Tuesday, September 27, 2016

PENTECOST XX (Proper 22) 2016

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 vineyard, have no very obvious counterparts in a world of freeways, skyscrapers and the internet. That is why it often takes an effort to find a modern meaning in some of Jesus’ parables.
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 nevertheless a way of re-stating the Gospel's central point that has both modern resonance and relevance. Though our ideal is one in which every human being is  a free individual, this does not make everything a matter of choice. There are some things we are simply  'commanded' to do and for which we deserve no thanks. No one, for example, would think of thanking us for not murdering, assaulting, cheating or stealing from other people. Refraining from actions like these is  expected and required. So we are not owed any special moral credit from merely respecting the rights of others. It is only when we go beyond what is required of every decent human being that special praise and thanks are merited.
Church Pew with Worshipers -- Van Gogh
This is one way to think of Christian discipleship -- as being under a command. Viewed in this light, we don’t earn any special merit for giving God the time we should. It is something we ought to be doing simply 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'. We cannot give God more than God can reasonably expect.
Yet the fact 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 their work as Christians, and even for making the effort to come to worship! That is to say, they thank each other for not neglecting God.  This is precisely the attitude that Jesus is rebuking in his disciples.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

PENTECOST XIX (Proper 21) 2016

Parable of Lazarus - Fyodor Bronnikov
The readings for this Sunday have a greater thematic unity than is often the case, and continue with the topic of last week's Gospel -- prosperity and its dangers. On this Sunday all the readings, apart from the Psalms, have to do with the possession and use of wealth in one way or another. The reading from Jeremiah concerns the purchase of that which is above all worth purchasing. The passage from Amos contains a prophetic denunciation of the rich. The Epistle contains the famous line ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’, and in the Gospel Jesus tells the story of the rich man who dies suddenly in the night.

The message to be learned from these passages is really very simple. The Epistle underlines the truth that the avid pursuit of wealth can easily ‘plunge people into ruin and destruction’, while the rich man in the Gospel learns a complementary lesson: that all the wealth in the world will not make us any less susceptible to death or to Divine judgment. Between those who put their trust in material well-being and those who put their trust in God, ‘a great chasm has been fixed’.

Mountains High and Streams Eternal - Wu Guanzhong
The choice with which we are confronted is plain enough. The difficulty does not lie in understanding it, or even making it, but sticking with it. It is easy to say that the love of wealth not wealth itself endangers us. Yet, psychologically speaking, it is hard to be wealthy without placing more and more trust in the things wealth brings. This is true even for those whose wealth is modest by contemporary standards.

One aspect of the Epistle is worth emphasizing. Contrary to any impression the Gospel story might give, this is not just about what happens after you die. The author of Timothy (probably not Paul himself) tells members of the fledgling Christian church to ‘take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called’. This is an instruction for the present, not the future. It is a deep mistake to think of ‘eternal life’ as a post-mortem state. Eternal life is a mode of living now -- a way of life that death cannot destroy because, through the Cross, Jesus has enabled us to participate in the life of one who alone 'has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light’. It is this great ‘prize’ that even modest wealth can put at risk, and it does so the moment we forget just how incomparable the two are.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

PENTECOST XVIII (Proper 20) 2016

St Luke - Frans Hals
This week’s Gospel parable, commonly known as the Parable of the Unjust Steward, is unique to Luke and one of the most puzzling passages in the New Testament, There is no consensus among Biblical scholars as to just how it should be interpreted.

To save his own skin, a manager under suspicion fraudulently changes the amounts owed to his master in the hope that he can call in a few favors after he is fired. The problem of interpretation arises from the fact that Jesus appears to commend, even to praise, the manager’s dishonesty – “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth”. This sits especially ill with the second Old Testament lesson for this week in which the prophet Amos denounces the unscrupulous pursuit of wealth.
Head of Plautus, God of Wealth - Prud'hon
The story in itself is troublesome, but the difficulty of understanding what Jesus means by telling it is increased in what follows. How does the broader lesson– “You cannot serve God and wealth” (or in traditional language, God and Mammon) -- flow from the parable that precedes it?

Here is one way of looking at this difficult passage. People often think that they can be worldly wise while remaining true to a noble purpose. They suppose that, with enough determination, they can successfully use material means to spiritual ends. Jesus warns us against this easy assumption. Worldly wisdom has a dynamic of its own, one requiring us to follow a path that, almost without our noticing, quickly becomes a downward spiral. To pursue material benefits energetically and effectively in order, say, to feed the hungry, may surreptitiously lead us to embrace purposes and values deeply at odds with the spiritual well being of both ourselves and others.

This hard truth does not necessarily carry the implication that only self-imposed poverty is spiritually safe. As St Paul says elsewhere, it is not money, but the love of money, that is the root of evil, and the poor no less than the rich can love money. What it does imply, though, is that a time may come when we face a real choice between love of God and love of Mammon -- only to find that, unwittingly, we have in fact already made it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

PENTECOST XVII (Proper 19) 2016

The Lost Coin Domenico Fetti (1588-1633)
In the Gospel for this Sunday, the Pharisees and scribes complain that Jesus is regularly found in the company of sinners. When Christians read this today, they rather too readily assume a position of moral superiority over the benighted Pharisees, and complacently identify themselves with what they perceive to be the non-judgmental attitude that they think Jesus exemplifies. This scarcely makes sense of the passage, which invokes the concept of repentance, and penitents, of course, must have something to repent.
But biblical interpretation aside, identifying Jesus with contemporary non-judgmental inclusivism is either hypocritical or deeply unattractive. In reality, no decent person is content to rub along with child abusers, wife beaters, racists, rapists or people who exploit the weak and vulnerable, and any one who refuses to 'judge' such conduct is in effect condoning great evil.
Lamentations of Jeremiah - Marc Chagall
It is the reality of great evil that Jeremiah and the Psalmists grapple with in the Old Testament lessons. Their context was the ancient world, certainly, but there are plenty of modern contexts to which their words apply,. The history of Africa, both colonial and post-colonial, is a terrible case in point -- ‘foolish’ adults who act like ‘stupid children’ and have no real understanding, together with ordinary people who have simply ‘gone astray’, and are ‘perverse’, and worse, people who are ‘skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good’. The same descriptions could be used of the warring factions in Syria and Afghanistan. But America and Europe are hardly 'evil-free' either.
So what, then, is the message of the Gospel for this Sunday? It is a truth of the human heart that the wicked do not easily turn from their ways. When they do, accordingly, there truly is 'joy in the presence of the angels of God'. This is not because they are in some way more to be praised or admired than people who steer clear of great evils. Rather, it is because stories of their repentance are signs of hope -- hope that in the end light can overcome darkness.

Monday, August 29, 2016

PENTECOST XVI (Proper 18) 2016

 Jesus Carrying the Cross (1967) Salvador Dali
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” This line from the Gospel for the 16th Sunday in Pentecost has traditionally been included in the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus – sayings that, on the surface at any rate, seem impossibly hard to accept.  Who could require, still less commend, that we hate our parents?  To understand the message, though, we have to allow for a level of exaggeration characteristic of the time and place in which Jesus spoke. It is not the emotion of hatred that is being commended, but a willingness to give even the deepest attachments of family life second place to Christian discipleship.
For many people, however, this is still a step too far, and smacks uncomfortably of religious fanaticism. Indeed, if we take at face value, only the life of monk, nun or hermit could accord with this requirement.Christian faith and ordinary life, it appears, cannot be combined.
There is no getting round the fact that we confront a real choice here, and a difficult one. Yet as the lives of Christians across two millennia have shown, ordinary life can still be one of faithful discipleship. The crux lies in the way we order our priorities. Happily, most Christians are never confronted with a straightforward clash between the claims of Christ and those of family life. But at much more mundane levels -- the demands of career, business, sport, leisure  -- it is easy to put Christ in second place. The key thought is this: when we accept God on our terms rather than on His, we effectively relinquish our discipleship.
The Slave Market (1880) Gustave Boulanger
To be a Christian is to believe that God must come before everything else. This does not mean, however, that we have to abandon the people and things we love so much. Rather, accepting their radical imperfection is the first step in seeking their transformation within the divine life. This week’s Epistle illustrates the point. Paul’s touching letter to the owner of the runaway slave boy Onesimus expresses the faith that even such a problematic relationship as master and slave can be transformed – "Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while," Paul writes, "so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother --especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord."

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

PENTECOST XII Proper 14 2016

Vermeer - Allegory of the Faith
Nowadays, faith is commonly contrasted with knowledge, and construed as belief in propositions or theories that can't be 'proved'. Both religious people and their critics use the concept in this way -- the first to reject scientistic demands of proof, and the second to underscore what they see as the groundless irrationality of religion.

This concept of faith, though, however widespread, is not the biblical concept, as this week's readings make clear. In the episode from Genesis, and  reflection on it in the Epistle to the Hebrews, we find an importantly different concept. The faith Abraham displayed was related to the future, which by the nature of the case, cannot be known, still less proved, since it hasn't happened yet! Yet, all of our lives must be built around this unknown future, not as abstract speculation on what might happen, but as the basis of our plans, careers, aspirations and adventures.

Faith properly so called, then, is in a different category to belief and knowledge. It is allied to hope and trust -- and its contrary is not knowledge but fear. Fearful mistrust would have prevented Abraham from setting out, and stopped him from hoping for descendants, despite his age and difficulties. It was faith in God, not theological knowledge or belief about God that guided and sustained him.

Abraham Journeying - Gustave Dore
The author of Hebrews uses this as a model for a new generation, to help them see that with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, a truly faith filled orientation to the future is enlarged. We can now set our hopes on a promised land far richer than a stretch of territory, and on belonging to a 'family' far greater than innumerable tribal descendants. This echoes the words of Jesus in the Gospel passage from Luke - 'Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom'. Faith in this promise, though, implies a different attitude to the present -- one that focusses on the truly important (because 'Where your treasure is, there will you heart be also') and shows a constant readiness to respond to the call of Jesus (because 'Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes').

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

PENTECOST XI Proper 13 2016

Rembrandt - The Rich Man from the Parable (1627)
  • Hosea 11:1-11 and Psalm 107:1-9, 43  • 
  • Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 and Psalm 49:1-12  • 
  • Colossians 3:1-11  • 
  • Luke 12:13-21
    • Generally speaking, people in the modern world are haunted by two great fears -- poverty and violent attack. Fear of the first, curiously, has grown rather than diminished as the world has become wealthier. One consequence is that economic growth is always a key concern -- and promise -- in elections and political campaigns. The second great fear underwent an important change in the course of the 20th century -- from war, to cold war, to terrorism -- each of them serving to sustain an intense anxiety about safety and security.

  • People in the world to which Jesus preached were far more vulnerable to both poverty and violence than we are. And yet in several places, including the Gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus, far from promising prosperity, warns against the danger of wealth, and the futility of our efforts to protect it. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul takes up the same theme - 'Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth' and goes on to articulate a set of values that are to be preferred to the pursuit of sexual satisfaction and material wealth.

  • If these truly are 'Christian values', there could hardly be a sharper contrast with the values of our consumerist world which ranks sexual activity and material possession very highly. Could these 'other worldly' values have any relevance or pulling power in such a world? The answer is that they must. At the heart of the Gospel message is the perception that wealth is only as valuable as the things it is spent on, and that power is only as valuable as the things it secures. So deciding what things are truly valuable is inescapable.

Burne-Jones Love leading the Pilgrim
It is a profound mistake to interpret (and discount) 'things that are above' as some sort of imaginary 'pie in the sky when you die'. The heavenly 'things' include love, truth, beauty, integrity, grace -- values that every human being can meaningfully aspire to, even if ever increasing levels of economic prosperity or political security are at risk. The danger Christ alerts us to is that of mistaking means for ends. Possessed as we are of greater wealth and power than human beings have ever known, that is a different but no less real danger.