Through Shadows and Images...

A Blog by Tom Gourlay

Category: Weekly Reflection (Page 2 of 15)

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.


27 August – Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 16:13-20

“Who do you say I am?

Sometimes we stumble across a gospel passage which is hits us really hard. Today’s gospel is one such instance. Here we have Jesus asking what is seemingly a simple question: ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’

The disciples seem pretty happy to answer such a question, pointing out the many and varied accounts that were circulating at the time. Recounting the theories and positions of others requires very little of me personally.

Jesus then directs the question to the disciples asking, ‘But you, who do you say I am?’ This. This is the tough question.

Interestingly it at this point in the story that the disciples fall silent. This is the crucial question for them all, and it remains crucial for us today. The answer that we provide will have serious consequences for how my life is lived from here on out.

Like the disciples, we are often all too happy to remain in the world of hypotheses and abstractions, rather than commit to a faith that meets us in the grittiness of our life. However, this does not do justice to the reality standing before them – the same reality which confronts us.

Jesus is a person – not merely an idea. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger once stated, ‘an abstraction does not need a mother.’ (Ratzinger Report, 108)

This man makes a claim unlike any other in history, and it is a claim which corresponds to the deepest desire of the human heart.

But the question which he poses requires of us a free response.

Am I willing to commit my freedom and answer this question?

Point to Ponder

‘I know man well. It is I who made him. He is a strange creature.

For in him operates that liberty which is the mystery of mysteries.

Still one can ask a great deal from him. He is not too bad. You must not say he is bad.

If you know how to take him you can still ask a great deal from him…

I know how to take him. It’s my business. And this liberty itself is my creation.

One can ask from him plenty of heart, plenty of charity, plenty of sacrifices.

He has plenty of faith and plenty of charity.’

Charles Péguy, The Holy Innocents

20 August – Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 15:21-28

“‘Woman, you have great faith.”
The reading before us a challenging one. The most common portrayal of Jesus in our day is that of an affable do-gooder, the buddy-Christ, the kind of Jesus that would never offend and never upset anyone. But in this story we have an image of him seemingly reluctant to give a helping hand – and only by virtue of the annoying persistence of this woman does Jesus relent and work the miracle of healing her daughter.
One might get the impression from reading this that Jesus was a little unfeeling here, but perhaps there is a deeper lesson. While we acknowledge as a principle of the faith that Jesus came to save all men and women, we should also note the particularity of the mode in which God operates throughout history. He singles out a person, Abraham, and makes of his descendants a nation who are especially chosen and blessed. God acts in times and places that are very specific, and ultimately God takes on human flesh in the person of Jesus, a man of Hebrew origin in first century Palestine. This is referred to as the ‘scandal of particularity’, and often this fact leaves people wondering ‘why then?’, and ‘why there?’, and ‘why not here and now?’
While we might be tempted to feel hard done by in our circumstances, feeling that if I was there I’d have no trouble believing, we can instead look upon the reality of the Incarnation in a particular time and place as being a gift, a gift which elicits our faith. Like the woman in today’s Gospel, we should persevere, both in our prayer, and in our hope that God does want to show us his love.
This opportunity for faith is a radical freedom.

Point to Ponder
Faith is recognizing that God made flesh is present in the world, in the history of the world.

Luigi Giussani, Is It Possible to Live This Way? (page 54)

13 August – Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 14:22-33

‘Lord! Save me!’

As in last week’s reading which recounted the event of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, this reading see’s Peter launching again headlong into territory that he is ill-equipped to handle. With a radical trust in Jesus, whom he sees walking on the water, Peter calls out, asking that he may walk out to meet his friend, then launching himself out of the boat begins to walk across the water. Incredible.

Surely Peter was astounded. Here he is, walking on the water. But rather than be strengthened in his faith, Peter lets the wind and the waves discourage him. Why is this?

He has witnessed not only his friend walking on the water, but he too has actually experienced what it is to walk on water. With the help of the Lord, he has done the impossible, and yet he now loses his nerve.

Peter, as we have seen, is that guy who always rushes in, perhaps somewhat foolishly. In doing so, however, he experiences graces that the other Apostles do not get to. And yet despite these experiences, his faith is easily shaken by the waves and the wind that had been there all along.

What are we to make of this?

It seems that there are many lessons which can be drawn from this. While we might smile knowingly at Peter’s seeming recklessness, we should also be given some pause to consider the depth of the faith that would see him not only to ask to go out on the water but also to then ask for and expect help as he began to sink.

Peter is out of the boat before he realises that he might have gotten himself into a bit of trouble. Seeing the wind and the waves he realises that, were it up to him alone, that he would surely drown and so he begins to doubt. Peter is nothing if not one who lives every moment intensely. The fear he experiences, and the consequent moment of doubt see him begin to sink, but then he reverts back to his usual manner of being and throws himself on the mercy and love of Jesus, crying ‘Lord! Save me!’

Point to Ponder

‘Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God—an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly.’

Pope Benedict XVI – Deus Caritas Est, 28 (a).

6 August – Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 17:1-9

“… He was still speaking when suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow”

Peter. What a lad.

Quite often a smirk will creep across my face when I read of Peter’s words and actions as relayed in the Gospels. His child-like bravado seems to put him in situations that has him saying or doing things that are oftentimes pretty silly.

Here we have a truly wonderful and mysterious scenario unfolding. Jesus takes his three closest companions with him up the mountain, where he is miraculously transfigured. James and John, are suitably in humbled and silent awe, but Peter cannot contain himself. He just blurts out ‘How good is this!?’ And truly, it is. But, like that awkward younger brother or ‘special’ uncle, Peter simply cannot contain himself. He steps forward and blurts out the obvious, and then brings forward the suggestion, ‘hey, let’s build some tents and just hang out here’, presumably for an indefinite time.

Instead of attempting to be cool, aloof, or emotionally detached, Peter is forthright in his acknowledgement of the amazing things that he is experiencing. His child-like sense of wonder cuts right through the facade of the calm and considered behaviour of those who try to remain ‘proper’ at all times. Instead, he cannot contain his joy and amazement. His lack of filter in fact allows him to experience reality more readily.

Up the mountain with Jesus, Peter and the others had a profound experience, one which would no doubt strengthen them to live through the tremendously difficult times which lay before him.

We can be grateful that there are people like Peter who are not afraid to experience reality with such unadulterated vigour. Perhaps we can pray for such unbridled enthusiasm to animate our lives also.

Point to Ponder

“In the Gospel, there is a sentence that expresses the same ethical imperative in a more fascinating way: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: the reign of God is theirs” (Matt. 5:3). But who are the poor? The poor are those who have nothing to defend, who are detached from those things that they seem to possess, so that their lives are not dedicated to affirming their own possession.”

― Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense

30 July – Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 13:44-52

“He goes and sells everything he owns and buys it.”

Jesus is good at telling a story. Here the story might seem a little inane, but let’s dig a little deeper.

There’s a particular theme of risk running through these parables, which might seem somewhat reckless. Imagine finding something of such tremendous value. Surely it would be the smart thing to put all our efforts into obtaining that one valuable thing, but would I actually be willing to take that risk?

Selling everything I own, including all those things to which I have become attached would be a daunting task, even if it is a sure thing.

It is risk though, which is the defining reality of our lives. There is tremendous risk in making oneself vulnerable, but it is vulnerability which allows us to experience love – to love and to be loved. This is what gives our lives meaning, and without which we cannot be fully human.

In telling this story, Jesus taps into the basic human desire is for the infinite – he uses the image of earthly riches to point to something much more, and he indicates the necessity of risk involved in obtaining that which our hearts seek.

When Jesus speaks these parables, he issues an invitation, one which is free of all coercion, but which presents itself to me with force. It imposes itself upon me, such that I cannot remain unchanged. While I am free to respond in any way which I chose, but I am not free to remain unchallenged by the invitation.

How will I respond?

Can I step forward and boldly risk all to obtain that which has been offered to me?

What do I need to do to verify the truth of what has been proposed and respond appropriately?

What is holding me back?

Point to Ponder

“Life is hunger, thirst, and passion for an ultimate object, which looms over the horizon, and yet always lies beyond it. When this is recognized, man becomes a tireless searcher.”

― Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense

23 July – Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 13:24-30

“While everybody was asleep his enemy came”

I think the technical term for sowing weeds into someone’s crop is, ‘dog-act’.

Here’s a bloke, doing his thing, sewing good seed, which would have cost him time and money, and hoping for a good harvest. Then his enemy rocks up, under the cover of night, and scatters darnel (weeds) among the wheat. It is perhaps the definition of a ‘dog act.’

Jesus tells this parable with a view to educating his listeners, to invite them again into the mystery of the Kingdom of God. But, what is he getting at here?

The parables, as we have said, are not simple formulaic or propositional truth. Jesus does not construct logical syllogisms about himself, the Father, the Trinity, or the coming Kingdom. Instead, he tells these parables and performs miracles that invite us to contemplate something mysterious.

Upon learning of crime committed against him, the good farmer takes a course of action that is instructive. Seeing the weeds growing up around the wheat, the servants probably like most of us, suggest swift and decisive action – let’s weed it out now, they say. But the landowner displays something of a more contemplative approach. He acts slowly, trusting that the wheat sown is good wheat, and will not succumb to the threats of the darnel. His reaction is a considered one, not knee-jerk. He does not retaliate against his enemy, nor does he react in a way that would damage the good wheat that he sowed. Instead, he waits, and trusts.

The good seed, the subjects of the Kingdom of God, will need to grow amongst the bad, but his loving, watchful eye looks over all, and he knows the depths of the heart.

Point to Ponder

“The Lord is help, defence and salvation; as a shield he protects the person who entrusts himself to him and enables him to lift his head in the gesture of triumph and victory. Man is no longer alone, his foes are not invincible as they had seemed, for the Lord hears the cry of the oppressed and answers from the place of his presence, from his holy hill.”

Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, Wednesday, 7 September 2011.

16 July – Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 13:1-23

“[H]e told them many things in parables.”

A good portion of Jesus’ teaching was done through parable, that literary device that seeks to make known or shed light upon something deeply mysterious.

Here a scenario is relayed to us that sees Jesus being inundated by large crowds. People from all around sought him out such that, in this instance, he had to board a boat, and push off shore so that his teaching could be heard by all who had gathered.

Interestingly though, he does not lecture the people on a distinct set of truths which must be believed in order that they would receive eternal life. Instead, he offers them a story that points to, and invites his listeners to engage with something mysterious.

The truth is that what is revealed by God in Christ is not simply a set of doctrines about God, but God himself, in the person of Jesus. This person, Jesus, God incarnate (in human flesh), cannot be reduced to a mere set of facts, or doctrinal propositions.

More than his teachings then, it was the person of Jesus himself that aroused so much interest. And when Jesus taught, he sought to invite his listeners into the mystery of his own life and love – into the life and love of the Trinity itself. He does not simply unfold a set of cold propositional dogmas which must simply be assented to. This is why Pope Benedict XVI began the first significant teaching document of his pontificate by proclaiming that “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon, and a decisive direction” (DCE, 1).

The parables of Christ invite us to engage with the Mystery. They steer us away from cold moralistic or hyper-intellectualised propositional formulations and remind us of the person who has entered human history and astounded us with an answer to our deepest longings.


Words of Wisdom

God cannot be reduced to an object. He is a subject who makes himself known and perceived in an interpersonal relationship. Right faith orients itself to open itself to the light which comes from God, so that reason, guided by love of the truth, can come to a deeper knowledge of God. The great medieval theologians and teachers rightly held that theology, as a science of faith, is a participation in God’s own knowledge of himself. It is not just our discourse about God, but first and foremost, the acceptance and the pursuit of a deeper understanding of the word which God speaks to us, the word which God speaks about himself, for he is an eternal dialogue of communion, and he allows us to enter into this dialogue.

Francis, Lumen Fidei: The Light of Faith, 2013, n.36

9 July – Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 11:25-30

I will give you rest

This is nice. This I can handle.

I get to the end of the working week particularly and a message like this is a nice one to hear. But then I read the following sentence and I am back to being somewhat on edge. ‘Take my burden on you…’ ‘Shoulder my yoke…’ Is it just me, or is Jesus trying to load me up with other responsibilities as well as the ones that already keep me occupied?

In my experience, there seems to be two Jesus’s that populate our imagination. One, I like to call ‘Hallmark Jesus’, or ‘Buddy Christ’, the Jesus who is your mate, who never challenges us and is always with us, offering Oprah Winfrey-esque advice about staying positive etc. The other Jesus of popular imagination is the one that emphasises the image of Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple, and sees Jesus as overly concerned with finicky issues of private morality.

In fact, neither of these Jesus’s are adequate to the full portrayal that we have of Jesus in the Scriptures. There we have a Jesus who is caring and compassionate; who seeks after those who are outcasts, and dines with public sinners. But this Jesus is a polarising figure, not afraid to buck trends, break cultural taboos, and challenge those who feel that they are the holy ones. He offers a challenging word to everyone, calling all toward an ideal that, humanly speaking, is impossible. ‘Be perfect’, he says (Cf. Mt 5:8). Well, thanks very much mate!

But this is the great adventure to which we are called. The struggle for perfection, or sanctity, is not some impossible ask – Jesus actually offers us all the help we need. It requires our openness, and our willingness to accept his help. His yoke is easy, and his burden light.

Point to Ponder

‘[I]t would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity… [T]his ideal of perfection must not be misunderstood as if it involved some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few “uncommon heroes” of holiness. The ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual.

John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte, 31

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