Monday, October 28, 2013


Wassily Kandinsky All Saints' I (1911)

All Saints Day (November 1st) is listed by the Book of Common Prayer as one of the seven principal festivals of the year. Nowadays it is common practice for the main celebration to take place on the Sunday following, and this generally means that the lessons for this Sunday are replaced with those for All Saints’ Day, which also follow a three year cycle.

The lessons for Year C (which is this year) are a little different from Years A and B. They do not include the passage from Revelation traditionally associated with All Saints. Instead, we have an extract from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. In it he refers several times to ‘the saints’, but we should be careful not to read modern connotations back into his letter. Paul doesn’t have specially good or holy people in mind. He is simply referring to all those who, by acknowledging the call of God in Christ Jesus, have set themselves apart from the world of the Roman Empire, in one way or another.

Limbourg Brothers Heavenly Host (1408)
The Gospel that accompanies this lesson is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. It differs noticeably from Matthew’s more familiar version. Luke has Jesus address his hearers directly – “Blessed are you” – and he follows his account of Christian blessings, with a list of ‘Woes’ or warnings about the fate that might befall us.  In this way Luke makes the contrast between ‘the poor’ who will be blessed, and the rich who have great sorrow in store, much starker than Matthew.

To hear the call of Christ, and thus become one of the ‘saints’ who are set apart, we have to take this two-sided message seriously. The wealth most people in the developed world enjoy is spiritually dangerous. It brings with it the risk of ceasing to count our blessings, and coming to regard them as just reward for talent and hard work. Conversely, though the poor of this world are often regarded as people to be pitied, their poverty can put them at a spiritual advantage. Poverty is no guarantee of holiness, certainly, yet the precariousness of life that poor people experience may leave them much less likely to take the gifts of God for granted.

“All things come of You, and of Your own do we give unto You”. These words from the Book of Chronicles are commonly used as an offertory prayer. It is far easier to say them, however, than to take them to heart.

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Head of a Pharisee

The short parable from Luke that the Lectionary appoints as the Gospel reading for this Sunday is easily interpreted in a way that stops it from presenting us with much of a challenge. Jesus contrasts two men praying in the temple. The first is a Pharisee – someone very well versed in the Jewish religion -- the second a ‘tax-collector’ -- which in this context means a self-serving collaborator with the occupying forces of imperial Rome. The Pharisee is complacently boastful about his good conduct, while the tax collector is suitably humble about his shameful trade. It is the second rather than the first, Jesus says, who ‘went home justified’.

The message seems plain – and pointed. Religious devotion brings its own peculiar danger; righteousness easily turns into self-righteousness. Gaining access to God’s holy presence is not restricted to those who reckon they deserve it, or have worked hard with a view to earning it.  It is freely given to even the most obvious outsider, if they open themselves to God’s mercy.

 Monk-Tax Collector in the Temple

It is easy to nod in agreement with this, while missing a key point in the message. The Old Testament reading from Jeremiah says ‘You, O LORD, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name’, and Psalm 84 says ‘My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God’. The first asserts the presence of God, and the second the worshipper’s longing for that presence. The case of the Pharisee in this parable reveals an important possibility -- the two may fail to connect. The parable does not call Pharisee’s sincerity into doubt, and assumes the holiness of the Temple. Yet a sense of spiritual superiority gets in the way. This is not inevitable. The Pharisee too can open his heart and mind to God’s presence if he acknowledges that with the wrong attitude, all his religious observances count for nothing ; conversely, the tax-collector can put himself beyond the pale once more, if his actions speak louder than his words and nothing really changes.  

Both these possibilities speak importantly to the average church goer, who, in preparation for receiving the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, always says a ‘Prayer of Confession’. How easy it is for this to become mere words -- partly because, like the Pharisee, most of us can honestly say that we haven’t committed any of the ‘big’ sins – murder, fraud, cruelty or physical abuse, for instance. But then, like him, we are complacently led to overlook the sins of self-satisfaction, thoughtlessness, narrow mindedness and indifference that so often disfigure ordinary lives. These ‘shabby’ sins attract neither adverse headlines nor criminal proceedings. Yet the truth is that they set us at just as great a distance from the presence of God’s glorious light.

Vasily Polenov Head of a Pharisee (1884)
Konstantin Makovsky Monk-Tax Collector in the Temple (c. 1900)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Marc Chagall -- Jacob Wrestling the Angel
  • Jeremiah 31:27-34 and Psalm 119:97-104
  • Genesis 32:22-31 and Psalm 121
  • 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
  • Luke 18:1-8

    The common theme in the readings from Genesis, 2 Timothy and Luke that the lectionary appoints for this week is unusually obvious – persistence. Jacob wrestles with a stranger (traditionally referred to as ‘an angel’) all night long, and even at daybreak will not let him go until he gets a blessing. Paul tells his readers to ‘be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable’ for proclaiming the Gospel. Luke recounts a parable in which Jesus invites his hearers to emulate the persistence of a widow who will not stop petitioning a judge until she gets a judgment in her favour.

    The connection is easy to spot. But what lesson should we draw from it?  Do we really have to pester God as the widow does, or wrest a blessing from God as Jacob does? Does God act justly and benevolently only if, and when, we demand that he does? This is what Jesus seems to say. Yet the suggestion sits very badly with the idea of God that most Christians have, and proclaim – a God whose love is ever present and enduring, and who always takes the initiative, reaching out even to those who are hostile or indifferent.

    Paul Serusier  A Widow (1919)
    The same readings can point us in another direction, however. It is a fact that even devout and serious people give up on God, and give up on prayers that they have said for years. Moreover, they do so not out of pique or petulance, but because it does look as though, despite their prayers, neither blessing nor justice is forthcoming. This is part of the reality of discipleship. What is there for Christians to say -- except this?  We ought to persist in the ways of faith.

    Persistence, though, amounts to beating one’s head against the wall, unless we can continue in the belief that God’s love and justice does not fail. What sustains that belief, in the face of silence, is an acknowledgement that no other blessing or justice will serve. Christ’s persistence in the face of hatred and social conformity brought him to death on the Cross. This showed his love of God to be unshakeable, a love then vindicated by the Resurrection.

Monday, October 7, 2013


Healing of the Lepers James Tissort (1894)

On first reading, the Gospel passage for this week seems to be a relatively simple healing story, with a moral about gratitude. Yet on closer reading the details are puzzling. Jesus instructs ten lepers who appeal for his help to go and show themselves to the priest. They do as he says and on the way find themselves cured. One returns to thank Jesus, who asks where the other nine are, and then tells this one – a Samaritan -- that his faith has made him whole. But where did the nine go wrong? They did just what Jesus told them to, and they too, the passage says, were made whole? So why was one specially commended?

The answer is that, though a Samaritan, he alone realized that the miracle revealed Jesus as standing in a unique relationship to God. The wholeness that this perception brought him, was not merely freedom from leprosy -- which the others gained as well -- but new, saving and transforming spiritual insight.

This insight into who Jesus really was lies at the heart of Paul’s conversion and his extraordinary mission to the Gentile world. The substance, and power, of his preaching springs from the sudden realization on the road to Damascus that Jesus was not the dead leader of a renegade Jewish sect as he had thought, but the Risen Christ, who evermore would be at work reconciling the worlds of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free to the God of Abraham and Isaac.

Naaman is cured from Leprosy 12th century enamel
There are a number of places in his letters where this message is stated with special eloquence. The Epistle for this week is one of them. “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David-- that is my gospel”. “To obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory, the saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him;  if we endure, we will also reign with him”. The Old Testament reading – the story of leprous Naaman, Commander of the Aramean armies --underlines both the connection with the God of the Israelites, and the fact that it is not health, but knowledge that is key.  When Naaman’s ‘flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy’, he, like that one leper, ‘returned to the man of God . . . and said,  “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”

Jesus made no special demands of the leper who returned, and gave him no special benefits. What marked him out from the rest was his ability to recognize Jesus for who he was. It is a test that many have failed.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


There are many occasions on which the cultural gap between our world and the world of the Old and New Testaments makes it very difficult for us to understand the Scriptures. The village images of the shepherd, the fisherman, the country wedding have no very obvious counterparts in a world of freeways, skyscrapers and the internet, and this is why it often takes an effort to find a modern meaning in some of Jesus’ parables.

The Slave (1872)  J W Waterhouse
The gap is at its widest in this week’s Gospel, which relies on familiarity with a world in which slavery is taken for granted. Not only is this a different world to ours; it is one of which we fiercely disapprove. So what can we make of Jesus’ assumption that no one would think of allowing a slave to rest until all the master’s needs had been satisfied? Or the instruction to his disciples to think of themselves as slaves – ‘worthless slaves’, indeed? Haven’t we rightly abandoned a world in which people are treated like this, and learned not to think of anyone as a “worthless slave”, ourselves included? And besides, doesn’t this fly in the face of the Epistle in which Paul tells his fellow Christians that ‘God did not give us a spirit of cowardice’?

These are understandable reactions. Yet, there is still a way of making the central point that has some modern resonance. No one would think of thanking us for not murdering, assaulting, cheating or stealing from other people. Refraining from actions like these is just expected. We don’t earn special moral merit from merely respecting the rights of others. Special praise and thanks are called for only when we go beyond the requirements of duty.

Two Disciples  (1911) Augustus John
Christian discipleship can be viewed in this way. We don’t earn any special merit for giving God the time we ought to. It is something we should do as a matter of course. Moreover, picking up on a theme of the Epistle, we can and should say more than this. The service of God is ‘a holy calling’, a special gift which Christians are privileged to exercise, and there is no 'beyond the call of duty'. God cannot be given more than he can reasonably expect.

Yet the truth is that church people regularly and easily fall short in this regard. They expect from each other, and they give to each other, fulsome thanks and praise for exercising the privilege they enjoy as Christians. That is to say, they thank each other for not neglecting God -- which is precisely the attitude that Jesus is rebuking in his disciples.