Sunday Gospel Reflection for 21st Sunday of the Year August 21st Written by Fr Brian Maher OMI
As a High School teacher all of my working life, it always struck me as strange and disappointing that we teach our children the skills they need to mature physically, intellectually and emotionally, yet we frequently avoid teaching them to mature spiritually.
Physically a child learns to value health and fitness; intellectually the importance of ‘exploration’ and asking ‘critical questions’ is stressed; through Social Studies, Pastoral Care, and the availability of Counselling our children are helped to mature emotionally and psychologically, yet when it comes to Spiritual maturity, we tell our children that ‘Faith’ does not ask questions; that Sacred Scripture (of any Religion) is not to be read and appreciated as poetry, literature or narrative, but is to be believed in a literal sense only; and we cry foul and seek to ban programmes or subject modules which present anything different to what we believe.
It never really surprised me that so many young people give up on God and faith as they come to adulthood. They are physically, emotionally and intellectually adults, yet they are still spiritual children. They discover that the answers which satisfied them as children no longer satisfy them as adults. Their real and valid ‘adult’ questions are discouraged and either not spoken at all or are left unanswered. Even worse they are often left thinking that asking difficult questions means they have no faith, and they simply give up.
For instance, I clearly remember, at about the age of five or six, being taught, what we called then, ‘catechism’ by the wonderful Presentation Sisters. It was presented to us in the form of questions and answers, and we had to learn by heart both the question and the answer. One of the questions was: “Why did God put us on Earth?” and the answer was, “God put us on Earth to know, love, and serve him in this life, and to be happy with him forever in Heaven.”
That answer, “to know, love, and serve him in this life, and to be happy with him forever in Heaven” is wonderful for a child – clear, simple and easily explained in a child’s language – yet for an adult it leaves unanswered many other questions. For example: Is our life on earth, then, nothing more than a test to see if we are worthy of Heaven?
You see, the thing about a test is that it is enough that we don’t fail. As a teacher I had many a conversation with students who I felt were underachieving. Many of them gave me that “whatever….” Look and answered, “But I don’t fail, do I?” As a teacher that answer left me fuming with rage and frustration, yet the smiling student was right. If ‘not failing’ is the bar by which we measure success, then the truth is that we will achieve very little in life.
And so, to today’s Gospel.
It seems to me that the entire message of Jesus was centred around the coming of “the Kingdom of God.” His very first message was: “Repent and believe, for the Kingdom of God is very near.” When he was teaching his disciples to pray, we find the Kingdom of God at its core: “Thy Kingdom come…”. In the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, the great manifesto of his teaching, it is repeated over and over again: “Blessed are….. for the Kingdom of God is theirs.” (Matthew uses ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ because his audience is mainly Jews, who out of reverence, consider God’s name too holy to use.)
In today’s Gospel we find the Kingdom of God twice in one paragraph.
It would be a mistake to think that the Kingdom Jesus talked about was some faraway, ethereal place, accessible only after death and paid for by how well I “know, love and serve God in this life.”
No! the Kingdom of God talked about by Jesus seems to be already here, ushered in by the life of Jesus himself and later vindicated by his death and resurrection. It is not a Kingdom in the sky, with angels, harps, choirs and gates to keep the wicked out. It is present among us, manifested in the words, actions, interactions and relationships of his followers.
And when the early Christian communities talked about the ‘second coming of Jesus’ and the final coming of the Kingdom of God, they were talking about something that would happen in this world, not in the clouds. The King, the Messiah (Jesus) will return in glory to take his place as King of this world, bringing with him a Kingdom of justice, peace and joy which will last forever. All who have died will rise to take their place in this wonderful and eternal Kingdom of God.
This is, you will admit, a very different looking Kingdom to the cloudy, slightly foggy images of Heaven presented to us in works of art, and pictures in prayer books.
A Christian, a follower of Jesus, can never afford to live passively or become complacent, waiting for the Kingdom to come. A Christian must be proactive, aware that the Kingdom is already being revealed to us and we are called to be its witnesses.
The Kingdom of God is present in the terrible tragedy of Ukraine; it is in Afghanistan; it is in Syria; it is in the flimsy boats carrying desperate migrants to our shores, it is in the homeless on our streets, it is in the ‘new’ poor who choose to miss meals themselves so that their children can eat; it is in our Parliaments, our armies our police. Wherever Christians are, there too is the Kingdom of God.
And this is the challenge of today’s Gospel. It is not enough for me to say to Jesus, “I went to Mass and listened to the Gospel and even sometimes read a reflection on it.” Nor is it enough to say, “I minded my own business and did no wrong.” If that is the best I can say as a Christian then my lifestyle may be so different to that of Jesus that he will not recognise me.
It was St. Paul who said, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17). Christians have something to celebrate. The Kingdom of God lives among us, shown by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
As Christians we are called, invited, challenged, commanded to bring justice, peace and joy to everyone we meet. We are called to look at all the places in our world where there is discord, fear, injustice or hunger and to see in them the seeds of the Kingdom of God. It might be in the generosity of doctors, nurses and aid workers who choose to be there, or in the love and resilience of parents who continue to smile for the sake of their children who play in the rubble of destroyed cities, or in the anguished face of a young mother thrusting her child into the arms of an American soldier in Kabul so that her child might have a better life elsewhere, or in the scientists, protestors and others who warn us that we owe so much more to the wonderful planet on which we all depend than we are presently giving.
If I may return for a moment to where I started. When my underachieving student says, “But I’m not failing, am I?” then I, as a teacher or parent, am rightly dissatisfied. “Look at your potential…” I challenge, “…Look at all you could achieve. You need to do more work and make use of the abilities God gave you.”
If, “I’m not failing, am I” is the bar my student uses to measure success, then I owe him or her more than to accept that without challenge.
And if, “we listened to you speak on our streets” and “we minded our own business” are the bars by which we measure being part of the Kingdom of God, then Jesus will rightly challenge us.
“But what did you do?” he will ask, “…I left you an example in what I said and did. Why have you not followed it? I gave you so much more potential…..why did you not use it?”
Most of the students I have known over the years listened, and with help and support, responded and did very well. Sadly, some didn’t listen, and they did not do so well.
We have the same choice to make as Christians: To listen to today’s challenge or not to listen to today’s challenge? That is the question.
|Gospel for Sunday August 21st, 21st Sunday of the Year|
|Luke 13:22-30 ©|
The last shall be first and the first last
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