In the run up to today’s Gospel reading we have Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees, (all experts on the Scriptures and the religious traditions) asking Jesus difficult questions in an effort to trap him. One of the Scribes, who was listening in and impressed with the answer and explanations that Jesus gave asked him a very important and sincere question. “Which is the first of all the commandments?”
Judaism, at the time of Jesus, was an utterly confusing aggregate of hundreds of laws and regulations covering the minutest details of life. This Scribe was hoping that Jesus could bring some sanity to the legalistic confusion.
To his delight he got a simple, straightforward, and very clear answer – love God and your neighbour.
We human beings, in our usual inimitable way, take this simple answer and obfuscate it.
We ask, ‘who is my neighbour?’
The answer is equally simple if I really want to know. Everyone who has ever lived, is presently alive and who will ever live in the future is my neighbour. If I in any way question this, if i quibble in any way, if I seek exceptions, then I am not a citizen of the Kingdom of God. After all, in God’s Kingdom, I hope to meet all these people face to face, on an equal footing. Can I face that?
We ask, ‘What do you mean by love?’
Love is a word which has been so bandied about, so analysed, so loosely used and abused, that it can mean anything.
In the New Testament Jesus of Nazareth was quite clear about love:
‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’
And God in the Old Testament:
‘Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.’
Since we are all ‘once off’ creations we all experience and express love in different ways – physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. If I were to give one word that was to cover ‘love’ in all circumstances I would say ‘service.’
By and large in the Old Testament official religion functioned independently of ‘love’ and ‘neighbour.’
By and large I was brought up in a religious atmosphere which gave only lip service to ‘love’ and ‘neighbour’.
If Jesus of Nazareth were visibly with us today he would have exactly the same problem with religion today as He had 2000 years ago.
Our Pope Francis has the very same problem, the very same opposition today, because he too is trying to put ‘love’ and ‘neighbour’ as first priority in religious practise.
We wold love to help him.
The greatest way for I and you to help Francis is for each one of us to put ‘love’ and ‘neighbour’ as our top religious priority in all we do and say.
Life is a bit like a batsman in cricket. Balls come at you fast, slow or in between. They spin and bounce this way or that way. They can bounce short or long etc. No matter how good you are you are eventually bowled out.
When bowled out the batsman does not give up playing the game. He/She learns from the experience and continues to try and improve their game.
Many Christians, when they are bowled out give up the game. They experience their faith and trust in God wavering and fading when they experience difficulties in life. They ask angrily ‘why me?’
They are annoyed at God and ask ‘what good is God to me?’ ‘What do I get out of it?’
Today’s Gospel reading shows us Bartimaeus. Imagine him a strong resourceful man earning a good living. He goes blind. He cannot work any more. He becomes a huge burden on his wife and family. He is led to the side of a road every day by one of his children to beg from passers bye in an effort to eke out some sort of a living. His and his families’ once strong religious observance now seems pointless. They do not attend the Synagogue any more except rarely.
But there is still something there – a faint spark of faith and hope in the God of his earlier life.
Hearing from the unusual crowd that Jesus of Nazareth, the so called ‘prophet,’ the so called ‘man of God’ is passing by, Bartimaeus, in his despair and depression at what life has thrown at him, cries out in a last gasp of fading faith and hope – “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
A lot of us find ourselves or have at one time found ourselves in a spiritual position like Bartimaeus. Our faith and hope in God is formless, wispy, inconsequential, unhelpful, pointless. I am almost fully convinced that there is nothing there for me.
This is the time, in my spiritual blindness, in my spiritual helplessness, in my spiritual barrenness, in my rapidly fading faith and hope, to cry out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
We are so used to people blowing their own trumpet that we take it for granted.
We should be aware that self-praise is no praise. It amazes me how often I listen closely to someone telling me about all they do and have achieved, and more or less believing it. Even we can recommend a person for a job or a position solely on the strength at what that person has said about themselves. We make an art of self-promotion and self-deception.
When I feel the need to praise myself or the amount of work I do or to emphasise how busy I am, it is because I am unsure of myself or of my abilities. Self-praise demonstrates my weakness rather than my strengths.
Today’s Gospel reading is alien to the mores of this world.
It emphasises the gulf which exists between life in the Kingdom of God and our everyday life and aspirations. And I quote “You know that those who are recognised as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
It surprises me that so many of you here in St’ Patrick’s parish do spend so much time and energy in service to others. Your example helps me, and I am sure many others, to do a reality check on our own commitment to service to others.
The seats at the high table in the Kingdom of God will not be allocated to the dignitaries of State, Church or commerce but to those whose lives have been ones of humble service.
‘Jesus …. said to him. …… Go, sell what you have, and give to (the) poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’
Jesus invited (called) this man to be one of his Apostles. This calling required that he abandon all his worldly attachments and possessions. This was for him ‘a bridge too far.’
Although I am not invited to be an Apostle, I am nevertheless invited by my God to share the assets God has gifted to me with those in need.
The Governments of the world seem to be determined to accumulate the gifts God has given us in as few hands as possible. We are now in a situation where many people in work no longer earn a living wage. Where it can take a lifetime to acquire ones own home even when both husband and wife are working full-time. Where ‘our’ governments are no longer ‘our’ governments but the
government of the wealthiest five or ten percent. Where truth is no longer available and news is a hodgepodge of fiction and spin. Where war and civil strife are waged (by proxy) by financial interests and multinational companies to gain control of the natural resources of poor country’s; totally ignoring the welfare of these countries’ populations.
There is little you and I can do politically to remedy this situation as successive governments seem to fall prey to the same vested interests.
What we can do is share our good fortune with those in need, by supporting the appropriate charities where we know that our donations go to the needy and not to the inflated salaries and expense accounts of ‘fat cat’ ceos’ and directors. The smaller the charity the more likely it is to deserve our support and to use it effectively.
Anyone who gives regularly and generously will have experienced the joy it brings and the freedom it gives from attachment to money and possessions.
Today’s Gospel reading is not about adultery but about misogyny and the abusive nature of marriage, for women, at that time.
Observing how Jesus of Nazareth treated the women among his followers as equals, the Pharisees tried to trap him with their question.
Firstly Jesus states God’s plan for marital relations by quoting the Book of Genesis; ‘From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother (and be joined to his wife), and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.’
This is the ideal. This is what is to be aimed for, desired and fostered in marital relations.
But the ideal is not always achieved. Things go wrong for any number of reasons.
So in the Old Testament and at the time of Jesus of Nazareth,
when things went wrong in marriage a solution had to be found. The Jewish solution was as follows (keep in mind here that it was a very patriarchal society where women were the property of husbands or fathers and were treated as such.) : All a husband had to do, and I quote from Deuteronomy; ‘When a man, after marrying a woman …. is later displeased with her because he finds in her something objectionable … he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house.’ Of course this was totally one-sided as a woman could not divorce her husband. She could not do the same.
Adultery was punishable by stoning to death. But a man was not regarded as committing adultery against his marriage or his wife if he went with another woman as his wife was his property. His fault was in diminishing the value of another man’s property (his wife or daughter). If a woman did the same she was condemned to death because she had violated her marriage. In short the wife was not regarded as a partner but as part of her husbands property.
What Jesus is trying to get across here to his listeners is that this one sided treatment of women is wrong and unjust. What is true for the wife is equally true for the husband. Husbands cannot hide behind a human law or tradition which is blatantly patriarchal and self-serving to give themselves an unjust and unlawful loophole.
This astonished the Jews not least his disciples and I quote: Shortly after ‘In the house the disciples again questioned him about this.’ They are shocked at Jesus saying that the duties and rights of husband and wife were equal; That adultery, whether by husband or wife, was equally reprehensible.
I may look on the relationship between the sexes in the Old Testament as pretty neanderthal but judging from the response to the ‘#MeToo’, things have not changed that much in the interim.
“This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; ……. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
‘What goes round comes round’, ‘History repeats itself.’
These sayings are so true. Any human organisation you like to pick, be it civic or religious, keeps repeating its mistakes over and over again down the ages. I myself and you, do we not do likewise?
Without going into the multitudinous examples to be found in human history, suffice it to say that our church is presently in the throes of the latest struggle between human tradition and the law of God. I and many of you were brought up in a church whose teaching was (to quote Jesus of Nazareth) ‘rules taught by men.’
Now, on the one hand we have Pope Francis urging us, by word and example, to live by the law of God – the law of love, of mercy, of compassion, of forgiveness, tolerance and justice. On the other hand we have those (among whom are numbered many in important church leadership positions) who fight tooth and nail to preserve and propagate “the traditions of the elders.’
The latest spat was the one over Pope Francis instruction that capital punishment can never be justified and those who claimed that this was contrary to church tradition and therefore heretical.
You and I can sometimes find this dispute confusing. While being strongly attracted by Pope Francis’ approach and seeing it’s merits we can find that the bonds of the past still tie us down.
I like to describe the present confusion of competing approaches as the battle between service of God in fear and trembling and service of God in love and gratitude.
We, the clergy of Ireland and the UK, both priests and bishops as well as some of the laity (with of course some exceptions) are on the side of the ‘elders’ or else just sitting on the fence to see how things go.
Changing ones outlook and attitude is always painful and takes time and a lot of help from the Holy Spirit.
I think we need to be openly proactive and creative, for growth requires change and movement.
I look on the above disputation as healthy and good for our church. An apparent unanimity resulting from forceful compliance is unhealthy.
Todays second reading must be understood in the context and for the time in which it was written. With the latter in mind it is quite revolutionary.
This context and time was totally patriarchal. Women were the property of their fathers or husbands.
For Paul to say ‘Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.’ is unbelievable for the time and context.
For Paul to say ‘So husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.’ is unbelievable for the time and context.
Even today in our ‘advanced’ western society it is often something more hoped for than achieved.
Today’s first reading and Gospel reading are about faith in and commitment to the One True God.
If asked why I have faith in and why I am committed to the One True God I would find it difficult to explain. I would flounder and say this and that and at the end feel that it was somehow inadequate. If I asked you why you married your marriage partner could you give a clear, and succinct answer?
When referring to the followers; ‘many of whom ‘returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him’ Jesus said ‘it is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.’
In other words hard concrete proofs, explanations in words, are unavailable and inadequate when it comes to faith in, trust in and commitment to God. ie ‘the flesh is of no avail.’ So also proofs, explanations, words, are totally inadequate to explain why you love, trust and are committed to your marriage partner.
Then Jesus puts it in another way which only deepens the mystery; ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.’
So, as ‘they’ say; ‘put that in your pipe and smoke it.’
‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them.’
Todays Gospel reading is obviously about the Eucharist.
One can easily just think about receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, on this occasion, and miss the broader, the fuller meaning of Jesus’ words.
Jesus goes on to say; ‘Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.’
I can receive the Eucharist on numerous occasions and still not be a good person.
So here Jesus is not just promoting reception of the Eucharist but promoting a way of life – a life in union with Jesus of Nazareth whose life is lived in union with God the Father.
So today’s reading must be understood in the context of all the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. As for example; ‘Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.’
The message of Christianity is ‘Immanuel’ – God with me.
Everything to do with religion must point towards, promote, bring about, accomplish, life in union with our God and Creator.
This is the message of the Bible. This is the message of every authentic religion.
How good I am at cherry picking for my own selfish ends, to promote my own political ambitions, to secure more control!
In the verses following todays Gospel reading we read; ‘Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, Does this shock you? …. It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.’
So everything concerning the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth must be understood in the context of spirit and life – the Spirit and the Life of God.
So religion is not just about doing but about being.
Doing stuff in religion is important; just as a means of transport is important so as to get to where you want to go. You utilise it to achieve an end.
The end is Immanuel. Living every day in the presence of and in union with God my Creator.
Todays Gospel reading from John begins at verse 41.
But if we go back to verse 40 we read ; ‘This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’
This statement of Jesus is very direct and very clear. I, and all of you, who believe in Jesus of Nazareth will be raised up into Eternal Life on the last day, be that the day of our death or at some later date.
By Eternal Life is meant here not life as we know it going on for ever and ever (how boring that would be) but a sharing in the very life and existence of the Holy Trinity. What this is like is totally beyond our ken just as our life on earth is totally beyond the ken of a child in the womb.
Then we read; ‘The Jews murmured about him because he said, I am the bread that came down from heaven.’
Was Jesus not the son of Joseph from Nazareth? How could he say I am the bread that came down from heaven?
But he reiterated. ’I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.’
The Eucharist, which we are gathered here now to celebrate, is what Jesus was talking about.
The Eucharist; the bread that come down from heaven, is our guarantee of, out title deed to, Resurrection from death and sharing in the Eternal life of God.
Surely this Good News is worthy of rejoicing. Surely it demands an outpouring of gratitude from us.
Let us sit for a few moments and contemplate this great gift.
“Then they said to him, What must we do to perform the works of God?”
Mk. 10. “As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life”
Lk. 10. “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. Teacher, he said, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Lk 18. “An official asked him this question, Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
A man asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
Mtt. 19. “Now someone approached him and said, Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?”
Notice, all have asked to do something that will guarantee them Eternal Life.
In the Old Testament the Jewish religion was all about obeying the Law (religious laws and regulations). Up to quite recently our Church was largely about obeying the Law: be baptised as an infant, receive first Holy Communion, go to Confession, receive Confirmation, get Married in church, be Anointed before you died, be buried in the Catholic section of the graveyard, attend Mass every Sunday, perform your Easter duties, support the church financially etc.
This attitude enables me to be a ‘good’ Jew or a ‘good’ christian while in other respects I can be a pain.
As Jesus said; ‘Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: justice and mercy and fidelity. (But) these you should have done, without neglecting the others. Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean.’
What is the problem here?
Let’s take an example. I can have a totally clean record as far as the police, government and church are concerned. I have never broken any law or regulation. And yet I can be an abusive marriage partner, an uncaring parent, a very difficult employer or employee, a mean and unhelpful neighbour etc. Jesus of Nazareth is upbraiding the Scribes and Pharisees because although they were totally law abiding they were without generosity, forgiveness, compassion, tolerance, and love.
I must take these words to heart because they may be applicable to me also, at least some of the time.
The Old Testament was about doing certain things which hopefully would persuade God to give me Eternal Life.
The New Testament is about living in a certain way in response to – in gratitude for – having been already offered and accepting the gift of Eternal Life.
Is my religion Old Testament or New Testament?