18 OCTOBER 2020: TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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Denarius (Roman Coin) of the Emperor Tiberius, 14-37AD. 

Click here to read today’s Sunday Mass Readings.

[The Pharisees asked Jesus] “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”  Matthew 22:17.

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That might seem an innocent enough question. Taxation is and has been a vexatious reality since time immemorial. We do not like paying taxes! But we have to. So why did the Pharisees think it important to ask such an obvious question? Well, once again, it was a trick question. If Jesus answered either yes or no, he would be condemned either way. Consider this: Jewish tradition rigidly observed (and still does) the complete prohibition of images, springing from the first commandment, which includes “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”, which refers to the many pagan gods in the lands surrounding Israel at that time. On the coin which Jesus asked to see, called a Roman coin in today’s gospel, but called δηνάριο (dēnario) in the original Greek text, was a graven image, almost certainly of the Emperor Tiberius. Worse, it states “DIVI AVG F AVGVSTVS” meaning he was the son of the divine (or god) Augustus. Augustus was the first emperor, and Tiberius had succeeded him. And Augustus, in the eyes of the pagan Romans was now a god! Imagine that in the context of monotheistic Israel! The lady on the reverse is thought to be Livia, Augustus’ wife (also a goddess), posing as Peace, with the inscription Pontifex Maximus, or Greatest Bridge-builder, a priestly title (and one which the Christian popes adopted for themselves centuries later!). So if Jesus answered yes, you must pay it, he would be condemned as supporting a repulsive pagan idol-worshiper. Then again, if he said no, then he would be condemned as a rebel against the Roman authorities and liable to arrest and worse. Jesus’ ingenious answer put them to shame, using that very same image to declare that the coin must belong to whoever that image represented. So give it back! (And an aside concerning the denarius: it had a very long life. In the United Kingdom until 1971, pennies were identified by the letter “d” for denarius, hence 1/6d would be one shilling and sixpence, but the monarch’s head on the coin did not designate him or her as a god….). 

So, in a sense, the very same pagan image on the coin assisted Jesus in confounding the malice thrown at him by the Pharisees. Today’s first reading seems to expand on that theme, talking of Cyrus the Great, King of Persia and conqueror of the Babylonians, that people who had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, and exiled the Jewish leaders to Babylon. Cyrus was not Jewish; he might have been a Zoroastrian believer, a faith found in Persia for centuries until the Muslim conquest, and if so, he believed in one God. He released the Jews from exile in Babylon, and allowed them to return to Jerusalem. It seems he even helped in the rebuilding of the Temple. Hence the glowing language of the first reading today, “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp…” So there seems to be room for exceptions to the Jewish condemnation of all things Gentile. They are not all bad! And this can apply to things Catholic also. In my youth, it seemed that all Protestants were doomed to hell fire forever, including my dear mother who was Anglican, but who had sworn on the Bible to bring her children up Catholic, which she did. So isn’t that an example of goodness from an unlikely, Protestant, source? Today things have thankfully changed radically, and cooperation is more the theme than condemnation. Note Jesus did not condemn the irreligious image on the coin shown him in today’s gospel, and instead used it to confound those who were seeking to bring him down. Thank you Tiberius, even though he knew nothing about it at all. So that could well be a lesson from today’s readings. We humans love stereotypes, meaning that we create profiles of people and things from the barest of facts. If you were to ask an exiled Jew in Babylon his or her opinion of the latest all-powerful king called Cyrus from the north who had just conquered the Babylonian empire, you almost certainly would have got a shrug and a “Cyrus Shmilus” with no hope of any change at all. Stereotypes are almost always wrong and can be dangerous and plain evil. Opinion and judgment should come from the facts, not invention. Good can come from the unknown; people condemned for their appearance stand scant chance of being understood even when the facts are known, so strong is the attraction of the stereotype. Today’s readings are a lesson in not trusting such fantasies, and letting the facts speak for themselves. 

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The Tribute Money, Rubens 1614, Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco, California, USA.

Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

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Roger

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11 OCTOBER 2020: TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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The Parable of the Great Supper, Cicely Mary Barker 1934, St. George’s Church, Waddon, UK.

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[The King said,] Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’  Matthew 22:9.

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This story, or parable, of Jesus contains many elements of Jewish history and hopes. For centuries they had awaited the invitation to the banquet, the celebration of the triumph of the Chosen People of God over the unbelievers. Now here was the Messiah, fulfilling the prophecies as stated in Scripture, yet those who believed were a fraction of the Hebrew population. The majority of them refused to believe that this peaceful, loving, gentle man was the promised Messiah of strength and conquest. They refused to “come to the banquet” inaugurating the reign of the Messiah, the binding of the people intimately with God through what was to become the Last Supper and today seen in the Mass. Unwilling to abandon the Messiah and his message, the King, whom we can read as God the Father, expanded the invitation from the Chosen People to the whole world, and, in the parable, prophesying that those unbelievers who had even killed his messengers would be cast down, and their city burned to the ground, which can be taken as a prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Emperor Titus in response to a rebellion against Rome in AD 70. 

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Arch of Titus AD81, Spoil from the Sack of Jerusalem, Rome, Italy.

Hence everyone was now invited to the banquet, and in they came, “bad and good alike”. It seems that this expanded invitation still included the Hebrews, who would be considered the “good”, and the Gentiles, the “bad”. In other words, no-one was excluded, even then. Now consider. If any of us were to receive an invitation to a wedding feast or something similar, we would make an effort to be presetable, to put on our “Sunday Best” as it were. It would be necessary to appear presentable, otherwise it would constitute an insult to the host; we would have to make an effort to justify, as it were, our presence, and remember that another person’s Sunday Best might not be ours – the Lord will know the truth of the matter. On the other hand, to just wander in unprepared, lured by the promise of a free grand dinner, would be an insult, and that is how it was treated by the king when one such did enter. Worse, that malefactor, unable to offer any explanation, is bound hand and foot and “cast… into the darkness outside”. There is no such thing as a free meal! Remember that a wedding banquet is a beginning, not an ending. In a special sense, it is the wedding of each one of us to the Lord as our Savior, the one who will walk with us through life, giving guidance and strength, until the day we are called to the ultimate eternal banquet. Our wedding garment will be that which we have created through our life, attempting at all times to be Christ to the world, the vocation given us at our baptism. We were dressed up that that event, a prefiguring of the heavenly banquet we hope for when called from this world. Well, each Sunday Mass should be the source and sustenance of that life work as we edge towards that moment when the king welcomes us into the eternal feast. With trust in the Lord, obedience to his guidance and determination to fulfill it, we will be accepted, and enter into eternal happiness.

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Heaven.

Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

Please forward this webpage to those you think would appreciate it. Thank you.

Roger

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4 OCTOBER 2020: TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Grape Harvest Season in Volnay, Central France, South China Morning Post, June 2018.

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“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it…..” Matthew 21:33.

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There have been so many vineyard parables in the last few weeks that I began to think of other ways of dealing with this metaphor. The vineyard typically means the world, and we the workers in it. So how about this as an alternative: the vineyard represents each one of us. We are each lovingly created by God as we emerge into the world. Some of us have heavier burdens to bear than others (as seen in the photo above) but everyone is able to produce a good harvest (also seen above); after all, what is the point of creating a vineyard is there is no hope of it producing anything of profit? The people in the vineyard are our talents, again some of God’s children having more than others, but that’s the way of the world. God must intend it, our job is to figure out what God’s intention is! Clearly it is to grow grapes as best we can, the reward being success and the vineyard owner, God, being pleased and the reward being ultimate and eternal happiness. I can’t change that element in the parable! We are the ones in charge of those worker-talents. We decide what they should be doing, or, as in this parable, what they shouldn’t be doing. So in a sense, in this way of thinking, we are the tenants of ourselves, each the temporary boss. And it is there that the trouble begins. The owner eventually wants to see how his property (us, you, me) is progressing, which is not surprising seeing how he lovingly created it. Well the tenant (each of us), according to the parable, thinks otherwise, and is not prepared to acknowledge that the owner is the owner. I am the owner! And this even to the extent of killing the owner’s son in the vain hope that this would mean the ownership would now revert to me. Now all my skills, those gifts of God, will now work exclusively for me and no-one else. It is the triumph of self over God our creator. I become my own god! However, according to the parable, the owner is quite able to evict me, bag and baggage.

In other words, we are not our own property; we are created by God, in God’s own image, and must behave accordingly. Our gifts (and each one of us has them, some more, some less according to God’s will) are to be developed to the greater glory of God, not our own glory. In that lies the source or destruction of our own true happiness, or blessedness (the words have the same meaning). If we reject the fact that we are called to be servants of God, serving God and neighbor as we take legitimate care of ourselves, therein lying the source of all happiness, then we condemn ourselves to a life of selfishness, envy, covetousness and pain. Ultimately that leads to hell. Remember my vision of hell is an eternity of self-consciousness, left entirely to ourselves, with nothing and no-one else, exactly the life we chose to live here on earth. Forever: the “wretched death” of the parable. How much better it is to tend willingly to our gift of the vineyard, our own life here on earth, utilizing therein our gifts for the greater glory of God through the supreme command that we love God, neighbor and self. Then, at last, to be welcomed into God’s life and ultimate happiness forever. The choice is always with us, to obey – or disobey, the original sin.

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The Expulsion from Paradise, Michelangelo 1510, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City State.

Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

Please forward this webpage to those you think would appreciate it. Thank you.

Please forward this webpage to those you think would appreciate it. Thank you.

Roger

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27 SEPTEMBER 2020: TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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The Parable of the Father and his Two Sons, Pencz 1536, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, USA.

To read today’s Sunday Mass Readings, click here.

Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you”.   Matthew 21:31.

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Jesus was never someone to hold back on what he was thinking. That quotation above was spoken directly to the “chief priests and elders of the people”, according to Matthew. They would be the instigators of the crowd baying for his blood later, and today’s gospel gives a little background to explain that. It must have taken Jesus some courage to speak like that, and he did it no doubt in the hope that they would take it to heart, pray over it and come up with the explanation of why on earth he said it at all. In his explanatory parable, one son, on hearing his father’s order to go work in the vineyard stated baldly “I will not”. The other son said he would do what his father wanted. However, the first son changed his mind and went to work. The other did not go and work. Clearly the first son, despite his declaration, changed his mind and obeyed his father. The other obviously did not. As ever with parables, there is symbolism. As with last week’s story about the vineyard owner, the vineyard is the world, and the father’s order is the vocation each son receives, to work in that vineyard, the world. One agrees but does not follow his vocation; the other says no, but does, indeed, fulfill his father’s will. Jesus then recalled the ministry of John the Baptist which attracted crowds of people from Jerusalem to go out and hear him. He preached repentance and renewal, the acknowledgement of sinfulness and the determination to remedy that. Jesus’ prostitutes and tax collectors (remember tax collectors are the excommunicated Jews who, in collaborating with the pagan Romans, had forfeited their place in Jewish society) accepted John’s exhortations, and reformed their lives. The chief priests and elders did not see any of John’s words as applying to themselves: they were above all that. That is Jesus’ point. They were the ones supposedly leading the people in the way of God’s justice and truth and hence should have taken John’s words to heart and led the people in that same repentance for sins – we are all sinners in the eyes of a perfect God. They were the ones who had said “yes” to God but had done nothing to implement his will, to fulfill their vocation; the tax collectors and prostitutes had said “no” judging from their way of life chasing the wrong vocation, but had reformed themselves and were now obeying God’s law. 

I suspect we all have a little of both in our lives, and little bit of “yes” and a little bit of “no”, and we might be tempted to say “I’m only human”. But that would be quite a sinful thing to do and to say. To be human is to be made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), in whom there is no sin, no stain. Jesus was human through and through, and he, although tempted, did not sin. That is to be fully human; anything less is to be less than human. Today’s numinous second reading pushes this to its limit concerning the Lord: He humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, because if he had not, and had betrayed his own vocation to fulfill God’s word, would have been the ultimate betrayal of God. All of us, however, have fallen into that sub-human state, even the greatest saints. To acknowledge that is to have taken the first step in rectifying the situation, to regain our humanity in all its glory as God’s forgiveness is infinitely generous. I read a news story recently about the construction of a building. Problems resulted when some of the building material weakened and became unsafe, whereas some of the same material showed no such weakness. It was a mystery until it was found that the material which had been stored in very damp conditions, even if only overnight, had absorbed enough moisture for it to become weak before being installed (a classic case of being in the wrong company?). That material which had been used immediately on arrival at the building site was perfect. So the same material was both “sinful” and “graceful”. A little “sin” here was sufficient to destroy the whole plan if it had been undetected, or did not have a John the Baptist to alert us to the consequences of its/our fallen nature, a nature meant to be perfect, and should be. Remember an old, somewhat adapted, saying, “great mortal sin from little venial sins grow.” We need a call now and then to remind us and redeem us for falling from our graceful, beautiful  human nature to a lesser, inhuman, state. Jesus’ warning to the elders and chief priests should have been sufficient for them to see what was called for, but they ignored it. However, the stone that they rejected became the cornerstone…..

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Psalm 118:22-23, Isaiah 28:16,  Ephesians 2:20, 1 Peter 2:6-8.

Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

Please forward this webpage to those you think would appreciate it. Thank you.

Roger

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20 SEPTEMBER 2020: TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Rembrandt 1637, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.

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[The landowner said], am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? 
Are you envious because I am generous?’    Matthew 20:15.

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Last Sunday I mentioned that forgiveness runs like a golden thread through the gospels. There is another: generosity, beginning at the top: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And we are reminded that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). And on and on: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have…” (Hebrews 13:16). And so the message is clear, especially if you live in a wealthy country and are comfortably off. In fact, there is even another parable about that, Lazarus the beggar at the gate of the rich man who gave him nothing (Luke 16:20). And remember, even if you are poor, there is the story of the impoverished widow who gave her last penny to the Temple (Luke 21:1-4). So to be a good Christian is to be a generous person, and to do it joyfully! Today’s gospel underlines this teaching rather spectacularly. As a parable, there is an underlying reality represented by the elements in the story. The vineyard is the world, the workers, us, the payment at the end of the day, the heavenly reward, and the landowner, God. In any city, I imagine, it is not difficult to find groups of men hanging around on a street corner in a poorer part of the city, waiting to be hired for the day to do manual work. That is the setting for today’s parable. Although most of us will have a job, a career, a calling of some sort, we would not be used to hanging around hopefully in the early morning waiting to be hired. But in another sense, we might well be. It is the landowner who approaches the laborers and enquires why they are hanging around. He then invites them to work in his vineyard. Wouldn’t that be God asking our souls why they are hanging around doing nothing, slowly starving for spiritual nourishment? The ones who are hanging around later in the day might be those who have tried various spiritual adventures, and have found them all lacking. To work for the landowner in his vineyard is the vocation they have been after all their lives, and at last here it is. They remain there, and receive their rewards. It was the answer to their hopes and prayers. “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call him while he is near” says today’s first reading. St. Paul says “If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” in the second reading. So the message is pretty clear. We work for the Lord, we happily share what we earn, and we anticipate a generous welcome when our days are done. 

And then there are the others in the parable: “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.” I think it is pretty easy to understand the outrage of those workers who have slaved since dawn and received the identical wage as those who joined them an hour or so before the day ended. Surely they should receive more? The landowner, with clear logic, explains they all agreed to the wage offered; he was happy to give that to everyone; where’s the problem? (Some scholars point out that a full day’s wage was necessary for everyone so that they could feed their families). He also asks if they are upset at his generosity…. Clearly, yes they are. I am reminded now of the criminal crucified alongside the Lord, who understood why he was so barbarically punished, who asked forgiveness for his sins, which the Lord readily gave, and he entered paradise that day. There is the other Scriptural message which states, “…there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:10), or should we say “who think they do not need to repent…”? It is very easy to justify lack of generosity in troubled times, and to forget that story of the widow’s mite….

So we are called to help others, the practical side of loving one’s neighbor, in obedience to God’s call. Generosity is the measurable way, as it were, to estimate how good we are at being Christian. As Catholics, be aware of the research which states we are among the least generous of Christians, and this from research conducted at Notre Dame University! So today we are all called to a brutal self-examination of where we stand in light of today’s gospel. How practical in fact are we in living out the Number One Rule: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Pretty clear.

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Heaven’s Balcony, Ron DiCianni 2003, ChristCenteredMall

Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

Please forward this webpage to those you think would appreciate it. Thank you.

Roger

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13 SEPTEMBER 2020: TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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Self-Forgiveness, VeryWellMind. 

To read today’s Sunday Mass Readings, click here.

Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.   Matthew 18:21-22.

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It could be said that the theme of forgiveness runs like a golden thread throughout Jesus’ ministry. From Peter’s confession upon meeting Jesus for the first time, ” Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8), which he clearly meant, but which Jesus ignored, thus forgiving him, through to the cross itself, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34), it is a constant theme. The parable Jesus tells today clearly shows that forgiveness is expected of everyone no matter what. To be Christian is to be one who forgives. To be a follower of Christ means revenge is an unknown. When Jesus says you must forgive seventy times (or “seventy times seven times”, a translation I think is preferable), Jesus means always, without exception. That means that even though we might be in utter turmoil over that which must be forgiven, or that there is crushing pain involved, even then, a Christian forgives. It ain’t easy – especially if you try applying all this to forgiving yourself!  The fact that once in a while forgiveness springing from a heinous act is seen, it usually makes headlines. Look at what happened in May 1983, when Pope St. John Paul II visited Mehmet Ali Ağca in prison, the man who tried to kill him, and forgave him. Take a look at the entry for Sunday Mass Readings, 23 February 2020: the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, describing the horrific event at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, where the Amish people forgave the man who had shot dead their children. Or the forgiveness of Nobuo Fujita, the Japanese pilot responsible for the single World War II enemy attack on the USA mainland, bombing Brookings, Oregon. He asked for, and received the town’s forgiveness in 1962. Or, from the opposite angle, the infamous but mistaken US napalm attack on Vietnamese children, immortalized by the photograph of the little girl, Kim Phuc, running from the horror. She has forgiven those who planned the attack, and even founded a charity dedicated to caring for children affected by violence. Forgiveness sometimes seems completely impossible given immense cruelty and suffering, but as Christians that is what we are ordered by Jesus himself to do. The alternatives are horrible: hatred, malice, enmity, revenge. These are all negative, making any horrendous situation even worse, despite what comes out of Hollywood! 

“Revenge is a dish best served cold” is a popular expression offered as a way of getting back at someone who has done you wrong. A thousand movies have been based on this thought, making for great entertainment, but not for good example. It even goes up to state level, with capital punishment, still legal in many states of the USA. Apart from the lack of forgiveness, it is illogical. How do you reconcile killing someone in cold blood, which is what capital punishment is, with the idea that murder is wrong? The church has rightly declared such a punishment utterly evil, to be abolished. Compare the “death chamber” with the prison cell of Mehmet Ali Ağca being forgiven by his victim, who then turned his life around. Capital punishment is in no possible way forgiveness! It is the exact reverse! And take a look at today’s parable; the man who did not display forgiveness, he who had received it himself, was handed over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt! So this is not to say that evil people committing evil acts should not be punished (look at last week’s SundayMassReadings.com), but they do unwittingly and no doubt ignorantly provide Christians with an unwanted opportunity to display proper Christian behavior. Scripture is quite clear on the matter, even in the Old Testament – look at today’s reading from the Book of Sirach, written 2,200 years ago. Now look at today’s secular take on the response to hatred and malice, this one from the Mayo Clinic, stating that “if you don’t practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays most dearly. By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Consider how forgiveness can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.” Finally, what if you cannot forgive? Well there are some lesser remedies. One is to be merciful, namely, to be compassionate to someone who does not deserve it. That is not forgiveness, but it is a step towards it. Another is to try empathy – putting yourself into the other’s shoes, with their background and almost certainly suffering. Although you would not do what they did, it might provide some understanding at least as to why. Then, in the end, there is always prayer.

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Police Officer Steven McDonald, a beacon of forgiveness. (He came to my school once and made an enormous impression, even though he had to wait for each breath to be pumped into his lungs so he could speak).

Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

Please forward this webpage to those you think would appreciate it. Thank you.

Roger

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30 AUGUST 2020: THE TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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Jesus gives Peter the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, Perugino 1481, the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City State.

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Temptation of Jesus Christ, Repin 1895, Private Collection.

Today’s Sunday Mass Readings can be found here.

[Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”   Matthew 16:23.

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Last week’s gospel showed Peter proclaiming Jesus to be the Anointed of God, the Son of God. Jesus in return acknowledged this to be true, and gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Today’s gospel follows directly on that scene, as reflected in the two illustrations above. Jesus then proclaimed, to the staggering bewilderment of all his disciples present, that as God’s Chosen One, he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed….. Peter again was the first to respond to this unwelcome news, saying “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Understandable from a human point of view, but according to Jesus, utterly wrong, to the extent of being contrary to God’s will, therefore sinful, hence his extraordinary repost to Peter, shown pictured above. Jesus’ own words explain this; it is thinking as the world does, not as God does. In fact, though Peter did not realize this, Jesus was being tempted to act contrary to God’s will. His vocation, given to him at his baptism, was to fulfill all the messianic prophecies, not just the “good” ones; if he succumbed to Peter’s wishes, the “suffering servant” prophecies would not be fulfilled. So what on earth is going on here?

The Hebrew people had been dominated by unclean Gentile foreigners for about 500 years up to the time of Jesus. Indeed, throughout their history to that time, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians and the Romans had each controlled their land, sometimes benignly, sometimes disastrously. Yet through all that, God, through the prophets, had promised delivery from such slavery, and that there would be a Messiah, an Anointed One of God, who would change it all. Such messianic promises kept them going in hope, but….. There were two sides to this picture. Yes, the Promised One would be called king, greater even than David, but would also be mocked and spat on. He would heal the afflicted but would also bear our sins. Well, the bad side was quietly ignored over the centuries, and the hopes of the people rested on the more positive side, the conquering hero angle. That is what Peter was thinking of when he was aghast at Jesus’ words, and that is why Jesus turned on him, declaring him to be Satan! Of course it was a temptation, to be glorified as the new king, to conquer the hated pagan occupying forces and restore the glory of the kingdom of David; Jesus did indeed have the power to do all that. But that would be to ignore much of the body of prophecy which his disciples chose to ignore. Jesus did not however. Hence his own prophesy that he must be killed in Jerusalem in fulfillment of his claim to be the Messiah (but not the one to call everyone to arms). It seems only Jesus had this insight, to the horror of all who followed him. But then, look at today’s first reading, “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped…” 

And then look at the second reading today, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” That is certainly a recipe asking for trouble. Not to conform to the values of any age will encounter conflict. Look at today’s world, worshiping fame, money, power, drugs, instead of love of neighbor, peace, justice, care of the poor, widows, orphans. Christians have always been counter-cultural. One very clever take on this situation can be found in the 1989 French-Canadian movie Jésus de Montréal. There is even a scene where our Jesus figure, a highly accomplished but penniless actor, is being conducted around the top floor of a Montreal skyscraper by a wealthy lawyer. This man looks out over the city and declares that all this could be his because of his talent, if he but embrace the super-profitable Hollywood world of acting for money and fame rather then pursue the impoverished role he has undertaken instead.

Temptation is perhaps the theme here today. If we stripped away all the restrictions, if you want to call them that, of the Christian life, and lived another life of all for me and nobody or nothing else, one does wonder what it would be like. Charities would presumably vanish, widows and orphans would be ignored, starvation might well be unavoidable, and so on. The world of Ayn Rand would become a reality, and woe betide any of us who fall down in such a world. So two thoughts occur. One, am I a source of temptation to anyone else in any way at all? Do I flaunt my wealth or position? Am I considered to be “The Big I Am”? Or am I a victim of temptation, having brought misfortune upon myself and possibly others by giving in to it? That can range from something like eating the wrong things, to financial ruin for me and my family. If neither of these apply (and let’s hope that is true), then today’s readings will reinforce those Christian precepts we have freely embraced as life-giving and life-receiving. Note the strong language of Jesus today. Temptation can be so destructive that it can guide us into the jaws of eternal damnation. We must be ever alert to its presence, and be ever grateful for God’s help to battle and defeat it. Remember that the children of God, us, are always in the presence of our divine Father, always protective and always willing to guide.

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God the Father Blessing, Raphael 1508, Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, Perugia, Italy.

Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

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Roger

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16 AUGUST 2020: TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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“Crumby Dog”, Ally Barrett 2017, @Reverendally.

Click here to read today’s Sunday Mass Readings.

She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps
that fall from the table of their masters.”    Matthew 15:27.

Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.

A very interesting gospel today, seemingly showing Jesus reluctant to help a desperate woman seeking help for her young daughter. Let us do a sitz im leben analysis of this scene to begin to understand it. Today’s gospel begins by stating where Jesus was, “in the region of Tyre and Sidon”. If you look those two places up in the atlas, you will see today they are located on the Lebanese Mediterranean coast, south of the capital of Lebanon, Beirut. Just as a drama is depicted in today’s gospel, there is a major drama in that same area right now. A few days ago, Beirut suffered a gigantic explosion of dangerous chemicals which has killed and maimed hundreds of people in a huge area of the city. The president has appealed for help from the whole world, just as our “Canaanite” woman did to Jesus 2000 years ago. She would be Lebanese today. Just as Jesus was reluctant to respond to her then, we might be reluctant to help the Lebanese today. But as Jesus did, in fact, respond positively to her, so should we help them today…..

Now, today’s gospel indicates Jesus’ whereabouts for a good reason. Jesus has moved out of a predominantly Jewish area into a Gentile area. Perhaps it was to get a bit of peace and quiet after the dramas related in the gospels of the last few weeks. It was not to be, of course. His fame had clearly spread even to these pagan lands, as we see. It might well have been the first time that Jesus had left the Jewish lands where he had grown up. His confusion can be seen clearly in how he handled this situation. He understood his baptism in the Jordan as giving him his identity as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. Although messianic prophecies indicated that Gentile lands would also bow down to him, this was understood that they would come to him, not he to them. He had traveled to the coast for a little vacation, it can be assumed, not to bring his mission to the pagans. I think this was at the root of his untypical response to this desperate woman. He first kept silence, ignoring her completely. She persisted. Even his friends told him to tell her to clear off. He seems to agree with them, recalling his mission from God was exclusively to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”. She persisted still, again calling him “Lord” as if she were Jewish herself! She then collapsed into begging him for help. He now characterizes his mission as “Food for the children” not food for dogs, again a reference to his Jewish mission and the common attitude of the Jews towards Gentiles. She, even more desperate, grabs this as a possible chink in his armor, and, lawyer-like, states baldly that even dogs can eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table….. And that did it. At that moment Jesus saw through the fog of discrimination and hatred to the truth of hope and belief in every person, recognized her sincerity and authenticity, and granted that which she wanted more than anything else. He might even have thought of today’s first reading from Isaiah, supporting his action. The woman’s daughter was released from her crippling state. You might recall a similar desperate mother in that terrifying film, The Exorcist. It seems that the true story on which it was based happened to a Lutheran family. In desperation their minister sent them to a Catholic priest, a Jesuit it seems, for help. This also resulted, I believe, in a restoration of the child to normal life. Jesus’ outreach to everyone, as shown in the gospel, continues down to this day.

It could be said that this positive but hesitant step by Jesus towards the Gentiles was the foundation of the revolutionary outreach his followers were to show in the early years of the church. Indeed, the acceptance of Gentiles into the early, Jewish-Christian church almost led to its destruction. It took a council of that early church to handle the situation and come to a final decision to admit Gentiles as full members of the church. This has led to a present-day, world-wide church membership open to anyone, the modern Christian Church. The Jewish tradition has hardly ever called for missionary activity aimed at increasing converts. So Jesus’ hesitancy can be understood more easily when you consider the weight of tradition against which he embarked, beginning with today’s gospel passage. Had he not done so, think of the ways in which our lives and our world might have been utterly different, and almost certainly not for the better.

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The Canaanite Woman, Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, c.1489, Condé Museum, Chantilly, France.

Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

Please forward this webpage to those you think would appreciate it. Thank you.

Roger

© SundayMassReadings.com

9 AUGUST 2020: NINETEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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Jesus Walks on the Water, Aivazovsky, 1888, State Museum of Religious History, St Petersburg, Russian Federation.

Click here to see the (revised USCCB) webpage for today’s Sunday Mass Readings. 

[Jesus] said to [Peter], “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”   Matthew 14:31b.

Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.

Last week I mentioned the scholarly aversion to miracles, and offered their interpretation of the loaves and fishes miracle. Today, however, we have something entirely different. Remember a miracle is a work of God which confounds the natural laws under which we all live. One is that if you try to walk on water, you will sink! Well scholars are in a pickle when it comes to today’s gospel story of Jesus and, to some extent, Peter, walking on the water. One “explanation” is that Jesus projected a self-image of himself walking on the water (but no suggestion on how this could have been done)….. Another is that the disciples in the boat saw Jesus on the shore but with the tempest and mist and wind and darkness around them, they confused the shore with the water….. Another is that this began as a simple reunion story embellished with an Old Testament theme of God taming the waters in the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. Other scholars, probably in the majority, say that Jesus, Son of God, was above such laws of nature, and hence did, indeed, walk on the water. Well, the choice is yours. Remember that the Catholic Church still accepts miracles as divine intervention even today, but they have to be 1) instantaneous, 2) inexplicable, and 3) permanent. For example, the 2012 miraculous cure in France of Sister Marie-Simon Pierre of the French order of the Little Sisters of Catholic Maternity. Remember also that Catholic believers are not required to accept them as miracles, but it is hoped that they do strengthen our faith and hope in God. Well, given all that, what is today’s gospel message?

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Sea of Galilee looking west to the hills where Jesus went to pray.

But today’s gospel is indeed heavy with symbolism and meaning. The parallel with the book of Genesis is one such example. The waters of creation are in the very first words, verse 2: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” It is the ancients’ idea of total chaos. Their control over such waters was basically zero when at sea, and in storms they would be almost always begging God for delivery from imminent death. Now look at today’s gospel. The boat was being “tossed about by the waves” and the “Wind was against it”. They were way out at sea, by about a “few miles”, which is a long way. This event is recorded in two other gospels, one of which describes them as rowing (John 6:19), which is what you have to do if the wind is dead set against you. In other words, they were in a perilous situation presumably blown by the wind in the wrong direction as they were rowing, the situation where you start crying to God for help. And Jesus appears, walking over the very waves threatening them with death. When he gets into the boat, the “wind died down”. Anyone who has been through a life situation which was desperate and with little hope, and has appealed for God’s help, it comes. Now that not might be the help which is obvious – Jesus walking on the waves was not an obvious remedy – but the simple presence of the Lord, afforded by faith, makes any situation tolerable, for it carries the promise of eternal life and happiness, greater than any human crisis. All this is mirrored in the gospel; the wind died down as soon as Jesus got into the boat, prompting the confession of faith from his disciples: “Truly you are the Son of God”, the first time they had declared this. Note that they originally thought he was a ghost, not real. In other words, their fear of their perilous situation blinded them to God’s presence, another dynamic in the story. It seems that overwhelming fear might well crush any thought of God’s presence, another lesson from this story. Look at the first reading and see the clear parallel from the first reading, taken from the First Book of Kings. The second reading is connected also. St. Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome, laments that his fellow Israelites had the Lord in their midst but did not recognize him even after he had performed miracles before their very eyes, something only God can do. Paul seems to offer himself and even his faith for the sake of their conversion.

So we have a remarkable gospel message today, one that should occupy a special place in our Christian identity. Whenever things seems utterly overwhelming, desperate and hopeless, we should always be aware of the Lord walking clearly above such a turbulent maelstrom which no earthly power can control, but which he can, for he carries with him the ultimate hope and refuge for all who believe.

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Slide Player.

Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

Please forward this webpage to those you think would appreciate it. Thank you.

Roger

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