The Worship of Mammon

The Worship of Mammon, Evelyn de Morgan 1909, De Morgan Centre, London, UK.

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Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”       Luke 16:13.

When I was on Wall Street, I felt empty. I tried to fill that hole inside me with money and power and prestige. But that hole doesn’t get filled by money — it gets filled by connection and empathy and love (Sam Polk: Why I walked away from Wall Street—and millions of dollars). Last Sunday I talked of Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge and their relentless pursuit of money to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. Marley realized his mistake in doing this on his deathbed; Scrooge relived his whole life (and its ending) with the help of his three spirits and came to the same conclusion, and knew what had to be done to make amends. Today’s readings carry the same message; in the gospel’s own words, You cannot serve both God and mammon. That word mammon comes to us directly from the Bible, and derives ultimately from the ancient Aramaic term for money or wealth. As a teacher of many years, I know that many young people are really focused on making as much money as possible, today even more so. The thinking is to make enough so that they will not retire into poverty and squalor, convinced that America’s social security funding will evaporate and knowing that many companies do not have pension schemes for their employees. So today’s perception of wealth seems to flying the face of Jesus’ words stating wealth contradicts God. So perhaps the whole question rests on Jesus’ use of the verb serve. Does one serve wealth or God? Is our priority here to make money exclusively or to be true to the gospel? 

In the same 1951 Christmas Carol movie I drew upon last week, Scrooge’s first two efforts to atone when he woke up on that Christmas Morning (following his nightmarish adventure) were to send a huge turkey as a gift, anonymously, to his clerk Bob Cratchit; the other, on the same day, was to give his housekeeper Mrs. Dilber a present into her hand of a gold sovereign (a valuable gold coin in circulation at that time) and a raise in wages.

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A Christmas Carol, Renown Pictures Corporation 1951,  Alastair Sim & Kathleen Harrison.

Her incredulity at the change in Scrooge’s temperament and attitude can be seen clearly: is this the same man who has treated me so poorly for years? Scrooge himself cannot believe the change within himself; he even says he doesn’t deserve to feel so happy as he plans his new life! What he does, of course, is immediately to help those around him whom he has abused for so long. At long last he has recognized and accepted their dignity and given them the respect that every person deserves, including even his own family. So the question is, is that incompatible with making money, with making a living? Clearly not. It is legitimate and necessary to earn enough to keep body and soul together so long as we never forget those around us who are not so fortunate. Christians have an obligation to assist others who are in need, even if it does hurt somewhat to give of one’s own wealth. Remember the story about the widow’s mite and Jesus’ teaching that we should give of our substance, not just “contribute” where we would not really miss the amount. In other words, we have to intend to be and actually be generous, and hence be pleasing in God’s eyes, especially if no-one knows about it except God…  So this means that wealth – mammon – is not the beast in charge of our lives, but rather our servant, slave even, actually helping us to become true Christians, loving God and neighbor and also ourselves in appropriate and unselfish ways. And so it, mammon, wealth, serves us rather than the other way round. As a consequence, we should be able to achieve the peace that the second reading today talks about, when St Paul says, “It is my wish, then, that in every place we should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.” 

22.4.2010: Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

The Widow’s Mite, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo c.500, Ravenna, Italy.


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The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Poussin 1634, National Gallery, London, UK.

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Jesus said, “In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”         Luke 15:10.

In the 1951 superb movie of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, there is a scene where Ebenezer Scrooge goes to his business partner, Jacob Marley’s house as he had been told several hours before that Jacob was dying. Refusing to close his office early, Scrooge waited until his 7:30 closing hour in the evening to go see his partner for the last time. Gasping for breath, Marley utters his last words: “We were wrong”.

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A Christmas Carol, Renown Pictures Corporation 1951,  Alastair Sim & Michael Hordern.

Scrooge laughs this off, “Well we can’t be right all the time” and thinks no more of it. Marley, of course, is referring to their entire business history, where they concentrated simply and solely on making money, no matter what. They had no thought of the distress and pain of others; if it didn’t make them money they were not interested. On his deathbed, Jacob Marley had come to this deadly realization that his entire life was an abomination in the eyes of God. Dickens’ entire story, of course, is the slow path Scrooge himself goes down to reach the same conclusion, with the help of the famous three spirits, but with time left to make amends. Today’s readings give scriptural support to that same journey. The golden calf in today’s first reading easily stands in for Marley’s deathbed vision of a life spent worshipping money; St. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, today’s second reading, agonizes over his earlier life when he persecuted the followers of Jesus before being saved by the grace of God, hence a parallel to Scrooge’s journey to redemption. And then today’s gospel with the joy that God and the angels feel at the sinner coming to his senses and being saved by God’s mercy. 

So once more we come to the grim reality of the condition of remorse. Marley experienced it too late (though God’s mercy is unlimited and incomprehensible). And Scrooge’s abounding joy as he experiences for the first time the genuine love of his neighbors and his family, having plumbed the depth of remorse during his conversion. I am reminded of another example of remorse. Dr. Samuel Johnson, creator of one of the first dictionaries of the English Language, and one of the great minds of his time, grew up in a poor family in the north of England in the 18th century. His father was an itinerant bookseller, going from town to town and setting up shop in marketplaces. Young Samuel was too proud to help his father, refusing to stand in for him when he was ill. As an adult, of course, he realized his arrogance and misplaced pride, and suffered from the deepest remorse. One way he handled it this is shown here:

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Dr. Johnson Doing Penance in the Market Place of Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, Eyre Crowe 1869, Dr. Johnson’s House, London, UK. 

He did penance, in his own words: Pride was the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago I desired to atone for this fault. I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain on the spot where my father’s stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory. (Boswell’s Life of Johnson, 1786). Remorse is, I think, a taste of hell. It is a realization that we have done wrong, cannot undo that wrong, and yet yearn to do something, anything, to make amends. For all the pain which accompanies it, it can lead to a better life. So in a strange way, it is a life-giving pain. The rejoicing in heaven when even one of us going through such a painful transition to a much happier, self-fulfilling state, now aware of God’s other children around us, is considerable, as the gospel says. Each one of us is that single sheep from today’s gospel, so precious in the eyes of the Lord that the others are left in their self-righteousness to get on with it; each of us is that lost coin, with God searching and searching for us until we are found, until we recognize our dependence on the Lord’s mercy. Remember the definition of mercy, compassion on someone who does not deserve it. We are each that precious in the eyes of the Lord. 


Rescue of the Lost Lamb, Minerva Teichert, 1939, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. USA.


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The Institution of the Eucharist, Tiepolo 1753, National Gallery of Art, Copenhagen, Denmark.

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Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”  Luke 14:26.

“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you  thousand times”…. “Oh my, this shopping weighs a ton” … “If I said that at home my father would kill me” … “Your husband is as thin as a rake”. A thousand times? A ton? Kill?rake? I wonder what the world would be like without hyperbole; certainly duller, less vivid, more boring. How about this:

“Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No. This my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.”     Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act II, Scene II.

Over-exaggeration has been around for a very long time, and it seems to have found a home in today’s gospel. But this is a hard passage nevertheless. Jesus seems to be saying it is a prerequisite to hate just about everyone before one can become a Christian! Clearly the literal meaning cannot be taken as Jesus’ real meaning. But a scene from Robert Bolt’s masterpiece A Man For All Seasons comes to mind. Thomas More, ex-Chancellor of England, once the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king (Henry VIII) himself, is confined to the Tower of London for refusing to swear to the Act of Parliament acknowledging Henry to be head of the Church. He will not say that; he simply refuses to sign the document stating it. To deny it out loud would be construed as treason, the penalty for which is death by hanging, drawing and quartering. Imprisonment is the punishment for refusal to sign. But his family is allowed to visit him. They have been allowed on condition they try to convince More to sign on the dotted line. He refuses. His wife and children think he must hate them for so refusing. Not so; he, a lawyer, states that if there were the slightest little chink in the Act which would allow him to sign, he would, and then be would be back with them. There isn’t: it’s watertight. If he signed it, he would be betraying that which he holds dearest, his faith in Jesus and his vicar on earth, the Pope (still one of the Pope’s titles to this day). He holds true to his belief, is found guilty of treason in court as a result of a witness’s perjury, is condemned, and is executed (commuted to beheading). Did he “hate” his family? Very clearly no. Might it look that way? Possibly to someone not familiar with true belief, but it would not be true.

I believe that Thomas More’s faith is the type of faith Jesus is talking about today. Are we prepared to go to the wall in defense of our belief in him? All the church’s martyrs have through the centuries. Have they all hated those dearest to them. It would be nonsense to think so. But in today’s teaching, it is clear that Jesus expects us to be rock solid in our belief, which is not hyperbole! And that is the challenge thrown at us this Sunday. Is there within each of us a permanent, absolute faith in the Lord which nothing on earth could move? It is said that only at times of great challenge, whatever it might be: terrible illness, unexpected death of someone close, financial ruin, whatever, it is only then that any one of us knows if we have such faith. Let us pray that none of us ever has to go through such a trial (we pray for that every time we say the Lord’s prayer). But it is crystal clear what Jesus’ expectation of us is at such times. He comes first, last and always, no matter what, as seen in today’s illustration above. The focus is on the self-giving Jesus surrounded by faithful companions, save for the one at the right hand side, who has chosen another path. The other two readings seem to flesh out the implications of today’s gospel. The Book of Wisdom states clearly that the things of this world, its worries and concerns, are real and might obstruct the vision of heaven.  But if we can rise above them, then, according to the second reading, written apparently by Paul when an old man, a prisoner and awaiting death, anything is possible. Paul is sending his servant (possibly a slave) back to Philemon even though he needs assistance in his old age. But Onesimus is clearly more than a servant; he has been instructed in the faith of Christ and is now a disciple able to bring others to the freedom of Christ. Hence Paul would have thought himself selfish to have retained him. He is able to rise above that, and think of others. Hence focus on Christ seems inevitably to lead to the needs of others and the challenge that offers to each of us. And at that point, we return to Jesus’ teaching. We should sit down and think about our commitment to him. Just like the man building a tower or a king figuring out how to deal with a threat, Jesus seems to be saying that we, like them, are called to estimate our commitment to the Lord and whether we can indeed rise to the occasion. 

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“Totus Tuus” (Totally Yours). Two Dominican sisters joining Lansing Catholic High School.


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Soup Soul, Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, Holy Apostles Church, New York City, USA. 

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[Jesus said] Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind…         Luke 14:13

A new book has just been published, Dominion: the Making of the Western Mind, by British author Tom Holland. He has some startling observations to make about how Christianity contains two deeply radical concepts which have shaped western civilization right to the present time. One, from Jewish roots, that God created us in the divine image, hence every human being has an inherent, unassailable human dignity, and the other from the Lord himself, that the lowest of the low enjoy a potential relationship which is closer to God that any king or pope. Jesus suffering the death of a common criminal in the most downtrodden, brutally disgusting way, yet emerging as savior of the world rocks the foundations of all philosophies which went before. There is a logic therefore in the development of the idea that every human being has rights which are unassailable. This foundational ideal springs directly from Scripture and (possibly unknowingly) is supported by people who would shudder at being called Christian. It could be said that even secularism, buoyed by belief in the welfare state, equal rights, individual human dignity, springs from this Christian ethic. The welfare state, care for the downtrodden, care for the sick, old age pensions, all these concepts spring from a deep-rooted belief in the dignity of the human person. Although we dislike paying the taxes which underpin all these ideals, it is unthinkable that people would be allowed to die in the street from lack of those services just mentioned. And where does such concern come from? Holland would say that they come from the Judeo-Christian ideals of human dignity and the need to care for each other, high-born or low.

Jesus’ radical command in today’s gospel feeds right into this concern which he taught us. Those among us with nothing, quite often through no fault of their own (poor education, weak health, little economic opportunity, etc.), are the responsibility of us all. Somehow we have to invite them to the table of dignity, greater opportunity, adult education – whatever it might be, to acknowledge that their human dignity demands such help. We with greater resources must on some level help those with less. It is our Christian – indeed human – responsibility. And it clearly aligns with Jesus’ teaching, crystal clear in today’s gospel. 

As a retired teacher, I see Jesus’ teaching today through my teacher’s eyes. I once worked in a Jesuit school in Washington DC. It was (and remains) very successful, with many more applying for places than are available. It is expensive to go there, but a good fifth of the students were granted substantial scholarships, some of them 100%. One student I remember especially. His family lived in one of the worst areas of the city. He was on a 100% scholarship. His father had vanished years before. His mother had MS. They were devout Catholics, even with holy pictures pinned (literally) to the walls. They had, essentially, nothing. He is now a professor of law at a leading university in the Midwest. I think that is what Jesus is talking about today. That student was invited to feast at the table of learning, respect, discovery, growth and development, and blossomed magnificently. And the money for such scholarships? It comes from the generosity of the alumni, most of whose parents could afford full tuitions. They see the truth at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, and recognize, accept and act on their own duty to help those with nothing. Both groups are all children of God, and must be treated as such. And this isn’t pinko liberalism; it is the heart of the Christian message, that we are all brothers and sisters under God, one great family. And family is what counts.


United Nations Flag Mural, University of Michigan, Dearborn, Michigan, USA.


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Last Judgement 1435, Stefan Lochner, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany

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The master of the house said, “I do not know where you are from.  Depart from me, all you evildoers!” And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth…  Luke 13:27.

Ah, the Last Judgement, a favorite of medieval artists, and more frequently met than paintings of the Resurrection! I’m afraid that the medieval concept of this event does not really align with our own ideas, if and when we ever even contemplate the Last Time. Devils having a super time grabbing and pitchforking unfortunates down to their just punishment, great maws of death awaiting (look at the bottom right-hand corner, the traditional spot for such depictions), fire always present, and so on. Then the justified good ones, being invited upwards by armies of angels amid music and (presumably) singing and rejoicing. Pretty clear cut, the choice offered us between bad and good, and we can never say we weren’t warned. In the picture above, Jesus looks away from that fiery scene as if to say “I told you so”.

Now considering the other two readings today, the emphasis seems not to be on the evil that men do, but rather the opportunities God has sent to us all, to avoid such calamity. Isaiah seems to be saying that salvation, set in a rather oblique future, will be offered to other, non-Jewish, communities, I looked up the strange names of those places, and they seemed to align with the missionary activity of St. Paul hundreds of years later. It has been suggested that Paul took Isaiah’s writings as a template for his missionary travels. On the other hand, the Letter to the Hebrews takes up the human reality of pain and failure, to cast it in a more positive mould, one that will allow us to become better people. It seems to suggest that if something horrible happens to us, we should look around and see if we might be able to act in a good way to please the Lord, no matter the circumstances (I don’t really believe God punishes us in this way; I think we do a wonderful job punishing ourselves. But I do see the benefit of us always being challenged to become better people, even from exceptional situations). There is a final plea to us readers to pick ourselves up, brush ourselves down and start all over again, presumably having learned our lesson. It seems to offer a recipe to help us deal with any bad thing that happens to us and asks what good can we make out of a bad situation. That seems to be a pretty positive course of action which might produce a better person out of any one of us and prevent us railing on about bad luck, being abandoned by God, and “why me?”.

Perhaps it would indeed be better to see what good can emerge from a bad situation. One example of this was a true story televised in 1992 which I gave to my Junior girl students each year. It concerned a wealthy young woman called Alison Gertz. She lived in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a very upscale part of the world. Her parents were business people, perhaps more concerned with their professional lives than their duties as parents of an adolescent girl, their only child. That girl, during a weekend when her parents were away at their house in the Hamptons (very expensive area on the south shore of Long Island), had a sexual experience with a barman who worked in a popular club in Manhattan. She became sick, and went through a harrowing set of tests to find out what was wrong; they found nothing. In desperation, the doctor tested her for AIDS. It was positive. She had AIDS. It was unbelievable. Girls never got it! Her first words on being diagnosed were “Oh my God, I’m going to die”. She plunged into deep depression, was angry at everything and everybody, screaming at her Dad for getting the wrong bandages; things like that. No-one could console her. She had a gay friend who stood by her, who once accidentally let slip a guilty thought. Half his friends had died in that plague, and nothing was being done. Then he said, “And nothing will be done until…..” “What?” asked Alison. “Until more people like you get it”, which of course was unhappily true. Alison however was still buried in despair and pain. Then another AIDS sufferer gave her a book to read, Love Medicine and Miracles by Dr. Bernie Siegel. Almost overnight she changed from an inward-looking, despairing emotionally crippled woman to someone who had a message for others because of what had happened to her. Meanwhile, Alison’s mother had became so upset at the idea that only gay people and druggies got AIDS, that she wrote to the New York Times to let them know what had happened to her daughter. That triggered a new life for Alison, speaking to school assemblies and others about the danger she had fallen victim to. Her depression was transformed into missionary zeal to prevent this happening to anyone else. No more inward-looking, highly negative focus on self, but a much more healthy concern about others and what she could do about it.

All this is to support what I mean by saying that out of even such shatteringly negative, painful, terrible events, goodness can emerge, and helping others once more becomes a true source of hope and even happiness. However, Alison did fall victim to the dread disease in the same year the TV movie was broadcast. But the good she had achieved she took with her, not despair, not  hopelessness. Not the bottom right of the painting above, but the top left….


Alison Gertz, 1966-1992.


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Chapel of Justice and Peace, the Emmerson Memorial Window, Ripon Anglican Cathedral, Ripon, UK.

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Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.     Luke 12:51

At face value, today’s gospel seems to be an anti-gospel. The Prince of Peace announces he is bringing division, that he has come to set the world on fire and wishes it had already begun! But just glance at the magnificent stained-glass window above; here is that same Prince, with all five wounds clearly visible, carrying a sword of fire and surrounded by flames. In the eyes of faith, something else is seen. It is Jesus surrounded and supported by the fire-image of God’s Holy Spirit, the same fire as appeared in the pivotal event of Pentecost, without which there would be no church at all. There are multiple images and realities for fire. Simply taming it and using it in primitive societies was a major advance. Fire became central and essential to the Industrial Revolution (think blast furnaces, steam power), and powers the internal combustion engine and the jet engine (at least for now). Then also there is the fire inferno of Hiroshima; the destructive power of fire is as immense as its constructive power. So which fire is Jesus talking about? Pretty clear, one would think. But then there is the “division” idea of today’s gospel. That’s the opposite of unity, which is normally considered to be a good thing; division, not. This one is trickier.

Looking through other people’s ideas concerning this gospel’s idea of division, there is quite a broad spectrum of opinion, some of it extremely controversial. God wants us all to be good people so that we can simply be happy with our lives, following God’s rules which are the template for true happiness. At root, as Jesus said, it means service. We are all here to serve each other. Jesus himself called himself a servant, and even washed his friends’ feet to prove the point. That very simple, profound, teaching can cause division. If I am in the world to see what I can get out of it for myself, there is the division between me and God. It condemns me to a life of selfish acquisition, envy of those who have more, greed beyond telling and a life of emptiness and loneliness surrounded by people after my wealth. That sort of life is what the fire of the Holy Spirit should transform. That is, I believe, what lies behind Jesus’ inflammatory teaching today. His own life was the source of jealousy among the leaders of his own people, jealous of his success, jealous of his powers, angry at their own inability to counteract it or parallel it. His wounds are the result of that hatred. How divisive is that? I have seen in my now-long life, that goodness sometimes inspires suspicion, even hate. It is weird. Why would good actions result in such evil? I can only imagine that those who react negatively to others’ good deeds are, perhaps unconsciously, comparing it to the selfishness in their own life, and in some strange way blaming that on the good in others. It doesn’t make sense, but we are not dealing with reason here. As Jesus says, this kind of reaction can even occur in those closest to us. Hence Jesus’ idea of division. It is only by establishing a community of trust and love that the division appears between good and bad, and hence the opportunity for the bad to recognize their state and do something about it. In other words, there is more in this life than me.

Remember that fire is used in the refining of metals, even gold. It makes the metal pure, cleansed of impurities that almost no other technique can achieve. But the first step of such cleansing in us must come from us. We are free agents, one of God’s greatest gifts. So look around, and if we find any of the nonsense I’ve talked about above can apply to any of us, including me, then we can open up to God’s cleansing fire to rid ourselves of that which makes us unhappy, impure. That’s why Jesus says he wishes the fire was burning (in us) already. So today is a clarion call for action, Jesus using some of the strongest language in the gospels. That invites us to the same strength to examine ourselves, and we know how to deal with whatever division we might find that is against God, then to open ourselves up to God’s unifying, purifying and recreating fire of holiness and true happiness.


Holy Spirit Fire in Red, gerardnatal.com.


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Medieval Gilded Cross, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.

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[Jesus said], “You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”     Luke 12:40.

Today’s readings seem to suggest that we should expect the unexpected as best we can. Poor old Abram in today’s first reading was certainly not ready for the unexpected when an unknown voice (God’s first direct intervention in human history) told the 75-year old to up and leave his home for a distant unknown country (see Genesis 12). But apparently there was enough authority in that voice to convince Abram – later Abraham – to do exactly that and thus salvation history began. The second reading assures us that decisions and actions based on trust in God and faith in God’s love will result in great benefit to us. Then today’s gospel. Jesus tells us that each of us must be like a servant of God, doing God’s will rather than our own, as that is what a servant must do. Doing that we will never have to look over our shoulder to see if the Master is returning or not. We don’t know when that magic moment will be, but, says Jesus, we must be ready for it at all times. Indeed, the Lord goes much further than that. The Master, finding his servants doing what is right, and what he wants each of them to be doing, will now proceed to serve them!  This carries over the thoughts from the first two readings, where the promised benefits actually materialized. But Jesus was talking, it seems, both about this life (the servants doing the work required of them by the Master) and the next, where the Master has at long last appeared and has rewarded their loyalty and trust.

Then, of course, there is also the possibility that the servants do the opposite, and indulge in illegal, self-focussed, feasting and merriment in contradiction to the Master’s wishes. Well, he’s not around, they probably think, and so who would know? Today Jesus allows us to ponder the fate of those who were not obeying the Master (but tells us abundantly in other passages). So what service are we required to give? Well, that’s not the focus of today’s scriptures, but it never hurts to be reminded. We are all called to service of each other. We are to do that utilizing the gifts each of us was given by God at birth. Some of us have more, some less, in God’s mysterious plan for us all. But we must develop those gifts into skills (which is what education is all about), and with those, serve those around us. Doing that is what we servants are called to do until the Master returns. Remember the focus here is to serve others, not ourselves. We rightfully expect a just wage for all that, but it must be clearly earned in that specific other-oriented fashion. That, almost accidentally, is also the recipe for a happy life. Jesus would not call us to a life of misery and squalor. If we are condemned to that, then we must be helped out of it by those who are able to help, and enable those unhappy souls to achieve dignity and self-respect, as they can then encounter the fulfillment of helping other people and become good servants themselves.

So today’s message simply reminds us of our greatest obligation in this life, to respect  the dignity of others, to help them (as we ourselves accept help) and to fulfill God’s individual plan for each one of us. Therein lies our happiness and the satisfaction of a life well lived obeying God’s law.




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Alone on the Shore, Pixabay

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[Jesus said] “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”   Luke 12:15

It is often said that Christianity is counter-cultural. Today’s readings certainly support that idea. Jesus tells the tale of a man who works hard to build up his fortune, his belongings, only to have God call him from this life before he can enjoy it all. Pitch that against an average night’s ads on TV. They all state quite clearly that we are what we own, because “I’m so beautiful” or because “I’m worth it”. In its way, maybe today’s gospel message is all about the 10th Commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods”. Put in a more positive light, God instructs us to be happy for our neighbor’s success, not resentful or envious. The one is positive, the other destructively negative. 

When I was teaching, I would give my students an exercise each year to bring all this to light. They were instructed to ask their parents, and their parents’ friends a simple question: “Are you happy in your work?” If the answer was in the affirmative, they were to ask why. If in the negative, they were told that they should be most careful with their questions, because they were dealing with someone in pain. But they were to ask as discretely as possible why they were unhappy. Over the years, I heard that the overwhelming majority of people were, indeed, happy. And the overwhelming reason was very simple, because they were helping people. One negative response I clearly remember to this day fits, I think, perfectly into today’s message. This student interviewed her uncle. He was the wealthiest member of the family. He was a merchant banker on Wall Street. He had the biggest and best house in the family. His children had all the latest gadgets, and so on and on. She asked him was he happy in his work? Answer: No. She was astonished, and had no idea that this was the case. He stated clearly that he did not want to get out of bed each Monday morning to go to work. She delicately asked him the reason why. He stated clearly that he had always wanted to be a chef! The offer of a Wall Street job came along unexpectedly, and everyone in and out of the family told him to take it, that it was the opportunity of a lifetime, he would be an idiot not to take it, and so on. So he did, and regretted it ever after. And now he was trapped; a chef would never make as much money as a Wall Street banker, and his family would suffer if he changed. And I’ll never forget her final sentence, that she now understood why, at family cookouts, she would see him in his chef’s hat, creating and serving their food with the broadest smile on his face. It was heartbreaking. No doubt he was helping others in his Wall Street job, but that was not the way he (and I might add, possibly God) wanted it. The objective of this school exercise was to bring home to my students that one’s life work was not to earn as much money as possible, but to find a job providing as much personal satisfaction as possible, and this always seems to mean helping others; to be, in fact, the servant of others, just as Jesus described himself. In that way, happiness is to be found, and God’s will for us, obeyed. Monetary reward must always be secondary. It is certainly important, but should not be predominant. In another passage Jesus summed this up concisely. Matthew 16:26 says this: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” This has also been taken as the touchstone in the trial of Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s superb drama Man for All Seasons. Sir Richard Rich perjures himself in the treason trial of More and effectively condemns him to death. As Rich walks out of the court, More notices he is wearing a Red Dragon chain of office (the red dragon is a symbol of the Principality of Wales). He asks, and is told the Rich has been made Attorney General for Wales, clearly the price for his perjury. More says in the play, “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales?” 

The other readings today echo this thought. Today’s reading from Ecclesiastes says, “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities!  All things are vanity!” Meaning to labor for a lifetime we still have to leave it all after death. Colossians tells us to “Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.” It seems that all this is an appeal to basics. Is life to be acquisitive, reaching always for more, getting richer and richer as the goal? Some would say this is the reigning ideal today, that young people look and hope only for the best paying job, no matter what. Jesus’ teachings and my own little bit of research suggest strongly that this is not the way to personal satisfaction and happiness. A life of service, based of God’s gifts, and talents, which might or might not lead to riches, should be the goal, as it will bring the happiness and fulfillment which comes from obeying the Lord instead of our own desires. 

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Man for All Seasons, Highland Films 1966, 7 BAFTAs, 6 Oscars.


The Red Dragon of Wales.


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The Pater Noster Church, Jerusalem, Israel, https://www.go-telaviv.com/monastery-jerusalem.html

For this Sunday’s Mass Readings, Click Here.

[Jesus] said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name….”

Today’s Mass has the other version of the Lord’s Prayer. The better known one is to be found in Matthew 6:9–13, which is the traditional version familiar to everyone, though with many variations in the translation from the original Greek. It is the central Christian prayer, given to us by Jesus himself, and in its way sums up the whole Christian message. That is why the Pater Noster (Our Father in Latin) Church in Jerusalem has the prayer displayed in dozens of languages, as seen above. It is located where tradition has it Jesus first proclaimed the prayer. Luke’s version goes this way:

Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread;

and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us;

and lead us not into temptation.

It is tempting to suggest that these verses are the essence of the prayer. In some way they echo the 10 Commandments. First allegiance is to God in both versions; there is a petition for sustenance, then a plea for forgiveness, suggesting breaches of one or more of the commandments, then the enigmaticlead us not into temptation” which Pope Francis has talked about, suggesting that it means a plea for protection against evil. Note that Jesus tells us it is fine to ask God for essentials such as daily bread and forgiveness, but that praise and thanksgiving come first. But the readings expand on the petitionary nature of prayer, and what one should do in asking God for blessing.  Which inevitably leads us to the challenge of unanswered prayer. Who has not experienced that? Jesus is definite in today’s gospel that prayer is answered, “ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” So what is the response to that? Are all our prayers answered? In my experience, and almost certainly yours, the answer is no, they are not. Firstly, of course, certain prayers are unacceptable. Prayers to win the lottery, for example, are not appropriate. Any prayer which is not God-related cannot expect an answer. But what of prayers for a child who is dying, or a prayer to end persecution or war? In some cases, the cause is human, and so the solution will be human also, as in the case of war. But a completely innocent child dying is something else. That is where challenge to faith comes in, as we are asking for something utterly removed from any human cause or cure; such suffering is hard to understand or accept and being helpless in the face of it is well nigh impossible to accept. God is the only recourse, and if nothing happens, and the child dies, there lies the deep challenge to faith. Why didn’t God use divine power to save the child? It is just about the deepest mystery we experience, because there is no readily acceptable explanation.

One “explanation” is the appeal to the freedom God has given us, and to all creation. God established our universe in all its diversity and grandeur, set it in motion, and, it seems, basically stood back. Hence we are able to define ourselves and our lives, decide and choose in complete freedom, unlike the rest of creation, governed by absolute laws of physics. Hence non-human mammals must nourish their offspring, nothing is faster than light, microscopic life takes advantage in whatever environment it finds itself, and so on. Hence we see disease and suffering in our human bodies when invaded by such destructive viruses obeying the inexorable law of freedom within those laws. So we pray in that circumstance for God to suspend the very divine laws initiated at creation. Sometimes, very rarely, that has happened, something we call a miracle. On the other hand, our own unique human freedom can – and has – tackled such destructive threats to our health and has made progress in many areas. In other words, we are using our own God-given powers to deal with the sometime unhappy consequences of the same divine laws under which we all live. There are still many problems, but progress continues to be made. In the meantime, we must live with our failures to solve all these problems, bearing in mind our rock solid belief in life conquering death.

Expanding on that last thought I move to a quote from Christian literature, namely The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. This is the passage, spoken by a senior devil to his apprentice: “Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” It refers to Jesus on the cross having begged God to have removed this dreadful death from him, the agony in the garden, but the prayer was not granted. He was utterly innocent, had done no wrong, yet was condemned to a monstrous and unwarranted punishment. That can be transferred to an innocent young child too, equally completely undeserving of a terrible fate. In Jesus’ case, he conquered death itself by succumbing to death, the Christian answer to mortality in all its manifestations. Death is not the end, this says. It is rather, a change. Life conquering death is at the heart of the Christian message, the reason we persist even in the face of terrible suffering. In the Christian tradition we have a solid belief that life can conquer all, hence we can face the worst that can be thrown at us. Ultimately we will survive all the evil that may come our way. Hope and faith, consequently, are the weapons in our armory, with love as the driving force. Is it possible that the human Jesus was surprised when he awoke from death on that first Easter Sunday? All evil was passed and irrelevant; life was supreme for all time. This is from the Preface for Christian Death from the Mass of the Resurrection: “In him, who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection dawned. The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.” This, then, is the meaning behind the final line of the Our Father: “…and lead us not into temptation.”  – where we might be protected from the temptation to abandon faith in God when some terrible situation comes upon us. It is there that our Christian faith and hope will triumph.


The Hope of Resurrection, Murrumbeena Uniting Church.


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