Jules Does

Archive for February 2016

 

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Sometimes, readings are like a film – they all hang together to make a pretty coherent story, which you can follow easily. But sometimes, like today, readings are more like a meal – each serving belongs to a different food group and has something slightly different to contribute, and it can be hard to see what connects them all (if there’s a connection at all).

To my mind, the readings for today are almost better when read in reverse. In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells his listeners that God is not in the business of using bad things like death or suffering to punish bad people. But it’s not all good news – people who suffer may not be worse than the rest of the population, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the population is fine. In fact, the rest of the population needs to get its act together and bear fruit, or it too will be destroyed, uprooted like a disobedient plant. Yikes.

The reading from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians puts a new spin on the “they were bad, so they died” dogma. The Israelites who died in the desert during the forty years of wandering did so not only because they had displeased God (even though they all started from a place of purity, having been baptised by going through the Red Sea and so on) but also to serve as a warning to us against being lazy in our faith – we need to be careful that we don’t fall away, even when we think we’re safe and comfortable. Like Friday’s readings, this passage suggests that our suffering can play a larger role not only in our lives but in the lives of others, even if it is as a warning.

The Psalm, on the other hand, exhorts us to remember God’s infinite mercy and love for us, how he rescues us from sin and redeems us. It also mentions how God gave His law to Moses and the Israelites, and that allusion takes us to the first reading, where Moses encounters the Burning Bush and receives the mission from God that will lead to the exodus from Egypt, the forty years of wandering, the entry into the promised land, and eventually the coming of Christ. This is before anyone has disobeyed God and been punished with death, before the horror and joy of Passover, before any of the plagues on the Egyptians. Here we are right at the beginning, with God revealing His name to Moses, former prince, shepherd and murderer.

I think the verse that manages to connect all of these readings can be found in this reading, in verses 7 and 8 – God has heard the suffering of his enslaved people, and will bring them out into a land of unfathomable plenty. Egypt is sometimes a metaphor for sin and fallenness; just as the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, so we are often slaves to sin, unable to do good even though we would like to. God hears our cries, He knows that we want to live in freedom, so He himself comes down to rescue us. It may be the case that we all deserve death as the wages of sin, but God gives us time to return to him and to bear fruit.

It is also significant that the gardener in the parable doesn’t just agree that the vine should be removed. Instead, he begs for it to be given another chance and promises that he will take extra care of it, giving it extra attention and nourishment in order to encourage it to grow. We know that Christ came and poured Himself out for us on the cross in order to redeem us; and more than that, Catholics know that He comes to us in every Mass and nourishes us with His word in the Bible and, crucially, with His very body in the Sacrament of Communion, just as the gardener nourishes the vine so that it can produce fruit.

Today’s readings balance God’s love and God’s justice and remind us that we need to be rooted in and nourished by God if we are going to have a chance in this sinful world. If we persevere, He will lead us out of slavery to sin into the Kingdom of Heaven, which will be more wonderful than we can predict. We mustn’t get too comfortable, but should always be challenging ourselves to do better, to love more, to serve more and in doing so to bear fruit for our God. So, what fruit are we bearing? Are we patient with others? Do we have self-control? Are we gentle and kind? Are we patient? Are we joyful? If not, maybe we need to draw more deeply on the nourishment God is offering us, rather than resting in our complacency. After all, bearing fruit takes energy and strength, strength which God will provide in abundance.

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[Note – I know this post is 2 days (!) late, but the readings were so good that I didn’t want to skip it.]

So, today’s readings are a bit of a downer! In the first reading, Joseph is thrown into a well and then sold into slavery by his brothers because he keeps having these dreams in which they (or representatives of them) bow down before him, and their pride is so wounded that they decide to murder him. Over dreams. And a coat.

The Bible is full of terrible people.

The second reading isn’t much better – Jesus tells a parable of a group of tenants who are so dementedly possessive that they repeatedly assault and/or kill representatives of the landowner who, it should be noted, isn’t even trying to throw them out! He only wants the portion of the land’s produce that is due to him. Hardly unreasonable behaviour. The parable alludes to Jesus’ impending death and the opening up of the Kingdom of God to non-Jews and other unmentionables who were not exactly on the Pharisees’ side of the fence. Again, this passage makes for rather gloomy reading.

However! The key to today’s readings is in the Psalm for today. It summarises what happens to Joseph after he is sold into slavery: he is brought to Egypt, where he successfully interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream and helped the land prepare for seven years of famine. For me, the key verse is this one: “He sent a man before them, Joseph, sold as a slave”. The Greek for this verse literally means “to send to”, but I quite like the possible double meaning of “send before”, as in “to send previously”. God had famine in store for the Egyptians, but He also sent someone to them before the famine took place in order to help insulate them from the worst of it.

Similarly, although the parable ends in death and destruction, the Psalm helps reminds us that Christ has come so that we don’t necessarily have to be thrown out of the vineyard, so that we can stay and reap the bountiful harvest. Out of the suffering of Joseph and of Christ, an entire people can find a homeland (literal or metaphorical) – their suffering has a redemptive purpose.

It may not have been apparent to Joseph, sitting in that well waiting to be sold into slavery by his own family, and it may not always be apparent to us when we are suffering, but God can use our suffering and our pain to work wonders for many people – in Joseph’s case an entire country, in Christ’s case the entirety of humanity. I know “everything happens for a reason” is an awful thing to say to anyone who is going through something horrible, but we can draw strength from the tale of Joseph, stuck in a hole in the ground, and God’s gigantic plans for him.

Are you sitting in a dry well? What is limiting your vision of God’s plans for you? I pray that you will have the strength to trust God until your horizons open up a bit more and you can see how He can work in and through your pain.

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It’s very late here, so I’ll keep this short.

Today’s readings rather wrong-footed me. Both the reading from Jeremiah and the Psalm for today used the imagery of a well-watered and fruitful tree to symbolise the person who is planted in God’s love and wisdom, capable of surviving even when everything around them seem like the desert. The tree’s deep roots give it stability and allow it to tap into the water which sustains it. By contrast, those who do not turn to God dry up and blow away, insubstantial, inhospitable and temporary.

So I thought for sure we’d have the Parable of the Sower for our Gospel reading, or some metaphor of the True Vine or something similarly agricultural. But no, we get the story of Lazarus and the rich man. This story has the power to make us a little uncomfortable, since it speaks frankly about the unbridgeable gap between Heaven and Hell (the fact that it speaks of Hell at all might be enough to make us a little uneasy, keen as we are to focus on God’s love rather than His Judgement – Lent is a good time to think about the Four Last Things). To be honest, it makes me so uncomfortable that I don’t really want to write anything about that aspect right now – I’ll leave it to you to Google around and hopefully find some words of wisdom from more qualified writers than I (here’s a really good start).

What I would like to focus on is the rich man’s request to Abraham:  “…pity me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.” If we have in mind the image of God as water, even the smallest hint of God and His love would be a great relief to people suffering in the scorching heat of their own wickedness (remember that the wicked were destined to blow away like chaff and are compared to a desert wasteland). Abraham refuses, and the rich man then begs him to send a messenger to his remaining brothers on Earth to warn them of the burning torments that await those who ignore God during their lives. Once more Abraham refuses, and says that the brothers can listen to Moses and the prophets (i.e. the Scriptures). The written words of God is like a great source of water, and by drinking deeply of these it is possible to remain nourished and comforted by God forever. That is significant as well, that the drying up and withering promised by Jeremiah and the Psalmist happens to the wicked not necessarily during life, but certainly after death. This might be of help to us when we see the wicked resolutely not perishing and blowing away in the wind – God is playing a longer game.

However, that is not the end of the requests – the rich man continues to ask that Lazarus be sent to warn the living of the situation they might find themselves in, but Abraham says that those who don’t believe the Scriptures wouldn’t believe what they say even if someone returned from the dead to confirm what is written. And there the parable ends, on this rather sad and sour note. But how fortunate we are to have skipped ahead a few chapters and seen that God has done it anyway – Christ passed through death and returned to tell us not of the pains that await us after death, but of the fact that He conquered death itself and that the gates of Heaven are open to us now, thanks to Him.

Frequently in the Old Testament God promises to make rivers in the desert, to take that which is dry and unfruitful and make it into a rich place full of life. We can see now that the water which will achieve this, the water that the rich man longed for in his torment, is not just any water, but the Living Water offered by Christ in His living, dying and rising.

Sorry that this is a bit brief, perhaps when I sleep on it more will occur to me, but this is what I have for now. I hope very much that it’s of use to you.

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A short meditation tonight, I think.

Today’s Old Testament, Psalm, and New Testament readings all have something significant in common: they touch on the deep problem that lies at the heart of all religions, namely the problem of evil, particularly when that evil happens to good people. Both the Psalmist and Jeremiah complain to God that the evil majority are plotting their downfall, and that the power of God now is their only hope for deliverance. Jeremiah’s prayer is especially poignant: he is being persecuted by the same people whom he defended before God. Talk about ingratitude.

In keeping with yesterday’s theme of humility, in the reading from Matthew today Christ reiterates how the Messiah must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die at the very hands of the people whom He was sent to save. And, of course, the disciples miss the point again. Rather than focussing on how the climax of Jesus’ ministry was to be His execution, they squabble over their exact placements in the throne room of heaven. All that Christ can say for certain, however, is that the sons of Zebedee (whose mother is the rather uncouth person who asks Christ for heaven’s seating plan) will suffer and die as He himself would. Moreover, he tells them all that the whole concept of heaven is bound up in the servant being greater than the master, that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, that if they want to be first in heaven then they must be the servant of the very lowest person on Earth, giving their very all as He Himself was to do.

I think sometimes that when we do something good for someone, we expect gratitude or goodness in return. We expect the homeless person to smile gratefully after we give them 50p; we expect people who live on state benefits to behave better than we would expect anyone else to in order to make them somehow more deserving of the state’s support; we expect the outcast to be grateful for our company; we expect the feet we washed to stay clean, or at least not to kick us. When we don’t encounter the gratitude we think we are owed, it is tempting to stop doing good, to stop being the servant of all.

But what is it that we can learn from both Jesus and Jeremiah today? It is that sometimes we are humble and good to people who maybe don’t act very grateful, and maybe it makes us wonder whether it was worth being good to those people in the first place. Maybe, like Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren says in the above gifs, we feel that people who don’t have the good sense to respond to love with love simply don’t deserve love in the first place. And you know what, maybe they really don’t deserve it. Or perhaps questions of who deserves or doesn’t deserve love are irrelevant. Perhaps instead what really matters is our behaviour and not the reaction of others, either for good or for ill. The gratitude or otherwise of the recipients of any good deeds we might do is irrelevant.

These readings got me thinking of this quotation by Kent Keith that is often attributed to Mother Teresa (it was painted on the wall of her House in Calcutta), and I will leave you with it today.

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Often in the Gospels, we see Christ encounter people who are eager to know how to be good. They want to know exactly what it is that they need to do to please God and in so doing gain eternal life. These stories always pull me up short because I too would like to know what to do to be a good person and to go to heaven – who doesn’t? The rich young man from Matthew 19 and I have a lot in common. For those of us who like having clear instructions to follow, asking the Lord God Almighty for a simple list of do’s and don’t’s is very tempting.

What’s more, God often obliges! Brilliant! Not only do we have the 10 Commandments (“The ULTIMATE Ten Rules To Being A Good Person… Number Six Will BLOW YOUR MIND”), but we also have passages like today’s first reading: do the following good things, or you’ll bring down your own destruction upon your heads. Right-o, God! Search for justice, be kind to orphans and widows, got it. Thanks, God!

We may at this point be ticking boxes off in our heads. Have I oppressed any widows lately? No? Good, more heaven points for me. Have I been striving for justice? Well, I signed that change.org petition the other day, so I’d say that counts. Gosh, getting into heaven is a breeze!

But then comes the Psalm for today. This should shake us out of our complacency in time for the Gospel, since it has one of those pesky allusions we get so often during Lent to the fact that our sacrifices (in the case of the Old Testament the sacrifices are animal offerings, but we can easily exchange those for our Lenten sacrifices or even our good deeds) are not of interest to God. What really matters is the disposition of our hearts – after all, how can we sacrifice to God and speak about the ways He has told us to live while all along our hearts are at best asleep and at worst actively hostile to true, internal change?

The Gospel for today goes even further. The passage is intriguing, as Jesus actually tells his followers that the Pharisees and scribes make good points and give advice that ought to be followed. This may surprise us slightly, as only a few chapters earlier Jesus tells his followers to be on their guard against the Pharisees and Sadducees. The real problem with the religious elite, Jesus explains, is that they do not practice what they preach. They are tremendously bound to this world, despite being religious teachers who seem to do and say all of the right things. Jesus tells his followers that they are supposed to go to the other extreme – shun titles of honour, reject the temptation to be exalted over each other, seek to be the lowest.

What an inversion of the normal world! What would society look like if we all genuinely treated others as better than us? What would happen if we all wanted to serve each other genuinely? What would happen if the words of our mouths and the deeds of our hands matched our hearts?

One verse from the Gospel reading has really stuck with me today. It’s verse 4: “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they!” What are these burdens? In the context of the rest of the passage, the burdens must be the religious standards the Pharisees tell everyone else to stick to – be careful not to do this, be sure to do that – while ignoring their own advice. If the Pharisees shouldered the same burdens as the people whom they advised, the burden would be much lighter. I see the logic of this – how frustrating and lonely is it to be following a certain course of behaviour and to see others, particularly those who claim to be doing the same thing, doing exactly nothing. Similarly, I always feel guilty when someone catches me doing something that I myself have advised them not to do. The shame of being caught in hypocrisy!

Thinking of hypocrisy and the difference between what I say, what I do and what I believe led me to think of how Jesus, who is the exact opposite of a hypocrite, reveals this aspect of His nature in the New Testament. Far from burdening others, His burden is light. Instead of leaving us to get on with our own problems, He invites us to cast our burdens on Him because He loves us and tells us to share each other’s burdens as well. While the Pharisees burden people and refuse to lift a finger to help, Christ picks up the burden of His cross and carries it all the way to Calvary to die for us.

Lists of how to be good will always be incomplete, because there is an infinite range of different situations in which we can find ourselves – being consumers, parents, friends, children, students, employees etc etc. Ultimately what we really need are guiding principles rather than specific rules, and today Christ gives us some of the greatest and most challenging principles of all – humble yourself. Mean what you say and do what you mean. Above all, love each other.

That list’s much harder to tick off, isn’t it?

 

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Well, so far it’s been a bit tricky to keep my Lenten resolution of writing every day, and for that I apologise. Today’s post will also be a bit short, as I am full of cold and also knackered.

Conveniently, today’s passages are also pretty succinct. The first comes from the First Letter of Peter and is all about responsible Christian leadership. Although Peter addresses the church elders, we can all apply Peter’s guidance to any situation in our lives where we have charge over people, whether in our work or personal lives. When we put ourselves or are put in any leadership position, we are acting as reflections of the One who is the leader of all, Christ. We are therefore called to lead as He did, namely with humility and justice.

But who is Peter to be giving us advice anyway? Well, the Gospel reading for the day tells the story of how Christ made Peter the rock upon which the Church is built, an awesome responsibility indeed. Christ’s words to Peter are so important and so crucial to the Catholic understanding of the nature of the Church that they are inscribed around the inside of the dome of St Peter’s in Rome.

In this exchange, after Peter confesses that Jesus is indeed the Christ, Jesus gives Peter tremendous authority – the very keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (which is why Peter is so often depicted holding keys or sitting at the gates of heaven in jokes). He is told that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven, and vice versa, a promise which we believe has a great deal to do with the absolution of sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (you might know it better as Confession).

And how does Peter wield this awesome power? As Christ wanted – with great humility and joy, shepherding the flock until, as promised in the first reading, the Great Shepherd comes again.

St. Peter is one of my favourite saints because he is so tremendously human. He’s not the favourite disciple, and he’s certainly far from being the most faithful. He’s grouchy and a little quick to make rash promises, but in the end he gets where he needs to be. I suppose that’s why I like taking his advice when he gives it, because I recognise so many of my own sins in his behaviour.

Leadership can be a gift from God, and a great crucible in which our faith can be tested and displayed. Peter’s advice applies to us whether we are teachers, parents, managers, spouses, priests or in pretty much any walk of life. Authority is meant to be held with joy and humility, doing our best to show through our leadership the perfect leadership of Christ our King and Shepherd.

I’ll be the first to say it – Lent is a bit of a downer.

However! After the difficult questions raised by the past few days’ worth of readings, we get a bit of a break today, a day where we are reminded of God’s saving help. Which is a relief to be honest, as I was starting to feel a bit hopeless about the whole thing.

The first reading is taken from the Book of Esther – it’s not very long, go read it now! – and is actually a section which does not feature in Protestant Bibles. I think this is a shame, as it’s a really powerful passage, but anyway. Esther is about to face her husband Xerxes, King of Persia, which you would think wouldn’t be a problem, except that absolutely no one is allowed to come see the king without an invitation on pain of death. To make matters worse, Esther has to think of a way to get Xerxes to rescind an order promoting the killing of the Jews, but she hasn’t told Xerxes that she is a Jew herself. So Esther turns to God in her worry. She puts on sackcloth, puts ashes and dung in her hair (can you imagine a queen with dung in her hair?) and prays from the depths of her soul that God will save her and all of her people. She repeats how alone she is and reminds God of His promise to make the Jews an inheritance for His own. We know from later in the book that Esther is successful and even manages to turn the decree on its head, resulting in the death of Haman, the official who had plotted the massacre of the Jews, as well as the deaths of his ten sons and of many others who wanted to destroy God’s chosen people. It is clear that God does not forget his promises.

The Psalm for the day also dates from the time of Israel’s captivity, and begins with the famous image of the Jews weeping for Zion by the rivers of Babylon. But that’s not the aspect of the Psalm that is emphasised in today’s readings and response. Instead, the reading is full of praise and blessing, and the response says without hesitation “On the day I called, you answered me, O Lord”. God is quick to hear his children, and will not only hear, but act as well. To apply that idea to our current situation, whenever we look to God to support us in a difficult situation, whether over something trivial like really wanting to break your Lenten penance or perhaps over something more serious, God will be there, and be there at once.

The Psalm kind of glances as why this might be the case, but the reason given in the New Testament reading is put much more strongly and clearly: God responds to our needs because God loves us as Our Father. It is as simple and as astounding as that.

But hang on! you may be saying. I prayed for something ages ago, and it was certainly not given to me on the day that I asked for it! In fact, I never received an answer at all! So much for God answering me at once. Well, Christ has an answer for that too. He explains that no father on earth would give his son a snake when he asked for a fish, or a stone when he asked for bread, so we can conclude that the converse is also true. No father, when his son asks for a snake, would actually give him a snake, or would give his son a stone when he knows that the child needs bread, regardless of what the child is asking for. Children are famously terrible at knowing what they need and what is good for them, and it is the parent’s job to give the child what they need.

Sometimes with hindsight it is possible to see moments where we have been asking for snakes and God has given us fish. I used to pray so hard that my first boyfriend would see the error of his ways and come back to me (be nice to me, I was 16 and ridiculous), but God did not make that happen. Instead, he allowed me to meet new people who helped me grow and change and walk the path that has led me to today and to my marvellous, unique and irreplaceable son. Thanks be to God for giving me nourishing bread rather than cold stones!

It might be easy then to leave Mass all content in God’s love, thinking about bread and fish and all manner of good things. But that’s not the end of the reading.

This passage marks the end of the Sermon on the Mount, that tremendous speech that takes up two chapters in the Gospel of Matthew, and the very last sentence not only summarises the sermon, but also everything in the Bible that has come before: love your neighbour as yourself. God will give us what we need, and this will enable us to love each other fiercely and without barriers. Since we have such a generous God, we too can afford to be generous and give others what they need. Again, this use of this passage during Lent serves to draw our attention to Lent’s focus on alms-giving and revealing the love of God (both ours for Him and His for us) through love of neighbour. Our love of God is not meant to be just a private thing, but something which nourishes us and strengthens us to go out into the world and spread that love and trust and faith around.