1 September [22nd Sunday in Ordinary time]
Lk 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
The economic system that operated in Palestine in the time of Jesus was a patron/client system. People were born into a ‘place’ in the system, and the way to hold or improve that place was to cultivate the patronage of someone a little higher up in the pecking order. This system was based on an assumption of inequality among people. In the hope of getting some slight perk from their patrons, the poor had to grovel before them, cap in hand, and learn flattery. This system never quite dies out, and when we get even a whiff of it today it brings out the killing instinct in us. It is terrible to think that in most parts of the world, for most of human history, it has been the normal way.
In the first part of today’s reading Jesus seems to go along with it. Go sit in the lowest place, he says, but with your eye on a higher place; try to attract by a false humility. But he was only playing with the system, fine-tuning it, before throwing it away. And throw it away he did. ‘When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.’ People are to be valued for what they are, and not for their usefulness to you. This is not a false self-serving condescension, but an awareness that we are all useless servants and that God is patron of us all equally.
‘Those people are worth a lot of money,’ someone said of a rich couple. ‘No,’ said someone else, ‘they have a lot of money.’ The point is taken: human beings are not worth a penny, because they are priceless. Their intrinsic worth cannot be expressed in financial terms. ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed for life does not consist in the abundance of possessions’ (Luke 12:15).
I was once in a house that was valued at five million dollars (I knew the cabinet-maker who had installed the kitchen presses!). It was the most vulgar and tasteless interior I have ever seen. In fact there was no interior at all: it was all somehow outward; it was made to impress, and the effect was a feeling of desolation. Every object there seemed chosen for its price, not for itself. If this is what happens to things, imagine what happens to people when they are seen in purely monetary terms.
The word ‘economics’ comes from the Greek ‘oikos’ (house) and ‘nomos’ (law). You could say it means housekeeping. It is not about individuals accumulating as much as they can; it is about the ‘household’, the community. There is a related word, ‘oikodome’ (building), a favourite word of St Paul’s. He calls his own work a service to the ‘oikodome’ of Christ (2 Corinthians 13:10). In a later letter he (or someone of his school) pulled out all the stops with this word ‘oikos’ and the image of building: ‘You are no longer strangers and aliens (‘paroikoi’), but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household (‘oikeioi’) of God, built on (‘epoikodomethentes’) the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure (‘oikodome’) is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together (‘synoikodomeisthe’) spiritually into a dwelling place (‘katoiketerion’) for God. (Ephesians 2:19-22). The message is that we are not menials cow-towing to a patron and edging up to a better place at the table; we are part of one another, we are of ‘the household of God.’
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, Jesus went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian."
When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
The listeners’ minds were set afar off; they didn't expect anything to happen here and now. Cyril of Alexandria (375 – 444) wrote: “The Israelites used to say that the prophecies concerning the Christ were fulfilled either in the persons of some of their more glorious kings or in the holy prophets.” But they were unable to realise that what they were hearing was written about the man standing before them. About him they were only “wondering perhaps how he could read without having been taught,” wrote Cyril.
We think little of the present moment or the present place; and that rubs off on anyone who happens to be present. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Yet all great religious teachers keep emphasising the here and now. If nothing is happening here and now, nothing is happening, simply.
Imagine everyone who has ever sat in church listening to a preacher. They are encouraged by the readings to think about the past, and by the preacher to think about the future. A curate in my childhood used to preach all the time about the next life. The actual life of the village seldom got a mention. What happens to the present? It is somehow forgotten. The past cannot face the present, so it moves into the future.
It would be an interesting theme to follow up. Is the 'present' the same for everyone? Not really, I think. Imagine it this way. Someone in the village has climbed to the top of a tree and he sees a horse coming; while I, sitting at the foot of the tree, can't see it. The horse is still the future for me, but for the person at the top of the tree it is the present. The 'present' depends on where you are. Applying the image, we could say it depends on the level of your consciousness. For people with a low level of consciousness the present is almost non-existent; for Jesus it is an immensity. For his listeners the kingdom of God was about some distant future; for Jesus it was already being inaugurated: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was teaching them on the sabbath. They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority.
In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Leave us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ When the demon had thrown him down before them, he came out of him without having done him any harm.
They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, ‘What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!’ And a report about him began to reach every place in the region.
Jesus was frequently accused of breaking the sabbath. (Even when he was dead he descended on Holy Saturday into the underworld, the Creed says, and liberated all who had languished there since the time of Adam.) I found a passage in St Ambrose (c. 333 AD – 397) that tries to make sense of all this sabbath activity. He wrote, “[Luke] describes the works of divine healing begun on the sabbath day, to show from the outset that the new creation began where the old creation ceased.”
Ambrose also noted that Jesus healed a man (today’s reading) and a woman (tomorrow’s). Just as at the beginning God “created them male and female” (Genesis 1:27; 5:2), Jesus now heals both. “The Lord came to heal both sexes,” he wrote.
Jesus spoke with authority, Luke says. ‘Authority’ is one of those words that can have opposite meanings, depending on their use. Speaking or acting ‘with authority’ can simply mean you have the official piece of paper, you are authorised by someone else. In the time of Jesus, rabbis were forever quoting other rabbis, or quoting texts. Yet the word ‘authority’ comes from the Latin ‘auctor’ (source), from which the word ‘author’ is also derived. People speaking with authority in this sense are speaking from themselves; they are the authors of what they are saying. Jesus “spoke with authority,” that is, he spoke from himself, from his Self. His words came from somewhere (they were not quotations). For that very reason they were able to go somewhere: they were able to cast out demons, freeing people from their torments.
By acting as he did, Ambrose wrote, “Jesus showed us that the Son of God is not under the law but above the law.” It might have been better if he had said Jesus was one with the law, in the sense that he was one with the mind of the law-giver, God. In him the law was being fulfilled, not set aside (Mt 5:18). A law is not necessarily being fulfilled when it is interpreted into thousands of details; it is being fulfilled when its purpose is being realised. The law was being fulfilled in Jesus, despite his apparent breaches of it, in ways that it was not fulfilled in the Pharisees, despite their devotion to it.
After leaving the synagogue Jesus entered Simon's house. Now Simon's mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked him about her. Then he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. Immediately she got up and began to serve them.
As the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them. Demons also came out of many, shouting, "You are the Son of God!" But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Messiah. At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, "I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose." So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.
It is as if Jesus’ healing power was pent up from his experience in Nazareth, and now in Capernaum it rushes out in full flood. There, familiarity robbed him of his power. But here there is no barrier: first he heals Peter's mother-in-law, and then crowds of sick and demon-tormented people.
Dreadful thought: like the people of Nazareth we have the power to prevent miracles. The chances are that we all have prevented many miracles, just by filling the air with criticism, or cynicism, or discouragement. We can even do it with a belittling look; in short, with a habit of mind that reduces everything. Some people have a presence that is negative. In their atmosphere we die a little: we keep our stories and anecdotes to ourselves, we talk safe. This is how human community is corroded. It is also how faith is corroded. We talk about “denying the faith,” as if words were the worst we could do. We can do much worse than that! Words at least are explicit. But by a look, by our very presence, our atmosphere, we can corrode the faith subtly and silently and deeply. And we may not even be aware that we are doing it.
In Jesus’ ministry, preaching and healing went together. It suggests that all preaching should be healing in some sense. But what if nobody feels especially sick? Well, to feel totally comfortable in today’s weird world is a bit sick. St Paul castigated the Corinthians for "behaving like ordinary people" (1 Corinthians 3:3 JB). In some way all our words can be a prayer for healing, a plea to be free of life-draining atmospheres, and to build up the broken body of Christ.
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and Jn, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
How important it is to come to the end of your resources! "Jesus allowed pitch darkness to sweep over my soul," wrote St Thérèse of Lisieux. “I wish I could express what I feel, but it is impossible. One must have travelled through the same sunless tunnel to understand how dark it is…. There is… a wall which towers to the sky and hides the stars." Her next words were (how amazing!), "I have never before felt so strongly how gentle and merciful God is. He sent me this heavy cross just at the time when I was strong enough to bear it…. Nothing now hinders me…. I no longer want anything except to love until I die of love. I am free and fear nothing."
A French biographer of St Thérèse said it was characteristic of her to be always at the end of her resources. It is because she always gave everything she had. She never had anything up her sleeve: no tricks, no escapes, no clever explanations, no blaming, no postponing…. She remained always fully present and vulnerable to experience. That is why God could give her so much.
"We worked hard all night and caught nothing," said Peter in today's reading. Peter was quite often at the end of his resources. He had given up everything to follow Jesus. It didn’t matter that all he gave up was a boat and a few nets; it was everything he had. It is not these (or any material possession) that would hold him back, but his reliance on them. He had had the courage to come to the end of his resources. Later he would be dragged even further beyond. The man he followed would be killed, and having nothing else to do he would go back to fishing; but that terrible night too he would catch nothing (Jn 21:3). He would be without a past and without a future. That must have been like St Thérèse's wall reaching up to the sky and letting in no light. But for them both, it was the moment of recognition: "It is the Lord!" (Jn 21:7).
[The scribes and Pharisees] said to Jesus, "John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.” Jesus said to them, "You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days."
He also told them a parable: "No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, 'The old is good.'"
“New wine must be put into fresh skins.” In the Lord's time wine was not kept in bottles but in skins. When the new wine was placed in a skin, it continued to ferment, producing carbon dioxide. An old skin had not the elasticity of a new one, and so it would burst and the wine was lost. This says to us: don’t let your mind become like an old wine-skin – withered and rigid; keep it soft and flexible. Our faith makes unconditional demands on us throughout our lives. It requires us to make immense leaps of sympathy and forgiveness; it asks us to live for God, not for earthly power and profit; it asks us to put aside self-will and to live for others; it asks us to put to death our worldly pride and vanity, and to imitate the self-emptying (kenosis), the poverty of Christ; it asks us to lay down our very lives for our brothers and sisters; most challenging of all, it asks us to love our enemies. This was a new way to live, it was the new wine, requiring a new mind, new structures.
The world, even at that time, was weary of the old ways of tyranny. It has even more reason to be tired of them now. That the Gospel still appears new and revolutionary is evidence that we haven't moved very far. The Gospel will always be News to us.
One sabbath while Jesus was going through the cornfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, ‘Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ Jesus answered, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?’ Then he said to them, ‘The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’
St Ambrose of Milan (c. 333 – 397) said that this piece of law-breaking in the cornfield was designed to lead the disciples into freedom in action, not just to get them talking about freedom. “The Lord Jesus begins to free them from the old law... not only through the understanding of words but also through actions performed in plain view.”
“Do you want to be well?” Jesus once asked a man at the Sheep Pool (John 5:6). It wasn't a foregone conclusion that he wanted it. We often have a stake in our illnesses. We can imagine Jesus asking us, “Do you want to be free?” Quite often we don't.
‘Freedom’ is a buzz word in advertising, and that alone should make us wary. Advertisers tout all sorts of slavery before us under the brand name of freedom. These pretended forms of freedom don't carry much weight, and a moment’s reflection is enough to dispel them. But we are usually quite afraid of real freedom. We have a stake in our many forms of slavery, and freedom is often a heavier burden. I suppose it is partly because there is always the question, How am I going to eat tomorrow?
Jesus said his burden was light (Mt 11:30), but it is light only if we get under it fully. When we try to hold onto it with one hand while holding our addictions and attachments with the other, it becomes heavy. When we have a moment of real freedom we attract another enemy or two. Still, we pray to be set free. Free for what? Free to set others free. He himself came “to set the downtrodden free” (Lk 4:18).
8 September [23rd Sunday in Ordinary time]
Large crowds were travelling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
When I paid for a pencil in a shop in Paris the assistant said, “Merci infiniment!” There was no chance that she was infinitely thankful for the couple of centimes, but it was the polite thing to say. Literal translation can often sound absurd. Commentators rush to explain that the Semitic expression “hate father and mother” does not actually mean that in English. It means “to love less.” So why do English translations still say “hate”?
The translator is a traitor, the Italians say: traduttore traditore. You can betray the original sense by going beyond it, or by not going as far as it. Either way there is a risk. I suppose translators of the New Testament feel that it would be a worse betrayal to water down the meaning of what Jesus said. You cannot ignore that word ‘hate’; it forces you to think.
Discipleship, it implies, is deeper than family ties. Jesus is not just saying, “Love me more.” He is saying that it is not just a matter of degree; it is sometimes either/or. To translate every choice into a matter of degree is to avoid choice. If we were to refuse to put our whole weight on one foot we could never walk. But this is just what we often try to do in other parts of our life: we vacillate and in the end we stay where we have always been.
“To another Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead.’” (Luke 9:59). Apparently it does not mean that his father had died; it means that the man wanted to stay at home until his father died. He was mapping out his future; he would get around to discipleship later on. But Jesus made discipleship a matter of immediate urgency.
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The cross stands for stark choice. Its very shape suggests contradiction. Jesus has the right to ask us to carry our cross because he carried his, and was broken by it. It was the Pharisees, not he, who liked to “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; while they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Mt 23:4). Our life’s crosses will not look like his, but they will have the same logic – or rather (the opposite of logic) contradiction. It was prophesied about him that he would be a sign of contradiction (Luke 2:34); it is from this sign that we have our identity as Christians.
Perhaps we have been too much at pains to make our faith reasonable and intelligible. Were we to succeed, we would have turned it into a philosophy, a theory about life. St Paul tried the way of plausibility and found it false. This set him on his path. “The Jews demand signs,” he wrote, “and the Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:22-23). It is not a religion of smooth continuity, it is a tragic religion. In the end, the clever answer has to be wrong, because it doesn’t have the depth of paradox, it doesn’t have the wisdom of Christ crucified.
Jesus entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come and stand here.’ He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’ After looking around at all of them, he said to him, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
Your hands are your power to do things. To make it even clearer, Luke tells us that it was the man’s right hand. St Ambrose saw great significance in these words of Jesus, “stretch out your hand.” “Hold it out often,” he advised. “Hold it out to the poor person who begs you. Hold it out to help your neighbour, to give protection to a widow, to snatch from harm one whom you see subjected to unjust insult. Hold it out to God for your sins. The hand is stretched forth; then it is healed. Jeroboam’s hand withered when he sacrificed to idols; then it stretched out when he entreated God” (1 Kings 13:4-6).
This man’s paralysed hand symbolised his lack of power. Jesus wanted to restore it to him. There was an objection from the Pharisees. He was breaking their rules by healing on the sabbath; their position (their power) was being threatened. There are many like them, whose position and power depend on others remaining powerless. This kind of power always has an agenda: it is power over or against others. It is a jockeying for position and privilege; fundamentally it is aggression. This kind of power exists wherever there are people who have not been converted to the Gospel; it exists in society, it exists in the Church. The test of power is whether it is for oneself or for others.
Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Luke’s gospel focuses almost obsessively on the prayer of Jesus. The other gospel writers say that when Jesus was in the Jordan the Spirit descended on him as a dove; Luke says it was while he was praying that this happened. The others say Jesus climbed the mountain and was transfigured; Luke says that this happened while he was praying. The others say that Jesus died on the cross; Luke says that even when he was dying he was praying for the people who were killing him. The others say that Jesus chose twelve disciples; Luke says (today’s reading) that it was after he had spent a night in prayer that he chose them….
You would be surprised, if you looked around, at the number of people who spend the night – or part of the night – in prayer. Traditionally monks got up to pray in the middle of the night, but now you sometimes hear of lay people who do so. Night – especially on a mountain – seems the perfect setting for prayer. All the noise of day has died away, the world seems vast because we cannot see the contours of things so clearly, and darkness itself is deeply peaceful when we don’t project our fears onto it. Though darkness is vast, it is also strangely intimate, because you can't see, but only feel, the distance. The senses are not battered, and so we feel more alert, more alive. We can only imagine what passed in the soul of Jesus as he prayed all night on the mountain top.
Then when day came he chose Judas Iscariot as one of his apostles! Did he make a mistake? We wouldn’t want to say such a thing. Then there must be another meaning. The one who told the story of the Prodigal Son have forgiven him, as he forgave Peter, had he just waited. The Church is not a community of perfect people but a community of sinners who struggle on by the grace of Christ.
Jesus looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Luke said (in v. 17), “He came down and stopped at a piece of level ground.” From that point to the end of chapter 6 is therefore called ‘The Sermon on the Plain’, in contrast to Matthew’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Mt 5-7). But it is the same sermon, with differences. In Luke’s gospel the mountain is a place of prayer or revelation; it is as if he doesn't want the crowds to go up there, so he brings Jesus down!
Throughout his gospel Luke places an exceptional emphasis on poverty; and to ensure that we don’t avoid the subject by spiritualising it, he says “Blessed are you who are poor,” rather than “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3). And for the hard of hearing, “Woe to you who are rich.”
Why is wealth a problem? No, wealth is not the problem; we are the problem. Or rather, the problem is what we do and fail to do with wealth. We have a tendency to selfishness and greed, which blinds us to the needs of other people, as it blinded the rich man to the needs of Lazarus (Luke 16). It can help us believe that we are independent of other people and of events, and ultimately even of God. Thinking about the rich young man in the gospels (Lk 18, Mt 19, Mk 10), Sahajananda wrote, “He identified himself with his riches – without them he had no existence. With these riches he could not enter into the kingdom because the door to the kingdom is narrow. Not narrow in the sense of space, but in the sense that only the essential aspect of our being goes through it; all acquired things have to be left out…. The kingdom of God is the essential nature of all human beings…. This treasure can neither increase or decrease. No thief can get there and no moth can cause its destruction.”
Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’”
This is the ‘how’ of Christian life. This is the way to dismantle the explosive devices that lie in the heart of every human being. This is the ‘technology’ for ending violence. Left to itself, without any curb, violence would blow up the world. To talk about love is not to be a starry-eyed idealist; it is to be very realistic and practical. Without love, human life would be a nightmare. The love that Jesus spoke of is able to break the cycle of violence. It introduces a new element that makes everything possible: like zero in arithmetic. Zero frees up the whole system, makes all the other digits mobile, and makes mathematics possible. Without it, numbers are like traffic that is gridlocked: nothing moves. Roman numerals have no zero, and that is why the Romans were unable to develop a viable mathematics. Love is the zero response to hatred, it frees us from the depressing tangles and cycles of violence.
We know from experience that it is more easily said than done. It will never be done if we just keep looking at the people who injure us, and at our wounds, but never at ourselves. We have to see our own automatic reactions before they go off. We have to see where they are and how they are primed. We have to give up scapegoating.
Jesus never said, “Defeat your enemies, because they are the enemies of God.” It is the ultimate in presumption to call my enemies the enemies of God. Instead he said, “Do not judge,” and “forgive your enemies.” Commenting on this, St Augustine wrote, “This work has the effect of purifying the heart, so that... we are enabled with pure mind to see the immutable reality of God.” In other words, if we don't do this we don't know God at all. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4.8). The way to God is like a pinhole, or like the eye of a needle; it is like the zero mentioned above. I cannot bring any of my stuff through it: my aggression, my judging, even my thoughts.... This is the zero we come to in meditation. Jesus himself said the way is narrow: “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” I cannot bring any of my “bodily or mental furniture” through it (“At stroke of midnight soul cannot endure / A bodily or mental furniture” - W.B. Yeats). Meditation is the eye of the needle, the zero, the stroke of midnight. And it is the way to God, who is light and love. “There is something holding us back,” wrote St Augustine, “something which has to be loosed so that our sight may break through to the light.” It is not our enemies who are holding us back, it is our very selves; and for as long as we continue to believe it is our enemies we will never find the way.
Jesus told them a parable: "Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, 'Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour's eye.
The blind leading the blind. It happens all the time: we have everything in common, we understand each other. It’s easier for us to follow an idiot, because we understand him. But what is actually happening when we say we are following Jesus? We are usually following our own idea of what he is. This may not be to follow him in reality; it may well be the exact opposite. He is more than all our ideas of him. So what are we to do?
Let’s not try to explain him. Our explanations will say more about us than about him. It may sound over-simple, but we just have to stay near him. That is what all the saints have done, whether they were sophisticated or simple people. Just be near him. Hindus call this satsang. Listen to his being. We can always think about it afterwards, but just now don’t engage in thinking.
Meditation is satsang. Sitting under a tree silently is a kind of satsang. When people talk enthusiastically about the beauty of trees we know they have not been near a tree recently. Trees are great silent beings, and they make us silent when we are near them. Thomas Merton wrote, “No writing on the solitary meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.” When people talk about Jesus we need not take it as proof that they know what they are talking about. They may be talking theories and ideas; all the ingredients may be there, but no spark. Listen to the person who is speaking, not to what he or she is saying. Quite often people speak because they don’t know. If there is no reticence, no silence between the words, no sense of being in the heart of mystery, then the words are not worth much.
In moments of deep silence we ‘know’; we don’t ‘know about’. There is a big difference between these. ‘Knowing about’ is theoretical knowledge. That word ‘about’ is like a wedge between the person and the thought. We insert it because we don’t want to lose ourselves or to give ourselves up; we want to remain in control.
“Why do you see the speck in your neighbour's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” If you are looking for a fault, the Norwegians say, reach for a mirror, not a pair of binoculars: Bruk speilet og ikke kikkerten når du leter etter feil. The speck in your brother's eye is a chip off the plank that is in your own. Jesus saw projection long before psychology identified it. If we lose our capacity for interiority, for the intimacy of meditation – satsang – we will be loose cannons, we will have nothing left to do but judge others. We ourselves will be one of the others: because we are distanced even from ourselves.
14 September [Holy Cross]
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Nicodemus cannot have been a very great teacher – and Jesus hinted it – because Jews at that time spoke of converts to Judaism as people who were “born again.” He didn’t seem quite to understand this expression.
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, first issued in 1902, is an enduring classic. There he illustrates the contrast between the “once-born” and the “twice-born” (or “born again”) Christian. The soul of the once-born (or “healthy-minded,” as he calls them) “is of a sky-blue tint… their affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than with dark human passions….[they] can think no ill of man or God…. They have a certain complacency and perhaps romantic sense of excitement.” In contrast to these, the “twice-born” or “morbid-minded” are more likely to feel that “from the bottom of every fountain of pleasure, as the old poet said, something bitter rises up.” All natural happiness is infected; there is a deep sense of sin and failure. To people of this stamp, the attitude of the once-born seems “unspeakably blind and shallow,” while to the once-born the attitude of these “seems unmanly and diseased.”
What if we don’t care for either? We would prefer to be neither starry-eyed nor morbid-minded. Are there any other possibilities? Of course there are! There are billions in between. These expressions ‘once-born’ and ‘twice-born’ are labels: they don’t describe anyone in fact. “If all the good people were red and all the bad people were blue, what colour would you be?” someone asked the little girl. “Stripey,” she replied. Nobody is just once-born and nobody is just twice-born. Anyway, how could you be twice-born unless you were first once-born? But people still fight about these labels, mostly under new names: ‘creation-centred spirituality’ versus ‘sin/redemption spirituality’, original blessing versus original sin….
Labels encourage us to think that there are only two possibilities: ‘good’ and ‘bad’, for example. But we are both once- and twice-born. We need to remember that it was the same Jesus who said, “Behold the lilies of the field…” and who sacrificed his own life.
15 September [24th Sunday in Ordinary time]
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. "Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."'
So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
The gospel reading for today is the entire 15th chapter of Luke's gospel. It appears to be all about ‘lost property’: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. This is bound to strike a chord with all of us, because there is no one who doesn’t feel lost in some way. Jesus told these three stories in response to the Pharisees who accused him of consorting with sinners – people who had lost their way.
But to be more exact, these parables are not about the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son; they are not about being lost, but about being found. Each of them underlines the joy of the finder: God's joy in seeking and finding what is lost. ‘Rejoice’ is the key word at the end of each story. These stories are Jesus’ revelation of what God is like. He had a vivid imagination and could have invented any kind of story, but he invented these.
To appreciate a story you have to notice not only what is in it but also what isn’t in it. It would have been difficult for most story-tellers to avoid adding qualifying asides, cautionary phrases, morally improving maxims: ‘And so, let us all therefore….’ We want to balance the accounts and let no one get off too lightly. This is because we don’t believe in the power of a story; we think the power lies in the moral extract we squeeze out of it – “moralic acid,” it has been called. This means we don’t believe in imagination or appreciate its power to shape our life. Beneath all our rationality there are images - or perhaps just one - that give our life its shape; and all our rationality is a playing-out of these images. At the heart of a great deal of modern philosophy there was the image of the human being as a kind of Mr Spock (of Star Trek). One of my favourite texts in this connection is Nietzsche’s description of the Übermensch - the Superman, the human being of the future - as “free from the happiness of serfs, redeemed from gods, fearless and fearful, great and solitary.” Another is Iris Murdoch’s description of the hero of so many modern novels and books of moral philosophy: "free, independent, lonely, powerful, rational, brave.” The power of an unacknowledged image is hard to exaggerate. Imagine what someone harbouring such an image would say about God. But we don’t have to imagine; we know. They said “God is dead.” How so? All the divine attributes (except mercy) had collapsed into the human ego. We were now God – but what a shrivelled God!
Jesus could have invented any kind of story to reveal what God is like. That he invented these is a matter of tremendous significance. God rejoices to find what is lost. It doesn’t require any moral extracts because its appeal is much deeper than thought. It works in us, it shapes us if we allow ourselves to dwell in it.
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us." And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this,' and the slave does it." When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
The focus of this story is different from that of Luke's earlier miracle accounts. Here the miracle itself is not the focus, since it is mentioned only very briefly at the end. Instead, the emphasis is on the centurion’s attitude.
The centurion shows great sensitivity and courtesy. As a Gentile he did not presume to come to Jesus himself, but sent Jewish elders to speak for him. Later, he showed that he was sensitive to the fact that Jews were forbidden to enter a Gentile house. The centurion’s request shows that Jesus was becoming known to people in surprising places and from different backgrounds. Jesus readily acceded to his request. As for Paul, so for Jesus: there is neither Jew nor Gentile in Christ (Galatians 3:28).
Jesus was “amazed” at him. Matthew’s account of the incident uses the same word (8:10). He praised the “faith” of this Gentile: a thing that must have been even more amazing to his hearers. Today we would not be so surprised; we esteem religious tolerance very highly. This is surely a positive development in itself, but you have to wonder if sometimes it is because we care less about religion. The test of tolerance is whether we can be tolerant about things that matter profoundly to us. This is positive tolerance. There is a kind of neutral tolerance that amounts only to indifference. Then there is intolerance. This can become as passionate as a religion: it can become a kind of perverted religion, as we have every reason to know. We don’t even have to go further afield than our own religion to see signs of it.
We have to reach back to deeper sources of healing. Julian of Norwich (14th century) used a striking phrase in this connection: we ought to hate sin, she said, as God hates it. We have to hate sin in the way the father of the prodigal son hated it, not in the way the older brother hated it (Luke 15). God loves the sinner, even while hating sin. Applying this, we can say: no matter how profoundly we disagree with someone, we should still more profoundly love them.
Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep." Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.
This is one of the few times that Luke mentions where an event took place. Nain is usually taken to be a village six miles SE of Nazareth, his own hometown; and like Nazareth, it is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible. This is the first use in the gospel of the word ‘Lord’ to describe Jesus (verse 13), a title hitherto reserved strictly to God; and the context is mercy. Leo the Great (+ AD 461) said that “Jesus is the hand of God's mercy stretched out to us.” Jesus performed this miracle without being asked, just as God’s love takes the first step. He reached out and touched the bier – an action that would incur ritual uncleanness in Jewish law. It was becoming visible to the people who saw him at work that he was from outside the normal frame. "God has looked favourably on his people!" – or, as the Jerusalem Bible translates it,“God has visited his people.” God's visitation is a key theme in Luke (1:68, 78; 19:44; Acts 15:14).
Evelyn Underhill once said that she would consider the resurrection of the body a mistake, unless the body were much improved in construction. No doubt the widow of Nain would have wanted her son back in the form she knew. But it remains true that the resurrection Christians hope for is not just the resuscitation of their present bodies. “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-44). The raising of the widow’s son was not a preview of the resurrection. There were instances in the Old Testament of people being raised from death: by Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:32-37); and later Peter and Paul would perform similar feats. These are rather signs of the power of God working through people; in the case of the widow’s son, it showed Jesus, like Elijah and Elisha, to be a great prophet.
‘To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the market-place and calling to one another,
“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not weep.”
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.’
James Joyce referred to literary critics as literary crickets (having suffered enough from them). A critic who has no taste or style or identity of his or her own will try to build an identity by being critical of another’s work. Anyone can be such a cricket, not just in regard to books but in regard to life itself. Nothing pleases us, everything is wrong. It may be a throw-back to childhood, that time when we experienced our own extreme poverty in every direction.
I knew a bishop years ago who never said yes. He always said either No or nothing. If he made no reply to your letter you knew that you could go ahead with your project – but on your own responsibility; if your project backfired, the bishop could denounce it without being implicated in the failure. 'No' looks like a safe place – but so is the grave. To be alive is to say yes to many things, and to say yes is to take a risk. If you refuse to take risks you are acting dead and you can be of no service to life. The minimum of yes-saying is to be capable of being pleased. Below this minimum, to use Jesus' image, we are like children in a sulk.
But sometimes you meet human beings who really lift your spirit. I notice that they are very often people who have suffered a lot. It makes sense: the word ’to suffer’ means ’to allow’. When a person has suffered he or she has allowed life to get at them. It is true that suffering sometimes makes people hard and bitter; but when it has had the opposite effect on someone, that person is a joy to meet. An old man in Cork said to me with a laugh, “If it wasn’t for all the bad luck I had, I’d have no luck at all!”
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner."
Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "Speak." "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly."
Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
“Who is this woman in the city who was a sinner?” asked Peter Chrysologus (380 – 450). He was renowned in his time for the brevity of his sermons, so he came straight to the point: “Beyond any doubt,” he said, “she is the Church.”
Let’s follow his idea. She had to get past the Pharisees at the door, who actually owned the place. She must have felt that she was gate-crashing. In fact she wasn't, because the public were allowed to enter and listen when a rabbi was at table. But she surely saw the contempt in their faces and in their gestures. Unlike them she was not pretending to be a saint. A saint, someone said, is a dead sinner, revised and edited. But she was a live sinner. They were the ones who looked dead: moral righteousness usually looks like a death-mask. She was alive and full of feeling and expression. “Ardent, panting and perspiring,” was how Peter Chrysologus described her, abandoning his customary brevity. She was able to weep, and therefore she was able to love. She was able to love, and therefore she was able to forgive and to be forgiven....
I'm beginning to feel a little uncomfortable with this; are you? I feel I may be one of those poker-faced Pharisees rather than that passionate weeping loving woman. Does Peter Chrysologus have anything to say to reassure us? No, he has relapsed into silence. I am left in silence with the question: Am I better represented by those Pharisees than by the sinful woman? If so, then I separate people from Christ (which is what the name ’Pharisee’ means); I am a barrier to anyone who wants to come near him. I pretend to welcome him and identify with him while excommunicating the very people who are closest to him. Then the eyes of such as this passionate woman will see clearly that “Christ is betrayed amid sweet cups and a banquet of love.”
Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
Luke’s gospel has a special sensitivity to women. Today’s gospel passage is unique to Luke, and so are all of the following: the passages about Elizabeth (1:5-39), the prophetess Anna (2:36-38), the sinful woman (7:36-50), Martha and Mary (10:38-42), the crippled woman (13:10-17), the woman with the lost coin (15:8-10), the woman and the judge (18:1-8). This may not seem a big thing to us today, but in its own time and place the female following of Jesus was out of the ordinary. The power of the revolution unleashed by him is seen at one remove in St Paul, who (though he never knew Jesus in the flesh) could write, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
Strict rabbis would not speak to a woman in public, very strict ones not even to their own wives. But what is remarkable is not only the presence of women in that list of followers, but their variety. Mary Magdalene, whom he had healed, became his most faithful follower. (From the time of Gregory the Great she was identified with the sinful woman of Luke 7, but there are no grounds for this identification.) Joanna was the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza, who was a major political figure. If it had not been for their friendship with Jesus they would have had nothing in common. There were not just two or three women; the text says, “and many others.”
It has to be said: at crucial moments Jesus was better served by his women disciples than by his men. A little-known Cork poet, E. S. Barrett, wrote:
Not she with traitorous kiss her Saviour stung,
Not she denied Him with unholy tongue;
She, while apostles shrank, could danger brave,
Last at His cross, and earliest at His grave.
21 September [St Matthew, apostle]
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
St Augustine thinks Matthew wasn’t called at the same time as the others because he had some financial matters to finish off. But a 6th-century writer took it that Matthew left his affairs in disorder, a thing that greatly impressed him. It must be particularly difficult for someone who deals with figures to leave them unbalanced. Do we have to balance our books before we set out on the Gospel path?
Matthew wrote his gospel to convince Jews that Jesus was the fulfilment of their prophecies. Sixteen times in his gospel he uses the phrase “so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled.” He sees Jesus through the lens of the Old Testament: in him are fulfilled all the hopes of the Jewish people. In view of this conviction, his tax-gathering papers must have seemed very unimportant. Financial matters are so precise and so tangible and near…. His must have been a powerful conversion, because he had been in the service of Mammon, God's greatest rival. “You cannot serve God and Mammon,” he quotes Jesus as saying (Mt 6:24).
Business people tend to be hard-headed, and perhaps his conversion took a little longer. St John Chrysostom suggested that “Matthew was not called at the same time as Peter and John and the others because he was then still in a hardened state.” Whatever the case, he was called from his tax business to follow Jesus. It was a call from one way of thinking to another. It was a call from security to insecurity, from wealth to poverty, from power to powerlessness. He was called to follow Jesus, the Logos, the Wisdom of God. He was not asked to make a donation from the profits of his business, but to follow in person.
22 September [25th Sunday in Ordinary time]
Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.' Then the manager said to himself, 'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, 'And how much do you owe?' He replied, 'A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill and make it eighty.'
And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."
Everyone has trouble with this parable. Depending on their own general attitude, commentators call it ‘difficult’, or ‘puzzling’, or ‘messy and morally ambiguous’…. The ancient commentators had trouble with it too. They wriggled as best they could. “When the owner praised the unjust steward it wasn’t praise in a real sense,” said St Augustine, “it was praise in a diminished sense.” And by moralising on each verse individually they generally managed to overlook the story as a whole. Even the earliest interpretations of the parable, reflected in the gospel itself, seem strained. There are three or four of them in this passage, not just one as you would expect; and some of them are only loosely attached to the story. It is as if people didn’t know quite what to do with this parable.
All the characters in the story are rather shady; there is not a single shining light. In Palestine, debts were often paid in kind, not in money; so this story is more realistic than it sounds to us. The steward is an embezzler, and the debtors were quite happy to co-operate in his embezzlement. Even the owner seems to be a rascal; instead of being shocked, he admired the cleverness of the embezzler and praised him for what he had done.
What are we to make of it?
Someone once said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think that there are only two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t! He added that many people see the world as a western movie in which all the good guys wear white hats and all the bad guys wear black hats. They always count themselves among the good people, of course, and they think they are cozying up to God and Jesus. Almost any page of the gospels would show them that Jesus was not on the side of the ‘good’ people of his day. He was not on any side. And quite a few of the ‘good’ people you meet today, had they been contemporaries of Jesus, would have been among the crowd shouting, “Crucify him!” He was not a respectable person.
The unquestioned assumption at the time was that God loved virtuous people and hated sinners. Sinners were God's enemies, and therefore enemies of all virtuous people. The whole religious system, with its hierarchy and its laws, was built around this. By the way he consorted with sinners Jesus was not just introducing new ideas but toppling the system, and he paid the price for it.
“Love your enemies,” he said. To the religious authorities this meant, “Love God's enemies.” How could you love someone if you saw no redeeming features in them? He saw goodness in foreigners, pagans, sinners of every kind. This was heresy. But he consorted with sinners in real life, so why should he not fill this parable with them? He never implied that a sinner was not a sinner; it was not in his nature to gloss over anything. “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). But no disciple of his can ever claim that he or she has nothing to learn from sinners and ‘non-people’.
A master had hundreds of disciples. All of them prayed at the appropriate time - except one, who was a drunkard. When he was about to die, the master called the drunkard to his side, and passed on to him all of his deepest teaching. The other disciples were disgusted, and complained bitterly. The master said, “I had to pass on my wisdom to a man I knew well. The rest of you appear to be virtuous, but you only conceal your vanity, your pride and your intolerance. So I chose the only disciple whose defects I could see.”
"No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lamp-stand, so that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light. Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away."
Matthew’s gospel too has this image of a light on a lampstand; but there’s a subtle difference. “It gives light to all who are in the house” (Mt 5:15); while here in Luke’s gospel, it gives light to those who enter the house. Matthew was Jewish and writing for Christians of Jewish origin, but Luke was a Gentile writing for Gentile Christians. Gentiles are coming to the house of faith from the outside.
As for the second part of the reading: "To the one who has, more will be given..." This sounds perfectly unjust. It sounds like capitalism at its greediest. What is this language doing on the lips of Jesus? The explanation is that he is speaking of the inner world, where this law describes exactly what happens in fact (and not by anyone's decision); it could be called a descriptive (as distinct from a prescriptive) law. If you have a gift and you neglect it (like the man in the Gospel who buried his one talent), you gradually lose it. For example, if you have a gift for music but you never practise, you begin to lose the gift; but if you cultivate that gift it increases. The same is true of all gifts: gifts of prayer, of intelligence, of imagination, even of physical strength.
The mother and brothers of Jesus came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’
Cyril of Alexandria (374 AD – 444) took pains to say that Jesus was not putting his mother and brothers below his disciples, but rather raising the disciples to their level. “Do not let anyone imagine that Christ scorned the honour due to his mother, or disregarded the love owed to his brothers. He said, ‘Honour your father and your mother.’ How, I ask you, could he have rejected the love due to brothers, he who even commanded us to love not only our brothers but also those who are enemies to us? – he said, ‘Love your enemies….’ The greatest honour and the most complete affection are what we owe to our mothers and brothers. If he says that they who hear his word and do it are his mother and brothers, is it not plain to everyone that he bestows on those who follow him a love that is thorough and worthy of them?”
Typically, Luke softens the edges of Mark’s account. In Mark, Jesus says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (3:33). Luke omits this phrase, perhaps because it might appear to slight the family. He also displaces it from Mark’s sequence of events, using it here as a nice ending to his section on hearing the word.
We are so used to defending the family that we are apt to forget that it needs first and foremost to be redeemed. Family relationships are capable of becoming very destructive. People can be hurt more deeply by members of their own family than by any stranger. You sometimes meet people who have a feeling of being held prisoner in destructive or stuffy family relationships all their lives.
These relationships need strong and constant injections of God's grace. Jesus was drawing attention to discipleship in this passage; but his statement implies something about family relationships too. Everyone who hears and keeps the word of God is a relative of Jesus. Why not spell it out more fully? If you are trying to live a Christian life you can think of yourself as the Lord's mother, aunt, uncle, younger sister, older sister, brother, cousin, next-door neighbour.... If this awareness entered the soul very deeply we could never again treat any relative badly. Every human relationship would be opened up and made a vehicle for the grace of Christ.
Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, "Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money – not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them." They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.
St John Chrysostom wrote: “Christ had the power to set the human race free from all evils—not only the Romans but also... every race of barbarians. He succeeded in doing this with no force of arms, nor expenditure of money, nor by starting wars of conquest, nor by inflaming men to battle. He had only eleven men to start with, men who were undistinguished, without learning, ill-informed, destitute, poorly clad, without weapons, or sandals, men who had but a single tunic to wear.”
Mahatma Gandhi was deeply impressed by Christ, but not by Christians. In the famous pictures of his visit to London in 1931 he appeared perhaps like one of those barefooted twelve. St Ambrose quoted Isaiah 52:7, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,” and remarked that there was no mention of beautiful sandals.
On a train journey I was seated beside a man who had brought an enormous suitcase with him. This suitcase, he told me, contained all the things he might need during his day away from home: an umbrella in case it rained, and sun-cream, in case the sun came out – along with dozens of other items, no doubt, to cover every kind of weather and every eventuality. This suitcase was so big that it would not fit in the compartment and he had to have it put in the goods carriage. This was of course at the end of the train, at a great distance from our carriage, but he insisted (with complicated reasoning) on not moving closer. During the journey he talked about the deficiencies of the transport system and how complicated everything was made for the ordinary passenger. So involved did he become in this subject, with recitation of past experiences, that he missed his stop and found himself parted from his suitcase, which had been removed from the train at the correct stop. His panic knew no bounds. As the train pulled out again, I could see him on the platform, with flushed face, shouting, waving his arms. He had just that moment discovered what it was like to "take nothing for the journey," but it could be a long time before he learns to enjoy it.
Herod the ruler heard about all that had taken place, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’ And he tried to see him.
Jesus has come to the notice of the highest authorities. Herod is trying to get a handle on who he is. He is listening to the rumours – that he is John the Baptist come back to life. John was Herod's bad conscience; that's why he appeared to be always coming back: guilt doesn't let you rest in peace for long. Herod's presence at this point in the Gospel is an ominous one, and even more ominous is his curiosity about Jesus; one is better off without the curiosity of such people. It is an empty curiosity, strongly contrasted with the interest that real disciples have in him (compare it, for example, with Peter’s in 9:20).
Mention of Herod's name is enough to introduce the notion of suffering and the Cross. These three verses (today's reading) are fitted in between the sending out of the Twelve and their return; they set the theme: suffering and death will be the lot of Jesus' disciples, just as it is the lot of Jesus himself – and of John before him. When Christians get bad press it is mostly because of our failures; but even when it isn’t, we shouldn’t be so surprised – we can't say we weren’t warned.
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’ He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’
Why did Jesus “sternly order and command them not to tell anyone”? They were the ones who would bring his name to the ends of the earth, so why the secrecy now? The key may be at the very end of Luke’s gospel. “He opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead...’” (24:45). Earlier, their minds were not open. They were expecting a victorious Messiah; they could not grasp the notion of a suffering Messiah. When we fail to take suffering into account we have nothing to say. The Good News is always very shallow when put across by people who can hear only about happiness and success – all things bright and beautiful. “Those who have not suffered, what do they know?” said Henry Suso.
Peter said, “You are the Messiah of God.” It was the right answer, but only materially. It was like the answer in a catechism. Or it was like the answer at the end of a mathematics book. That was so frustrating in our childhood: to have the right answer at the end of the book, but to find it useless for the purposes of doing our homework. The answer, though right, was worthless unless we had come to it ourselves by a valid process. It did not do the work for us; it served only as a check, when we had done the work. But in religion, many people seem content just to parrot the right answers. Worse still, many in the Church are happier with them for doing just that. I think Jesus would tell them to be silent until their minds had been opened. St Ambrose made a telling comment: “Jesus preferred to be the defender of his own passion and resurrection, so that faith would be born of action, and not from a clamour of hear-say.”
What is the difference between those two questions, "Who do the crowds say I am?" and "Who do you say I am?" In a word, the difference is suffering. To answer the first, you only need to be a journalist; to answer the second, you need to put your cards on the table – or rather, your life on the line. Journalists maintain a distance from their material; they are expected to do so. But a believer is personally involved even to the inmost part of his or her being. The word 'to suffer' means 'to allow'; to allow faith to penetrate you is to suffer; it is to lose that arm's-length that the journalist maintains so carefully.
The Cross is looming larger and larger in Luke's account; very soon Jesus will go to Jerusalem to suffer and die; in 9:51 he says, “he resolutely took the road for Jerusalem." Luke knew that his readers knew that this meant Jesus resolutely faced his death. His disciples in every age remember that they heard him say, "Follow me."
While everyone was amazed at all that Jesus was doing, he said to his disciples, ‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.
“Its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it.” Another translation has: “Something prevented them from grasping what he meant….” It is always ‘something’ when we don’t understand it, or when we don’t want to understand it or even look at it. Fear makes us look away – which is the early stage of running away. If we could just looked, we might not be so afraid. “They were afraid to ask him.” Why? Was he not their friend? Why were they afraid of him? No, they were not afraid of him; they were afraid that what he was saying was true, and they didn’t want to hear it.
“There’s no reason to be afraid of the truth,” we were often told as children. There's every reason! In fact there’s no reason to be afraid of anything else. To lie is to look away from the truth, because I'm afraid of it. Lies are evasions for the sake of comfort. Lies are afraid of nothing so much as the truth, because it has power to destroy them. “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light…” (Jn 3:19). “Are you afraid of the dark?” “No, I'm afraid of the light!”
29 September [26th Sunday in Ordinary time]
Jesus said, ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'
‘If living conditions continue to improve in this country,’ someone said, ‘we’re going to run out of humble beginnings for our great men.’ Humble beginnings have to be part of the story, because people like to be able to look down so that they can see how high they have climbed. Power and wealth are a real religion, with devotees all over the world, with its holy land and its holy cities, the financial capitals of the world. It has its temples, the banks, often the finest buildings in town. It has its ardent preachers, the advertisers. It even has its heroic stories that read just like the lives of the saints. A young boy from a poor family (read ‘a hopeless sinner’) begins with a paper round, gets a job as an office-boy, climbs, climbs, till he becomes a big man in the company; then he clinches his salvation by marrying into the company via the boss's daughter (‘the unitive way, the mystical espousals’).
It is God's greatest rival: the religion of Mammon. ‘You cannot serve God and money,’ Jesus said (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13). This is because money has the capacity to touch the very depths of our soul. How can it do that? It has no poetry! There are no poems about money: I can't think of a single example. It could be that it only takes over souls that have no capacity for poetry. ‘If you want to see what God thinks of money,’ someone said, ‘look at the people he gives it to!’ In itself it is not an interesting subject. It is our need and our greed that lend it interest. It is, above all, a promise: that essential component of any religion.
Its promises, however, are always just for oneself (or one’s family: one’s larger self). Listen to the advertisers. The underlying creed is that life has nothing to offer but what can be purchased or won, and that there is nothing either good or bad beyond that. All others are either partners or competitors: people who can help or hinder you in your search for more of the same.
I am thinking, of course, of pure devotees. Many, as in every religion, are not true believers, or have mixed motives. There are wealthy people who have a real care for the half of the world that is malnourished. But there are others, like the rich man in the parable, who don’t even notice Lazarus at their door, and who are therefore able to step over him without malice, keeping their own self-esteem intact. And there are others again who notice Lazarus but keep their self-esteem by throwing him a few scraps.
The religion of Mammon is a destructive cult. It not only destroys the poor by enriching its devotees at their expense, but it destroys the devotees themselves. They are creating ‘a great chasm’ between themselves and the rest of humanity, so that ‘those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’
Which characters does the story ask us to identify ourselves with? The rich man, Dives? In fact he is given no name in the gospels: ‘dives’ is just the Latin word for ‘a rich man’; the rich man has no identity except his wealth. No, we are not being asked to see ourselves as Dives. Lazarus, then? No, neither is it telling us to lie down at the rich man’s door like Lazarus. The parable is telling us that we are the rich man’s five brothers.
We have Moses and the prophets - but above all we have Jesus - to tell us to live by a different religion, a subversive religion that ‘casts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the lowly, that fills the hungry with good things but sends the rich away empty.’ We are not told whether the five brothers changed their lives around. Why? Because we are the five brothers, and the story isn’t over yet.
An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.’ John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.’
Someone said that a neurosis is a secret you don’t know you’re keeping. There must exist somewhere deep in us the mother of all neuroses (otherwise where would the little ones come from?). This would be the one to get to know. It has been given a name: it is the ego.
It is not me, it is the idea I have of me. That makes two of me. The first me (let’s call me that) is dependent for life on an astronomical number of other creatures. There are more living beings (with their own DNA, different from mine) living in my body than there are people in the world! I am their planet, I am their mountains and rivers. They depend on me and I depend on them; if I sprayed them all to death (were that possible) I would die instantly.
This is not good news for the ego (that’s the other me). This ‘me’ thinks he’s basically alone in the world, and that anything he gets (apart from what he got for nothing from his mother a long time ago) is due to his own efforts. He’s a lonely competitor for just about everything, and he has his story to tell (which forgets to mention the many billions of creatures inside and outside his skin). So it is very important for him to be reassured that he’s doing well. Or rather (since he doesn’t really know who or what he is), that he’s doing better than someone else.
The disciples of Jesus, like all of us, had the same problem. They were “arguing about which of them was the most important.” Jesus took a child and said, You must become like children. Children were not romanticised in those days: a child was a nobody. You must become nobody, then there will be room in you for you – and for all the others.
When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
There was deep religious hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritans were heretics in the eyes of the Jews, and their region a melting-pot of different cults and customs, and Jews despised Samaria as a blot on their country.
It was a very inconveniently situated blot: right in the middle. So when Jews wanted to travel between Galilee in the north and Judea in the south, they either had to pass through Samaria or to skirt it. Things could be unpleasant for them if they passed through, but the journey was twice as long if they went around.
Doesn't everyone have a Samaria right in the middle of his or her life? It is the part of your life that is a mess: where you are at your very weakest and worst, where your thoughts and motives are all mixed up and unclear, where you have never had peace and hardly dare to hope for it.
But Jesus went right into Samaria; and many of the heroes and heroines of his stories were Samaritans: the one leper, the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan woman. There is hope for us all.
2 October [Guardian angels]
Mt 18:1-5, 10
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
The word ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’ (Greek, aggelos). In the Old Testament the Hebrew word mal’ak was applied to both human and divine messengers. The more remote God seemed, the greater became the need for intermediaries. Certain mighty figures, later known as archangels, appear in the Book of Daniel, and the process of naming angels began. A confusing variety of functions and names is found, probably because angels had become important in popular devotion. All these names have meanings, of course. Michael means ‘one who is like God’, Gabriel means ‘God is strong’, Raphael means ‘God heals’, Daniel means ‘God judges’, Elizabeth means ‘God is fullness’, and so on. The archangel Michael was thought to have a special responsibility as the guardian angel of Israel (Dan 12:1).
Early Christianity inherited Jewish beliefs about angels, but the interest is much diminished. The angel of the Annunciation has a permanent place in Christian spirituality, but the New Testament tends if anything to put angels in their place. So in Hebrews 1, angels are inferior to the Son; in 1 Cor 13:1 the eloquence of angels takes second place to love; and in 1 Pet 1:12 the angels are seen as envying the Christian.
It seems the spiritual world too abhors a vacuum, and now that belief in God is being reprocessed widely, angels are flooding in to fill the vacuum. Bookshops have shelves full of books on angels. Modern angels seem to have very sweet natures, but in the Jewish world it wasn’t always so. Lucifer was an angel of light – his name means ‘light-bearer’ – but he became Satan, prince of darkness (see October 6); he spanned the spectrum from end to end. But the angels of the New Age are all nice and friendly.
If I were a modern angel I'd keep an eye to my back. Computers are taking over the space occupied by angels. The mediaevals said that angels were neither temporal creatures, nor were they eternal; they occupied a sort of intermediate zone they called ‘aeviternitas’ – a word coined from a combination of the two. An English equivalent might be ‘tempiternal’. Cyberspace is above time and space, yet it is not eternal; it is a sort of tempiternity.
But someone said recently, with greater depth and with wonderful simplicity, that angels are “God's thoughts.”
The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.' I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.
“What good or harm would it do them to have shoes on their feet or to go without them...?” wrote Cyril of Alexandria. “Jesus wanted them to learn, and to attempt to practise, that they must depend entirely on him.” Their poverty, then, was not to be a mark of hatred of the world (though ‘contemptus mundi’ was sometimes given that twist); when you are barefooted you are actually closer to the world than when you have shoes on. It was an expression of defencelessness, and therefore of trust in God.
“I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” Jesus had a right to say this because he himself was like a lamb among wolves. The Christian Gospel proclaims that the deepest wisdom is hidden in suffering, not in self-defence or victory. This is not to love suffering for itself, but to understand that “power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9).
It is very paradoxical. Any deep teaching is full of paradox. The English word ‘suffer’ originally meant ‘to allow’. To suffer is to allow the pain of life of reach me. It is natural to try to avoid pain, but when it comes my way I should let it reach me; I should go barefooted. Otherwise I will develop a hard outer layer of insensitivity. When we see people who have done this we are inclined to say: suffering has made them hard and bitter. But it hasn’t. It is their rejection of suffering that has done so. Life doesn’t make people hard; it is the denial of life that makes people hard.
Hard outer shells go with inner mushiness. You often find that people with hard exteriors are the very ones whose inner lives are full of self-indulgence and self-pity. This has none of the openness or possibilities of growth that genuine suffering has. One of the things we learn as we grow older is the difference between neurotic self-inflicted suffering and genuine suffering. “By their fruits you shall know them.” Even by their appearance – by the skin of their fruits – you shall know them.
What are we to make of that strange verse, “If anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.” In Hebrew the same word ‘dabar’ means ‘word’ and ‘thing’; the idea was that a blessing that could not find a resting-place in the other person had to return to the sender. That is not an easy thought to take on board now, but St Augustine’s ingenuity found a way of using it. “Since we do not know who is a child of peace, it is our part to leave no one out, to set no one aside, but to desire that all to whom we preach this peace be saved. We are not to fear that we lose our peace if the one to whom we preach it is not a child of peace.... Our peace will return to us. That means our preaching will profit us, not him. If the peace we preach rests upon him, it will profit both him and us.”
Jesus said, "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. "Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me."
Chorazin and Bethsaida have disappeared from the record. There have been many preachers in many centuries speaking many words in many towns, and practically all of them disappeared without trace. But it is strange to find Jesus in that company. He did great deeds there, but nothing whatsoever is heard of them. Even the towns themselves have disappeared. There is complete silence.
There is good silence, but this was not good silence. It is the silence of the barren ground where the seed of God’s Word could not find soil. It is the barrenness of the unloving heart. How amazing to think of the vast tracts of the world that have never come to fruit! Even the words and actions of Jesus seem to leave no trace in so many places.
How can one live with such a thought? But we are not the measure. We can't even say when we ourselves have failed. What looks like total failure and emptiness is often the doorway to a new life. How could we say that Jesus failed, except in a material sense? If he is to teach us to stop trying to measure success, there has to be a Chorazin, there has to be a Bethsaida.
A word about St Francis, whose feast is celebrated today. One of the most loved of all the saints, Francis showed a Gospel way of life to his contemporaries, a complete indifference to wealth and security – the very things by which we calibrate our life. When his father threatened to disinherit him because his generosity to the poor was eating into the family savings, Francis abandoned everything, and even kicked off his clothes – to show that he was a totally free man, a new kind of human being. Nothing could bind him. He became a kind of archetype, the poverello: poor, free and full of joy. He threw everything away and (in Thoreau’s words) lived life near the bone, where it is sweetest. He makes us look like thieves, grabbing and holding our possessions – and looking for more: the ‘little more’ that keeps beckoning us on. A simple man said to me once, “‘Enough’ is always just a little more than what we have.” Possessiveness is a bottomless pit, and nothing that we possess can ever fill it.
The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!" He said to them, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven." At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it."
"I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Jesus is telling them that their ministry represents the defeat of Satan, the accuser.
Satan was at first named Lucifer, which means ‘bearer of light’; but he became the prince of darkness. Milton wrote:
Satan; so call him now, his former name
Is heard no more in heaven.
The name ‘Satan’ means ‘The Accuser’. (Most of us grew up thinking God was the accuser.) John’s vision of the end-time: “I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, ‘Now…the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God’” (Revelation 12:10). But already in the ministry of Jesus’ disciples, Satan was falling. Their word of truth was destroying Satan’s power.
What kind of truth were they speaking? They were not delivering theological lectures or engaging in philosophical debate. Jesus had told them, “Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' (Luke 10:9). Nothing more. The truth they spoke was not an accusing word (some preachers have made capital of that); it was a healing and hope-giving word, a word that built up rather than pulled down.
“Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spiritand said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.’” To intensely serious people joy looks a bit childish – because it isn't very logical and controlled, I suppose. But Jesus was filled with joy, as Luke says. Luke records that the disciples too were filled with joy (Acts 13:52). In each case he says it is joy in the Holy Spirit. Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit, mentioned next to love by Paul (Gal 5:22). Children, and people who are capable of facing things directly, are capable of joy. With others, there’s something sidelong and strategic in the way they see everything. Clement of Alexandria sums up: “Jesus cried out in joy and in great delight, as if attuning himself to the spirit of the little ones.”
6 October [27th Sunday in Ordinary time]
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."
‘Say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have only done our duty.”’ We shouldn’t take from this that God is a slave-driver and that the Christian life is just pressed service. Like the father of the prodigal son, God rejoices over us. This saying of Jesus is about us, not about God. It tells us we should not imagine that we are doing God a favour by living our lives.
I know a few families where the children have to be paid for doing ordinary chores around the house. In one case, the children regularly go on strike for higher pay, and the parents always cave in to their demands. The parents are in fact redefining themselves as employers and the children as employees. You have to ask: what seeds are being planted in these children’s psyches? And what seeds are not being planted? They are being taught that the deepest reality in life is profit and that human relationships are about mutual exploitation. Economics is easier to teach than love. Economics is quantifiable and love isn’t.
But we have been equally gross in our relationship to God, expecting pay-offs for everything we do. There was a practice of Indulgences that practically reduced the faith to an economic system: plenary indulgence for this, under certain conditions; seven years and seven quarantines for that; three hundred days for something else, 50 (small change) for saying ‘My Jesus, mercy’…. There was even a book, the Raccolta, that gave the exchange rates. In a world dominated by economics, there is a blind urge to quantify everything and to relate to it as owner. The practice of acquiring relics of saints was part of the same picture. The practice of Indulgences is now drastically curtailed, but this will still seem just like an economic cut-back unless there is reinterpretation - a different way of seeing.
In fact this way of seeing was there all the time, but buried under the practice. To express it still in economic terms: the basic intuition is that we are not economic units in the life of grace, we are not dependent on our own resources, we have vast common resources available to us, we have the infinite merits of the Mystical Body of Christ, Head and members. But this amounts to saying that it cannot be described in economic terms at all. It is about being part of one another, it is about being one with Christ and in Christ. We don’t have to grub for profit because everything is already ours.
If everything is already ours we don’t need pockets. We can be poor. All the New Testament teaching about poverty is really about riches. We are rich in God. The one thing that will obscure this for us is the habit of attempting to be independently rich. Children don’t have to be independently rich, because the entire resources of their families are already theirs for free.
This sets us free to work for God for nothing, or rather to work for love, for joy. But often we don’t! Think of the older brother of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). He said to his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.’ He became angry and refused to join in the celebration. He was the original begrudger, complaining about his brother who got everything for nothing. His father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.’ He had everything, but it wasn’t enough. To that kind of mind, nothing is ever enough. If you have no love in you, nothing will ever satisfy you.
A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live." But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?"
Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
Jesus was quoting when he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul” (Deuteronomy 11:13), and “You must love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). But when the scribe asked the further question (a common one among them), “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus spoke from himself. Let’s hear what he said and how he said it.
Some Rabbis restricted the word ‘neighbour’ to fellow Jews; others gave a somewhat wider definition. But Jesus turned the question inside out. He did not answer the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ but a different question, ‘Who should I be neighbour to?’ These two questions may seem more or less the same, but they are quite different. The first question is about other people and how they are to be classified; the second question is about myself and how I should behave towards others.
It is easier to deal with questions that only have to do with things (or people) ‘out there’. But many of the difficult things that challenge us are very much ‘in here’! Assuredly that is why we project things onto other people. I remember a teacher long ago who used to spend the whole day telling everyone they were stupid. The explosive way he pronounced it – ssteuuuupit! – made it sound much worse than stupid. Meeting him years later I saw he was not a clever person. What he was doing, all those years before, was projecting onto us the stupidity he couldn’t admit in himself, and condemning it.
It is a bit terrifying when it first strikes you clearly: what you see around you is what lies within you. “Two men look out through prison bars, / One sees mud and the other stars.” Two people grow up in the same family; one remembers the good things, the other remembers nothing but bad. Two people look at a third; one sees a decent person struggling, the other sees a write-off. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite pass an injured man and see only a problem to be avoided; the Samaritan (and to Jews at that time, Samaritans were heretics) saw the same man and saw his need of help. How you see and act depends on what is inside you. Jesus looks at you and says, “You are the salt of the earth…. You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13,14). He was able to say that because he himself was the light of the world (Jn 8:12; 9:5). He was willing to say it because he was filled with love.