14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
I first heard the story in primary school, and I must confess that over the years has become a favoured opening when it was my turn to speak to youngsters. For me it resonates strongly of what Jesus is trying to say to his disciples during his ministry and to us today in the Gospel reading.
Set somewhere in Southern Europe towards the end of the Second World War, the scene opens with half a dozen allied soldiers patrolling amidst ruins and smouldering ambers, the result of a carpet bombing raid on a large industrial centre. Slow and alert, they came across the remains of what must have been a church, now reduced to a mound of rubble propping up a dangerously balanced shard of concrete and stone, a skeleton-like figure with arms reaching up in despair into an empty sky.
In the midst of the eeriness of the scene, a coloured object laid abandoned, a silent reminder of the price of war: total destruction and desecration of life. A few steps forward and one of the soldiers in full armour seemed to hesitate. He looked back before retracing his steps towards the apparently amorphous coloured object and straining, he lifted it up in an unsteady upright position. It was a statue, an almost life-size statue of Jesus, relatively unscathed, except for what would have been two extended hands. These had been blown off. It was then that the mood changed. As if possessed by some frantic urgency, the soldier began to dig through the rubble with his bare hands, searching for those missing hands, one would think. What followed however was both surprising and challenging. No, he was not looking for the hands, instead he dragged out a piece of cardboard lying dirty and tattered next to the statue, and with an improvised writing implement in the form of a piece of charcoal, complements of a burnt out piece of timber, he began to write heavy handed on the unusual poster. Undoing one of his long boot laces and running it through a rough hole punctured in the cardboard, he now had a rough and ready poster which he hung over the handless statue. It read: Now I have no hands but yours!
Last week the Word of God invited us to look at faith as unconditional trust in God leading the way to the future of our own personal Jerusalem’s. However a fundamentalist understanding of such “abandonment” can lead to a spirituality of unhealthy passivity, whereby faith becomes an exclusive and private business between God and me alone, without any reference to the world in which we live and where God is at play. This dichotomy that we hear propounded loudly these very days is the very antithesis of the Gospel, where Jesus is constantly on the move, reaching out in word and deed in order to reveal the active, living and life-giving presence of God in the life of everyone, everywhere, and at all times. Jesus is the man for others, where the relationship with God can only be realized and lived through relationship and life-giving involvement to others.
However, his earthly activity covers a relatively short span of time, and so his active mission to others becomes at the same time an ongoing catechesis for his disciples. The journey to Jerusalem which he resolutely undertook, as we heard last Sunday, forms the backdrop to Luke’s narrative, and throughout this journey Jesus is as much at pain “to bring Good News to the poor” as to instruct his disciples to do the same in his name. Repeatedly he reminds them that they are to be his witnesses to the world, and they too are meant to do what he did and play their part in the establishment of the Kingdom. Clearly Jesus enjoins to his disciples that they are to be his hands and feet to the whole world, particularly when he will no longer be with them.
The same message is addressed also to us in today’s gospel. Our protestation of faith inevitably carries the injunction to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our world, especially in the midst of destruction and brokenness as the old soldier pointed out. Our relationship with God can only be discovered, lived, and expressed through our relationship to the real world hemming us in on every side. The apostle James understood it very soon when he wrote to his fledging and struggling Christian community that “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). The image of the coin comes to mind whereby the value of a coin lies in the fact that it bears two diverse sides, each with its own individuality and uniqueness, but one in the unity they represent. If, for whatever reason, one side is destroyed, missing or just a copy of the other, all we have is a piece of metal without identity or value. Faith is authentic and life-giving precisely through the interplay of the two distinct dimensions: relationship with God through abandonment and relationship to the world in committed love to sisters and brothers. There is no other way to reach God – a God who relies on our hands and feet, personalities and culture to enter and impregnate the world with life-transforming Good News.
However, to achieve this unity and to be truly God’s hands for the Kingdom is not easy, and Jesus realistically makes the point in terms of “lambs among wolves”. Like the soldier of our original story, we need to be alert to a unique God-presence in a world crowded in by all types of stifling and personal concerns, anxiety and pressures. We need to have the courage to dig deeply into our own brokenness and there find the strength to heal the brokenness of others. We need to see beauty and possibility in the midst of destruction. We need the wisdom to proclaim richness where there is poverty and abandonment. We need to uphold the goodness hidden in frailty and embodied in that unique masterpiece that is each person we encounter on our life journey. But most of all we need trust! Last week Jesus left no doubt that the only way to follow him is to abandon ourselves in trust and hope to him who is leading us. Today we are clearly told that the same attitude pertains inevitably to the disciple called to lead others into following Jesus. The disciple commits his/her life in full trust to God and to one’s brothers and sisters – “no purse, no haversack, no sandals”, no security beyond God and dependence on those around him/her. In the words of a spiritual writer called Henri Nouwen, the disciple is “the wounded healer”.
With Francis of Assisi let us pray the prayer of the disciple, so that we too who believe in the leading and healing love of our God, may be people of trust in God and in each other, and in turn lead another to trust and love of God.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.