1 May [Joseph the Worker]
Jesus came to his hometown and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?" And they took offence at him.
But Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house." And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.
In this reading, Matthew’s gospel calls Jesus “the carpenter’s son” (verse 55), but Mark’s gospel simply calls him “the carpenter” (6:3). Mark never polishes the surface of the Gospel story, as the others do. Jesus was a carpenter, of course, as well as being the son of a carpenter. Otherwise, what was he doing for thirty years? We need to celebrate Jesus the worker as well as Joseph the worker.
In the past, manual work was referred to as “servile work”. It was forbidden on Sundays. If you were an accountant you could spend all your Sundays accounting, but if you were a farmer, for example, or a carpenter, you had to remain idle. ‘Servile’ comes from the Latin ‘servilis’, meaning ‘of a slave’. ‘Servile work’ means ‘the work of slaves’. This disdain for manual labour is certainly not from the Gospel – Jesus himself was a carpenter, or rather a builder, a techton (Mk 6:3). It came from class-conscious societies that expected manual workers to be ‘servile’ not only in their work but in their manners. It is tragic that this was ever allowed to infect Christian practice.
When pope Pius XII in 1955 established May 1 as the commemoration of St Joseph the Worker, it was an attempt to steal the fire of the Communist celebration. It was a late move, because in many countries the working classes had already been lost to the Church.
We could honour St Joseph today by consciously seeing our manual work as a way of meditation, and a way of sanctification. Redemption is through the body: every one of the Sacraments makes this evident.
2 May [5th Sunday of Easter]
Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
In last Sunday's gospel reading Jesus was the good shepherd and we the sheep. Today's image expresses an even closer relationship: a vine and its branches. This is so close a relationship that you could say it is beyond relationship; it expresses identification. "I am the vine…you the branches." But a vine is all branches! It is not like a tree or a big shrub where you have a substantial trunk and a profusion of branches. The vine is just branches. He has identified himself with us. It is obvious that a branch cut off from the vine (or from any tree or shrub) will wither. In the case of the vine, not only is the branch destroyed but the vine itself is diminished. To destroy a branch is to destroy the vine in some measure; to cut off a brother or sister in Christ is to cut off Christ.
This is also the teaching of St Paul. Christ, he said, is the head and we are the body. "We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another" (Romans 12:4); "Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ" (1 Corinthians 12:12).
A favourite word in John's gospel and letters is 'abide' (or the rather colourless translation 'remain'): abiding in God, abiding in Christ, abiding in his word…. I counted thirty-seven. To abide is not to be a visitor, it is even more than being a friend, it is to be at home.
It seems that no image can go far enough in expressing our union with Christ and God. Meister Eckhart said, "If anyone put water in a barrel, the barrel would surround the water, but the water would not be in the barrel [i.e., it would not occupy the same space as the wood of the barrel], nor would the barrel be in the water: but the soul is wholly one with God….In spiritual things there is no separating of one from another."
I remember a magazine article some years ago, "After affluence, what? Individualism." It was ever only a dream, of course – one that the world is waking up from now. Nobody can really be an independent individual, least of all a wealthy person. Wealth does tend to separate people from one another, while poverty often brings them together. But then wealth traps people in a complex financial web with other people, a very caricature of closeness. The dream of individualism is just a bad dream. We depend on other people in a thousand ways. Our Christian faith celebrates this and reveals its ultimate depth. Even the Persons of the Trinity depend on one another. To live, through Christ, in the heart of that mystery is our destiny.
3 May [Philip and James, apostles]
If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’ Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
Philip put words on the deepest and the universal human aspiration: to see God. In ancient times Moses said to God (Exod 33:18ff), “Show me your glory, I beg you.” And God replied, “I will let all my splendour pass in front of you...but you cannot see my face. Human beings cannot see me and live.... You must stand on the rock and when my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand while I pass by. Then I will take my hand away and you shall see the back of me; but my face is not to be seen.”
But now in a new age, Jesus says to Philip, “Whoever sees me sees the Father.” Jesus is the face of God turned to us. We see God in him, to the very limit of our seeing. In John's gospel, Philip was the first person to whom Jesus said, “Follow me!” (Jn 1:45). It was somehow appropriate that it should be to Philip that Jesus made this profound revelation.
James, the other apostle whose feast is today, was kin to Jesus. He may well have been among the members of the family who didn't believe in him (Jn 7:5, “his brothers spoke like this because they didn't believe in him”). But, if so, he changed radically: James appears in Acts as the leader of the Christians in Jerusalem.
Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way.”
In the Scriptures peace is always much more than a cessation of hostilities. It is a right relationship with God and with others – with others because with God. In this picture, there is no peace if there is no peace with God. But we often settle for less, calling it peace: if we are not actually fighting, we say we are at peace. We always say that war “breaks out,” implying it was always there, dormant, within us, just waiting to cross over into action. Why not talk about peace breaking out? Of course it can only break out if it is first within us. But it is. “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus said, “My peace I give to you.”
The Jews of old (and still today) say, “Shalom!” – which means, “Peace!” This fine greeting too can become superficial unless we see some depth of God in it. It was not just a vague wish for the other person, “Don’t worry, be happy!” It was a prayer for full harmony with God – for salvation. Here is the original text in which Jews were told to greet and bless one another with ‘Peace’: “Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them, ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Numbers 6:22-26). This is a wonderful blessing, worth learning by heart, and using bravely on special occasions (instead of “Good luck!”). It is a prayer for “the peace that the world cannot give.”
An elderly German lady once asked me how we say “Grüß Gott!” in English. “We say, ‘Hello!’” I said. She looked at me in disbelief. “That is not a greeting!” she announced. “That is something one says at a microphone to see if it is working!” God has to be in our greetings, she said; otherwise they are nothing but empty words.
Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
Does society exist for the benefit of its members, as Herbert Spencer believed, or the members for the benefit of society? If you say the first, you seem to be setting the stage for complete individualism; but if you say the second are you not sponsoring fascism? So which is it going to be?
We spontaneously assume that questions are perfectly clear and correctly put, and that only answers can be true or false. (This assumption may have something to do with our early schooling.) But there can be false questions, and the question above is surely false. It is like asking whether your head is for the benefit of your body, or your body for the benefit of your head. In a living organism everything is for the benefit of everything else. The question assumes a false opposition.
St Paul said Jesus is the head of his body, the Church; he is the head, we the bodily members (see Colossians 1:18). We cannot be divided from the head and retain any life at all. Nor can a member separated from the body remain alive. A living body is an organism, not a collection of parts. We have to be careful about the images we use to describe the Church. False separations creep in subtly. The image in today’s reading is even more striking than Paul’s: a vine and its branches. Unlike a tree, where you can distinguish clearly between trunk and branches, the vine is just all branches! “I am the vine and you are the branches”: the vine is the branches!
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
What does love have to do with commandments? These two words feel and look like opponents. And for good measure there’s the mean little word ‘if’ in the middle: “You will remain in my love if you keep my commandments.”
It calls for a fresh look. If someone is showing you how to do something – how to drive a car, for example – they might say, “Follow these instructions now and you won't go off the road, you will stay on course.” We don’t feel that this must be a bossy person: they are simply showing you how to do something. Likewise Jesus in this passage (and everywhere else) is showing us how to love. But the faith has mostly been presented to us in an authoritarian way, and it is hard to free it of that colouring.
Even in the Old Testament, the Commandments (in their original setting) were presented as ways of remaining free! “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; therefore you shall have no other gods before me…” (Exodus 20:2,3).
If someone gets the wrong idea, we call that misinterpretation. But there is another kind of misrepresentation: it is when someone gets the wrong feeling. This often happens, even between friends; and it can be much more subtle than the other and harder to sort out. When it comes to our religion we have to be alert to this. It should be a major part of a theologian’s work. We should make a sustained effort to salvage the Scriptures and our faith from heretical feelings!
If the words ‘love’ and ‘commandment’ seem strange companions, ‘joy’ would seem even more out of the loop. But in this passage Jesus puts them together: “I have said these things so that … your joy may be complete” (verse 11). Joy takes the heaviness out of everything; it puts a spring in your step.
Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
A wicked man, about to die, meets an angel at the gates to Hell. The angel says to him: "It is enough for you to have done one good thing in your life, and that will save you. Think hard.” The man remembers that one time, as he was walking through a forest, he saw a spider in his path and detoured so as not to step on it. The angel smiles and a spider web comes down from the sky, allowing the man to ascend to Paradise. Others among the condemned take advantage of the web, and begin to make the climb. But the man turns on them and begins to push them off, fearing that the web might break. At that moment, it breaks, and the man is once again returned to Hell. "What a pity," he hears the angel say. "Your concern with yourself turned the only good thing you ever did into evil."
Jeanne Guyon, the 17th-century French mystic, wrote: "Those in the highest state of religious experience desire nothing except that God may be glorified in them by the accomplishment of His holy will. Nor is it inconsistent with this, that saintly people possess that natural love which exists in the form of self-love. But their natural love, which in its proper measure is innocent love, is so absorbed in the love of God, that it ceases, for the most part, to be a distinct object of consciousness; and practically and truly they may be said to love themselves in and for God. Adam, in his state of innocence, loved himself, considered as the image of God and living for God. So that we may either say, that he loved God in himself, or that he loved himself in and for God. And it is because saintly people, extending their affections beyond their own limit, love their neighbour on the same principle of loving, namely, in and for God, that they may be said to love their neighbours as themselves. It does not follow that just because our self-love is lost in the love of God, that we are to take no care and to exercise no watch over ourselves. None will be so seriously and constantly watchful over themselves as those who love themselves in and for God alone."
This matches exactly what St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153) described as ‘the fourth degree of love: when you love yourself for God’s sake.’ “Happy is the one who has been found worthy to attain to the fourth degree, where one loves oneself only for God’s sake.... To love in this way is to become like God. As a drop of water seems to disappear completely in a quantity of wine, taking the wine’s flavour and colour; as red-hot iron becomes indistinguishable from the glow of fire, and its own original form disappears; as air suffused with the light of the sun seems transformed into the brightness of the light, as if it were itself light rather than merely lit up; so, in those who are holy, it is necessary for human affection to dissolve in some ineffable way, and be poured into the will of God.”
The ego requires fight if it is to exist. If it is not fighting it cannot exist. So even when there is no one there to fight with, you fight with someone in your mind. The ego isn’t in you; it is between you and another. It is nothing in you. In real love there is no ego, because there is no fight. Yet are lovers not often fighting? Yes. Their being longs for love, their egos long for fight; so they do both, by turns.
“I shall not call you servants,” Jesus said, “I call you friends.” Meister Eckhart drew out the meaning of this. “Love does not wish to be anywhere but where there is likeness and oneness,” he wrote. “Where there is a master and servant there is no peace, for there is no likeness.”
Then he gave another image to make it clearer. “A woman and a man are unlike, but in love they are alike. And so scrip
ture rightly says that God took woman from the man's rib and side and not from the head or from the feet....” This beautiful interpretation of the Genesis story anticipates by many centuries Kahlil Gibran’s familiar words. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “I love my wife because she is unlike me!” But they were alike in love; they were very different in every other way, but in love there was “likeness and oneness”. And the unifying love between them made them cherish their many differences rather than regret them.
There is an infinite difference between the creature and God, but in love we are like God and one with God.
Jesus said, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”
There must be some dividend in hate; otherwise why would so many people invest so much time and energy in such a destructive passion? There is some secret satisfaction in hatred.
There’s nothing in this world so sweet as love,
And next to love the sweetest thing is hate. (Longfellow)
When you love, you lose yourself in some sense; you forget yourself, you take leave of the ego. But hatred strengthens the ego by strengthening the sense of separation. In a word, you feel you really exist when you hate; and perhaps this is the secret dividend. And there is an illusion of being equal to the thing you hate. It is a caricature of the equality in love. If you hate an individual, you appear to be that individual’s equal. If you hate a whole class of people, you are almost an archetype.
Love needs to understand hatred if it is to escape its contagion. Much of its work consists in dismantling structures of hatred. That means dismantling the ego, and that is dangerous work.
9 May [6th Sunday of Easter]
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
How can you be commanded to love? Surely love has to be a free response, not an obligation. You can be commanded to obey, but how can you be commanded to love? How could Jesus say, "This is my commandment, that you love one another?"
Meister Eckhart threw a clear light on this conundrum. He said, "When I am thirsty, the drink commands me; when I am hungry, the food commands me. And God does the same [when he commands me to love]." In other words, the command to love is not a command that is laid on us from the outside; it is an inner command, an inner urgency placed in our very being by God – like hunger and thirst; or, you might say, like the urgency that an oak tree has to develop as an oak tree. It is not something alien, it is totally our own, and yet it is totally from God – because God is totally our own, "more ours," said Tauler, "than anything else we own." If God is totally ours, then God's commands are totally ours.
Most of us grew up with the belief that God was somewhere else, not here; that heaven was a place where God lived far away. Any communication from such a God would be an intrusion from the outside. Certainly we also said that God was everywhere, but these two thoughts may never have overlapped or touched each other at all. If we also had the wrong kind of fear of God, we may then have imagined him everywhere in the way that a controlling headmaster is 'everywhere' in the school – meaning that no matter what you did, you were found out.
Our thoughts and feelings about God are always in need of a great deal of healing (see May 6). This should be happening naturally, and through the grace of God, in the course of our daily life, but prayer and meditation are the favoured place for it to happen. There the experience of the day is sifted without interference and comes around slowly into the right perspective. We can confidently hope to be able to enjoy our faith. Meister Eckhart again: "If anyone commands me to do that which is pleasant, which avails me or on which my bliss depends, that is exceedingly sweet to me."
Joy is very close to the heart of our faith. Jesus "rejoiced in the Holy Spirit" (Luke 10:21), and wants to draw us into his own joy (John 15:11). Paul mentions joy as a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). St Thomas Aquinas wrote, "Since the enjoyment of God…surpasses the power of all creatures, it follows that this complete and perfect joy does not enter into us but rather we enter into it. 'Enter into the joy of your Lord' (Matthew 25.21)."
“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. “I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.”
‘We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,’ wrote Paul (1 Corinthians 1:23). What Christians proclaim is an event that has taken place, not a religious system or simply a ‘message’. “The New Testament,” said a scholar, “is neither a collection of thoughtful essays nor an attempt to construct a system of ethics. It bears witness to a unique history, and it discovers the truth in the history.” Paul once tried the way of sweet reason (Acts 17), but people only laughed at him. It may have been at that moment that he found his own voice. From that point on he would proclaim “Christ and him crucified,” the event that was the life and death of Jesus.
This is why eyewitness and testimony are crucial. Philosophical arguments and theories, while they may propose faith to you, can never bring you there. Some people are hindered rather than helped by them. A scholarly lady said to a confrère of mine, “It was Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God that brought me into the Church.” “I’m happy for you,” replied my friend, “they almost drove me out of it!” Philosophical arguments, by their very nature, express skepticism and chosen limits to what one is prepared to accept. In some periods of history there was a wide streak of rationalism in theology that alienated many and boxed up the faith in a suffocating system. Traces of this still exist. The faith is not plausible, and any account of it that makes it so is throwing away the kernel of it. There is nothing plausible about existence, or the world, or God, or the Incarnation, or the death of Jesus, or his resurrection…. What we proclaim is not a plausible account of life, a ‘philosophy for the millions,’ made palatable by striking images and stories, but a series of extraordinary events: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
“You are witnesses of these things,” said Jesus (Luke 28:48). This was spoken to “the eleven and their companions.” But ultimately it is spoken to every disciple. We are to witness what the Spirit, the ‘Advocate’, has witnessed to us in our hearts and in our lives, among the community of believers. We are to speak from experience.
The Holy Spirit, today’s gospel passage says, is ‘the Spirit of truth’. In this “post-truth age,” as it has been called, this is of special relevance. Factional truth or ‘echo-chamber’ truth is not the truth. Even in a court of law you are asked to swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Clever evasions and omissions are still possible – sometimes even in a court of law. But in real life, the Gospel says, it is not enough to speak the truth; we have to speak the truth in the Spirit of Truth. It is quite possible to tell a lie while speaking the literal truth. If I say, for example, “Jimmy was sober today,” I am telling the truth, but I am also implying that he is a habitual drunkard. The Spirit of Truth does not play games with the truth in this way, because the truth is not a game of noughts and crosses. It is something that reaches all the way to God. It is the very name of God’s Son and God’s Spirit.
How desperately we need the Spirit of Truth! – also called the Advocate, the Helper, the Companion, the Comforter.... “We have allowed... [ourselves] to become stupefied…. Because the spirit has deserted us, we are nothing more than consumers and consumed. Because there no longer exists for us any absolute value, we are worth only as much as we pay and are paid.” (Franz Werfel)
Jesus said: “Now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”
Here Jesus sounds more like a visitor than someone who took on our nature and became one of us forever. ‘It is to your advantage that I go away.” We have to try to understand how it is to our advantage. “If I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you,” he added. Rather than clarifying it, however, this makes it more obscure. How could the continued presence of Jesus hinder the coming of the Spirit, the Paraclete? In John’s gospel, the Paraclete is the continued presence of Jesus.
Henceforth it is through the Spirit that we know Jesus. The Spirit, the ‘Advocate’, he said, “will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). Jesus is withdrawing his visible presence, but his Spirit remains with us.
“It is to your advantage that I go away,” he said. How is it an advantage? If we assemble a few ordinary experiences we may find an approach to it. It is possible to be so much around a person that you don't see or understand them at all. You see a thousand details but you miss the essence somehow: you fail to see the spirit of the person. If Jesus had remained visibly present we would possibly fail to see him deeply. Many disciples “walked no more with him” (John 6:66), having known him for months or years. His absence, strangely, paradoxically, makes him more present. His is present to us through his Spirit.
Every teacher, sooner or later, has to stand back. If a teacher stays at your side forever, there are important things you never learn: independence, mental courage, an inner vigour that can only come from taking your own risks…. In other words, you have to learn from your own experience, and that is what a good teacher always sends you back to in the end. Parents, too, have to learn to stand back. The children of parents with very strong personalities are often passive and weak. Whenever you see a powerful leader, look at what his leadership is doing to his followers. He may think he is “strengthening the brethren,” but this is exactly the blind spot of an extravert. Jesus has the wisdom to trust us, even though we make mistakes. He wants to inspire us from within, not to control us from without.
The Spirit, Jesus said, “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” Richard Rohr’s comment on this: “What you thought was sin was only your own guilt, what you thought was righteousness was self-righteousness, what you thought was justice was only your instinct for vengeance.” These distinctions can only be learned from the inside.
Jesus said: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
Someone said hindsight is always 20/20. But hindsight is exactly what you don’t have in the present moment.
In simple matters of fact, hindsight is a simple thing: you can see within the hour that you backed the wrong horse – or within seconds that you said the wrong thing. But in deeper matters, hindsight is a slow process of realisation. The Holy Spirit gives hindsight on Jesus. This is the Spirit working in us, the patient inner teacher, opening our minds slowly to the light that has long since come into the world. The Spirit guides us (hodegeo) along the way; it is Jesus who is the way (hodos) itself – indeed the truth itself (Jn 14:6).
“The Spirit will guide you into all truth,” that is, all the truth about God. The Son has revealed the Father, and now the Spirit will reveal the Father by revealing the Son. We are being attracted by the Spirit into the inner life of God.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” The disciples to whom these words were addressed had the best of excuses for not having hindsight: the event had not taken place yet. The event was the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. They could not possibly have understood him at that time, except as a remarkable man. “You cannot bear them now.” There is such a thing as the future; everything doesn't have to be wrapped up today. “Do not worry about tomorrow,” he said on another occasion (Mt 6:34). Who is capable of tomorrow? You cannot do tomorrow’s work today; you have not been given the grace to do it; that grace will not be given till tomorrow. There will be grace tomorrow for tomorrow’s griefs, tomorrow’s struggles. Today’s grace is only for today, like that manna in the desert. The best way to prepare for tomorrow is to be faithful today to the grace given for today.
Jesus said: ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.’ Then some of his disciples said to one another, ‘What does he mean by saying to us, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”; and “Because I am going to the Father”?’ They said, ‘What does he mean by this “a little while”? We do not know what he is talking about.’ Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, ‘Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”? Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.’
The word for ‘a little while’ (mikron) is used seven times in this short passage. Something is about to happen soon, but they don’t know what. This is the way to be scared. They can tell that it has something to do with death: the word here for ‘mourn’ is a word that is used for grief at a death.
“You will have sorrow, but your sorrow will turn into joy.” He did not say it would be replaced by joy, but it that it would turn into joy. Joy will not come by repressing sorrow but by allowing it to be transformed.
If I repress sorrow it does not go away; it is still there, working in me like a silent cancer, sapping my vitality from within. And my ‘joy’ will have a quality of desperation; it will only be a mask for fear, like whistling in the dark. I will be in the impossible situation of someone trying to run away from himself. It is only by looking into the heart of sorrow that I can find real joy. This contradicts common sense, but that is what you can expect from the Gospel.
The Resurrection happened in the tomb. This death-and-resurrection event, which we call the Paschal Mystery, is the heart of our faith, and if the heart isn’t beating, the body is dead. We have a lot of cheap knowledge: knowledge that has not been bought at the full price of experience. It is easy to sign up to a list of beliefs; it is as easy as saying ok. But everyone knows only one or two things really. We know the dying and rising of Christ to the extent that our own life is being shaped by it, no more, no less. The disciples made an honest admission, “We don’t know what he is talking about.” That is always the first step in understanding: to understand how little we know.
14 May [Matthias, apostle]
Jesus said, ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’
Matthias, whose feastday is today, might seem to have arrived when it was all over. After the Ascension he was chosen by lot to fill the place left by Judas’s defection. Peter made a speech: “‘One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection….’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:15-26).
It might seem that he arrived late, but in fact he was part of it from the very beginning of Jesus’ public life till the end; however, he is not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. He played second fiddle – a vital position. And just as he came from obscurity, he vanished into it again. There was an apocryphal tradition that he preached the Gospel in Ethiopia, but it cannot be substantiated. And there was a lost apocryphal Gospel of Matthias, mentioned by Origen and other early Christian writers.
It would be interesting to know more, but when you have said that someone was a disciple of Jesus you have said the essential thing.
Jesus said, “On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. ‘I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.”
“On that day” (that is, ‘when you see me again’, after the resurrection) “if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.” He is saying that our prayer should be addressed to the Father, but “in my name”, that is, in the presence of Jesus. In the world of the Scriptures a person’s name was not just the tag that it is for us. It was seen as the presence of the person. That is why it was considered so wicked to take the Lord’s name in vain. “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you” (v. 23): in other words, in my presence. You cannot ask for evil things in Christ's presence; your words would die away, the prayer would wither on your lips. But anything you can ask in his presence, in keeping with his Spirit, will be granted. As we know very well, it may not be given in the way we ordered it. But somehow, whether obviously or hiddenly, it will be given.
All our prayer has the pattern of the Trinity stamped on it. This is the pattern of prayer in the Liturgy. The Eucharistic prayer is invariably addressed to the Father, “through him (Jesus), with him and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.”
This does not mean that we should never pray to anyone but the Father. In the Catholic tradition we feel free to pray to Jesus, Mary and the saints, but always in the full knowledge that the Father is the ultimate destination of all prayer – just as all streams, even the raindrops running down your window pane, are making their way to the sea.
‘Ask the Father,’ Jesus said. If you put the emphasis on the word ‘ask’, you get words in different languages like pray, pregare, prier, beten – all of which mean ‘ask’. But one of the Irish words for prayer is ‘paidir’, which comes from the Latin ‘Pater noster’ (Our Father). The focus is firmly on the Father. I once met an elderly lady in the Philippines who made it her apostolate to spread devotion to the Father. Everyone else, she said, has promoters and devotees of all kinds, “but the poor Father is totally neglected already!”
16 May [Ascension]
Jesus said, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptised will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover."
So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.
Mark's gospel gives no detail at all about the Ascension: just a matter-of-fact statement that Jesus "was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God." It is like a description of someone who went upstairs to sit in his favourite chair. Is there still some trace in us of that childhood notion of heaven as the spacious upper storey of the world? It seems there is, because some people were surprised a few years ago when pope John Paul II said heaven was not a place. Only material objects can be said to be in place. Christ's glorified body after his Resurrection was not subject to material conditions: for example, he did not need to knock on the door nor use a key to enter the room where the frightened disciples had hidden themselves; instead "he came and stood among them" (Luke 24:36; John 20:19,26). At the Ascension he disappeared, or as Luke says, "he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven" (Luke 24:51). To say he ascended into heaven means that he returned to the Father. He came from the Father and now returned to the Father. This is easiest way to say it; it avoids spatial words. This is how Jesus himself says it in John's gospel: "I am going to the Father" (14:12, 28; 16:10, 17, 28). We could also say that heaven is 'God's dimension', as someone put it, but does this add anything? Matthew, being Jewish, did not like to use the name of God, so where the other gospel-writers more commonly say 'Kingdom of God' he says 'Kingdom of heaven'. (Some Jewish writers today write G-d for God.) But we can just say: Jesus came from the Father and returned to the Father.
"He withdrew from them," Luke says. What did this withdrawal mean for them, and what does it mean for us? "It is to your advantage that I go away," Jesus said (John 16:7). This seems puzzling, and he added, "for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you." The Advocate is the Holy Spirit. Jesus withdraws so that the Holy Spirit may come. What sense can we make of this? See the commentary for May 11.
In the meantime we are to resist the temptation to think only of loss. This must have been the temptation of those first disciples too when Jesus withdrew from their sight. "Why are you people from Galilee standing here looking into the sky?" (1st reading of today's Mass). The sequel says they returned to the city. Life goes on. From now on he will be closer to them than the eye can see.
Jesus’ disciples said, ‘Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’
It was not the first time that disciples claimed to have perfect understanding. Earlier in the gospel Peter had said, “We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (6:69). The same Peter also claimed to be ready to lay down his life for Jesus (13:37). Both claims proved to be more than a little premature.
Ignorance is bliss, we say. It is effortless and unlimited, a calm unruffled sea. But knowledge has narrow boundaries that are the cause of endless argument and conflict. Knowledge always drives you out of some kind of paradise and sets you against your brother. Then begins the long futile struggle to regain that infinite calm… by knowing everything. It is ultimately futile because everyone, even the most learned, remains ignorant – only about different things. And so the wisest words of all are “I don’t know.” Socrates wanted to know who was the wisest person in Athens. The Delphic Oracle replied, “You are!” “That is impossible,” said Socrates, “because I am aware that I know nothing.” “That,” said the Oracle, “is why you are the wisest person in Athens.”
Those disciples of Jesus thought they had finally understood everything about him. They were full of confidence – because they had not yet seen the cross. “The cross of Christ,” as Paul would see so clearly later on, “is foolishness,” but this foolishness is God’s wisdom. “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world…? Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Cor 1:18-24). Before the crucifixion the disciples thought they finally had it all together, that they had Jesus in a kind of frame; but he promised them that they would be scattered. They would all be scattered until they were gathered again, beyond the cross, by the Risen Christ.
In the New Community, the Church, it is a new kind of knowledge that will hold them together: a knowledge that doesn’t look like knowledge at all. The mystics through the ages have spoken of it from experience. “The mind is amazed at the extent of all it can understand,” wrote St Teresa of Ávila, “for God wills it to realise that it understands nothing of what he represents to it.”
In Old Testament times the great fear was of being scattered as a people; the word ‘scatter’ is used extremely frequently. In the present Gospel text you see a kind of intermediate state: “scattered, each one to his home.” But scattering and spreading was soon to be the order of the day. The disciples would be sent out “to the whole world.” Images that Jesus used of the Kingdom were salt, yeast, seeds - all of which are for scattering and getting lost in a greater reality. The Kingdom of God comes to fruition in us when, like Jesus, we become willing to lay down our lives, to give ourselves away.
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
“This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (verse 3). In other words, eternal life is a relationship with God and Jesus.
This relationship is real now, in this life; it doesn’t have to wait until after we have died. There is a human tendency to project things into the future (that's one of the ways we cheat ourselves). When it comes to ‘eternal life’ we tend to project it right out of this world. This is not a religious instinct; it is just a normal lazy tendency to put everything off till another time. The religious instinct is to dive in here and now. Eternal life is now, not later on. You could shock your friends by saying that there is no such thing as a next life. All life is now. As you live, it is always now; when you die it will be now; after you have died, it will be now. Nothing was ever done, nothing ever happened but now.
The expression ‘pie in the sky’ was a parody of a pious hymn called ‘The sweet by and by’. If we don’t stay with the here and now, we are left dreaming about a sweet by and by. Look through the gospels and notice how often Jesus uses the word ‘today’. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4.21). “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Our hunger for life, like our hunger for food, can't be put off till tomorrow. “Give us today our daily bread” (Mt 6:11). The hymn went: “In the sweet by and by / We shall meet on that beautiful shore.” After the death of Jesus the downhearted disciples went back to the only thing they knew: fishing. In the grey light of dawn (and not through rose-tinted spectacles) they saw a familiar figure on the shore. “[John] said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake” (Jn 21:7). That shore was not in another world, it was here. The pious other-worldly hymn said, “There's a land that is fairer than day, / And by faith we can see it afar.” But it is not far away, it is here. And time was not the sweet by and by, but now. “In the sweet by and by, / We shall meet on that beautiful shore.” For Peter, that beautiful shore
was here and he dived in.
Jesus said, “Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”
“Many believed in his name” (Jn 2:23); “They have not believed in the name…” (Jn 3:18). These are common expressions in the gospels. They occur in today’s reading, “Keep them in your name,” and “I kept them safe in your name.”
What is there to believe in a name? A name is only a word. Is our faith just a belief in a set of words? On TV haven't we seen frenzied mobs, too often, shouting slogans, claiming to be defenders of their faith? What are we defending when we defend our faith? Words? Could someone die for a few words?
St Thomas Aquinas wrote, “The act of faith is not directed to the formulation, but to the reality.” We don’t believe in the Creed, we believe in God.
In the language of the Scriptures, the name is equivalent to the person, or the presence of the person. The Jewish practice of calling God ‘The Name’ appears to have been imitated in early Christian references to Jesus. “They rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the Name” (Acts 5:41).
In today’s reading then, Jesus is saying, “I kept them safe in your Presence… Holy Father, keep them in your Presence.”
When you make the sign of the cross you could equally well say: “In the presence of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus said, ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. "Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’
“That they may all be one.” That each may live somehow beyond the ego…. The ego wants above all to be separate and independent – but on its own terms: when it suits it to merge itself it will do that too. There are many lower mergings of the self: fascism, conspiracies, mob violence; also alcohol and drugs, and addictions and compulsions of all kinds…. These offer a kind of forgetfulness, assuaging the pain of isolation. And so the isolated ego swings between these extremes, each extreme driving it back to the opposite extreme with increasing force. That is the life of the ego when it is in full command. When this is translated into society, and popular culture glorifies it, how can society be other than violent and self-destructive?
Love is a higher merging of the self: a merging that is not a flight but a reaching out. It is the only thing that will save us. Other creatures have the safeguard of healthy natural instincts that are not twisted by a crazed intelligence. But we are at our own mercy. Learning to love now means learning to survive.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’
(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
In Greek, as in every language, there are several words for ‘love’. ‘Philein’ means to love someone as a friend; ‘agapan’ means to love someone in the distinctive New Testament sense: to love them unselfishly, unconditionally, creatively, in the way that Jesus loved. This kind of love is mysteriously deeper and wider even than friendship, because it doesn’t depend on like-mindedness as friendship does; it can even reach out to include enemies.
In English translation the difference does not appear, but it is there in the original Greek. Peter was as yet unable to rise to heroic love, agapè, but he could manage friendship. “You know I love you,” he replied to Jesus (using the word ‘philein’).
Do we have to say he failed the test? No. Friendship is a deep mystery in itself; “I have called you friends,” Jesus said (Jn 15:15). It is the best rehearsal for agapè.
But it is not without difficulties. Goethe once said that when our friends are with us we don’t think the same of them as when they are absent. This, he said, is because “absent friends are yourself, and they exist only in your head; whereas the friends who are present have individualities of their own.” This is a sharp insight into the brittleness of friendship: it can be infiltrated and even swallowed up by the ego. I may love my friends only so long as they love me and agree with me and support my self-image. “No medicine is more valuable than a friend,” said St Aelred of Rievaulx. But what if my friend makes a diagnosis that doesn’t flatter me?
Perhaps it comes to this: I must be aware how subtly and quickly the ego begins to deny the independent existence of the other person, turning him or her into a function of myself. I must realise: it is the other person’s difference from me that will teach me and challenge me and drive me out of my ego-trance. But at that point, friendship is already turning into agapè.
We just missed the charcoal fire - a pity! There is a charcoal fire a few verses before the beginning of today’s gospel passage. It catches the eye, especially in the grey dawn, as that other charcoal fire caught the eye on that evening in the Praetorium when Peter was warming himself one moment and denying his Lord the next. These two charcoal fires are placed there to help us connect the events that happened around them. At the first fire, Peter denied his Lord three times; and at the second, the same Lord gave him an opportunity of expressing his love three times. That is the kind of Lord we serve; he doesn't condemn you; he only knows pity and compassion, and giving you new openings.
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’
So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.
But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
At an earlier time Peter sounded very courageous, even heroic. “Lord, why can I not follow you now?” he had said, “I will lay down my life for you” (Jn 13:37). As events unfolded, he failed to live up to his brave talk, preferring instead to save his own skin. That was a profound lesson in humility, and he was now a more truthful man for it.
Today’s passage is the closing scene of John’s gospel, and in it Peter is invited once again by Jesus to “Follow me!” Peter is now in a better position to understand what following Jesus will involve. Jesus spells out the cost of that love that Peter has just professed three times (yesterday’s reading). In his youth Peter was able to follow his own sweet will, but now “you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (verse 18).
Peter has been given a leadership role in the community: “Feed (or tend) my sheep.” He can have no illusions about what that will entail. He will not lord it over others; instead, like the Good Shepherd, he will give his life for them. He was crucified during the persecution by Nero in the mid-sixties of the first century.
23 May [Pentecost]
Jn 15:26-27; 16:12-15
Jesus said, "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
A French writer described the human spirit as “the unassailable, unchangeable, indestructible core, the keen point of the soul which alone can approach the Absolute and unite itself with the Divinity” (Jacqueline Kelen, La Faim de l’Âme). This idea of spirit as a hard inner core is widespread, even among people from whom you expect something quite different. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), in his famous book Walden, gave this account of why he went to live in a hut in the woods: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life ... I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” Such aggressive verbs! - to front, to suck out, to put to rout, to cut, to drive, to reduce…. All this tough talk about a hard inner core is somehow unconvincing. People who are sure of their strength don’t write like that.
The word ‘spirit’ means breath. This does not suggest a hard aggressive core but a soft give and take. St Peter, who was probably much tougher than Thoreau, could use gentle language to describe that ‘inner core’: “the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). It matters a great deal how we describe our inner being; it matters not only for our self-understanding but also for our understanding of God. We are the primary image of God, and if we have a hard mechanical sense of ourselves, our image of God will be similarly hard and separate. It may well match the image of God in, say, Sheehan’s Apologetics long ago, but it has nothing to do with the Father of Jesus Christ. St Paul, who was even tougher than Peter, could write, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Ephesians 4:30). The Spirit of God is gentle, which does not mean weak. Real strength is always gentle. One moment’s experience of God's Spirit is enough to do away with all talk of an indestructible inner core attempting to “approach the Absolute and unite itself with the Divinity” – as if we could do such a thing by our own heroic efforts.
By way of relief, read these lines by Jessica Powers on today’s feast of Pentecost:
“That was the day when Fire came down from heaven,
inaugurating the first spring of love.
Blood melted in the frozen veins, and even
the least bird sang in the mind’s inmost grove.”
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" he asked Jesus. Having done well for himself in this life, he wants to know how he can be equally successful in the next. At first Jesus gave him the expected answer: he quoted the commandments to him. This was about the only occasion in the gospels when Jesus gave someone the expected answer: it was an answer that the young man would have known already. “You know the commandments….” The man replied, “Master, I have kept all these from my earliest days.” This declaration must have made him feel that he was the brightest light around. But he said it to the wrong man. He was confident that he could stand before God on his own merit: he had kept all the commandments since childhood. His self-assurance – even self-congratulation – is identical to that of the Pharisees.
Immediately Jesus drew him further on and challenged him to a new way of life. We are used to hearing this story, and therefore most of its impact is lost on us. In the time of Jesus wealth was generally seen as a guarantee of God's blessing (as well as of social status). But Jesus told him, “Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.” This was too much, and the man went away sad. He was no longer the brightest light; he is remembered forever as the only one in the gospels who refused a direct call from Jesus.
But if Jesus is now saying that wealth is no guarantee of God's favour, then how can you know how you stand with God? He repeated what he had said, even adding emphasis. No one could remain unclear about his teaching: wealth, and the false sense of security that comes with it, can destroy your relationship with God.
Two opposing visions of life come face to face in this story. It is a head-on collision, but strangely there are no fireworks as in the clashes with the Pharisees. Mark’s gospel even makes the encounter an affectionate one: “Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him, and said...” (Matthew and Luke write simply, “Jesus answered...”). All three gospels say that the rich man became “sad.” He was indeed a conscientious man, and was not trying to discredit Jesus, in the style of the Pharisees. He was a follower of traditional beliefs (incidentally, Matthew alone calls him “young”); and he seems like a man who had taken in what Jesus said, even though he did not feel able to follow it. From Matthew and Luke you get the impression that that rich man was a write-off. True, he is never heard of again in the New Testament, but could anyone whom Jesus loved be a write-off? Jesus did not demand perfection of him; he just held it before him as an invitation. An invitation is by its nature optional; you cannot imagine Jesus taking any kind of revenge on him for refusing it. All three Gospel writers say that the rich man became “sad.” They didn't need to say that Jesus was sad, because it was so obvious.
Some commentators suggested that the eye of the needle was a small gate at the entrance to Jerusalem called the "Needle's Eye Gate." But this clearly blunts the force of his statement. A camel could conceivably get through such a gate, but Jesus is asserting the impossibility of a rich man entering the Kingdom of God. When the disciples heard this they were understandably puzzled. They came from the same tradition as the rich young man. “In that case,” they said, “who can be saved?” Jesus’ reply is the key to the whole episode: “For men it is impossible, but not for God.” We cannot save ourselves. Only God can spring us from the trap of our imagined self-sufficiency. It is not by our own resources, whether spiritual or material, that we come into God’s Presence, but by God's own gift.
Peter began to say to Jesus, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."
In Matthew’s account Peter’s question is more blatant: "Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?" (Mark does not have this second part.) Should we recoil from all self-interest? The ‘gospel of wealth’ folk would find Peter’s question quite normal. Isn’t it true that we stand in need of everything? Is it ‘selfish’ to expect God to reward us for our efforts? And what of our endless talk about ‘eternal reward’?
St Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century shed a very clear light on this topic: “God is not loved without reward, even though God should be loved without thought of reward. True charity cannot be empty, but it does not seek profit, ‘for it does not seek its own benefit’ (1 Corinthians 13:5). It is an affection, not a contract. It is not given or received by agreement. It is given freely; it makes us spontaneous. True love is content. It has its reward in what it loves. For if you seek to love something, but really love it for the sake of something else, you actually love what you are pursuing as your real end, not that which is a means to it.” Two centuries later, Meister Eckhart made the same point. Speaking about people who want to gain something from religion, Meister Eckhart said, “They love God for the sake of something else that is not God,” and he went so far as to compare them to Judas.
What all these people seem to be telling us is to avoid the commercial spirit in our faith. That is a very counter-cultural thing to do, because the commercial spirit enters everywhere now. We are not to make a business of religion: God is not our business, we are God's business.
“Houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields….” In today’s gospel reading, all of these are included in one single category. People and things are all lumped together! How strange! The Gospel is for all Christians equally, but men and women in religious life read this part and see something about the three vows in it: poverty, chastity, obedience. In the past, obedience seemed to be the principal one, and the others were only forms of it. One was celibate, for example, because that was the discipline; it was a matter of obedience. But why see them only as forms of obedience? Why not see them equally as forms of poverty? The present text justifies it. The principal virtue is poverty – poverty of spirit. It comes first in the list of the Beatitudes. Meister Eckhart said that it is more fundamental even than love, because without it love is impossible.
The disciples were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the Twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again."
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with?" They replied, "We are able."
Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptised, you will be baptised; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognise as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
Jesus is going deliberately towards his Passion and death. It is easy to imagine that procession: Jesus striding ahead, the disciples following in a daze, and the crowd bewildered. Normal prudence would urge us to avoid suffering and death – to go in the opposite direction. But this scene is telling us something about the wisdom of the cross, which is foolishness in terms of human wisdom.
James and John picked a bad moment. The silliness of their question stands out all the more clearly because of the gravity of the moment. They are looking for preferment. Mark’s is the earliest of the gospels, and it has none of the polish that the others have; it is blunt in several revealing ways. Matthew (20:20) edits the story and has their mother make the embarrassing request! But he forgot to adjust the rest of the story accordingly. For example, he has Jesus replying in the plural, not the singular; and he forgot to delete the words about the others becoming angry with the brothers. If it had been their mother who made the request, the others would have been sorry for the brothers or embarrassed for them, but certainly not angry with them. Why the cover-up? These two were to become great apostles; with Peter they were the inner group. Yet we see how crass they were in this passage. It gives us all some hope!
Look at the others, the ones who were angry with the “Sons of Thunder” for wanting preferment. If you are angry you are involved somehow; you too are in the running. If the others were not also thinking just like the Sons of Thunder, they would not be angry with them, they would simply pity them; they would take them aside and have a brotherly chat with them. But they were angry, they were in no way different from them – except that they were cleverer, less forthright. It is always instructive to look with clear sight at our anger. It always has something to tell us.
Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." They came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
This is the second of two cures of blind men in Mark’s gospel (the other is in 8:22-26). Opening the eyes of the blind was prophesied as one of the works of the Messiah: “The eyes of the blind will see” (Isaiah 29:18; see also 32:3). You can be sure the sight in question is not just physical sight, but also (and principally) the light of understanding.
They are approaching Jerusalem (15 miles away), where the story will reach its climax with his death and resurrection. In Jerusalem many eyes will still be blind to him; or worse, will be watching him with malevolent intent. In the meantime, Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, having received his sight, followed him to Jerusalem. This is a meditation on the different kinds of blindness.
“Throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus” (verse 50). Had we not been told, we would never suspect from that verse that Bartimaeus was a blind man. He behaved like someone who was sighted. But, of course, he was still in the dark: he was still physically blind. It is a very powerful symbol of the life of faith. Faith is knowledge, yes, but it is dark knowledge. Did you notice that he threw aside his cloak? It was a strange thing for a blind person to do: would he find it again? Blind people have great trouble finding things, they need the world to stay put. See how carefully they place things, caressing them almost. But sighted people are forever throwing things around. In throwing his cloak aside Bartimaeus acted like a sighted man. While all the sighted people held their cloaks and their possession around them with careful fingers, he alone leaped up, threw aside his cloak and ran to meet the Lord.
Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard it.
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers." And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.
And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered." Jesus answered them, "Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. "Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses."
It was not the season for figs. Wasn’t it unreasonable then to expect to find them? Ephrem the Syrian (4th century) is here to explain. “If Jesus had sought fruit from it at the appropriate time,” he wrote, “no one would have known that there was a figurative meaning embedded here. Instead of the literal fig tree, therefore, he showed that it was Jerusalem that he was reproaching.” Other ancient writers agreed. St Augustine: “What terrible thing had the poor tree done simply in not bearing fruit? Could the tree reasonably be faulted for its fruitlessness? No. But human beings who by their own free will decide not to bear fruit – that is a different matter.” Gregory the Great: “The figs which the Lord had sought were the fruit of the synagogue, which had the leaves of the Law, but not the fruit of works.” The fig tree stands there at the beginning and at the end of the episode in the Temple. It is meant to symbolise the barrenness of the Temple cult.
Those ancient writers had the power of symbolic thinking. Today we tend to be more literal. (For example, Bertrand Russell took exception to the withering of the fig tree; it was not a gentlemanly thing for Jesus to do, he wrote.) The fig tree and the Temple are ancient history, and we could continue to focus on them ‘out there’, as if they had no significance except as objects of study. But the Gospel is always for us and for now. It requires a leap of imagination to see that. See Cyril of Jerusalem make the leap: “Let it not come about that it should happen to us what happened to the barren fig tree in the Gospel. Let not Jesus come in these days and utter the same curse upon the fruitless.”
What was wrong with the Temple cult? Why had it become barren? It had mixed itself too successfully with the commercial spirit; it was not producing the fruits of the Spirit, but the wrong kind of fruit: commercial profit. Meister Eckhart in the 14th century doesn’t allow it to be just about an ancient cult; he brings it home to us: “Who are they who bought and sold [in the Temple], and who are they still...? See, those are all merchants who, while avoiding mortal sin and wishing to be virtuous, do good works to the glory of God, such as fasts, vigils, prayers and the rest, all kind of good works, but they do them in order that our Lord may give them something in return, or that God may do something they wish for. All these are merchants. That is plain to see, for they want to give one things in exchange for another, and so to barter with our Lord.”
As Jesus was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.’ They argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say, “Why then did you not believe him?” But shall we say, “Of human origin”?’—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’
I know a man whose last line in every argument (no matter what the subject) is, “Yes, but not in the South.” He uses it so often that we know by now that it is comedy, and that he just means to say that he has tired of the argument. Jesus’ reply in today’s reading sounds a bit like that.
It is very clear that the group of men who approached Jesus were an official deputation from the Sanhedrin. “The chief priests, the scribes and the elders” were the three component sections of the Sanhedrin, the supreme religious authority of the Jews. They questioned his authority to teach. When authorities are quick to question someone’s authority, it is often because their own authority is the uppermost thing in their minds. Jesus had innate authority, but theirs was borrowed: that is why they felt so threatened. The weaker a man is, the more he will insist on his authority and privileges. Jesus was in no way intimidated by them, though they had power of life and death over him, as they proved in the sequel. He seems rather to have been bored by them. They had failed to make a connection with him. St Augustine: “They said, ‘We do not know.’ And because they had shut themselves up against him, by asserting that they did not know what they knew, the Lord did not open up to them because they did not knock. For it has been said, ‘Knock and it will be opened to you.’ But they not only had not knocked that it might be opened, but by their denial they barricaded the door against themselves. Then the Lord said to them, ‘Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things.’”
30 May [Trinity]
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
"Who can understand the Trinity?" wrote St Augustine in the 5th century. "Rare are the persons who, when they speak of it, also know what they speak of…." Then with all due qualifications and apologies, he suggests a way that might throw a little light on it. Look at yourself, he says; you see that you exist, and that you have a mind and a will. These are three dimensions of your reality, and yet you are one. You are a kind of trinity: three in one and one in three. It is just an image, for as he said, "Who can in any way express it plainly? Who can in any way rashly make a pronouncement about it?" It is only an image, yes, but it has this advantage: that it is taken from personal life, and not from mathematics. Sometimes people have seen the mystery of the Trinity as a piece of impossible mathematics in which 1 x 3 is still 1. St John, like Augustine, looked in personal life for analogies of the Trinity. He wrote, "Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love" (1 John 4:8). This is a profoundly challenging statement. If I don’t live in love I don’t know God. A little further on John wrote, "God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them" (1John 4:16). I may be the most learned theologian in the world, I may have hundreds of ideas for the betterment of the Church and society, I may be working hard to implement these ideas; but if I am not living in love it is wasted effort.
Let's extend the personal image a little further, to groups of persons trying to live together. There are two things, mainly, that people suffer from in families and communities of every kind. One is a feeling of suffocation, of not being allowed to be themselves, of having no identity except that of the group. The other is opposite but equally painful: a loss of identification (of any but the most basic kind) with the community. Here the individuals circle around one another at a distance, like planets, and this leads to loneliness. These two are opposite poles: too much family and too little, suffocation and loneliness. Now try to think again about the Trinity. The Father is eternally the Father. He never has been and never will be the Son or the Spirit. Likewise the other Persons. Each is eternally a unique Person. There is no suffocation. And yet they are so much one that we have to say there is only one God. The doctrine of the Trinity shows us that the inner life of God is a community - the only perfect community. Such a life we all aspire to, such a life we long for in all our dreams and waking: full presence to others without being diminished or disrespected in any way, a joyful pouring out of our lives for others, such that it makes us fully who we are ourselves.
Deep down, our longing for such a community is our longing for God. All our struggle to achieve it is our struggle for God, and all the pain and frustration we experience on the way is redeemed and given meaning by that transcendent Community that is God.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.
When the Roman emperor Nero saw his immense palace, the domus aurea, finally completed, he said, “Ah, at last a house fit for a man!” Many who are less extreme than he (there have been very few who were more) would still think of human life as consisting in some degree of success, power, recognition….
By every standard of the day, Mary was only barely human. She was not only female in a world ruled by men, she was unmarried (though betrothed); she was young in a world that valued age; she was poor in a world that saw poverty as God's curse; she was a peasant remote from the centres of power. Yet the Liturgy calls her “the greatest honour of our race.” (Incidentally, did the person who composed that line forget about Jesus at that point?) ‘Human’ must mean something deeper than power, recognition, and the rest.
Was she powerless then? “I am the servant of the Lord,” she said, “let it be done to me according to your word.” Does this confirm her in her identity as a powerless woman, passive and dependent? If so, then it confirms all women in that identity. But more: it confirms all disciples, all Christians – for Mary is seen as the perfect disciple, the model for all disciples, men as well as women.
As she crossed the hill country to visit her elderly cousin, she was not bearing a child for her husband, as other women did. She was in the role of a prophet. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” as later the Spirit would overshadow Jesus at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:34), and the disciples in the upper room (Acts 1:8). In her, God is doing a new thing. She does not model conventionality and social compliance; she is in the line of Old Testament valiant women, as her Magnificat makes clear. In her the spiritual paradox of power and powerlessness is plain to see.
Some Pharisees and some Herodians tried to trap Jesus in what he said. They came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’
But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The Caesar’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to Caesar the things that are the Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.
Because Judea and Samaria were troublesome areas, the Romans imposed direct rule on them - and as part of the programme, this census tax. This was the cause of deep anger and resentment among the people. Judas the Gaulonite, for example, had proclaimed that taxation was a form of slavery, and he called for violent resistance. His rhetoric influenced many, and taxation was a burning question.
The question they asked Jesus was a trap, concealed under a layer of flattery. “They surrounded him like bees, who carry honey in their mouth, but a sting in their tail,” said an ancient writer. If he said it was right to pay the tax, he would incur the anger of the people; and if he said it was not right, he would be reported to the Romans as a revolutionary. “Their plot was one which had a precipice on both sides.” There seemed to be no way out of the dilemma.
In the ancient world, coinage was considered the property of the ruler, since it had his image on it. Jesus asked them to show him a coin. This was clever, because by possessing a Roman coin they were already showing themselves to be collaborators with the Romans. This was a sore point, especially for Pharisees. He only had to say, “Give back to Caesar this worthless thing that belongs to him in any case.” Then he added, “Give back to God what belongs to God,” as if to say, “You were made in God's image: you have his image stamped on you, just as this coin has Caesar’s image stamped on it. You don’t owe your souls to Caesar.”
This principle has served societies well, when it has been observed. This saying, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” was of great importance to the early Christians, because they were often accused of disloyalty to the state; see, for example, Acts 17:7: “These people...have broken every one of Caesar’s edicts.” Paul wrote an exhortation to loyalty to the state (Rom 13:1-7, where he even says that the taxman is doing God's work!). Clearly there is a tradition of civil loyalty that goes back to Jesus himself.
Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.’
Jesus said to them, ‘Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.’
Just like yesterday, there is a cunning question, a deceitful ‘why?’ in today’s gospel passage. Yesterday it was the Pharisees; today it is the Sadducees. If you thought that questions were always neutral requests for information, these passages show you otherwise. The Sadducees didn't believe in life after death; but here they are, asking a question, the point of which is to reduce such a belief to absurdity. But Jesus didn't tailor his answer to please them: the dead, he said, will be “like the angels in heaven.” He knew that the Sadducees didn't believe in the existence of angels, any more than they believed in a next life. It is a lesson in how to deal with dishonest questions: don't give up your ground, don't backtrack.
How does one hold belief in the resurrection? With the mind alone? If so, then it would be no more than what Blaise Pascal called “the big bet” (le grand pari). It goes as follows: You can't really lose by believing in it, for if there is life after death, you will not be disappointed; but if there is not, again you will not be disappointed – because to experience disappointment you would have to exist! But Jesus did not come to proclaim the Safe Bet; he came to proclaim the Good News. When he said as he died on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” he was not taking a bet on the resurrection; he was entrusting his whole being, body and soul, to the Father. Unless I am trying to do that, as far as I am able, I don’t really believe in the resurrection – neither that of Jesus nor of anyone else.
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked Jesus, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’
Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself” — this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’
When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
At last a man with a fairly honest question! This was a remarkably friendly exchange between Jesus and the scribe, and it stands in strong contrast with the two exchanges just before it in Mark’s gospel. They pay each other handsome compliments. Perhaps this was put there to show that Jesus' teaching is not necessarily in conflict with the best of what was before. In other words, a bridge between the two is possible.
It was a much debated question among rabbis: “Which is the greatest commandment?” As they tended to expand the Law into thousands of regulations, they also tried to pick out its essence and express it in the shortest form. The scribe in today’s Gospel passage came with the usual question. When Jesus answered, the scribe said, “Well spoken, Master!” It was like a teacher saying, “Good boy!” He sounded more like an examiner than a questioner. But he was better than the ones we saw yesterday and the previous day. “You are not far from the Kingdom,” said Jesus. The Kingdom is more than reciting the correct formulas; it is God’s grace invading us like a great wave and sweeping us out of our depth.
To love your neighbour as yourself is called The Golden Rule. Sometimes we hear people say that it is the heart of the Gospel and a distinctively Christian teaching. It doesn't take long nowadays to discover that it is common to many religions and philosophies. Four or five centuries before Christ, Plato wrote, “May I do to others as I would that they should do to me." In today’s gospel passage Jesus was replying to a question about the Mosaic Law; he was giving his interpretation of it; he was not giving his own teaching. When he spoke for himself he did not say, “Love your neighbour as yourself;” he said, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Many people love themselves in ways that are twisted and destructive. I know a few people from whom I would run a mile if they threatened to love me as they love themselves. Our self-love is not a reliable guide to how we should love one another. His love for us, not our love, is the measure of love.
While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.’ ”
David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?’ And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.
Today's passage puzzles the scholars greatly. It could bear several interpretations. The people who were listening to Jesus were clear in their minds that the Messiah would be a descendent of King David – because of a text in their Scriptures, “I will establish the throne of his [David’s] kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:13). They were clear: they knew the kind of Messiah they wanted. Whatever interpretation Jesus’ saying is to bear, it is obvious that he is ruining their clarity. He is either saying that the Messiah will not be a descendent of David, or that he will be much more than a descendent of David.
There are people who insist on clarity above all else, thinking that clarity is a proof of truth. But there are many things that are clear and false. When we think we have understood something we say “I have it!” We use the words ‘having’, ‘grasping’, ‘holding’, and the like. Even the word ‘concept’ (from Latin concipere) means ‘to grasp’. These words should make us pause, because fundamentally it is not we who seize the truth, it is the truth that should seize us. As Chesterton once put it, we are not here to get the skies into our heads, but to get our heads into the skies. To promote false clarity is to be an enemy of the truth.
The scribes were the Scripture scholars of their day, and Jesus seems to have enjoyed tying them up in knots. Sometimes it happens that scholars become so immersed in texts that they don't look at what is staring them in the face. I knew a scholar who was so immersed in the Scriptures that he concluded they could only have come from earlier Scriptures, not from any real-life experience; and so, he argued, Jesus never existed. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus is standing there, while the scribes are debating texts. But the “large crowd,” incurious about texts, “was listening to Jesus with delight.”
Jesus said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’ He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’
Bede the Venerable (672–735) suggested that it was not these robes and these preferments and these greetings that Jesus condemned, but only the love of them. Hmm. That distinction would be a little too subtle for those Scribes, as it would be for most people who dress and behave special. Whether we love them or not, things carry meanings of their own, even beyond our intention. Clothes are for warmth and protection, yes, but they accumulate layers – layers of meaning. Clothes become an assertion of one’s self-image, one’s identity. Clothes say, “This is who I am.” Clothes are a language. Uniforms assert membership of a particular class: the army, the police, the clergy…. A language is an agreement; there is no such thing as a private language. What use is a special hat if no one knows what it is saying? One gets the feeling that people who depend on robes and uniforms and badges and insignia must be very unsure of themselves and are craving recognition from others.
Or there could be a more cynical intention. Exploitation. Without that special clothing and manner, those Scribes would not have been able to exploit the poor so successfully. Another ancient commentator, Theophylact, less ingenuous than Bede, noted that these Scribes ‘used to come to widows, who were left without the protection of their husbands, pretending to be their protectors; and by a pretence of prayer, a reverend exterior and hypocrisy, were able to deceive them, and thus devour widows’ houses.’
The Scribes believed that their knowledge of the Law was the sum of all wisdom and the only knowledge worth having. But that belief was insecure while there was even one person who disagreed. How Jesus threatened their identity! He challenged them and beat them in argument, though he had never been to rabbinical school and wore no special hat. He earned their unremitting hostility. He saw through their hypocrisy and exploitation. A widow at that time was the very symbol of poverty and helplessness. In that world, for a woman to lose her husband was to lose her identity. This poor widow of no identity was being exploited by people who clung desperately to a superficial identity. It is the tragic story of the world.
Vanity can exist in anyone, independently of gifts, beauty, brains or position. The vainest person I ever met had a hideous appearance and bored everyone to death with his foolish talk, and the humblest was a person of exceptional gifts. It stands to reason: the word ‘vanity’ comes from the Latin vanus, which means ‘empty’; vanity is for people who are lacking in gifts. Empty buckets make the most noise. Some animals and birds puff themselves up in order to look more impressive or more dangerous, but under the feathers and the fur there is only a cushion of air. Jesus had an eye for people who were real; no doubt that is why he picked out the widow with her mite.
6 June [Corpus Christi]
Mk 14:12-16, 22-26
On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.’ So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’
There is a very precious early Christian document called the Didachè, discovered only in 1873, though Christian writers through the ages always knew of its existence. It was written sometime between the years 50 and 100, and so it is even earlier than some of the New Testament. It contains the very first use of the word ‘eucharist’. It is very moving to read this and to imagine the lives of the Christians who spoke and heard those words in the infancy of the Church.
Here is part of what it says: “At the Eucharist, offer the eucharistic prayer in this way. Begin with the chalice: ‘We give thanks to you, our Father, for the holy Vine of your servant David, which you have made known to us though your servant Jesus. Glory be to you, world without end.’ Then over the broken bread: ‘We give thanks to you, our Father, for the life and knowledge you have made known to us through your servant Jesus. Glory be to you, world without end. As this broken bread, once dispersed over the hills, was brought together and became one loaf, so may your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.’”
I remember that distant day when I ‘made my First Communion’. I remember waking up, having nodded off during the Mass, to find my candle dripping grease. But they had got on with things while I slept. Looking back today I think: During the many years since that time they have got on with lots of things while I slept. And I have to admit that I'm not very repentant about it. Some of the best things can happen to you while you sleep. The Scriptures say that God “pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber.” And Jesus said that the Presence of God (the “Kingdom of God”) is like seed that a farmer scatters in his field and that grows even when he’s asleep. “Night and day, whether he sleeps or wakes, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not understand how” (Mark 4:27). We ourselves grew like that, when we were in the womb and during the early years of our lives. By day and by night our mothers watched over us; we were so sure of them that we could go sound asleep when we knew they were around. God mothers us too.
We experienced our mother first as a source of food, and through that visible channel we experienced her as a source of love. God is mothering us, attracting us, trying to tame us frightened creatures. How do you tame an animal? By feeding it. Gradually the animal begins to trust you, begins to believe in your goodwill. We were (and maybe we still are) like little frightened animals. We have to be tamed into human society. Love is invisible and needs a visible channel. That visible channel is originally food. This wisdom of the body is taken up and exalted in the Eucharist. The food which is the Eucharist has the deepest significance. It is about our relationship with God, the ultimate womb from which our existence came.
The great 14th-century mystic, Julian of Norwich, not only called God our ‘mother’, but she called Jesus our mother! This may seem very strange, even weird. But, as always, she meant something luminous, and she had profound reasons for saying it. She did not mean that Jesus is like your mother. She meant the reverse: your mother is like Jesus. Your mother fed you from her own body. Our mother’s care for us may well be the best image we have of God - and of Jesus.
On this feast of the Body and Blood of the Lord let’s not be too grown up to let the visceral images of the Eucharist play around our minds.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“After he sat down....” This is a significant detail. Rabbis would assume any posture as they discussed matters with their students; but when it came to teaching officially – expounding the Law – they always sat. In saying that Jesus sat down, Matthew is telling us that what follows is no small-talk but the heart of the matter. The Beatitudes are the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, as the Sermon on the Mount is the heart of the whole Gospel.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Another translation, less happily, says “How happy are the poor in spirit.” But there are differences between ‘blessed’ and ‘happy’.
You can be blessed without knowing it. I saw this clearly as I watched a young couple almost compete with each other to hold their baby, while the baby slept through it all. You can also be blessed without appreciating it. “You’re blessed with good health,” someone says to you; but you don’t feel blessed at all, you feel just normal. It is only when you fall ill that you appreciate health. “When you have a toothache,” said Thich Nhat Hanh, “you realise how wonderful it is not to have a toothache.”
Happiness, on the other hand, is just a passing state of feeling. The word ‘happiness’ is related to ‘happen’ and ‘perhaps’: it is about randomness, it is about hit and miss. Feelings, like the weather, come and go and are constantly changing. You can't stake a claim to happiness because it is not firm ground and stakes take no hold there.
Jesus doesn’t tell you that you are happy. He tells you that you are blessed. He tells the poor in spirit that whether they know it or not, whether they appreciate it or not, they are blessed. Blessedness comes from beyond the changeable world of feelings and ideas. The mediaeval theologians spoke about ‘beatitudo’. The word is normally translated as ‘happiness’, but it was not referring to the subjective feeling of happiness; rather to the objective state of being rightly aligned in one’s life.
As we go through our phases we are to know that there is a loving God who cares for us with the love of a father and mother. It is especially when we are weak and without resources of our own that we come to know it. It is when we ourselves begin to embody some of God's own qualities, made visible in the life of Jesus, that we know it. The Beatitudes are the best portrait we have of Jesus himself, and he honours us by telling us they are our portrait too.