Tuesday, September 6, 2016

PENTECOST XVII (Proper 19) 2016

The Lost Coin Domenico Fetti (1588-1633)
In the Gospel for this Sunday, the Pharisees and scribes complain that Jesus is regularly found in the company of sinners. When Christians read this today, they rather too readily assume a position of moral superiority over the benighted Pharisees, and complacently identify themselves with what they perceive to be the non-judgmental attitude that they think Jesus exemplifies. This scarcely makes sense of the passage, which invokes the concept of repentance, and penitents, of course, must have something to repent.
But biblical interpretation aside, identifying Jesus with contemporary non-judgmental inclusivism is either hypocritical or deeply unattractive. In reality, no decent person is content to rub along with child abusers, wife beaters, racists, rapists or people who exploit the weak and vulnerable, and any one who refuses to 'judge' such conduct is in effect condoning great evil.
Lamentations of Jeremiah - Marc Chagall
It is the reality of great evil that Jeremiah and the Psalmists grapple with in the Old Testament lessons. Their context was the ancient world, certainly, but there are plenty of modern contexts to which their words apply,. The history of Africa, both colonial and post-colonial, is a terrible case in point -- ‘foolish’ adults who act like ‘stupid children’ and have no real understanding, together with ordinary people who have simply ‘gone astray’, and are ‘perverse’, and worse, people who are ‘skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good’. The same descriptions could be used of the warring factions in Syria and Afghanistan. But America and Europe are hardly 'evil-free' either.
So what, then, is the message of the Gospel for this Sunday? It is a truth of the human heart that the wicked do not easily turn from their ways. When they do, accordingly, there truly is 'joy in the presence of the angels of God'. This is not because they are in some way more to be praised or admired than people who steer clear of great evils. Rather, it is because stories of their repentance are signs of hope -- hope that in the end light can overcome darkness.

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