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 of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
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.
“How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mk 10:23) These words are well-known, but we should note what Jesus is not saying. He’s not saying that poverty per se is superior to riches. He’s not saying that we must be materially destitute, although the rich man had been asked to give away his possessions – and we’ll see why. And Jesus is not saying that the poor, because they are poor, will enter the kingdom of God more easily. Such readings, which risk romanticizing the poor or making Jesus into a Marxist, should be avoided. Rather, what Jesus does say, and he makes this more explicit the second time he says it, is that it is hard for “those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God” (10:24).
So the problem lies with one’s disposition, in where one puts one’s faith, and, indeed, one’s investment of time, energy, and self. For, as Christ says elsewhere, “where your treasure is, there also is your heart” (Mt 6:21). So, Christ, in calling the rich man to let go of riches and follow him, is effectively saying that Christ will be our treasure and riches, and that entry to God’s kingdom comes through placing our trust in him; through faith in God. But this applies to everyone, both rich and poor. What is it about having riches that makes it harder to have faith?
Wealth, I think, can create an illusion of our own invincibility and self-sufficiency. To some extent, it buys us security, comfort, power and control. But these can be illusions, too. Money seems to offer salvation but it doesn’t and cannot. Only God can give us true security, peace, and completeness. As if to remind us of this, the U.S. currency even have marked on them: “In God we trust”. But even if the rich man knows this, there is another danger. He might be accustomed to thinking that everything can be bought or earned. Everyone, rich or poor, can be prone to thinking like this, but it is more often the rich, who are good entrepreneurs, good at making deals, and exploiting opportunities for profit, who think they can make deals with God. As such, life, grace, and salvation can all become commercial transactions, and one thinks to buy one’s way into heaven.
But entry into heaven, into God’s kingdom, only comes from following Christ and trusting him enough to imitate him. And Christ’s way is the way of perfect love. Thus, God gives us life, grace, and salvation freely, gratuitously, with no strings attached. This kind of generosity and love is sacrificial – it cost Christ everything. And he personally gains nothing in return. In investment terms, this is the one thing an entrepreneur, a rich man, fears: no return for maximum investment means bankruptcy. Moreover, Christ is stripped and dispossessed, poor, humble and completely vulnerable on the Cross. This is everything the rich man had been trying to avoid; his riches are meant to protect him from this.
Hence, if the rich man is to enter the kingdom, he will have to embrace his worst fears, which is why Christ understands that it is hard. But it is possible if he will repent, as Sirach says, meaning, to change his mindset completely so that he can accept this kind of loss – bankruptcy, even – as Christ does, for the sake of love. If he does, the rich man will lose everything, but his investment of love will profit him the true reward of eternal life in God’s kingdom. For, as Christ said earlier in this Gospel, “what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mk 8:36)
There can be so many things that trouble and disturb us: exams, job prospects, relationships; worries about the future and about what we’re called to do. Many people wonder about what is the right thing to do, and about their vocation in life. In a sense, Thomas articulates our fears when he asks: “How can we know the way?” How can we know the way forward in a world that seems increasingly complex and fraught with difficulties?
Jesus’ response, if we’re weighed down with worry, is to broaden our horizon so that we can put our worries into perspective. He says to us with tenderness: “Let not your hearts be troubled”. We worry because we’re losing control, or because we feel helpless and lost, or perhaps because we experience a lack of security. But God assures us: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”. For God is our Father, which means that he loves and cares for our final good today. So, he is always providentially guiding all things to a good end, bringing us home to himself today, so that we can dwell securely in him for ever. Thus Jesus says to us, his disciples, his friends: “I go and prepare a place for you [and] I will come again and will take you to myself”. So, when we’re shaken by life’s uncertainties, we’re called to anchor our hope in God’s Word, and to be certain of Christ’s promise. Hence, Jesus says to you and to me: “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me”.
But you might well think, our faith does not take away our needs for finance, food, friends. No, it doesn’t, and we do need to work together and attend to these things, but faith in Christ does alleviate our anxiety over these genuine human needs. For, with faith, our perspective changes so that the ups and downs of life, its many unexpected turns and plateaus can be seen in Truth as part of the journey that we make to the Father, going along the Way to God’s house where Jesus has prepared a room for us. Life’s journey, with its many trials as well as beauty, as such, is a preparation for our homecoming when we shall be united in love to our Father, our God who is love and Life in the fullest.
Hence, Pope Francis said this morning, the Lord is preparing our hearts “with trials, with consolations, with tribulations, with good things”; preparing us and forming us to love God, to trust and believe in him, and to seek him, “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Cor 1:3). This, of course, is how Jesus lived his life among us, with complete trust and obedience in God, enduring all things for the sake of love. Thus, he is “the Way, the Truth and the Life”; he shows us the way forward, he lived the truth as he taught it, and his life gives us hope and new life.
All this is expressed in the simple act of the Mass and especially through Holy Communion. For it is here that we remember how Christ lived and loved; here that we look in hope to the resurrection and eternal life; and here that Christ, our food for the journey, comes to us. And, as he promised, he comes to take us to himself, to dwell in him and he in us. So, here, today, Jesus is saying to us: “Let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me”. Then, as we receive him in the Host, let us wholeheartedly say: “Amen”.
Faith is never something just personal and private. It is always communal and relational, and so, we see today that faith in the resurrection requires that we trust the eyewitness account of another; believe in the testimony of other people. But it seems that this might involve believing the sort of people one might not usually trust or consider reliable.
For as the Holy Father reminded us recently, “according to the Jewish Law of the time [of Christ], women… were not considered reliable, credible witnesses”. Yet Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene. And she wasn’t just any woman, but one who had been in the grip of demons – addicted, lost, and desperate – and so, probably doubly-excluded. And what about the two disciples in the countryside? Their testimony was admitted by the Law. But these were two men who were fleeing in despair, overcome by what they’d thought was the defeat and failure of Jesus. One might say they were cowards who’d abandoned the rest of the group in Jerusalem. But Jesus appeared to them too. Jesus chose these people – the disregarded, the weak, and the marginalized; those whom one might well dismiss, distrust, and begrudge – as the first eyewitnesses to God’s greatest work.
Why? Because faith in God is founded on faith in other people, on a relationship of truth and friendship between people. So, when our human relationships breakdown and become dysfunctional, faith in God becomes very difficult, or risks becoming completely individualistic, a projection of mere self-belief. But faith, and especially faith in the resurrection, requires that we believe others, trust in a community of witnesses. And so, the risen Lord reconciles and heals the brokenness of our human relationships by first appearing to those who are in some way excluded and unwanted. Thus, it becomes necessary, if we’re to have faith in the resurrection and participate in its grace, to trust, value and listen to every human person, beginning with those who are considered least in our world.
However, sometimes our faith in others is lost because of the wounds inflicted on us by some others, including members of our community, our Church. We can no longer trust such people, and perhaps the other disciples felt this way about the two who had left them to flee to Emmaus. But, again and again this week, when Jesus appears, he tells his disciples to see and to touch his wounds. This requires great trust, of course, but moreover, to ask the very people who had in some way caused those wounds to do this requires mercy and forgiveness. And thus, the risen Lord heals and transforms our fractured human relationships by first forgiving us, teaching us to be merciful, to avoid hardness of heart, and, so, to forgive others as we have been forgiven. In this way, we come to experience the peace of the resurrection.
Forgiveness, mercy, and faith in humanity, which includes all in God’s risen life, is the new-ness of the resurrection that we are invited to believe in. So, our resurrection faith is never merely private and personal but is always communal and relational because it elicits my trusting another, forgiving others, and loving my brothers and sisters; faith in Christ’s resurrection transforms me and transforms our world through a new belief in people, through friendship. Isn’t this what the Lord desires when he says to us: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation”? (Mk 16:15)
“A blessing on the man who puts his trust in the Lord, with the Lord for his hope”. This line from the prophet Jeremiah (17:7) is echoed in our psalm response, “Happy the man who has placed his trust in the Lord”. But both these translations cannot capture a pun that can be found in the Latin text: “Benedictus vir qui confidit in Domino”, Blessed, or Benedict is the man who trusts or confides in the Lord”.
Today, as we come to the final hours of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, our dear holy father, perhaps we can keep these words of Scripture in mind, and hold them in our hearts in the weeks ahead. For, in what he does today, Pope Benedict shows himself to be a man who trusts firmly in the Lord, who knows that Christ is in charge of the Church and will protect and direct it. As the Pope said in his last General Audience yesterday: “At this time, I have within myself a great trust [in God], because I know – all of us know – that the Gospel’s word of truth is the strength of the Church: it is her life…” Thus, if we are rooted in the Gospel, planted firmly in Christ, the Word of God, we will draw divine strength and life.
This year of Faith is the Holy Father’s gift for us to be nourished by the Word, and, as always, this great teaching-pope, offers us clear teaching in this time through his own example of faith. He lays down the ministry of St Peter not because of fear of scandal or adversity, but because of trust in God, confident in faith that the Lord will give us a new pope with greater human vigour for a vigourous globalized world. Recognizing one’s own physical and mental limitations, as our Holy Father has done, takes great humility and courage – qualities he has shown throughout his life. So, as he said yesterday: “loving the Church also means having the courage to make difficult, trying choices, having ever before oneself the good of the Church and not one’s own”.
So, “blessed is the man who puts his trust in the Lord, with the Lord for his hope”, and this means us, too. For, we are also called ‘blessed’ if we share in the faith, trust, and hope of Benedict. This means to have a Christ-centred outlook, so that our eyes are ever focused on the Blessed One, on Jesus, until at last we enjoy the blessed vision of heaven. As we journey onwards individually and as a pilgrim Church towards that one true goal, our Holy Father leaves us with these final words: “Dear friends! God guides His Church, maintains her always, and especially in difficult times. Let us never lose this vision of faith, which is the only true vision of the way of the Church and the world. In our heart, in the heart of each of you, let there be always the joyous certainty that the Lord is near, that He does not abandon us, that He is near to us and that He surrounds us with His love”.
Although the period beginning tomorrow is no longer called Passiontide, even so Lent has shifted into a higher gear, focusing on the Passion of Christ and culminating in the Crucifixion on Good Friday. in our readings, the noose is tightening, so to speak, and the opposition and hostility to Christ have mounted, as the plots against him begin to take shape. But the plotting of mankind takes place amid division and confusion. In contrast to the maneuvering and bickering among the plotters, St John is clear that God is in control and has the master plan in hand. Hence, as we heard yesterday, and again today, Christ is not arrested because his hour had not come.
There may be times when we feel caught up in the wrangling of human beings, of politicians, bankers, and institutions. But our faith in a good and loving God tells us that God holds all things in his Providence, and is always bringing about our good in every situation. No human plot can frustrate this. So, with the serenity that comes from faith in God’s plan and his goodness, Jeremiah says: “I have committed my cause to you”. And, of course, these words are now being attributed to Christ, who is the Suffering Servant. He, who has been sent by the Father, also commits his cause to God. And because the Son does the will of the Father, so, his cause is to carry out God’s will. His cause is to do God’s cause with perfect obedience and trust.
Our God who creates the entire universe – all that is – out of nothing is the God who does great things with the little that we offer him. We’re so accustomed to the way of the world by which often a lot of effort has to be expended for very little result – just think of how difficult it is to lose weight! But God’s way is different. Big results come from doing comparatively small, ordinary things on our part. And through these simple humble signs God performs his marvels which are often at least as tremendous as creating the universe out of nothing.
So, the mundane act of washing and bathing – which is what the Greek word ‘baptizo’ means – becomes the sacramental sign by which we are washed of our sins, purified by the grace of Christ so that we, like Naaman, come forth from the font, fresh and clean, like a newborn child. What is essentially a conversation – so that as Isaiah says, we come to God and “talk things over” – about our mistakes, our misjudgments, our weaknesses becomes the sacramental matter for the sacrament of confession. And through this simple admission of who we are as sinners, God again makes something out of our nothingness. He makes us his adopted sons and daughters, and restores us to baptismal innocence, becoming like newborns again. And he equips us with his grace so that we can grow as his children. We look to Jesus, the Son of God, as our model and example so that we can learn how to behave and act as a son and daughter of God. And, here in the Mass, the humble household consumables of bread and wine becomes Christ’s Body and Blood. In each case, God takes the simple and ordinary of our world, the little things we offer him, and he transforms it into something extraordinary, tremendous, and divine.