16th Sunday of Ordinary time

This Sunday’s Gospel from St Luke (10: 38 – 42) recalls for us the story of Jesus visit to the house of Martha and Mary. Some no doubt will immediately take the line that Martha was the active type and Mary the passive or contemplative type, and that Jesus is simply affirming the importance of both and even the priority of devotion to him.

That devotion is undoubtedly part of the importance of the story.

However, there is more in the story; a brave preacher may offer a reflection on rule-flouting!

Far more obvious to any first-century reader, and to many readers in Turkey, the Middle East and many other parts of the world to this day would be the fact that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet within the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women. This, I am pretty sure, is what really bothered Martha; no doubt she was cross at being left to do all the work, but the real problem behind that was that Mary had cut clean across one of the most basic social conventions. It is as though, in today’s world, you were to invite me to stay in your house and, when it came to go to bed, I was to put up a camp bed in your bedroom. We have our own clear but unstated rules about whose space is which; so, did they. And Mary has just flouted them. And Jesus declares that she is right to do so. She is ‘sitting at his feet’; a phrase which doesn’t mean what it would mean today, the adoring student gazing up in admiration and love at the wonderful teacher. To sit at the teacher’s feet is a way of saying you are being a student, picking up the teacher’s wisdom and learning; and in that very practical world you wouldn’t do this just for the sake of informing your own mind and heart, but in order to be a teacher, a rabbi, yourself. A position entirely unthinkable for a woman in the social order of Jesus’ time.

Each of these preaching stances is valid.

I am going to suggest a third, and it is imaged for me in the painting I have chosen by the Dutch artist (1632 – 1675). Vermeer is best known, surely, for his painting titled “Girl with the Blue Earring”, and his works are among the greatest treasures in the world’s finest museums. Vermeer began his career in the early 1650s and one of his earliest works is a large-scale biblical scene with the title “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”.  The artwork dates from 1654 and hangs in the National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland.


Vermeer’s representation of the theme is focused totally on the three figures. Christ, because of his gesture and the soft glow that radiates from his head, is the dominant figure. Martha leans over to hear his words while Mary sits by his feet, her head resting on her hand.

There is an intimacy of persons in the scene; they obviously know each other well; the relaxed pose of Jesus and his comfort around women is evident. This may well be a lesson for us men, and especially clergy, today, namely to grow in our relationship with women from a position of equality. In Vermeer’s painting, the relaxed posture of Jesus only makes sense because of the presence of Martha and Mary. Jesus is bodily present to each of them. All three are in the same room, and in a sense occupy the same space in an acknowledging and relaxed way. There does not appear to be any competition for superiority in their stance.

Also, Vermeer has both women in a poise of listening – we sometimes have a busy Martha, running around in the kitchen with pots clanging and the fire-spitting in the range!

There is, too, a small detail, within the text, that, at times we can overlook, “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.” (10:38). Did you spot it? ‘Welcomed him into her home’ – the home belonged to Martha! Our growing into a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus begins with our ‘welcoming [him] into our home’!

Sunday 15th of Ordinary Time

“The Good Samaritan,” together with the story of the Prodigal Son,  may well be the most-read stories/parables Jesus ever told.

It is somewhat intriguing that for all their drama, both parables are recalled only by the author of the Gospel of Luke!

We are familiar enough with the story of the Good Samaritan; a man is travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho, is accosted by robbers, who strip, beat him, and leave him for dead. A priest and Levite are travelling the same road, come to the spot where the man lay and “passed by on the other side” (vv. 31, 32). A Samaritan, also travelling the same road, comes upon the man, and as the text says, “was moved with pity”, and the rest as they say ‘is history’.

What would have leapt out at the first hearers of this story was that Jesus subverted his hearers’ expectations by explaining that it was a Samaritan who helped the man.

Samaritans were known as the ones who would rob Jews on this road as they went “up” to Jerusalem from Jericho for their holy days. The listeners would have not only expected a Samaritan to be unsympathetic to the plight of the victim, but they would also have expected the Samaritan to be the perpetrator!

The Dutch impressionist Vincent Van Gogh painted this Gospel scene.

On May 8, 1889, exhausted, ill, and out of control, Vincent Van Gogh committed himself to St Paul’s psychiatric asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, a small hamlet in the south of France.

A former monastery, the sanatorium was located in an area of cornfields, vineyards and olive trees.

There Van Gogh was allowed two small adjoining cells with barred windows.

One room he used as his bedroom, and the other was his tiny studio.

While there, Van Gogh not only painted the surrounding area and the interior of the asylum, but he also copied paintings and drawings by other artists, making those paintings his own through modifications he made to the painting’s composition, the colours and of course, the brush strokes.

Van Gogh copied and modified Delacroix’s painting of The Good Samaritan.

When Van Gogh was admitted to the sanatorium he had become so difficult, so sick that the townspeople of Arles, where he had been living and painting had given him the name “the red-headed madman.”

Take a look at the ‘good Samaritan’ struggling to lift the wounded man onto his mount – looks very much like “the red-headed madman” from Arles!

And many commentators agree it is!

Van Gogh has assumed the role of the good Samaritan – and when you read a comprehensive biography of Van Gogh, this helping of the downtrodden is not unusual.

Van Gogh had an extraordinary compassionate side to his person.

“The word compassion literally means ‘to suffer with”.

Despite his reputation for madness, Vincent Van Gogh was a compassionate and faith-filled man.

While involved in missionary work among the impoverished population of the Borinage, a coal-mining region in southwestern Belgium.

There, in the winter of 1879–80, he experienced the first great spiritual crisis of his life.

Living among the poor, he gave away all his worldly goods in an impassioned moment; he was thereupon dismissed by church authorities for a too-literal interpretation of Christian teaching.

Many of us have our favourite Gospel story – what does this story say about me?

Am I somewhere there?

Also, we may well have a story which is our least favourite – equally, we do well to ask, does this particular story expose a part of who I am that I would prefer to remain hidden?


14th Sunday Ordinary time

In this Sunday’s First Reading there is the most beautiful imagery offered to us by the prophet Isaiah, namely, the image of the nursing mother! Isaiah writes:

“ Thus says the LORD:
Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her,
all you who love her;
exult, exult with her,
all you who were mourning over her!
Oh, that you may suck fully
of the milk of her comfort,
that you may nurse with delight
at her abundant breasts!
For thus says the LORD:
Lo, I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent.
As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms,
and fondled in her lap;
as a mother comforts her child,
so will I comfort you;
in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort” ( Is. 66: 10 -14c)

And, it is ‘the Lord’ who is offering us this image! Sit quietly with the images being offered, “that you may suck fully of the milk of comfort”; “that you may nurse with delight at her abundant breasts”; “as nurslings you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap”; “as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”

They are warm cuddly, nurturing, nourishing, secure images!

For most of us (and indeed I need acknowledge there are exceptions with what is known as latching on and/or sucking)), our first drink outside of the womb was from our mother’s breast – we did indeed ‘suck fully of the milk of comfort’, and nobody taught us! We were placed to our mother’s breast and we sucked! Is there something intuitive in the baby that has them suck?

The baby’s ‘latch’ is really the key to the whole process. A good latch will mean that the baby’s mouth, tongue and body as well as the mother’s nipple and breast are in the right position. The baby will need to open their mouth wide enough to allow the tongue to protrude forward, past the gum ridge and then take a big mouthful of the breast. Babies do not nipple feed, they breastfeed, which means that they need to have more than just the tip of the nipple in their mouth to transfer milk effectively. The baby’s tongue, lips and cheeks will form a seal on their mother’s breast tissue and their lips should be flanged outward.

I have been musing (trouble I know!), what a beautiful image for our relationship with our God, to place ourselves on the breast of our God and we will indeed suck and be nourished. Maybe we have become so sophisticated, so mature, so adult, that we have lost the ability to suck. Such a primal activity!

Might the essence of prayer be in fact ‘sucking on the breast’ of our God? I am placed on the breast of my God, and I will suck immediately!

Of the many books I own and have read concerning prayer, I have never known one to use the Isaiah image of “ sucking fully of the milk of comfort”. They are all about the right place, the right time, the right posture, the right breathing!  Have we, in our sophistication lost the sense of when to feed? The baby knows intuitively when it is feeding time, namely when it is hungry!

Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416) is known to us almost only through her book, The Revelations of Divine Love, which is widely acknowledged as one of the great classics of the spiritual life. She is thought to have been the first woman to write a book in English which has survived. In this book she writes, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother” , and again, “when [a child] is hurt or frightened it runs to its mother for help as fast as it can; and [God] wants us to do the same, like a humble child, saying, “My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my dearest Mother, take pity on me”‘ (trans. by Elizabeth Spearing, Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love (London: Penguin 1998),  p. 144).

Am I hungry for “the milk of comfort” from Mother God?

13th Sunday Ordinary Time

Sister Act is a 1992 American comedy film. It stars Whoopi Goldberg as Deloris, a Lounge singer forced to join a convent after being placed in a witness protection programme.

She is brought to Saint Katherine’s Convent in Saint Katherine’s Parish, in a run-down neighbourhood in San Francisco. Deloris initially objects, then relents.

The head nun of St. Katherine’s,” Reverend Mother” “, also objects to taking Deloris in but Monsignor O’Hara, the local parish priest, convinces her to go along with it as the police will pay the failing convent a good sum of money to do so.

Disguised as “Sister Mary Clarence”, Deloris initially has difficulty dealing with the rigid and simple convent life but befriends the other nuns, (Sister Mary Patrick, the elderly Sister Mary Lazarus, and the novice Sister Mary Robert).

One night, after a poorly attended Sunday Mass, with a lacklustre performance from the convent choir, led by Mary Lazarus, Deloris sneaks out to a bar, followed by Mary Patrick and Mary Robert.

They are caught by the Reverend Mother, who orders Deloris join the struggling choir. With her singing experience, Deloris is elected their director and transforms the choir.

One of the songs sung by the choir to a full Church including dignitaries is a song with the title, “I will follow Him”.

One of the verses in the song reads:

“We will follow him
Follow him where ever he may go
There isn’t an ocean too deep
A mountain so high it can keep
Keep us away, away from his love.”

This Sunday’s Gospel (Lk. 9: 51 – 62) has the same announcement, “Someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’”