Lord, increase our faith

Reflections on the readings for Sunday 2 October 2016 (Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Habakkuk 1:2-3. 2:2-4; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9; 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14; Luke 17:5-10

What would we do if we had more faith? How would our lives be different? In today’s enigmatic Gospel, Jesus doesn’t seem to be impressed with the disciples very pious request: “Increase our faith!” Instead he confuses them with talk about planting trees in oceans and servants who know their place. He confuses me anyway! Read my thoughts on the scripture readings here. Maybe I shouldn’t be looking for more faith, but simply taking the next step in doing what God has called me to do, and then the next, and the next. Maybe that’s what makes a journey of faith – one foot in front of the other. Faith as obedience may not be very glamorous, but it gets the job done!

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Complacent Christians

Reflections on the Scriptures for Sunday 25 September 2016 (Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Amos 6:1a,4-7; Psalm 146:7-10; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31 Find the readings here.

Amos would probably be labelled ‘hard left’ in today’s political landscape. The 8th century BC prophet of social justice wasn’t particularly poor himself – he was an owner of sheep rather than just a lowly shepherd looking after someone else’s animals, but his relatively comfortable position hadn’t blinded him to the plight of those on the wrong side of power. He describes the kind of lifestyle that we goggle over as we page through glossy magazines, a life of ease, opulence and creativity. What sickens him isn’t the wealth per se, it is the complacency and utter blindness to the lives and struggles of so many. We live in a world where the gap between rich and poor is increasing exponentially, where more and more are struggling to survive. In Ireland where I live, the homelessness crisis is one visible manifestation of that. Amos warns the wealthy that they will be the first to feel the effects of the calamity coming down the tracks – in his day the destruction of Samaria by the Assyrians. But that is often not how it is. Pope Francis has drawn attention to how it is the vulnerable and those made poor who are most adversely affected by the effects of consumerist and energy-hungry lifestyles on the Earth, our common home.
As the Christian family across the world gathers to worship, to sing and listen to Scripture, to respond to and be shaped by the Gospel, to meet and be transformed by the risen Christ, will we be open to the challenging words that Jesus speaks? In today’s psalm we celebrate the God who secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, protects the stranger and sets the captives free. If we, whether through what we do or what we fail to do, are not joining in this mission of God to bring life and wholeness to all the world, then ours are the ‘ways’ which the Lord will thwart, not bless. Did you notice how the rich man in Jesus’ parable was oblivious to the plight of Lazarus? He wasn’t actively oppressing him, just ignoring him and benefitting from the system that left Lazarus without hope in the world. The familial language used in the parable – “Father Abraham” ……. “My child” … – really strikes me. This rich man is not the evil opponent of God but the callously complacent ignorer of the ‘least of these’, those whom God loves.  When the Kingdom is revealed in its fullness, what light will it shine on our own lives, individually and corporately?

I’ve also reflected on these readings in “The Rich Man and Lazarus”

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The Parable of the Dishonest Steward

Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 18 September 2016 (Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Amos 8:4-7;Psalm 113:1-2, 4-8; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13 You can find the readings here.

Jesus warns us that we cannot serve two masters. What implications does that have for how we relate to authority? Paul writing to Timothy instructs Christians to pray for those who have power over us, so that we may lead a peaceful and tranquil life. Perhaps because I grew up in apartheid South Africa where I was taught that religion and politics don’t mix and only woke up later to the horrors that such an attitude allowed, I feel a visceral reaction against that passage in the Epistles. It seems like a cop-out – be all spiritual about it, and hope for the best. But I’ve learned to take that reaction as an invitation to dig deeper, to re-think my interpretation.

When we pray ‘Thy Kingdom come’ we are asking for something that is ultimately God’s work. For the systems of this world to begin to reflect the values of the Kingdom of God, a very dramatic conversion of the powers is needed. No wonder we need to pray! But as well as praying we need to be actively serving our true Master. And we’re not doing that unless we’re committed to and working for the things which matter to God. And what is that? Amos, prophet of social justice, makes clear that God is passionately, vehemently opposed to the people and systems that exploit those who lack wealth and power. Amos proclaimed that Israel would be punished because of this social injustice, and it was destroyed by the Assyrians about 40 years later. Clearly then, we can’t be praying for the peaceful continuation of a system built on injustice and exploitation, even if the system benefits us. That’s to have chosen the wrong master.

Psalm 113 is one of many psalms that celebrate the Lord as king. There are two ways in which the metaphor of God as the great king can be employed. One is the way that legitimates all human authority that claims to rule in God’s name. If God is enthroned above all, and the earthly authority rules by God’s decree, then to oppose that authority is to oppose God. One doesn’t need to know too much history to know that this notion can be used to perpetrate all manner of atrocities in God’s name. The second way of understanding the metaphor of God as king is, I believe, more consistent with Jesus’ teaching. It recognises that God’s claim to kingship undermines and relativises all other claims. If the God who is enthroned above all raises the lowly and seats the poor with princes, as the psalm puts it, then any lower authority that exploits the poor and rules in favour of the elite against those without power is in direct rebellion against the ultimate Power.

These reflections on the other readings in today’s lectionary give us a way in to one of Jesus’ most puzzling parables, that of the dishonest steward. It’s a story of a trickster which would have delighted Jesus’ predominantly poor and disenfranchised audience. In it, a steward who is about to lose his job uses his last few days to write off some of the debts owed to his master, hoping to make friends who will help him out when he is unemployed. The steward who tricks the wealthy master to help other needy people would be a hero for the crowds that followed Jesus but modern readers seem to be more uncomfortable with the ethics of his actions. What does this parable tell us about the Kingdom of God? The steward who finds himself in dire straits also finds himself freed from the need to keep his master happy, since he’s losing his job anyway. That difficult situation is also a liberating one which enables him to make different choices about who to prioritise. In some way, to be a Christ-follower in this world puts us in a similar situation to that of the steward. We’re still officially part of the system but our allegiance lies elsewhere now. Our actions shouldn’t be directed any longer toward benefiting the powers that be, but we can look around to see how we can act to benefit others, particularly the poor. Jesus came to proclaim release to debtors, and that’s what the steward can do now. Sure, his motives in Jesus’ story are selfish – the ‘master’ he is serving is his own long-term best interests. The master we serve is different. But our actions should be similar – using the systems of this world to undermine those very systems. What does that look like? For Jesus, it meant calling the bluff of the so-called justice of the Roman occupying force and the so-called holiness of the religious leaders who ended up crucifying an innocent man and God-with-us in order to protect their self-serving systems. Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi are two powerful examples of thinking creatively and acting courageously to challenge the powers that be toward conversion, to bring them a little more in line with the will and the ways of the true Lord. Serving our new Master takes imagination and shrewdness and courage. It must begin with the small steps. When we choose in the little things to serve God and those without power, we’re training ourselves to be able to respond to the bigger issues in a way that reflects God’s own priorities. And if we’re working alongside the One enthroned on high, our efforts will count for something.

This was originally posted on 22 September 2013 as “Cheating the Old Master”.

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Following Jesus and hating family

Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 4 September 2016 (Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time)

Wisdom 9:13-18b; Psalm 90:3-6, 12-17;Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33 FInd the readings here.

Today’s Gospel certainly counts as one of the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus: hate your family, renounce all your possessions. My instant reaction is – ‘Jesus couldn’t possibly mean this, especially the ‘hate’ part!’ I then search around desperately for an interpretation that can sit more comfortably with my picture of Jesus and what he ought to be saying. That sense of disorientation is something Jesus followers felt all too frequently, more often than we do, now that we’ve had a couple of millennia to smooth out and tame his teachings. But today we’re reminded again that Jesus’ call is to something radical, something shocking, something that turns the world on its head.

What does it mean to ‘hate’ one’s family? We can safely assume that Jesus did not mean for us to be violently antagonistic toward our family or to actively seek their ill. Since Jesus is telling us that this is what is required to follow him, it is helpful to ask in what way Jesus hated his own family. Jesus was the eldest son of a widowed mother. And yet, at the age of about thirty, he left his family to become a wandering teacher and healer. We know from Mark’s Gospel that his family were worried that he had gone a bit mad and tried to bring him home. Here is the account:

When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” … Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”  “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.  Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:21, 31-35).

Jesus has moved outside of the conventional family circle to embrace a larger community. Conventional kinship is about insiders and outsiders. The counterpart of love of family in this sense is the exclusion of the outsider. Jesus’ rejection of family here isn’t a diminishment of loving relationship, but an expansion of it. Those who follow Jesus do not love less, but more. They do not allow kinship ties to tell them who to love and who to hate. We see some of this at work in the story behind the Epistle reading. Paul writes to Philemon to ask him to take back Onesimus, a runaway slave, and to welcome him as a brother in Christ. If Philemon is to act in the best interests of his family, then he couldn’t do that. To welcome back a runaway slave as a beloved member of the community would be to begin to undo the fabric of a society that privileged Philemon’s family. Paul is prompting Philemon to expand his notion of community in Christ, to love more and not less. But he can’t do it unless he is willing to undermine the privileges to which his own children were born.

To love our family in a conventional sense is to be caught up in those ties that bind. Particularly in a strongly patriarchal culture, it means to seek the honour of our parents and the stability and prosperity of the family unit at all costs. That can prevent us from following the radically counter-cultural teachings of Jesus. We have to be willing to detach from those obligations.

In some parts of the world today, what sounded unthinkable to Jesus’ audience has become an acceptable path to self actualisation. People cut off their parents, leave marriages and children because it seems to them that the road to personal fulfilment requires that they leave behind that baggage. But Jesus also says to hate our own life (this is getting worse and worse!). If we act against what appears to be the best interests of our family as a whole simply in order to act in our own best interests, we’re still miles away from following Jesus. We have to be willing to renounce the hold that our own desires and wishes have on us too. That’s not all. Jesus tells us to renounce all our possessions. To hold on to nothing, and simply to take up our cross and to follow him. When Jesus issued this challenge, he was on his way to Jerusalem where he would be put to death. No wonder that many people found Jesus’ teaching too hard, and decided to leave off following him, though many probably still admired him from a distance. No wonder the people of God today spend so much time finding ways to make what Jesus says into something different, something easier.

The sage describes our need for God-given wisdom in this uncertain life of ours. But when God’s Wisdom walks the dusty roads of first century Palestine, he is taken for a fool. His radical message is still written off as crazy. Too many of us don’t really believe that in order to have the resources to live life well we need to renounce acquisitiveness. We think that if we are to build the tower or win the war (whatever that looks like in our particular life journey) we need to have more. Jesus tells us to let it go and to follow him. What would it look like to say “yes” to that invitation today?

This is a slightly modified version of a reflection I originally posted in September 2013.

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Kingdom Etiquette

Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 28th August 2016 (Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Sirach 3:17-20; Psalm 68:4-7, 10-11; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24; Luke 14:1, 7-14 (Find the readings here)

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus has been invited to dinner at the home of a prominent religious leader. I can imagine him looking around when he arrives, wondering where he should sit. We’re told that he is being watched closely. That must feel awkward. And he is watching the other guests too, noticing what they are up to. It is a complicated game.  Social occasions like this may ostensibly be about hospitality, about opening one’s home and one’s table to others, but there is often another dynamic at work. There are the insiders and the outsiders and those somewhere in between, those who know what to do and those who aren’t sure. Etiquette is only partly about good manners. It is as much about distinguishing between those who belong and those who don’t. And those who aren’t confident that they really belong are the ones who are trying the hardest to get everything right, to the snide amusement of the inner circle. When the host is someone important, guests want to be seen to be there, and some may be hoping for an opportunity to sneak up a rung on the social ladder.

What is Jesus’ response to all of this? He tells them a parable. A parable is a little story that may seem tame, if a little strange, when we hear it first. However, once it lodges in our imaginations it can suddenly explode and transform the way we see the world. Jesus’ parables are about the Kingdom of God. When we look through their strange lens, we see something of where and how God is at work, what kind of world God is inaugurating through Jesus of Nazareth. This parable sounds more like the advice of a sage than a story, but its effect is the same. Jesus isn’t just lecturing them on etiquette, like ben Sira is doing in the first reading. He is inviting them to see and to live into the truth of the Kingdom of God. Parables aren’t just a more flowery way of saying something that can be said more directly in a series of statements. That is why I’m not going to try to take the parable and unpack it for you – that isn’t how parables work. Instead, I invite you to notice what happens and sit with it, so that the story can open for you, a little piece of dynamite that can blow open a new way of being in the world.

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honour. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, “Give your place to this man,” and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place. Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, “My friend, move up to a higher position.” Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.” (Luke 14:8-10)

It is the Sabbath so Jesus, the host and the guests are all just back from the synagogue where they have recited some psalms, listened to scripture and reflected upon it. In all likelihood they had chanted words similar to today’s psalm. Perhaps, like us, they had affirmed that God makes a home for the poor. After all, one cannot go far in the Old Testament without coming face to face with God’s preferential option for the poor and with the observation that God exalts the humble and humbles the proud. Jesus invites his host to consider what that looks like in the here and now. God has modelled for us true hospitality. If we have some inkling of what it means to be invited to the celebration in the heavenly Jerusalem, with the angels and the saints and above all with Jesus, and to be made genuinely, fully welcome there in such august company, then our own practice of hospitality will open out into the spiritual practice of extravagant welcome.

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Lord, will only a few be saved?

Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 21 August 2016 (Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Isaiah 66:18-21; Psalm 117; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30.Find the readings here

One of the people following Jesus on his way to Jerusalem asks him: “Will only a few people be saved?” Jesus’ reply is hardly reassuring. He talks about a narrow door that even those why try might not be able to enter. Whatever happened to the gracious offer of salvation to all who call on the name of the Lord?! The questioner seems to be concerned with insider / outsider divisions. Are we a small elite group, or is the circle drawn wider? Jesus doesn’t answer in those terms. Instead, he exhorts his hearers to commit to the hard work that following him involves. It isn’t about being ‘in’ or ‘out’ with God or about getting one’s ticket sorted for heaven. We are called to live Kingdom lives, to enter already into the new life that Jesus brings, to experience the salvation of being radically transformed as individuals and as community. Jesus is all too aware that very few, even of those who claim to know and follow him, are actually committed to making that journey with him.

What do we mean when we call ourselves “Christian”? Are we really following Jesus? Jesus warns against assuming too easily that we know him. So much of what is done today in the name of Jesus is an absolute contradiction of God’s Good News in Jesus Christ. Jesus cannot be domesticated or made to follow our agendas. Invoking his name for projects that do not reflect the Kingdom values that he lived and taught is blasphemy. I know that I am not sounding very gracious. But the stakes are high. I am utterly convinced that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. It is very serious, then, when those who ‘claim’ Jesus are actually obscuring and distorting that Way, Truth and Life and making it difficult for people to recognise the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of how seriously a good father takes the training of his children. If the Church is the sacrament of Christ in the world, in other words, a sign and a source of encounter with the Risen Christ, then surely it matters to God what the Church communicates and models to the rest of the world. We need to take very seriously our calling to live lives that are rooted in and reflective of Jesus Christ.

To go back to the original question that is posed to Jesus, will only a few be saved? Jesus returns to a picture that would be very familiar to his hearers, of the glorious messianic banquet at the end of the age, where God’s People would sit down to eat with all the saints who had gone before them. Some purists thought that only a small, holy remnant of the People of God would be included in that eschatological feast, others were more generous and believed that most or all of Israel would be there. Jesus, echoing the prophets, challenges this exclusivist vision in its narrow or broader form, and says that there will be people from all corners of the world flocking to the banquet. This is an upside-down Kingdom, where the first are last, and the last first. Jesus isn’t saying that it is only the few elite who manage to enter the narrow door who will enter the Kingdom.  The race isn’t for the strong, but for those of us with drooping hands and weak knees, who listen to Jesus and who take the next wobbly step on the journey.

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Fire on the Earth

Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 14 August 2016 (Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Psalm 40:2-4, 18; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53 Find the readings here.

In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of fire on the earth, a distressing baptism, and causing divisions within families. It doesn’t sound like Good News! That is a difficulty that those who speak for God have had over the centuries – truth is often disruptive and met with huge resistance. Unfortunately, those who preach peace and prosperity are more often than not false prophets. Jeremiah, the prophet in our first reading says as much elsewhere (Jer 28:8-9). A message that all is well and all will be well addressed to the comfortable in an unjust society is a voice in support of a status quo that violates the values of God’s kingdom. It is a lie.The prophet Jeremiah during a time of great national crisis did not give the encouraging message that those in power wanted to hear. He warned that things were even worse than they thought. That led to the accusation: “The fellow does not have the welfare of this people at heart so much as their ruin.” Jeremiah ended up waist-deep in mud in a deep, dark cistern where he was left to die. Jesus knew that his own journey would entail great difficulty. He anticipates with distress a ‘baptism’ (literally ‘immersion’), an experience which would engulf him in suffering. Those who follow him faithfully should be prepared for the same.

But how can the way of God’s messiah, the prophet of love and inclusion, bring division, especially in families? Jesus’ followers are not to set out to create discord, but they are to be prepared for the likelihood of opposition even from those closest to them. This opposition is a lived reality for many Christians throughout the world today, as it was in the Early Church. Families can be a place of love and nurturing and growth – that is what they should be. But that ideal is not always realised. It is often those nearest and dearest to us who will vehemently oppose a change in us, especially one that radically alters our values and our life commitments. This picture of opposition within the family, the basic building block of society, points to the way in which the coming of the Kingdom of God overturns the status quo. Jesus’ life and mission issue a fundamental challenge to the way in which the world does things

Jesus’ ‘baptism’, which culminates in his death by crucifixion, was the absorption of great violence – the violence of the political and religious systems that were challenged by Jesus’ radical gospel. Where the Gospel is authentically preached, unjust systems will be challenged and react. These disturbing readings confront us again with an uncomfortable aspect of the Christian message. We are called to love not to hate, but that love can call forth a very violent reaction.

We, like Jesus, are called to keep running steadily the race we started, to fix our eyes on Jesus and not to lose heart. We are an Easter people, and so we know that death and destruction do not have the last word. Crucifixion is followed by resurrection. Jeremiah was pulled out of the cistern and placed back on solid ground. The psalmist too. The fire that Jesus brings upon the earth is ultimately a purifying, energising fire. Love will triumph. In the words of Teilhard de Chardin:

“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

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