Thursday, March 28, 2019

4th Sunday Lent Yr C The Parable of the Loving Father (Gospel: Lk 15:1-3, 11-32)

How do we talk about God? It is extremely difficult for us, if not impossible, because God is completely beyond our understanding. St. Thomas Aquinas was a great genius and wrote one of the greatest works of theology called the Summa Theologica. Towards the end of his life he had a vision of God, or heaven, and after that he stopped writing and he said ‘It’s all rubbish, we haven’t a clue!’ This is one of the reasons why Jesus spoke in parables, to try and give us some idea of what God is like. Today’s parable of the Prodigal Son is a particularly beautiful one.

This story could also be called ‘The parable of the forgiving Father.’ We usually tend to focus on the rebellious son. In asking for his inheritance, the son was basically telling his father that he wished he was already dead and so he wanted his inheritance now. Having insulted his father in the greatest way possible, he eventually comes back in hard times to ask forgiveness. Jesus says an interesting thing: ‘When he came to his senses’. He is telling us that we are only complete when we are in God, or coming towards God. The son realized he could come back.

Now the son is focusing on all he has done wrong, all the sin, all the insults to his family. The father looks beyond the sin and just loves his son. He does not condemn him, he does not ask for an apology, he doesn’t do anything that you would expect him to do. He just celebrates and loves his son. Maybe it should be called ‘The parable of the foolish Father’. The robe he gives his son is a symbol of honor. The ring is the symbol of power, the equivalent of being given the power of attorney. The sandals meant he was one of the family. Slaves did not have shoes. He was completely restoring his place in the family, as if nothing had happened.

This teaches me something about God in a very practical way. When I think of myself before God, I tend to do as the younger son did. I usually think only of the sins I have committed and my failings, rather than my strengths. But from the parable I realise that God’s approach to me is very different. God is not interested in my sin, or my weakness, or what I could have done better. He is interested in me as a person, and He rejoices and celebrates every time I come back to him, especially if I have drifted away from him. God rejoices in the child before him, like you would with a toddler. You don’t focus on what a small child has done wrong, you just see the child that you love.

Then there is also the older brother. In many ways I think most of us are probably more like the older brother than the younger. We probably haven’t done anything too outrageous; we may even have been quite faithful to our duties all through our life. But we may well despise those who have apparently walked away from God, and especially those who obviously do what is wrong and get away with it. Think of someone you may have read about in the papers who has done terrible wrong. Would you be happy to know that God completely forgives them if they repent, or would you resent it? Maybe we would rather see them punished. It is easy for us to resent the fact that God loves them. This is exactly what the Pharisees (who were the religious people of the time) were doing. They said, ‘Why is this prophet hanging around with those people. They are disgusting, they do everything wrong and they know it.’ This was what the older brother did. He resented the Father’s forgiveness. But the Father also loved him, forgave him and reached out to him. 

Through the parable, Jesus is showing us that that is not how God sees us. God does not act as we do and that is a hard thing to grasp, because we have probably never experienced that kind of unconditional love.

God is not interested in what we have done wrong. His desire is just that we are reconciled to him so that we can enjoy all that He has done for us and all that He has created for us. His design for us is that we find happiness. We have been created for happiness, which we will hopefully experience some of in this life, but only completely in the next. That is also why in the second reading the Apostles are at pains to point out that we have already been reconciled to God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. There is nothing we can do that God hasn’t already forgiven, so long as we turn to God and ask for that forgiveness. That is why we talk about forgiveness and repentance so much, especially during Lent, because this is what God asks us to do. 

What we are appealing to you before God is: be reconciled to God.


Thursday, March 21, 2019

3rd Sunday of Lent Yr C We are sinners and God is mercy

Today I would like to focus on one line of the mass that you hear every time you come to mass. It is the prayer at the consecration, where the priest holds up the chalice and says, ‘This is the cup of my blood, it will be shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven.’ This phrase always strikes me when I pray the mass. It sums up what the whole mass is about; the forgiveness of sins. When we come to the mass we become present to the sacrifice at Calvary. Time stands still and we are there. It is the most perfect prayer and the most powerful prayer because in it, God the Son (Jesus), is offered to God the Father. And the Father can not refuse this offering. That is why it is so powerful and that is why we remember so many people in each mass. It is an offering that cannot be refused. The whole purpose of this sacrifice is so that sins may be forgiven, so that everything we’ve ever done wrong can be paid for, so that it won’t be held against us. Otherwise we could not go to heaven when we die.

You know how we often wonder if our prayers are being heard? ‘Does God listen when I pray?’ The Lord assures us that He does, but the mass is the one prayer we are absolutely guaranteed is heard and answered and it is all done so that our sins may be forgiven.

There is another side to this as well. It is wonderful that our sins are forgiven, but it presupposes one thing: that we acknowledge that we are sinners and that we ask forgiveness from God. That’s what repentance is: acknowledging that we have sinned and turning to God. Today there is a tendency to act as if sin doesn’t exist anymore. We have lost a sense of sin. People have often said to me, ‘But Father I have no sins’, ‘I don’t sin’, or in confession people will tell me that they are really a good person and they never do wrong to anyone. If we have no sins, then the mass is meaningless, there is no purpose to God coming among us in the person of Jesus; the crucifixion and death of Jesus is meaningless and there was no purpose to all his work, or to the work of the Apostles. It is the Lord himself who assures us that we have sinned. St. John the Apostle says in one of his letters: ‘If we say that we have not sinned, then we call God a liar.’ Strong language! That is why every year we have this whole season of Lent to remind us of the need to repent and ask forgiveness. It is a big mistake to deny our sinfulness, because in doing so we are telling God that He is wrong and He is lying.

To say that we are sinners doesn’t mean that we are bad, or evil people. It simply acknowledges that we are weak, that we have a tendency to do the wrong thing, even when we know we shouldn’t. It says in the book of Proverbs (24:16), ‘The just man falls seven times [a day]’. That is a biblical way of saying that we sin continually.  St. Paul complains in one of his letters, ‘I do not understand my own behavior; I do not act as I mean to, but I do things that I hate ...the good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want—that is what I do’ (Cf. Rom 7:14-24).

The mercy of God is there for us if only we would turn to it. So many of the teachings of Jesus were about repentance and God’s mercy: the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the lost coin. He is telling us that God is not interested in our sins, but in our returning to him. Our difficulty is that our pride can tell us that we don’t need to confess, that we’re OK as we are. Satan does his best to convince us of this too, because he wants to keep us as far from God as possible. He knows that we will be forgiven every time we turn to God and he doesn’t want that.

Every once in a while, it’s good to remind ourselves what we are doing and why. I find that I need to do it for myself a lot, because it’s easy to forget. I am a sinner, but my freedom is found in God’s mercy. To acknowledge our need for God keeps the balance right. We are sinners, but Jesus is merciful.

This is the chalice of my blood, [which] will be shed for you and for all, for the forgiveness of sins.’



Thursday, March 14, 2019

2nd Sunday of Lent Yr C (Luke 9:28-36) Listen to Him

My father told me once of a friend of his, who was climbing a high mountain in Scotland. At one stage while he was near a pretty steep drop a thick mist descended on the mountain. He had to stop and sit down until the cloud lifted as he could see nothing and it was too dangerous to move in any direction. He just had to wait. When the cloud lifted there was an eagle perched right in front of him, which flew away as soon as it became aware of the man’s presence. A beautiful encounter, but as long as he was in the cloud he could do nothing.

Today we read about this extraordinary event we call the transfiguration, when Peter, James and John for a few seconds were allowed to get a glimpse of who Jesus was. They saw Jesus in blinding and terrifying glory. On various occasions Jesus took Peter, James and John with him but not the others. When he healed the 12 year old girl known as Jairus’ daughter, they were the only ones allowed with him apart from her parents. Here they witnessed Jesus bringing this girl back to life from the dead. Can you imagine the effect it would have on you to witness such a thing? Shortly after the transfiguration they were also to watch Jesus falling apart with fear and stress in the Garden of Gethsemane. This must have been something terrible to watch, not to mention the appalling feeling of not being able to do anything about it. So it seems they were being given a special training. It is believed that one of the reasons they were given the experience of the transfiguration was to strengthen them for what they would witness in Gethsemane and during Jesus’ passion. This would have been one of the most difficult tests of their faith.

When Jesus was transfigured before them on the mountain, two people also appeared with him. Moses was the one the commandments had been given to. The commandments were the teaching of God given to us. The Jewish people believed that if they lived those commandments perfectly they would go to heaven. That is why they developed the complex system of sub-laws from the commandments, which covered every aspect of life. So Moses represented this path to God that was given to us by God himself.

Elijah was considered the greatest of the prophets. The prophets were the ones sent by God to keep guiding the people back to him when they had gone astray, or to reassure the people that God was with them in times of difficulty. Elijah represented all of these people. The law and the prophets together were basically the way to heaven for the Jewish people. This was what God had given them to help them.

Now, suddenly, the two of these men who had died many centuries before, are standing there talking to Jesus. They are a symbol that Jesus is now the fulfilment of the law and the prophets. He completes them. After Jesus there is nothing else needed, because Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. God reveals himself most completely in the person of Jesus, who is truly God and truly man. What happens next is another sign of this.

In their wonder and excitement Peter starts talking nonsense: ‘Lord it is wonderful for us to be here…’ Then they are suddenly in a dense cloud and they are afraid. They cower on the ground in fear and then they hear the voice that says: ‘This is my Son the chosen one; listen to him.’ ‘Listen to him.’ I think those last three words are perhaps the most important of the whole event. ‘Listen to Jesus.’ In him is everything you need. If you have him you have everything. He teaches us everything about God, about heaven, about the path we need to follow. There is no other voice that we need listen to apart from him. Later in one of his letters Peter mentions this event. He says ‘We ourselves heard this voice from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain’ (2 Peter 1:18). He was saying, ‘This is all true, we aren’t making it up! We were there.’

Think for a minute of all the things we listen to and read each day: newspapers, chat-shows, tv programs, the soaps, hundreds of ads. How many of these inspire us, encourage us, give us direction? Yet the one thing we really need to listen to continually is often left out. Perhaps this is an invitation to us to come back to the Scriptures again and again and again. We have been given the gift of God’s speaking directly to us in his word. If that is really true, as we say it is, what could possibly be more important to hear every day than this?

Jesus is the only one who knows the answers to everything we ask, to all the problems we have, to all the decisions we worry over. He speaks to us continually through the Scriptures, guiding us, encouraging us, inspiring us.  He is the only one we need to listen to.

This is my Son the chosen one; listen to him.’

Thursday, March 7, 2019

1st Sunday of Lent Year C (Gospel: Luke 4:1-13) Signs and wonders

Since I was ordained a priest over 20 years ago, one of the temptations for me has been to wish that God would do more spectacular things through me, which would convince people of his presence. I believe that God does extraordinary things through the priesthood, such as transforming the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, but as you know it happens in a very humble and hidden way. It is not spectacular and if you don’t believe in it, then it is just a strange religious ritual. So why doesn’t God do something more spectacular to help people believe?

The account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is really the explanation as to why God doesn’t do these things. This account of Jesus' time in the wilderness is extraordinary, because it must have come directly from Jesus himself, since no one was with him during this time of temptation. At some stage he must have told the apostles what happened there and what he had to go through.

Jesus was about to embark on his public campaign to teach people about God and to win people over for God. For any campaign you must choose the weapons you are going to use. Jesus must have been aware that he had extraordinary powers, or otherwise Satan wouldn’t have tempted him to use them. There would be no point in tempting any of us to throw ourselves down from a great height or to turn stones into bread, because we couldn’t do it anyway. So this must have been a very real temptation for Jesus. The temptation was to misuse his power.

Wilderness of Judea
The first thing he was tempted with was to find satisfaction in material things. ‘Give people the material things that they want and they will love you.’ In this case it was bread to a man who was starving. But Jesus said, ‘No. Man does not live on bread alone.’ The human being is not satisfied by material things alone. Jesus was saying, ‘I am not going to try and win people over by offering them what they want.’ We are much deeper than that and we can only be fully satisfied by God, because we are spiritual and not just physical.

The second temptation was to compromise with evil. This is a big temptation for most people. When you hear people say ‘The Church needs to get with the times’, this is often what they mean. The Church needs to ‘adapt’ (compromise) some of its teachings, to the more difficult moral demands of our age. It is always a temptation for me as a priest to water down the teachings of God so that they are easier to swallow, but that is not what we are asked to do and when Jesus was tempted this way, he rejected it outright. He was being tempted to compromise with evil, just a little bit, so that it would be easier for people to be convinced, but right is right and wrong is wrong. We must not compromise on the ways of God. Yes it is more difficult, but if it is the truth then it is better to struggle with it than to try and change it to suit ourselves. The teachings of God don’t need to change; we are the ones who need to change.

The third temptation was to work signs and wonders for people. Satan taunted him, 'Throw yourself down from the temple; since God will save you.’ If he started doing this, then no doubt he would have thousands of followers in no time. But Jesus also rejected this, because he knew that the way he had to take was the way of service and the way of the cross, which would win people over heart by heart. You cannot buy love and that is why Jesus chose the more humble way and left it open to us to see what God offers us and then to freely choose to follow him or not.

Jesus was tempted to ‘bend the rules,’ to settle for less. But he resisted these temptations even though they must have really been tempting for him. We are continually presented with similar temptations; the temptation to reject the parts of our faith that don’t suit us: ‘Just take the easier parts, let others worry about the difficult parts’. But that is not what God asks us to do. The Lord says, ‘If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me’ (Luke 9:23). It is not an easy path that leads us to God, but it is the most worthwhile path that there is. What could be more worthwhile than to follow the one path that will lead us to total fulfillment. There are many other ‘lesser’ options, apparently easier ways, but they don’t lead to God. This is why Jesus was quite definite in his teaching. If you want to follow me, this is the path you must follow. It is the path of trying to live his teachings, even though we are continually hearing the voices that say, ‘It’s too difficult. Don’t bother.’ We say we believe this teaching is from God and so the challenge is to take it seriously, even if it doesn’t always suit me; even though I won’t always understand it.

In many ways I would still love it if God worked spectacular signs and wonders, so that people would be easily and quickly convinced, but that is not how God works and I think it is good to remember that, especially when we live in times of great change, when God often seems to be very quiet. The Lord knows what He is doing and He puts it to us continually to follow him freely.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

8th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 6:39-45) The splinter in your brother’s eye

The more scandals we hear about in our Church, the more disturbing it is. One thing I am glad of, is that people at the highest level in our Church have not been let off the hook. This is something that did not happen in the past. Thankfully we are getting beyond that. No one is above the law, or beyond conviction. Two cardinals have now been convicted of sexual abuse in the past and I’m glad they are being convicted, like anyone else. I have nothing against them personally, but no one should be above conviction, or just-punishment.

We are told not to judge. That has to be understood correctly. It is normal to judge a person’s actions. If someone murders another, it is morally wrong. If someone abuses another person, sexually, or in any other way, it is morally wrong and we can judge these things as right or wrong. The judgement we cannot make is the judgement of the heart. We cannot judge the heart of the person who did something like that, because only God can judge the heart. We don’t know what causes someone to act the way they do. I suspect that if we could see what goes on in the heart of each other, we would be a lot more merciful with one another.

The truth is, all of us are learning and will continue to learn until the day we die. This is God’s will for us, because the more we learn, the more we grow as people. The greatest learning we can do, is self-knowledge. The more we are able to look at ourselves honestly, the less likely we are to be over-critical of others. At the end of the day, if we are honest with ourselves, none of us is in a position to judge the heart of anyone else, and yet we do it all the time. It is very hard for us to distinguish between the actions of another from their heart. We tend to judge the person rather than their actions. If you turn it around, how would you feel if people only judged your heart, rather than by your actions. You know the way we do things and then are frustrated with ourselves, because we know we can do better, but our own weakness pulls us down.

I remember in one of the parishes where I worked, an old lady went into a room for a meeting. In that room a carpenter was doing some work. She lost her temper with him and threatened to throw out his tools etc. Her reaction was completely out of proportion to what was going on. As it happened I turned up a few minutes later, but I realized she felt I was there to judge her. I knew that because the next time she came to me for Communion she had her head down; she wouldn’t look at me in the face. I felt the Lord saying to me, ‘You see the shame this woman feels because of her own weakness. Perhaps this is a temper she cannot control and it causes her great grief.’ It would be easy to write her off as a cantankerous old woman, without giving any consideration for the fact that maybe this is a weakness that she doesn’t have much control over and that causes her great humiliation. We cannot judge the heart. ‘Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?

A woman once came with her son to Gandhi. She asked him to tell her son to give up eating candy, as he was totally addicted to it. Gandhi told her to go away and come back in three weeks. So she returned three weeks later. Then Gandhi said to her son, ‘You should give up all this candy, it is going to damage your health!’ The woman was puzzled and asked him why he hadn’t said that three weeks before. He told her that he was also addicted to candy, and so he had to give it up himself before he could tell her son to do it.

When I am in traffic and someone cuts me off, or does something that scares the heck out of me, I usually react like most of us and get angry with the person, calling them all kinds of words that aren’t in the bible. But then I try to stop myself and ask myself if I have ever done anything similar. That usually gets me to calm down.

‘Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?