. Today we have the final two examples of these new antithesis. “Jesus begins by saying that ‘You have heard how it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'” The lex talionis as it is called is a very good law for society since it is meant to limit violence and the escalation of revenge. But Jesus gives us a radical challenge by inviting us to ‘offer the wicked person no resistance.’ The challenge has been felt across the centuries whenever Christians have tried to be faithful to this radical teaching.

We need to understand the context of each of the three examples that Jesus offers if we are to make proper sense of them. When Jesus says if someone hits you on the right cheek, it is presumed that they are a superior, treating you as a slave or a child – as a mere object, and shaming you with the back-handed slap across your face. So when Jesus invites us to offer the left cheek as well – he is saying to the person who has just hit him: you may hit me again, but now you will not hit me as someone inferior to you, but you will treat me as an equal. It is an act of peaceful defiance.

In the second example where a person if taking you to court and wants to take away your tunic, Jesus says to offer your cloak as well. In that society, most people would only own and therefore wear these two items of clothing. So by taking off not just your tunic but also your cloak, and offering it to the person in the courtroom, then you are going to be standing there naked before them, and shaming them by the brutality of their claim which is revealed in your nudity. Again, an act of defiance.

Finally in the third example, we know that Roman law allowed a soldier to force a Jewish person to march with them, but they were restricted to only doing this for one mile. By going two miles instead, you are forcing the soldier to breach the law, and perhaps if a commanding officer sees this taking place, then the soldier will probably get in trouble for this offence. All of these are then ways of redefining the violence and providing a people who are persecuted with an intelligent, peaceful response.

This call then for us to love our enemies as well as our friends is a call to remember our original call and the nature of who we truly are, as people who were created in his image and likeness and who he chose to love us first.  Just as Jesus, when he was asked what is the greatest of the 613 mitzvah or commandments, he responded first with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind and your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) and then quickly added the final line of our first reading today, “You must love your neighbour as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) Those last two words are crucial to this – as yourself. How do we respond to this call to love God and love our neighbour? The only way that we can fulfill these laws is by allowing God to love us first. We need to respond to the call that God places upon our lives and respond to the invitation into a relationship with him. We cannot love God; we cannot love any of our neighbours – until we first respond profoundly to the love of God and open ourselves to this love of God.

This call to perfection is not something that is static. The word in the Greek language presumes a very dynamic relationship and a sense of being called into perfection, completion and wholeness. It is a call that we have seen lived out in the lives of so many saints across the centuries. None of them would ever claim that they had achieved holiness or perfection. But they certainly strove for it and made the desire for holiness to be the habit of their lives. The word for perfection here has a sense of orientation about it. It presumes that we have a particular direction to our lives, and what Jesus calls us to today is to have our orientation and direction firmly focussed upon God the Father. It calls us to have our whole heart and energy directed towards God, so that all we desire and long for is directed towards the holiness and perfection of God. The call to be perfect is an invitation to make this drive towards completion the project of our lives. We are called to be holy because God longs to share his holiness with us. We are called to be perfect and we are able to be perfect, because God shares this perfection with us. Let us long for that. Let us make this the story of our lives. Let us strive to bring our lives into conformity with the perfect and beautiful life of Jesus.

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Sunday 07, Year A. 

The law completed

sun behind the bell tower. this is not a collage.The Jewish law, especially the 613 mitzvah or commandments found in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures / Old Testament) – with 365 prohibitions (You shall not…) and 248 prescriptions (Honour your father and mother; Keep holy the Sabbath day…), was a colossal achievement. The whole of the Jewish nation – and not just the scribes and Pharisees – were rightly proud of their laws and revered and honoured both the Law / Torah and the God who gave it to them through their father Moses. Jesus begins this section of the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:17-37) by declaring that he had come not to abolish any of the laws, but to complete them. He goes on to declare that anyone who upholds the law and teaches the law will be considered blessed in the kingdom of heaven; but the opposite is also true.

Bizarrely, Jesus then goes on to make a series of six statements (four of which are included in the Gospel this week; the remaining two will feature next Sunday) where he cites the existing laws using the formula – “You have learnt how it was said” – but then he offers a reinterpretation of the existing law, beginning with an authoritative declaration: “but I say to you…”

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 6pm Vigil (11’49”)

Fulfilling the law

One of the gifts of Fathers’ Day – which we celebrate today in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea – is the impunity that it gives to fathers today to tell Dad jokes. Even though it might invoke a deep groan on other days, today we are more inclined to declare these to be hilarious. One of the lovely things about a joke is that it opens up to teller and hearer an understanding of a mutual, sometimes hidden, worldview. But this breaks down when you have to explain yourself and the context. Mark is faced with this in today’s Gospel. When writing to a new Jewish audience, he has to provide little editorial asides to us to explain what the issue is, so that the words of Jesus make sense. The reading would also make more sense if we read the entire passage, rather than the three extracts that we are given by the liturgy.

Sometimes this passage is interpreted as a conflict between scripture and tradition; others say it is between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ but in fact it is much deeper and points to how we are meant to understand the law as a whole.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am (8’45”)
Sunday 22B

A new covenant

Taking a friend out for a driving lesson a few weeks ago brought to mind my own experience of learning to drive a car. Growing up on a farm, our first driving experience was with tractors and motorbikes and eventually cars as we made our way around the paddocks. But once I actually received my Learner Plates and attempted to drive out on the roads of Bega, I soon discovered that roads and paddocks are different. All was going along okay, until another car approached in the opposite direction and I freaked out, pulling off the side of the road to allow them to pass. (more…)

Ten words of freedom

To soften the hard edge of these sacred commandments that are presented in Exodus 20, the Rabbis’ would often tell a joke – such as ‘when Moses came down the mountain, he began by telling the people: well, there is good news and bad news; the good news is that I managed to talk the Lord down from 20 commandments to ten; the bad news is that adultery is still on the list.’ Or, when Moses had a headache, what did he do? He took two tablets. Or, when the Lord asked Moses if he wanted a tablet of the law, Moses asked him how much they were. When the Lord replied that they were free, Moses said, ‘okay, I’ll take two.’

 

All jokes aside – and especially those jokes aside – what we encounter in this text, which simply presents God speaking ‘these words’ – it is not until Exodus 34 that the title of the Decalogue, literally, the ten words is given – is a sacred covenant that is deeply founded in grace and freedom. Scholars tell us that the covenant is an example of a Suzerain treaty, and it is God who first identifies the parties: ‘I am the LORD your God’ and we are ‘you’ who he brought out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

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Levitical cleaning

Reading the bible is a wonderful gift. But for many people, who with great zeal and commitment begin to read the bible in the book of Genesis, everything goes well for a while. The book of Genesis is interesting, and it is full of familiar stories beginning with creation and then the ‘myths’ of pre-history, followed by the wonderful narratives of the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his twelve sons, and then especially the story of Joseph and his exploits in Egypt. Things continue well in the book of Exodus with the story of Moses and then all of the plagues and the great events of the exodus itself, into the wilderness and the events around Mount Sinai. The story begins to slow down with the ritual descriptions and laws concerning the temple. But if the committed reader has made it this far, the next book in the bible is often the killer – the book of Leviticus. (more…)