Wednesday, June 29, 2016

PENTECOST VII Proper 9 2016

Saddle Horse in Palestine - Singer Sargent
The Gospel for this week is one of those passages that modern readers can find it hard to relate to, especially at the present time. That is because, taken as a whole, it seems to portray 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. The Lectionary omits certain condemnatory verses, and these just make the passage even harder. Still, if we believe in the Incarnation, we have to accept that the eternal God chose to be born into a world radically different from modern post-Enlightenment societies, so that the reality of that kind of world is one we must try to understand.

Three features of this Gospel episode seem especially important. First, the people Jesus chose to spread the word of God’s kingdom on earth were not highly educated, politically powerful or socially prestigious, but notably ordinary. These are ‘simple folk’, and in the verses that follow the lectionary extract, Jesus underlines that fact. Secondly, he 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’.

Sacred Flame - Kazuo Shiraga
Yet thirdly, 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, these ordinary people have been entrusted with a task and a gift 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’. But this neither implies nor bestows a higher social status. They remain simply human.

In the accompanying Epistle, Paul identifies very precisely a special danger confronting those who find themselves possessed of unusual spiritual gifts. 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’. The warning is apt, but cannot disguise the great challenge that this presents to anyone who believes God speaks to them in a special way. The temptation is to use spiritual insight to limited human ends. Sometimes, as in the case of suicide bombers, this results in pursuing political goals with brutal disregard for others.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

PENTECOST IV (Proper 6) 2016

King David does repentance - Albrecht Durer
Durer - King David Does repentance
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. Three such women feature in this week’s readings – Jezebel the wife of Ahab, Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, and an anonymous woman who anointed Jesus feet with perfume. Between the last two, there are some striking differences.

Bathsheba’s astonishing beauty makes her a victim of sinful lust. David uses his royal status and 'manly' 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 'possess' her permanently. The very language of possession speaks to the conception of male/female relations at the time. For a while, this seems to go unpunished, though not ultimately. In a famous scene, the prophet Nathan tells David a story that a prompts David, inadvertently, to admit his own guilt. Even so, in the story Nathan tells, what matters is the relationship between two men, the one rich and the other poor, and the rightful possession of a 'ewe lamb'. This is the not very flattering analogue of Bathsheba, who, like the lamb, is the passive object of male desire throughout.

Christ in the House of Simon Dieric Bouts (1415-1475)
The Gospel passage has some interesting parallels. Jesus, like Nathan, tells a little story to person of some wealth and importance in order to elicit a moral judgment that will cast light on the hearer's own behavior. It works in this instance also. Simon concludes as he is meant to. But in this story one of the two main characters serves directly as analogue for the anonymous woman anointing Jesus' feet. Unlike Bathsheba, however, she is not the innocent party. In fact she is the more guilty of the two. All we know is that she is a 'sinner in the city', which tradition has  interpreted as prostitute. If so, she is a prime target for the culture's condemnation. Yet Jesus turns it all around. She is not the one to be criticized, but the prosperous Simon whose hospitality, like that of the rich man in Nathan's story, falls decidedly short. That too, is to be forgiven, but precisely because it is the lesser fault, repenting it is easier. It is the woman we should take as a better model of faith and repentance.

The comparison of Jesus' attitude with the story of David and Bathsheba shows us just how counter cultural it is. This is not always easy to see, precisely because in some respects such an attitude remains deeply counter cultural for the modern world too.