16th Sunday Year A

See Commentary on Matthew 12: 24-43 in Matthew 12:22-37 & Matthew 12:38-50

Homily 1 - 2005

Today’s first reading spoke insightfully of a God who cares for everything, whose sovereignty over all makes him lenient to all.  I think we can relate to that.  From our own limited knowledge of ourselves, we know that revenge and vindictiveness betray not inner strength but insecurity.

The recent actions of the London terrorists were evil acts of cold hatred or barbaric indifference.  They were cruel.  They were evil.  However, to call the terrorists themselves “scum, sub-human, unforgivable, to be eliminated at all costs” – that is, to dehumanise and to demonise the enemy, might sound strong common sense.  Yet I wonder if instead it is profoundly non-Christian - and hardly different from the attitude of the terrorists themselves who obviously in their own minds dehumanised the ones they killed so heartlessly.

What I admire so deeply about Jesus was precisely his inner strength.  His power to love was such that others’ hatred could not provoke hatred within him – he was so free that he could say of his murderers: Father, forgive them... He was not threatened by anyone, anything, even by those who caused his excruciating death.  He did not call them scum, sub-human, unforgivable and to be eliminated at all costs.

Did God forgive them, and others like them, as Jesus prayed? Did God dehumanise, demonise, them - no longer prepared to love them?  Did God get them in the end?  We might ask: Does God punish the genuine sinner eternally?

Today’s Gospel parable said: The kingdom of heaven is like... wheat and darnel growing together...  Though we did not go on to read the rest of the passage, Matthew’s community made sense of the parable by seeing the wheat and the darnel as good people and bad people, as saints and sinners, both existing, at least for the moment, in the kingdom.  What the gospel went on to say was that, at the end of the process, one lot would be destined for the furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, and the other lot would be destined to shine like the sun.

Does the gospel, then, contend that God condemns the unrepentant sinner to hell (and rewards the saint with heaven)?  That would no doubt be the child’s way of understanding it.  Yet what we know from our observation of Jesus’ behaviour is that God cannot be other than totally loving, whether of saint or of sinner.  It is the reactions of saint and of sinner to that love that are the variables.  Those who turn away from the cost of loving and accepting love do not finish up with the same experience for eternity as others who, following the lead of Jesus, struggle to love and be loved.

In this phase of our adventure of living we human persons are all a constantly changing mixture of good and evil, of sensitive compassion and of cold self-interest, of connectedness and of isolation, of love and of lack of love.  In the next phase of our adventure of living - the phase that unfolds after our death - there will be no distractions, all will be quite single-minded and focussed.  The saints will be the ones who respond to love, who trust love, and reach out in love to others, to all.  Their experience will be one of total freedom, lack of fear, a wonderful sense of inner strength, sensitive and responsive connectedness: utter fulfilment – radiant happiness.  That precisely is what I imagine is the experience that we call heaven.  The sinner is the one who has closed off from love, in fear and insecurity, unwilling – unable – to trust, withdrawn from everything, opting not for connectedness but for total self-absorption and self-interest - effectively choosing isolation and unmitigated loneliness.  That, I imagine is the experience we call hell.

Whatever our choice – and it will always be our choice – it seems that God will honour it, joyfully in the one case or reluctantly in the other.  As far as we can see, God cannot change the sinner’s outcome other than by taking away the sinner’s power freely to choose.  Yet, if God takes away that freedom, God takes away with it the power to love (which is precisely the basis of the experience we call heaven).

To ask: do I believe in hell? seems to me to be no different than to ask: do I believe that someone can single-mindedly refuse to love?  It is a question that seems closely connected to the reality of human freedom.  To ask: has anyone single-mindedly refused to love? is a different question.  That is a question of fact, my own answer to which is: I don’t know. 

Homily 2 – 2008 

Of all the images of the World Youth Day celebrations on television so far, one that stays with me is of a group of young people dancing in the streets in Sydney – dancing joyfully.  Why it stays with me, I think, is because it expresses how I would like to be as a disciple of Jesus.  I don’t dance enough for joy.  The ones I watched were young, and, I presume, were innocent … and, perhaps, to dance for joy was not difficult for them.  I hope it wasn’t; and I hope they’ll keep it up.

The media coverage over the past few days has, unfortunately, been ambivalent.  Many have felt hurt by its parading before the gaze of the world the Church’s inadequate response to the paedophilia crisis.  And yet, unfortunately, the Church’s sin is part of its reality.  We deny it at our peril.

Confronted with paedophilia, the Church, too often, has gone into damage control, not to defend the victim, but to defend its own good name.  Over the years, we have even tended to see victims of paedophile priests who have sought justice as threats.  We have resented them, and the publicity they caused.  Slowly we’re learning - learning to listen to the pain of the victims, learning to believe them, to feel their confusion, their indignation and their anger.

Some people have left the Church because of it, shocked and scandalised.  But why leave?  Where can you go?  Go and join the Pharisees, who would not be seen dead, eating with sinners?  unlike Jesus!  We belong to a Church of sinners.  It is where we can be real, and be at home, at the same time.  Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed!  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could really recognise and admit our sin? not being blasé about it, or casual, but deeply and genuinely broken-hearted.

The young people at World Youth Day could dance without inhibition because they still are young and innocent.  Their faith will need to mature across life, and that process of maturing will lead them to recognise the self-absorption that is endemic to everyone, the instinctive self-interest lurking in our depths, that so easily ignores or compromises the human dignity of others.  For my own part, older, certainly, and wiser, I hope, than the youth dancing in Sydney, I want, still, to dance – to dance, even with a broken heart – especially with a broken heart – because I hope, because I know God loves, because I know that God’s love, if only I would believe it, can slowly free us from our sin, layer by ever-deeper layer.

Somehow, today’s Gospel shaped these reflections.  I think that one thing the parable is saying is that sin, along with grace, are together our present experience – and we aren’t always good at telling the difference between the two – but we have the assurance that grace will prevail and evil be uprooted at harvest time.  In the meantime, with eyes wide open and with breaking hearts, we hear God’s invitation to the dance.  And thank you to the young people for their innocent enthusiasm and their contagious joyfulness.

Homily 3 – 2011 

England’s News of the World closed down last week.  Some of its journalists and top executives face shame and possible criminal charges.  Why did they do the unethical and unlawful things they are alleged to have done?  Because their tactics, up to now, paid off.  Their newspapers sold.  People wanted to read what they published.  An AFL player has been charged with rape.  It hit the news, not because a woman was raped, but because the perpetrator was an AFL player.  The media have written more about his behaviour off the field than they ever devoted to analysing his behaviour on the field.  Sportsmen are presented as role models, not because of their proven character traits, but simply because of their athletic abilities.  We love to make celebrities, and love even more to be scandalised by their private lives.  Who’s good?  Who’s evil?  The pot calling the kettle black! We’re all black! And even black pots and black kettles have their uses.

Today’s parable might have come at the right time.  Wheat and darnel.  Apparently, while both are still green, it is difficult to distinguish one from the other.  What might Jesus be suggesting?  Perhaps: Don’t fall for the temptation to take it upon ourselves to pass judgment on who is good and who is evil.  Leave it till the harvest.  Leave it to God.  Indeed, how would we classify ourselves?  I think that the wiser we are, the less sure we are.

I have often wondered about the story of Adam and Eve.  They were warned not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If they did, they would die.  What is so poisonous about knowing good and evil?  The tempter got at them by making them envious of God - who can tell good from evil.  You won’t die!  You’ll be like God.  You’ll know good and evil.  Their attempt to play God, their relishing the role reserved to God, their desire to know good and evil landed them in all sorts of trouble: harmony gave way to strife; respect and cooperation to domination; and murder followed in the next generation.  Judging others inevitably does that.

We can look at people’s behaviour.  We can exercise our minds to determine which behaviours are ethical and which aren’t; which contribute to the common good and which don’t.  We can work out laws to enforce or to prohibit certain behaviours.  Societies need to do these things.  

But, whereas objective behaviours can be classified as right or wrong, helpful or otherwise, we have no certainty about people’s subjective condition.  As St Paul observed in today’s Second Reading: … it is God who knows everything in our hearts.  We don’t know others’ motivations - where their behaviours come from.  We don’t know how clearly they recognise the right and the wrong.  We don’t know how free they are.  The cultures and sub-cultures they belong to, and the institutions they are part of, strongly influence people’s perception of right and wrong.  They deeply affect their freedoms.  What is regarded as virtuous in one sub-culture can be deplored in another.

Jesus constantly ran up against the pharisaical sub-culture. Good-intentioned people were blind to what in fact they were doing: They thought that they were behaving responsibly and virtuously in condemning Jesus.  They were shocked at Jesus’ readiness to share meals, and thereby align himself, with tax-collectors, prostitutes and sundry sinners before they converted.

We can’t judge who ultimately is good and who is evil.  Yet, the temptation to do so is so strong.  Leave it till the harvest.  Yet, surprisingly, even God doesn’t seem to worry too much.  God has chosen to love everyone - good and evil, to offer forgiveness and to show mercy particularly to the evil – who are the ones who need it.

Does it matter, then, whether we are good or evil, if God loves everyone regardless?  Yes, it does.  Because what we call “heaven” is relationship.  It is a relationship of love.  Relationships are two-way.  There is no relationship, no “heaven” for us, if we do not accept God’s love, allow ourselves to be swept up in it and to be carried back to God by it.  True evil is turning our backs on love.


Homily 4 - 2014

You will know better than I, but I believe that you train a dog by means of reward and punishment. Children are socialised in much the same way. Is that what today's parable is about? Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus had insisted that the Kingdom of God was Good News. Threat of torture, even delayed, is hardly Good News – and what does it say about God? Besides, good seed /darnel, good people/bad people. Are there any totally good people or totally bad people, or only people with varying mixtures of good and bad? Where would you draw the line?

Jesus had said that, in order to see the Kingdom of God as Good News, it was necessary firstly to repent. Repenting is more radical than trying harder. It is more like what happened when you first fell in love, or held your first child, or when your deeply loved friend or partner died. Life was not the same any more. In Jesus’ mind, repenting meant seeing God and life in a whole new light that makes life no longer the same any more. It is a gift of God; which we can prepare ourselves for by sitting lightly with our familiar ways of seeing and behaving, and being ready to be tipped upside down by God.

Jesus told parables precisely to tip people upside down, to set their imaginations free, and to open them to new insights and unexpected surprises. He wanted to break through people’s customary attitudes and even to annoy them – like a grass-seed in your sock or a dripping down-pipe. You need to do something about it.

The way we usually understand today’s parable, it could just as easily have been told by a Pharisee. They were very much into classing people as good or bad, and insisting that everyone else try harder – or else! No surprises there! No life-changing insights! 

Jesus prefaced last week’s parable by saying, Imagine! Let us try it today. What if the paddock with the good seed and the darnel were you – a mixture of good and bad, sometimes hard to tell one from the other? Is a drive towards perfection good or bad? Is needing to be different good or bad? Is being always loyal good or bad? Or never taking a risk? Hard to tell – like good seed and darnel when both are still young. It takes time for the difference to become clear. It may even take the grace of God really to see what we have been up to all that time, for the penny to drop, for the exhilarating, humiliating, liberating experience of what Jesus called conversion/repentance.

Perhaps that recognition is what is referred to by the harvest – when we begin to see ourselves with a new clarity, when we can begin to unload what is harmful in what before we thought was virtue. What might that say about the grace-giving God?

But there is a catch. If we had read the longer version of today’s Gospel, we would have come across Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ request for explanation. At first sight, it seems to confirm the usual understanding. Many scholars regard that explanation as coloured by the bitter opposition experienced by the early Church community in which Matthew operated, rather than originating from Jesus. Still, it is part of the Gospel. So how might we make sense of it in the light of what we know of God revealed in the life and actions of Jesus?

Let us try a “what if”! What if the blazing furnace with its weeping and grinding of teeth were a graphic picturing, not of an eternal Hell, but, perhaps even more likely, of a world-order where people persist in living without love, with their self-absorption and their blind tribal and nationalistic loyalties - not unlike what is happening in Syria, or Palestine or Ukraine right now?

The world need not be so. Jesus has shown another way, that he called Good News, the Kingdom of his Father. We have had a sniff of it. That is why we are here today.

 Homily 5 - 2017

There is a Chinese story of an old farmer who had an old horse for tilling his fields. One day the horse escaped into the hills and when the farmer’s neighbours sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?” A week later the horse returned with a mob of wild horses from the hills and this time the neighbours congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?” Then, when the farmer’s son was attempting to break in one of the wild horses, he was thrown off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, “Bad luck? Good Luck? Who knows?” Some weeks later the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg they let him off. Now was that good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?

Might the old Chinese story throw any light on today’s parable as told by Jesus? Our answer may depend on how far we have taken to heart Jesus’ message at the beginning of his public life, “The Kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent. And believe the Good News.” What is the good news? In the rest of his public life, Jesus made quite clear that his God, the God whose kingdom is close, is a God who loves. More than that – God is love. God does not simply love some times, and withhold love at other times. God cannot do other than love. And as we mature across life, we come to realize that love at its best is unconditional love. Can we hear today’s parable, then, in the light of our faith in the God who loves everyone unconditionally – always?

If we can, we may no longer see the parable as a moralistic message about goodies and baddies, reward and punishment. That is how children and adolescents view their world. Rather it can be about everyone, all of us, who are mixtures of both good and bad. It may speak, too, to Pope Francis’ answer to the reporter who asked him his view on gay relationships, “Who am I to judge?”

We all know the good news that God is love. Since God is love, the world created by God will operate in a life-giving way only when people choose to love. The repenting that Jesus asked for involves seeing things differently – nothing other than recognising the absolute priority of loving, not in order to avoid eventual punishment [God does not punish], but to avoid emptiness in our personal lives, now and in eternity, and chaos in our social interactions as citizens and as nations. Does Jesus’ parable hold out the possibility of humanity’s eventual option for the ways of love and the end of all that is destructive? Is that the thrust of the owner’s instruction to his servants at the parable’s conclusion, “Collect the darnel and tie it in bundles to be burnt, then gather the wheat into my barn”?

There may be another point to the parable, as well. At the early stage of their growth, I believe that it is difficult to distinguish darnel from wheat. Given that that is the case, Jesus’ story may also be saying that, at times [or is it always?], it can be difficult to distinguish what is good from what is bad, not just in theory, but particularly in practice. For example, the reasons why people do things can be as morally relevant as what they do – whether they are acting from love and concern for others, or out of self-interest [or national interest, for that matter]. That is why it is problematic to pass judgment on others. Like the moral of the old Chinese story, “Good Luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”

Today’s parable can be fascinating when we allow it to tick away quietly in our heads.