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Commentaries on1 John 3:14-18; Matthew 25:31-40
It would be difficult to find a more appropriate Gospel passage with which to honour John of the Cross. It is the final section of chapter 25 in Matthew, a chapter which deals with the end times and about being prepared for the time when we will come face to face with our final appraisal. The chapter begins with the parable of the ten bridesmaids – five of them who took precautions to be ready whenever the bridegroom would arrive and five who made no preparations and were caught off guard and so excluded from the wedding celebrations.
The second is the parable of the talents where three people are entrusted with different amounts by their superior and told to trade with them until he returned, whenever that would be. Two of the servants used their capital very well and even doubled it. But the third, hid his in the ground afraid even to lose what he had. When the master returned, this last had nothing to offer except the original sum he had been given.
The last part which forms today’s Gospel is not exactly a parable but an imaginary enactment of our final calling to account at the end of our lives. People are going to be divided into two groups, just as a shepherd divides off the sheep from the goats.
The sheep are first called forward and invited into God’s Kingdom. What is interesting are the reasons why they have earned this reward. If, left to ourselves, we were asked the kind of expectations God would have of us at the end of our lives, I wonder what kind of things would we bring up? Would we say, for instance, that we never missed Mass, that we went to confession regularly, that we practised all kinds of prayers and devotions, that we kept the Commandment with great fidelity, were very conscientious in our work and so on? On what basis are the sheep called in this story? “I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger and you offered me hospitality; I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear; I was sick and you looked after me; I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Apparently, the sheep are very surprised to hear this and ask, “When did we see you hungry and feed you? When did we see you thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in hospital and come to your help?” And the King will say to them, “As often as you did these things to the very least of my brothers and sisters you did them to Me.” No mention of spiritual practices, even of Mass, and no mention of keeping the Commandments. No mention of God! In fact, the two great acts which the Gospel emphasises are love and service of one another and that is exactly what is described here. “By this will all know that you are my followers, that you have love one for another.” Once love and service are taken care of nothing else really matters. That is not to say that we can forget about Mass and prayer. Not at all. But it is the love and service of each other that must come first. And it is on that that we will be measured.
John of the Cross, of course, was outstanding in his care and compassion for the sick poor and the abandoned.
The First Reading from the First Letter of John is saying exactly the same thing in slightly different words. “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers and sisters.” And to love, of course, is not just to have nice feelings towards them but to do much more, to serve them in all their real needs. “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer and no murderer has eternal life in him.” As our example, we need look no further than Jesus himself who laid down his life out of love for us. And we need to do the same not just for Jesus but for Jesus present in all our brothers and sisters. There is no short cut to Jesus, bypassing those around us. “If anyone has material goods but has no compassion for a brother or sister in need, how can the love of God be in that person?” So the writer says, “Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”
It is very easy to make all kinds of proclamations of love to Jesus in our prayers but unless they are backed up by solid deeds of service, especially to the needy, they are very hollow indeed. John of the Cross has much to teach us about all of this.
Commentary on St John of God, Religious
John (Joao Cidade) was born on 8 March 1495 in Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal. His family, formerly well-off, had fallen on hard times but was deeply religious. His mother died when he was very young and his father then entered a monastery.
But, even before that, John ran away with a priest who had inspired him with stories of adventurous new worlds to be explored. He would never see his parents again. The priest and the boy begged their way from place to place and then John fell sick. The manager of an estate, who helped restore his health, adopted John as his son. Until the age of 27, John worked as a shepherd on the estate. Urged to marry his employer’s daughter, whom he loved as his own sister, John ran away to join the army of Charles V in a war against France. He was a typical soldier of his day – gambling, drinking and plundering. One day, near the French lines, he was thrown from his horse. Afraid of capture, he looked back over his life and decided on a radical change.
On his return to his unit, his fellow soldiers, while accepting his conversion, were not happy on his imposing its restrictions on them. They tricked him into deserting in order to go to the help a needy person. He should have been hanged for this but escaped with being beaten, stripped and thrown out of the army. After a short stint back at his shepherding work, he enlisted in another war and, when that was over, went looking for his parents only to find both had died. Now 38 years old, he decided he should go to Africa to buy back Christian prisoners.
While waiting for a ship at Gibraltar, he came to the help of a noble family being exiled to Africa for political reasons. He volunteered to be their servant. On reaching Africa, the family became sick and John both nursed them and worked to earn money to feed them. His Catholic employers on a building project treated the workers so badly that John’s faith was threatened. He was advised by a priest not to blame his faith and to go back to Spain, which he did but only after the noble family had received pardons.
Back in Spain he laboured as a dockworker by day and visiting churches and reading spiritual books by night. The books gave him such satisfaction that he now became a pedlar of religious books, going from town to town. At the age of 41 a vision led him to Granada where continued to sell books. Then, on 20 January, the feast of St Sebastian, after hearing a sermon by St John of Avila, he experienced a major conversion. John of Avila would become his spiritual director and encourage him in his desire to work for the poor. But people around thought he had gone mad. He destroyed all the secular books in his shop, gave away the religious books and all his money. His weeping and torn clothes made him the target of jokes and insults.
Sympathetic friends brought him to a hospital where he was put in with lunatics. Here he experience the standard treatment – tied down and whipped daily. His director came to visit and said his penance had been sufficient – 40 days like his Lord in the desert – and had John moved to a better part of the hospital.
Now, with more freedom, although still a patient, he began to help other patients. The hospital was glad to have unpaid nursing help and were not too happy when he went off to start a hospital of his own. From that time he vowed to devote the rest of his life for the sick and the poor and under better conditions than he had experienced.
However, people still saw him as a kind of madman and it did not help when he tried to raise finances for his project by selling wood in the city square. In the evenings, he would take his meagre earnings to provide food and comfort to the homeless. His first hospital was in the abandoned buildings and bridges of Granada. Then a chance came to rent a house, although had no money to equip it. After going out begging for money, he would carry sick patients back on his shoulders. He would dress their wounds and mend their clothes, devoting his nights to prayer. Instead of peddling goods, he took anything he was given – scraps of goods, clothing, anything at all. Some time later, he was able to move his ‘hospital’ to an old Carmelite monastery and used part of it as a shelter for the homeless. He was accused of pampering troublemakers. To which he would reply that the only bad character he knew was himself!
One remarkable instance was when he single-handedly rescued patients as well as much of the bedding and blankets from the main hospital after it had gone on fire, while others looked on doing nothing. His final escape from the building was regarded as little short of a miracle.
Gradually a dedicated circle of people were attracted to him and the work he was doing. He organised them into the Order of Hospitallers, now better known as the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God, which care for the sick in countries around the world.
Typically, his death came about out of his impetuous urge to help others. While collecting valuable driftwood from the river in flood, one of his helpers fell into the water. John immediately jumped in to rescue him. The boy could not be saved and John himself contracted pneumonia. He died on his 55th birthday, 8 March 1550.
One mark of honour to his labours is that his congregation has been officially entrusted with the medical care of the Pope.
From the time he was a young boy until the day of his death, John followed the impulses of his heart. The challenge for him was to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit rather than his own inclinations. But unlike many who act impulsively, when John made a decision, no matter how quickly, he stuck with it, no matter what the hardship.
Commentary on Luke 5:27-32
Jesus certainly made strange choices in his prospective followers. Today when we look for “vocations” we tend to search among committed and well-balanced Christians. Today we see Jesus picking someone who was regarded as an immoral money-grabber, a religious outcast.
Tax collectors were despised on two counts: first, they were seen as venal collaborators with the hated colonial ruler, the Romans, for whom they were working; second, they were corrupt and extorted far more money than was their due.
But Jesus knows his man. At the sound of the invitation, Levi drops everything, his whole business and the security it brings him. It is very similar to the fishermen leaving their boats and their nets. He then goes off after Jesus. Where? For what? He has no idea. Like Peter and Andrew, James and John before him, in a great act of trust and faith, he throws in his lot with Jesus whatever it is going to mean, wherever it is going to bring him. In Luke’s gospel particularly, the following of Jesus involves total commitment.
Then, as his last fling so to speak, he throws a party in his house for all his friends, who of course were social rejects like himself. The religious-minded scribes and Pharisees were shocked at Jesus’ behaviour. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” they complained to the disciples.
Jesus answers for them. Only the sick need a doctor, not the healthy; Jesus has not come to call the virtuous, but sinners, to repentance. Jesus’ words can be read in two ways. On the one hand, there is no need to preach to the converted. Which is what we do a lot of in our Christian churches. What is needed is to reach out to those who are lost, whose lives are going in the wrong direction, who are leading a self-destructive existence.
And surely that is what the Church needs to be about today. There is a lot of the Pharisee among us still. We are still shocked if we see a priest or a “good” Catholic in “bad” company and often jump to hasty and unjustified conclusions. “A priest/sister should not be seen in such company.” As a result the Church is in many cases very much confined to the church-going fringes of society.
Jesus’ words can also be taken in a sarcastic sense. His critics regarded themselves as among the well and virtuous. In fact, they totally lacked the love and compassion of God reflected in Jesus. Their “virtue” did not need Jesus because they were closed to him anyway. We remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple. It was the one who acknowledged himself as a sinner and wanted God’s mercy who won God’s favour.
We too need to be careful of sitting in judgment on others, taking the high moral ground and claiming to be shocked at certain people’s behaviour. All of us, without exception, are in need of healing.
Commentary on Isaiah 58:9-14
The Scripture lessons as we enter the Lenten season could hardly be clearer. It is not just a time for focusing on ourselves by giving up things and perhaps even feeling smug about it. It is a time to look beyond ourselves and to find God there.
Earlier in the passage we read today, Isaiah comments on complaints being made by people that though they are fasting God is not taking any notice. The reason is, says Isaiah, is because while they are virtuously fasting they continue to exploit their workers and get involved in fights and quarrels.
If we call on the Lord for help, he will hear us but there are conditions. We must be rid of any form of oppression, false accusations or malicious speech. We need to share our bread with the hungry and console the afflicted.
Then light will shine in our lives and “the gloom shall become for you like midday”. We will become like “a watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails”.
There is a further call to spend the Lord’s day in a more reverent manner. It is a time to refrain as far as possible from our daily concerns and make it more a day for quiet reflection and a time to remember God’s gifts to us. “Then you shall delight in the Lord.”
Lent, then, is really a time for us to reflect on the meaning and direction of our lives and to consider what changes are necessary not just at this time but for the year ahead.