Tuesday, September 1, 2015

PENTECOST XV

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

PENTECOST XIV

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.

Monday, August 10, 2015

PENTECOST XII 2015

The Institution of the Eucharist - Fra Angelica (1441)
The Gospel for this week continues the theme of the previous week as it elaborates still further the symbolic image of ‘the bread of life’. In these verses, the image of wine is added. Both symbols figure very prominently in John’s Gospel, and relate unmistakably to the distinctive Christian rite of Holy Communion. This rite appears to have been well established among the followers of Christ at a very early stage, and since it is likely that John’s Gospel was composed somewhere around six decades after the death of Jesus, it seems certain that these verses were written in full knowledge of this fact.

One conclusion we can draw from this, is that the Eucharist was not the ceremonial application of a new theological doctrine or creed. Rather, the commemoration of Christ's 'Last Supper', in a rapidly ritualized form, had the power to speak directly to the deep spiritual needs and hopes of  Christian converts in the ancient world. The theological effort to understand its mysterious nature, such as we find in John's Gospel, flowed from an immediate acknowledgement of its significance. This is how it has always been, and continues to be.

Solomon Dedicates the Temple -- James Tissot (1902)
With unusual literary skill, the fourth Evangelist weaves the teachings of Jesus with their essential Jewish background, and his subsequent Crucifixion and Resurrection, into a remarkably unified narrative. This narrative has provided Christians over two millennia with an indispensable source of insight into, and reflection upon, the central practice of their faith.

In the 'Continuous' Old Testament reading, the story moves from David to Solomon, the most distinguished successor in this royal 'line'. The alternative 'Thematic' readings gesture towards an important connection with the Gospel. The brief references to bread and wine that occur in the short passages from Proverbs and Ephesians alert us to the fact that the Eucharist is not simply a distinctive religious ritual. It is intimately connected with living life wisely.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

PENTECOST XI 2015

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life”. Taken in isolation, and stripped of its familiarity, this seems an exceptionally strange utterance. What can it mean? The Gospel for this Sunday selects a few verses out of a longer passage which really needs to be read as a whole, since it provides the context within which this strange claim is to be understood. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus chastises the people who have been pursuing him. This is the same crowd of “five thousand” that was miraculously fed from a few loaves and fishes. Jesus rebukes them because they had seen this, not as a spiritual sign, but as a marvelous source of free food.

It is against this background that he makes his assertion, and goes on to contrast the “bread” he has to offer, not just with the free bread the crowd was seeking, but with the manna that saved the Israelites from starvation in the wilderness. The key difference, we might say, is between the means to sustain life, and the source of life itself. It is a deep spiritual error to mistake the bread our bodies need with the “bread” that “endures to eternal life”.

This is a mistake that can be made with the best of intentions. The reference to Jesus as the bread of life is sometimes invoked in connection with Christian action for the alleviation of poverty and destitution -- as it is with the inclusion of Mjassojedow's picture of 'The Bread Line' in the Vanderbilt Library page for this week of the Lectionary (above). This is an indisputably worthy cause. Yet, the spiritual life that Jesus offers is needed by, and available to the poor no less than the prosperous. Wealth is no guarantee of salvation, everyone agrees. But conversely, being on the breadline is no insurmountable obstacle to it. Everyone needs to remember the Mosaic injunction with which Jesus repels the devil – “Man does not live by bread alone”.

John’s Gospel takes the thought further. There is a quite different kind of bread for which we ought to hunger, and it is to be found supremely, and uniquely, in Christ Jesus. Prosperity matters, but not as much as 'the riches of his grace'.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

PENTECOST VIII 2015

Landscape with Shepherd and Sheep   Anton Mauve, (1838-1888)

Once again the agricultural world in which Jesus lived and taught provides a central image for the Sunday readings – sheep and shepherds. In the thematic Old Testament lessons, the passage from Jeremiah (reinforced by Psalm 23) uses this image to lament the extent to which the leaders of the Israelites have abandoned their God-given role to be ‘shepherds’ of the people. In the Gospel, Jesus relinquishes his desire to retreat from the constant pressures of the crowds who seek his help, because he suddenly sees them as ‘sheep without a shepherd’.


In the interpretation of this image and its applications in Scripture, we must not suppose that sheep are useless without a shepherd. On the contrary, they know how to cope with basic survival and everyday life. They can secure grass to graze on and water to drink; they can breed successfully and succor their young. It is vital needs beyond the everyday that surpass their natural abilities -- distant sources of ‘living’ (i.e. fresh) water, and protection against climatic hazards and natural predators. These are the deficiencies that the good shepherd supplies.

Paul Preaching at Ephesus Eustace Le Seur (1649)
By analogy, then, we should not think of the crowd upon which Jesus has compassion as a bunch of helpless children. These are adults with homes, families, skills and occupations. Yet they crowd around Jesus because the larger context within which this everyday life is set leaves them at a loss. They know how to cope with ‘things temporal’, but flounder when it comes to ‘things eternal’ – the kind of life in which ultimately ‘true’ joys are to be found.

In short, they (like us) need ‘revealed’ as well as ‘discovered’ truth. It is a contention that the ‘religions of the book’ – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – hold in common. For Christians, though, the essential revelation comes not only through the Word of God, but through the Person of Christ – ‘the Word made Flesh’. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians underlines the profound significance of this shift. Whereas the religion of the book formerly constituted a dividing line between Jew and non-Jew, the possibility of a relationship with Christ overcomes any such division, so that Gentiles (foreigners) are
'no longer strangers and aliens', but equally 'members of the household of God'.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

PENTECOST VII 2015

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist -- Andrea Solario (c 1500)
The Gospel passage for this Sunday records a remarkably gruesome episode – the decapitation of John the Baptist, and, to make it even more grotesque, the presentation of his severed head on a platter in the middle of a party! In just a few verses Mark manages to convey a compelling image of the ways in which different forms of human wickedness – the brutality of absolute power, the consequences of adolescent vanity, the viciousness of revenge -- can combine to create and sustain a world in which the friends and followers of its victims can only  accept such horrors quietly as inescapable realities.

The episode is recounted in a context that characterizes the whole of Mark’s Gospel – the question of Jesus’ identity. What are we to make of him? Is he the Messiah? Is he another prophet like John? The fate of the Baptist is a ghastly catastrophe, yet even those who first read this passage, and wrestled with this question, could not have failed to know that Jesus himself had died a death scarcely less brutal. The difference, of course, is to be found in the Resurrection.

Christ on the Cross - Viktor Vasnetsov (1896)
The disciples of Jesus, just like the disciples of John, ‘came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb’. What happened thereafter, however, changed everything. It did not undo the fact of his execution on a cross, but it did transform its significance. It is precisely this transformation that the reading from Ephesians means to explicate. In the death of Jesus, God ‘has made known to us the mystery of his will . . . a plan for the fullness of time’. ‘In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance’ we have ‘heard the word of truth, the gospel of salvation’.

The death of John is a display of human will at its worst. Initially, the death of Jesus looks pretty much the same -- the outcome of political power, popular sentiment and sectarian jealousy. But God's ways are not our ways, and strangely, the mystery of the Resurrection shows Christ on the Cross to be God's saving will.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

PENTECOST VI

Rembrandt - St Paul in Prison
The Epistle for this Sunday is hard to understand, because it appears out of context. It is an excerpt from Paul’s second Letter to the Corinthians, part of a longer passage in which he is arguing against making personal religious experience the basis of spiritual authority. By speaking of himself in the third person, he discounts his own profound religious experience, despite ‘the exceptional character of the revelation’ that was given to him on the road to Damascus.


This is not because he underestimates its important in any way, but because he does not want ‘boasting’ about it to make anyone ‘think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me’. It is not his one-off encounter on the road to Damascus, but his whole way of life as a living instance of the grace of God, that must prove his faith in Jesus. Indeed, to keep him from ‘being too elated’ he draws explicit attention to ‘a thorn in the flesh’ that constantly reminds him of his real life.

We do not know what this ‘thorn’ was, but its role was to keep Paul mindful of this fact: the discipleship to which he was called was not a matter of elevated mystical elation, but ‘weaknesses, insults, hardships’ borne for the sake of Christ. Paradoxically, it is only when we fully acknowledge our own weakness that we are properly aware of the strength of God’s grace within us.
Gustave Dore -- Christ in the Synagogue

The Gospel passage from Mark resonates with this important truth. Even Jesus, in whom the grace of God is brought to perfection, must confront ‘insults’ in his ‘own country’. Those who knew him as a boy dismissively discount his message to them in the synagogue. They cannot look beyond their own assumptions, and see the prophetic voice the boy they knew is now revealed to be. This rejection is a prelude to instructions about discipleship. At the heart of discipleship, we might say, is a balancing act. True Christians must avoid the temptation to seek self-affirmation either in persecution or in popularity. That is because both turn spotlights unto ourselves, and away from Christ.