In today’s Gospel Jesus calls his first disciples – two pairs of brothers, Simon and Andrew, James and John. What did they see in Jesus, that prompted them to follow him? Mark’s Gospel tells us nothing of what the disciples thought or felt. Jesus’ message was a stark and simple one: “Repent, and believe the Good News.” Somehow, this was enough for the four to decide that they would follow him. They left behind their homes and families, and their occupation as fishermen, to become disciples of a wandering rabbi. Jesus was calling them to witness: “I will make you fishers of men.” The disciples would spend the rest of their lives witnessing to the Good News that they had heard from Jesus. They gave their lives to him. Jesus calls each one of us by name, to follow him and to witness to the Good News. What is he asking of us today?
The readings for today’s Mass present us with two stories of a call from God. Samuel was a young boy dedicated to God by his mother, from the day of his birth. While Samuel was living with Eli the priest, and serving him, God called him to become a prophet who would speak God’s words to the people. Andrew, Simon Peter and another unnamed follower of John the Baptist became disciples of Jesus after meeting him. In each case, the call from God is unique and personal. In each case, a guide has a part to play in helping the disciple to respond to God’s call. Eli prepares Samuel to listen to the Lord’s words; John the Baptist points out Jesus to his disciples as the Lamb of God. The guide does his part, and then steps aside to allow God to work. In each case, the disciple has to have a listening ear and an open heart, to recognise God’s call and respond generously. Jesus asks us to come to him without our own agenda – to come to him, listening and receptive, ready to give our whole lives in answer to his call. And he promises us that, if we ‘come and see,’ we will hear the truth, and encounter a love and a joy we would never have known.
On the twelfth day of Christmas, we remember the wise men who came from the East to find the baby Jesus. They are magi – perhaps astronomers, astrologers or magicians. Their study of the stars has led them to seek out the infant King of the Jews. The chief priests and scribes of Israel are experts in the Scriptures, but their knowledge of the prophets doesn’t lead them to recognise the coming of the Christ, and they will oppose Jesus throughout his life. Herod, blinded by worldly ambition, sees the newborn King only as a threat to his own position. The wise men, in contrast, are pagans from a distant country, but they have recognised the sign, given by God, of the Saviour’s birth. When they find Jesus with Mary, they know that they have reached their goal. Jesus is the Saviour for all the nations. The wise men kneel down to worship him, and the revelation of God’s salvation to the whole world has begun. As we begin a new year, the feast of the Epiphany prompts us to ask what goals we are pursuing. Are our eyes, our hearts and our minds open to the signs that God is showing us, and are we ready to meet Christ and worship him?
The shepherds lived in the fields with their sheep, in the countryside outside the town of Bethlehem. Every night, they would be there, keeping watch over their flocks in the pitch darkness. The nights would be long and cold, no doubt boring, sometimes fearful, if thieves or wolves threatened the sheep. So imagine the shepherds’ terror on this night, when without warning, the angel messenger of God appears to them, and the glory of the Lord shines around them.
But the angel is bringing joyful news – news of salvation and peace. The shepherds set out through the dark night, and they find the baby Jesus in the manger at Bethlehem – a light of hope, shining out in the darkness. On Christmas morning, John’s Gospel tells us that Christ is the true light that enlightens all people, a light that darkness cannot overpower.
At the darkest and coldest time of the year, we celebrate the coming of the Son of God into our world, bringing the promise of salvation. In the darkness of our world – the darkness of injustice and conflict, suffering and sin – the newborn Christ shines a light of hope. God sends his Son to bring light to the people who are walking in darkness, and God’s gift challenges us to be a light to others.
In today’s Gospel, the focus is again on John the Baptist. And yet, John does not seek glory for himself. Asked who he is by the messengers from Jerusalem, John’s first response is, “I am not the Christ.” John knows that he has been sent by God to prepare the way for the Christ who is to come. When the Messiah comes, he will bring good news to the poor, heal broken hearts and set prisoners free. Jesus will be the Light, shining into the darkness of our world. The evangelist tells us twice that John the Baptist is “a witness to speak for the light” – sent to make a straight way for the Messiah.
We can use the season of Advent to make a straight way for the Lord by prayer and reflection, preparing our hearts to receive him. And our joy at Christ’s coming should lead us to reach out to those in our own communities who may be poor and marginalised. If we want to be witnesses to the light, we must make sure that there is good news for the poor this Christmas.
Today’s feast of Christ the King directly challenges our worldly understanding of power and majesty. The symbol of Christian faith is the crucifix. God’s love is made visible in the death and resurrection of Christ his Son. The majesty of Christ is founded on the self-giving love of God. It is in pouring out his life for us – scourged, stripped naked and crucified – that Christ reveals his majesty. The King we follow is a King who reigns from the Cross. And his kingdom is built, not on earthly power, but on the power of love. The kingdom of God is revealed, whenever we show love and practical care to our neighbour, and especially to the poor, the weak and the outsider. The kingdoms of this world will fall, but the kingdom of God will last forever. Today’s Gospel makes it clear that our lives will be judged by the way that we treat the least of our brothers and sisters.
Why is it so terrible for the servant to hide his master’s money in a hole in the ground? Isn’t he simply being cautious? But perhaps Jesus calls us to something more than caution. The servant acts as he does out of fear of his master: “I had heard you were a hard man…” The master has put his trust in his servants, placing his wealth in their hands. If the servants respond by trusting their master, they can be creative, take risks, and make the wealth grow. If they are paralysed by fear, they will achieve nothing.
God has given us many gifts and talents. They are given to us to be used for the benefit of others, and to bear fruit, not to be hidden away. Pope Francis says: “Any environment, even the most distant and impractical, can become a place where talents can bear fruit. There are no situations or places that are closed to the Christian presence and witness.” This parable calls us to open our hearts, put our trust in God, and dare to be creative with the wealth that God gives us.
Jesus’ words are a biting criticism of the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of the people. They are the successors of Moses, but Jesus accuses them of hypocrisy: they do not practise what they preach. Do as they say, but not as they do! – a stinging rebuke for any preacher or teacher.
Paul describes the Christian model of leadership. Those who have a ministry of leadership should watch over the people in their care like a mother or a father. They should give themselves unselfishly, seeking no reward except for the satisfaction of seeing disciples grow in faith and commitment, as the Good News takes root in their hearts.
We are all called to take on responsibility in the life of the Church. But if we find ourselves seeking recognition for what we do, or building up our own power and importance, it’s a warning sign. We have only one Master, one Teacher and one Father. All that we do should be done for the service of God’s people, and the glory of God.
Jesus is faced with a hostile question, designed to trip him up. Which is the greatest commandment of God’s Law? He replies with the Shema, the great prayer of Israel – the words that God spoke to the people through Moses: ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.’ Love of God means giving our whole selves to him, without reserve. And loving God means loving our neighbour, too. The two commandments are really one. Our love of God is empty, unless it moves us to love our neighbours, and to treat them as we would wish to be treated ourselves. Jesus’ teaching goes even further. We may manage to love those who are like ourselves. But all of our fellow human beings are our neighbours, especially the poor and those on the edges – the stranger, the widow and the orphan. We are called to love them, too. Jesus gave his life for us, and he asks us to give ourselves for others.
The Pharisees and the Herodians get together to set a trap for Jesus. If he tells the people not to pay their taxes to Caesar, he risks being arrested by the Roman rulers as an insurrectionist. If he tells the Jews that they should pay, he will anger his followers, who hate the Roman occupation. Jesus’ reply doesn’t evade the question, but rather takes it back to the principle that is at stake. Authority should be respected, as long as it acts justly and serves the common good. But the inscription on the coin handed to Jesus would read “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, great high priest” – a blasphemous claim of divine status for the Roman Emperor. Caesar is claiming what belongs to God.
The modern world is complex and confusing. We are sometimes told that we live in a secular society, and that faith and politics don’t mix. But Christians have a responsibility to engage with political life and to put into practice the values of the Gospel. We should hold our leaders to account, seek the common good and uphold the rights of the poor and vulnerable. Some principles are more fundamental than party politics. Every person belongs to God.
The king in this Sunday’s parable is a man not to be crossed. When the invited guests fail to turn up to his son’s wedding feast, he sends soldiers to burn their city to the ground. Then everyone is invited to the banquet – the good and the bad alike. But the man who enters the feast without a wedding garment is condemned and thrown out into the darkness.
Can we really see this king as representing God? He seems to have more in common with human rulers like King Herod or the emperors of Rome – who, as Matthew knows, did dispatch troops in 70 AD to burn down the city of Jerusalem. If so, perhaps the guest without a wedding garment represents Jesus, who was silent before his accusers and who was condemned on our behalf, and thrown out into the darkness. But Jesus’ death and resurrection was the price of our salvation. Thanks to his sacrifice, we can all share in God’s banquet.
Isaiah’s story of the vineyard expresses God’s love for Israel – God’s chosen people, his pride and joy. And so, Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants becomes a powerful reproach to the chief priests and elders. They have been given responsibility for God’s vineyard, but they have not taken good care of the property entrusted to them. Instead, they have exploited their position for their own ends and persecuted the prophets who were sent as God’s messengers. And Jesus foresees that they will also kill him, the Son of God. In their response to the parable, the leaders condemn themselves out of their own mouths: “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end…”
The parable reminds us that we are stewards of the gifts that God has given us. For those called to roles of leadership in the Church, Christ offers us the model: leaders should be servants, who give themselves for those in their care, as Christ gives his life for us. These are the fruits that God wishes to see from the vineyard.
Today’s Gospel sees Jesus, yet again, in conflict with the religious leaders of Israel – the chief priests and elders. They were concerned when they saw Jesus enter Jerusalem, acclaimed by the people as prophet and Messiah. They were furious when he drove the merchants and money-changers out of the Temple. By his teaching, Jesus called the people to repentance and conversion, just as John the Baptist did before him. Those regarded as “sinners” – the tax collectors and prostitutes – responded with joy to the Good News brought by Christ. They knew their need for God’s mercy, and they embraced the hope that Jesus brought them. The chief priests and elders, in contrast, felt secure in their own righteous observance of the Law. Believing that they had no need of repentance, they rejected first John, and then Jesus, whose coming John had foretold. With this parable, Jesus challenges the leaders of the people. God looks at our actions, and not our words – God is pleased when we repent and live our lives in accordance with his will. The challenge that Jesus offered to the “righteous” people of his own time is a challenge to us, too – are we truly seeking to do our Father’s will?
The labourers stand in the marketplace, waiting to be hired. If they do a day’s work, they can expect to earn one denarius – just enough to support a family for a day. If they don’t find work, they and their families will go hungry today. When the landowner hires the men to work in his vineyard, he is offering them dignity and purpose, as well as a wage.
This parable of the kingdom is a parable of God’s generosity to us. God calls each one of us to work in the vineyard as disciples of Christ, helping to build the kingdom of heaven. Some disciples respond quickly and eagerly, others take longer to hear God’s call. But we don’t ‘earn’ our place in the kingdom– it’s always God’s gift. The reward is the same for every disciple, because God gives to each one the greatest gift that he could possibly give – eternal life with him. When God is so generous to us, how can we possibly be envious of one another?
Jesus’ teaching continues to challenge his disciples. Last Sunday, we heard him put into their hands the power to forgive sins – to bind and to loose. Peter’s reaction is a typically human one. How many times do I have to forgive my brother? Surely there has to be a limit? But Jesus wants to move the disciples on from a human way of thinking. The sum of money owed by the king’s servant in the parable is unimaginably large – impossible to repay. And yet the king releases him from his debt. This is how God’s mercy works. But the servant goes on to pursue one of his fellow servants, over a trivial sum. He hasn’t learned the lesson of forgiveness, but is stuck in human ways, demanding the last penny.
We can never pay back our debts to God. Every time we celebrate Mass, we remind ourselves that we are sinners, utterly dependent on God’s forgiveness. Having received mercy, we are challenged to become merciful ourselves; to allow God’s grace to transform us and to convert our hearts from hardness to compassion. Knowing that God has forgiven us, how can we refuse to forgive our brothers and sisters?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives guidance to his disciples on dealing with a dispute within the ekklesia – the church community. If a member of the community has done something wrong, the duty of his or her fellow disciples is to challenge the offender – but always in love and mutual respect. The aim is to bring about reconciliation. Even if a Christian has to be “excommunicated” from the community, this should always be done in a way that offers them a road back. These rules, set out by Jesus, probably reflect what was happening in the community for which Matthew wrote his Gospel.
If we feel that we have a grievance against someone, it may not be easy to challenge them directly. It may be easier to grumble and gossip behind their back – but such gossip can be terribly destructive. Jesus’ teaching in this Gospel challenges us to address difficulties and conflicts in a responsible way. This is what it means to love our neighbour. Jesus adds, “Where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.” If Christ is truly among us, then our Christian communities should be places of welcome and acceptance.
Last week, Peter recognised Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God, and Jesus gave him the mission of leading the Church. But in today’s Gospel, Peter is harshly rebuked as “Satan,” a stumbling block in the path of Christ. Why? Because Jesus has begun to spell out to his disciples what lies ahead of him. He knows that his betrayal, suffering and death will be the price of our salvation. Peter, like any friend, is horrified at the thought of Jesus suffering in this way. He loves Jesus and is ready to follow him anywhere – but he hesitates when he is faced with the death that Jesus must suffer. Jesus makes it very clear. This is God’s way.
Peter hesitated again when he faced suffering himself, but in the end, he did take up his own cross. Like Peter, we feel drawn to Jesus, and the hope that he offers us – but we may hesitate when we have to pay a price for our faith in Christ. But where else will we go?
Jesus’ disciples have seen him walk on water, and feed five thousand people. They have seen the crowds respond joyfully to his teaching. Perhaps they have also felt challenged and disturbed by the radical nature of Jesus’ mission – welcoming sinners and pagans, as in last Sunday’s Gospel, when he praised the Canaanite woman for her great faith (after having reproached Peter as a ‘man of little faith.’)
They must be wondering who it really is that they are following – perhaps discussing it among themselves. And now, Jesus asks them: who do you say I am? Simon gives the right answer. Jesus is the Christ – the Messiah, God’s anointed one. And he is the Son of God.
Simon is able to give this answer, not because of human wisdom, but because God has revealed the truth to him. And the consequences of his profession of faith are dramatic. Jesus gives Simon a new name – Peter, the rock. With the new name comes a new calling. Peter is being called to a role of leadership in the Church, which will continue Christ’s mission after his death and resurrection.
Jesus calls disciples, and not admirers. When we recognise him as the Son of God, he calls us to a life-changing response. Peter ultimately gave his life for Christ. We are asked to do the same.
Today, Jesus tells two parables about people who find something precious: a treasure hidden in a field, and a beautiful pearl hidden inside an oyster’s shell. Each is so valuable that the finder is prepared to “sell everything he owns” in order to have it.
The parable prompts us to ask ourselves what is precious to us. When Solomon became king of Israel, he might have asked God for wealth, or for victory in battle. Instead, Solomon asked for wisdom to lead God’s people with justice and discernment. That was the kind of king that he wanted to be. Wisdom was the treasure that Solomon desired.
Jesus wants his disciples to see that the kingdom of heaven – the truth and wisdom that he is teaching them – is more precious than anything in the world. But the kingdom comes at a price. We may be too attached to the things of the world: money, possessions, status, reputation. Christ calls us to let go of our attachments, so that we can be free to follow him, and have real treasure.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers three parables about the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer who finds weeds sown in his wheat field. Instead of pulling up the weeds straight away, the man tells his servants to wait and see: wait for the crops to grow, before making a judgement. There is both good and evil in the world, and Jesus tells his disciples to wait patiently, to observe with a discerning eye, and to leave the judgement to God.
The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a strong, vigorous plant. Or the kingdom of heaven is like a small measure of yeast, that is enough to make a whole batch of bread rise. A small number of believers in a community, living out the values of the kingdom of heaven, committed to love of God and love of neighbour, can make a big difference. The Lord calls his disciples to be that tiny seed, or that small measure – living in the world, and building God’s kingdom.