This week’s Gospel is another passage in which Jesus appears to set impossibly high standards for Christians. "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you." How many Christians have ever followed this instruction, still less done so on a regular basis? How many of us are going to follow it? Do we simply ignore it, then?
It is important in understanding this passage to see that these remarks are addressed to a specific individual, namely a leader of the Pharisees who has invited Jesus to dinner on the Sabbath. It is equally important to register the context in which they are made – religious people jostling for prestigious positions around the table. The somewhat excessive language Jesus uses, consequently, is aimed at forcibly turning our thoughts in the opposite direction. It is humility, not pride, that should motivate us, especially in religious gatherings. That is because the kind of honour we ought to value can only be bestowed upon us as a gift. Status secured by social maneuvering is a very poor substitute for what truly religious people want – the blessing of God that is their reward “at the resurrection of the righteous”.
Of course, the context Jesus addresses has undoubtedly been replicated many times by Christians whose attachment to the language and practices of their religion sees them primarily as a means to social, and perhaps economic, advancement. When this is the case, they warrant Jesus’ rebuke no less than the Pharisees did. The underlying idea, however, resonates beyond that kind of circumstance, and calls on all Christians to be ever mindful of others, regardless of their status and importance. The passage from the Epistle of the Hebrews for this week offers us valuable examples of what this means.
This dispute about the sabbath between Jesus and traditionalist Jews is a recurrent one in the Gospels. In Mark, Jesus roundly declares “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath”, thereby seeming to overturn the fourth Commandment given to Moses. At the same time, he tells his hearers in several places that he has come to fulfill, not to abolish, “the Law and the prophets”. This is confusing. Are we to observe the sabbath or not?
There have been places where Christians have embraced, and enforced, very strict Sabbatarianism, Scotland being especially notable for this in times past. To many people, such a regime made Sundays oppressive and claustrophobic. However, in throwing off the yoke, as contemporary Scotland has done, things have swung in the opposite direction, leaving very little difference between Sunday and the other days of the week. This is a cause for some regret; a communal ‘day of rest’ has generally proved a good thing.
But that does not get to the heart of the matter. Rather the point is to see the observation of the sabbath differently, not as an externally imposed set of rules, but as an internally motivated response to God. Part of that response lies in willingly setting aside time that we could use for our own purposes, and devoting it to God instead – in worship, prayer and service. Many otherwise sincere Christians have become casual about this. Their church going proves secondary to other calls on their time, and without really meaning to, they become guilty of “trampling the Sabbath”. The “Sabbath is made for man” to use in the right way.
Nowadays, faith is commonly contrasted with knowledge, and construed as belief in propositions or theories that can't be 'proved'. Religious people use the concept in this way to reject what they see as rationalistic demands for argument and evidence. Religious sceptics employ the same concept in their rejection of what they see as groundless irrationality.
Though this concept of faith is widespread, as this week's readings make clear, it is not the biblical concept. In the episode from Genesis, and the reflection upon it in the Epistle to the Hebrews, we find an importantly different idea. Abraham’s faith related to the future. By the nature of the case, the future cannot be known since it hasn't yet happened! Nevertheless, our lives have to be built around this unknown. Faith about the future is not as abstract speculation on what might happen; it is the essential basis for our plans, careers, aspirations and adventures.
Faith properly so called, then, is in a different category to both belief and knowledge. It is allied to hope and trust -- and its contrary is not lack of evidence but fear. Fearful mistrust would have prevented Abraham from setting out, and would have 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.
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. Hebrews effectively 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 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').
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