The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
People sometimes say that Jews, Muslims and Christians worship the same God. And there is some truth in this for we can all say: “I believe in one God”. However, this is not the complete truth. For the one God who we Christians worship and profess in the Creed, who is revealed to us by Jesus Christ, and who is expounded in Scripture and Tradition, is the Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And this truth, this great mystery matters. For truth matters, especially when it concerns the highest truths about God and our salvation. Hence the Church struggled and theologians argued for centuries to understand and express its meaning, and the difference it makes is of such import that it would set Christians apart from Judaism, and gave St John of Damascus cause to consider the emerging religion of Islam in the 7th-century to be a heresy. For there is a strict monotheism present in both Islam and Judaism that we Christians cannot profess as the full truth; something essential is lacking. So, from this point of view, we do not worship the same God. Rather, as the prayers of today’s Mass say, we profess “the true faith”, of God the “eternal holy Trinity and undivided Unity”.
In fact, you have probably already professed this truth several times today. Whenever we make the sign of the Cross we invoke the Holy Trinity. And at the same time, in tracing the Cross over ourselves we say that God saves us through the Cross of Jesus Christ. So, this one action, which we probably don’t consciously take much note of, says what matters most about the God we worship and about Mankind’s salvation. Indeed this action expresses what Jesus says in today’s Gospel: that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”. (Jn 3:16).
St Paul, in today’s Second Reading, refers to the Triune God as “the God of love and peace” (2 Cor 13:11), and this can be related to the Gospel. For the Father is the God of love, who so loved us that he sent Jesus to reconcile sinful humanity to himself. The Fourth Eucharistic Prayer puts it like this: “When through disobedience [Mankind] had lost your friendship, you did not abandon him to the domain of death… And you so loved the world, Father most holy, that in the fullness of time, you sent your Only Begotten Son to be our Saviour”. The Son, then, is the God of peace, who puts an end to the disturbance and rebellion that is sin, and restores Mankind to peace and friendship with God. Indeed, Christ gives his Church his peace, which is freedom from sin and a share in his divine Sonship, union with God. In the Mass it is put this way: “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you: look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity…”. But what about the Holy Spirit? He is present, I think, in this: St Paul says, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Cor 13:12).
One of the translations for the Sequence hymn of Easter, Victimæ Paschali laudes, has this line: “Death with Life contended… Life’s own Champion, slain, yet lives to reign”. And this caught my eye because, at first, ‘champion’ seemed to me a rather unusual translation for dux, until I considered how dukes were initially military leaders who were honoured because they had been successful on the battlefield. But Christ is a rather odd military leader because he doesn’t fight. Or rather, he fights by becoming a Victim, suffering heroically and taking up the weapon of the Cross to defeat sin and evil with his sacrificial love. So, by dying Jesus conquers death, and by rising from the dead, he becomes our victorious Champion over sin and death.
Now, champions are typically decked with medals, and the shinier the better. Likewise, every success on the battlefield is matched by a bright medal on one’s chest. When we think of these shiny medals and what they stand for – success on the field of battle or of sport – then we begin to understand what the word ‘glory’ means.
For this word occurs repeatedly in today’s readings, and the word usually evokes shiny brilliance, light, and splendour. This understanding of ‘glory’ comes from the Greek word doxa which is what is being translated in our readings. However, if we look deeper, we find that doxa is often a Greek rendering of the Hebrew word kabod. And here we discover something unexpected. The word kabod is related to weight, whether because of wealth, or nobility or even moral excellence. So, rather than the idea of glory as something bright, light and soaring splendidly to the heavens, we have the sense of something being heavy and weighty, substantial.
Hence, the Scriptural understanding of glory doesn’t connote so much the shininess of the medals as their weightiness. The idea, then, is that the more one achieves on the field, the more one is weighed down by medals. The champion, then, is one who is glorified when he is bedecked with so many medals that they weigh him down and thus proclaim the weighty import and substance of what he has accomplished.
Christ our champion, then, has conquered sin, death, and evil. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, this is “the work” which the Father gave him to do, and which he has accomplished (cf Jn 17:4). So, having won the salvation of Mankind and having freed us from Satan’s grasp, Jesus asks that the Father “glorify him” (Jn 17:1); the champion is victorious, and now awaits his medals to be awarded by God the Father. It’s a rather striking image but what are the medals? How is the Son glorified?
Forty days ago, very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, two men in white appeared to Mary Magdalene and the other women, and they ask them: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Lk 24:5). And today “two men in white” appear again, this time to the men, and they ask them: “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” (Acts 1:11). And these questions are related by one thing: in both instances, Jesus’ disciples were looking for him. They sought him in the empty tomb, and they sought him in the empty skies. But he is not there. Hence another man in white, the astronaut Yuri Gagarin, is reported to have said, “I went up to space, but I didn’t encounter God”. Indeed, and he ought not to have expected God to be up there in space. As the Gospel’s men in white would have said: “He is not here” (cf Mk 16:6).
Where, then, is Jesus now that he has been taken up into heaven? Where can God be found if not up in the sky or down in the grave? In St John’s Gospel, Jesus says something to his apostles that points towards an answer: “A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me” (Jn 16:16). This suggests that the way in which we, Jesus’ disciples, can see Jesus is in a different mode, that is to say, not physically as a man standing among us. How, then, can we see God? Where is Jesus?
St Luke gives an answer. In his Gospel, he recounts how Jesus appears to his two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Then, “when he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (Lk 24:30f). And, then, in his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, St Luke recounts what the apostles did after Jesus had ascended into heaven. The men in white had said: “This Jesus… will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). So, what do they do? St Luke says they returned to Jerusalem, and then “went up to the upper room” and prayed with the women (Acts 1:13f). Hence, the Church gathered together in prayer in the upper room. And not just any prayer – they gathered for Liturgy, for the Eucharist, because “the upper room” is where Jesus instituted the Eucharist. Thus, in these two ways, St Luke teaches us that Jesus is with us, and can be seen, albeit not physically as a man, in the Holy Eucharist. As he says, the Risen Lord Jesus “was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:35). Hence, he is not among the dead in an empty tomb, nor in the heavens. Rather, as Our Lord says: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51).
So, if we seek Christ today, we are in the right place. He is here in the Breaking of Bread, and we see him, we recognize him, we know him through faith in the Eucharist.
The men in white had said that Jesus will “come in the same way you saw him go”. That is to say, mysteriously, lifted up and hidden from view in the clouds; his divinity is unseen. Thus Jesus comes to us here and now, hidden from plain physical sight under the veil of the Sacraments, mysteriously present under the appearances of bread and wine. As St Thomas says: “as Christ shows us His Godhead invisibly, so also in this sacrament He shows us His flesh in an invisible manner” (ST III, 75, 1).
But why, then, did Jesus ascend into heaven? The Preface of the Ascension says that Jesus “was taken up to heaven… that he might make us sharers in his divinity”. For St Luke’s language of Jesus being taken up into a cloud is theological language, drawing on Old Testament imagery in which God is present to the people of Israel as a pillar of cloud (cf Ex 13:21-22). Hence, as Pope Benedict explains: “Jesus’ departure [is presented] not as a journey to the stars, but as his entry into the mystery of God… He enters into communion of power and life with the living God”. Jesus, then, is not the first astronaut!
We can all think of ways in which knowing the truth about some situation sets us free. Think, for example, of the Oscar Pistorius trial: people, and especially the parents of the dead woman want to know the truth about their daughter’s fate. The truth doesn’t raise the dead but it does bring some closure, and so, some relief; a kind of freedom. A similar phenomenon is observed in the hunt for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane. The relatives of the missing are bound up by uncertainty, tormented by a lack of knowledge of what happened to their loved ones. Finding the truth, again, wouldn’t end the grief, but it does bring a certain freedom to move on with one’s life. So, it seems right to say “the truth will set you free”.
And this is what I thought Jesus had said in John’s Gospel. But on closer examination, he says: “The truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). Because Jesus isn’t talking about a psychological state, nor is he making a political point, as the Jews seemed to have thought. Rather, Jesus is saying that the Truth transforms us and does something to our very being; Truth changes us. In John’s Gospel, we know that Jesus is the Truth, so we’re being told that Jesus is going to transform us. The all-creative Word of God will re-create us, make something new of us: we will be “made free”.
Now, it’s often said that what this means is that Jesus will make us free by causing us to choose what is good and true so that the more our acts conform to these, the more free we become; it’s a kind of moral freedom. But, again, I think this implies more a being set free from an old way of living, and admittedly, the reference to slavery to sin does lend itself to such an interpretation. But I want to explore something more existential, more fundamental, and perhaps, more mystical.
Who is it who is fundamentally Free? God. Only God is so free that he could create things. Only God is so free that he can become Man, and then undergo suffering on the Cross. Only God is so free that he can be Love, and even be sin, taking on our sins in Christ’s flesh. All these paradoxes are signs of God’s utter freedom. God is Free. So, when Jesus says the Truth will make us free, I wonder if this is a reference to our divinization. For Jesus Christ will make us, re-create us in his grace, so that we are one with God. Elsewhere, the language is of becoming sons of God in the Son of God. Hence, Jesus also says in today’s Gospel: “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed”(Jn 8:36). That is to say, if the Son makes you God, you will be God indeed. It sounds almost scandalous, but then, this is what grace does: Through Jesus God divinizes Man.
And an image of this work of divinization is found in the First Reading. The furnace is made seven times hotter, that is perfectly hot. Fire stands for love, and perfect Love is God. So, Mankind, represented by the three young men, are placed in the furnace of divine Love, that is immersed and heated by God’s grace, so that we are purified and perfected and made like the fourth man who is “like a son of the gods”(Dan 3:25). It is Christ, of course, and so, divine grace proves us in the furnace of God’s Love until we become like the Son, made sons of God. Thus the Truth makes us Free.
What does this fiery furnace of divine Love look like? It is the Cross. During Passiontide, we are focussed on the Cross, and reminded, therefore, that every disciple is called to take up the Cross of sacrificial love, and so, follow Jesus into new life, even the divine life of God himself.
We say in the Creed that through the Word of God, Jesus Christ, “all things are made”. For God’s Word is ever-creative, bringing life and vigour to God’s creation. We see the creative power of God’s Word in today’s Gospel, for Jesus only has to speak the word, and the official’s child is healed. Hence, new life and healing is effective by God’s all-creative Word.
The English Dominican theologian, fr. Herbert McCabe OP says that the sacraments are “signs of the Word of God in history”. Following St Thomas Aquinas, he says that the sacraments reveal God’s eternal Word at work in our whole human history. As such, they point to the past, when God’s creative Word was at work in the Old Testament or in the Gospels, as we hear in today’s reading. And they also point to the future, when God will “create new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17) and Man will have vigorous health, as Isaiah promises. This promise comes to pass when Christ returns in glory. But the sacraments are especially, in McCabe’s words, “the ways in which the Word of God is present to us in our present era”.
Hence, the sacraments are the means in this time, in our lives, by which God’s Word is at work, bringing about a new creation through his grace. In the sacraments, God’s Word brings healing and new life, as he did in the past. And in the sacraments, God’s Word promises a perfection that will be fulfilled at the end of time. And because God’s Word is truth, his promises can be relied upon. Therefore, the sacraments are the means by which God’s grace transforms and renews the heavens and the earth, and this new creation by God’s Word begins with you and me.
For the grace of God given to us in the sacraments makes you and me a new creation. God’s Word is spoken into our lives through the sacraments, so that we are made anew. But not as new creatures. Rather, as McCabe says, “it is extremely important to realize that a creature with grace is not just a higher kind of creature - in the sense, for example, that a creature with intelligence is a higher kind of creature than one without. Grace does not make man a better kind of creature, it raises him beyond creaturehood, it makes him share in divinity. This share in divinity is first of all expressed by the fact that we are not merely things created, we are creatures who are on speaking terms with God”.
So, the Word of God is spoken in us, through the sacraments, so that we can speak to God as his friends. This is the joyful thing that those who will receive the Easter sacraments long for, and it is what already belongs to us as Christians. Thus we rejoiced yesterday on Lætare Sunday, and today’s first reading calls us to rejoice again; we’re called to marvel in the new creation that God’s Word is making. As today’s Collect says, God renews the world “through mysteries beyond all telling”, that is to say, as the Latin text has it, through the sacraments.
Indeed, through our participation in the Mass now, we believe that God’s Word is at work, renewing us and sanctifying us, and hence, the heavens and the earth too.
“One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see” (Jn 9:25). St Paul also describes coming to faith with stark simplicity: “Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph 5:8). But we know that faith in Christ is not a once and for all event, nor is it without difficulty and struggle. Because of Jesus the man born blind could now see… But, he was also placed in conflict with those around him, including his own parents. We may have each experienced moments when following Christ puts such demands on us that it seems more like a burden or even an imposition, and faith is an inconvenience. For some, its light has faded to become just a cultural tradition, something we keep up for our parents’ sake. But the blind man remained firm despite the difficulties because he experienced the sheer goodness of what Jesus had done for him in such a direct, life-changing way.
A few years ago a BBC programme that purported to reveal the secrets of the Bible said that Christians believe that Mankind is “fundamentally bad”. But that’s just wrong. If it were true then faith would be a pointless burden. We begin with the deprivation of sin and evil, just as today’s Gospel begins with the reality of the blind man’s condition, but we don’t end there. Our human reality continues with the good news of what God does for Mankind, and what he wants to accomplishes in every human person. Seeing the blind man, Jesus goes and gives him sight, showing the gratuitous love and goodness of God. Without our asking, God freely comes to us to give us what we lack. Faith is not imposed; it is a gift as necessary and obviously desirable as water, or sight, or life itself, but which we can either reject or accept.
The blind man chooses to accept, and he stands for those who would be baptized, especially at Easter. So, Jesus, who is the One Sent, asks us to wash in the pool which (we’re told) means ‘Sent’; we’re called to be baptized in him. And as Adam was created from the clay, so Christ anoints the blind man with clay as a sign of the new creation he is working, for grace re-fashions us in the image of the new Adam; we are a new creation. But it is the first words spoken by the man born blind that hint at something more. The blind man’s words are somewhat obscured in the English translations, but in Greek it stands out. “Ego eimi” - “I am” (Jn 9:9); the divine name. For baptismal grace fashions us in the beauty of the Son of God, and so we are adopted as sons of God; we become partakers in the divine nature. God is so gracious and bountiful to humanity that he doesn’t just restore to Man what he lacks, God freely gives what Man could never attain for himself. Only God can give sight to a man born blind; only God can give eternal life and divinity to mankind. Hence Jesus says that it is through the redeemed sinner, through giving sight to the man born blind, that “the works of God might be made manifest”.
So although we begin with the abasement of man in original sin, the Christian journey of faith continues with man’s healing by Christ, his transformation in grace, and his exaltation to the lofty inheritance of divine life itself; eternal joy and light in the Blessed Trinity. This sublime goal, this gift, is why the journey of sanctification, indeed, divinization, is worth taking despite the difficulties, struggles, and sacrifices we may have to endure. So countless saints, whose lives show the triumph of God’s grace at work in them, have shown this.
God’s work, however, is not completed with baptism. If I were blind from birth, suddenly being given sight does not mean that I would be can actually see. The brain needs to learn to interpret what the eye takes in. So too, when we’re moved from the blindness of sin to the light of faith, we also need to learn to live as “children of light” (Eph 5:8), to grow in grace and virtue, and live as sons and daughters of God. We need to see what this means.
And this is where the demands and hardship of faith and life in Christ comes in. As the blind man grew in understanding of what Jesus had given him with each challenge that he faced, so his relationship with Christ deepened. In fact, as the blind man preached his faith, and suffered for it, becoming increasingly isolated, and finally “cast out”, so that his life was shaped in the image of Christ Crucified. His life became closely identified to that of God’s Son. After he is cast out, Jesus finds him again, and says: “You have seen [the Son of Man], and it is he who speaks to you”(Jn 9:37). But how has the man born blind seen Jesus before? Notice that earlier on, Jesus had left before he’d gone and washed in the pool. So, how have we seen Jesus, the Son of Man?
Today’s Gospel continues on from yesterday’s passage, and we wondered yesterday if Jesus was somehow saying that he spoke in riddles so as to hide the secrets of the kingdom from some people. Today, it is clear that Jesus’ parables are not riddles to exclude anyone but, rather, they are used to shed light; to illuminate the secrets of the kingdom. Thus “nothing is hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light” (Mk 4:22).
For Jesus has come to reveal the hidden life of God himself; he has revealed the blessed Trinity to Mankind, showing us by his works and his words that God is love, a holy communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And the way in which we come to know this intimately is through the sacrament of baptism which is also called the sacrament of enlightenment, of illumination. For through this sacrament, that which is secret – the hidden inner life of God himself – comes to light for Man is initiated into the life of God. So, Jesus says in St John’s Gospel: “O righteous Father… I made known to them your name, and I will make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn 17:26).
Hence, when we are baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity, God’s name is made known to us, and the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us. This is the effect of sanctifying grace which is first given to us in baptism.
Now, again in today’s Gospel, Jesus repeats a phrase which we also heard yesterday: “If any man has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mk 4:9, 23). This refrain is the key to unlocking the parables and the gifts of grace given to us. “Let him hear”: this means that we have to co-operate with God; we have to be receptive to Christ’s Word, and open to his teaching, and freely choose to say ‘yes’ to God’s grace. Then, the parables do not become riddles that confuse us but shed light on our lives to teach us to live as Christ lived; then the sacraments do not become mere empty rituals but become a source of mercy and new life for me. So, let us hear; let us be open to God’s grace, and seek to do his will. In other words, let us love God. For as Jesus says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn 14:15).
Finally, Jesus says: “the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you” (Mk 4:24). St Thomas comments that “the measure of charity is the measure of one’s union with God” so the more we love God and keep his commandments, the closer we will grow to God. Indeed, we will grow so close to God that we shall partake in God’s divine nature, and share the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. This is the “still more” that will be given us: divinity itself which is what the saints enjoy in heaven. Hence, sanctifying grace which makes us saints over the course of our lives is also called deifying or divinizing grace: grace that makes us divine!
But why does Jesus say: “from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”? I think this warns us that if we will not “take heed” to hear his Word (cf Mk 4:24), if we will not be receptive to his grace and if we do not keep God’s commands, then we will fall into mortal sin, and so, lose sanctifying grace. And the sad result of this is the death of sin and of being without God. Hence Jesus says to each of us, to you and to me: “Take heed what you hear” (Mk 4:24). That is to say, let us be sure to hear Christ’s teaching, listen to his Word of life, and obey him. For God’s Word is “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 118:105), revealing to us the hidden life of the Triune God.
As we stand on the eve of the feast of the Lord’s baptism we recall how we were baptized into Christ. And the Catechism, following St Paul, says that “Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God” (CCC 1213). As such, we who are baptised are sinless, aren’t we? After all, St John says: “we know that anyone born of God does not sin” (1 Jn 5:18). And yet, John also says that there is “wrongdoing” committed by brothers, that is, by fellow Christians, and he distinguishes between mortal and non-mortal sins. So, it would appear that the baptized can and do sin, as we know all too well. And sometimes, we can sin in a way that even mortally ends the life of grace and of communion with God. So, how do we reconcile this with St John’s statement that “any one born of God does not sin”? Is he contradicting himself?
Well, there are two sides to any relationship. And the relationship of being a child of God, reborn of the Father, and in communion with the Holy Trinity tells us what God does for us. The Father freely causes and sustains our filial relationship with him because we are baptized into Christ. So St John says: “this is the confidence we have in [Christ]” (1 Jn 5:14). But at the same time, while God is always faithful to us, giving us his grace and love, we have to be faithful to him; relationship is a two-way process. So, whether or not we sin depends on our free response to God’s grace; on our being open to his plentiful grace, and co-operating with it every day of our lives.
Now, God’s grace is always sufficient to help and enable us to love him and become saints. So, God is always working, St John says, to “keep [us in Christ], and the evil one does not touch [us]” (1 Jn 5:18). So, if we do sin, it is not the result of external influences, whether it is the devil or our genes or the world we live in. Neither is it because God has withheld the grace of Sonship from us. In fact, one Mass alone would more than suffice because we are given all of God’s love and saving power, and are united to his Son, here in the Eucharist. For God’s grace is always sufficient. But it is not always efficacious in us because we are not receptive or well-disposed to receive God’s graces. Indeed, sometimes we behave like we don’t want him or his grace. We resist his graces because we are drawn by other goods, and choose pleasures and ends apart from God.
Thus we find ourselves not infrequently still chasing after idols – false images of God, or of ourselves; we falsely think that lasting happiness comes from material wealth, or place so many lesser goods before God who alone is good. This is why St John’s final word in this letter is “keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn 5:21). For idolatry, that is, lies and falsehood and our being seduced by them, is the one thing that keeps us from God who is all truth. Idolatry leads us into sin because it is not the true God we love but false gods. And so, we are no longer born “of God” but of false gods.
What are we to do, then? St John the Baptist says: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). So, we must, daily, let the untruth in us decrease, and let Truth, that is Christ, increase in us. This is the process that began for us in baptism. For that sacrament is not just something done to us; now over and done with. Rather, it starts a relationship that must grow, develop, and mature. We need to come to know Christ, the “Son of God [who] has come and has given us understanding” so that we can “know him who is true”, that is, God (cf 1 Jn 5:20). How? Through prayer, familiarity with the Scriptures, and a lively interest in good theology.
For as St Thomas says, you cannot love what you do not know. So, knowledge of Christ and the true God must increase, so that our idols and falsehoods can decrease. Only then will we love God more and love sin, our false gods, less. Thus we shall see God’s grace gradually transforming Man as he freely co-operates with the grace first given in baptism until he becomes a saint, someone who is, like Christ, truly “born of God”. Every saint, then, is clearly an epiphany, for in him God’s glory is revealed.
"Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48). This phrase seems extremely challenging and virtually impossible because it has often been interpreted moralistically. But I think, in the first place, it actually reveals something radical in Christian doctrine; it says something previously unimaginable and unheard of concerning what Christ has done to and for humanity: That because of Christ’s incarnation, by which God has become Man, now Man can become God. As St Paul put it: "for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor 8:9).
Because the Greek word teleoi, typically translated as ‘perfect’ also means ‘fully grown’ or, more literally, ‘developed to one’s proper end’, as richly as possible. God our Father, who is Being and pure Act, is already all in all; he can have no further potential to be developed. This is why we say God’s perfect. But we, who by nature are changeable and full of potential, are called to learn, grow, mature, develop, and become what we’re called to be. Through Christ, we are children of God the Father, and as children, we rightly need to learn and grow. And when we’re grown, when we’ve learnt, we become like God.
So, Jesus Christ reveals in his own person – for he is both God and Man – and in his teaching that we human beings now have the potential to become like God if we live in the grace of Christ, the sanctifying grace of divine Sonship. Before the coming of Christ, and without him, there is no such potential at all. There is just the wisdom of the Law. But Christ’s incarnation has renewed creation, transformed human nature, and thus, also renewed the Law. Therefore, Jesus says repeatedly in this part of the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you…” (cf Mt 5:43f).
This is Jesus, God’s incarnate Word and Wisdom, speaking with divine authority and freedom to renew creation and the Law. And the same Spirit who hovered over the waters at the dawn of creation is now hovering over us, God’s new creation. God’s Spirit comes to teach us, to enable us to grow and develop to our fullest potential according to Christ’s new law of freedom. He comes to transform us through grace so that we become free as our heavenly Father is free. As St Paul put it: “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1).
Viktor Frankl had been deported to Auschwitz and Dachau by the Nazis, but he reflects: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”. Is this not the freedom to love, to choose good in the midst of evil? And is this not a participation in God’s freedom, he whose love freely shines on all people?
For freedom does not mean liberality to do indiscriminately whatever one feels like, buffeted by our emotions and cravings, or just reacting to good and harm done to us. Rather, freedom means being able to love as freely and indiscriminately as God does. It is this divine freedom that Christ gives us human beings, and it is this same freedom that his Spirit teaches us to exercise. Thus, we shall become like our heavenly Father: perfectly free to love.
The scene in today’s Gospel is rather extraordinary, even bizarre: a woman washing the feet of a rabbi reclining at the dinner table with her tears, kissing and wiping his feet with her unbound hair, and anointing his feet with costly ointment. But this extravagant spectacle is a response to God’s even more extraordinary and bizarre actions.
For the scandal of Christianity, its strangeness, is that we believe in a God who loves Mankind so much that God would abase himself for humanity’s sake. We say that God, who is entirely self-sufficient and needs nothing, freely chooses to save Mankind; he has a Father’s care and concern for our well-being. And we proclaim that God does the unimaginable and becomes Man; the Immortal who knows no change endures both change and suffering, even death. Why? Because as St Paul says: Christ “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Jesus Christ, and all he does in his life, death, and resurrection, is one extravagant spectacle of God’s love for you and me. And I wonder sometimes if we’ve just become so accustomed to it that we take it for granted.
Because God’s sacrificial love in Jesus Christ for every human person, for us sinners, is extraordinary, even bizarre and strange… But also wonderful; so amazing that some people today, made sceptical and cynical by life, may even find it literally incredible! Many of us may have just forgotten how breathtakingly unexpected the Gospel is. But in a world that’s burdened by debt and crushing austerity measures, Jesus’ parable resonates with the experience of many today, and reminds us of just how extraordinary the Christian message is.
We know that financial institutions are relentless in their pursuit for what they’re owed. Economic justice and the Law are no respecters of persons and circumstance, lacking in compassion or human consideration, and our capitalist system requires us to work constantly to evade being crushed by debt, poverty, and our liabilities. This is how the sinner is under the Law – he owes a huge, un-payable debt, the burden of sin, to God. And, in justice, we should pay it all, to the last penny. The Pharisees, who work hard to avoid the debt of sin by keeping the Law, thus look at sinners (like the woman in today’s Gospel) just as some in our society might regard ‘welfare scroungers’ – with contempt.
Now, what Jesus does is to declare God’s mercy and forgiveness for all people, regardless of who they are, or what they’ve done. So, because of Jesus Christ, all debts are entirely cancelled, and all the worry, strife, and heartache that go with debt and poverty. We can see, then, why the woman reacted with such effusive gratitude towards Christ. But Jesus does still more because of love: he gives to anyone who comes to him all that she could ever want, and more than she could ever imagine – he gives the grace of salvation.
All we need is to have faith in him, to believe in Jesus and trust his Word; to go to him. What this does is to completely level the market so that not only are there no debtors at all, but there is now also no distinction between those who are unemployed and those who work hard; between the poor and the rich. It sounds somewhat bizarre in our capitalist system, but that is precisely what St Paul is getting at when he says that “a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16). He’s saying that God’s grace is freely given to all through faith in Christ, and this grace is never earned nor merited. On this basis, we are all equal and have equal opportunity. Equal opportunity for what, though? To acquire Christ-like charity so as to invest in eternal life. And it is this end result – eternal life – that is really extraordinary.