Category Archives: Tony van Vuuren

HOLY TRINITY SUNDAY

CYCLE B
27th MAY 2018
Rev Tony van Vuuren

The feast of The Holy Trinity encourages us to reflect on the mystery of God’s own life, as he has revealed it to us, and to reflect on how our ultimate vocation is to share his life.

The doctrine of the Trinity though reminds us that there’s always a part of God that remains mysterious and incomprehensible to us. Discussing this perplexing mystery with Maeve this morning, she reminded me that she wears a Russian wedding band everyday, which happens to be a symbol of the Holy Trinity. (Show & tell!!) One ring made up of three linked separate gold bands, red, yellow and white. The three bands have the same intrinsic value individually, but once back on the finger it appears as one ring woven together. Just one example of a number of ways we can use to try and explain the Trinity.

Often, our thoughts tend to focus on the question of logistics: how can there be one God in three Persons? Rather than a mathematical mystery to be solved though, the Trinity is a spiritual mystery to be savoured.

It is God revealing himself to us and convincing us of his love and care for us in so many ways. As Father. We learn through our experience who our God is. The Scriptures guide and nourish that relationship which we are constantly discovering anew. They help us know about our God and God’s will for humanity, indeed for all creation. So, we turn to the word of God for insight and power to guide us, we who are made in God’s image and likeness.

Revealing himself as our heavenly Father; He is a God for whom family is everything. Like a father, he wants to be close to us. He promises to care of us and look after us. He wants nothing but good for us. He has gone so far as to name us his heirs! As Son. When God came to earth, he didn’t come in power and majesty. Rather, he “emptied himself” and became one like us (Philippians 2:7). We are disciples of Jesus. So, the power Jesus had for those whom he first commissioned, he also has for us. Through all the stages of our life, from childhood into adulthood and then into old age, we are called to witness to the new life Jesus has given us and to trust that, at each stage, as we face new and unique challenges to our faith, Jesus’ words are true and reliable, “I am with you always until the end of the age.”

As Holy Spirit. God didn’t disappear when Jesus ascended to heaven. Quite the opposite: he became even closer. God dwells in our hearts! He remains with us in his Spirit, the personal representative of Christ, who makes him present to each of us in every age. He is always with us, always ready to pour out his love and to make us more like him. What we see and experience of God here on earth, through the Spirit, is the same God who is “in heaven.”

He is always with the Church, feeding us with word and sacrament. He is always in the world, forming us into one family in Christ.

This is the true mystery of the Trinity: that our God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—loves us deeply and treats us with great tenderness and mercy. God is One in Three and Three in One.

This is the source of our faith. God is forever with us individually and collectively. This is the source of our hope in good times and bad.

This is the source of the energy needed to love others as much as we love ourselves. So how can we apply what the liturgy of the Word this Sunday teaches us? In each reading God is always One.

Christians do not worship three gods. We worship One God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We recognize God as a community of persons. This divine community is One because of the Love that is the relationship among them. Let us turn to the unity of the Trinity as our source of inspiration for how we relate to others and let God’s love become our love.

Let it move us to forgive those who have hurt us. Let it move us to speak a kind word, offer a blessing, and care for those in need. Let it move us to put aside divisions, if necessary, in our family or with friends. Let it move us to become a brighter light shining the love of God in a world darkened by sin and division.

No matter how we feel, no matter what we are experiencing, we are wrapped in the love of almighty God. Our Father loves us and is watching over us. His Son has laid down his life for us and opened heaven’s gate to us. And the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts, constantly filling us with divine grace and power. In the name of The Father, and The Son and The Holy Spirit. +

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OUR FRAGILE FAITH

3rd SUNDAY OF EASTER
CYCLE B
15th APRIL 2018
Deacon Tony van Vuuren

 

When Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room for the first time after His resurrection they are frightened and alarmed and their first reaction is to think that they’re seeing a ghost. Jesus responds by going out of his way to show that he has very definitely risen from death in his physical body; “flesh and bones” as he says of himself. Then he eats some food to accentuate the point.

St. Luke is emphasising that in his risen body Jesus is the same as before. As the disciples made more sense of the events God had pulled them into, they discovered aspects of faith and reached conclusions about God’s character and God’s plan of salvation which are just as valuable for us today.

On our part, as present-day followers of Christ, we don’t have the proofs that we can produce of Jesus’ Resurrection, scientific studies of what his risen body was like. Someone who insists on that kind of information today is unlikely to become a believer.

What we do have through the scriptures is the testimony of the disciples: their descriptions of their meetings with Christ and the evidence of the transformation these meeting worked in them. Those are the experiences that the Church is founded on; based on Jesus’ resurrection, which is the central reality of the Christian faith.

St. Luke’s message to us in these final lines of his gospel is that although Christ isn’t directly present to us the way he was to his first followers, he is present, and remains present, to us in the “breaking of the bread” – not just in the bread and wine that become his Body and Blood during the Eucharist, but in the whole spirit of prayer and solidarity in Christ that the Eucharist creates in us, if we approach it and take part in it in the right spirit.

I know that God calls people in all kinds of circumstances and make his presence felt in our lives in whatever way he wants. God might be able to work more effectively in an atheist who actually practices the commandment of love in regard to other people than he might be in a person who calls them self a Christian but refuses to dedicate them self in any way to serving the needs of others.

But it’s also true I think, in the context of our own Catholic faith, that when people are earnest about their spiritual life and their whole relationship with Christ and with God, they come to value the Eucharist more and more as a support and a means of progress in holiness, and a source of contact with Christ. St. John’s advice might be particularly valuable to the many people today who find faith in God difficult.

Every Christian, at one point or another, will have an experience of the “absence” of God: the sense that he has somehow departed, is no longer providing support, or simply doesn’t exist. When this happens many believers gradually drift away from faith altogether.

Attending Mass every day or each weekend; we may show up being able to speak of the story of Jesus, but we do not feel that we are part of the story. We are able to simply recount the events, but we do not see how we fit inside the story ourselves.

Our faith can be very fragile. We are presented with readings from Sacred Scripture to which we listen for inspiration, for encouragement, for challenge, for the voice of God speaking to us in intimate ways. Finally, we ask to be intimately united to Jesus in the eating of his body and the drinking of his blood in the Blessed Sacrament. We pray to have our ears and eyes open to what is true and holy.

Perhaps what happened to the disciples is what we want to happen to ourselves. We want to have that burning feeling in our hearts. We want to hear the voice of God speak to us intimately through Sacred Scripture. We want to recognize Jesus in the Eucharist. We want to have the enthusiasm, hope and courage to make an about-face and return to Jesus — to return to a deeper faith.

So I would finish by suggesting that perhaps this Sunday we could pray for the whole Church community, but especially for ourselves here today, that we’ll take Luke’s point and appreciate the Eucharist more as a real meeting-point with Christ and that we’ll be able to “recognise him in the breaking of bread” as readily as his first followers did.

LIGHT & DARKNESS

4th SUNDAY OF LENT
CYCLE B
11th March 2018
John 3:14-21
Deacon Tony van Vuuren

John’s gospel uses the imagery of light and darkness to point out the choice we have to make between faith and non faith, between truth and lies, between love and self-centredness – not only in our individual lives, but in the values and attitudes that are held in common, in our community at large.

John described Jesus’ appearance in the history of the world as the coming of God’s light into the darkness of human affairs. He writes about the darkness as a way of summing up the net weight, as it were, of human ignorance and evil and lies. Whereas standing in the light, or walking in the light, means opting for the good, for truth, and love, and faith in God.

The conflict between spiritual light and darkness that John talks about takes place on different levels. On one level it takes place in the conscience of every individual person.

The second level is within whole communities and societies that also have a moral character or a moral atmosphere. Goodness and evil aren’t just individual qualities; they also have a communal or a corporate aspect,
Time only allows us to touch on the individual level.

Men and women who’ve gone through a conversion – not necessarily a religious conversion as such, but any realisation that they’re going in the wrong direction followed by a decision to turn their lives around – very often describe their experience as seeing the light, or a “dawning” of the truth. They begin to feel a strong obligation to cultivate integrity and all the wholesome qualities of character.

But it also happens the other way: sometimes people who start out as considerate and compassionate characters override their conscience and allow themselves to act against their better instincts because the right moral values don’t necessarily generate any rewards.

It might be because we’re ambitious or because we want to make plenty of money – or it could be something like bearing a grudge or pursuing a vendetta – but the result is that we allow selfish motives to corrupt our character and, in John’s language, we fall into darkness. Our increasingly ruthless and aggressive “enterprise culture”, for example, can easily drive the qualities of kindliness and selflessness out of our relationships.

Part of the message of John’s gospel is that nobody’s life, morally and spiritually, is static: we’re always confronted with the choice of either moving into greater light, or of sliding back into the dark. Light, for us, means living in communion with Christ: everything else proceeds from that. We can’t take it for granted that we will safely remain in that greater light once we have reached it.

John says to us today, “Whoever does what is true (or good) comes out into the light.” Coming to the light is conditional on doing good. It’s not the one who speculates about what is good, but the one who does the good who comes to the light.

The shortest journey to the light is by doing the good. But we don’t always act like this in practice.

Normally what we do is we try to achieve a state of inner peace, and then do the peaceful deed. We try to attain a state of joy and gratitude, and then do the joyful and grateful thing. But often we have to do the opposite. We have to perform a peaceful act in order to achieve inner peace. We have to do the joyful or grateful deed in order to experience inner joy and gratitude. In the same way, if we are in darkness, and we do the good deed, then most certainly the light will shine for us. When there is attraction to the darkness it can be very real and powerful.

As St. Paul states in his letter to the Romans – “The very things I do not want to do, I do, and the very things I do want to do, I do not.” Most of us can identify with this and the choices to be made are clearly defined between darkness and light.

We have to accept that there is darkness in our lives and in our world. We have to recognize that darkness and learn to live in relationship with it. It is futile to wait for the darkness to go away. We wish it would; but we have to accept that it is here, and will always be here.

What we mustn’t do is call the darkness light! When we do that we get trapped by it. When we recognise it and call it darkness we can learn how to live so that the darkness does not overcome us. When everything is permissible we have failed to distinguish between light and dark.

There is also the complex problem of choice that exists as competing sources of light — or that which appears as light. They are not evil — just lesser goods that can be attractive enough to steal away our attention to the true light of our life — Jesus Christ.

Those of us who have come to know the love and joy of God do not deny the darkness, but we choose not to live in it. We trust in the light that shines in the darkness, and know that a little light can dispel a lot of darkness. The light of Christ is such that no darkness can overpower it.
Light, for us, means living in communion with Christ: everything else proceeds from that; inviting Christ to work in us and through us, so that when we act and speak, it’s Christ who’s acting and speaking

COMPASSION

6th SUNDAY ORDINARY TIME
CYCLE B
11th FEBRUARY 2018
Mark 1:40-45
Deacon Tony van Vuuren.

February 11th is observed in the Catholic calendar as World Day of Prayer for the Sick, an observation introduced by Pope John Paul II and first celebrated in 1993 as a way for believers to offer prayers for those suffering from illnesses. The day coincides with the commemoration of Our Lady of Lourdes.
An important opportunity for those who are faced with caring for loved ones to reflect and pray for those who are sick as well as for those who work so very hard to alleviate the sufferings of the sick.
How comforting it is, and what a relief we feel when a loved one, or a friend tells us “I’m here”. What consolation do we feel when these words become part of our lived experience, a firm inner belief that somebody is there for us.
The World Day of Prayer for the Sick is an invitation to show solidarity with the sick and suffering; reminding us of the dignity of all persons.
This year 2018, the day coincides with the Sunday Gospel reading of one of Jesus’ first healing miracles; cleansing a leper, which ironically brought the leper back into community life, but resulted in Jesus now been placed as an outcast having touched the leper.

When we see Jesus in all kinds of encounters with different people, and see how He deals with them, we are seeing, expressed in a human way so that we can understand it easily, the way in which God deals with us personally. And because the words of Jesus, and the actions of Jesus, enable us to catch a glimpse of His mind and heart – because they reveal what is really important to Him – then we are being given a glimpse into the mind and heart of God and are being helped to understand what is really important to God.

Something I think, for all of us to keep in mind each time we pick up and read the Gospels or hear them read at Mass. A good question we might ask of ourselves is this: what kind of man must Jesus have been to be able to speak like, this, or act like this? And, as we reflect on these questions and think about them more deeply, we are not just discovering what kind of man Jesus was, and is – we are discovering what kind of God we believe in.
This is what it means to say that Jesus was both true God and true man – in His humanity, His human characteristics; we are being drawn into the profound mystery of God, and especially of how God sees us, and loves us.
As we reflect on today’s Gospel, then, we see that Jesus is a man moved very deeply by compassion for people who suffer. When the man with leprosy says to Him, “Lord, if you want to, you can cure me”, Jesus responds immediately from the heart: “Of course I want to – be cured”. There is no doubt, no putting things off, no finding excuses: Jesus just responds – and responds with great compassion. We see both the divine power and the divine compassion of Jesus in this act of healing.

The divine power is necessary in all instantaneous cures. Even in the case of curable diseases nature takes its own time to bring about a healing. In this incurable illness the healing is immediate with the supernatural power placed in the healer. His compassion for the suffering person is also divine.

It is out of compassion for the whole of humanity that Jesus became incarnate and came to earth. It is out of compassion for humanity that he died on the cross.

Compassion means to suffer with, and Jesus suffers with the person who is unwell and heals him. This attitude of his makes him touch the person and accept him as he is. This is shown in his life whenever he preaches and works any miracle.
We may not be suffering the disease of leprosy but each one of us also carries wounds and scars. We may be suffering the disease of anger, or of bitterness, or of forgiveness, or of greed. What today’s Gospel assures us of, is this: if we can find within ourselves the courage to bring our frailty, our brokenness and our failure to the Lord, He will welcome us with the same compassion, the same understanding, and the same generous love with which He welcomed the leper.

In him, we will meet the God who calls to us and who offers us forgiveness, life and hope. He will help us, and heal us, in the ways that He knows are best for us – and these may be different from the ways we are looking for. But we can be sure that God who, in Jesus, revels Himself as a God of endless compassion and love, will not walk away from us, or leave us to our own devices.

All we have to do is come to Him – with honesty, with humility and with hope – just as the leper did in today’s Gospel. The question for each of us today is: am I ready to do this?

An extract from Pope Francis’ letter with reference to the 26TH World Day of Prayer for the Sick.

“The care given within families is an extraordinary witness of love for the human person; it needs to be fittingly acknowledged and supported by suitable policies. Doctors and nurses, priests, consecrated men and women, volunteers, families and all those who care for the sick, take part in this ecclesial mission. It is a shared responsibility that enriches the value of the daily service given by each.
We turn to Mary, Mother of tender love, we wish to entrust all those who are ill in body and soul, that she may sustain them in hope. We ask her also to help us to be welcoming to our sick brothers and sisters. The Church knows that she requires a special grace to live up to her evangelical task of serving the sick.

May our prayers to the Mother of God see us united in an incessant plea that every member of the Church may live with love the vocation to serve life and health.

May the Virgin Mary intercede for this Twenty-sixth World Day of Prayer for the Sick; may she help the sick to experience their suffering in communion with the Lord Jesus; and may she support all those who care for them. To all, the sick, to healthcare workers and to volunteers, I cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing.”
Francis

God is not bound by Our Ideas

4th SUNDAY OF ADVENT.
Cycle B.
24th December 2017
Deacon Tony van Vuuren

Here we are celebrating the fourth Sunday of Advent and also Christmas Eve on the same day!  I feel like I’m being cheated out of a week’s worth of Advent!

Mary has hardly had time to absorb the news of her pregnancy, and baby Jesus is about to nestle into her loving arms, at least liturgically.  A reminder to us that the mysteries we celebrate and reflect on are interconnected and timeless.

In the first reading we find King David, having overcome his enemies and secured his kingdom, relaxing and dreaming of building a more suitable “dwelling for God”.

It sounded very praiseworthy and to begin with the prophet Nathan was persuaded to give the project his blessing. But David’s real motive was to glorify himself and to bolster the institution of the monarchy. What he was really planning to do, in effect, was to assume control of Israel’s religion, to contain and institutionalise God, so that the royal court could determine the way that people understood God and the way he acted in history. It was an attempt to use God to reinforce his own position as king.

According to the authors of the book of Samuel, God reacted to this by reasserting his freedom. God refuses to play up to David’s man-made image of what God should be like. Instead he reveals what he’s really like and what he wills through the words of the prophet Nathan by dissociating himself from David’s royal religion. It doesn’t matter how many other kings build fancy temples for their gods, he says. Not this God, and therefore not this King.

In the gospel passage we find Luke relating another instance of God acting in history, not in the grandiose and majestic way that we might think is appropriate for the deity, but in his own free and unpredictable way.

It so happened that at the time when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that God had chosen her to bear his Son the Messiah, the latest King; King Herod, was in the middle of building another vast Temple in Jerusalem.

Again, although the ostensible idea was to glorify God, Herod had his own political reasons for building a new Temple. And while all that was going on, God’s greatest revelation of himself was taking place somewhere else, far away from Herod’s inflated schemes, in conditions that were far removed from what conventional religion would have considered appropriate or acceptable.
First of all, God chose to appear, and to become human, not in Jerusalem, in the great capital and religious centre of Israel, but in Nazareth, a tiny, obscure town of about 150 people in Galilee.

From the point of view of respectable religion, the town had a bad name. The people there had a reputation of being lapsed, as we might say, and of being infected with pagan ideas and practices. That was why later on in Jesus’ ministry, people laughed when they heard that he came from Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was the rhetorical question.

Second, the fact that God chose to communicate his plan of salvation first of all to a woman would have been offensive to pious and respectable Jews of the time. In Jewish society at that time women didn’t have any real rights of citizenship or legal status. Last of all, the idea of the long-awaited Messiah being conceived outside of marriage – which is after all what happened – would also have been an affront to conventional attitudes.

Even in the slack religious atmosphere of Nazareth Mary would have been in danger of being stoned as an adulteress, if Joseph hadn’t promised to marry her so quickly.

So the lesson of these readings, it seems to me, is a lesson about God’s freedom to act in the way that he thinks best. God isn’t compelled to act through channels that we deem appropriate, or appear in the places we dictate.

Whenever God has wanted to communicate something more about himself, he’s never felt that he had to conform to our human expectations of how he should reveal himself. He’s always worked in circumstances, and through the people, that he chose. In doing so he has often overturned self-serving human notions of what the divine character is like.

It’s a warning, in a sense, against every tendency towards becoming a religious bureaucrat or a religious busybody: that so often, while we’re busy constructing our modern versions of David’s temple, or Herod’s temple, trying to control the way that God is presented to people, with the real motive of glorifying ourselves, God is active in another, unexpected place, with a completely different set of people, carrying out his real work of salvation.

Mary had no idea what her “yes” would mean for the future, but she said “yes” because she knew that God’s grace would sustain her through whatever that might be. As we ponder how fully we are able to say “yes” at this point in our lives, let us ask our Blessed Mother to help us be all we are meant to be, relying on God’s grace as she did. Inspired by her example, may we have the grace and courage to respond openly and whole-heartedly to God’s invitation to serve him.

Yes, Mary’s life was difficult, but she was right: God’s grace will sustain us. That is true through the hardest of times as well as when the smallest of things challenge our peacefulness the most.

Destiny

32nd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
Cycle A
12th November 2017
Matthew 25:1-13
Rev Tony van Vuuren

The readings this Sunday touch on some central Christian beliefs, which in the past were a source of division between the different Christian traditions, and which are still interpreted differently by the various churches: beliefs about our life after death, about Jesus’ Second Coming, about Purgatory, about God’s Judgement.

Today’s parable points to a moment, not just at the end time, but now. It calls us to seize the moment and direct our lives guided by the wisdom God gives us in Christ. We do not yet see Christ coming. What we experience is the preoccupying routine of our daily lives.

From the standpoint of Christian faith our life here and now is imperfect and incomplete. It’s the life to come, when we’re with God, when we encounter God’s love fully, which is permanent and complete. As he got near the end of his preaching ministry Christ encouraged people to see their present lives in the light of their eternal destiny, their future life with God.

The Christians Saint Paul is writing to in the second reading have started to worry that the people who die before Christ’s Second Coming – most people, presumably – will somehow be at a disadvantage compared to the people who happened to be alive at the time of the Second Coming. Paul’s answer is to tell them that they’re worrying about nothing. The particular moment that we die doesn’t make any difference to our final destiny, but it is partly this worry, voiced by the Christians in Thessalonica that led to the development of our belief in Purgatory.

As we know, some of the more evangelical Churches reject the idea of Purgatory because there’s no direct or obvious reference to it in the Bible.

But like so many of the Church’s beliefs that developed very early in its history, the belief in Purgatory was the answer the Christian community came up with when they reflected on their knowledge and experience of God, in this instance his love and care and mercy and his desire that every person should gain salvation.

From our Christian point of view our death is the moment when we leave behind all the shadows and inadequacies of earthly life and move into the light and fullness of life with God.

The person we reach out to in our prayers, the person we often experience in a dim, partial, fleeting way during our present life will now be known directly and clearly in the next life.

And according to what we believe about life after death, that involves two things. One is that we get a much clearer sense of God’s holiness and love and mercy, and the happiness that goes along with that. There’s the knowledge that we’re saved – that we’re heading towards God.

And the other thing is that we get a much clearer sense of our own lack of holiness and love. We don’t only see God face-to-face, we see ourselves much more truthfully as well – all our self-centredness, our clinging to wrong goals, our pride and childishness.

Of course there’s an element of pain and upset – the pain of contrasting our imperfections with God’s perfection, our lack of love with God’s perfect love. And it’s that state, after we’ve died, that we refer to when we talk about Purgatory.

It’s not some place where we spend millions of years being tortured – the usual picture conjured up by a certain tradition of preaching, taking Jesus’ own apocalyptic images too literally. Purgatory is more the experience of seeing God’s goodness and love alongside our own faults and inadequacies, and being purified of those elements, so that we’re fit to be with him forever.

Jesus’ parable about the sensible bridesmaids and the foolish bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive also gives us another image of the Second Coming, the end of time, and the Judgement that goes along with it. The possibility of having the door closed on us.

But it’s not too late. The parable’s locked door hasn’t happened yet. We are reminded that God is available to us now with the gift of Wisdom, to show us what we must still do to keep a good supply of oil. Being at this Mass we acknowledge our need and dependence on God.

We yearn and search for Wisdom — it is given to us in these scriptures and in the Eucharist available to us.

The only thing that can stop us from enjoying that future is by deliberately turning away from it – preferring to assert ourselves and choosing to alienate ourselves from God.

That’s why Jesus’ parables about the end of time always have a hint of a threat. There’s going to be a judgement and our time here and now is a sort of probation, a time of testing. The final choice that we make about our eternal destiny will be a summing up of all the free actions and decisions that we’ve made during our life, not an arbitrary punishment by a capricious God.

Reflecting on what the readings today tell us about death, about judgement and our future life with God; they can open up the way to greater truth about the purpose of our lives on earth and our relationship with God.

They open up the way to greater truth about the purpose of our lives on earth and our relationship with God. Many people only give superficial thought to these subjects and obviously find them difficult to accept or believe in.

But when we spend some time reflecting on them, and praying to God about them, we will hopefully begin to see that they can’t be dismissed so easily.

A final point! We may feel that the wise bridesmaids were rather selfish in refusing to share their oil with the foolish ones in such a critical situation.

We can also say in the context of today’s parable that our preparedness to meet the Lord is something that is ultimately only our responsibility. No one can say “Yes” to Christ on our behalf!

What Are Our Fruits?

27th Sunday Ordinary Time.
Cycle A.
8th October 2017.
Mt 21: 33-43. Is 5: 1-7

The basic purpose of Isaiah’s song and Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable being linked today is to make us think and to search our own conscience. What are our fruits, as believers? Are we in the situation where God has done his part, but sometimes we’re only producing sour grapes, or even worse, turning on our neighbour?
The symbol of the vine and vineyards was an image that Jesus liked to use in different ways in his preaching. Our relationship with God is compared to the way a carefully-tended plant yields good fruit. The hymn: “I am the fruitful vine, and you my branches are,” illustrates this.

The important thing about the vineyard in this particular parable – as in the song by Isaiah in the first reading – is that unfortunately it’s a vineyard that doesn’t produce any fruit, or doesn’t produce the right kind of fruit.
We have images of a vine that produces sour grapes, and vineyard workers who refuse to carry out the owners wishes and turn against him, which are conjured up for us as symbols of those who close themselves off from God’s grace and fail to bear spiritual fruit; despite all the care and the cultivation by the gardener – obviously a symbol for God’s care and concern for his people.

There’s a saying that is sometimes used as a way of emphasising God’s compassion and kindliness: “God takes us as we are”.

It’s true, but it’s only half the truth. God does take us as we are, but if we respond he doesn’t leave us as we are. Contact with God; a relationship with God; changes us. We become a different person: our attitudes, and our behaviour changes. In the more figurative and symbolic language of the Bible – we produce fruit.
I am sure there are some of us here present, myself included, who at some time had no interest or involvement with formal religion, but through some intervention or influence have become more entrenched in our faith—-however frail that might be.

When a gardener puts a lot of care into his plants they ripen and mature. When we play our part in our relationship with God, and respond to the influence of his grace, we also develop in a certain direction and mature as Christians. There’s a move towards greater integrity or cohesion in our own character, and there’s a move towards greater understanding and gentleness regarding the frailties and weaknesses of other people.

If we look at the passage from Isaiah we can see that the kind of fruits God particularly expects us to manifest are justice and integrity. In fact Isaiah describes those qualities not so much as expectations by God, but as the natural outcome of being faithful to God, in the Covenant. What is true on the level of our individual personal relationship with God should also be true for our community that sincerely worships God and recognises him as the source of our moral principles: just relationships, free from exploitation and domination; just some of the fruits which will grow naturally in our community, as a result of our genuine contact with God.
Inevitably, however, in both the first reading and the gospel, there’s also a more negative implication raised by Isaiah and by Jesus: they criticise their fellow-believers for not responding in the way that they should to God’s involvement with them.

Particularly in the Gospel there’s a tone of warning and threat in Jesus’ language, typical of the style of preaching employed by the Old Testament prophets, claiming that since the community are not producing the fruit that comes from knowing and loving God, God’s Kingdom will be taken from them, and given to other people, who will be receptive to the values of the Kingdom, and will produce the right fruits.
Matthew’s idea in including it in his gospel wasn’t just to disparage the chief priests and the elders. Matthew was addressing his own community – the Christian community – and his aim in this passage was to get the new followers of Christ to ask themselves whether they were producing the fruit they were supposed to.

Jesus’ warning here is also aimed at us: if we don’t produce wholesome fruit, God’s Kingdom will be taken away from us, and given to people who – even if they don’t have an explicit belief in God – are actually doing God’s will by the way they live and the values they put into practice. I am sure we all know someone of that ilk?
Again, it’s not that God has a spiteful streak, or takes pleasure in removing something from us which can only be for our benefit. What this final remark of Jesus implies, really, is that God doesn’t force himself onto people who aren’t interested in him. Nobody can be coerced into having a more profound faith, or growing in holiness, or becoming a more compassionate and loving person.

The rule of God’s Kingdom can only be active in our lives if there’s the effort to actually welcome it and co-operate with it. Christ knew that there were men and women who were doing that, even though they hardly carried out any of the formal religious rules and ceremonies of the time that the religious leaders thought were so important.
I return to the question I posed when I started speaking: What are our fruits as believers?

Most of us can think of ways that in our own specific circumstances we could be become more rooted in the qualities and attitudes that make up the Kingdom – even just becoming more conscious of our need to cultivate the fruits of justice, love and peace; rather than just stagnating. Waking us up to that need, rather than threatening us with the loss of God’s friendship, is the real purpose of the language Jesus and Isaiah use in their parables in today’s readings.

We are challenged to ask Jesus to be with us as the cornerstone of all that we build and cultivate.