"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.”
Deuteronomy 8.7-18 Psalm 65. 8-13, 2 Corinthians 9.6-15. Luke 17.11-19
Harvest services are a distinctive feature of Anglican churches in the British Isles. From ancient times villages in England marked the completion of the harvest with a festive 'Harvest Home', while farmers and their families celebrated the newly harvested crops with ‘Harvest suppers’ in each others homes. In the mid-nineteenth century the rural Church of England added a special Harvest Festival Sunday, when church buildings were decorated with vegetables, fruit and sheaves of corn, and specially written hymns were sung. This quickly became one of the most enthusiastically observed Sundays in the year, and was soon copied in Ireland and Wales, and less speedily in Scotland .
The Harvest Festival took its main cue from ancient ceremonies recounted in the Old Testament, and the religious injunctions that underlay them. As the reading from Deuteronomy set for this Sunday says "When you have plenty to eat, bless the Lord our God for the good land he has given you". This year, for the first time ever since harvest festivals began, churches across the UK are prevented from celebrating Harvest in the usual way. A limited number of people can attend church, but there will be no flowers, no fruits, not sheaves, no harvest hymns. Of course, few of us nowadays have much direct contact with the land, and thanks to modern technology, in developed countries we are no longer critically dependent on good harvests, so while it will undoubtedly be a loss, perhaps it does not matter quite as much as it once would have.
In any case, the message at the heart of harvest festival, even in the Old Testament, extends well beyond the in-gathering of food at a particular time of year. The passage from Deuteronomy continues "When you have plenty to eat and live in fine houses of your own building, when your herds and flocks, your silver and gold, and all your possessions increase, do not become proud and forget the Lord your God. . . . Nor must you say to yourselves, 'My own strength and energy have gained me this wealth. Remember the Lord your God; it is he who gives you strength". If we take this injunction seriously, however, we can hardly see a great spiritual danger at the present time.
Faced with the risk of disease, the world around us has placed all its faith in humanly devised strategies, informed it is believed, by human expertise in science. On the basis of this secular faith, the community's coming together to sing thankful praise to God has been declared not only 'inessential', but unlawful. This appears to fly right in the face of Scripture. Yet to organize a proper Harvest Thanksgiving would be breaking the law of the land. Even joining with another family or two for a harvest supper at home is forbidden. In these extraordinary circumstances, what are faithful Christians to do?
Two thoughts. First, if we cannot celebrate the goodness of God together, we can at least make a special effort as individuals. We can deliberately set aside a portion of time in which to praise our Creator, acknowledge our reliance on nature, give thanks for the bounty of our food, and wonder at the glorious colours of autumn. In this way we will remind ourselves not "to become proud and forget the Lord our God" or fool ourselves into thinking that the world can be bent to our collective will by our "own strength and energy".
Second, the reading from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians draws out a further implication of harvest "He who provides seed for sowing and bread for food, will provide the seed for you to sow and swell the harvest of your benevolence." "You will always" Paul tells the Christians at Corinth, "be rich enough to be generous". If this was true of Christians in the ancient world, how much more is it true of us?
So here is a twofold test in these strange and difficult times. How much time have I given over to thanking God and contemplating the good and beautiful world that is God's gift to me? And what is the harvest of my benevolence?
The Gospel for this week is yet another parable set in a vineyard. Strictly, it is an allegory since it is not simply a story with a message, but one in which the participants can be directly correlated with the people to whom, and about whom, the story is told
On the surface, the parallels are not hard to see. God is the owner of the vineyard. The tenants are those entrusted with witnessing to his lordship. The slaves are the Old Testament prophets sent by God, time and again, to recall his people to faithful obedience. In the face of their repeated rejection the landlord’s own son – Jesus – is sent to the vineyard. His murder at the hands of the tenants brings God’s wrath upon them, and custody of the vineyard is placed in other hands.
Who exactly are these first tenants? It is easy to misidentify them as the Jews, and hence suppose that the new tenants are the Christians. This is an inference that has often been drawn in the past. But it is mistaken, and the lesson from Isaiah puts us right on this score: “the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel”. It is not the tenants, but the vineyard itself, strange to say, that is to be identified with the Chosen People. The fertile ground that God has provided, however, loses its fruitfulness when plants cease to grow as God has intended.
When Jesus uses the same parable, he switches attention from the vineyard to those who work it, from the people of Israel to their leaders. Forgetting, or disregarding, their obligation to God, they claim the headship of Israel for their own nationalistic purposes. It is in order to rescue his Chosen People, not to abandon them, that God sends his Son. This means that the new tenants do not mark a radical break with the past. Rather, they are called to be more faithful stewards of the same God.
Paul’s Epistle for this Sunday can be seen to reflect this interpretation of the allegory. He is, he tells the Philippians, "a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee", thereby emphatically underlining his own Jewishness, something he never discounts or disowns. But, he says, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss . . . because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.
The continuity between Jew and Christian is essential to the Gospel message Paul preaches. It carries this implication, however. If the ancient Pharisees forfeited their spiritual inheritance because of arrogance and complacency, a similar attitude can rob modern Christians of theirs. The Church so easily becomes concerned chiefly with its own security, popularity and prosperity, it is constantly at risk of repeating the error of the tenant farmers in the vineyard.
This week’s Epistle includes what is arguably the most beautiful passage in all of Paul’s letters – his theologically deep and poetically compelling affirmation to the Philippians of the incarnation of God in Jesus. For a long time, biblical scholars thought that this was probably an early Christian hymn, but opinion on this point has changed in recent decades. Still, whether it is or not, the passage brilliantly captures the indissoluble unity of the human and the divine that was made possible by Christ's perfect obedience. The climax looks to a time when ‘every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’.
There follows, however, an instruction to the Philippians that seems to conflict both with the Lordship of Christ, and with Paul’s well known insistence on faith before works. 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’, Paul writes. Yet surely the Good News of the Gospel renders this instruction redundant? Since Christ has saved us by being 'obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross', are we not relieved of the burden of working out our salvation for ourselves? Paul, of course, does not mean to deny this, and so he immediately adds to his instruction this essential qualification – ‘it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’. But doesn’t this just compound the problem? Is it God at work, or is it us at work?
The Gospel throws some light on this issue. It falls into two parts whose connection is not altogether obvious. The first part recounts another of Jesus’ encounters with the chief priests and elders, while the second part is another vineyard parable. In the parable, two sons react differently to their father's instruction to work in the vineyard. The one who explicitly refuses, appears to be rebellious yet ultimately does as his father asks. The other appears to be dutiful by saying the right thing, but in fact goes his own way. Jesus asks his hearers to decide which of the two sons is the obedient one. It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is obvious. The ‘rebel’ is the obedient son because, in the end, he decides to act as his father instructs. The two parts of the passage are connected because the parable is directed at the chief priests and elders. They it is who appear to obey the ways of God, yet they rejected John the Baptist, just as they are rejecting Jesus. It is ordinary people, and especially apparently unrighteous tax collectors and prostitutes, who got it right. They welcomed John the Baptist, and they can see God at work in Christ.
The message is this. Salvation is a combination of knowledge and will. We need to know how we ought to live. This means having open and inquiring minds, praying with the words of this week’s Psalm, 'Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation'. But we also need to acknowledge our frailty. Though the life of faith for us is a communion with God, this necessarily falls short of Christ's perfect union. That is why, like the tax collectors, but unlike the chief priests, we need to look to Jesus. In our attempts to do so, it would be difficult to improve on Paul’s opening advice. ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’. True discipleship means being of one mind with Jesus. But a crucial part of the sentence is the very first word -- ‘Let . .’.
The whole of this week's Gospel comprises a single parable – the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Unlike many other Gospel parables, this one has a beginning, a middle, an end, and a punch line. This means that we can follow it very easily.
An employer pays his workers according to the agreement he made with them. They are greatly surprised, and annoyed, to find that he has paid them all the same amount, even though they have done significantly different amounts of work. The problem, though, is not simply to understand the story. We also have to ask what lesson are we supposed to draw from it.
Occasionally people have thought that this parable has direct application to the workplace. They take the message to be that Christian employers ought to pay their workers equally rather than on a meritocratic basis. Sometimes, they have found warrant in it for an even wider principle of Christian social ethics, one that supports something like the Marxist dictum ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’. Yet, Jesus makes it plain that he is not talking about ordinary life, but about ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’. That is to say, his parable concerns the way God deals with us, not the way we deal with each other.
Even if this is what the parable aims to illuminate, however, there still seems be a problem of interpretation. The vineyard owner says to the labourer who complains that he has worked all day, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong’. At one level that is plainly true, but is it a good enough response to the complaint? How can it be just to give the same reward to radically different amounts of work? Don’t the labourers who worked longer deserve more?
These questions have familiar religious parallels. If the redemption of the world is universal and includes everyone who repents, this means that repentance wipes out past sins. However wicked anyone has been, it seems it doesn't matter in the end. Could such a doctrine be squared with our sense of justice? Can it be just for God to treat fraudsters, child abusers, serial killers and terrorists in the same way as those who have been decent Christians -- or simply decent citizens -- all their lives, provided they express repentance, should it only be on their death beds? What is the point of lifelong faithfulness, if it makes no difference in the end?
To this recurrent, and heartfelt question, the Epistle from Philippians suggests an answer. If, as Paul affirms ‘living is Christ and dying is gain’, then the benefit to us of God’s redeeming work in Christ is ‘inestimable’ (as the BCP General Thanksgiving expressly declares). That is to say, unlike payment, the value of knowing the love of God in Christ can't be measured in any meaningful way. Duration does not determine the value of love between people. Love is not lessened in or for those who die young. Similarly, living in awareness of God's love is supremely valuable regardless of how early or late in life we have come to it. Nothing can improve upon it because there simply is no greater benefit that lifelong laborers could hope for, or deserve. And this remains true, quite irrespective of how God treats other sinners.
Knowledge of our own salvation, then, should dispel any envious glances we might be tempted to cast at those who, from a materialistic point of view, ‘got away with it’. Are the years they lived in self-indulgence, dishonesty or cruelty a way of life we would have chosen, if only we had known that we could be forgiven just before death? What kind of life could we want more than to live ‘in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’, and to do so for as much of our lives as possible? Of course, we know that we will always fall short. That is why repentance and forgiveness have such an important role.
In one way or another, the readings for this Sunday are about tolerance, forgiveness and judgment. In the contemporary liberal democratic world, tolerance is lauded, officially at any rate, while being 'judgmental' is among the worst of sins. That explains why most mainline Christian denominations have been so anxious to cast off the Church’s historical reputation as ‘judgmental’, and keen embrace a non-judgmental inclusiveness instead. This reflects, they think, what they see to be God's unconditional love in Christ. God loves you whoever, and whatever, you are.
More conservative Christians sometimes condemn this as a willingness to abandon a Gospel that preaches sin and salvation, in the interests of appeasing the secular world. Yet, the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans that serves as this week's epistle, does provide biblical support for non-judgmentalism. The disagreement Paul writes about – whether or not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols -- is of no concern to us today. But the advice he bases upon it has much wider application. Though we ought to be firm in our own convictions, he tells us, we ought not to pass judgment on, still less despise, those who disagree with us. The Gospel passage puts the same thought in the wider context of those who harm us. Forgiveness is ‘seventy times seven’ more important than retribution, however natural the desire for this may be. Here we have a truth that everyone has reason to welcome, if we are not to fall into the rank hypocrisy of the indebted slave in the parable that Jesus goes on to tell.
To this extent then, biblical teaching coincides with contemporary liberal opinion. At the same time, the wholesale rejection of ‘judgmentalism’ conflicts with another key element in these readings. Human beings, they all tell us, are indeed under judgment, both for what they believe and for what they do.
This comes out very clearly in the Old Testament lesson. When Jacob dies, his sons are understandably afraid that Joseph will now feel free to avenge himself for the cruelty they showed him all those years before when they sold him into slavery. They know full well that what they did was wrong. That is why they lied to their father about it at the time. When they approach Joseph, possibly with another lie about Jacob’s dying words, his response is so gracious that it brings them to tears. “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”. Joseph forgives them, but he does not in any way discount what they did. Rather, he turns from away from his own feelings and towards the ultimate judgment that must fall upon them, at the hands of God.
No one really thinks non-judgmentally. Even the most liberal person holds that racist beliefs, for example, are invariably rooted in falsehoods, and that their fruits, especially when sincerely held, are inevitably evil. Paul's point, though, is that Christians – even in this kind of case -- ought to be very careful that they are not trying to pre-empt God’s judgment. ‘Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” he cautions his readers. So while he takes his stand against human judgmentalism, he immediately places it in a larger theological context: “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God”.
The Gospel story of the hypocritical slave, let it be noted, ends with his being “tortured” as an act of justice. In the past, Christians have been very ready to usurp God’s justice and do the torturing themselves. Nowadays, perhaps, they are more likely to make the opposite mistake -- presuming upon God’s mercy and doing the forgiving themselves. The difficult thing is to witness to the solemn truth that “each of us will be accountable to God”, and at the same time do so in a spirit of love rather than loathing.
The Gospel for this Sunday contains a phrase that has powerfully consoled Christians in difficult circumstances of many sorts – ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’. Faced with social isolation, political oppression, cultural indifference or simply declining membership, it is both critically important and deeply reassuring to hold fast to the truth that neither popular success nor numerical strength is relevant to the promise of divine presence. Indeed, perhaps we have less reason to be confident of the presence of Christ when two or three thousand are gathered together, since mass movements have often proved the enemy of true religion.
At the same time, there is always this risk -- that ‘where two or three are gathered together’ is reduced to a self-justifying mantra. This happens when it is invoked by opinionated minorities in defense of their splits and schisms. It also happens when it is used to exempt complacent churches from their evangelical obligations. It is true when churches are animated by clubbishness, rather than the expansiveness that comes from faith in God. In all these cases, divine assurance is displaced by human failing – self-righteousness, complacency, fearfulness – often masquerading as ‘concern’ or ‘community’. It is salutary to remember, therefore, that the wonderful assurance Jesus offers in this much repeated sentence is not unconditional.
The extract from Paul’s Letter to the Romans prescribed for this Sunday, addresses just this issue. Though relatively brief, it is also remarkably dense. Its central message is that Christ is truly present only in those who have ‘put on Christ’. What does this mean? It means adopting a cast of mind or way of looking at things -- the mind of Christ-- whose key elements are these. First, Christians need the conviction that ‘now is the time to wake from sleep’. The things we often struggle for, such as wealth, power, or personal career, are in an important sense unreal. Second, we need to abandon ‘the works of darkness’ i.e. the devious and destructive ways in which we can so easily pursue our goals, and be willing to have the brightest light shine on the way we conduct our lives. Third, we have to affirm that love best fulfils ‘the law’, which is to say, that living truly in accordance with the laws of God means being motivated chiefly by a love for the world and the people around us.
Christian conduct down the centuries has shown just how hard it is to follow these prescriptions. Often the difficulty arises from self-centredness, but social and political conformity, an unwillingness to stand out (or in older language ‘witness’) is no less likely to deflect us from the mind of Christ. Yet, if we pause to dwell on it, we can come to see that both personal selfishness and social conformity are obstacles to a truly extraordinary prospect. Through Christ, mere mortals can participate in the divine life of the one true God.
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.
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