There is one other aspect of today’s gospel that calls for reflection. The journey that Joseph and Mary made on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem was approximately a hundred miles - quite an ordeal, especially for Mary in full-term pregnancy. It was not undertaken by choice, but at the behest of the bureaucracy of Caesar Augustus. They were required to make the trip just to fill in some government census forms. Millions of poor and defenceless people of every place and time have had to do likewise, for no other reason than to comply with what thoughtless and heartless governments and their bureaucracies dream up. The red tape that refugees and asylum seekers have to cut through when they are allowed to cross borders or are released from detention, beggars belief. While Joseph and Mary and their unborn child dutifully made for Bethlehem to be counted, they really didn’t count at all. As far as Rome was concerned they were mere numbers, worthless nobodies. Current governments the world over are busy counting the people fleeing from places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan. Rarely are these poor people named or treated as deserving of respect and dignity. And seldom are they made to feel welcome by governments who, uninvited, joined in wars to “liberate” them.
However, our anxiety might be soothed if we remember that Jesus does not set a demanding program without offering a vision on which to base our actions. In that context, today’s first reading from Isaiah gives us the details of an encouraging program of global rehabilitation: “Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill on my holy mountain. The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.” (Isaiah 11, 9) Moreover, that same visionary quality is central to Jesus’ dream for our world expressed in so many ways throughout the Gospels. Jesus did not formulate expectations or issue commands without first describing for his disciples a vision for better times. So anyone now calling us to perform without giving us a vision to aspire to is deluded. It would be a sure indication that the Gospel is being twisted.
St Anselm College is a highly ranked liberal arts college, located in the state of New Hampshire. Its ice-hockey team has a distinguished record. Players and coaches to a man report that the most valuable member of their squad is seven-year old Ben, who suffers from a rare form of leukemia. Ben’s presence at every practice session and game serves as a living example for team members of what’s possible in the face of adversity. Not only have team members taught Ben to skate, but they help him with his homework, visit him when he is hospitalised and go to events at his school. One team member even escorted him at his First Communion. His mother says that the most important lesson the players taught her son was how to be a friend, because his illness had turned him into a “very shy little boy”.
So, in today’s gospel Jesus does not mince his words. He clearly states that following him is not something we can dabble in, the way me might dabble in transcendental meditation or yoga or creative writing. The world of politics has an excess of dabblers who make endless promises during the electioneering process and end up delivering little or nothing. In the last six months, European countries have dabbled in welcoming refugees from Syria. They opened their borders in a show of sympathy and promptly closed them when the tide of humanity presented problems. Dabblers, whether they are individuals or national governments, might well be sincere but lacking in seriousness. The way of Jesus does not give us the option of picking and choosing, especially when what he calls us to is not exactly to our liking.
In April this year, the UK newspaper, The Telegraph, carried the story of Austrian Bishop, Agidius Zsifkokvics who refused to allow part of an anti-migrant border fence to be built on Catholic Church property. As a result, the Austrian Government has been forced to leave a gap in the fence. Commenting on his decision, the Bishop stated: “Such a fence is contrary to the spirit of the Gospel and Pope Francis’ clear message to Europe…I grew up with the Iron Curtain and I know what it meant for us all when it finally fell. I have said repeatedly that new fences will not solve the refugee problem. We need to tackle today’s problems at root, and that means stopping organised human trafficking, stopping European arms sales, stopping war and the deliberate destabilisation of the Middle East, and stopping the exploitation of African raw materials and agriculture by European firms.” What could happen if we were all to speak out and act as Bishop Zsifkokvics has done?
One of the practical difficulties with which we struggle is the fact that our thinking has been “contaminated” by inadequate theology we learned in our early years of religious education. We are somehow compelled to attribute different kinds of influence to this or that person of the Trinity. So at Pentecost, we talk about God’s Spirit as the principle of healing, joy, prayer, solidarity and so on. However, by talking that way, we are not expressing things that the Spirit of God does alone, according to some pre-arranged division of labour agreed on by the Trinity. By assigning different actions to different persons of the Trinity, we are simply trying to put order and sense into our own thinking. And when we reflect on that, we have to conclude that the observations that Jesus made about the Spirit were made with the very same constraints of human language as we have to deal with. He lived under the same human limitations as we do.
And there lies the message for all of us. We can allow ourselves to become frenetically busy with all kinds of seemingly worthwhile activities. But we take on so much that we end up giving ourselves no time for quiet prayer and reflection, for simply being in the Lord’s presence, pondering things like today’s gospel reading. Whether or not we are fully conscious of it, we are all on a search for God, the only one who will satisfy us. By setting aside everything else in order to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him, the Mary of today’s gospel demonstrates what it means to go in search of the wisdom of God. She exemplifies for anyone who will stop and look just what it means to live the first of the great commandments.
The following story likewise illustrates Jesus’ message: Two families called upon their rabbi to settle a dispute about a plot of land they both claimed. The rabbi listened to the members of the first who told how the land had been in their family for generations. They even produced documents in support of their claim. The second family described how they had lived on the land and worked it for decades. They said they knew the land intimately and had formed a relationship with it. While they had no papers to support their case, they showed the callouses on their hands and the produce of the harvest, in order to make their point. The rabbi then called them together on the plot and knelt down in front of them, putting his ear to the earth. He listened for some time, then stood up and announced: “I have listened to both sides. But, out of necessity, I listened to the land itself, the centre of the dispute. And the land has spoken, telling me this: “Neither of you owns the land over which you are squabbling. It is the land which owns you.”
While the focus of today’s gospel is the parable of the foolish rich man, what prompted Jesus to tell the parable was a request put to him by somebody in the crowd who invited him to solve a family dispute: “Rabbi, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” The response from Jesus was short and sharp: “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?” While it was not unusual for rabbis to be called upon the resolve family and community disputes, Jesus, in this case, refused to take sides and, instead, with a parable, addressed the greed that was at the basis of the dispute. Even just the prospect of gaining a fortune can distort our vision and create the illusion that wealth will be the key for controlling our lives.
Jesus was and is a light in the darkness of injustice, inequality and exploitation. Jesus and compromise simply cannot exist side by side. One cannot claim to accept Jesus and his message and try to make peace with a world that cannot tolerate him and all he stands for. Moreover, he knew the cost of embracing God’s way of seeing and doing. He realised that living by God’s truth came at a price, for it was a purifying, refining process. That’s why, in today’s gospel, he uses the message of a refining fire that burns away compromise and half-heartedness. Prophets before him had used similar language.
Malachi, for instance, referred to the impact of God’s messenger of truth on the people of Israel in these terms:
There is no doubt that Jesus and his Gospel have been causes of division. During his life time, he and his message were so threatening to the political and religious establishment that their only way of dealing with him was to eliminate him. Jesus himself knew that proclaiming the truth, teaching that everyone had a right to be treated with dignity and equality would disturb the comfort of those who exploited the poor. Speaking the truth has always been a cause of division because it separates those who value justice from those who trade on injustice. Jesus knew that promoting truth and justice (the kingdom of God) had the potential to trigger political unrest, for it would make ordinary people aware of God’s dream for them and would threaten those who stood to lose out if God’s dream were ever realised. That’s why Jesus can describe himself in today’s gospel as coming to cause division. This man of peace proclaimed a message that had many come running to him and many others running far from him. And it is the same still.