Year A – 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On a Hidden Life

[Isa.45:1,4-6; 1Thess.1:1-5b; Mt.22:15-21]

Have you heard the story of Franz Jägerstätter? He’s the simple Austrian farmer, born in 1907, who features in Terrence Malick’s film A Hidden Life (2019). [i]

In his youth, Franz was considered a ruffian, wild in his ways and always ready for a fight. But by 1936 he changed. That’s when he married his beloved Franziska and they travelled to Rome for a papal blessing.

Together, they had three daughters, and Malick’s movie depicts them living a blissful life on his farm high up in the Austrian Alps. Franz once said, ‘I could never have imagined that being married could be so wonderful’.

He worked hard and often gave food to the poor. He also became very prayerful, often saying the Rosary while ploughing, or singing hymns while tending the cows. He spent hours learning about his faith and he served as sexton at his local church.

But when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Franz feared the worst. He was aware of Nazi cruelty and he began reflecting on what it really means to be a Christian in an unchristian world.

He refused to support Nazi fundraisers and he avoided the local alehouses because he didn’t like arguing with his neighbours about fascism.

In 1940 and in 1941, he reported for military training but each time was allowed to return home because he was needed on the farm. In 1943 he was conscripted again, but this time he refused to swear loyalty to Hitler. He also refused to serve with a weapon because of God’s commandment ‘to love your neighbour as yourself’. He thought that fighting and killing so that Hitler could rule the world was a sin.

He was willing to serve as a paramedic, but he was imprisoned instead. Everyone thought he was mad, and only his wife Franziska remained supportive. ‘If I hadn’t stood by him,’ she said, ‘he’d have had no-one at all.’ [ii] 

But Franz was unshakable. He wrote to his pastor: ‘If so many terrible things are permitted by this terrible gang, I believe it’s better to sacrifice one’s life right away than to risk the danger of committing sin and then dying.’ [iii]

In Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus says his famous line: ‘give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God’. What he’s basically saying is that as Christians, we have dual citizenship. We belong to our country and to the Kingdom of God. We receive benefits from both, and we have responsibilities towards both.

In saying that we must give to Caesar what belongs to him, Jesus is assuming that what Caesar wants of us is reasonable. He’s not giving Caesar a blank cheque. But as we know, secular governments do sometimes expect us to support laws and policies that are morally incompatible with our faith. Some examples include euthanasia, assisted suicide and abortion, but there are many others as well, depending on where we live.

Here we have a duty to put God first, because our most important loyalty is to him.

Franz Jägerstätter once wrote, ‘It’s true that Christ commanded that we obey our secular rulers. But I don’t believe he ever said we must obey such rulers when they command something that is actually wicked.’

He also wrote, ‘I cannot believe that we Catholics must make ourselves tools of the worst and most dangerous anti-Christian power that has ever existed.’

In 1943, on the night before he was executed in Berlin, Franz was invited to sign a document that would have saved his life. But Franz pushed it aside and said, ‘I cannot and may not take an oath in favor of a government that’s fighting an unjust war.’ [iv]

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI beatified him in the presence of Franziska.

At the screening of this film in the Vatican last year, Terrence Malick described Blessed Franz Jägerstätter as a martyr of freedom. He’s a martyr, he said, because he chose to be faithful to his conscience. As his father-in-law says in the film, ‘it’s better to be a victim of injustice that to perpetrate an injustice’.

Malick also noted the incredible faith, strength, sacrifice and witness of Franz’s wife Franziska. He said she’s a martyr just as he was, supporting him to the last breath, despite the pain.

Today our secular institutions no longer conduct themselves according to the Word of God. Whether something is right or wrong now so often depends on individual whim, or simple voting. As Christians, this presents us with significant moral challenges.

May we learn from the remarkable courage of Franz Jägerstätter and be guided by our own good Christian consciences.

As St Thomas More said just before his own execution: ‘I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.’ [v]


[i] This film takes its name from the last paragraph of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch: For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

[ii] https://www.dioezese-linz.at/site/jaegerstaetter/english/biography/article/22528.html

[iii] https://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/nonviolence/franz-jagerstatter-a-quiet-martyr

[iv] http://www.natcath.org/NCR_Online/archives2/2007d/110907/110907a.htm

[v] Flor McCarthy, New Sunday and Holy Day Liturgies, Dominican Publications, Dublin, 2019:342-343.

Year A – 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Clothes We Wear

(Isa.25:6-10a; Phil.4:12-14; Mt.22:1-14)

Many years ago, I was invited to a big Christmas event in Chinatown. I arrived wearing T-shirt and shorts, while everyone else was dressed up. I was mortified. I foolishly didn’t think to change and spent all evening hiding my legs under a table. 

Clearly, it’s not enough just to show up. We need to prepare ourselves.

At the end of WWII, the Russian leader Josef Stalin organised a big banquet for Winston Churchill. The Russians wore their best military dress uniforms, but Churchill arrived in the overalls he often wore during the German air raids on London. He thought the Russians would like it, but they felt insulted. [i] 

Again, it’s not enough just to show up. We need to prepare ourselves.

The clothes we wear say a lot about who we are and how we think. In one episode of Seinfeld, George enters Jerry’s apartment wearing track pants.  Seeing him, Jerry says, ‘You know the message you’re sending out to the world with these sweatpants? You’re telling the world, “I give up. I can’t compete in normal society. I’m miserable, so I might as well be comfortable”.’ [ii]

There’s a direct link between the clothes we wear and the way we think. In her book, Mind what you Wear: The Psychology of Fashion, Karen Pine says that when we put on a piece of clothing, we cannot help but adopt some of the characteristics associated with it, even if we’re unaware of it.  

Research indicates that students wearing Superman T-shirts feel significantly stronger than those not wearing them. And when people put on white lab-coats they tend to become more mentally agile, regardless of their technical background.

As well, when we signal to others through our appearance that we care about ourselves, they’re more likely to see us as someone worth caring about. And when we dress like everyone else, we tend to feel less responsible for our actions.

So, what you wear not only reflects your inner state; it also has the power to change the way you think.

In Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus gives us his Parable of the Wedding Banquet. The king’s son is getting married and he sends out special invitations. 

This parable is similar to our Gospel readings over the last two Sundays.  Today’s is about a wedding feast, while the last two were about vineyards.

But the message is the same: God is inviting us to join him in heaven. 

In today’s parable, many people attend the King’s wedding banquet, but one person isn’t properly dressed. In those days, wedding guests were expected to wear a long white garment called a kittel. If a guest couldn’t afford it, a rich host would provide one. 

The King asks this guest how he managed to get in without his kittel, but the guest doesn’t answer. So, the King expels him. Why does he do that?

Well, firstly it would have been an insult not to wear the garment the host gave him. But the main point is that what you wear reflects who you are; it reflects how you think. If this guest had truly valued the King’s invitation, he would have done more than show up.  He’d have prepared himself by dressing properly.

Jesus often uses the image of the wedding feast to teach us about Heaven (e.g. Lk.14:7-11; Jn.2:1-11). And Scripture often uses clothing as a metaphor for spiritual change. In Colossians, Paul says, ‘…As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, goodness and patience’ (Col.3:12). And Peter says, ‘All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”’ (1Pet.5:5).

In other words, before we can enter the Kingdom of heaven, we need to change the way we live. As Paul says, we need to ‘Clothe (ourselves) with the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom.13:14). This process of ‘putting on Christ’ or ‘wearing the habit of love’ [iii] begins at our baptism, but it doesn’t stop there. We need to grow into Christ: living like him, becoming like him.

Jesus is the model to follow.

Many people today think that when their turn comes, all they have to do is show up and they’ll go straight into heaven. But today Jesus warns us that that’s simply not true. Not all who are called will be chosen for eternal life (Mt.22.14).

If we want to go to heaven, we must first demonstrate that we’re worthy of it.  We need to be clothed in ‘the fine linen… of the saints’ (Rev.19:8).

It’s not enough just to show up.

If we want to go to heaven, we must prepare ourselves, both inside and out.


[i] Brett Hickey, Let the Bible Speak. Sermon #766 (82) www.letthebiblespeak.com 

[ii] Karen Pine, Mind what you Wear: The Psychology of Fashion. 2014 https://www.amazon.com.au/Mind-What-You-Wear-Psychology-ebook/dp/B00KBTB3NS

[iii] Pope Francis, Homily, 15/10/17 https://zenit.org/articles/pope-francis-declares-35-new-saints/ 

Year A – 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Parable of the Wicked Tenants

(Isa.5:1-7; Phil.4:6-9; Mt.21:33-43)

Today’s readings once again use the metaphor of the vineyard to explore the way we live our lives. The question this time is about how we are using the extraordinary gifts God has given us.

Our first reading from Isaiah is often called the Song of the Vineyard.  It tells the story of a beautiful vineyard that its owner carefully cultivates and gives to tenants to look after. But instead of a bountiful harvest, all these tenants produce is sour grapes.

Jesus builds on this story in Matthew’s Gospel, in his Parable of the Wicked Tenants. A landowner asks some tenants to look after his vineyard while he’s away.

Now, leasing vineyards wasn’t unusual in biblical times. Wealthy landowners often had tenants look after their vines, and the tenants paid rent by sharing the crop with the owner at harvest time. But in Jesus’ parable, the tenants refuse to pay anything. When the rent collectors arrive, they respond by beating, stoning and even killing them.

The landowner then sends his son, expecting a better response. But he’s killed, too. The tenants want that vineyard all for themselves, without any payment and without any conditions. 

In this parable, the landowner represents God, and the vineyard is the people of Israel. The tenants are the religious and political leaders who God expected would look after his people. And the harvest is the good and wholesome lives that God wanted them to cultivate.

The landowner’s son is Jesus, and the servants he sends to collect the produce are the prophets. 

We know from Scripture that the prophet Jeremiah was beaten (Jer.26:7-11; 38:1-28), Zechariah was stoned (2Chron.24:21) and John the Baptist was killed (Mt.14:1-12). So, by telling this story, Jesus is reminding the Jewish leaders of how they have failed to look after his people, and how they have consistently mistreated God’s messengers.

This parable gives us a good summary of Jesus’ life. He was sent by his Father to the people of Israel, to show them how to produce good fruit.  But as we know, the leaders of the time considered him a threat to their privilege and power, so they had him killed. These leaders were living the good life in God’s vineyard, and they refused to be held accountable for it.

This parable also reminds us of the story of Adam and Eve. God created the Garden of Eden and invited Adam and Eve to look after it for him, on one condition. But after being tempted by the serpent, they decided that it wasn’t enough to be caretakers. They wanted that garden all for themselves, without any limits. So, they turned their backs on God and thereafter suffered the consequences.

Now, isn’t all this really the story of our own world today?  God created our beautiful world; he designed it to produce lots of wonderful fruits for the benefit of all mankind.

None of us owns this world, however. It still belongs to God, although each of us has been given a piece of it to look after. But it’s not enough to simply keep our little patch tidy and weed-free. We actually need to produce something – something worthwhile and nourishing that benefits others and also pleases God.

Have we been doing that?

Collectively, we are the caretakers of his planet and God expects a harvest of good fruit from us all. But so many of us have let him down. Too many of us have plundered the earth’s resources and used God’s gifts for selfish purposes, giving nothing in return.  Too many of us produce little or no fruit.

Worse still, some people are actually producing bad fruit.  Consider all the cruelty, corruption, violence and pollution in our world today.    

In today’s parable, Jesus asks, ‘When the owner returns, what will he do to those tenants?’ Well, here’s the answer: ‘He’ll bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he’ll give the vineyard to someone who will produce good fruit.’

And what is that good fruit?  St Paul tells us.  It’s the fruits of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal.5:22-23a).  These are the fruits God expects from his people.

Ironically, these are precisely the things we want for ourselves. But we can never get them by rejecting God, for these things only come from God. We need the Holy Spirit to help us achieve them.

At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that he’s the keystone, the solution we’re looking for.  In John 15:5, Jesus says, ‘I am the vine and you are the branches.  If you remain in me and I in you, you’ll bear much fruit’. 

Jesus was planted in us at our baptism, and today God is calling us to cultivate this vine in our lives. We are meant to produce a rich harvest of good fruit. If you haven’t already, it’s time to start.

And if you need help, just ask Jesus.