All Saints Day (November 1st) is one of the seven principal festivals of the Christian year. Nowadays it is common practice for the main celebration to take place on the Sunday following, and this generally means that the lessons for this Sunday are replaced with those for All Saints’ Day, which also follow a three year cycle.
The lessons for Year C (which is this year) are a little different from Years A and B. They do not include the passage from Revelation traditionally associated with All Saints. Instead, we have an extract from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. In it he refers several times to ‘the saints’, but we should be careful not to read modern connotations back into his letter. Paul doesn’t have especially good or holy people in mind. He is simply referring to all those who, by acknowledging the call of God in Christ Jesus, have set themselves apart from the world of the Roman Empire, in one way or another.
The Gospel that accompanies this lesson is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. It differs noticeably from Matthew’s more familiar version. Luke has Jesus address his hearers directly – “Blessed are you” – and he follows his account of Christian blessings, with a list of ‘Woes’ or warnings about the fate that might befall us. In this way Luke makes the contrast between ‘the poor’ who will be blessed, and ‘the rich’ who have great sorrow in store, much starker than Matthew.
To hear the call of Christ, and thus become one of the ‘saints’ who are set apart, we have to take this two-sided message seriously. The wealth most people in the developed world enjoy is spiritually dangerous. It brings with it the risk of ceasing to count our blessings, and coming to regard them as just reward for talent and hard work. Conversely, though the poor of this world are often regarded as people to be pitied, their poverty can put them at a spiritual advantage. Poverty is no guarantee of holiness, certainly, yet the precariousness of life that poor people experience may leave them much less likely to take the gifts of God for granted.
“All things come of You, and of Your own do we give unto You”. These words from the Book of Chronicles are commonly used as an offertory prayer. It is far easier to say them, however, than to take them to heart.
The portion of Psalm 119 set for this Sunday contains a half verse that could come from the mouth of Zacchaeus, the central character in the Gospel passage -- "I am small and despised". On the surface, this seems to be the only connection between the readings. Yet a little more reflection reveals a much deeper one.
Zacchaeus is a tax gatherer. Tax gatherers were Jews who collaborated with the occupying Roman imperial forces in order to enrich themselves. They were widely regarded as having betrayed their own people, and thoroughly hated for this reason. So it is easy to understand why Jesus would be criticized for going to the house of Zaccheus. This was no ordinary 'sinner'. Jesus rarely explains himself to his critics, but on this occasion he does offer a partial explanation. "Salvation has come to this house” he says, “because he too is a son of Abraham”.
By referring to Zacchaeus in this way, Jesus draws his audience far back into the originating history of Israel. The time of Abraham predates the long process by which the detailed prescriptions of 'The Law' (to which the Pharisees faithfully subscribed) had come to dominate Jewish religious observance. Intense respect for the Law is not to be despised, and on several occasions Jesus insists that he has not come to destroy either the Law of the Prophets. Jewish legalism, however, had lost the visionary zeal of the Prophets that gave the Law its life. Religious observance, the prophet Isaiah warns, can be worthless if it lacks what 'the oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw'. "Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay".
In these powerful sentences we hear the first sounds of the Advent season, when it will be opportune for Christians to remind themselves that, however old and tired their faith might seem in a post-Christian culture, 'there is still a vision that speaks of the end and does not lie'.
What lies at the root of all religion, it has long been held, is not so much a belief about a supernatural world, as an awareness of the character of this one. Nothing about the world in which we find ourselves is guaranteed. When it comes to all the things that matter most to human beings -- success and failure, prosperity and deprivation, health and illness, joy and sorrow -- we are completely at the mercy of time and circumstance. Our best laid plans, our most successful political systems and our most ingenious technologies, can secure great benefits, but they never give us absolute control -- of life or of death.
True religion starts in awe, a profound awareness of the world as far exceeding our understanding and management. Yet, at the same time this sense of humanity's awesome vulnerability generates a practical dilemma. How are we to make ourselves at home in such a world? The role of the great religions, in different ways, has been to offer answers to this question.
The Judeo-Christian answer runs through all of this week's readings. In even the most radical contingencies of life, the human heart can find security and a resting place in the eternal God who is both ever present and accessible. Thus the prophet Joel declares: "You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel. . . your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions."., and the Psalmists write "My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God". "Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts". In just the same vein Paul writes to Timothy. "The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so . . . I was rescued from the lion's mouth". Having "fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith", Paul looks forward to a "crown of righteousness".
Against this background we can find an important word of warning in the brief parable that Jesus tells in the Gospel. The greatest spiritual danger human beings face is displacing true righteousness with self-righteousness. The Pharisee’s self-righteousness complacently supposes that some mix of material success and good works makes him secure. But that is precisely to lose the insight in which religion begins. The tax collector, for all his faults, has the humility to understand that human beings cannot be the means of their own salvation.
The connection is easy to spot. But what lesson should we draw from it? Do we really have to pester God as the widow does, or wrest a blessing from God as Jacob does? Does God act justly and benevolently only if, and when, we demand that he does? This is what Jesus seems to say. Yet the suggestion sits very badly with the idea of God that most Christians have, and proclaim – a God whose love is ever present and enduring, and who always takes the initiative, reaching out even to those who are hostile or indifferent.
The same readings can point us in another direction, however. It is a fact that devout and serious people sometimes give up on God, and stop reciting prayers that they have said for years. Moreover, this happens not out of pique or petulance, but because it suddenly seems as though, despite their prayers, neither blessing nor justice is ever forthcoming. This is part of the reality of discipleship. Prayers are no recipe for success.
What is there for Christians to say in such circumstances, except this? We ought to persist in the ways of faith. Persistence, though, amounts to nothing better than beating one’s head against the wall, unless we can continue in the belief that God’s love and justice does not fail. In the face of silence, two things sustains that belief -- a sense that no other blessing will serve, and the example of Jesus. Christ’s persistence in the face of hatred and social conformity resulted in death on the Cross, but by that very fact showed his love of God to be unshakeable. His persistence was then vindicated by the Resurrection.
On first reading, the Gospel passage for this week seems to be a relatively simple healing story, with a moral about gratitude. Yet on closer reading the details are a little puzzling. Ten lepers appeal to Jesus. He instructs them to go and show themselves to the priest. They do as he says, and on the way there they find themselves cured. One leper – a Samaritan --returns to thank Jesus, who asks where the other nine are. He then tells the Samaritan that his faith has made him whole. But where did the other nine go wrong? They did just what Jesus told them to, and they too, the passage says, were made whole? So why was this one specially commended?
The answer is this. Despite being a Samaritan and therefore an 'outsider' to the faithful, only the man who turned back realized what the miracle revealed -- that the healer stood in a unique relationship to God. The wholeness that this perception brought him, was not merely freedom from leprosy -- which the others gained as well -- but a new, saving and transforming spiritual insight.
The same insight into who Jesus really was lies at the heart of Paul’s extraordinary mission to the Gentile world. The essence of his preaching, brilliantly summarized in this week's Epistle, springs from his conversion on the road to Damascus. Someone who thought Jesus to be the dead leader of a renegade Jewish sect, becomes someone who can see in him the long awaited Christ. "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David -- that is my gospel".“To obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory, the saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him”.
The Gospel episode plainly echoes the story told in this week's Old Testament lesson. Naaman, brilliantly successful Commander of the Aramaean armies, is haunted and hindered by leprosy. Thanks to Elisha, he obtains a cure from the God of the Israelites. Yet it is not health, but knowledge that is key to this story. When Naaman’s ‘flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy’, he, like the Samaritan, ‘returned to the man of God . . . and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”
Jesus made no special demands of the leper who returned, and gave him no special benefits. What marked him out from the rest was his ability to recognize Jesus for who he was. It is a test that many Christians more focused on health benefits and material advantages have found it easy to fail.
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 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.
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.
Christ Church Morningisde
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Edinburgh EH10 4DD
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