The Way of Jesus: Beyond Benevolence

As we prepare to officially and ritually commemorate the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, I offer a brief reflection. I will return after Epiphany with some longer reflections about contemporary faith and life…..

Last week, at my local train station, a very down-and-out looking fellow with a worn-out looking old dog was begging for money: sitting on the floor holding a tin cup. I had just bought a magazine for my wife and had the change, a bunch of coins, in my pocket.

As I passed the fellow, I quickly dropped the coins in his cup. He muttered something but I didn’t understand what he said. Behind me an older lady did the same as I: dropped a few coins in the tin cup.

Rushing to catch the train we both ended up standing next to each other on the platform. “I always give them something at Christmastime,” she said. “Yes,” I replied with a chuckle, “Do unto others…” Then we both boarded the train and continued on our separate journeys.

Sitting in the train, as it moved across the city and into the countryside, I started reflecting about Jesus; and about how easy it was for me to drop coins into the beggar’s tin cup. I didn’t even have to look into his eyes.

In the Gospels the devotion of Jesus to the men and women around him was something much more than mere benevolence: more than simply wishing them well or being eager to do things for them. Much more than simply dropping coins into their tin cups.

Jesus’ devotion was an expression of sympathetic identity with people: in their troubles and sufferings, as well as in their joys. Their life became his life.

To say that Jesus was also Son of God, means that God indeed is one with us in our daily life, with its joys and sorrows and its certitudes and uncertainties. Divine love is not essentially benevolence. It is a sympathetic sharing in life. Emmanuel – God-with-us.

If I truly believe that God walks and lives with me – as well as with the beggar at the train station – I need to move beyond kindly dropping coins into tin cups……And that is not so easy.

Dear Friends
My very best wishes for Christmas
And may the new year 2015 be full of life and grace for all of us



An old saying, attributed to Socrates, says: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” One of my old Louvain professors stressed in his classes long ago: “An essential element of belief is asking the right questions.”

Asking-questions brings us to greater self-knowledge, to a more realistic life-understanding, and lays the foundations for personal conscience-formation and a greater sense of personal responsibility.

All the great advances in human knowledge have come from people who dared to ask questions. Isaac Newton asked: “Why does an apple fall from a tree?” and “Why does the moon not fall into the Earth?” Charles Darwin asked: “Why do the Galápagos Islands have so many species not found elsewhere?” Albert Einstein asked: “What would the universe look like if I rode through it on a beam of light?” By asking these kinds of basic questions they were able to start the processes that lead to tremendous breakthroughs in human and scientific understanding.

Jesus of Nazareth asked: “Who do people say that I am?”

Some people of course are afraid to ask questions or believe it is wrong to ask questions. Fundamentalists – whether religious or political – are the big anti-question people. When confrontation with other people and other cultures challenges their own identity, they become anxious and fearful. Asking questions further threatens their identity and opens doors to change. Fundamentalists, anchored in an old ethos, don’t like change.

Authoritarian leaders – whether religious or political – don’t like people who question and therefore start to challenge their authoritarian leadership. Authoritarian leaders demand that men and women keep quiet and become their subservient and blindly-obedient followers. They insist that some questions can neither be asked nor discussed. Pure nonsense of course.

One of the greatest developments in the Catholic Church over the past fifty years has been the shift in attitude and practice, among Catholic laypeople and many ordained ministers, from a compliance-oriented approach (that accentuated the authority of the hierarchy) and a conscience-oriented approach that emphasizes Catholics’ need to question, think, and follow their own consciences. (Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI worked hard to re-impose the compliance approach; but, fortunately, most Catholics have rejected that. Others, unfortunately, have given up on a meaningful church and simply walked out the door. Catholic fundamentalists, like Cardinal Raymond Burke, on the other hand, are now even upset by Pope Francis and continue their angry noise-making.)

On this second Sunday of Advent, it is time to plan ahead and make one good New Year’s resolution: To ask more questions about Catholic belief and practice, to support those who question; and to explore together, in respectful and earnest dialogue, the complete range of answers……and no doubt further questions. We are on a journey. We have not yet arrived.

There are a lot of areas where we should be asking questions. Some questions are more easily answered. Others demand deeper reflection and a sharing of experiences.

Historical and biblical scholars tell us, for example, that the historic Jesus did not ordain anyone; and that Jesus chose men AND women to be his closest disciples. Why then do church authorities still insist that women cannot be priests because “Jesus called only men to the priesthood” ? Why, for instance, do some church leaders continue to protect or downplay punishment for sexually abusive priests and bishops? Why do so many of our bishops – when all sociological studies indicate that a high percentage of our bishops and priests are gay – do they still insist that homosexuality is an intrinsic aberration? Why is it ok for Catholic schools and parishes to employ gay people for many years but immediately fire them, when they announce they are getting married? The social teaching of the church? Professional ethics? A threat and a challenge to the sexual identity of closeted church leaders?

The bigger questions, however, are rarely being asked these days. Far too often, when they are proposed by theologians, church authority condemns, sanctions, and tries to shut up the questioners. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been effectively gagging people, since the days of the Spanish Inquisition.

The bigger questions touch on a contemporary understanding of Jesus Christ and a contemporary understanding and experience of God. To me these are the really Big Questions that contemporary believers are struggling with……especially the growing number of people who are “ spiritual but not religious.” Institutional churches will have to answer these questions or close-up shop. It is difficult to be a genuine follower of Jesus without confronting these kinds of searching questions.

These are also the questions being asked by my young university students. One young fellow – not a seminarian but a well-informed student in my MA course – asked me some weeks ago, “Which is the more real ‘Real Presence’ of Christ? In that little communion wafer kept in the tabernacle or in the people sitting next to me in church? His girl friend had a more practical question about the Mother of Jesus. “Why is it,” she asked “that when more and more biblical scholars see the virginal conception of Jesus more as a theological symbol than a biological fact…..and the New Testament clearly speaks about Jesus’ brothers and sisters…..why is it that the church still insists that Mary was always a virgin?”

Questions about God are my big questions these days: Who or what is God for us today? What images of God are really meaningful today? What does it mean to experience God today? Last year I asked a bishop friend about his experience of God. After a long day of meetings, we were having a drink and a very serious conversation. At one point I asked him, “when was the last time you really experienced God’s presence in your life?” At first he didn’t want to answer, but I insisted and pushed him in a friendly way. Then, with a bit of sadness in his eyes, he rather softly said, “The last time I experienced God was when I was fifteen years old and thinking about becoming a priest.” He paused then continued, “Since then I have been operating on automatic pilot……saying and doing what people expect bishops to say and do.” (I later sent him a copy Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God.)

So…..let the questions come. Let us be and be with the questioners! We are all followers of Jesus and God seekers!


This week I am off to Moscow to deliver the keynote lecture for an international conference on fundamentalism and contemporary religious movements in Eastern Europe. And I have a lot of questions racing through my head……..