Monday, August 27, 2012


El Greco -- St James

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 as 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 or the vandalizing of graves, except with language that goes beyond customary moral concepts of right and wrong, and captures something of the revulsion that the idea of ‘defilement’ expresses?

At the same time, we know that human beings easily create merely conventional taboos. The violation of these is a ‘defilement’ that then licenses contempt and oppression against those who do not, or will not conform to them. It is this conventionalism 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.

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, and a close watch on our own sincerity.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Jesus teaching in the Temple  James Tissot (1836-1902)

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 seems 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 is seems certain that it was written in full knowledge of this fact.

What this shows is that the Eucharist did not arise from a new theological doctrine or creed. Rather, its celebration had a power to speak directly to the deep spiritual needs and hopes of people. The struggle to understand its mysterious nature flowed from an immediate acknowledgement of its significance, as it. has always done and continues to.

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. It is one that has provided Christians over two millennia with an indispensible source of insight into and reflection upon the central practice of their faith.

The other Lectionary readings for this week point out a further important connection. References to bread and wine occur in the short passages from Proverbs and Ephesians. Together they alert us to the fact that the Eucharist is not simply a distinctive religious ritual. It is intimately connected with living life wisely.

Monday, August 6, 2012


The Bread Line -- Grigorij Grigorjewitsch Mjassojedow (1872)

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. 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'.