Wednesday, September 29, 2010
There are many occasions when Jesus rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith. At the stilling of the storm, for example, when they wake him in the boat - "O men of little faith" he says. He remarks on their lack of faith too, when, after the transfiguration unable to heal the epileptic boy - and then, the father of the boy says "I have faith, help me where faith falls short!"
There are two interesting and important points here.
Firstly, in asking this question, the apostles see one thing very clearly. For their faith to increase - well that must be an act, or gift, or rather grace of God, not something they can do simply by their own efforts. We might think that if only we believed more, prayed harder, said more rosaries or attended more masses, then we would have more faith - but no. We can stand in the way of faith, but fundamentally faith is a gift of God, not an achievement of humanity.
And secondly, the question and its answer also reveal that faith is not simply something you've got or you haven't got. It comes in degrees: you might certainly have none, but you could just as easily have a lot or a little. (To put it in very modern terms, it is analogue, not digital). Some people have more than others, and some wish they had more. And who has more or less is not really ours to judge and decide. We should never feel guilty or inadequate if others seem to have more faith or be more devout than us - and we should never ever feel superior if others seem to have less.
So what can we do? The answer is beautiful in all its simplicity. Do your duty. Perform your service of God. Do not feel inferior or superior. Just do what you know to be right. Offer him your worship and show love and compassion to all people. Love God and love your neighbour. No more and no less is required.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
The rich man - who is not given a name, notice - wants Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers that they must change their way of life. Yet, Jesus says, there is no point - they already have all the warning they need. Why should a great miracle make a difference.
There's an important and very broad point being made here, one which we hear several times in the teaching of Jesus and elsewhere in the New Testament, and it is this: all this has been foretold, all this is plainly to be seen in the teaching of Moses and the prophets (what we Christians call 'the Old Testament'), no one should be confused or surprised.
Yet they are. Frequently, Jesus chides his disciples for their failure to understand. After the Crucifixion, the disciples on the road to Emmaus need the prophecies explained to them by the risen Christ. From the day of Pentecost onwards, Peter and other other apostles must explain in their preaching how the coming, suffering and resurrection of Jesus perfectly fulfil what was promised. And St Paul, again and again, argues and explains the old scriptures to show how they point to the new, the Christ, the one who suffered and is risen.
And the point, perhaps is this. People ask for proof. Prove God exists they say. Prove that God is love. Prove that prayer is not a waste of time. Prove that the world is created and didn't just come into existence as a sort of accident or co-incidence. Give us the evidence.
And the proof is already there. We can't show it to them - because they can already see it. We can't convince them of it - because they are already ignoring it. They see, and refuse to believe their own eyes.
The beauty of the world. The wonder of the planets and stars. The miracle of life. The compassion and generosity of humanity. The conviction and self sacrifice of the saints. Its all there. It is before them.
It is not the evidence that is lacking, but the eyes that are closed, and ears that refuse to hear.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
‘You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.’ (Luke 16:13)
In the old translations, this passage was often given as 'You cannot serve both God and Mammon'. It made money, or the love of Money, perhaps I should say, sound like another God. Who is your Master? Jesus appears to say to us: which God do you choose?
And from this, it could seem that the Christian has a stark choice. Riches and wealth are bad - poverty is good. To build up businesses, to create wealth, to amass goods and possessions might seem to be wrong, motivated by greed. And individual Christians, like St Francis, and groups of Christians like those in religious congregations and communities have seen their way as a much better one, indeed perhaps even the right one.
But, as always, this isn't quite what he says - or rather, his teaching is a little more sophisticated.
The rest of this Gospel makes very clear that money, far from being shunned, should be used. It makes things happens, it opens doors. Money saved the crooked steward in this odd parable - generosity in fraud is far preferable to pure greed. Money feeds our families. Money builds and maintains our churches. Money rescues the victims of disaster. Money opens doors - and this is a good image. It is a key, it serves a purpose, but it is not the door, neither is it the reward on the other side of the door.
And it is THIS which is Jesus teaching. He does not say that the fundamental life choice is God v. Mammon ... A battle for hearts and minds. No, he places before us rather a much more basic question. What is it that you really want from life? Do you want to collect things that cannot last, or cherish the things that do? Is your balance sheet written in currency or in kindness and compassion? Do you want a large collection of keys, or just use one of them to walk through the door?
This weekend sees the beatification of a great and holy man, John Henry Newman, and in his teaching he has a particular perspective on this choice. Each one of us, he says, has a particular work to do. Each of us has been chosen by God and finds our fulfilment in his will. It is a teaching about vocation, but also, I think, a basic teaching about what it means to be human. Human happiness comes from discovering, and fulfilling God's will for us. We might search for that happiness, and even think we've found it elsewhere: in possessions, in pleasures, in indulgence. But not one these ultimately satisfy.
God's will is the door to our happiness. And a lot of the time, we are just fumbling with the keys.
Wednesday, September 08, 2010
While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly. (Luke 15:20)
This situation is very familiar in one way or another to many families. It speaks of faithfulness and impetuosity, of indulgence and jealousy, of affection for the wayward one, and the anger of the one who feels taken for granted. What family has not known some of these feelings and situations?
Yet as we look at the story - especially today - we might just wonder about the mother. How did she feel about the son who took his money and wasted it all? Did she long for his return, or sympathise with her older son in his bitterness? Or did she just dutifully toil in the kitchen, cooking the fatted calf?
We shouldn’t ask too many of these kind of questions, because if we do, we are in danger of missing the point. This all-too-human family is far more. For we are the sons, both wayward like the younger son and bitter like the elder, sinful and self-righteous. And the Father ... is of course the Father. God himself. Loving, forgiving, yearning to welcome us back to him, when we are ready.
And the great painter Rembrandt had a deep insight when he painted the tender scene of the welcome of the prodigal, for the Father’s hands which embrace the returning son are one large muscular and rough, the other lighter, nimbler and smooth, a male hand and then a female hand, in a loving and welcome embrace.
God is both Mother and Father, indulgent, loving and patient, ready and waiting, for our sorrow and our repentance. Longing to welcome us to the celebration of His Love.
Wednesday, September 01, 2010
None of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions. (Luke 14:33)
There have been many Christians, throughout the history of the Church, who have taken Jesus’ teaching here very literally.
The first Christian community at Jerusalem, seems to have shared all things in common. St Anthony of Egypt, and the monks of the early Church, gave up their many possessions and went to live in the desert. About 1,000 year later, St Francis of Assisi embraced “Lady Poverty” and forswore the wealth of his merchant father and lived literally from hand to mouth, dressed only in the simplest of habits. And many many others, in the religious orders have given up lives of comfort to follow Christ.
But in general most Christians do not, and did not live without possessions, and Jesus did not expect them to. He told the rich young man to give up his possessions, but not Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea who gave Jesus his tomb. The apostles appointed the first deacons to manage the finances of the Church, and even in the most difficult times the Church held property, and eventually houses and churches. Like any other organisation, the Church has needed finances to fund its activity, beautify its worship and feed its workers.
But necessary though this all is, the Church must never lose sight of the fundamental teaching of Jesus, and the challenges he lays before us all: where does our attachment lie? What is most important to us all?
My favourite story in this regard is told of the deacon Laurence, who was commanded by the Roman Magistrate to bring before the court all the riches of the Church (then, as now, the opponents of the Church like to think that it is very rich). He was given a deadline. The Magistrate was told that Laurence had indeed brought to the court the Church’s riches and laid them on the steps to the courthouse. The Magistrate came out of the court to see the sick, the disabled, the poor, the destitute, orphans and widows sitting on the steps.
“Behold!” said St Laurence. “Here are the treasures of the Church!”