Fr. Scott Lewis is an associate professor of New Testament at Regis College, a founding member of the Toronto School of Theology.

He is a past president of the Canadian Catholic Biblical Association.

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Sept. 23 (Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; Psalm 54; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37)

 

Many have discovered to their dismay that leading a godly life is not always the path to popularity or success. Being godly does not mean that a person is perfect or a saint — it is simply expressing the presence of God’s divine principles in every aspect of daily life.

The passage from Wisdom is very interesting and on target psychologically. The sight of an exemplary individual can arouse a variety of reactions — hopefully, a desire to do likewise. Often, however, there is just the opposite reaction: a feeling of defensiveness, anger or shame at oneself, and an overwhelming desire to somehow remove the challenge to one’s image of self. Wisdom speaks of “the godless” — this doesn’t necessarily mean atheists, but those whose lives do not bear witness to God’s presence — even if they are believers.

This practical or virtual atheism is one of the biggest problems of our world. The godless in Wisdom’s example hope to bring down the righteous one through their insults and torture, showing that the righteousness was all talk. They can then continue comfortably and with a sense of relief in their usual way of life.
We can see examples of this in modern muckraking and character assassination of those who challenge the status quo by their manner of life, their habit of speaking and living the truth and their efforts to change the world for the better. Some have even paid with their lives. The real challenge is for those who walk in God’s ways.

The “godless” provoke the righteous ones in an attempt to make them forget God for the moment and respond in all too familiar human ways. This is the ultimate test: can people remain “godly” in the face of these challenges or will they react with anger, violence, unkindness, revenge or cowardice? The most effective weapon against persecution and adversity is patience, forgiveness, compassion and steadfast commitment to one’s path. These are the very things the world seeks to destroy.

The author of James knew this well. He recognized that mere religiosity means nothing if it is characterized by “envy and selfish ambition” as well as conflicts and disputes. Divine wisdom cannot be counterfeited — it is expressed in honesty, kindness, peacefulness, mercy and good actions, all of which are expressions of wisdom from above. If we are at war with ourselves we will be at war with those around us. Only by being at peace with ourselves and in harmony with God can we create peace in our midst.

Jesus was the perfect example of the righteous one who walks in God’s ways — and He was and still is a challenge to all human beings. In a sense, He revealed to us who we really are beneath the layers of world-created personality and what we are capable of becoming again. He challenged our ideas, our behaviour, our values and our understanding of God. Many responded with joyful eagerness, while others sought to bring Him down and destroy Him — and this continues in our own day.

Ironically, this fearful defensiveness and desire to make Jesus over into a “safe” and domesticated image is often at the hands of Christians. Jesus warned His followers of His violent end but they were absolutely clueless, as proven by their argument over who was the greatest. They hadn’t understood a word of what He had been teaching and the consequences of living it out. In a simple but graphic gesture Jesus demonstrated that He undermined and redefined human notions of honour and status — in effect, He recast human relationships. In a culture in which most social interactions were exercises in calculated gain or advancement, He demanded that people welcome children — those lacking honour, status or advantage — as if they were Jesus Himself. In other words, human relationships and interactions were to be based not on external appearances or the labels that people place on others but on the presence of God within every human person.

Whoever welcomes another — especially a “nobody” — welcomes both Jesus and God who sent Him. This new way of living has rarely been completely understood and appropriated by Christians and over the centuries has been routinely ignored or forgotten. Cultivating an awareness of the divine presence in others and acting accordingly not only transforms the individual but also the world around us.

To ‘be right with God,’ we must show it through our actions

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24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Sept. 16 (Isaiah 50:5-9; Psalm 116; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35)

What sort of person allows the sort of abuse experienced by the Suffering Servant of Isaiah? People would have various interpretations: he is paralysed by fear; he is a coward; he is a masochist; he is crazy; he is a victim. When we look at the text carefully, however, we see an individual who set his face like flint (think of Jesus in Luke 9:59) rather than a passive victim. He allowed the violence against him because he knew that it was due to what he taught and stood for. It is always important to separate ego from the will of God, especially when we claim to speak on God’s behalf. He was absolutely sure of himself — not in the manner of a fanatic or megalomaniac, but one who had experienced the God of Israel and knew that God stood behind him. He knew that he would be vindicated by events that would unfold in the very near future — the release of the exiles in Babylon and their return to Jerusalem.

The prosperity gospel — the dubious gift of TV evangelists — has a long history. Some form of it was probably evident in the community to which the Letter of James was addressed. This distorted theology focuses on “what God can do for me” and does not expend time and energy meeting the needs of others. There is another version of this theology — one that is only concerned with personal salvation. As long as I am “right with Jesus” and therefore saved then the needs of others are of merely peripheral interest. Added to this is the Christian tendency to valorize suffering for its own sake — “the cross” becomes an excuse for tolerating the presence of gross inequality and injustice. James took aim at all of these tendencies with his insistence that following Jesus — being right with God — means faith plus action. Faith, as well as love, is always expressed in deeds. It is not a matter of winning God’s favour or earning one’s salvation. Simply put, faith is not genuine and complete unless it finds concrete expression.

How do we arrive at the truth about anything? This question has occupied the minds of philosophers and theologians for millennia and there is no easy answer. It does seem, however, that the truth is not necessarily found in either the academy or the marketplace. Many people are content to echo uncritically whatever they hear from politicians, the media, authority figures, communal traditions or conventional wisdom. In so many of these cases this amounts to shared ignorance. On the way to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus conducted a little opinion poll. What are people saying about me? The obvious answers came thick and fast: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. There was no consensus except that Jesus was someone extraordinary. Peter had been uncharacteristically silent, but then he spoke up: “You are the Messiah (anointed one)!” He was not merely repeating what he had heard but had reflected on the deeds and words of Jesus and listened to the stirrings of the Spirit within him.

But acquiring a portion of the truth does not mean understanding it or that we have the bigger picture. Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Christ, but He quickly disabused the apostles of their misconceptions of the term. Sweeping aside traditional understandings of the Messiah, Jesus insisted that His role was to suffer, die and rise from the dead. The apostles were horrified and a shaken Peter tried to talk Him out of it, offering alternative scenarios and “reasonable” arguments. Jesus raised the bar even further: anyone who wanted to be His follower could and should expect the same. Not exactly an inviting “recruiting poster,” and yet so many over the ages have chosen to follow in His footsteps.

We are probably surprised at the way in which Jesus turned on Peter in fury, calling him “Satan” or adversary. Peter was tempting Jesus, not deliberately, but by his use of conventional human values, opinions and emotional reactions. Jesus probably felt the allure of those arguments and recognized them for what they were.

The will of God or God’s ways should not be confused or identified with human motivations or desires. Our claims to truth should always be tempered with humility and openness to deepening our understanding.

Be not afraid

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23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Sept. 9 (Isaiah 35:4-7; Psalm 146; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37)

Fear is probably the most destructive of all human emotions. When fear reigns, faith, hope and love are the first victims. Fear separates us from God, clouds our understanding and leads us into a riot of compensatory behaviours, most of them negative. The world in which we live today is in the grip of fear and we see the unhappy results all around us.

Time and time again in the Bible, heavenly messengers — angels, voices, prophets and Jesus Himself — exhorted human beings to put aside their fear. The messenger always reassured people of God’s continual presence and unfailing love. The passage from Isaiah was addressed to the people of Israel in the tumultuous and violent period of the sixth and seventh centuries BC. They were threatened and attacked by a succession of Assyrians and Babylonians, as well as surrounding nations like the Edomites who took advantage of the situation. Who can blame them for being afraid? It is very difficult to go on day after day with the threat of destruction continually present, and this destruction sometimes came to pass.

The rulers of Israel often dealt with the threat by resorting to international power politics and military alliances. The prophets exhorted Israel unceasingly to look upon God as their protector instead. If the nation was right with God all would be well. Being right with God meant more than what we would think of as religion — it included the application of God’s laws of justice, truth and honesty to society. The poor, weak and marginalized had to be protected and cared for. The nation had no cause to fear if this were the case — tragically, it often was not. The prophecy makes it clear that God is about life, healing, abundance and human flourishing — not punishment and destruction. Those things we bring on ourselves by poor choices and infidelity to the one who gave us life.

Before God there are no distinctions based on class, wealth, gender, ethnicity or religion. All are treated with the same compassion and care and Jesus made it clear that we are to do likewise. Because we are human this is often violated — people judge others based on appearance, influence and wealth. Christians have not been immune, for the wealthy and powerful have often wielded an excessive influence in the Church. James insists that this is not the Christian faith and we make a mockery of it when we behave in this manner. All of these signs of wealth and power can be stripped away in an instant — and often they are. In order for the Church to be an effective sign of contradiction in our world this example of equality and love without distinction must be recovered. We are who we are before God and nothing more.

The miracles performed by Jesus were always more than mere acts of compassion — they made a statement about God. There must have been many deaf and mute people in the land, so we might wonder why this man was singled out. Each miracle was a proclamation to all who witnessed the act that God’s reign had come very near. If that is the case, this miraculous healing was a bit out of the ordinary. Jesus took the man away from the others, in private, and the healing involved touching, saliva and an actual command to the afflicted part of the man. Consistent with Mark’s account, Jesus commanded the man to keep the whole matter under wraps (perhaps some reverse psychology!), which of course the man failed to do. Word quickly spread, and the astounded crowd was amazed at Jesus and the powers that He displayed, but His actions were also charged with meaning.

The prophetic tradition, especially Isaiah, portrayed the visitation of God as a time when the blind, deaf, mute and crippled would be restored by the compassionate mercy of God. The healing of this man, and so many others in the Gospel, were irrefutable signs that God had come very near indeed in the person of Jesus. God approaches an open and loving heart as well as an environment that reflects this, and when God visits wonderful things happen — new life, hope and joy. Preparing an opening for God is one of the most important things we can do to extend God’s Kingdom.

We are rewarded when our hearts are one with God

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22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Sept. 2 (Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; Psalm 15; James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

When asking the reason for a particular rule or policy, people seldom take well to the answer, “Because I say so, that’s why!” The irritation is understandable, for this is nothing more than authoritarianism — the bane of families, societies, religions and nations.

In the covenant theology of Deuteronomy divine command is certainly evident, but with a huge difference. First of all, the author celebrates the fact that the statutes, laws and ordinances are just and meaningful — so much so, in fact, that it elicits wonder and admiration from the surrounding nations. There is a reason for the laws: they establish and maintain humane and just societies where human beings can flourish and be happy. The Israelites were also free to reject the laws laid down by God. Force was not involved, but the laws were an essential expression of the covenant. The people were warned not to tinker with the commandments by adding or subtracting from its provisions. The first tendency burdens people unnecessarily and claims divine sanction for what is merely human, while the second strives to create a smooth and easy highway for human desires. Needless to say, human religious traditions — all of them — have been guilty of both tendencies.

How are we to understand law and covenant today? Both the prophets and the New Testament insist that all of the laws and statutes are concrete expressions of the love commandment. These expressions evolve and change according to time, place and culture but the prime commandment, to love God with all our heart, mind and soul and our neighbour as ourselves is always applicable and can never be set aside. When this divine command is violated or ignored, we suffer the consequences. The most important aspect of the covenant, however, is the relationship that is established between God and human beings. As a sign of loyalty and love, Israel vowed to obey the divine commandments. This same faithful love was expressed by God in the commitment to always be there for Israel in powerful and extraordinary ways. God always kept God’s part of the covenant, while Israel was often unfaithful. We have not done appreciably better — if we had, the world in which we live would be a much nicer place. A rich and rewarding relationship is only possible when our hearts are one with God.

The author of James energetically agrees. Talk is cheap; real love is always manifested in deeds. The word of God — the divine teaching — is not a creed to memorize but principles to be planted deep in our hearts and souls. True and pure religion is putting the divine teachings into practice, and this consists of caring for the poor, weak and suffering, as well as keeping oneself free of the negative aspects of human culture.

There is abundant evidence of evil, ungodliness and impurity in our world. We are all painfully aware of it and we constantly ask questions about causes, responsibilities and possible courses of action. Moralists, reformers, religious zealots and curmudgeons are quick with the answers but often lacking in compassion, reflection and insight. Stressing control and conformity in behaviour often neglects inner transformation.

Just as the kingdom of God is within us, so is the realm of darkness. Jesus zeroed in on the human heart as the source of all of the world’s negativity. Understood biblically, the heart is the deepest centre of the understanding self — a blend of intellect, feeling and spirit. Just, loving and kind behaviour is a reflection of a pure and loving heart. But when the heart is not right with God, it becomes the place where human fears, desires, hatred and lust for power dwell. Affecting a squeaky-clean moral exterior is useless in this latter case — the negativity will spill out in countless ways. If we want a pure and peaceful world then transformation must begin here.

The source of the word hypocrite used in this passage was the elaborate masks used in the Greek theatre. A hypocrite is one who wears a mask, deceiving self and others. Hypocrisy is living in a world of illusion and projecting one’s darkness on others. The solution is self-knowledge and transformation, which begins with humble reception of God’s word into the heart.

We are all called to serve

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21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Aug. 26 (Joshua 24:1-2, 15-17, 18; Psalm 34; Ephesians 4:32-5:2, 21-32; John 6:53, 60-69)

Bob Dylan’s song “Gotta Serve Somebody” would have made perfect sense in the context of Joshua’s meeting with the Israelites. They had weathered the 40 years in the desert and had just entered the Promised Land to begin their permanent sojourn. Joshua first called for a commitment on the part of the Israelites to serve the God who had brought them out of Egypt, sustained them in the desert and given them the land they were entering. He gave them a choice: serve one of the many pagan gods you will find here or the God who brought you here. Choose — and don’t say that you will serve the Lord unless you intend to do so.

The people declared enthusiastically that they would serve the Lord but their subsequent history bore sad witness to their infidelity and frequent lapses into idolatry. Joshua made no move to control them but just affirmed that he and his entire household would serve the Lord. He left them free to serve whomever they chose.

We all serve somebody, even if it is just our own ego. We make the choice every day when we are put in situations in which our principles and ideals are challenged. Many choose country, corporation, culture, different ideologies or charismatic leaders and demagogues. Some allow themselves to be led by anyone but even that is a choice. We are absolutely free but our lives will be measured in the balance by the choices we have made. We live in an age in which many have chosen to serve a variety of “gods” and many more no God at all. We should respect their choice and make the same resolution that Joshua did: I choose, along with others of like mind and heart, to serve the living God.

There is much to praise in the reading from Ephesians. The exhortation to love one another, to be tender-hearted and forgiving and to imitate God is every bit as important today, perhaps even more so. This is a way of life that never grows old and is valid in every time and place. It should be lived out in the family, at work, in the public sphere and in interpersonal relationships, and our failure to do so is responsible for much of the world’s troubles.

At the same time, the passage also reflects a bit of the cultural values of the age in which it was written. While it is important for husbands and wives to love and cherish each other, we would not hold up “subjection” as an appropriate expression of this love. Christ does not subject any person to another. We should only be subject to God.

As we have seen the last few Sundays, the teachings of Jesus concerning His body and blood were extremely difficult for many of His followers to accept. Jesus did not back down or waver, saying in effect that they hadn’t seen anything yet! He was actually going to return to His place of origin — God the Father. More shock language followed: the flesh is useless; only the spirit gives life. He was not denigrating the body or the created order but only insisting on the inability of humanity to reach or experience God without something added from the realm of the spirit.

The words spoken by Jesus are spirit and life — not the literal words but the message contained in them. These words spoke of the need for faith in Him and for reception of the gift of God’s life-giving spirit. Many of His followers chose to bail at this point — they were confused and angry. Jesus asked Peter and those closest to Him rather wearily if they were going to disappear too. Peter was a bit perplexed — he probably didn’t really understand everything that Jesus had said, but he was convinced that Jesus alone held the keys to a transcendent life with God. They knew that Jesus was the bearer of the light from God. Peter speaks for many in that he did not fully understand everything and had many questions.

It is in being faithful to the path and to the Lord that truth unfolds, hearts are transformed and minds enlightened.

Belief in Jesus is a way of life

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20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Aug. 19 (Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58)

The Bible has a master metaphor for describing the blessings of God, especially those blessings that focus on sustenance, transformation and inspiration: good food and fine wine. So much for asceticism! We can only wonder if the metaphor works in an age of fast-food or food of questionable nutritional value.

These symbols represented not only the fundamentals of life but also something that would immediately pique the interest of the listener. The seven pillars of Lady Wisdom are portrayed in terms of a lavish banquet but it has a very specific guest list: only those who are simple and willing to lay aside immaturity are invited.

Simplicity is openness and a lack of arrogance and cunning. The know-it-all, the cynic, the zealot or fanatic, the ideologue and those fearful of change or newness need not apply.

Wisdom urges the prospective guest to lay aside immaturity but it is amazing how many people have failed to do that. Brilliance or competence is not necessarily linked to maturity. Living and walking in the way of insight — wisdom — is the ability to be patient, just, balanced and compassionate in a variety of situations and to be able to apply spiritual principles to everyday life. In a sense, becoming aware of how much one does not know is the first step to attaining wisdom. As Socrates said, “I know one thing — that I know nothing!” Christianity needs to become less of a religion about getting to heaven and more a path of holy wisdom in this life. Lady Wisdom’s invitation still stands — she is the personification of a divinely inspired and guided life.

The author of Ephesians was well aware of this. His advice was simple: don’t waste your lives! Time goes by so quickly and time is infinitely precious. Once spent, or wasted, it cannot be replenished. He advised his readers to make the most of their time and not squander it on foolishness. Today we might add to that list compulsive overwork and addictive behaviour.

A life of wisdom includes spending ample time cultivating healthy human relationships and virtues as well as one’s relationship with God.

Jesus continued the tradition of Wisdom — indeed, the image of Wisdom virtually merges with the portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus offered food and drink, beginning innocuously enough with the image of bread. The image abruptly changed into something jarring and shocking — flesh and blood. We are so used to them that the shock value has worn off, but the words sounded outrageous to His listeners. They were intended to be so — it was John’s habit to use language to separate those who were spiritually astute from those who were clueless. John’s images are meant to be interpreted on a deeper spiritual level rather than a literal and superficial one.

Contrasting that which is temporary and limited with the gift of God that is eternal, Jesus offered His own divine being to all who were willing to receive it. When we eat food we assimilate it and it becomes part of who and what we are. In a similar way, Jesus must be taken in as food and assimilated, He must become part of our very physical, psychological and spiritual makeup. This can come to us through many paths: the Eucharist, prayer, meditation, spiritual study, good works and in what we say, think and do. John is quite clear throughout the Gospel: faith in Jesus is not a mere religion but a total way of life — Jesus must be taken into us with the same urgency and regularity as food, drink and breath.

Just as filling ourselves with questionable food and drink damages our health and can lead to death, so it is with many of the things we use to give us a sense of strength, security and meaning. Nothing less than the sustaining power of Jesus Christ will provide what we seek and need.

Faith brings life-giving spirit

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19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Aug. 12 (1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51)

Everyone has their limit or breaking point, and Elijah had clearly reached his. Elijah had been fleeing from the assassins sent by Ahab and Jezebel and he was convinced that his days were numbered. He was worn out, disheartened and defeated. He just wanted to end it all so he prayed for death.

Many people can probably empathize with Elijah — perhaps they have been there, maybe even more than once. Like most people, Elijah was not fully aware of just how much careful and provident care God was continually exercising on his behalf. He was never alone or without resources and neither are we. The angels provided him with food and drink sufficient for “40 days and 40 nights” — a symbolic rather than a literal number — and the remainder of his journey to the mountain of God. In this case the food and drink was literal but in many cases it consists of the strength, courage and grace to go on. As long as we rely solely on our own powers and efforts we will eventually begin to wear out. The psalm encourages us to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” something we are often reluctant to do. This is more than offering a few perfunctory prayers. It means admitting our own limits and surrendering to the higher power that is God. The tremendous grace that is offered by God can be blocked by our own stubborn efforts to remain in control and make everything happen by our own plans and efforts. God is our sustainer in more than the metaphorical or symbolic sense. God is the power that makes all things possible.

People give the Holy Spirit ample reasons to be grieved. We have been given so much and are offered even more. God’s spirit is poured into our hearts and God shares the divine life with us. And yet the gift is spurned and treated with contempt by everyday human behaviour.

Sharing in God’s life and being a temple of the Spirit requires that we imitate God. The New Testament is very clear on what divine qualities are called for: kindness, forgiveness, gentleness and compassion.

When we display malice, wrath, slander, cruelty and bitterness God is not the one whom we are imitating. The Spirit is shut out of our hearts and we become a temple only for our negative attitudes and emotions. When we fall prey to this tendency we are not walking in the ways of God regardless of how religious or pious we might consider ourselves to be. Holiness does not consist of lip service but in the continual way we respond to the needs and the challenges represented by the world and the people around us.

Imitating God is tricky business but exhilarating and transforming at the same time.

The people listening to Jesus were shocked and scandalized. How can Jesus have come down from heaven? The crowd understood the words and the symbols that Jesus used in the most literal and superficial way. This very common human weakness is evident in many of the stories in John’s Gospel. Most people did not comprehend the deeper message hidden in the words. Jesus was speaking of His divine origin and the fact that He had become flesh for the sake of humanity. Jesus went on to insist that anyone who had really been listening to God with an open mind and heart would come to faith rather than finding fault and raising objections.

Faith is a mysterious process and is not something we figure out or put together for ourselves. God is the one who draws us but it remains for us to respond and follow. Jesus pointed out that the manna in the desert was temporary.

The life that it gave was physical and short; the people who ate it eventually met ordinary human death. In His self-revelation as the living bread from heaven, Jesus identified Himself as the divine sustainer. This time the sustenance is on a much higher level, for the life that it will provide is eternal. It was through the sacrifice of His own flesh on the cross that Jesus was able to become the life-giving force for all.  This life-giving spirit is offered to us through faith.

God can be and should be trusted

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18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Aug. 5 (Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15, 31; Psalm 78; Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; John 6:24-35)

Moses had a revolt on his hands. The excitement and wonder of the exodus from Egypt had already worn off. Now boredom, hunger and fear had taken hold of the people. The anguish, tears and suffering of bondage in Egypt were quickly forgotten. The only thing that they remembered was that the food had been plentiful (and the memory may have been very selective) — so why not go back into Egypt? It wasn’t that bad!

People usually disparage their present circumstances and romanticize the past or an imagined future. This was a massive failure in trust on the part of the people. God had brought them out of bondage with great signs and wonders but that was past. What about now? God came through again — this time with quail for meat and manna “from heaven.” The manna was most likely the secretion of two kinds of insects that feed on the sap of the tamarisk plant and it is rich in both sugar and pectin. That does not diminish the presence of divine care — often miracles are natural occurrences that are given precisely in the right moment and place.

The instructions that accompany the miracle (omitted) are interesting — the people were expressly forbidden to gather an abundance of manna or to hoard. This was to be an exercise in trust rather than greed or fear. God would provide just enough — not too much or too little — and the people were to be content and at peace with that. If we would learn to live by this principle the needs of all people would be met. Some of the crowd refused to heed the instructions and the hoarded manna turned putrid before their eyes, a metaphor for what happens when greed and selfishness take hold of us. The consistent lesson of the desert experience was that God could be trusted and should be. The people were not to walk in fear or succumb to negativity and anger.

The author of Ephesians had the same message in a different vein. Being a follower of Jesus does not mean business as usual and is not merely adopting a religion. It involves a “total makeover,” a shedding of all that is so typically human and yet not genuinely human: selfishness, lust, greed and negative thought patterns. Many secular ideologies have striven to create a “new man” but this is usually in pursuit of some political or economic goal. The renewal that we obtain through the spirit of Christ is a cleansing and restoration of the original spiritual image of God in which we were created. Often the only way that we begin to shed the old person is when we face challenges and struggles like the Israelites in the desert.

The crowd that witnessed the miraculous feeding was in need of a bit of renewal. Their pursuit of Jesus was not a faith quest but a desire for more signs and wonders, and maybe a bit more of the free food. They asked the age-old question: what must we do to perform the works of God? What does God want and expect from us? The reply of Jesus was disarmingly simple: just this: believe in Him whom He has sent, referring of course to Himself. Is that all? Faith in Jesus, however, is not a free pass or an occasional venture. It is nothing less than a complete surrender of all of oneself to Jesus and willingness to embark on a whole new way of life. The people demanded a sign from Jesus before making any faith commitments, and they had one in mind. Their ancestors were fed with manna in the desert — can Jesus top this? Jesus corrected their understanding: God, not Moses, was the one who fed them. Manna and other forms of earthly sustenance are fleeting and limited. It is only heavenly food that sustains without end or limit and God is prepared to grant this.

Showing the literal understanding typical of ordinary people in John’s Gospel, they were eager to have this food. Jesus then delivered the shocker: He Himself is this heavenly bread, as well as the source of living water. Only He can grant us nourishment without end, eternal life in God’s presence.

All is possible with faith

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17th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B) July 29 (2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15)

Many people are struck by the uncanny resonances between passages in the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, some stories from the Old Testament almost seem to be cut and pasted into the New, albeit with some significant alterations. This is not coincidence but the result of two very important ancient practices.

The first was midrash — Jewish biblical exegesis — that often took the form of retelling a story in new ways in order to respond to contemporary needs and issues. Each retelling brought out deeper and more subtle aspects of biblical truth and did not eliminate or render obsolete earlier versions. There are large bodies of midrashic literature devoted to the prophets and holy people of the Old Testament.

The Lord is the shepherd who will not disappoint

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16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) July 22 (Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34)

“The Lord is my shepherd” — how often we have heard the opening line of Psalm 23 but perhaps we are not aware of its full import. It is a declaration of independence from the disappointments and betrayals of human beings.

Jeremiah, like his fellow-prophet Ezekiel, did not have good words for the shepherds of Israel. They did not do their job. They were corrupt, greedy and self-serving. They were mostly to blame for the disaster that Jeremiah saw looming on the horizon — the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in the early sixth century BC. Speaking in the first person on behalf of God, Jeremiah expressed God’s disgust and disappointment at the poor performance of Israel. God resolved to take personal control of the situation — to gather the scattered children of God together and provide them protection. New shepherds would be found who would fulfill their responsibilities. Looking to the distant future, a leader from David’s lineage would be selected, partly because of this lineage but mostly because of his God-centred righteousness.

The Lord’s plan for mankind is all about blessing, reconciliation

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15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) July 15 (Amos 7:12-15; Psalm 85; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:7-13)

The prophet Amos was not welcome at court or near any of the centres of power in his nation. The priest at Bethel was emphatic: he was to hit the road and get out of town. The sanctuary was a centre of royal power and the warnings that Amos had been delivering were unsettling and irritating.

The priest seemed to assume that Amos was in it for the money and if that were the case, there were richer fields to harvest in the land of Judah to the south. Amos hastened to set him straight by denying that he was a professional prophet — it didn’t even run in the family. He was a simple man — a herdsman and a tree-trimmer and he had been quite content with that. He had not sought or cultivated his calling. It was from God so Amos had very little to say about it. He had no ego investment in the outcome of his mission and no personal attachments whatsoever. He was free to speak the truth that God put in his mind and heart.

Power, privilege, exemptions and wealth are the poisons that often corrupt the purity and integrity of religions. To be stripped of everything except the grace and power of God can be both liberating and purifying.

God’s plan for humanity and the world has been unfolding since the very beginning of time. God has one plan; humans have another. They are seldom in harmony. God’s plan is all about blessing and reconciliation rather than judgment and punishment. We were chosen before the foundation of the world to be in God’s presence and to share in the riches that God intends for us. In fact, God intends to reconcile all creation and all of humanity in Christ — an end to all division and fragmentation. Those called to follow Jesus share in this mission of healing and reconciling the world. As in the case of Amos, it is not something that we dreamed up ourselves and it is not for selfish gain. Alone we are unable to accomplish the task but with God all things are possible.

Jesus ordered the Twelve to be “lean and mean” in the performance of their mission. They were to take no money, food, luggage or even a change of clothes. How many of us would be willing and able to go on a trip under such conditions? Urgency was the issue — Jesus did not want them to be hindered by anything, for the time was short. Generals and leaders who will not act until they have complete control of every last detail are often judged failures by history. They are overtaken by events and by those bolder and swifter than they are.

The Twelve in one sense took nothing with them but in another sense they had everything. They were given authority over the negative forces at work in the world and the Spirit of God worked through them. Jesus wanted them to alert people to the coming of God’s reign so that they could prepare their minds and hearts to receive it. The repentance they preached meant a change of mind and heart — a new way of looking at things. The healings and exorcisms were not merely acts of compassion but signs of God’s imminence.

The erosion of direct Christian influence in the world today might not be a bad thing. We can be too fearful and protective of the institution and its prerogatives. Christianity can and often is embedded too deeply in society, culture and economic systems. This renders it unable to raise a credible prophetic voice. Being stripped of these hindrances can be a gift from God. Perhaps we will rediscover our soul and learn to rely on the power and spirit of God rather than the many dubious forms of security and support that humanity and the world offer us.