Tuesday, October 17, 2017

PENTECOST XX 2017 (Proper 24)

The Tribute Money Jacek Malczewski
‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’. The punch line from this week’s Gospel (in its more traditional version) has become a familiar saying. But how should we interpret it? Is this simply a retort by which Jesus cleverly avoids a trap the Pharisees have set for him when they try to show him to be out of step with popular anti-Roman feeling? Or should we read into it a much more serious warning against confusing spiritual aspiration with political protest? To address this question, we need to see the exchange in a wider context.

In the eighth chapter of the first Book of Samuel, the Israelites ask Samuel to appoint a king. At first he takes this to be a painful rejection of his own authority, but then he learns that its true significance lies in what it says about their faith in God. Thus a long history begins in which royal power and the sovereignty of God come into regular conflict. Notwithstanding the short lived triumphs of David and Solomon, the end result for Israel is political division, and conquest. Moreover, in one of the Old Testament lessons for this week, Isaiah actually voices God’s explicit commission to one of these conquerors, Cyrus King of the Persians. “I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they [the people of Israel] may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me”.

The Tribute Money Emil Nolde
The Roman conquest in New Testament times was just one more episode in the long history of Israel's subjugation. In John’s account of the trial of Jesus before the Roman governor, the subject of kingship figures prominently. When the leaders of the Jews shout ‘We have no King but Caesar!’, they reveal a radical division in their own minds between the hopes they place in God and their recourse to political power. In response, Caesar (in the person of Pilate) orders a sign to be put above the dying Jesus. It reads ‘King of the Jews’. Even if prompted by a desire to provoke the Jews, it is nonetheless insightful, because the 'Kingship' of Jesus is indeed, mysteriously, revealed in the Cross. The imperial power of Caesar ruled the ancient world. It counts for nothing now. At the time of his execution Jesus was virtually unknown. Yet the Resurrection revealed him to be the Incarnation of God. As the real Christ, long awaited by Israel, he counts for everything now.  

Against this background, the instruction, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ warns us about getting our ultimate priorities wrong. In the Epistle Paul praises the Thessalonians who “turned to God from idols”. Political power is one such idol, and it has proved endlessly alluring -- as in the failed 'war on terror'.  Even sincere Christians with the best of intentions, it seems, can be drawn to its false allure.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

PENTECOST IXX 2017 (Proper 23)

Rembrandt - Belshazzar's Feast
The image of a 'banquet’ or 'feast' is one that recurs with great regularity in Christian thought and art, not least in the Bible itself. The reason is easy to see. Religion is about life, and food is essential to life. An instinctive desire for food is the new born baby’s first orientation to the world, and by tradition, an offer of food is the last humane act extended to those condemned to death. Nor is food simply a necessity. Specially prepared food and drink provided in abundance is the universal mark of human celebration – at births, weddings, religious holidays and communal festivals.It was at a wedding feast that Jesus gave his first 'sign', according to John. So it is completely natural for human beings to think analogically of spiritual gifts and blessings as ‘heavenly food’, and by extension to conceive of God’s promise of salvation as a ‘heavenly banquet’.


Bosch -- Marriage Feast at Cana
Some of  the most famous feasts and banquets that the Bible depicts, however, have a dark side -- sin subverting celebration and turning it spectacularly in the wrong direction.  Belshazzer's feast in the Book of Daniel is one famous example -- an extravagant celebration that augurs the collapse of a Kingdom. Herod's feast at which Salome dances is another -- her reward taking the gruesome form of the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  Feasting, then, ought to mark a joyful celebration, but it can go badly wrong.

Jesus' use of the image in the parable that forms this Sunday’s Gospel has something of this ambiguity about it. His audience's familiarity with the passage from Isaiah that provides the Old Testament lesson -- “the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines” -- means his use of this image to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven could not fail to resonate. However, it is given a special twist. To begin with, the people who ought to come to the celebration can't be bothered to come, despite the status of the host and the quality of the food. In response, the king tells his slaves to go out into the streets and gather “all whom they found, both good and bad”. Is the message this ---  that social elitism has been abandoned in favor of a wonderful inclusion?

Things are not quite so simple. To begin with, the guests on the original list, who treated the invitation lightly, are not included, but punished instead. And, it turns out, even the people gathered up from the streets and brought in without asking are not assured of a permanent place at the banquet. The hapless man who did not trouble to dress properly for the occasion, is promptly thrown out.

The message seems clear. God longs for everyone to share 'joys that pass our understanding' with him. Good news indeed. Yet indifference, willfulness and carelessness have the power to make us lose them.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

PENTECOST XVIII 2017 (Proper 22)

Laboring in the Vineyard
The Gospel for this week is yet another parable set in a vineyard. Strictly, it is an allegory since it is not simply a story with a message, but one in which the participants can be directly correlated with the people to whom, and about whom, the story is told

On the surface, the parallels are not hard to see. God is the owner of the vineyard. The tenants are those entrusted with witnessing to his lordship. The slaves are the Old Testament prophets sent by God, time and again, to recall his people to faithful obedience. In the face of their repeated rejection the landlord’s own son – Jesus – is sent to the vineyard. His murder at the hands of the tenants brings God’s wrath upon them, and custody of the vineyard is placed in other hands.

Who exactly are these first tenants? It is easy to misidentify them as the Jews, and hence suppose that the new tenants are the Christians. The lesson from Isaiah puts us right on this score: “the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel”. It is not the tenants, but the vineyard itself, strange to say, that is to be identified with the Chosen People, the fertile ground God has provided. This switches our attention to the leaders of Israel. Forgetting, or disregarding, their obligation to God, they claim the headship of Israel for their own nationalistic purposes. It is in order to rescue his Chosen People, not to abandon them, that God sends his Son. This means that the new tenants do not mark a radical break with the past. Rather, they are called to be more faithful stewards of the same God.

Valazquez St Paul
Paul’s Epistle for this Sunday can be seen to reflect this interpretation of the allegory. He is, he tells the Philippians, "a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee", thereby emphatically underlining his own Jewishness, something he never discounts or disowns. But, he says, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss  . . .  because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.

The continuity between Jew and Christian is essential to the Gospel message Paul preaches. It carries this implication, however. If the ancient Pharisees forfeited their spiritual inheritance because of arrogance and complacency, a similar attitude can rob modern Christians of theirs.

Monday, September 25, 2017

PENTECOST XVII 2017 (Proper 21)

Christ Pantocrater

This week’s Epistle includes what is arguably the most beautiful passage in all of Paul’s letters – his theologically deep and poetically compelling affirmation to the Philippians of the incarnation of God in Jesus, an indissoluble unity of the human and the divine made possible by Christ's perfect obedience. The climax of this magnificent hymn looks to a time when ‘every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’. 

There follows, however, an instruction to the Philippians that seems to conflict both with the Lordship of Christ, and with Paul’s well known insistence on faith before works. 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’, Paul writes. Surely the Good News of the Gospel renders this instruction redundant? Since Christ has saved us by being 'obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross', are we not relieved of the burden of working out our salvation for ourselves? Paul, of course, does not mean to deny this, and so he immediately adds to his instruction this essential qualification – ‘it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’. But doesn’t this just compound the problem? Is it God at work, or is it us at work?

Miro - Vineyards and Olive Tree
The Gospel throws some light on this issue. In another vineyard parable, two sons react differently to their father's instruction to work in the vineyard. The one who explicitly refuses appears to be rebellious, yet ultimately does as his father asks. The other appears to be dutiful by saying the right thing, but in fact goes his own way. Jesus asks his hearers to decide which of the two sons is the obedient one. It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is obvious. The ‘rebel’ is the obedient son because, in the end, he decides to act as his father instructs. Both decision and instruction have key parts to play. The life of faith for us is our communion with God, and this necessarily falls short of Christ's perfect union. That is why the Psalmist prays 'Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation'.

It would be difficult to improve on Paul’s opening advice ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’. True discipleship means being of one mind with Jesus. But a crucial part of the sentence is the very first word -- ‘Let . .’.

Monday, September 18, 2017

PENTECOST XVI (Proper 20) 2017

Camille Pisarro -- Workers in the Fields
The whole of this week's Gospel comprises a single parable – the Parable of the Laborers in the vineyard. Unlike many other Gospel parables, this one has a beginning, a middle, an end, and  a punch line, all of which makes it easy to understand -- at one level. The problem, though, is not simply to understand it, but to see just what its message is.

Occasionally people have thought that this parable has direct application to the workplace, and implies that Christian bosses ought to pay their workers equally. Or they have found warrant in it for a even wider  principle of Christian ethics -- one that supports equal pay for company workers. Yet, Jesus makes it plain that he is talking about ‘the Kingdom of heaven’. That is to say, his parable concerns the way God deals with us, not the way we deal with each other. Even if this is what the parable aims to illuminate, however, there still seems be a problem of interpretation. The vineyard owner says to the laborer who complains that he has worked all day. ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong’. Perhaps so, but is this a good enough answer? How can it be just to give the same reward to radically different amounts of work? Don’t the laborers who worked longer deserve more?

These questions have familiar religious parallels. If the redemption of the world is universal and includes everyone who repents, this means that repentance wipes out past sins. However wicked anyone has been, it doesn't matter in the end. But can it be just for God to treat cheats, child abusers, serial killers and terrorists in the same way as those who have been decent Christians -- or just decent citizens -- all their lives, so long as they express repentance on their death beds? What is the point of lifelong faithfulness if it makes no difference in the end?

Feast of the Redeemer - Maurice Prendergast
To this recurrent, and heartfelt question, the Epistle from Philippians suggests an answer. If, as Paul affirms ‘living is Christ and dying is gain’, then the benefit to us of God’s redeeming work in Christ is ‘inestimable’ (as the BCP General Thanksgiving expressly declares). That is to say, unlike payment, the value of
knowing the love of God in Christ can't be measured in any meaningful way. Just as time does not determine the value of love between people, so living in the knowledge of God's is supremely valuable regardless of how early or late in life we have come to it. Nothing can improve upon it because there simply is no greater benefit that lifelong laborers could hope for, or deserve. And this remains true, quite irrespective of how God treats other sinners.

Knowledge of our own salvation, then, should dispel any envious glances we might be tempted to cast at those who ‘got away with it’. Are the years they lived in selfishness, dishonesty or cruelty a way of life we would have chosen, if only we had known that we could be forgiven just before death? What kind of life could we want more than to live ‘in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’, and to do so for as much of our lives as possible?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

PENTECOST XV 2017 (Proper 19)

    Blake -- God Judges Adam
    In one way or another, the readings for this Sunday are about judgment, tolerance and forgiveness. In the contemporary liberal democratic world,  being 'judgmental' is among the worst of sins, and that explains why most mainline Christian denominations have been anxious to cast off the Church’s historical reputation as ‘judgmental’, and embrace instead a non-judgmental inclusiveness that reflects what they see to be God's unconditional love in Christ -- God loves you whoever, and whatever, you are.

    Conservative Christians sometimes condemn this as a willingness to abandon a Gospel that preaches sin and salvation, in the interests of appeasing the secular world. Yet, the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans that serves as this week's epistle, does provide biblical support for non-judgmentalism. The disagreement Paul writes about – whether or not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols -- is not one that concerns us today. But the advice he bases upon it has much wider application. Though we ought to be firm in our own convictions, we ought not to pass judgment on, still less despise, those who disagree with us. The Gospel passage puts the same thought in the wider context of those who harm us. Forgiveness is ‘seventy times seven’ more important than retribution, however natural the desire for this may be. Here we have a truth that everyone has reason to welcome, if we are not to fall into the rank hypocrisy of the indebted slave.

    To this extent then, biblical teaching coincides with contemporary liberal opinion. At the same time, the wholesale rejection of ‘judgmentalism’ conflicts with a key element in these readings -- that human beings are indeed under judgment, both for what they believe and for what they do. 

    Old Slave -- Anatol Petrytsky
    No one really thinks otherwise. Racist beliefs, for instance, are almost always rooted in falsehoods, and their fruits, especially when sincerely held, are inevitably evil. Paul's point, though, is that Christians – even in this kind of case -- ought to be very careful that they are not trying to preempt God’s judgment. ‘Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” he cautions his readers. So he takes his stand against human judgmentalism, and yet immediately places it in a larger theological context : “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God”. 

    The Gospel story of the hypocritical slave, let it be noted, ends with his being “tortured” as an act of justice. In the past Christians have been very ready to usurp God’s justice and do the torturing themselves. Nowadays, perhaps, they are more likely to make the opposite mistake -- presuming upon God’s mercy. The difficult thing is both to witness to the solemn truth that “each of us will be accountable to God”, and to do so in a spirit of love rather than loathing.

    Monday, September 11, 2017

    HOLY CROSS 2017

    Legend has it that in 326 AD, during a pilgrimage she made to Jerusalem, Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, discovered  the True Cross of Jesus . She ordered a church to be built at the site of the discovery. On Sept 14 635 AD a portion of the Cross was carried into the newly consecrated 'Church of the Holy Sepulchre'. Since that time Sept 14  has been a red letter day in the Christian Calendar. Holy Cross Day invites us to meditate on the deeply mysterious fact that God chose an instrument of tortured death to be the means of salvation.
    Many poems and hymns have taken the Cross as their central image. One of the best known is by the 19th century Scotswoman, Elizabeth Cleophane. She died at the age of 39, having written a number of memorable Christian poems that were published only after her death. The first and last verses of her hymn to the Cross speak to the place of Christian faith in an uneventful life.

    Recognition of the True Cross -- Francesca
    Beneath the cross of Jesus
    I fain would take my stand,
    The shadow of a mighty rock
    Within a weary land;
    A home within the wilderness,
    A rest upon the way,
    From the burning of the noontide heat,
    And the burden of the day.

    I take, O cross, thy shadow
    For my abiding place;
    I ask no other sunshine
    Than the sunshine of His face;
    Content to let the world go by,
    To know no gain or loss,
    My sinful self my only shame,
    My glory all the cross.

    Collect for Holy Cross Day
    Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.