In today’s Gospel reading Jesus rejects the traditional Jewish belief that disasters, accidents, sickness and misfortune are a punishment from God for our sinfulness and disobedience.
We still find this attitude today among many Christians.
It is totally wrong as it portrays God, our loving Father, as an intolerant, irascible ogre who delights in punishing his ‘beloved’ children. This attitude is highly insulting to God just as accusing you of treating your grandchildren in the same way would be highly insulting to you.
We ourselves, as a result of our words or actions, will often bring trouble upon ourselves. If I get drunk and assault someone I will end up in court and be sued for compensation. If I steal I will end up in Jail. If I abuse and insult people I will end up being unpopular and isolated.
These are misfortunes I bring upon myself and have nothing to do with God.
The correct Christian response to disasters, conflicts, misfortunes and grief is not to ask why? but to get involved in the many ways open to me to alleviate the suffering, loss and grief resulting from the disaster or misfortune.
I can ask ‘why’ as loudly as I want and as persistently as I like but will get no adequate answer in this life.
Much better and Christlike to help out as best I can and share what I have with the victims.
On the other hand consider that the people who have themselves suffered loss, those who have had to endure sickness themselves, those who have been victims themselves are most likely and best qualified to help others in the same situation. They, through their suffering, have received the gift of being able to best emphatise with others who have suffered in a similar manner. This gift, granted to those who have bravely borne and survived great loss and hardship, is not to be ignored but utilised for the sake of others who are similarly burdened.
Todays reading is about the transfiguration.
The focus is on Jesus of Nazareth being transfigured or changed before the eyes of Peter, James and John.
We are inclined to ignore the two people who appeared talking to Jesus. They were Moses (representing the Law of the Old Testament) and Elijah (representing the prophets of the Old Testament).
They too were transfigured. They too were changed. We are told that ‘behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glorious splendour.’
Scripture tells us that when the risen Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalen on Easter Sunday morning she did not recognise him until he called her name.
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus walked with the risen Jesus and talked with Him for some hours but did not recognise him until he ‘broke bread’ with them.
St. Paul tells us; ’For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’
Today’s Gospel reading shows us two ordinary human beings who have died and received a sharing in the life of God (or the Kingdom of God). Their perishable bodies have received imperishability, their mortal bodies have received immortality. They can now thumb their noses at death and death’s handmaids, sickness and pain. ‘Death, for them, has been swallowed up in victory.’
This is my destiny. This is my great hope. This is my certain belief. I too look forward to standing side by side with the risen Jesus and Moses and Elijah in the presence of my God.
Isn’t that something to look forward to??
Isn’t that a good reason to regard one another with the utmost respect and consideration??
The first few verses of today’s Gospel reading would demand heroic virtue which you and I would find very difficult to emulate on any regular basis. Not impossible but difficult.
The rest of the Gospel reading is just common sense even from a humanist point of view.
It is well known – though not widely practised – that as I tend to treat others so will I be treated by them. If I am generous, tolerant, forgiving, kind, helpful towards others they will tend to treat me in the same way. If I am selfish, greedy, intolerant, unforgiving, litigious, unkind, then when I am in trouble people will tend to think, ‘serves him right’ and show little concern.
But then we come to Christianity. Then, even the heroic becomes possible. Believing we are all created in God’s (the Creator’s) image and likeness and that if we live in this way ‘we will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.’ We do it, not just because it is the right and best way to live together but because it is also pleasing to our God in whom we live and move and have our being. From whom everything we are and have is a free gift (grace).
So this brings our motivation to another level. I treat other people as I want to be treated myself not jus because it is good common sense for my own good but because I believe I was created to live like this and in doing so I become like my Creator in everything I do and say. I can then truly be called a son, a daughter, of the Most High because I treat and respect all others as well loved siblings.
Having read what Scripture Scholars say about today’s Gospel reading, I can say that there is wide disagreement as to how to understand it.
I think we must look at it from the point of view of the author; that is Luke.
Elsewhere we are told that Luke was a physician – a medical doctor. As such he could and would be able to make a comfortable living in most circumstances. He wouldn’t be regarded as poor or hungry or rejected in any literal sense of the word. Nevertheless I think he would regard himself as qualifying as blessed, together with the poor, the hungry, the despised etc.
On the other hand, in the eyes of many he would be regarded as rich at least insofar as he wasn’t poor or hungry or insulted.
Consider that Jesus of Nazareth spent his life standing up for, trying to alleviate, and supporting, the poor and the downtrodden. He looked on poverty as unjust and the result of injustice and greed by the rich and powerful. He did not say ‘put up with your poverty now because when you die you will have a great time in the Kingdom of Heaven.’
So how can the poor and the hungry be blessed???
They certainly don’t feel blessed.
And then we read; ‘Woe to you who are rich.’ Woe to you who are well fed.’
In the eyes of most people in poor countries, in the eyes of some people in this country, all of us here in church today qualify as rich and as well fed.
God’s wish, God’s plan for all people, for each and every human being, is a long, healthy and happy life here on earth and then sharing in the Eternal Life and happiness of God the Creator. Is this possible if I am poor and hungry?
Jesus of Nazareth; God made man, proved this over and over again by his miracles of healing, physical and spiritual, his feeding of the hungry, his insistence of sharing donations given to him and his followers with the poor and beggars. His producing over a hundred gallons of good wine when they ran short at a wedding. His delight in attending parties where there was good food and wine. His mixing freely with both rich and poor, with supporters and with those opposing him. His eventual arrest and execution for continually opposing injustice and oppression.
It is in this context that we must read and understand today’s Gospel reading. It is a rejection and a condemnation of the values and priorities of this world. It turns on its head what this world generally regards as success and failure.
Woe to those whose lives are dedicated to rampant ambition and power seeking. To those whose priority is the pursuit of wealth and fame at any cost. Woe to those who ignore and even laugh at the plight of the poor and the needy. Who see no need whatever to fight injustice and oppression but co-operate in this injustice and oppression.
Today’s Gospel reading is a call to me to adjust my priorities. To change my outlook drastically. To be Christlike. To look to the needs of others as I look to my own needs and the needs of my own family.
Many of us today are dumbfounded by the ruthless greed of many of the already super rich. Many of us today are dumbfounded at the near total disregard of governments to the plight of not only the poor and destitute but also to the plight of the less well off who struggle to make ends meet.
That is the message of todays Gospel reading.
‘When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.’
Peter was the ‘alpha male’ of the group.’
Peter had a nice little business going on the sea of Galilee. He was in partnership with at least one other fishing family – Zebedee and his sons James and John. They were quite successful as they also employed others in their business.
Peter was married. Maybe James was also married.
What in the name of God possessed them to leave everything and follow this itinerant preacher/prophet?
If you have ever wondered what Jesus’ words – ‘If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.’ means, now you know.
The word ‘hate’ here does not have the same meaning as we use it today. Here it means not preferring or not regarding as more important.
We have the same meaning in Jesus’ words ; ‘If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire.’ Meaning, if something in your life is an obstacle to your relationship with God then you must consider abandoning it.
It is a case of priorities. What do I consider as more important?
It might mean abandoning something which is in itself good and praiseworthy as in the case of Peter, Andrew, James and John abandoning a successful business, lifestyle and family or as many do today to follow a career or vocation to which they feel called.
I spoke last week about gratitude to God and towards parents as a motivating factor for religion and for caring for parents.
Today we look at trust.
What motivated Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave everything and follow Jesus? They must, against all the odds, have trusted Him completely.
What an awesome character he must have been to inspire such trust.
This does not mean that their trust in him did not sometimes waver. Even Peter wavered when he was walking on the water towards Jesus. And again when fear made him deny knowing Jesus three times.
Just as a well informed gratitude to God is a great motivator, so too a hard headed trust in God is a great motivator.
My trust in God will sometimes waver especially when things go wrong just as happened with the Apostles. But maybe then I consider that if I don’t trust my God who can I trust?
The image I want you to take away with you is that of the child running into the arms of a beloved parent.
To quote the word of God; ‘Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.’
‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.’
Let me say the very same thing but using slightly different words;
If I visit my elderly parents regularly. If I bring them gifts. if I make sure that they are aware of what I do for them, all because it is what is expected of me by my relatives and acquaintances and importantly, so that I inherit the lion’s
share of their legacy; I am just a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I go to Mass regularly, if I ‘say my prayers’ diligently, if I have received all the sacraments as directed and at the proper times, if I give regularly to my parish, if I help out from time to time when asked but am not motivated by a sense of gratitude to my God and Creator for all I am and have, I gain nothing.
Sobering words, but the message is loud and clear.
In religion, in my relationship with my God, In my relationship with my marriage partner and family, it is not so much about what I do as it is about why I do it. Haven’t we all cherished a gift, which may in itself be useless and even unwanted, because of the spirit in which it was given and the gratitude, respect and love it represents?
God is the same. Did God not make us ‘in His own image and likeness?’
All the things we do in church, the time we spend in prayer and religious affairs, are all good and even necessary, but what gives them life, what gives them meaning for God, what gives them ‘wuumph,’ is the sense of gratitude that underpins them.
The absence of this ‘wuumph’ is why I can find religion so barren. It is why I can find my duty to parents and family so irksome. I treat both as a duty and not as an opportunity to express gratitude.
Gratitude, respect and love do not just naturally appear out of nowhere. They must be sought after and nourished.
Just think of the dedication, self-denial, slavery, which having and nurturing children involves. How fulfilling it is, if and when a son or daughter says thank you.
I must accustom myself to think in the same way about my God.
I must think of religion as saying thank you to my God.
For instance it is very helpful to spend my time preparing to go to Mass and the journey there, reviewing the reasons for thanking God – What has God given me? Existence, being, life, everything I am and have, freedom from the fear of death, guarantee of resurrection from death, salvation and sharing in the Eternal life of God, to mention just a few. If I exercise myself in this manner I will arrive at church with gratitude in my heart and eagerness to express it. Otherwise I arrive cold and unsure as to why I’m there.
A man stopped at a wayside petrol station to fill up. He asked the attendant what the people were like in the next village. In reply the attendant asked him what the people were like in the last village he was in. They were very kind, polite and helpful he said. Well the attendant told him that he would find the people in the next village to be the very same.
A little later another man also stopped for petrol and asked the very same question. How did you find the people in the last village to be like? Asked the attendant. They were surly, rude and unhelpful the man replied. Well then you will find the people in the next village to be the very same said the attendant.
There is a very important truth here.
We are aware that if you want something it is very important to send the right person to ask. If you want to initiate some project or some changes it is very important to send the right person to introduce it.
If I approach a person with respect and kindness I will almost always be received with respect and kindness.
If I approach a person in a truculent, demanding, disrespectful, abrupt way I will almost always be received in a like manner.
We often call this ‘having an attitude.’
In the Seminary we were required to do an examination of conscience for 15 minutes each day.
Examination of conscience from time to time can, over the years, be educational and throw some light on the source of marital, family, neighbourhood and personal problems.
One of the great benefits of frequent examination of conscience (that is self examination as to ones faults, motives and prejudices etc.) is that gradually one begins to understand one’s limitations, prejudices, blind spots, refusal to accept ones proper share of blame etc. One grows in self knowledge and self understanding. Such knowledge can be painful and hard to swallow.
I might find that I carry my problems around with me wherever I go and that can be a heavy burden.
Jesus has said; “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
To do this I must recognise and accept that I do carry a burden around with me. And that is where frequent examination of conscience comes in.
It s recognising truth about myself and my actions and accepting it.
It is also called humility.
You will all remember how, at some time or other, when you were able to help someone, the great feeling of fulfilment and accomplishment that you experienced.
The reason is that you are created in the image and likeness of God and it is in your nature, it is deeply imbedded in you, to act like your Creator. God is love. Love is giving, being of service to the beloved. You are made to be like God – to be of service to others, to love, and that is why being able to help another person gives you such satisfaction and fulfilment.
On the other hand I pass by on the other side when I see someone in need of help and I spend the rest of the day feeling not quite right and thinking of excuses to justify my action. Again, the reason is because I have gone against the God given inclination to help, to serve.
True happiness in life, true fulfilment, true contentment, comes from willing giving, willing service to others.
“Jesus summoned them and said to them, 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.”
“You call me teacher and master and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
In the Old Testament prophesies regarding the coming Redeemer he was described as ‘the suffering servant.’
Jesus of Nazareth was the suffering servant. This does not mean that he was not also joyful and happy. Much of his joy and happiness must have resulted from helping others, from being of service to others.
Human beings spend a lot of time seeking happiness. They travel to far places seeking fulfilment. They spend a lot of money seeking meaning, understanding and contentment. Never realising that all this seeking is available to them right where they are and among the people they know and meet every day.
It is so simple, so available, that we completely overlook it.
Among Scriptural scholars, controversy surrounds the historicity of the Magi.
Magi were wise men/ astrologers/ diviners/ Zoroastrians/ members of a priestly caste in Persia/ astronomers/ scholars etc. who dwelled in areas east of Palestine – Iraq, Iran. The area where writing was invented.
We do not need to go into whether they’re coming to Bethlehem seeking ‘the new born king of the Jews’ actually happened as described or not, no more than we need to go into the name of the hill from which Jesus spoke the Beatitudes or if he actually spoke from a hill.
The Bible is not about seeking out historical facts or locations but about seeking out the message intended.
The first message the visit of the Mage conveys is that Jesus of Nazareth; the Redeemer, the Saviour, was Redeemer and Saviour not just for the Israelites but for all peoples, nations and ethnic groups.
They symbolise us – all peoples from all backgrounds.
Where do they find this newborn ‘King of the Jews?’
Naturally they went first to the king’s palace. King Herod was unhappy with the news they brought. Rivals to his crown were unwelcome.
Eventually they found him in a cattle pen, lying on an armful of straw, being cared for by his parents – a humble working man and his wife.
You can imagine that after travelling this long journey in high expectation their surprise was great.
Why they didn’t turn around and depart immediately in great disappointment is beyond my understanding. Obviously they had ‘been had.’ Imagine the amusement among their peers when they arrived back home. Without doubt the bad news would have preceded them.
But they didn’t.
We are told ‘they prostrated themselves and did him homage.’
What wisdom was required to act in this way !
What humility was required to act in this way !
The second message from today’s Gospel is that God’s ways are not our ways – the ways of the world. Kings are born in palaces not in stables.
From the first moment of his birth God chose the life of the poor, the oppresses, the needy. He ended his life in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the needy. There is certainly a message here for me, a message that I tend to ignore.
A certain medical Consultant lecturing on the `Stages of Ageing’ presented a class
in medical school with a case study of a patient under his care.
“The patient neither speaks nor comprehends the spoken word. Sometimes she
mumbles and babbles incoherently for long periods.
She is disoriented about person, place, and time. She does, however, respond to her
name… I have looked after her for the past six months, but she still shows complete
disregard for her physical appearance and makes no effort towards her own care.
She must be fed, bathed, and clothed by others.
Because she has no teeth, her food must be liquid. Her shirt is usually soiled from
almost incessant dribbling and she does not walk.
Her sleep pattern is erratic. Often she wakes in the middle of the night and her
screaming wakes up everybody else. Most of the time she is friendly and happy, but
several times a day she gets quite agitated without any apparent cause. Then she
wails until someone comes to comfort her.”
After presenting the class with this challenging case. He then asked his students if
any of them would volunteer to take care of this person. No one volunteered. Then
he said, “I’m surprised that none of you has offered to help, because actually she is
my favourite patient. I get immense pleasure from taking care of her and am
learning so much from her. She has taught me a depth of gratitude I never knew
before. She has taught me the meaning of unwavering trust. And she has taught me
the power of unconditional love.” Then he said, “look here is her picture” and he
pulled out the picture and passed it around. It was the photo of his six-month-old
This is very much our problem in our relationships with each other. We constantly
fail to recognise people for what they are.
Christmas has one big message for us. Emmanuel; God is with us.
Emmanuel means that this little baby in Bethlehem who has to be washed and
cleaned and fed. Who screams and kicks and wriggles in the most aggravating way,
Emmanuel means that the wife or husband who ignores what I say & who has the
most annoying habits and mannerisms, is God.
Emmanuel means that the children who disobey me and drive me to distraction are
Emmanuel means that the parents who never seem to understand, are God.
Emmanuel means that the person sitting next to me now is God.
Emmanuel means that the little child creating the disturbance in the church is God.
As St John says; ’Those who say, I love God and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.’