Today we started reading from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, which is also known in some places as the Book of Sirach, named after its author Jesus ben Sirach. This book comes out of the ‘wisdom’ tradition that also gave us Proverbs and Job. Ecclesiasticus is a compilation written in Hebrew around 200BC and translated into Greek seventy years later by the author’s grandson. The grandson adds an introduction in which he commends his grandfather not only for studying the law, the prophets, and the other sacred writings, but also for trying to help other people understand them. The purpose of the Book of Ecclesiasticus is to teach us that “fear of the Lord” is the beginning and the end of human wisdom.
Some of us may have been raised with the notion of God as a stern judge keeping careful watch, waiting to pounce on our slightest indiscretion and punish us. Who wouldn’t fear such a God, powerful enough to make it very uncomfortable for his subjects? But how could this kind of servile fear lead to a genuine love for God? How could it “warm the heart, giving gladness and joy”?
Reverence for the God revealed in Scripture is not that of a slave living in fear of a master, and a brutal master at that. To ‘fear’ God is to be in awe of his power and his knowledge. To fear him is to bow before mysteries we can never fully understand, like the fact that God gave us freedom to choose, even though our free choices often have dire consequences for ourselves and for others. To fear God is to believe that he created each one of us – as the old catechism teaches us – ‘to know, love, and serve him in this life and to be happy with him forever in the next’.
God is so much greater than we could ever ask, and so much closer than we could ever imagine. God loves us so much that he became a man, he forgave our sins as he hung on the Cross, and he defeated the last enemy of humanity which is death.
This is not a God to cower from, ours is a God to love, a God to reverence, and a God to honour with our whole lives.
Today the Church invites us to think about God’s compassion and love; these are the models on which we are to base our entire Christian living. We are to be like God; compassionate, forgiving and loving, and this is possible only if we share Our Lord’s life-giving Spirit. We know exactly how we like others to treat us: we like them to be forgiving, merciful, generous and loving towards us. But how many of us could say that we treat others in that way?
You may have heard the story about the three young lads who went to confession. The first told the priest, “I threw Peanuts in the lake.” The second confessed the same crime. When the third boy came in, the priest said, “I suppose you threw peanuts in the lake too.” The boy answered, “No Father, I’m Peanuts.”
One of the greatest challenges in Our Lord’s teaching is to love those who dislike us, or even hate us. The gospel we’ve just heard about forgiving wrongdoers and loving our enemies, must rank among the most demanding ever preached by Our Lord. We all know that forgiving those we dislike is far from easy. Not to retaliate goes against the human grain, and it requires great strength and discipline of character to resist it. And even if we do manage to resist the temptation to strike back, we can’t help thinking about it, and chewing over it in our minds and hearts.
Today’s gospel reveals the ugly side of human nature, and it shows us up for what we are: people who are full of petty jealousies, hatreds and spites. A personal remark or a cutting word from a fellow Sister, a relative or a friend automatically sparks off a row and revenge is the first thing we want. We trade insult for injury and we end up out of sorts with one another, going so far as nursing hatreds, harbouring grudges, and not speaking to one another. Life is full of people with huge chips on their shoulders because they didn’t get their own way, or didn’t get the job they were after, or they weren’t invited to the wedding, or they were omitted from a vote of thanks. Some people carry these scars for years, refusing to let the wounds heal until the scores are evened out. And there is never any shortage of excuses for such behaviour. The world we live in has raised vengeance almost to the level of virtue, and it pours contempt on the weakling who doesn’t seek retaliation, but takes it on the chin, or allows the people he loves to be insulted.
Our Lord rejects this law of revenge, and insists on his followers repaying evil with kindness. He warns against giving in to bitterness and being obsessed with feelings of vindictiveness. It’s only as we get older, and with the experience hindsight brings, that we learn that hatred never cures a situation. When we grow to hate someone we give that person power and control over us, and this eats into our heart and destroys our peace of mind. Our Lord tells us that such attitudes are not in line with his teachings. People who behave in such a manner have not even begun to appreciate what Christianity is all about.
Our Lord’s message is one of forgiveness, pardon and generosity, urging us to love others irrespective of whether or not we are loved in return. The gospel today points to the necessity of nurturing a forgiving heart as a basic essential for loving other people, including our enemies. Do we even pray for those responsible for causing suffering, inflicting hardship, and bringing unhappiness into our lives?
When we offer pardon, and show forgiveness we rise to the level of Christ. The challenge is to decide whether hatred or love is the main motivating factor in our lives.
We must never forget that love of our neighbour is, and always has been, the distinguishing mark of a Christian.
Today we honour the memory of Blessed John of Fiesole, better known to the world as the celebrated renaissance artist Fra Angelico – whose paintings continue to inspire feelings of religious devotion in those who see them. Blessed John served in several leadership positions within the Order, and Pope Eugenius IV approached him about serving as Archbishop of Florence. Blessed John declined that offer, preferring a simpler life. He died in 1455. Beatified in 1983.
My favourite English poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “The sky is filled with stars invisible by day.” That’s very close to what is being described in today’s first reading. Faith is an invisible reality, and to possess it we need to go beyond the limits of our senses. So many of us tend to limit our faith because we can’t yet see, feel, or touch the promises God has for us. We confine God to doing only what is safe for us, and by doing so, we put him in a box.
It’s not always easy to live a faith-filled life, especially when the world is shouting in our ears. We are constantly bombarded with the message that this life is limited to what we can see. But when we quiet our hearts enough to hear God’s still, small voice, we discover that the exact opposite is true. Following the world leads to emptiness, but giving our hearts to God and trying our best to trust in him is the most liberating thing we can do.
We have the proof of this in God’s word to us today. We have the examples of Noah and Abraham, who hoped in God’s plan and were not disappointed. Above all, we can look to Our Lord as the prime example of faith. His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane reveals his complete abandonment to God: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Because Our Lord followed his Father’s will all the way to the Cross, he won our salvation and opened the way for us to live in confident faith.
We shouldn’t think that we are any different from Abraham, Abel, Enoch, or Noah. If we aim high in faith, then we will find the power to move mountains. God has so much in store for us. It may mean being stretched a bit; it may mean stepping out of our usual routines—but God wants to use us to reveal his power and love. We shouldn’t let fear or timidity keep us from our inheritance. We need only believe, step out in faith, and watch the miracles flow.
The story of the Tower of Babel is a dramatic presentation of the most basic form of all sin, which is a wish to be independent of God. To do our own thing, and to heck with anyone else who doesn’t agree with me. It’s the same sin as the ‘original sin’ of Adam and Eve. It’s a wish to be independent of God and authority and simply to follow our own nose wherever it may lead us. The men who planned the tower wanted to make a name for themselves by building a structure that would reach into the sky. They wanted to make a heaven for themselves without God.
The result, of course, was disastrous and they brought confusion and disunity upon themselves. And from this confusion and disunity, as the sad tale of history reveals to this very day, comes conflict, dissension, and war. Our Lord came to reverse that trend. He preached a message which revealed a formula for happiness and harmony; Our Lord taught that we must forget ourselves and our selfishness, and our arrogance. In complete unselfishness, he gave his life on the Cross and he gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, a Spirit of unity and love. With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we see the change begin to take place. The efforts of humanity to build the Tower of Babel ended in a confusion of the languages of the whole world. The Spirit at Pentecost moved people of many languages to unite in a single voice in praise of God.
What God wants from us is a spirit of harmony and mutual co-operation. And because we are all basically selfish, this requires a degree of heroic unselfishness and a willingness to take up our cross with Our Lord as we surrender our own interests for the sake of others, and in our own case, the sake of the community. This is the only way to happiness and harmony. It may even be the right way to begin heaven here on earth.
God’s instruction to Noah to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” is an invitation for all humanity to cooperate with God in the ongoing creation of the world. We are not to be idle bystanders simply watching the mystery of the kingdom of God unfold. As Christians, we help to make that kingdom a reality. God wants us to make this world reflect the glory of the world to come—so we have definitely got our work cut out for us.
Building the kingdom is no easy job. Every day, we encounter some of the terrible realities that are part and parcel of a fallen world; I could list them all, but we’d be here all day. Part of filling the earth means dirtying ourselves a bit as we address these issues. We can’t build a just and fair society simply by wishing it could be so, we must work for the common good.
Even though we all have a role to play in the conversion of our society, we are not all called to the front line of the battle against injustice and inequality. Even the hermit, or the person sick in bed, who never, or rarely, sets foot outside is a co-creator with God. Whenever we try to fulfill the commandment of love, we build up the kingdom of God. Whenever we nurture those we know and love so that they become light and salt to the world; when we share the good news of the Gospel with our neighbours and strangers; and when we pray for the needs of our brothers and sisters. If offered to God, even our most insignificant actions can reveal his kingdom.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we answer God’s invitation to cooperate with him in the building up of his kingdom, by using the unique gifts and talents he has given us. In this way, we can all make this world better. That was God’s vision when he first created us, and it’s still his vision today. Let’s believe that his power, working in us, can accomplish anything.
You may have seen photos in the newspaper of the broken dam in California which shows us how water is an awesome and powerful element. We need only think of the raging waters of a flood to appreciate its devastating force. In the scriptures control over water was considered a sign of divinity. God alone could overcome the force of water and bring peace to its turbulence. Water is the central symbol in the story about Noah, but two other symbols are also at work. They are the dove and the olive branch, which have long been seen as signs of peace. They were both a sign to Noah that God by his almighty power had brought the waters under control and had restored peace to the world.
When Noah emerged from the ark, the first thing he did was to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God. He realised that it was God who had granted peace to him and his family. In our own faith, we have more than symbols of peace. We have Our Lord himself, and he is the one who has overcome the turbulent waters of sin which alone can destroy us. The peace of mind and heart which he grants us are drawn from the conviction that we are right with God, that through his death and resurrection he has set us free from the bondage of sin and reconciled us with the Father. We now have nothing to fear. As members of God’s household, we are safe and secure. Anxiety need not hold any grip on us.
During the Mass, we pray that God may grant us peace, a peace which comes from our union with Christ in the Eucharist. But peace is something to be shared. In mutual peace, we all participate in the one body and blood of Christ, who is the cause of peace and unity in our lives.