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.
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus poses two questions to his disciples: Who do people say I am? and Who do you say I am?
While others, in attempting to identify Jesus, have placed him in the long and distinguished line of Jewish prophets, Peter’s own answer is, “the Messiah”. Jesus’ response is intriguing. Peter, he declares, could only have identified him as Messiah by divine revelation, and on the strength of this he, Simon, this simple fisherman whose courage will fail him at the moment of trial, is nevertheless the Rock on which the Church will be built. This gives new significance to Isaiah’s instruction “Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug”.
Then, having entrusted Peter with what is both an astonishing privilege and an awesome responsibility, Jesus, we are told, “sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah”. Why would he do this? The same puzzling instruction is to be found in Mark’s Gospel, many more times than in Matthew’s in fact. When the disciples finally appreciate that Jesus is indeed the Christ, they are commanded to tell no one – a commandment that Mark suggests they are not long in breaking. So why does Jesus want them to be silent?
One answer is this. The Messiah is not another prophet with an important message to proclaim. He is, rather, the fulfilment of all prophetic messages, the person who inaugurates the world to which the prophets have been pointing. This realisation is not something that could be inferred on the basis of scriptural knowledge or exegesis. That is why the learning of the Pharisees, however valuable in many respects, must always fall short of the thing at which they aim. By the same token, relatively uneducated fishermen can come to understand the significance of Jesus. As Isaiah puts it in the Old Testament lesson “though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away”. Recognizing Christ’s Messiahship is a gift, not an accomplishment. Hence the commandment to silence. Others cannot come to identify Jesus as the Messiah simply by being informed. They have to arrive at the confession that Jesus is Lord for themselves. Informing them prematurely, paradoxically, may get in the way.
This is what St Paul is referring to in his letter to the Roman Christians when he calls them to the “renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God”. A mind renewed is not one that has acquired more skills or gathered more information. It is a mind that thinks of the skills and information that it possesses in a different way -- as “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us”. Such a mind is profoundly humble, content to accept its own aptitudes for what they are, and not rivalling or aping others. This humility, though, is grounded in the highest aspiration. Those who accept that “we who are many, are one body in Christ” can then hope that the mind renewed within them is the mind of Christ.
Of course, St Paul had to keep reminding Christians of this. Experience shows how feeble our grasp and how flickering our understanding can be. But that is precisely where the Messiah promised by Isaiah comes to our aid. “My salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended”.
The relation between Judaism and Christianity has long been highly problematic. Anti-Semitism was the great stain on European Christianity in medieval and early modern times, and perhaps this even paved the way for the monstrous hatred of the Jews exhibited in the secular, post-Christian ideologies of Nazism and Communism. On the other hand, from a very early stage, Christian theologians insisted, against those who claimed that the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles were sufficient, that Christians could never dispense with the old testament of the Jewish Scriptures, because these were essential to understanding the new testament (or witness) that had been made manifest in the life and death of Jesus.
The Epistle and the Gospel for this Sunday reveal that the question of how the relation between 'old' and 'new' testaments to God's work in the world should be understood, was a pressing one right from the start. It confronted not only Paul, but Jesus himself. Both faced the charge that embracing the Gospel meant abandoning the ‘faith of their fathers’, and by implication rejecting the God of Israel. Both of them emphatically denied it.
Their response makes it plain that the Christian Gospel is not about propagating a new religion and displacing the old, but about renewing faith in God’s promises to his Chosen People. ‘I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham’, Paul declares. ‘God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable’. And then he adds an interesting twist. It is through witness of the Jews that the Gentiles have been lifted out of their sinful ways, and it will be thanks to the witness of the Gentiles that the Jews will be restored to God.
This line of thought echoes the sentiment expressed in this week's Old Testament passage. God declares through the prophet Isaiah that “foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
At the heart of the Gospel passage from Matthew, we find the same message. While it seems to fall into two quite separate parts, they are in fact connected. In the second part, Jesus travels to Tyre and Sidon, both notoriously sinful cities from a Jewish point of view. There he encounters a Canaanite woman who shouts at him for help. The Canaanites were not Israelites, and initially this makes a difference to Jesus’ response. His principal mission, he tells the woman, is "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel". Why is Israel lost? The answer is, ‘Phariseeism’, which is to say, it has come to be dominated by a complex labyrinth of ritualistic practice and social conformity As a result, the spiritual guidance given by the Jewish teachers no longer has any value for anyone who would walk in the ways of God. It is tantamount to the blind trying to lead the blind.
The faith and persistence of the Canaanite woman, however, extracts from Jesus an important concession. While the fresh ‘bread’ he has to give is intended first and foremost for the ‘children’ of Abraham, the spiritual nourishment it offers is available far more widely. Grace will be extended to anyone who has the faith to ask even for a few crumbs. Here we see the ultimate answer to the question about Jews and Christians. Through the Body of Christ, God’s promises to his ancient Chosen People become the promises he makes to all humanity. Ethnicity no longer matters, because the tribal identities that figured so prominently, and so brutally, in the history of Israel have been transcended. This crucial truth makes both anti-Semitism and Jewish nationalism, along with racism and tribalism, wholly unacceptable from a properly Christian point of view. What the Crucifixion shows, however, is that this did not mean they went away.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
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