Monday, October 22, 2012


Jesus heals the blind beggar

The Christian Year is drawing to a close. Two of the Sundays between now and Advent are special – All Saints Sunday (Nov 4)  and Christ the King (Nov 25), but for the rest, the readings continue as they have for several weeks past --  passages from the Epistle to the Hebrews are set alongside passages from the Gospel of Mark. It is an interesting, but also slightly puzzling combination. For the most part Mark relates episodes in which Jesus figures as a teacher, a prophet, a leader and a healer. The extracts from Hebrews, on the other hand, insist again and again that we should see Jesus as priest. This is a label Mark never employs. The readings for this week follow the same pattern. Mark tells the story of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar whose persistence finally wins him the attention of Jesus. His request is plain and simple – ‘I want to see again’ and his sight is indeed restored. How does this healing ministry fit with the description of Jesus in Hebrews as ‘high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled’?

Jesus’ ‘healing ministry’ is not as straightforward as it appears. First, in many of the examples Mark gives us – the crazy man by the lakeside, the woman with the hemorrhage, the centurion -- Jesus doesn’t seek out the sufferers. They push themselves forward. Second, he doesn’t claim his powers have healed them, but says ‘Your faith has made you well’. And third, when healing takes place – to the astonishment of lookers – the disciples are told not to spread the word, to keep it secret. All these are clues that in the context of Jesus ministry, physical healing, however much it matters to the individuals concerned, must not be the main focus. We will have lost its true meaning if we do not see it pointing to things spiritual.
Icon of Jesus the High Priest

‘Actions speak louder than words’. When say this we are thinking of cases in which deeds communicate a message with a force that mere words would lack. This is how it is with the actions of Jesus. Often, the healing miracles should be interpreted as spiritual ‘signs’ rather than medical ‘wonders’. Bartimaeous embodies both the sort of deep longing that has the strength to persist, and a faith founded on absolute trust. His physical blindness, and the restoration of his sight, provide Jesus with an occasion that he can use to prompt the onlookers, and Bartimaeous, and us, to a new awareness of spiritual blindness. The dark and narrow minded  paths in which our lives so often go is the  blindness from which Christ continues to free us, if only we sincerely long for him to do so. He does this, Hebrews tells us, because on the Cross he makes a sacrifice that renders every other sacrifice redundant. Priest and healer, it seems, are not so far apart after all.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


The Apostles James and John, Museum of Santiago Compostela
This week, somewhat unusually, the Continuous and Thematic lectionary readings have a common resonance. Both culminate in a Gospel passage from Mark, and the thread that runs through all of them is the relation between personal suffering and faith in God. The Book of Job poses the question – why do good people suffer terrible things? It is in this third extract (rather than in next week’s ‘happy ending’) that we find the answer -- not an easy one. In response to Job’s cries, and in contrast to all the possible explanations that his human comforters have offered him, God finally answers him ‘out of the whirlwind’. The answer turns out to be a series of questions: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements-- surely you know!” Though the phrase ‘surely you know’ seems to have an element of ridicule about it, it underlines something important. We owe to God our ‘creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life’ (as the General Thanksgiving expresses it). When the Lord takes away what He has given, we can curse Him, or continue to bless Him. That is the hard choice we face, as Job does. The Psalm that accompanies this reading expressly invites us to choose the second option – ‘Bless the Lord O my soul!’

But the New Testament does not leave the matter there. The Epistle echoes Isaiah’s powerful description (in the Thematic OT reading) of the ‘suffering servant’ ‘wounded for our transgressions’. Building on the idea that we are healed by his bruises, it points to the crucial importance of God’s suffering in Jesus. ‘Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him’. The Gospel recounts that somewhat embarrassing occasion when James and John push themselves forward for special treatment in heaven, and thereby reveal how drastically they misunderstand what discipleship means. ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?’ Jesus asks, and to do so without any special promise of glory. ‘We are’ they proudly reply. And so indeed James ultimately proved to be since (Acts tells us) he became the first Apostle to be killed, in a brutal persecution. But by that time, of course, he had a different assurance – Christ’s Resurrection.

The terrible sufferings we see in this world, and sometimes experience for ourselves, constitute a human problem that will not go away. For the Christian, though, suffering is not merely something inexplicable, an unfortunate by-product of evolution. There is meaning to be found in it if we treat it as a spiritual mystery. In Jesus, God chose suffering for Himself as the way to our salvation. The Resurrection is not the happy ending that the Book of Job will offer us next week. It signals the power of love to defeat evil, not by eliminating it, but by transcending it.

Monday, October 8, 2012


James J Tissot The Rich Young Ruler walks sadly away

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 indispensible 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. Mother Theresa of Calcutta -- one of the most compelling Christian icons of our time -- died in 1997; the sum total of the worldly possessions she left behind came to two saris and a bucket.

St Francis weds Lady Poverty
But if poverty is such a good thing, why are we trying to relieve it? The Gospel for this Sunday makes this question 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. Does that mean that prosperity is a bad thing? If this is the true, then at a time when the world is longing for a return to economic growth, the Christian message can’t expect much of hearing. We can try to fudge the issue by making ‘rich’ mean just the phenomenally wealthy few. But that really won’t work. By historical standards and in comparison with many other parts of the world today, most of us count as ‘rich’. We are very far indeed from the breadline. So what are we to think?

It’s important to see that in this passage from Mark Jesus is addressing a particular young man, someone with sincere spiritual longings. Jesus didn’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. He thereby reveals that his wealth is a serious spiritual obstacle for him. We need to examine ourselves from this perspective also. If we take our faith in Jesus seriously, then we have to admit that being as wealthy as we are, means running a big spiritual risk -- that the pursuit of worldly goods becomes everything. At the same time, poverty can also be an obstacle to grace – something so grinding that the human spirit cannot rise above the level of mere survival. In reality, then, the two ideals 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.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Job's Evil Dreams - William Blake (1805

This 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 – and yet almost as perplexing as the question it deals with. So four short extracts are not really enough to enable us understand it, and 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’. What emerges is an unapologetic assertion of the inscrutability of His purposes, and a refusal to answer to human judgment. The seeming harshness of this is offset, though, by one of the most beautiful passages in the whole Bible – Job 28 – which leaves us pondering deeply on the mysterious gap between humanity and divinity.

The topic of marriage and family life 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 been grappling intensively with marriage and divorce over the last few decades. Is consensual ‘no fault’ divorce permissible? Is true marriage only possible between man and woman? These are not only difficult questions; they are also divisive. But they are not going away, and so, somehow, Christians must struggle to resolve them. This week’s readings point to the context that makes that 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. That makes them key to our hope of participating in it.