What a change! For once someone from the professional religious classes, a scribe, asks a genuine question: he really wants to know what Jesus thinks. And for once Jesus doesn’t answer a question with a question as he usually does with these religious ‘authorities’. He answers simply using the Schema, the daily prayer of the pious Jew based on Dt 6:3, and an edited quote from Lev 19:18. You can tell how delighted this scribe is with Jesus’ answer as he repeats it back, almost word for word, savouring the wisdom – then he adds his own wisdom which in turn delights Jesus.
Talk about heart speaking to heart. This man shares Jesus’ understanding of Law and religious tradition. These are not intended to be used to attack others, to put people down or to make one feel morally self-righteous. They are a form of discipline for body, soul and spirit that prepares a person to lead a life of worship of God and love of neighbour. People offer ‘sacrifice’ so that they can give generously in love. People conform their lives to all the ‘Thou shalt not’s of the commandments so that they can face the destructive forces of sin that undermine their desire to live rich and full lives in the love of God. Law, morality, Church practice and discipline do not exist to make us feel like failures or to make life difficult. Rather they exist to help us acquire the wisdom to live and love with the dignity of the children of God.
‘Jesus looked at him and loved him.’ Jesus was about to make an audacious request of the wealthy man and he knew that only in the gaze of love could the man respond to this invitation to totally transform his life. Till now he had devotedly kept the Law and avoided sin: no adultery, no stealing etc. and he would have understood his wealth as God’s reward to him for such behaviour. Now Jesus challenges the ground on which he walks. No longer is his virtue to be shown by avoiding sin but by serving the poor with the very wealth his perceives as a blessing and then following Jesus. Devotion to the Law is to be superseded by love of Jesus. It is a big ask: the man had been in control of his life, he had wealth, prestige, the ability to be devout. Now he is asked to give it all away and follow the poor Jesus who we know is on his way to the cross. How could Jesus expect him to respond positively- only in the gaze of love. We, too, will find ourselves in that gaze with an audacious request asked of us- not every day, perhaps only once or twice in a lifetime. But at some stage we will be asked to move beyond everything that holds our world and our self-identity together. We will be asked to do the impossible. How can we prepare for such a moment? By allowing ourselves to bask regularly in the love of Jesus.
Have you noticed that Jesus is harsh, even savage with those who judge people according to how well they observe religious practices? In fact these people, those who lead children astray and those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit are the only groups that he attacks and condemns. In all four Gospels we see him confronting them in the most hostile language. They are called hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, blind guides. Note that is was these ‘religious people’ that worked for his downfall and manipulated his death.
Jesus attacked them vigorously because they were idolaters of the worst sort. Instead of using their religious practices to foster love of God and compassion for others, they used their practices for self-glorification and condemnation of people. “God” was simply the background light to show off their glory.
All who practice their faith, regularly and religiously, should take pause when we hear a Gospel like this Sunday’s. Our religious practices can do us so much good, that we can easily be tempted to think that we are good because of them. All our goodness comes from the grace of God. Our religious practices are like fragile vessels. We are to hold them gently not taking them too seriously. Then they will help us deepen our love of God and lead us into the ways of compassion. But if we hold them harshly, glorifying ourselves, they will break and be a curse upon us.
‘Go preach the Gospel to all nations!’ That directive is given to you and to me as much as it was to those disciples standing on the mountain in Galilee. Personally, the directive worries me, and I’m fairly sure it worries you as well. How are we, in a society cynical of religion, to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ? How are we to preach Good News to people who seem to enjoy bad behaviour? How are we to preach life to a ‘culture of death’?
The clue to how we are to do this comes when Jesus tells us to base all we do on him, his preaching, commands, authority and presence, and to baptise in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is not our work but how we work that reveals what animates us. Quite simply we have to regularly enter into ourselves and ask: how central Jesus is to our lives? There, we must be honest, for dishonesty in the heart is the worst dishonesty of all. Jesus himself will not force change. But if we are truly focused on him, we will then allow his teaching to shine in the ways we relate. Jesus’ ways of relating will led us into the life of God, the loving community of the Trinity. There is an integral resonance between how we relate to each other and to God. On these relationships lies our ability to preach the Gospel to the people we meet.
In the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, the elderly pastor, John Ames, in musing over his life, notices how the word ‘just’ can mean something depreciative or something affirmative – depending on how one views the situation. ‘There I was, with just you!’ Here ‘just you’ can mean ‘only you and what good was that to me?’ Not nice. Or ‘just you’ can mean ‘what more could I have wanted, you and you alone fill me with joy!’ In the first stance, the speaker betrays begrudging acceptance, the second, openness to mystery, joy, abundance.In this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus states that the Spirit will teach us ‘everything’. This is an extraordinary statement. I am very conscious of what I don’t know, about the world, about people…and especially about God. And I’m sure you feel the same way too. Does this mean that the Spirit isn’t teaching me or you? This is how I get my mind around this conundrum: sometimes I wonder about how the ants in our garden view us. If one of us tried to teach an ant and the ant was just interested in its own anty world, it isn’t going to learn anything. But if the ant is interested in more, then it will find what little it learns ¬would be just marvellous. The Spirit is trying to teach us. But if we try to conform the Spirit to just what we want, we will be disappointed – the Spirit will not be tamed. But if we are open to what the Spirit wants, we will be just surprised by joy, time and time again.
A reflection on this Sunday’s Mass by Sr Kym Harris osb and also very apt for Mothers Day. As is the image by Arthur Poulin. Downloaded from http://www.prayasyoucan.com.au
Soaking up being loved by God isn’t easy. We want to justify our existence therefore, before God, we focus on our concerns in a myriad of ways. We want to be busy about our own anxieties, even if they are our own sins, or worse the sins of others. But over and over, Jesus commands us, even pleads with us: ‘Remain, abide in my love!’ Yes, all our concerns do need to be dealt with but if we think we can do them by ourselves or with even a little help from God, we are crazy. We have to ask ourselves whether our ways of praying and doing aren’t paying lip service to the reality of our utter dependence upon God’s love. The true way to love ourselves and each other is to abide, remain in God. It is a good practice to begin each day, resting, abiding, remaining in the love of God for just a few minutes. The radio can wait, as can the TV and internet. The troubles of the world will still be there. But resting in the love of God for those few moments can be a source of the richest grace to live and love throughout the coming day.
The Voice! How much is conveyed by the tone of a voice. We might think that it is the words that convey the meaning but if we think about it we realise that this is often not true. Said with kindness, harsh words can convey love. Said with disinterest, the sweetest words mean nothing, at best. Jesus highlights this with the contrast between the Good Shepherd and the hireling. Imagine the difference in the tone of voice between the two. The Good Shepherd calls and the sheep follow for they hear love and care. The hireling may say the same words, but the sheep refuse to listen. They know the hireling is only there for personal benefit. Each Christian has heard the voice of Jesus calling him or her. We each need to stop and retune our lives according to this call of intimate, personal, unique love. Our name, called in love, is important to Jesus – so it should be to us. It is good to sometimes stop and listen to the tones in our own voices and to ask ourselves what they convey. Is it the tone by which Jesus calls us? The challenge the Good Shepherd gives to each of us is to convey in our voices the love we hear in his.
Uproar was the disciples’ response to the risen Jesus. Joy, terror, dismay, confusion, wonder ran riot within them. Jesus dealt with this by grounding them in a sense of his physical presence, stretching their understanding by showing how the Scriptures revealed what had happened to him. He then challenged them to share this Good News with the entire world.<br>By comparison, our experience of Resurrection seems rather thin. So maybe we should pause and seriously ask ourselves, where could we recognise and experience the Risen Jesus? Could it be in our physical world, as we go beyond ourselves in love and service, doing deeds that don’t come easily to us? Could it be in stretching our minds and hearts to appreciate the riches of the Scriptures and our religious tradition and see what they tell us about Jesus? Could it be in taking up the challenge to present the Good News to the people with whom we live? If you are like me, these questions stir up all sorts of reactions within me: terror at what it might cost, confusion as to what I could actually do, wonder at how it might turn out. But maybe the only way for us to enter into the Resurrection is to be discombobulated like those disciples at the first Easter.Uproar was the disciples’ response to the risen Jesus. Joy, terror, dismay, confusion, wonder ran riot within them. Jesus dealt with this by grounding them in a sense of his physical presence, stretching their understanding by showing how the Scriptures revealed what had happened to him. He then challenged them to share this Good News with the entire world. By comparison, our experience of Resurrection seems rather thin. So maybe we should pause and seriously ask ourselves, where could we recognise and experience the Risen Jesus? Could it be in our physical world, as we go beyond ourselves in love and service, doing deeds that don’t come easily to us? Could it be in stretching our minds and hearts to appreciate the riches of the Scriptures and our religious tradition and see what they tell us about Jesus? Could it be in taking up the challenge to present the Good News to the people with whom we live? If you are like me, these questions stir up all sorts of reactions within me: terror at what it might cost, confusion as to what I could actually do, wonder at how it might turn out. But maybe the only way for us to enter into the Resurrection is to be discombobulated like those disciples at the first Easter.
In the Gospel of John, the giving of the Holy Spirit is associated with the power to deal with sin. The power to forgive is given to all disciples and is to be the distinctive mark of Christians. This isn’t the human forgiveness that can say ‘it’s okay’ after an apology is offered and restoration is made. No, this is the power to deal with dirty, dark, raw sin. Jesus’ forgiveness leads to a profound transformation of the heart that enables us to offer peace, love and benevolence to people who have deeply wronged us, irrespective of whether they repent or not. It is loving as God loves.
Julie Morris, in her book Forgiving the Dead Man Walking recounts her journey, her long journey, of coming to forgive Robert Lee Willie, a murderer and rapist, who had abducted her, repeatedly raped her and threatened her with death. The effect of the trauma in her life is clearly told: her life was a mess. Her anger lashed out in all directions, to her parents, to herself, to Robert Willie, to her God. Only as she forgave herself and others did her life grow to some form of equanimity. The struggle to forgive Robert Willie was long and hard and, at heart, it was a struggle to understand and enter into God’s way of loving. Her forgiveness was not cheap. She carries her wounds, not as symbols of defeat, but as signs of the Spirit’s power to transform our hearts in ways beyond our imaginings. She learnt to love as God loves.
This power to forgive is Jesus’ Resurrection gift to each of us. We each have our own story, our pains, our wounds, times when we have sinned and when we have been sinned against. We know what dirty, dark, raw sin is. Still Jesus comes to us, showing us his wounds, breathing the Holy Spirit upon us and telling us that we too can love as God loves us. [The picture of “cancelled” Thomas with Jesus is at Hosios Loukas, a historic walled Byzantine monastery situated near the town of Distomo, in Boeotia, Greece. ]
In the fine biographical movie, ‘Temple Grandin’, we follow the emergence of Temple from being a child confined by her autism to her becoming a woman able to use her autism as a way to interact with and change her world. Her mother had a profound influence on her but what a journey it was for that woman. Continually her hopes for her daughter were challenged, dashed and sometimes transformed. In spite of pain and difficulty, she never gave up hope. Ultimately this hope was rewarded but never would have she dreamt that her daughter would make her name as a prominent abattoir designer! At the heart of the Easter mystery is the transformation of people’s hope in God. All the people in the Gospel story had their hope in God challenged: Pilate and the religious authorities, the soldiers, the people taunting Jesus, the disciples, the women who came to the tomb. All had certain beliefs about God and how God should act in the world. These in turn affected how they understood Jesus. Those who were rigid in how they thought God would act missed what was happening. Those prepared to be challenged through their pain and confusion came to see and recognise the risen Jesus. We, too, have our hopes and when they are challenged by reality, we need to remember that the reality of God’s love was shown in the crucified, abandoned one, who chose to rise quietly from the dead. As we seek to embrace that reality, our hopes will be transformed – into what we do not know – but we do know that we will be transfused by love.
I love ‘ensemble stories’ – you know books, plays, films where we see a number of different characters reacting within a story. When we look at the Passion Narratives, especially Mark’s, we miss the point if we focus solely on Jesus’ suffering and death. In fact, the Narratives make little of Jesus’ physical suffering. More emphasis is placed on how people react to Jesus. This is an especial feature of Mark’s account.
His Passion account proper begins with the unnamed woman, lavishly pouring costly ointment over Jesus’ head. Somehow, she has recognised what all the other disciples have missed: Jesus is going to his death. She gives a most precious gift is response to his most precious gift. At the end of Mark’s account stands the Centurion, also unnamed, who is the ultimate witness to Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. This man of violence, who probably supervised the scourging, the ridicule, as well as the crucifixion proper sees ‘the Son of God’ in the ignominious failure and death. These two people stand as models of discipleship: one the faithful follower who risks ridicule to show love to Jesus; the other, a hard person transformed, converted to believer.
In between these two figures of faith, we have all sorts of other characters: scheming self-serving priests, a weak politician, frightened disciples, a cocksure Peter shamed at the crow of a cock. These people are written into the story that we might see ourselves there. We know our weakness and failures of character. As we see ourselves echoed in the Passion Narrative, we can remind ourselves that Jesus loved these, all these, and us, to the end.
A few years ago, I read an account of a Syrian man who had been arrested and tortured four times by the Syrian authorities. Each time his family has paid for his release. Finally, he fled Syria with this family. In telling his horrific story, he said that he no longer believed in God, asking ‘How could a God allow such a person as Bashir Al-Assad to exist and to control a regime such as that operating within his country.’ It is a fair question and one that many of us have faced at times in our lives. I do not know the full answer but, in my groping, I believe that the Christian response has something to do with God’s respect for human free will and his horror at some of the choices that we make. Rather than override our choices, God, in the person of Jesus, enters into our suffering, transforming it into his life. The question and response that Jesus poses in this Gospel show the two alternatives he faced him in his coming Passion. He says ‘Should I say, Father save me from this hour. But for this very hour, have I come.’ The God who would save Jesus out of this hour is one remote from human suffering and one who must override human free will when it does not conform to his plan. The God who allows Jesus to enter into human suffering, experiencing the consequences of the choices of evil men, yet still loving to the end is a God who respects our humanity and free will – even though, at times, we baulk and reject such respect. As I said, that is what I have come to in my groping, and I realise it is inadequate. To hold together, the mysteries of God’s love and human iniquity, we have to look at the Cross till it reveals to us its Glory.
‘Well that gave me a lift!’ A lift is often what is needed when we are in dark, difficult places in our lives, needed when we are suffering, grumpy, overcome by being our small-mindedness or small heartedness, or even when we are just overwhelmed by our own selves. So what is the lift Jesus offers us? The glory of the Cross. Oh! That’s not quite what we want. We want ‘out, elsewhere, to something easier’. Jesus offers ‘through and up’ with him. Jesus challenges us with the vision that what we see as negative, simply isn’t only that. There is more in the situation we judge negatively because God is within that situation. If we believe that there is more to our difficulties, suffering, grumpiness, pettiness, ordinary situations, we will see more – we will see the light. If we are not open to the possibility of more, we will not be able to see – to be lifted up by the grace of God. The trick is to be open. The challenge is to see greater possibilities within the situation as it is now. One way of doing this is trying to imagine how aspects of the situation could work for good in our lives. Another is to ask what is positive in the situation. Another is to ask Jesus how he sees the situation. What we are looking for are the cracks that let in the light of Grace.
If God put on a better show in church, the ratings would go through the roof. Imagine if at every Eucharist, our experience was like the Transfiguration – all of us stunned with the glory, filled with the most awesome fear, an experience so rich and wonderful that, like Peter, we want to stay permanently. Well, maybe not every week. With the assurance that it would happen once a year, many, many people would turn up each and every week. So why doesn’t God put on a better show? Why are those insights into the reality of God’s love so rare?
I don’t know. I do know that if I, and many of us, were running a religion we would make it much more attractive than what it mostly is. Much as we tend to blame the preaching, the translation, the choice of hymns or whatever, God could still put on a fireworks display… and doesn’t. What I’ve come to in my understanding is this. God wants us to: Come freely offering the love of our hearts, Come freely, even in the midst of ordinary life, Come freely, in the midst of suffering, Come freely, even when the shadows of this world fall away and we see the true reality of God’s love underpinning all reality. True love is given freely and God treasures the true love of our hearts so much that he will not coerce our response in love.
Taken any risks with your faith lately? My own tendency is to think that faith is something that should make us feel safe and with a well-developed faith we look to God for protection. But a genuine trust in God can make us act in other ways, ways that can led us to risk all that we have, even if it appears to be little.
The leper in this Sunday’s Gospel was an outcast. Yes, he had a skin disease but the people of his time understood this not as an illness but as a sign of his sinfulness. I can imagine him sitting destitute and despised on the fringes of his society, not allowed to come any closer than two metres to anyone, wondering what he had done to deserve this. Was he such a greater sinner than all his family and friends? Out there wondering, he well could have gone to the wild places of the spirit that questioned the interpretation of the law that had caused his situation. Hearing of this healer, Jesus, he would have pondered long and hard. Healing a leper was considered almost as great a feat as raising the dead. Then he came to his decision: he took the risk; he came back into society and found Jesus. What was truly amazing is that he did not ask Jesus for a cure. His words: “If you want to…” imply that he believed Jesus to have divine power. Sitting on the margins, taking the risk of coming back, had loosened his mind and heart to be open to the person of Jesus in a way that those comfortable in society were not.
My father was a gambler – or so I have been told. Mum used to say, ‘Your father’s a gambler, that’s why he took up mushroom farming.’ It was only after he died that I learnt the story. He came from a poor family and having gotten a scholarship to university, he lost a lot of that money on the horses. Well, through sheer hard work he was able to stay at Uni but he never bet on the horses again. Early in life, he faced a demon squarely and judged how weak he was. And he was the better man for it.
We each and all have demons. Part of the genius of the 12 step programs is to get people to face them squarely. Our demons don’t have to be as obvious as addiction to alcohol, gambling or drugs. Anything that undermines the growth of life and love within us is a ‘demon’. The man Jesus cured in this Gospel was not a vicious low life. This was a respectable man who attended synagogue! So what was his demon – resentment, concern for respectability, fear of what others think? We need to face our demons because it is then that we will be open to the salvation that Jesus offers: life to the full. If our lives seem less than full, we need to come before Jesus and ask for the healing that he so wants to give us.
‘Faith is a face to face vision in the dark.’ This paradoxical statement captures the ‘now and not yet’ of the reign of God. It presses in upon us, but like a presence in the dark, it is only felt, not seen. Personal and intimate, it entices us to live close to the heart of God yet we have little tangible evidence to ‘prove’ that it is there. We find it hard to describe, but we know the compulsion it places in the heart. To embrace such a life comes at a cost. Not one of silver or gold or the riches of this world but rather a giving up of our bondage to sin and the sub-human forces that can so easily dominate our lives.
Jesus’ emphasis throughout Mark’s Gospel will be on the transformation of the human heart that takes place when we turn from the bondage to Satan and freely accept a loving relationship with God. Make no mistake about it: Mark takes sin seriously. It binds us to sub human behaviour and in the face of its force, we are weak. But Jesus, the Strong Man, has come in on our side. The battle has been fought and won in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Now, we each have to ratify that victory in our hearts and lives.
How people make decisions is a popular theme for current psychological research. For anyone who thinks they make wise decisions based on reason, the results are not looking good. We are more likely to be influenced by prejudice, emotion and impulse than we would like to admit. One way to counter our biases is by developing good habits of mind and heart.
So what has that got to do with the Annunciation? Many paintings, especially from the Renaissance period, show Mary not only at prayer but more especially reading the scripture at the time of the Angel’s greeting. What is implied is that the woman who said, ‘Be it done unto me according to your Word,’ had been trying to live according to the Word of God before she was faced with the momentous decision to become Mother of God. A lifetime, true a young person’s lifetime, of trying to see God at work in her ordinary life made her heart capable of making a decision that was beyond credulity. In the history of Israel that she had pondered, she saw God’s almighty love working in the most unlikely of places. Well she regarded herself as an unlikely person for God to work through but she trusted God’s power and love to do the impossible within her.
And what about us? If we are having trouble trying to find God’s Word for our lives, maybe we need to regularly try to find God’s Word in the small events of life. That is, we need to discipline our hearts in small things so that when big decisions come we are attuned to the heart of God. Morning offering, grace before and after meals, prayer for those we journey with to and from work – there are a multitude of ways we can be open to the Word of God spoken in the ordinary events of life. As we build the habit of shaping our lives according to the Word, we make ourselves ready for the times when God will call us beyond what we believe humanly possible but which we discover is more than possible for God.