Through Shadows and Images...

A Blog by Tom Gourlay

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12 November – Thirty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 25:1-13

‘Stay awake’

This parables that Jesus tells are by nature mysterious. They aim to draw us into contemplation, and to challenge any preconceived notions we might have.

One particular reading of this parable could lead to an image forming of a God who is seeking to catch us out. Jesus’ message of warning then, is something akin to a hot tip from someone with the inside scoop.

This particular reading however seems to be inadequate, if only because it does not match up with other things that Jesus has said of himself, or of God the Father.

The kingdom of God is thematic in Jesus’ teaching. In his parables he uses similes to paint a picture – always leaving room for further thought and contemplation. The Kingdom of God, he says, is like a mustard seed, a pearl of great price etc. Each parable adds a different hue to the overall image we get.

In the parable before us today, which, it is fair to say has something of an ominous, almost threatening tone emphasises that the Kingdom of God is something that is beyond our control. We cannot impose our will upon it, but must be open and adequately disposed to receive it.

In the liturgies of the East the refrain that echoes throughout the service is often repeated ‘Be attentive!’ This is what Jesus asks of us here.

Is it easy to be attentive? Do we allow the happenings of our day, the frenetic busy-ness of modern life, the incessant notifications that make our phones buzz to distract us?


Point to Ponder

[P]rayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it.

Simone Weil

5 November – Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Luke 19:1-10

“The greatest among you must be your servant.”

Jesus’ teaching often flips our way of seeing the world on its head. On first reading it can even seem to be utter nonsense. But when we press into his words, and look beyond them to the clarifying nature of his deeds also, we are brought to a deeper awareness of the truth which he presents us with.

In his new dispensation the old wisdom that reigned is inverted. The first according to human reckoning is made last, and those who are last are now made first. The one who serves is the greatest.

This is exemplified in the person of Jesus himself who, born of the most modest of circumstances, and who pours his life out in humble service to all – and yet, who is the Lord of all creation.

For us, this bears significant meaning. We, who often seek to assert our own importance, who seek to be recognised and served, or applauded for the good works which we might do are reminded, not only by Jesus’ words and deeds, but also by his very person – by his coming as a man – that one’s greatness is manifest in humility and service.

If this all sounds a little to abstract, perhaps the example of a modern day saint, like St Mother Teresa of Calcutta can bring it down to earth.

This tiny woman, of very little significance in so very many ways transformed the lives of so many around her, and around the world. Not by worldly success or dominance, but by loving, humble service to the poorest of the poor – those who could not even thank her for her efforts. In this she, servant of all became one of the greatest amongst us.

Words of Wisdom

“Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”

― Mother Teresa

More on the Mother’s Smile

Some time ago I had occasion to post what I think is just the most beautiful photo of my wife and little daughter Anastasia. It was accompanied by a quote from von Balthasar’s little nugget of a book, Love Alone is Credible.

This time, a snap of my little man Augustine – again accompanied by some words from von Balthasar, this time from an essay contained within volume 3 of his Explorations in Theology book.

‘The little child awakens to self-consciousness through being addressed by the love of his mother’

– Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Movement Toward God,” in Explorations in Theology, vol. 3, Creator Spirit (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 15-55.

29 October – Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 22:34-40

“This is the greatest and the first commandment….”

In 1967 The Beatles released yet another banger of a tune, ‘All You Need Is Love’.

Does the claim of the Lennon/McCartney song-writing powerhouse actually meet up with reality? Is love really all that we need? If it is, then they seem to have hit upon the formula to a kind of utopian bliss.

In fact, what they have proposed to us bears a remarkable reminiscent of the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel. But have they grasped the essence of his teaching?

When confronted with the question with which the Pharisees had posed to him, Jesus refers them back to the Scriptures which they had known so well. In fact, as if teaching Grandma to suck eggs, Jesus refers the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, to the most basic Hebrew act of faith, the Sh’ma Yisrael.

Of course they would have known this phrase, but perhaps they had not made the link between the command to love God and the command to love their neighbour. Jesus pushes these two concepts together, telling them that ‘On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets also.’

This teaching of Jesus is however a little different from what The Beatles are advocating.

In his time, Jesus needed to teach that the love of God did not negate the love of one’s neighbour, but that was most adequately expressed in the love of one’s neighbour. Today however, the message that perhaps needs to get through most clearly is the primacy of love of God over and above love of neighbour – that the love of neighbour which we are called to is only possible in and through the love we receive from God

The merely philanthropic love that Lennon/McCartney sing about was close to the mark, but ultimately inadequate – all we need is love, of both God and neighbour.

Words of Wisdom

If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties”, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper”, but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbour can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me. The saints—consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbour from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its real- ism and depth in their service to others. Love of God and love of neighbour are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a “commandment” imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love. Love is “divine” because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a “we” which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

Pope Benedict XVI, Dues Caritas Est, 18

22 October – Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 22:15-21

“Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.”
Jesus is too smart for these blokes. No matter how hard they try, they can’t seem to pin him down. His teaching, as paradoxical as it might be, is both internally coherent and a potent force that pricks the conscience.
Despite their uncharitable intentions, the Pharisees have hit onto a topic that merits attention, and Jesus’ answer is more than a clever dodge of an otherwise tricky situation. His response touches on the duty of the believer to give what is due to the ruler – perhaps even despite one’s own thoughts on their legitimacy as a ruler.
What then do we owe to temporal government? Jesus’ doctrine here is clear, in stating that the government might have a legitimate claim to raise taxes and make laws, but its authority ceases there. What we owe God is much greater – indeed, the commitment of total worship, the spiritual sacrifice of our lives given over in obedience (cf. Heb 10:5; Ps 40:6-8).
It is important here that the distinction between temporal and spiritual authority is clear, but this does not imply a final separation between faith and life – indeed, ultimately all things belong to God, the creator and Lord of all, in whom all things live, and move and have their being (cf. Acts 17:28; and Col 1:17). The paradoxical nature of Jesus’ teaching that we should give Caesar only those things that bear his image also emphasises that we should give him nothing of ourselves.
For Christians today, this should provide ample fodder for a thorough examination of conscience. Jesus does not give us black and white rules that govern every situation but has instead offered us principles which we need to apply.
How do we act in the world? Do we give over more of ourselves to earthly affairs than we ought? Do we have a rightful respect of legitimate earthly authority?

Point to Ponder

“However, if the image of Caesar was stamped on Roman coins which for this reason were to be rendered to him, the human heart bears the imprint of the Creator, the one Lord of our life. Genuine secularism does not mean, therefore, leaving the spiritual dimension out of consideration but rather recognizing that it is precisely this that radically guarantees our freedom and autonomy from earthly realities, thanks to the dictates of creative Wisdom which the human conscience is capable of accepting and actuating.”

― Pope Benedict XVI. “Render unto Caesar.” from Letter of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons, and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China (May 27, 2007)

Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Primer

A very brief introduction to a thinker who has been particularly formative in my own thinking, Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Born on 12 August 1905 in Lucerne, Switzerland, to an incredibly gifted family of considerable wealth, Hans Urs von Balthasar is a luminary in the history of twentieth-century Catholic theology, and “widely regarded as the greatest Catholic theologian of the century.”[1] He was educated firstly by Benedictine monks at the abbey school at Engelberg in central Switzerland, but prior to completing his secondary education, he was moved by his parents to the Stella Matutina College run by the Jesuits in Feldkirch, Austria….

Continue reading

15 October – Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 22:1-14

“Invite everyone you can find to the wedding”

Sometimes Jesus’ parables read as downright weird.

The story before us is one that grabs our attention, but leaves us wondering about its meaning.

The parables that Jesus uses to teach about the kingdom of heaven are by nature mysterious – inviting the audience to press into the various layers of meaning. We are shocked in fact when we find that our preconceptions of the kingdom of heaven to be challenged so radically.

Here the king finds that his closest friends and allies are not interested in joining him in celebration. They ignore the invitation or worse. This results in the wrath of the king being unleashed and the invitation extended to those who were initially deemed unworthy of an invitation.

We can read into this parable the whole history of God’s pedagogical method. His plan for the salvation of the world given to us in the book of Genesis (cf. Gn 3:15) is the preparing of the wedding feast; the sending of the servants to those invited (i.e. Moses and the prophets); and then the extension of the invitation to all, (through yet more servants, the Apostles).

While all are invited, only those adequately disposed or prepared for the celebration are welcome to stay. In fact, the one who attends and who is not wearing the wedding garment, (which many of the Church fathers speak of as the garment of Christian charity), is not welcome to stay.

This leaves us in an interesting position, hearing this parable proclaimed nearly 2000 years after Jesus initially spoke it. How have we, how are we, responding to the invitation to the wedding feast of the lamb? The wedding is the union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ – God made man.

Have we responded positively, and readied ourselves?

Point to Ponder

“The invisible God out of the abundance of his love speaks to men as friends and lives among them, so that he may invite and take them into fellowship with himself.” – Dei Verbum, n. 2.

8 October – Twenty-Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 21:33-43

“He will bring those wretches to a wretched end”

Sometimes when reading through the Gospels Jesus drops an absolute clanger. Pondering the text before us we get a sense of why the religious establishment of his time was so keen to get rid of him. He really doesn’t mince words. It is hard to think how he could be more direct.

The parable he tells is damning for those who are in authority. Jesus, in no uncertain terms, communicates to his listeners that their mode of operating is out of keeping with the intentions of God, and that the modes which they have rejected will in fact be the modes by which God will do his work in the world.

It is perhaps tempting to laugh off these harsh words, as though they are not addressed to us – as though they were only meant for to ‘chief priests and the elders’ of Jesus’ day. And while his immediate audience was these men in authority, this message extends to all of us who might have our own preconceived notions of how we might want God to work in our life.

The stone that was rejected by the so-called ‘masters’ was in fact no the one which was to become the keystone. The person rejected by the leaders; who was arrested, mocked, and executed by those who thought they knew the mind of God; that person was in fact the mode by which God was to make himself known to the world. He was the very revelation of the Father and his love.

It seems that God has a particular way of working that exceeds both our preconceptions, and the limits of our comfort.

Let us pray that we will be open to the movement of God’s spirit in even the most unexpected of places.

Points to Ponder

“Faith is born of an encounter with the living God, who calls us, and reveals his love, a love which precedes us, and upon which we can lean for security, and for building our lives.” – Francis, Lumen Fidei, n. 4

1 October – Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 21:28-32

“What is your opinion?”

On the face of it, the meaning of Jesus’s parable here is easy to decipher. The bloke who, despite his earlier statement, thinks better of himself and then goes and does the will of his father is the righteous one. Indeed, it seems that this is what Jesus is getting at in his teaching here – make sure that your words are not empty, saying that you’ll do something and then not following through. Jesus teaches forcefully and repeatedly against hypocrisy.

All this can give rise to the thought that orthopraxis, right action, precedes, as a matter of importance, orthodoxy, right words or belief. In this instance, the righteous man is the one who, despite his incorrect words, in fact does what is asked of him. This then begs the question, are his words of no consequence?

When we look to the example used by Jesus though, we see that those tax collectors and prostitutes had recognised and been convicted by the witness of John the Baptist, whom he called a ‘pattern of true righteousness.’ Their subsequent and sincere attempts to amend their lives followed from a new kind of self-knowledge that had been gifted them in the light of the righteousness of the Baptist.

What we see then is an affirmation of the radical unity between reality and ideas; orthodoxy and orthopraxis – any attempt to establish a dualism between the two is bound to do violence to the Word (logos) who became flesh (cf. Jn 1). Belief is important – right action flows from right belief (cf. Ratzinger).

In what seems an increasingly fragmented world, Jesus calls his followers to seek after a radical unity of truth, goodness and beauty. Divorced from one another these three transcendental properties of being run afoul of one another and damage our own integrity – truth becomes ideology, goodness mere activity, and beauty mere novelty or kitsch.

Point to Ponder

‘For the early Christians, there was no difference between what today is often distinguished as orthodoxy and orthopraxis, as right doctrine and right action…

They were convinced that everything depended on being in the right relationship with God, on knowing what pleases him and what one can do to respond to him in the right way. For this reason, Israel loved the law: from it, they knew God’s will, they knew how to live justly and how to honour God in the right way: by acting in accord with his will, bringing order into the world, opening it to the transcendent.’

Joseph Ratzinger, Eucharist, Community, and Solidarity, 2002.

24 September – Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 20:1-16

“They took it, but grumbled at the landowner…’

Something in this story rubs us up the wrong way.

In fact, we are often pretty content to side with the disgruntled workers who had been working in the field since daybreak. Despite the fact that they were paid no less than what they’d agreed to, there is a sense of injustice at work here.

Jesus uses a unique method to communicate his point and invite his listeners to grapple with a truth far deeper than they perhaps have hitherto thought possible.

The apparent incongruity in the justice of God provides a profoundly educative moment.

For those who’d been working all day the gift already received, that of a day’s work and its coincident pay, is immediately taken for granted, such that rather than rejoicing with those who are also beneficiaries of the landowners generosity they are overcome with jealousy.

The attitude of the workers here reminds us of the older son in the story of the prodigal son. What Jesus seems to be pointing us to is an awareness of a fundamental reality.

It is all is gift.

Everything. From the invitation to work, to the pay at the end of the day. It is all gift.

In fact, the category of gift applies to creation itself. Nothing is exempted from God’s gratuity. Nothing (no-thing) exists without God’s gratuitous gift of creation.

What this means then is that the primary posture of the creature should first be one of receptivity, and thanksgiving.

Instead of the indignation at the equal pay for unequal amounts of work experienced by those who’d been working all day, Jesus advises them to check their privilege and to assume again a posture of joyful receptivity and thankfulness at the wonder of their capacity to participate in thein Being itself.


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