15th Sunday Ordinary Time (Year A)

One of the benefits of living in a rural area, is that when you drive in any direction, you pass fields.  These fields are covered this time of year with certain crops, or are pasture areas.  Of course, the fields themselves become known by the type of crop that is growing on them.  Think about it.

They are no longer just ‘fields’.  They are wheat fields, corn fields, soy bean fields; the fields are identified by what is produced on them. We do this with our recreation as well; we have baseball fields and football fields; in movies we have ‘Field of Dreams’ and looking into the darker side of humanity, we have ‘killing fields’.

In today’s Gospel passage from St. Matthew, Jesus teaches a crowd, and then His disciples about the Kingdom of God, using one of His best known parables, ‘the sower and the seed’.  In it, the seeds are scattered in a variety of places – fields if you will – and each one is identified by what it bears.  There is the shallow area where the word is greeted enthusiastically, but doesn’t grow into the depths of the ground.  Then there is the busy path area, where there are so many directions to follow where we try to accommodate so many competing priorities that the word is simply left along the way, trampled under by those competing interests.  Then, of course, there is the area or field with so many weeds – things that are deep-rooted that are not only of no benefit, but are actually harmful to the soul – that those weeds choke off any growth in the word.

Finally, there is the good soil, the good field which yields abundantly; where the word grows and spreads and takes over the field, so the field is known by that crop.

Perhaps it helps to consider the ‘Bible’ as we know it did not exist when Jesus taught this parable.  He wasn’t speaking about the ‘word of God’ being the Bible.  He was speaking about the ‘word’ or the ‘seed’ being the ‘word of the kingdom’.  That word, was that God desires reunion with His children, separated from Him by their own will and their own actions.  That word, that ‘good news’ is the news of salvation! 

That word, is THE WORD, spoken ‘in the beginning’; the Logos, the Living Word of God – Jesus.  That field that is prepared and fertile and ready to receive THE WORD, Jesus, is a field that will be known by the crop that grows on it.  A relationship with Jesus, nurtured and valued; Jesus welcomed into the depths of a fertile soil takes over that field.  The field yields an abundance of the fruits of a life lived in Christ, for Christ and with Christ.

Please God we could all be such fields!

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Praised be Jesus Christ now and forever!

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4th Sunday of Advent

It is perhaps one of the most common traits of being human, that we want to shape circumstances to work out in our favour.  Sometimes even when it comes to accepting God’s will in our own lives, we have an urge to place limitations or conditions on it – attempting to bend God’s will to ours. We have real difficulty with the word ‘obedience’ as if it means being ‘oppressed’, or being ‘put down’.

But this impression of the word ‘obedience’ is a fairly modern one; it is not the Christian view.  Another word should come to mind when we hear ‘obedience’

That other word is trust.  Trust that the God who has spoken to each of us in our lives wants only the best for us – union with Himself for all eternity – and that obedience to His will is how we open ourselves to this wondrous gift.

As we come towards the end of the season of Advent, we are reminded constantly in the media to get that one last gift – advertisers are in the last days of whipping us into a frenzy of buying and selling as the last remaining days before Christmas slip away.   Consider how many purchase things on the internet – a practice which is extremely common in our society.  Whether it is through some of the better know internet ‘marketplaces’ like E-Bay or Amazon.com, we are faced with purchasing goods from total strangers.  We don’t know the people we are ordering items from. We trust complete strangers in unknown locations with our credit card numbers, personal and financial information; and how do we know we can trust them?  Well, we look at their approval rating on the same web site – an approval rating that again is provided by complete strangers – how do we know we can depend on their ratings of trustworthiness?  And yet we have no problem giving these people access to our credit and personal information.

How is it that we find it so difficult to trust God….a God who has repeatedly intervened in human history to bring us back to Himself….a God who speaks to each of us directly, every day – if only we are willing to hear, and to listen to what He has to say to us.

Unlike the people involved in today’s Gospel, we have the benefit of hindsight, being given an insight into Christ’s birth well after the fact – remember the Gospels were written after Jesus resurrection.  In his particular account, St. Matthew is writing for a mainly Jewish audience; he stresses that even from before His birth, Jesus is fulfilling the prophecies of the coming Messiah in the Old Testament – even quoting from the prophet Isaiah, which we heard in our

first reading ‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel ‘- ‘God is with us’  To St. Matthew, understanding and accepting Jesus as the Messiah is what we might call today a ‘no-brainer’.

But look at the circumstances surrounding our Mother Mary and St. Joseph leading up to Jesus’ birth.  St. Joseph is faced with making a decision on a matter that is beyond his understanding, and his practical experience.  His betrothed is pregnant, and he knows he is not the father of this child – the Blessed Virgin has given him, what we would all likely consider an implausible story.

We are told that St. Joseph was a righteous man – he was a good man, trying to do what he thought was ‘the right thing’ to secretly divorce Mary, rather than expose her to public scandal…in fact, given the law handed down from Moses in these circumstances, to publicly repudiate her as being ‘unclean’ and ‘unfaithful’, risked a penalty of having Mary stoned to death, killing her and the baby in her womb, effectively ‘wiping out’ what people would have mistakenly thought at the time was a visible sign of sin in their community.

There would have been a cost to Joseph as well to take Mary as his wife at this stage– if they remained in the same community, then surely people would realize that Mary would been pregnant when Joseph took her into his home.  The implications for Joseph in a first century Jewish town would have been serious – he would have been seen as weak in standing up in defence of the law, in other words, no longer ‘righteous’;  his ethics would come into question, and we cannot underestimate how greatly this would have affected a carpenter- a tradesman- in this setting; his livelihood depended on the good will of those in his community, and religious law and social interaction were completely intertwined.

Look at the magnitude of what hinges on Joseph’s decision.  Although God knows how history will play out, no one else does; salvation of the entire human race could hang in the balance – if Joseph goes with common sense and follows his own will, Mary will be sent away, and will have to raise the child alone in obscurity – that is, of course, unless the rest of the community finds out and Mary is publicly accused and attacked. We can imagine for just a moment all the angels in heaven watching, waiting- perhaps holding their breath, waiting to see what the response of St. Joseph will be.  This is high drama of cosmic proportions.

We are told Joseph was visited in a dream by the angel of the Lord who explained that Mary had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, a child who was to save his people from their sins.  He is told to take Mary into his home; and what is his response? 

Not to discount his dream as only a dream; but to obey God’s directions to him, to take Mary into his home as his wife;  from that moment , Joseph’s life is irrevocably changed – he will have to leave his home, eventually his country, to protect and raise Jesus as His own child…and yet he doesn’t respond with ‘okay God, I will do this for you, if you do this or that for me’ – he doesn’t try to work out a deal with the angel;  while we are not left with his words, we are left with his actions – actions which gave a straightforward ‘Yes’ – obedience to God’s will and setting aside even his personal preferences  – Joseph won’t even get to name this child ; this child’s name has already been chosen by God – Jesus.

When we encounter difficulties, or when we have any decision to make in our lives, we should always pray; ask God what he is calling us to do, and take the time to listen to His direction.  We can enlist the help of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, asking them to pray for us and with us in trying to determine just what it is in our lives that God is asking of us, and ask God to grant us the grace to follow that course in obedience.

At my ordination, when I knelt before my bishop and held my hands out together, the bishop placed his hands around mine and asked ‘do you promise obedience and respect to me and my successors’?  There was no ‘qualification’ in this question – it was a question which required a simple yes or no answer.

I can only speak for myself, but I expect the same is true for all the ordained:

I answered yes, because I trust my bishop to never direct or ask me to do anything contrary to what Christ commanded, to what Christ taught, or what God wills.

I could not answer yes if I had not been convinced of this in my heart…

It is the same when we consider what God asks of us especially during this time of Advent, as the celebration of Christmas draws so close.

Just like St. Joseph, we are each invited to welcome Christ into our own hearts and homes on His terms, not ours. 

God doesn’t give us a list of possible qualifiers: this is not something we can attach conditions to; The direction is quite simple and straightforward – “accept me and welcome me into your life, and your life will be forever changed “—and in obedience; in trust, we have the opportunity to respond “yes Lord, come into our lives, remain in our hearts. We believe you want only the best for us, and in trust we surrender our desires, and freely choose to follow your will.’

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

One of my happiest childhood memories is climbing a large apple tree we had in our back yard, and just sitting in the shelter of its branches.  You could see quite a distance across the field behind our house, and the leaves provided shade from the mid-day sun; sometimes the temptation of those apples that were just slightly less than ripe was too much, and it was easy to lose track of time.

Of course there was the inevitable call from the house to come down out of the tree and come inside – either for chores or homework; and on those times when it took a little too long to respond to that call, at some point, either Mom or Dad would be near the tree and the one-sided conversation would usually take the form of, “Are you still up in that tree?  Get down here right now!  One….two……”

There was a sense of urgency to that demand to come out of the tree, but not exactly an inviting one.

Contrast that with our passage today from St. Luke’s Gospel; the story of Zacchaeus. There is an urgency to the words of Jesus ,”Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”  And Zacchaeus complies – not out of fear, but out of joy.  He doesn’t respond to Jesus because he has to – he responds because he wants to.  Something has happened to change Zacchaeus – something wonderful in the depths of his heart.   This is a moment of conversion – or reversion if you like.

This is a story that most of us are so familiar with, but sometimes we miss some of the subtle things in St. Luke’s writing, that we could lose some of the sense of wonder in this encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus.  There might well be more of Zacchaeus’ story in our own lives than we might realize or want to admit.

It might be helpful if we look at a couple of points about this story. 

First off, the story of Zacchaeus is unique to St. Luke – it is not contained in the other three Gospels.

St. Luke tells us Zacchaeus was not just a tax collector, but a ‘chief tax collector’…..we have all heard how some Jewish men collected taxes for the occupying Romans, and that they were well-off, mainly because they extorted money from their own countrymen, often taking more than was owed.

But Zacchaeus was a ‘chief’ tax collector, which tells us that he was at the top of part of this structure in Jericho , and so would have been very rich and would have likely been the most despised of all the tax collectors in that city.

Through the eyes of ‘the locals’ he would have been ‘unclean’ or ‘ritually impure’ because his work on behalf of the Romans would have made him, in their eyes, no better than any of the pagan Romans; in fact he would have been worse because he was also betraying his people and his God.

But despite all his wealth and power and status, Zacchaeus takes the undignified pose of a grown man in long garments climbing a tree, a rather curious thing indeed:  St. Luke writes that Zacchaeus ‘wanted to see who Jesus was…”.  He didn’t just want to see Jesus as if he had already decided who Jesus was – it says ‘he wanted to see who Jesus was.” This tells us that there was already something in Zacchaeus  that all of his wealth and power could not fill, and perhaps he already had some sense that Jesus could fill that void.

And just the fact Zacchaeus is in a tree:  yes, it may have had something to do with his stature; but with his wealth and position he probably could have had his escort clear a part of the crowd so he could have a street-level view. 

He’s in a tree; that’s a safe distance to watch from, above the crowd- a safe distance from Jesus; removed from everyone else.

St. Luke’s Gospel is often referred to as the Gospel of the Poor, in which the rich are portrayed in a rather unfavourable light; 

For example, the rich young man who, when Jesus told him to give his wealth away apparently walked away sad:  or the parable of the poor man Lazarus, in which the un-named rich man dies and ends up in Hades.

In comparison to these rich men, Zacchaeus fares pretty well. 

Zaccheus, unlike these others, responds with gratitude simply because Jesus has called him by name, and has said he is coming to his house, right now.  And this is the most wondrous point of the story: Jesus is ready to meet with and stay with Zaccheus just as he is.

Jesus calls him to come out of the tree – and there is some sense of urgency in the invitation; for He is coming to his house for supper now; Jesus doesn’t send his disciples ahead to arrange a meeting and a meal with this person of wealth and local importance.  He doesn’t say, “okay, how about we get together in a few hours,” so Zaccheus can prepare something ahead of time to impress Jesus; to clean up his house and set things in order. 

He tells Zacchaeus to come down from his lofty perch, to come to the same level as everyone else, to come down ‘right now’ because He, Jesus, is here right now and ready to enter Zacchaeus’ house, his life; Jesus is offering the gift of a relationship right now to Zacchaeus.

And on some level from within himself, Zacchaeus recognizes this; not only does he immediately come down; not only does he ignore what the crowd is saying about him; but he repays their comments and criticism with charity:  He responds by offering not only to restore four times anything he has taken from others unfairly, but he also says he will give half of his wealth to the poor. 

And Jesus reminds his Jewish audience that while Zacchaeus may have strayed from his faith and people, he is still one of them, a child of Abraham, and that salvation is available to him based simply on that.  It’s a message for all of us, and a hopeful one at that, that no matter how any of us wanders or drifts away from the relationship that we are all meant for with our good and loving God, and how much we substitute for that relationship; or how much we try to distance ourselves from right relationship with each other, Jesus is always reminding us that salvation is open to each of us, simply because we are a child of God.

But there is a sense of urgency each time we encounter Jesus; we have many times in the course of each and every day to meet Jesus; we ‘see’ him as he goes by in each person we come across– in the poor, the lonely, the marginalized;  in the difficult child or the forgetful elder; in the bitter and the angry and the grieving;  and it is in each one of these encounters that He says  to each of us, come down out of that tree right now….now is the time I am coming to your house…right now;  I don’t care if things are in order;  it doesn’t matter if everything hasn’t been set in place;  I am coming to you in the midst of your busy-ness, your hectic society – in the messiness of everyday life; …I am coming to your house now; to enter into a deeper relationship with you.

And like Zacchaeus, we can respond in haste, in eagerness, in charity and in joy; because each time we recognize and respond to Jesus in those around us, most definitely, salvation has come to our house.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!