In the Epistle for this Sunday, Paul sets a very high standard for Christian conduct: ‘Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit . . . Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer . . . Bless those who persecute you . . . Live in harmony with one another . . . Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.’
,These injunctions stand in very sharp contrast with the passage from Jeremiah, who expresses very little patience in suffering, and none at all when it come to blessing persecutors. “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?”, he wails, and asks God to “bring down retribution for me on my persecutors”. Paul’s experience of Christ, it seems, has moved him to a far higher and worthier ideal. Yet if we are honest we have to admit that the ideal he sets before us is a counsel of perfection. How many Christian lives actually model this ideal? How many ever have? Most Christians are more like Jeremiah, if the truth be told. This raises a critical question. If the call to true Christian conduct is unrealistic, what is the point of preaching this, no doubt fine, ideal to the Church and to the world?
This is not an easy question to answer, but reflection on the Gospel for this week can steer us in the right direction. These few verses from Matthew bring to the fore the strange relationship that Simon Peter had with Jesus. In part, this reflected his impulsive and vacillating character. Peter was the sort of person, the Gospels tell us, who could be inspired to leap over the side of a boat one moment, only to be crying out in fear the next. One instance of his vacillation is especially well known and especially important -- his behaviour at ‘the time of trial’. When danger looms -- in the unlikely form of a servant girl! – the emphatic threefold assurance of love and loyalty to Jesus that Peter has made a short time before, is rapidly displaced by three equally emphatic denials -- 'I never knew him'. And then of course, he swings back into remorse when the cock crows.
The strange thing, though, is that Jesus also seems to vacillate in his attitude to Peter. Last week's Gospel recorded how, early in their relationship, Jesus declares Peter to be the ‘rock’ on which the church is to be founded. Now, in this week's passage that same rock is declared ‘a stumbling block’, someone who has to be told, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ -- a dramatic reversal indeed.
Yet this fact remains. Jesus chose Peter and never rejected him. He made Peter a witness of the Transfiguration. It was Peter who was granted the largest number of post-Resurrection encounters. He even washed Peter’s feet. Why? An important clue to the puzzle lies in this week’s rebuke: ‘You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’. It is precisely Peter’s inconsistent character that equips him for the role he has been assigned. In his weakness, he sets his mind on human things, and in that respect is a true representative of our common humanity. In his devotion to Jesus, he sets his mind on divine things, and however faltering his devotion proves to be, it nonetheless exhibits a spiritual hope of which we are all capable. Paul’s counsel of perfection is a description of that hope. Its ultimate realization, however, is not to be found in Peter or in us, but in Jesus. That is why Jesus alone is to be hailed as true man and true God. In him we see both what we are, and what we are meant to be.
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus poses two questions to his disciples: Who do people say I am? and Who do you say I am?
While others, in attempting to identify Jesus, have placed him in the long and distinguished line of Jewish prophets, Peter’s own answer is, “the Messiah”. Jesus’ response is intriguing. Peter, he declares, could only have identified him as Messiah by divine revelation, and on the strength of this he, Simon, this simple fisherman whose courage will fail him at the moment of trial, is nevertheless the Rock on which the Church will be built. This gives new significance to Isaiah’s instruction “Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug”.
Then, having entrusted Peter with what is both an astonishing privilege and an awesome responsibility, Jesus, we are told, “sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah”. Why would he do this? The same puzzling instruction is to be found in Mark’s Gospel, many more times than in Matthew’s in fact. When the disciples finally appreciate that Jesus is indeed the Christ, they are commanded to tell no one – a commandment that Mark suggests they are not long in breaking. So why does Jesus want them to be silent?
One answer is this. The Messiah is not another prophet with an important message to proclaim. He is, rather, the fulfilment of all prophetic messages, the person who inaugurates the world to which the prophets have been pointing. This realisation is not something that could be inferred on the basis of scriptural knowledge or exegesis. That is why the learning of the Pharisees, however valuable in many respects, must always fall short of the thing at which they aim. By the same token, relatively uneducated fishermen can come to understand the significance of Jesus. As Isaiah puts it in the Old Testament lesson “though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away”. Recognizing Christ’s Messiahship is a gift, not an accomplishment. Hence the commandment to silence. Others cannot come to identify Jesus as the Messiah simply by being informed. They have to arrive at the confession that Jesus is Lord for themselves. Informing them prematurely, paradoxically, may get in the way.
This is what St Paul is referring to in his letter to the Roman Christians when he calls them to the “renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God”. A mind renewed is not one that has acquired more skills or gathered more information. It is a mind that thinks of the skills and information that it possesses in a different way -- as “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us”. Such a mind is profoundly humble, content to accept its own aptitudes for what they are, and not rivalling or aping others. This humility, though, is grounded in the highest aspiration. Those who accept that “we who are many, are one body in Christ” can then hope that the mind renewed within them is the mind of Christ.
Of course, St Paul had to keep reminding Christians of this. Experience shows how feeble our grasp and how flickering our understanding can be. But that is precisely where the Messiah promised by Isaiah comes to our aid. “My salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended”.
The relation between Judaism and Christianity has long been highly problematic. Anti-Semitism was the great stain on European Christianity in medieval and early modern times, and perhaps this even paved the way for the monstrous hatred of the Jews exhibited in the secular, post-Christian ideologies of Nazism and Communism. On the other hand, from a very early stage, Christian theologians insisted, against those who claimed that the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles were sufficient, that Christians could never dispense with the old testament of the Jewish Scriptures, because these were essential to understanding the new testament (or witness) that had been made manifest in the life and death of Jesus.
The Epistle and the Gospel for this Sunday reveal that the question of how the relation between 'old' and 'new' testaments to God's work in the world should be understood, was a pressing one right from the start. It confronted not only Paul, but Jesus himself. Both faced the charge that embracing the Gospel meant abandoning the ‘faith of their fathers’, and by implication rejecting the God of Israel. Both of them emphatically denied it.
Their response makes it plain that the Christian Gospel is not about propagating a new religion and displacing the old, but about renewing faith in God’s promises to his Chosen People. ‘I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham’, Paul declares. ‘God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable’. And then he adds an interesting twist. It is through witness of the Jews that the Gentiles have been lifted out of their sinful ways, and it will be thanks to the witness of the Gentiles that the Jews will be restored to God.
This line of thought echoes the sentiment expressed in this week's Old Testament passage. God declares through the prophet Isaiah that “foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
At the heart of the Gospel passage from Matthew, we find the same message. While it seems to fall into two quite separate parts, they are in fact connected. In the second part, Jesus travels to Tyre and Sidon, both notoriously sinful cities from a Jewish point of view. There he encounters a Canaanite woman who shouts at him for help. The Canaanites were not Israelites, and initially this makes a difference to Jesus’ response. His principal mission, he tells the woman, is "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel". Why is Israel lost? The answer is, ‘Phariseeism’, which is to say, it has come to be dominated by a complex labyrinth of ritualistic practice and social conformity As a result, the spiritual guidance given by the Jewish teachers no longer has any value for anyone who would walk in the ways of God. It is tantamount to the blind trying to lead the blind.
The faith and persistence of the Canaanite woman, however, extracts from Jesus an important concession. While the fresh ‘bread’ he has to give is intended first and foremost for the ‘children’ of Abraham, the spiritual nourishment it offers is available far more widely. Grace will be extended to anyone who has the faith to ask even for a few crumbs. Here we see the ultimate answer to the question about Jews and Christians. Through the Body of Christ, God’s promises to his ancient Chosen People become the promises he makes to all humanity. Ethnicity no longer matters, because the tribal identities that figured so prominently, and so brutally, in the history of Israel have been transcended. This crucial truth makes both anti-Semitism and Jewish nationalism, along with racism and tribalism, wholly unacceptable from a properly Christian point of view. What the Crucifixion shows, however, is that this did not mean they went away.
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