Year A – 1st Sunday in Lent

On a Trap for the Unwary

(Gen.2:7-9, 3:1-7; Rom.5:12-19; Matt.4:1-11)

Today, let’s begin with a story.  It’s about a wealthy man who had his own private zoo.  One day he heard about a rare and beautiful type of African gazelle, and he decided to get one.

When he arrived in Africa, they told him that these animals are much too fast and much too smart to be caught.  But he replied, ‘I’ll get one. You’ll see.  I’ll get as many as I want.’  And he did.  This is how he did it.

He found a herd of gazelles, and one night he poured some sweet feed onto the open ground and left.  It was a blend of oats and molasses.  Every night for two weeks he scattered that feed, and every day they came to eat.  In the third week he scattered more feed, but he also sank a long post into the ground some distance away. 

The next night he scattered more feed, and he erected another post.  Each night he did the same, gradually adding more posts, and boards, to build an enclosure.  But the gazelles kept coming.  They found their way in and they ate all they could.

They didn’t realise they were losing their freedom.  They didn’t notice he was building a trap.  On the last day, when they were all inside, he closed the gap in the fence and the gazelles were trapped. 

Someone asked how he knew all this, and he replied, ‘That’s how I treat people.  I give them what they want, and in return they give me their freedom’. [i]

In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote, ‘the devil has the power to assume a pleasing shape’.[ii]  What he’s saying is that Satan is very good at making something evil appear good.  He seduces people until they’re trapped.

That’s how people become addicted to alcohol, drugs and gambling.  That’s how we get ensnared by the seven deadly sins. That’s how we fall into wasteful habits, like spending too much time on our Smartphones or watching TV. 

The first step is easy and it’s often very pleasant.  But an ounce of pleasure is sometimes followed by a ton of regret.  Adam and Eve learnt that.  When they ate that forbidden fruit, their momentary pleasure was followed by a lifetime of pain.

Have you been seduced into a way of life or a behaviour you now regret?  Do you feel trapped?  Well, this Lent we’ve all been given a second chance.

In Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus is in the desert, preparing himself for his public ministry.  He’s praying, fasting and reflecting.  But he’s also tired and hungry.  

Satan thinks this is a great time to tempt him, for his defences are down.  So, he asks Jesus, why not turn those stones into bread?  That will fix your hunger.  But Jesus says no; there’s more to life than physical satisfaction.

Then Satan asks, why not prove yourself by throwing yourself off a tower?  But Jesus says no; he’s not motivated by power or pride.

And finally, the devil promises Jesus the world.  But again he refuses.  Jesus has no ambition for himself; he only came to love and to serve. 

Jesus won’t be distracted.  He has a big job to do, and he’s preparing himself for it. 

This Lent, we also have a job to do.  We all have to work on our hearts and minds so that we become closer to God than ever before.

The life of a Christian disciple is essentially a movement away from our flawed and inadequate selves, and towards the truth, beauty and fullness of Jesus Christ.

But what holds us back is our attachments.  Jesus tells us, ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Mt.6:21).  Our goal, as Christians, is to attach ourselves to the things of God, rather than the things of this world. 

This isn’t always easy to achieve, because our world works hard to seduce us into all sorts of things that are either not good for us (like the seven deadly sins) or that we simply don’t need (like the consumer culture).  Once we’re caught, it can be hard to escape.

Our challenge this Lent is to find a way to get closer to Jesus. 

So, choose one thing in your life that’s holding you back.  It might be a possession or an obsession.  It could be an unhelpful attitude or an unhealthy behaviour.  What is it?  Let it go!

And having let it go, use this opportunity to spend more time with Jesus: sitting quietly, praying, reflecting and listening to his quiet voice. He’s got something important to say to you.

Our world is full of bright and shiny things that draw us in but ultimately take us nowhere.  They’re traps!  Lent is the perfect time to open our eyes to them, and to let them go.  Lent is the perfect time to get closer to Jesus.

Might that be impossible?  No, nothing is impossible with God (Lk.1:37).

[i] Bausch, W. The Story Revealed, Twenty-Third Publications, New London CT, 2013:47-48.

[ii] W Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

Year A – 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On an Eye for an Eye

(Lev.19:1-2, 17-18; 1Cor.3:16-23; Mt.5:38-48)

Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold.  It seems quite a popular dish, too, because revenge often appears in film and literature.  Hamlet, Star Wars, True Grit, Taken and The Count of Monte Cristo are all stories of people seeking justice for past wrongs.

We’ve all been hurt, at some point, by someone else, and it’s a natural thing to seek justice.  It can also be very satisfying to see wrong-doers get what they deserve.

But consider this. Towards the end of World War One, the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, told his chief peace negotiator, Admiral Wemyss, that the war must end at 2.30 pm on armistice day.  He wanted to be the one to tell the nation. 

Admiral Wemyss, however, thought it better to end the war at 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month.  This time had a stronger and more poetic ring to it, and ending the war slightly earlier would save thousands of lives.  The French and the Germans agreed, and King George V made the announcement.

Lloyd George was furious; he’d lost his moment of glory. But he got his revenge: he cancelled Wemyss’ war pension that would have been worth over £5 million today. [i]

It seems natural to want to hurt those who hurt you. That’s what children do.  But stories like this reveal just how nasty and misguided revenge can be.

Some people try to justify revenge by quoting Moses’ rule of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ (Ex.21:24; Lev.24:20; Deut.19:21). This is called the Lex Talionis (law of retaliation), but its purpose wasn’t to encourage revenge.  It sought to ensure that people don’t overreact when they’re wronged.  So, if a man breaks your tooth, you can’t respond by breaking all his teeth (cf. Gen.4:23).   

Moses believed that the punishment should fit the crime, and this principle still applies in criminal law today.

But in 1963 Martin Luther King warned that this philosophy of an eye for an eye will leave everyone blind.[ii]  What he meant is that if everyone followed the tit-for-tat approach to justice, then the retaliation and the pain would never end.

Do you remember the famous feud between the MacDonalds and Campbells in 17th Century Scotland?  Dozens of people died.

Or the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys in Kentucky and West Virginia? This vendetta began in 1878 and many were killed or wounded.  It was only in 2003 that the two families signed a formal truce. [iii]

In today’s Gospel, Jesus warns his disciples not to retaliate when someone hurts them.  In fact, he says we must love our enemies.  Not just tolerate or vaguely accept them, but actually love them.

This sounds like a real challenge, but Bishop Robert Barron says that when you hate your enemy, you confirm him as your enemy.  But when you respond to his hatred with love, you take away the very energy that feeds his hatred.

He gives the example of aikido, one of the oriental martial arts.  The idea of aikido is to absorb your opponent’s aggressive energy by moving with it, continually frustrating him until he comes to realise that fighting is useless.

‘Some people’, Barron says, ‘have pointed out that there’s a great deal of this in Jesus’ strategy of nonviolence and love of the enemy. You creatively absorb your opponent’s aggression, channelling it back against him, to show him the futility of violence. So when someone insults you, send back a compliment instead of an insult.  When someone conspires against you, work to help him’.

Such responses are bold, but non-violent.  They rob the aggressor of their power, and they can break the cycle of revenge.  They can also help the victim gain control over the situation. [iv]

Jesus isn’t expecting us to accept abuse, but he does say that any response should be non-violent.  And it is important to always seek peace.  

Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘I object to violence because when it appears to do good, that good is only temporary.  The evil it does is permanent’. 

And in 1957, Martin Luther King said, ‘Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe.  And you do that by love’. [v]

That’s what Jesus is trying to teach us.  That’s why he says we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt.5:44). 

And that’s why Jesus prayed for those who nailed him to the Cross, saying ‘Forgive them Father, for they don’t know what they’re doing’ (Lk.23:34).

How do you respond when someone hurts you?

[i] Jonny Taylor, Remembrance Address. Concordia, Merchant Taylors School, London, Winter 2018, p.14.





Year A – 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Scrapping the Old Testament

(Ecc.15:15-20; 1Cor.2:6-10; Mt.5:17-37)

In Roman times, a wealthy ship owner named Marcion (85-160AD) demanded that the Old Testament be scrapped. He said it was dangerous and unnecessary, and he insisted that the Scriptures should only focus on Jesus and love.

So he produced a Bible he liked.  He dropped the Old Testament, he discarded some of St Paul’s letters, and he shortened St Luke’s Gospel.  In this way, he tailored for himself a Christianity that was all about God’s goodness and love, but without any unsettling references to right and wrong, or hell or Judgment Day.  

Many people think like Marcion today.  They like Jesus’ words about love, but they really don’t want to hear anything else that God might have to say about their lives.

This is called cherry-picking.  But would Jesus approve? 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘I’ve come not to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to complete them’.  What does he mean by that?  He’s saying that the Old Testament is fundamental to his mission, and he’s come to finish the job.

There are three ways to understand the Old Testament. It’s a history book, it’s a collection of promises and it’s a set of laws. [i]

As a history, the Old Testament tells the story of God’s Creation and his action in the life Israel over 1000 years.  It’s the story of a family and a people, from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob down to Joseph who was enslaved in Egypt. 

It’s the story of Moses and the Exodus of the Jewish slaves from Egypt.  It’s the story of the Jewish kings, both good and bad, the forced exile of the Jews to Babylon, and their eventual return home.

Jesus’ mission is to complete this story. As the Son of God and as a descendant of King David, his job is to lead his people to eternal life in heaven.

So we can’t scrap the Old Testament.  It explains far too much about life.

The Old Testament is also a record of all the promises God made to Noah, Abraham, Moses and David, and the promises he made through the prophets. 

He has promised us a new heart (Ez.36:26), forgiveness (Ps.103:12; Mic.7:19), healing (Jer.30:17), peace (Is.26:3) and eternal life (Is.49:25).  And he promised to send us a saviour, his Son Jesus Christ (Is.53:1-12).  Someone once counted the number of God’s promises in the Bible, and found 3,573. [ii]  How will they be completed? 

Only through Jesus Christ.  So, again, we can’t scrap the Old Testament.

And finally, the Old Testament is about laws.  There are 613 of them in the Torah – the first five books of the Bible.  ‘Torah’ means ‘law’, ‘guidance’ or ‘instruction’. It contains the Law of Moses and it covers everything from ceremonial to civil and moral law (including our Ten Commandments).  There are 365 negative laws, and 248 positive laws.  Now, what’s their purpose?

Their purpose was to organise those unruly Jewish slaves after their Exodus from Egypt. God was annoyed when they worshipped a golden calf in the Sinai desert.  He wanted them to live as his people, so through Moses God gave them some laws to shape their lives.

By the time Jesus was born, however, many of these people (including the Scribes and Pharisees) had forgotten the purpose of these laws.  They only paid them lip-service; they were only interested in external appearances.

That’s why Matthew’s Gospel presents Jesus as the new Moses delivering the new divine law: The Beatitudes.  Jesus didn’t scrap the old law – he raised it to a higher level.  He said it’s not enough to be seen to do the right thing; we must be genuine about it.  We must use our hearts as well as our heads.

And Jesus gives us some examples.  He says it’s not enough to avoid murder.  Rather, we must convert our anger and our resentment into love.  And it’s not enough to merely avoid adultery.  Instead, we must avoid any impure and sinful thoughts.   And when we make any promises, we must be genuine about them.

So what happened to Marcion?  In 144 AD he was denounced as a heretic and excommunicated.

Jesus didn’t come to scrap the Old Testament.  He couldn’t, because it’s the very foundation of his work and it’s the source of our hope. 

The Old Testament, then, is a history book, and Jesus’ mission is to complete this story by leading us all to heaven. 

It’s also a collection of promises, and Jesus’ mission is to fulfil them all for us.

And it’s a set of laws, and Jesus’ mission is to complete the Law by teaching us all to use our hearts as well as our heads.

Here’s the point:  we really can’t understand the goodness and love of Jesus Christ if we ignore the very foundation of his mission – the Old Testament.

[i] Gumbel, N. The Jesus Lifestyle. London: Alpha International, 2010:40-41.


Year A – 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Candle-lamps and Saltshakers

[Is.58:7-10; 1Cor.2:1-5; Mt.5:13-16]

Today’s gospel passage occurs just after Jesus gives us his Beatitudes in his Sermon on the Mount. You know them: ‘Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers …’ These blessings outline the life and character of true Christian disciples.

Jesus then tells his followers that they are ‘the salt of the earth’ and ‘the light of the world’.  What does he mean?

Today, we don’t much think about salt and light, except perhaps to reduce our salt intake and to lower our power bills.  But salt was precious in ancient times.  It was often traded for gold, the Greeks thought it was divine and Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt.

Nowadays, we take it for granted, but salt is hugely important. It cleans and heals wounds. It helps our blood flow. We use it to enhance flavour and preserve foods.  It’s used to make paper, glass, fertiliser and cleaning products.  It melts ice, it extinguishes fire, and in some places it’s used to intensify and preserve the colour of fabric dyes.  

Salt is so very useful, but on its own it’s worthless.  Rebecca Manley-Pippert, in her book Out of the Salt-Shaker, says that none of these things is possible if the salt never leaves the saltshaker.  Salt is only useful when it’s mixed with something else.

Salt must also remain pure because it’s useless when it’s contaminated.  It becomes corrosive and poisonous.

And so it is with us.  When Jesus calls us ‘the salt of the earth’, he’s talking about our character.  He’s talking about making sure we’re not polluted by the world around us.  He’s talking about all the good things we can do to make our world a better place.

Each of us has the ability to add colour and flavour to our family and workplace and community – to bring things to life.  Each of us has the capacity to go out and heal wounds, to help things grow, and to protect and preserve what’s good and worthwhile.

But none of this is possible if we keep our salt bottled up in our ‘salt-shaker’.  If we don’t use what we have, it’s worthless. [i]

Now, Jesus also calls us ‘the light of the world’.  What does he mean? 

In ancient times, Palestinian families typically lived in one-room homes with only one small clay candle-lamp.  Light was precious to them.  But just like salt, we tend to take it for granted today. 

And just like salt, light is essential for life.  We need it for our health.  We need it to see where we’re going and what we’re doing.  Light dispels darkness, it wakes us up, it warms us and, like the lighthouse, it warns of impending danger.

Light also symbolises knowledge, truth and understanding. 

Our world is a dark place.  So many people today are groping and stumbling about in spiritual darkness, trying to find their way.  They’re looking for a light that will lead them to safety.

All through Scripture, God is referred to as light (Is.60:1-3; Ps.27:1; 1Jn.1:5), and Jesus calls himself the light of the world (Jn.8:12). 

Jesus wants us to absorb his divine light, to make it a part of ourselves.  When we open ourselves up to him, when we let his light penetrate us, it changes us from within and we start to think and live like him. 

When that happens, God’s light shines through us, just as the sun lights up stained-glass windows. 

It’s said that when the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson was a boy, he once watched an old lamplighter lighting lamps in the street.  He said to his nurse, ‘I’m watching a man put holes in the darkness’.

Who do you know who’s putting holes in the darkness today?  Who is sharing their salt and light with the world?  I can think of some examples:

Fred Hollows, the eye doctor who has restored the sight of a million people around the world. [ii]

Rosie Batty, who’s been campaigning against domestic violence ever since her partner killed their son. [iii]

And Danny and Leila Abdallah, whose three children were killed by a drunk driver in Western Sydney only last week.  Despite their profound grief, they’ve forgiven the driver, they’re promoting peace and they’ve been ministering to the needs of others. [iv]

There are many others, of course, doing all sorts of wonderful things. But being salt and light is fundamental to our Christian identity.  It’s who we are.

We are not meant to leave our salt in our saltshaker.  And we must light our candle-lamps for all to see.

In what way are you salt and light to our world?

[i] Rebecca Manley-Pippert, Out of the Salt-Shaker and into the World. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. 1999.




Year A – Presentation of the Lord

On Groundhog Day

(Mal.3:1-4; Heb.2:14-18; Lk.2:22-40)

Today, February 2nd, is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple.  Many years ago, it was known as Candlemas and it was the Church’s day for the blessing of candles. 

In the United States and Canada, today is also called Groundhog Day.  This is a folkloric tradition that grew out of Candlemas, which itself marks the mid-point between the northern winter and spring.  On Groundhog Day, a groundhog’s shadow is used to predict the weather, but I’ll come back to that shortly. [i] 

In today’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph go to the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Law of Moses required every mother to undergo ritual purification and to present her child for consecration to God, 40 days after giving birth (Ex.13:1-2; Lev.12). 

As the Holy Family enter the Temple, they find Simeon and Anna waiting for them inside.  The Holy Spirit long before had promised Simeon that he would not die before he’d seen the Christ, the Messiah. So, for years he and the prophetess Anna waited patiently.  When baby Jesus finally does arrive, Simeon is overjoyed.  He holds Jesus in his arms and he prays his famous prayer Nunc Dimittis: ‘Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace, just as you promised…’

This story reveals so much about the character of these saints.  Simeon, Anna and the Holy Family are all Spirit-filled and very devout in the practice of their faith. They’re also humble, obedient and patient, and they trust God completely.  Life may be hard, but they’re happy.

Now, let’s compare them to Phil Connors, the actor Bill Murray’s character in the movie Groundhog Day (1993). He’s a cranky TV weatherman who goes to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to report on the annual Groundhog Day festival.

We soon learn that he’s an obnoxious and self-centred narcissist.  ‘People are morons’, he tells his producer Rita. He can’t wait to return home, but a snowstorm forces him and his film crew to stay.

The next morning, Phil’s alarm clock wakes him up and he’s appalled to discover that it’s Groundhog Day all over again.  He’s caught in a strange time-loop, and he has to relive this day over and over and over again.

Every day, every little action is repeated, from meeting an old school friend in the same place at the same time, to stepping into an icy pothole.  His life becomes incredibly monotonous, but he’s the only one who notices.

At first he’s amused, but then he becomes bored and then he despairs. He hates his repetitive life so much that he even tries to commit suicide.  But he’s always back the next day.

It becomes clear that what’s important in this story isn’t the groundhog’s shadow, but his own.  At one point in the film, one of the townsfolk says to Phil, ‘Watch out for your shadow there, pal!’  It’s his shadow side that’s condemning him to this endless cycle of emptiness.  It’s his sinfulness and bad behaviour that are holding him back and making him unhappy.  He’s trapped in darkness.

It’s only when Phil opens his heart that things begin to change.  He starts noticing Rita, his producer.  He’s attracted to her and her happy outlook, and he finds himself inspired by her to do good things. He makes friends, he rescues a homeless man and he even starts learning music and poetry.

It’s only when Phil genuinely discovers love that time starts to move forward for him.  That’s when he wakes up to find that it’s February 3rd and he’s been given new life.

The movie Groundhog Day is a parable about life.  It’s full of lessons about the state of our hearts and whether we choose to live in the light or in the shadows.

The elderly Simeon and Anna in Luke’s Gospel also lived predictable and monotonous lives.  For years they went to the Temple every day, waiting for Jesus to arrive.  But what made them quite different to Phil was their deep faith.  The Holy Spirit had filled their hearts with hope, and when Jesus arrives they’re overwhelmed with joy.

Just like Jesus, we’ve all had our own official Presentation.  This happened at our Baptism, when we were presented and consecrated to God and given a candle lit from the Paschal candle.  At that moment, the priest or deacon said, ‘You have been enlightened by Christ. Walk always as a child of the light and keep the flame of faith alive in your heart…’

This light, this flame of faith and love, is the difference between a dreary repetitive existence and a life of meaning, purpose and joy.

So, the question for you today is this: 

Is this flame still burning inside you?  Or are you just living the same old life over and over and over again?

[i] By way of background, midseason weather predictions were important to European farmers. An old English song rhymed: ‘If Candlemas be fair and bright, / Come, Winter, have another flight. / If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, / Go, Winter, and come not again’.  In other words, if the bright sun ‘overshadows’ the brightness of Candlemas Day, more winter is expected. But if the light of Candlemas Day outshines the season’s gloom and darkness, then spring is near. In 1887, German immigrants adapted this tradition in the US to create Groundhog Day. Not surprisingly, the weather predictions are notoriously unreliable.