Year A – 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Labouring in the Vineyard

(Is.55:6-9; Phil.1:20-24, 27; Mt.20:1-16)

On a hill in Jerusalem, near Bethlehem, there’s a college called Tantur. Every morning, outside the gate, dozens of Palestinians stand there waiting, not for a bus, but for work. They are day labourers, waiting for someone to give them a job.

Something similar occurred during the Great Depression in Sydney, when men used to walk the ‘Hungry Mile’ from wharf to wharf in the docklands area, looking for work. The lucky ones got a full day’s work, others only a few hours.  But many waited all day for nothing.

This hard life is reflected in Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. A landowner needs labourers to harvest his grapes. At 6.00 am he approaches a group of men waiting at the marketplace. He offers some of them work, at the standard rate of one denarius a day, and off they go. 

The owner returns at 9.00 am, at noon, at 3.00 pm and even at 5.00 pm.  Each time he collects more workers, offering them a fair wage for their labour.

At sunset, he pays them. The last to arrive are paid first, the first are paid last. They all receive one denarius. But some start grumbling. They think that’s unfair: ‘We’ve worked all day in the hot sun and they’ve done very little.  Why are they treated equally?’ 

In explaining this story, it may help to recognise that the late starters aren’t idlers. They want to work; indeed, they’ve waited since dawn for someone to hire them. 

It may also help to understand this parable’s scriptural background. The Bible often refers to the people of Israel as God’s vineyard (e.g. Jn.15:5).  It tells us that God brought this vine out of Egypt, and that he cared for it by clearing a new land, and planting and watering that vine so that it would produce good fruit (Ps.80:8-9; Is.5:2; Is.27:2-3).

But on returning, God only found poor fruit (Is.5:7).  He was disappointed, and let conquerors invade his land (Ps.80:9-19).  However, he did promise that he’d return one day to replant that vine (Am.9:15), and make sure it flourished (Hos.14:5-10).

That’s the background to this parable. The landowner is God. The vineyard is his kingdom. The first labourers are the people of Israel, the Jews, to whom God first revealed his kingdom. And the later workers are the Gentiles who discovered Jesus at different times in history (Eph.2:11-13). [i]

Today, we are the labourers in the vineyard. (Or at least, we’re meant to be.) And where is that vineyard? It’s the day-to-day circumstances in which we find ourselves. The vines we’re asked to lovingly tend are the people who surround us.

In our society, we tend to take a transactional view of things: if I do this, then I expect to get that. We have so many rules about this, and quite often we even expect God to comply.

But as Isaiah says in our first reading, God’s ways aren’t our ways. He doesn’t think like we do. He doesn’t pay his labourers by the hour or according to their skills.

God knows that each of us has a unique combination of talents, challenges and opportunities in life. As Pope St John Paul II once wrote, ‘Each of us has a story of our life that is our own; and each of us has a story of our soul that is our own’. [ii] God respects this, and mercifully, he chooses to love us all totally and equally.

We see this in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk.15:29-30), where the wayward son who returns home is loved just as much as the older brother who never left.

And while nailed to the Cross, Jesus says to the good thief Dismas, ‘Today you’ll be with me in paradise’ (Lk.23:39-43). Dismas is a repentant criminal and a late convert, yet he still receives the same reward as Jesus’ disciples.

In her book Deathbed Conversions: Finding Faith at the Finish Line, Karen Edmisten tells the stories of 13 famous people who joined the Church at the end of their lives. This includes Oscar Wilde, the actors John Wayne and Gary Cooper, Buffalo Bill, the gangster Dutch Schultz, and King Charles II of England.

The journey to God for each of them was very different, but the result is always the same: eternal life. God loves us all completely, even when we don’t deserve it. [iii]

Right now, God is inviting us all to share in the same reward of eternal life. All we must do is to agree to help Jesus in his vineyard, spreading his love as best we can.

Accepting this invitation is a bit like catching a train. Some people buy their tickets early, while others rush to the station at the last minute.

The important thing is getting on board before it’s too late.

[i] Scott Hahn: Sunday Bible Reflections, First and Last.

[ii] S Joseph Krempa, Captured Fire – Year A, St Pauls Publications, New York, 2005:127.

[iii] Karen Edmiston, Deathbed Conversions: Finding Faith at the Finish Line, Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington IN, 2013.

Year A – 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Executioner’s Soul

(Ecc.27:30-28.7; Rom.14:7-9; Mt.18:21-35)

Could you ever forgive someone who tortured you?

In 1940, when the Nazis captured Paris, the gifted Swiss-born pianist Maïti Girtanner was 18 years old. ‘I knew from a young age I was meant to be a pianist,’ she said. ‘Music was my life.’

A year later, Maïti was helping the French Resistance, smuggling people and messages out of occupied France. She saved the lives of dozens of Allied soldiers and Jewish families. When she sensed their fear, she asked them: ‘Do you believe in God? So, pray to him and keep going.’

Being bilingual, she found it easy to charm the Nazi soldiers, visiting them and giving piano recitals – all the while collecting intelligence for the Resistance. 

In October 1943, the Gestapo arrested her and several others. During her lengthy interrogation, a young Nazi doctor named Leo methodically tortured her by clubbing her spine. The pain was excruciating. This was her time of passion, she thought.

However, her deep Christian faith sustained her. She encouraged her fellow prisoners to have hope, and she urged them to talk to each other. ‘They tried to make animals of us,’ she said, ‘but speech allowed us to remain human.’

In 1944 she was rescued by the Swiss Red Cross, but her spine was so badly damaged she could barely walk. She couldn’t have children, nor could she play the piano again. [i] For years, hearing a piano made her cry with rage and regret. ‘But…I don’t hold it against anyone,’ she later said. ‘That would be useless and it wouldn’t give me back my fingers.’

She also once wrote to a friend: ‘I shan’t make a tragedy of my life.’

She suffered chronic pain for the rest of her life, but refused to turn her grief into hatred or resentment. Instead, she prayed for the grace to forgive.

She became a philosophy tutor, got her driving licence and deepened her Christian faith by becoming a Dominican Tertiary. She found that giving herself to others gave new meaning to life.

Then one day in 1984, Leo the executioner unexpectedly contacted Maïti in Paris. He was elderly and scared, because he had a terminal illness.

At first, he wrote asking Maïti if she still believed in God and heaven. Then he visited her, begging forgiveness. Through her pain, she reached out to him, held his head in her hands and kissed it. In that moment she knew she had forgiven him.[ii]

Just as Jesus forgave his enemies, so Maïti forgave Leo. ‘I embraced him to drop him into the heart of God,’ she said.

Leo received a fine gift that day, but Maïti received an even greater one.  She had prayed for 40 years for the grace to forgive, because she knew it would set her free. And that’s just what happened. ‘Forgiving him liberated me,’ she said.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that we should always forgive others, not just seven times, but seventy times seven. In other words, always. The number seven signals perfection in the Bible.

With these words, Jesus is telling us that we are obliged to forgive anyone who has offended us. And we must seek forgiveness from anyone we might have offended. 

He says something similar after his Sermon on the Mount. When you’re at worship, Jesus says, and you remember that you have yet to forgive someone (or be forgiven by someone), go and put things right, and then come back to God (Mt.5:23-24).

Why? It’s because God is love, and we too must be loving if we want his divine life and power flowing through us.

Here’s the point: when we fail to forgive, our relationship with God is interrupted.

Of course, it’s not easy to forgive others, and it can be hard to say sorry, but remember what Jesus said to St Faustina, ‘The cause of your falls is that you rely too much on yourself and too little on me.’ [iii]

Jesus is always there for us. If you find forgiving difficult, just ask him for help, just as Maïti Girtanner did.  

Maïti died in Paris in 2014, aged 92. Her biography, published in 2006, is called Even the Executioners Have a Soul. [iv]

She had a choice, either to live a life of bitterness and hatred, or to forgive the man who had caused her disability.

‘Looking at my existence,’ she said, ‘I understood that a life is not measured by the projects we set for ourselves or the ideas we have of ourselves, but by the way we live it, faced with the circumstances imposed on us.’ [v]

She chose the way of forgiveness; the way of love.

It transformed her life, and it saved the soul of an executioner.

[i] K.V. Turley. ‘What Happened When This Woman Met Her Nazi Torturer’. National Catholic Register (December 6, 2018).


[iii] St Maria Faustina Kowlska, Divine Mercy in My Soul, Marian Press, Stockbridge MA, 2007:529 (n.1488).

[iv] Maiti Girtanner & Guillaume Tabard, Même les Bourreaux ont une âme.

[v] Maïti Gitanner, The Force of Forgiveness,

Year A – 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Rocks and Islands

(Ezek.33:7-9; Rom.13:8-10; Mt.18:15-20)

If someone hurts you, what do you do?  Do you nurse your anger and pain? Do you retaliate or complain? Or do you seek reconciliation and healing?

In his song ‘I am a Rock’, Paul Simon tells the story of someone who has been hurt and has withdrawn from the world.  ‘I am a rock,’ he sings, ‘I am an island. And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.’ [i]

From time to time we all feel like withdrawing into our shell.  We’d all like the world to go away. But today’s pandemic is a good reminder that we’re not meant to live in isolation; we’re all much too interconnected. We need each other, and when we’re separated, we become unhappy.

When God created mankind, he said ‘It’s not good for man to be alone’ (Gen.2:18).  So, he gave Adam a wife, they had a family and we’ve been living in community ever since. Or at least, we’re meant to be living in community.

The famous English preacher Charles Spurgeon once visited a man who had isolated himself from his church community. Spurgeon walked into the man’s home without saying a word, and sat with him by his fireplace. The man felt uncomfortable. With some tongs, Spurgeon took a lump of coal from the fire and set it on a brick. Both men stared at that solitary coal as it dimmed and cooled. Spurgeon then stood up, and as he opened the door to leave, the man said, ‘I understand pastor; I’ll see you next Sunday’.

Living with others isn’t always easy. Tension and conflict so easily arise, especially when someone does something wrong. But as Christians, we have a duty to look out for others, even when they disappoint us. That’s the message from today’s readings, which give us three ways to respond when we find ourselves in conflict with someone.

These three ways are speaking, respecting and healing. [ii]

In our first reading, God asks the prophet Ezekiel to watch over his people in Jerusalem.  His job is to protect the people by speaking up if they do anything wrong or if they put themselves in danger.

That’s what we are asked to do.  As Christians, we all have a duty to speak up if someone’s doing something wrong. It’s not essential to change their behaviour, but we must speak the truth to those we care about.  Otherwise our silence can be taken as tacit approval and we become partly responsible for their mistake.

But speaking up can be hard, so St Paul in our second reading reminds us to always respect others. Referring to the Ten Commandments, he says it’s important to respect the other person’s life, marriage, property and integrity.

Indeed, seven of the Ten Commandments are about our connection with others, and they can all be summed up in one rule: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. If we really love and respect our neighbour, we wouldn’t harm them at all and they’d be much more likely to stay in contact with us.

And finally, in our gospel, Jesus says that before talking make sure you have a humble, compassionate and forgiving heart. These are important factors in healing relationships.

Then go and talk openly and honestly with the person who has hurt you, he says, but do it privately, to avoid any embarrassment. If that doesn’t work, invite one or two others into the conversation, not to gang up on them, but to help them reconnect. And if necessary, invite someone else, perhaps a mediator, to resolve the situation.

But whatever happens, Jesus says, always pray for reconciliation and keep the doors of communication open, because we all need healing. 

In his book, The Great Divorce, CS Lewis describes hell as a huge, dark place, where there’s no contact between people.  Hell started out small, he says, but people quarreled with one another and split apart. Then there were other squabbles and people moved even further away, until no-one could even see anyone else.  And there they lived, alone in the darkness.  Jesus wants us to avoid this hell. [iii]

When we realise just how flawed and broken we all are, it becomes much easier to understand that we all have the same basic need for healing and wholeness.

We are not solitary rocks or islands. As the poet John Donne wrote: ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’. [iv] We’re all meant to live and grow and thrive together, in our families and communities.

Christian love isn’t an emotion or a feeling; it’s a responsibility and a decision.

If ever you’re in conflict, remember the value of speaking, respecting and healing.


[ii] S Joseph Krempa, Captured Fire, Cycle A.  St Paul’s, New York. 2018:121-123.

[iii] CS Lewis, The Great Divorce.


Year A – 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Carrying our Cross

[Jer.20:7-9; Rom.12:1-2; Mt.16:21-27]

What does it mean to ‘carry our Cross’?

The Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn gives us the example of Ivan, a political prisoner in Stalin’s Russia, incarcerated near Moscow.  Ivan was an expert in physics and optics. One day, the prison governor summoned him. ‘Would you like a remission?’ he asked. 

‘What would I have to do?’ Ivan replied.

‘We’d like you to transfer to another prison to manage an important project.  If you agree, you’ll be free in six months.’

‘What is the project?’

‘We want you to perfect a miniature camera that can be fitted to a door jamb, and that works when the door is opened.  We know you can do this.’

Ivan was perhaps the only person in Russia who could design this device. After seventeen years in prison, the idea of going home was appealing.  It was the answer to his wife Natasha’s prayer.  All he had to do was invent a device that would put a few unsuspecting fools behind bars in his place, and he’d be free.

‘Can’t I continue working on television sets?’ he asked.

‘You mean you refuse?’ said the governor.

Ivan thought: who would ever thank him? Were those people out there worth saving? Natasha had waited for him for seventeen years. ‘I can’t do it,’ he said.

‘But you’re just the man for the job,’ said the governor. ‘We’ll give you time to think about it.’

‘I won’t do it. Putting people in prison because of the way they think is not my line. That’s my final answer.’

They sent him to work in a Siberian copper mine, where starvation rations, and likely death, awaited him. No fate could be worse, yet he was at peace with himself. [i]

Ivan had already suffered so much that he was not prepared to cause someone else pain. He understood his own heart, and chose to carry his Cross, just as Jesus asks us to do in today’s Gospel.

Whenever we suffer for someone else, we carry our Cross. Whenever we rearrange our priorities for the sake of others, we carry our Cross.

Whenever we bear with good grace the struggles of our own existence, we carry our Cross. And where does this good grace come from? It comes from following Jesus.

So, what is that Cross?  Ron Rolheiser says that theologians over the years have tried to explain it by dividing the meaning of the Cross (and Jesus’ death) into two parts.  Firstly, the Cross gives us our deepest understanding of God’s loving nature.  And secondly, the Cross is redemptive. [ii]

By redemptive, he means that the Way of the Cross gives meaning and purpose to our lives, and it leads us to life eternal.

In the nineteenth century, the Korean mystic Ch’oe Che-u (known as Su-un or ‘Water-cloud’), taught that it is the duty of all people to ‘serve heaven’. If everyone believed, he said, we’d all live in harmony with the ‘one heaven’, and we’d all be equal before it.

One day, Su-un heard the revelation from the Lord of Heaven: ‘My heart is your heart’. Like other mystics, he learnt that God’s heart is in all of God’s creation, and that God’s heart unites all creation.  We live together in the heart of God, and indeed, we are invited to be the heart of God here on earth. [iii]

Today, so much poverty, injustice, strife and ignorance surround us. Jesus is calling us to search our hearts and make our own compassionate response.  We really can’t live without love, and we know that there’s no genuine love without sacrifice.

So, the Cross we carry is our own loving response to the world’s pain, guided and informed by the divine heart of Jesus.

What ultimately unites us to God and everyone else is this personal movement into our hearts. As we delve ever more deeply into our own hearts, we discover the paradox that we are unique, and yet we’re all one and the same.  God’s heart embraces us all, and it certainly embraced Valerie Place.

Valerie was a 23-year-old nurse from Dublin who worked in Somalia.  She wanted to help people who had nothing; to offer them a better life. Her safety concerned her, but nothing would keep her from this work. She ran a feeding centre in Mogadishu, nourishing starving children and saving many lives.  She even established a school to give the children some hope for the future. 

She was fortunate in seeing some of the fruits of her labours.  But, sadly, she was killed by armed bandits outside her school.  She had willingly risked her life to help others.

Today, outside a building in Mogadishu, there’s a mural of Valerie nursing little Somali babies. She had devoted her life to caring for others. [iv] This was the Cross she carried.

And yet, as Jesus tells us, it’s in losing our life that we find it (Mt.16:25)

What Cross are you carrying? 

[i] Flor McCarthy, New Sunday & Holy Day Liturgies Year A, Dominican Publications, Dublin. 2019:300-301.


[iii] Brian Gallagher, Taking God to Heart. St Paul’s, Strathfield. 2008:21.


Year A – 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the First Commandment

[Isa.22:19-23; Rom.11:33-36; Mt.16:13-19]

Of all the Ten Commandments, the one we’re most likely to break is the first.  This is the one that says, ‘You shall not have any false gods before me’.

In ancient times, people made idols of imaginary gods, such as the Aztec Tlaloc and the Egyptian Ra, and worshipped them.  But today, false gods tend to be different. Money, power, pleasure and possessions are far more likely to steal our hearts and hopes these days. 

Some of us also tend to make false gods of ourselves, by becoming obsessed with our own thoughts, desires, feelings and appearance. 

And sometimes we substitute false images for the real God, Yahweh, the Father of Jesus Christ.  This is a more subtle form of idolatry, and Ron Rolheiser names ten of these false gods.  Here are four of them:

• The arbitrary god of fear.
• The insecure, defensive, threatened god.
• The dumb, non-understanding god.
• The overly intense god of our own neuroses. [i]

Whenever we invest all our energy and attention into something other than the real, loving God who created us, we’re worshipping a false god. Whenever we make something else more important than him, we commit idolatry. 

The American pastor Rick Warren says that trusting in things other than God can have devastating effects on our lives.  If we think that who we’re with, or what we do, will make us totally fulfilled, we’re setting ourselves up for deep disappointment (Jer.10:14).

But we do this all the time, he says. We do it with our careers, relationships and bank accounts.  We act as if those created things give us meaning in life, and when we do that, we’re setting ourselves up for failure (Is.44:20).

These idols are lies, he says, and sadly, they don’t just stop after they’ve disappointed us. Eventually, they enslave us, too. [ii]

In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, at the foot of Mount Hermon.  They are near a large cave which was considered the gateway to the dark underworld of Hades.  It had a shrine where the Greeks used nasty ritual sacrifices and fertility rites to worship Pan, the half-goat, half-man god of nature, wine and pleasure.  And nearby was a temple where the Romans worshipped Augustus Caesar, who claimed he was a god.

Now, Jesus has been with his disciples for perhaps two years, but he wonders if they really know him.  In the shadow of these false gods, he looks at his disciples and asks: ‘Who do the people say I am?’ They reply, ‘You are John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the other great prophets.’

‘But who do you say I am?’ he asks.  Peter replies, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’.  Jesus is pleased: ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!’

But Jesus knows that Peter’s faith hasn’t come from his own human reasoning or effort.  So, he tells him it’s a gift from God: ‘for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’

What Jesus is saying is that faith starts with God, not with us. It begins with God opening himself up to us and inviting us to share in his divine life. 

But an invitation by itself goes nowhere. We must either accept or reject it. Faith requires us to make a decision, and if we choose a life of faith, that means opening up our hearts to God.  It means entering into a personal relationship with him.

When Jesus asked his disciples those questions, they were surrounded by the false gods of ancient times.  Today, surrounded by the false gods of our own time, Jesus is asking us the very same thing: ‘Who do you say that I am?’

How we answer that question will shape the way we live our lives, both today and tomorrow. It will determine how we spend our eternity. 

I’ll end with a story.  Tom was a farmer who relished being irreligious.  He wrote a letter to his newspaper saying, ‘Sir, I have been trying an experiment with a field of mine. I ploughed it on Sunday, I planted it on Sunday. I harvested it on Sunday. I carted the crop home to the barn on Sunday. And now, Mr Editor, what is the result?  This October I have more bushels to the acre from the field than any of my neighbours have.’

He expected applause from the editor, who wasn’t known to be religious, either.  But when he opened the paper the next week, there was his letter, printed in full.  Underneath it was the short but significant sentence:

‘God does not always settle accounts in October.’ [iii]

[i] Ron Rolheiser, You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me: The 1st Commandment, 13 April 2016,


[iii] Gerard Fuller, Stories for All Seasons, Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, CT. 1997:37.

Year A – 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Persistence

(Isa.56:1, 6-7; Rom.11:13-15, 29-32; Mt.15:21-28)

Persistence can be such a good thing.  At university years ago, I fell in love with a girl and asked her to marry me. She said no, but I didn’t give up. Deep in my heart I knew she was the one for me.  Eventually, she did say yes, though, and now we’ve been together for 42 years. 

The Scottish king, Robert the Bruce, was also persistent.  Early in his reign he was defeated by the English and driven into exile. For three months he hid in a cave, where he watched a spider slowly build a web. It kept falling down, but it always got up again. 

Robert the Bruce was so inspired by that spider that he told his men, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’. He went on to defeat the English at Bannockburn in 1314. [i]

In today’s fast-paced world, many people simply give up when they don’t quickly get what they want.  But it’s often wiser to persevere, isn’t it? Especially with things that are good and worthwhile, and that you really believe in.

The Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel is also persistent.  She desperately needs help for her sick daughter.  When Jesus comes to town, she pleads to him, ‘Sir, Son of David, take pity on me! My daughter is tormented by a devil.’ 

At first, Jesus appears to ignore her. Now, why does he do that?  Everywhere else, he’s always compassionate towards those who suffer.

Jesus ignores her because he wants to teach his disciples a lesson.  This woman isn’t Jewish; she’s a Canaanite outsider living in present-day Lebanon.  Jews traditionally hated the Canaanites, and that’s why Jesus’ disciples want her to go away.  (They also wanted the crowds to go away before Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes. But Jesus taught them about compassion by getting them to feed the 5,000.)

This time, Jesus wants his disciples to witness this woman’s deep faith.  ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,’ he says to her.  This is what they are thinking – that his ministry is only to the Jews.  But she won’t give up.  She kneels at his feet, saying ‘Lord, have mercy’.

Jesus then refers to her as a house-dog, a term that was quite commonly used back then. But she strongly rebuffs that, too. 

In the end, Jesus is so impressed by her persistence that he says, ‘Woman, you have great faith, your wish is granted,’ and her daughter is healed. 

Through this encounter, Jesus helps this woman, but he also teaches his disciples. He helps them understand that you don’t have to be Jewish to have faith, and that his mission is not just to Palestine, but to the whole world.

Now, did you notice when that woman cried ‘Lord, have mercy’?  We say exactly the same thing at every Mass in the Kyrie, when we say: ‘Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy’. These words come from the Canaanite woman. We say it three times, just like her.

But is our faith as deep as hers?  Are we as persistent in our prayer as she is? 

I hope you can see from today’s Gospel that there can be many reasons why our prayers aren’t always anwered instantly. God might be doing something else, as he did in today’s encounter. 

Or we might be praying for something that God doesn’t approve of, and he says ‘no’. Or our timing might be wrong, and he says ‘go slow’.  Or if we are somehow wrong, he might say we must ‘grow’ before giving us his grace. [ii]

In her book Monastery of the Heart, Joan Chittister says that life can often be confusing because God’s will doesn’t always come in straight lines or clear signs.  But one thing is inescapable, she says. The way we deal with whatever happens to us on the outside depends entirely on what we’ve become on the inside.  Wherever we have fixed our hearts, she says, will determine the way we experience all that happens to us. [iii] 

In other words, like the Canaanite woman, we need to develop strong and stable hearts that reflect our deep faith in our loving God.  He knows what he’s doing.  We must trust him, and we must be persistent in pursuing him.

In China there’s a type of bamboo tree that you must water every day. When you plant that seed, nothing comes out of the ground.  There’s no growth for the whole first year.

Now what would you do if you plant and water a bamboo tree for 365 days and there’s not even the slightest movement? In the second year there’s no movement. The third year, nothing. The fourth year, nothing.

Why waste any more water on that lazy tree?

But the people have faith. They keep watering that tree and in the fifth year, within six weeks the tree grows some ninety feet. [iv]

Trust Jesus. Be persistent in your prayer.


[ii] Fr John McTeigue, Why Won’t My Prayers Work? Aleteia, 8 March 2017

[iii] Joan Chittister, Monastery of the Heart, Bluebridge Books, 2011:159-162.

[iv] Swami Radhanath, Evolve: Two Minute Wisdom. (Ninety feet is about 27.5 metres).

Year A – 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Troubled Waters

(1Kgs.19:9a,11-13a; Rom.9:1-5; Mt.14:22-33)

Some people love the sea. It reminds them of sunshine, surf and swimming.  For others, the sea is the great unknown, filled with shipwrecks and sharks. 

In 1823 the English essayist William Hazlitt wrote, ‘I hate to be near the sea … to hear it roaring and raging like a wild beast in its den …’

The people of ancient Israel disliked the sea, too.  They thought it was full of danger and nasty surprises – calm one moment, but fierce the next.  They were sure that monstrous ghosts and whales lurked below.  

Scripture had taught them that on the second day of Creation, God established dry land by separating the seas (Gen.1:9).  They also knew that God had helped the Israelites escape Egypt by parting the Red Sea (Ex.14:21-31).  So they were convinced that only God can control the sea’s frightening power.

In Matthew’s Gospel today, after feeding the 5,000, Jesus tells his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee while he goes into the hills to pray.

Now, the Sea of Galilee is a large inland lake surrounded by steep hills.  It’s usually calm, but violent storms do suddenly occur, especially when the cool mountain air meets the hot air above the lake.  One storm in 1992 produced waves 3m high.

It’s night-time when the disciples’ boat crosses that sea, and a wild windstorm whips up the waves.  They become terrified, especially when they notice someone walking towards them on the water.  ‘It must be a ghost!’ they cry.  But Jesus says, ‘It is I. Don’t be afraid’.

They’re astounded.  How can Jesus do that?  Only God can control the sea.

Jesus then invites Peter to join him.  Peter is mesmerised, and steps out of the boat, walking towards Jesus.  He’s not afraid; his faith sustains him.  But suddenly the wind distracts Peter and he looks away from Jesus. He panics and starts to sink.  ‘Lord, save me!’ he cries, and Jesus reaches out to grab him.  ‘Oh man of little faith,’ Jesus says, ‘why did you doubt?’ 

As Jesus steps into the boat, the storm disappears.

This story is a wonderful metaphor for our lives.  We do like peace and calm, don’t we? But we’re so often battered by unwelcome storms.

In one sense, that little boat represents the Church, the Barque of Peter, which has certainly been buffeted by turbulent headwinds in recent times. 

Jesus is inviting us all to stay calm, to remain with the Church and to keep our eyes firmly fixed on him.  He will guide us through this passing storm.

But that little boat also represents our own selves, as we try to cross the troubled seas of our individual lives.  Like the disciples, we often worry about the dangers around us and whether we can cope on our own. 

But we don’t have to cope on our own! Jesus is in control. He wants to help us.

Just as God’s spirit hovered over the waters at the time of Creation, so Jesus is hovering over our troubled world right now.  He’s inviting us to rise above the chaos and to walk with him.  He doesn’t promise that there’ll be no more storms, but he is offering to hold our hand to guide us through.

When times are tough, this is our choice:  Do we look inwardly in fear?  Or do we focus on Jesus and draw strength from him?

Peter, the disciple, could walk on water because his eyes were squarely fixed on Jesus.  But as soon as he looked away, he started to sink. It’s the same with us.

It’s not enough for us to say we have faith.  We actually need to live by our faith. 

The French Jesuit writer, Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751), explains what this means in his book Abandonment to Divine Providence. To live by faith, he says, is to live joyfully, to live with assurance, untroubled by doubts and with complete confidence in all we have to do and suffer at each moment by the will of God.

So, we must trust Jesus.  But why must we suffer all these storms?

We must realize, de Caussade says, that in order to stimulate and sustain this faith, God allows the soul to be buffeted and swept away by the raging torrent of so much distress, so many troubles, so much embarrassment and weakness, and so many setbacks … [i]

In other words, if we never suffered stormy seas, we’d have no reason to find God.  We would simply rely on ourselves.

So, today, are you in calm seas or troubled waters?

Whatever your answer, always keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.

We surely need him.

[i] Jean-Pierre de Caussade Abandonment to Divine Providence, Cosimo Classics, New York, 2007:281-285.

Year A – 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Two Drops of Oil

(Isa.55:1-3; Rom.8:35, 37-39; Mt.14:13-21)

In his bestselling book, The Alchemist, Paolo Coelho tells the story of a boy sent by his father to learn the secret of happiness.  He travels to a castle, high atop a mountain, to see the wisest man in the world.

The wise man is busy, however.  He says he doesn’t have the time to share the secret of happiness, but he encourages the boy to explore the palace and return in two hours. He then hands the boy a teaspoon holding two drops of oil, saying, ‘As you walk around, carry this spoon with you without spilling any oil.’

The boy wanders all around the palace, keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. After two hours, he returns to the wise man.

‘Well,’ asks the wise man, ‘did you see the Persian tapestries or the garden? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?’

The boy is embarrassed; he saw nothing. He was too busy minding the oil.

‘Then go back and observe the marvels of my world,’ says the wise man. ‘You cannot trust a man if you don’t know his house.’

The boy takes the spoon and again explores the palace, this time observing all the fine artworks and the beautiful gardens, mountains and flowers. Returning to the wise man, he explains all he has seen.

‘But where are the drops of oil?’ the wise man asks.

The boy looks down at the empty spoon.

‘Well, there’s only one piece of advice I can give you,’ says the wisest of wise men. ‘The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.’ [i]

It was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who famously said that we are spiritual beings having a human experience.  Coelho’s story reminds us that we often lose sight of our spiritual selves in the busyness of our daily lives.  We get so caught up in our worldly pursuits that we forget what really matters in life. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus goes with his disciples to a quiet place to pray and to mourn the death of his cousin John the Baptist, however a huge crowd appears.  The disciples are annoyed, but Jesus responds with compassion.

Now, many people today are quick to dismiss the Feeding of the 5,000 as yet another nice thing Jesus did.  But it’s so much more than that.  

This is a miracle so filled with mystery and symbol that it appears six times in Scripture and it’s in all four Gospels.  It’s full of allusions to the Old Testament, and it points to the fulfilment of ancient prophecy (Is.25:6-8; 40:10-11).

This event presents Jesus as the new Moses (Ex.16:1-36) and as the Son of David who leads his flock to green pastures (Ps.23).  And like the prophet Elisha, he feeds his flock with only a few loaves, but has plenty left over (2Kgs.4:42-44).  

Now, it’s significant that Jesus begins with 7 items of food (5 loaves and 2 fish), because in Scripture the number 7 symbolises completion or perfection.  It also points to the 7 days of Creation and the fact that everything begins with God.

And it’s significant that the gestures and words Jesus uses are the same he uses at the Last Supper when he institutes the Eucharist: He ‘takes the bread… he blesses it… he breaks it and he gives it to them’ (Mt.26:26). 

Jesus instructs his 12 Apostles to distribute this food, and the 12 baskets left over indicate that there’s still plenty of his Eucharistic bread available for all 12 tribes of Israel. Indeed, through the Apostles and their successors, Jesus has been nourishing the world with the Bread of Life – his divine self – ever since.

Too many of us today live only on the surface of things. We rarely plumb the depths of who we are and we ignore the movement of God in our lives.  Not surprisingly, we struggle to recognise the fundamental truth, beauty and meaning of life.

The secret of happiness, the wisest of wise men says, is to see all the marvels of the world, without forgetting the two drops of oil on the spoon.

In other words, we need to start seeing beyond the superficial (1Sam.16:7), by maintaining a constant balance between our spiritual and human selves. We need to develop spiritual insight.

Spirituality is wisdom of the spirit; it provides a kind of sixth sense which helps us to intuitively see and appreciate the movement of God in our ordinary human lives. [ii]

How might we achieve that? 

By cultivating a life of prayer and meditation. 

[i] Paolo Coelho, The Alchemist. HarperOne, NY. 1998:30-32 (adapted). 

[ii] Dom Hubert van Zeller, And So to God, published on Universalis, 28 July 2020.

Year A – 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Clairvoyant’s Message

 [1Kgs.3:5, 7-12; Rom.8:28-30; Mt.13:44-52]

Is the grass really greener on the other side?  Many people wonder about that. Their lives might be relatively comfortable, but they feel restless and uncertain, and they worry that they might be missing out on something.

It’s called the Grass is Greener Syndrome, and it’s driven by our doubts and our fears that our job, relationship or situation isn’t quite good enough for us.

Consider the story of the farmer who owned a small farm.  His land was stony, but he worked hard, and for a while he was happy and contented.  But then he began to feel that something was missing.  There must be more to life, he thought.

One evening a stranger arrived and asked for a night’s stay.  The farmer welcomed him; he’d been hoping for some company and excitement.

Around the fire that night, the stranger talked about diamonds and said that if he could find a diamond the size of a small fingernail, he’d never have to work again.

The next day, the stranger left, leaving the farmer unhappy and restless. As the days passed, he became more and more restless and he started neglecting his farm.  Finally, he sold it off cheaply, and began searching the country for diamonds.  He travelled far but found none. 

Meanwhile, the man who bought his farm worked hard.  One day, while out ploughing, he discovered a stone that shone in the sunlight.  It turned out to be a diamond. There were many more there, and it became one of the richest diamond mines in South Africa. [i]

Like the Prodigal Son, this farmer had squandered all he had to seek greener pastures.  The irony is that if he’d kept working, he’d have discovered those diamonds for himself. 

Many people are like this today.  They might work hard, but they don’t have the wisdom to recognise the treasures they already have or what’s important in life.

In today’s first reading, God appears to young King Solomon in a dream and says, ‘Ask me what I should give you’. 

Now, Solomon can ask for anything he likes: fabulous wealth, a long life, or even great power, but he doesn’t.  What he asks for is a heart of wisdom.  He wants to be a good leader, for his people are his treasure.

God likes this answer and he gives him a heart that’s wiser than anyone else’s.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus shares his parable of the poor workman who accidentally discovers treasure buried in a field. The excited workman sells everything he has, buys the field and the treasure is all his.

Jesus also gives us his parable of the rich merchant who searches for and finds a rare pearl.  He, too, sells everything he has to possess it.

Now, what is this treasure?  What is this pearl?   It’s the kingdom of heaven.  Many people think that God’s kingdom is somewhere up there in the sky, but it’s not a geographical place.  It’s a state of the heart.  It’s the power of God’s love working in our hearts, transforming our lives for the better.

The message from these parables is that the greatest treasure of all isn’t diamonds, pearls or money.  It’s the love of God, and it’s available to everyone, rich and poor alike, and we don’t have to go anywhere special to find it.  We can find it wherever we are in our ordinary lives. The workman found it while working; the merchant found it after a long search. 

But like young King Solomon, we need hearts of wisdom to recognise it.

Sir Douglas Bader, the British WWII flying ace, used to meet his friend Henry Longhurst regularly for drinks and conversation.  One afternoon in the 1970s, as Henry was dying of cancer, he said to Bader, ‘Old friend, there’s something I’ve always wondered’.

‘What’s that, Henry?’ Bader replied.

‘I’ve always wondered: Will the grass be greener on the other side?’

Neither man was particularly religious, and they talked for a while longer, but came to no conclusion.  Henry died that week, and Bader forgot about that conversation.

Months later, Bader was in London for a speaking engagement.  As he emerged from his taxi, there on the street was a woman, looking like a beggar.  She approached, and as Bader put his hand to his pocket, she said, ‘I don’t want your money. Are you Sir Douglas Bader?’ He said he was.

She said, “I’m a clairvoyant. I have a message from a friend of yours in the spirit world named Henry. I don’t have his last name, and I don’t know what the message means.

“He said, ‘Tell Bader: The grass is greener on the other side’.” [ii]

[i] Flor McCarthy, New Sunday and Holy Day Liturgies – Year A. Dominican Publications, Dublin. 2019:268-269.


Year A – 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Weeds among the Wheat

[Wis.12:13, 16-19; Rom.8:26-27; Mt.13:24-43]

In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Ugly Duckling, all the farm animals disliked one little duck. His mother wished he was miles away, and his siblings said, ‘Oh, how we wish the cat would catch you, you ugly thing.’ [i]

It was all a mistake, of course, because he was really a swan.  But isn’t this so common in life?  We often misunderstand; we often get things wrong. 

In 1963, in Fremantle WA, 19-year-old John Button was found guilty of murdering his girlfriend. Why? Because he had a bad stutter. The police interpreted this as nervous guilt, and Button served 5 years in prison before someone else confessed to the crime. [ii]

When we misinterpret people and situations, the results can be devastating.  They can also be far-reaching. 

As a student, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) liked reading the Gospels and he wondered if he’d found the answer to India’s caste system.  One day he decided to look into becoming a Christian.  He entered a church, but the usher refused to give him a seat.  He suggested that he worship with his own people instead.

Gandhi left the church and never returned. He said to himself, ‘If Christians also have caste differences, I might as well remain a Hindu’. [iii]

How do we avoid such mistakes?  Jesus talks about this today in his Parable of the Weeds.  It’s the story of a farmer who sows wheat across his field, but someone else has sown weeds there as well.  His workers ask if they should pull the weeds out.

Now, we’re all inclined to remove weeds as soon as possible, aren’t we? But this farmer says no. Why? It’s because the weeds in this story are called ‘darnel’ or ‘false wheat’.

Darnel was common in Israel. It’s a poisonous rye-grass that looks like wheat.  But as the plants grow together, the differences become clearer.  Wheat bends under its own weight while darnel keeps growing straight. By this time, however, their roots are so entangled that you can’t separate them without damaging the wheat. So, it’s better to leave them until harvest time.

This parable reminds us that whether we like it or not, we’re all living with weeds – with people and things we don’t like.  We can’t avoid it.  But we need to be patient, because we can’t always tell the difference between weeds and wheat. 

St John Vianney (1786-1859), the Curé of Ars, was a poor student in the seminary. He failed Theology, French and Latin, and, like a weed, he was told to leave. But that was a mistake, for he later received private tuition and he was ordained.  Now he’s the patron saint of all priests. 

His teachers should have been more patient with him, because what looked like a weed turned out to be very good wheat.

But this parable isn’t just about other people; it’s also about us.  We, too, have wheat and weeds mixed up inside ourselves. 

It’s significant that Jesus didn’t weed out Judas or Peter or any other disciple who disappointed him. He recognised their good qualities and he was patient with them. Thankfully, he’s also patient with us, because although we do have good qualities, we also have faults. 

In his book Weeds Among the Wheat, Thomas Green says that God leaves weeds inside us (our weaknesses), to keep us humble and to make us realise how much we need him and how helpless we are without his grace and power.  

‘The wheat of our virtues,’ he says, ‘including trust, humility and gratitude, could never come to full maturity without the weeds of our faults and failings.’ [iv] 

So, we must be patient with ourselves, and with others, just as God is patient with us. But there will be a harvest one day – at the end of our lives – and that’s when Jesus will separate the wheat from the weeds.

Here’s a final story.  Mulla Nasrudin decided to start a flower garden. He prepared the soil and he planted the seeds of many beautiful flowers.  But when they grew, his garden was filled not just with his flowers but also lots of dandelions.  He sought advice from gardeners near and far, and he tried everything to get rid of them, but to no avail.

Finally, he approached the royal gardener at the palace.  This wise old man had helped many gardeners before and he suggested several solutions, but Nasrudin had tried them all.  They sat together in silence for some time.

Then the gardener looked at Nasrudin and said, ‘Well then, I suggest you learn to live with dandelions.’ [v]

[i] Hans Christian Andersen, Hans Christian Andersen Tales, Word Cloud Classics, San Diego, 2014:161-169.



[iv] Thomas H Green, Weeds among the Wheat. Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame. 1984:145.

[v] Geoffrey Plant, Ascending the Mountain. John Garratt Publishing: Melbourne. 2010:160.