Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- Sometimes one wonders at the selection made by the compilers of our lectionary. Are they in fact a deeply loyal lot, or rather remarkably subversive – or both? Today’s readings seem to suggest quite a scepticism against those placed in authority, and leave the message that they, and we placed under them, might want to sit in that position only with considerable caution.

The 1St Isaiah of our Old Testament reading, (Isa 22:19-23) wrote in the mid 8th century BC, at the time when Israel, the Northern kingdom was in turmoil, invaded both by the Syrian kingdoms close by, and later by the Assyrians. You can read more of this saga in 2 Kings 17-19 which speaks of a palace power struggle and the overthrow of Shebna, and of his replacement by Eliakim. It appears as though the latter was favoured by Isaiah at the time, who approved of the great authority given to Eliakim. The words of his institution were I suspect part of a formal ceremony of institution at the court of Ahaz and his successor Hezekiah. What we have to remember however is that the major prophets like Isaiah were no friend of the court, indeed were often persecuted by it, and whilst reflecting on the powers of ‘church and state’ of the time, they may in hindsight have appreciated that things were not what they seemed at all.

Indeed, neither the diffident young king Ahaz who reigned in Jerusalem, nor Hezekiah his successor, were ultimately well served by their officials. Hezekiah fatally went into alliance with Egypt and rebelled against Assyrian vassalage with disastrous consequences. Hindsight can be a remarkable and advantageous tool, warning us against certainty and complacency, and even the smugness that our decisions are the right ones. Isaiah’s message is one that we should be faithful to God and trust him, rather than the machinations of those in authority.

In our Gospel, (Matthew 16:13-20) a similar situation occurs. Peter has acclaimed Jesus as the Christ, and in return Our Lord has given him authority over the earthly kingdom, and in remarkably similar language to our passage from Isaiah. Whilst other Gospels record Peter’s acclaim of Christ, the others do not record this giving of special privilege to Peter with its quote from Isaiah 22, and in view of the subsequent severe put-down of Peter by Jesus one wonders at precisely what its role here amounts too. Its context in Matthew’s Gospel, during passage after passage of healing signs, amidst ever-increasing hostility from the Jewish authorities and specialists in the law, should serve at very least to suggest that the Early Church felt considerable unease over too tight a control from its own leaders. Peter, as we know, is presented as one of the leaders of the early church but one with clay feet too, and I suspect Matthew’s promotion of his champion – presumably over other candidates – was not without considerable provisos in view of the known history of all the apostles.

Perhaps the point being made here is something akin to ‘put not your trust in princes’, as we learn gradually of Peter’s  objections to Jesus’ foretelling of his betrayal and death, and face the Gospel accounts of how all the apostles in some shape or form let Jesus down at the point of crisis. This is not to argue for a complete rejection of any hierarchy – man-made structures and organisation- of course they were and are absolutely necessary; but as recent events in the Church have shown in many different ways, they are built and conducted amidst the frailty of the human condition. People can and do make bad choices. Even some very well intentioned men can totally misjudge the situation just as poor Hezekiah did, with disastrous consequences for his nation. Some of the choices made by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in recent times were also misjudged, though no doubt no one at the time thought their consequences would be so terrible, as we have learnt from the child abuse scandals.

This is where St Paul seems so wise; not that he rejected structure and organisation; far from it, as we see in the structures he laid down for ministry on his mission. However, just as he bewails his own unsteadiness in Romans 7:15, he knows he can place all his reliance on God, as we see in today’s 2nd Reading. (Rom 11:33-36). “How rich are the depths of God- how deep his wisdom and knowledge…..Who could ever know the mind of the Lord? Who could ever be his counsellor? Who could ever give him anything or lend him anything?” The Greek makes rather clearer that God is in no relationship of dependence upon us and owes us nothing; the relationship is entirely the other way round and we remain what we always are, totally his dependents. It can only be when we have this degree of trust in God, placing ourselves entirely in his grace and care, that we can live as we are truly meant to, whether as leaders of the Church or laity. And when we are willing to do this we can ride out the storms caused by the miscalculations and even deceptions of our leaders, even in the church. After all, we worship God, not the reigning Pope or our local priest, and in the end their failings as their successes are not the thing that really matters. God must be all in all.

Learning from Muslims

August 17, 2014

When I worked in East Oxford, and took weekly Assemblies in the local school I found to my surprise that one third of the children there were Pakistani Muslims. It was a steep learning curve to work out how best to talk to people whose background was so different from anything I had ever met before. Later, I was invited by one of the parents to go out to Pakistan and stay in his house. My first reaction was horror, not just because I am terribly English and am stupidly a little suspicious of foreigners, but because I am obsessive about clean toilets. What would they be like in Pakistan? My Pakistani friend assured me they had Western toilets in his house, and so I went!

Our Readings this week are all about foreigners. In our Gospel (Matt 15:21-28) Jesus knows that his main mission is to his own people, and is therefore very sharp with this foreign woman begging for help. Her witty reply shows him her great faith, and he gives her what she asks for. In another place (Luke 4:25-27) Jesus challenges his own people who think God’s mercy and love isn’t available to foreigners, and later he drives out the money changers from the Temple precisely because their presence is stopping foreigners from coming to pray, and he quotes today’s 1st reading to justify what he is doing (Isaiah 56:1-7) “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.”

One of the things I learnt, even before I went to Pakistan, was that the faith of Muslims often puts us Christians to shame, especially their sense of the presence of God, and their regular practice of prayer, often in public. Most Muslims are quiet prayerful people who are absolutely ashamed of those few extremists who give their faith a bad name, and we would do well to remember that. Indeed the Catholic Church teaches that Muslims, along with Jews, are the closest to us Christians because, to quote the Catechism, “They profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God.” (Catech Para 841)

I recently met Adan, now a taxi-driver, who was one of those little children in Pakistan with me. I was reminded how his father Abdul took me to visit one of the great Moghul tombs near Lahore (a bit like the Taj Mahal) and how, when we reached the actual tomb in the centre of this great edifice, this very ordinary young man, opened his hands to pray. How sad it is that we modern Western Christians are losing that practice of prayer. You would never be led in prayer by the aircrew of a Western airline, but when I flew on a Pakistani plane that is exactly what happened. The great Muslim prayer putting us all into the hands of God was recited over the Intercom by one of the crew as we took off. Being a nervous traveller I was much comforted & said my Christian prayers as they said their Muslim ones.

Of course there were things about Pakistan I didn’t like. I was staying in a rich man’s house but I saw plenty of poverty. The Muslim tends to be very fatalistic. Like some Christians they can easily assume that anything that happens is “God’s will” and so do nothing. My host in Pakistan said this once when we were walking beside a drain that was clearly an open sewer. He got a firm lecture from me about how 19thC British cities were once like that, and that Pakistan could change too!

Being the only white person there, was also a lesson in being a foreigner myself, and feeling what it’s like to be stared at. This is surely a very Christian thing to do, to feel what it is like to be different. The first followers of Jesus were all so very different from those around them, that they were often attacked. Yet they were proud to be so, whilst we modern Western Christians, find it very hard to do or say things that mark us as different from the world in which we now live. We could do well to learn from Muslims that being different, being faithful to God, even in public, is a good thing to do.

There is so much more I could say, but I hope I have got my point across. We Christians are called to be part of an international family in which everyone who is a foreigner to us is a brother or sister in our relationship with God. God can and does work in all sorts of people that we may find different or strange. In getting to know them better, we will find some things that are good, that we might imitate. My example was prayer and faithfulness to God. We will also find things that we don’t agree with. My example was a wrong understanding of God’s will.

There are some people who say that all ways to God are the same. I certainly don’t want you to think that! What is wrong is thinking that our way is always right, that there is nothing we can learn from others, that there is nothing good, nothing of God, in other faiths. God is greater than that!

After the Mass for the Feast of the Assumption this year I had a request to explain the 1st Reading from the Book of the Apocalypse (The Book of Revelation) so I have written a brief explanation as follows:-

THE BOOK OF THE APOCALYPSE

This Book is John the Divine’s severe pep talk to the Churches in Western Turkey in the 80’s and 90’s AD as you will see from the Chapters 2 to 4. Clearly there were Christians in many of these small town-states, and some of them, as we see, were losing their enthusiasm for Christianity because of hostility from the majority pagan communities. Throughout John’s letter he is dealing with this issue of Churches under threat. His ultimate belief is that Christianity will triumph. Towards the end of the book, from Chapter 12 to Chapter 19, he sets up two conflicting powers. One is the woman of Chapter 12 who represents the Christian Church in opposition to the Great Whore of Babylon and many dragons who represent the Enemy, the powers of evil. Despite the apparent power of the Dragons, John makes it clear that Christianity ultimately triumphs with his pictures of a vast earthquake – material culled most likely from accounts of the destruction of the cities around Vesuvius of AD79. He also borrows extensively from the Old Testament especially Isaiah 23 and Ezekiel 27 who have great dirges written following the destruction of Tyre by the Assyrians in the 8thC BC.

The Passage about the Woman in Chapter 12 which is used as the First reading on the Feast of the Assumption is actually not specifically about Mary and Jesus. It is therefore in my opinion not a very appropriate passage for this Feast. It depends how you see Mary, of course, for if you think of her not as the mother of baby Jesus but as representing the Church, as Mother of the Church then it makes more sense, because it is about the Church’s ( that is our) future in God despite many troubles. With John you should not try to make exact analogies because he creates a kaleidoscope of images to get over what he is trying to say which a modern factually-obsessed mind finds difficult to cope with. So just because there is a baby does not mean he is talking specifically about Jesus, because he probably is also referring to us the helpless and persecuted Christians and so on.

To talk further on this:-

Contact Father Martin Flatman , Priest at St Peter’s, Abbey Street, Eynsham OX29 4HR

Learning from foreigners

August 15, 2014

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- Foreigners keep insistently popping up in all three of our readings today, and we would do well to listen to the message that they teach us. People are always suspicious of foreigners and wary of contact with them. We like to think that we know best and most definitely that our appreciation of our God is the right one; that ‘God is on our side’ against others. It comes as something of a shock then to discover that this is not the biblical view at all, indeed, that the founding father of Israel, Abraham was a pagan, worshipping his ancestral gods until he discovered the one god on his journeys. Seemingly, he made that discovery via contact with other peoples who had met with the One God earlier! All the major prophets of Israel will in fact speak of the importance of foreigners in bringing the Jewish people back to the one true God – and they do it time after time!

 

Our reading from third Isaiah, (56:1, 6-7) is precisely about one such moment of discovery, or perhaps recovery, as those exiled in Babylon came to a renewal of their faith in Yahweh precisely through that experience of exile and their deprivation of their temple and their land. Even more importantly, they were able to communicate that faith to pagans, as our reading indicates, and it is they who will thus became guardians of the faith. When the people were eventually allowed to return to Palestine after about 100 years in exile, some of these ‘Jews’ remained in Babylon, and became the compilers of the great Babylonian Talmud; the teachings about the faith. Foreigners, it appears can know more about the truths of the faith than we ‘home-grown’ believers do, and can teach us a thing or two!

 

In our Gospel, (Matthew 15:21-28) we find Jesus tussling with precisely this issue of where his ministry should be focussed, and to whom it should be directed. He is in fact incredibly rude and dismissive of the Canaanite woman, referring to her and her people as dogs. Dogs in this society were not the cuddly pets of our imaginings, definitely not ‘man’s best friend’, but often rabid and diseased animals which scrounged off the populous and cleared the streets of vermin and discarded rotting edibles which brought rats and vermin. Yet it is this woman, with her rapid fire repartee who plays a vital part in Jesus’ own discovery of his true mission.

 

We have to cast our minds back over hundreds of years to begin to appreciate the significance of the Phoenicians – the ‘Canaanite’ inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon. Quite unlike the land acquisitive Israelites, the Phoenicians were traders over the Mediterranean from the Bronze Age, from as early at least as 1200 BC. Trade – barter – was their thing, and there is not much indication of conquest and land seizure on their part. They traded metals and pottery from as far afield as Spain at the other end of the Mediterranean. They would survive conquest by the Assyrians, by Alexander the Great and the Romans. Carthage, their great western entrepot Port, would survive to challenge the power of Rome. Clearly during those immense journeys, they met and worshipped many gods. How come then that our Canaanite woman approached Jesus for healing for her daughter? Clearly, her need drove her to a broader outreach and in that move she was able to stand as a signpost for the Lord himself, indicating the outward thrust his saving mission would eventually take to include the pagans of the entire world.

 

This foreign woman, someone unclean to the Jews, a worshipper of many gods of storm and fertility with all the dubious practices her beliefs required, was able to cross the boundaries of fear and prejudice in her need. It was her vision that this man, and he alone, could cure her sick daughter. Through her divinely given perception she was thus able to give Jesus the insight to unite the faith of his ancestors into an international outreach for the salvation of all, irrespective of whether they were Jew or pagan.

 

It is left to Paul, (Romans 11:13-15. 29-32) to continue this work of reconciliation as apostle to the Gentiles. Paul lived in a period of increasingly acrimonious relationships between Christians and Jews and the Church was, by the time he wrote his letter to the Romans, increasingly made up of pagan converts. This situation would be rendered even more difficult by the Jewish Revolt in 66-70.  Paul’s own early ministry, as we know, had been dogged by hostility from Jews as well as hard line Jewish Christians who insisted that full conversion to Judaism was the prerequisite to belief in Jesus. Paul fought vigorously against their efforts, insisting that the faith of Jesus did not require acceptance of the Jewish law and practices. Romans 9-11 was his latest work; in which, rather than display hostility to the Jews, he gives a carefully reasoned account of relations between Jews and Gentile converts, and in the section we have here he labours to draw out the intimate and vital relationship existing between the two. It is he says all part of God’s plan whereby since the Jews initially rejected Jesus, God turned to the pagans, and thereby incited the envy of the Jews. This conflict he therefore sees as healthy, a learning encounter in which his beloved people will ultimately be united by faith in Christ. It will be a sharing relationship, a two-way sharing between Gentile and Jew as the rich heritage of Jewry will be made available to the Gentile world, and the Jewish world will learn from pagan converts the final resolution of their salvation in Christ the Son of God; the One unique Son of God the Father – along with the entire cosmos which is being drawn into intimate and perfect communion with Him.

 

Clearly xenophobia, a fear of foreigners, has no place in our Christian life, no place in our exercise of our humanity and, far from mistrusting the stranger and the foreigner, we must listen to them; for it is very likely they will teach us much of vital importance about our own faith, and serve to deepen and enrich it.

Christians and Jews

August 10, 2014

It’s amazing to me that the persecution of Jews by Christians has such a long history. Amazing, because you only have to read 3 Chapters in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans (It begins with our 2nd Reading today : Romans 9:1-5) to see that such prejudice is absolutely not the Christian way. Paul is terribly sad that most of his fellow Jews have not become followers of Jesus, he says “my mental anguish is endless”, but his sadness does not turn into anger or hatred. He goes on instead to say very clearly indeed: (10: 12) “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all” and then (11:1-2) “Has God rejected his people? By no means.” And finally he tells his fellow Christians not to think they are superior. He says (11:20 & 28) So do not become proud, but stand in awe….. they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.”

I suspect that hatred of the Jews comes from St John’s Gospel where he uses the term “Jews” to mean the Jewish leaders not all the Jews. Misread, it reinforced the growing antagonism between the two groups as they moved apart. Yes, we humans always tend to be suspicious or fearful of people who are different from us, and here is a case in point. But here also is another area of life where we Christians today have to put into practice the truth that God loves all men and women of every race and creed, not just us. For Christians, the Jewish people, following St Paul, must always therefore be especially loved and cherished. For they are the people whose belief, way back before Christ, laid the foundation on which our belief is based.

Jesus could not have existed had he not had a Jewish family to be born into. His whole life and mission was based on the ancient Jewish texts which we now call the Old Testament. The songs he sang were the Psalms we sing or say at every Mass, and almost all that we know about him is written by his fellow Jews – the texts which make up the rest of our Bible – the New Testament as it is called.

I think I should make clear however that loving the Jews, for their great gift to us and to the world, does not mean loving the State of Israel. However we do need to remember, with sorrow, that the persecution of the Jews over many centuries, culminating in the attempt to exterminate them by the Nazis, is what has created the modern Israeli State. How sad that they think that the only way they can survive is by returning the brutality they experienced in the past.

But to return to the Jews as a whole. The first Christians were all Jews. Christianity was just one sect of Judaism. Christians believed then as now that the Jewish faith in God had come to its fulfillment in Jesus, and they expected their fellow Jews to realize this. However their vision was of a Judaism that was no longer confined to one race, but was now available to every single human being. They also came to believe that non-Jews who became Christians did not have to keep all the elaborate Jewish rituals and practices. It was this that most Jews would not accept. Some simply believed that only Jews could be Jews, whilst others believed that if someone wanted to become a Jew, even a Christian Jew, then they had to become a Jew in every sense. Anything else was for them not true Judaism. Thus Judaism and Christianity parted company, and sadly became enemies of one another.

What can be confusing for people is that we Christians, because of this history, often speak of ourselves as the new Israel. We sometimes describe the Church as Jerusalem, and, if we are English, sing of building Jerusalem “In England’s green and pleasant land.” We use the Jewish Old Testament, as Jesus did, as the foundation of our faith. How do we know that God is met in quietness, like a gentle breeze, in the still small voice of calm, rather than storms or earthquakes, except from the Jewish history of the prophet Elijah – our 1st Reading today? (1 Kings 19:9-13) How do we know that God reaches out to save us when we are stupid or frightened or sinful, as Jesus did for Peter in our Gospel today (Matt 14:22-33) except from countless stories from the Jewish Old Testament?

The history of the Jewish people before Jesus is indeed a history of a people that constantly failed in one way or another, and yet realized through their prophets and teachers, that God was a God of love who still loved them and willed them on to a better future. Their story is therefore a prefiguring, as we call it, of the new Israel, the Church, us : also a people who fail in many ways and yet God still loves and calls to glory.

This understanding of a God of love who would put down those who were proud and haughty, and lift up the humble and lowly, was deep in the heart of many Jewish people at the time of Jesus, but particularly deep in the heart of one very special young Jewish woman. Perhaps you can guess her name?  Mary. All through Jewish history we have stories of Jewish women who in the midst of troubles and sorrows acted with courage and faith in the service of God. These were clearly the stories that inspired Our Lady as she sat Jesus on her knee, and told him about this wonderful history and sang him the songs of his people. It’s always worth remembering this, when we honour Our Lady, as we will be doing this Friday (The Feast of the Assumption). When we honour her, we do not just honour all women, but most especially all Jewish women who nurtured the faith that now sustains and supports us.                           Holy Mary. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  Pray for us

Frances wries on this weekend Readings :- I want to focus on why St Paul is so distressed, (Romans 9:1-5) over the loss of the Jews to belief in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, or as he has just put it in Romans 8, the one, sole being who can unite us indelibly to the love of God. It is Christ, says Paul, who is superior to all powers, both earthly, demonic and above the heavens; he is greater than any earthly ruler or state, the only one party to ‘the mind of God’.

 

Today, it is fashionable, even charitable to other faiths to suggest that Christianity is but one manifestation of God, and to suggest that this is the only way to brush along with other peoples of faith because the alternative lies in fanaticism and all its brutal consequences, as we are seeing in the Middle East. It is therefore difficult for us to grasp the true significance of precisely what Paul was meaning. It is however well worthwhile our making the attempt; for what he believed was on offer, nay absolutely fundamental to humanity, is and remains critical to the survival of the human race.

 

Romans 8 is the clearest and most succinct statement of Paul’s belief in the uniqueness of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is well worth reading this chapter of his mature thinking and his fine theological development – so very early in the history of our faith – on what Christianity teaches.  What we have to understand is that Paul was not into one-upmanship, point scoring against the Jews. Paul was, and remained fundamentally, a Jew throughout his life; and our passage from Romans 9 reflects his despair and his deep personal sense of failure to convict his fellow countrymen and devout believers in God that Jesus Christ was the final and unique fulfilment of all God’s promises to the Jews ; that Jesus was and is what Judaism was and always had been looking for, God’s revelation of himself.

 

In this revealing, as we know, the Father does not merely show himself to his people, as indeed he did to Elijah the prophet on Mt Horeb, (1 Kings 19:9, 11-13) but he becomes one of us. With Elijah, when the prophet was fleeing from the wrath of Jezebel and thought he was near to death, the important clue for the future of God’s relations with humanity lay, not in the noise and power with which Elijah had to contend – the terrible storm – the earthquake and the fire – all of which most probably is a reference to the storm god of Canaan and the early peoples of Syria and Turkey – not least Jezebel’s rage and power. No, the manner in which Elijah met God was in the words of the Jerusalem Bible ‘a gentle breeze’, or even more surprisingly, in the Revised Standard Version, ‘in silence’. That quietness and unobtrusiveness is surely God’s way in the Incarnation, where he actually becomes human in the womb of the insignificant Mary and is born at Bethlehem. It is also a mark of Jesus’ career, in which he responds to the needs of the outcast and the sick and does not seek the contact of the rich and powerful. Jesus, as we see in the Gospels, comes as one of us to be with us; and, living alongside us, God in Christ enters fully into our human lot.

 

The point is that in doing so God in Christ is not simply some awfully decent bloke who shares himself with humanity; he truly is God, one of the Trinity, taking us into God’s life eternally. God in Trinity is an eternal relationship of love out-poured between each of its three members, Father, Son and Spirit, whose sole delight is in giving to the other members of the triad and receiving love from them in return. And when, as Paul puts it in Romans 8:17, we become children of God through his grace in Jesus, we also become heirs, sharers in the life of the Trinity itself through their gift. Now we see the reason for Paul’s anguish, as he realises that his fellow Jews, who reject Jesus, have turned their backs on their true heritage and on God’s intention for them, and have stuck to their beliefs in the power of the Temple and the Torah – the Jewish Law. There they were, so well equipped to understand God’s quiet way in the incarnation, and yet it was at this fatal moment that they baulked and, as Paul sees it, threw away their birth-right; and with that terrible omission brought down on themselves generations of retribution and death.

 

Our Gospel, (Matthew 14:22-33) reflects something of those earlier scenes. John the Baptist has been executed by Herod – the man of power – and Jesus goes off into the hills alone to pray, to converse in the silence with his Father. The rest of this scene – the walking on the water of Jesus and Peter’s bravado attempt which ends in failure – is a reflection on this need to trust in the quiet and the silence of God who acts in his Son to raise us to the heights.

 

We, like Peter, could easily be full of bravado – ‘I’ll walk on the water too!’ - only to become unstuck as we rely on our own importance and not on God. For it is God in Christ who calls us to believe in and think the unthinkable: that God became a man in Jesus and thereby unites us indissolubly with the Father of our eternal salvation. Without this great gift – never given in other faiths or philosophies – we are doomed to go our own weary ways, ways which inevitably result in strife and dissention, in wars and death; and we spurn what Jesus prayed for in John 17, that we be One, as Father, Son and Spirit are One. It is this total unity that we are offered, and that we seek above all other things. It is a unity, given only by and with and in God, which has the power to save us from ourselves and from the delusions of power which lead us to destroy others, be they our fellow Europeans or other foreigners, or even the members of our own families. God’s vision for us is not that we be nice or good, but Godlike.

 

 

 

It is fine to say, as I am sure we all do, that war is wrong. Yes, we can say this when we are speaking about war a long way off, as in the Middle East or Ukraine. Yes, we can make grand moral statements about how dreadful it all is, and ask why they cannot stop fighting and killing one another. But it all becomes different if we feel that someone is attacking us. So may I suggest that we need to try to think what we would feel like if an army or terrorists were threatening our homes, our shops, our security! Then I suspect we would feel things in an altogether different way.

I am reading a book[1] at the moment about the history of conflicts in Europe for the last 500 years, and what has struck me most is that war and conflict is usually created not by an actual attack by an enemy, but by the fear that we will be attacked. A decision is then made on these grounds to attack first, before our homes and our lives are devastated by an enemy that appears to be about to descend upon us. So as we remember with sorrow and sadness today the beginning of the 1st World War 100 years ago, we need to remember the fear in the minds of those who were the enemies of Britain then, who thought that Russia from the East or France from the West might encircle and enslave them.

The question then is “What does our Christian faith say about all this?” We know that people on both sides in our European wars of the past have claimed as Christians that God was on their side. You may not know however that when the 1st World War broke out the Pope at the time called, as Pope Francis is doing now on Israel and Palestine, for the war to stop, and for everyone to look for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Then, as now, such appeals from the Pope, and from many other people, appear to have made no difference. Once people are in fear of their lives, all reason seems to go out of the window.

This is all very depressing isn’t it? As are all the present wars and conflicts that we hear reported every day. But what it reminds us very forcibly is  that we humans need to be aware of how easily we fail in our relationship to others as soon as we are under any pressure. It also reminds us how easily we blame others rather than ourselves when things go wrong. Jesus told us to love our enemies, and to leave judgement to God, but it isn’t something we find at all easy to do, is it.

This is precisely why the Church stresses our need for God, our need to constantly turn to this power of goodness and love to help us on the hard road of being a good human being. Today our Gospel (Matt 14:13-21) is not just about a few thousand people being given bread to eat. It is actually much  more about the fact that God can support us and feed us spiritually if only we will turn to him for help. Our 1st Reading (Isaiah 55:1-3) is on this same theme, as the great prophet Isaiah tries to remind people that God is longing to help them in their desperation. “Oh come to the water all you who are thirsty…. Listen, listen to me… Pay attention, come to me: listen and your soul will live.”

Yes, if we are to overcome our fear of strangers and greet them as friends, if we are to overcome our own anger against those we think of as enemies, then we need constantly to turn to God for help. Work for peace and against war has to start with each one of us. It is no good saying “They” should do something about it, whatever it is. It is no good passing the buck or the blame to someone else and thinking that we are OK. That is not the Christian way.

So here we are at Mass precisely, I hope, because we know of this need to turn to God regularly and to receive his support, his grace, for our journey through life.

Today, amidst all this very challenging stuff about war and violence, both afar and in our own hearts, we need also to hear a word of comfort. So I hope you heard it in our 2nd reading (Romans 8:35-39) Let me remind you. “Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ, even if we are troubled or worried (And we are!) or being persecuted, or lacking food or clothes, or being threatened or even attacked…….  Nothing can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord”

May that message be one that we do not just hear on the surface, but hear and receive deep in our hearts, so that we may do our bit to work for peace and love and understanding in our sad and troubled world.

 

[1] Brendan Simms : Europe The Struggle for Supremacy 1453 to the Present

My Tolkien Homilies

August 2, 2014

MY TOLKIEN HOMILIES based on the Bible readings for Lent Year A

LENT 1

In these Lent Homilies I am going to use Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to illustrate the message of today’s Bible readings.  However, those who are not keen on this author need not worry, because the main message will be a Christian one not a Tolkien one! This would please Tolkien who, as a devout Catholic, always put his faith before his writings, and who certainly thought that within his most famous story were basic Christian truths rather than some new philosophy. Thus he lived and died a quiet faithful Catholic. For him, that alone gave his life meaning and purpose.

The Church’s theme this week is temptation – what it’s like, what it does to us, and how we can be saved from its consequences.  The great Jewish story of the way humans fall into temptation is our 1st Reading from Genesis, (2:7-3:7) of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit. They reach out thinking it will give them more and more of what they think they want, and in the process are ruined by it. This is so similar to our modern consumer world isn’t it? How easily we think, that if we just had a little more money, so we could buy that latest fashion accessory, or electronic gizmo, we would find happiness.

We see this and more, well illustrated in Tolkien’s story, but the symbol is not a fruit on a tree but rings of power. We hear how nine great kings have already lost themselves and become Ring-Wraiths – dark ghostly figures of evil – through their search for this power. But the story actually concerns the greatest temptation of all, the One Ring, and as the story unfolds we see how it tempts even the most honourable and the most wise.  We are shown through various incidents that resisting temptation is a very hard road indeed. The wisest, like Gandalf the great wizard, or Elrond the great Elf-King will not even touch the Ring. The Church teaches this again and again, though sadly many fail to realise it.  Avoid occasions of temptation!  If we know certain situations, or certain people will lead us wrong, we would be wise to avoid them. Thinking we are strong enough is a fatal mistake.

Tolkien shows us this in a man called Boromir. He also shows us through him that temptation is normally clothed in something wonderful and good. He is a good man who longs to save his country and restore it to glory, and when the Ring comes his way he cannot resist trying to take it – because he thinks he is strong enough to use it only for good. Galadriel the Elven Queen, when she is actually offered the ring, is much more aware that this is the real temptation. For a moment she contemplates how she would become a great Queen with power to do immense good, but then she realises that it would only lead to fear and oppression, and she chooses the path where even the power she now has will fade and die. Yes, our temptation is often to do something that appears good even though it’s not … “Go on, what’s the harm, try it!”  And the drug makes you feel so good that you cannot believe that it’s as dangerous as they make out.

But what about Frodo the Hobbit, the apparent hero of the story?  Yes, he shows immense courage in resisting the ring on his path to destroy it, but finally  temptation catches up with him at the last minute on Mount Doom. Here Tolkien again teaches us to avoid thinking that just because we have been strong enough to resist temptation so far, we are out of danger. Pride comes before a fall. This is very much the message of our 2nd Reading  (Romans 5:12-19). Paul says that sin and therefore death reigns over each one of us. There is no escape whatever we may think. The only solution is to accept the gift of God – “the divine grace, coming through the one man Jesus Christ.”

The hero in The Lord of the Rings therefore is not who you might think. It has to be someone who doesn’t think of himself as a hero at all.  Look at today’s Gospel for a clue – the Temptations of Jesus (Matt 4:1-11).  The hero, the saviour, is the one who freely takes on temptation and by choosing to give his life for others in love and in service, is able to resist all the glory that is offered him – the power to be a magician, even a superman and the power to rule the world. In this way, it is he who carries us, once we realise we cannot manage alone. The more religious we are, the more we are tempted as Jesus was. We long for the power to put the world right. We long to be able to pray in a way that will bring in God to put things right for us. 

But Jesus chooses to do the opposite. Adam and Eve reached out to grasp power, to be like gods. Jesus chooses to be a suffering servant, to give up all power, to die powerless, and in doing so he reverses the results of human sin. As St Paul says, “The good act of one man brings everyone life..” So our aim, as Christians, is not just to be a bit more like Jesus, for this is not the final solution. As Tolkien shows us in Frodo, even the most heroic can fail at the last.  The Church teaches us instead that in the long run we do not resist evil in our own power but by putting ourselves into the hands of a higher power, God himself, and linking ourselves into a union with Jesus through the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.

Now Tolkien would not want us to make an exact parallel. There is no Jesus figure in his story. But there is one who is nearer than any others to what Jesus did for us.  Quite rightly Tolkien paints this almost Jesus figure as rather obscure, even a little clown-like, but he is the only one who not only resists the power of the Ring but does so even though he has worn it! And I am not going to tell you his name, because in the real world the only name that saves is JESUS.

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LENT 2

 

Some people have the crazy idea that the perfect Catholic – the perfect Christian – is someone who is very holy and close to God, and who has no problem believing every single aspect of the faith.

It’s nonsense, of course, because we’re not machines but people, so that even when we do have those moments when we feel close to God, we have to face the fact that the life that God has given us, his will for us, will always take us on from where we are, and so there is no point simply staying where we feel safe.

 

This is why most of the major stories in the Bible, that express the faith, are stories of travel, of moving from one place towards another. We heard the beginning of one of these stories today in our 1st Reading (Gen  12:1-4) when Abram is told to leave the security of his country and family and begin to make a new future in an unknown land. There is also the most famous story of all, of the Israelites leaving Egypt and travelling through the desert led by Moses until they reached the Promised land. And that takes us to today’s Gospel. (Matt 17:1-9)

 

Why?  Because Moses is there.  You see, the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain might appear to be one of those holy moments that we all dream about when all our worries and problems are swept away. That’s certainly what the 3 disciples think. They want to stay there for ever.  But when Moses had his moments with God on the mountain, he was in the midst of leading his people through the desert. The glory was only given to help him to lead them on, and he would die before they got there.. giving his life for the sake of the future. And of course, it is the same with Jesus presented to us here as the new eternal Moses.

 

Now if you are one of the Tolkien fans waiting for the link, you’ve probably already worked it out.  For good Catholic that he is, Tolkien too puts his whole grand story within the context of a journey – a flight from danger into danger.  The hobbits are portrayed in their safe little country called The Shire enjoying life and partying away. But, faced with danger four special hobbits have to get up and go.  They are not aware then that this decision has such significance. Just like the disciples when they followed Jesus. And like the disciples (and like us) they have moments on the journey, safe houses on the way, places where they might long to stay for ever, where they are shown a bit more of what their journey is really about.

 

It’s exactly the same with us. Students often ask me why the prayer-life and the faith they knew back home has now been utterly shaken. Some think they have lost their faith, entirely ignoring the fact that in a new situation at University, God wants them to move on, and that may well mean praying in a different way and finding Mass very different from the experience back home. We all need to realise this truth. Life, especially our spiritual life, is a journey, a pilgrimage. The changes faced on becoming a student are obvious, but actually all of us face the same kinds of challenges, for even when outwardly everything appears the same, life is always is an inner journey towards God. Moments, even periods of our life, when we feel God is close, are actually only there to prepare us for the next stage on the journey. And sometimes, when we get closer to God, we may feel that he is further away. Before long, each one of us will be challenged to respond to him in new, different and sometimes frightening ways. However old or young we are, there is always a new journey to do, a new enemy to ask God to help us overcome. And remember, St Paul says that,  “The last enemy is death.”

 

Tolkien uses two Transfiguration moments in his story – with Elrond at Rivendell and then with Galadriel at Lothlorien – to make  the same point. But he makes further allusions to his faith at the second of these places, because here the hobbit travellers are given two special gifts. First, Lembas, is a special bread that will not go stale, to sustain them on the journey. This is just like the unleavened bread the Israelites took with them into the wilderness – the same bread that Jesus gave to the disciples at the Last Supper – the same bread that we receive at Mass transformed into his presence to sustain us through life.  The second gift is Light – the Light that Galadriel tells them will be a light for them when all other lights go out, even at the darkest moments of their lives – just like the light we are given at Baptism and given again at every Easter Vigil.  Signs of God’s presence for us whatever darkness we have to face.

 

Our Gospel also reminds us of one other thing we need to do, to listen. “This is my Son.. Listen to him.”  Tolkien makes this point too although he does it in a more comical way by showing the two younger hobbits constantly failing to listen. Merry and Pippin are great characters because they are so much like us, whilst Frodo and Sam have the darker more obviously Christian road. They are the ones who have listened and now discover that certain of these the words come to them to save them in moments of great peril.  Like them, we too must listen, because we never know when what we have experienced in the good times will not sustain us when times are tough.  I once cared for a young man in his 20’s who suddenly discovered he was dying. He had given up the faith, as many young people do.  But now, “I’m scared“, he said. For a moment I was stuck for what to say, but then suddenly it came to me. “Do you know the story of the Prodigal Son?”  The story he had listened to in his childhood suddenly came back to him as a voice from a loving God, and with that voice for support his fear left him, the last enemy was defeated, and he died in peace.

 

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LENT 3

 

I wonder if you’ve experienced that difficult moment when an enthusiastic Christian asks you if you have been saved. This kind of Christian deals in certainties. They think that unless you have an explicit belief of a certain kind then you are not really a Christian. They give the impression that there is a clear line, and people are either on one side or the other.

 

The truth is that faith is not like this at all. Faith is related to hope and love. All three are yearnings towards a mystery that is always beyond us. A longing for something not yet realised. So when someone says to me “I don’t believe in God”, I ask them what do they believe in.  Do they believe, or at least long to believe, there is some power of goodness underlying the Universe?  “Oh yes” they say, and then I say “Then you do believe in God. You have just misunderstood what believing in God is all about.” 

 

This yearning, this longing, this thirsting for the unknown power is what faith really is.  As Catholics we have the great joy of knowing something of the fullness of God that is revealed in Jesus and his Church, and, I hope, we’re always willing to share this with others.  But just because others aren’t at the same point on the road of faith as us we do not therefore condemn them.  Thus the Church teaches that “those who through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and. moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it …..may achieve eternal salvation.” That’s from Lumen Gentium an official teaching document quoted in the Catechism at para 847.

 

So we now have more idea what Paul means when he says in our 2nd reading “by faith we are judged righteous and at peace with God.” (Romans 5:1) And we can also see more clearly what is happening in our Gospel (John 4:5-42) as Jesus meets this woman at the well whose belief is different from his.  Notice that she thinks he will condemn her for worshipping on the local mountain rather than in the temple at Jerusalem, but instead he says. “You worship what you do not know ; we worship what we do know…”, he acknowledges the  difference, and then he points forward to worship that is beyond specific material things “when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” – a vision of being with God in eternal life.

 

The Tolkien link may not be so obvious today, but actually it’s very clear. His story is set in a mythical Iron age past, clearly before Christ. So, as a good Catholic, Tolkien hints at the way these various peoples yearn for goodness, and sense in some way the presence of a guiding power. At various moments in the story the wisest characters mention that they must aim to do what is meant to happen. They realise that to defeat evil someone has to enter into the heart of evil, to Mordor itself, to destroy the evil by throwing the Ring of Power into the Fire at Mount Doom. At the Council at Rivendell when Frodo finally offers of his own free will to be that person, Elrond the wise elf says, “If I understand aright all that I have heard, I think that this task is appointed for you Frodo, and that if you do not find a way, no one will.”

 

This faith in a greater purpose. This hope in the midst of despair.  This love that will be shown by the Fellowship who support Frodo, and finally between Sam and Frodo at the darkest moments as they walk almost helplessly into the evil land – are supremely Christian insights into the true nature and purpose of life.  Tolkien refuses to be more specific about this guiding power in his epic story because he knows it would destroy its universal nature.  He knows what that power fully revealed is – Jesus Christ the Saviour of the World – but he also wants to affirm that those who do not explicitly know Christ can still be saved. 

 

This then is what our approach as Catholics should be to the task of mission, of evangelisation. We are called to discern God and proclaim his presence in every yearning of the human heart towards goodness and love. 

When we challenge the world we only challenge what is evil, not what is different.

We believe we have the fullness of the truth in Jesus.  He is the Water of `Life that everyone is actually thirsting for whether they know it or not. But our approach is always gentle, so that we do not destroy the good in others, but help to fan it into a flame that is a fuller response to all that God wants them to be and to do.  Elrond never forces his opinion onto Frodo. There is discussion and sharing and then finally a brave decision to be affirmed.  We must do the same.

 

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LENT 4

We humans are very good at being conned by outward appearances. We tend to think that good-looking well-dressed people must be good and happy, and the advertisers know this only too well. So use this perfume, wear these jeans, drive this car and you will find happiness!  We expect our heroes to be like this too, and films and books are very good at playing into these expectations. If a story is exciting and flashy then not only will we be entertained, but we will start believing it is true.  More honest books try to present things much more like they are. But truth is not as exciting as fiction. In real life there are no absolutely bad people, and no absolutely good people. The distinctions between heroes and villains, baddies and goodies, are blurred.

 

Films are particularly good at taking a real story and turning it into a melodrama, and the story of Jesus is a classic example of a tale much corrupted in its telling.  Most of the films of Jesus show him as a deeply holy man full of God’s presence and make out that those who cannot see this truth are either blind or bad.  Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, for example, presents Jesus as the perfect hero undergoing dreadful torture. The fact is that Jesus was a much more enigmatic character than is sometimes made out, and he knew it. The written Gospels show that who Jesus is, was not so obvious except to those to whom God had revealed it. Seeing who he really was, the focused presence of God in the world, was and is not easy. Even his disciples weren’t sure, and many apparently very holy people just dismissed him as a wicked blasphemer.

 

This is one of the reasons why many people say they do not believe in God. They want the certainties of this fictional world, and true Christianity cannot provide this.  Look at the way the world viewed Pope John Paul II’s illness.  They thought that a leader, to be effective, must be strong and active, and had no idea that a leadership from within weakness and suffering is much nearer to Jesus than the strong Pope John Paul we knew when he was younger.

 

Our Gospel today (John 9) about the man who is given his sight presents us with another way of looking at this muddled human way of seeing. The point here is that it is the blind man, who is given his sight by Jesus, who then can really see who Jesus is, whilst those who think they can see are actually blind. Jesus explicitly says, “It is for judgement that I have come into this world, so that those without sight may see, and those with sight turn blind.”(John 9:40)  It’s a big reminder to us to watch out when we think we have got things all sorted, when we think we know the answer, when we claim that we can see. Because our very certainty can be a danger sign, a sign that we are going blind.

 

This important truth is strongly expressed by Tolkien in his great book when he introduces us to the man Aragorn, who will one day be King. The hobbits, who get to know him first as Strider, are deeply suspicious of a man who looks so rough and dark. Is he a servant of evil, they wonder? Gradually however, they become aware of his worth as they get to know him, but they are still not aware that he is a king. Indeed, almost at the end of the story, when he becomes the new King of Gondor, they are amazed that this great man is none other than their scruffy friend Strider.  As in the Gospel, so in the Lord of the Rings, many hints are given as to who this person is. Gandalf the wizard sends the hobbits a little poem that ought to have helped them see. Its first few lines read:-

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost”     

But despite this they still do not perceive who Strider really is.  Sadly the films finds it harder to keep this secret hidden, and so do not present this Christian truth nearly as well as the books.

 

However Tolkien also points out another Christian truth that is perhaps even more important. This is that blindness is found most of all in the source of evil itself. The great eye of Sauron that claims to be able to see all that is happening, and thus rule the world, just doesn’t notice the little weak hobbits gradually creeping nearer and nearer to their goal. Once again the Christian story is plain.  Most people look at the pathetic figure of Jesus dying on the cross and find it hard to see, that in this wretched sight, God is at work conquering evil and death.  We need to be given sight as the blind man was if we are to be able to see this great truth – not just to see who Jesus really is but also to be able to look at the world and ourselves in a different way too.

 

LENT 5

If I tell you that the most important thing for every human being is to prepare for death, I expect you will dismiss me as morbid and depressing. So today, in the last of my Lent Homilies, I am going to bring in Tolkien to support me right from the beginning.  Why?  Because the whole of Tolkien’s long and exciting epic is actually all about
facing up to death. Indeed I would like to argue that all of the greatest stories in the world, both the true ones and the works of fiction, are only really great because they tackle this essential theme. Stories that fail to do this can be wonderfully entertaining – a good bit of escapism from a tough world – but they are not really tackling for us the deepest realities of human existence.

The great adventure of life is always to face death. Those who hide away from this truth end up endlessly trying to protect themselves from the inevitable – or surrounding themselves with more and more things to hide from a truth that will eventually, one day, catch up with them. So the heroes in the Lord of the Rings choose to risk everything even life itself for a greater good. At first Frodo suggests that someone else takes the Ring from him, or that they simply hide it away or throw it into the sea.  They could, of course, have done all those things, just as Jesus could have just taught people a few things about being kind and good and loving God and then sunk quietly into an easy old age.  But Frodo and his companions choose instead the hard road. They choose the path of death in order to defeat death and in different ways all of them meet a death of one kind or another on their journey.

And this is what makes the story so exciting and absorbing. It is full of the vibrant vitality of life and friendship, of fun and challenge. Again and again one or other of the characters risks all for the sake of a future hope. Gandalf killed by the Balrog.  Boromir defending the Hobbits.  Merry and Pippin crawling into the terrifying forests of Fangorn.  Aragorn with his elf and dwarf companions actually walking the Paths of Death and summoning death to defeat death.  And above all Sam and Frodo walking into the jaws of death, into a realm where all is evil and decaying, and where the fires wait to consume them.  Tolkien experts, especially of the feminine variety, may think I have missed one out, and they are right. Arwen’s choice to marry the King is also a choice to die – a hint here of Tolkien’s lifelong devotion to Our Lady.

Well if you haven’t heard, not just of Our Lady, but all the Catholic reverberations in that list I’ve just given you, then you can’t have been listening. Look at our Gospel (John 11:1-45) for some other obvious links. Notice that Mary and Martha and the disciples do not want to face the death of Lazarus. Mary actually says to Jesus, “If you had been here my brother would not have died.”  And she is quite right. Jesus acts as God acts. He allows us to die. He does not surround Lazarus, or us, with some protective screen. Instead he is pointing his friends and us towards an even more frightening prospect, the greatest story of all, the ultimate adventure, his own death on the cross.

Jesus is “the Resurrection”. He is God defeating death. But he does not defeat death by avoiding it, or running away from it, but by entering into it.
How hard it is for us really to live that way. We prefer to read exciting stories than to take risks ourselves. We think that “being spiritual” as Paul puts it in our 2nd Reading (Romans 8:8-11) means being holy and good…. And inevitably a bit boring!  But to be truly holy, to be truly spiritual, is to live life on the edge, the way the great heroes and the saints of the past lived it. For really to enter into life, is to embrace death.

But what about the happy ending?  Yes, there is one, but only through death and sacrifice.  First there is the truth that in all that we suffer, God suffers and weeps with us. We hear that, “Jesus wept”, and in that action we sense the immensity of love that our God has for us. But we know too that in two weeks time we will celebrate Easter, that if we face death with God we will find new life beyond death.

Now Tolkien never wants to make his parallels too specific.  No one dies in his story quite the same way as Jesus does, for the death of Jesus is a definitive end to one story in order to create a new beginning. I pointed out previously that Tolkien only hints at the existence of God in his story, so too he only hints at resurrection. But for this he uses a biblical image, the image of the eagle from Exodus (19:4) ” You have seen how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”  And from Isaiah (40:31) “But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

So at moments when all seems lost in his story the eagles come to the rescue and the heart lifts.  Gandalf dies but is given new life for a time and the great eagle bears him to Lothlorien.  The whole army faces annihilation at the gates of Mordor and then the eagles come.  And finally, of course, when Frodo and Sam have completed their mission, when they have taken the ring into the place of death and destroyed it, and as they then wait for death as Mount Doom explodes around them, the eagles come to rescue them.

For Tolkien addicts I could say a lot more, but I hope even those of you who have never read the story or seen the films will now recognise that in his own way, Tolkien has created a great Christian story. Walking into death with Jesus we find new life.  This is the story we are about to celebrate this coming Holy Week and Easter. May we also live it out in our own lives, so that where Jesus has gone we may follow.

 

 

My taxi driver the other day happened to be a young British Pakistani man that I knew in East Oxford when he was a little boy. In this week in which so much news has been filled with horror stories, from the blowing up of the Malaysian air liner by  fanatics in the Ukraine to the threat by Extremist Muslims to execute Christians in Mosul; it was welcome and important  for the survival of our planet to meet a devout Muslim who believed strongly that he should do all he possibly could to counteract the bad impression of Islam that the media so often presents by highlighting these extremists This young man had been inspired by  a talk in London by Cat Stevens in which he emphasised that believers in Islam must hold as imperative their need to be educated in the faith as a means of combating ignorance and misinformation. He had been emphatic that this was not simply about their personal survival but that of good relations between east and west; and that it is the task of educated Muslims, (and also of course Christians), to know their faith and practise it properly.

Now what has this got to do with our Readings this Sunday? Quite a lot really, because St Paul in our 2nd Reading (Romans 8:28-30) makes it clear that God can make something of every effort we make for goodness and love however small. He writes “We know that by turning everything to their good God co-operates with all those who love him” So God can use the good will of my Muslim friend who clearly loves God because every little action of his, as of ours, makes a difference.

 

I was delighted to see another person I know via Facebook responding to his local church’s invitation to go and meet the local Muslims. Before he went, he had been expressing some rather anti-Islamic views, but he was bowled over by the welcome and kindness he was offered and has completely changed his tune.  It is so easy to condemn others if they are different from us rather than exploring what they have to offer us in this strangely mixed up human world of ours.

 

Jesus brings this out in a different way in the fourth of the 4 parables in our Gospel  (Matthew 13:44-52) It is worth remembering that these 4 parables were not originally spoke together as they appear now in the text. The Gospel writers were using material that came from the memories of those who lived with Jesus during his 3 years of public ministry. Each of these parables was probably given on a separate occasion and they therefore have different messages for us. Trying to get the same message from all four is a complete mistake. The first two are about how important, how precious the Kingdom of God is – like a great treasure or a precious pearl. The third is about how God allows the bad and the good to exist together as in the weeds and the wheat from last week. The fourth challenges the assumption that the message of Jesus is either old or new. He points out that it can be both, that God can take both old ideas and new ones and use them both in the building up of his kingdom. That is true wisdom, he sort of wisdom Solomon prayed for, in which God works in and through all sorts of things and all sorts of people, not just the people and the ideas we feel comfortable with.  

 

Jesus is encouraging us to open our minds to everything that happens around us.  Some Christians sadly would want to say that nothing good can come from a Muslim but when they do that they are as bad as extremist Muslims who think nothing good can come from anyone who is not a Muslim.

 

For me, it was a wonderful example of this truth as I  heard this young Muslim taxi driver talking about all of us working together – Muslims and Christians and Jews – to build a better world

 

Frances writes on this weekends readings :- On our return from holiday last week we weary travellers took a taxi from Oxford to Eynsham. Our driver turned out to be a young Muslim man full of passionate convictions. In this week in which so much news has been filled with horror stories, from the blowing up of the Malaysian air liner by  fanatics in the Ukraine to the threat by Isis to execute Christians in Mosul who refuse either to convert or pay protection; it was welcome and important  for the survival of our planet to meet a devout Muslim fully convicted of his faith and obedient to it; and who was also committed to fostering good relations between peoples of Islamic beliefs and the West, Christian, Jew and non believers. This young man had been inspired by  a talk in London by Cat Stevens in which he emphasised that believers in Islam must hold as imperative their need to be educated in the faith as a means of combating ignorance and misinformation. He had been emphatic that this was not simply about their personal survival but that of good relations between east and west; and that it is the task of educated Muslims, (and also of course Christians), to know their faith and practise it properly. Discernment was and is the message of the time, and our readings for this week demonstrate that this is precisely what was and has always been required.

 

Our Old Testament reading, 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12 shows this cardinal virtue in the young Solomon. Now Solomon had inherited the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah; he was wealthy and powerful; a great leader of the people in his time. We know that foreign royalty and dignitaries visited his court and that under his inspiration an expedition was undertaken with Tyre to circumnavigate Africa, seeking out possible trading partners and routes. The young king could easily have become consumed by his own importance, yet here we see him praying to God for discernment and guidance from God.

 

Our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:28-30 explores this issue of the meaning of good and right behaviour, suggesting that it is when, and only when, our behaviour is in accord with God’s, with the love of God, that it can truly be good and right. When we actually live with the generosity and grace of God himself towards others, rather than selfishly or for our own personal ends; and only then we are discerning the truth and being truly loving, and when we live like that we become in Paul’s language “True images of his Son.” Moreover, he continues, when we do this we are truly members of the community of the Son, who is “The eldest of many brothers”; then we are justified, made capable of a full and proper relationship with the Father.

 

Our Gospel, Matthew 13:44-52, explores this in parables, or metaphors.  Parables are never about the literal material mentioned, be it treasure, vineyards or fish, but are picturesque language by which we come to appreciate what ‘heaven’, our life in and with God, is truly about. We are here presented with three images of the kingdom.

 

The treasure hidden in the field was presumably found by a labourer who had the sense to know that if he just took it he could be accused of theft and slung into prison. Instead, prudently, he bought the field and became entitled to the treasure. Similarly with the discerning pearl dealer; clearly not all pearls are of the same quality, and it takes knowledge and ability to pick the real gem – the crowning glory of his career. Those are a pale reflection of what the joys of the kingdom of heaven will be like.

 

When we come to the third parable, the haul from the dragnet, the tone appears to darken as real judgement is called for, and the fishermen select good fish and discard the rest of the catch. Those of us familiar with Leviticus 11 and its details of clean and unclean foods will recall that ‘fish’ are those with fins and scales and are acceptable food, whilst other sea creatures, like crustations; or squid; or lobsters or octopus, and mammalian sea creatures, are forbidden to Jews as food. Indeed, they are described as ‘detestable’ by the Torah. I presume this division is again about discernment, as the believer is called to know himself and use his God-given abilities to find his way through life, here seen as the sea lest at the end he find himself condemned by God’s angels. Just like the wise householder, the discerning Christian, here a Jewish Christian, has to use prudence in the management of his household to arrive at his final destination, life in God. There is no space here for a sloppy liberalism which just dumps everything onto God and allows us to continue in the sinful ways of the world

 

So I suggest that our readings this week are an effort by Jesus to compel the faithful to careful action both in the management of their own lives and that of their families and also an insistence that we educate ourselves in the faith we hold so dear. Otherwise, as our young Muslim taxi driver was trying to say, we fail to build a just and true humanity, and in our ignorance create a world of crucifixions, and fail to live by God’s Holy Spirit, and do what he made us to do and be in the name of his Son.