People in the world to which Jesus preached were far more vulnerable to both poverty and violence than we are. Even so, in several places, including the Gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus 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 then 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 modern consumerism. In the world of ‘Love Island’ and ‘EuroMillions’, sexual activity and material possession are rated so highly that 'other worldly' values seem to lack any pulling power. Yet Christ’s example of the rich landowner is an undeniable reminder of reality. Wealth is only as valuable as the things it is spent on; power is only as valuable as the things it secures.
So asking what things are truly valuable is inescapable. it is a profound mistake to interpret (and discount) Paul’s phrase 'the things that are above' as referring to another world -- 'pie in the sky when you die'. The heavenly 'things' include love, truth, beauty, integrity, grace. These are values to which every human life – rich or poor, strong or weak -- can meaningfully aspire. We easily mistake means for ends. Possessed as we now are of greater wealth and power than human beings have ever known, there is an even greater risk of making this mistake.
The puzzle is intensified by the further fact that Paul's letters tell us almost nothing about the life and ministry of Jesus. Their whole focus is not on information, but interpretation. On this score, despite their humble origins, Paul’s letters have a depth of theological understanding and spiritual insight that no other Christian writings have ever matched. It was Paul, rather than Peter, John and the other disciples, who grasped the true significance of the Jesus he had never encountered in the flesh. Paul was first to understand the full import of believing that Jesus was the Christ promised by the God of Israel. Time and again he sets out the fundamental doctrines that such an understanding implies, even though he he does not use the names by which these doctrines have subsequently become known.
This week’s extract from his letter to Colossians is a case in point. There is only a trace of the once vibrant Greek city of Colossae in what is now Turkey. Paul writes to correct some false understandings of Jesus that have arisen there. In so doing he articulates a key element in the Christian faith – the Doctrine of the Incarnation. “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God”. This is Christ’s divinity, and the means by which human beings can come to understand a transcendent God. At the same time, Christ’s humanity –“his fleshly body through death” enables him “to present” human beings as “holy and blameless and irreproachable before God”. It is in Christ’s uniquely two sided nature that our salvation lies.
Set alongside Paul’s profound reflections, however, this week’s short Gospel about the all too human rivalry between Martha and Mary serves as an important reminder. The ultimate meaning of the Incarnation does not lie in theological doctrines, but in ordinary life and how belief in Jesus is best manifested there.
The Gospel for this week is one of Jesus' most famous, and familiar, parables -- the story of the Good Samaritan. Its sheer familiarity means that some of its implications are easily overlooked. This parable is not simply a morally improving lesson about how much better kindness and generosity are compared to selfish hardheartedness. For the devout Jews to whom Jesus told the story, ‘the priest’ and ‘the Levite’ were exemplars of orthodox religious practice. Their passing by on the other side was not simple hard heartedness, but reflected a desire to avoid the religious pollution that would result from contact with a (possibly) dead body. This desire would have been widely shared. Conversely, the Samaritans were not despised as an ethnic minority, but held to be second class Jews because they subscribed to a debased form of Judaism. These facts intensify the meaning of the story. They make its subject matter more than moral rectitude, and pose a question about the nature of true religion.
Equally important is the fact that ‘the Good Samaritan’ is not a free standing story with a 'lesson', like one of Aesop's fables. It is Jesus’ answer to a question. A lawyer raises a characteristically legal question. He does not dispute the ancient moral law of the Jews – ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ – but asks for a definition of terms – Who is my neighbour? This is not mere quibbling. The definition of terms is crucial to any system of law and its application. What the story shows, however, is that while legalism has its place, it can become a barrier to the life of the Spirit within us.
So the story takes us to the heart of the Gospel. These sincere and faithful Jews want to place the law of God as inscribed in Leviticus at the center of their lives and obey God in all things. That is one, admirable, conception of ‘the Kingdom of God on earth’. But Jesus offers a radical alternative – a willingness to go beyond rules, to the point where our human concern with religious integrity is itself overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit acting within us. In short, we are called to participate in Divine life, and as the reading from Deuteronomy affirms, ultimately, this is a matter of looking deep within our own souls. 'Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.'
The Gospel for this week is one of those passages that modern readers find hard to relate to. Taken as a whole, even without the yet more difficult verses that the Lectionary omits, it seems to portray Jesus as encouraging a kind of fanaticism in the simple people he recruits to his cause. Relying on their primitive beliefs about demons and Satan, he promises them paradise in exchange for complete devotion. Isn’t this what happens today, when religious extremists recruit credulous suicide bombers?
If we believe in the Incarnation, we have to accept that the eternal God chose to be born into a world radically different from the modern post-Enlightenment societies with which we are familiar. To discern God’s enduring purpose for us, consequently, we must try to understand the reality of that kind of world.
Three features of this Gospel episode are 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. They were notably ordinary ‘simple folk’, and in the verses that follow the lectionary’s extract, Jesus underlines that fact. Secondly, he gives these simple people the power to do some very remarkable things. This is in sharp contrast to their normal powerlessness within the social and political structures that then prevailed. No wonder they return from their excursions ‘with joy’.
Yet, thirdly, at the very height of their delight, Jesus tells them NOT to rejoice in their new found power. It is not these astonishing new 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 given powers to accomplish it, both of which have been denied to far more sophisticated people. They have the ability to see ‘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’. This does not imply or bestow any special status, however. They are neither prophets nor angels, but remain simply human. Since they probably expected it to be otherwise, this is the hardest part of accepting the mission they been chosen to undertake.
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. Yet there is no disguising the great challenge that confronts anyone who believes that God speaks to them in a special way. They will be strongly tempted to use their spiritual insight and charismatic power in the promotion of strictly human ends. Often, as in the case of suicide bombers, these are political goals, pursued with brutal disregard for others. The Gospel message is that this is not simply immoral; it is a spiritual failure.
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