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Gospel Reflection – 4th Sunday of Advent

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Mary’s “Yes” to God

With the Gospel of the Annunciation to Mary, we arrive today at the events leading directly to the celebration of Jesus’ birth.

Following a greeting and word of reassurance, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she is to be the mother of a child, whose title (‘Son of the Most High’) and future role indicate that he will be the long-awaited Messiah.

Mary, understandably, asks how this birth is to occur. She is married but, in accordance with the custom of the time where women married very young, is still living in her parental home and not yet having relations with her husband.

The angel’s majestic explanation lifts everything to a new level. The birth will not come about through relations with her husband but through her being “overshadowed” by the power of God’s Holy Spirit. The child to be born from her will be God’s ‘Son’ in a unique way. He will have a divine status far outstripping conventional expectation concerning the Messiah.

The explanation requires of Mary faith in the highest degree. Unlike Zechariah in connection with the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:11-19), she does not simply have to believe that God will overcome barrenness and old age. She has to believe that God’s power will take the place of the male parent entirely. Later, her cousin Elizabeth will say to her, “Blessed is she who believed the the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled” (1:45). Mary’s faith is the channel for God’s presence and power to enter the world in the mystery of the Incarnation.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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Risk Taking for God

As we approach the end of the Church’s liturgical year, the focus remains upon the second coming of the Lord. Once again, the Gospel provides a parable (the Talents) instructing us how to live in view of that expectation.

The master in the parable is pleased with the enterprising first two servants. Having realised substantial gains on the amounts entrusted to them, they are welcomed “into the joy of their master”—that is, into the banquet of the Kingdom.

But the third servant, who simply hid his single talent in the ground, displeased his master because he didn’t do what was expected, namely, trade with the money so that it would increase. He didn’t even put the sum in the bank, where it would have at least accrued some interest. Paralysed by a fearful image that he has of his master (an image of God that the parable does not endorse but actually refutes), he sought security in giving back, in strict justice, the exact sum entrusted to him. This, however, was not what the master wanted. Hence the severe penalty.

The parable challenges believers not to rest content simply with not doing anything wrong so that God will not be able to find anything to punish. Such an attitude mistakes the nature of God and neglects what God really wants, which is an enterprising, even risk-taking, practice of the “weightier matters of the law”: “justice, mercy and faith” (23:23). The gifts God has entrusted to us, like our minds and limbs, need active exercise if they are not to atrophy and wither.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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Be Prepared

The parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids addresses the situation of the Church as it awaits the return of its Lord (the “Bridegroom”). The time of waiting has become very long indeed but the Church still proclaims: “Christ will come again”, and lives in that hope and in the sense of accountability that accompanies it. The key thing is to use the time of waiting profitably, so as not to be caught out when the Bridegroom arrives, whether that be at the moment of death or end of time.

The five wise and five foolish bridesmaids depict two possibilities for believers. The oil needed for their lamps represents the good deeds that Jesus commends in this gospel, especially the works of mercy that feature so prominently in the parable of the Great Judgement (Matt 25:41-56). The five wise bridesmaids will meet the Bridegroom with their lamps blazing with this “oil”. The five foolish, on the other hand, represent the kind of believers who cry out, “Lord, Lord” but have no good works to accompany their confession of faith (see 7:21).

The parable—and the Gospel as a whole—remind us that the words of dismissal at the Eucharist, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your life”, are no perfunctory conclusion to the rite but a programme for living the twin commandment of love of God and love of neighbour. Those who take them to heart have always with them the “oil” required for salvation; they can “sleep” without anxiety about being caught short by the sudden arrival of the Lord.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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The gospel of the Beatitudes is often read at funerals and weddings. In its own way, it sounds comforting and indeed it is. However, it is also very challenging—which suggests that “Blessed” is a better rendering of the opening word in each case than “Happy”.

Jesus is instructing his disciples concerning the kind of people they must be, not just for themselves but for the benefit of the mass of afflicted people down below the mountain, who he has just healed.

To this end, the beatitudes describe ways of living that mean putting oneself in a vulnerable situation quite contrary to the values of the world. To be “poor in spirit,” rather than proud and dominant; to feel compassion (“mourn”) because other people suffer; to have a passionate commitment (“thirst”) for justice; to exercise “mercy” rather than taking advantage of those in an inferior position; to actively promote reconciliation (as “peacemakers”); and so forth: all these things make one vulnerable here and now, entailing much loss.

But in light of the hope for the kingdom of God, whose values the Beatitudes enshrine, disciples who adopt this way of life are already “blessed”. Their future happiness is in the hands of an ever-faithful God.

Moreover, living in this way means that they can be “salt” and “light” for the world, especially for the afflicted. It is those who are prepared to live in the vulnerable way commended by Jesus who make the world a hospitable home for all humanity. This is the legacy of the “saints” who have gone before us.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT

When faced with the question in today’s Gospel concerning which of the commandments of the law is the greatest, Jesus has no hesitation in uniting two commandments already found in the scriptures of Israel.

The command to love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind comes from Deuteronomy (6:4-5). It is a command that every Israelite is summoned to recite each morning on rising (the “Schema” prayer). So the Christian tradition has inherited from Israel the truth that God is worthy of love, worship and dedication of life simply for God’s sake alone. Love is the supreme factor in the relationship that God desires to have with us.

The second command, “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”, occurs in Lev 19:18. It is “like” the first because it flows from the nature of Israel’s God, who has identified so intimately with the situation of human beings. To love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind is to love those whom God loves: one’s fellow human beings, especially the vulnerable and the poor.

Down the ages there have been many interpretations as to what loving one’s neighbour as oneself might mean. Primarily it would seem to mean putting oneself—at least imaginatively—in the neighbour’s shoes and asking how would I like to be treated in their situation. Better still, perhaps, it means taking pains to find out from the neighbour what exactly their desire might be. All effective works of charity and justice begin from a similar base: from com-passion (“feeling with”) in the deepest sense of that term.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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OBEDIENCE TO GOD

Having entered Jerusalem as its messianic King, Jesus is drawn into a power struggle with representatives of various groups who, under the overall control of the Romans, currently wield power.

To remove the threat he poses, they need to portray him to the Romans as dangerous and, at the same time, to lessen his authority with the people.

The tax question is a perfect stratagem to achieve these ends. If Jesus supports the payment of the unpopular poll tax, he will lose standing with the people; if he forbids payment, he risks being identified with groups rebellious towards Rome and so of appearing as a threat to peace and public order.

Jesus’ majestic response not only frees him from the dilemma, it actually goes onto the offensive. By requiring them to produce a coin with Caesar’s image on it he shows them up as already collaborating with the Romans. They carry around the offensive coinage. He does not.

Then his dual “Render …” instruction throws the dilemma back upon them. They had set the issue simply in terms of obligation to Rome; they had not brought God into the equation at all. Jesus takes possession of the religious and moral high ground by setting responsibility to the civil power (which he does not deny) within the broader and higher framework of obedience to God.

We can find here the beginnings of the later Christian sense of the separation of Church and State. We also have a recognition that believers have responsibilities in both realms that oblige in conscience before God.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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THE SONG SUNG OVER THE CHURCH

Jesus probably told the parable of the Tenants against the religious leaders in Jerusalem in his day. Having resisted the prophets sent by God, they are now resisting the last of them, namely, himself. As such they have shown themselves to be usurpers, retaining for themselves the “vineyard” (Israel) and its “produce” (the life of the people). For them, the arrival of the Kingdom (of God) will mean dispossession and retribution.

The early Church retold the parable in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and a belief in his status as God’s Son. Also present is a bitter awareness of the No given to the Gospel by the bulk of Israel and a sense of the Church itself, made up of Jews and non-Jews, as the community of the Kingdom. Through the continuing presence of the risen Lord (Matt 28:20), the community can and ought to produce the “fruits” that God desires.

The long and tragic history of Christian intolerance and persecution of Jews calls for sensitivity in handling texts like this that reflect the early Church’s disappointment with Israel. Today we should move on from Christian triumphalism at Jewish expense to concentrate upon the “fruits” that God looks for from us. God has made the “rejected stone”—the crucified and risen Lord—the “cornerstone” of the Church. The question for us is whether the “song” sung by God over this new vineyard (cf. the First Reading) is one of delight or disappointment. Inevitably, perhaps, a bit of both. In either case it will be a song of love.

Fr Brendan Byrne sj

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THE PATIENCE OF GOD

The parable about two sons in today’s Gospel can be understood on various levels. In Jesus’ own context it probably served to defend his practice, shocking to the religious authorities, of celebrating the discovery of God’s mercy with those considered outcasts and sinners.

At a deeper level, the parable shows that what God looks to—and can wait for with infinite patiencer—is the final outcome in people’s lives. God can put up with an initial No, and many other No’s besides, on the way to a final and lasting Yes.

From the human angle, people who appear religious and obedient from the start may never have sufficiently plumbed the depth of God’s mercy to know God as God really is. Conversion at depth and the knowledge of God that goes with it overflows into a pattern of life truly reflecting God’s grace. But a hard, judgmental attitude to others may indicate lack of true conversion and knowledge of God: something that may leave such people waiting at the door, while those whom they thought far less worthy enter into the fullness of life before them.

What ultimately determines fitness for eternal life is conformity of the human heart to the heart of God. None of us could ever amass sufficient good works to merit even a second of life with God.

That life will be God’s gift in abundance if only we have grown—sometimes in the course of a very winding and to-and-fro journey—into the capacity to receive it.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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REFLECTING THE GENEROSITY OF GOD

Today’s Gospel is introduced as is a parable “about the kingdom of heaven”. That is, it illustrates the way in which God’s rule is reclaiming the world for values that allow people to live lives that are human in the fullest sense of the word.

In the Palestine of Jesus’ time, employment was for many a day to day business. Whether labourers got work—and the wage they needed to support themselves and their families—depended on whether they were hired for that day in the marketplace.

The story presupposes a long working day with successive hirings during the day. The “just wage” agreed upon at the start of the day would have been a denarius, the standard wage for a day’s labour. This is in fact what everyone receives, but when those who have laboured since early morning see even the latecomers paid this wage, they expect that in their case “a just wage” will mean considerably more. Hence their grievance.

Jesus’ message is that we cannot simply take the conventional idea of justice and apply it without qualification to God. God is just, but, beyond justice, reserves the right to be overwhelmingly generous as well. If the landowner, out of wider social concern, chooses to be generous and to pay everyone, deserving or not, what social justice today would call a “living wage”, this truly reflects the will and action of God. Aligning ourselves with this view of God has much to do with allowing the values of the kingdom to transform our lives and our world.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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The Church is not a community of the perfect. Allowance has to be made for dealing with moral lapses and dissensions that inevitably occur in a community still on the way to the Kingdom.

In today’s Gospel the procedure Jesus lays down for dealing with conflict reveals his sense of the Church as the family of God. Correction should as far as possible be carried out in private. Only if that proves unsuccessful should a carefully staged progression of increasingly public procedures be set in place. The goal is not simply to win, but rather to “win back” the “brother or sister”, to preserve as far as possible the dignity of the errant person, and to enhance everyone’s sense of being a valued member of the “family”.

If, despite all, the process fails, there is nothing to be done but to treat the person as an outsider. There comes a point beyond which a community can no longer tolerate members who consistently defy its core values.

To set someone outside the community is no light matter. The Church needs to know that its decisions in this regard enjoy heavenly sanction. Hence Jesus’ assurance that the “binding and loosing” authority conferred personally upon Peter in regard to interpretations of the law (16:19), is also enjoyed by the local community with respect to the exclusion or non-exclusion of errant members. As risen Lord, Jesus remains “Emmanuel,” “God with us” in community life and deliberation (see1:23).

The Church’s canon law and way of proceeding has developed way beyond this simple instruction. But itss fundamental spirit should remain.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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St James The Apostle