Robert Ellsberg, in A Living Gospel, writes beautifully about the living gospel written in human lives. He reflects on what it means to read the gospel written in the lives of people such as Dorothy Day, Charles de Foucauld, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Oscar Romero. All different yet mostly stories of ordinary people called to extraordinary lives. From conventional beginnings, their contribution to others often extended beyond their lives.
Today’s scriptures come to us via an exiled prophet (Isaiah), a beheaded herald (John the Baptist), a crucified Messiah (Jesus), and executed apostle (Paul). God’s word continues to shine through the lived gospel the assassinated archbishop (Oscar Romero), the assassinated advocate for peace and racial equity (Martin Luther King Jnr), and the poor woman living among the poor in Kolkata (Mother Teresa) to name a few. Their legacy was unknown to them. They were called. They responded. They lived doing God’s will. In the words of Annie Lamott, the ‘showed up’. Anything less for them and for us would mean we are in the wrong place. Jesus comes to us saying, ‘Follow me.’ Father Brian Stoney, who was associated with the Cana communities, before his death would often say, ‘Do you want to be good, or do you want to follow Jesus?’
One does not follow Jesus in the abstract but in the context, circumstances, and relationships of our lives. Our relationship with Jesus is grounded and experienced in the world, with people and the events in our live – as it was for Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Matthew does not just describe Jesus’ life and ministry but the ongoing shaping and forming of Peter’s, Andrew’s, James’ and John’s lives. It happened in Jesus’ teaching of the beatitudes, healing of the sick, telling parables, feeding the 5000, Peter’s complaint about leaving everything behind to follow, the arguments about importance between James and John, Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, and in the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Today’s readings contrast rich and poor people, powerful and bullied people, darkness and light, division and unity, withdrawal and leadership. But, Isaiah tells how rich nations are humbled and that there is One to come out of the poor, lowly land of Galilee. Matthew’s words were heard like a song of freedom; a reminder of God’s open heart for all. People victimised by armed bullies will see their instruments shattered. Cowering servitude belongs to the past. Such visions articulate the hopes of people who are exploited, oppressed and suffer injustice anywhere. One thinks at this moment how Iraq wants all foreign powers out of its country and they won’t go – Australia included. It is nothing new in our world. At the moment mostly men sit around tables in the White House making decisions about the lives and fate of many people and the planet. One has a finger on Twitter and the other on a drone to kill foreign leaders. These are the 1%: billionaires, multi-millionaires, military elites and Christian fundamentalists. In contrast, people like Pope Francis point to the errors where the richest, most venal and violent perform. Their violence is expressed in the philosophy of austerity for the poor (and the planet), welfare for the rich, cuts to public education and medical care for the most vulnerable. Pope Francis has pointed to this tired old ‘trickle-down’ theory in his apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel as homicidal (53), ineffective (54), and unjust at its root (59). Yet, Catholics and Christians see the US President as an instrument of God!!! Trickle-down is not the way of the Jesus' God whose universe is not run like a business, but is a gift system. Something is profoundly out-of-order when would-be followers of Jesus support politicians convinced that the way to make a country great is to give more wealth to the obscenely rich and forcing austerity on the poor.
On hearing of John the Baptist’s imprisonment, Jesus withdraws to Capernaum. The voice that cried out in the desert is now in prison and out of the public eye. Again, those in power do what they do best. They try to silence anyone who threaten them with calls to humanity and justice as with Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Daniel Ellsberg and countless others. Jesus takes up where John left off, but preaches reconciliation, healing and broadens peoples’ horizons to God’s presence in all people and places. Matthew expresses this ministry a light shining on a people in darkness. This God meets and walks with us in the darkness, in the division and in the solitude, and calls us to light, unity and action. That darkness can also take the form of willful ignorance, self-righteousness, grandiosity and superiority. Division might be due to an ‘us vs. them,’ or ‘mine vs. yours’ mentality that excludes the stranger, the refugee, the person of another faith, the person of different sexual orientation?
Matthew is clear. Jesus has come to end all (especially foreign) forms of oppression by announcing the coming of God’s reign. This reign would mirror what the world would be like if God was at the heart of things rather than a ‘Caesar’ or Trump-like character. Here the poor, strangers, prostitutes and beggars, the blind and the lame would enter the reign before the rich and professionally holy (Matt. 21:31). Today it would represent a system where workers are favoured over rich landlords, bankers, and oligarchs. Jesus’ statements about the rich and poor contradict a ‘trickle-down’ economy to a ‘percolate up’ society. God’s reign is a gift system!!
Pope Francis, as many past and present prophetic voices, has shown us that we can live lives of peace and unity. As disciples of Jesus, we need to find ways or strategies to do this in our country, our communities, our workplaces, our homes, our places of worship, and most importantly, within ourselves. We see in the gospels, people are placed before us as agents of God’s justice, healing, reconciliation and love. God always begins from the margins. Jesus comes out marginal territory, a geographical backwater, calling marginal people to be disciples.
The scriptures tell us that God hears the cry of people oppressed. Jesus heard such cries and we as individuals and communities are called to listen to those cries and respond. When Peter and his companions dropped their nets to follow Jesus they were signing on to a movement that offered an alternative community - economic, political, and spiritual - to the dominating imperial system they had lived under. Their call was to be identified primarily as solidarity and service to humanity. ‘Fishing for humanity’ must include seeing Jesus’ message as bound up with his and our compassion for the poor; his and our concern for the whole person, his and our opposition to ‘sins’ of exclusion; and systemic injustice – societal sins – [or ‘the normalcy of human civilisation’s violent injustice at a very specific time and a very specific place’ [John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire, p. 111].
Those who follow Jesus are always in the ‘people’ business - not the fish business - or the farming business - or the mineral business - or in any other business people engage in. Whatever ‘business’ we are involved in (media, health, education, law enforcement) is to serve people and the good of the earth. Failure to do this, is to disfigure the image of Jesus, who is God in disguise, on the face of our sisters and brothers and revealed in Creation. The task of Christian community is to weave a global tapestry where no one is excluded. In the face of mutual suspicion, exclusion, recrimination, accusations, and outing, Paul would urge unity and agreement. Christians (and non-Christians) have excluded, persecuted and killed those they deemed to be different—Jews, Muslims, gays, witches, heretics and so on. Most dispiriting is that the bitterest enemies were Christians against Christians, persecuting each other over the slightest differences whether of doctrine, practice, sexuality.
The reading from Paul and the gospel stand side by side. Unity for Paul was a counterpoint to the world’s way of doing things; where new life, inclusion, justice is lived out. A diverse community united in love around Jesus has power for healing, for justice, for peacemaking; it exists for others, not for itself; it is not based on worldly power; it exists to heal that which is broken, includes the lost; it proclaims ‘We're here for you’.
According to Pope Francis, we are facing threats to the world’s wholeness with violence and war, poverty and greed, consumption and environmental degradation, exclusion and discrimination. To face these, we need a strong and vibrant relationship with God. Then we will find ourselves seeking nonviolence in the face of violence, welcoming people with whom we disagree, challenging the injustices within our own organisations and beyond, standing with, sitting with people in solidarity. It means we will not get caught up in the factionalism and call for loyalty from systems we are meant to challenge. Even our loyalty to the church or religious affiliations can interfere with these values of God’s reign and living truly in the ‘people business’.
Compiled by Claude Mostowik msc,
Director of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Justice and Peace Centre, Enmore, NSW
President, Pax Christi Australia
Convenor, Pax Christi Australia (NSW)