31st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, Ford Madox Brown, Tate Britain, London, UK

Sunday 5 November 2017

The greatest among you must be your servant.  Matthew 23:11,

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/110517.cfm

It should come as no surprise that the leaders of the Jewish community a the time of Jesus were radically opposed to him. Look at what he says about them in today’s gospel:

For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’

In other words, to use St. Paul’s expression from another Scripture passage, they were clanging gongs, empty of anything which could be called love. In fact, Jesus says God expects the exact opposite from us. We have to serve others, not lay burdens on them. We have to love God, then our neighbor, and only then ourselves. Jesus seems to be saying the leaders put themselves above all others, all the time.  And that is not God’s way.

The idea of “servant leadership” is very old, found in ancient Chinese writings, and other old references. It resurfaced in the 1970s and has become a business school leadership model. Indeed, when I was a high school principal, it was my guiding formula as far as I could embody it: As principal as I saw it, my job was to serve teachers (and sometimes the students themselves) and enable them to become even better teachers as they served their students who were learning how to become servants in the sense of using their God-given gifts, now developing into skills, ultimately to serve the community. Jesus took this to the extreme to prove his point, seen especially in the washing of the feet during the Last Supper. In terms of business models, it is in contrast to the pyramid model, with the leader at the top, dominating those below. Servant leadership is more like a circle, with the servant leader in the center. In business school parlance, then, the servant leader is participative as opposed to authoritarian or laissez-faire.

So therefore this can be applied to any human activity. Husbands serve their wives as wives serve their husbands, a mutual obligation, Parents serve their children, guiding them to become responsible and loving members of the human community. Train drivers serve their passengers; supermarket check-out clerks serve their customers in the best possible way; doctors serve their patients helping them to return to full health, and so on. It can be applied to any circumstance. As Wikipedia states concerning servant leadership:

The exemplary treatment of employees [by their employers or superiors] leads to an excellent treatment of customers by employees of the company and a high loyalty of the customers.

Many years ago I was helping out – serving – in a parish in Manchester in England. I was asked to take communion to an old lady who was housebound. Her daughter and son-in-law were taking care of her. When I entered their house, I was immediately aware of a house of love and care. The old lady was obviously well served, her hair was immaculate, and so on. After our little service was over, she asked me if there was anyone she would like me to pray for. Well who doesn’t have such a list? I gave her some names, and left. She, bedridden and helpless, and in the eyes of a cold money-obsessed society, nothing but a burden to society, was still an active servant, doing what she could for everyone, in this case, praying for others. Her children were active servants, taking wonderful care of her. It was a house filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

Now if you turn all those examples on their head, and have people out simply for themselves, then you have the situation Jesus was railing on against in today’s gospel, a horrible panorama of  individuals seeking nothing for others and everything for themselves. That is not how it is supposed to be, and it is certainly not the route to human happiness and satisfaction. When I was a teacher, I would give an assignment to my junior girls each year. They were asked to interview their parents and their parents’ friends to discover if they were happy in their work, and if so, why. Every year without fail they would report back that in almost every case, people who were happy were so because they considered themselves as helping other people no matter what field they worked in. Jesus is calling us to this model of Christian living today should we not have discovered it yet. And always remember: we are never alone in trying to carry out God’s will for us; Jesus is always there to help, encourage and strengthen us to do God’s will.

Pope Francis Washes Refugees’ Feet, Catholic Herald, 24 March 2016

 

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30th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Holy Trinity, attribution unknown via superpower wiki.

Sunday 29 October 2017

You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.    Matthew 22:37.

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/102917.cfm

When God first entered human history, recorded in the 12th chapter of Genesis, the little voice that Abram/Abraham heard was utterly unknown. It was amazing that the old man and his old wife obeyed this still small voice, uprooted everything and moved to a new land, as instructed by the unknown presence, but they did. True, the promises made by the voice were tempting (descendants for this childless couple, and land), but even then, their response was dramatic. With this, the whole of salvation history began to unfurl. But interestingly, as the voice began to reveal the attributes of the Godhead, love was not mentioned very strongly. Indeed, the first quality God chose to reveal was power. Abram’s wife, Sarai/Sarah, was very old and had been barren all her life, yet God announced she would deliver a healthy baby boy, and she did. God’s Power (and also Trustworthiness, having promised descendants). The ancient peoples of their time were infatuated by the powers of their gods and goddesses. They were completely at the mercy of the elements at that time, and their only recourse was to entreat their deities to help them. In Canaan at that time that involved child sacrifice (if you wanted something really badly, the price was commensurately high; the gods had been stereotyped as merchants!). That might explain why Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac, his only son by marriage, when God demanded it: it was culturally acceptable). Over the centuries, God revealed a host of divine qualities, among them, Power, Mercy, Forgiveness, Listening, Loyalty, Love of Freedom and an Openness to Relationship. It took the arrival of Jesus to pull all this divine self-revelation into one over-arching statement, today’s gospel.

Had God began by stating love was the supreme divine quality, nothing would have followed. The ancients were not ready for such a manifestation; it would have been laughed out of court and the rest would have been silence. What had love to do with anything? So God moved step by small step towards the full statement of who God is. It was ultimately summed up by St. John in his first letter: God is love (1 John 4:8). God loved each one of us into existence. God loves each one of us even more strongly than devoted parents. We are each the apple of God’s eye! Think about it.

Looking at those divine qualities listed above, aren’t they the attributes of love? Take a typical couple in love with each other. Each has the power to make the other’s live a misery or a splendor. Doesn’t one do all in his/her power to make the other’s life beautiful? Mercy is an attribute of love, compassion on someone who does not deserve it. When one partner has failed in some way, the other gives him/her the benefit of the doubt, the quality of mercy. Indeed, each will forgive the other when necessary, rather than let something fester into disastrous consequences. Each listens to the other carefully, each trying to understand and accept the concerns and thoughts and hopes of the other. No matter what, each protects the other, is utterly loyal to the other and will not jeopardize the relationship by doing something stupid. Yet even so, each is not possessive of the other and each allows the other freedom to fulfill him/herself, and rejoices in it. And ultimately, all this will deepen their relationship, deepen their love of each other. All that also describes God’s love for each of us. As we grow in each of those qualities, so does God’s love of us, and our love of God who makes it all possible. As it is said, to love another person is to see the face of God… (Victor Hugo, Les Miserables).

So we can see that love is completely other; all we have and are for the other, for God seen in the other, or directly seen in God. Hence Jesus’ second commandment follows naturally, love of neighbor and self. We are all children of God, all created by God’s hand, and therefore equally deserving of love. Therefore we are here to serve others, as Jesus served us. And to do that effectively and well, we have to take care of ourselves, not focussing on our own glorification, but on how best to help our neighbor with whatever gifts God has given us. In that way God will look on us and be pleased, for each of us will be Christ to the world, the challenge and the calling each of us have.

© www.my-daily-flag.org

 

29th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

The “Tribute Penny”, the denarius of Emperor Tiberius, c.33CE.

Sunday 22 October 2017

“…repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.”        Matthew 22:21

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/102217.cfm

Today’s gospel has to be one of the most famous passages in Scripture. The Pharisees, the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus, were out to trip Jesus up by asking an apparently simple question: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?  Evidently the Roman law, in effect at that time in that place was clear – yes! But the Jewish law forbade any communication or contact with Gentiles, people outside God’s law, such as the Romans. Remember that Jewish men who were tax collectors for the Romans were excommunicated, in the same league as prostitutes.  Additionally, each coin had an image of the emperor, and images were forbidden in Jewish society in obedience to the first commandment. So it was a classical damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. If Jesus answered “no” he would have been denounced to the Roman authorities as seditious, undermining the state. If “yes” he would have been denounced as a blasphemer, even a traitor to God’s teachings, one who deserved to be stoned to death (Leviticus 24:16).

Let us step back a moment to consider the “tribute penny” that is considered to be the model for Jesus’ actual (and very clever) reply. The humble Roman penny was called a denarius. I grew up in Britain where pounds, shillings and pence were the legal tender of the land. The country has since gone over to a metric system. Typically, prices would be labelled something like £10 or 10/- or 10d, which is to say 10 pounds, 10 shillings (the / being an old-fashioned way of writing the letter s) or tenpence. The £ (letter L) symbol (still used) the /- and the d or D come from the Latin names of Roman coins: “libra”“solidus” and “denarius”. I mention this simply to point out the extent of the influence of the Roman Empire which has lasted for centuries even after it collapsed. Certainly at the time of Jesus, Roman influence was absolute.

But Jesus was on to their game, accusing them of testing him, knowing that there was no acceptable answer to the “simple” question. His way out was ingenious, calling for a basic Roman coin, the kind used in the collecting of taxes. There on it was the unflattering likeness of the current emperor, Tiberius (see above). That of course violated the Jewish prohibition on any likenesses (a prohibition also adopted by Islam centuries later). Even worse was the meaning of the two words DIVI AUG you can see on the coin. It states that Tiberius was the son of the “Divine Augustus”, his father, meaning that the Romans claimed Augustus was a god! That did not sit well with the Jewish community. But just like today we label our belongings in case they go astray, Jesus, ignoring the blasphemous text on the coin, demonstrated that if the coin is stamped with the emperor’s likeness, surely it is his? Then render unto caesar (the Roman title for the emperor, from which we get the words kaiser and tsar today) what is obviously his. Brilliant! But don’t forget to give to God what is God’s, namely our very life and all that we are.  In the nature of things, God is obviously the greater of the two, so our priorities have to be aligned accordingly. Jesus spoke of this on a separate occasion, reminding us that we cannot worship both of these, God and wealth, traditionally, Mammon. So even in the potentially treacherous event related in today’s gospel, Jesus turns the tables to remind all present that God is our first priority, and that should never be forgotten.

Cristo della Moneta, Titian, National Gallery, London, UK.

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28th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

The Wedding Feast, Tintoretto, Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, Italy.

Sunday 15 October 2017

The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who gave a wedding feast for his son.

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/101517.cfm

Now this painting is that of the other feast, at Cana, but it, too, was a wedding feast, and this is what the king surely imagined when preparing for his son’s wedding. Today’s grandest equivalent might be a state banquet at Buckingham Palace for a visiting head of state, in this case, the President of China:

Now this presents an obvious question: Why on earth did anyone refuse the invitation? Would you refuse a direct invitation to such an event at the home of the Queen of England? Hence the shock of Jesus’ parable, when all the guests did exactly that, refused to come for various unconvincing reasons.

Well, once more we have to look at the symbolism at work in the story. The king is God the Father and his son is clearly Jesus. Those invited were, presumably, the high and mighty of the kingdom, which is to say, the leaders of the Jewish community in the Holy Land at the time of Jesus. Yet their noble noses turned up at this invitation. Some responded with excuses, others with silence and others who, inexplicably, attacked the bearers of the invitations and killed them! And so, rather than let all these expensive preparations go to waste, the king opened up the feast to anyone willing to attend. One can imagine this was not difficult to achieve. But even a free invitation like that requires the invitees to prepare themselves. You don’t go to any wedding banquet looking like something dragged through the back door by your dog! Such a person would be simply ejected. This being a special banquet, my guess being the grand celebration at the end of time when we are all united eternally with God, those who rejected the invitation and those who turn up without any effort, are consigned to eternal night.

Scholars have got to work on this parable and relate it to an event in Jewish history some years after the crucifixion and Pentecost. The Jews revolted against the Roman authorities in 70CE. They were crushed by the Roman army, the Temple was destroyed and the city burned. There is even a commemoration of this event on the Arch of Titus to this day, showing the triumphant Roman soldiers returning with their plunder from Jerusalem. Especially prominent is the sacred golden Menorah from the Temple:

No doubt many people died during this disastrous effort to overthrow the Romans. It happened again in 136, again resulting in a total Roman victory. Not only that, but at that time, the Romans barred the Jews from even entering the city, which was renamed Aelia Capitolina. It is hard to reject the thought that the Christians of the day saw all this as a result of the Jewish rejection of Jesus and his entire ministry. Today’s parable does seem to reflect such an interpretation of these events.

However, Jesus’ parables are not simply historical “I told you so’s”. They always speak to us today, 2000 years away from those Jewish disasters. Well great banquets even today are by invitation only. Normally we respond to such an invitation with glee, as the anticipation is for a great meal and great company. Only this banquet is to inaugurate the eternal kingdom to which all God’s children aspire, and to which we are all invited. Only we have to be properly dressed which is to say prepared! This means, of course, a life of obedience to God’s will, obeying the golden command of love. And as this is the truest, deepest and purist love there is, it is the surest recipe for happiness in this life, as well as the next. If we disregard that and follow our own selfish desires, the parable is clear as to what will happen. We have been warned! After all, it does begin with the words “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to….”

Arch of Titus, Rome, Italy.

This is the model for all later triumphal arches in the western world.

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27th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

The Wicked Husbandmen, Jan Luyken, Bowyer Bible. 

Sunday 8 October 2017

Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking,
‘They will respect my son.’
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another,
‘This is the heir.
Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/100817.cfm

This direct, even bald, story must be taken as allegory. This means the gospel is expressing an abstract, or spiritual, message in concrete terms. So, for example, the workers in the vineyards are the spiritual leaders of the Hebrew community in Jesus’ day; the servants who are sent to them are God’s prophets, sent over the centuries. The owner is God. Clearly then, the son he sends is Jesus himself, only to be hauled outside the vineyard, to be killed, a reference to Jesus being pushed outside the city of Jerusalem and there crucified. Then Jesus talks of the cornerstone being rejected, referring once more to himself. Scholars believe the link between the two ideas, the rejection of both the son and the cornerstone lies in the similarity of the Hebrew words for son and stone; they are  almost identical. Hence, without the cornerstone the house will collapse, just as the death of the son in the parable will result in the destruction of the workers, perhaps a reference to the destruction  of Jerusalem in 70 CE, following a Jewish rebellion against the Roman occupiers. And, crucially, this parable in the gospel of Matthew is placed very close to the beginning of Jesus’ passion and death.

Which is all very interesting but what has this got to do with us 2000 years later? Is this a history lesson or a homily? Well, it can be transmogrified into something which might be closer to home. The gospels in the last few Sundays have talked about workers in the vineyard, all busily obeying God’s will. Mostly. In today’s story, however, there is a crucial change. The workers here are those who have betrayed their call to be teachers and spiritual leaders and instead are enriching themselves at others’ expense in whatever way they can. This explains their homicidal excitement at thinking that killing the son will result in their ownership of the vineyard itself. They fail absolutely to heed the call of God’s servants, and even God’s son, to render to God what is God’s, and to remember that all is God’s, not ours. and with whomever God wishes to share it. And here’s the point: does that apply to any one of us? Is life simply about getting as much for oneself as possible? Is everything I can get my hands on here and now for me to plunder, even legally? Do I have no concern whatever for the good of others. simply concentrating on enlarging my bank account? Have I ignored all the appeals of the Lord to serve God and my brothers and sisters? Have I killed the messenger/message of God’s love? That’s something which is timeless, applicable to any age and any person. So today we have a clarion call back to selflessness and a reminder of what life is all about. For without recognizing the cornerstone of our lives, the whole structure we are building to our own glory will come a-crumbling down and our plans for that day will come to nothing.

The Light of the Word, Holman-Hunt, Keble College, Oxford, England.

 

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26th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Crucifixion, Velasquez, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Sunday 1 October 2017

Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God…    Philippians 2:6

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/100117.cfm

Today’s second reading from the second chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi, a city which stood in northern Greece to the east of present-day Thessalonica, is perhaps the most beautiful passage of inspired writing in Scripture. It begins in the immeasurable majesty of God’s glory and transcendence, and focusses down to a humble servant who was crucified for no good reason save that of obeying God’s will, no matter where it might lead. Yet in him was pleased to dwell all of God’s power and love. Even though he asked God to spare him that bitter cup, he still followed God’s vocation for him. If he had not, and not declared himself Son of God and to be the promised Messiah, his entire mission would have foundered and been forgotten. Yet now, even in the utter degradation of the cross, God’s presence shone forth, even overcoming death itself.

But in today’s gospel we have a much more sinful, basic situation. One man saying to his father “no way am I going out into the vineyard to work today” and the other meekly saying “yes.” Yet the first changes his mind and obeys his father, and the other does not. Last week we had vineyard workers all willingly going to work at the request of the owner, even though those who worked least were rewarded with the same wage as those who had labored all day. There was no case of lying or falsehood there, only the astonishment of the laborers at the generosity of the owner. Today we get to the exceptions, the human failure to follow the will of the owner. Remember, in the structure of parables, the owner is always God, and the vineyard is the world in which we all labor and we are the laborers. Then comes the clincher. Jesus, addressing the spiritual leaders of the Jewish community, announced that the lowest of the low would enter the courts of heaven before them. They constantly announce to great acclaim that they follow God’s will, but do not, as opposed to prostitutes and tax collectors who, apparently denying God’s call to holiness, are, in fact, obeying God and entering heaven having at last heard and obeyed the call. (Jesus had only to point to Mary Magdalene and Matthew among his followers to demonstrate his point). But this was hardly the way to win his way into the good graces of Jerusalem’s elect!

So what is the point of all this? Do we have to pray for the equivalent of crucifixion to show we obey God’s call to holiness? Or what? To say that loses the point of the whole thing. Jesus is talking about what goes on inside each of us. Jesus addresses our inmost soul, our conscience, our very identity. Who, really, are we? Each of us is called in exactly the same way – to go into God’s vineyard,  each one of us with our own unique set of gifts of God to be transformed into skills to be used to serve others, and hence obey God’s will. Sometimes doing that leads to embarrassing moments, sometimes difficult moments, sometimes, for the exceptional few, risking our very lives in obedience to God. Or do we just say we do that, even to ourselves, yet do not? That is the crunch and that’s the point when we have to deal with ourselves brutally. Do we obey God as God’s dutiful daughters and sons, or do we do exactly what we want to do and to hell with God? Ay, there’s the rub.

It is easy to understand Jesus’ frustration with the priests and elders of Jerusalem, many of whom apparently strutted around looking down their noses at the lesser breeds, when they should have been doing the opposite and helping them as best they could, given their power, education and wealth. Probably there were exceptions to this, such as Joseph of Arimathea, but there were enough, it seems, to provoke the Lord into extreme condemnations of their lifestyle. What would – does – he say about the lifestyle of each of us? Would he say the same thing about us as he did the priests and leaders? Well, only each of us can answer that, but let us make sure we answer willingly and truthfully that, with God’s help, we do work our best to obey the divine will, each and every one of us, that we love God, neighbor and self (in that order) to the best of our ability.

Workers in the Vineyard, Codex Aureus Eptemacensis, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany.

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25th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Rembrandt, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Sunday 24 September 2017

Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?’
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.                            Matthew 20:15-16

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/092417.cfm

Today’s gospel is a rather long parable with what seem to be repetitions. However, these are not repetitions but structure, and time is structure on which it is built: …went out at dawn…. going out about nine o’clock… went out again around noon and so on throughout the day. Time occupies a rather special place in Jesus’ parables. Generally speaking, time parallels human life, young at dawn and increasingly older as the hours go by. Consequently, those workers called at five o’clock can be considered the oldest of the workers called by the landowner. The payment at the end of the day, of course, is the reward for the work done in God’s vineyard, our reward (or not) at death for what we have done with our life. Following on that, there is also symbolism: the landowner is God, the vineyard is God’s view of the world, the world within which we should be applying our talents, our skills. We are the workers, but we are also those standing around in idleness. Those not working in the vineyard are consequently not doing the work God has intended for them. In this parable, all the idle people standing around respond to God’s call. There is no mention of those who refused the call, because that is not the point of this parable.

The point is interesting, even challenging. Those called last, those older people who have spend all the day (that is, all their lives) in spiritual idleness (that is, in not working in the vineyard), receive the identical reward as those who have worked there since the beginning of the day – since their youth, in other words. Despite their reaction, that they should be rewarded more because of that, the landowner reminds them that they were perfectly aware of the wage offered at the beginning of the day, and that they accepted that. If the landowner is generous enough to offer the same wage to everyone, why should they complain about what he does with his money? Do you recall the repentant thief crucified alongside Jesus? He was forgiven by the Lord in the last hours of his life and promised paradise, for Jesus could see straight into his heart and knew the depth of his sorrow and remorse. Hence there are no grounds for saying that God would never forgive any truly repentant individual for sins committed.

And so it is. Anyone who responds to God’s call, no matter how old they might be, no matter what it is they may have done with their “idle” life before the call, they are accepted by God as equal to those who have spent their entire life trying to do God’s will for them, working in the vineyard, to use the parable’s symbolism. In fact, to use Jesus’ symbolism from another time and place, they should be rejoicing that sinners have turned from their evil ways to join the ranks of God’s workers in the vineyard (Luke 15:7). There is another level to all this. The idle people are called to work in the vineyard. Although there is no mention of idleness in the vineyard, clearly the landowner expects a full effort to justify the payment at the end of the day. In other words, there can be no payment if no work has been done, and we know what happens to those people!

…there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. Luke 15:7

 

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24th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Jesus addresses his followers. Unknown provenance.

Sunday 17 September 20

Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive?
As many as seven times?”   
Matthew 18:21

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/091717.cfm

This teaching on forgiveness clearly follows on last Sunday’s profound teaching. It shows Peter as very human, clearly looking for a way out of the Lord’s most challenging command to forgive in any and all circumstances. He seems, possibly, to be asking when can he turn from forgiveness to revenge. Jesus, as was his wont, tells a story of forgiveness which is easy to understand on one level, and difficult on another. First, one clarification. The master in the story is owed “an enormous amount”. Well, a literal translation from the Greek is 10,000 talents. Jesus is being extremely dramatic here, which is missed in the translation. A talent was a measurement of precious metal, typically silver or gold. It varied in size through the centuries, but one description was that one talent was the equivalent of 20 years of an average wage. Another was that it was worth about 75lbs of precious metal. Still another that it was the equivalent of anything between $1,000 to $30,000. Remember, this is one talent! So it can be safely assumed that a debt of 10,000 talents was, basically, unrecoverable. The man in debt to such an amount would certainly be condemned to a life of slavery in a slight effort to pay the money back. Therefore the master’s forgiveness would have produced gasps of disbelief. How could anyone forgive such an enormous debt? But that is the point of Jesus’ story: he did forgive such a debt. It makes the second half of the story almost unbelievable.

Our reading says that the man who had been forgiven the enormous amount was owed “a much smaller amount“. A more literal translation from the Greek is 100 silver pieces or 100 pence. Now compare that amount with the other debt, and it helps us understand how upset the master’s followers were, not to mention the master. The result is devastating, and would seem to challenge the teaching of the Lord, to forgive and forgive. Not this time it might seem. The non-forgiver is cast, basically, into hell. No forgiveness there, but why?

Looking at this whole story, it is clear Jesus places great emphasis on forgiveness, making it a real signature of being a follower of the Lord. In other words, to be Christian, you must forgive. It is really an ultimate hallmark of Christianity. Forgiveness reveals a concern for the other, an acceptance that others are worthy of our respect and concern.  Deny that and you place yourself before all others, as the man did in the parable. He thought he was worth forgiving, but no-one else was. Hence he was banished into eternal suffering until the unpayable debt is repaid. This is an image of hell; my definition is rather different; hell is solitude resulting from a life of pure selfishness (see the entry for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time). Whatever the definition, it is quite clear that an unforgiving nature is incompatible with being Christian.

 

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23rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

 

HH Pope St. John Paul II meets with Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who tried to assassinate him in May 1981.

Sunday 10 September 2017

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.                                                            Matthew 18:15-16

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/091017.cfm

That little quote from today’s gospel sounds so simple: Go tell him his fault. But it isn’t, not at all. It is extremely difficult, but also extremely important that that is exactly what one should do. It is one of the standard therapies in dealing with an alcoholic who might well be destroying his/her family. Although it is very likely that the alcoholic will not accept the intervention, or confrontation, and make all sorts of excuses, the seed of recovery has been planted, and the first step on the long road back to a healthy life has been taken. But it is difficult. Despite the smiling face of the pope in the picture above, it could not have been easy for him.

Let us take another, even deeper, example, the murder in cold blood of five little schoolgirls in the one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania in October 2006. 32-year old Charles Roberts, a man with no criminal or known mental health issues at all, walked into the schoolhouse, opened fire and killed five girls and wounded 6 others. He later shot himself dead. What was remarkable was the response of the Amish community to this atrocity. They of course could not go to their brother (Roberts) and confront him. Instead, one grandfather of one of the girls that same day forgave the killer, stating that he now stood in front of a just God. Later that day, several Amish visited the shocked and grief-striken family of the murderer to comfort them. Later that same week the Roberts family was invited to the funeral of one of the girls. Finally the Amish outnumbered others at the funeral of Charles Roberts himself.

It is hard to imagine a deeper fund of utter forgiveness and love which the Amish exhibited amid the desolation that man had brought on them. Yet they did.

Jesus, in today’s gospel, says that even if all you try fails to convince the sinner of his sin, then you are to treat him as a Gentile or a tax collector (who, if Jewish, would have been shunned by the community for associating with the unclean Gentile Roman oppressors). Well that might sound pretty bad, but look at what Jesus himself did with tax collectors and Gentiles: he treated them with love and respect. Matthew, a tax collector and supposed author of this very gospel, was redeemed by Jesus himself. The Canaanite woman we heard about a few Sundays ago, a Gentile woman, was granted her request by Jesus. It seems that no-one was beyond Jesus’ love, even those we feel we should shun. Jesus never gave up on anyone. That’s the perfect model for us, whether we be in the midst of trying to redeem a self-denying alcoholic or someone who upset us with a thoughtless (or even if not)  but wounding word. Ultimately the Lord himself demonstrated the ultimate example for us from the cross itself: “Father, forgive them they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) addressing those who had tortured him and ultimately killed him. Forgiveness is a profoundly Christian virtue, crucially born of love, not revenge, but Jesus clearly expects us to do more even than that, and try to redeem the one who has to be forgiven. We have seen it can be done in the most awful, gut- wrenching situations.

Amish forgiveness, October 2006, Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, USA.

 

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