God Our Father, each person is precious to You. You are the Giver of life. Have mercy on us and protect us at this time, as the Coronavirus threatens health and life. You are an ever-present Helper in time of trouble. Watch over those who are suffering, give strength to those who are aiding the Sick and give courage to all in this time of anxiety. We ask this of you in the name of your Son Jesus Christ. AMEN.
Today’s gospel tells us that on the first Good Friday there were three crosses on Calvary. They were the cross of sin, the cross of sorrow and the cross of salvation. The one that we choose for ourselves will affect where we spend eternity.
The cross of sin belonged to the thief who was unrepentant. We don’t know what his crime was (traditionally we say he was a thief) but we do know that he was there to be executed. His life of crime had hardened him and he clearly could feel no remorse for his sin. He was so far from God that his cynicism lasted to the very end. He even mocked Jesus, suggesting that if he really were the Christ he would be able to get down from the cross and save them too. His choices in life were such that he didn’t know how far he had fallen.
His sin had blinded him to reality.
The cross of sorrow was the one on which the other thief hung. Unlike his fellow criminal he recognised his own guilt and felt contrition. He knew that he deserved what he was getting while Jesus had done nothing wrong but was suffering the same fate. His act of repentance took the form of standing up for Jesus and rebuking the other thief. Although he had led a life of crime he was not proud of it and he still had respect for God, something he tried to point out to his companion. Even at this late stage there was still a chance for him to try and set things right.
Of course, the cross of salvation was reserved for Jesus of Nazareth. His crucifixion was a great paradox because although he was being executed, after being falsely accused, his death would end in victory. He had never claimed to be King of the Jews, as the inscription on his cross proclaimed, but he would end up as Christ the Universal King. His cross was the means by which he took the world’s sinfulness upon himself in a glorious act of atonement. He willingly accepted to be the sacrificial victim, loving to the very end those entrusted to him by his Father. It was this salvation that he offered to the repentant thief moments before they were both to breathe their last.
The cross of sin, the cross of sorrow and the cross of salvation: we each have a choice.
Which will you choose?
We don’t need to look to the future to find signs of the end of our world. It’s happening every day before our very eyes.
When Jerusalem was destroyed, the Jews’ world was destroyed along with it. We have the same sort of experiences in our lives. We experience the end of many things and the loss of many people in a lifetime. The physical world as we know it can be destroyed by flood, hurricane, fire or earthquake. The whole earth does not need to be destroyed, just our little part of it, for us to know what Jesus is talking about.
Our social world can be destroyed by final arguments ending in divorce, being disowned by family, shunned or treated as an outcast. Our political world can be destroyed by war. Our economic world can collapse due to depression, recession, or unemployment, not to mention famine, hunger, disease and epidemics. We live in many worlds or spheres of meaning, and any of them can collapse at any moment.
What Jesus is giving in today’s gospel is not a script for what will happen in some future era. It is a symbolic account of how all created things will come to a climax under the judgement of God. We’ve already seen stars falling from the sky, persecutions, famines, revolutions etc. They happen each day. The important thing is how each generation views these normal things and how we learn from them.
It is possible to become so wrapped up in transient things (like the people admiring the beauty of the Temple) that we forget the purpose of our existence and we lose sight of the daily signs. We are here to serve God by serving each other. This is what we will be judged on. Will we stop living, loving, caring and giving when the end of our own little world comes upon us? Will we see the wars, famines, earthquakes etc as a wake-up call for Christian action or just something to watch on our TV screens and then talk about the next day?
Disasters, whether personal or global, are opportunities for growth. They summon us to ask the deeper questions about why we are here and how God intends us to respond. We can join the doom-mongers and the armchair commentators, or we can show that our faith has endurance and can bring good out of evil.
Jesus had less than a week to live when the events of today’s gospel took place. So it’s perhaps not surprising for him to be talking about life after death and teaching against the Sadducees that there is a resurrection that all created flesh will share in.
Because the Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection they tried to trick Jesus into giving a stupid answer to their farcical case of a woman who was the surviving widow of her husband and six brothers-in-law. Whose wife would she be in heaven?
Yet this is the sort of question that many people ask even today. Will my dog be with me in heaven? Will I recognise people I’ve known here on earth? What will happen if I come face to face with someone who’s been my sworn enemy? What about my best friend who doesn’t believe in God? And what if I don’t like it?!
Perhaps the first thing that we must say about heaven is that it’s the fulfilment of all our desires and yearnings for God. Jesus enticed his listeners by saying that no eye had seen nor ear heard what God has in store for us. It goes far beyond what we could ever imagine or hope for. We see God face to face and as we gaze on his glory we are moved to the profoundest level of love, a love which leaves no room for any kind of emptiness or regret.
The second thing that we need to remember is
that God is eternal, just like the life he offers us. We necessarily live in time but God’s eternal nature means that he experiences infinity at every moment; in fact “moment” is too restricting for a God who exists free from the boundaries of time. After our resurrection we share in that “instantaneousness” of God. We are caught up in the immediacy of God. There is no yesterday or tomorrow about heaven. It’s an eternal “now”.
When we view heaven in this way we realise that many of our questions and difficulties about it are simply man-made and woman-inspired. We naturally have a tendency to tie things down to our own experience of reality. Yet today Jesus tells us that the afterlife is radically different from some of the ways we conceive of it. That’s why he says that the Lord is God not of the dead but of the living: for to God all people are in fact alive.
There was a sign outside a church that read, “Don’t let your funeral be the next time you come and visit us!” We can understand what it meant; it was encouraging people to think about the place of God in their lives and their response to God’s workings.
But, actually, the sign is fundamentally flawed. Why? Because it encourages people to think that they are the ones who must make the first move.
It gives the impression that God is sitting back waiting for them to decide to start doing something about their lives.
And that simply isn’t true!
The amazing thing about God’s dealings with us is that he always makes the first move.
Think of Zacchaeus in today’s gospel. He’d heard all the rumours about Jesus and wanted to see for himself. Being a small man he climbed up a sycamore tree to get a good view. But before he could say anything, before he could make his mind up, it was Jesus who made the first move and told him he was coming home with him to stay for a while. When Zacchaeus heard what Jesus had to say he was immediately moved to repent and give half his property to the poor. (He’d cheated people by charging them too much tax and then keeping most of the money himself.)
God never ceases reaching out to us. We find this hard to cope with because we think that God is so concerned with weighty global problems that he has no time for us and our particular situations. Yet the opposite is true.
When we feel drawn to God it is only because God’s grace has been offered us in the first place. Our lives are a response to Christ’s example of sacrifice and love; our response comes from hearing God’s word; our actions are inspired by God’s Spirit working in us, if only we take the time to discern it.
At the eucharist we thank God for never abandoning us and for continually offering us the chance to enjoy the life that Christ promised.
Amazingly, God never stops leading us on to deeper trust and love. And all he asks in return is that we respond.
HOW TO IMPRESS GOD
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is the classic “goodie” versus “baddie” tale. The Pharisee represented the pillar of Jewish society: a religious man who knew the Law backwards and observed it in all its minute details. The tax collector was the outcast of society: he collaborated with the pagan occupying army of the Romans, overcharged people for their taxes and kept a commission of the money for himself. Yet by the end of the story Jesus reverses their roles.
The story only makes two points. The first is that it is impossible to impress God. Maybe there are Pharisees in some of our churches today. Those
who feel that they are pillars of society; they are well respected in the community; their family has always supported the parish and they live a moral existence – unlike some of the other members of the congregation that they could name!
Why would we want to “impress” God? Could it be that we can’t actually face up to what we are really like? Could it be that we think God will only have time for us when we improve a bit?
Do we need to shape up before God will pay us any attention? Yet the reality is that God knows us even better than we know ourselves. For we can fool ourselves but we can’t fool God. And the truth is that we can only gain access to God by being totally sincere. Anything else cuts us off.
The second point of the story is that we can do absolutely nothing to earn God’s mercy. The tax collector’s body language was the complete opposite of the Pharisee’s: he beat his breast and didn’t even dare to look up. He was open about two things: he was a sinner and he needed God’s mercy. And he poured his heart out.
This total honesty before God frightens many people. That’s because they believe God acts on a “Brownie points” system and they find it hard to accept that God loves people for what they are not what they should be. God’s way of acting overturns any idea of merit, any thought of earning our salvation. God’s love and forgiveness are indiscriminate and open to anyone who asks sincerely.
Of course, if you accepted your true condition and knew that only the free gift of grace could save you, then you’d really impress God.
The story of the widow pestering the judge for justice in today’s gospel cannot fail to amuse. The poor woman (widows were on the bottom rung of society because of their economic status) must have worn the (important) judge down over time. Judges did not work in buildings; they set up their court in a tent that travelled around their region, rather like our Assizes. So every time he turned up at a new place and pitched his tent, there she was! Eventually he decided to do something just for a quiet life. And it’s her persistence in prayer that Jesus praises.
Being persistent in prayer is probably one of the greatest challenges facing us as Christians. It’s easy not to pray. We can claim we’re busy doing good and don’t have the time. We can say that we never seem to get an answer and so what’s the point? We can look back on things we asked for that never materialised and so wonder whether God is really bothered by our prayer at all.
Prayer isn’t words. Prayer is being constantly tuned into God so that we see and interpret our experiences from God’s point of view. If we can learn to appreciate God’s vantage point then we become less absorbed with our own demands for God to act in this way or that.
There is a difference between being persistent and being a pesterer. Being persistent in our prayer is a sign that we are being faithful to staying close to God. Barraging God with what we think should happen is a sign that we have probably not yet come close to wanting God’s will to reign.
Prayer is a sign that we want to become closer to God and to what God wants for his kingdom on earth. Perhaps it is not too much to say that that by praying we are expressing our desire to become like God. Yes, it is natural to tell God of our plans, our hopes and our fears. It’s natural to place others in God’s “mind” and ask for their wellbeing.
But prayer is first and foremost about our relationship with God, our closeness, our gradual coming to know God’s will and his plan for salvation.And while it is natural for us to see things in terms of the present, God’s perspective is that of eternity.