Tuesday, October 31, 2017

PENTECOST XXII 2017 (Proper 26)

In the Gospel passage for this week Jesus contrasts those who use religion as a means for self-promotion and aggrandizement, with those who find in it a cause for deep humility. Humility of this kind may be said to be the most distinctive of Christian virtues. Love, compassion, hospitality, and a sense of justice, are all virtues in other creeds, both religious and non-religious. But humility stands out as something on which Christians place particular value, an emphasis that served to set their faith far apart from the Roman world in which it first emerged.

It has never been an easy virtue to accept, and may indeed be even harder now than it was then. A sense of self-worth is crucial to psychological well being, and so we rightly think that self-abasement is unhealthy. In the consumerist world of today, however, this belief in self-esteem slides into the assertion of a right to live life just as I choose, thus giving pride of place to the satisfaction of personal desire and the pursuit of goals that I have chosen. This right to individuality is widely held to be the ideal that self respecting people ought to strive for. With such an ideal in view, humility comes to be rejected, discarded as an outmoded taste for self-denigration. Conversely, praising humility is condemned as a covert way of undermining the rights of the poor, the abused or the oppressed.

There are indeed dangers here. Telling others to be humble can be a form of domination, one in which humility is conveniently compounded with humiliation. Still, Jesus could hardly be more explicit in his endorsement of humility against the Pharisees’ great failing -- spiritual pride. Their confidence in their own righteousness was so secure, they assumed they could pursue their own interests with impunity. It is precisely the same fault that Micah eloquently condemns in the accompanying Old Testament lesson.

Mountain of the Holy Cross -- Thomas Hill
There is, nonetheless, an element of paradox in what Jesus says – ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted’. Does this not imply a kind of ‘mock’ humility – paying lip service to humility, but really harboring a desire to be exalted? It is essential to remember that central to the Gospel message is the exaltation of Jesus -- on a Cross. True humility seeks spiritual heights, not social or material status -- even in the next life. The prayer of the Psalmist expresses it perfectly – “Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling”. The humility that should result from such a prayer is not a sign of timidity. Rather, it will reflect deep confidence born of honesty about who we are and who God is, and the 'heights' to which it is most worth aspiring.

Monday, October 30, 2017


Icon of All Saints

The Gospel for All Saints in this year of the lectionary consists in ‘The Beatitudes’, so called because they comprise a list in which each item begins with the word ‘Blessed’. Jesus tells his disciples that they are ‘blessed’ when they are persecuted, reviled and slandered. This is deeply counter-intuitive. It is also contrary to those Old Testament passages where what is effectively the same concept is usually translated ‘happy’ and refers to the emotional and material benefits that can be expected to flow from faithfully following God’s law. Here, it seems, Jesus is warning his followers that, in ordinary human terms at least, discipleship is likely to be bad for them.

So why would anyone go in for it? Sometimes the answer is thought to lie with post-mortem rewards – benefits that we can expect in heaven, if only we persist. But to follow Jesus for the sake of future benefits has the unwelcome implication that there is nothing to be gained from faithful discipleship now. A traditional hymn begins ‘My God I love thee not because I hope for heaven thereby’. That seems right.

Cloud of Witnesses
The short but beautiful Epistle from the first letter of John contains a central Christian affirmation on just this point. The greatest possible blessing in life is ‘that we should be called children of God and, the writer of the letter tells us, ‘we are God’s children now’. Speculation about heaven and the hereafter, however intriguing or alluring is essentially idle, because ‘what we will be has not yet been revealed’.

None of us wants to be persecuted or reviled. Being ‘meek’ or ‘poor in spirit’ is not a goal we are inclined to set our children either. Yet on All Saints Day we are invited to acknowledge this truth.  Though ‘the world did not know it’, the lives of the poor and persecuted who truly lived as ‘children of God’ were as blessed as we can ever hope our own will be.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

PENTECOST XXI 2017 (Proper 25)

Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afar -- James Tissot

"Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform . . . and for mighty deeds and terrifying displays of power in the sight of all Israel". So this week's reading from Deuteronomy declares, and yet the very same passage records the fact that, while God allowed Moses to see the Promised Land, he did not allow enter it. It is a very moving moment. Moses dies in sight of the land to which, for so long and in the face of so many difficulties, he has faithfully led God's chosen people.

A comparable fact is echoed in the Gospel exchange that Jesus has with the Pharisees. Asked to identify the most important rule of life , Jesus does not hesitate to recall and repeat ancient Jewish teaching about God and neighbor. But he then rejects the special status of David, that other iconic Jewish figure. Neither David nor his descendants can be the final Messiah because they are subservient to God's will and purpose no less than Moses. The message seems clear. Traditional Jewish teaching is right about love, God and neighbor, but wrong in supposing that the fullest realization of God's presence is to be found either in unrivaled prophetic power or in exemplary kingship.

To suppose that it is found in Jesus instead could be interpreted as simply a change of loyalties, a preference for a different prophet -- until we remember the Crucifixion. The charisma of Moses and the valor of David cannot be denied. They are relatively easy to believe in as exemplars of the sovereign power of the one true God. To hail Jesus sincerely as Messiah is to endorse a much harder alternative -- that, contrary to what we naturally suppose, it is on the Cross that the strange way in which divine love exhibits its power and secures its victory is finally revealed.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

PENTECOST XX 2017 (Proper 24)

The Tribute Money Jacek Malczewski
‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’. The punch line from this week’s Gospel (in its more traditional version) has become a familiar saying. But how should we interpret it? Is this simply a retort by which Jesus cleverly avoids a trap the Pharisees have set for him when they try to show him to be out of step with popular anti-Roman feeling? Or should we read into it a much more serious warning against confusing spiritual aspiration with political protest? To address this question, we need to see the exchange in a wider context.

In the eighth chapter of the first Book of Samuel, the Israelites ask Samuel to appoint a king. At first he takes this to be a painful rejection of his own authority, but then he learns that its true significance lies in what it says about their faith in God. Thus a long history begins in which royal power and the sovereignty of God come into regular conflict. Notwithstanding the short lived triumphs of David and Solomon, the end result for Israel is political division, and conquest. Moreover, in one of the Old Testament lessons for this week, Isaiah actually voices God’s explicit commission to one of these conquerors, Cyrus King of the Persians. “I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they [the people of Israel] may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me”.

The Tribute Money Emil Nolde
The Roman conquest in New Testament times was just one more episode in the long history of Israel's subjugation. In John’s account of the trial of Jesus before the Roman governor, the subject of kingship figures prominently. When the leaders of the Jews shout ‘We have no King but Caesar!’, they reveal a radical division in their own minds between the hopes they place in God and their recourse to political power. In response, Caesar (in the person of Pilate) orders a sign to be put above the dying Jesus. It reads ‘King of the Jews’. Even if prompted by a desire to provoke the Jews, it is nonetheless insightful, because the 'Kingship' of Jesus is indeed, mysteriously, revealed in the Cross. The imperial power of Caesar ruled the ancient world. It counts for nothing now. At the time of his execution Jesus was virtually unknown. Yet the Resurrection revealed him to be the Incarnation of God. As the real Christ, long awaited by Israel, he counts for everything now.  

Against this background, the instruction, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ warns us about getting our ultimate priorities wrong. In the Epistle Paul praises the Thessalonians who “turned to God from idols”. Political power is one such idol, and it has proved endlessly alluring -- as in the failed 'war on terror'.  Even sincere Christians with the best of intentions, it seems, can be drawn to its false allure.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

PENTECOST IXX 2017 (Proper 23)

Rembrandt - Belshazzar's Feast
The image of a 'banquet’ or 'feast' is one that recurs with great regularity in Christian thought and art, not least in the Bible itself. The reason is easy to see. Religion is about life, and food is essential to life. An instinctive desire for food is the new born baby’s first orientation to the world, and by tradition, an offer of food is the last humane act extended to those condemned to death. Nor is food simply a necessity. Specially prepared food and drink provided in abundance is the universal mark of human celebration – at births, weddings, religious holidays and communal festivals.It was at a wedding feast that Jesus gave his first 'sign', according to John. So it is completely natural for human beings to think analogically of spiritual gifts and blessings as ‘heavenly food’, and by extension to conceive of God’s promise of salvation as a ‘heavenly banquet’.


Bosch -- Marriage Feast at Cana
Some of  the most famous feasts and banquets that the Bible depicts, however, have a dark side -- sin subverting celebration and turning it spectacularly in the wrong direction.  Belshazzer's feast in the Book of Daniel is one famous example -- an extravagant celebration that augurs the collapse of a Kingdom. Herod's feast at which Salome dances is another -- her reward taking the gruesome form of the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  Feasting, then, ought to mark a joyful celebration, but it can go badly wrong.

Jesus' use of the image in the parable that forms this Sunday’s Gospel has something of this ambiguity about it. His audience's familiarity with the passage from Isaiah that provides the Old Testament lesson -- “the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines” -- means his use of this image to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven could not fail to resonate. However, it is given a special twist. To begin with, the people who ought to come to the celebration can't be bothered to come, despite the status of the host and the quality of the food. In response, the king tells his slaves to go out into the streets and gather “all whom they found, both good and bad”. Is the message this ---  that social elitism has been abandoned in favor of a wonderful inclusion?

Things are not quite so simple. To begin with, the guests on the original list, who treated the invitation lightly, are not included, but punished instead. And, it turns out, even the people gathered up from the streets and brought in without asking are not assured of a permanent place at the banquet. The hapless man who did not trouble to dress properly for the occasion, is promptly thrown out.

The message seems clear. God longs for everyone to share 'joys that pass our understanding' with him. Good news indeed. Yet indifference, willfulness and carelessness have the power to make us lose them.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

PENTECOST XVIII 2017 (Proper 22)

Laboring in the Vineyard
The Gospel for this week is yet another parable set in a vineyard. Strictly, it is an allegory since it is not simply a story with a message, but one in which the participants can be directly correlated with the people to whom, and about whom, the story is told

On the surface, the parallels are not hard to see. God is the owner of the vineyard. The tenants are those entrusted with witnessing to his lordship. The slaves are the Old Testament prophets sent by God, time and again, to recall his people to faithful obedience. In the face of their repeated rejection the landlord’s own son – Jesus – is sent to the vineyard. His murder at the hands of the tenants brings God’s wrath upon them, and custody of the vineyard is placed in other hands.

Who exactly are these first tenants? It is easy to misidentify them as the Jews, and hence suppose that the new tenants are the Christians. The lesson from Isaiah puts us right on this score: “the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel”. It is not the tenants, but the vineyard itself, strange to say, that is to be identified with the Chosen People, the fertile ground God has provided. This switches our attention to the leaders of Israel. Forgetting, or disregarding, their obligation to God, they claim the headship of Israel for their own nationalistic purposes. It is in order to rescue his Chosen People, not to abandon them, that God sends his Son. This means that the new tenants do not mark a radical break with the past. Rather, they are called to be more faithful stewards of the same God.

Valazquez St Paul
Paul’s Epistle for this Sunday can be seen to reflect this interpretation of the allegory. He is, he tells the Philippians, "a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee", thereby emphatically underlining his own Jewishness, something he never discounts or disowns. But, he says, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss  . . .  because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.

The continuity between Jew and Christian is essential to the Gospel message Paul preaches. It carries this implication, however. If the ancient Pharisees forfeited their spiritual inheritance because of arrogance and complacency, a similar attitude can rob modern Christians of theirs.