17th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 'What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?'(Lk 11:11,12)
I love that illustrative question of Jesus, but I am also amazed at my own inner reply to it. Presumably we are meant to respond with incredulity, only alas, you and I know far too many who would do exactly as Jesus suggests! The story of many monarchies and powerful dynastic disputes are littered with 'parents' giving 'children' metaphorical scorpions and poisonous snakes! We can see it echoed in the ruthless behaviour of the powerful, in business corporations and corrupt systems, trampling on the poor and needy. Oh no, this isn't fanciful imagery, I'm sure Jesus knew exactly what he was doing by asking such a question, he's under no illusion about our capacity for wickedness, mendacity and deceit.
Maybe you think this is a bit far fetched? We can place the context into our own lives; have you for instance ever been involved in a family or workplace dispute which turned nasty, where the poison of malice and lies were used to denigrate or divide people, or amongst your friends or neighbours, where suddenly people found themselves ostracised for no other reason than a gossipy rumour? I certainly have, and I am sure each of you can point to something similar. Human nature can be capricious and brutish, it can be nasty and deceitful, as well as loving and forgiving, and we need to be very alert to this. Why?
Jesus give us clues when he says that even the wicked know how to look after their own, that example of selfish, dogged, stubborn persistence, trampling on others feelings and lives may actually get us what we want, but not earn us any moral brownie points. He's certainly under no illusions as to the capacity of people to behave badly. Yet there is a melancholy sadness in all this, not for Jesus, but for ourselves, we do behave like spoilt brats at times, we carry on demanding things for ourselves, often ignoring what is really necessary, and we fail to see that bad behaviour and wrong attitudes have an impact, for it slowly poisons the inner self, the heart and soul.
Now I don't want to find myself as somebody who has little compassion, who continually puts my needs above others, do you? I look for examples of really good people to give me direction, people who I know are true and loving, even if I am not. Secretly I weep for what we as humans have and are doing to each other and our world. Here is a small example, I find it incomprehensible that good, open Catholics rail at the Pope for wanting to open the Church to the Spirit of the `Beatitudes, placing concern for our planet and life at the heart of ministry and mission. People wrote ( and write) awful things about Pope Francis because he challenges our preconceptions, for instance he wanted to change the words in the Lords prayer in the Italian translation, 'Lead us not into temptation' to 'do not let us fall into temptation', which is more like some of the Semitic variations of that phrase who do use the word 'fall'.
This was for him a means of deepening our engagement with it. His critics launched into attack without seeing what he meant, not actually taking the trouble to examine the early varieties of that ancient prayer text by themselves and discovering there are a number of nuances. We have one of the better translations here in Sunday's Gospel; a translation I find moving;
' Give us each day our daily bread*
and forgive us our sins
for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us,
and do not subject us to the final test."(Lk 11:3,4)
There's the rub, all of us will have to face that final test, a test of our integrity, inner love and openness to merciful redemption, we pray we will not fall!
But there is a hidden joy here too. The story of Abraham asking from God mercy for all who are innocent, will God be sparing all because of the constancy and fidelity to truth and justice of a small group amongst them? Hearing the yes; 'God replied, "For the sake of those ten, I will not destroy it."'(Gn 18:32), and then Abraham wanting to see how far he could push God, (what are the limits of God's patient, merciful, love?) finds he dare not push things too far, I think he dare not ask this question:
"Please, let not my Lord grow angry if I speak up this last time.
What if there is only one there?"
Well we can ask it and get this reply: 'I have forgiven because of the ONE', that is Christ whose death and resurrection defeats sin and death! So there is real joy at the heart of things, but I am glad we tend to forget about it, because we need to play our part, be a real active people of the New Covenant and Good News who love our world and its creatures, who will try to hand on to the future a world blessed and better, healed from our poisons and destructiveness. It's a real challenge and should make us all sit up straight; we are all in this together. We will not hand over a scorpion instead of an egg!
St Seraphim of Sarov
"Oh, if you only knew what joy, what sweetness awaits a righteous soul in Heaven! You would decide in this mortal life to bear any sorrows, persecutions and slander with gratitude. If this very cell of ours was filled with worms, and these worms were to eat our flesh for our entire life on earth, we should agree to it with total desire, in order not to lose, by any chance, that heavenly joy which God has prepared for those who love Him."
From a Commentary by Gregory of Nyssa on the Lord's Prayer
Lead Us Not Into Temptation
What then does this teaching of the prayer commend to us? To detach ourselves from the affairs of this world, because "the whole world is in the power of the Evil One" (I jn 5:19). Whoever therefore wants to be removed from the Evil One must necessarily withdraw from the world. For temptation has no handle on the soul except by way of enticing the more covetous through worldly preoccupation, as if through bait on the hook of evil.
Let me make this meaning perhaps clearer by other examples. A sea storm is often dangerous, but never to those who live far from it. Fire is destructive, but only to the material it grasps. War is terrible, but only for those arrayed for battle. Whoever wants to escape the evil misfortunes of war prays not to be entangled in it. Whoever fears fire trusts not to be caught in it. The one who shudders at the sight of the sea hopes not to have to make a voyage. So also, those who fear the assault of the Evil One pray not to come under his influence. As we have said, according to the Lord, the world is in the power of the Evil One. The causes of temptations arise from worldly preoccupations. Therefore we who pray to be delivered from the Evil One do well to entreat to be removed from temptations. For no one would swallow the hook, if they did not first covet to grasp the bait.
But let us stand and say to God: "Lead us not into temptation," that is, into the evils of daily life, but deliver us from the Evil One" who possesses power over this world. May we then be delivered from the evil one by the grace of Christ, to whom belongs the power and the glory, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.
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