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?
To get away for a while, Jesus and his Apostles crossed over to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee in a boat. Watching them go, those with a boat available crossed over following them. Many more walked all around the lake to join up with them on the far shore.
Seeing this great crowd coming towards him and gathering around him Jesus knew that they were very tired and hungry.
His first concern was their physical needs. He asked Philip if they could buy bread for them. Philip replied that they had no money for this but the little food they had – 5 barley loves and two fish – they could share.
Whenever I begin to feel sorry for myself I remind myself of the 34,361 migrants and refugees known to have died while fleeing oppression, war and poverty in their own countries and attempting to find a new home within the borders of the EU. These are only those known to have died; the actual figure is much higher. The names of over 90% of the former are unknown. Their families will never know what happened to them or where they were buried, if they were buried.
Whenever I begin to think that I am seriously trying to be a Christian. Whenever I begin to think that I am doing my bit as a Christian, I have to remind myself of my complacency concerning the thousands of bodies washed up on our shores.
Jesus of Nazareth is asking me ‘where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ ‘Where shall we find a place for these people to live?’ “Where shall we find work for these people to do?”
The above is a very good reality check for me. It brings me down to earth. It shows me clearly how far I am prepared to go ‘to love my neighbour as myself.’ Not very far at all.
As St. Paul said concerning the tendency to think that he was doing well, to think that he was a good Christian: “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, …. to keep me from being too elated.”
Today, the plight of migrants and refugees is ‘the thorn in the flesh’ that shows me how far I fall short of being a real Christian.
The greatest block to God’s helping me is my pride.
Pride is thinking that I can ‘pray God’ into doing something for me or for others. If it does come about I immediately credit myself with it.
Pride is feeling pleased with myself for donating to some worthy cause when from God’s point of view I am only sharing with others what is rightfully theirs.
I need to constantly remind myself of how far I fall short. My attitude to migrants and refugees is a good way of doing this.
Today’s Gospel reading has a few interesting points.
1) Jesus gives his Apostles authority over evil spirits. Evil spirits are whatever prevents or obstructs me from following the example of Jesus of Nazareth; obstructs me from walking in the presence of God; from being guided by the Holy Spirit. In other words Jesus of Nazareth gives his followers – his church – the authority to bring healing and freedom from whatever prevents me from following Jesus of Nazareth. These evil spirits are pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth.
This authority has nothing to do with “you do it this way’ or ‘you do it our way’ or else …
It is authority or power to bring healing and freedom to those who need and want it. It has nothing to do with control or coercion.
2) The Gospel reading goes on to mention a number of details as regards how to dress or not dress, what to carry or not carry with them. How to act in differing circumstances. These may have been relevant 2000 years ago but today they must be taken as symbolic; indicating the right attitude and approach to their mission.
Their influence must have nothing to do with showy fanfare, displays of wealth or political clout.
Their influence must come from service to others, from bringing healing, peace of heart and freedom of spirit.
They must come bringing gifts; the gift of the Good News of the Kingdom of God. The gift of Salvation.
Listen to the fallowing from St. Luke:
‘Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town. Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way.
When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said to him, Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house. And he came down quickly and received him with joy. When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner. But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over. And Jesus said to him. Today salvation has come to this house.’
This clearly demonstrates the authority and power given by Jesus of Nazareth to his church; to his followers – the power to bring spiritual healing, to bring spiritual freedom, spiritual peace and salvation. Nothing more. Nothing less.
One of the hardest things to do is to change when we already believe that we know it all.
I call it the ‘we always did it this way’ syndrome or ‘that is what we were always told’ syndrome.
I know all about this syndrome as I suffered from it for many, many years and still do to some extent.
Actually many of us clergy suffer from this syndrome.
The simple people of Nazareth suffered from this syndrome. They knew all there was to know about their neighbour, Jesus of Nazareth. They remembered when he was born, they knew his mother and father (had they not been at his father’s funeral). They knew his cousins and relatives. They could point out unerringly his goats and sheep from all the other livestock of the village.
They had heard the stories about his doings elsewhere, about his preaching, even that miracles and cures were attributed to him.
They could not get their heads around all this. There was some mistake, there was some trickery involved. Was this not the boy and man they had known for thirty years? What was all the brouhaha about?
When Jesus arrived in Nazareth with his disciples no crowd were there to meet him. There were no sick clamouring for cures. It was only in the Synagogue, at the usual Sabbath prayers, that he met all the people of Nazareth.
All the stuff they had heard just couldn’t be true (after all was this not the carpenter, Mary’s son, who had disappeared suddenly some time back.) and of course the inevitable mix of envy and jealousy at the possibility that there was some truth in what they had been hearing.
How could they possibly admit that they had got it wrong!
In the same way today it is some of the people of our own church who refuse to accept and listen to Pope Francis. It is some in the leadership of our own Church who are the most vociferous of his opponents.
To quote today’s Gospel; ‘Where did this man get all this. They said ….. And they took offence at him.’
Our present Pope is trying to revive the hope and joy engendered during Vatican 11. He is giving us an example to follow. One of mercy, tolerance, acceptance, forgiveness and love. He is asking each one of us to change, to be converted, to be renewed.
I must be willing to listen and to change. This is the part I don’t like.
‘There was a woman afflicted with haemorrhages for twelve years.’
Central to this event is Leviticus 15. ‘When a woman is afflicted with a flow of blood …. she shall be unclean, just as during her menstrual period.’
As you can imagine a patriarchal Old Testament was not female friendly.
In the Old Testament being unclean meant that (like lepers) you could have no contact with God or other human beings. You were forbidden the synagogue and its prayers and devotions. Anything or anyone you touched became unclean.
So this woman was not only physically sick but also regarded as spiritually sick and ostracised by everyone. She could not even have the consolation of recourse to her religion and her God.
All this through no fault of her own. She was the victim but punished as the perpetrator.
Imagine her relief and joy not only at her physical cure but at the words of Jesus; ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.’
How many Catholics are experiencing the same exclusion and sense of guilt as this unfortunate woman? How many Catholics feel excluded from their church and their God because of some clergy who think and act like the Pharisees. Pope Francis is trying to apply the mind of Christ to all these moral teachings and practises but is meeting unyielding opposition.
The church is given authority to lead people to God by its teaching and practises. Nobody has the authority to act as a stumbling block for others in their search for God.
Pope Francis is trying to teach us to take responsibility for our own decisions in religious and moral matters. This particularly in marital and sexual problems.
There are plenty of embezzlers, thieves, liars, corrupt officials, drug dealers, human traffickers etc. walking around freely and nobody is telling them that they cannot receive Holy Communion.
But have some marital or sexual problem and the whole weight of ecclesiastical law lands on your head!!!
If you are excluding yourself or have been told to exclude yourself from Holy Communion, think long and hard about how you are treating your God – not as a loving and compassionate parent but as an unforgiving and small-minded overseer.
‘Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.’
Why did Jesus of Nazareth describe John the Baptist in those words?
For Jesus of Nazareth John was greater that Abraham, than Isaac, than Jacob, than Samuel, Elijah, David, and Solomon. For him John was greater than Peter or Paul or any of the Apostles. For him John was greater than his mother, than Mary of Magdala or anyone else you can think of.
I wonder why?
For me the reason is that at the height of his physical and mental abilities (he was only 30), at the height of his popularity and power (he was so popular and had such a large dedicated following that neither political leaders nor religious leaders could touch him despite his excoriating them for their hypocrisy and immorality) he urged and even ordered his followers to follow and listen to this newcomer called Jesus of Nazareth.
He was well aware of what this would mean for him, and what very soon happened. With the departure of most of his followers to join Jesus of Nazareth his political and religious enemies had him quickly arrested, jailed and executed without trial.
John the Baptist was the greatest because he had no personal desire for greatness; it was thrust upon him by God. He accepted greatness and immediately abandoned greatness as his God willed, although the latter came at a terrible price.
He underwent much soul-searching and was plagued by doubts as we read in the Gospels: From prison “John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask. Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
It is amazing that we have all sorts of people within our church urging us to pray to this saint or that saint, to practise this devotion or that devotion but I have never heard of anyone urging us to pray to John the Baptist or pushing a devotion to John the Baptist!!!
This is John the Baptist. This is what he was and is like. He steppes aside. He relinquishes power gladly. He does not promote himself. He likes the background. For him it is only God who matters. It is God he promotes. He eschews showy devotions. He is not the patron saint of anything. He was never canonised (as far as I know). You do not see statues of him in churches surrounded by votive lights and vases of flowers. Have you ever seen a prayer to John the Baptist?
And yet according to Jesus of Nazareth – God the Son the Second person of the Blessed Trinity – he is the greatest.
For me his greatness is in his humility and his total dedication to the will of his God.
Jesus of Nazareth was sent by the Holy Trinity to tell us about, and to inaugurate, the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God.
This Kingdom of God is everything that the kingdoms of this world are not.
Take any aspect of government, of royalty, of dictatorship and you will find that the Kingdom of God is the direct opposite.
We find this unnerving. We find it very hard to swallow. We find it very difficult to accept and practise.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek.’ ‘It is like a mustard seed which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground.’ ‘Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’ ‘it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.’ ‘It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed (in) with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch of dough was leavened.’ ‘When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing.’
Moses was on the run from the Egyptian police when God called him to lead the Israelites to freedom. He had a bad stutter and had to have Aaron to speak for him.
David was not even considered by his father when Samuel came to anoint one of his sons king. They had to send someone to call him from where he was herding the sheep and goats in the bush. Jesus of Nazareth himself came from one of the poorest hamlets in the poverty stricken province of Galilee. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ was Nathaniel’s reply when told that Jesus was from Nazareth. Jesus called his twelve Apostles not from the religious leaders or the privileged classes but from everyday working people.
Lastly, our exemplar, our Leader, our God is executed on a cross as a subversive and a criminal.
I could profitably spend some time thinking about the following quotation from Jesus of Nazareth – the convicted and executed criminal – who is my God.
‘This I command you: love one another. If the world hates you, realise that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you.’
So do I belong to the ‘world’ or to the Criminal?