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.
This week’s Gospel is another passage in which Jesus appears to set impossibly high standards for Christians. "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you." How many Christians have ever followed this instruction, still less done so on a regular basis? How many of us are going to follow it? Do we simply ignore it, then?
It is important in understanding this passage to see that these remarks are addressed to a specific individual, namely a leader of the Pharisees who has invited Jesus to dinner on the Sabbath. It is equally important to register the context in which they are made – religious people jostling for prestigious positions around the table. The somewhat excessive language Jesus uses, consequently, is aimed at forcibly turning our thoughts in the opposite direction. It is humility, not pride, that should motivate us, especially in religious gatherings. That is because the kind of honour we ought to value can only be bestowed upon us as a gift. Status secured by social maneuvering is a very poor substitute for what truly religious people want – the blessing of God that is their reward “at the resurrection of the righteous”.
Of course, the context Jesus addresses has undoubtedly been replicated many times by Christians whose attachment to the language and practices of their religion sees them primarily as a means to social, and perhaps economic, advancement. When this is the case, they warrant Jesus’ rebuke no less than the Pharisees did. The underlying idea, however, resonates beyond that kind of circumstance, and calls on all Christians to be ever mindful of others, regardless of their status and importance. The passage from the Epistle of the Hebrews for this week offers us valuable examples of what this means.
This dispute about the sabbath between Jesus and traditionalist Jews is a recurrent one in the Gospels. In Mark, Jesus roundly declares “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath”, thereby seeming to overturn the fourth Commandment given to Moses. At the same time, he tells his hearers in several places that he has come to fulfill, not to abolish, “the Law and the prophets”. This is confusing. Are we to observe the sabbath or not?
There have been places where Christians have embraced, and enforced, very strict Sabbatarianism, Scotland being especially notable for this in times past. To many people, such a regime made Sundays oppressive and claustrophobic. However, in throwing off the yoke, as contemporary Scotland has done, things have swung in the opposite direction, leaving very little difference between Sunday and the other days of the week. This is a cause for some regret; a communal ‘day of rest’ has generally proved a good thing.
But that does not get to the heart of the matter. Rather the point is to see the observation of the sabbath differently, not as an externally imposed set of rules, but as an internally motivated response to God. Part of that response lies in willingly setting aside time that we could use for our own purposes, and devoting it to God instead – in worship, prayer and service. Many otherwise sincere Christians have become casual about this. Their church going proves secondary to other calls on their time, and without really meaning to, they become guilty of “trampling the Sabbath”. The “Sabbath is made for man” to use in the right way.
Nowadays, faith is commonly contrasted with knowledge, and construed as belief in propositions or theories that can't be 'proved'. Religious people use the concept in this way to reject what they see as rationalistic demands for argument and evidence. Religious sceptics employ the same concept in their rejection of what they see as groundless irrationality.
Though this concept of faith is widespread, as this week's readings make clear, it is not the biblical concept. In the episode from Genesis, and the reflection upon it in the Epistle to the Hebrews, we find an importantly different idea. Abraham’s faith related to the future. By the nature of the case, the future cannot be known since it hasn't yet happened! Nevertheless, our lives have to be built around this unknown. Faith about the future is not as abstract speculation on what might happen; it is the essential basis for our plans, careers, aspirations and adventures.
Faith properly so called, then, is in a different category to both belief and knowledge. It is allied to hope and trust -- and its contrary is not lack of evidence but fear. Fearful mistrust would have prevented Abraham from setting out, and would have stopped him from hoping for descendants, despite his age and difficulties. It was faith in God, not theological knowledge or belief about God, that guided and sustained him.
The author of Hebrews uses this as a model for a new generation, to help them see that with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, a truly faith filled orientation to the future is enlarged. We can now set our hopes on a promised land far richer than a stretch of territory, and on belonging to a 'family' far greater than innumerable tribal descendants. Hebrews effectively echoes the words of Jesus in the Gospel passage from Luke - 'Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom'.
Faith in this promise implies a different attitude to the present -- one that focusses on the truly important (because 'Where your treasure is, there will you heart be also') and shows a constant readiness to respond to the call of Jesus (because 'Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes').
People in the world to which Jesus preached were far more vulnerable to both poverty and violence than we are. Even so, in several places, including the Gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus warns against the danger of wealth, and the futility of our efforts to protect it. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul takes up the same theme - 'Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth' and then goes on to articulate a set of values that are to be preferred to the pursuit of sexual satisfaction and material wealth.
If these truly are 'Christian values', there could hardly be a sharper contrast with the values of modern consumerism. In the world of ‘Love Island’ and ‘EuroMillions’, sexual activity and material possession are rated so highly that 'other worldly' values seem to lack any pulling power. Yet Christ’s example of the rich landowner is an undeniable reminder of reality. Wealth is only as valuable as the things it is spent on; power is only as valuable as the things it secures.
So asking what things are truly valuable is inescapable. it is a profound mistake to interpret (and discount) Paul’s phrase 'the things that are above' as referring to another world -- 'pie in the sky when you die'. The heavenly 'things' include love, truth, beauty, integrity, grace. These are values to which every human life – rich or poor, strong or weak -- can meaningfully aspire. We easily mistake means for ends. Possessed as we now are of greater wealth and power than human beings have ever known, there is an even greater risk of making this mistake.
The puzzle is intensified by the further fact that Paul's letters tell us almost nothing about the life and ministry of Jesus. Their whole focus is not on information, but interpretation. On this score, despite their humble origins, Paul’s letters have a depth of theological understanding and spiritual insight that no other Christian writings have ever matched. It was Paul, rather than Peter, John and the other disciples, who grasped the true significance of the Jesus he had never encountered in the flesh. Paul was first to understand the full import of believing that Jesus was the Christ promised by the God of Israel. Time and again he sets out the fundamental doctrines that such an understanding implies, even though he he does not use the names by which these doctrines have subsequently become known.
This week’s extract from his letter to Colossians is a case in point. There is only a trace of the once vibrant Greek city of Colossae in what is now Turkey. Paul writes to correct some false understandings of Jesus that have arisen there. In so doing he articulates a key element in the Christian faith – the Doctrine of the Incarnation. “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God”. This is Christ’s divinity, and the means by which human beings can come to understand a transcendent God. At the same time, Christ’s humanity –“his fleshly body through death” enables him “to present” human beings as “holy and blameless and irreproachable before God”. It is in Christ’s uniquely two sided nature that our salvation lies.
Set alongside Paul’s profound reflections, however, this week’s short Gospel about the all too human rivalry between Martha and Mary serves as an important reminder. The ultimate meaning of the Incarnation does not lie in theological doctrines, but in ordinary life and how belief in Jesus is best manifested there.
The Gospel for this week is one of Jesus' most famous, and familiar, parables -- the story of the Good Samaritan. Its sheer familiarity means that some of its implications are easily overlooked. This parable is not simply a morally improving lesson about how much better kindness and generosity are compared to selfish hardheartedness. For the devout Jews to whom Jesus told the story, ‘the priest’ and ‘the Levite’ were exemplars of orthodox religious practice. Their passing by on the other side was not simple hard heartedness, but reflected a desire to avoid the religious pollution that would result from contact with a (possibly) dead body. This desire would have been widely shared. Conversely, the Samaritans were not despised as an ethnic minority, but held to be second class Jews because they subscribed to a debased form of Judaism. These facts intensify the meaning of the story. They make its subject matter more than moral rectitude, and pose a question about the nature of true religion.
Equally important is the fact that ‘the Good Samaritan’ is not a free standing story with a 'lesson', like one of Aesop's fables. It is Jesus’ answer to a question. A lawyer raises a characteristically legal question. He does not dispute the ancient moral law of the Jews – ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ – but asks for a definition of terms – Who is my neighbour? This is not mere quibbling. The definition of terms is crucial to any system of law and its application. What the story shows, however, is that while legalism has its place, it can become a barrier to the life of the Spirit within us.
So the story takes us to the heart of the Gospel. These sincere and faithful Jews want to place the law of God as inscribed in Leviticus at the center of their lives and obey God in all things. That is one, admirable, conception of ‘the Kingdom of God on earth’. But Jesus offers a radical alternative – a willingness to go beyond rules, to the point where our human concern with religious integrity is itself overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit acting within us. In short, we are called to participate in Divine life, and as the reading from Deuteronomy affirms, ultimately, this is a matter of looking deep within our own souls. 'Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.'
The Gospel for this week is one of those passages that modern readers find hard to relate to. Taken as a whole, even without the yet more difficult verses that the Lectionary omits, it seems to portray Jesus as encouraging a kind of fanaticism in the simple people he recruits to his cause. Relying on their primitive beliefs about demons and Satan, he promises them paradise in exchange for complete devotion. Isn’t this what happens today, when religious extremists recruit credulous suicide bombers?
If we believe in the Incarnation, we have to accept that the eternal God chose to be born into a world radically different from the modern post-Enlightenment societies with which we are familiar. To discern God’s enduring purpose for us, consequently, we must try to understand the reality of that kind of world.
Three features of this Gospel episode are especially important. First, the people Jesus chose to spread the word of God’s kingdom on earth were not highly educated, politically powerful or socially prestigious. They were notably ordinary ‘simple folk’, and in the verses that follow the lectionary’s extract, Jesus underlines that fact. Secondly, he gives these simple people the power to do some very remarkable things. This is in sharp contrast to their normal powerlessness within the social and political structures that then prevailed. No wonder they return from their excursions ‘with joy’.
Yet, thirdly, at the very height of their delight, Jesus tells them NOT to rejoice in their new found power. It is not these astonishing new abilities that matter, but the fact that their names are ‘enrolled in heaven’. In other words, these ordinary people have been entrusted with a task, and given powers to accomplish it, both of which have been denied to far more sophisticated people. They have the ability to see ‘what many prophets and kings wished to see, yet never saw’ (v 24), and thus to tell others that ‘the Kingdom of God is near you’. This does not imply or bestow any special status, however. They are neither prophets nor angels, but remain simply human. Since they probably expected it to be otherwise, this is the hardest part of accepting the mission they been chosen to undertake.
In the accompanying Epistle, Paul identifies very precisely a special danger confronting those who find themselves possessed of unusual spiritual gifts. He warns the Galatians: ‘If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit’. The warning is apt. Yet there is no disguising the great challenge that confronts anyone who believes that God speaks to them in a special way. They will be strongly tempted to use their spiritual insight and charismatic power in the promotion of strictly human ends. Often, as in the case of suicide bombers, these are political goals, pursued with brutal disregard for others. The Gospel message is that this is not simply immoral; it is a spiritual failure.
There is an unmistakable connection between this week’s Old Testament lesson and the Gospel passage. Both are about call and discipleship. In the first, Elisha is called to follow Elijah and become his successor. In the second, an unnamed ‘someone’ professes a desire to follow Jesus. Between the two, however, there is this striking difference. Whereas Elijah is happy to let Elisha first bid farewell to his parents, Jesus seems to condemn the same desire in those who want to follow him, as something that renders them ‘unfit’.
This passage in Luke (and a similar one in Matthew) is easily taken to mean that serious Christian discipleship requires us to abandon family and ordinary life. This is how those drawn to monastic life have often interpreted it. Yet if this is right, the cost of discipleship is far too high for most people. Certainly, the vast majority of those who have called themselves Christians have not made this sacrifice. Are they self-deceived?
As we think about this issue, It is helpful to recall last’s week’s Gospel. There Jesus expressly tells the demoniac who has been cured, and who wants to follow him, to return to his family. It is enough that he should give thanks for what God has done for him. Acknowledging the redemptive power of Jesus, this episode clearly implies, is wholly compatible with fulfilling the demands of domestic life.
So how do we resolve the tension between the instruction to leave family behind and the instruction to return to them? The unnamed people in today’s Gospel profess their desire to follow Jesus ‘out of the blue’ so to speak. Do they truly know what they are professing? The instruction to ‘leave the dead to bury the dead’ puts their profession to the test. What lies at the heart of this test?
The passage from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, also concerned with ‘call’ gives us a clue. “You were called to freedom”, he tells them, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence”. We easily suppose, especially at moments of high emotional or religious intensity, that what we like doing is the role we should have in God’s plan for salvation through Christ. This is self-indulgence. Accepting the discipline of the (often rather more modest) place we have actually been assigned is much harder. But that is what true discipleship means.
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