Monday, June 9, 2008

Transforming Grace - the Power of His Love


"At that time: Jesus saw a man called
Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, 'Follow me.' And he rose and followed him. And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples.

"And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, 'Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?'

"But when he heard it, he said, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice." For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.'” (Matthew 9:9-13)

I have often thought about Jesus gathering his original twelve apostles. The Gospel writers are at pains to express the power, the urgency, and the compelling nature of the Master's call, as well as the total commitment he demanded. And we are told that they "left their nets" or their other occupations in response to that call.

As with most passages of Scripture, it's not a bad idea to use our imaginations a little. Maybe Jesus DID just burst in upon Matthew, unknown and unannounced. I have a hunch that for Matthew, one of the "scum" of the Jewish community who worked for the occupying Romans, and who may well have become wealthy by bumping up the surcharge on the taxes people had to pay (as he was legally entitled to do) this was part of a longer story.

Had Matthew been on the edge of the crowd as Jesus taught and healed, his curiosity giving way to a deep longing to be right with God? After all, Jesus had just been teaching about forgiveness and new beginnings.

Wealthy but despised, and isolated within his own society . . . Poor Matthew! Was his heart warmed by what he had seen and heard? Perhaps he then trudged back to his desk thinking he had become such a sinner and was so unworthy that there was no way God could possibly love him, or forgive him?

Poverty is hard. When we are desperately poor we spend all our energy just staying alive. Apart from the struggle to make ends meet, there is a high degree of social alienation and the risk of falling victim to those who prey on the powerless. But when we are poor we also tend to know our need for God, and many reach out to him intuitively in all sorts of different ways.

To be not so poor can be much harder. When, like most people in our society, we are "not poor but not rich", our striving to keep afloat and achieve goals and targets in family and business life can keep us so occupied that we never really have time to think deeply about what it is all for. We are "too busy" to notice the aching emptiness within. I recently read of a survey which indicated that just about everyone, whatever their present income, thinks they would be happy if that income increased by 40%. How naive!

To be rich can be hardest of all. Did you know that becoming fabulously wealthy - or in other respects reaching our goals - is actually the most dangerous thing that can happen to us? Look at the number of people whose lives have been ruined by winning millions in the lotto draw! In fact, most priests and doctors will confirm the high proportion of suicides from among the wealthy and famous who we think should be living charmed lives.

Why is that so?

It is clear that working hard to attain goals provides us with a certain momentum and sense of purpose. But to eventually achieve those goals and then discover that great haunting emptiness within - that our career, our hard work, the nervous energy we have expended, and the sacrifices we have made over the years simply have not produced the happiness and sense of completion we imagined they would - that is tragic. That discovery is something many people cannot cope with.

Do you think that Matthew is like that - a wealthy man who had sacrificed a lot to achieve his goals, including the respect of his countrymen, and who now knows that - his possessions notwithstanding - he is empty within? Not just empty, but in chronic need of forgiveness and healing?

It is significant that the Gospel reading shows Jesus reclining at table with "tax collectors and sinners" who were - according to his own words - in need of healing.

Jesus is the "Friend of sinners."

This is one of the things that various religious leaders who clashed with Jesus just couldn't understand. It's not that Jesus approved of the things that his sinful friends had done. But he loved them. Because he loved them he wanted to spend time with them. Through his love for them he wanted to heal them. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Sometimes we become the kind of people we are because we have been crushed and broken in spirit, often way back in childhood. I don't know if you have noticed, but there's no shortage of people wanting to crush us, to pull us down, to make us feel worthless. But Jesus comes to turn things around. Sure, he wants us to turn to him and face up to our own responsibility for what we have done with our lives . . . but he doesn't start there. First he comes alongside us in love, he gains our confidence, and in the context of a growing friendship, a deepening love, he begins his work of restoration and healing if we will let him.

The Master once said to his disciples, "As the Father sent me, so I send you." (John 20:21) That means that his Church (which is now his "body" in the world) is to continue the kind of healing ministry he had with people. Unfortunately, the Church - especially the faithful, conservative and robustly Catholic and Scriptural part of it (the part I love!) - so often gives the impression of being more like those judgmental prim and proper religious leaders of Jesus' day who imagine that they are better than everyone else. In the Gospels his harshest words are reserved for them!

The big challenge for those of us who believe that we proclaim the Faith Once Delivered to the Saints against the fuzzy destructive relativism of our day, is to be Christlike in our ministry with all whose lives are miserable, tangled and chaotic. Jesus is still the "Friend of sinners." He is my Friend and yours. But do we reach out in love to those he loves who are yet to discover him for themselves? He is full of love for all the hurting, wounded errant children of God, including those our society rejects, and especially those who are responsible for the mess they have made out of their lives. He is still loving the world back to himself, and he wants us to help those we know to respond to his love.

It works! Whose name do you see on page one of the New Testament? Matthew!


Today in the Church's Calendar we celebrate the life and ministry of St Ephrem the Deacon (sometimes spelt "Ephraem"). He was born around 306 AD at Nisbis in the Roman province of Syria, near present-day Edessa, Turkey, not far from the border of Iraq.
He became a disciple of St. James, Bishop of Nisibis, and probably accompanied him to the Council of Nicea in 325.
When Nisibis was conquered by the Persians in 363, Ephrem fled to a remote cave in Edessa where he did most of his writing. He visited St Basil at Caesarea in 370.

St Ephrem wrote many works to teach the Gospel and the Faith. He also strongly combated the ideas of the Arians and Gnostics. As a missionary, he wanted to help people remember what he taught them, so he often composed poems and songs which the people would sing in the fields while they worked and at home. A number of his poems became part of the liturgy of the Syrian Church. St Ephrem, in fact, became known as the Lyre of the Holy Spirit. His profound love of the Scriptures permeated all his works.

St Ephrem died in 373 A.D.
He was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1920.

Go HERE to read an article by
Mary C. Sheridan: St Ephrem "Faith Adoring the Mystery."

Here is one of St Ephrem's most beautiful and best known passages. It is from his SERMON ON THE DEATH OF CHRIST.

"Death trampled our Lord underfoot, but he in his turn treated death as a highroad for his own feet. He submitted to it, enduring it willingly, because by this means he would be able to destroy death in spite of itself. Death had its own way when our Lord went out from Jerusalem carrying his cross; but when, by a loud cry from that cross, he summoned the dead from the underworld, death was powerless to prevent it.

"Death slew him by means of the body which he had assumed, but that same body proved to be the weapon with which he conquered death. Concealed beneath the cloak of his manhood, his godhead engaged death in combat; but in slaying our Lord, death itself was slain. It was able to kill natural life, but was itself killed by the life that is above the nature of man.

"Death could not devour our Lord unless he possessed a body, neither could hell swallow him up unless he bore our flesh; and so he came in search of a chariot in which to ride to the underworld. This chariot was the body which he received from the Virgin; in it he invaded death’s fortress, broke open its strong room and scattered all its treasures.

"At length he came upon Eve, the mother of all the li
ving. She was the vineyard whose enclosure her own hands had enabled death to violate, so that she could taste its fruit; thus the mother of all the living became the source of death for every living creature. But in her stead Mary grew up, a new vine in place of the old. Christ, the new life, dwelt within her. When death, with its customary impudence, came foraging for her mortal fruit, it encountered its own destruction in the hidden life which that fruit contained. All unsuspecting, it swallowed him up, and in so doing, released life itself and set free a multitude of men.

"He who was also the carpenter’s glorious son set up his cross above death’s all consuming jaws, and led the human race into the dwelling place of life. Since a tree had brought about the downfall of mankind, it was upon a tree that mankind crossed over to the realm of life. Bitter was the
branch that had once been grafted upon that ancient tree, but sweet the young shoot that has now been grafted in, the shoot in which we are meant to recognize the Lord whom no creature can resist.

"We give glory to you, Lord, who raised up your cross to span the jaws of death like a bridge, by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living. We give glory to you who put on the body of a single mortal man, and made it the source of immortality for every other mortal man. You are incontestably alive. Your murderers sowed your body in the earth as farmers sow grain, but it sprang up and yielded an abundant harvest of men raised from the dead.

"Come then, my brothers and sisters, let us offer our Lord the great and all-embracing sacrifice of o
ur love, pouring out our treasury of hymns and prayers before him who offered his cross in sacrifice to God for the enrichment of us all."


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