Third Sunday of Lent - a reflection

Monday, March 21, 2022 - 10:45

Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction to these reflections and please look at the readings for Sunday Mass here (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):

“Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate” says Jesus in the Gospel this Sunday.
Luke with this saying sets the tone for this Sunday’s readings. This saying is a notable contrast with its equivalent in the Gospel of Matthew which says “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. I think of this as Matthew setting the goal while Luke provides the means.

This Sunday we hear the middle portion of the Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke. We are hearing its three portions on three Sundays and, even better, we will have heard the whole Sermon just before Ash Wednesday and Lent. We can hear and reflect upon this Sermon of Jesus as our preparation for this time of renewal leading us towards Easter. We will see that how appropriate it is for this purpose.

Last Sunday, my aim was to see the Sermon within the unfolding story of the Gospel of Luke and then to say something of the Beatitudes which form its first portion. That was a tight fit, a review may therefore be helpful; my point is that we need to hear the Sermon in its place in Luke’s Gospel. It may look rather like the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel but that it is not, nor is it the  poor relation. It needs to be read on its own, though comparison between the two sermons is useful for specific points. We must also be aware of those episodes of St Luke which have been omitted in the Sunday Gospels because Luke is following Mark closely. The build-up to the Sermon is the conflicts with the Pharisees which lead to a breakdown of relations with them. Jesus then spends a night in prayer on the mountain before choosing his inner group of disciples, the Twelve. As Jesus has been active for quite a while in this Gospel, it is not surprising that when they come down the mountain, they join an even larger group of disciples. The Sermon that follows is addressed specifically to the disciples though with the crowd in the background. As the innermost group are the apostles, we could say that Jesus sermon here is the origin of the apostolic traditions of the Church.

Jesus comes off the mountain onto level ground, joining the crowd. He is a prophet among the people. The background is the book of Exodus where Moses receives the Law from God at the top of the mountain and delivers it to the people at the bottom. In Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is on top as the law giver. Here in Luke, Jesus is at the bottom, teaching among the people as a prophet.

The Sermon opens with the Beatitudes and, as I said last week, the Beatitudes and Woes placed together in Luke tell us who is blessed in the kingdom whilst Matthew’s Beatitudes tell us how to become Blessed. Matthew I suggested is more about values whilst Luke is more about attitude, with attitudes underpinning values. That notion of attitude needs to be kept in mind as we move on to the second portion of the Sermon with its two parts. Part of a good read is to spot the formal markers set by the writer. Here the second part opens with “But I say to you that listen…” . The third part which we hear next Sunday will begin with “He also told them a parable”.

The first part of the second portion is marked by the repetition of “love your enemies” forming a bracket. This is important because the “be compassionate” saying then introduces the second part of this portion. It is not a conclusion to “love your enemies “as is often found in our Bibles. If the first part is about love then the second is centres on judging. It is worth reflecting on the significance of loving and judging being paired.

Having stated the Beatitudes which ended with false friends or prophets, a strong “but” follows as Jesus continues, addressing those who are listening. The introduction to “love your enemies” could hardly be stronger and the same could be said for the follow up. There is then a string of commands: do good, bless, pray followed by offer the other cheek, withhold not your cloak, give to everyone, do not ask for a return. The list of requirements is astonishing. The importance of the cloak is that it keeps the poor man warm at night. The conclusion is then the golden rule, do to others as you would have them do to you.

This is followed by a string of conditions “and as” then “and if”, a complete altruism. The point is hammered home to love your enemies instead and expect nothing in return.

Jesus then moves on to an important practical application of this love: judging others. He begins with the principle with which I began: be compassionate. A rare word is used so “compassionate” is better than “merciful”. We could say that the point being made is not to be judgemental. Assessments of people often have to be made. It is how this is done which is important, to be aware of prejudices which may easily be involved and the fundamental basis which is love. Forgiving is then so important: in this Gospel it is Jesus who will forgive as he is taken to the cross. Finally there is generosity and the rewards of discipleship “costing not less than everything.”

Compassion therefore is key but our compassion for others begins with God’s compassion for us. We have a psalm which rejoices in God’s steadfast love and compassion. Psalm 103 is highly recommended as a psalm which gives thanks and praise to God for who he is and how he comes into our lives. It is well worth reading and praying the whole psalm, especially after the sacrament of reconciliation, confession. There is a trail from the Gospel saying about compassion to the psalm which then recalls the book of Exodus when God made his ways known to Moses and the people of Israel. The Lord passed before Moses and proclaimed he was a God merciful and generous, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. “Steadfast love” is consistently used by the RSV for an important Hebrew word which describes God’s fidelity to his covenant. The psalm begins by calling the individual to bless God for his steadfast love and compassion, then broadens out to God’s ways with Israel. Recalling God’s ways in the past is our memory for the present, both as a community and as individuals. The psalm continues reminding us of our human frailty contrasted with the Lord’s compassion from age to age. So the psalm comes to a climax with blessing once again, this time with all the heavenly hosts. Thus we celebrate the complete reliability of our God of steadfast love and compassion.

As a good teacher, Jesus will now bring together the threads of his teaching and finish all his words to the people by telling parables. Those we will hear next Sunday. 


Image credit: I stock photo .com; Stained glass window depicting Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount in the cathedral of Brussels, Belgium