Today’s Gospel reading illustrates nicely the catechetical skills of the catechist Luke. He illustrates two very important aspects of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth by telling two very memorable stories. ( Whether these events actually happened or not is irrelevant. We search for the massage they contain).
The first tells me of the importance of humility (or truth). In ordinary human relation. Even if you are not particularly humble, it is very bad policy to always push yourself forward, to always grab the best seat. Sooner or later you will find yourself publicly demoted or put down, to your acute embarrassment and to the delight of the onlookers.
If acting outwardly humble in everyday social life is so important, how much more so is internal humility in our spiritual life.
God is repelled by the proud of heart and mind. God embraces the humble of heart and mind.
The second story does not castigate me for enjoying a party with my neighbours and friends. We read in the Gospels how Jesus attended and enjoyed many parties with his followers and friends and even with those who wished him harm like the Pharisees.
The message of this second story is that while enjoying good food and drink with one’s relatives and friends we should be always aware that many lack the bare essentials of life. I should feel a constant urge to share my good fortune with those less fortunate. Hoarding my possessions is one of the main causes of world poverty today.
Arriving into the next life with a coffin stuffed full of high denomination bank notes will be very embarrassing in the presence of young children who have died of hunger.
The word catechumen comes from a Greek word meaning ‘one being instructed’. A catechist is the teacher doing the instruction. Catechesis is the stuff which is being taught. The catechism is a book containing the teaching. Catechetics is the art or method or act of being instructed.
So in todays parlance in the catholic church all religious instruction is known as catechetics (this could include the Bible and the authors of the Bible could be called catechists.)
A good catechist (or teacher) does not just tell you a bald fact such as ‘do not kill’. The good catechist will embroider the fact with example and story and hyperbole and parable to help the student or catechumen to remember and understand better the bald fact.
The Bible was written by many different authors (that is catechists) each with different abilities and expertise as regards catechesis (ie. religious instruction).
So most of the Bible teaching (catechesis) is not a direct quote of the words of Jesus of Nazareth. It is teaching retold and digested over long periods of time and eventually written down by a catechist in a form and style and understanding uniquely his own.
Today’s gospel reading is a typical example of this.
One must avoid being distracted by the style, symbolism, examples and parable used by the catechist to get the message across. One must search out the message.
For example if the post man/woman brings you a letter you do not consider what he/she looks like or how they are dressed or what vehicle they arrived in. They are just the messenger. You concentrate on the letter they delivered and what it says.
The message today is, do not ask who or how many will be saved (As we say ‘go to heaven’). Do not even ask will I be saved or even worry about it.
From the point of view of Jesus of Nazareth life is not about going to heaven or not going to heaven. Life is about ‘entering through the narrow door.’
Entering through the narrow door is living like God our Creator eg. forgiving, giving generously, showing compassion and mercy, being tolerant, welcoming the stranger, sharing what we have etc.
This leads to happiness and peace of mind, heart and spirit and sharing in the Eternal life of our God, even in this life. That is how we are created to live, not by joining the rat race of fierce competition, rampart ambition, greed, self interest above all else, and the devil take the hindmost. The latter is the wide door, the broad road that leads to sleepless nights, constant worry, being perpetually on one’s guard against, and suspicious of, one’s colleges and so called friends, constantly and fearfully examining the stock market to see if your precious hoard has risen or fallen a point.
Today’s Gospel uses shocking examples in an effort to wake me up to what life is about. It is not ‘to put the fear of God in me’. The very last thing God, my loving Father, wants from me his child is fear just as the last thing any loving parent wants from children or grandchildren is fear.
“Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” In the estimation of Jesus of Nazareth the first are the humble, compassionate, merciful, accommodating and generous and not the ruthless, ambitious high – flyers who trample underfoot everyone who gets in their way on their road to glory.
“He said to one of them in reply, ˜My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?”
For many years of my life I understood religion to be a sort of bargain between me and God. I would try to keep his commandments and he would pay me the usual salary – a place in heaven.
I now know that the above is a totally wrong understanding of religion and of God.
I was created by God in God’s own image and likeness. I share God’s genes, God’s nature. I am made in such a way that I will only find fulfilment, pease of heart and of spirit by living like God. Religion is understanding this and striving to live in this way. Whether there is a heaven or not is irrelevant to this. If God announcer this evening that unfortunately heaven was full up and there was no room for us, nevertheless the best way for me to live will still remain the same.
We are all guilty to some extent of the same attitude of the workers who came first. Everything we have and are is a free gift from God. Yet we keep comparing our lot with that of others. Why can I not be like him or her I complain.
What I am and have been given by my God is totally unique. I try to live like my God while living with, while using, while burdened with, while blessed with what I am and have or have not.
That is religion. That is the best and the happiest and the most fulfilling way to live – all the time being grateful to my God for what I am and have.
The Prophet Jeremiah spoke truth to the people of Israel but their leaders did not want to hear it and tried to murder him.
Jesus of Nazareth spoke truth to the people of Israel but their leaders murdered him.
As today’s Gospel tells us; “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Speaking or living the truth always brings persecution and conflict. Anyone who knows how, what we call ‘whistle blowers’, are persecuted will realise this.
I am blind to my own faults. My family, my friends, my neighbours see them clearly. I seriously resent being corrected or having even one of my faults pointed out to me. “Mind your own business” I retort angrily.
When I joined the Seminary, the first year was a spiritual year. We did what you might call a crash course in spirituality. It was a conditioning process. Part of it involved four to five hours in church each day performing various forms of prayer.
Another part involved the whole group, supervised by the spiritual director, publicly pointing out each others faults and failings. You can see the thinking behind it seeing as we are all blind to our own faults. Of course we, at the age of eighteen, had very little discernment as to this or understanding of the root causes or motivation for these visible faults. Luckily humour sometimes crept in (although frowned upon) as for example I was once accused of not removing my clerical black hat in the dormitory until I had put on my pyjamas.
The message of today’s readings is that I should be open to correction especially by those who love me and are concerned for my welfare.
I should always be alert to hints and remarks which may be vaguely critical and not resent them and strike back. Thinking later about these hints can be educational and helpful in seeing myself through the eyes of others who always see me more clearly than I do myself. Feeling gratitude for such hints should be my response rather than a hot resentment because they may well be pearls of wisdom.
For the wise, criticism from an enemy can gain one more self knowledge and understanding than floods of affirmation.
Today’s readings are about the journey of life and the best way to live it.
Through what we call faith we know where we are going.
Through what we call hope we look forward to journey’s end with confidence.
Through what we call charity (that is mutual respect, mutual forgiveness, mutual tolerance, mutual support) we know how to live, how to journey together.
This whole edifice of my life is based solidly on the tripod of the Holy Trinity – God. Belief in God – the Creator – is essential to support this edifice.
This belief in the existence of God cannot be proved and demonstrated beyond doubt by any physical proof or verbal arguments.
Neither can the existence of God be disproved or demonstrated beyond doubt by any physical proof or verbal arguments.
Our church teaches us that this faith (belief in the existence of God and trust in God’s promises) is a gift from God. Obviously not everyone receives this gift. Why this is so is God’s secret. Just as it is God’s secret why some are born with brilliant minds and some are born mentally impaired.
This is so irrespective of what sort of a person you are.
But all human beings are created in God’s image and likeness. This means that no matter what our stance is vis a vis the existence of God, the law of God is imprinted in our very being. The vast majority of human beings follow this imprinting of God’s law most of the time. It is obviously the only way to live in peace and harmony. Some ignore this imprinting because of upbringing and environmental factors or because of many free contrary choices over a period of time.
For me the most obvious way to live is by following the law of God which is part of my very being and nature. (Does not a child, at a very early age, know or sense or understand the difference between what is right and what is wrong). To me the most pleasant way to live, the happiest way to live, the most fulfilling way to live is the way of mutual respect, tolerance, forgiveness and support; ie the law of God
This being so, we know how we should conduct our lives and affairs irrespective of belief in the existence or non – existence of God.
Belief in the existence of God is the icing on the cake.
Trust and confidence in the promises of God is the honey on the toast.
“Concern for the future is good stewardship. But if concern becomes greed, egotism, keeping up with the neighbours, inspired by the philosophy that “we live only once,” you are in trouble. You are only God’s steward of all you possess! Do you feel responsible for those less fortunate?”
(From St.Joseph Sunday Missal.)
Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal.
You and I step back in horror at the very idea that we might do these things.
Yet we sit back comfortably on our well padded financial cushion with not the slightest twinge of conscience, when, what we have read in today’s gospel is at least as important in the eyes of our God, if not more so.
That is the message, in a nutshell, of today’s three readings.
Let us contemplate this message as we listen to some music.
As you are probably aware, before the art of writing was discovered, events of importance were passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth by the retelling of stories and legends. People being people, these stories were embroidered and exaggerated down the centuries.
The stories of events recounted in the Book of Genesis such as the Tower of Babel, Noah and the Flood, and of course todays story about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah all had their beginnings in events or natural disasters in the dim and distant past.
For example archaeologists and geologists have recently found evidence of the occurrence of a massive earthquake or landslide in the Dear Sea region (where Sodom and Gomorrah were situated) which would have wiped out structures and inhabitants of the region at that time. There would be much rumbling, earth shaking and smoke or dust clouds.
The memory of this event, passed on by oral tradition, was taken up by the authors of the Book of Genesis and used as a story to illustrate the sinfulness of human beings and the trouble that we bring on ourselves by our greed, selfishness and rampant ambition.
There is certainly a message here for us today when naked ambition, greed and selfishness, at a personal and national level, is ratcheting up hatred and intolerance. If things continue as they are, if lies and deliberate misrepresentation continue at the present pace it may end up in a major misunderstanding and crisis in which we will all suffer.
Remember the message that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is meant to convey and like Abraham pray for deliverance.
Two great Christian virtues; Two traits, we as followers of Jesus of Nazareth should be noted for, are welcome and hospitality.
Abraham looked up and saw three men standing patiently nearby.
When I went to Kenya in 1964 it was the custom of the older generation, when visiting someone’s house, rather than going up to the house and knocking or announcing their presence with a loud greeting, to stand or sit in the shade of a nearby tree in full view of the house and wait patiently to be noticed, approached and welcomed.
This was obviously the custom also at the time of Abraham.
Having noticed them Abraham hurried to greet and welcome them into his home.
Obviously Abraham acted in this way not just because it was the custom and the done thing but principally because he felt honoured at being visited and was eager to hear what they had to say and what news they brought as well as being eager to tell them all about himself and how he and his family were.
He showed true and sincere welcome and hospitality.
Jesus and his entourage were passing by the village of Bethany on their way and Jesus slipped away unnoticed to visit his dear friends Martha and Mary.
Both sisters were as delighted to see and welcome him as he was to visit them.
But both reacted differently. Martha immediately began to think; what am I going to cook? is the house clean? is the spare room tidy and ready? And instead of sitting down and hearing all Jesus’ news and telling him her news she bustled around like a small tornado trying to do everything at once and getting stressed out and angry with her, to her mind, unhelpful sister.
All Jesus wanted to do was talk to his friends and listen to them.
In the Bible to have a visitor is an honour, a privilege, a gift.
I find that the most satisfying visit is when there is no fuss or preparation.
People sit down, talk and exchange news over a simple cuppa. You do not feel that you are disrupting anything or causing anxiety in any way.
In the Christian tradition visiting should be enjoyable and fulfilling for both the visited and the visitor.
Small tornadoes, though understandable, put everyone on edge.
I was still quite young when I noticed that when we were expecting a female visitor my mother morphed into a small to medium sized tornado and we were all swept up into the flurry of preparation. On the other hand if the visitor was male there was hardly even a gentle breeze.
I wonder why is that???
Today we have a religious lawyer ( or canon lawyer in today’s parlance) wanting to find out who is and who is not to be regarded as his neighbour.
Remember that this is a follow up on the question he asked Jesus – “what is the greatest commandment?” The answer to which was to ‘love God and your neighbour.’
You can see the lawyer’s frame of mind.
Firstly; To him not everybody was his neighbour and therefore there was no obligation for him to love or care for them. The obligation was only towards those he regarded as his neighbours.
To get the message across Jesus picked the most despised people in the eyes of the Jews – the Samaritans. Even these despised and hated ones were neighbours and are fully deserving of our love and care.
Secondly; The lawyer was concerned only for himself – how he could fulfil the law with the least inconvenience to himself. For him, compassion for the suffering or needs of others did not enter into the equation.
Let us put this parable into today’s situation and language. For the lawyer read you and I. For the man who fell into the hands of brigands read asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. For the Samaritan who rescued and cared for the unlucky traveller, read the ship’s captain Carola Rackete who rescued 40 migrants at sea and brought them safely to port.
The authorities of the so called Christian country of Italy had her promptly arrested and imprisoned. The Samaritan who helped in Jesus’ parable was not arrested and imprisoned. What does that say for so called ‘Christian Europe today’ ?
Where do I truly stand in this matter?
What of the political turmoil we are presently experiencing these days in our own country and throughout Europe? Is not the root cause racism, xenophobia and narrow minded and destructive nationalism?
Or have I totally misread the situation?
Today’s gospel reading tells us that during his life here on earth Jesus of Nazareth was not looking for more followers, but for more committed followers.
I think that the churches, indeed all religions, are too focused on numbers of adherents – on numbers of followers. This is so because they consider that the greater the numbers of their members the more influence and power they have in this world.
For instance our own church requires each parish throughout the world to count mass attendance, baptisms, confirmations, marriages etc. each year. From this they can say whether the number of adherents is rising or falling. Then they can boast that they have this number or that number of followers. As in our own case, our church claims over one billion followers.
This is vanity and meaningless. For example it is not the number of relatives and friends that you can count, that is important, but the number of them who will stand by you and help you when you are in trouble.
For instance when I came to Corsham twenty years ago the official number of catholics in the parish was recorded as over 2000. This is the number the diocese sent to Rome. I don’t need to comment on such a number.
I am glad to be able to say that I think, rightly or wrongly, that most of you attend weekend mass not because you thing you are obliged to or you feel compelled to but because you want to.
When this is particularly so, like at weekday mass or senior parishioners mass or mass for a particular group, one can feel the spiritual ‘buzz’ as one might say.
To use another example; in the cold weather it is not the number of radiators in your house that matters but the degree of heat they give off.
So it is not the size of the congregation, or the size of the P.P.C. that impresses God but they’re freely given dedication and commitment.
It is good to examine my conscience as regards the why of my religious practises, not so that I stop them if I find that they are motivated by perceived obligation or fear or to merely please someone else but rather that I try to upgrade my motivation to that of gratitude to God and pray for this change.
Developing my trust and confidence in the goodness and love of my God is the surest way of doing this.