Monday, October 5, 2015


St. Francis - Nicholas Roerich
St Francis Nicholas Roerich (1931)
Christianity has always been somewhat ambivalent about poverty. On the one hand, from the earliest times the relief of poverty has been seen as a sacred Christian duty, and it continues to be an indispensable part of the Church’s work at home and abroad. On the other hand, poverty has also been held out as a Christian ideal. St Francis, whose feast day is celebrated in October, famously made ‘Lady Poverty’ his spiritual companion. But if poverty is such a good thing, why are Christians trying to relieve it? 
The Gospel for this Sunday makes this question even more pressing. In a striking (and original) image Jesus tells us that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of heaven. That seems to mean that prosperity is a bad thing. If this is the true, then are we wrong to look and work for a world in which economic prosperity puts an end to poverty.  If that truly is the Christian message, it can't expect to receive much of hearing. Of course, it's always possible to fudge the issue by confining the description ‘rich’ to the phenomenally wealthy few --millionaires or billionaires. But that really does not work. By historical standards and in comparison with many other parts of the world today, huge numbers of people in developed countries count as ‘rich’. Compared to us, the 'rich young ruler' who walked sadly away was not so very rich. 
The rich - Remedios Varo
The Rich Remedios Varo (1958)
So what are we to think about wealth and poverty? It’s important to see that in this passage from Mark Jesus is addressing a particular young man, someone with sincere spiritual longings. Jesus doesn’t criticize or condemn him, but ‘looking at him, loved him’. Yet when, out of love, he points to the thing that stands in the way of these longings, the young man is shocked and grieved. In this reaction he reveals that his wealth is a serious spiritual obstacleThis is the perspective from which we need to examine ourselves. Taking faith in Jesus seriously, obliges us to admit that being as wealthy as we are means running a great spiritual risk. The pursuit of worldly goods, even at a relatively modest level can become everything, and our 'spiritual' quest not much more challenging than a personal hobby. At the same time, though, poverty can be an obstacle to grace – a condition of life so grinding that the human spirit cannot rise above the level of mere survival. In reality, then, the two ideals -- eschewing wealth and relieving poverty -- can and should be brought together.  
Jesus, the Epistle to the Hebrews declares, is one 'who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need'. Christians in the wealthy Western world are often spiritually encumbered by their wealth. Their need is to get rid of that encumbrance. By freely giving it away, they open themselves up again to the things of eternal life. In very same act, these gifts, if thoughtfully directed, can alleviate the needs of others. To free people from grinding poverty is open a door to their spiritual liberty.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


The Evils of Job  William Blake
The aim of the ‘Continuous’ track on the Revised Common Lectionary readings is to take us through a significant portion of the Old Testament over a few Sundays. Accordingly, this is the first of four devoted to the Book of Job, usually classified as part of the Bible’s ‘wisdom literature’. It is one of the most ancient treatments of a recurring question – why does God let terrible things happen to good people? – though the book is almost as perplexing as the question it deals with. As a result, four short extracts are not really enough to enable us understand it, so this is one of those occasions when the Lectionary hopes to encourage us to read the whole book for ourselves over the course of the month.

Towards the end, God finally answers Job ‘out of the whirlwind’ -- with an unapologetic assertion of the inscrutability of His purposes, and a refusal to answer to human judgment!. There is a harshness about this that seems very far from the idea of a loving God. Yet, read alongside Job Chapter 28, one of the most beautiful passages in the whole Bible, it can powerfully bring home to us the immense and mysterious gap between humanity and divinity, and leave us pondering on the awesome majesty of God.

Adam and Eve - Francis Picabia
Adam and Eve (1931) Francis Picabia
It is the topic of marriage and family life that links the alternative ‘Thematic’ Old Testament reading with both the Epistle and the Gospel. A well known passage from Genesis, in which Eve is given to Adam because ‘it is not good for the man to be alone’, is matched with the Gospel passage in which Jesus both speaks against divorce, and stresses how much we have to learn from children. The Epistle tells us that God ‘did not subject the coming world . . . to angels’ but to ‘mortals’. Accordingly, it is human relationships --  parent, child, brother, sister – that provide us with the best concepts in which to think about our relationship to God.

At the center of these family relationships lies marriage – and with it, divorce. The church has long grappled with issues of  marriage and divorce, and over the last few decades with a new question - whether marriage is properly confined to a man and a woman. These are difficult questions that are also divisive. But they are not going away, and so, somehow, the Church must struggle to accommodate the conflicting points of view at which equally faithful Christians have arrived. This week’s readings point to the context that makes this struggle so significant and compelling. The Psalm marvels that out of the whole creation God is especially mindful of human beings, setting them ‘little lower than the angels’. The Epistle repeats the Psalmist’s words and underlines their astonishing nature. Part of the marvel lies in this: God has made the human relationships into which we are born central to our deepest insights into His Divine life – itself a communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Human relationships, in other words, are key to our hope of participating in the life of God. That is why the way we regard them matters so much..

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Queen Esther John Everett Millais (1829-96)
At this time of year the Revised Common Lectionary offers quite a few options. These relate chiefly to the Old Testament lessons and the Psalm. Sometimes there is a choice with respect to the Epistle, but the Gospel is always fixed. This week one OT lesson relates the final episode in the story of Esther, the beautiful Queen who relied on her royal husband’s love to subvert the malicious scheme by which the King’s adviser Haman planned the destruction of her people, the Jews. The words of the Psalm appointed to be sung with it (Ps 124) reflect the outcome – ‘Let Israel now say; If the LORD had not been on our side, when enemies rose up against us; Then would they have swallowed us up alive in their fierce anger toward us’.
The alternative OT lesson comes from the Book of Numbers and connects more directly with the Epistle and Gospel. It too recounts a very human episode, one of those many occasions when, in the course of their wilderness wanderings, the Children of Israel complain about living conditions (this time the lack of fresh meat) and accuse Moses of having led them to disaster rather than liberation. Moses expresses to God the kind of exasperation that many clergy have felt about the congregations committed to their charge – Why have you given me sole spiritual responsibility for these people? In response to Moses’ complaint, God appeals directly to seventy elders who might assist him. But the impact is short lived. Only two take up the task of prophet. And yet Joshua complains about them! They are threatening Moses’ special position.

Young John Wesley Preaching -- John Russell (1745-1806)
The words with which Moses rebukes Joshua are very similar to those of Jesus in the Gospel reading. When John complains to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us’,  Jesus replies, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us’. One lesson to be learnt is this. The task of 'the Great Commission' -- spreading and maintaining the Christian faith -- is so significant, it requires far more than just a few people to undertake it. By the very same token, it is a task that those already at work on it have to be willing to share with those who have recently come to the task.

Of course, some, perhaps many, who take up the message will indeed get it wrong, or they will preach it badly. But the Epistle (from James) wants us to see this not as a threat, but as an opportunity –‘if anyone among you wanders from the truth’ then ‘whoever brings back a sinner from wandering . . . will cover a multitude of sins’.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


The Martyr -- Marc Chagall (1970)

When people speak of ‘faith in the goodness of God’, they often mean that God can be expected to resolve the difficulties faced by those who believe in Him. The ‘problem of evil’ arises because, obviously, very often this simply isn’t the case. Bad things happen to good people.

This week’s extract from the Wisdom of Solomon bears directly on this issue. Wicked people, the writer tells us, despise righteous people. They think righteousness is foolishness, precisely because it is no protection from suffering and disaster. ‘If the righteous man is God's child’ they say, ‘he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture . . . Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected’.

Now of course, at one level their ‘test’ may seem to confirm their assessment. Yet the writer goes on to tell us that while ‘thus they reasoned, they were led astray, their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hoped for the wages of holiness, nor discerned the prize for blameless souls’. What is the 'wage for holiness', the 'prize for blameless souls'? Whatever it is, experience shows that it is not worldly success, or even comfort. Accordingly, faith in the goodness of God cannot be faith that God will be sure to make good things happen; it has to be faith that, whatever happens, God alone is good.

The Gospel for this week reveals, though, that it is a very hard faith to hold on to. The disciples simply cannot fathom Jesus’ warning that the ‘prophet’ they have followed for three years, and to whom they have more or less given over their daily lives, is going to be betrayed and killed like a criminal. To them this must be failure. Jesus, in sharp contrast, sees that the deepest faith in God will probably lead to the 'insult and torture' of the Cross. So the most central belief of the Christian religion is that, however mysterious, on the Cross it is evil, not goodness, that is defeated.

They Brought the Children - Vasely Polenov (1900)
Oddly, this passage about violence and death,  provides the background to a touching moment when Jesus takes a child in his arms. Real spiritual understanding, he seems to say, has a childlike quality about it. All these centuries later, it is easier for us to understand what the disciples at this stage in the Gospel story could not. But it is no less difficult for us than for them to strip away the presuppositions we bring to hearing the Word of God. Children in their innocence often (though not always) have a kind of honesty and simplicity that makes them open to the truth of things. Rightly, the process of growing up requires us to put away childishness. But it also brings with it the risk that in doing so we will lose the childlike openness which is a condition of wisdom, and, as the Epistle of James warns, become 'worldly wise' instead.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015


Titian's 'Wisdom' (1560)
This week’s readings are linked by an unmistakable purpose; they all issue stern warnings. The Gospel even expressly describes Jesus as ‘sternly’ ordering  his disciples not to tell people that he is the Messiah. This is somewhat strange, though. Has he not just invited them to name him in precisely this way? And aren’t they supposed to be spreading the Good News of his Messiahship?  So why the stern warning? The answer becomes almost immediately apparent. Jesus does not want the disciples proclaiming him to be the Messiah until they themselves fully understand what that means. Peter’s response to the prospect of Christ’s sufferings and death shows very clearly that they do NOT yet understand. 
The famous instruction about Christian discipleship that follows -- ‘those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it’ -- is given partly to correct this deep misunderstanding. It is of course a paradox, but it is one that lies at the very center of the Gospel. No saying of Jesus warrants closer attention. Setting it in the context of this week’s other warnings, however, draws our attention to a more general lesson. The Old Testament lessons from Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon warn us about the importance of thinking and acting wisely, and the risk of being 'wise after the event' when our own foolishness has already led us into disaster. The Epistle of James, in a complementary spirit, warns us about the special danger attached to setting ourselves up as those who can teach others-- that we 'will be judged with greater strictness'. The point is that the talents most effective in imparting wisdom and teaching the truth are the very same talents by which we need convince ourselves, as well as others, that some attractive, even admirable, things are in fact false and foolish.
Rubens St James the Apostle (1612)

In other words, be sure you really know what the Christian Gospel truly teaches, especially if you set yourself up to teach it. Being sincere and well intentioned in what you believe and what you tell others is not enough. Sincerity and error often go together. This important message runs strongly counter to much  contemporary opinion. Nowadays the ideas of truth and wisdom are often given second place to personal sincerity and good intentions -- a belief that contemporary Christians sign up to no less readily than non-Christians. But this Sunday's lessons say very clearly: Be warned! Wisdom and truth have key roles to play in Christian faith and conduct. Sincerity and commitment, however deep, are not enough.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


Christ with the Canaanite Woman -- Henry Ossawa Tanner (1909)
The Gospel for this week includes a rather puzzling exchange between Jesus and a Gentile woman (Syrophoenecian in Mark's Gospel, Canaanite in Matthew's) . Having heard of his fame, she asks him to heal her daughter who has been stricken with fever. He replies – oddly – that bread for children shouldn’t be given to dogs. She responds by saying that even dogs get crumbs. This appears to be the right answer, because Jesus commends her, and her daughter is healed. But what is it all about? The answer is this: an indispensable context for understanding Jesus’ ministry is the faith handed down from Abraham. And the principal audience for his mission are the people who share that faith -- the Jews. They are the ‘children’ who are to be fed first. The Gentile woman understands this, and she accepts her ‘underdog’ status. Nevertheless, she sees that she, and her daughter, are no less in need of God’s blessing – and, importantly, she has the courage to ask for it. It is this combination of insight, humility, courage and longing that commends her to Jesus  "For saying that, you may go--the demon has left your daughter."

Poor Man -- Istvan Varga (1938)
It is something of the same attitude that James is advocating in the Epistle. This Sunday’s passage contains the much quoted line ‘faith without works is dead’. It is a thought that modern Christians who feel more comfortable with ethics than theology readily endorse. Yet it was this very same line that made Martin Luther loath the Epistle of James. That is because it so easily leads to 'works righteousness' when faith in God is replaced by faith in the human power to do good. Set alongside the Gospel passage, however, we can interpret it a little differently. A gap can easily open up between what we say and how we behave. This is why our actions and attitudes are usually the most convincing evidence of what we truly believe.

The reading from Proverbs for this Sunday says: ‘The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all’. If we believe that every human being stands in need of God’s redeeming grace – Gentile no less than Jew, the wearer of 'gold rings and fine clothes' no less than the 'poor person in dirty clothes', and that without such grace, everyone is pretty much a broken vessel, then the distinctions of ethnic origin, wealth, social status, and education will be things we hold in relatively little regard. Holding these beliefs, however, is not simply a matter of endorsing them whenever anyone  asks. What James in another passage identifies as‘true religion’ must embody our belief,  in actions as well as in words.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law -- Marc Chagall
It is relatively rarely in the Lectionary that the connection between the Epistle and the Gospel is quite so clear as it is on this Sunday. The subject of both is the concept of ‘defilement’, what it is and why it matters. ‘Defilement’ is not a term we use easily nowadays. Partly this is a result of the fact that we live in a much less religious world than previous generations did. Yet something like this concept is hard to dispense with. How are we to capture the particularly loathsome nature of child pornography, the vandalizing of graves, or the willful corruption of the innocent, except with language that goes beyond customary moral concepts of 'good' and 'bad', 'right' and 'wrong'?  If we are to express adequately the profound revulsion and rejection that talk of ‘defilement’ aims to reflect, we need deeper concepts -- 'sacred' and 'profane'  -- that are rooted in God's  absolute commandments, such as the passage from Deuteronomy invokes.

The Pure Spirit -- Jacques Herold
At the same time, we know that human beings easily confuse divine commandments with merely conventional taboos, which they then cloak in terms like these. And that has itself been the source of great evil, when the 'violation' of these conventions is taken to license contempt and oppression against those who do not, or will not conform to them. It is this conventional notion of 'defilement' that Jesus condemns in this week’s Gospel passage. Such people, he says, treat ‘human precepts’ as though they were fundamental ‘doctrines’, and thereby ‘abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’. They venerate mere codes of action, when what matters is the heart and spirit from which our actions spring and to which they ought to be connected.

In the Epistle, James extends the thought to make us more circumspect in this regard. Moral outrage is simply anger; it ‘does not produce God’s righteousness’. Religion ‘pure and undefiled’ requires ‘meekness’  -- which is to say humility in our judgment of others, a close watch on our own sincerity, and more circumspection in what we declare to be divine law.