1Timothy 6:6-11, 17-19
Christians ‘are to do good, and be rich in good works
…generous, and willing to share.’ (1Tim 6:18)
This week, I spent some time with a group of students from All Saints’ Academy helping them to compose a prayer for the whole school. In our conversation we discussed the nature of hope because it features quite prominently in the school vision. We also looked at how hope differs from wishful thinking; and, in the end, we reached the conclusion that hope must relate somehow to the way we live in order to be different from simple wishful thinking.
In the Christians sense hope is a virtue; it is something that we must put in practice, not an abstract concept. Hope has to inform what we do, so that we can dedicate our efforts into realising or attaining that which is hoped for. So for example, in the case of our students, if I hope for good GCSE results, I must also work towards getting good results and not just sit there waiting for divine inspiration to hit me during exams. Or, in the case of believers, if I hope in the life of the world to come, then I must work to live here and now some of those things I will fully experience in heaven, such as justice, union with God, and peace…
But as we the students and I talked about this, our attention instinctively turned towards many of the terrible world events that would seem to work against any bright hope for the future; terrorism, hurricanes, and mass shootings to name a few. Where does practicing hope fit in all this? And can we even dare to pray for those affected by such tragedies when so many people say that our “thoughts and prayers” are just meaningless words? These are old questions, really. But, as the students were, so some of you might also be aware of the debate which flared up again this week, particularly on social media, about those who pledge their thoughts and prayers when something terrible happens. We see and hear this continually as natural disasters are followed by acts of terrorism, or other downright evil events like the mass shooting in Las Vegas last week. “Thoughts and prayers”, or “Pray for this city”, “pray for that place”; these are the the refrains many people use in such situations, but once the heat of the moment has passed they move on with their lives as if nothing actually happened. And this is really what can puzzles non-believers and turn them away from religion altogether. But, like hope, if prayer is not followed by action, then it risks remaining a sterile act; a list of proposition and requests to an omnipotent being in the sky. Instead, prayer has to inform what we do. Just as being people of hope, should inspire us to build here and now the future we hope to attain, so it is with prayer. If we pray for an end to conflicts, we should be people of peace – peacemakers, even; if we pray for an end to terrorism, we should endeavour to soothe our peoples’ fears; and if we pray for justice, we should in turn campaign for it and begin to act justly ourselves.
But what has this got to do with Harvest? Well, as it is with hope and prayer, so it is with gratitude. This morning we come together to give thanks for the bounty of food and means at our disposal every day; but if all we did today was to just sit here sending up very Anglican, half-asked, “thank yous” to God, I don’t think that would quite be enough. Gratitude, must relate to what we do; it must inform the way we live as Christians. Gratitude must inspire us to show our thankfulness to God in some meaningful, tangible way. So, if we really are grateful for what the Lord provides us, if – as St Paul says in our second reading – we are genuinely content with what we have (cf. 1Tim 6:6) then we ought to show it by offering generous gifts to God out of the plenty we have received from him: gifts that today will provide sustenance to our neighbours in need.
The First Letter to Timothy is quite clear about this. Christians, satisfied by the Lord’s divine providence, should in turn be generous and willing to share. In fact, Paul says, we should do good and be rich in good works funded by the precious gifts we have received from God. So, the food we have brought to church this morning, the food that the families of Thomas Whitehead Academy have offered, all these are our thanksgiving offerings to God, made – I hope – with a willing and generous heart.
Without action hope remains wishful thinking; without action prayer remains a shopping list we present to God; without action gratitude remains a polite nod to God for something we thought was rightfully ours anyway.
Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power,
the glory, the splendour, and the majesty;
for everything in heaven and on earth is yours.
All things come from you,
and of your own do we give you. (cf. 1Chronicle 29)
The man went and said to the first son,
“My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” (Matthew 21:28)
As a curate, every time I went on holiday my training incumbent would perform his best impression of a martyr to parish life and say, “You have fun, I stay here working and treading grapes in the Lord’s vineyard”. And in many church contexts the Biblical expression of “working in the vineyard” is usually associated with spreading the faith, managing churches, and making disciples of Jesus, but this is not so much the case in today’s gospel reading. In the parable of the two sons we have just read the man is God the Father who extends to his children an invitation to work in his vineyard as an invitation to holiness, a call to enter the kingdom of heaven ever more deeply by leading a life pleasing to him. In the two siblings we see two examples of how a person might respond to the Father’s call; one who, though initially opposed, reconsiders the Father’s invitation and does his will, and another who, thinking either too lightly of his duties or too highly of his status as son, ends up disregarding the commitment he made, and disobeys the Father.
Jesus used this parable to criticise the Jewish religious elite of his time – we see he addresses the parable as a moral question to the chief priests and the elders of the people (cf. Matt 21:28); to those who failed to recognise God at work in the ministry of St John the Baptist and in his own ministry too; to those who paid lip-service to God, but thought too highly of themselves and did not see their need for repentance. They are represented by the son who said, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go’ (Matt 21:30) and so let the Father down. To them Jesus presents the example of faith, trust in God, and openness to conversion given by those traditionally on the margins of the Jewish religious and social establishment, the ‘tax collectors, prostitutes’ and others sinners who were shunned by society. These are represented by the son who ‘answered, “I will not go” but afterwards thought better of it and’ (Matt 21) did the Father’s will.
But this is not just a story from the past. The Lord Jesus speaks these words to us today as well. We could transpose it to our own time by casting in the role of the first son all those whom the Church has cast to the margins, and as the second son all those baptised and confirmed people who have promised to serve the Lord, but whose actions never match their words. And so the implicit question, “Which one of the two sons am I?” is a simple one, but it should encourage us to reflect how we respond to God’s invitation to holiness and to the Christian life.
This is something of which I am personally (and painfully!) aware. In my journey towards priesthood I was very much the son ‘who answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it’ (Matt 21), and after having put off ordained ministry for over ten years, and even after changing Christian denomination, I relented and decided to do something about it. But the call to holiness is not a call to be a priest; it is an open invitation to all, and things don’t get much easier on this front just because you’re wearing a white shirt collar back-to-front. Even now, when the Father calls for deeper holiness, for closer union with him, and greater personal commitment, I am the one who gets side-tracked by other, less productive, activities, and then has to make amends.
Like in the parable, every day the Father renews his invitation to you and me, and to every Christian to work in his vineyard, his call to change our lives and, slowly but surely, to become the person he wants us to be. The way in which we answer the Father’s invitation will determine the way in which we actually live our faith... we could be the ones who go to church, pay lip-service to God, and hide behind our religious paraphernalia fooling ourselves that we are the ones doing the Father’s will, but this is what the second son did. Or we could be the ones who do go to church, who are repentant when we fail, and also aim to live out our faith in a way that matches our words; in a way that what we say to God may be supported or even exceeded by our good deeds.
Jesus says, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’ (Matt 18:20)
I don’t know if you have ever walked into the middle of a conversation, like I have done many a time, and you ended up getting the wrong end of the stick altogether… It is easily done, and it can happen to anyone. In fact, the same type misunderstanding can also happen when we approach the Bible outside its proper context, or even more so when we focus on an isolated verse of the Scriptures and we draw all sorts of conclusions from just that one phrase.
Today’s gospel gives us a couple of examples of very common misunderstandings which can easily arise when we take the teachings of Jesus out of their proper framework. At the beginning of our reading we see that Jesus gives instructions on how to behave towards other Christians when they do something wrong – instructions that could lead even to the exclusion of a member (or as this is known in church terms, “excommunication”). A bit harsh, we might think, but pretty straightforward to apply on the whole. Then again, you see that Jesus says here, ‘If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him’ (Matt 18:15), so you can imagine how it could go horribly wrong. And if this were all the Christian teaching one had to go by, one could feel perfectly entitled to see it as their duty – their vocation even – to corner and to shame another person about their conduct… ‘go and have it out with them!’
The second example of a common misunderstanding comes a little further down as the Lord says, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them’ (Matt 18:20). Again, if this were all the Christian teaching we had to go by, we could think that (a) praying on our own wouldn’t get us very far all, and (b) as long as there was at least one other person with us, then we could pray and worship in any way we wanted because Jesus would be with us to make sure the Father would grant us all our wishes like a divine Genie of the lamp. For both of these examples, similarly to walking into the middle of a conversation, if we are unaware of the context in which they were set we could end up misunderstanding what Jesus actually meant to teach us and get ourselves caught up in a religion of our own making.
But what is the context of the Scriptures? Jesus identifies it as the Church when he says that all his teachings are applicable within “the Community” of believers. The word used here is “ecclesia” (Cf. Matt 18:17), meaning the assembly of all the faithful which the Lord gathers around himself, the collective body of all Christians. It is this Community that the Lord charges with recalling all people to repentance, whilst not to judge anyone; this is the community entrusted by Jesus with “binding or loosing” (meaning forgiving sins and welcoming back stray members); this is the community entrusted with the message of the gospel; and, regardless of its size, this is the place where Jesus primarily meets with his follower.
Oftentimes is can be all too easy to grumble and to feel dejected about “the Church” as an abstract reality, but if today’s gospel teaches us anything about our community of faith is that the ecclesia, the Church, is essentially the backdrop against which the true meaning of the Lord’s teachings could stand out and become relevant for us. Christian thinkers of several denominations, and first among them the Church Fathers, have taught for millennia one simple phrase; ‘extra Ecclesiam nulla salus’ meaning ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’. This is because the Church is essentially our context, the one body of which we became part at our baptism, and the backdrop against which we each play out our individual vocation to be the person – our true selves, as I said last Sunday – that God created, loves, and finds indispensable.
Maybe I sound like an idealist here, painting such a rosy picture of the Church as the community to which all people are called, and the place where each person can be their true self. But I have experienced the alternative to this view. I spent a good few years being angry towards the Church, wanting to ignore it, and to move on. But being part of this community gives full meaning to the gospel – in a sense, the Church brings the gospel to life in each generation as a tangible reality. Being gathered around the Lord Jesus – at least on Sundays – at Mass gives meaning to the saying, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’ And being Church gives meaning to our prayers. Indeed, being part of the Church is what gives meaning to our being Christians. To pretend otherwise, to think that Jesus calls everyone to follow him, but that “he doesn’t do Church” would be the biggest misunderstanding of them all.
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.
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.
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.”