Year C – 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Great Reversal

(Am.6:1a,4-7; 1Tim.6:11-16; Lk.16:19-31)

In today’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the rich man is enjoying life with fine food, expensive clothes and a beautiful home.  And outside his gate is poor, sick Lazarus, hungry and covered with sores. 

At one level the story is simple – surely Dives [i] could have offered Lazarus a crust of bread.  But at a deeper level, this story isn’t just about the rich helping the poor.  It’s much more than that.

In the second half of the story, both men die and their roles are reversed.  The rich man is shocked to find himself suffering in hell.  And Lazarus is delighted to find himself in heaven, with Abraham.

Jo Fiore, our parish poet laureate, has kindly penned this poem for us:

A rich man lived a privileged life of opulence and greed.
His eyes were blind, his ears were deaf, to everyone in need.
And at his gate a poor man lay and begged for food each day,
but the rich man kept his distance and looked the other way.

The beggar’s name was Lazarus; he suffered grief and pain,
but through it all he kept his faith and blessed God’s holy name.
‘Have mercy! Spare a scrap of bread’ old Lazarus would say,
but the rich man chose to eat his fill, and look the other way.

When both men died the rich man found with great despair that he
would be cursed with fire and torment, for all eternity.
And in the gleaming distance through his stinging eyes he saw
both Lazarus and Abraham – their faces filled with awe.

‘Have mercy, Father Abraham.  Send Lazarus I pray
with a single drop of water! Quench my thirst this wretched day!’
But Abraham replied ‘Alas! Our worlds apart must stay,
and we must keep our distance’.  Then he turned his head away. 

‘But wait! I have five brothers and if someone from the dead
were to warn them, they would change their ways and never share my dread.’
Said Abraham, ‘They have the Law, but if they choose to stray,
not even someone from the dead could change their evil way’.

When Jesus told this parable, He taught us that we need
to turn our backs on evil things like selfishness and greed.
With open eyes and open ears and open hearts we can
reach out and have compassion, for our needy fellow man.              

In this parable, Jesus isn’t condemning the rich man for his wealth.  Rather, the issue is that he’s so self-obsessed that he doesn’t even notice the suffering of others.  Do you know people like that?

In our first reading today, the prophet Amos paints a picture of the ‘wrong life’, where people sit around being lazy, selfish and complacent, and eating too much.  He reminds us that such a life is self-destructive, and that God calls us to do something more with our lives.

And in our second reading, St Paul tells Timothy about the ‘right life’, where people are righteous, faithful, loving, patient and gentle.  He says we should grab these gifts of eternal life now, while we can, because the ‘Kingdom of God is at hand’ (Mk.1:15).  It’s foolish to wait, he says, because we just don’t know how long we’ve got.  Tomorrow might be too late.

And what happens when it’s too late?  That’s when we discover that the tables have been turned.  That’s when the first find themselves last, and the last find themselves first (Lk.13:30).  That’s when those who ‘had it all’ are left with nothing, while those with nothing are given the keys to the kingdom (Lk.6:20-26; Lk.14:11). 

We see this in the stories of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Lk.1:46-55), Zacchaeus (Lk.19:1-10), and the Prodigal Son (Lk.15:1-32).  We see this in the washing of the feet (Jn.13:1-17) and in the glorious resurrection of Jesus the humble carpenter.

This is what’s known as ‘The Great Reversal’, and it horrifies the Rich Man in today’s parable.  His problem is that the rules of this world don’t apply in heaven.  He shouldn’t have been surprised, however.  We know that God’s ways aren’t our ways (Is.55:8-9).  In God’s kingdom, the lowly are lifted, the hungry are filled, the high and mighty are torn down and the proud are scattered (Lk.1:51-54; 1Sam.2: 1,4-5,7-8).

Are you prepared for The Great Reversal?  If not, there’s no time to waste. 

Take a look around:  who is Lazarus waiting at your gate?  Who are the poor you’ll see today?  They might not be materially poor, but they could be poor in friendship, poor in health, poor in hope, poor in joy ….

Reach out to them.  Welcome them in.

[i] St Jerome in the fourth century called the rich man ‘Dives’.  It simply means ‘rich man’ in Latin.

Year C – 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Serving Two Masters

(Am.8:4-7; 1Tim.2:1-8; Lk.16:1-13)

Carlo Goldoni’s play The Servant of Two Masters (1746) includes a scene where the character Truffaldino (‘Little Trickster’) tries to serve his two masters at simultaneous banquets, without either being aware of the other. It’s a farcical situation that highlights the absurdity of trying to please two masters at once.

This is like the old Japanese proverb that says, ‘A loyal soldier cannot serve two lords’.  It’s impossible for us to please everyone and to always be in two places at the same time, so from time to time we all have to choose between competing priorities (Rom.12:2).  But that’s not always easy to do.

In Return of the Jedi (1983), Luke Skywalker has to choose between the goodness of the Force and the evil of the Dark Side.  In Ben-Hur (1959, 2016), Judah has to choose between his Jewish heritage and the glory of Roman power.  Neither man can have both, and they have to fight for their choices.

In sixteenth century England, St Thomas More and St Margaret Clitherow had to choose between the whims of King Henry VIII and their Catholic faith.  That took great courage, and both died for their choices.

It’s not surprising then that some people avoid making important decisions.  They’d rather wait for a crisis, such as a health problem or losing their job or marriage, before doing anything.  But sometimes it takes a crisis to bring out the best in us.  Crises can be very useful turning points in our lives.

In today’s Gospel, a landowner finds that his steward (his estate manager) has been squandering his property, and he dismisses him. The steward had, in effect, two masters: his employer and himself, and his employer expected loyalty.  In those days, stewards had the right to charge a commission on every transaction they handled for their landholder.  We don’t know what he did wrong, but he’s fortunate in only being dismissed and not imprisoned or fined. 

But this is a moment of crisis, and he has to make a decision.  He knows his prospects are limited because he’s too old to dig, and too proud to beg.  So what does he do?  Does he hide in shame or does he take this opportunity to turn his life around?  He decides to do the latter.

This steward knows he has a little time before others hear about his sacking.  So he calls in the master’s debtors and he offers to reduce their debts.  He appears to do this by deleting from each contract the commission he would have earned for himself. 

He’s taking a loss, but he’s also taking care of his future by making the most of what little he has.  The debtors are delighted and the landowner’s reputation is enhanced.[i]  Everyone benefits.

Like all parables, this one’s meant to surprise us and to make us think.

Now, why is Jesus praising the steward? He’s not praising him for his dishonesty.  Rather, he’s praising him for solving his problem in a way that benefits everyone.  He’s put aside his greed and he’s chosen to use what he has to help others, as well as himself. And is it wrong that he himself might benefit? No, not at all. Jesus promised us that whenever we give, we’ll receive even more in return (Mk.4:8).

Bishop Robert Barron says that Jesus admires this man for three reasons, and each is of great spiritual importance.  Firstly, the steward finds himself in serious trouble, but he’s not complacent about it.  He knows he has to make a choice.  Secondly, he makes an honest assessment of his situation, and thirdly, he acts decisively.  He decides to make amends, by doing something that benefits all the stakeholders, including himself.

Bishop Barron says we need to do the same.  He says that we all live in a time of crisis, and it’s time to wake up.  We must stop deceiving ourselves, saying that everything’s OK when really we’re being far too complacent. 

It was Karl Barth who said that the greatest of the deadly sins is sloth, where people simply don’t care about their spiritual life.[ii]  St Thomas Aquinas described sloth as ‘sluggishness of the mind’ which is evil because it stops a person from doing good deeds (Heb.6:12).

Many people today say they love Jesus and call themselves Christian, but do little or nothing about it.  At the same time, they live very secular, self-indulgent lives.  Are they serving two masters?  Are they trying to embrace two competing goals?  Jesus says you cannot be the slave of both God and mammon (Mt.6:24).

At this time of crisis, it’s time to wake up, to make a clear decision: are we with Jesus or against him (Mt.12:30)?  There’s no room for complacency; the stakes are too high.

Every crisis gives us an opportunity to turn ourselves into something better than we were before. Has the time come for you to revisit your priorities?

What changes will you make?

[i] John J Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus. Liturgical Press, Collegeville.1997:139-141.


Year C – 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son

(Ex.32:7-11,13-14; 1Tim.1:12-17; Lk.15:1-32)

Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Return of the Prodigal Son has been called one of the greatest paintings of all time.[i]  I saw it last year at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.  It’s much bigger than I expected, at 262 x 205 cm (8.5’ x 7’).  Rembrandt painted it shortly before he died, penniless, in 1669.

This painting gives us a snapshot of the action in Jesus’ famous parable, from Luke’s Gospel today.  But it also depicts some of Rembrandt’s own story.

Look closely.  There are six people in front of a dark archway, but we can only clearly see three.  On the left, the elderly father is embracing his younger son who has just returned home, feeling deeply ashamed.  He has squandered his inheritance on a life of debauchery and now he’s desperate.  His clothes are filthy and torn.  His shoes are ruined.  Like a convict, his head has been shaved.  His eyes are swollen and his skin looks sickly.  He has a rope for a belt and a dagger for protection from the outside world. He’s kneeling and begging his father for forgiveness.  He wants to come home.

There’s a warm glow about the father.  He looks wise and gentle.  His left eye is blind and his right is fixed on his son.  His red robe symbolises the pain of martyrdom, the fire of the Holy Spirit and the blood he shares with his two sons. 

The father, of course, represents our loving God.  He’s delighted to have his son back. We can see the love, mercy and forgiveness flowing down from his bowed shoulders into his hands as he caresses and blesses the boy.  One hand is soft and feminine, the other is broad and masculine.  These healing hands remind us that God is both our mother and our father, and that God is always so much more than we can ever imagine him to be.

Emerging from the gloom on the right is the elder son, dripping with envy.[ii]  We can see this in his rigid back, his lowered eyes, his wringing hands and his distance from his brother.  He has served his father well – he’s never once disobeyed him. Yet, now this sinner, this brother of his, is being rewarded for doing just the opposite.  

The other three people in the darkness are unknown.  One might be the mother; the others could be servants.  But Rembrandt often used light to emphasise the presence of goodness and love and the power of God’s divine mercy (Jn.1:5; Jn.12:46). He also used shadow to indicate the presence of sin (Jn.3:19-20; Rom.13:12).

We can see this in the elder son’s hands. One is dark, the other is light. He’s clearly struggling with the two sides of his nature.

Now, this isn’t Rembrandt’s only painting of the Prodigal Son.  Over a period of thirty years he etched, sketched and painted many different scenes from this parable.  

In an earlier painting, The Prodigal Son in the Tavern [iii] (c.1637), Rembrandt portrayed himself as the prodigal son.  It shows him carousing with his wealthy wife Saskia, drinking from a huge wine goblet and wearing extravagant clothes. The peacock on the left symbolises vanity and opulence.  

Rembrandt revelled in Saskia’s money, expecting it to last forever.  But Saskia died in 1642, aged only 32, and three children died as well. Then he took on a mistress, but Dutch society disapproved and he found himself shunned, unemployed and, in time, destitute.

To be prodigal is to be recklessly wasteful and extravagant.  Rembrandt saw that in himself.  His tragic life had left him broken and desperately needing mercy and forgiveness.  That’s why he painted The Return of the Prodigal Son.  He painted this masterpiece while suffering the agony of the death of his last beloved son, Titus. [iv]  It was an autobiographical statement.

But it’s also a word of caution for the rest of us, because Rembrandt’s situation isn’t so unusual today. Too many people continue to revel in self-love, self-indulgence and self-righteous pride.

Rembrandt saw himself in all three characters of this parable.   He was the younger son, ruined by self-indulgence.  And he was the elder son, guilty of resentful pride.  But he also knew that his biggest challenge was to become like the father.  Having suffered so much in the darkness, he understood the importance of having someone to turn to.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to ‘be compassionate just as your father is compassionate’ (Lk.6:36).  Henri Nouwen says that this is the core message of the Bible.  In his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, he explains how much he has learnt from Rembrandt’s tragic experience and he declares, ‘I now see that the hands that forgive, console, heal and offer a festive meal must become my own.’ [v]

This is our challenge, too. 

So, where are you in this picture?  Are you the younger son?  Are you the elder son? 

Or are you now the wise and compassionate parent, offering unconditional love and acceptance to those who suffer?


[ii] Madeleine Stebbins, Looking at a Masterpiece. Emmaus Road: Steubenville OH. 2017:18-21.

[iii] This painting is also known as The Prodigal Son in the Brothel, as The Happy Couple, and as Rembrandt and Saskia in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

[iv] Stefano Zuffi, Gospel Figures in Art. Getty Publications, Los Angeles. 2003:225.

[v] Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. Image Books, N.Y. 1992:126.

Year C – 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On our Deepest Longings

(Wis.9:13-18; Phlm.9-10, 12-17; Lk.14:25-33)

In his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton recalls that he’d just converted to Christianity and was walking through Greenwich Village with the poet Robert Lax. Lax asked him, ‘What do you want to be, anyway?’

Merton hadn’t much thought about it.  He replied, ‘I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.’  But Lax wouldn’t accept that.  He said, ‘What you should say is that I want to be a saint’. 

‘How do you expect me to be a saint?’ asked Merton.

‘By wanting to,’ Lax replied.  ‘All that’s necessary to be a saint is to want to be one.  Don’t you believe that God will make you what he created you be, if you’ll let him do it?  All you have to do is desire it.’ [i]

Napoleon Hill said something similar in his book Think and Grow Rich (1937).  He said that the starting point for all achievement is desire.  Keep this constantly in mind, he said, because weak desire brings weak results. But he wasn’t just talking about money; he was talking about living a rich, fulfilling life.

It can be hard to understand our own desires, because there’s often so much noise, pressure and control around us.  It can be hard to read our own hearts.  This is where we need to find time for silence and prayer (Mt.6:6).

And desire itself comes in many different forms, from simple wishes through to sudden impulses and our deepest longings.  A wish is a desire that’s unlikely to happen, and an impulse is something we haven’t much thought about.  But a longing is a strong and continuing desire, especially for something that’s hard to achieve.

Peter van Breemen SJ says that if we could all realise our most authentic longings, then the Kingdom of God would already be here.  He says the will of God isn’t something strange and terrible that gets laid down on top of us and to which we must blindly bow.  On the contrary, it corresponds to our true deepest being.

‘Just as … God is the deepest foundation of our nature … so in the realm of the will, God’s will is identical to our own deepest personal will (Jn.15:8).  God wants to see the unfolding and true fulfilment of our person – much more than we ourselves want to …  (His) will for us to live is stronger and more authentic than our own.’ [ii] That’s why Jesus says, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it to the full’ (Jn.10:10).

So desire is where sainthood starts. But as St. Philip Neri once said, ‘One should not wish to become a saint in four days, but step by step’.  

Today’s Gospel is useful here, for Jesus outlines some of these steps.  He says, ‘If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple’.

Now, Jesus isn’t encouraging us to actually hate our family, because the 4th Commandment [iii] tells us to ‘honour thy mother and father’.  Jesus’ language, Aramaic, didn’t have a word for ‘prefer’.  In Aramaic, if you preferred one thing over another, you’d say you ‘loved’ one thing, but ‘hated’ the other.  But it doesn’t mean ‘hate’ as we use the word today. [iv]

So, what Jesus is saying is to get our priorities straight.  Put Jesus first.  Be prepared to leave people and things behind when he calls us, because they can distract us.  They can stop us doing what we should be doing. 

Similarly, Jesus tells us to hate our own lives (Lk.14:26).  In other words, be prepared to resist our own human failings, because pride, laziness, selfishness and fear can stop us doing what we should be doing.

Jesus then talks about a man building a tower, and a king going to war.  The point he’s making is that before doing anything significant, we must first think carefully and then make a decision.

He’s talking about our faith.  If we’re serious about being Christians, then we need to reflect on it and make a decision.  Our Christianity isn’t just a label; it’s a way of life.  It’s a relationship with Jesus, and we must put him first.  That’s why Jesus says ‘you cannot be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions’ (Lk.14:33). 

The French novelist Marcel Proust wrote that desire makes everything blossom, but possession makes everything wither and fade. 

This is great wisdom.  If we want to achieve our deepest longings, we must be prepared to let things go.  Mother Teresa left her family.  St Therese of Lisieux gave up a comfortable life.  St Katherine Drexel gave up a huge inheritance.

Jesus Christ sacrificed his life.

What are you prepared to let go?

[i] Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain. Harcourt, Orlando, 1998:262-263.

[ii] Peter van Breemen, The God of our Deepest Longings.  Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, IN. 2009:11.

[iii] It’s the 4th Commandment in the Augustinian system, but the 5th in the Philonic (Protestant) system of counting.

[iv] Brendan Byrne, The Hospitality of God. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 2000:125.