“A man had two sons. So begins one of the most moving and beautiful stories that Jesus told – Luke 15. We have often called this parable “The Prodigal Son” but that removes some of the richness – because all three characters are essential to this story – the prodigal son, the waiting father and the elder brother all add so much to the richness and beauty of this encounter with brokenness, mercy and grace. Reflecting on this story provides us with a beautiful illustration of the rich Jewish understanding of “T’Shuvah!” – the God who created us good, to share in his life through walking along the ways of the Lord – but acknowledges that we often wander away from the path. Always and forever, the Lord invites us to come on home and join in the feast. Unfortunately we are too often the older brother in this story and continue to slave away in service of a mean and stingy God. This is brought out in another story that Jesus tells in Matthew 18 – this time its the story of a king and two servants, one who owes a massive sum to the king and the other who owes the first slave a smaller sum. The king forgives the first, but the first is not able to learn from this grace and mercy and extend it to the one who owes him.
The God of the Broken continues to invite us to come on home and join in the feast with the fatted calf.
Recorded at St Paul’s, Vigil Mass.
Sunday 4, Season of Lent, Year C.
In considering the account of the Magi arriving in Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the gospel is already richly told. Even so, many traditions, legends and carols have added all kinds of details to the story, most of which cannot be supported by the text itself.
When the magi arrive in Jerusalem, they would first have to have made their presence known to Herod, the King of Israel and thereby seek an audience with him. They must have presented as guests of some significance in order for their request to be granted. When they finally had the opportunity to make their request to Herod and ask their question of the place of birth of the prophesied king “of the Jews”, no doubt they would have been surprised that this king did not know something so basic in the spiritual and religious law and traditions of the people that Herod was supposed to serve. When the chief priests and scribes are called, they give the obvious answer of the city of David: Bethlehem. When they finally arrive at the house of the holy family, they do the only thing that they can: they kneel in worship before the child Jesus and offer the most previous gifts that they can provide.
The response of the magi stands in stark contrast to that of Herod. Although he talks sweetly and feigns religious allegiance, Herod is insanely threatened by the birth of this child as a potential and likely claimant to the throne that he had worked so hard through political intrigue to achieve. So rather then contemplating worship or blessing, Herod’s response is the one that we see all too commonly around us: to curse the unknown threat and strike against it with hated and violence.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9:30am
Video reflection: Epiphany (Shift Worship)
All the Gospels are anonymous. But when early Christians began collecting them in the second century, they needed a way to distinguish each one from the others. So they gave them titles. The title “According to Matthew” is affixed to this Gospel because church tradition had credited it to Matthew, one of the twelve. It is fitting that Matthew’s Gospel is the first book in the New Testament because it was the favourite Gospel of the early Christians. You see, the first disciples were all Jews; and Matthew sought to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of David, sent by God to rule His kingdom. So Matthew, more than the other Gospel writers, found Jesus’ messiahship in strange and wonderful places where Jews would know to look: in genealogies, titles, numerology, and fulfilled prophecies.
Matthew wants his mainly Jewish audience, as God’s chosen people, to consider how Jesus is the true son of Abraham, the ideal for Israel, even the perfect candidate to be the Anointed One. So he shows how Jesus identified with Israel—even with their spending time in exile in Egypt—and yet, unlike Israel, He did not fall into disobedience. As Matthew tells the story, Jesus has come to fill the Scripture full by His teachings and His example. In this way, Jesus is a new Moses, a new Lawgiver. But again, He is greater than Moses because He gives the law and writes it directly on the hearts of His disciples and of any who care to overhear the message of the kingdom of heaven. According to Matthew, five sermons of Jesus complete the picture of Jesus as Lawgiver. They don’t replace the five books of Torah, but His words refine and complement God’s instruction to the people of the new covenant.
For Matthew, Jesus is more than the Messiah, the fulfiller of prophecies, the true son of Abraham, and the new Moses who brings a new law: He is “God with us” who promises to be with us forever. That means that Jesus is no mere mortal: He is God in the flesh who saves us from our sins. The coming of Jesus into the world fulfills God’s earlier promises to bring about redemption and a new creation. These images of Jesus that Matthew paints so beautifully fired the imaginations of Christians for centuries so that today, when we open our New Testaments, we find Matthew is first in line.
(The Voice Bible translation, Introduction to Gospel of Matthew)
The readings of the Christmas Vigil Mass are rarely used, especially since you usually get the largest congregation of families and children at the earliest Mass. But following on from the series of the Law of Four, I thought that the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew – the whole of chapter 1 – needed to be read. I chose the Voice as an accessible, yet accurate, translation for the first two Masses (5pm and 8pm)
As we have wandered through the stories behind the stories of the gospels and their composition and connection to the church, life and our own histories, it seemed appropriate to think about how the stories that are told about the birth of Jesus would fit within this new understanding. So considering the writings of the New Testament, it is worth looking at how the story of Jesus was built up over time. For example, by the mid-60s, when the Gospel of Mark was being written in the city of Rome, the letters of Paul (presuming that all thirteen are genuine and written in the life-time of Paul – and I have never seen any truly compelling information or argument to doubt that) would all have been complete. What is interesting about these letters is how little they speak about the life and ministry of Jesus. In fact, only five pieces of information about Jesus are found in these letters, most of which are fairly obvious and not all that helpful. Namely, Jesus:
- was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) – that is especially insightful
- was Jewish, “born under the law” (Galatians 4:4)
- was a biological descendant of David (Romans 1:3)
- had brothers (1 Corinthians 9:5) – or near kin; both are adequate translations
- was crucified (1 Corinthians 1:22) and he died (1 Corinthians 15:3)
When you turn to the Gospels, you find that the first and last Gospels to be written contain very little about the infancy stories / narratives. Mark is completely silent, and John only gives us a single line as part of the beautiful prologue that begins his unique gospel account. In contrast, both Matthew and Luke provide two long chapters filled with information that tell the story of the birth of Jesus in compelling ways for the community that received these gospels.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am
Advent Sunday 4, Year C.
We saw in the first week of this series that one of the places that we see the law of four is in every great story ever told as well as in the story of our own lives – the pattern of (1) Hearing the summons; (2) Enduring the obstacles; (3) Receiving the prize/favour and finally (4) Returning to the community. This pattern runs very deeply within our physical and spiritual DNA, and we can easily understand that this is something is good and God-given. So it should be no small wonder to realise that this pattern is also able to be seen in the order of the Gospels that the tradition of the church has given us to read them. Although the Gospels, as we saw last week, were written in the order of Mark – Matthew – Luke and John, and the Gospels are given us the order of Matthew – Mark – Luke and John in our bibles, the early church has read them in the order of Matthew, Mark, John and Luke – and this order is also expressed in our liturgical cycle of readings. This is because this order captures this cycle of life, addressing the fundamental questions of change; suffering; joy and service that we meet in our lives.
We also see more clearly how this four-fold structure is captured in the new logo that we have adopted as a parish community.
View the slides | Read the explanation of the logo and summary of the journey so far
Recorded at St Paul’s, Albion Park, 9.30am (16 min 30 secs)
Advent, Week 3, Year C.
Video: Christmas Mystery (Dan Stevers)
This week in our Law of Four series, we looked in more detail at the four Gospels, and particularly the connection and relation of the first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) – why we call them the Synoptic Gospels, and how over the last 150 years we have developed a better understanding of the way that these gospels are connected. We then looked at the history of the first century of Christianity in light of the question of the composition of the Gospels.
Play MP3 (17 mins)
Download Adobe PDF of the notes.
Sunday 2, Season of Advent.
So we arrive at the feast of the Epiphany and the customary three wise men make their way from their hiding place elsewhere on the sanctuary or in the sacristy to their appointed places in the manger nativity scene, joining the shepherds, angels and animals in adoration beside the holy family. All very standard and wonderfully historically accurate. Or is it? What our nativity scenes attempt to do is offer a mash-up between the two very different Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus – the Gospel of Luke told from the point-of-view of Mary with the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, the absence of room in the traditional lodgings, the making use of the ground floor room where the animals are usually kept, and the visit of the maligned shepherds as the first guests and witnesses to these events. Then the Gospel of Matthew told from the point-of-view of Joseph, situates the birth of Jesus within the greater story of the people of God. Matthew begins with origins of Joseph, Mary and Jesus in their genealogy and then the very simple recounting of the birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary. Chapter one gives us no details of where or when the child is born – only that he is as an act of God. Attempting to bring both shepherds and magi into the one scene felt a bit like all the extraneous characters in Peter Jackson’s third Hobbit movie – or even worse if he had decided that the most appropriate people to save the heroes (Bilbo and the dwarves) was Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore.
Epiphany Sunday. Matthew 2:1-12
The parable of the talents has a number of unusual qualities. Unlike most of the parables, which seem to be aimed at farmers and fishers and other country folk, this parable is aimed at people who are familiar with the workings of a market economy. So while it was good, prudent and standard Jewish practice to bury treasure in a field to safeguard it, within the market-based understanding that operates in this parable’s worldview, all that results in this practice is the diminution of the market value of the item – in this case a single measure of money called a talent, equivalent to 15 years of wages of a labourer (4500 denarii). This is a rare parable because it praises the risk-taking activities of the first two traders who both manage to double their master’s investment. The problem is that this pro-capitalist reading also tends to leave us wondering if the Christian life is simply going to culminate in a great test that will measure how great a return on the Lord’s investment we have managed to make as the basis of our salvation. Such a reading tends to move in the direction of a heresy called Pelagianism that imagines that we are essentially responsible for our own salvation. As a more careful reading of this parable demonstrates – which is confirmed by the rest of the gospels and the Christian scriptures – the God that we worship is a generous and gracious God who freely offers us all that we need and more. We cannot claim to truly possess anything that we can offer – since all is based on what we have received directly from the Lord. (All that we can claim any credit for is our own sin!) What we can offer in return are acts of thanksgiving and service that flow out of our experience of salvation.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 5.30pm (11min 5sec)
Sometimes 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).
Sunday 30, in Year A. Radio recording also available.
In trying to understand the bible, for me, one of the most important questions to ask about any particular passage is – what is the context? Where does this passage fit within (for example) the ministry of Jesus and in this case – the Gospel of Matthew. Once we do this, it should become quickly clear that the primary interest of Jesus in giving the reply to this unlikely coalition force of the Pharisees and the Herodians is not to answer for all time the question of the proper relationship between the church and the state. Although many more conservative church leaders have used this text in this way, it should be clear that in these final days before his arrest Jesus is dealing with the situations that are being presented to him. The leaders of the Pharisees send some of their disciples with some Herodians – the pro-Roman supporters of King Herod. Since the Pharisees are mostly made up of ordinary and sincere followers of the Torah who would have rejected the Roman rule and authority and would certainly have opposed the hated additional tax that Rome had imposed. The question that is put to Jesus is very clever and brilliant as such things go. Jesus is set up for a fall if he answers this badly, since to say yes – it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor would have put him offside with the majority of the population who hated the tax; but to say no would make him liable to accusations of treason and his immediate arrest by the Romans would have been inevitable. So he asked for one of the denarius coins that were used to pay the tax. These Roman issued coins were forbidden from being in the temple area, because they were considered to be clearly blasphemous and idolatrous, containing as they did the image of the emperor and the title which claimed that he was divine and the high priest. Such coins should have been exchanged outside the temple for the Jewish equivalent which did not contain such images. In declaring that we must ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are God’s’ Jesus reminds us that in fact all things properly belong to God: all of our lives and all that we possess are gifts that we have received from the Lord.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (9m12s)
Sunday 29, Year A. Matthew 22:15-22