Year B – 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On a Change of Heart

[Deut.4:1-2, 6-8; Jam.1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk.7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23]

In the 1997 film ‘As Good as It Gets’, Jack Nicholson plays the part of Melvin Udall, a writer who thinks he’s an expert on love because he’s written 62 romantic novels.

In reality, however, he’s a lonely man who’s obsessed with his cleanliness. He’s constantly washing his hands and avoiding people and dogs. And he’s thoughtlessly cruel. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that knowing about love and staying clean just aren’t enough, for it’s the heart that really counts.

Like so many in our society today, Melvin Udall thinks that appearance is everything. But even children know that appearances can deceive.

Some years ago in Shanghai, my wife and I bought a nice blue and white tea set. However, we didn’t notice the seller switch cups when he packed it, and we arrived home to find a broken piece. Clearly, his smile was fake.

In Mark’s Gospel today, some Pharisees are angry with Jesus because his disciples have been seen eating without first washing their hands. ‘Why don’t your disciples follow the traditions of the elders?’ they ask.

Now, these Pharisees aren’t truly concerned about hygiene. What they really want is for everyone to obey their rules. 

The Bible doesn’t say that everyone must wash their hands. It only specifies that priests must wash before going into the temple sanctuary for worship (Ex.30:17-21). By Jesus’ time, however, handwashing before meals had become commonplace and everyone was expected to do the same.

Jesus is annoyed by the Pharisees’ complaint, and he quotes from Isaiah, ‘this people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless, the doctrines they teach are only human regulations’ (Is.29:13).

What he’s saying is that these Pharisees aren’t serious about their faith, because handwashing won’t bring anyone closer to God. These men are only interested in their petty rules.

With these words, Jesus is challenging us to go beyond the superficial, to recognise that our hearts and souls are where God lives, and where love and compassion begin.

Sometimes, what this requires is a change of heart.

The great storyteller Jeffrey Archer tells the story of Stoffel van den Berg, a talented South African cricketer who was born in Capetown.

His family had migrated from Holland in the 18th century, and they lived very privileged lives. [i]

Stoeffel was very supportive of apartheid, and at the age of 30 was preparing for a career in politics. ‘I don’t understand why the government doesn’t hang Mandela and his cronies,’ he once told his friends.

One day in 1989, while rushing to a campaign meeting, he had a head-on car crash. When he regained consciousness several weeks later, a surgeon explained that the driver of the other vehicle had died soon after arriving at the hospital.

‘You’re lucky to be alive,’ he said, ‘because moments later, your heart stopped beating, too. It was your luck that the dead driver’s wife agreed to a heart transplant from her husband to you.’

‘But doctor, wasn’t he black?’ Stoeffel asked in disbelief.

The doctor replied that the black man’s widow had simply said, ‘I can’t see why both of them have to die, if one of them can live.’

‘How long have I got?’ Stoeffel asked.

‘Three years, possibly four, if you take it easy,’ he replied.

After leaving hospital, Stoeffel went to meet that widow in the poor black township of Crossroads, outside Capetown. She refused all the help he offered. ‘Perhaps you and your child would like to come and live with us,’ he suggested.

But she replied, ‘No, thank you, master.’

That same day, with the support of his wife, Stoeffel quit his job and withdrew all his savings. Thereafter, every day he went down into that shantytown, teaching children English in a makeshift school. In the afternoons, he taught them cricket and rugby, and in the evenings, he roamed the streets encouraging teenagers to stay away from crime and drugs.

Four years later, and only days before Nelson Mandela was elected president, Stoeffel died. He had played his part in liberating a downtrodden people. Of the two thousand people who attended his funeral, more than half were black.

Our world considers image more valuable than substance, but it’s the heart that really counts. The heart is the source of all our thoughts, words and deeds.

If our heart is clean and noble, then all that flows from it will be clean and noble, too.

God knows who we really are. Perhaps it’s time for a change of heart.

[i] Jeffrey Archer, To Cut a Long Story Short. Pan Books, London. 2010.

Year B – 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Choice and Consequence

[Josh.24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Eph.5:21-32; Jn.6:60-69]

According to Newton’s third law, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Something similar happens when we make decisions, because every choice has its consequences.

That’s why we sometimes worry when young people make their own decisions. Neurologists tell us that the parts of the brain that control higher order decision-making don’t fully develop until adulthood. So, a young person’s developing brain places them at greater risk of making poor choices. They’re more likely to overestimate the rewards (fun! friends!) and under-consider the risks. [i]

But with time, education and experience, hopefully we all come to develop well and make sound decisions. The sweep of human history does make us wonder, however.

The Bible is full of stories about choices and their consequences. It even begins with Adam and Eve choosing to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. God lets them do this, but we’ve been suffering the consequences ever since.

Eve offering the apple to Adam Biblical vector illustration series, Adam and Eve, Eve offering the apple to Adam adam and eve stock illustrations

There are other stories, too, as Max Lucado points out. Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Abel chose God, but Cain chose murder, and God let him.

Abraham and Lot were both pilgrims in Canaan. Abraham chose God, but Lot chose Sodom, and God let him. 

David and Saul were both kings of Israel. David chose God, but Saul chose power, and God let him.

Peter and Judas both denied Jesus. Peter sought mercy, but Judas sought death, and God let him.

All through history, and all through Scripture, God lets us make our own decisions. He won’t stop us doing the wrong thing, but we need to remember: our choices can have eternal consequences. [ii] 

In our first reading today, Joshua is the man who takes over from Moses after the Israelites enter the Promised Land. But now he’s old, and he tells the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel that they must decide: either to follow the false gods of their new land, or to stay faithful to the God of their ancestors who gave them their new home.

Joshua declares that he will serve the true God, but the others must decide for themselves. And they do decide: they all agree to do the same.

Our Gospel reading for today comes from the end of John’s Bread of Life discourse. It represents a turning point in the life of the disciples, for Jesus gives them a choice: either to stay and accept the Eucharistic gift of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, or to leave with those who can’t understand him or who refuse to change.

‘Do you want to leave me, too?’ Jesus asks, and Peter replies, ‘Lord, where else would we go? You have the words of everlasting life.’

CS Lewis once wrote, ‘If you want to get warm, you must stand near the fire. If you want to be wet, you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace and eternal life, you must get close to or even into the thing that has them.’

‘Once a person is united to God, how could they not live forever?’ he asks. ‘Once a person is separated from God, what can they do but wither and die?’ [iii]

Many people have chosen to leave the Church, and often because of disappointment. But in his reflection on today’s Gospel, Patrick van der Vorst says, ‘It’s precisely in these moments that Christ is asking us to stick with him, to walk with him and his Church.

‘The temptation to flee our Christian duties is at times very real and even attractive. But it’s precisely in those moments when we’re asked to keep a deep commitment going, that we draw the closest to God. 

‘To see so many people leaving our Church can be crushing at times,’ he says, ‘so today’s reading is relevant like never before.’

Going to Work by Lowry  Cross stitch Pattern  bonus image 0

LS Lowry’s painting Going to Work (1943) depicts a multitude of people leaving. Reflecting on this image, van der Vorst asks, ‘Where are they going, what are they walking towards?’ [iv]

We might well ask ourselves that same question, because our choices do have consequences. Where are we going if we’re not walking with Christ towards heaven?

‘For Jesus, being a disciple is all about staying with him and being committed. It’s about discipleship, and not just being a passive follower.’

As William Barclay puts it: Once someone was talking to a great scholar about a younger man. He said, ‘So and so tells me that he was one of your students’.

The teacher answered devastatingly, ‘He may have attended my lectures, but he was not one of my students. You see, there’s a world of difference between attending lectures and being a student’. [v]

In the end, it’s our choices that matter. Not our wishes, not our words, not our promises.


[ii] Max Lucado, He Chose You, Thomas Nelson, Nashville. 2001:71-73


[iv] Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976), Going to Work (1943). Imperial War Museum North, Manchester.

[v] Patrick van der Vorst, Reflection on John 6:60-69.

Year B – Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

On the Science of Mary’s Assumption

(Rev.11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab; 1Cor.15:20-27; Lk.1:39-56)

Today we celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, body and soul, into heaven.

Why is this important? It’s because it confirms Jesus’ promise: that if we truly follow him, then we can expect to go to heaven, too (Jn.5:24; 1Jn.5:13).

The Church has believed in Mary’s Assumption ever since the time of the first Apostles, but this teaching was only formally defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950.[1]

Mary’s Assumption isn’t the same as Jesus’ Ascension.  The word ‘assumption’ comes from the Latin ‘assumere’ (‘to take up’), for Mary was taken up into heaven by God’s power. Jesus, however, ascended to heaven under his own power.[2]

Where did Mary’s Assumption occur? It’s generally believed to have been either in Jerusalem or Ephesus, and some 3 to 15 years after Christ’s Ascension. Church tradition also tells us that the Apostles were present when Mary died.

Now, some people wonder about Mary’s Assumption because it’s not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. But Pope Pius XII says Scripture implicitly mentions it several times. In today’s second reading, for instance, St Paul describes Christ’s resurrection as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, and he says ‘in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each in proper order’.

Mary’s Assumption certainly is in proper order, given her role as queen mother and her victory in the battle between good and evil, as told in our first reading.

It’s also significant that no relics of Mary’s body have ever been reported, and no Marian tomb or gravesite has ever been venerated. This is notable, given the historical fascination of Christians for the relics of saints.

But what is interesting today is what science can tell us about the Assumption.

Elizabeth Scalia says that when she studied anatomy and physiology, she was amazed to learn about the biological process called Microchimerism.[3] 

When a woman gets pregnant, the child always leaves within her a microscopic bit of himself in the form of cells. These living cells remain in her bloodstream and organs for the rest of her life, even if the foetus dies. This means that some of Jesus’ cells remained inside Mary all her life.

Recent research has found that these remnant cells aren’t dormant – they help to protect the health and well-being of the mother. They are found around healing wounds, helping with faster tissue repair. And they stimulate the formation of new blood vessels to injured and diseased structures in the body.

Microchimeric cells also improve im­mune system function, and they may lead to longer life for the mother. [iv]

Scalia points out that Psalm 16:10 says that God will not allow his Holy One to see decay, and we know that Jesus’ divine body did not decay because he ascended to heaven. So, it follows that Mary’s body, with cellular traces of Jesus inside her, could not be allowed to decay, either. After all, a particle of God is still God.

So, Mary was assumed into heaven, body and soul (Ps.132:8). She really is the Theotokos, the new Ark of the Covenant, containing our living God.

But what does this mean for us today?

When Pope Pius XII defined the doctrine of the Assumption in 1950, the world was still recovering from WWII. He hoped that the story of Mary’s Assumption would help us all better appreciate the value of human life, and most especially a life focussed on doing the will of God.

He hoped that we might all be inspired to live like Mary, whose only purpose was to bring God’s love into the world, through Jesus.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI said that Mary’s presence in heaven reminds us that the earth is not our final homeland. Heaven is our true home, and if we can stay focussed on the eternal, then one day we will share in the same glory as Mary and the earth will become more beautiful.

In today’s Gospel we are given Mary’s song, the Magnificat. It tells the story of Mary as the lowly handmaid who lovingly submitted to God’s command and agreed to bring Jesus into this world. In response to her fiat, Jesus became a permanent part of her and she was rewarded with eternal life in heaven.

Through the Holy Eucharist, Jesus becomes a part of us, too, though not a permanent one. That’s why we seek to receive him as often as we can.

And so this is our challenge: to become like Mary, the Blessed Mother – filled with Jesus, totally focussed on Jesus, and doing all we can to bring him into our world.

[1] Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus.

[2] Note that Mary’s wasn’t the first assumption. Scripture tells us that Elijah (2Kgs.2:11; 1Mac.2:58) and Enoch (Sir.44:16; 49:14; Heb.11.5) were also assumed bodily into heaven.

[3] accessed 12.05.15

[iv] Timothy Millea, The Eternal Mother-Child Connection, 2019 accessed 12.08.21

Year B – Feast of St Mary of the Cross McKillop

On the Widow’s Cruse

[1Kgs.17:8-16; Col.3:12-17; Mt.6:25-34]

‘We could all do with the widow’s cruse,’ my dear father used to say, and he was right.

What is a cruse? It’s a small earthenware jar for liquids, and the widow’s cruse is a small supply that never runs out.

Text Box:  
Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644), Elijah and the Widow
Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644), Elijah and the Widow

This expression comes from the story of Elijah and the widow in our first reading today. During a terrible drought, Elijah asks the poor widow of Zarephath for a drop of water and a scrap of bread. But all she has to feed herself and her son is a small handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug.

She knows, however, that God wants her to do this, so she makes Elijah some bread and God rewards her by ensuring that her jars of food are never empty.

There’s a similar story in the life of St Frances of Rome (1384-1440). During a great famine, many poor people came to her seeking alms, but her father-in-law resented her generosity. He cut off Frances’ supplies and left her with only a small amount of corn and wine for herself. But because she was doing God’s work, the corn never ran out, and the wine cask never ran dry. [i]

Today in Australia we celebrate the Feast of St Mary of the Cross McKillop (1842–1909). She, too, was blessed with the widow’s cruse.

Mary was born the first of eight children to Scottish migrant parents, Alex and Flora McKillop, in Melbourne. Alex was a former seminarian, but quite hopeless with money and soon after Mary’s birth they lost everything, including their house.

To help pay the bills, Mary started working as a governess when she was 14. At 18, she moved to Penola, South Australia, to care for her nieces and nephews. There she met the local parish priest, Fr Julian Tenison-Woods, who was very interested in educating poor children.

Mary later wrote: ‘I heard the Pastor … Speak of the neglected state of the children in the parish … I had to go and offer myself to aid him’. And so began her teaching career.

When she was 20, Mary was accidentally locked overnight in a church in Portland, Victoria. She later described this as a graced opportunity, because her all-night vigil with Jesus changed her life.

In 1866, aged 24, she started wearing a simple habit as the first member of a new religious institute, the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart (the Josephites) that she established with the help of Fr Woods. They were determined to teach and serve the poor and vulnerable, and they opened their first school in a former stable in Penola.

In the following years, and with no government funding, Mary and her growing circle of sisters opened schools all over Australia and New Zealand. They also cared for Aborigines, unmarried mothers and the terminally ill, and established orphanages, shelters for former prostitutes and refuges for ex-prisoners.

As her missionary work grew, so did Mary MacKillop’s problems. Money was always scarce and many civic leaders and members of the public strongly objected to her work. Some powerful churchmen, including Bishop Shiel of Adelaide, objected to her independent spirit and she was falsely accused of alcoholism.

In 1871, Bishop Shiel excommunicated her for alleged insubordination. He also closed most of her schools and dispensed fifty sisters of their vows.

Mary faced obstacles all through her life, but her faith and determination were unshakeable and she refused to speak ill of anyone. In the following year, Bishop Shiel reversed his decision. [ii]

The Perth Mint :: 2008 - 2010 Coin Releases :: 2010 Saint Mary MacKillop  1oz Silver Proof Dollar Coin

Mary MacKillop began with nothing, but by the time of her death in 1909, she had 650 Josephite sisters teaching 12,400 students in 117 schools, and serving poor Catholics and Protestants alike. [iii]

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI canonized her as Australia’s first saint.

Mary MacKillop famously told her sisters, ‘Never see a need and do nothing about it’. And she always encouraged them to ‘strive to please God, rather than men, and always be ready to sacrifice everything for Christ’.

In return for her faithful service, God gave her the widow’s cruse. She always got what she needed, when she needed it.

‘Do not worry,’ Jesus says in our Gospel today. ‘God knows your needs. Just focus on what God wants you to do, and he will supply what you need.’ [iv]

That’s the widow’s cruse. We could all do with it.

Let’s close with this poem, The Meal and Cruse of Oil, by John Newton (1725-1809).

By the poor widow’s oil and meal
Elijah was sustained;
Though small the stock it lasted well,
For God the store maintained.

It seemed as if from day to day,
They were to eat and die;
But still, though in a secret way,
He sent a fresh supply.

Thus to his poor he still will give
Just for the present hour;
But for tomorrow they must live
Upon his word and power.

No barn or storehouse they possess
On which they can depend;
Yet have no cause to fear distress,
For Jesus is their friend.

Then let not doubts your mind assail,
Remember, God has said,
The cruse and barrel shall not fail,
My people shall be fed.

And thus though faint it often seems,
He keeps their grace alive;
Supplied by his refreshing streams,
Their dying hopes revive.

Though in ourselves we have no stock,
The Lord is nigh to save;
His door flies open when we knock,
And ’tis but ask and have. [v]


[ii] Melanie Rigney, Blessed are You. Franciscan Media, Cincinatti OH, 2015:116-119.


[iv] It’s worth remembering that the words ‘Do not be afraid’ occur 62 times in the Old Testament, and 18 times in the New Testament.

[v] John Newton, The Meal and Cruse of Oil. (John Newton also penned the famous hymn Amazing Grace.)