Luke introduces the ministry of John the Baptist by saying that ‘the Word of God came to John in the wilderness.’ John’s message is one of repentance; a radical change of heart and mind. Like the Old Testament prophets who went before him, John challenges the people to turn back towards God with their whole hearts. The promise is that repentance will bring forgiveness; God in his mercy will set his people free from their sins. John’s prophetic word is addressed to us, too. In Advent, we are challenged to repent and turn back to God. By our repentance, we prepare the path for the Lord, clearing away the obstacles that stand in his way, so that we will be ready to welcome the Son of God when he comes.
As the end of the Church’s year approaches, today’s Gospel reading shows Jesus looking ahead to the last days. The powers of the world will fall. Heaven and earth will pass away, but the words of Jesus’ teaching will not pass away. He will return in judgement, to save those who believe in him.
As disciples of Christ, we are always looking ahead to eternal life. We live in this world, but we know that it will pass away, and that allows us to give the things of this world their true importance. Like the Lord himself, we do not know the day or the hour, and so we have to try to live every day of our lives in readiness for judgement. This doesn’t mean that we are indifferent to the world we live in: it means, simply, living out the commandments to love God and love our neighbour – putting our faith in the truth that will not pass away. Then we can face judgement, not with fear, but with trust in God’s mercy.
A poor widow gives a small donation to the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. The money would be used to meet the expenses of worship in the Temple, and also to help the poor. Jesus celebrates the woman’s generosity; her gift shows how much the Temple means to her, as the place where she encounters God’s presence. The rich may have given larger sums, but she has made a real sacrifice. In contrast, there are those among the scribes who revel in the prestige of their position, and make a show of piety for their own advantage. Jesus warns that they will be severely judged for their hypocrisy.
Today, we commemorate those who died in the wars of the 20th century, and in subsequent conflicts. They made the ultimate sacrifice. As we remember the price that was paid for the freedom and security that we enjoy today, we are challenged to work for a world where peace rules, and lives are no longer sacrificed.
The scribes often appear hostile to Jesus in the Gospels. But this scribe approaches him respectfully, and asks a sincere question: which is the first among the commandments of the Law of Israel? Jesus gives a reply that the scribe can easily understand; he refers to their shared heritage, quoting the commandment that God gave to Israel through Moses: you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. He adds a second commandment, also taken from the Scriptures: you must love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus’ response to the scribe’s question shows us that he upholds and treasures the Law that his Father gave to Israel. Jesus gives us the perfect example of obedience to God’s Law in his own life – on the Cross, he gives up his life out of love for his Father and for us. As disciples of Christ, we are called to follow his example.
Bartimaeus is introduced in today’s Gospel as ‘a blind beggar.’ As a blind man, he had to beg in order to survive. He would be shunned and despised by the people, who regarded blindness as a punishment from God. Even when he begins to call out to Jesus for help, the people in the crowd scold him and try to silence him. But Jesus stops to speak to Bartimaeus, perhaps because he sees that the blind man has great faith. He is the first person in Mark’s Gospel to address Jesus as ‘Son of David’ – one of the titles of the Messiah. Then he calls him ‘Rabbuni’ – ‘My master’ or ‘My teacher’ – the same title that Mary Magdalene will address to the risen Christ. Mark contrasts the blindness of the twelve apostles – still arguing over the best places in God’s kingdom – with the faith and understanding of Bartimaeus.
Jesus tells Bartimaeus that his faith has saved him. He receives his sight back, and becomes a disciple, following Jesus along the road to Jerusalem. He will see Jesus’ passion and death with his own eyes. His example inspires us to call out to Christ for our needs, with faith that he has power to heal us.
The brothers James and John have a request to make of Jesus. When he is in glory – reigning as Messiah and King – they hope to sit in the seats of honour on his right and his left. Their request shows how completely Jesus’ disciples have failed to understand his teaching. He has explained again and again that he is calling them to service and to love of neighbour. Jesus wants his disciples to follow his example of humility and suffering. Yet the disciples are still thinking in terms of earthly glory and ambition – still falling into rivalry and jealousy, even as Jesus prepares himself to face his suffering and death.
James and John did eventually embrace Jesus’ message. After his death and resurrection, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they became fearless witnesses and teachers of the Good News, and they drank the same cup as the Master, giving their lives for Christ. The Spirit will transform us, too, if we are ready to respond to Christ’s call.
The people of Jesus’ time believed that worldly wealth was a sign of God’s favour. Rich people were admired and envied. The rich man who approaches Jesus in today’s Gospel tells him eagerly that he has kept all the commandments of God’s law from his earliest days. No doubt he believes that his wealth is God’s reward for living a good life. Jesus looks steadily at the man and loves him, and then issues a radical challenge: to give up all of his possessions and follow Jesus. Once again, Jesus turns the wisdom of the world on its head. He discerns that this man’s riches are an obstacle that prevent him from becoming a disciple. He needs to let them go, for the sake of something better: the treasure in heaven that only Jesus can give him.
The challenge is too much for the rich man, and he goes away sad. He doesn’t appear again in the Gospels, and we don’t know what became of him. This Gospel reading prompts us to imagine Jesus looking at us and loving us. What step does the Lord ask us to take, to set ourselves free for discipleship?
The Pharisees ask Jesus, ‘Is it against the Law for a man to divorce his wife?’ and in response to Jesus’ question, they add ‘Moses allowed us to draw up a writ of dismissal.’ Their words reflect the inequality of the Jewish Law at that time; a man could divorce his wife by a very simple procedure, but a woman had no right to divorce her husband. A woman dismissed by her husband could be cast off without money, property or place in society – she was nobody. In his reply, Jesus goes back to the origins of the human race. God created man and woman to be ‘one body,’ supporting one another in the covenant of marriage, which cannot be dissolved by human power. It seems a hard teaching to his disciples, but Jesus is challenging the unjust custom of his time.
Today’s Scripture readings remind us how important it is for the Church to support married couples and families on their journey through life. This week, the Synod of Bishops is meeting with the Pope in Rome, to discuss the Church’s ministry to young people. Young people today grow up in families of different shapes and sizes. Marriages can break down and families can find themselves in difficult situations. Pope Francis has often reminded us of the need to support and encourage every family, whatever their circumstances.
The apostle John is indignant because Jesus’ name is being used by a man who is ‘not one of us.’ Jesus has a more generous and inclusive vision. If the man is using Jesus’ name to bring healing, there is no reason to stop him; Jesus has come to bring healing for everyone. Today’s readings invite us to focus on what is really important. Jesus uses dramatic language to emphasise the reality of sin: if your hand should cause you to sin, cut it off… He is telling us, not to mutilate our bodies, but to cut out of our lives anything which leads us away from faith in him. St James warns the rich that their wealth and comfort will not last – they can’t take it with them. Instead, we are invited to store up treasure in heaven. Even for the smallest acts of kindness, we will not lose our reward.
Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for what awaits him in Jerusalem; betrayal, condemnation and death. But they still don’t get it, even after all the time that they have spent living with him and hearing his teaching. Instead of following his example of humility, they are doing the very opposite; jockeying for position, arguing over which of them is the greatest. And so a little child becomes Jesus’ helper in making his point to the disciples. In the kingdom of God, a leader must be a servant of all. Jesus’ disciples must have a special care for the vulnerable, the little ones without status or power. Today’s Gospel challenges us to purify the Church from all traces of elitism and ambition. The Church exists to serve God’s little ones.
Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter has the right answer; Jesus is the Christ, God’s anointed one, the Messiah for whom Israel has been waiting. But Peter is shocked by what comes next. The Christ is destined for rejection, suffering and death. His model is the Suffering Servant, described in today’s First Reading from the prophet Isaiah, who trusts completely in God’s power to save him. Jesus makes it absolutely clear to his disciples, and to the people, that anyone who wants to be his follower must walk the same road that he does – the way of the Cross. No wonder Peter is horrified.
Christ’s disciples are not called to seek out suffering for its own sake, but to give ourselves to others with self-sacrificing love, and to accept patiently whatever difficulties life may bring us. There are many Christians whose lives are an inspiring example of Christ-like love and sacrifice. This is what we commit ourselves to as followers of Jesus. If, like Peter, we recognise Jesus as the Christ, then he calls us to take up our cross and follow him.
Jesus is in pagan territory when a man is brought to him for healing. The man is deaf and unable to speak clearly – isolated from society, because he can’t express himself. The story clearly shows us Jesus’ compassion for the man, reaching out to him with a healing touch, and sighing as he looks to heaven for a cure. He speaks a word – unusually, Mark gives us the word in Jesus’ own language, Aramaic – and the man is freed of his impediment and enabled to speak for himself.
There are many people in our world who are silenced; by disability, by poverty, by lack of education, by the prejudice of others. Now, movements are arising that harness the power of the internet to allow the silent to speak. Shamefully, many victims of abuse have also been silenced by those holding positions of trust in the Church. There can be no justice until every member of society can speak out and be heard. Jesus is the healer who loosens the tongues of the poor and powerless.
Every community has rules and customs, whether it’s a family, a nation or the Church. Our rules and customs reflect our values. For the people of Israel, the Law was a gift that they had received from God; a gift that made them a nation, God’s chosen people. When Jesus disputes with the Pharisees, he’s not rejecting the Law that has come from God, his Father. But the Pharisees interpreted the Law so strictly that it was almost impossible for an ordinary working person to keep all of their rules. And even worse, as Jesus points out, they sometimes used their legalistic interpretations to avoid the most important obligations, such as caring for one’s parents. They honoured God only with lip service. Jesus asks his disciples, instead, to give our whole hearts to him. If our hearts are with Christ, then God’s law will not feel like a burden too heavy to bear.
Jesus presents his disciples with a challenge. He has spelled out his teaching clearly; ‘I am the bread of life.’ His followers must eat his body and drink his blood, in order to have eternal life. His language seems so strange and shocking that many find it intolerable. They leave him, even though they have seen his miracles. But Jesus never tones down his message to make it acceptable. He speaks with absolute truth and integrity.
‘What about you?’ Jesus asks the twelve apostles. And Peter replies on behalf of all. ‘Who shall we go to?’ They have come to know Jesus, and to believe in him. They have seen that there is no other Saviour, and no other teaching that brings life. We may feel discouraged by our own sins and failures; we may feel outraged by the scandals and the shortcomings that we see in the Church; we may be tempted to go away too, as others have done. But as Pope Francis has said, the Church can only repent and reform herself with the involvement of all her members. Who else shall we go to?
In today’s first reading, Wisdom invites everyone to her house. Even the ignorant and foolish are promised that they can become wise, if they sit down and eat with her. Paul, too, urges the Christians living in Ephesus to live sober, sensible lives, like intelligent people. But in the Gospel, Jesus confronts his disciples with a teaching that seems to fly in the face of common sense. They must eat his flesh and drink his blood, in order to have eternal life. Many of his disciples rejected this idea, and gave up following him. It’s a teaching that is incomprehensible, if we think in worldly terms. Only our faith tells us that the Body and Blood of Christ which we receive in the Eucharist is God’s promise of everlasting life.
Jesus and his disciples are faced with a crisis – a crowd of hungry people, and no food to offer them. The disciples look at the situation in practical terms: Philip speaks of how much money would be needed to buy enough bread, Andrew about the small amount of food that is actually available. They are overwhelmed by the situation. But Jesus knows what he is going to do. Through the power of God, the food that they do have – five loaves and two fishes, shared by a young boy – is enough to feed the great crowd.
We sometimes feel overwhelmed, like Jesus’ disciples, when we’re faced with great needs and seemingly inadequate resources. The Lord calls us to follow the example of the nameless and silent young boy in today’s Gospel. He handed over generously the little that he had, and left the rest to Jesus. If we respond as generously as we can, with trust in Christ’s power, we can leave the rest to him.
Jesus sends the twelve apostles out to preach in the towns and villages. What do they have to say to the people? At this stage of Jesus’ ministry, his death and resurrection, and many of his great miracles, are still in the future. But the apostles can speak of their own encounter with Jesus. They can recount how he has changed their lives. The Twelve preach repentance – a change of heart that leads to the forgiveness of sins. They bring healing to the sick. Their preaching presents the people with a choice: those who reject the Good News are challenged by the prophetic gesture of the apostles shaking off the dust of the place from their feet.
Jesus tells his missionaries to travel light, without money, food or spare clothing, relying on the hospitality of strangers. If we can speak with conviction about how Jesus has touched our lives, then we don’t need to carry a lot of baggage. Our witness is enough.
In today’s Gospel, we encounter two desperate people. Jairus, the synagogue official, is a man who holds a position of respect in the community. But when he comes to Jesus, he is simply a worried father, seeking help for his sick daughter. The unnamed woman is desperate because she has been suffering for twelve years from a painful complaint that makes her ritually unclean, and so isolates her from family and society. They both approach Jesus in faith, believing that he has the power to help them. And Jesus responds to their faith. The woman is told that her faith has healed her. Jairus’ daughter is restored to him.
These two miracles show us that Jesus is the Lord of Life, who has come so that we may all have life to the full. We may not experience a miraculous physical cure, but we will know the healing that the Lord desires for us, if we turn to him in faith.
John the Baptist was chosen by God to play a unique part in the plan of salvation. John would become the prophet who would proclaim to the people of Israel the message of repentance and forgiveness. He would announce the coming of the Saviour, and would witness by the sacrifice of his life.
John’s special mission is foreshadowed in the events around his birth. He was born miraculously, to elderly, childless parents. His coming was foretold by the angel Gabriel, and God gave him the name ‘John,’ meaning ‘God is gracious.’ The words of the prophet Isaiah were fulfilled in him: ‘The Lord called me before I was born, from my mother’s womb he pronounced my name.’ No wonder that people asked, ‘What will this child turn out to be?’ But that question could be asked of any newborn child. Each one of us has been called by God before we were born. Each of us is chosen and named for a special part in God’s plan. Every disciple, in their own way, can be a prophet of the coming of Christ, as John was.
The kingdom of God is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Speaking to people living under the harsh and oppressive rule of the Roman Empire, Jesus teaches them in parables how different the world will be when God rules in the hearts of believers. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of justice, mercy and reconciliation. The two parables that we hear in today’s Gospel show us that the kingdom of God cannot be suppressed. The kingdom sprouts and grows, night and day. It grows like a mushroom bush, sprawling and spreading, impossible to root out. The seeds of the kingdom of God are our small acts of care and kindness – small expressions of faith. From such tiny seeds, God brings growth and fruitfulness beyond our imagination. This is what the kingdom of God is like.