Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law -- Marc Chagall
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 this is 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, the vandalizing of graves, or the willful corruption of the innocent, except with language that goes beyond customary moral concepts of 'good' and 'bad', 'right' and 'wrong'?  If we are to express adequately the profound revulsion and rejection that talk of ‘defilement’ aims to reflect, we need deeper concepts -- 'sacred' and 'profane'  -- that are rooted in God's  absolute commandments, such as the passage from Deuteronomy invokes.

The Pure Spirit -- Jacques Herold
At the same time, we know that human beings easily confuse divine commandments with merely conventional taboos, which they then cloak in terms like these. And that has itself been the source of great evil, when the 'violation' of these conventions is taken to license contempt and oppression against those who do not, or will not conform to them. It is this conventional notion of 'defilement' 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 and to which they ought to be connected.

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, a close watch on our own sincerity, and more circumspection in what we declare to be divine law.

Monday, August 10, 2015


The Institution of the Eucharist - Fra Angelica (1441)
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 appears 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 seems certain that these verses were written in full knowledge of this fact.

One conclusion we can draw from this, is that the Eucharist was not the ceremonial application of a new theological doctrine or creed. Rather, the commemoration of Christ's 'Last Supper', in a rapidly ritualized form, had the power to speak directly to the deep spiritual needs and hopes of  Christian converts in the ancient world. The theological effort to understand its mysterious nature, such as we find in John's Gospel, flowed from an immediate acknowledgement of its significance. This is how it has always been, and continues to be.

Solomon Dedicates the Temple -- James Tissot (1902)
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. This narrative has provided Christians over two millennia with an indispensable source of insight into, and reflection upon, the central practice of their faith.

In the 'Continuous' Old Testament reading, the story moves from David to Solomon, the most distinguished successor in this royal 'line'. The alternative 'Thematic' readings gesture towards an important connection with the Gospel. The brief references to bread and wine that occur in the short passages from Proverbs and Ephesians alert us to the fact that the Eucharist is not simply a distinctive religious ritual. It is intimately connected with living life wisely.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015


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 (above). 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'.