15th Sunday in Ordinary time

In the early 1990s I spotted a new fashion in mountain trekking: retractable poles. In my eyes, people using them looked very professional. I would have been happy to have my own set, but they were horrendously expensive. Luckily I had a pair of disused one-piece ski poles, and I decided to use one of them. What a boost to my self-esteem! I was proudly walking with my posh pole, outstanding among other mountaineers going without such professional equipment; it was great, until I reached a vertical rocky cliff, where I had to use my both hands to climb up. The four-foot long pole, now sticking out of my rucksack, was getting caught in the rocks above my head, making the climb fatally dangerous, and driving me crazy. To my shame I had to break my posh pole into three pieces and put it back into my rucksack. My inflated self-esteem evaporated in just one minute!

 In today’s gospel Jesus sends his Apostles on a mission, instructing them to take only a staff with them, but no bread, no cash, no haversack, no spare clothes. It’s the worst possible piece of travel advice ever! My life-long experience prompts exactly the opposite: food and water, spare clothes and a bag to keep it all in are essential; concerning my trauma with the pole I couldn’t care less about taking a pole, with one exception: my faithful dog called Pole. Obviously Jesus is not the Bear Grylls of the gospel, advising the Apostles how to survive in an inhospitable environment; his instruction is counterintuitive to the purpose.

 In the Bible a staff is not only a piece of wood; it particularly recalls the glorious story of Moses. When God gave him the mission to lead Israelites out of Egypt, his ordinary shepherd’s staff became a tool of God’s power and authority over the Pharaoh and nature. Moses performed miracles with it. The staff was a sign of God’s promises and presence. The most meaningful episode happened when the Israelites fought against the Amalekites – Moses stood on the top of the hill above the battlefield with his staff raised high to the sky. It was like telling God: ‘I trust in your promise to set us free and to lead us to the Promised Land.’ The Israelites eventually made it despite the obvious shortage of essential supplies.

For my priestly ordination watchword, I chose a passage from the Bible: ‘I trust in your word’ (Ps 118:42). Since then, for over fifteen years, God’s word has been my staff, giving me support, helping me to go through rough terrain, defending me against the devil. Many times I have failed, I’ve gone astray, and I’ve got lost. But his staff has rescued me and put me on the right track. To my surprise, every time I’ve been holding the staff, God has provided the essentials to survive. Without it, I’ve always craved for more and never felt satisfied.

In your everyday life you have to think about things essential for survival: food, accommodation, clothes, and so on. It multiplies if you have a family, or if you have to take care of other people. In this tough economic situation, providing the essentials occupies most of your time. But don’t you sometimes have the impression that you are turning in circles and going nowhere? That all your efforts and anxieties make you exhausted, but leave you empty? If so, perhaps you should look carefully whether you are really well equipped for life. Maybe you should pick up the staff – the word of God – and cling to it. This might not make your life easier; but it’ll certainly make your life purposeful. And that’s the point!