Jesus says, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ (Matt 16:24)
In St John’s Gospel there is a famous statement Jesus makes about himself and his mission that can appear a little puzzling especially when compared to what he says this morning. In John 10 Jesus says, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10); which means that to follow Jesus should make us experience life to all its true and possible fullness. However, today in Matthew Jesus seems to paint a bleaker picture saying, ‘anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it’ (Matt 16:25); and besides this Jesus also invites all prospective Christians to ‘deny themselves and take up their cross’ (16:24).
So, which one is it? What does living the Christian life really entail? On one hand the peddlers and sympathisers of the so-called Prosperity Gospel – popular in America and with the Trump administration – would say that genuinely following Christ would bring blessings of personal achievements, well-being, and financial security as immediate rewards from the Lord; therefore living life to its fullness in a very tangible sense. On the other hand, many people (both within and outside the Church) insist on picturing being a Christian as essentially the pursuit of self-denial, to the point of reducing religion to a cold list of dos and many, many don’ts.
But actually the truth is that both these interpretations, apart from being polar opposites, are also neither helpful in promoting Christianity, nor an accurate picture of what the Christian life really looks like. Jesus does bestow fullness of life on his followers, but this fullness has often little to do with material comfort, financial security, or personal achievements. Similarly, the purpose of the self-denial and of picking up the cross which Jesus talks about is never an exercise in self-loathing. Jesus does not ask us to straggle along behind him beating ourselves with sticks. So, once again, what does living the Christian life really entail?
Last week I quoted one of my favourite theologians in saying that ‘Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary’ (BXVI, Homily, Sunday, 24 April 2005). But I understand that we can’t often perceive how important this is. In a culture where we are constantly told that self-image and worth are determined almost exclusively by what we possess, by what people think of us, by how many likes our social-media accounts get, and by how we conform to the latest trends, we risk creating a fake reality around ourselves in the hope that all this will provide our lives with meaning, shield us from pain, give us security, and ultimately bring us happiness. Yet, this artificial self of our own making has nothing to do with the person God created and loves.
When Jesus invites each of us to follow him, to live the Christian life he is essentially asking us to lose the fake and transient realities we have manufactured for ourselves (sometimes even at great personal costs); he is asking us to dispose of those things that distract us from being a Christian, and he is asking us to lose all those life plans we made without consulting him, in order that we may find our own true self in him; or rather, so that we may discover our own identity in being the person which the Father thought of, loves, and finds indispensable.
If we do this; if we constantly look for our true self in Christ, if we bear the cross of whatever circumstance we find ourselves in because of our faith, if we strive each day to follow Jesus by imitating him, then we will be able to experience the fullness of life Jesus promises to his followers.
Inside the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, several feet high above the place where Peter himself has laid buried for almost two thousand years, there is a large inscription made with black lettering on a gold background;
‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church…
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt 16:18-19).
Michelangelo positioned these two verses of Matthew’s gospel at the base of the dome as a golden circlet, a crown above the tomb of the Apostle, and as a reminder of level of responsibility and trust Our Lord places on the whole of his Church; ‘whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven’ (Matt 16:19).
Now, as we read this passage, we could look at its importance in shaping the Church around the ministry of St Peter. But [as a good Anglican] I would like to focus on something slightly broader in meaning; God’s willingness – in fact, his desire – for human cooperation in his work of creation and redemption. The desire of God for human participation comes up as a recurring theme throughout the history of salvation. For example, when God chose his people in the Old Testament he relied on Abraham and made a covenant, a pact, with him; when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord form the land of Egypt God entrusted Moses to lead them out of slavery; when the House of Israel needed the leadership of a faithful steward God entrusted Eliakim (from our first reading) and relied on his decisions. In the New Testament when God sent his Son into the world he relied on the cooperation of the Virgin Mary and he entrusted Jesus to the care of St Joseph; when Our Lord wanted to spread the gospel he relied on his apostles and disciples, and finally, as we see today, when Jesus wanted to build his Church he relied on St Peter, the Rock to be quite literally the foundation stone. And when we focus our attention on examples such as these a clear pattern emerges. In every situation, from the beginning of Salvation history until now, the Lord relies on his people – meaning each one of us as well – to further his work. Much as he did with his first disciples, the Lord Jesus calls us to specific tasks that only we can do, he blesses us with every possible grace to help us in our work, and he gives us the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in all our doings.
But let me put this in another way. On Thursday was the feast of the Apostle Bartholomew. The prayer for that day said,
O Lord, …grant that… your Church
may become the sacrament of salvation for all the nations.
A sacrament is essentially the way in which the grace of God reaches people through the means of ordinary objects and actions consecrated to his service (like bread, wine, touching, and washing). So, when we pray to become the sacrament of salvation, we pray that the Lord may reach other people with his grace through us; through our ordinariness, through our humanity which has been consecrated to his service by baptism.
So here is the beauty of our Christin faith. We are not just infinitely loved by God; we are also infinitely needed by him. ‘We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.’ (BXVI, Homily, Sunday, 24 April 2005)
There may have been only one St Peter and only one ministry to which the Lord has entrusted the keys of his kingdom, but this does not change the fact that each one of us is entrusted with continuing and furthering Jesus’ saving work in the world. So if you don’t take anything away from this service, at least take this; God invites you to work with him, God entrusts you with his redeeming work, God relies on you to bring salvation to others.
Isaiah 56:1; 6-7
‘Thus says the Lord,
“…my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples”’ Isaiah 56:7
One morning, as I was getting ready for Mass is St Ives, I was approached by a long-standing members of the congregation called Hellen who proceeded to grill me about one church issue or another. In her usual abrupt and unapologetic way she rattled my cage, and, in retaliation, I probably pushed a few of her (deeply protestant) buttons. To cut the long story short, we ended up having some words and getting quite cross with each other to the point that I wasn’t quite sure how we were going to handle exchanging the sign of peace later in the service… But of course, I needn’t to worry about that, because even before we got to the peace, what was reading set before us by the lectionary? It just had to be Matthew 5:23-24; ‘if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.’ Similarly, the morning after a break in into his vicarage a priest friend of mine was presented by the lectionary with the reading of Matthew 24:43 ‘If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.’
Indeed, the lectionary quite often has a wonderful and bitter-sweet way of recalling us back to the things that actually matter, to what God has to say about the way in which we live or about what goes on in the world. And, I believe, this is happening with today’s readings…
Among the stories of racial hatred we hear from Charlottesville, the howling shrieks of far-right movements and intolerance across the Western world, the resurgence of anti-Jewish propaganda, the cowardice of those who should be confronting evil, among all these dreadful things our readings recall us to God’s vision for humanity, God’s purpose of the one, single human race.
To those who publicly incite anti-Jewish hatred, and to the creators of silly Jewish jokes, the Lord says about the people of Israel in our second reading, “I will never take back my gifts or revoke my choice” (Romans 11:15). Religious justification for anti-Jewish hate is always a misinterpretation of the faith, and a blasphemy in the eyes of our God who chose Abraham to be the father of many nations, and to be one of our fathers in the faith as well.
To white supremacists, to full-time and not-so-casual-casual racists, the Lord says in the first reading “…my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples”. My house – not your house, but the house in which you stand on equal footing as any other believer of whatever ethnicity, nationality, or background, this my house – is a house of prayer for everyone, and in my house everyone is welcome, so you better make peace with it.
To those who barricade their hatred and discrimination behind blinkered, holier-than-thou religion, Jesus presents the example of great faith given by a Canaanite woman. She belonged to a different culture and nationality than Jesus, she was a descendant of an enemy people, she didn’t believe in Jesus in the same articulate way his followers did, but she nonetheless had an instinctively stronger, deeper, and more resilient faith in the Lord than the best of his disciples; so much so that her unorthodox faith cooperated in the healing of her daughter.
And to us all, the Lord gives a reminder about the task we signed up for at our baptism and confirmation; the task of hastening the coming of his Kingdom as one humanity finally made into a true and beloved community where racism, unjust discrimination, and hatred find not room at all.
Today the lectionary recalls us back to what is really important. May we listen to its voice and strive to build us the Church as a house of prayer for all nations, and as a positive example of community for the world to see...
Elect from every nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth,
Her charter of salvation,
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.
Father Peter Stannard’s homily for the Assumption of Mary that was celebrated on 13th August
Cast your mind back to your school days and I’m sure that like me you can remember the subjects you loved and those you hated. Me, I loved English and hated Maths , for you it may have been the complete opposite. Years later the same rule applied to theological college. Others took to learning New Testament Greek like ducks to water; for me it was a real pain. It was all the more painful because I knew how important it was to be able to read the scriptures in their original languages and to gain important insights as a result.
Take the Greek word Kalos meaning “Good”. It is used in John 10 where Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd. The word is significant in more than one way. I find the most delightful is that good means handsome or beautiful. The good shepherd is the beautiful shepherd. Jesus is utterly beautiful and it is that sheer beauty that makes him compellingly attractive. It is that amazing charisma that causes the first disciples to instantly drop everything and immediately follow him. The hymn writer got it right with those famous words, “Fix your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face. And the cares of the world will grow strangely dim in the light of his wonder and grace.’ That is the business of heaven: the sheer joy of gazing on the transfigured and transfiguring beauty of Jesus in his glory.
So what has this to do with the Assumption of Our Lady? Well I’m sure you know where I’m going. Jesus derives this beauty not just by being very God of very God, the source of all beauty, but also by being his mother’s son. Jesus is utterly beautiful because Mary is utterly beautiful too. They share a beauty to which countless religious artists fail to do justice. Of course Jesus gains his goodness through Mary in other ways too. Goodness is also a moral quality and Mary , by example, raises Jesus to be good This is rather more important than it first appears. Luke tells us that after losing Jesus for three days, Mary and Joseph find him in the Temple listening and asking questions. He then returns to Nazareth with them and , Luke points out , is obedient to them. Long before Jesus was tested in the wilderness , he learned goodness from Mary and Joseph. Through infancy, childhood, youth and beyond, Jesus’ formation - his capacity to choose the good and resist temptation - is down to Mary and Joseph.
Good means beautiful. Good means of high moral standing. Good also means efficient, effective, fit for purpose. And once again this applies to Our Lady. Mary had a unique and vital role in God’s plan for our salvation. She was chosen, predestined, to be united with Jesus in the victory over sin and death. Without her it would have been impossible. That God enabled her to fulfil this role is implied by the Archangel Gabriel’s greeting, ‘Hail Mary full of grace’. It is by his grace that God enables us to accomplish his will. But to understand this more fully we need to go beyond scripture to the Church’s teaching.
Mary could have said no to God. The good lord does not override our free will. But he predisposed her to say yes not just by his grace but by her redemption in anticipation of what Christ would achieve. Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin. Thus equipped for her unique vocation, the sinless Mother cooperates with the sinless Son until at the end of her earthly life, she was taken body and soul into heavenly glory there to take her place as Queen of Heaven. Formerly the son was conformed to his mother in obedience to the Father’s will; at her taking her place in heaven she is conformed to her son as conqueror over sin and death. The assumption of Mary is a singular participation in her son’s resurrection and an anticipation of our own resurrection.
And if that language does for you what New Testament Greek did for me, I’ll risk putting it very bluntly: Heaven couldn’t be heaven without Mary as Queen. Christ in all his glory couldn’t bear to be without her. And let me put it more bluntly still with a simple story. Some years ago I took part in a sponsored walk for Christian Aid. We followed what is called St. Cuthbert’s Way from the Scottish borders down to Holy Island on the Northumbrian coast. Even with training (which I wasn’t very good at) it was a killer of a pilgrimage. Finally, finally, finally, we got to the last stretch for the finishing post only to be cheered along by a happy crowd of people waiting eagerly for us to join them, waiting for every last one of us to reach our goal.
Simple enough. But it offers a glimpse of what the Christian pilgrimage and the prospect of heaven are all about. Having gone before us through trial and difficulty, Mary our mother in union with Jesus waits for us in heaven, helping us on our way, cheering us on to completion and joy.
Daniel 7:9-10; 13-14
The Transfiguration of the Lord with all its display of glory and divine beauty forms a watershed in the gospel narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke because on the top of this mountain, as we look back, we see the fulfilment of many Old Testament scenes, and looking forward towards, we see what the future has in store for Jesus and then for all of us – we see the Cross, the Resurrection, and the final consummation of salvation history. For example, in the appearance of Moses we find an echo of his ascent to Mount Sinai when he received God’s Word chiselled on stone tablets and was allowed to see the back of God; except that here Moses is able to talk directly to the Word-of-God-made-flesh and to see God’s radiant face. In the appearance of Elijah we find an echo of his encounter with God, when the Lord spoke to him about the mission he had to accomplish, not through ‘the earthquake, wind, and fire’ but with a ‘still, small voice of calm’ (Cf. 1Kings 19:12). And in the bright cloud that engulfs the entire scene we see one of Scripture’s favourite images to describe God’s glory.
Looking to the future, the Transfiguration gives us a sure pledge that Jesus will fulfil Daniel’s prophecy about a man on whom is ‘conferred sovereignty, glory and kingship’ (Dan. 7:13), and that, in his radiant splendour, the Lord will appear at the end of time as a bright lightning that lights up the entire sky (Cf. Matt. 24:27). So in essence, the Transfiguration shows us in no uncertain terms the profound reality of Jesus’ divine nature as ‘God from God’ and ‘Light from Light’. But the reason behind this display is not Jesus’ desire to brag or impress, because he never considered ‘equality with God something to be used to his own advantage’ (Philippians 2:6); but it comes out of the Lord’s desire to instruct and strengthen Peter, James, and John in their faith in preparation for the Easter events and for their mission in the world.
The Transfiguration then can be interpreted as a brief pause, as Jesus’ intimate revelation of his true nature to his closest disciples, before he has to ascend another hill and accomplish a dramatically different event. And it is here that the disciples, though terrified by the experience, realise that being in the Lord’s company was everything they had always desired. Peter’s proposition about staying on the mountain seems perfectly reasonable… As Saint Augustine comments,
‘On the mountain... [Peter] had Christ as the food of his soul. Why should he have to go down to return to his hard work and sorrows while up there he was filled with holy love for God which inspired in him a holy way of life?’ (Sermon 78, 3)
If we too caught and understood even just a glimpse of Jesus’ beauty and glory, who wouldn’t want to bask in his light? And who would want to leave?
I hope that each of us has his or her own Transfiguration moments and spaces in which they can be instructed and strengthened by Jesus by the simple fact of being with him, and having him as “food for their souls”… When we come together to celebrate the Mass – each Sunday and for a few of us here even most days of the week – we spiritually climb the mountain of the Transfiguration to be with Jesus as he comes to us in the Sacrament, and to listen to his voice in the Scriptures. Here we get a glimpse of what the life of heaven will be like, here the Lord displays his glory, and here he nurtures the life of faith. But following Jesus we must come down the mountain with him, and after celebrating Mass, we must return to our labours so that the beauty we have experienced might be replicated in the world.
Over the past weeks we listened to several parables about the Kingdom of God. And even though the Transfiguration of the Lord is a real event in the life of Jesus, it forms for us a further parable about the Christian life; we must continuously ascend the spiritual mountain to meet God and then, coming back down, bear ‘the love and strength drawn from him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love’ (BXVI, Lent Message 2013, n.3).
Through the parables Jesus explained to us how the Kingdom grows and takes hold in subtle, almost unseen ways, until its beauty is fully manifested for all to see. The Kingdom is like yeast in the dough (Cf. Matt. 13:33); like the rarest of pearls (Cf. Matt. 13:45); like a small seed (Cf. Matt. 13:31). These parables mirror most people’s experience of faith as a slow, and sometimes difficult, process of growth accomplished through prayers, learning, and the practice good habits; a life-long commitment to following Christ until his is fully formed in us, until – as St Paul says – we have grown into the full stature of Jesus (Cf. Eph. 4:13), and until God’s Kingdom is clearly manifested in who we are and by what we do. But as today we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord we catch a glimpse of what the final manifestation of the Kingdom will be like; we are given a foretaste of the moment when the Lord Jesus will be fully revealed in the glory and majesty of his divine nature.
The passage of Matthew’s gospel we have just read is a continuation, the third episode if you will, in the parables of the Kingdom series. Earlier we looked how following Jesus has the potential to completely transform the world and the society we live in, as Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast used to leaven the dough. Today Jesus teaches us on how the same Kingdom should also completely transform each one of us as he compares his followers to both a man and a merchant who drastically change their lives after discovering something amazing.
The parables of the treasure and of the pearl seem to mirror one another but their small differences gives us complementary views of what the Kingdom of Heaven should mean for every Christian. On one hand the treasure represents the sum of the many, abundant blessings and graces the Lord bestows on us through faith; the treasure also speaks to us of the joy of knowing Christ as we read that, once the man discovers the treasure he ‘goes off happy’ (Matt 13:44). On the other hand, the pearl represents the incomparable beauty of following the Lord through a life of faith, something that, once experienced, exceeds everything else. Both the treasure and the pearl show their splendour freely and openly to the characters in the parables, and in the same way the gospel and Christian teachings can be looked up openly and freely by anyone, but just looking at them is not enough. Much like the Hunchback of Notre Dame says in the story ‘Life is not a spectator sport’, so to look at the treasure that is the knowledge of Christ and to behold the beauty of the pearl that is following him is not what the Lord intends for us. We are not meant to be spectators, and after discovering the treasure and the pearl we must do our best to acquire them for ourselves, to lay hold on of the blessings and beauty of the Christian life, and to get involved in it.
But how do we do acquire the treasure and the pearl? The parables say that both characters invest all their fortunes to make their purchases. Then, in the same way, each one of us should sell everything he or she owns and buy the treasure…
Later on in Matthew’s gospel Jesus instructs a prospective disciple saying,
‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ (Matt 19:21).
And in another place he also says,
‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven’ (Matt 6:19).
So we could take the teaching of these parables as a commandment and strive to follow it face value. By dispossessing ourselves for the sake of the following Jesus and out of compassion for others we would certainly trade in our riches for blessings, and acquire treasures in heaven, taking hold on the pearl of great beauty that is the Christian life.
But there is another way of interpreting the parables. Selling everything we own, should first of all represent emotional detachment from the things of this world and its affairs. Actually giving away all that is superfluous is incredibly generous and highly honourable, but it would do us little spiritual good if then we found ourselves immersed in resentment and ungratefulness… So when the parable says that the men sold everything, this should speak to us about freeing ourselves of those emotions, things, and bad habits that distract us from God or actively lead us away from him.
The blessedness, beauty, and unquenchable joy of following Jesus stands before us each day as the most valuable treasure or the rarest of pearl. Let us then each day make an effort to rid ourselves of anger, envy, self-centredness, and spiritual apathy so that by trading in joy, gratitude, selflessness, and devotion from the Lord we may have enough to purchase for ourselves the treasures of the Christian life, and in the world to come, the life of heaven. Amen.
Today’s gospel is a suitable sequel to last week’s Parable of the Sower with the Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat which provides us with a detailed illustration of God’s Kingdom as a fertile wheat field. Among the many teachings one could draw from this parable, I would like to focus on the warning Jesus gives us about the dangers of judging and alienating one another when difficulties arise within the Church.
We read that ‘When the new wheat sprouted and ripened, the darnel appeared as well;’ and the owner of the crop ‘said to the servants “...when you weed out the darnel you might pull up the wheat with it. Let them both grow till the harvest”’.
Here Matthew uses a Greek word, zizanion, for the weeds that is not found anywhere else in the New Testament and scholars still argue about the true nature of this invasive plant that plagues the crop. But however this may be the darnel is for Matthew like “bad wheat” that closely resembles the good one, but stunts its growth and produces useless grains. Likewise, within the Church we have good and bad wheat that closely resemble each other. Here too, there often seems to be a little apparent difference between committed Christians and those who, though part of the same field, do very little apart from stunting the growth of the Church and producing useless fruits.
So why doesn’t the owner want to get rid of the weeds here and now when they cause so much trouble? To put it plainly, because if we took matters in our own hands we would not be capable of judging without making a great, big mess of it. The good and the bad wheat are so similar that we would end up uprooting both of them. We cannot judge properly, it is not our duty and – as the gospel tells us – we would not be able to do so. We may be surrounded by pseudo-Christians; we may live in a nation that claims to be Christian, but fails miserably to act as such. But as followers of Jesus Christ we are called to bear with the present obstacles, the present situation without judging one another or acting holier-than-thou.
To be the good wheat is truly and essentially our Christian vocation, the call to which we responded in baptism. Each of us should only strive to produce as many good fruits of prayer, love, and justice as one can whilst refrain from judging or alienating others, leaving judgment to the one who knows better than ourselves. The owner of the crop
‘said to the servants “...when you weed out the darnel you might pull up the wheat with it. Let them both grow till the harvest”’.
There is only one person who can judge between the good and the bad grains and he is Our Lord Jesus Christ, and no-one else. He is the owner of the crop who will instruct the angels to separate the good wheat from the bad at the end of time. He is the one to whom judgment and power belong. And so, when he we come to harvest his crop, may he find us joyful in hope, patient through difficulties, generous to others, and persevering in prayer. Amen.
Jesus said, ‘Imagine a sower going out to sow…
some seeds fell on rich soil and produced their crop,
some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.’
The place where I grew up, much like Houghton Regis, used to depend heavily on agriculture (and then also factories) for its economic wellbeing. Late in autumn farmers went out to sow the seeds for the next year’s crops of wheat and corn in straight, well-spaced rows that covered every fertile bit of ground. But at no point in time I saw any farmer going out to scatter seeds in the haphazard way described by in today’s gospel. Who in their right mind would sow seed on the edge of a path, or among thorns, or on rocky soil? And why would anyone waste precious seed on four types of soil, when only one of them will produce sure returns, sure crops?
But the parable is not there to be taken literally. It is here to illustrate God’s generosity beyond measure and his abundant love for us, and to make us reflect on how we respond to this love. As we have read, the farmer sows his seed far and wide regardless of his returns, so God sows his word among us, regardless of how we are going to commit to him. With God there is no strategic deployment of resources only for those who might go on to be saints; everyone is invited to receive the message of gospel, and then to freely commit to Christ according to their means and desires.
Then the parable illustrates through its use of language borrowed from agriculture, a language that was once common to most people, how most people fall in four categories when it comes to living the Christian life. And through this explanation Jesus invites each one of us to ask ourselves: how do I receive the Word of God?
As we read, there are people who don’t understand the word of the Kingdom of God, those who do not get the point of religion, and so evil steals away what was sown in their hearts. We can hope we are not in this group, but we might be, especially when we are prevented to commit to faith because of the evil circumstances that we sometimes witness; “How can God allow that?” or “Why has this happened to me?” we might ask, and in doing so we put up obstacles for God to reach us; and, as it were, we make the soil of our hearts hard and inhospitable. The second group are those who hear the word and receive it immediately with joy but when difficulties come, these people immediately fall away. Hopefully we are not like that either. Then there are people who hear the word but then anxieties of daily life take up all the room leaving no space for God and the lure of a comfortable life choke the word so that it ends up bearing no fruit. We might be like that but we can hope not. We want to be like the last group of people mentioned by Jesus: the people who hear the word, understand it in their hearts, and committing to religion, bears fruit!
However, the reality is that probably we belong to each of those various groups at various times. Jesus is not telling us a parable to condemn us or to shame us but to invite us to change our ways of living so that we can be more consistently in that last group.
Wherever each of us finds themselves right now, Jesus is gently inviting us to do better, to improve the soil of our hearts – for want of better words – to deepen our commitment to him, and so going on to produce a plentiful harvest of good works.
2 Kings 4:8-11, 13-16
Romans 6:3-4, 8-11
‘Anyone who finds his life will lose it,’ says the Lord,
and ‘anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.’ Matthew 10:39
I don’t know how it is for you, but for me the Sunday gospel is often the reading that, out of the three, remains more firmly impressed in my mind during the week. And certainly today’s passage is one that I often had to struggle with, as Jesus says in no uncertain terms that if we prefer anything, anyone, or even our own well-being to him, then we are not worthy of him. Mind you, Luke’s gospel puts this in even stronger terms;
‘Whoever …does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26).
How can we reconcile this teaching with the second of the great commandments, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself?’ (Matthew 22:29) And, apart from that, is Jesus here really telling us that we should be a miserable bunch of Bible-bashers without a life, family or friends? Well, no. Jesus is not asking us to be self-loathing Billy no-mates. Instead, here the Lord calls us – indeed, maybe shocks us – into reassessing our priorities in the light of our commitment to him, in the light of the new life he invites us to live in him.
It would be perfectly normal for non-believers to put themselves, their family, and friends first, and especially above the demands of religion; it would be understandable to constantly strive for a perfect life, a perfect body, and a perfect bank account… But for Christians it should be radically different. As St Paul affirms in our second reading ‘when we were baptised we went into the tomb with Jesus’ so that ‘we too might live a new life’ (Rom 6:4). So, for us Jesus must come first; the ethical demands of the gospel must come first; the practice of religion should hold high priority; and ultimately the wisdom of the gospel should derail in us those selfish behaviours and the cliquey mentality that are so common in secular society. In other words, when Jesus says ‘Anyone who prefers [this or that, him or her] to me is not worthy of me’ he is reminding us that calling ourselves Christians but then carrying on like nothing happened just won’t do. Indeed, it is only when we realise this that we understand what it really means to be Christians, and that we can begin to act according to our faith.
Both the first reading and the gospel give us an example of acting according to faith when speak to us about hospitality and welcome. Nowadays, hospitality is often understood simply as generously lavishing food and comfort on invited guests. But in Christian terms the practice of hospitality is rooted in understanding the needs of others, even of strangers, and doing our best to meet them. In this sense hospitality is expressed in our first reading not just through meeting Elisha’s basic needs for food and accommodation (like any person with a heart would do), but also by providing the prophet with more, such as a table and a chair, and crucially with the independence of having his own room, his own space. In the gospel, hospitality is upgraded by Jesus to be understood as a service we provide directly to God. ‘Who welcomes you welcomes me; and those who welcome me welcome the one who sent me,’ says the Lord (Matt 10:40). A statement that sits at the heart of Matthew’s vision of the Last Judgment where Jesus uses the refrain, ‘As often as you did this (or failed to do that) to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did this (or failed to do that) to me’ (Cf. Matt 25:31-46). And in this sense, we would only offer the Lord only a rather partial service if we chose to be welcoming and hospitable only to our own families by preferring them over others.
Reordering our priorities in the light of faith does not preclude us from treasuring all those personal relationships that often make life worth living; instead this sets us free to look upon parents, children, friends, and life itself more selflessly, as part of our greater commitment to the Lord. And, as our readings show us, it is only by focusing on God that we are able to relate to everyone, both family and strangers, with the same degree of generous welcome and care each one of us deserves. It is only when we make God our ultimate priority, goal, and vision that we are set free to live life to its genuine fullness come what may.
In today’s gospel Jesus is fundamentally saying to us one simple thing, “You must be different. Put me first, and you’ll see that every aspect of your life will fall into its proper place.”
Luke 1:57-66, 80
‘His name is John.’ Luke 1:63
I guess that for many people, including the evangelists Matthew and Mark, St John the Baptist is more easily remembered in connection with his death, when his severed head was delivered on a platter by King Herod to his stepdaughter. But, taking our inspiration form Luke’s gospel, today we celebrate his birth of St John, the only other saint apart from the Virgin Mary, whose birthday is kept by the Church as a solemnity. This is because John’s birth, like that of Our Lady, signalled the end of the Old Testament era, and the beginning of the New Covenant between God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.
From its very beginning John’s story assumes various similarities with previous Old Testament texts. For example, we have just read in the gospel that John is born from elderly parents, who many considered forgotten by God on account of their childlessness. His birth comes as a vindication of Zachariah and Elizabeth’s trust in God, much as the births of Isaac and Samuel did for their parents before them; a vindication expressed in the child’s own name, John, meaning “God is gracious” or “God has shown favour”.
But this is not all. Even as an infant, John challenges the social norms of his time when these become a distraction from God; for example, the name “John” is not in line with the traditions of the elders – something that, as we have read, causes much perplexity. Later on, John does not follow in his father’s and ancestors’ footsteps as a priest at the Jerusalem Temple, but he goes off – probably at a young age – to live in the desert in order to devote himself more fully to God and to prepare himself to be ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord”’ (Mark 1:3). As an adult, John embraces his call to prepare the people of Israel for the arrival of Jesus. He continues to be an almost contradictory figure, who at the same time challenges injustice and immorality with really tough words, but who also offers God’s loving forgiveness, and a second chance, to all those who step into the Jordan to be baptised. However, perhaps John’s most striking features are his personal humility and deep commitment to his vocation. We see this most clearly later in the gospels. When people begin to wonder whether or not John is the Christ he simply dismisses their speculations, and he points people towards Jesus. He says,
‘Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal’ (John 1:27).
St John the Baptist holds a place of special honour in the church; he is acknowledged as the last of the prophets – standing, as he did, on the watershed between the Old and the New Testaments – and, more importantly, he is the precursor, the forerunner, the one who went ahead to prepare the way for Jesus and his Kingdom. Indeed, the fourth gospel describes him, as a ‘man sent by God… who came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him’ (John 1:6-7). But perhaps because of this, John could be easily set aside as one of those key saintly figures that have little to teach us in practice. Yet, his example of faith should inspire all Christians to prepare the way for the Lord in our world – to be the ones sent by God as witnesses to the light, so that all might believe through us. This is all the more true now than ever before, when in our post-Christian society so many people do not know the Lord at all.
Our vocation then, like John’s, is to challenge the injustice of our times, to subvert those popular customs that distract from God, to embrace the Christian life to which we were all called, and to point people towards Jesus Christ – the only source of true life.