Year C – Palm Sunday

On the Passing Parade

(Is.50:4-7; Phil.2:6-11; Lk.19:28-40)

One remarkable figure in today’s Palm Sunday Gospel that’s typically overlooked is the donkey – the simple, ordinary, humble donkey.  It’s easy to miss this animal but its presence says so much.

2000 years ago, a worldly king would never have ridden a donkey.  He’d have chosen a mighty wheeled vehicle, perhaps a chariot, drawn by magnificent horses. 

But Jesus is different.  In our second reading, St Paul tells us that although he was God, Jesus didn’t seek to be treated as God.  Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … he humbled himself. So he chose a donkey.

Riding his donkey, Jesus fulfilled Zechariah’s 500 year old prophecy:  ‘Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey … and he shall command peace to the nations …’ (Zech.9:9).

Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover celebrations.  He approached the city from Jericho and that means he entered through the East Gate.  Seeing him, the crowd got excited and shouted. ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’  Jesus was their hero – their long-awaited Messiah. 

Now, Passover is one of the great Jewish celebrations.  It commemorates the release of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  Jesus went there every year.  The American scholar Ed Parish Sanders estimates that up to 500,000 pilgrims went to Jerusalem every year for these celebrations. The numbers were huge.

With so many pilgrims in town, the Governor Pontius Pilate thought he’d better get some extra soldiers from the coast, in case of any trouble.  So, as Jesus entered from the east, Pontius Pilate and his legions entered from the west.

You can just imagine the Roman procession. It was spectacular, with horses, chariots, cavalry, foot soldiers, helmets, armour, weapons, colourful banners and golden eagles held high.  The sound of horses, drums and marching feet echoed through the narrow streets.

This imperial procession was meant to intimidate:  it’s the power of a worldly empire with its false gods.  Its purpose was to demand fear and loyalty.

Jesus’ procession from the east, however, was different.  It was led by a humble man on a donkey, proclaiming the kingdom of God and asking people for love, acceptance and loyalty.

What a contrast!  One parade representing the pride, power and shallow obsessions of the world.  The other representing a new and a remarkable kind of kingdom – one of deep humility, hope, peace and love.  One that so many of us yearn for.

If you look and listen carefully, you’ll notice that both of these parades are continuing today.  And both, in their own way, are calling us.

… one parade represents the pride, power and shallow obsessions of the world. The other represents a new kind of kingdom

The parade that’s all about power and pride (and sadly, false promises, too) is noisy, it’s brash, it’s colourful.  It’s what captures the attention of most people.  It dominates our modern world.

The other is about the extraordinary love of our humble man-God.  It’s quiet.  It’s gentle.  It’s easily overlooked, but it’s always there, gently calling us over.

Which procession are you in?  Which crowd are you following?  If you say you’re following Jesus on his donkey, then I’ll ask – are you really following him?

I ask this because many in the crowd who greeted Jesus as he rode through Jerusalem on the Sunday also demanded his death on the Friday.

Cheering on Sunday, but jeering on Friday.

Hopeful on Sunday, but hateful on Friday.

How shallow and fickle they were. 

In these final days before Easter, let’s reflect deeply on what it really means to follow Jesus.

Are we loyal or are we fickle?  Do we truly follow Jesus, or do we pretend to?

Which parade, which crowd, are we really following?

Year C – 5th Sunday in Lent

On the Miracle of Divine Mercy

(Is.43:16-21; Phil.3:8-14; Jn.8:1-11)

If God loves us no matter what, then why should we bother being good?

Let’s look at today’s Gospel.

It’s early in the morning and Jesus is teaching some people in the Temple in Jerusalem. Some Scribes and Pharisees then arrive with a very unhappy woman.

They say to Jesus, ‘teacher, this woman was caught in a terrible act of sin.  The Law of Moses says she should be punished by stoning.  What do you say?’

Now, these Scribes and Pharisees aren’t interested in this woman. They’re only trying to trap Jesus.  They want him to say the wrong thing so he’ll be punished.

If Jesus says she should be stoned, then he’ll be breaking Roman law and he’ll also be contradicting his own teachings about forgiveness and mercy.  But if Jesus says the opposite – let her go free – then he’ll be rejecting his own Hebrew Bible: the Law of Moses.  That’s their trap.

At first Jesus doesn’t answer.  He simply looks at them in silence.  He knows what they’re up to.  Now, we should remember this, for Jesus knows us, too.  In Matthew 10:30, Jesus says that God knows us so well that he’s even counted all the hairs on our heads.

That’s a good thing, because it means that God knows about our goodness; he knows when we’re trying to be good. But it also means that when we’re doing the wrong thing, God knows that too.  God knows everything, so we should be careful for we’ll be held to account one day.

But in the Temple, Jesus won’t play their game.  He doesn’t say whether the woman should be punished or not.  Instead, he says that the person who’s without sin should throw the first stone.

This must have embarrassed the Scribes and Pharisees.  They hadn’t thought of that.  They didn’t realise that when you’re pointing your finger at someone else, you’re also pointing three fingers back at yourself. 

So, one by one they all disappear, until Jesus is left alone with the woman. 

St Augustine once said that at this point only two things remained: misery and mercy.  The misery of the woman and the mercy of Jesus.  But Jesus forgives her, and he says, ‘Go, and from now on don’t sin anymore.’

With that, the woman has a choice.  She can go back to her bad old ways of sinning and feeling miserable, or she can change the way she lives.

… when you’re pointing your finger at someone else, you’re also pointing three fingers back at yourself.

Jesus knows she’s done the wrong thing, but he wants her to start a new life.  He wants her to be happy.  This means she must turn away from sin.  Jesus doesn’t say ‘It’s OK.  God loves you anyway. It doesn’t matter what you do’.  Rather, he tells her not to sin again.  What’s wrong is wrong.

Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  If you want a new life, if you want a better life, then you need to change the way you live.

The woman in this story represents you and me.  She reminds us that when we do something wrong it hurts someone, and that can lead to misery. 

But the Scribes and Pharisees also represent you and me.  They remind us that when we point the finger and think we’re better than others, that’s also a sin.  That also leads to misery.

Many years ago, Jesus spoke directly to St Faustina Kowalska in Poland.  He reminded her of his merciful heart, and said that the miracle of Divine Mercy completely restores a damaged soul. 

Jesus told St Faustina that when we go to Reconciliation, we should be aware that he himself is in the confessional.  Jesus is hidden by the priest, but he himself acts in the soul.  And it’s here that the misery of the soul meets the mercy of God.

Jesus said that if we trust him, we’ll be able to draw graces from his fount of mercy.  If our trust is great, there’s no limit to his generosity.

So, it’s true that God always loves us, no matter what.  But if we want to be happy, we must turn away from sin. 

We should seek the miracle of Divine Mercy, by going to Reconciliation and starting again.

Let me leave you with this thought.  Among the Native Americans there’s the story of a father who said there were two wolves fighting inside him, one bad and one good.  His son asked him, which wolf wins? 

The father said, whichever one he feeds the most.

Year C – 4th Sunday in Lent

On the Greatest Story Ever Told

(Josh.5:9-12; 2Cor.5:17-21; Lk.15:1-9)

An angry young man once lived with his parents on a country property.  He was always fighting with his dad.  One day he shouted at him, ‘That’s it!  I’m leaving home!’

His father was upset, and replied, ‘Son, if you leave like that, don’t bother coming back!’ 

Well, the son did leave, slamming the door. But things didn’t go well for him.  He wandered from town to town, looking for work, drinking and getting into trouble. One night he was with friends.  They were all broke and they decided to rob a store.  But they were caught and sent to gaol.

The young man became really miserable.  Later, he wrote to his parents, telling them what he’d done and apologising sincerely.  He said that he’d understand if they didn’t want to see him again.

He also said that when he’s released he’ll be given a train ticket.  He wanted to catch the train that goes past their house.  If they’d like to see him again, perhaps they could tie something white to their tree near the train line.  If he sees nothing, he’ll just keep going and they’ll never see him again.

Well, the time came and the young man did get on that train.  He was so nervous.  As he got closer and closer to his old house he became even more agitated, pacing up and down the aisle.  At one point he couldn’t take it any more.  He asked another passenger, ‘My house is just ahead.  Could you please see if there’s anything white tied to a big tree?  I just can’t look’.

The passenger agreed and looked out the window.  As the train rounded the bend, he saw the most amazing sight.  He called out, ‘Look!’

There in a field was a large tree, simply covered with white sheets and towels and shirts and table cloths, all flapping in the wind.  His parents had emptied their linen cupboard of everything white and tied it all to that tree.  They wanted him back. 

The young man jumped off the train and rushed to see his parents. They gave him the most loving welcome, much greater than he’d ever imagined.

This is what God’s love is like.  God always loves us, even when we turn away from him.  He will always welcome us back.  How do we know?  Because Jesus tells us so.  He says so in his Parable of the Prodigal Son.

When Charles Dickens was asked about the greatest story ever told, he said it’s this one, the story of the Prodigal Son.

What is a prodigal son?  The word ‘prodigal’ comes from the Latin word ‘prodigo’, which means to waste or squander.  So, a prodigal son is someone who’s wasting something valuable.  That’s something we should think about.

In today’s parable there are two sons.  There’s the younger son who’s unhappy and wants to leave home.  He asks his dad for his share of the estate.  He goes into town and wastes it all.

… a prodigal son is someone who’s wasting something valuable. That’s something we should think about.

Then there’s the older son. He stays at home and works hard, but he’s also unhappy.  He resents his family and he refuses to join the celebration.

So, who’s the real prodigal son?  Well, they’ve both been wasting the many graces their father has given them.  But in the end it’s the one who refuses to come in and accept his father’s love.  The younger son has learnt his lesson.  He has changed.  But the older son hasn’t learnt how to love.  He hasn’t learnt how to forgive.  His heart is stubbornly closed.

Are you like the prodigal son?  Are you wasting the love God has for you?

Jesus once told St Faustina about the mercy he wants to give the world, if only we will believe in His love.  This is a remarkable invitation, but many of us barely give it a moment’s thought.  What a waste!   

We might come to Mass, hear the Gospel and receive our Lord in the Eucharist, but so many of us just walk away afterwards, unchanged.  Jesus is calling us to change our lives and open our hearts up to him, but so many of us aren’t interested.

What an incredible waste!

When Jesus died on the Cross, that was God’s way of emptying heaven’s linen cupboard of everything white.  The Cross is God’s tree.  It’s his way of showing that he wants us home with him. 

It doesn’t matter what we did before.  God is calling us from that tree. 

He’s calling us home.

Year C – 3rd Sunday in Lent

On Eternity

(Ex.3:1-8, 13-15; 1Cor.10:1-6, 10-12; Lk.13:1-9)

Every year at midnight on New Year’s Eve, dazzling fireworks explode over Sydney Harbour, and as bright colours light up the sky a giant image appears on the Harbour Bridge.

In 1999, that image was one word: ‘Eternity’, written in classical handwriting. 

There’s a story behind that word.  It begins with a man named Arthur Stace, born in 1884 in a slum called Balmain.  His family was poor; they were alcoholics and often in gaol, so young Arthur had to look after himself.   To hide from his father he slept under the house. To eat he had to steal food or raid rubbish bins.  He rarely went to school and he couldn’t read or write.

When he was 14 he got his first job, in a coal mine.  But he spent his pay in the pub and often got into trouble.  At 15 he went to gaol for the first time.

During WW1, when he was 19, he joined the army and fought in France.  He was partially blinded by poison gas, and when he came home he returned to drinking and breaking the law.

In 1930, during the Great Depression, he found himself in court. The magistrate said to him, ‘Don’t you know I have the power to put you in gaol, and the power to set you free?’  ‘Yes, sir’, Arthur replied.  But it was the word ‘power’ that got him thinking.  What he needed was the power to give up alcohol.

Soon afterwards, Arthur went to St Barnabas’ Church in Broadway looking for free food.  There in the church, he decided it was time to change.  He went down on his knees and he prayed for the power to change his life.  

His life did change.  He soon gave up drinking and he found a job.

Later on, in Darlinghurst, Arthur heard a sermon about eternal life.  Referring to Isaiah 57:15, the minister preached ‘I wish I could shout ETERNITY through the streets of Sydney!’

That word ‘Eternity’ kept ringing in Arthur’s ears.  When he left the church, he cried and he felt a great urge to write that word down. Remembering that he had chalk in his pocket, he bent down and wrote ‘Eternity’ on the footpath.  

For the next 37 years he wrote ‘Eternity’ wherever he went, first with chalk, then with crayon because it lasted longer. In all, he wrote that word over half a million times.   

He died in 1967, aged 83, but he never understood how he could write this word, because he was illiterate.  The only explanation he had was that God wanted him to do this. 

Jesus changed Arthur’s life.  Jesus gave him hope for heaven, and Arthur wanted everyone to start thinking about their own eternal life. 

Arthur wanted everyone to start thinking about their own eternal life.

This is what today’s Gospel is about.  First Jesus mentions two tragic incidents, and makes the point that God did not cause these people’s deaths.  God does not punish people in this life, he says.  God loves us.

Then Jesus tells his Parable of the Figs, in which the owner of a fig tree wants to cut it down because it has produced no fruit for 3 years.  The gardener, however, wants to give it another chance.  He promises to dig around the tree and fertilise it, and if it still bears no fruit, he says then it should be cut down.

This parable is about us.  So many of us have little or no spiritual life; we bear no spiritual fruits.  Jesus wants us to start fertilising our own personal spiritual tree, so that we might become more fruitful.  

This is how we prepare for eternal life.  We need to change the way we think and feel.  We need to change the way we do things.  We need to start loving God and each other.

Ask yourself – do you want to go to heaven or not?

God is patient with us, but we don’t have all the time in the world.  For some, this is their last year and their last chance to prepare themselves. 

God is love.  He loved Arthur Stace and he loves us too.  But true love is never a one-way street.  God’s love will never be complete unless we love him in return.

Today the word ‘Eternity’ is permanently displayed by the waterfall in Sydney Square.  Let’s remember Arthur Stace and his story.

But let’s also start thinking about our own eternity. 

Let’s start returning God’s love, before it’s too late.

Year C – 2nd Sunday in Lent

On Our Transformation

(Gen.15:5-12, 17-18; Phil.3:17-4:1; Lk.9:28-36)

In Luke’s Gospel last week, Jesus went into the Sinai desert for 40 days to pray, to fast and to reflect, preparing himself for his great mission. 

In Lent, this is what we’re all called to do. 

Today, Luke’s Gospel takes us to the top of Mount Tabor in lower Galilee, where Jesus goes to pray with Peter, James and John.  There the disciples see Jesus talking with Moses and the prophet Elijah.  For a while they’re dazzled as the light of God shines through Jesus’ face and his clothes are as bright as the sun.

Now here’s the question:  If we’re in Lent and meant to be in the desert, why are we today taken to a mountaintop, especially when it’s green?

Well, firstly, when the Bible speaks of the desert it isn’t always a barren place full of sand and stones.  Rather, it’s typically a quiet, mystical place where people go to reflect and pray.

The Holy Land has many mountains, and in ancient times people thought they were the closest point between heaven and earth.  Indeed, in Scripture God often reveals himself on mountaintops and Jesus often goes there to pray.

By taking us there today in our Gospel, God wants us to pray as well.  Along with almsgiving and fasting, that’s what he hopes we’ll do this Lent.   But more than that, God knows it can be a struggle for us to sit quietly in any sort of desert, so he encourages us by giving us a brief glimpse of who Jesus really is. 

There on Mt Tabor, Jesus’ disciples were amazed to see him shimmering with an intense, divine light.  They knew he was different, but previously they couldn’t see beyond his ordinary humanity.  Now they can see who Jesus really is, and we can see that he’s the light at the end of our Lenten tunnel.

It’s significant that Jesus’ transfiguration occurs while he’s praying.  We should remember this.  While he’s praying, Jesus is transformed both inside and out.  His face changes and his clothes dazzle white, and he becomes a mesmerising figure, radiating the glory of God. 

Something similar happens to Moses in Exodus (34:29-35).  After praying on Mt. Sinai, his face shines so brightly that he has to cover it with a veil. 

The message for us here is that if we pray like Jesus, if we pray like Moses, then we too can expect a profound transformation, both inside and out.

But there’s another reason we’re taken to the mountain today. That’s because God wants us to see that Jesus has come to fulfil the promises of the Old Testament.  In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says, ‘Don’t think that I’ve come to abolish the law or the prophets; I’ve come not to abolish but to fulfil.’  So we see the Old and New Testaments coming together as Jesus talks with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop.

While he’s praying, Jesus is transformed both inside and out. Something similar happens to Moses.

Now, while they’re on the mountain, the disciples are covered by a big cloud and they become frightened.  There’s rich symbolism in the image of the cloud.  The Bible often refers to clouds; they typically represent the invisible God.  In Exodus, when Moses and the Israelites cross the desert, God’s presence is always accompanied by a cloud. 

The message for us here is that if there are any clouds casting shadows on our lives, God is in them.  Indeed, God is always in them.  He’s our silver lining.

And when the cloud appears in Luke’s Gospel, the disciples hear God’s voice say, ‘This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him’

Now these words are significant.  Listen to him.  The disciples weren’t good at listening to Jesus.  They really didn’t understand what he was trying to tell them.  Many of us aren’t so good at listening, either.  Listening sounds like an easy thing to do, but it’s not. 

One reason might be because we’re too busy talking.  Some of us are chronic talkers.  And sometimes we’re selective about what we’re prepared to hear. 

St. John of the Cross once wrote that many people who think they’re listening to God are actually only listening to themselves.

This Lent, let’s take this message from today’s Gospel.  Let’s try to find our own private mountaintop.  And in the quiet moments let’s really listen to what God is trying to say to us, in the Scriptures, in the sacraments, and in the ordinary moments of our daily lives.

If we pray well, like Jesus and like Moses, we can be sure that our lives will also be transformed, both inside and out.­

Year C – 1st Sunday in Lent

On the Mystical Desert

(Deut.26:4-10; Rom.10:8-13; Lk.4:1-13)

Sometimes it helps to know where a word comes from.  The word ‘Lent’ comes from an Old English word meaning ‘springtime’.  And in Latin, ‘Lente’ means ‘slowly’.  So Lent really is an invitation to us, to slow down and prepare ourselves for the new growth of spring.

Before any spring, of course, there must be some kind of winter, so the Bible often talks about the desert as a place of emptiness and silence where people go to be shaped and purified.

In Exodus, before the Israelites enter the Promised Land, they wander in the desert for forty years.  Jesus does something very similar in today’s Gospel.  Before he begins his ministry, the Spirit leads him into the Sinai Desert for forty days to pray, fast and reflect.  There he’s tormented by demons, but ultimately his relationship with his Father is strengthened and he finds himself ready for his great mission.

Early on in the Church, good men and women like St Anthony of Egypt and St Paula actively sought purification, and literally went into a desert for a while. 

Today, the desert is more likely to be a mystical place in the heart than a physical location.  But it’s still an important place to spend some time if you want to refresh your heart and mind and prepare yourself for a major change in your life. 

The Canadian writer Fr Ron Rolheiser says that before we can be filled by God we must first be emptied, and this is what the desert does for us.  The loneliness might seem a bit threatening, but if you have the courage to stay there, things will happen to you.  Slowly and silently, with the help of God, you’ll be transformed from the inside out.

This is what Lent is meant to be for us.  For forty days we’re encouraged to face the chaos inside us that normally we either deny or simply refuse to face – our selfishness, our anger, our jealousies, our distance from others, our greed, our addictions, our unresolved hurts, our unhealthy desires, our struggle with prayer, our faith doubts and our moral mistakes.

In Lent we’re invited to look at ourselves honestly, to recognise our weaknesses, to feel our fears, and to open ourselves up to the fresh air of Jesus Christ.

Our secular society teaches us to avoid all that.  It thinks it’s better to be distracted and entertained than to face our real selves.  And so we too often ignore the mess that festers below the surface of our lives. 

If God’s language is silence, it’s no wonder that so many people have lost the ability to talk with him.

We do this in so many ways.  We’re addicted to work.  We’re glued to our electronic devices.  We turn on the TV or Game Station. We listen to the radio.  We reach for a newspaper or magazine.  We see a movie.  We eat.  And some of us talk incessantly. 

We seem to do everything we can to avoid silence and the truth of our real selves.

The German Dominican and theologian Meister Eckhart once wrote that nothing resembles the language of God so much as silence.  If God’s language is silence, it’s no wonder that so many people have lost the ability to talk with him.

So, this is our challenge this Lent.  Let’s just stop for a while.  Let’s go quietly into the mystical desert and be silent for a while.  Let’s fast as the Church encourages us to, but let’s pray and reflect as well, and be charitable towards our neighbour.

Fr Ron Rolheiser says that in every culture there are ancient stories which teach us that it’s sometimes important to sit in the ashes.  One example is the story of Cinderella.  The name itself literally means the little girl (puella in Latin) who sits in the ashes (cinders). 

The moral of the story is simple:  before you get to be beautiful, before you can go to the great feast, you must first fast and spend some lonely time in the ashes, humbled, dirty, tending to duty and waiting.

For us, Lent is that season.  It’s our time to sit quietly in the ashes, waiting for the extraordinary joy of Easter.  We began this process a few days ago, on Ash Wednesday, when our foreheads were crossed with ashes. 

So, this Lent, let’s make time to sit humbly in these ashes.  And while we’re there, let’s fast and pray and be charitable towards others, until it’s time for us to rise up in joyful celebration with Jesus at Easter.

For that’s when new life begins.

Year C – 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On a Small Peace

[Sam.26:2,7-9,12-13,22-23; 1Cor.15:45-49; Lk.6:27-38]

In 1914, the first year of WWI, over 600,000 men died.  That December, Pope Benedict XV begged the warring leaders of Europe for an official truce.  Or at least, he pleaded, let the guns fall silent at Christmas.  But they refused, saying the war must go on.

Then something odd happened.  On Christmas Eve, near Ypres in Belgium, German troops began decorating their trenches.  They erected Christmas trees, lit candles and started singing ‘Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht’.

On the other side, British soldiers started singing Christmas carols, too.  And both sides shouted Christmas greetings at each other.  Then men started crossing the mud and barbed wire of no-man’s-land to shake hands and exchange gifts of food, tobacco and souvenirs with the enemy.  In some places they buried their dead together, and elsewhere they even played soccer.  

There were many spontaneous ceasefires along the Western Front that Christmas, involving about 100,000 soldiers.  In some places the peace even lasted until New Year’s Eve. 

This was a small peace inside a nightmare.  It was also a miracle, because the war resumed soon afterwards.  By 1918 some 40 million people had been killed or wounded and only a third of the truce participants actually survived the war.

In 2004, Christian Carion made a movie about this truce, calling it ‘Joyeux Noel’ (Merry Christmas).  It was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005.  Carrion wanted to make it in France, and he found a suitable site on a military reserve.  But permission was refused and he filmed it in Romania instead.  A French general had told him, ‘We cannot be a partner with a movie about rebellion’. [i]

The world has a real problem when peace is considered ‘rebellion’.

So why did this small peace occur?  The historian Andy Rudall, in his book ‘Neat Little Rows’, says this peace was only possible because of the Christian heritage of the two warring sides.  ‘Christmas is the pinnacle of the Christian calendar,’ he said, ‘and everyone knows what it’s about.  It’s about Jesus.  It’s about reconciliation…’

And it’s about peace.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives his disciples (that’s us) a new law:  we must love our enemies, even when they hate and curse us and treat us badly.

Now, this is a big ask.  It’s not easy to love someone who’s bullied, mocked or betrayed us.  It’s hard to ignore the bruises and scars when we’re hurt or abused or stabbed in the back.  And yet that’s just what Jesus tells us to do.  Like those WWI soldiers, he’s calling us to leave our trenches, to cross no-man’s-land and to shake hands with the enemy.

Agape is deliberate love, a love based on the will. This is what Jesus is calling us to do.

Our basic nature is to resist that, and there is a certain temporary satisfaction in turning away from those who hurt us.  But I’m sure we can all see the benefits of letting go of our grudges for the sake of peace.  

So, how do we love our enemies?  Well, firstly we need to remember what kind of love Jesus is talking about.  The Greek language has several words for love.  There’s storge, which means natural affection.  There’s eros, or romantic love.  And there’s philia, the love of friends.  These three forms of love are all based on our emotions and they come naturally to us. 

But Jesus isn’t talking about them.  Rather, he’s calling us to agape, or divine love.  Agape is deliberate love, a love based on our will.  It’s not based on our emotions and it’s not based on the other person’s merits. [ii]  Agape is the choice, the decision we make to love someone else, regardless of other factors.  This is what Jesus is calling us to do.

So, someone may really annoy us, but for the sake of peace we decide to agape them.  How do we do that?

In her book ‘How to Love People You Don’t Like’, Lynn R Davis says that you don’t have to like someone before you love them.  Then she suggests 51 ways to follow Jesus’ command to ‘love your enemy’.  Her suggestions are very practical, and they include: being civil, being polite and truthful, avoiding conflict, controlling your tongue, forgiving them, encouraging and supporting them, learning from them, interceding for them and keeping the peace, among others. 

The tagline of the movie ‘Joyeux Noel’ says, ‘Without an enemy there can be no war’.

Isn’t that just the kind of life we want?  Isn’t that just the kind of world we want?

All it takes is a decision.

A decision to love others, just as Jesus loves us.

[i] David Brown, Remembering a Victory for Human Kindness. Washington Post, 25 December 2004, p.C01

[ii] Leon Morris, Luke. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI. 1974:142. 

Year C – 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Farmer and the Poor God

[Jer.17:5-8; 1Cor.15:12,16-20; Lk.6:17,20-26]

[Shinto Japan has many gods: a god of good fortune, a god of places, of fire and wind… ]  

There was once a struggling farmer who had four children. They were always fighting and yelling and there was never enough to go around.

The farmer didn’t work hard, but he did what was necessary to get by, so life was often hard.

One day his wife complained, ‘Our lives are so awful.  We must have a poor god’.  And they did.  They had a poor god.  He lived in their dusty attic as he watched over the family.

Yes,’ said the farmer, ‘That’s why we’re like this.  We should get rid of our poor god.’  So they planned to run away from him and start again somewhere else.   They packed their things and went to bed, waiting for the morning.

But the farmer couldn’t sleep.  He kept dreaming about being rich.  He got up quietly and walked to the porch in the moonlight.  There was a stranger, making sandals from straw.  ‘Who are you?’ demanded the farmer, ‘this is my porch.’

‘Why, I’m your poor god from the attic,’ he replied, ‘I’m making sandals.  You’ll need them tomorrow.’  The farmer cried, and said to his wife, ‘The poor god knows we’re trying to escape.  Now we’ll never get away!  Poor gods never let go.  We’re doomed.’

The next morning, the husband and wife felt miserable, while the poor god kept making sandals.  He gave each child a pair, and then made more, hanging them from the porch rafters.  Someone came by and admired the sandals.  The poor god was touched.  No-one had ever cared about him before.  He gave him a pair.  Then others came by, and they received sandals, too.

Seeing this, the farmer’s wife said, ‘We should at least charge a sack of rice.’  So, the next day the farmer took some sandals into town and returned with three sacks of rice, a new hoe, a chicken, a cooking pot and some sweets. 

Then the farmer said to the poor god, ‘Keep working, we need many things.’  The poor god said, ‘Gladly, but I’ll need help with harvesting, collecting straw and mixing the dye colours.’ 

So they all started working.  The children collected the straw, the wife mixed the dyes and the farmer made sandals of different designs. 

Slowly, things changed.  They all became happy, and the poor god put on weight. 

What truly gives us life? Is it possessions? Is it anything that can be bargained, bought or sold?

Then they prepared their house for the feast of Shogatsu, and the arrival of the god of good fortune.  (The Japanese celebrate New Year by opening their front doors to welcome new gods.)

The farmer was sure he’d become rich, and the poor god started packing his things.  The rich god would replace him shortly.

That night, as the poor god headed for the door, the family cried, ‘Don’t go!’  But the poor god replied, ‘I must, otherwise the rich god can’t come in.’  And then the rich god arrived, wrapped in his kimono and jewels, looking fat and proud.  The rich god said, ‘Yes, it’s time for you to go.  This is my family now.  Out, out!’

But the farmer said, ‘I’ve made a terrible mistake.  I thought I wanted to be rich, but I’m already rich.  My wife laughs and sings, my children work together, and I love making sandals.  You have to stay, poor god… we need you.’  They pushed the rich god out the door, and hugged the poor god. 

They lived happily ever after, and every New Year they locked their door, and told everyone how they were saved.  The farmer said, ‘Thank heavens for the poor god.  Lord knows where we’d be if it wasn’t for the poor god.’ [i]

Now, this story is about us.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus warns, ‘Woe to you rich.’  This might seem a strange thing to say when everyone today wants to be rich.  

But here’s the question:  What truly gives us life?  Is it possessions?  Is it anything that can be bargained, bought or sold?

What gives us life is love.  The love we find in our homes, our families and our friends.  Love is what truly transforms lives.

That’s why Jesus warns us, ‘Woe to you rich’. 

Jesus is our poor God.  Lock your doors; don’t let him leave.

[i] Adapted from The Peasant and the Poor God, by Ruth Wells, quoted in Megan McKenna, Luke: The Book of Blessings and Woes, New City Press, New York, 2009:139-144.

Year C – 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Schindler’s Conversion

[Is.6:1-8; 1Cor.15:1-11; Lk.5:1-11]

Have you seen the movie Schindler’s List (1993)?  I visited Oskar Schindler’s factory in Krakow, Poland, in 2016.  It’s now a museum.

Oskar Schindler (1908-74) was a Czech businessman and German spy who joined the Nazi Party in 1939.  That year he also started managing a factory in Krakow, using Jewish labour. 

In the beginning, he was an amoral, hard-drinking womaniser and gambler who loved making money.  But through the war something inside him changed.  He began noticing how poorly the Jews were treated.

At first he took an interest in his workers, helping them and protecting them where he could from Nazi cruelty.  Then he started bribing the Nazis to let him recruit Jews for his factory.  He also lied and forged and swindled to save as many people as he could from the gas chambers.

Schindler had two factories. One made pots and pans; the other ammunition.  But he made sure they were both inefficient, undermining the Nazi cause.  In 1944 his ammunition factory only produced one load of live shells; the rest were all faulty. 

By the war’s end, Oskar Schindler had spent his entire fortune saving 1,200 Jews.  In 1963, Israel’s Yad Vashem Institute declared him ‘Righteous Among the Nations’.  And at his request, when he died penniless in 1974, he was buried in the Catholic Cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.   

Now, how do we explain his transformation from a Nazi profiteer to a veritable saint?  Well, firstly, this change wasn’t overnight.  Indeed, there was no single moment when he decided to save people.  As David E Crowe writes, it was a gradual process of change over three or four years, and especially during the last two years of WWII when he experienced a dramatic moral transformation.[i]

Oskar Schindler changed because God spoke to him through his eyes and ears, and through his heart and conscience.  He saw, he listened, and he responded. 

Oskar Schindler changed because God spoke to him.

And as he slowly changed from within, he became absolutely determined to save as many lives as he could, regardless of any personal and financial risks.

So, why do I tell this story?  It’s because it’s a good example of how God calls us all to conversion.  And it’s a process that’s replicated in Luke’s Gospel today.

Jesus is teaching on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Simon Peter and his friends can see Jesus as they clean their fishing nets nearby.  Then Jesus asks Peter if he can use his boat. Peter’s reluctant; he hardly knows Jesus.  But Jesus did cure his mother-in-law, so he agrees.  They go out into the bay, where Jesus teaches from the boat. And later, Jesus asks Peter to go fishing. 

Now Peter’s really hesitant.  He’s fished all day and caught nothing.  But he does respect Jesus, so he reluctantly agrees.  He drops his nets and catches so many fish that he’s astonished.  He’s in awe of Jesus, and thinks, ‘I don’t deserve this’.  He starts to feel unworthy and says, ‘Go away from me Lord, for I’m a sinful man’.  The boat almost sinks and the men are frightened.  But Jesus reassures them.  They return to the shore and there Jesus calls them to become his disciples.  ‘From now on’, he says, ‘you’ll be fishers of men’.

In both of these stories, we can see that the process of conversion is gradual.  It begins by simply observing, watching the action from a distance.  Then it involves listening to what’s being said, and allowing it to move our hearts.  After that, it involves gradually accepting small commitments within our comfort zone, helping here and there.

Then we’re amazed when the call becomes specific and deeply personal, and something powerful happens inside us.  We start to feel unworthy, even sinful, and perhaps scared.  But then we’re reassured.  And that’s followed by acceptance, and finally, personal commitment.

These are the steps we all typically go through in the process of conversion, as we’re gradually drawn into the life of Jesus Christ.  Think about it.  Reflect on it.

The process of Christian conversion may seem scary, but it shouldn’t because it’s a journey into love.  St Therese of Lisieux said that it’s only the first step that costs us anything. What is that cost?  It’s the pain of change.  After that, everything else becomes much easier.

Over 7,000 people today are directly descended from the 1,200 Jews Oskar Schindler saved from death.    

Right now, Jesus is calling you to make a difference.  Are you listening?


Year C – 4th Sunday Ordinary Time

On the Essence of Love

[Jer.1:4-5, 17-19; 1Cor.12:31-13:13; Lk.4:21-30]

One word we often hear is ‘love’.  Even the Bible (NRSV) mentions it 538 times.  But what does it actually mean to love someone?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) was an English poet.  In her famous Sonnet #43, she expresses the many different ways she loved her husband, Robert Browning. 

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach ….

I love thee to the level of everyday’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise …

In only 14 lines she describes 11 different ways to love.  Before they married, Elizabeth and Robert wrote each other 574 letters in 18 months.  They certainly knew something about love.

But her father didn’t.  He was possessive and controlling and kept her a virtual prisoner at home until she was in her forties.  He wouldn’t let her marry, so she and Robert Browning had to escape to Italy.

St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) also knew something about love.  He was born in an Italian town near Rome.  His family was wealthy, but they were also possessive and controlling.  When he was 19, Thomas announced that he wanted to become a Dominican priest.  They were outraged. They kidnapped him, imprisoned him in a castle and tried to make him change his mind, but he refused.  Eventually he escaped, too.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in Nazareth, telling the people about God’s love and his mission to bring hope, healing and freedom to the poor, the blind and the oppressed.   At first they love his preaching, but when Jesus says that God’s love isn’t just for them but for everyone, they become angry and try to kill him.

Jesus escapes, just as Elizabeth Barratt Browning and Thomas Aquinas did.

So many people think they know about love, but really don’t understand it at all.

Many people think they know about love, but really don’t understand it at all.

In our second reading, St Paul is talking to the Corinthians.  The Corinthian church had many talented members, but they came from very different backgrounds and they couldn’t agree on many things.  St Paul tells them that they really don’t understand what love is, then he describes it to them in 15 different ways – explaining what love is, and what it’s not. 

He makes the point that genuine love isn’t just a feeling; it’s a decision, an act of the will.  Love may begin with an intense desire to be with someone, but it only lasts if we behave in ways that strengthen the relationship – like being patient, kind and trusting, and not being jealous, pompous or selfish. 

But the thing to remember is that love isn’t just a feeling.  It’s a decision. St Thomas Aquinas once said something similar – he said that love is in the mind, it’s in the will and in the decisions we make.  It’s not just a feeling.

St Paul adds that regardless of how talented we are, if we are without love, then we’re nothing.  Whenever we do something, if it’s without love, then it’s ultimately empty and worthless.

Then he says that there’s no point saying we love someone unless our actions match our words. We can say the right words about loving God and each other, but if we don’t show it in the way we live, then we’re really just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

And finally, St Paul says that when the time comes for us to go to heaven, the only thing that matters is love.  Everything else is left behind.

Blessed Mother Teresa knew this.  She described love as a one-way street, always moving away from the self in the direction of the other.  It’s the ultimate gift of ourselves to others.  When we stop giving we stop loving, when we stop loving we stop growing, and unless we grow we will never attain personal fulfilment; we will never open ourselves out to receive the life of God.  For it’s only through love that we encounter God. 

Some people say they love their music, their cars or their ice cream.  But this isn’t Christian love.  The essence of Christian love is the decision we make to sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of those we truly care about.

That’s what Jesus did, by choosing to die for us on the Cross. 

Christian love isn’t a feeling.  It’s a bold decision to sacrifice ourselves for someone else.