Year C – 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Living Upside Down

(Sir.3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Heb.12:18-19, 22-24a; 11-13; Lk.13:1, 7-14)

I once commented to a friend that it’s a radical thing to live as a Christian today, but she just laughed.  ‘That can’t be,’ she replied, ‘Christians are conservative!’  So I had to explain.

It’s true that many Christians do live quiet, unassuming lives, but it needs to be said:  to live as Jesus wants us to live is to seriously challenge the status quo.  

Through his life, his words and his death and resurrection, Jesus deeply challenges the way our world thinks.  He doesn’t try to foment popular rebellion, because he’s apolitical.  But he does emphasise the kingdom of God over the obsessions of man, and he does espouse moral values that confront many people.  He speaks against hypocrisy (Mt.7:1-5) and adultery (Mt.5:28), and he tells us to love our neighbour, even when they hate us (Mt.5:43-44).

He tells us to turn the other cheek (Mt.5:39) and not to worry because God will provide (Jn.15:7).  He tells the rich young man to give everything to the poor and to come follow him (Mk.10:17-27).  And he says it’s not the rich, the powerful and the famous who are the greatest, but the least among us (Lk.9:48).

These ideas are counter-cultural.  Indeed, they’re revolutionary!

In today’s Gospel, a leading Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner.  Why?  So he can keep a close eye on Jesus; he wants to witness him making mistakes.  But Jesus isn’t afraid.  He wants everyone to discover the love and mercy of God – even the rich and the powerful.

Now, these Pharisees have strict rules about what people can and can’t do; they have a strong sense of honour and shame.  They’re always seeking public honour and they work hard to avoid shame. To them, pride is everything.

So it’s not surprising that when the banquet starts, Jesus notices the guests scrambling for the best seats at the table, close to the most important people. 

Jesus isn’t particularly interested in the meal; he’s more interested in the guests, so he says to them that when you grab a seat that’s not yours you risk being embarrassed if the host asks you to move.  It’s better, he says, to wait until you’re asked to sit down, because then you might be offered a good spot. 

The Pharisees feel offended, but Jesus goes on to say something more: ‘Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted’. 

He said something similar in last week’s Gospel: ‘There are those now last who will be first, and those now first who will be last’ (Lk.13:30).

This isn’t the way the Pharisees thought back then, and it’s not the way people tend to think today.  Most people want to be at the top of the ladder, not the bottom.  They don’t like putting themselves last, either for God or for their neighbour.

In his book The Selfless Way of Christ, Henri Nouwen says that our lives in our highly competitive society are characterised by a universal drive for upward mobility.  Our whole way of life is structured around climbing the ladder of success and making it to the top.  Our very sense of vitality, he says, depends on being part of this upward pull and on the joy we get from the rewards on the way up. [i]

Jesus, however, sees things very differently. He says it’s better to be downwardly mobile.  That’s why he came as a baby in a manger rather than as a king in a castle.  That’s why he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, rather than on a war-horse.  And that’s why he spent time helping the poor, the sick and the marginalised, rather than partying with the Pharisees  

Something that makes saints special is the way they see the world from God’s point of view.  They see it the way it’s supposed to be: upside down, with the poor at the top and the rich and the powerful at the bottom.  This upside down is actually the right way up.

That’s why St Francis of Assisi gave up his father’s wealth and lived a life of poverty and service.  800 years later he’s still doing good work.

That’s why Mother Teresa refused to accept a huge dinner to celebrate her winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.  Instead, she asked the organisers to give her the $10,000 to feed the poor in India.  They did.

When the Apostle Paul and Silas went to Thessalonica to teach the people about Jesus, the locals said, ‘These men are turning the world upside down’ (Acts 17:6).

That’s what Jesus is asking us to do.

He wants us to turn 180° and change the way we live. 

[i] Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY. 2007:23.

Year C – 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Narrow Door

(Isa.66:18-21; Heb.12:5-7; 11-13; Lk.13:22-30)

In Luke’s Gospel today, someone asks Jesus, ‘Lord, will only a few be saved?’ He wants to know how many people will get to heaven.  But Jesus doesn’t say. 

Why, then, do Jehovah’s Witnesses insist that only 144,000 will be saved?

This number comes from the Book of Revelation which says that 12,000 people will be saved from each of the 12 tribes of Israel.  But it’s a mistake to take these numbers literally, for the very next verse describes ‘a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language…’ (Rev.7:4-9).

The actual number therefore isn’t important, and Jesus doesn’t yet know, anyway.  What is important, however, is how to get to heaven, and that’s how Jesus responds.  He says we must try our best to enter through the narrow door, because one day it will be closed and then it will be too late.

Now, doorways are mentioned more than 270 times in the Bible, so which one is he talking about?  Jesus tells us in John 10:9: ‘I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he’ll be saved’.  He says something similar in John 14:6: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no-one comes to the Father except through me’. 

So Jesus is the narrow doorway that leads to heaven, but what does that mean for us? 

Let’s consider the ancient Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built on the spot where Jesus was born.  Originally, its front door was huge, but after robbers invaded on horseback they walled it up. Now the front door is small – only 120cm high and 60cm wide (4ft x 2ft).  Today it’s called the Door of Humility and it gives us a sense of Jesus’ narrow door. 

Small children can easily walk through it, but if you’re any taller you have to leave your pride and possessions outside and bend down to enter.  You also can’t just wander in casually; you have to focus on entering that doorway.

As well, you can’t sneak in with a group.  The Israelites used to think that because they descended from Abraham, they all had the right to enter heaven together and some could even get in unnoticed.  But that’s impossible if the doorway is narrow (Lk.3:7-8; 13:26-27). 

Only one person can enter at a time.  

Many people today avoid Jesus’ narrow door, and excuse themselves by saying, ‘I don’t need it.  I’m a good person, I don’t harm anyone.  I’ll be OK’. 

But it’s not enough just to be ‘nice’.  At the end of his Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes the point that the wide gate and the easy road lead to destruction, but only the narrow gate and the hard road actually lead to life (Mt.7:13-14).

At the canonisation of Edith Stein in 1998, Pope St John Paul II said, ‘This woman had to face the challenges of… a radically changing century (and) her experience is an example to us. The modern world boasts of the enticing door which says: everything is permitted.  (But) it ignores the narrow gate of discernment and renunciation… Your life is not an endless series of open doors!  Listen to your heart!  Don’t stay on the surface, but go to the heart of things!  And when the time is right, have the courage to decide!  The Lord is waiting for you to put your freedom in his good hands.’ [i]

In today’s first reading, the Prophet Isaiah tells us that the Lord comes to save everyone, if possible.  And our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we’re all children of God, and the only way to achieve real happiness and fulfillment in life is to live as his sons and daughters by choosing the narrow door that leads to life.

In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the characters squeeze through a narrow wardrobe to enter the magical kingdom of Narnia. 

Jesus’ narrow doorway is similar.  It might seem squeezy at the start, with its focus on unconditional love and forgiveness and worship, but it opens us up to a beautiful life of peace, love and joy (Ps.18:19). 

Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

C.S. Lewis once said that if you haven’t chosen the kingdom of God, it will make no difference in the end what you’ve chosen instead, for what does it matter to a man who’s dying in the desert by which path he misses the only well? [ii]

So, in the end will only a few be saved? 

The answer is no.  Many will be saved.  But sadly, many who thought they would be saved won’t be.



Year C – 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Prisoner 16670

[Jer.38:4-6; 8-10; Heb.12:1-4; 8-19; Lk.12:49-53]

What is the opposite of love?   Most people would say it’s hate, but Pope Francis says that many people aren’t aware of ‘a conscious hate’.  So, the more common opposite of love is actually indifference. [i]

This is what Elie Wiesel fought against all his life.  Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) was a Romanian author and philosopher who survived the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz and became the world’s leading spokesman on the Holocaust.

In a speech called The Perils of Indifference (1999) he said, ‘In the place that I come from, society was composed of three simple categories: the killers, the victims, and the bystanders.  During the darkest of times, inside the ghettoes and the death camps… we felt abandoned, forgotten.  All of us did.’

He referred to the many failures that cast such a dark shadow over humanity in the 20th Century: two World Wars, countless civil wars, the senseless assassinations of Gandhi, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King…, bloodbaths in Cambodia and Rwanda, the inhumanity of the gulag, the tragedy of Hiroshima and the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka.  All this violence was marked by so much indifference.

‘To be indifferent to that suffering,’ he said, ‘is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony.  One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice.’

‘But indifference is never creative.  Even hatred at times may elicit a response, but indifference elicits no response.  Indifference is not a beginning; it’s an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor – never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees – not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.’

‘Indifference,’ Weisel says, ‘Is not only a sin, it’s a punishment.’ [ii]

Have you ever suffered from the indifference of others?  Sometimes, our deepest wounds come not from what people do to us, but from what they don’t do when we most need them.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says he’s come to spread fire and to cause division. These words disturb some people, because they expect Jesus to always be a peacemaker (Mt.5:9; Lk.1:79; Jn.14:27). 

But as Elie Wiesel says, the opposite of peace isn’t conflict.  It’s indifference, and that’s what Jesus is talking about today.

The fire Jesus wants to spread is the fire of the Holy Spirit (Ex.3:2, Acts 2:2-4).  It’s the fire of divine love.  It’s burning inside Jesus and he wants to pour it into our hearts.  This fire is the very opposite of indifference. 

When the fire of God’s love fills our hearts, things are never quite the same again.  Our lives are transformed; we start seeing things differently and we act differently.  But our secular world dislikes this and that’s when division occurs.

It happens when those who seek the truth turn to Christ, and those who choose the darkness turn away (Jn.3:20-21).  Division is the natural result of Jesus’ work, and sometimes it even happens in our own families.

In 1941 when a prisoner escaped from Auschwitz, the commandant announced that ten men would die.  He enjoyed selecting them.  As the ten were marched to their deaths, prisoner Number 16670 dared to step forward.  ‘I’d like to take that man’s place,’ he said.  ‘He has a wife and children.’

‘Who are you?’ asked the commandant.

‘A priest,’ he replied.  A stunned silence followed. 

The commandant ordered Fr Kolbe to join the other nine.  In a darkened cell they spent two weeks, naked, starving and thirsty.  But there was no screaming.  The prisoners sang and they prayed.  

By the eve of the Assumption, only four were still alive.  And as Fr Kolbe prayed quietly in a corner, a jailer gave him a lethal injection of carbolic acid.

He was canonized as St Maximilian Kolbe in 1982.

In 2013 Pope Francis warned of a growing culture that makes us think only of ourselves. ‘We’ve fallen into globalized indifference,’ he said. ‘We’ve become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business.’ [iii]

Someone once said that love will find a way, but indifference will always find an excuse.

What about you?  What do you think is the opposite of love?




Year C – 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Filleted Fish

(Wis.18:6-9; Heb.11:1-2; 8-19; Lk.12:32-48)

In 1907, Robert Baden-Powell used his initials BP to create the motto Be Prepared for the Scouting movement.   He thought that scouts (and everyone else), should always be ready to meet any duty and any challenge.

This is good advice, but it came too late for Captain Sir John Franklin.  In 1845 he led a British Arctic expedition to Canada’s Northwest Passage.  He set off with two ships and 138 men on a dangerous journey expected to last for 2 to 3 years.

And how did Franklin prepare for it?  He packed 12-days’ worth of coal, 1,200 books, a hand-organ, lots of fine china, cut-glass wine goblets and sterling silver cutlery.  And he and his officers were clothed in fine blue cloth uniforms.  They must have been horrified when they discovered that they were totally unprepared for the deadly ice ahead.  They all perished. [i]

What about you?  Have you ever been caught unprepared?

In last week’s gospel, the Rich Man was so busy enjoying his treasure that he found himself completely unprepared for his sudden death.

This is what Jesus warns us about in today’s gospel.  He says, ‘You, too, must stand ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’

Now, we know that Jesus will return one day.  He has said so himself, and it’s recorded in John 14, Acts 1, Luke 21, Matthew 24 and many other places.  We affirm this belief whenever we recite the Creed and whenever we proclaim the mystery of our faith, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’.

So, here’s the question: are we ready to meet Jesus face to face?  Are we ready to meet him at the end of our lives and at the end of all time?  And are we ready to receive Jesus in the many other ways he comes to us – through our prayer and reflection, in the Eucharist, in the faces of the people we meet, and in those sacred mystical moments when Jesus actually touches our souls?

If we’re not ready, then it’s time to do something about it. 

St Paul says that if we live according to the Spirit, then we’ll always be ready to receive Christ into our lives (Rom.8:1-14).  But what does it mean ‘to live according to the Spirit’?  

It means opening our hearts, our minds and our lives to our loving God. 

It means letting go of our pride, our selfishness and our worldly obsessions.  (For if we’re too full of ourselves, there’s no room for anything else.) 

It means getting closer to God through prayer and spiritual reading, and allowing him to change us from within (Jas.4:8). 

It means discovering the spiritual gifts he’s given each of us (1Cor.12:4,7).

And it means listening for God’s quiet voice in our lives, as he tells us what he’d like us to do with our spiritual gifts (1Kgs.19:11-12).

When we live in the presence of God and when we actively use the gifts he’s given us, then we’re always ready to receive Jesus.

Sadly, many people can’t be bothered.  They’d much rather pursue leisure and pleasure and every other distraction.  But such people eventually lose their instincts for anything else, and like the Rich Man in last week’s parable, the time comes when it’s just too late.

Fr Greg Jordan describes such people as ‘filleted’.  Just like fish, they’ve lost their backbones and every other bone in their body.  Bones give our bodies strength, structure and protection, and when we’re filleted we’re weak and we’re vulnerable.

In the same way, Jordan says our personalities have metaphorical backbones.  When we’re filleted, the backbones of strength of character, commitment and motivation are taken from us. [ii] 

Does that describe you? Have you been filleted?

In our secular society, there’s a strong current that’s carrying people further and further away from Jesus Christ, and many people have stopped resisting.  They’ve chosen to simply go with the flow, and they’re not thinking about where this current is taking them. 

We see this in the legislation that’s currently before the New South Wales Parliament. Our politicians are trying to extend legalised abortion to include babies all the way up to birth. It’s utterly disgraceful, but it’s not just happening here – it’s happening in many other parts of the U.S., in New Zealand and elsewhere, too.

They call it ‘reproductive health’, but it’s actually infanticide. It’s state-sanctioned murder, and yet another manifestation of the culture of death that’s pervading our society.

Loads of people will campaign loudly to save the whales, but they won’t lift a finger to save vulnerable human beings.

As W.C. Fields once said, it’s easy for a dead fish to float downstream, but it takes a live one to swim upstream.  And to swim against the current today you really need backbone, strength and commitment.

Jesus is coming.  Benjamin Franklin used to say that if you fail to prepare, then you’re preparing to fail.  Are you ready to meet Jesus?

If not, it’s time to prepare.

[i] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk. HarperCollins, NY. 2013:29-64.

[ii] Patrick Richards, The Rosewood Table. St Pauls Publications, Strathfield. 2017:242.

Year C – 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Rich Fool

(Ecc.1:2; 2:21-23; Col.3:1-5, 9-11; Lk.12:13-21)

Years ago I knew a man who looked so poor that everyone felt sorry for him.  But when he died we discovered that he was actually fabulously rich; indeed, he was the largest private shareholder in a major Australian bank. But he wouldn’t spend a cent.  Why?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus warns a crowd of followers about the dangers of greed.  A man calls out to him, ‘Master, tell my brother to give me a share of our inheritance’. In those days, Jewish law said that on a father’s death, the elder son should receive 2/3 of any inheritance, and the younger son 1/3.  So it was probably the younger son calling out, but in any case he seems more interested in money than his father or his brotherly relationship.

Jesus replies by telling the story of a rich man who’d had a great harvest and decided to build bigger barns to hold his new treasure.  And he planned to spend it on a life of leisure and pleasure.  

Now, many people today would admire this man; they’d envy his success.  Yet Jesus calls him a fool.  Why?  Here are three reasons:

Firstly, he thought these riches were his.  But God doesn’t bless us with riches so that we can be selfish.  The truth is that everything comes from God, and God wants us to use what we have wisely, to benefit others as well as our families and ourselves.

Secondly, that man’s barns were full, but his heart was empty.  The only thing he cared about was money and the pleasure it gave him.

And finally, he forgot about time.  He died soon afterwards and had nothing to show for his life before God.

When we think about it, this Parable of the Rich Fool isn’t about money at all.  It’s about our values and how we live our lives.  Having money and worldly comforts isn’t wrong, but what is wrong is being self-centred about them, and not using them for the greater good.

In his book ‘The Gospel of the Heart’ (2005) Flor McCarthy reminds us that Jesus wants us to be rich in the sight of God, instead of storing up treasure for ourselves.  He says that what makes us rich before God is not what we own, but what we are. 

And how do we measure what we are?  ‘By looking at the heart’, he says, for ‘We are what the heart is’.  

Deep down, we all recognise the beauty and wonder of a noble and generous heart.  But sadly it’s not something our world encourages.

In 1945 John Steinbeck wrote a book called Cannery Row, set in a Californian fishing town.  He wrote, ‘It has always been strange to me, but the things we most admire in people – kindness, generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling – are associated with failure in our system.  And those traits we detest – sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest – are the traits of success.  And while (people) admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.’

Our society encourages us to do the wrong thing.  It urges us to be greedy and selfish.  It thinks that the more we have the happier we’ll be.  But we know that’s not true, for great wealth often comes with a great sense of emptiness.  And we know that whatever we have can never last. 

Many people today turn to things like yoga, self-help gurus and ‘feel-good’ seminars to fill that void, while others seek distractions like entertainment, alcohol and drugs.

But we should ask ourselves, ‘How does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his own soul?’ (Mt.16:26).

When we die, our wealth, our honours and our fame are meaningless.  What we are, however, lasts forever.  The only riches worth accumulating are the riches of the heart.  These are the only things that truly bring satisfaction, and the only things we take to the next life. 

Let me close with a story.  A wealthy English nobleman once gave his jester a wand.  He said, ‘Keep this wand until you find a greater fool than yourself’.  The jester laughed and accepted the wand, and he used it on festive occasions.

One day, the nobleman lay dying.  He called his jester to his bedside and said, ‘I’m going on a long journey’. ‘Where to?’ asked the jester.

‘I don’t know,’ he replied. 

‘What preparations have you made for the trip?’ the jester asked.  The nobleman shrugged, ‘None at all’. 

‘Then’, the jester said, ‘take this’.  And he gave the wand back to him.

‘It belongs to you.  You’re a greater fool than I am’. [i]

[i] Gerard Fuller, ‘Stories for all Seasons’. Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic CT, 1997:123.