Please read the Scripture passage a few times before reading this reflection
Forgiveness from the Heart
As followers of Jesus we know that forgiveness is very important but perhaps we are not entirely sure why it is so important or why it is a central aspect of Jesus’ teaching. Forgiving others can be very difficult especially when we feel so hurt or so angry or so betrayed or so violated. It isn’t easy to get on with everyone especially with those in our closer relationships or with others in the church. The early church were challenged by forgiveness too.
In Matthew’s Gospel Peter poses the question to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Then Jesus tells the parable known as the unforgiving servant. This is a strange parable. There are two points to note before going deeper into exploring what it means to forgive from the heart.
Firstly, the numbers used in Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer do not refer to the amount of times one should forgive. Some theologians think that the Rabbis in Jesus’ day taught that one only had to forgive a person three times– three times and that’s it, shake the dust off your feet on them, forget them, have nothing to do with them. However, the teaching of the day was not about how many times one ought to forgive, rather the teaching said that if one repented one need only to ask to be forgiven up to three times for a particular offence. One should not have to ask a fourth time.
How quick we are to put limits on our expectations of others and not just how many times we should forgive others. For example we say to our children, “I am going to count to three and when I get to three I want you to pick up your toys or clothes off the floor if not … (then we follow with a proposed punishment as a consequence). We then very slowly count to three and usually the children do what is asked. If they don’t act, the consequence follows. How often do we say in our minds, “I will give him/her three chances and if there is no change I won’t bother with them any more. This thinking is part of our lives, its part of our unconscious thinking. It is like we have been trained into it. It may work on little children but not when trying to maintain loving personal relationships or church community relationships. Imagine if we applied that rule to our friendships or even in our churches.
The number seven in the Bible is linked with completeness and perfection. When Peter asked if he should forgive seven times perhaps he was asking when is enough, when is righteousness fulfilled? 70 times seven is not 490 times rather it stands for absolute perfection. Is it possible to be in that place of perfection? What does that mean?
The second point I want to make is about parables. The parables of Jesus were never straight forward. They were never clear explanations of truth. Parables contained riddles, exaggeration and paradox. The greatest paradox in this parable is the portrayal of a human king as one who shows incredible mercy and forgiveness and the portrayal of God as one who will torture and endlessly punish those who do not forgive from the heart. When we come to the end of this parable we could easily deduce that this is how God will treat us too if we do not forgive. However, a key word to remember here is the word ‘heart’ (more about that later).
The parable begins with a human being, a king, who demands that his servants settle all their outstanding accounts with him. When one of his debtors is unable to pay, the king orders the man and his wife and family and possessions to be sold. But when the man begs for time an incredible twist occurs in the parable - the king has pity on him and forgives the man all his debts - without any conditions. Human kings were not known for their mercy. They held power by being ruthless and demanding complete and unquestioning obedience from their subjects and especially those in positions of power. However, the very same man who has been forgiven does not act in the same merciful way to those who are in debt to him. He does the opposite and throws the debtor into prison. This is a second twist in the story. It is not expected. How does someone who experiences being in a place where he is totally free of the enormous debt he owed the king then impose such an enormous punishment on one who owes him such a small debt in comparison? Yet is this not how we often act? We accept the forgiveness of those who forgive us for the big things we may have said or done but do we always extend forgiveness to those indebted to us? Do we not hold grudges for some minor things too?
The parables of Jesus can contain huge paradoxes. This parable should be carefully read and reflected upon. In this parable we should not confuse God with earthly kings nor earthly kings with God, nor confuse the kingdom of God/kingdom of heaven with the kingdoms and ways of this world. It is highly unlikely that a human king will act in a loving and kind way instead he will be ruthless in getting his way. It is impossible that God will act like a human king because God is love. The parables are there to challenge us to enter God’s kingdom and live with God’s life.
We step in and out of different worlds, between the world of the kingdom of God, a world of forgiveness and freedom and a human world that is dominated by indebtedness and by unforgiveness. The parable blatantly exaggerates something that we may not be conscious of: that we may not be giving people a chance. Even if we do give people two or three chances or more it is always limited by number and time. In our world we are in a place of unconsciously being unforgiving. When we are reminded as followers of Jesus that we must forgive we move to a place of conscious forgiveness but the place of seventy times seven is a place beyond our comprehension. It is a place where we are unconsciously forgiving. It is a place where there is no thought of retribution, a place where there is endless mercy. It is forgiving from the heart, a heart at one with the heart of God - it is the heart of God. How do we move from unconscious unforgiveness to unconscious forgiveness?
In a recent study of Forgiveness from a Wisdom perspective I was surprised to learn that there is no exact term for forgiveness in either Buddhism or Hinduism. Rather than holding the thought of the need to forgive consciously in our minds the ancient wisdom in both Hinduism and Buddhism seem to teach that in the flow of loving others, people are unconsciously forgiven. In loving others from the heart there is none to forgive, only people to love. Forgiveness becomes no longer an issue for us because we love from the heart.
Rather than being mindful of being forgiving, which is forgiving from the mind, true unconditional forgiveness unconsciously flows from the heart. How do we make this move from mind to heart and perhaps to where mind and heart are in harmony? Why forgive from the heart? Forgiving is reflecting who God is: endlessly merciful and patient and kind. Can we mortals put ourselves in a place where we can channel God’s endless mercy? Can we at least try? We begin our search with a prayer…
God merciful and kind, teach us to love from the heart, to let your love flow from us to all people, to all beings and to all things. As you freely forgive us our sins help us to freely love others and in loving them may they find forgiveness for themselves. Help us to take the words of Jesus deep within our hearts and let the wisdom of Jesus grow there in abundance. Show us the way to this place of the heart, this place of unconditional love. May our lives flourish with life. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.
Photo: Cahir Castle, County Tipperary, Republic of Ireland
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven (Matthew 16:17).
The New Testament Greek word ‘makarios’ is usually translated into English as ‘blessed’ but in some modern Bible versions it is translated as ‘happy’. We tend to seek happiness through achievements and fulfilling needs and desires. How often have we convinced ourselves with thoughts like: ‘If only I had a new job, or more money I would be happy’ or lamented, ‘If only I had married the right person, or studied harder in school I would have been happy’? This kind of thinking can easily fill our minds each day and therefore direct our lives.
According to Brian Stoffregen the ancient Greeks believed that the gods were truly happy because they lived above all the worries and cares of this world. They also believed that the dead were truly happy because they no longer had to endure the suffering and pain found in this world; and they believed that the only living humans that were truly happy were the rich and powerful because they didn’t have to struggle in life. So, for the ancient Greeks, the gods, the rich and the dead were happy. In Judaism, people tended to believe that those who lived a righteous life were blessed. Blessing was the reward for a good life. Therefore, if one was ill or poor or lived with a disability etc., this was evidence of not being blessed but rather of being cursed and evidence of not living a righteous life.
Jesus comes preaching how all people can find this blessedness, this ‘happiness’ on earth. In fact, Jesus says that it is the poor who are blessed not the rich. And Jesus tells Peter that he is blessed because something has been revealed to him by God, something that has not come from human thinking but directly from God. Peter has been awakened. He has a new consciousness. Rather than seeking happiness for happiness sake, Peter has discovered that being blessed is something far deeper than the things that we associate happiness with. Jesus uses the word ‘makarios’ in a different way to show that true blessedness is not what human (flesh and blood) thinking associates with happiness. And Peter has come to find that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and that in Jesus is life. And this is greater than an earthly thing that can bring us joy. Blessed are those whose hearts and minds have been awakened to life.
How is it that some came to see and believe that Jesus was the Messiah and others didn’t, especially the religious leaders? Why did they remain asleep and others were awakened? How about today? Who are those who are asleep and those who are awake? How come some people come to church all their lives, talk about God, work hard for the church but don’t seem to get who Jesus is? How come so many people remain miserable? They believe in their heads that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God but what about their hearts? Someone asked me recently why some Christians who sing in church, pray, even preach can then behave so badly when not in church? That question challenges me. It is not enough to know or believe something about Jesus, awakening is allowing the life of the risen Christ to live through us, to awaken our hearts to love, to love as God loves. Awakening is to have the awareness to live with words and actions in harmony both in worship on Sundays and at work on Mondays.
As the day’s light breaks the darkness of the night,
as the first movements of the morning pierce the
so a new waking to life dawns within me,
so a fresh beginning opens.
In the early light of this day,
in the first actions of the morning,
let me be awake to life.
In my soul and in my seeing
let me be alive to the gift of this new day,
let me be fully alive.
-from Praying with the Earth: a Prayerbook for Peace by John Philip Newell
Photo: A for Awakening. I took this photo in a graveyard in Norway in 2007 and only noticed the A afterwards
Walking on Water: Heart, mind and body in harmony
But when Peter noticed the strong wind, Peter became frightened, and beginning to sink, Peter cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught Peter, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?"
“You of little faith...” That sounds harsh doesn’t it? Peter had shown a lot of faith stepping out of the boat and walking on the waves before he noticed the wind and began to sink. Have you ever tried walking on water? Did you succeed? I doubt that anyone would criticise us for not having faith enough to be able to walk on water. It we tried to walk on water we might be considered mad; a bit like Christians who pick up and dance with poisonous snakes to prove that God will protect them. It is called putting God to the test or just a plain stupid thing to do. We may not be able to walk on water, but we can float. To float we have to lay back in the water and entrust ourselves to the water, to allow our bodies to relax in the water. In a sense this is having faith in the water and in the process; that following this process the water will indeed hold us up and we will not drown. With scientific discovery we have learned to fly, who knows one day we may be able to also walk on water.
I am sure many of us have heard or even preached sermons ourselves urging people to keep their eyes firmly fixed on Jesus. These sermons point out that Peter’s problem is that he took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the waves and down at his feet and immediately his faith evaporated. There is also the verse in Scripture that says we walk by faith not sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Much of our thinking in the Western world is ‘either/or’ thinking: black or white, right or wrong, war or peace; and this binary thinking enters our theological thinking also. So, we say we are either walking in faith or we are doubting. This kind of binary thinking can give us a hot or cold journey of faith following Jesus. Sometimes we are swimming in warm water or sometimes in cold water. It is not good for our mental health and sets us up for failure. This kind of ‘two-legged stool faith’ is sure to fall over and leave us disappointed or disillusioned.
According to Cynthia Bourgeault (The Wisdom Way of Knowing) the story of Peter walking on water is a favourite of those who teach wisdom. The disciples had spent the whole night in the boat trying to get to the other side of the lake. They were far from land when they suddenly saw what they thought was a ghost walking on the water towards them. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." In New testament Greek this literally means I am. It was not just the human Jesus walking on water, the use of the words ‘I am’ conveys that it was an encounter with God - the God who made the whole universe and dwells within in it, giving it life and aliveness. For a moment Peter’s heart is so pointedly focused on Jesus that he rises for a moment to Jesus’ level of being, a level of being at which the laws of the physical universe are transcended. But then he notices the strong wind, and perhaps instantly aware of the impossibility of what he is doing, he becomes frightened and begins to sink.
A life of faith is not demonstrated by our ability to walk on water rather it is demonstrated in our ability to love one another. ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself Mark 12:30,31).’ To love God fully, and therefore to have the ability to love our neighbour fully, one loves not just with the heart, but also with the mind, the body and soul.
Rather than a two-legged faith stool that always fall over the wisdom way of knowing refers to a three centred way of knowing (a three legged stool): knowing with the mind, knowing with the heart, knowing with the body. For a moment Peter’s heart, mind and body were in perfect balance and he walked on water but then his mind took over and his body sank. We do not need a faith to walk on water, but we do need a faith that will enable us to love one another as God loves us. For this we need a body, a heart and a mind that are in balance, working in harmony together.
Through the body we engage with other people in kind actions and words. We have to look after our bodies, care for them, exercise them, train them, use them, be aware of them. Our bodies have feelings too. They sense things. They know things. They can tell us when things are not going right. Psychologists tell us that movement of our bodies is very good for our mental health as well as our physical and emotional health.
Our hearts are not just where we feel emotions. The heart according to the ancient wisdom traditions is an organ for the perception of divine purpose and beauty. Cynthia Bourgeault says, ‘It is our antenna, so to speak, given to us to orient us toward the divine radiance and to synchronize our being with its more subtle movements. The heart is not for personal expression but for divine perception.’ It would appear that for a time at least Peter’s heart was like antenna fully alert to the incoming encounter with the living God in the person of Jesus walking on the water.
The third leg of the wisdom stool is the mind. We spend much of our time in our minds worrying about the future and dwelling on the past rather than living in the present moment. How do we control our minds? Peter it seems had great difficulty controlling his mind, although who could blame him when he was defying the laws of Physics.
Peter lost his sense of presence. Maintaining a sense of presence is not only good for our mental health or helping us to survive the busyness and challenges of contemporary life, presence also locates us in a space where we are connecting both with the realities of this world and the kingdom of heaven. To not be present may mean that we do not encounter God in the now, in the present moment, in ordinary as well as extraordinary things. How we need to be present when attempting to respond to situations and all people with love. We have to learn to bring our minds at every moment to the present moment and in this moment and that moment to find life, aliveness, awakeness, God. A life of loving faith requires living with body, mind and heart in balance.
Blessing: May you be at one with yourself and with God. May you find your body, heart and mind in balance. May you be present to the presence of the great ‘I am.’ May your journey of faith through this life be filled with the joy and wonder of the living God. May you be present and know God’s presence even when the storms in life blow strong against you and may you know the peace that stills the storms and calms all our lurking fears. Amen.
Photo: County Clare, Republic of Ireland.
You give them something to eat
I wonder if the people who were fed that day in Galilee wondered where all the food came from? Did they ask how it got here to this deserted place? Did they ask who made and provided all this bread? Did they wonder who had caught and cooked and brought enough fish to feed thousands of people?
Do you ever think about where your food comes from? I was at a picnic last Saturday for rescued greyhounds and their owners. It was held in a field on a hillside near Nowra. It was a lovely warm day more like Summer than the middle of winter. People shared their food with each other. As I ate an egg sandwich, I wondered whether this was an egg from hens that are caged in battery farms or an egg from a free-range farm? Have you ever thought about where your food comes from? Next time you are biting into a steak think about where it came from? On what farm was the animal raised? What food was it fed? Did she grow up roaming the fields eating green grass or did she spend her whole life being fed meal in a dirty confined feed lot?
All our food has a source. It comes from somewhere? It doesn’t come out of thin air or magically appear. There are costs in producing it and getting it to your plate. Sometimes it comes from round the corner perhaps from horticultural gardens on the fringes of cities and sometimes from overseas from the other side of the world. Food scarcity and food security are very big issues that the world is facing. For those who are concerned about the environment and global warming there are great concerns about food production. Each year thousands of acres of land in Australia no longer are arable due to salt leaching and soil erosion. Rain forests controlling the earth’s climate are logged, burned and turned into agricultural land to meet the world’s demand for beef and palm oil etc. Even Ireland with its ‘40 shades of green’ is becoming concerned because climate change is causing irregular rainfall and mini droughts thus effecting Summer food production. Polluted seas are increasingly becoming choked with rubbish and effecting marine life. Fish numbers are diminishing.
When the disciples raised the issue of hungry people far from home in a deserted place, Jesus replied, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." And he said, "Bring them here to me." Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
You give them something to eat – Jesus was concerned for the welfare of the people, but he said to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” We all know the miraculous story and how the food was multiplied. It causes people to ask how did Jesus make that happen? Who is this? That was then but today people still need to be fed. What might this story tell us today about feeding those who are hungry? I am very pleased that our congregation is involved in the recycling and redistribution of food through the Second Bite program and Coles Supermarkets, delivering food to people who are struggling without employment or access government allowances. As disciples of Jesus we are still doing what Jesus asked us to do, we are giving people something to eat. But we also have to be concerned about where the food comes from and the costs to the environment and the welfare of animals, poultry and fish in food production.
God gave us a beautiful world to care for and each other to love and care for. We can change our eating habits. For example, we can eat less meat or no meat. We can eat food only from sustainable sources and sources that ensure the best practices in animal welfare. Farmers can change the way they produce food and they can change the food they produce. They need government support to change so that they can maintain their livelihoods. Even city dwellers can find ways of producing food from creating or joining community gardens, growing more vegetables in their gardens or in pots on their verandas or on their window ledges.
Who is this God who has given us such a beautiful world? Who is this God who breathes life into every living thing? Who is this God who says to us - care for the world? Who is this God who says - you give them something to eat? Who are we who would destroy this world? Who are we that would treat animals without care? Who are we that would withhold food from the hungry? Let us take responsibility for the spiritual production of our food, which is means caring ethically and environmentally for soils, waters, air, animals, poultry, crops and people.
Dear Lord, We thank you for the blessings of food, water, shelter, family and well-being. As we enjoy healthy food, we will think of those who struggle to feed their families every day. You taught us to pray. As we say “Give us today our daily bread” we make that prayer also for the millions who go hungry every day. You fed the hungry. Inspire in us the commitment to follow your example, showing compassion in action and sharing what we have with those who have less. You cared for all. Help us to remember your command to love one another. Help us to see you in each of our brothers and sisters – especially those who are in need. You are the Bread of Life. Strengthen us as we work for justice in the world. Help us to stand in solidarity with the poorest of the poor. You came so that we could have life and have it to the full. Our prayer is that this might be true for all. We pray that communities and governments recognise our shared responsibility to be more just in sharing the world’s resources. Help us to care more deeply, live more simply and share more fully. Amen
(A Prayer for Food – Caritas Australia)
Photo: County Cork, Republic of Ireland (My name is Dubh which means black in Gaelic - Cattle are more than a number on a tag, each one is known by name by God and loved)
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.
The kingdom of heaven is like…
Most evenings, since the beginning of the Covid-19 Pandemic, I go for a walk with our dogs. We were walking home in the dark on Monday night and suddenly I got a waft of a wonderful familiar fragrance. I couldn’t see it, but I could smell it. It was Jasmine. Every time I have walked past since whether in darkness or daylight, I have stopped for a moment to breathe in the sweet fragrance of Jasmine.
In a society fixated with outward appearances, beauty, size, wealth and power, this week’s reading reminds all who ask, “What is the kingdom of heaven like?” that the kingdom of heaven/kingdom of God is something that is not easily recognisable or plain for all to see. It is like seeds sown in the dark earth; something that is at work without being noticed; something hidden from sight; something present but not always perceived. The kingdom of heaven may not be found in the things that we invest so much of our lives and energy into, nor may it be something that awaits us when we leave this life but in the parables Jesus is certainly telling us that the kingdom of heaven is here and now. So how do we turn our attention to the ways of the kingdom of heaven? How do we grasp the life of the kingdom?
When we see falling attendances at church services and churches closing and being sold, one could be tempted to conclude that the dream of the kingdom of heaven is over or it is just a fantasy. But the parables remind us of the hiddenness of the kingdom and encourage us, despite the outer appearances of a church that is shrinking, that the kingdom of heaven is still very much alive and growing. Seeds are still being sown, watered and nurtured and will produce an abundant harvest. The parables remind us not to equate the church with the kingdom of heaven and remind us to look outside the church for the signs of the kingdom at work and to look in unexpected places, even in small, dark and unimportant places by the world’s standards.
I listened to conversations with Sarah Kanowski on ABC Radio this week as she interviewed Rebecca McCabe, who recently left the Sisters of Mercy having been a nun for 26 years. Rebecca McCabe said that now that she is out of the life of the convent she has had more scope to explore her spirituality than she ever did. She said, "It was like there was a security there that held me, and I needed to step outside that to gain my own agency to redefine who I was and to re-evaluate — I suppose at the deepest level — what's meaningful in life." It seems strange to hear someone say that, yet sometimes we have to stop and search for that seed of life again and nurture it and be nurtured by it. How tragic it would be to spend our whole life in the life of the church and yet not grasp what the kingdom of heaven is about. How tragic to be consumed by power and wealth and beauty and numbers and miss the kingdom. How tragic to be driven by fear or busyness or ego or by the demands and expectations of others and not have the time to slow down, to stop and smell the flowers of the kingdom.
Prayer: Loving God, as I walk through this life may I smell the flowers of the fields as well as those that bloom in the garden. May I notice the flowers along my path; the flowers on the sunny hillsides and even the flowers in the dark valleys. May I notice those hard to find flowers in deserts and dry times in my life, and on the cold lonely winter days of my life, as well as in the Spring, Summer and the Autumn of my life. May I be aware of your kingdom all around me and may I give my attention to your ways and find your life and let your kingdom grow in me, within me and all around me. May I be a blessing sown in your garden, a sweet fragrance of life. Amen.
Photo: Flowers in the Burren, and Poulnabrone Dolmen, County Clare, Republic of Ireland
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.
“Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”
Nurturing Spiritual Intelligence
I am interested to know what you have learned over the last few months. What have you learned about yourself? What have your learned about the world we live in? What have you learned about God? How has this effected your life and the way you now live?
The disciples asked Jesus to explain another parable to them. By now we know that the parables are not to be interpreted literally. Biblical experts tell us that Matthew may be tailoring his Gospel for his readers and the contexts in which they are living. Matthew Gospel is said to be written for Christians from a Jewish background. Perhaps they were confused about the other Christians, those from Gentile backgrounds. Perhaps they were uncertain about who was and who was not a Christian. Perhaps they suspected the beliefs, practices and freedoms of these Gentile Christians. Were they really Christians? How could they tell? So, a parable about wheat and weeds and the eventual harvest is something to ponder upon. In Matthew 7:15,16a Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits…”
Whether in parables or explanations or other teaching, Jesus is moving us beyond an understanding of things with our mind to an understanding of the heart. Christianity is foremost a religion of the heart. By that I don’t mean that it is just an emotional religion but rather the ways of the kingdom of God are not always understood with the mind instead they
are cherished and nurtured in the heart.
There is an awakening of the heart, an awakening to the Spirit. Paul in Romans 8:12-25 reminds his readers that life is to be lived in the Spirit and not according to the flesh. The Spirit sets us free from slavery and the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. What does this all mean? How does one live in the Spirit rather than in the flesh? How does one live in the heart as well as in the mind? For those born of the Spirit how do we achieve spiritual transformation or how do we move from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity?
Today, we hear a lot about artificial intelligence and its use in the world. For example, thousands of people have been effected by what is known as Robodebt. Centrelink used a computer system to calculate how much individuals had been overpaid over a period of seven years. But with some missing information or incorrectly programmed into the system thousands of people were forced to pay back money leaving many in severe poverty and very distressed. The Commonwealth of Australia is now facing a class action claiming that unlawful debts were raised against hundreds of thousands of people. Machines are only as good as the intelligence they are programmed with by humans.
There are many types of intelligence in the world. For success in life and business we are told we need both intellectual intelligence and emotional intelligence. For Christians surely the most important kind of intelligence to seek is spiritual intelligence. We need to do all we can to nurture our spiritual intelligence for the sake of our own spiritual transformation and for the transformation of the world.
As the children of God, as seeds of the kingdom of God sown into this world, we need all the wisdom, all the spiritual intelligence we can find so that we may influence this world for good; that we may live lives of kindness and compassion,
of love and mercy and grace and justice and produce a rich harvest of life well
lived for all creation.
How have you been nurturing your spiritual intelligence? Spend some time slowly pondering a couple of verses in today's reading, allowing the Spirit to speak deeply to your heart.
For the wisdom that fashioned the universe
and can be read in the earth’s dark depths
and in heaven’s infinity of lights
thanks be to you, O God.
for the wisdom of teachers before me
and their words and imaginative seeing,
for the wisdom of those I have known
and their silence and humility of speech,
and for wisdom’s wellspring in my own soul
and in the soul of every human being
from which ancient truths and new realisations
thanks be to you.
Let wisdom unfold in my own heart and mind
and in the men and women of every nation.
Let us see the foundations for a new harmony
within us and between us,
the foundations for a recovered unity
with the earth and all its creatures,
for the ground of life is in you, O God,
the ground of all life is in you.
-from Sounds of the Eternal by John Philip Newell
Photo: Bandon River, Co. Cork, Republic of Ireland
Hearing and receiving the word of the kingdom in our heart
In life many of us want to live with certainty and security. This is often what drives and motivates us. But in the spiritual life certainty and security are never promised. Today we look at one of the parables of Jesus to hear what Jesus offers those who seek to follow him.
Have you noticed that there is quite a difference between the letters of Paul and the teaching of Jesus? Paul says it as he understands the truth to be; whereas with Jesus we are often left guessing and wondering and asking, “What is he really saying?” Those of us who approach Christianity as a religion seeking certainty tend to gravitate towards Paul and many church leaders point seekers towards Paul’s letters so that they can find the ‘truth’ for themselves. But why does Jesus not give us the facts so that we can see them clearly and speak the word so that we can understand the truth more easily? This is one of the mysteries of Christianity. I remember from my Bible College days in England in the 1980s the Principal of Cliff College always stressing that faith is caught not taught. Jesus’ parables invite us to step into another life, the kingdom of heaven, to open our hearts as well as our minds, to be blown by the wind of the Spirit, to let go and be carried along by the waters of the river of life.
Crowds of people were coming to hear what Jesus had to say. So many were coming that he had to get into a boat while they sat on the beach listening. But not everyone who heard his words understood what they meant, nor did they allow them to take root in their hearts.
Jesus begins the Parable of the Sower by saying, “Listen!” And he told them many things in parables, saying: "Listen! A sower went out to sow (Matthew 13:3). At the end of the parable Jesus concludes, “Let anyone with ears listen!" Later, Jesus explains the parable to his disciples and again Jesus begins by saying, "Hear then the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:18).” And in verse 19 and 20, Jesus tells the disciples what it is all about. It is about hearing the word of the kingdom and receiving it in our heart.
We may come to understand that in our minds but receiving the word of the kingdom in our hearts means opening our hearts and allowing the seeds to settle within them and to extend their roots deep within them. This is a process that we need to nurture through meditation, contemplation and prayer. For some who hear the word of the kingdom the evil one snatches the word away; for some the word does not develop roots deep into the heart and when trouble comes what is sown dies; for others the cares of the world and the lure of wealth take over and the word is rendered powerless, it chokes and dies. But the word of the kingdom sown in good soil (in the heart of one who hears and understands it) bears much fruit in the form of a well lived life.
The heart is not the place where we feel things, our emotional centre. Cynthia Bourgeault says the heart is ‘… an organ for the perception of divine purpose and beauty.’ Thomas Moore says, ‘... the heart is the ground of wisdom and the anchor of a spiritual existence.’ (cited from the foreword to ‘The Wisdom Way of Knowing’ by Cynthia Bourgeault).
Hearing and understanding the word of the kingdom in the heart is different to hearing and understanding it with the head. A religion of the head tends to see things as right and wrong, true and false, orthodox and unorthodox, truth or heresy, Christian or non-Christian, but a spirituality of the heart that is sown with the word of the kingdom is sown with seeds of grace and love, mercy and kindness, compassion and understanding and this heart is nurtured by the water of life, the wind of the Spirit and the light of the eternal kingdom of God and blossoms into a life that is lived to the full.
Eternal Light, shine into our hearts,
Eternal Goodness, deliver us from evil,
Eternal Power, be our support,
Eternal Wisdom, scatter the darkness of our ignorance,
Eternal Pity, have mercy upon us;
that with all our heart and mind and soul and strength
we may seek your face and be brought by your infinite mercy
to your holy presence; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(A prayer by Saint Alcuin of York -730-804)
Photo: Dock Leaf - Ireland (Flower or Weed or both?)
The secret of the kingdom of heaven
(Scripture reading Matthew 10-24-39)
Matthew 10:27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.
In the method of Bible study called Lectio Divina we read the bible reading a few times in silence, noting any words or phrases that catch our attention. Sometimes, I find a word or a phrase or verse that I can’t seem to get past.
I usually try to see it in the context of the rest of the passage and try to work out what it may mean from that context or from the whole context of Scripture. But sometimes I just wonder about the words themselves and if there is a deeper meaning that requires me to stop with these words and spend time
alone with them and let them speak to every part of my being. This happened this week when I read Matthew 10:27 – ‘What I say to you in the dark, tell in
the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the house tops.’
What do these words mean? What you hear in the dark, tell in the light –
What you hear whispered to you, shout it aloud to all from the house tops.
In Matthew 13:10-11 the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks to people in parables? Jesus answers, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” Sometimes I wish Jesus was a lot clearer about what he meant and I am sure that those who followed him, whether closely, as his disciples did, or the crowds of people who flocked after him, also wished that Jesus used a bit more ‘plain speaking.’
In this passage today Jesus says some things that sound outrageous: like bringing a sword to the earth not peace and about setting members of families against each other. Seemingly Jesus is using hyperbole. Jesus greatly exaggerates to make a point. He shocks our sensibilities, our common sense understandings, to make us think, to make us really think, and to contemplate what Jesus refers to as the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.
The secrets of the kingdom of heaven are things that become known to us,
not from the discourses of daily life saturated with the influences of racist
rhetoric and economically driven by the media or political power, but from the
dark places of silence and stillness, from whispers on the wind, from echoes in
our memories and from the Scriptures as they open mysteriously to us. These
deep things we learn about the kingdom of heaven (God) which can only be
earned in the dark are to be expressed to the whole world. We are to express
them through who we are and by our lives to witness to the secrets of God; to
witness to the secret of the life that is present in all of life. This place of
darkness, this place of whispers is where the kingdom of heaven breaks through
nto this our life. This place is found by those willing to lose their lives for Christ’s
sake. Those who take up their cross and follow Jesus will live because they die.
In the words of the Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi – ‘Die before you die.’
Die before you die so that you may find the life of the secret of the kingdom of heaven.
As light gives way to darkness
and the busyness of day concedes to night’s stillness.
As conscious thought surrenders to dreams
and our bodies long for rest
we pause to listen
for the beat of your Presence in all things
pulsing in the light of distant galaxies
sounding in the depths of our soul
vibrating in each vein of earth’s body.
One Sound as vast as the universe
one universe filled with Presence
one Life within every life.
In the darkness of night
in the stillness that surrounds us
in the unknown depths of our being
we pause to listen.
-from Praying with the Earth: A Prayer book for Peace by John Philip Newell
Photo: Rock Of cashel, County Tipperary, Republic of Ireland
Matthew 9:36 - When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
If what we see in the world does not elicit a compassionate response from us then we are just not seeing with the eyes of God, but more than that, we are not allowing God to move through us and out to the world; we are not letting love flow.
“In the name of God, the most gracious, the most compassionate…” is how many Islamic prayers begin. God is named as merciful and kind, gracious and compassionate. Cynthia Bourgeault in her book The Wisdom Way of Knowing says that in the Christian West we are accustomed to rattling off the statement “God is love” as if love were a preexistent absolute. She says love does not just flow out of God, like water flows from a Spring (God being the Spring and love being the water), but God is that love itself. God is not just loving, God is love itself. God the compassionate is compassion itself.
Cynthia Bourgeault goes on to say that our job, as humans, is to give
“birthing” and “body” to the names of God so that what is invisible
becomes visible. We are midwives of the Spirit. True compassion always
flows in loving concrete action.
Jesus sent his disciples out to heal and release, to free and liberate the lost sheep, people who were harassed and helpless, like sheep without
shepherd; that they may know the ‘divine aliveness.’
Prayer: God the most merciful and kind, God the most gracious and
compassionate,flow from us in endless love. May we, through our lives
give “birthing” and “body” to your holy name of love and that all the
world may know your divine aliveness. Amen.