Monday, July 22, 2013


Landscape with destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah -- Joachim Patinir c.1520
This is one of those weeks in which it is rather hard to find the common theme that links the Lectionary’s ‘thematic’ readings. A common thread, perhaps, is ‘persistence’.  In the passage from Genesis, the fate of those notoriously wicked cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, is in prospect. Abraham, somewhat surprisingly, takes it upon himself to question God, and persists in extracting a promise that God’s justice will not allow Him to destroy the righteous few who happen to live alongside evil many. God finally concedes that if even a tiny proportion of Sodom’s citizens are righteous, then the city will be spared.

Persistence is also a feature of the Gospel passage. Jesus recounts a little episode in which a villager’s persistent knocking on the door of a neighbor finally produces the bread he needs to feed a guest who unexpectedly arrives at midnight. By extension, it seems, we should be willing to persist in knocking on God’s door, and making sure He knows what we need.

'Give us this day our daily bread' (photograph) Rudolph Eickemeyer
Yet, in the verses immediately preceding these, Jesus teaches his disciples a prayer that is strikingly simple, just five short sentences, only one of which is a request for material help – our daily bread. Is there some way in which its simplicity might teach us about truly persistent prayer?

The constant repetition of ‘the Lord’s prayer’ has been the practice of Christians from the earliest time. This itself exhibits a kind of persistence -- not the relentless persistence of a demanding child who will not take no for an answer, but a willingness to pray again and again, despite what sometimes feels like divine silence. Such prayer is grounded in the belief that God’s love is sure to secure the best for us. And perhaps, indeed, it is in the practice of prayer itself that we obtain the gift that Jesus actually promises us in this Gospel passage – the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


Rembrandt -- St Paul at his writing desk

On the majority of Sundays in the Christian year, the lectionary readings include a passage from one of Paul’s letters. This is a fact with which we are so familiar that its significance is often lost on us. Here are letters written by an early follower of Jesus to tiny groups of people in places that, often, no longer exist. How can it be that, almost 2000 years later, millions upon millions of people, in countless different languages, listen to them read aloud in the most worshipful moment of their week?

The answer is that, despite their humble origins, Paul’s letters have a depth of theological understanding and spiritual insight that no other Christian writings have ever matched. It was Paul, rather than Peter, John and the other disciples, who grasped the true significance of the Jesus he had never encountered in the flesh. Paul was first to understand the full import of believing that Jesus was the Christ promised by the God of Israel. And though he does not use the names by which they have subsequently become known, time and again he sets out the fundamental doctrines that such an understanding implies.

Caravaggio -- Mary and Martha
This week’s extract from his letter to Colossians is a case in point. There is only a trace of the once vibrant Greek city of Colossae in what is now Turkey. Paul writes to correct some false understandings of Jesus that have arisen there. In so doing he articulates a key element in the Christian faith – the Doctrine of the Incarnation. “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God”. This is Christ’s divinity, and the means by which human beings can come to understand a transcendent God.  At the same time, Christ’s humanity –“his fleshly body through death” enables him “to present” human beings as “holy and blameless and irreproachable before God”. It is in Christ’s uniquely two sided nature that our salvation lies.

Set alongside Paul’s profound reflections, however, this week’s short Gospel (about the all too human rivalry between Martha and Mary) serves as an important reminder. The ultimate meaning of the Incarnation does not lie in theological doctrines, but in ordinary life.

Monday, July 8, 2013


The Good Samaritan , Aime Nicholas Morot

The Gospel for this week is one Jesus' most famous, and familiar, parables -- the story of the Good Samaritan. Its sheer familiarity  means that some of its implications are easily overlooked. This is not simply a morally improving lesson about how much better kindness and generosity are to selfish hardheartedness. For the devout Jews to whom Jesus told the story, ‘the priest’ and ‘the Levite’ were pillars of orthodox respectability, and their desire to avoid the religious pollution that would result from contact with a (possibly) dead body could be widely appreciated. It is also important to remember that the Samaritans were regarded as second class Jews, because they subscribed to a debased form of Judaism. These facts intensify the meaning of the story, which is more about true religion than moral rectitude. 

Equally important is the fact that ‘the Good Samaritan’ is not a free standing story with a moral, like one of Aesop's fables. It is Jesus’ answer to a question. A lawyer raises a characteristically legal question. He does not dispute the ancient moral law of the Jews – ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ – but asks for a definition of terms – Who is my neighbor? This is not mere quibbling. The definition of terms is crucial to the law and its application. What the story shows, however, is that while legalism has its place, it can become a barrier to the life of the Spirit within us.

These few verses thus take us to the heart of the Gospel. This sincere and faithful Jew wants to place the law of God as inscribed in Leviticus at the center of his life and obey God in all things. That is one, admirable, conception of ‘the Kingdom of God on earth’. But Jesus offers a radical alternative – a willingness to go beyond the rules to the point where our human concern with religious integrity is itself overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit acting within us. In short we are called to participate in Divine life, and as the reading from Deuteronomy affirms, ultimately, this is a matter of looking deep within our own souls.'Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.'

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


'L'homme et desert' -- Jean Hugo (1894-1984)
The Gospel for this week is one of those passages that modern readers find it hard to relate to, and the condemnatory verses the Lectionary omits make it even harder. Taken as a whole, it is difficult not to see Jesus as encouraging a kind of fanaticism in the simple people he recruits to his cause, and playing to their primitive beliefs about demons, Satan and paradise. This is the passage that the snake handlers of the Appalachians used to appeal to, and that fact too confirms the thought that the world depicted in this week's Gospel is very far from ours.

Still, if we believe in the Incarnation, we have to accept that it was into a world very different from ours that the eternal God chose to be born, a reality that we must try to understand. Two features of this Gospel episode strike me as especially important. Jesus chose a large number of very ordinary people to spread the word of God’s kingdom on earth. These are ‘simple folk’, and in the verses that follow the lectionary extract, he underlines that point. Secondly, Jesus gives them the power to do some very remarkable things. This is in sharp contrast to their normal powerlessness within the prevailing social and political structures. No wonder they return from their excursions ‘with joy’.

Yet at the very height of their delight, he tells them NOT to rejoice in their new found power. It is not these astonishing abilities that matter, but the fact that their names are ‘enrolled in heaven’. In other words, they have been entrusted with a status denied to far more sophisticated people. They have the ability to see what ‘what many prophets and kings wished to see, yet never saw’ (v 24), and thus to tell others that ‘the Kingdom of God is near you’.

In the Epistle, Paul identifies very precisely the special danger confronting those who find themselves possessed of special spiritual gifts. So he warns the Galatians: ‘If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit’.