Palm Sunday begins the Christian High Holy Days, seven days of prayer, reflection and remembering. Holy Week is a spiritual pilgrimage by which we experience the events we remember. We’re not to be distracted from the events of this week, so we cover the statues in the church to help us focus on Jesus. I encourage you to gather with the community this year to experience these, as our Jewish brothers and sisters would describe them, Days of Awe.
The drama begins. Two Gospel passages are read today. At the very beginning of Mass, we remember Jesus’ spectacular entrance into the city of Jerusalem. We gather outside the church in the vestibule, carry the same palm branches the people carried that day, and walk in procession into the church, symbolically, Jerusalem.
But a shadow quickly comes over this short celebration. We listen to the first scripture reading, the prayer of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked by beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord is my help, therefore I shall not be disgraced.”
For a moment, light pours over Isaiah’s prayer as we read the second scripture from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord!”
Then, we read the Passion. We eat with Jesus at his last supper, join him in the garden of olives, witness his arrest and trial, and walk with him to the cross. Palm Sunday sets us on the path we’ll walk with Jesus for the next six days.
Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free. You are the savior of the world.
We’re reflecting on a famous scene in the gospel of John today. Jesus had spent the night in the garden of olives. In the morning he crossed the Kidron Valley, entered the city and walked into the area outside the temple. As soon as people caught sight of him they gathered around him. So, he sat down and began to teach them. Some Pharisees and scribes interrupted the scene by bringing a woman to him who had been “caught in the very act of committing adultery.” They led her into the middle of the group. A trial began, but it wasn’t the woman who was on trial, it was Jesus.
There was no question about the woman’s guilt. The Pharisees had already judged her. Now they were going to use her to entrap Jesus. “In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. What do you say?”
To their surprise and frustration, Jesus didn’t give them an answer. Still in his seated teaching position, Jesus bent over a bit and began writing on the ground. Everybody must have been looking at each other. The Pharisees and the scribes were silent for a moment but then began to hassle him for an answer.
Their question was a theoretical one. It was true that several passages in the Law, Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 for instance, prescribed the punishment of stoning for adultery. Jesus didn’t contradict these laws and didn’t agree or disagree with them. This would have been exactly what the Pharisees and scribes expected him to do. In Jesus’ day, only Rome could dictate who would suffer capital punishment. Recall that the Jewish authorities had to ask Pilate to crucify Jesus. They didn’t have the authority to carry out an execution.
Still in a seated position Jesus spoke but didn’t answer their question. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” Then he returned his attention to writing on the ground.
Jesus’ answer avoided an interaction with the religious leaders. In fact, it brought their smug self-
righteousness into public focus. How could they possibly continue with their scheme to catch him saying something contrary to the Law? He had thrown the question back to them. They had no answer for him. They remained silent and then walked away.
It’s important for us to note that Jesus sat throughout this encounter. In other words, everything that took place was a teaching. Remember the crowd still surrounded him. They heard what he said. They saw what he did.
When the Pharisees and scribes left, Jesus spoke to the woman while the crowd listened. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” He used the term of high respect when he addressed her, “woman.” Jesus addressed his mother as “woman.” His question was a gentle acknowledgment to everyone that no one was without sin, and that only God could judge the human heart. Then he told her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore.” Jesus acknowledged her sin. He didn’t brush over it. Hopefully, she would learn from this event and not repeat this sin.
Ironically, the Pharisees were publicly embarrassed for using the woman as a tool to attack Jesus. He turned the tables on them. His statement, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone,” publicly exposed their sin against the woman.
Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees is a challenge meant for each and every one of us. We need to digest this teaching. We need to take it to heart and to practice it in our daily lives. The Church, as an institution, also needs to take this teaching to heart, to use it as a foundation for its moral teaching. The whole world sat up and listened when, early in his papacy, Pope Francis commented, “Who am I to judge.” These weren’t prophetic words; they simply echoed this teaching of Jesus. This phrase should be a spiritual foundation for Christian and non-Christian, for saint and sinner. If we took it to heart and acted upon it, it just might change the world.
God doesn’t think the way we do. That’s Jesus’ message in the parable we’re listening to today. The story is well known, perhaps the bestknown of Jesus’ parables. We’ve labeled it the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but we could also call it the Parable of the Loving Father, or the Parable of the Unforgiving Brother.
The parable is set at the home of a wealthy farming family. This property would have been handed down from one generation to the next. The youngest of two sons did something that would have been scandalous at that time in that culture. The younger son asked his father, the patriarch of the family, for his portion of his inheritance, 50% of the family’s wealth. His request was horrendously insulting to the father and financially devastating for the family remaining on the farm.
Jesus continued by describing what the young man did with his wealth. He left Israel and settled among the Gentiles. There he took on a lifestyle of carefree spending and dissolute living. The day came, however, when his wealth was gone and his “friends” with it. To add to his misery, a terrible famine hit the land and he was forced to hire himself out to a pig farmer, something unimaginably humiliating for a Jew. Humiliated and hungry, he made the decision to return to his father and offer himself as a slave to the family.
Jesus noted in his story that “while he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him.” He was painting a picture of a father who, heavy-hearted, had his sight constantly focused on the horizon hoping to see his son returning home. When that moment finally came “he ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” His son was alive! He was home again!
This is the point in the story when Jesus’ audience would have begun to cringe. The father rejected his son’s offer to return to the family as a slave. So, the young man received no punishment for almost destroying himself and his family. What the father did next must have raised grumbles of protest from Jesus’ audience. The father ordered that his son should be dressed in the finest robes. He should be given sandals – the symbol of a free man. (Slaves didn’t wear shoes.) His
final move would definitely have raised boos; the father put a ring on his son’s finger. He re-instated him into the family with the same rights as his older brother! He again had the right to inherit half the family’s wealth!
Jesus then gave voice to the grumbling he heard in his audience. The elder brother, coming in from the fields, heard music and partying. He learned that his brother had returned and that his father was throwing a huge party for him. He became angry, refused to enter the house, and confronted his father. “Look, all these years I served you, and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.” His first reaction revealed his jealousy and resentment. He then questioned his father’s sense of justice. “But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.”
Jesus then wrapped up the parable by exposing the father’s heart and his unconditional love for his sons. “My son, you are here with me always and everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” Let’s conclude with a few lessons from Jesus’ parable.
God’s heart defies our moral logic. We want justice. We want the prodigal son to pay for what he did, but punishment never crosses God’s mind. The divine longing to love doesn’t embrace the human need to punish.
The father pleads with the older son whose anger and resentment are separating him from communion with his father and his family. Ironically, the prodigal son returns, as the unforgiving son departs.
This may be the most challenging of all Jesus’ parables. It attacks our sense of justice. It challenges our conditional love. It questions our understanding of sin. It teaches us that God ‘s ways are not our ways. That God doesn’t think like us, doesn’t judge like us, doesn’t punish like us. God loves the prodigal son and the unforgiving brother. God desires both to enter the divine embrace. This parable is our invitation to change our ways, to begin to act like God.
We’re told in the gospel today that it had been reported to Jesus that Pilate had mingled the blood of Galileans with a pagan sacrifice. There’s no proof that this event took place, but whether it was true or not, Jesus used the moment to teach. He even added an incident to the conversation: the death of eighteen people in a tower collapse.
We might add our own contemporary example to the two events that were presented, the horrific attack on Ukraine we’re witnessing today. Were the Ukrainians such terrible sinners that God would have unleashed such horrendous barbarity as a punishment upon them? It was common Jewish belief that bad things happened to bad people, and good things to good people. Jesus bucked this belief.
Jesus taught that suffering wasn’t God’s punishment for sin. To make his point, Jesus told a parable about a fig tree that wasn’t producing figs to address questions about sin, the sinner and God’s response.
The owner of a property wanted to cut down a fig tree, the symbol of a sinner, because it wasn’t fruitful. This was the human way of thinking. The gardener, God, committed to do all he could to save the tree, to make it fruitful. God’s purpose wasn’t to punish the sinner; God tried to bring new life to the sinner.
Today, I would suggest that that you take a renewed look at God. God’s desire is to help you, no matter what you’ve done or how you’ve acted. God’s way is not to condemn or punish. People may do so; institutions may do so; but that’s not God’s way. Throughout his ministry Jesus never spoke of sinners as being bad. Instead, he said they had lost their way. Examples of these are the woman who lost a coin and rejoiced with her friends when she found it, the sheep that wandered away from the ninetynine and was rescued by the shepherd who left the ninety-nine to search for the one that was lost, the son who abandoned his father and family and lost all his inheritance and was welcomed back home unconditionally.
I’ll leave you to your own thoughts, now, but before I do, I ask you to read these words Jesus spoke to Nicodemus to convince him of God’s love. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)
Luke’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus is my favorite for two reasons. He told us what Jesus was talking about with Moses and Elijah: “his exodus and what he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” He also told us that “Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.” There’s a beautiful and powerful message here.
First. Jesus was in conversation with Moses, the spirit-filled leader who led the people of Israel from the slavery they suffered in Egypt to the promised land. Elijah was with them. He was Israel’s greatest prophet who did battle with the priests of the pagan god, Baal to assure Israel’s purity of faith. These three, Jesus, Moses and Elijah were speaking with one another. They were in communion – a harmony of mission. Moses and Elijah guided Israel to the very door of the kingdom of God. Jesus was the key that would open it.
Jesus was preparing for his personal Passover from life to death to resurrection his exodus. His journey into the Paschal Mystery, will bring redemption not only for Israel but for humankind, and for all time.
Second. Luke told us that the disciples, Peter, James and John, “becoming fully awake,” saw his glory. What does he mean by “becoming fully awake?” He means that the fog of spiritual sleep had been lifted. Now, they saw Jesus, the fulfillment of Israel’s prophecies and the Son of God, wrapped in the divine glory. “His face
changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.” The disciples represent the Jewish people, tired, sleepy and disheartened from their longing for redemption for two thousand years! Jesus’ transfiguration was their moment of spiritual awakening. At that moment they saw heaven and earth united.
The Church wants us to reflect on this account of the transfiguration every year. It’s meant to alert us of our possible sleepiness. To respond to Jesus’ invitation to follow him we have to be awake – alive to his message and his example. We have to keep his glory in mind so they we can put on that same glory.
At the last supper Jesus prayed to his Father. “I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know they you sent me, and that you loved them even as you love me.” The Church wants us to take this to heart. Are we aware of God’s glory in us? Are we aware that we’re one with God? Does the world, the dark energy that perpetuates violence and aggression, poverty and injustice, disinformation and lies, feel the threat of the divine light within us?
Lent is our annual retreat into the desert. It’s the time we convert – turn ourselves around – face a new direction. It’s the time we get back in line to follow Jesus. It’s the time we wake up to see Jesus with alert, new eyes. It’s the time we reflect on his transfiguration and hope for ours.
“Filled with the Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry.”
This is Luke’s introduction to the account of the temptation of Jesus. To get a clearer understanding of the temptations to come, we need to understand this introduction.
John had just baptized Jesus along with the crowd that gathered at the Jordan River. Afterwards, as Jesus prayed, the voice of the Father anointed him for his mission. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The Spirit then descended upon him in form of a dove, recalling Noah’s sending out a dove as the water resided, revealing a new world.
He immediately retreated to the desert and remained there alone for forty days. Luke comments that Jesus ate nothing during that time. It’s impossible for anyone to live without food for that length of time. What could Luke be saying by noting this? This time in the desert was a period of gestation. Jesus had been anointed for a mission by the Father and fortified for its execution by the Holy Spirit. Now, he had to do some inner work. He had to ponder his mission, his father’s will for him. When he con
cluded that time in the desert, he left hungry to begin his mission. That was his food he yearned for. As he would later tell his disciples, “My food is to do the will of my Father.” (John 4:34)
Taking his first steps out of the desert he was confronted by the dark energy he was appointed to battle against. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Here’s the temptation. Jesus’ mission is directed to the human heart. His miracles and healings will certainly get people’s attention, and relieve some personal suffering. But Jesus was anointed to address deeper needs. “One does not live on bread alone.” His mission is to feed the heart, to bring new and deeper life to the spirit.
A second assault followed. Jesus was shown the glory and power of the great kingdoms of the world. The vision was a bribe. All Jesus had to do was to embrace the dark power that rules the earth. But Jesus was anointed to plant the seed of the kingdom of God in the midst of its darkness. God’s kingdom is one marked by unity and harmony, of justice and peace. It’s in direct opposition to the dark power that controls the world. Jesus’ answer came: “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.”
The last temptation is a prelude to the
agony that Jesus would experience in the garden. The tempter twisted the words of Psalm 91, words of comfort and reassurance of God’s fidelity, into a challenge. “Throw yourself down from here for it is written, ‘he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you.’” Jesus’ response was quick and to the point. “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” Later on, Jesus leaned on the support this psalm conveyed when he prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still not my will but yours be done.” In spite of his fear, Jesus submitted himself totally to the will of his Father.
Why does the Church ask us to reflect on this passage to begin the season of Lent? We’re beginning a forty-day retreat, a time of spiritual rejuvenation, a time of reflection on our mission as disciples of Christ. We tend to forget that as disciples we stand in total opposition to the powers of darkness, to the world. In order to accomplish our mission, we, like Jesus, have to submit our will to the Father. This is what Lent is all about. Getting in sync with Christ, uniting our wills with the Father.
As I write this reflection, the powers of darkness are ravaging Ukraine. Those same powers are dividing the country we live in. Many Christians have succumbed to the darkness. Christians are among those invading Ukraine. Christians are among those dividing our country. Christians are among those peddling lies and spewing hatred, division, and racism. Many Christians have fallen. Many Christians have been consumed by the darkness.
Now more than ever, every one of us needs time in the desert. Every one of us needs to recoup, to recommit ourselves to Christ and his gospel of peace and harmony, of sacrificial love. Let’s be brave. This Lent, let’s proclaim with Christ, “I have conquered the world.”
For the past two weeks we’ve been reading chapter six of Luke’s gospel, the presentation of Jesus’ central teaching, the kingdom of God is here. He began with four beatitudes and four contrary woes. They were followed by a string of practical interpretations: a call to love our enemies, to lend without expecting repayment, to forgive people who have hurt us, to cease all condemnation of others, to be as merciful as God.
These beatitudes and teachings spotlight the characteristics of the citizens of the kingdom. If we’re brave enough to listen to them with the ears of our hearts, these teachings will pose an existential challenge to us because these life principles are in total opposition to our most natural inclinations. But they can liberate us from the prison we call the world. They’re the keys to the kingdom of God.
This last portion of the teaching that we read today, takes on a different energy. The gentle principles of the beatitudes suddenly rise up clad in armor ready to do battle with the world along two fronts: our every-day, secular life and our personal, interior life.
The first battle. “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall in to a pit?” How many wars do we have to fight, and how many millions have to suffer and die, before we realize that no one wins a war? It seems, at times, that we want to make sure that the poor are always with us. What will it take for us to feel responsibility for each others welfare? The world is filled with blind guides who convince us that they have all the answers. When will we take off our blindfolds and begin to walk by the guiding light of the kingdom?
The second battle. “No disciple is superior to the teacher.” Insight and understanding are an eternal quest. Never stop questioning. Never stop learning. Never stop changing.
The third battle. “Remove the wooden beam from your own eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” The world possesses each of us. We’ve come to call this our original sin. It convinces us that the problems we have, and the suffering we experience, are caused by other people, other nations, other ideologies. To free ourselves from this cycle of scapegoating and suffering, each of us must fight a battle for liberation within ourselves. Only to the extent we battle our own demons will we be able to celebrate the freedom of the kingdom of God with others.
A final litmus test. “A good tree does not bear rotten fruit.” This calls for an honest assessment of ourselves, first of all, then of the guides we’ve chosen to follow, and finally, the society we live in. This will be a painful exercise if we do it honestly. The world has taught us to scapegoat. The world has taught us to accept our blindness. Seeing the light of truth can be painful, like walking out of a dark tunnel into the brilliant light of day. It may take a while for the eyes of our hearts to adjust, but when they do, we’ll get the first glimpse of the kingdom of God. We’ll be able to begin nourishing ourselves with the wisdom of the beatitudes.
Recently, I was given a copy of the first and second seasons of the TV series, The Chosen. It is a series dramatizing the life and teachings of Jesus. It can be streamed on YouTube. It’s absolutely wonderful. I’m sure many of you have seen it. The person portraying Jesus was mesmerizing. He presented Jesus as a real person, laughing, crying, loving, angry, sometimes tired, or even exhausted by the work he was doing. He only spoke a few words at the end of the first episode but they gripped my heart. I listened to the words he spoke, words I’ve read so many times. Somehow, they touched me in a way they never have before. I teared up with emotion. I’ve spoken with others who have had the same reaction.
This experience made me realize something. I’ve studied the teachings of Jesus. I know them, and I teach them. But somehow, I’ve never really connected them to the living person of Jesus. There was something about Jesus that drew people to him, something that made a deep impression on them. They listened to his little stories and heard a
message that changed their lives. If I was moved to tears listening to an actor speak them, I would truly have been a basket case if I heard the teaching coming directly from his lips.
As I read the scripture passages for today I realized that the entire gospel passage consisted of quotes, short teachings of Jesus’ that were meant to root the beatitudes in the lives of the everyday people he was addressing. His teachings are concise and easily remembered.
I made the decision that, today, I wasn’t going to deliver a traditional homily to shed MY light on the gospel passage. Since the entire gospel passage consists of one short teaching after another, I thought I would get out of the way and simply read the teaching. There’s nothing I could possibly add to make his teaching more profound.
So, I’m going to invite the congregation to close their eyes and imagine the face of Jesus. Bring him down to earth through this visualization. Look at his face and listen while he speaks. I believe that God will reveal the face that each one needs to see.
Then slowly, and with utmost respect, I’m going to read his teachings. I’m going to ask the congregation to try not to be distracted by my voice, a voice that they’re all too familiar with. I’m going to ask them to try to look at the face of Jesus and to listen to HIM share a teaching with each one of us.
WE’LL BEGIN WITH A PRAYER:
Jesus, my Lord and my God, I close my eyes and gaze on your face, an infant face with closed eyes and moist lips. I see your face wide with teenage laughter. I see your face dripping sweat as you dance at a wedding in Cana. I see your face reflecting candlelight as you divide the loaf of bread. I see your face wet with pain. I see your face ablaze with resurrection light. Lord Jesus, open my eyes that I might see your lips as you speak your message to me.
To you who hear, I say…
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic.
(pause – look at the face of Jesus and listen)
Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do
not demand it back.
(pause – look – listen)
Do to others as you would have them do to you. For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same.
(pause – look – listen)
If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, and get back the same amount. But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful as your Father is merciful.
(pause – look – listen)
Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.
(pause – look – listen)
Give, and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.
And so it is. Amen. Thank you Lord.
Let’s begin with Luke’s chronology leading up to the sermon on the mount, the focus of our reflection today. Jesus had left his group of close disciples and retired to an isolated area atop a high hill where he spent the night in prayer. In the morning he returned only to find that his group of disciples had been joined by many more. In addition, inquisitive Jews from Judaea and Jerusalem joined them along with Gentiles from the coastal areas of Tyre and Sidon, today’s Lebanon. Many came to him seeking healing. Some believed that if they could only touch him, they would be cured by the power that came out of him. But before he addressed the crowd, he chose twelve men out of this large group. He called them apostles.
It might be helpful to clarify the difference between a disciple and an apostle. A disciple is a student who has been invited by a rabbi to join his group of students. An apostle, apostolos in Greek, is an envoy or ambassador, one who is sent on a mission to a foreign country. Jesus was beginning to assign roles among this new community of followers.
“Raising his eyes toward his disciples,” Jesus began his most important teaching. The beatitudes, and the woes that follow, laid out the fundamental principles of the
new society that Jesus envisioned. He called it the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. What he envisioned was a total reversal of the world as we know it.
For your reflection, I’m going to match each beatitude with its woeful counterpart. That will give us the black and white of his teaching. I’ll follow that with a related teaching from the Gospel, and a question or two that might assist your reflection. Here is a suggested guide for your reflection.
The first teaching:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.” “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
“No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Luke 16:13)
The first reflection. Do you think you’re poor? Do you think you’re rich? How does your gut react to this teaching?
The second teaching:
“Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.” “But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.”
“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. (Luke 12:22-23)
The second reflection: Have you ever been in a situation when you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from? What was it like when things changed? If you haven’t been in that position think about what it might be like for the millions who face this situation every day. What are the feelings that arise from this beatitude?
The third teaching:
“Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.” “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep.”
Teaching three. “Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of a Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.” (Luke 7:36-38)
The third reflection. Are you weeping? What are you weeping about? Are you laughing? What’s the source of your joy? How do you share in the sorrows and joys of others?
The fourth teaching:
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.” “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in the same way.”
“They will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony.” (Luke 21:12-13)
The fourth reflection. Have you ever suffered because you’re a disciple of Jesus? Has it ever been painful for you to give testimony to the Truth?
The beatitudes and their corresponding woes are Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God. He taught that it was already here in germinal form, slowly manifesting itself on earth through sacrificial love. He modeled that love in his life, and his death on the cross.
Jesus didn’t give us an easy path to follow. He was serious when he taught us: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke:9 23)
The cross we wear around our neck isn’t just a pretty talisman. It’s a reminder to the one who wears it, and the people who look at it, that the kingdom of God is near. It challenges us to manifest the kingdom by loving as Jesus loved – sacrificially.
The story of the call of Simon and the miraculous catch of fish is the subject of our reflection today. Here’s how we get to this account. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is just beginning his ministry. He announced himself as the Messiah in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. The people rejected him and even tried to kill him. He left Nazareth and went to Capernaum. The people in that synagogue accepted his teaching. While he was there he liberated a man possessed by an unclean spirit who cried out, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” From that moment on, the word about Jesus began to spread like wildfire. He left the synagogue and went to Simon’s house and cured his mother-in-law who was very ill with a fever. He continued his travels through Judea. He cured many people along the way. Demons often witnessed to him as he exorcised them by crying out, “You are the Son of God!”
He began preaching along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a large body of water, thirteen miles long and eight miles wide and very deep, six hundred and eighty feet deep at its lowest point. Many fishing towns surrounded the lake.
As the crowd listening to Jesus began to grow, he looked around and saw two boats along the shore. They belonged to Simon and his partners, Zebedee and his sons, James and John. He asked
Zebedee and his sons, James and John. He asked to use one of the boats as a stage so that the people might hear him better.
When he had finished teaching he told Simon to take the boat out to deeper water and to cast his nets. Fishing was often done at night and Simon was just coming off a very unsuccessful night. He had caught nothing. Reluctantly, Simon obeyed the request. To everyone’s surprise, there was such a tremendous catch that Simon had to call his partners to bring their boats over to assist him. The catch filled both boats!
The event threw Simon and the others for a loop. Simon fell to his knees overwhelmed by an intense sense of sinfulness. The others stood there, struck with astonishment. Jesus reassured them telling them, “Do not be afraid.” He then said something they probably didn’t quite understand at the time, “From now on you will be catching men.” But the event, and Jesus’ words, were so powerful that “when they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.”
Why did Jesus tell these fishermen not to be afraid? It seems a bit strange, doesn’t it? After a bit of research, I discovered that the phrase is used 365 times in the New Testament. What’s so frightening? Jesus cured people, and liberated people from demonic possession. His message was one of love and compassion, of forgiveness and inclusion. This account can throw some light on the question.
In the account of the great catch of fish, Jesus called Simon and Andrew, and James and John, to follow him. They didn’t know what that would entail. They were awestruck by the miracle. The invitation seemed like a privilege; the teacher was calling THEM. But they would discover that following him for the next three years wasn’t going to be a piece of cake. It would take them from their families. They would have no place to call home. They would survive on hand outs or little jobs they got along the way. They would be hated by some just as Jesus was. They would suffer persecution and be expelled from the synagogues. Eventually, eleven of the twelve apostles would suffer martyrdom. Meeting Jesus was wonderful, but saying yes to his invitation was going to be the greatest challenge of their lives.
Pope John Paul II, addressing the massive crowds that attended his Masses and gatherings around the world, often quoted Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid.” Pope Francis repeats those same words. They’re directed to every person who hears in his or her heart, the invitation, “Follow me.” It’s the greatest moment in a person’s life, but it’s the scariest, too. Where will the path lead?
In his call to follow fearlessly Jesus was asking the apostles, and us, to trust in God – to trust totally and completely. The catch of fish was a prophetic act. It was teaching us that by placing ourselves in God’s hands, and allowing ourselves to be guided by God, we would see tremendous and unheard-of things. Through our faith, God would gather humankind in an embrace of divine love.