Genesis 28:10-17 Psalm 103 Revelation 12:7-12 John 1:47-51
Michaelmas is the traditional name for the feast of St Michael and All Angels which occurs on September 29th. Though the nature and existence of angels is a topic that barely features in contemporary theology, and figures even less in contemporary professions of belief, the world of angels is long established in the Christian religion, and has an enduring place within it. It is not just that Michaelmas has survived in modern calendars, or the fact that a surprisingly large number of churches have Michael and All Angels as their dedication. In almost every modern version of the Eucharistic liturgy the ancient profession is repeated. "Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with the whole company of heaven who forever sing this hymn -- Holy! Holy! Holy!"
But what ought we to think about angels and archangels? The advances of modern science have taught us just how little we know about the created cosmos. Human beings are one of the wonders of this creation – evolved animals with a spiritual, emotional, artistic and intellectual life that far surpasses any other animal. Yet, it would be the height of presumption to suppose that this puts us at the top of all created beings. God is a spirit. Why should there not be spiritual beings who are not animals?
Psalm 103, set for this festival, describes angels as "mighty ones" who minister to God and do His will. Even so, the Psalmist does not hesitate to instruct them -- "Bless the Lord" and he tells them to combine their praises with those of "all His works in all places of His dominion". This vision of a vast array of beings -- stretching from the simplest insects to celestial beings far surpassing us -- provides a context for human worship that is both humbling and inspiring. It is captured magnificently in verses written by the 17th century Anglican priest and poet, John Mason.
How shall I sing that Majesty
Which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
Sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
Thy throne, O God most high;
Ten thousand times ten thousand sound
Thy praise; but who am I?
Thy brightness unto them appears,
Whilst I Thy footsteps trace;
A sound of God comes to my ears,
But they behold Thy face.
They sing because Thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
For where heaven is but once begun
There alleluias be.
Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
Inflame it with love’s fire;
Then shall I sing and bear a part
With that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
With all my fire and light;
Yet when Thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.
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 favours 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 so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes”. This sits especially ill with the second Old Testament lesson for this week in which the prophet Amos denounces the unscrupulous pursuit of wealth.
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, sometimes without our noticing, quickly becomes a downward spiral. The dishonest steward's actions are dictated by precisely the same desire for material advantage that motivates his master, a fact that the master himself is forced to acknowledge. So pursuing material benefits energetically and effectively in order, say, to feed the hungry, will in likelihood lead us to embrace purposes and values deeply at odds with spiritual well-being. Business methods and Christian discipleship usually give competing directions about how best to act and live.
This difficult 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 choice between love of God and love of Mammon -- only to find that, unwittingly, the decision between them is one we have already made.
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. Penitents, after all, must have something to repent.
But biblical interpretation aside, identifying Jesus with the non-judgmental inclusivism that is currently fashionable, makes for a position that is either hypocritical or profoundly unattractive. In reality, no decent person should be content to rub along with child abusers, wife beaters, racists, rapists or people traffickers playing on the weak and vulnerable. Any one who refuses to be 'judgmental' about such conduct is in effect condoning great evil.
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 – marked by ‘foolish’ adults who act like ‘stupid children’ and have no real understanding, alongside ordinary people who have simply ‘gone astray’, and are ‘perverse’. The modern world is not short of people who are ‘skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good’. This description fits perfectly for warring factions in Syria and Afghanistan, mass murderers in America and ethnic cleansers in Europe.
So what, then, is the message of the Gospel for this Sunday? It is a truth about the human heart that the wicked do not easily turn from their ways. When they do, accordingly, there really is occasion for 'joy in the presence of the angels of God'. This is not because those who repent great evils are in some way more to be praised or admired than people who don’t perform such acts in the first place. Rather, it is because stories of their repentance are signs of hope that in the end, as God in Christ has promised, light can indeed overcome darkness.
“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 13th Sunday in Pentecost falls into the category traditionally referred to as ‘the hard sayings’ of Jesus – Gospel passages 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 hyperbole that was characteristic of the time and place in which Jesus spoke – the common practice of making a point forcibly by the use of extravagant language. 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 it 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 around the fact that we confront a real choice here, and a difficult one. Still, the lives of innumerable Christians across two millennia are solid evidence that an ordinary life can still be one of faithful discipleship. The crux is about priorities. Happily, most Christians are never confronted with a straightforward clash between the claims of Christ and those of family life. That is when the ultimate test is at its most severe. The same test comes into play at much more mundane levels, however. It is easy to put Christ in second place to the demands of career, business, sport, and even family life. The key thought in Christ’s dramatic statement is this. When we accept God on our terms, rather than on God’s, we effectively relinquish our discipleship.
To be a Christian is to believe that God must come before everything else. This does not mean that we have to abandon the people and things we love. 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 – “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty”, Paul writes, “yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love . . . as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Could it be, he speculates, that this is the reason Onesimus was able to escape? ”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”. The love of God, we should conclude, transforms human relationships, even within families, into something deeper.
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