Year A – 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Christ Encomium

[Ezek.18:25-28; Phil.2:1-11; Mt.21:28-32]

There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, ‘Be like the bamboo; the taller you grow, the deeper you bow’.

In other words, be humble. Humility is important in some cultures, but not so much in ours. Our society seems to regard humble people as weak and passive, but that’s not humility. True humility means understanding your strengths and weaknesses and knowing how you fit into the world.

Henri Nouwen, in his book Bread for the Journey, says that our society believes that the only way to go is up. He says, ‘Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record – that’s what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame.’ 

Many of us work hard to climb that ladder at work or in our social lives. But isn’t this just feeding our pride? In his book Mere Christianity, CS Lewis describes pride as ‘posing and posturing.’ [i] And he warns that if you are proud, you cannot know God, for a proud person is always looking down on things and people, and if you’re looking down you cannot see anything that’s above you. [ii] 

In today’s second reading, St Paul is worried that the Christian community in Philippi has been split by rivalry and division. He reminds them of God’s deep love for them and the compassion and mercy they’ve had for each other. He says that if they want to live in Christ with all the joys the Christian life brings, then they must be united, sharing the same divine spirit and purpose. 

But this can’t happen, he says, if they’re filled with vanity and selfish ambition.    They need to start living as Jesus did, by always putting others first. 

Paul then describes Jesus, using an ancient hymn of praise which is often called The Christ Encomium. Jesus was equal to God, but He emptied himself and became an ordinary man. He lived as a humble servant and even accepted death on a Cross. This, Paul says, is how we should live our lives. 

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI explained this passage. He said that God deliberately makes Himself small for us so that we can understand Him, welcome Him and love Him.

God doesn’t come with power and outward splendour, Pope Benedict said, for He doesn’t want to overwhelm us with his strength. Instead, He comes to us as a defenceless baby, in need of our help and He does this because he wants our love.

And he added that by loving God and learning to live with him, we will discover the humility that is the very essence of love. [iii] 


In 1622, St Francis de Sales described humility using the example of spiders and bees. He said, ‘Don’t act like the spider, who represents the proud; but imitate the bee, who is the symbol of the humble soul.

The spider spins its web where everyone can see it, and never in secret. It spins in orchards, going from tree to tree, in houses, on windows, on floors – in short, before the eyes of all. 

The spider represents the vain and hypocritical who do everything to be seen and admired by others. Their works are, in fact, only spiders’ webs, fit to be cast into the fires of hell.

But the bees are wiser and more prudent, he said, for they prepare their honey in the hive where no-one can see them. Besides that, they build little cells where they continue their work in secret.

This represents… the humble soul, who is always withdrawn within herself, without seeking any glory or praise for her actions. Rather, she keeps her intentions hidden, being content that God sees and knows what she does.’ [iv]


Jesus and Mary both lived like bees, working quietly in the background. Pride and upward mobility meant nothing to them.

In 2017, Pope Francis said ‘Mary shows us that humility is not the virtue of the weak, but of the strong who do not mistreat others to make themselves feel important.’

He said that humility is like an emptiness that leaves room for God. We know that because God has done great things in the world thanks to humble people, and this shows that the humble person is powerful, not because he’s strong, but because he’s humble.

Pope Francis also said, ‘Behold the grandeur of the humble and of humility.’

Then he added: “I’d like to ask you – and also myself – but don’t answer in a loud voice, just answer in your heart: ‘How’s my humility?’” [v]

Yes, how is your humility? Is it something you cultivate?

[i] Lewis, CS. Mere Christianity.  Fontana Books, London, 1969:111.

[ii] Ibid. p.108.


[iv] St Francis de Sales, Sermon for Ash Wednesday, 9 February, 1622


Year A – 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

A Year Without Grumbling

(Is.55:6-9; Phil.1:20-24, 27; Mt.20:1-16)

When a big family finds itself squashing into a small house, you can expect lots of grumbling.

That’s what the Goyers found when they adopted seven children. They created a family of eleven people: two parents, eight children and one grandmother with dementia. As they gradually settled in together, there was lots of emotion and plenty of noise, mess, laundry – and grumbling.

Tricia Goyer, the mother, found all this grumbling hard to take, and one day she decided: let’s aim for a year without grumbling, and she wrote about it in her book, The Grumble-Free Year.

But what is grumbling? It’s an expression of disappointment or resentment. It’s a grumpy complaint that’s not targeted anywhere specific. It’s also an attitude that can sneak up on you, so that you might not even notice that you’ve become a grumbler.

Someone once joked that on the 7th day God rested, and on the 8th day he started taking complaints, and people have been grumbling ever since. Indeed, the Israelites soon complain after escaping from Egypt, and at one point God asks Moses, ‘How long will this wicked community grumble against me?’ (Num.14:26-29).

There’s grumbling in today’s Gospel, too, in Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. At 6.00 am, a landowner engages some labourers to harvest his grapes, at the standard rate of one denarius a day.  Later that day he employs more workers, offering them all a fair wage.

Then at sunset he pays them, giving them all one denarius. It’s a good day’s wage, but some start grumbling. ‘That’s unfair,’ they say. ‘We’ve worked hard all day and they’ve done very little. Why are they treated the same?’ 

In this story, the landowner is God, the vineyard is his kingdom of love, and the message is that God is surprisingly generous. That’s what the thief on the Cross discovered; he got to enter paradise by coming to Jesus at the last possible moment in his life (Lk.23:43).

But the typical response of so many is to grumble; they think they’ve been short-changed. However, as Isaiah says in our first reading today, God’s ways aren’t our ways. God doesn’t think like we do.

In our society, we tend to take a transactional view of things: if I do this, then I expect to get that. We have lots of rules to reinforce this thinking, and we often expect even God to comply. But this is not God’s way.

Nor is grumbling the solution. Grumbling makes things unpleasant, and it separates us from God, for when we grumble, we are effectively saying that we deserve more than He is giving us. But God is always looking out for us. We might not know it at the time, but with hindsight we can often see what God has been doing in our lives.

St Therese of Lisieux understood this. ‘Everything is grace,’ she said. From the beginning of life to its end, all is grace. Indeed, everything we have is a gift from God – the sky, the moon and the air we breathe. Even our darkest moments are blessings in disguise.

Using Holy Communion as an example, St Therese said, ‘No doubt, it is a great grace to receive the sacraments. When God does not permit it, it is good too! For everything is grace!’

So, what happened to the Goyer family? Tricia Goyer said it wasn’t like pushing a magic button, but hearts and attitudes did change in their grumble-free year.

They began by learning what grumbling means and becoming aware of negativity within their family. They then identified their individual grumbling styles, and memorised some key Scripture verses about God’s blessings and human grumbling.

They also focussed on how to handle disappointment, and the importance of speaking with thankfulness and gratitude, even in difficult times. And they learned that when someone grumbled repeatedly about something, sometimes all it took was rolling up their sleeves and making a change of habit.

As well, they recognised that it’s not good to repress all grumbling, because good communication involves sharing what’s deep in our hearts. For grumbling is essentially a heart issue, and no-one can change everything on their own.

The Goyer family learnt that God provides where we cannot, and that His presence is strength where we are weak and undone. They also found that God loves us amid our mess, and He transforms it into beauty.

The lessons they learned about God, faith and attitude, Tricia said, were better than she could have ever imagined. [i]

So, why not aim for a year without grumbling at your place?

[i] Tricia Goyer, The Grumble-Free Year. Nelson Books, Nashville, 2019.

Year A – 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Agony and Ecstasy

(Ecc.27:30-28.7; Rom.14:7-9; Mt.18:21-35)

One of the biggest barriers to our peace and happiness is the guilt we sometimes suffer for our past sins.

In 1972, during the Vietnam War, John Plummer was a US Army commander. In June that year, he ordered the bombing of Trang Bang village, 25 km west of Saigon. To him, this was just another raid on faceless enemies, and he’d been assured twice that no civilians were there.

The strike went as planned, as bombers dropped napalm and explosives on that village. ‘I was pleased that everything worked,’ Plummer said.

But the next morning he was horrified. On the front page of his newspaper was a photo of nine-year-old Kim Phuc running naked from her village, screaming from the pain of napalm burns.[i] ‘It knocked me to my knees,’ Plummer said.

That image haunted him for years; he could not get it out of his head. He was so wracked with guilt that it gave him endless nightmares. He could not even talk about it.

He started drinking, he left his faith and had two failed marriages. Years later he had another conversion experience, but he still couldn’t forgive himself.

Meanwhile, Kim Phuc had 17 operations on her wounds. The burning napalm had fused her chin to her chest and what was left of her left arm was stuck to her rib cage. The surgery was successful, but she was horribly scarred. She moved to Canada and in 1982 became a Christian. She also took every opportunity to speak about her experience and the need for forgiveness.

In 1992, Plummer heard that ‘the girl in the picture’ was going to speak in Washington DC. He knew he had to go; he knew he’d never find peace without speaking to her.

Standing in the crowd, he heard Kim say that she still suffered terribly from the burns, but she was not bitter. She also said, ‘Behind that picture of me, thousands and thousands of people… died. They lost parts of their bodies. Their whole lives were destroyed, and nobody took their picture.’

Then she said that if she ever met the pilot of that plane, she would say she forgives him. They cannot change the past, she said, but she hoped they could both work together to build the future.  

Hearing this, Plummer scribbled a note, saying ‘Kim, I am that man,’ and someone took it to her.

Then they met. ‘Kim saw my grief, my pain, my sorrow,’ Plummer later said. ‘I fell into her arms sobbing. All I could say was “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again.’

She also cried, saying, ‘It’s all right, I forgive you.’

They talked and prayed together for hours that day, and became friends.[ii]

Plummer said it was vital for him to meet Kim face to face, to tell her how he had agonised over her injuries. He also said that without this confession, he doubts he would ever have been able to let it go. But he did let it go. He finally forgave himself.

‘I was floating, I was free. I was finally at peace,’ he said.

In meeting Kim, John Plummer discovered the merciful eyes of Jesus. [iii]

In our first reading today, the wise man Ben Sirach says you should forgive your neighbour when he hurts you; and when you pray your own sins will be forgiven.

He asks, can someone who is angry towards someone else expect healing from the Lord? If you show no mercy towards others, how can you expect pardon for your own sins? So, remember the commandments, he says, and don’t be angry with your neighbour.

And in today’s Gospel, Jesus says we should always forgive others, not just seven times, but seventy times seven. In other words, always. We are obliged to forgive anyone who has offended us, and we must seek forgiveness from anyone we might have offended. 

Why? It’s because God is love, and we too must be loving if we want his divine life and power working within us. We must be forgiving if we want to let go of the past and live in happiness and peace.  

John Plummer became a Methodist pastor, and dedicated his life to preaching about regret, forgiveness and hope. ‘I still remember that photo,’ he said, ‘but the screams have stopped. It’s all quiet now.’

It’s not always easy to forgive or to say sorry, but we know how important it is.

If you need help, turn to Jesus. He is always there for us.

[i] That picture won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

[ii] Anne Gearan, Embrace Silences Decades of Nightmares for Ex-Pilot, Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1997.

[iii] Ken Barker, His Name is Mercy, Modotti Press, Ballan Vic. 2010:111-113.

Year A – 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Gentle Art of Correction

(Ezek.33:7-9; Rom.13:8-10; Mt.18:15-20)

Many years ago, a man named Frank took me under his wing. He was a tall Dutchman with a large belly and a heart to match.

It was early in my working life, and he kindly encouraged me and shared his wisdom with me. He also gave me guidance, and he challenged me by saying the things that I needed to hear.

Today, I remember Frank as my second father, but really, he was my mentor. What is a mentor? It’s an experienced person who gives guidance to a beginner. There have been many famous mentoring relationships in history – Sigmund Freud, for example, mentored Carl Jung, Steve Jobs mentored Mark Zuckerberg, and Pope St John Paul II mentored Pope Benedict XVI.

Asked about this, Pope Benedict XVI said that his pontificate was inspired by Pope John Paul II. ‘My memory of John Paul II is filled with gratitude,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t and shouldn’t try to imitate him, but I have tried to carry forward his legacy and his work the best that I could.’

The idea of mentoring oeiginally comes from the Bible. The Scriptures don’t actually use that word; however, they do record many mentoring relationships.

Moses mentored Joshua (Deut.34:9), Eli mentored Samuel (1Sam.3), Paul mentored Timothy (1 and 2 Timothy), and of course, Jesus mentored his disciples. He met with them, he shared meals with them, he gave them advice and he modelled the way.

And importantly, Jesus not only encouraged them, he also challenged them by saying the things that they needed to hear (Mt.16:23).

It’s because of this continuing chain of mentoring relationships that we have our Church today.

As Christians, we share this duty to guide others, especially when we see them doing the wrong thing. This is important, because none of us is perfect; we all need to learn. Unfortunately, however, many of us prefer to turn a blind eye; we try to avoid getting involved.

But remember that in Genesis, when God asks Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ Cain answers, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Gen.4:9).

In his reply, God says, in effect, that yes, you are your brother’s keeper. In fact, you are all brothers and sisters and this means you are responsible for everything you do and say to each other. You are a family.’ [i]

Indeed, we are a family because by our baptism we all share the same heavenly Father, the same mother Mary and the same brother Jesus.

That’s why in today’s Gospel Jesus says, ‘If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him.’ That’s also why in our first reading, God sends Ezekiel to watch over his people. His job is to protect them by speaking up if they do anything wrong or if they put themselves in danger.

We know this isn’t always easy to do. Fear and pride often stop us from giving or receiving advice. But that’s why St Paul in our second reading reminds us to always respect others, to always love our neighbours as ourselves, for we have a responsibility to them.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela talks about his long years of imprisonment on Robben Island. He tells how one day he was called to the main office. General Steyn was visiting and wanted to know if the prisoners had any complaints. The prisoners had chosen Mandela as their spokesman. Badenhorst, the prison commander, was also present. He was feared and hated by the prisoners.

In a calm but forceful and truthful manner, Mandela listed the prisoners’ complaints. But he did so without bitterness or recrimination. The general listened carefully. It really was a damning indictment of Badenhorst’s regime.

The next day, Badenhorst went to Mandela and said, ‘I’m leaving the island. I just want to wish you people good luck.’ That remark stunned Mandela. He thought about it for a long time afterwards. Badenhorst had been the cruellest of the prison commanders, but this incident showed that he had another side to his nature.

Mandela wrote: ‘It goes to show that even the most seemingly cold-blooded have a core of decency, and that if their hearts are touched, they are capable of changing.’ [ii]

The Scriptures often exhort us to look out for our wayward brothers and sisters (e.g., Jas.5:19; Gal.6:1; Col.3:16; Lev.19:17). This is a responsibility we all share because we want the best for them.

It takes courage, sensitivity and love to speak the truth to others.

If you find this hard to do, just ask Jesus for his help.

[i] Peter Kreeft, Food for the Soul, Year A. Word on Fire, Park Ridge, IL. 2022:653.

[ii] Flor McCarthy, New Sunday and Holy Day Liturgies, Year A. Dominican Publications, Dublin, 2019:304-305.

Year A – 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Take up Your Cross

(Jer.20:7-9; Rom.12:1-2; Mt.16:21-27)

If you look, you’ll see the Cross of Christ most everywhere – in churches, in schools, in jewellery, in art and in people’s homes.

There are crucifixes and plain crosses of all shapes, sizes and colours, in gold, silver, wood, paint and paper. There’s the Celtic Cross, Jerusalem Cross, Cross of St Damian, Latin Cross, Maltese Cross, Cross of St Andrew and the Coptic Ankh. They’re everywhere: on walls, clothing, TV, online, in books, and in people’s hearts, minds and lives.

In our Gospel today, Jesus tells his disciples to take up their Cross and follow him. But what does that mean? What does it mean to take up your Cross and follow Jesus?

Christians have been trying to work that out for 2,000 years.

It can be confusing, because there are countless ways to understand what the Cross means, just as there are lots of ways to show what it looks like.

Ron Rolheiser says that the Cross of Christ is like a carefully cut diamond. Every time you turn it in the light you get a different sparkle. The Cross means many things, he says, but its depths can never be fully fathomed for there’s always more meaning to be found.

He also says that it’s not surprising that the Cross is the most universally-cherished symbol on earth, because the Cross is the deepest word that can ever be said about love. [i]

How then might we understand it? The surest way to begin is by going back to the original Cross, and the agony which led to the death of Christ. 

Jesus’ suffering shows us that real love doesn’t come cheap. It costs dearly. His Cross reminds us that if we want serious, faithful and life-giving love in our lives, then we must be prepared to pay a price, and that price is suffering.

Anyone who has ever raised a family knows that love and sacrifice always go together. 

Anyone who has ever supported a friend or relative through addiction or depression knows how hard it can be.

Anyone who has ever cared for an elderly parent, or a sick or disabled child knows how hard it can be to keep going.

Anyone who has lost a wife, a husband or a child knows what it’s like to suffer such loss and yet have to keep going each day.

And anyone who has carried a deep hurt knows how hard it can be to turn the other cheek and to remain a loving person.

The Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky once described love as ‘that harsh and dreadful thing.’ T.S. Eliot said that love costs ‘not less than everything.’ 

This is what Jesus is talking about when he asks us to carry our Cross and follow him. He wants us to do what he did – to love others, to really love them, even when it hurts.

St Teresa of Calcutta is a classic example of someone who loved until it hurt.  She sacrificed everything so that she could lovingly care for dirty, diseased and dying people in the streets of India, and she did it for fifty years. It can’t have been easy, but she did it because Jesus asked her to.

Jesus is asking us to do the same. Not in Calcutta, but wherever we live. He wants us to genuinely, seriously, love others – even if it hurts to do so.

That’s the key message of the Cross. If you want real love in your life, if you want to be a good parent, or a good friend, or to have a good marriage or to keep some other commitment you have made, then you must be prepared to suffer and sometimes die to yourself. There is no other way.

Our society doesn’t think like this. It doesn’t like hearing this. Lots of people would rather walk away, and they do. But Jesus says that if you try to hang on to your life, you’ll lose it. And he adds that if you give up your life for his sake, then you’ll save it.

That’s why St Francis of Assisi said, ‘it’s in giving that you receive, and it’s in dying that you are born to eternal life.’

This is fundamental to our Christian faith. 

There are crosses everywhere, but the Cross itself is so much more than a piece of jewellery, a work of art or a Church decoration. It’s a reminder of Jesus’ tremendous love for us and his call for us to love others, just as he did, even if it really hurts.

This is what it means to take up your Cross and follow Jesus.