The Feast of All Saints on November 1st is a time for commemorating the countless Christians whose faithful and effective discipleship has gone largely unrecorded, and whose names are now unknown. The Welsh poet and Anglican priest R S Thomas (1913-2000) ministered for forty years to a series of small rural parishes in the Church in Wales. In his poem 'The Country Clergy' he wonderfully reflects on some of these 'saints'.
Humility is the most distinctive of Christian virtues. Love, compassion, hospitality, and a sense of justice, are all virtues in other creeds, both religious and non-religious. But humility stands out as something on which Christians place particular value, an emphasis that served to set their faith far apart from the Roman world in which it first emerged.
It has never been an easy virtue to accept, and may indeed be harder now than then. The modern world lends so much importance to a sense of self-esteem, that its absence is even identified as a mark of mental illness. Against this cultural background, humility comes to be regarded as a kind of self-abasement, and praising it is interpreted as a covert way of undermining the rights of the poor or oppressed.
There are indeed dangers here. Instructing others to be humble is a familiar form of domination. But in this week’s Gospel, Jesus could hardly be more explicit in his endorsement of humility against the Pharisees’ great failing -- spiritual pride. Their confidence in their own righteousness was so secure, they assumed they could pursue their own interests with impunity. It is precisely the same fault that Micah eloquently condemns in the accompanying Old Testament lesson.
There is, nonetheless, an element of paradox in what Jesus says – ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted’. Does this not imply a kind of ‘mock’ humility – appearing humble, but with the ultimate desire of being exalted? Here it is essential to remember that it was on a Cross that Jesus himself was ‘exalted’. The exaltation that true humility seeks is for spiritual heights, not social or material status -- even in the next life. The prayer of the Psalmist expresses it perfectly – “Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling”.
The 'Door of Humility' is so called because it physically obliges everyone to bow down before entering the presence of God in the ancient basilica beyond.
The Collect from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer that accompanies the readings for this week includes this petition – “that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command”. The prayer is a very ancient one, dating back to the 5th century. Translated by Archbishop Cranmer for the original Anglican Prayerbook of 1549, its enduring appeal over the centuries still secures it a place nearly 500 years on.
With Cranmer’s gift for succinctness these few words brilliantly express a prayer of extraordinary depth, but very great difficulty. It is easy to say (in the beautiful words of the first Psalm) that “Happy are they who . . .delight is in the law of the LORD. . . They are like trees planted by streams of water. . . with leaves that do not wither”. In reality, though, it is often very hard to long sincerely for those things that God in his wisdom and goodness offers us. The Gospel for this Sunday provides an important instance. After re-affirming the heart of God’s law in the two great commandments, Jesus engages in what seems like a puzzling bit of word play with his Pharisee critics. There is nonetheless an important point to it.
Those who looked to David’s line for a future Messiah, a ‘Son of David’, had a certain hope in mind –the emergence of a Jewish leader whose exceptional military prowess would restore national integrity. Jesus reminds them, however, that David owed everything he accomplished to a LORD who was his sovereign. God would send a Messiah of his own choosing, not of theirs.
In his Epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul is making a closely related point. It is easier to win the approval and support of others by offering what is popular, rather than what is right. Yet, anyone who truly believes that they have “been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel" must speak “not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts”.
Tradition holds that Luke the Evangelist was a doctor, a tradition reflected in the choice of readings for this day. His real claim to our admiration and attention lies elsewhere, however. It is to this otherwise unidentified Gentile, who makes no appearance in the Gospel and never encountered Jesus in the flesh, that we owe the New Testament link between the ministry of Jesus and the post-resurrection Church. Uniquely among the four Gospel writers, Luke wrote a sequel, and thereby told us almost everything we know about the immediate impact of the Resurrection. But more than that, Luke wrote Bible passages of such power and beauty, that they have provided the Church with some of its most enduring prayers and praises for almost two thousand years. As an estimate of his accomplishment, consider just this brief list.
St Luke -- James Tissot
The Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1: 46-55) is used daily throughout the world, and has inspired musicians in countless different ways.
Luke alone tells the Bethlehem story that lies at the heart of Christmas (Luke 2: 1-20) .
The Lord's Prayer in its most familiar form is Luke's version (Luke 11: 1-4).
Only Luke recounts the compelling appearance of the Risen Christ on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-32), the subject matter of some of the world's most famous paintings.
Our only biblical accounts of Christ's Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost are owed to Luke (Luke 24 & Acts 1 and 2).
The death of Stephen, the first Christian Martyr is recorded by Luke (Acts 6-8)
Luke describes Saul's dramatic experience on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9: 1-19)
It is only because of Luke that we know of Paul's trial and his final trip to Rome (Acts 25-28).
In the light of such a list, can there be any doubt that St Luke's Day is an occasion for thanks and celebration?
‘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 it a clever retort by which Jesus avoids a trap the Pharisees have set for him when they try to show him out of step with popular anti-Roman feeling? Or should we read into it a much more serious warning against mixing religion and politics? To settle 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 the Old Testament lesson, Isaiah actually voices God’s 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 Roman conquest in New Testament times was just another in a long sequence, and 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 puts a sign above the dying Jesus. It reads ‘King of the Jews’. Though prompted by a desire to provoke, no doubt, it is an insightful action. The sovereignty of God is indeed, mysteriously, revealed in the Cross. The imperial power of Caesar counts for nothing now; the Incarnation of God in Christ counts for everything.
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, even to Christians with the best of intentions.
‘A banquet’ is one of a relatively small stock of images that recur with great regularity in Christian thought and art. The reason is simple. Religion is about life, and food is essential to life. The need 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. Special food and drink in abundance is the universal mark of human celebration – at births, weddings, religious holidays and communal festivals.
So it is natural for human beings to think of spiritual gifts and blessings as ‘heavenly food’ and to conceive of God’s promise of salvation as a ‘heavenly banquet’. Jesus uses precisely this image in the parable that forms this Sunday’s Gospel. He invites his audience to think of the Kingdom of Heaven by means of an image could not fail to resonate with them, thanks to their 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”.
Jesus, however, gives the image a special twist. In the first part of the parable the phrase “for all peoples” suggests a wonderfully inclusive occasion, and this seems to be confirmed when the king tells his slaves to go out into the streets and gather “all whom they found, both good and bad”. Yet things are not quite so simple. To begin with, the guests on the original list, who treated the invitation lightly, are excluded. 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 bother to dress properly for the occasion, is promptly thrown out.
The message seems clear. God has in store for us unutterable joys that pass our understanding, and longs for us to share them with him. Good news indeed -- provided we don’t allow willfulness or carelessness to let us lose them.