Jesus went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them. Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
In the time of Jesus, the Jewish ideal of marriage was the highest imaginable. “The very altar sheds tears when a man divorces the wife of his youth.” But in practice, divorce was extremely easy to obtain. Everything hung on the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1, where it was laid down that a man could divorce his wife if he found in her “some impropriety.” The Shammai school of thought held that this referred only to adultery. But the Hillel school held that even the spoiling of a dish of food was grounds for divorce, or talking to a strange man, or criticising her in-laws, or if she spoke too loudly…. Rabbi Akiba even said that if a man found a woman who was fairer in his eyes than his wife, he could be granted a divorce.
Quite clearly, then, when Jesus took a strict line on divorce, he was putting right a grave injustice against women.
There is an intriguing piece of dialogue between Moses and God in Exodus 3:13f. Moses says to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" In Hebrew, verbs are not clearly divided into past, present and future tenses as in modern languages; and I have seen this translated as “I will be who I will be.” God was not just giving a name, like an identity tag; God was making a promise. It is as if God said, “I will always be there for you, no matter what happens.” In the marriage ceremony people say something like this to each other. They are speaking God’s kind of language, where every word is also a promise of fidelity.
People were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
It started in the 19th, but it was only in the 20th century that the Western world really romanticised childhood. Only then did we begin to believe that a child was something superior to an adult: that he/she had a greater measure of innocence, virtue, and even wisdom than the average adult. To all the ages that went before, that belief would have seemed very bizarre indeed.
The world in the time of Jesus (and not only then) believed that a child was a deficient adult, a nobody who knew nothing, had nothing, and was nothing: an extension of the parents with no rights of its own. So when Jesus said you must be like children to enter the kingdom (presence) of God, he meant you must be a nobody, a nothing….
Does this canonise ignorance and inexperience? Like St Paul we are allowed to make appropriate distinctions. “Brothers and sisters,” he wrote, “do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults” (1 Corinthians 14:20). To be childlike is not the same as being childish. Childlike qualities are simplicity, trust, openness, hope… so many of the qualities needed for living a spiritual life. The French mystic Mde Guyon (1648 – 1717) wrote, “The simple ones, so far from being incapable of [spiritual] perfection, are, by their docility, innocence, and humility, peculiarly adapted and qualified for its attainment… they are less employed in speculation and less tenacious of their own opinions… they submit more freely to the teachings of the Divine Spirit: whereas others, who are blinded by self-sufficiency and enslaved by prejudice, give great resistance to the operations of Grace.”
3 March [8th Sunday in Ordinary time]
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. No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.
In all its forms, hypocrisy displays one thing and lives another. Nobody is completely transparent, so this is about us all. The Psalmist who wrote “I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites” (25:4) appears greatly over-confident - or he didn’t know himself very well. The worst form of hypocrisy is to claim that we are never hypocritical.
Jesus repeatedly called the Pharisees hypocrites: see especially Matthew 23. It is significant that in today’s reading he is saying the very same thing to his own disciples. He called the Pharisees “blind guides leading the blind.” And he added, “If one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit" (Matthew 15:14). To the disciples he said, “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.”
We Christians are quick to condemn certain evils but slow to condemn others. We can be quick to condemn social injustices but slow to admit that there are injustices in the Church. We can be quick to defend the unborn but indifferent to them and their families once they are born. The vile crime of child sexual abuse has blighted the lives of thousands and brought shame on the Church. Those crimes were often compounded by the silence of Church authorities. There is no shortage of commentators eager to call attention to all this, many of them deeply antagonistic to the Church. But what matters is the truth or falsity of what is said, not who says it. The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes made these points. “The Church…is very well aware that among her members, both clerical and lay, some have been unfaithful to the Spirit of God during the course of many centuries; in the present age, too, it does not escape the Church how great a distance lies between the message she offers and the human failings of those to whom the Gospel is entrusted….The Church admits that she has greatly profited and still profits from the antagonism of those who oppose or who persecute her” (n. 44). Sadly, that kind of humility is not nearly as much in evidence today.
There is the hypocrisy of a group and the hypocrisy of individuals. Their relationship is not at all one of simple arithmetic. Groups are made up of individuals, yes, but a group is more than the sum of individuals. There is a kind of group hypocrisy that far outweighs the sum of individual hypocrisy. Individuals who are personally not at all hypocritical can somehow be party to group hypocrisy, willing to defend the indefensible. Narcissistic attitudes like vanity, defensiveness, meanness of spirit, which would be considered unworthy in an individual, are “loyalty” and “fidelity” in a group. We should ask forgiveness for our sins, and not rename them as virtues. God is not honoured by hypocrisy. To turn group hypocrisy into a virtue is a form of atheism; it is to see God as in no way different from pagan idols, which have “mouths but they cannot speak, eyes but they cannot see, ears but they cannot hear” (Ps 113). “Do not be deceived,” wrote St Paul, “God is not mocked” (Gal 6:7).
They are hypocrites who belittle others and their religion. They are hypocrites who “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). They are hypocrites who “tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Mt 23:23) - those who make a couple of external practices the touchstone of the faith.
The Word of God invites us to cast out the old yeast and celebrate with “the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:8).
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" he asked Jesus. Having done well for himself in this life, he wants to know how he can be equally successful in the next. At first Jesus gave him the expected answer: he quoted the commandments to him. This was about the only occasion in the gospels when Jesus gave someone the expected answer: it was an answer that the young man would have known already. “You know the commandments….” The man replied, “Master, I have kept all these from my earliest days.” This declaration must have made him feel that he was the brightest light around. But he had said it to the wrong person. He was confident that he could stand before God on his own merit: he had kept all the commandments since childhood. His self-assurance – even self-congratulation – is identical to that of the Pharisees.
Immediately Jesus drew him further on and challenged him to a new way of life. We are used to hearing this story, and therefore most of its impact is lost on us. In the time of Jesus wealth was generally seen as a guarantee of God's blessing (as well as of social status). But Jesus told him, “Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.” This was too much, and the man went away sad. He was no longer the brightest light; he would be remembered forever as the only one in the gospels who refused a direct call from Jesus.
But if Jesus is now saying that wealth is no guarantee of God's favour, then how can you know how you stand with God? He repeated what he had said, even adding emphasis. No one could remain unclear about his teaching: wealth, and the false sense of security that comes with it, can destroy your relationship with God.
Two opposing visions of life come face to face in this story. It is a head-on collision, but strangely there are no fireworks as in the clashes with the Pharisees. Mark’s gospel even makes the encounter an affectionate one: “Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him, and said...” (Matthew and Luke write simply, “Jesus answered...”). All three gospels say that the rich man became “sad.” He was indeed a conscientious man, and was not trying to discredit Jesus in the style of the Pharisees. He was a follower of traditional beliefs (incidentally, Matthew alone calls him “young”); and he seems like a man who had taken in what Jesus said, even though he did not feel able to follow it.
Some commentators suggested that the eye of the needle was a small gate at the entrance to Jerusalem called the "Needle's Eye Gate." Others suggested that the ‘camel’ was not the animal, but some kind of thick cord. But this clearly blunts the force of his statement. A camel could conceivably get through such a gate, but Jesus is asserting the impossibility of a rich man entering the Kingdom of God. When the disciples heard this they were understandably puzzled. They came from the same tradition as the rich young man. “In that case,” they said, “who can be saved?” Jesus’ reply is the key to the whole episode: “For men it is impossible, but not for God.” We cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Only God can spring us from the trap of our imagined self-sufficiency. It is not by our own resources, whether spiritual or material, that we come into God’s Presence, but by God's own gift.
Peter began to say to Jesus, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."
In Matthew’s account Peter’s question is more blatant: "Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?" (Mark does not have this second part.) Should we recoil from all self-interest? The ‘gospel of wealth’ people would find Peter’s question quite normal. Isn’t it true that we stand in need of everything? Is it ‘selfish’ to expect God to reward us for our efforts? And what of our endless talk about ‘eternal reward’?
St Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century shed a very clear light on this topic: “God is not loved without reward, even though God should be loved without thought of reward. True charity cannot be empty, but it does not seek profit, ‘for it does not seek its own benefit’ (1 Cor 13:5). It is an affection, not a contract. It is not given or received by agreement. It is given freely; it makes us spontaneous. True love is content. It has its reward in what it loves. For if you seek to love something, but really love it for the sake of something else, you actually love what you are pursuing as your real end, not that which is a means to it.” Two centuries later, Meister Eckhart made the same point. Speaking about people who want to gain something from religion, Meister Eckhart said, “They love God for the sake of something else that is not God,” and he went so far as to compare them to Judas.
What all these people seem to be telling us is to avoid the commercial spirit in our faith. That is a very counter-cultural thing to do, because the commercial spirit enters everywhere now. We are not to make a business of religion: God is not our business, we are God's business.
6 March [Ash Wednesday]
Mt 6:1-6, 16-18
“O ye wha are sae guid yoursel,
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye’ve nought to do but mark and tell
Your Neebour’s fauts and folly!”
In Scots dialect and with nettling humour Robbie Burns (1759-1796) castigated the “Unco Guid” (the Very Good). Oh you who are so good yourselves, so pious and so holy…. He had suffered from these (he was on the point of having to emigrate) but he took his stand! With his ribald wit he made his persecutors the laughing-stock of the country. It was probably the only way to counter the dour Calvinism of his time. His was a wit that went to the heart of the matter (this time writing in English dialect!):
“…How poor Religion’s pride,
In all the pomp of method and of art,
When men display to congregations wide,
Devotion’s every grace, except the heart!”
(By ‘art’ he meant techniques of preaching, not paintings on the walls - for there weren't any.)
Lent is not a time of depression - even though everything in the Liturgy is simplified and we try to simplify our own lives too. It is a time for returning to the heart. “Return to me with all your heart.”
Anyone with a heart has also a sense of humour. Sometimes it’s the only way we can live with ourselves. It’s painful work to strip away the ego’s defences and projections, and we have to do it with good grace if it’s to stay done.
Notice how often the word ‘secret’ occurs in today’s reading. It is contrasted with ‘being seen’. ‘Being seen’ is about surfaces and appearances. The heart is about depth. (And all good humour comes from there too.)
You could arrange that short passage in two columns; at the head of one, you could write IN SECRET, and at the head of the other TO BE SEEN. Read the passage again and see this for yourself. One is left in no doubt that a deep truthful interiority is essential to a Christian life. A tree has to sink its roots deep into the ground, otherwise it comes down in the first storm (or perhaps it doesn't, because it has never been able to raise itself up). If you project your imagination down into the ground where the roots are, you find a strange world of darkness, silence and stillness. This is the opposite of the world above ground; there you have light, noise, movement. We are like trees in that respect. If we identify our life with the public part, the part ‘above ground’, we will not be able to withstand the storms of life, and we will have no profound resources for growth. Our actions, our lives, like trees, emerge from a rich darkness, silence and stillness.
The inner is not an escape from the outer. Thomas Merton was convinced that many ‘contemplatives’ are not really contemplatives at all but only introspective people, or people in flight from the pain and complexity of ordinary life. Real contemplatives know the urgency not only of going in but also of going out. Meister Eckhart said, “Not that one should give up or neglect or reject one's inner life, but in it and with it and from it one should learn to act in such a way as to let the inward break into activity and draw the activity into inwardness, and thereby train oneself to act in freedom. For one should turn one's eyes to this inner work and act therefrom, whether it be in reading, praying or outward work. But if the outward work tends to destroy the inward, one should follow the inward. But if both can be as one, that is best, then one is co-operating with God.”
‘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.’ Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
Ever since I read Johann Tauler’s comment (14th century) I always remember it when I read this text. He said, “Jesus did not say, ‘Take up my cross,’ but ‘Take up your cross.’”
Let me quote Joko Beck, a zen master, on this subject, “I notice that people who have been practising [meditation] for some time begin to have a sense of humour about their burden. After all, the thought that life is a burden is only a concept. We’re simply doing what we’re doing, second by second by second. The measure of fruitful practice is that we feel life less as a burden and more as a joy. That does not mean there is no sadness, but the experience of sadness is exactly the joy. If we don’t find such a shift happening over time, then we haven't yet understood what practice is; the shift is a reliable barometer.”
The best example of this ‘shift’ is in John’s gospel: John loved to play on the paradox of ‘raised up’: Jesus would be lifted up in shame on the cross, but that lifting up in shame is also a lifting up in glory.
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.’
Happiness can be manufactured to some extent – just for short periods; but joy is a stroke from beyond. Joyless religion may be the profoundest denial of God. If there is no joy in it, it’s all your own work, so what need have you of God? If the Resurrection is not visible in you, then you are preaching death without resurrection. One of the fruits of the Spirit is joy, and it is mentioned next after love in St Paul’s list, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22). If you had no love in you, you could hardly claim to be a Christian; likewise joy (and all the others).
Joy does not come from avoiding pain and sorrow; on the contrary it is possible only when we have gone into the heart of our pain and sorrow. We have to go into the heart of it and experience a certain transformation, the characteristic shift that is the sign that the ‘chemistry’ of the Gospel is working (see yesterday’s commentary). If we avoid the process nothing happens; we will have to continue all our lives to avoid it. That way there is no joy, only endless desperate flight.
Jesus went saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up, left everything, and followed him. Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" Jesus answered, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance."
“The Word leaped down from heaven into the womb of the Virgin, he leaped from his mother’s womb onto the wood [of the cross], and he leaped from the wood of the cross into the underworld, Sheol,” said Hippolytus of Rome (+ ca 235). It would be strange if the Word became flesh, but stopped short of mingling with the common people, all of us, “the great unwashed.” Jesus mixed with “the worst elements” in society. (What a disdainful expression! Have you ever been called an ‘element’?). There was not just one tax collector but “many”.
It was inevitable that the Pharisees would arrive on the scene. They needed those tax collectors. The name ‘Pharisee’ means ‘Separated’: their special righteousness separated them from the common people. Naturally they needed those others to be different: otherwise they themselves could not be ‘Separated’. It was essential for the Pharisees that there should be lots of tax collectors and sinners; it is essential for some ‘good’ people that there should be great numbers of ‘bad’ people. But how disconcerting it always is to find Jesus among the bad!
10 March [1st Sunday of Lent]
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
John the Baptist had no questions about his own identity, even when he had been thrown into the dungeon, this child of the desert. He sent word to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?'" (Lk 7:20). ‘Are we to wait for another?’ He had doubts about Jesus but not about himself!
What are we to make of the temptations of Jesus? Were they real temptations? If they were, then he was seeking to understand his own identity and considering different ways of spending the rest of his life. If they were not, then the whole scene was only a charade. It is not at all to doubt his divinity if we take the temptations seriously. He was divine, but his human mind was human: that is, limited. The three gospels that tell of his temptations link them with his baptism in the Jordan. He came to the Jordan as an unknown carpenter, and the Holy Spirit came and “rested on him” (others are touched or moved by the Spirit, but the Spirit “rested” on Jesus). He was catapulted out of his old way of life; Mark says the Spirit “drove him out into the desert” (1:12). The Voice had said to him “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.” To see how he was going to spend the rest of his life, he had to have time to think and pray and struggle.
Remember, too, that in the New Testament the word ‘temptation’ means ‘test’; Jesus was being put to the test.
A temptation may come from the outside, but unless it goes to the inside it is not a temptation. The first temptation was to be a material provider. This is a good thing to be. How do you tempt a good person? – with goodness, because he will not take an evil bait. It’s not so difficult to be a material provider, and in fact most people can do it for themselves. But if Jesus had given in to this temptation, the work would have absorbed him completely, distracting him from his real task. The next temptation was to power. This is always a subtle one, and very easily rationalised. Any kind of power will do. It was said of someone that he entered the priesthood in order to do good, and did well instead. I can persuade myself that a position of power would give me greater opportunities of doing good. Jesus avoided this trap too. The most distinctive thing about him throughout his public life was his refusal of power. In the end he made himself utterly powerless on the Cross. It is very moving to see that that choice was not automatic, but conscious and deliberate. The third temptation, which cannot have occupied his mind for long, was to become a celebrity.
Some scholars suggest that this gospel passage was a summary story; that is, that it describes a process that went on throughout his life, rather than a single occasion. Whether or not that is likely, it is certainly the case that these temptations are ever-present for the disciples of Jesus, the Church. Most of us would find it easier to buy groceries for someone than to sit for hours and listen to their pain and confusion, or their anger…. As for power and glory: that is a long story! We can imagine we are defending the power and glory of God when in reality we are only defending the worldly power and pride of the Church. The Church’s identity does not consist in titles and honours and regal dress, but in following the poor man of Nazareth. We, the disciples of Jesus, the Church, have to be driven into the desert again and again… until we understand profoundly and embrace wholeheartedly the way the Cross.
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Some people have a recurring nightmare in which they are being judged and found totally wanting. Today's reading sounds just like such a nightmare. Earlier generations of Christians thought about “that day” (dies illa) more than people want to do now. For centuries they sang that austere sequence Dies irae (Day of wrath), meditating on that ultimate scene of judgement.
It is impossible to evade the question of ultimate judgment, however you think of it. In the sight of God what will my life amount to in the end? In the face of that ultimate question we all feel naked and ashamed. Human beings have imagined a scenario where they can start all over again: reincarnation. But the same question would only arise again and again. This is not how the Judeo-Christian tradition sees it. In the words of Qoheleth, “Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there will it lie” (11:3). There is no coming back, as the rich man discovered in Jesus’ parable (Lk 16:19-31). These are grim thoughts.
But the point of this reading is not to divide the world into good and bad people (does anyone fit perfectly in either of those categories?), but to make the point that in serving one another we are serving God. Our ultimate destiny, the thing that seems farthest away, actually hangs on the things nearest to hand, the most proximate: on how we treat the Lord in “the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned.”
When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
It is a great pity that many people still identify prayer with ‘saying prayers’. We do this despite what Jesus said: "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” We have long neglected contemplative prayer, willing to leave it to people who live in monasteries. But lay people are just as likely to feel the need of it as monks and nuns; and this is now becoming evident all around us. Not finding any interest in it in their local parish, many people began to look elsewhere for it; hence the interest in non-Christian religions. But contemplative prayer is now being rediscovered in Christian circles in our own time. However, Church authorities have shown scant interest in it. This is surely a major tragedy – perhaps even another scandal – in the Church today. Leadership has too long been seen as administration; but the crying need now is for spiritual leadership.
Has it ever struck you that in the Our Father, “the pattern of all Christian prayer,” there is no mention of Jesus, his life, death or resurrection, nor mention of any of the Christian mysteries? This absence suggests that it was his own prayer. In prayer he was seized by one single awareness: the Father; he was not thinking about himself. When we pray the Our Father we are not praying to him, but with him; we are praying his prayer. We are so close to him that we do not see him. We are (so to speak) inside his head looking out through his eyes and seeing, like him, only the Father and the world. We are praying in him. All Christian praying is praying “in Christ.” The normal ending to every Christian prayer is: “through Christ our Lord.” At the end of the Eucharistic Prayer we say, “Through him, and with him, and in him….” All Christian praying is praying “in Christ.” Repeating the words will bring us to the Holy Place, true; but by itself it will not lead us into the Holy of Holies.
When the crowds were increasing, Jesus began to say, ‘This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgement with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!’
The Book of Jonah is a delightful and amusing book – and short: only a few pages. The introduction to it in the Jerusalem Bible calls it “a droll adventure…and its doctrine is one of the peaks of the Old Testament…. Broadminded, it rejects a too rigid interpretation of prophecy…. It rejects, too, a narrow racialism…. All the characters of this story are likeable, the pagan sailors, the king, the populace, even the animals of Niniveh…. We are on the threshold of the Gospel.”
A “droll adventure” it may be, but the drollery was lost on the early Christian writers. Gregory Nazianzen (4th century) called Jonah’s antics “utterly absurd and stupid and unworthy of credit, not only for a prophet but even for any sensible person.” Augustine (5th century) said the book was a cause of “much jest and much laughter to pagans,” but not, he thought, to Christians. Some of these sombre Fathers, however, could not avoid being themselves unintentionally amusing. Jerome (5th century) noted that when the sailors tossed Jonah overboard into the sea “the text does not say they seized him or that they threw him in, but that they took him, and carried him as one deserving respect and honour.” And Cassiodorus (6th century) said that for Jonah the whale’s belly was “a house of prayer, a harbour, a home amid the waves, a happy resource at a desperate time.” Paulinus of Nola (5th century) alone made an insightful remark: “What a worthy prison for God’s holy runaway! He was captured on the very sea by which he had sought to flee.” That's how we all get caught: by our own efforts to escape from what we have to do.
Someone tried to persuade me that Jesus never laughed, since it is nowhere recorded in the gospels that he did. Non sequitur. Laughter is so much part of being human that if he had never laughed, that surprising fact would surely have been recorded. The capacity for laughter (risibilitas the mediaevals called it) is so peculiar to humans, that it could be a test of whether some creature was human. Hyenas and kookaburras only make a noise that happens to sound like human laughter. Yet there are many instances in Christian literature (in the Rule of St Benedict, for example) where laughter is frowned on. They probably meant silly noisy laughter. (Who could forget Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose in this connection?)
It is easy to imagine Jesus as a young man laughing at the antics of Jonah, and the animals doing penance, and Jonah arguing heatedly with God (God: “Are you right to be angry?” Jonah: “I have every right to be angry!”)
In today’s passage, Jesus uses Jonah as a headline for his own preaching. That is how close we are to the Gospel. Don’t go to bed tonight without reading it!
Jesus said: "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
Do we always think of ‘goods’ when we read, “Ask and it will be given you, search and you will find…?” Are the Father’s “good things” always things? Is love a thing? Things (gifts) can be signs and proofs of it, but it is not itself a thing. The Father’s greatest gift to us is love, and all the other gifts are enticements to that greatest gift.
The French mystic Jeanne Guyon (1648 – 1717) wrote: “Do not stop at the graces or gifts of God, which are only as the rays that issue from His face, but which are not Himself. Mount up to His very throne and there seek Him; seek His face evermore until you are so blessed as to find it.” Psalm 104 says, “Constantly seek his face.” This is also the advice of Meister Eckhart, and indeed of all the saints; and when you think about it, it is just evidence of good breeding. There’s something chilling about a business relationship that keeps human contact to an absolute minimum. The commercial world can be a very chilly place. It would be tragic if some of that chill were to enter into our relationship with God. I remember (vaguely I'm afraid) an essay by D.H. Lawrence in which he poured scorn on a writer who was unwise enough to reveal the details of his daily routine: “Rose at 6. Worshipped the deity. Ate breakfast.” That frosty description was bound to draw the contempt of Lawrence, a passionate writer if ever there was one. And it made prayer look like another household chore – like feeding the canary.
If we see God in that passionless way, we will be primarily interesting in what we can get. “Some people regard God as they regard a cow,” said Meister Eckhart. “They want to love God as they love a cow. Thus they love God for the sake of external riches and of internal solace; but these people do not love God aright....” He didn’t say it just once. “Some people love God for the sake of something else that is not God. And if they get something they love, they do not bother about God. Whether it is contemplation or rapture or whatever you welcome, whatever is created, is not God.” “Whoever loves God for anything else does not abide in Him, but abides in the thing he is loving Him for. If, therefore, you want to abide in Him, you must love Him for nothing but Himself.”
In that warmth, gift-giving and receiving make sense. Without it, religion is a cold-hearted business.
Jesus said: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
Law without justice is superficial; it is only about words and appearances of justice. We use all kinds of substitutes for wisdom. If a court doesn’t know how to decide, it consults precedent. But that precedent was either based on another precedent, or it was someone’s guess at justice in a particular case in the past. Yesterday’s guess, then, becomes today’s justice.
The scribes and Pharisees loved to quote other scribes and Pharisees. One translation says, “If you are not righteous in a better way than the scribes and the Pharisees....” The present translation (NRSV) says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees....” Another translation says, “Unless your virtue goes deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees. ‘Better’ is a rather neutral word; ‘deeper’ says more. It is clearly the sense of the passage. The law doesn’t go down to the roots of things: to the mind and heart. It is in the mind and heart that all our actions are conceived and born. Murder is the flowering of an anger that grew unchecked in the mind and heart. If we never look into those sometimes dark places, we could find later that we have been breeding monsters there.
Superficial virtues are the opposite of virtue. They are an attempt to prove that I am not what I am. Cowards become daredevils (Enneagram 6), weak people look for a way of having power of some kind…. Such ‘virtues’ are an over-reaction to the unpalatable truth of what I am; they hide their opposite within themselves.
But then how are we to understand St Paul’s statement “When I am weak then I am strong!” (2 Corinthians 12:10)? He was not speaking of a false strength that is only a denial of weakness, but of real strength that comes from accepting one’s weakness. Virtue that does not grow out of the truth is like a plant with no roots: it looks all right for a while.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
It is often taken for granted that “The Golden Rule” (‘Love your neighbour as yourself’) is the essence of the Gospel. It is no such thing. I know several people from whom I would run a mile if they threatened to love me as they loved themselves. When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment of the Mosaic Law, he replied of course by quoting from it. But when he spoke from himself he said, “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34) – a very different matter.
Today’s reading is a further formulation of Christian love. “Love your enemies” is the summit of love. The New Testament writers used the word ‘agapè’ – an obsolete word to which they were able to give a new meaning – to refer to the kind of love that moved Jesus. They could have used the word ‘philia’, meaning ‘friendship’, but this new kind of love was even wider and deeper than friendship: it was so vast that it would include even one’s enemies. “Love your enemies,” is something so astonishing that it has to be the voice of God and none other. It is normal in some religions to wish (and even to pray) for vengeance on one’s enemies, and to gloat over their suffering. Agapè breaks new ground. It is God’s kind of love: unconditional and unlimited. Perhaps we should be surprised that there is so much of it in the world, rather than so little.
Thomas Merton wrote: "Our task now is to learn that if we can voyage to the ends of the earth and find ourselves in the aborigine who most differs from ourselves, we will have made a fruitful pilgrimage. That is why pilgrimage is necessary, in some shape or other. Mere sitting at home and meditating on the divine presence is not enough for our time. We have to come to the end of a long journey and see that the stranger we meet there is no other than ourselves – which is the same as saying we find Christ in him."
17 March [2nd Sunday of Lent]
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" – not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came an overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
In all three liturgical cycles we have the strange story of the Transfiguration on the second Sunday of Lent. What does it mean? The second reading is a kind of echo of this gospel reading, and perhaps it gives us a key to open up its meaning for us. The Lord, St Paul writes, "will transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of his glorious body." The Transfiguration, then –whatever we discover it to mean – is not only about Jesus but about us. It is to make some discernible difference to us today.
There was the everyday Jesus who was well known to his friends; and then there was the moment when they scarcely recognised him, so transformed – transfigured – was he. Divinity shone through him, revealing depths that they had never imagined. Can this happen only to Jesus? When the little girl was asked what a saint was, she replied (thinking of the stained glass windows in the church), "A person who lets the light through." Lovely – but is it only an image? Can it also be a reality? Could you and I let the light through? We are probably far too aware of our wretchedness to think thoughts like that. But it is just these "wretched bodies of ours" that are the material of transfiguration, according to St Paul.
In a beautiful poem called The sunrise ruby, Jelaluddin Rumi(1207-1273) the Sufi mystic, imagines a girl asking her beloved,
'Do you love me or yourself more?
Really, tell the absolute truth.’
He says, 'There's nothing left of me.
I'm like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no resistance to sunlight.'
There it is: in one way it is a stone, but in another it is a world of redness. This gives some impression of what transfiguration might mean. When you are completely absorbed and self-forgetful as you look at the sea, or at a sunset, or the night sky, or a tree, you are still yourself, of course; but you are also more than yourself. At any rate you are a kind of larger self, and not the small self that thinks before speaking, and counts money, and always looks after his or her own interests.
But we would like to hear what Christian mystics have to say about it. Johann Tauler (1300-1361) wrote the following:
"God fires the spirit with a spark from the divine abyss. By the strength of this supernatural help the soul, enlightened and purified, is drawn out of itself into a unique and ineffable state of pure intent toward God….This complete turning of the soul toward God is beyond all understanding and feeling; it is a thing of wonder and defies imagination….In this state the soul, purified and enlightened, sinks into the divine darkness, into a tranquil silence and inconceivable union. It is absorbed in God, and now all equality and inequality disappear. In this abyss the soul loses itself, and knows nothing of God or of itself, of likeness to Him or of difference from Him, or of anything whatsoever. It is immersed in the unity of God and has lost all sense of distinctions."
Sadly, this aspect of the Christian faith is not as familiar to many as it could be. We have learnt to settle for less. Most people believe that the best things are not for them. But we are all called to deep enlightenment and union with God. Does this mean that we are to be somehow unreal and up-in-the-air? Hardly. Tauler and the people of his time had to be intensely practical. But his words live for centuries beyond the time he uttered them, because he was in touch with the living heart of our Faith. It is he, and the likes of him, who will lead us to the heart of God.
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.
God’s mercy is infinite and unconditional. But isn't there some kind of condition built into the phrases of today’s reading? “Judge not and you will not be judged.” “Forgive and you will be forgiven.” “The measure you give is the measure you will get.” Don’t these phrases suggest that if you do judge you will be judged; if you refuse to forgive you will be refused forgiveness; and that God is only as merciful as you are? How are we to understand this?
St Augustine was at his best when he was struggling with the most difficult passages. Hear what he has to say about this. “What do you want from the Lord? Mercy. Give it, and it shall be given to you. What do you want from the Lord? Forgiveness. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Then later he added: “Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given you: These are the two wings of prayer, on which your spirit soars to God.” Our spirit is meant to soar, not just to be lifted up like a stone. God's mercy, forgiveness, and generosity are not just exercised on us; they are to exercise in us. By being merciful, forgiving and generous, as best we can, we are receiving God’s gift rather than just being credited with it.
Think of it this way. If you cannot give you cannot receive either. The measure you give is the measure you are capable of receiving. A saint would give you his or her life, but a thief only wants to take from you. “With every creature, according to the nobility of its nature, the more it indwells in itself, the more it gives itself out,” wrote Meister Eckhart. If I refuse to give (or forgive), this shows that I have not entered into the human and divine mystery of what we are. God does not limit mercy, forgiveness, and generosity; we do.
Finally, a comment from Cyril of Alexandria: “Why do you judge your neighbours? If you venture to judge them, having no authority to do it, it is yourself rather that will be condemned, because God's law does not permit you to judge others.” Then he quoted psalm 129:3, “If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive?”
19 March [St Joseph]
Mt 1:16, 18-21, 24
Jacob [was] the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife.
I once knew a very pious lady who would never refer to St Joseph by name, but as “The Holy Old Man”. Every time I heard it I felt sorry for the many men I know who have been weakened and faded - denatured - by an unreal spirituality. Why old? We make Joseph old in order to weaken him. The same lady (and most people) would never think of Mary as old. Quite the contrary. There is some sort of investment in keeping Mary at this side of adulthood, as there is in putting Joseph at the far side of it. It is as if we can't take the full presence of an adult man and an adult woman.
In The Wild Man’s Journey Richard Rohr wrote impressively about the state of male spirituality in today’s world. A quote almost at random: “The wild man locked inside us is telling us that his incredible strength can be reached by moving into the space of the feminine, yet so often the woman who could lead us into that space wants to prevent us from getting in touch with the wild man. Rebekah so rejected her hairy, hunter son, Esau, that she betrayed him in favour of the gentle Jacob (see Genesis 27). This is not a new issue.”
Since we know so little about him, we have weakened St Joseph and moulded him according to our image of what a holy man should be. We need to restore his masculinity to him, for a start. On May 1 we celebrate him again under the title Joseph the Worker. That’s a good beginning: he is not Joseph the Faded, the Ineffectual, the Weak; he is Joseph the Worker. And he had to work all year round, not just on May 1.
When Jesus spoke about his Father in heaven he did so with real tenderness and affection, but without weakness or sentimentality. Consider: where did he get his feeling for this word, the ‘colouring’, where did he first experience the reality of the word ‘father’? From Joseph, of course. Joseph must have been a very successful father.
While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’ Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’
When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
Mark says that it was James and John who asked Jesus for important posts in his kingdom (10:37). But Matthew puts the blame on their mother. However, the cover-up is transparent in the text when you check the original. ‘You’ is both singular and plural in English, but other languages always make it clear. “Jesus said to the brothers, ‘You (plural) do not know what you (plural) are asking. Can you (plural) drink the cup that I am about to drink?’” He was speaking to them, not to their mother. Furthermore, the others were angry “with the two brothers.”
The anger of the others reveals something else. Why were they not just amused, or perhaps embarrassed for them? Their anger reveals that they had a personal stake in the matter. They too saw themselves in the running for the top posts! This is all the more absurd because Jesus had just been speaking about the suffering and humiliation he himself was about to endure.
Still, the Lord was able to love them to the end. Therein lies hope for us all.
‘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.” ’
Dives and Lazarus – Rich and Poor. We used to call the rich man Dives, but Jesus did not give any name to this character in his story: ‘dives’ is just the Latin word for ‘rich’: a translation of the Greek ‘plousios’. The poor man does have a personal name, Lazarus. (In fact Jesus had a friend called Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary.) St Augustine wrote: “Jesus kept quiet about the rich man’s name but gave a name to the poor man. The rich man’s name was well known around, but God kept quiet about it. The other’s name was lost in obscurity, but God spoke it. Please do not be surprised…. God kept quiet about the rich man’s name, because he did not find it written in heaven. He spoke the poor man’s name, because he found it written there, indeed he gave instructions for it to be written there.”
The story tells us something about riches: the rich are inclined to define themselves by what they own, not by what they are. Riches can clog up your inner being, so that you do not know who you are. Then you look out from that place of not-knowing and you see other people, but you do not really see them; you only see what they own – or do not own. Others looked through the doorway and saw a poor man there; the rich man looked and saw nobody. That is the subtlety of this story: the rich man was neither cruel nor kind to Lazarus; Lazarus was invisible to him.
There is another rich man in the gospel – this time it was not a story but reality. When Jesus invited him to follow, “he went away sorrowful, because he was very rich” (Mt 19:22). There is nothing quite like wealth for closing the ears and the mind, for deadening the conscience. After a while it also closes the eyes, and like the rich man in the story we no longer see the poor. That rich young man is never heard of again in the New Testament. He might have become a greater apostle even than Peter or John. Sahajananda, from outside the Christian tradition, wrote this about him: “The young man became very sad because he was very rich. 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.... This treasure can neither increase nor decrease. No thief can get there and no moth can cause its destruction.”
The story of the rich man and Lazarus is not focused on Lazarus but on the rich man. Focused on Lazarus it might mean: Put up with your lot now and you’ll be happy in the next life; you’ll even be able to watch the rich man suffering. But no, the focus is on the rich man. Jesus told this story to the rich, to their faces, as an accusation against them. He told it to the Pharisees, who as Luke said, “loved money” (16:14). It has the same import as Luke's version of the Beatitudes: “Alas for you who are rich!” (6:24).
Mt 21:33-43, 45-46
‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realised that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
The vine was a symbol of Israel.
“You brought a vine out of Egypt;
To plant it you drove out the nations.
Before it you cleared the ground;
It took root and spread through the land.” (Psalm 79)
So when Jesus tells this story about the vineyard he is really talking about his country and the people who ran it. They were quite aware of this, “The chief priests and the Pharisees…realised that Jesus was referring to them.” It wasn’t a story to flatter them; it enraged them. That means that it frightened them – lying just behind anger there is always fear. They were frightened because he said they were going to lose power. They were religious leaders and he told them, “The kingdom of heaven will be taken from you and given to people who will yield a harvest.” But they were not interested in harvest. (Switch now to another kind of harvest: grain; the point is the same.) Jesus referred to the people as harvest (Mt 9:37), but the Pharisees referred to them as chaff. They were not interested in people, because like every organisation they were interested only in themselves.
This is not just a story about a comfortable ‘long ago’; it is for the Church of today. If we are not “producing the goods,” others will. Many people, experiencing lack of community and spiritual support in their parishes, are looking to new religions and cults for support.
Lk 15:1-3, 11-32
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.
Luke alone of the four gospel writers tells the immortal story of the Prodigal Son. Though the younger son in the story seemed to have got a better deal than the older one, he was really the underdog. The older one, if I may say so, was the worst kind of elder brother: he was a sort of third parent, without the mellowness that parents develop. He was harsh and judgmental, envious and self-righteous. It's not so surprising that the younger one left home and even lost his self-respect: his older brother represented respectability in its most depressing form.
But the focus is not so much on the two brothers as on their father. We call the younger son ‘the prodigal'. The word comes from Latin 'prodigus', which means 'lavish'. Yes, the son was lavish and reckless. But the father was even more so! The father was lavish with his mercy and forgiveness. And since the story is focused on the father we should call it the story of the 'Prodigal Father' rather than the story of the 'Prodigal Son'.
The people who heard that story from the lips of Jesus were quite aware that they were being cast in the role of the older brother. They had seen that tax-collectors and prostitutes were all seeking the company of Jesus and they said, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!" He captured them perfectly in the character of the older brother. It is not that he was commending the younger son (because, again, the focus is on the father); but the reality is that the underdog finds out more about the father’s mercy than the ‘overdog’. It takes a prodigal son to know a prodigal father.
The father was certainly prodigal: “While the son was still a long way off he ran towards his son, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly.” He didn’t even let him finish his prepared speech of repentance. “Quick,” he said, “…put a ring on his finger….” That ring meant that he was a member of the family, not a hired servant. This was warm and whole-hearted forgiveness – which is the only kind there is.
There is a kind of forgiveness that is worse than no forgiveness at all: it is when you are made to feel even guiltier for having offended such a ‘forgiving’ person; you have incurred a debt you can never repay. If you are not forgiven “from the heart” you are not really forgiven at all.
Jesus could have invented any kind of story he wished to say what God was like. It is overwhelming that this is the story.
24 March [3rd Sunday of Lent]
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did." Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next ear, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
In today's gospel reading we are brought up against the fathomless problem of evil. Is there any answer to it? We are lost for words when tragedy strikes at us – or near us. We use a lot of words, certainly, but we know that they all fall short. It is similar in that respect to the dark mystery of God. On an ordinary day we can say pat things about God and about suffering and evil. But when we are touched by any of these we have to fall silent. Then the only word we have is the one word that expresses God and humanity to the full extent that they can be expressed in our flesh: Jesus, the Word made flesh. All the puffs of air that we call words are insubstantial beside him. He is present to us whether we are awake or asleep, whether speaking or silent, whether full of joy or full of pain.
The 13th-century mystic, Bl. Angela of Foligno, had a deep experience of God, and when her confessor asked her to tell him about it, she said, “Father, if you experienced what I experienced and then you had to stand in the pulpit to preach, you could only say to the people, ‘My friends, go with God's blessing, because today I can say nothing to you about God.’”
This could be a remedy for the excessive fluency we have when we speak about God. The word comes tripping off our tongue as if it there were nothing mysterious about it at all. It was not so in the beginning. In the Old Testament God revealed his name to Moses: it was Yahweh. “That will be my name forever, and by this name they shall call upon me for all generations to come.” The Jews regarded this name as so holy that it should never be pronounced. In Hebrew, vowels are not written - only consonants. So the name was something like YWH. When they came to this name in the Scriptures they said ‘Adonai’ instead (Lord). As time went by and no one had ever heard the word pronounced, no one knew any longer how it was meant to be pronounced. (Later, some people began to put the vowels of ‘Adonai’ with the consonants of YWH, and it yielded – more or less – the artificial name ‘Jehovah’.)
It is somehow a wonderful thing to have a name for God that must never be pronounced. We Christians don’t talk like that, but in fact we say something that is even more radical. For us it is not that there is some taboo word that must never be uttered, but that all words fall short of the mark. Use any words you like, we say, or as many as you like, but know that when you have said them all you have said nothing. This is something that is not stated clearly or often enough. So that you will be reassured that this is not some kind of trendy agnosticism, here are some brief extracts from the writings of St Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274) on this subject.
"God is ultimately known as unknown, because then the mind knows God most perfectly when it knows that his essence is above all that can be known in this life of wayfaring."
"Whatever is comprehended by a finite being [that is, us] is itself finite."
"God is honoured by silence, not because we may say or know nothing about him, but because we know that we are unable to comprehend him."
"Neither Christian nor pagan knows the nature of God as he is in himself."
"We only know God truly when we believe that he is above all that human beings can think about God."
God is a dark mystery. But isn't God light? "God is light and in him there is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5). Yes, but excess of light, as St Augustine said, has the same effect as darkness.
25 March [Annunciation]
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
On the face of it, today’s reading seems quite like the angel’s visit to Zechariah announcing the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:8-20). But when you look more closely you see that they are set in clear contrast to each other. Zechariah was standing right at the centre of the nation’s place of worship, and “the whole assembly of the people was praying outside,” but Mary was a tiny unknown figure, remote from all centres of power. Mary’s demeanour is also contrasted with Zechariah’s: she takes God at his word, unlike the argumentative Zechariah; she is seen as the model believer. It is a subtle contrast: she too had a question, similar to Zechariah’s question, but there are many different kinds of ‘why’ (or ‘how’). Zechariah’s question was literally, “by what shall I know this?” (kata ti;), as if asking for independent confirmation; while Mary’s was simply “how” (pos;). Meister Eckhart said in one of his sermons that we should not ask ‘why’. At first sight this is surprising; he was an academic theologian whose business it was to ask many whys. But he was also clear about the differences. There is the ‘why’ that is like locking a door (“I will admit only what I can understand”), and there is the why that is like opening a door, wanting to enter more deeply. Mary’s ‘why’, I imagine, was of the second kind.
Though Mary appears in a perfect light, it is clear that it is not her virtue that has earned her the great honour that is to come. The angel’s greeting makes it clear. “Favoured one,” kecharitomene; what is coming to her is God's gift, not reward for virtue.
Mary is the model of Christian discipleship. When her story is presented only as the story of her special privileges, that role is being taken from her. When we only stress her differences from us we are subtly pushing her away. There have been many aberrations of Marian piety, and we need to stay close to the authentic tradition. St Ambrose gave it luminous expression in his comment on this passage. "Every soul who has believed both conceives and generates the Word of God and recognises his works. Let the soul of Mary be in each one of you to magnify the Lord. Let the spirit of Mary be in each one to exult in Christ."
Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
Notice what happens when two people who are not on speaking terms happen to meet. They put on a fixed stare, their faces become hard, their bodies rigid. In other words they become a little like two corpses. Where there is a refusal to forgive, life stops flowing and there is something akin to death. If Jesus said we should forgive endlessly, it must be because he also said he came so that we should have life and have it to the full (John 10:10).
To some people the refusal to forgive looks like strength, and forgiveness looks like weakness. This is where appearances are just the opposite of the reality. It takes strength to forgive. “The weak can never forgive,” said Mahatma Gandhi, “forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” God forgives; and there is something God-like about forgiveness. Longfellow wrote:
“For 'tis sweet to stammer one letter
Of the Eternal's language;
Jesus said he came to set prisoners free (Luke 4:18). Forgiveness sets free the person who is imprisoned by your enmity; but it frees another prisoner too: you.
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
“Not the smallest letter or stroke of the Law will change until all is fulfilled,” said Jesus. But he himself often broke the Law - certainly as it was interpreted by his contemporaries.
When is a law perfectly fulfilled? When it is observed to the letter? Hardly. The scribes and Pharisees adhered to the letter of the Law, yet Jesus accused them of “setting aside the commands of God and clinging to human traditions” (Mk 7:8). A law is being fulfilled, surely, when the purpose for which it was made is being fulfilled. A law is a means to an end; but if the end is being subverted by the law, then it is no longer a law. This is the revolutionary teaching of St Thomas Aquinas. Law, he said, is an act of reason (ordering a means to an end), not an act of will. Law is not the grip of someone’s power over you, but guidance for your mind. It subverts neither your mind nor your will, but guides you along a path. It does not take away your freedom, but supports, enlightens and defends it. This is how there can be such a thing as the law of God. There is no real opposition between law and love.
Jesus was casting out a demon that was mute; when the demon had gone out, the one who had been mute spoke, and the crowds were amazed. But some of them said, ‘He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.’ Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven. But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house. If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? —for you say that I cast out the demons by Beelzebul. Now if I cast out the demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armour in which he trusted and divides his plunder. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
It happened in Ireland that a dying man bowed his head at mention of the devil in the prayers for the dying. “Why?” asked the priest, greatly puzzled. “Politeness costs nothing,” said the man, “and this is not the time to be making enemies!”
If the devil doesn't seem as frightening as before, it could be due in part to some new translations of the Bible! The power of the King James version of 1 Peter 5:8 (for example) is retained in the NRSV: “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour!” Such muscular English! All those ‘ow’ sounds almost take you into the jungle! Devour, and you almost see the bloody jaws! The Christian Community Bible and the NIV retain this power, but the JB has the devil “looking for someone to eat!” This kind of language makes the devil seem quite domesticated, like someone cruising around looking for a good restaurant, or perhaps politely taking a cookie from the plate!
Everything fades with time – our characterisation of evil too. The old devils fade, once their cover is blown. But the reality is that there are always new devils. And our translations don't always keep up with them.
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,— this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
At last a man with a fairly honest question! It was a much debated question among rabbis: “Which is the greatest commandment?” As they tended to expand the Law into thousands of regulations, they also tried to pick out its essence and express it in the shortest form. (A rabbi was once asked to instruct someone in the Law while standing on one leg.) The scribe in today’s Gospel passage came with the usual question. When Jesus answered, the scribe said, “Well spoken, Master!” It was like a teacher saying, “Good boy!” He sounded more like an examiner than a questioner. But he was better than the ones we saw yesterday and the previous day. “You are not far from the Kingdom,” said Jesus. The Kingdom is more than reciting the correct formulas; it is God’s grace invading us like a great wave and sweeping us out of our depth.
To love your neighbour as yourself is called The Golden Rule. Sometimes we hear people say that it is the heart of the Gospel and a distinctively Christian teaching. It doesn't take long nowadays to discover that it is common to practically all religions and quite a few philosophies. Four or five centuries before Christ, Plato wrote, “May I do to others as I would that they should do to me." In today’s gospel passage Jesus was replying to a question about the Mosaic Law; he was giving his interpretation of it; he was not giving his own teaching. When he spoke for himself he did not say, “Love your neighbour as yourself;” he said, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Many people love themselves in ways that are twisted and destructive. This would not be a reliable guide to how we should love one another. His love for us, and not our love, is the measure of love.
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
This parable is unique to Luke, and it has the characteristic Lukan strong contrasts: heroes and villains. (See also, for example, the rich man and Lazarus, the parable of the prodigal son, the woes following the beatitudes....) The Pharisee and the tax-collector stand at opposite ends of the social spectrum.
The Pharisee “stood by himself”: that was the very definition of Pharisee: the name ‘Pharisee’ means ‘separated’: their special practices and attitudes separated them from the common people. Perhaps for that reason his prayer was all about himself. Cyril of Alexandria described him as “standing there bold and broad, lifting up his eyes without a qualm, boastful and bearing witness to himself.” At the beginning his prayer seems to be a thanksgiving psalm; but soon enough we see that it is really about his own accomplishments. He is not slow to put these on show and to compare himself favourably with others. Cyril remarked: “No one who is in good health ridicules one who is sick for being laid up and bedridden. Rather he is afraid that he himself might perhaps become the victim of similar sufferings.” Another ancient writer said the Pharisee was “drunk on pride in the sweet and lovely sound of his own voice.” Notice that the Pharisee offers no honour to God and makes no request; nor does he ask forgiveness for anything. He is separated not only from others but from God. When there is emphasis on the separate self, life becomes competition: the ‘I’ has to win every race and be ‘better’ than others, who are ‘losers’. That means that it can never afford to relax and be off-guard. How difficult life becomes! It is hardly a life at all, and it certainly is not life-giving to others.
The other spoke directly to God, asking for mercy. There could hardly be a more essential prayer. He did not think of himself as complete, needing nothing. A circle is complete: it marks out a small space and it divides it off; it needs nothing from the outside. The Pharisee was such a circle: he didn’t come out of himself to God – nor of course to the tax-collector in the story. But the tax-collector knew his own incompleteness. He was like a circle with a breach in the circumference. We are at our best when we are open: when we know our need of God and of one another. Then something can flow in and out. Through our woundedness the mercy of God can flow through to the world.
31 March [4th Sunday in Lent]
Lk 15:1-3, 11-32
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable:
"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.'"
Three things about Luke, the gospel writer: he was an outsider, he wrote mainly for outsiders, and he wrote a lot about outsiders. Let’s spell it out a little.
1. He was a Gentile, in fact the only non-Jewish writer in the New Testament.
2. He wrote mainly for non-Jews. Examples of this: he seldom quotes the Old Testament, and he is not concerned to show that Jesus is the fulfilment of Jewish prophecy; he never uses the Jewish title Rabbi of Jesus (he uses a Greek word that means ‘Master’); he traced the descent of Jesus not from Abraham, the founder of the Jewish race, as Matthew does, but from Adam, the founder of the human race.
3. In Luke's gospel you find many examples of Jesus comparing foreigners favourably with the people facing him: the widow at Zarephath and Naaman (4:25f), the Roman centurion (7:9), the queen of Sheba (11:31), the people of Tyre and Sidon (10:13), the Good Samaritan (10:30-37), the one grateful leper (17:11-19)....
Luke shows a special regard for the lost, for outcasts and sinners. He gives a very special place to women: there are more women in his gospel, in prominent positions, than in any of the others. It has been called “the gospel of the underdog.”
And Luke alone of the four gospel writers tells the immortal story of the Prodigal Son (today's reading). Though the younger son in the story seemed to have got a better deal than the older one, he was really the underdog. The older one, if I may say so, was the worst kind of eldest brother: he was a sort of third parent, without the mellowness that parents develop. He was harsh and judgmental, envious and self-righteous. It's not so surprising that the younger one left home and even lost his self-respect: his older brother represented respectability in its most depressing form. But the focus is not so much on the two brothers as on their father. We call the younger son ‘the prodigal'. The word comes from Latin 'prodigus', which means 'lavish'. Yes, the son was lavish and reckless. But the father was even more so! The father was lavish with his mercy and forgiveness. And since the story is focused on the father we should call it the story of the 'Prodigal Father' rather than the story of the 'Prodigal Son'.
The people who heard that story from the lips of Jesus were quite aware that they were being cast in the role of the older brother. They had seen that tax-collectors and prostitutes were all seeking the company of Jesus and they said, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!" He captured them perfectly in the character of the older brother. It is not that he was commending the younger son (because, again, the focus is on the father); but the reality is that the underdog finds out more about the father’s mercy than the ‘overdog’. It takes a prodigal son to know a prodigal father.
The father was certainly prodigal: “while the son was still a long way off he ran towards his son, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly.” He didn’t even let him finish his prepared speech of repentance. “Quick,” he said, “…put a ring on his finger….” That ring meant that he was a member of the family, not a hired servant. This was warm and whole-hearted forgiveness - which is the only real kind there is.
There is a kind of forgiveness that is worse than no forgiveness at all: it is when you are made to feel even more guilty for having offended such a ‘forgiving’ person; you have incurred a debt you can never repay. If you are not forgiven “from the heart” you are not really forgiven at all.
Jesus could have invented any kind of story he wished to say what God was like. It is overwhelming that this is the story.
There was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Then Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way. As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive. So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, “Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him.” The father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he himself believed, along with his whole household. Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.
They had rejected him when he was at home, but when they saw him performing in the city they had a different attitude. At home they felt small beside him, but in the city they felt big because of him: he had put Nazareth on the map. The ego enters everywhere and leads wherever it will. It cares about nothing except its own need to feel big – or to feel at least that it exists. Someone said cynically once, “Who cares what the general public thinks? Their opinion is a lottery.” Not so, I'm afraid. Our opinions are not random like a lottery; they are fairly consistently the work of the ego.
Is there any hope for us? Of course! How could there be no hope for a Christian?
“Sir, come down before my child dies!” said the official (John does not say whether this official was a Jew or a Gentile; it is everyone.) Love made that official think and feel beyond his ego.
There was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethzatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralysed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.” ’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath.
“Do you want to be healed?” Jesus asked him. This seems an odd question when you consider that the man had been waiting for thirty-eight years to be healed. But of course you often have compelling reasons for clinging to your sicknesses. You will no longer have people to take you around – do you want to be healed? You will no longer have sympathy from everyone – do you want to be healed? You will have to work, and you are not used to it – do you want to be healed?
He wanted to be healed. Then Jesus said, “Stand up!” This too seems odd at first sight. Jesus was asking him to do the very thing he could not do.
Then the miracle happened: the man went to stand up. He overcame the habits – physical and mental – of more than half a lifetime. His mind and will said, “Stand!” That was an amazing achievement. Then, when he went to stand up, he found that he could. The miracle was not worked ‘on’ him, it was worked ‘in’ him. This is not to say that it was just mind over matter. It was the presence of Jesus, but that presence in this case required the full conscious presence of the paralysed man.
What does it say to us? The very thing we can't do is sometimes the only thing worth doing.
In reference to this gospel passage Johann Tauler (1300 – 1361) said: “If we could only wait for the Lord, we would have the power and strength to pick up and carry the thing that was carrying us before.” It is a wonderfully suggestive phrase. The man had been lying on his bed, being carried around by other people; but now, healed by the Lord, he picks up the same bed and puts it on his shoulder. Many things carry us along: addictions, fixations, obsessions... many false kinds of passivity. We are prostrate in many ways and excessively dependent on other people. If only we could be ‘unlocked’ at the root of our being, we would walk free. We still have to carry the pain and the consequences of an addiction, or the like; but exactly so: we would be carrying it. We would probably win no races and no dancing competitions. But it would be the most beautiful movement in the world.
Jesus said, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomsoever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgement to the Son, so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Anyone who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life. ‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man.
Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. ‘I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgement is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.
Father and Son. Not Prime Mover, not Emanation, not Life Force, not Energy…. Christians use the language of human relationships to speak about God. We do this because Jesus did so. He spoke of God as his Father. And the Father called him his Son: “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son’” (Mt 3:17; 17:5). In Jesus, our God is translated into human reality. In the history of the world’s religions the supreme deities tended to evaporate into thin air because they were perceived as too remote, and they were replaced by more proximate deities. In the Christian faith, God does not evaporate into total generality but becomes, in Christ, one of ourselves.
This mystery really touches us in every sense. It is “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1 Jn 1:1). It also plucks at the heart-strings. But it is hard, if not impossible, to keep possession of our full spiritual inheritance. We are forever going lopsided. Christian devotion can sometimes focus so exclusively on Jesus that it makes him a substitute for the Father rather than a revelation of the Father. At times it goes even further, practically substituting Mary and the saints for Jesus.
The ‘Glory’ used to read: “Glory to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit.” It was in reaction to the Arian heresy (which denied the divinity of Christ) that it was changed to “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” This underlined the equality of the divine Persons, but it tended over time to obscure the ‘working’ of the Trinity. It seemed to put the divine Persons there statically in front of us. It is hardly surprising then that some people just took their pick. We often hear that our spirituality should be Christ-centred. However, the Liturgy – which is our primary spiritual teacher – is Father-centred, in the sense that the prayers, with extremely few exceptions, are addressed to the Father, through Christ our Lord.
Jesus said: ‘If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who testifies on my behalf, and I know that his testimony to me is true. You sent messengers to John, and he testified to the truth. Not that I accept such human testimony, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But I have a testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.
‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?’
One can suppose a challenge to Jesus, “Who bears witness to your claim?” Jesus mentions four: 1. John the Baptist; 2. the “works” that the Father entrusted to him; 3. the Father’s word – though they are deaf to this witness; and 4. the Scriptures. All of these are aspects of the Father’s (“Another’s”) witness to him.
Some scholars believe that what we have here is a worked-out answer that later Christians gave when challenged by Jews. St Paul said that believers should be able to give an account of their faith and hope; and this is so with us too today. We need not trouble ourselves with ‘proof-texts’ in the way that Christian fundamentalists do; but we need to be in tune with the great ‘witnesses’. We should be like musicians, who are able to hear music more deeply than others (others who may be just arguing about the score). The great witnesses: the Father, and the work he accomplishes through Jesus; and the word of Scripture, alive in our hearts and in our lives.
The words ‘testify’ and ‘testimony’ suggest rather a law court than a conversation about religious beliefs. But look at the word ‘belief’. ‘Lief’ is an old word that used to mean ‘love’. Shakespeare used it (“I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines”). As a full word it has faded out of use since the 17th century, but it lives on as part of the word ‘belief’. To believe, then, is in some sense, to love. We are apt to think that belief should be based purely and simply on ‘evidence’ which is entirely objective, and that no subjective factor should enter it at all. If this were the whole story, calculation would be the only law of life, and computers could handle it much better than we could. But there is a deeper kind of belief from which the human factor can never be expelled; it is belief in persons. It is this that is meant when you say, “I believe in God.”
Jn 7:1-2, 10, 25-30
Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret. Now some of the people of Jerusalem were saying, ‘Is not this the man whom they are trying to kill? And here he is, speaking openly, but they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah? Yet we know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.’
Then Jesus cried out as he was teaching in the temple, ‘You know me, and you know where I am from. I have not come on my own. But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him. I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me.’ Then they tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come.
The festival of Booths (or the Feast of Tabernacles or Tents) is believed, by some scholars at least, to have been a commemoration of the forty years when the Jews wandered homeless through the desert. During the seven days of the feast they lived in tents.
It may have been an annual reminder that they came from nowhere. Where is a tent? Nowhere. It has no address.
But when they settled they settled in earnest. The place where a person lived became, in a way, his or her name: Mary of Magdala, Joseph of Arimathaea, Jesus of Nazareth….
“We know where this man comes from,” the people said. His identity was well pinned down. “You know me,” he said, “and you know where I am from!” They thought they knew exactly who he was: the carpenter from Nazareth. But he is going to tell them that they don't know him at all. Nazareth is not his identity. His identity is that he is sent by the Father. His real address is the Father.
Those people who were so certain about the identity of Jesus seemed equally certain about their own identity. But they came from nowhere, as the festival of Booths should have served to remind them. What really cripples people’s minds is not what they don't know but what they mistakenly think they know. There is an addiction to certainty that cares little about the truth. Some people don’t really want to know; they want to be certain. This is only an expression of their insecurity and their fear of the truth. They are afraid of their uncertainty so they cling to external ‘certainties’. Like everything false it is transparent in a person’s eyes: you can see there a vast unacknowledged indifference to the truth.
“I was sent by the One who is true, and you don’t know him. I know him for I come from him and he sent me.” This was his real identity. In our way, we too have to drop superficial identities and come to this realisation.
When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’ So there was a division in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.
Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, ‘Why did you not arrest him?’ The police answered, ‘Never has anyone spoken like this!’ Then the Pharisees replied, ‘Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law—they are accursed.’ Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’ They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’
John Chrysostom remarked wryly: “[The chief priests and Pharisees] made use of the most foolish argument against [the temple police]: ‘Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?’” Of course they hadn't. “Such malicious minds believe nothing,” Chrysostom adds, “they look only to one thing, blood.” (And they neglected to mention Nicodemus, he added; Nicodemus was a Pharisee who had a timid sort of belief in Jesus.) He played on the paradox of it: the ones who were sent to take hold of Jesus were themselves taken hold of by him.
St Augustine too had a good eye for paradox: the very people who were teaching the Law were blind to the one who embodied the greatest law; while the people who knew nothing of the Law were won over instantly by him. This, Augustine said, was a good illustration of what Jesus had said, “I came into the world so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” (Jn 9:39).
You could read today’s passage as a lesson on snobbery. Jesus had a country accent. When he was taken bound to Caiphas’s house the bystanders said to Peter, “You are one of them for sure! Why, your accent gives you away” (Mt 26:73); Peter spoke like Jesus, with a Galilean accent. The religious authorities had no doubts: no Galilean could be a prophet. The Scriptures said so; “look it up!” How could a prophet come from a backwater place like Nazareth, a place never mentioned even once in their Scriptures?
Dukes and dustmen, someone said, are usually not snobs, because both are free of social pretension. It is the people in the middle who become snobs: tuppence ha’penny looking down on tuppence. Snobs are forever trying to climb over other people, and what propels them forward is that there are always more people to be climbed over. It betrays a deep uncertainty about their own identity. If I'm a snob, I am constantly measuring myself against other people; and the worst moment is when a local person seems to get ahead of me. I could endure being less than the very greatest, but to be less than the local carpenter….
There were some people in the crowd who had the uncomplicated gift of admiration; they knew how to admire rather than compete. "This is really the prophet," they said. "This is the Messiah." But the chief priest and the Pharisees felt their positions threatened by him. They would like to identify him with Galilee – which was his past – in order to stop him. They were attempting to deny him a future.
A useful question to ask oneself: do I allow the people around me to have a future?
7 April [5th Sunday of Lent]
Early in the morning Jesus came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."
This beautiful story, the scholars are agreed, did not originally belong in John’s gospel. It was an early ‘floating’ tradition that was pasted into various manuscripts, and even into Luke’s gospel at one time. That attests to the power of the story: it was not allowed to float away. It is regarded as canonical and inspired, like the rest of the gospel.
The dramatic power of the story is very impressive. At the end, as St Augustine remarked, we are left only with "misera et misericordia": ‘the pitiable woman and Mercy.’ The word ‘misericordia’ (mercy) comes from ‘misereor’ (to take pity) and ‘cor’ (the heart). The accusers were relying on logic, but Jesus had a heart.
They had logic on their side, as they thought. They tried to place him in an impossible position: if he was for mercy, he was setting himself against the Law of Moses, which prescribed death by stoning for such an offence (Deut 22); this would get him into trouble with the religious authorities. If he was for stoning, he could be denounced to the Romans for inciting to murder.
The story is a classic for showing how love can defeat logic.
Act out the story. Or do so, at least, in your mind. It is one of the most dramatic pieces in the whole New Testament; a film-maker would not have to add anything. See the intelligence that Jesus showed when he was in a real fix: they thought they had him cornered, but he not only escaped, he triumphed. So much so that they could only slink away – “beginning with the eldest,” John adds with irony. It was intelligence allied to love. Too often, intelligence is allied to greed or the quest for power or to vanity; but what a force it is in the world when it is allied to love and mercy!
What a danger to us all are intelligent heartless people! If you have logic and no heart you are a great danger to yourself and others. "Poets do not go mad," wrote Chesterton; "but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom." "I am not in any sense attacking logic," he added. "I only say that this danger does lie in logic." There's no fool like a logical fool, because he is committed to defending his foolishness. And from his foolishness mischief is sure to follow.
"Neither do I condemn you," said Jesus to the woman. Mercy is God's story. Leo the Great said that Jesus is the hand of God's mercy stretched out to us. Mercy is God's kind of justice, said St Thérèse of Lisieux.