Tuesday, June 18, 2013


When I was a child we sang a hymn with the opening line ‘Jesus, friend of little children, be a friend to me’. It conjured up an image, often confirmed by pictures in children’s Bible’s, of a warm and kindly Jesus, very much at home in village life and popular with the children. When I came to read the Gospels attentively for myself, I found a very different Jesus depicted in them – someone with a much more forbidding personality, set apart from other people, moving from place to place. Although he carefully chose twelve disciples to accompany him, Jesus stands out in the Gospels as an essentially solitary prophet, with a mission that only he fully understood, and his followers understood hardly at all.
Jesus --  El Greco

This week’s Gospel depicts Jesus in precisely this way.  It is a mysterious spiritual strength verging on divinity that enables him to engage with the most extreme mental disturbance. A naked madman whom no one has been able to approach is found clothed and seated quietly at Jesus’ feet. Even today, for all our medical advances, we still find such madness in another human being deeply alarming. It is no surprise, therefore, that the people living on the shores of the Sea of Galilee found Jesus’ power in this respect just as unnerving as the madness it overcame. So much so, in fact, that they asked him to leave their part of the country. Only the madman, now restored, wanted to be with him.

The interesting twist in the story, though, is that Jesus tells him to go home, and thank God for his cure. This is further confirmation of the strange loneliness of Jesus, a loneliness that comes to a climax on the Cross, where, we might say, he hangs alone for our salvation. The lesson to be learned is that we can only bear to encounter the mysterious holiness of God if, as St Paul says in the Epistle, we are willing to ‘cloth ourselves with Christ’. This involves abandoning all the badges of self-identity that often mean so much to us. In Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; all are one in Christ Jesus’.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


Nathan Rebukes David James Tissot (1836-1902)

The Old and New Testaments depict largely male dominated worlds. Indeed it is from the religious tradition of the Old Testament that our word ‘patriarchal’ derives. Yet surprisingly, given that tradition, memorable women make their appearance again and again, often playing key roles in the story of God’s dealings with humanity. Two such women feature in this week’s readings – first Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, and then the woman who anointed Jesus feet with perfume, traditionally identified as Mary of Magdala. A comparison between the stories of these two women tells us a great deal about the spiritual development that the Bible discloses.

Bathsheba’s astonishing beauty makes her a victim of sinful lust. David uses his royal status and power, not only to force an adulterous relationship with another man’s wife, but even to contrive her husband’s death so that he can 'posses' her permanently. This does not go unpunished, however. In a famous scene, the prophet Nathan prompts David, inadvertently, to admit his own guilt. It is from that point on that  family turmoil erupts and political problems intensify. David has been recklessly indifferent to the law of God, and for all his accomplishments, God’s justice calls him to account.

As a common prostitute (if, as tradition holds, that is what she was) Mary Magdalene is no less of a sinner than David. It is not a matter of sexual peccadillos, or even outright adultery. She has deliberately misused her God-given body for money. Yet she is not punished. That is because her unusual gesture of devotion to Jesus speaks of penitence. Like David, she undoubtedly merits some sort of retribution, but as she wipes the feet of Jesus with her tears, so he wipes her sins away. Justice is not done in her case, because God’s forgiveness renders justice redundant.
Christ in the House of Simon Dieric Bouts (1415-1475)

Like Nathan, we live in a world most at home with justice. We hope and expect that evil doers will get their deserts. The Godly world of Jesus, by contrast, invites us to look beyond wrongdoing and retribution, and to do something that most human beings find very hard – to place a higher value on penitence and grace than on justice.

Monday, June 3, 2013


1 Kings 17:8-16, (17-24) and Psalm 146
1 Kings 17:17-24 and Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11-24Luke 7:11-17

On this Sunday, unusually, the ‘continuous’ and ‘thematic’ readings from the Old Testament overlap. The first takes up the story of the prophet Elijah again, while the second picks out one element of that story which, as it happens, resonates especially well with the Gospel of the day.  Both readings recount episodes in which an only son dies and then is restored to his grieving widowed mother. But what we are to learn from these?

Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath 
A striking feature of the two episodes is this. The widows are grief stricken, and yet their first reaction to the miraculous restoration of their sons, is not the straightforward relief and joy we might expect. On the contrary, we are told, a ‘great fear seized all the people’ who witnessed the Gospel episode, while the widow of Zarephath’s immediate reaction is to hail Elijah as a bringer of ‘truth’. Why so? The answer is that, though it is natural to regard events like these as wonderful miracles, this is not their most important dimension. Rather, they are spiritual pointers. By means of them, both Elijah and Jesus momentarily draw back the veil of ordinary experience, and reveal the depths of mystery behind it -- the awesome presence of transcendent power. But more than this, they also reveal themselves to be at home in that mystery – that is to say, they are men whose first and foremost commitment is to God.

This is precisely what the beneficiaries declare, in fact. Given the modern world’s near obsession with health and healing, however, it is easy for us to be blind to what they saw, and thus miss the true significance of the Bible’s miracle stories. Were we possessed of such powers, it is most likely that we would value them primarily as a wonderful short cut to dealing with illness. For Elijah and Jesus, who did possess them, they are simply the more dramatic signs by which people can be brought to God.

Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath is a drawing by Aleksandr Andreevich Ivanov, (1806-1858) from the Jean and Alexander Heard Divinity Library at Vanderbilt University