In this year, the modern lectionary we use reverts to the traditional Gospel reading for All Saints -- ‘The Beatitudes’. The Beatitudes are so called because they comprise a list of Jesus’ sayings, each one of which begins with the word ‘Blessed’. Yet when we say “count your blessings”, we are never thinking of beatitudes like these.
Jesus tells his disciples that they will be ‘blessed’ when they are persecuted, reviled and slandered. This is deeply counter-intuitive. Left to our own devices, we would naturally and understandably regard these as afflictions, not blessings. Jesus is of course aware of this, and also aware that his ‘beatitudes’ run contrary to traditional Jewish teaching. In the Old Testament passages where the same concept is used, it is normally translated ‘happy’. “Happy are they who have not lingered in the way of sinners; everything they do shall prosper”, Psalm One tells us. For the Psalmist, happiness is the emotional and material reward that is promised to those who faithfully follow God’s law. Here, it seems, Jesus is not promising his followers anything. He is warning them that, in ordinary human terms at least, discipleship is likely to be bad for them. So why would anyone become a disciple? Who in their right mind would sign up for persecution, contempt and slander?
The concluding verse of the Gospel offers an answer “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven”. Often this answer has been taken to re-direct our attention to exclusively post-mortem rewards – benefits that we can expect to enjoy, but only after we die. Yet, to follow Jesus solely for the sake of post-mortem benefits has the unwelcome implication that there is nothing to be gained from faithful discipleship in this life. If we believe in the saving work of Christ on the Cross we have reason to be glad now. A traditional hymn begins ‘My God I love thee not because I hope for heaven thereby’, and that seems right.
The short but beautiful Epistle from the first letter of John contains a crucial insight. The greatest possible blessing in life is "that we should be called children of God" and, the writer of the letter tells us, "we are God’s children now". Speculation about heaven and the hereafter, however intriguing or alluring is essentially idle, because "what we will be has not yet been revealed". To know that we are God’s children now, is a blessing great enough to outweigh all the negative things that the world can hurl at us.
None of us wants to be persecuted or reviled, and being ‘meek’ or ‘poor in spirit’ is not a goal we are inclined to set our children. Yet on All Saints Day we are invited to acknowledge two great truths. First, the people rightly regarded and celebrated as saints, are all those Christians, known and unknown, who set aside personal concerns in order not only persist with, but witness to the truth about Christ, and did this even when the hostility and contempt of the world in which they found themselves was almost unbearable. Second, we more wayfaring Christians are wise to pray ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial', as the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer has it, because most Christians most of the time are not likely to withstand the trial that the saints have endured. Probably this is truer for us now than it ever has been. With all the advances that have been made in medical science and all the modern conveniences that have been invented, we have come ‘risk averse’, valuing safety, security and comfort above everything else. “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult”, the hymn for St Andrew’s Day begins. Oddly, perhaps, it can be easier to hear his call over the noise of the tumult than through the layers of protection with which the modern world surrounds us.
"Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform . . . and for mighty deeds and terrifying displays of power in the sight of all Israel". So this week's alternative Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy declares. Yet the very same passage records the fact that, while God allowed Moses to see the Promised Land, he did not allow enter it. It is a very moving moment. Moses dies in sight of the land to which, for so long and in the face of so many difficulties, he has faithfully led God's chosen people.
A comparable fact is echoed in the Gospel exchange that Jesus has with the Pharisees. Asked to identify the most important rule of life, Jesus does not hesitate to recall and repeat ancient Jewish teaching about God and neighbour. But he then puts a great distance between himself and the Pharisees who are questioning him, by rejecting the special status of David, another Jewish figure scarcely less iconic than Moses. Neither David nor his descendants can be the true Messiah, Jesus says, because they are subservient to God's will and purpose no less than Moses. The message seems clear. Traditional Jewish teaching is right about love, God and neighbour, but wrong in supposing that the fullest realization of God's presence is to be found either in unrivalled prophetic power such as to be found in Moses, or in exemplary kingship such as David was believed to embody.
The Gospel implication -- that true messiahship is found in Jesus -- could be interpreted as simply a change of loyalties, a preference for a different prophet -- until we remember the Crucifixion. The charisma of Moses and the valour of David cannot be denied, and they are relatively easy to believe in as exemplars of the sovereign power of the one true God. To hail Jesus sincerely as Messiah, though, is to endorse a much harder alternative. It is to believe that, contrary to what we naturally suppose, the way in which divine love exhibits its power and secures its victory is revealed in the vulnerability of the Cross. That is both the culmination of the truth revealed to Moses, and the mystery at the heart of the Christian faith.
‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’. The punch line from this week’s Gospel (in its more traditional version) has become a familiar saying. But how should we interpret it? Is this simply a retort by which Jesus cleverly avoids a trap the Pharisees have set for him when they try to show him to be out of step with popular anti-Roman feeling? Or should we read into it a much more serious warning against confusing spiritual aspiration with political protest? To address this question, we need to see the exchange in a wider context.
In the eighth chapter of the first Book of Samuel, the Israelites ask Samuel to appoint a king. At first he takes this to be a painful rejection of his own authority, but then he learns that its true significance lies in what it says about their faith in God. Thus begins a long history in which royal power and the sovereignty of God come into regular conflict. Notwithstanding the short-lived triumphs of David and Solomon, the ultimate outcome for Israel is endless political division, and frequent conquest. Moreover, in one of the Old Testament lessons for this week, Isaiah actually voices God’s explicit commission to one of these conquerors, namely Cyrus King of the Persians. “I arm you, though you do not know me, so that [the people of Israel] may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me”. God, astonishingly, teaches lessons to his Chosen People by assisting their enemies.
The Roman conquest in New Testament times was just one more episode in the long history of Israel's subjugation. In John’s account of the trial of Jesus before the Roman governor, the subject of kingship figures prominently. When the leaders of the Jews shout ‘We have no King but Caesar!’, they reveal a radical division in their own minds between the hopes they place in God and their recourse to political power. In response, Caesar (in the person of Pilate) orders a sign to be put above the dying Jesus. It reads ‘King of the Jews’. Even if prompted by a desire to provoke the Jews, it is nonetheless insightful, because the 'Kingship' of Jesus is indeed, mysteriously, revealed in the Cross. The imperial power of Caesar ruled the ancient world. It counts for nothing now. At the time of his execution Jesus was virtually unknown. Yet the Resurrection revealed him to be the Incarnation of God. As the real Christ, long awaited by Israel, he counts for everything now.
Against this background, the instruction, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ warns us about getting our ultimate priorities wrong. In the Epistle Paul praises the Thessalonians who “turned to God from idols”. Political power is one such idol, and it has proved endlessly alluring -- as in the failed 'war’ on terror, and now the vain ‘battle’ against the coronavirus. Even sincere Christians, with the best of intentions, it seems, can be drawn to the false allure of political power as an ultimate ‘solution’ to the God-given challenges of the human condition. That faith is not well placed in "the things of Caesar" has proven very hard to believe.
The image of a 'banquet’ or 'feast' is one that recurs with great regularity in Christian thought and art, not least in the Bible itself. The reason is easy to see. Religion is about life, and food is essential to life. An instinctive desire for food is the new born baby’s first orientation to the world, and by tradition, an offer of food is the last humane act extended to those condemned to death. Nor is food simply a necessity. Specially prepared food and drink provided in abundance is the universal mark of human celebration – at births, weddings, religious holidays and communal festivals. It was at a wedding feast that Jesus gave his first 'sign', according to John’s Gospel, and at a meal – the Passover – that the rite at the heart of Christian worship was instituted. These familiar facts remind us that it is completely natural for human beings to think analogically about spiritual gifts and blessings, and describe them as ‘heavenly food’. By extension, we can imagine God’s promise of salvation as a ‘heavenly banquet’.
Some of the most famous feasts and banquets that the Bible depicts, however, have a dark side. They are occasions on which sin subverts celebration and turns it spectacularly in the wrong direction. Belshazzer's feast in the Book of Daniel is one famous example, the story to which we owe the expression ‘the writing is on the wall’. An extravagant celebration intended to glorify Belshazzer’s reign signals instead the collapse of his Kingdom. Herod's feast at which Salome dances so well is another example. Her reward, in the gruesome form of the head of John the Baptist on a platter, suddenly makes the partying grotesque. Feasting, then, while it ought to mark a joyful celebration, can go badly wrong.
Jesus' use of the image in the parable that forms this Sunday’s Gospel has something of this ambiguity about it. Once more he relies on his audience's familiarity with Scripture, and in particular the passage that provides this week's Old Testament lesson, where Isaiah envisages salvation in these terms -- "the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear”. With Isaiah in mind, Jesus’ use of a banquet to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven could not fail to resonate with his listeners. However, it is given a special twist. To begin with, the people who ought to come to the celebration can't be bothered to come, despite the status of the host and the quality of the food. In response, the king tells his slaves to go out into the streets and gather “all whom they found, both good and bad”.
On the surface, the message seems to be this; social elitism has been rejected in favour of a wonderfully inclusive love. But, on reflection, things are not quite so simple. For a start, the guests on the original list, who treated the invitation lightly, are not included; they are punished instead. And, it turns out, even the people gathered up from the streets and brought in without asking are not assured of a permanent place at the banquet. The hapless man who did not trouble to dress properly for the occasion, is promptly thrown out.
The deeper message is this. The heart of the Gospel, and key to the promise of salvation, is not to be identified with an easy, open, no questions asked, divine welcome. God does indeed long for everyone to share with him "joys that pass our understanding", and is actively at work in the world to make this happen. That is the good news. Yet human beings have been given freedom, and this means that they can choose evil and spurn the good. In every time and place, history shows, people have done this. But more importantly for most of us, as this parable teaches, indifference, wilfulness and carelessness also have the power to make us lose those joys. That is why Paul has this important advice for the new Christians at Philippi. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
Christ Church Morningisde
6a Morningside Road
Edinburgh EH10 4DD
Tel: 0131 229 0090 or
07718 278 145
OFFICE HOURS: MON-FRI 9AM-3PM