A handful of wheat, a fistful of mustard seeds, a pinch of yeast. Jesus uses these beautiful things to say something amazing about the Kingdom of God. He begins with the great reassurance that love is invincible. No matter how small the beginning, no matter how vulnerable or threatened the middle, the end is never in doubt. In life and in death, the Kingdom will come and Gods' will, will be done.
Next. He will not allow us to take a simplistic, no grey in the middle, view of the world. We are all complicated. There is no neat division of people into the 'good' and the 'bad'. We are all a strange mixture of both. Take the first disciples as an example. One moment they are all over Jesus like a rash, then they are following at a distance or not following Him at all. And if we are honest, we don't always go along with Holy things. We drift from time to time. The Great Reassurance of God walks with the Great Not-So-Sureness of the human heart.
And so the struggle goes on. Or the struggle goes well. It is a struggle for bread, for shelter and for Compassion. Only the Wisdom which allows the wheat and darnell to remain intertwined can make this happen. This Wisdom puts us in a place of unending repentance as we await the time of harvest.
This invitation to unending repentance is one of the big themes of Saint Matthews Gospel. It is an invitation to shake ourselves free of anything in us which causes hunger, homelessness and despair. And when we have completed this work, we start all over again. This labour goes on and on throughout our lives. This is why, when we leave the retreat centre, full of good intentions and two minutes into the journey home we are screaming at someone who cut us up on the road, we smile. Or we leave Holy Mass full of love, kindness and consideration which evaporates the minute someone presses the wrong buttons. We smile! How many times have we witnessed Saint Peter proclaim his love unto death for Jesus being chastened and illuminated by his own betrayal. Perhaps we dream more than we can do. Perhaps not.
In the teaching of Jesus weeds and wheat grow together. Small seeds become huge trees. Leaven raises dead dough into bread. All are given the gift of time. Time to try again. Time to become repeat repenters and not just repeat offenders. But one day the time will run out and the urgency of the struggle is clear. We all fail and we are all ashamed of the failing within us. But we must not give up on ourselves. Out of our errors and frailty come some of life's most important lessons. There is a freedom that awaits us. It can only be found by those who carry the light, of a certain kind of love, into darkened places.
Jesus leaves the house (church) where the converted are gathered, and goes to sea. He is looking for fish, and they arrive in large numbers. So, Jesus, who likes to fish for people, begins to teach from a boat.
Jesus teaches many things using Parables, which are a soup mix of conventional knowledge and spiritual wisdom. He draws on what is already familiar, what people know best. But Parables are not just stories. They make demands on those who listen to them. They might draw on farming, legal situations, family conflicts and weather etc, but there is always something about them which is a little strange. Today’s Gospel Reading is a great example of this strangeness. It's a farming Parable, but it's not about a careful farmer. This one is wild and reckless and yet, the yield abundant. This is a clue that the listener is being invited to go deeper. The invitation, 'Let anyone with ears listen!' means the Parable is over and the struggle to understand it has begun.
For many reasons, some people get the Parables and some don't. The spiritual teacher helps the disciple to move towards a deeper understanding and a new awareness. But not everyone wants to be helped. Some harden their hearts against the deeper meanings in the Parable for fear that a new and higher consciousness might demand a change in lifestyle. Against such as these, even the Divine Teacher is powerless.
It has been said that there are basically two kinds of teachers; those who love teaching and those who love their students. Those who love teaching are never short of words, details and explanations. They make objections with one breath and answer them in the next. They can often be funny and charming individuals who really like the sound of their own voice. They will take questions but only because it gives them a chance to talk more!
Those who love the students talk less and listen more. They are too busy feeling for the student’s level of understanding, for blocks to their advancement, for paths that may be taken and paths that may be avoided. They are experts is knowing the person who sits beside them. They see what is needed but they do not say it out loud. What they say is said only to support the student to discover the next step. The teacher who loves the student provides the right conditions for an inner revelation. If they can follow the clues, they will come to know for themselves and not be overly dependent on the insights of others. Good Parents are especially good at this.
When Jesus tells Parables, He is clearly a spiritual teacher who loves His disciples. The Parables do not give up their secrets too easily. They invite a wrestling match. They are not just information. They require engagement. But for Saint Matthew there is a third Person in the ring. The Holy Spirit is working from the inside out to 'reveal these things to us?' And the reason we know that Jesus is the kind of Teacher who loves his disciples is that He powerfully introduces them to the presence of God in the depth of their own being.
Jesus found out that, no matter what you do, you just can't please some people. His beautiful teaching is rejected by the religious and political elite. They bypass the beauty of His Word because they prefer to sit in cafes and bars making dark judgements. They are learned and clever about the 613 dictates of the Law. They tithe herbs to God but ignore the justice God longs for. They like being in charge. They like to be seen and seen as movers and shakers. They like telling other people what they ought to be doing. But they are only interested in the outside of the cup. They are masters of the detail, obsessing over surface rather than depth.
If anyone should come to them with a new idea, it is rejected if it doesn't fit in with how they see things. And surely how they see things is the only way to see things. Experts at categorising others for exclusion, they are clever enough to maintain their own position of privilege. They argue endlessly about God, Morality and Theology, not because they want to Grow in Wisdom, but to keep God at a distance. They never ever come to Jesus seeking the truth. They come to compete and to try to trap Jesus in a maze of their own making.
But Jesus teaching is being accepted by those who are not 'learned' or 'clever'. Jesus praises His Father for working in this way and decides that, if the Father hides and reveals in this way, this is how the Mission of the Son should unfold.
The mind of a child is eager and open. It is not cluttered or defensive. The mind of a child is always changing and growing and adapting to novelty. But most importantly, the mind of a child is relational. This openness gives the Father huge pleasure, so He pours life and love into the hearts of those with a child mind. If they find pleasure in God, they will effortlessly walk the pathways of Justice and Peace.
Jesus exemplifies this child mind. He stretches out His hands to those who struggle to be good by conforming to the endless petty laws that defeat, rather than nurture, the human spirit. He calls all who have lost their taste for life to the banquet. He has a special place in His heart for those who are suffering, especially those whose suffering have caused them to lose heart. He offers them the rest which unfolds from a profound intimate relationship with His Father.
I do believe that Jesus still speaks to the many who are weary and exhausted today. Those who have to work too many hours. Those who are so anxious that they cannot rest. Those who believe they have to always be in control, and who can't trust enough to let go. He teaches that we can rest by disengaging from our mighty egos and becoming like children who are pleased to be carried. It's like your starting in Footsteps, but this time, you know you are!
Many poets have played with this experience of inner rest. Rainer Maria Rilke, in his 'Selected Poems' reflects on the experience of inner rest. He describes the awkward labouring steps of the swan walking on land. Who then,
.... let's herself down into the water, which receives her gaily and which flows joyfully under, and after her, wave after wave, while the swan, unmoved and marvellously calm, is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown. (p.141)
And DH Lawrence in his 'Pax', speaks of -
... a cat asleep on a chair, at peace, at peace ... Sleeping on the hearth of the living world, yawning at home before the fire of life feeling the presence of the living God like a great reassurance a deep calm in the heart. (p.700)
I always ask people who are celebrating their birthday, if they can hear the Song the Angels Sang on the day that they were born!
After that, we are given the Gift of our Name. I always make something of this in the Celebration of Baptism. I explore that reason a name has been chosen and it's meaning for the little one. Everybody's name means something. Mary (Myriam) has its roots in rebellion and means, 'the one who changes everything'. Peter means Rock and Paul means Small. Having a name means that I am somebody, worthy of tenderness and respect.
But knowing someone's name doesn't mean we know them. It is often recorded that the first disciples of Jesus betrayed him in the end. This can sometimes be used as a 'get out clause' for our own failures. Certainly, they are encouraging. But it is also true that all of them laid down their lives for him in the end. This is inspiring.
Notice how, in their moment of Grace, when they meet Him for the first time, Jesus gives them a new name.
We mirror this in the Celebration of Confirmation, when our young people will have a new name from The Lord!
The Psalmist puts it like this,
And you shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of The Lord
A Royal Diadem in the Hand of your God
And you shall be called by a new Name which the mouth of The Lord will Give.
Recently, a man heard The Lord call Him by a new name. It was Francis, and he has changed the face of the earth. As we give thanks to God for the keystone lives and work of Peter and Paul, might we ask how our own name gives us a great clue to our own Vocation.
And as for the first line of this reflection, keep listening and then sing along!
After so many Feasts, we return to Ordinary Time. The first words of the Gospel for this Sunday are an Instruction from the Teacher to His disciples. 'Do not be afraid'.
Funnily enough, this instruction is to be found in Sacred Scripture, exactly 365 times! One for every day of the year! (Except a leap year lol)
We must choose to be intentional disciples of Jesus or not. Do you know if you have done this yet? Check to make sure that you have really chosen to follow Him.
If our answer is yes, we must take into account that He does not offer a soft option. Persecution and suffering are as sure to follow the disciple as it did the Master. But, as St Paul reminded Timothy, the Word of the Lord cannot be sent to prison! (2 Tim 2,9). There will always be some who want to silence true disciples. 'They' want the words and deeds of Jesus to be stopped. But this will never happen. Sin may slow down Gods activity but it can never crush it.
Intentional disciples must carry this reassurance with them and deepen it in their hearts. We will have to face those who want to silence us. We might become objects of scorn, or gossip. We may lose our status, we might be laughed at or taken for fools. We might risk losing everything. All these things might make us afraid, but, as we overcome our fear, we will transform darkness into light, silence into sound, death into life.
But here's the thing. When Our Lord instructed his disciples to move without fear into the open with what they knew, he wasn't sending them out with information, facts and figures. He gave them a new identity as daughters and sons of their Father in Heaven. Children of God with hearts on Fire. What they have received, they must share with others. The future of humanity and of the earth depend on their passion and faithfulness.
Every intentional disciple of Jesus is blessed with and burdened with the truth He has revealed. If we choose Jesus, he unseats our souls, and makes us stand on housetops to share what we have received. The fire in our hearts will warm people in different ways. Intentional disciples love God more than the suffering they fear. We finally understand Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. He wants the cup to pass. He has no love affair with suffering. But his desire to unleash the power of love and reconciliation in the world means He has to go on. The Beloved Son of God cannot be silent in the face of persecution. What He has heard as Beloved Son of God must be told to every daughter and son. The more He prays, the more he realises what must be done, the more fear falls from Him, like drops of blood, watering the earth.
The Beloved Son of God makes His decision and asks us to do the same. What will we do?
Many are called, but most are frozen in corporate or collective cold.
These are the stalled who choose not to be chosen,
Except to be bought,
Except to be sold.
We eat a piece of bread - We drink a glass of wine - it becomes part of us.
It is evening on the first day of the week. Remember that St. Johns Gospel is rewriting the creation story in Genesis. Earlier, the Beloved Disciple and Mary of Magdala realise that Jesus is with God. Now, they discover that He is also in their midst. Jesus is with God (ascension) and with them (resurrection) at the same time. He is the bridge connecting us with God. The Mediator between the Sacred and the Creation. He is as He has always been. 'And there was evening and there was morning, the first day'. (Genesis 1:5)
Notice how the first words He speaks are words of Peace! These words are spoken with the gesture of opening His hands and showing His side. He shows them what Love has done to Him. How the waters of new birth now flow from His Heart, to them and through them. They are being sent as He was sent. Staying in His Peace, and being faithful to the Love that has no end, will be their guide and their strength.
And then, when all has been said and done, there is really only one message that the new community has to bring. It is a message of forgiveness. This is the word that will make or break the new creation, just as it makes or breaks us. I turn once again to John O'Donoghue, who puts this call to lead in the work of reconciliation more beautifully than I could. It is his 'Blessing for Love in Time of Conflict'.
When the gentleness between you hardens,
And you fall out of your belonging to each other.
May the depths you have reached hold you still.
When no true word can be said, or heard,
and you mirror each other in the script of hurt.
When even the silence has become raw and torn,
may you hear again the echo of your first music.
When the weave of affection starts to unravel,
and anger begins to sear the ground between you.
Before the weather of grief
invites the dark seed of bitterness to find root
may your souls come to kiss.
Now is the time for one of you to be gracious,
to allow a kindness beyond thought and hurt.
Reach out with sure hands to take the chalice of your love
and carry it carefully through this echoless waste.
Until this winter pilgrimage leads you towards the gateway to spring.
The Teacher calls an inner circle of His disciples into the depth of Himself. To do this, He takes them up a high mountain, a favourite place for a meeting with God. Here, He is transfigured into light. The ‘three’ are given an astonishing gift – to see Jesus, the Beloved Son, in communion with His Abba. The gift is given so that they might grow in their desire to follow Jesus. It hasn’t been easy for them. What they are seeing is for their benefit.
But then more is given. Elijah and Moses arrive. They too like high mountains. In their own day they went there to talk with God and to find the wisdom to make God’s plan work with people who were highly resistant to them. Speaking on behalf of the ‘three’, Peter exclaims that it is great to be part of this event. But these are the words of someone who feels he is in over his head. The One they were shadowing is now even more attractive and, at the same time, a little bit scary!
Then even more is given. A cloud descends and now God is shadowing them. This is probably as close as you’re going to get to God. And then God speaks. He reveals the true name of this Jesus. It is the same name that was given at His Baptism in the Jordan, ‘My Son, the Beloved’. For disciples, this is a call to listen more attentively to what the Beloved Son is saying. This is the revelation.
And then, the moment of Grace ends, as they must. Now all they have is Jesus and the truth about Him. The vision has strengthened their understanding of Jesus as God’s Beloved Son and the inheritor of the law and the prophets. They know that Jesus has God’s seal of approval, but they have yet to understand the divine plan. Somehow, this is tied to the rather mysterious question of the Son of Man “rising from the dead”. And so, until they understand both the identity of Jesus and the divine plan, they are charged to be silent. They are, and yet they try to solve the puzzle amongst themselves. As do we!
I wonder if we might come closer to understanding in this way. Those who turn away from God are left in communities of loneliness. Loneliness brings panic, and, in their panic, people will try anything to fill the void they have made in their own lives. Grace reverses this process. People grounded in God do not know what it is like to be separated. Their communion fills them and propels them outwards. Instead of trying to grab and hold, they find joy in giving themselves. And here they discover one of life’s strangest truths, that the source of life is always available to those who walk with generous hearts before God. These are the ones who bring strength and healing to a broken and troubled world.
In the Transfiguration narrative Jesus radiates outwards. This is the sign of His communion with God. Neither God nor Jesus abandon this troubled world or her troubled people. They move in sync to restore what was lost. This is what disciples are meant to understand. That feeling grounded and at home and flowing into the world with compassion and blessing, they find a deeper compassion and more abundant blessing. Thus, the are transfigured with Christ.
Cyprian Smith states the case beautifully: “It is possible for human beings, living, thinking and acting in God, to think, see and do as God does. Instead of standing within the created world, looking in it for signs of a God who is outside it, we stand within God and it is the world that now appears outside, we are greater than it. It appears as a pale and imperfect reflection of the dazzling and brilliant truth in which we are living and making our home”.
(The Way of Paradox: Spiritual Life as Taught by Meister Eckhart.)
Jesus has just been baptised in the river Jordan and has heard a voice from heaven saying, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased' (Matt 3,17). But what does it mean to be the Beloved Son? The devil will have a few suggestions, but it is the Spirit who leads Jesus into this encounter with the devil. This 'testing' will serve The Spirits agenda and will deepen Jesus' understanding and commitment. The Tester first suggests that, as Beloved Son of God, Jesus should always be 'full'. And if he likes he can suspend any law he likes to make this happen. Jesus rejects the connection between being physically filled and being spiritually loved. Hungry or full, he will still be the Beloved Son. Empty, he will still be the Beloved Son.
Engraved on the pinnacle of the Temple are the wings of an eagle. As the wings of a mother eagle catch her young when they flutter in their first attempt to fly, the Tempter suggests that God will lift us his Beloved Son whenever he falls. As Beloved Son, Jesus will always be safe. The devil even quotes Scripture to bolster his case. He wants Jesus to presume on divine love and toy with danger. But Jesus thinks this way of thinking is ridiculous. You don't put yourself in danger so God can protect you. In the course of Jesus life, he will not be safe but neither will he waiver in his conviction that God loves him. Hurt, he will still be the Beloved Son.
So, for now, the devil plays his final card. He offers Jesus unlimited power over others. The price tag is that Jesus will fall on his knees and worship the devil. But Jesus is a Jew of the First Commandment and he rejects the Tempter and his seductive offer. Now, Jesus will have no political power and influence in the Kingdoms of the world. Powerless, he will still be the Beloved Son.
Temptations, like the ones above wait to ambush all of us in some way. They get to make the first move and can look like they are running the show. It's only on the third go that Jesus finds the strength to tell the devil to get lost. And isn't this our own experience. Sin pulls us along at great speed. We often describe this as being 'led astray'. We went along because for a moment we couldn't find the brake. We were no longer in charge of ourselves. So it doesn't really matter if it's a bit of gossip here, a little theft there, or some big deal which is sinful as well as criminal - what they all have in common is that they include the question of who we think we are. If we do not know who we are, we probably won't step back from the edge of the cliff.
What Jesus remembers is every word that comes from the mouth of God. Especially, he remembers the words he heard in the Jordan river. He has pondered these words in sacred time - forty days and nights - and has reached some amazing conclusions about what they mean. Only then can he push back and say “No”. Step one for us then seems to be an invitation to slow down. To create the spaces where we can know ourselves better, which should include being willing to hear from friends what they know of us. The Tempter will ask the same question. If you are loved by God, then .... And each of us has to be able to say, “Even if I am empty, hurting or powerless, or even dead; I am still loved by the Love that never fails".
Moses did not easily come to the Wisdom and understanding he is so sure of in today's first reading. He had to work hard at it. Even so, it is only a small step in the right direction! For while he invites the community to holiness of life, expressed in the refusal to hate, to be two faced or to be imprisoned by the need for revenge, he is still upholding club rules, which have yet to find their way to the world outside the community.
Over time, we begin to see hints that this teaching will be replaced by something better. And today's Gospel text from St Matthew is a fine example of this. So far, we have learned that balance demands an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This teaching was a major step towards controlling violence. Previously, the Law of Lamech prevailed, 'I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.' (Genesis 4,23) There was no equality in inflicted damage. But under the eye for an eye dictum, retribution was carefully measured.
The teaching of Jesus supersedes this now and disciples need to be careful that we don't go back to the older ways of Moses or Lamech! We are better supported in this regard when appreciate how clever the teaching of Jesus really is. He gives three examples of how to be creative when faced with violence in His own day. These clever actions are designed to change the balance of power from the violent in favour of the non- violent. Walter Wink, in his "Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination", writes,
'Turn your cheek, thus indicating to the one who backhands you that their attempt to shame you into servility has failed. Strip naked and parade out of court, thus taking the momentum out of the law and the whole debt economy and flipping them. Walk a second mile, surprising the occupation troops with a sudden challenge to their control.' p.185
There is an adventure in the teaching of Jesus and we don't need to be afraid that if we apply the same creativity to our own situation that we will be more vulnerable. The danger for the afraid is that we might talk ourselves out of following this light, or water it down so much as to make it worthless.
The Parable of the Snake is helpful here. The snake hears the stunning teaching of Jesus from a wandering preacher and immediately adopts a life of total non-violence. He will bite no one. When the local children realise that he won't bite, they begin to make fun of him and beat him with sticks every day. The snake is near death when the preacher returns and asks how he is doing. The snake tells the preacher of his heroic actions, expecting to be praised. But the preacher says, " I told you not to bite. I didn't say you couldn't rattle and hiss!"
We are always praising heroic Christians who have laid down their life for their faith. Perhaps it will prove wiser, over time, to praise clever Christians who are able to find new ways to bring non- violence and universal loving into stubborn hearts and stubborn systems. These amazing women and men hold these values with an inner strength. They combine them with experience and their knowledge of science and art. They show us how unseen paths open beneath our feet and how to surprise the worldly wise to new ways of living.
CATHOLIC PARISH OF ST JOSEPH & ST MARGARET CLITHEROW
St Joseph’s Church. 39 Braccan Walk, Bracknell, Berkshire, RG12 1HA (Directions)
Tel: 01344 425729
South Berkshire Pastoral Area
The parish is part of the Diocese of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust registered charity 246871
St Joseph’s Church. 39 Braccan Walk, Bracknell, Berkshire, RG12 1HA (Directions)
Tel: 01344 425729
South Berkshire Pastoral Area
The parish is part of the Diocese of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust registered charity 246871