Catholic in Yanchep

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Christ the King, Year C | Who is king of your universe?

Hans_Memling_-_Christ_Surrounded_by_Musician_Angels_-Christ the King

Christ surrounded by Musician Angels, Hans Memling (c.1480), Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium.

I have a friend, Will, who, as an agnostic, is a great gift to me.  At this stage of his life Will is not one iota interested in God; however, talking to him provides me with an opportunity to understand how atheists and agnostics think.  So last weekend, I asked him about his current view of reality:  to what extent did it include the possibility of God existing?

He answered that as it was impossible to prove God exists, my question was meaningless.

Setting aside whether his assertion is correct (I think it isn’t – but will explain that in another post, or you can read this book), I asked him if he had ever tried the experiential approach and bothered to get his answer straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and ask God if He exists.

No, Will replied.  For if he asks God whether He exists, he is introducing observer bias into the equation, since the question assumes that there is a God to ask whether he exists.  What Will is referring to is a form of confirmation bias, which Wikipedia describes as a “tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.”

That’s not really the case, I replied.  You see, the question of whether God exists is too important not to address.  It’s about ultimate truth, and what we believe about ultimate truth becomes the frame of reference for everything else in our lives.  Take, for example, an atheist like Friedrich Nietzsche who said this: ‘All superior men who were irresistibly drawn to throw off the yoke of any kind of morality and to frame new laws had, if they were not actually mad, no alternative but to make themselves or pretend to be mad’.  The last eleven years of his life were a descent into madness.  (What a surprise.)  Contrast this with someone like St Thérèse of Lisieux: ‘Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.’  Which one of these people do you think had the better understanding of the truth?

So, I said to Will, regarding the question of whether God exists, we have these possibilities:

  1. God does not exist and eo ipso does not want to establish a relationship with us.
  2. God exists and does not want to establish a relationship with us.
  3. God exists and wants to establish a relationship with us.

But what you are saying, Will, is that there are only two options regarding these possibilities:

  1. God does not exist and I can ask him if he exists until I am blue in the face, but because he doesn’t exist he won’t answer me.
  2. God may exist, but I can’t ask him whether he exists, because asking the question a priori introduces confirmation bias (according to Will, anyway).

This seems an extraordinarily poor strategy in the game of life.  Because if God exists, I have left myself no apparent way of discovering Him! In fact, the way Will has designed his schema is itself the most perfect example of a confirmation bias for the negative proposition!  Hypocrisy, anyone?  Accusing others of confirmation bias while exemplifying it oneself?

Anyway, I disagree that asking a question of a hypothetical God introduces confirmation bias.  There are various ways we can ask a question to introduce confirmation bias or otherwise.

For example, one could have negative confirmation bias if one worded the question this way:

“Hypothetical God, to determine if you exist (and I am reasonably sure you don’t), I will throw this ten dollar note into the air, and if you sweep it up into the air like Elijah’s chariot, I will believe you exist, but if it falls back to earth, then I will continue to believe you are non-existent.”

… or one could have positive confirmation bias if one phrased one’s question using a scenario which has every likelihood of being fulfilled:

“Hypothetical God, to determine if you exist (and it would be nice if you did), please give me a sign of your presence.   If you are truly present, perhaps, er, perhaps you could give me this sign: let me have a day of great blessing tomorrow.”

You can’t use as your dependent (responding) variable something which is reasonably likely to occur anyway.

So how could one word a question without introducing confirmation bias?

This is Peter Kreeft’s version:

“[Hypothetical] God, I don’t know whether you exist or not. Maybe I’m praying to nobody, but maybe I’m praying to you. So if you are really there, please let me know somehow, because I do want to know. I want only the Truth, whatever it is. If you are the Truth, here I am, ready and willing to follow you wherever you lead.”

Now Will would probably say this version has too much confirmation bias in it, because it already uses words like ‘praying’ – which has religious overtones.  Not only that, but it contains no variable which is measurable or falsifiable.  Also it adds on certain consequences – he says he will follow wherever God leads.  That’s enough to prevent an atheist from approaching the question at all.  For an atheist would say, “Hang on a minute, I only said I was prepared to find out if God exists, I didn’t say I would follow him if he does!”

Perhaps this could be a more scientifically neutral version:

“Hypothetical God (HG), I need to phrase this question as if I am not talking to you, because by appearing to be talking to you, I am introducing confirmation bias.  Therefore, let HG be a possibility.  If HG exists, and HG wants me to know HG exists, HG will presumably let me know in no uncertain terms.  I reserve the right to refuse to respond to HG, should HG’s presence become apparent.”

Something we haven’t discussed yet is what [hypothetical] God might have to say about the Scientific Method as a way of approaching Him.  Would God even bother to answer someone who has the audacity to approach Him in a way that objectifies Him?   Where is the love?  As an analogy, imagine an adopted son who wanted to find out who his birth mother was, but only wanted to know if she was alive and had no intention of meeting and getting to know her.  If the birth mother came to find out that her son was asking questions with this attitude and not with a genuine desire to get to know her, would there be any point in responding?  Would she not be hurt?  In the same vein, isn’t treating God like a science experiment just plain rude?  Well, this is where it might get interesting.  God is a God of surprises, and he doesn’t avoid painful situations (witness the crucifixion).  What’s more, he knows the inmost working of our hearts.  He always responds in the way that is most appropriate for the particular soul.  If He sees that the soul in question would make progress if He responds, then respond He will.  But if he sees that the soul who is half-heartedly seeking him needs more character formation before his heart is in the right place to receive an answer, then he will no doubt first give him some character-building experiences in his life.

There’s a whole lot more to be said on exactly how we hear God and how God speaks to us, but I’ll have to save that for another post.

Readings for Christ the King

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32nd Sunday in OT | Maccabees, Martyrdom and Meaning

ciseri-antonio-the-martyrdom-of-the-seven-maccabees

The Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees, Antonio Ciseri, 1863, Oil on Canvas, St Felicita, Florence, Italy.

One of Satan’s wiles is the distortion of words, so that they lose distinctions and create confusion where previously there was clarity.  That this would happen is predicted in Isaiah.

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)

One of the words under attack in our time is ‘martyrdom’.

We have a superb, if gruesome, illustration of the traditional meaning of martyrdom in today’s Old Testament reading from 2 Maccabees.  In fact, this is one of the first descriptions of martyrdom in a distinctively Jewish context, aside from prophetic accounts such as Isaiah’s Suffering Servant passages.

The setting is the Greek empire during the period after the death of Alexander the Great, when the empire was split between the northern Seleucids (Mesopotamia, Persia – Iraq and Iran in our day – and Syria) and the southern Ptolemies (Egypt and Palestine).  Antiochus IV, king of the Seleucids, a man seized by a thirst for power, wrested control of Palestine away from Ptolemy IV, Pharaoh of Egypt, in 169 BC.  In an extraordinary display of self-aggrandisement, he assumed the title “Theos Epiphanes” or “God Manifest”.  He then set about a systematic destruction of Jewish culture and religious practice.  The aim was to unify the territory he controlled by replacing the ‘backward’ religious beliefs and observances of the Jews with ‘enlightened’ Greek (Hellenistic) culture and religious practice.  He attacked the temple, carrying off its altar and sacred vessels, pillaged the city and tore down Jerusalem’s wall that had been rebuilt by Nehemiah after the Babylonian captivity, took women, children and cattle captive, and rebuilt the city with a stronger wall and a Citadel.

The king then issued a proclamation to his whole kingdom that all were to become a single people, each nation renouncing its particular customs.  All the gentiles conformed to the king’s decree, and many Israelites chose to accept his religion, sacrificing to idols and profaning the Sabbath.  The king also sent edicts by messenger to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah, directing them to adopt customs foreign to the country, banning burnt offerings, sacrifices and libations from the sanctuary, profaning Sabbaths and feasts, defiling the sanctuary and everything holy, building altars, shrines and temples for idols, sacrificing pigs and unclean beasts, leaving their sons uncircumcised, and prostituting themselves to all kinds of impurity and abomination, so that they should forget the Law and revoke all observance of it.  Anyone not obeying the king’s command was to be put to death.  Writing in such terms to every part of his kingdom, the king appointed inspectors for the whole people and directed all the towns of Judah to offer sacrifice city by city.  Many of the people – that is, every apostate from the Law – rallied to them and so committed evil in the country, forcing Israel into hiding in any possible place of refuge.  (1 Maccabees 1:41-53)

To the horror of the Jews, sacrifices to Olympian Zeus were made in the Temple on the Altar of Burnt Offering on the 25th of each month, (2 M 1:59) any copies of the Torah that were found were torn up and burned, and women who had had their children circumcised were put to death with their babies hung round their necks.

Today’s reading from 2 Maccabees gives us a vivid portrayal of a particular family of Jews who resist this ideological colonisation.  Seven brothers and their mother are arrested and tortured to force them to taste pork.  Their eldest brother has his tongue cut out, his head scalped and his extremities cut off before he is fried while still alive in a red-hot pan before his brothers and mother.  Slowly the torturers make their way through all the brothers and finally the mother.  With remarkable courage they stand firm in their resolution to be faithful to the Torah and their covenant relationship with God.  You might wonder why they didn’t just eat the pork – it’s only food after all.  But to the Jews, adherence to the dietary laws was not just a meaningless dietary restriction.  It was symbolic of their relationship of familial trust, love and duty towards the God who had formed them and led them since earliest times.

Now what is remarkable about their martyrdom is that they see it, not as a failure, but as the occasion for a number of opportunities, namely,

  1. An opportunity to participate in the future, bodily resurrection:

“Ours is the better choice, to meet death at men’s hands, yet relying on God’s promise that we shall be raised up by him; whereas for you there can be no resurrection to new life.”  “Cruel brute, you may discharge us from this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up, since we die for his laws, to live again for ever.”

  1. An opportunity to explain God’s plan for his people and his intervention in human history.

“You have power over human beings, mortal as you are, and can act as you please.  But do not think that our race has been deserted by God.  Only wait and you will see in your turn how his mighty power will torment you and your descendants.” 

(In fact, within 5 years, Antiochus IV is dead, and within 100 years, the Greek empire is overcome by the Romans under Pompey.)

  1. An opportunity to die to self – to give up concern for one’s own safety and security to uphold what is good and true.

“Heaven gave me these limbs; for the sake of his laws I have no concern for them; from him I hope to receive them again.”

  1. An opportunity to atone for the sins of their fellow Jews; they are able to redeem the sins of other people by taking on suffering themselves:

“Do not delude yourself: we are suffering like this through our own fault, having sinned against our own God; hence, appalling things have befallen us.”

  1. An opportunity to show profound humility and trust in God’s ultimate plan. The mother says,

“I do not know how you appeared in my womb; it was not I who endowed you with breath and life, I had not the shaping of your every part.  And hence, the Creator of the world, who made everyone and ordained the origin of all things, will in his mercy give you back breath and life, since for the sake of his laws you have no concern for yourselves.”

Now contrast all this with the other kind of (self-described) martyrdom, the kind on display so frequently these days among terrorists.  The type of martyrdom that says you can kill yourself in the name of religion.  When a terrorist blows himself up, hoping to take as many others with him as possible, this is as unlike a Jewish or Christian martyrdom as it is possible to get.  If there is anything in common between the two ‘martyrdoms’, it is the zeal and commitment of the participants, but that is all.  It is possible to make several distinctions between these martyrdoms:

  • Judaeo-Christian martyrs have historically been innocent victims. The martyrs of Islamic State are perpetrators of terror and cruelty, not victims.
  • Judaeo-Christian martyrs give up their own lives in non-violent surrender to the violence of others. They do not seek death, merely surrender to it when death becomes inevitable.  Martyrs of the Islamic State actively seek death and are effectively committing suicide.
  • Judaeo-Christian martyrs see their suffering as redemptive. Their willingness to undergo suffering is an atoning sacrifice which has a redemptive effect.  Witness how the Holocaust of World War II led to the reversal of the Jewish diaspora and the re-creation of Israel.  Witness how the blood of the early Christian martyrs was the seed of the Church.
  • The heavenly reward that Judaeo-Christian martyrs hope for is one where they will be united with God in a living relationship of selflessness, perfect love and joy in His presence … the reward that the martyrs of ISIS hope for seems to be focused on selfish pleasures and unbridled lust – men being rewarded with 72 virgins, for example.

These are just a few differences; others could be found.  Right now, there is an unprecedented number of Christian martyrdoms occurring, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.  The perpetrators are ISIS, Al Quaeda, Al Shabaab, the Taliban, Boko Haram, Wilayat Sayna, Lashkar-e-Taiba and their ilk. Many of these go unreported by a media that is hostile to Christianity, but you can easily find them here.  Right now, the state of Christian martyrdom in the world is so dire, that we pray that God will soon end this torment and restore the world to himself.  May the blood of the real martyrs atone for the sins of a world that has abandoned God in so many ways, and may God strengthen us to resist any attempts of the state to restrict religious freedom.

Today’s readings:

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31st Sunday in OT | Two Meals, Two Attitudes

zacchaeus-in-the-sycamore-tree

Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Tree, Icon, unknown artist.

The Gospel of Luke gives us accounts of two meals which bring out the differences that our attitudes can make.  One is in Luke, Chapter 7 (Jesus in the Home of Simon the Pharisee) and one is in Luke 19 (The story of Zacchaeus, the Tax Collector).

In the second of these, which we have in the Gospel for today, Jesus invites himself to the house of Zacchaeus, the tax collector.  Being a tax collector in Judaea in Jesus’ day was nothing like being an employee of the ATO today.  To understand why the point is made that Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector (architelones) and a wealthy man, you have to understand the historical context.  Firstly, tax collectors were regarded by the Jews as traitors.  They were in league with the occupying power, the Romans.  Secondly, they were very likely to collect more money than was strictly required, due to the structural features of the Roman tax system.  The practice was for the government to sub-contract out the collection of taxes in a particular area to ‘tax farmers’ or telonai.  The tax collector would make an advance payment to the state of the “working capital” that he had been contracted to collect.  It then became the job of the tax collector to raise this amount from the people, plus sufficient funds to cover his overheads.  Except that the tax collectors didn’t usually just cover their overheads.  Any excess funds were retained by the tax collectors as profit.  Tax collectors were therefore not only wealthy ab initio (because they had the capital to invest in the Roman tax enterprise), but there was a constant temptation to add to their wealth by collecting more than they strictly required.  How much is too much, after all?  If you want to know how the ordinary people felt about tax collectors in Jesus’ day, consider John Bergsma’s remarks:

[Zacchaeus] was a wealthy tax collector, a social oppressor and collaborator with an oppressive and dictatorial foreign government.  How do we feel about drug dealers riding by in black Lexuses and pulling out rolls of $50 bills?  How do we feel about former Enron executives now comfortably retired in Aspen?  How do we feel about shady political campaign operatives taking millions in donations from foreign governments while manipulating a domestic election? [Gosh, I wonder who he could mean!] The emotions would be similar for the Jews with respect to Zacchaeus. 

But what Zacchaeus has in his favour is an interest in Jesus.  He feels drawn to him to the point where he is prepared to climb a tree in order to ‘catch a glimpse’ of Jesus as he passes through Jericho.  And this tiny movement of Zacchaeus’s heart is enough to set in motion a flow of grace, as Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’s house.

[Jesus] is thereby requesting the conventional hospitality owed to traveling strangers but without showing the least concern for Zacchaeus’s perpetual ritual impurity due to his immoral and traitorous lifestyle. Perhaps for that very reason, Zacchaeus is so humbled that, when the entourage has reached his home, he announces that he is giving half of his goods to the poor and restoring fourfold to those whom he has defrauded—good signs of genuine repentance (v. 8; cf. John the Baptist’s charge to tax collectors in 3:13, unpacking his call to repentance in 3:2). Jesus’ holiness, not Zacchaeus’s past immorality, has rubbed off on his counterpart.  (Craig Blomberg, Jesus, Sinners and Table Fellowship)

I recently heard a homily that implied that when Zacchaeus says ‘if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount’, he didn’t really mean that he had actually cheated anybody, it was just a hypothetical statement.  He knew he was really innocent, and it was the bad will of those who would prejudge him that was the real problem in this scenario.

But such an interpretation makes no sense of Jesus’s statement, “Today salvation has come to this house.”  And if you look at the Greek, you find that the sentence is in the form of a First Class Condition (i.e. that the premise or protasis is true).  [For more on Greek conditional sentences, go here.]   As Craig Blomberg says,

If Luke wanted to portray Zacchaeus as promising to restore fourfold anything he has defrauded without believing that he had in fact defrauded anyone, or if he meant to imply “whenever” defrauding of this sort occurs, Luke would have used a third-class (hypothetical) condition.

The other character in our comparison is Simon the Pharisee, who invites Jesus to his house for a meal.  For the Pharisees, strict observance of the Mosaic Law and ‘the traditions of the elders’ (Matt 15:1-20) was paramount.  The Pharisees are one of the groups for whom Jesus most frequently has harsh words – not because they are legalistic, but because they are legalistic and morbidly self-righteous without the love of God.  He says in Luke 11:42 “But alas for you Pharisees, because you pay your tithe of mint and rue and all sorts of garden herbs and neglect justice and the love of God!  These you should have practised, without neglecting the others.”  So when Jesus has taken his place at table, a woman with a bad reputation enters and in an extravagant display, falls weeping at his feet, kissing them and anointing them with ointment.  Simon is horrified that Jesus permits such attention, saying, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who this woman is and what sort of person it is who is touching him and what a bad name she has.’  But Jesus rebukes him, pointing out the several ways in which the woman has shown love and the Pharisee has neglected to show either love or customary good manners.

So what are the essential differences in attitude between the two protagonists, Zacchaeus and Simon, and the events that take place in their houses?

  1. In both cases, elements of the crowd are shocked. The people complain when they see Jesus wanting to eat with, wait … a tax-collector!  Simon complains when Jesus shows no hesitation in receiving the attention of a woman of ill-repute.  People are wondering whether Jesus’ keeping company with the unrespectable means that Jesus approves of their behaviour.
  2. Zacchaeus is open to discovering more about Jesus and readily receives Jesus at his house. Simon, although he has taken the initiative of inviting Jesus, only invites him so that he can point out what he thinks are Jesus’s faults.
  3. The tables are turned on Simon when it is Jesus who shows Simon where he is failing to perform the social conventions.   Zacchaeus , on the other hand, doesn’t need his faults pointed out – he himself calls attention to his greed and extortion.
  4. Salvation comes to Zacchaeus precisely because of his willingness to recognise and abandon his sin. Simon, on the other hand, is sidelined while the unnamed woman, the woman who has the humility to acknowledge her sinfulness, has her sins forgiven.

Examination of conscience:

  1. Do I enjoy finding fault with others? Have I asked God to reveal to me the faults I have in myself that I may not be aware of?
  2. Do I reach out to people with the love of Christ – people who are outside my circle of comfort?
  3. How interested am I in the person of Jesus? Do I have a living relationship with him?

Today’s readings:

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29th Sunday, Year C | Our help is from the Lord

persistent-prayerIf you thought being a Christian was a life of pure unadulterated blessing, think again. Sure, you will receive many blessings along the way, but today’s readings tell us that we can also expect attacks and difficulties. It’s part of the journey. The attack may not be physical – it may be the things people say (or do), or it may be any number of other difficult circumstances.

In the first reading today, we see that the Israelites – the people God has chosen to educate about Himself – are being harried by the Amalekites. This is just after the Israelites have crossed the Red Sea and are journeying through the desert on their way to Canaan. They are having difficulty trusting God. Typical humans, they are a rabble of moaners and groaners. First it’s the food, then it’s the water, and every time, God demonstrates that he will provide for them. We find out in Deuteronomy 25:17 about what happens to them next: “Remember how Amalek treated you when you were on your way out of Egypt. He met you on your way and, after you had gone by, he fell on you from the rear and cut off the stragglers; when you were faint and weary, he had no fear of God.” They are being attacked, unprovoked. And now, emboldened by these cowardly rearguard attacks, the Amalekites come to Rephidim and wage open warfare on the Israelites (Exodus 17:8).

We can expect this same sort of attack on us in the course of our lives: Satan will send one thing or another to draw us away from our faith. Perhaps our faith is weakened by public criticism of Christian teaching or by our own moral failures. Only this week, we had the leaking of emails showing the behind-the-scenes politicking which aims to bring down the Catholic Church, manifested by the anti-Catholic bigotry of the Clinton campaign team. Those of us who have not strengthened themselves may be like the stragglers who are cut off at the rear. Perhaps some other challenge will confront us which makes us wonder whether we can trust God any more – maybe our wife or husband has left us, our children have turned away from us, we have lost all our savings or a tragic event has occurred in our lives. Do we then turn away from God, saying “See how He doesn’t care about me”?

We find the answer in the readings today:
1. We need to be like Moses, who, when the going gets tough, keeps praying. Standing on the hilltop, he intercedes for the Israelites until he is physically worn out. In the Gospel, too, we see Jesus talking about the sheer physical effort we need to make in prayer, when he says “Will not God see justice done to his chosen who cry to him day and night even when he delays to help them?” How many times are we that bothered that we “cry to him day and night?”
2. It helps if we have a support group like Moses, who is able to continue with the help of Aaron and Hur, holding him up on either side. Do you have a support group which prays together or studies the Bible with you? If not, you need to find one or start one.
3. Like the Israelites, when we’re going through challenging times, God is trying to help us grow in trust. Jesus says, “I promise you, [God] will see justice done to them, and done speedily.” We should never doubt that God wants what is best for us.
4. So what does it mean if God seems to be ‘delaying to help’? And how can God be getting justice done ‘speedily’ even while ‘delaying to help’? Isn’t this a contradiction? In my own life, I’ve found that the period of waiting for an answer from God is usually the most fruitful for my own spiritual development. It is during these times that my prayer life loses its tendency to lukewarmness and takes on the urgency and energy of a heart passionate for results. It is during these times that I examine myself more and start to notice areas that God might want me to work on. Even though God doesn’t seem to be working on the person who is causing me problems, he seems to be working on me! Maybe that was what he was after all the time!

If the whole point of our lives is for us to discover God and learn to work with him, then we should regard every difficulty as a marvellous opportunity to expand our trust in him.

Today’s readings:

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26th Sunday, Year C | Overcoming Indifference

rich-man-and-lazarus-codex-aureus_epternacensis

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach, 1035-1040, German National Museum, Nürnberg. Top panel: Lazarus at the rich man’s door Middle panel: Lazarus’ soul is carried to Paradise by two angels; Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom Bottom panel: Dives’ soul is carried off by two devils to Hell; Dives is tortured in Hades.

This week’s Gospel from Luke 16 should be compulsory reading for all.  Jesus tells a parable in which he contrasts a poor man, Lazarus, ‘covered with sores’, who goes hungry and unnoticed outside the gate of a rich man who enjoys a life of ease and comfort.  After the rich man dies, he finds himself in torment in Hades, not because of any particular cruelty he has meted out, but merely because he has been totally indifferent to the suffering of the man who lay at his gate.  Abraham says to him, “My son, remember that during your life good things came your way, just as bad things came the way of Lazarus.  Now he is being comforted while you are in agony.”

It’s easy in a country like Australia which has an advanced system of welfare and safety nets, to avoid being confronted with real poverty.  And sometimes, social welfare systems are so generous that they have the unintended effect of cementing and rewarding dysfunctional behaviours.  Hence the current conversation about whether school attendance should be a requirement for receiving family welfare.  But it is largely because Australia was founded on the sort of Judaeo-Christian principles explained in this parable and in the first reading from the prophet Amos, that it has had such a commitment to justice and a fair go for everyone.

At the moment I am in Cape Town, South Africa, where it almost impossible to be unaware of the poor around you, and there is a huge gulf between the haves and the have-nots.  I am well aware that I am more like the rich man in the parable when I am visiting here, so I am making an effort not to be indifferent.

On my way to Mass in the morning, I pass by a small park where I used to play as a child.  In this park lives a woman called Ursula, often accompanied by her friend Anthony.  Both Ursula and Anthony have mental health problems.  As I arrive, Anthony is sweeping the soil around the park bench, behind which is a bundle of plastic bags containing all their worldly goods.

“Good morning, Ursula.  How are you today?”  “Hello lady.  Can’t complain.”  “It looks as if it might rain today.  Where do you go if it rains?”  “I stay here.  I come from Somerset East, but I live here now.”  “I can see someone has given you some chicken.  Are you going to cook it?”  “No it’s cooked already.”  (It looks raw and it still in a polystyrene meat tray.)  “Oh well, here’s a sandwich for your breakfast, if you like.”  “Thank you, lady, I appreciate it.” “Hope you have a lovely day.”

Then there is Martin, who has come to South Africa from the DRC.  Every morning, Martin comes to Mass at Nazareth House, and picks up a sandwich from the nuns at the convent in exchange for some light duties.  After Mass, Martin walks up the steep hill to the Kwikspar, wheeling his travel luggage behind him, and all the way, carrying on a lively conversation with himself in French.  I think the Kwikspar might give away some out-of-code items.  At night, Martin stays at one of the homeless shelters which fortunately are available in this area for those who want to make use of them.

The third friend I have made here is one of the carers at Nazareth House.  I will call her Nomandla (not her real name).  Nomandla’s problem is an example of the structural problems in the South African wage system.  For 15 twelve-hour days a month, Nomandla earns R3,000 (that’s about AUD300).  So her weekly wage is approximately R750 or $75.  How is this possibly a living wage?  Nomandla is also supporting her son, who is studying at UWC to be a lawyer and will graduate in 2018.  Nomandla has a grade 12 education, but because of family circumstances, never had the opportunity to study further.  She would like to upgrade her skills and study nursing as soon as her son has graduated.  I am hoping I can help Nomandla achieve this goal.  If anyone is interested in this, I like the idea of direct action without going through all the administration costs involved in charitable donations, so please contact me.

I should also mention that Catholic Welfare and Development have a number of outreach programs here in the Western Cape, if you would like to donate to them.

Today’s readings:

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25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C | Will the poor plead for your soul?

the-parable-of-the-shrewd-steward-reymerswaele

Two tax collectors, Marinus van Reymerswaele, 1540s, oil on panel, National Museum of Warsaw, Poland

I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth,
so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
(Luke 16:9)

Today’s Gospel gives us one of the strangest of Jesus’ parables: The Dishonest Steward.  The dishonest steward has been wasteful with his master’s property, and when he is caught out, instead of changing his ways, he continues in the same vein, writing off debts owed to his master in the hope that this will win him a few friends when he is sacked from his job.

One wonders if Jesus is holding up the steward as someone to be praised (“the master praised the dishonest steward for his astuteness”).  But a closer reading shows us that the point of the story is that Jesus is asking us to be astute with the gifts he has given us.  Apart from the necessities of life, what is our money for?  Is it so that we can complete our bucket list?  Is it to amass goods that will allow us to live lives of comfort?

Jesus says, “Use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tent of eternity.”  In my imagination, I can picture myself after death, being brought out before God for judgement, and while the demons are crowding around and accusing me loudly of various acts of neglect and tightfistedness towards the poor, those souls who have lived lives of privation and suffering on Earth will be given the opportunity to speak up for me.

When I stand before God for judgement, will anyone come forward and say, “She helped me out when my family was going through hard times?”

At the moment I am on holiday in the land of my birth, South Africa, for the St Cyprian’s class of ‘76’s 40-year reunion.  I count myself lucky to have been born in a country where great poverty exists (alongside great wealth, mind you) – because it is now prompting my conscience to find more opportunities for taking Jesus seriously on this question.  Much of the conversation about money in Australia concerns superannuation, which is really about hoarding money for one’s own future provision.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t provide for our retirement, but from a God’s eye view, it is more important for us to give money where it is needed here and now, rather than focus solely on a future that may never arrive.  How do I know that God won’t take me to himself suddenly, and what provision have I made for my savings to go to those who are unable to lift themselves out of poverty?  These are not easy questions, but God asks that we address ourselves shrewdly to how we allocate our resources, while we still have time, and not leave it to somebody else to do for us after we are dead or have become incapacitated by old age.

Changing the subject somewhat, the second reading from Paul’s letter to Timothy talks about our responsibility to pray for ‘kings and others in authority, so that we might be able to live religious and reverent lives in peace and quiet’.  We need also to pray for our bishops, because the current charged atmosphere in Australia requires clear teaching and unambiguous language from our shepherds.  During the past few weeks, we have had Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta Diocese giving the Ann D Clark Lecture at the Penrith Panthers Club, only to be represented in the media as supporting a change in church teaching on homosexuality.  Fr Terence Mary Naughtin OFM Conv., Latin Mass chaplain for Wagga Wagga, has responded in detail to Bishop Long’s lecture, explaining where things might have been stated more accurately.    It is clear from Fr Naughtin’s measured response that he has made every effort to be fair to Bishop Long, while at the same time not being afraid to speak up boldly for truth.

Corporal acts of mercy are always desired but they will never be as great or as merciful as the acts of love by which the Church rescues souls from sin and error and eternal damnation.

Bishops around Australia will need to be fearless in countering the threats and intimidation which are being levelled against Christians and Christian teaching, especially in the lead-up to the proposed plebiscite in February.  No longer can we rely on a culture that is friendly to the church, when we can’t even book a hotel room to discuss traditional marriage, the foundation for a stable society.

Today’s readings:

Word format: year-c-25th-sunday-2016

Pdf format: year-c-25th-sunday-2016

 


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Some photos from Dante’s Divine Comedy in New Norcia, 20 August 2016

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St Gertrude’s College at sunrise, New Norcia.

Here are a few photos from last week’s trip to New Norcia.  I thought it was one of those lovely coincidences that the Divine Comedy was being performed on the Feast Day of the Cistercian Abbot, St Bernard of Clairvaux, the saint whom Dante held up as the paragon of mystical contemplatives and has himself meeting in the highest level of the Paradiso.

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Father David Barry plays Dante

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Mary Creed as Beatrice.

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Fr David Barry as Dante with Abbot Bernard Rooney as Virgil, his guide through Hell and Purgatory.

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The ceiling of St Gertrude’s Chapel, where the first half of the Divine Comedy was performed.

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St Ildephonsus’ Chapel, where the second half of the Divine Comedy was performed.

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Inside St Ildephonsus’ Chapel, New Norcia

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The monks of New Norcia, entering St Ildephonsus’ Chapel for the second half of the performance.

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Dante’s Divine Comedy performed by the monks and friends of New Norcia

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Fr John Herbert, Walter Cerquetti Lippi (producer and director), Abbot Bernard Rooney and Fr David Barry discussing the performance.

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Walter Cerquetti Lippi, Director and Producer of The Divine Comedy, New Norcia.

Walter Cerquetti Lippi at the age of 79 is still a powerhouse of activity.  His passion for Sacred Theatre has spurred him to produce at least 125 Mystery Plays since 1967, as well as other plays with a religious theme, such as the Ecstasies of St Therese of Lisieux, St Francis of Assisi and Murder in the Cathedral, in venues as diverse as Rome, Florence, Vienna, the Festival of Canterbury, Slovakia and Australia.

Sacred Theatre has a long tradition dating back to the fall of the Roman Empire, around 500 A.D.  Abbeys used drama and Mystery plays to explain the Passion, the Nativity, and the Miracles of Jesus to the largely illiterate population.   Indeed, the first published woman playwright was a Benedictine nun – Hildegard of Bingen, with the oldest surviving morality play being her Ordo Virtutum.

Walter described for us how he sees his role in the production of Sacred Theatre as a form of self-development for his own interior life, in the manner of Dante whose writing of the Divine Comedy was itself a guide for his soul’s journey.

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The Abbey Church, New Norcia, at dawn.

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The monastery town of New Norcia from the East, across oat fields.

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Front view of the Abbey Church, New Norcia

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The monastery orchard, New Norcia, on the east side.