Year A – 1st Sunday of Lent


(Joel 2:12-18; 2Cor.5:20-6:2; Mt.6:1-6, 16-18)

Temptation. What is it? It’s the desire to do something that’s either unwise or simply wrong. It comes in many different forms.

In North America, for example, there’s a freshwater turtle called the alligator snapping turtle. These creatures eat almost anything, especially fish, and they grow very big. They also use a very clever trick to catch fish.

These turtles lie still on the floor of a river or lake, with their mouths wide open. At the back of their tongues, they have a small, pink appendage that looks like a worm. They wiggle it to get a fish’s attention, and as the fish approaches the turtle snaps its mouth shut. The fish is trapped. [i]

This is how temptation works. Something enticing is placed before us, and it’s hard to resist. Temptations like greed, lust and the desire for attention and power are always dressed up as something good, but they only lead to trouble.

In Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus has just been baptised and he goes into the desert for forty days to pray, fast and reflect. He knows it’s time to begin his public ministry, and he needs to prepare himself.

But there in the desert, the devil tries to unsettle and confuse Jesus. He challenges him with three temptations that we all commonly face.

The first is the temptation of the flesh, which is symbolised by bread. Jesus is hungry, and the devil says, ‘If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.’ But Jesus replies, ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’

In other words, there’s much more to life than the pleasures of the flesh.

Next, the devil tempts Jesus with pride. He takes him to the top of the Temple and challenges him to throw himself down, for surely God will protect him. But Jesus replies: ‘don’t put God to the test.’

And finally, the devil tempts Jesus with power and glory. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and says: ‘All these will be yours if you worship me!’ But Jesus replies, ‘Be off, Satan! …for you must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone.’

These are temptations we all face – the temptations of the flesh, of pride, of power and glory. Jesus faced them, too, but he always managed to resist. For too many of us, however, our temptations have become bad habits. What can we do about them?

St Aelred of Rievaulx, the wise abbot of a Yorkshire monastery, identified five things we can do.

Firstly, he says we must call our vices by their real names, instead of denying and rationalising them. Many of us try to soothe our consciences by renaming our shameful vices. But gluttony is gluttony; it’s not ‘enjoying God’s gifts’. Greed is greed; it’s not ‘being prudent for the future’. And lust is lust; it’s not ‘just being natural and human’. Clever names and rationalisations change nothing; they simply lead us deeper into difficulty.

Secondly, we need to be honest about our vices, at least to ourselves. We must take responsibility not only for what we do, but also for what we don’t do, since these are too easily overlooked. And we need to acknowledge the evils our sin has caused.

Thirdly, we need to keep reminding ourselves why this bad behaviour must stop. For example, in my younger days I smoked. When I began to quit smoking, I identified 38 reasons why this was important. Reminding myself was very helpful.

Next, we need to listen to those who are telling us where we’re going wrong. Negative feedback can be good for us. Indeed, it may even be a message from God, meant not to hurt or humiliate us, but to encourage us to change.

And finally, we need to seek God’s mercy. Many of us struggle to control ourselves, and we need to ask God for his help. God does answer our prayers, but not always in the way we’d like him to. [ii]

Temptation, then, is the desire to satisfy a short-term urge, but it comes with long-term risks, particularly when it leads to destructive behaviours.

But there is something we can do about these destructive behaviours: it’s St Aelred’s five-step solution:

To call our bad habits by their real names. To be honest about our vices and the evils they have caused. To confront ourselves with the reasons why we must change. To listen to the voices of wisdom around us.

And finally, to ask God for his mercy. God is always there to help us.


[ii] Michael Casey, Grace: On the Journey to God, Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA, 2018 e-Book.

Year A – 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Hatfields and McCoys

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

Hurt people sometimes hurt people, don’t they? We see it so often in the movies, but also in the news, at work and school, and in our families. Some hurt people respond to their pain by hurting others, and sometimes it’s for revenge.

I once heard someone try to justify revenge by quoting an ‘eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ from today’s Gospel. But he was wrong. He misunderstood what Jesus is saying. Let me explain.

In the Louvre, in Paris, there’s a shiny block of black stone. It’s ancient, 2 metres tall and weighs over a tonne. It was found in Iran in 1901 and it’s known as the Code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi was king of Babylon about 4,000 years ago, and his code has 282 laws.

One of these laws says, ‘if a man puts out the eye of an equal, his eye shall be put out. If a man knocks out the teeth of another man, his own teeth will be knocked out.’

This law wasn’t meant to encourage revenge. Its purpose was to make sure that people don’t overreact when they’re wronged. So, if someone breaks your tooth, you can’t retaliate by breaking all his teeth. The punishment should fit the crime.

Centuries later, this principle of an ‘eye for an eye’ found its way into the Bible (Ex.21:24; Lev.24:20; Deut.19:21). But its purpose isn’t to encourage revenge, because Moses agreed with Hammurabi. He believed that any response to an offence should be measured and appropriate. This principle still applies in our criminal law today.

So far, this law sounds sensible. But in another way it’s not sensible at all. 

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

Have you heard of the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys? These two families lived on opposite sides of a river flowing between West Virginia and Kentucky. No-one’s sure how this feud started, but these families hated each other. 

In 1878 Randolph McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield of stealing one of his pigs.  He took him to court, but lost. 

Soon afterwards, McCoy’s sons killed one of Hatfield’s boys and then things steadily got worse. Between 1880 and 1891, at least 12 people were killed and 10 were wounded. 

The feud lasted for many decades, and the last confrontation was in 2000. In 2003 the two families signed a formal truce, and now, every 14 June, the states of Kentucky and West Virginia celebrate ‘Hatfield-McCoy Reconciliation Day’.[ii]

What would Jesus say about this? He’d say this war should never have started. 

In Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus warns his disciples not to retaliate when someone hurts them. He’s not telling us to accept abuse, but he is saying that any response should be non-violent.

Jesus is also saying that it’s important to break the cycle of violence, and to always seek peace. He then gives us examples of what to do. If someone strikes you, he says, don’t strike back. If someone takes you to court over your tunic, then give them your cloak as well. And if someone demands a service of you, don’t resist.

Each of these responses is bold, but non-violent. It robs the aggressive person of their power, and it can break the cycle of revenge. It can also help the victim gain control over the situation.

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.’ [iii]

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).

Yes, hurt people do sometimes hurt people. Payback is a temptation, but we know it’s wrong.  None of us needs more pain.  We all need healing and peace, and the only real way to achieve that is through love.  

How do you respond when someone hurts you?




Year A – 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

A Gift for Valentine’s Day

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

Next week is Valentine’s Day. All around the world on 14 February, millions of couples will be celebrating their passion, friendship and love.

Not much is known about St Valentine, but it’s said that he was a Catholic priest who lived in 3rd Century Rome, during the Christian persecution. At one point, Emperor Claudius II insisted that his soldiers’ first love should be Rome itself, so he made it illegal for them to marry.

Valentine responded by conducting secret weddings, but he was caught and gaoled. A judge then offered to release him if he restored his blind daughter’s vision. Valentine placed his hands on her eyes and her sight was restored. The judge was delighted and did release him, and even became a Christian himself.

But the persecution continued, and Claudius had Valentine executed on 14 February, in 269 AD. Legend tells us that just before he died, he wrote to that girl, signing his letter ‘from your Valentine’.

Now on every Valentine’s Day, millions of couples celebrate their friendship and love by exchanging letters, poems and gifts. This wonderful tradition highlights for us just how important love is to us all. Indeed, Martin Luther King once described love as the greatest force in the universe.

Many of us would like to get better at understanding and practising love. We’d like to become much better lovers. Well, there’s no better teacher than Jesus, and in today’s Gospel reading, which comes from his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers us some very good advice. He says that the state of our heart is just as important as the specific things we do.

Jesus begins by talking about obedience to the Law of God, as given to Israel through Moses, and he reminds us of the Fifth Commandment: ‘You shall not kill.’ He says that it’s not enough to say that you’ve never killed anyone, for that’s a very superficial reading of the law.

There are so many ways to destroy people without actually killing them. For example, there’s hatred, hostility, slander and abuse. There’s also gossiping, belittling, insulting language, back-stabbing and giving someone the cold shoulder. All these actions are nasty and very destructive, but below the threshold of murder.

Jesus’ point is that it’s not enough to obey the letter of the law. It’s not enough to be seen to do the right thing, which is all the Pharisees care about.

We need to go beyond that, and recognise the spirit of the law, for all of God’s commandments are meant to lead us towards authentic love.

Jesus then talks about the Sixth Commandment: ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ Again, he says that it’s not enough to say that you’ve never committed adultery, because there are so many ways to undermine a marriage and destroy a relationship. This includes lustful thoughts, inappropriate behaviours and drifting away from family life.

A couple might be legally married, and technically there may have been no adultery, but emotionally and practically, it may be as though they have already divorced.

Once again, we need to go beyond the letter of the law and start reading our own hearts. How are our thoughts and desires affecting our relationships?

And finally, Jesus talks about honesty. He says that it’s not enough to make and keep oaths in legal situations. It’s far better that we are transparently trustworthy in everything we say and do.

Our word should always be clear and reliable, wherever we are, and not loaded with technical half-truths or double-meanings. When we say something, others shouldn’t have to guess what we mean. We should be people of truth.

Our yes should mean yes, and our no should mean no.

Jesus’ point is that integrity and wholeness are essential in all our relationships. If we are serious about living lives of love, then we must be open and accountable, and our motivations must be pure.

Every Valentine’s Day, millions of dollars are spent on flowers, chocolate and cards. These are all very nice, but surely the greatest gift of all is unconditional, honest and heartfelt love.

It’s God who sent the first Valentine, and it’s Jesus who demonstrates what true love is. Today he teaches us that the state of our heart is just as important as the things we do.

On Valentine’s Day, and every other day of the year, if we want to become better lovers, we must always use our hearts, as well as our heads.

Year A – 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Salt and Light

(Is.58:7-10; 1Cor.2:1-5; Mt.5:13-16)

Someone once asked me, ‘To be a good Christian, is it enough to simply pray and learn about my faith?’

Let me tell you a story. There was once a great biblical scholar who was noted for his great piety. He spent hours every day secluded in his room, studying the Scriptures, praying and meditating.

One day a holy man visited the town where the scholar lived. When he heard about this, the scholar set out to look for him.

He first looked in the church, but he didn’t find him there. Then he looked in a local shrine, but he wasn’t there, either. He looked in other likely places, but couldn’t find him. Eventually, he found him in the marketplace.

On meeting him, he told the holy man who he was, and how he spent hours every day studying the Scriptures and in prayer and meditation. Then he said, ‘I have come to seek your advice on how I might grow in the service of God.’

The advice he got was simple and direct. The holy man said, ‘It’s easy to be a saint and a sage in your room. But you should go out into the marketplace and try to be a saint there.’ [i]

We don’t know how the scholar responded, but the holy man’s point is reflected in Matthew’s Gospel today. That’s where Jesus tells his followers that they must be like salt and light in the practice of their faith.

What does that mean? 

Well, by itself salt has no purpose. It’s also useless if it’s contaminated, so it must remain pure. But salt does make food tasty. It’s good for our health. It helps our hearts beat and our blood flow. It preserves food and it heals wounds. 

And so it is with us. On our own we have little purpose, because we’re meant to live in community. And we need to avoid being contaminated by sin. But like salt, Jesus wants us to keep our faith fresh and to mix with our world. He also wants us to add flavour and bring things to life. And he wants us to heal wounds and to protect and preserve what’s good and holy. 

Jesus also calls us to be ‘the light of the world’.  What does that mean?

Well, 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 also symbolises knowledge and truth. It dispels darkness, it wakes people up and like the lighthouse, it warns of impending danger.

Jesus actually calls himself ‘the Light of the World’ in John 8:12, and elsewhere in Scripture God is referred to as ‘Light’ (Is.60:1-3; Ps.27:1; IJn.1:5). 

The world around us is a dark place, and too many people are struggling and groping around in spiritual darkness, trying to find their way. This is why Jesus wants us to absorb his divine light. When we allow his light to become part of us, it will change us from within and we’ll start to think and live like him.

Jesus’ light will then shine through us, just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, and our very presence will begin to make a real difference, wherever we go.

The good things we find ourselves doing don’t have to be spectacular. Even a small light can illuminate an entire room.

But when we lose our Christian identity, when we no longer bother to practise our faith, when we let ourselves succumb to the universal dumbing down of anything that’s precious,[ii] then we become as useless as salt that’s lost its flavour, or a lamp that no longer works.

Some people fear that they might not be good enough, or talented enough, to make any sort of difference. But remember what St Paul says in our second reading today. He never relies on himself to keep going in his work. He always relies on the power of God – to inspire and encourage him.

So, to be a good Christian, is it enough for us to simply pray and learn about our faith?

Clearly not.

We are all meant to be salt and light to the world, making a difference in our own way, and in our own circumstances.

[i] Flor McCarthy, New Sunday and Holy Day Liturgies – Year A. Dominican Publications, Dublin, 2013:194.

[ii] Michael Casey, Balaam’s Donkey, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2019:366.