"A man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.
After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'
Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'
Today's parable has an unpleasant tone at first sight. Instead of telling us that everything is a gift of God, it tells us about investments and profits. And worse: the punch-line could come from the CEO of a multinational company. “To all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
That’s how the business world operates. How could this have anything to do with the world of the spirit? The business world is only about ‘outer things’ – property – but the spiritual world has to include also ‘inner things’. How could the same rules apply?
To say that the spiritual world is all ‘gift’ is to say the truth. But to say no more would be to make it a purely passive thing. In reality we know that nothing deep or ‘inner’ can ever be given to us without our effort. You would love to give your knowledge of, say, a foreign language to someone you love, but it cannot be done without their labour. How much more your understanding, your wisdom, your experience…? Even God's gifts, poured out without measure, cannot really become mine unless I interiorise them myself. Struggle is part of the spiritual life, even though it remains true that everything is gift. And it is a fact of experience (not a policy statement of a company) that the more I have the more I will receive. The more I know the more I am capable of knowing; the more I love the more I am capable of loving; the more I pray the more I am able to pray…. And likewise the less.
2 September [22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time]
Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
History (or, more accurately, historiography) is not the past; it is the present looking at the past. By placing the Pharisees before our eyes in so many readings, the Liturgy is clearly calling us to look back at the past and see ourselves in these Pharisees.
Like them, we know that it is much easier to deal with outer, visible things than with the inner world of attitudes – with the heart. And so, like them, we tend to evaluate ourselves and others in purely external ways: the number of prayers we recite, the amount of money we give, etc. There is nothing wrong with external things, but there is also an inner world that shapes and gives meaning to the external. When we make religion a ‘business’ we turn the inner spirit into an external ‘thing’. The German philosopher, Hegel, one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century, wrote: “The Holy as a mere thing has the character of externality; thus, it is capable of being taken possession of by another to my exclusion; it may come into an alien hand, since the process of appropriating it is not one that takes place in the Spirit.... The highest of human blessings is thus thought to be in the hands of others.” This was not written about the historical Pharisees, but about Christians who developed an attitude similar to that of the Pharisees. It is difficult to retain a clear vision of the Gospel: that “God is Spirit, and those who worship him should worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). We are forever in danger of stepping into the shoes of the Pharisees.
What the Pharisees lacked in spectacular fashion was any kind of interiority or depth; their minds were turned outwards, to rules and casuistry. What matters, Jesus said, is not what goes into a person from the outside, but what comes out from the inside. Religion is not about things, it is about you! It is about the kind of response you make to the world, to others, and to God. It is about whether that distinctive ‘chemistry’ of the Gospel is happening in you: the kind of ‘chemistry’ that can turn bad stuff into good, curses into blessings, suffering into prayer.
The spirit of faith is hard to keep in sight at all times, yet it is meant for all times. It is the most sublime wisdom, yet it is meant to be very practical and not just a philosophy, a way of thinking. One way to make these ends meet is to identify religion with a few very visible practices. This is what the Pharisees and others did in the time of Jesus, and it is a constant temptation for ourselves.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, Jesus went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian."
When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
The listeners’ minds were set afar off; they didn't expect anything to happen here and now. Cyril of Alexandria (375 – 444) wrote: “The Israelites used to say that the prophecies concerning the Christ were fulfilled either in the persons of some of their more glorious kings or in the holy prophets.” But they were unable to realise that what they were hearing was written about the man standing before them. About him they were only “wondering perhaps how he could read without having been taught,” wrote Cyril.
We think little of the present moment or the present place; and that rubs off on anyone who happens to be present. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Yet all great religious teachers keep emphasising the here and now. If nothing is happening here and now, nothing is happening, simply.
Imagine everyone who has ever sat in church listening to a preacher. They are encouraged by the readings to think about the past, and by the preacher to think about the future. A curate in my childhood used to preach all the time about the next life. The actual life of the village seldom got a mention. What happens to the present moment? It is somehow forgotten. The past cannot face the present, so it moves into the future.
It would be an interesting theme to follow up. Is the 'present' the same for everyone? Not really, I think. Imagine it this way. Someone in the village has climbed to the top of a tree and he sees a horse coming; while I, sitting at the foot of the tree, can't see it. The horse is still the future for me, but for the person at the top of the tree it is the present. The 'present' depends on where you are. Applying the image, we could say it depends on the level of your consciousness. For people with a low level of consciousness the present is almost non-existent; for Jesus it is an immensity. For his listeners the kingdom of God was about some distant future; for Jesus it was already being inaugurated: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was teaching them on the sabbath. They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority.
In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Leave us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ When the demon had thrown him down before them, he came out of him without having done him any harm.
They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, ‘What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!’ And a report about him began to reach every place in the region.
Jesus was frequently accused of breaking the sabbath. (Even when he was dead he descended on Holy Saturday into the underworld, the Creeds say, and liberated all who had languished there since the time of Adam.) I found a passage in St Ambrose (c. 333 AD – 397) that tries to make sense of all this sabbath activity. He wrote, “[Luke] describes the works of divine healing begun on the sabbath day, to show from the outset that the new creation began where the old creation ceased.”
Ambrose also noted that Jesus healed a man (today’s reading) and a woman (tomorrow’s). Just as at the beginning God “created them male and female” (Genesis 1:27; 5:2), Jesus now heals both. “The Lord came to heal both sexes,” he wrote.
Jesus spoke with authority, Luke says. ‘Authority’ is one of those words that can have opposite meanings, depending on their use. To speak or act ‘with authority’ can simply mean to have the official piece of paper; you are authorised by someone else. In the time of Jesus, rabbis were forever quoting other rabbis, or quoting texts. Yet the word ‘authority’ comes from the Latin ‘auctor’ (source), from which the word ‘author’ is also derived. People speaking with authority in this sense are speaking from themselves; they are the authors of what they are saying. Jesus “spoke with authority,” that is, he spoke from himself, from his Self. His words came from somewhere (they were not quotations). For that very reason they were able to go somewhere: they were able to cast out demons, freeing people from their torments.
By acting as he did, Ambrose wrote, “Jesus showed us that the Son of God is not under the law but above the law.” It might have been better if he had said Jesus was one with the law, in the sense that he was one with the mind of the law-giver, God. In him the law was being fulfilled, not set aside (Mt 5:18). A law is not necessarily being fulfilled when it is interpreted into thousands of details; it is being fulfilled when its purpose is being realised. The law was being fulfilled in Jesus, despite his apparent breaches of it, in ways that it was not fulfilled in the Pharisees, despite their devotion to it.
After leaving the synagogue Jesus entered Simon's house. Now Simon's mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked him about her. Then he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. Immediately she got up and began to serve them.
As the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them. Demons also came out of many, shouting, "You are the Son of God!" But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Messiah. At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, "I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose." So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.
It is as if Jesus’ healing power was pent up from his experience in Nazareth, and now in Capernaum it rushes out in full flood. There, familiarity robbed him of his power. But here there is no barrier: first he heals Peter's mother-in-law, and then crowds of sick and demon-tormented people.
Dreadful thought: like the people of Nazareth we have the power to prevent miracles. The chances are that we all have prevented many miracles, just by filling the air with criticism, or cynicism, or discouragement. We can even do it with a belittling look; in short, with a habit of mind that reduces everything. Some people have a presence that is negative; they suck the oxygen out of a room. In their atmosphere we die a little: we keep our stories and anecdotes to ourselves, we talk safe. This is how human community is corroded. It is also how faith is corroded. We talk about “denying the faith,” as if words were the worst we could do. We can do much worse than that! Words at least are explicit. But by a look, by our very presence, our atmosphere, we can corrode the faith subtly and silently and deeply. And we may not even be aware that we are doing it.
In Jesus’ ministry, preaching and healing went together. It suggests that all preaching should be healing in some sense. But what if nobody feels especially sick? Well, to feel totally comfortable in today’s weird world is a bit sick. St Paul castigated the Corinthians for "behaving like ordinary people" (1 Corinthians 3:3 JB). In some way all our words can be a prayer for healing, a plea to be free of life-draining atmospheres, and to build up the broken body of Christ.
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and Jn, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
How important it is to come to the end of your resources! "Jesus allowed pitch darkness to sweep over my soul," wrote St Thérèse of Lisieux. “I wish I could express what I feel, but it is impossible. One must have travelled through the same sunless tunnel to understand how dark it is…. There is… a wall which towers to the sky and hides the stars." Her next words were (how amazing!), "I have never before felt so strongly how gentle and merciful God is. He sent me this heavy cross just at the time when I was strong enough to bear it…. Nothing now hinders me…. I no longer want anything except to love until I die of love. I am free and fear nothing."
A French biographer of St Thérèse said it was characteristic of her to be always at the end of her resources. It is because she always gave everything she had. She never had anything up her sleeve: no tricks, no escapes, no clever explanations, no blaming, no postponing…. She remained always fully present and vulnerable to experience. That is why God could give her so much.
"We worked hard all night and caught nothing," said Peter in today's reading. Peter was quite often at the end of his resources. He had given up everything to follow Jesus. It didn’t matter that all he gave up was a boat and a few nets; it was everything he had. It is not these (or any material possession) that would hold him back, but his reliance on them. He had had the courage to come to the end of his resources. Later he would be dragged even further beyond. The man he followed would be killed, and having nothing else to do he would go back to fishing; but that terrible night too he would catch nothing (Jn 21:3). He would be without a past and without a future. That must have been like St Thérèse's wall reaching up to the sky and letting in no light. But for them both, it was the moment of recognition: "It is the Lord!" (Jn 21:7).
[The scribes and Pharisees] said to Jesus, "John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.” Jesus said to them, "You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days."
He also told them a parable: "No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, 'The old is good.'"
“New wine must be put into fresh skins.” In the Lord's time wine was not kept in bottles but in skins. When the new wine was placed in a skin, it continued to ferment, producing carbon dioxide. An old skin had not the elasticity of a new one, and so it would burst and the wine was lost. This says to us: don’t let your mind become like an old wine-skin – withered and rigid; keep it soft and flexible. Our faith makes unconditional demands on us throughout our lives. It requires us to make immense leaps of sympathy and forgiveness; it asks us to live for God, not for earthly power and profit; it asks us to put aside self-will and to live for others; it asks us to put to death our worldly pride and vanity, and to imitate the self-emptying (kenosis), the poverty of Christ; it asks us to lay down our very lives for our brothers and sisters; most challenging of all, it asks us to love our enemies. This was a new way to live, it was the new wine, requiring a new mind, new structures.
The world, even at that time, was weary of the old ways of tyranny. It has even more reason to be tired of them now. That the Gospel still appears new and revolutionary is evidence that we haven't moved very far. The Gospel will always be News to us.
8 September [Birth of Mary]
Mt 1:1-16, 18-23
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers…
… and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
There is nothing in the gospels about the birth of Mary. But it is interesting that the text used for this feast is an account of the birth of Jesus.
In a sense, when a child is born a mother is born. When a child is born, its mother begins to be a mother. Even if she was already mother to other children this new child makes her a new mother; a new chapter in her mothering begins. In the birth of the Son of God, Mary begins to be the Mother of God.
Christian tradition calls Mary “Mother of God”. Icons of the ‘Theotokos’ (Greek for ‘God-bearer’) are common now in the West. Historically the term had great importance because the Nestorians, who effectively said that Christ was two persons – a divine and a human – were opposed to its use, claiming that it neglected the humanity of Christ. The Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) asserted against the Nestorians that Mary was truly the ‘Theotokos’, the God-bearer, or Mother of God: this was a clear way of stating the unity of Christ. The Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) continued the use of this term, and it has become orthodox Christian teaching. Note that it is more a statement about Christ than about Mary – or rather, equally so. When a Child is born, a Mother is born.
9 September [23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time]
Jesus returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."
Jesus restores hearing and speech to the deaf man. He didn't just pat him on the head, as he was asked to do. The poor and the outcasts of society are so used to being patronised that they are often glad even of that. But Jesus restored his hearing, enabling him to know what was going on; and he gave him a voice with which to make himself heard. He brought him from beyond the margins into society.
In the gospels, deafness is not only a medical condition; it has overtones of spiritual deafness, being unable to hear God. We still speak of ‘spiritual deafness’. “You called to me,” St Augustine said to God (in his Confessions), “you called to me; you cried aloud to me; you broke through my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight. You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for you. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me and I burned for your peace.”
Notice that Augustine uses all five senses in that sentence: hearing, sight, smell, taste, touch. All the senses aspire to God, everything in us reaches upwards, our whole being is a longing for God. And conversely, if we were truly seeking God we would be alive in all our senses. Many of us are half dead: sleepy, heedless, habitually bored.... We are called to be fully alive.
At the end of his gospel John says, “There were many other signs that Jesus worked and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book” (John 20:30). No doubt there were also many things he said that were never recorded and that have been forgotten forever: his preaching in Chorazin and Bethsaida for example is not recorded. He preached there and worked miracles of healing for them, but nothing whatsoever is heard of them; there is complete silence. Even the towns themselves have disappeared. Chorazin (now Keraze) is a pile of ruins, Bethsaida is nothing but a location. Yet the Son of God walked their streets, healed their sick tormented people, spoke to them about a new hope and a new world. Gospels could have been written, filled with his words and his deeds.... Instead, there is total silence. There is good silence, but this was not good silence. It was the silence of the barren ground where the seed of God’s Word could not find soil. It is the barrenness of the heart.
There is a detail here worth noticing in passing: Mark, writing in Greek, nevertheless records the Aramaic word that Jesus used in healing the man (as he did in the case of the healing of a little girl, in 5:41). Aramaic was Jesus' mother tongue. Matthew omits this (and both Matthew and Luke omit the Aramaic words, talitha kum, from the healing of the little girl). This omission, the specialists say, was probably due to a fear of superstition. Magic is never far away from religion, and there is a great need to be careful. (In our own time there are ‘prayer chains’, moving statues, messages, and the like....) We are never to forget that religion is not about things or words but about a personal relationship with God.
Notice a very human touch: Jesus took the deaf man aside from the crowd. Deaf people are easily embarrassed because they know you have to speak more loudly than usual and everyone can hear. The mark of true religion is not power or magic, but loving-kindness.
Jesus entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come and stand here.’ He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’ After looking around at all of them, he said to him, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
Your hands are your power to do things. To make it even clearer, Luke tells us that it was the man’s right hand. St Ambrose saw great significance in these words of Jesus, “stretch out your hand.” “Hold it out often,” he advised. “Hold it out to the poor person who begs you. Hold it out to help your neighbour, to give protection to a widow, to snatch from harm one whom you see subjected to unjust insult. Hold it out to God for your sins. The hand is stretched forth; then it is healed. Jeroboam’s hand withered when he sacrificed to idols; then it stretched out when he entreated God” (1 Kings 13:4-6).
This man’s paralysed hand symbolised his lack of power. Jesus wanted to restore it to him. There was an objection from the Pharisees. He was breaking their rules by healing on the sabbath; their position (their power) was being threatened. There are many like them, whose position and power depend on others remaining powerless. This kind of power always has an agenda: it is power over or against others. It is a jockeying for position and privilege; fundamentally it is aggression. This kind of power exists wherever there are people who have not been converted to the Gospel; it exists in society, it exists in the Church. The test of power is whether it is for oneself or for others.
Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Luke’s gospel focuses almost obsessively on the prayer of Jesus.
You would be surprised, if you looked around, at the number of people who spend the night – or part of the night – in prayer. Traditionally monks got up to pray in the middle of the night, but now you sometimes hear of lay people who do so. Night – especially on a mountain – seems the perfect setting for prayer. All the noise of day has died away, the world seems vast because we cannot see the contours of things so clearly, and darkness itself is deeply peaceful when we don’t project our fears onto it. Though darkness is vast, it is also strangely intimate, because you can't see, but only feel, the distance. The senses are not battered, and so we feel more alert, more alive. We can only imagine what passed in the soul of Jesus as he prayed all night on the mountain top.
Then when day came he chose Judas Iscariot as one of his apostles! Did he make a mistake? We wouldn’t want to say such a thing. Then there must be another meaning. The one who told the story of the Prodigal Son would have forgiven him, as he forgave Peter, had he just waited. The Church is not a community of perfect people but a community of sinners who struggle on by the grace of Christ.
Jesus looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Luke said (in v. 17), “He came down and stopped at a piece of level ground.” From that point to the end of chapter 6 is therefore called ‘The Sermon on the Plain’, in contrast to Matthew’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Mt 5-7). But it is the same sermon, with differences. In Luke’s gospel the mountain is a place of prayer or revelation; it is as if he doesn't want the crowds to go up there, so he brings Jesus down!
Throughout his gospel Luke places an exceptional emphasis on poverty; and to ensure that we don’t avoid the subject by spiritualising it, he says “Blessed are you who are poor,” rather than “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3). And for the hard of hearing, “Woe to you who are rich.”
Why is wealth a problem? No, wealth is not the problem; we are the problem. Or rather, the problem is what we do and fail to do with wealth. We have a tendency to selfishness and greed, which blinds us to the needs of other people, as it blinded the rich man to the needs of Lazarus (Luke 16). It can help us believe that we are independent of other people and of events, and ultimately even of God. Thinking about the rich young man in the gospels (Lk 18, Mt 19, Mk 10), Sahajananda wrote, “He identified himself with his riches – without them he had no existence. With these riches he could not enter into the kingdom because the door to the kingdom is narrow. Not narrow in the sense of space, but in the sense that only the essential aspect of our being goes through it; all acquired things have to be left out…. The kingdom of God is the essential nature of all human beings…. This treasure can neither increase or decrease. No thief can get there and no moth can cause its destruction.”
Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’”
This is the ‘how’ of Christian life. This is the way to dismantle the explosive devices that lie in the heart of every human being. This is the ‘technology’ for ending violence. Left to itself, without any curb, violence would blow up the world. To talk about love is not to be a starry-eyed idealist; it is to be very realistic and practical. Without love, human life would be a nightmare. The love that Jesus spoke of is able to break the cycle of violence. It introduces a new element that makes everything possible: like zero in arithmetic. Zero frees up the whole system, makes all the other digits mobile, and makes mathematics possible. Without it, numbers are like traffic that is gridlocked: nothing moves. Roman numerals have no zero, and that is why the Romans were unable to develop a viable mathematics. Love is the zero response to hatred, it frees us from the depressing tangles and cycles of violence.
We know from experience that it is more easily said than done. It will never be done if we just keep looking at the people who injure us, and at our wounds, but never at ourselves. We have to see our own automatic reactions before they go off. We have to see where they are and how they are primed. We have to give up scapegoating.
Jesus never said, “Defeat your enemies, because they are the enemies of God.” It is the ultimate in presumption to call my enemies the enemies of God. Instead he said, “Do not judge,” and “forgive your enemies.” Commenting on this, St Augustine wrote, “This work has the effect of purifying the heart, so that... we are enabled with pure mind to see the immutable reality of God.” In other words, if we don't do this we don't know God at all. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4.8). The way to God is like a pinhole, or like the eye of a needle; it is like the zero mentioned above. I cannot bring any of my stuff through it: my aggression, my judging, even my thoughts.... This is the zero we come to in meditation. Jesus himself said the way is narrow: “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” I cannot bring any of my “bodily or mental furniture” through it (“At stroke of midnight soul cannot endure / A bodily or mental furniture” - W.B. Yeats). Meditation is the eye of the needle, the zero, the stroke of midnight. And it is the way to God, who is light and love. “There is something holding us back,” wrote St Augustine, “something which has to be loosed so that our sight may break through to the light.” It is not our enemies who are holding us back, it is our very selves; and for as long as we continue to believe it is our enemies we will never find the way.
14 September [Finding of the Cross]
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Nicodemus cannot have been a very great teacher – and Jesus hinted it – because Jews at that time spoke of converts to Judaism as people who were “born again.” He didn’t seem quite to understand this expression.
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, first issued in 1902, is an enduring classic. There he illustrates the contrast between the “once-born” and the “twice-born” (or “born again”) Christian. The soul of the once-born (or “healthy-minded,” as he calls them) “is of a sky-blue tint… their affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than with dark human passions….[they] can think no ill of man or God…. They have a certain complacency and perhaps romantic sense of excitement.” In contrast to these, the “twice-born” or “morbid-minded” are more likely to feel that “from the bottom of every fountain of pleasure, as the old poet said, something bitter rises up.” All natural happiness is infected; there is a deep sense of sin and failure. To people of this stamp, the attitude of the once-born seems “unspeakably blind and shallow,” while to the once-born the attitude of these “seems unmanly and diseased.”
What if we don’t care for either? We would prefer to be neither starry-eyed nor morbid-minded. Are there any other possibilities? Of course there are! There are billions in between. These expressions ‘once-born’ and ‘twice-born’ are labels: they don’t describe anyone in fact. “If all the good people were red and all the bad people were blue, what colour would you be?” someone asked the little girl. “Stripey,” she replied. Nobody is just once-born and nobody is just twice-born. Anyway, how could you be twice-born unless you were first once-born? But people still fight about these labels, mostly under new names: ‘creation-centred spirituality’ versus ‘sin/redemption spirituality’, original blessing versus original sin….
Labels encourage us to think that there are only two possibilities: ‘good’ and ‘bad’, for example. But we are both once- and twice-born. We need to remember that it was the same Jesus who said, “Behold the lilies of the field…” and who sacrificed his own life.
15 September [Our Lady of Sorrows]
Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ”Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, ”Here is your mother.” and from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
Crucifixion was exemplary punishment: it made an example of the victim. This was meant to deter anyone who might think of defying the might of the Roman Empire. The sign above the cross was in keeping with this. John manages to turn even this sign into a testimony to Jesus: Pilate, the man who condemned him to death, had put it in writing that Jesus was a king; he could not have imagined the higher sense in which his words were true; he knew nothing about the truth (John 19:38), yet he proclaimed the truth about Jesus; like Caiphas (John 11:49-52) he was an unwitting prophet. Ultimate goodness finds its way, even by the agency of people who make themselves its enemies.
John's account of the crucifixion is remarkably short, and it focuses more on the bystanders than on Jesus himself. Having described the soldiers and the other enemies of Jesus, he now shows us his friends, focusing on two: Mary and John. But strangely, these are not named; they remain “his mother” and “the disciple whom he loved.” The Mother and the Beloved Disciple are not just two individuals; they are symbolic examples of true discipleship, figures or types of the new community of love. With his dying words Jesus commits them into each other’s care. Love does not live in isolation; it implies community.
A thought from Julian of Norwich on Jesus’ words, “I thirst.” “Christ's spiritual thirst will have an end. For this is Christ's spiritual thirst, his longing in love, which persists and always will until we see him on the day of judgment, for we who shall be saved and shall be Christ's joy and bliss are still here, and some are yet to come, and so will some be until that day. Therefore this is his thirst and his longing in love for us, to gather us all here into him, to our endless joy, as I see it. For we are not now so wholly in him as we then shall be.”
16 September [24th Sunday in Ordinary Time]
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
I heard someone described as "a priestly priest," and wondered what it meant. Whatever it might mean, it is probably something as irritating as the expression “a painterly painter.” It meant, at any rate, that that priest matched perfectly somebody's idea of a priest - an uncertain distinction in itself. A confrere of mine received a standing ovation after a sermon, and was glowing for days, until another confrere said to him, "I shouldn’t be so happy about it: Jesus preached and they crucified him; you preached and they gave you a standing ovation!"
Jesus was the exact opposite of what he was expected to be: he was an unmessianic Messiah. In the popular mind, the Messiah was expected to be a powerful military and political leader who would bring his people to victory over all their enemies, in the name of God of course. When Peter called him Messiah, he was "sternly rebuked" and told not to repeat it. Instantly Jesus began to speak of suffering instead: "He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering…and be put to death" (today's reading). Suffering and death were no part of the image of Messiah, but rather victory.
Christians speak of Christ's "victory over sin and death." He achieved this victory not by killing but by dying. St Augustine said he was "victor and victim; and victor because he was the victim." This striking expression reverses all our notions about victory and defeat. Indeed the Cross of Christ reverses all our values: success and failure, power and weakness, glory and shame, wealth and poverty, belonging and rejection, even life and death…. His greatest disciples understood this well: St Paul wrote, "I will not boast, except of my weaknesses" (2 Corinthians 12:5), and "when I am weak then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10). It is only by the grace of God that this revolution can shape our lives. We are blessed if we experience it at all, even if only in special moments. The hierarchy of the Western Church moved quite comfortably into the Imperial world of power and palaces and purple - the original secularisation of the Church. A cardinal in all his regalia is a much more secularised figure than a priest in scruffy denim. But fundamentally secularisation is a state of mind. What matters is that a disciple should "have the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16).
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us." And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this,' and the slave does it." When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
The focus of this story is different from that of Luke's earlier miracle accounts. Here the miracle itself is not the focus, since it is mentioned only very briefly at the end. Instead, the emphasis is on the centurion’s attitude.
The centurion shows great sensitivity and courtesy. As a Gentile he did not presume to come to Jesus himself, but sent Jewish elders to speak for him. Later, he showed that he was sensitive to the fact that Jews were forbidden to enter a Gentile house. The centurion’s request shows that Jesus was becoming known to people in surprising places and from different backgrounds. Jesus readily acceded to his request. As for Paul, so for Jesus: there is neither Jew nor Gentile in Christ (Galatians 3:28).
Jesus was “amazed” at him. Matthew’s account of the incident uses the same word (8:10). He praised the “faith” of this Gentile: a thing that must have been even more amazing to his hearers. Today we would not be so surprised; we esteem religious tolerance very highly. This is surely a positive development in itself, but you have to wonder if sometimes it is because we care less about religion. The test of tolerance is whether we can be tolerant about things that matter profoundly to us. This is positive tolerance. There is a kind of neutral tolerance that amounts only to indifference. Then there is intolerance. This can become as passionate as a religion: it can become a kind of perverted religion, as we have every reason to know. We don’t even have to go further afield than our own religion to see signs of it.
We have to reach back to deeper sources of healing. Julian of Norwich (14th century) used a striking phrase in this connection: we ought to hate sin, she said, as God hates it. We have to hate sin in the way the father of the prodigal son hated it, not in the way the older brother hated it (Luke 15). God loves the sinner, even while hating sin. Applying this, we can say: no matter how profoundly we disagree with someone, we should still more profoundly love them.
Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep." Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.
This is one of the few times that Luke mentions where an event took place. Nain is usually taken to be a village six miles SE of Nazareth, his own home town; and like Nazareth, it is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible. This is the first use in the gospel of the word ‘Lord’ to describe Jesus (verse 13), a title hitherto reserved strictly to God; and the context is mercy. Leo the Great (+ AD 461) said that “Jesus is the hand of God's mercy stretched out to us.” Jesus performed this miracle without being asked, just as God’s love takes the first step. He reached out and touched the bier – an action that would incur ritual uncleanness in Jewish law. It was becoming visible to the people who saw him at work that he was from outside the normal frame. "God has looked favourably on his people!" – or, as the Jerusalem Bible translates it,“God has visited his people.” God's visitation is a key theme in Luke (1:68, 78; 19:44; Acts 15:14).
Evelyn Underhill once said that she would consider the resurrection of the body a mistake, unless the body is much improved in construction. No doubt the widow of Nain would have wanted her son back in the form she knew. But it remains true that the resurrection Christians hope for is not just the resuscitation of their present bodies. “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-44). The raising of the widow’s son was not a preview of the resurrection. There were instances in the Old Testament of people being raised from death: by Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:32-37); and later Peter and Paul would perform similar feats. These are rather signs of the power of God working through people; in the case of the widow’s son, it showed Jesus, like Elijah and Elisha, to be a great prophet.
‘To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the market-place and calling to one another,
“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not weep.”
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.’
James Joyce referred to literary critics as literary crickets (having being annoyed often enough by them). A critic who has no taste or style or identity of his or her own will try to build an identity by being critical of another’s work. Anyone can be such a cricket, not just in regard to books but in regard to life itself. Nothing pleases us, everything is wrong. It may be a throw-back to childhood, that time when we experienced our own extreme poverty in every direction.
I knew a bishop years ago who never said yes. He always said either No or nothing. If he made no reply to your letter you knew that you could go ahead with your project – but on your own responsibility; if your project backfired, the bishop could denounce it without being implicated in the failure. 'No' looks like a safe place, but so is the grave. To be alive is to say yes to many things, and to say yes is to take a risk. If you refuse to take risks you are acting dead and you can be of no service to life. The minimum of yes-saying is to be capable of being pleased. Below this minimum, to use Jesus' image, we are like children in a sulk.
But sometimes you meet human beings who really lift your spirit. I notice that they are very often people who have suffered a lot. It makes sense: the word ’to suffer’ means ’to allow’. When a person has suffered he or she has allowed life to get at them. It is true that suffering sometimes makes people hard and bitter; but when it has had the opposite effect on someone, that person is a joy to meet. An old man in Cork said to me with a laugh, “If it wasn’t for all the bad luck I had, I’d have no luck at all!”
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner."
Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "Speak." "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly."
Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
“Who is this woman in the city who was a sinner?” asked Peter Chrysologus (380 – 450). He was renowned in his time for the brevity of his sermons, so he came straight to the point: “Beyond any doubt,” he said, “she is the Church.”
Let’s follow his idea. She had to get past the Pharisees at the door, who actually owned the place. She must have felt that she was gate-crashing. In fact she wasn't, because the public were allowed to enter and listen when a rabbi was at table. But she surely saw the contempt in their faces and in their gestures. Unlike them she was not pretending to be a saint. A saint, someone said, is a dead sinner, revised and edited. But she was a live sinner. They were the ones who looked dead: moral righteousness usually looks like a death-mask. She was alive and full of feeling and expression. “Ardent, panting and perspiring,” was how Peter Chrysologus described her, abandoning his customary brevity. She was able to weep, and therefore she was able to love. She was able to love, and therefore she was able to forgive and to be forgiven....
I'm beginning to feel a little uncomfortable with this; are you? I feel I may be one of those poker-faced Pharisees rather than that passionate weeping loving woman. Does Peter Chrysologus have anything to say to reassure us? No, he has relapsed into silence. I am left in silence with the question: Am I better represented by those Pharisees than by the sinful woman? If so, then I separate people from Christ (which is what the name ’Pharisee’ means); I am a barrier to anyone who wants to come near him. I pretend to welcome him and identify with him while excommunicating the very people who are closest to him. Then the eyes of such as this passionate woman will see clearly that “Christ is betrayed amid sweet cups and a banquet of love.”
21 September [St Matthew, apostle and evangelist]
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
St Augustine thinks Matthew wasn’t called at the same time as the others because he had some financial matters to finish off. But a 6th-century writer took it that Matthew left his affairs in disorder, a thing that greatly impressed him. It must be particularly difficult for someone who deals with figures to leave them unbalanced. Do we have to balance our books before we set out on the Gospel path?
Matthew wrote his gospel to convince Jews that Jesus was the fulfilment of their prophecies. Sixteen times in his gospel he uses the phrase “so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled.” He sees Jesus through the lens of the Old Testament: in him are fulfilled all the hopes of the Jewish people. In view of this conviction, his tax-gathering papers must have seemed very unimportant. Financial matters are so precise and so tangible and near…. His must have been a powerful conversion, because he had been in the service of Mammon, God's greatest rival. “You cannot serve God and Mammon,” he quotes Jesus as saying (Mt 6:24).
Business people tend to be hard-headed, and perhaps his conversion took a little longer. St John Chrysostom suggested that “Matthew was not called at the same time as Peter and John and the others because he was then still in a hardened state.” Whatever the case, he was called from his tax business to follow Jesus. It was a call from one way of thinking to another. It was a call from security to insecurity, from wealth to poverty, from power to powerlessness. He was called to follow Jesus, the Logos, the Wisdom of God. He was not asked to make a donation from the profits of his business, but to follow in person.
When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to Jesus, he said in a parable: "A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold." As he said this, he called out, "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"
Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that 'looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.' "Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.
The soil is the heart; it is the place where the seed of God's word is to be received and hidden, and from where it will appear in its own time in a revolution of freshness and new life. But the difficulty is that the soil is never perfect.
“Some seed fell along the path….” The path is where everyone walks: it is public. It is not a place of interest in itself; it leads elsewhere. When you are on a path you are between places, you are nowhere. The path has no interiority. If I'm always on the way to somewhere else (and which of us isn't nowadays?) I'm nowhere, and the word of God cannot find a place in me.
“Some seed fell on rocky ground….” The heart can be like a rock or a stone: solid, impenetrable, self-enclosed, separate, unloving and unloved…. “I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19).
“Some seed fell among thorns….” It has a chance to grow there, but everything else is growing there too. My power is divided into a thousand parts, and only one is available for the word of God. It is like flicking through the pages of a magazine: nothing remains in the heart, even though everything was promised.
“Some seed fell on good soil….” It is good soil when none of the above applies. Then the heart is deep and soft and silent. Then I may hear the word of God.
23 September [25th Sunday in Ordinary Time]
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
St Augustine wrote: “Observe a tree, how it first reaches downwards so that it may then shoot upwards. It sinks its roots deep into the ground so that its top may reach towards the skies. Is it not from humility that it endeavours to grow? But without humility it will not reach higher. You want to grow up into the air without roots. That is not growth, but collapse.”
The disciples of Jesus had not yet reached this awareness. They were not above squabbling about rank, a little weakness that has hexed the clergy ever since. In this passage it says “they” were discussing; we can guess that James and John were in the thick of it, because in the very next chapter these two are asking for the best places in his Kingdom (10:35). It is the ego, the false self, that looks for promotion; the real self, the self that comes every moment from the hand of God, doesn't need it or look for it. “If you are in love with precedence and high honour,” said St John Chrysostom, “pursue the humblest things, pursue being the least regarded of all, pursue being the lowliest of all, pursue being the smallest of all, pursue placing yourselves behind others.”
Religion often brings out the worst in people: hypocrisy, fanaticism and cruelty. Seeking preferment is not as serious a fault as these, but it is the next on the list. Jesus wanted on this occasion to be alone with the disciples, in peace and quiet, to give them a new teaching: about humility and suffering. This is the hardest lesson of all, and one that no one wants to hear, even though every mortal being is a sufferer. Jesus himself was to drain the cup of suffering to the dregs. “God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering,” wrote St Augustine. This made the disciples’ squabbling for position look very shallow indeed. “What were you arguing about?” he asked. “They said nothing...” because they were ashamed. They suppressed their argument for the moment, and it looked as if the argument was over. But no, it would break out again later. By their very obtuseness they are teaching us something – just as a slow learner sometimes helps the whole class by slowing down the teacher.
"No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lamp-stand, so that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light. Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away."
Matthew’s gospel too has this image of a light on a lampstand; but there’s a subtle difference. “It gives light to all who are in the house” (Mt 5:15); while here in Luke’s gospel, it gives light to those who enter the house. Matthew was Jewish and writing for Christians of Jewish origin, but Luke was a Gentile writing for Gentile Christians. Gentiles are entering the house of faith from the outside.
As for the second part of the reading: "To the one who has, more will be given..." This sounds perfectly unjust. It sounds like capitalism at its greediest. What is this language doing on the lips of Jesus? The explanation is that he is speaking of the inner world, where this law describes exactly what happens in fact (and not by anyone's decision); it could be called a descriptive (as distinct from a prescriptive) law. If you have a gift and you neglect it (like the man in the Gospel who buried his one talent), you gradually lose it. For example, if you have a gift for music but you never practise, you begin to lose the gift; but if you cultivate that gift it increases. The same is true of all gifts: gifts of prayer, of intelligence, of imagination, even of physical strength.
The mother and brothers of Jesus came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’
Cyril of Alexandria (374 AD – 444) took pains to say that Jesus was not putting his mother and brothers below his disciples, but rather raising the disciples to her level. “Do not let anyone imagine that Christ scorned the honour due to his mother, or disregarded the love owed to his brothers. He said, ‘Honour your father and your mother.’ How, I ask you, could he have rejected the love due to brothers, he who even commanded us to love not only our brothers but also those who are enemies to us? – he said, ‘Love your enemies….’ The greatest honour and the most complete affection are what we owe to our mothers and brothers. If he says that they who hear his word and do it are his mother and brothers, is it not plain to everyone that he bestows on those who follow him a love that is thorough and worthy of them?”
Typically, Luke softens the edges of Mark’s account. In Mark, Jesus says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (3:33). Luke omits this phrase, perhaps because it might appear to slight the family. He also displaces it from Mark’s sequence of events, using it here as a nice ending to his section on hearing the word.
We are so used to defending the family that we are apt to forget that it needs first and foremost to be redeemed. Family relationships are capable of becoming very destructive. People can be damaged more deeply by members of their own family than by any stranger. You sometimes meet people who have a feeling of being held prisoner in destructive or stuffy family relationships all their lives.
These relationships need strong and constant injections of God's grace. Jesus was drawing attention to discipleship in this passage; but his statement implies something about family relationships too. Everyone who hears and keeps the word of God is a relative of Jesus. Why not spell it out more fully? If you are trying to live a Christian life you can think of yourself as the Lord's mother, aunt, uncle, younger sister, older sister, brother, cousin, next-door neighbour.... If this awareness entered the soul very deeply we could never again treat any relative badly. Every human relationship would be opened up and made a vehicle for the grace of Christ.
Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, "Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money – not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them." They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.
St John Chrysostom wrote: “Christ had the power to set the human race free from all evils—not only the Romans but also... every race of barbarians. He succeeded in doing this with no force of arms, nor expenditure of money, nor by starting wars of conquest, nor by inflaming men to battle. He had only eleven men to start with, men who were undistinguished, without learning, ill-informed, destitute, poorly clad, without weapons, or sandals, men who had but a single tunic to wear.”
Mahatma Gandhi was deeply impressed by Christ, but not by Christians. In the famous pictures of his visit to London in 1931 he appeared perhaps like one of those barefooted twelve. St Ambrose quoted Isaiah 52:7, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,” and remarked that there was no mention of beautiful sandals.
On a train journey I was seated beside a man who had brought an enormous suitcase with him. This suitcase, he told me, contained all the things he might need during his day away from home: an umbrella in case it rained, and light clothes, in case the sun came out – along with dozens of other items, no doubt, to cover every kind of weather and every eventuality. This suitcase was so big that it would not fit in the compartment and he had to have it put in the goods carriage. This was of course at the end of the train, at a great distance from our carriage, but he insisted (with complicated reasoning) on not moving closer. During the journey he talked about the deficiencies of the transport system and how complicated everything was made for the ordinary passenger. So involved did he become in this subject, with recitation of past bitter experiences, that he missed his stop and found himself parted from his suitcase, which had been removed from the train at the correct stop. His panic knew no bounds. As the train pulled out again, I could see him on the platform, with flushed face, shouting, waving his arms. He had just that moment discovered what it was like to "take nothing for the journey," but it could be a long time before he learns to enjoy it.
Herod the ruler heard about all that had taken place, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’ And he tried to see him.
Jesus has come to the notice of the highest authorities. Herod is trying to get a handle on who he is. He is listening to the rumours – that he is John the Baptist come back to life. John was Herod's bad conscience; that's why he appeared to be always coming back: guilt doesn't let you rest in peace for long. Herod's presence at this point in the Gospel is an ominous one, and even more ominous is his curiosity about Jesus; one is better off without the curiosity of such people. It is an empty curiosity, strongly contrasted with the interest that real disciples have in him (compare it, for example, with Peter’s in 9:20).
Mention of Herod's name is enough to introduce the notion of suffering and the Cross. These three verses (today's reading) are fitted in between the sending out of the Twelve and their return; they set the theme: suffering and death will be the lot of Jesus' disciples, just as it is the lot of Jesus himself – and of John before him. When Christians get bad press it is mostly because of our failures; but even when it isn’t, we shouldn’t be so surprised – we can't say we weren’t warned.
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’ He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’
Why did Jesus “sternly order and command them not to tell anyone”? They were the ones who would bring his name to the ends of the earth, so why the secrecy now? The key may be at the very end of Luke’s gospel. “He opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead...’” (24:45). Earlier, their minds were not open. They were expecting a victorious Messiah; they could not grasp the notion of a suffering Messiah. When we fail to take suffering into account we have nothing to say. The Good News is always very shallow when put across by people who can hear only about happiness and success – all things bright and beautiful. “Those who have not suffered, what do they know?” said Henry Suso.
Peter said, “You are the Messiah of God.” It was the right answer, but only materially. It was like the answer in a catechism. Or it was like the answer at the end of a mathematics book. That was so frustrating in our childhood: to have the right answer at the end of the book, but to find it useless for the purposes of doing our homework. The answer, though right, was worthless unless we had come to it ourselves by a valid process. It did not do the work for us; it served only as a check, when we had done the work. But in religion, many people seem content just to parrot the right answers. Worse still, many in the Church are happier with them for doing just that. I think Jesus would tell them to be silent until their minds had been opened. St Ambrose made a telling comment: “Jesus preferred to be the defender of his own passion and resurrection, so that faith would be born of action, and not from a clamour of hear-say.”
What is the difference between those two questions, "Who do the crowds say I am?" and "Who do you say I am?" In a word, the difference is suffering. To answer the first, you only need to be a journalist; to answer the second, you need to put your cards on the table – or rather, your life on the line. Journalists maintain a distance from their material; they are expected to do so. But a believer is personally involved even to the inmost part of his or her being. The word 'to suffer' means 'to allow'; to allow faith to penetrate you is to suffer; it is to lose that arm's-length that the journalist maintains so carefully.
The Cross is looming larger and larger in Luke's account; very soon Jesus will go to Jerusalem to suffer and die; in 9:51 he says, “he resolutely took the road for Jerusalem." Luke knew that his readers knew that this meant Jesus resolutely faced his death. His disciples in every age remember that they heard him say, "Follow me."
29 September [Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, Archangels]
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
The word ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’ (Greek, aggelos). In the Old Testament the Hebrew word mal’ak was applied to both human and divine messengers. The more remote God seemed, the greater became the need for intermediaries. Certain mighty figures, later known as archangels, appear in the Book of Daniel, and the process of naming angels began. A confusing variety of functions and names is found, probably because angels were important in popular devotion. All these names have meanings, of course. Michael means ‘one who is like God’, Gabriel means ‘God is strong’, Raphael means ‘God heals’, Daniel means ‘God judges’, Elizabeth means ‘God is fullness’, and so on. The archangel Michael was thought to have a special responsibility as the guardian angel of Israel (Dan 12:1).
Early Christianity inherited Jewish beliefs about angels, but the interest is much diminished. The angel of the Annunciation has a permanent place in Christian spirituality, but the New Testament tends if anything to put angels in their place. So in Hebrews 1, angels are inferior to the Son; in 1 Cor 13:1 the eloquence of angels takes second place to love; and in 1 Pet 1:12 the angels are seen as envying the Christian.
30 September [26th Sunday in Ordinary Time]
Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
John said to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
"Our social fabric militates against relation," wrote G.W. Morgan in Prophetic Voices. "Competitiveness pervades everything we do and is taught from the time we are small children…. Our fundamental stance is not to respond to others, but to outdo them, vie with them, beat them."
This seems to be true of every business; and when we make a business of religion it is true in that field too. The scurrilous polemics between Christian Churches in the past seem scandalous now, but they probably seemed normal in their time.
In the first reading at today's Mass we see how Moses regarded the 'opposition', and in the gospel reading we see Jesus. A young man ran to delate some unofficial prophets. "The young man ran to tell Moses: 'Look,' he said, 'Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.'" Moses' response showed a wonderful generosity of spirit: "If only the whole people of the Lord were prophets, and the Lord gave his Spirit to them all!" The situation in the gospel reading is an exact parallel, and Jesus' response is just like that of Moses. "Anyone who is not against us is for us."
The lesson is that the Holy Spirit is nobody's property; it blows wherever it wills (John 3:8). The Holy Spirit is God's gift to the Church, but the Holy Spirit is not restricted to acting in ways that we alone can recognise. No created reality can fully embody or express the freedom of God. The Church is always in danger of hardening into a sect, just as every believer is in danger of hardening into a self-righteous reactionary. But the very qualities that are considered vices in an individual can sometimes be made to appear virtues in an organisation. Today's readings are like a road-sign that says No Entry on that road.
In the document Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council stated: "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these [non-Christian] religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all people." This is not a sell-out, as some have claimed; it is in the spirit of Christ, who praised the "faith" even of a pagan Roman centurion (Matthew 8:10). Only a truth that is very unsure of itself feels always compelled to make an enemy of the other.
This has relevance for us at the individual level too. As Raniero Cantalamessa put it, "We are to watch with joy, not with jealousy, the many who prophesy and cast out demons, thus contributing to authentic human development." And the great C.S. Lewis remarked that it would be very surprising if the Light of the World, Christ, were not reflected in some way in every part of the world. When we see good being done by anyone, Christian or not, we see the grace of the “cup of water” – Christ’s face, in full light or in shadow, in every good deed.
An argument arose among the disciples as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.’ John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.’
Someone said that a neurosis is a secret you don’t know you’re keeping. There must exist somewhere deep in us the mother of all neuroses (otherwise where would the little ones come from?). This would be the one to get to know. It has been given a name: it is the ego.
It is not me, it is the idea I have of me. That makes two of me. The first me (let’s call me that) is dependent for life on an astronomical number of other creatures. There are more living beings (with their own DNA, different from mine) living in my body than there are people in the world! I am their planet, I am their mountains and rivers. They depend on me and I depend on them; if I sprayed them all to death (were that possible) I would die instantly.
This is not good news for the ego (that’s the other me). This ‘me’ thinks he’s basically alone in the world, and that anything he gets (apart from what he got for nothing from his mother a long time ago) is due to his own efforts. He’s a lonely competitor for just about everything, and he has his story to tell (which forgets to mention the many billions of creatures inside and outside his skin). So it is very important for him to be reassured that he’s doing well. Or rather (since he doesn’t really know who or what he is), that he’s doing better than someone else.
The disciples of Jesus, like all of us, had the same problem. They were “arguing about which of them was the most important.” Jesus took a child and said, “You must become like children.” Children were not romanticised in those days: a child was a nobody. You must become nobody, then there will be room in you for you - and for all the others.
2 October [Guardian angels]
Mt 18:1-5, 10
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
The word ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’ (Greek, aggelos). In the Old Testament the Hebrew word mal’ak was applied to both human and divine messengers. The more remote God seemed, the greater became the need for intermediaries. Certain mighty figures, later known as archangels, appear in the Book of Daniel, and the process of naming angels began. A confusing variety of functions and names is found, probably because angels had become important in popular devotion. All these names have meanings, of course. Michael means ‘one who is like God’, Gabriel means ‘God is strong’, Raphael means ‘God heals’, Daniel means ‘God judges’, Elizabeth means ‘God is fullness’, and so on. The archangel Michael was thought to have a special responsibility as the guardian angel of Israel (Dan 12:1).
Early Christianity inherited Jewish beliefs about angels, but the interest is much diminished. The angel of the Annunciation has a permanent place in Christian spirituality, but the New Testament tends if anything to put angels in their place. So in Hebrews 1, angels are inferior to the Son; in 1 Cor 13:1 the eloquence of angels takes second place to love; and in 1 Pet 1:12 the angels are seen as envying the Christian.
It seems the spiritual world too abhors a vacuum, and now that belief in God is being reprocessed widely, angels are flooding in to fill the vacuum. Bookshops have shelves full of books on angels. Modern angels seem to have very sweet natures, but in the Jewish world it wasn’t always so. Lucifer was an angel of light – his name means ‘light-bearer’ – but he became Satan, prince of darkness (see October 6); he spanned the spectrum from end to end. But the angels of the New Age are all nice and friendly.
If I were a modern angel I'd keep an eye to my back. Computers are taking over the space occupied by angels. The mediaevals said that angels were neither temporal creatures, nor were they eternal; they occupied a sort of intermediate zone they called ‘aeviternitas’ – a word coined from a combination of the two. An English equivalent might be ‘tempiternal’. Cyberspace is above time and space, yet it is not eternal; it is a sort of tempiternity.
But someone said recently, with greater depth and with wonderful simplicity, that angels are “God's thoughts.”
As they were going along the road, someone said to Jesus, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
In Judaism students lived with a rabbi to learn Torah and to see it lived out in the flesh. But Jesus makes it clear that there is more than this to being a disciple of his. He offers no kind of security or stability at all. He himself has abandoned all security and has nowhere to lay his head; so anyone wanting to follow him will likewise have to live with insecurity.
He was neither the first nor the last to praise insecurity. Thales of Miletus (6th century BC), credited by Aristotle as having been the first philosopher, prescribed insecurity as the first requisite of the thinking person. The Greeks gave us other examples of wise people who had cut the ties of normal social life to live a life of wisdom – the most famous being Diogenes, who is said to have lived in a barrel. Alexander the Great saw him, took pity on him, and asked him if there was anything he could do for him. “You could stand out of my light,” said Diogenes. Every culture has produced wanderers – people who orbit their society in wide elliptical paths. Jesus was a wanderer, but there was an intensity about him that is not typical of wanderers. Today’s reading shows that intensity at its extreme.
It is truly amazing that so many of his disciples through the ages have valued security above all else, and that the highest praise for a religious teacher is that he or she is “safe”. Safe and sound. In general (and with all due qualifications, which you can supply yourself), security is an insipid thing, and our longing for it shows that we are more afraid of life than we are of death. Where would we be without the spur of insecurity of some kind? It is not the enemy; it brings out the best in us. It is a terrifying friend.
Two of the three people mentioned in today’s reading said, “I will follow you.” It was their own idea; they thought they might enjoy that kind of life. Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376 – 444) commented: “Their wish was not simply to follow Christ…. What they wanted was to be self-called. The blessed Paul writes that no one takes the honour to himself unless he is called by God, as Aaron was (Heb 5:4)…. We see that none of the apostles promoted himself to the office of apostle but rather received the honour from Christ.” The third person in today’s reading was called by Christ, but he would only follow at a time that suited himself. None of the three is heard of again. It seems that having their own agenda put them out of the running. To give up property is not much, but to give up your agenda is give yourself up.
4 October [St Francis of Assisi]
The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.' I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.
“What good or harm would it do them to have shoes on their feet or to go without them...?” wrote Cyril of Alexandria. “Jesus wanted them to learn, and to attempt to practise, that they must depend entirely on him.” Their poverty, then, was not to be a mark of hatred of the world (though ‘contemptus mundi’ was sometimes given that twist); when you are barefooted you are actually closer to the world than when you have shoes on. It was an expression of defencelessness, and therefore of trust in God.
“I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” Jesus had a right to say this because he himself was like a lamb among wolves. The Christian Gospel proclaims that the deepest wisdom is hidden in suffering, not in self-defence or victory. This is not to love suffering for itself, but to understand that “power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9).
It is very paradoxical. Any deep teaching is full of paradox. The English word ‘suffer’ originally meant ‘to allow’. To suffer is to allow the pain of life of reach me. It is natural to try to avoid pain, but when it comes my way I should let it reach me; I should go barefooted. Otherwise I will develop a hard outer layer of insensitivity. When we see people who have done this we are inclined to say: suffering has made them hard and bitter. But it hasn’t. It is their rejection of suffering that has done so. Life doesn’t make people hard; it is the denial of life that makes people hard.
Hard outer shells go with inner mushiness. You often find that people with hard exteriors are the very ones whose inner lives are full of self-indulgence and self-pity. This has none of the openness or possibilities of growth that genuine suffering has. One of the things we learn as we grow older is the difference between neurotic self-inflicted suffering and genuine suffering. “By their fruits you shall know them.” Even by their appearance – by the skin of their fruits – you shall know them.
What are we to make of that strange verse, “If anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.” In Hebrew the same word ‘dabar’ means ‘word’ and ‘thing’; the idea was that a blessing that could not find a resting-place in the other person had to return to the sender. That is not an easy thought to take on board now, but St Augustine’s ingenuity found a way of using it. “Since we do not know who is a child of peace, it is our part to leave no one out, to set no one aside, but to desire that all to whom we preach this peace be saved. We are not to fear that we lose our peace if the one to whom we preach it is not a child of peace.... Our peace will return to us. That means our preaching will profit us, not him. If the peace we preach rests upon him, it will profit both him and us.”
A word about St Francis, whose feast is celebrated today. One of the most loved of all the saints, Francis showed a Gospel way of life to his contemporaries, a complete indifference to wealth and security – the very things by which we calibrate our life. When his father threatened to disinherit him because his generosity to the poor was eating into the family savings, Francis abandoned everything, and even kicked off his clothes – to show that he was a totally free man, a new kind of human being. Nothing could bind him. He became a kind of archetype, the poverello: poor, free and full of joy. He threw everything away and (in Thoreau’s words) lived life near the bone, where it is sweetest. He makes us look like thieves, grabbing and holding our possessions – and looking for more: the ‘little more’ that keeps beckoning us on. A simple man said to me once, “‘Enough’ is always just a little more than what we have.” Possessiveness is a bottomless pit, and nothing that we possess can ever fill it.
Jesus said, "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. "Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me."
Chorazin and Bethsaida have disappeared from the record. There have been many preachers in many centuries speaking many words in many towns, and practically all of them disappeared without trace. But it is strange to find Jesus in that company. He did great deeds there, but nothing whatsoever is heard of them. Even the towns themselves have disappeared. There is complete silence.
There is good silence, but this was not good silence. It is the silence of the barren ground where the seed of God’s Word could not find soil. It is the barrenness of the unloving heart. How amazing to think of the vast tracts of the world that have never come to fruit! Even the words and actions of Jesus seem to leave no trace in so many places.
How can one live with such a thought? But we are not the measure. We can't even say when we ourselves have failed. What looks like total failure and emptiness is often the doorway to a new life. How could we say that Jesus failed, except in a material sense? If he is to teach us to stop trying to measure success, there has to be a Chorazin, there has to be a Bethsaida.
The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!" He said to them, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven." At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it."
"I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Jesus is telling them that their ministry represents the defeat of Satan, the accuser.
Satan was at first named Lucifer, which means ‘bearer of light’; but he became the prince of darkness. Milton wrote:
Satan; so call him now, his former name
Is heard no more in heaven.
The name ‘Satan’ means ‘The Accuser’. (Most of us grew up thinking God was the accuser.) John’s vision of the end-time: “I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, ‘Now…the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God’” (Rev 12:10). But already in the ministry of Jesus’ disciples, Satan was falling. Their word of truth was destroying Satan’s power.
What kind of truth were they speaking? They were not delivering theological lectures or engaging in philosophical debate. Jesus had told them, “Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' (Lk 10:9). Nothing more. The truth they spoke was not an accusing word (some preachers have made capital of that); it was a healing and hope-giving word, a word that built up rather than pulled down.
“Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spiritand said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.’” To intensely serious people joy looks a bit childish – probably because it isn't very logical and controlled. But Jesus was filled with joy, as Luke says. Luke records that the disciples too were filled with joy (Acts 13:52). In each case he says it is joy in the Holy Spirit. Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit, mentioned next to love by Paul (Gal 5:22). Children, and people who are capable of facing things directly, are capable of joy. With others, there’s something sidelong and strategic in
the way they see everything. Clement of Alexandria sums up: “Jesus cried out in joy and in great delight, as if attuning himself to the spirit of the little ones.”
7 October [27th Sunday in Ordinary Time]
Mk 10:2-16 or 10:2-12
Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus 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." People were bringing little children to him 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.
On the very first page of the Bible, in the Book of Genesis (1:27) there is a beautiful lyrical description of the creation of man and woman: “God made human beings in his own image, in his own image he created them; male and female he created them.” (see also 5:2) ‘Adam’ is not a name like James or John; it means ‘the creature made of dust (the word for which is ‘adamah’ in Hebrew). In the first three chapters of Genesis, ‘Adam’ means man and woman equally. Obviously, then, man and woman are on an equal footing and both are equally images of God.
All this, of course, is before the Fall! After the Fall, all is changed. Humans are seen as being under a curse, and they suffer differently for it. To the man, God said, "'Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return'" (Genesis 3:17-19). To the woman he said, 'I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you'" (Genesis 3:16).
Not great wedding presents! Nothing like "unconditional positive regard" (someone's definition of love) as they go out into the world to make a living. Scholars regard this Genesis story as a reflection of actual conditions in the ancient Near East at the time that Genesis was written. In particular, in reflects the position of women in society at that time. A woman was subject first to her father, and then on her marriage she became subject to her husband. She was subject to them because she was their property. We used to be told that the Ninth Commandment was against entertaining sexual thoughts, and it was quoted only in part: "Thou shalt not cover thy neighbour's wife." But it was actually about property, as is clear when you read the full verse: "You shall you covet your neighbour's wife, you shall not set your heart on his house, his field, his servant - man or woman - his ox, his donkey or anything that is his" (Deuteronomy 5:21).
Divorce was very easily obtained in the time of Jesus. Some Rabbis taught that if a woman ruined a meal or spoke badly about her in-laws her husband could divorce her; some even said that if a man spotted a woman who was more beautiful than his wife he could divorce his wife.
All this was the background to the Pharisees' question to Jesus, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" Instead of going into a legal haggle with them about the law of Moses, Jesus harked back to the original state of innocence (before the Genesis story of the expulsion from Eden). He affirmed the original state over the corrupted one; he stated God's idea of man, woman, and marriage. The original state was the companionship of equals, not ownership by the man; it was love, not domination and subjection.
Today, wherever husbands and wives respect and love each other, refusing to regard each other as property - disposable or not - the mind of Christ is made visible and human beings are living in a state of original innocence instead of original sin.