Jesus’ disciples would be shocked to hear him say that they had to be more virtuous than the scribes and the Pharisees. These were the people who were admired by other Jews, for their scrupulous observance of the demands of the Law. But Jesus challenges his followers to go further. External compliance with the Law is not enough; he wants their whole hearts to be given to him. The Law prohibits murder, but Jesus warns his disciples against destructive anger and hatred. Adultery is forbidden, but the Lord teaches us that adultery begins with the lustful look that objectifies another person. Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife (though a woman could not divorce her husband); Jesus upholds marriage as a sacred bond for both spouses. If we are people of truth and integrity, we will not need to swear oaths, but only to speak with simple honesty. These are the laws of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus tells his disciples that they are ‘the salt of the earth.’ Before the invention of refrigeration, salt was commonly used to preserve food, as well as to season it. Just as a small amount of salt makes a big difference to the flavour of food, Jesus calls his disciples to be people who make a difference to the world. The same idea is expressed by the image of being ‘the light of the world.’ The good works of the disciples of Christ should shine out, in our families and our communities. The prophet Isaiah tells us what are the good works that the Lord desires: feeding, clothing and sheltering the poor; renouncing violence and siding with the oppressed. Such works are the marks of the disciples of Christ. Without them, the Lord says, we are good for nothing.
Today, forty days after Christmas Day, we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord – Candlemas. We carry lighted candles into church to symbolise Jesus, the Light of the World, born among us at Christmas. When Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to God, he is recognised by Simeon and Anna. Simeon prophesies both the suffering that lies ahead for the child and the salvation that he will bring. Anna witnesses to others that Jesus will bring deliverance for the people. Simeon and Anna are faithful children of Israel. They have waited in trust and hope for the coming of the Christ, and God grants them the joy of recognising and proclaiming him when he comes. In Jesus, God fulfils his promises to the people of Israel and, as Simeon proclaims, brings salvation to all the nations of the world. Throughout his life, Jesus will be welcomed by the poor and the little ones, but rejected by the high priests and the leaders of the people. Today’s feast challenges us, like Simeon and Anna, to recognise, worship and proclaim Christ as Saviour.
In today’s Gospel, we see the mission of John the Baptist approaching its fulfilment. The Baptist made it clear from the start that he himself was not the Christ, but the prophet sent by God to prepare the way. Now, John the Baptist sees Jesus, recognises him as the Lamb of God and points him out to his disciples. Jesus is the one whose coming John was sent to proclaim; the Chosen One of God.
As disciples of Christ, we have been baptised with the Holy Spirit and set free from our sins. We too are called to see, recognise and bear witness, as the Baptist did. This is how the Church can be a light to the nations, as Isaiah foretold. This is how, as St Paul says, we will take our place among the saints – the vast assembly of believers who acknowledge Christ as Lord. Every baptised Christian is called to witness.
Last Sunday, we met John the Baptist; a powerful, fearless prophet, like the prophets of ancient Israel. In today’s Gospel, John has been imprisoned by King Herod, and will soon be executed. John sends messengers to Jesus, with a question that reflects his own uncertainty. John prophesied the coming of the Messiah, but he expected a king who would sit in judgement. The prophecy of Isaiah in today’s First Reading, with its promise of the ‘vengeance’ and ‘retribution’ of God, reflects the hopes of many in Israel at that time. Jesus’ reply is meant both as a reassurance and a challenge to John. The kingdom of heaven is at hand; Jesus is bringing life and healing for God’s people. The prophecies are being fulfilled, as John foretold. But Jesus comes with mercy and not vengeance; forgiveness and not retribution. The powers of evil will be judged and defeated – not by violence, but by love and mercy. So Jesus challenges John to open his heart to God’s ways; to keep faith, and to recognise that Jesus truly is the one who is to come. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we too are challenged to recognise the child in the manger as our Saviour.
On the Second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist bursts onto the scene. John lives and speaks like the prophets of the Old Testament. He calls the people to repentance: a change of direction; a change of heart. The ordinary people of Israel flock to John, to confess their sins and be baptised as a sign of conversion. But the religious elite – the Pharisees and Sadducees – may be tempted to believe that their status as ‘sons of Abraham’ is a guarantee of their place in God’s kingdom. John wants to shake them out of their complacency. Everyone needs to repent, and to produce the fruits of repentance – a renewed faith and trust in God. The Baptist’s message is a stern and challenging one, but it comes with a promise; the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. In God’s kingdom, as Isaiah says, our worldly relationships of power and exploitation will be overthrown, and God will bring justice. John’s preaching challenges our complacency, too: he calls us to repentance in preparation for Christ’s coming.
As Jesus is dying on the Cross, he is mocked by the religious leaders, by the soldiers who crucify him, and even by one of the criminals who is being executed with him. And yet, the titles that they give him in cruel mockery are all true. Jesus really is the Christ of God, the Chosen One, the King of the Jews and of all nations. He shows us a different kind of kingship. Jesus is a King who comes to seek out the lost, to heal the sick and to forgive sinners. He welcomes the outcasts and upholds the dignity of the poor. He even forgives those who nail him to the Cross. Jesus’ authority was such an affront to the Roman and Jewish leaders that they had to crush him utterly.
Only the ‘good thief,’ the repentant criminal hanging on his own cross alongside Jesus, recognises him as King, with power to forgive sins. His act of faith wins him the promise of paradise. Today’s feast of Christ the King reminds us that we are citizens of a kingdom that is not of this world. We have put our faith in the crucified King.
Today’s parable is intended for disciples living in the time between the first and second comings of the Lord. As Christians, we are people of faith and hope. Faith tells us that Jesus, the Son of God, came into the world to save us from our sins. Faith also enables us to see God at work in our lives today. The Christian virtue of hope assures us that God has a plan for the world, and that each one of us has our part in the unfolding of God’s plan. This is what our lives are for.
But while we wait in hope for the Lord to return, we face many difficulties and struggles. The Christian response is to pray constantly, bringing all our fears and anxieties to God. The widow in the parable is a woman without power or status – one of the ‘little ones’ of Israel. But she obtains justice from the unjust judge by her persistence. All the more, Jesus says, will God, our loving Father, see justice done for his children. Sometimes, we feel that God is slow to hear and answer our prayers, but he asks us to persevere and trust in him.
Leprosy – Hansen’s disease – is a disease that causes disability and disfigurement. Today, leprosy can be easily cured, though there are still many people in the world who suffer from the disease because of poverty and poor hygiene. But in our Lord’s time, with no treatment, leprosy was a cause of fear and horror. Sufferers were labelled as ‘lepers.’ They were considered unclean, isolated from family and society.
In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus taught his disciples about the power of faith. Today, ten men suffering from leprosy approach Jesus on the edge of the village. They have faith that Jesus can cure them, and he does. But only one man, finding himself cured, comes back to thank Jesus. His faith is completed by gratitude. Faith is a trusting readiness to receive the great things God does for us, and also a grateful recognition of what God has done and is doing in our lives. Ironically, the one man who comes back to give thanks is a Samaritan, a despised foreigner. Jesus welcomes everyone who has faith in him.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus presents two challenges to his apostles. He tells them that a tiny amount of faith – the size of a mustard seed – can accomplish things that seem impossible. Then the Lord reminds his apostles that, although they have been chosen for a role of leadership in his Church, they are no more than God’s instruments. All that they achieve is brought about by God’s grace, and they are merely servants of God’s people.
Christian faith is not only belief that the teachings of the Church are true: even more importantly, faith is belief in Jesus as the Son of God. That faith in Christ can transform us. The apostles’ faith was found wanting when Jesus faced his Passion and death, but afterwards, with the help of the Holy Spirit, they accomplished amazing things in spreading the Gospel. As disciples of Christ, we can achieve remarkable things too, with just a little faith. But we are merely servants, and all that we achieve is God’s gift.
Today’s parable is a difficult one to understand and interpret. The steward is in a position of trust, and he uses his position dishonestly for his own benefit. Yet he is praised ‘for his astuteness.’
We should consider the situation of Jesus’ disciples. They lived in a grossly unequal society, where working people were ruthlessly exploited and heavily taxed by those who were wealthy and powerful. The words of the prophet Amos, denouncing injustice against the poor, were still relevant in the Lord’s time. So perhaps those hearing the parable would assume that the master had acquired his wealth unjustly, and that the steward was simply redressing the balance in favour of the poor people who were in debt to him. Certainly, the master seems to act ruthlessly in sacking his steward after an accusation of dishonesty. The deeper message of the parable is that we cannot serve two masters. If money is our master, we will be ruthless and even dishonest in our pursuit of wealth. If we are true disciples of Christ – children of light – we will give money its proper importance, and use it for good and worthwhile purposes.
Jesus is asked, ‘Will there be only a few saved?’ And his answer is ‘No.’ People from all nations will be welcomed to the feast in the kingdom of God – from east and west, from north and south. No one is excluded; God offers salvation to everyone. So why is the door narrow? Jesus gave this teaching to the people at a time when he was making his way through towns and villages on his way to Jerusalem. Many of the people heard his teaching, and saw the miracles that he worked; but only a few, it seems, became his disciples. The door was narrow for them, because Jesus’ call to conversion was too much of a challenge. The door is narrow for us, too, if we are overly attached to the things of this world. But if we respond to Christ’s call, and go through the narrow door, we find that it opens onto the infinitely wide love and mercy of God.
Jesus, asked by a lawyer, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ reminds the man of God’s commandment to love our neighbour. The lawyer, in response, tries to narrow the scope of the commandment. Who is my neighbour? To whom am I obliged to show care and compassion? In a word, what are the limits of love?
Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with the beautiful parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan is moved with compassion for the distressed traveller, and cares for him in the most practical and generous way. He does this in spite of the ancient animosity between Samaritans and Jews. Jesus has turned the lawyer’s question around, from ‘Who is my neighbour?’ to ‘How can I be a good neighbour?’ And his answer is: a good neighbour is one who shows the same unstinting love as the Good Samaritan. Jesus himself will give us the example of love without limits, when he gives his life for us on the Cross. As disciples of Christ, we are called to set no limits to our love, but to be neighbours to everyone.
Today, on the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ, we renew our faith in the sacrament by which Christ gives life to the Church from age to age. The Gospel reading shows Jesus responding to the needs of the crowd of people who have come to him. He has taught them and healed their sick, and then he feeds them abundantly. Those who had been present at this miracle would remember the day for the rest of their lives.
Jesus entrusts the food to the twelve apostles; they distribute to the people what the Lord has provided. Paul reminds the Christians of Corinth that he passed on to them the gift of the Eucharist that he himself received from the Lord. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ is entrusted to the Church’s ministers to be shared among the People of God. The theologian Henri de Lubac said that ‘The Eucharist makes the Church, and the Church makes the Eucharist.’ In the Mass, we are united as one people, nourished for the journey of life, and sent out to make Christ present in the world.
Jesus says: ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’ What does it mean for Jesus and the Father to make their home with us? It means that God is present with us in every moment of our lives – in all that we do, and in every choice that we make. It means that we keep Christ’s words – not obeying a set of rules which are somehow alien to what we really are, but becoming more like Christ, following Christ’s way of love for the Father and love for God’s children. This dwelling with the Father and the Son is made possible for us by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the Advocate, the Counsellor, the Companion who gives us life. At Pentecost, the power of the Holy Spirit is revealed in a dramatic way, when the apostles are transformed into fearless witnesses, able to preach in all the languages of the world about the marvels of God. We will be transformed too, if we welcome the Spirit.
On the eve of his death, Jesus prayed to his Father for his disciples, that they might all be one. But today’s reality seems to be ever-increasing division; between the rich and poor nations of the world, between the wealthy and the excluded in our own society, between opposing political positions. The Church founded by Christ is divided, too.
Today is Communications Sunday, when we are asked to pray for those who work in the media, and especially for those whose task is to communicate the Catholic faith. But as long as we are divided, our witness to Christ is compromised. We will not achieve unity by suppressing disagreement, or by trying to silence those who differ from us. We can only move towards unity by deepening our love of God, sharing in the love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This will lead us to a greater love and respect for our neighbour – a readiness to accept others and learn from them.
With me in them and you in me, may they be so completely one that the world will realise that it was you who sent me,and that I have loved them as much as you loved me. (John 17:23)
It’s always hard to say ‘goodbye’ to someone we love. At the Last Supper, Jesus is about to say goodbye to his disciples, who have been with him since he began his ministry. The disciples are anxious and fearful, but Jesus offers them words of reassurance: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.’ Jesus knows that he is not saying goodbye to his friends forever. They will see him resurrected and glorified, and after he ascends to his Father, he will send the Holy Spirit to guide and accompany the Church.
Jesus leaves his disciples the gift of peace – a peace that the world cannot give. The peace of Christ is not a superficial contentment. There are real trials and struggles to face in life, but if we are living in the love of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, we will be at peace, in spite of the difficulties, just as Jesus was at peace because he rested in the love of his Father.
In Holy Week, we walk with Jesus through his Passion. Today, on Palm Sunday, we join the crowd of disciples who welcome the Lord as he enters Jerusalem. On Holy Thursday, we are present at the table of the Last Supper, and watch with Jesus in the garden, as he faces the horror of the death that awaits him. On Good Friday, we are witnesses to his condemnation, crucifixion and death. On Holy Saturday, we wait quietly, before sharing in the joy of the Resurrection on Easter night.
The Church’s liturgy invites us also to share in the emotions of the Passion. Jesus is betrayed by Judas and abandoned by all of his closest friends. The crowd who welcomed him with ‘Hosannas’ shout for his blood. On the Cross, he even feels forsaken by his Father. He dies, mocked and discredited. The Son of God empties himself completely for our sake. The more deeply we enter into the reality of Christ’s sufferings, the more we will understand the depth of God’s love for us, and the greater our joy in the Resurrection.
It takes two to commit the sin of adultery. But only the woman is brought to Jesus. She is publicly humiliated by the scribes and Pharisees – made to stand in full view of the crowd. The Law of Moses prescribed stoning to death as the punishment for adultery, but by Jesus’ time, that penalty had fallen into disuse. Jesus’ opponents are setting a trap for him. Will he contradict the Law, or will he encourage the crowd to lynch the woman there and then? The accusers are full of righteous indignation. Jesus’ response shows up their hypocrisy. Not one among them is confident enough of his own sinlessness to throw the first stone.
We live in an unequal society. It is still, often, women, the poor or the powerless who are judged and condemned. As disciples of Christ, we must not be self-righteous accusers. Knowing our own need for God’s mercy, we should follow the example of the Lord, who does not condemn.
Jesus speaks to the crowd about two shocking incidents. A group of worshippers have been slaughtered by Pilate’s troops while offering sacrifice to God; and a tower has collapsed and killed eighteen people. It was commonplace in Jesus’ time to believe that such misfortunes were God’s punishment for sin, but Jesus rejects that idea. His Father is a loving God, who desires that every one of his children should live and flourish. But in our fallen world, life is fragile. We do not know the day or the hour when God will call us out of this world. And so Jesus uses these examples to teach the people to repent. Repentance is a change of heart and mind – a turning back to God – a reorientation of our whole lives. Repentance brings fruits of faith, hope and love. The season of Lent is a time for repentance. As in the parable of the unfruitful fig tree, God gives us the opportunity to repent and be fruitful. Now is the time.