Frances writes on next weekend’s readings :- Most of us like to think that our place in heaven is automatically assured by baptism or regular Church attendance or even a few good works and so the idea gained from our gospel, from Luke (13:22-30) that this may be far from the truth is very disturbing. How will we react if the Lord finally says to us, I do not know where you come from. The claim we might make, in the company with other rejected people that we were his cronies, we ate and drank in your company; you taught in our streets, seems quite reasonable and we can sympathise with their chagrin. What is going on? We have to remember that this gospel reading is set amongst a whole series of stories given by Jesus about people who thought they had got everything stitched up for the eternal life: the Pharisees and lawyers who deprived others of knowledge of the kingdom; the rich fool with his vast barns; those whose whole life revolved around material possessions and gave no cognisance to the way of suffering as the pathway to the kingdom. There were also those who thought in terms of works only and to them Jesus would reply that eternal life is intimately connected with humility and above all, is entirely in the Father’s gift and not to be forced by anyone.
In a society such as that of the Greeks and Romans, where status and your position in the pecking order was everything and brought with it automatic power and rights for the elite and better off; the notion that something altogether more mysterious was involved in entry into the kingdom of God was to place convert and Jew alike on a steep learning curve, the gentile because of his socio political and economic status, the Jew by his possession of the Torah and his belonging to Israel. There are however attitudes we can acquire and ways of living we can espouse which may set us on a different trajectory; one directed heavenward, a sort of physiotherapy for heaven.
The thing we have to notice from our OT reading from Isaiah (66:18-21) is that this advice was not new. Third Isaiah; writing for the returnees from exile in the 6th century BC placed a radical and clearly uncomfortable exercise before his Jewish hearers. Clearly there was a danger that these men and women, returning to their homeland from Babylon under the benevolent policy of the Persians might have thought that since God had blessed them through Cyrus (His anointed or messiah), little more that their former behaviour was required. If that was indeed the case, Third-Isaiah’s words must have rattled them no end, for he preached a universal salvation and said that God required some of the returned from exile to go off on long and arduous missionary journeys to the ends of the known world! Now we know that Solomon’s navy had circumnavigated Africa and certainly under Alexander travellers went to India, Turkmenistan and other parts further east. By the time of the Roman’s a rich trade in spices was underway using the seasonal monsoon winds to trade with Indonesia, the Camorras, Ceylon, the interior of N Africa and the Kenyan coast. Arabia was not called Arabia Felix for nothing, for much of the trade in spices and incense travelled up through the peninsular to Petra and thence to the Mediterranean and there is evidence, mostly coin, of this trade in India and Ceylon. Clearly the God of Isaiah expected his believers to go to the literal ends of the earth in the interests of others and the idea that they simply carried on their old introverted version of the faith was far from the scheme of things! Isaiah’s picture of exotic foreign processions of ‘brothers’ arriving to worship in Jerusalem, even of the appointing of some as priests and Levites in the temple must have been quite a shock.
The idea however that up and coming astute parents in Greco-Roman society ‘trained’ their children would have been very familiar to the recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews (12:5-7 11-13). Here Paul takes on a metaphor which would have appealed to his hearers. In this society the elite, and even those aspiring to join the upper ranks would have belonged to a world in which ones status was made apparent by the way in which one spoke, the clothes one wore, the way you walked, sat, greeted your friends and followers. It affected your education, your entire place in the world. People were constantly on public display and to fail in this world of proper deportment was to fail as a human being. The fact that parents might train their children by harsh discipline would have been no stranger to these people. So Paul used a metaphor with which all were very familiar to speak of the training of the Christian convert in the practise of Christian living. Of course, we only have a very small part of the letter here, which might give the impression that Christian ‘discipline’ was external or imposed on an unwilling audience. The use of the comparison with Greco-Roman society however shows that it was part and parcel of being a human being in the ancient world and that Paul was invoking it as a means of enabling his audience to take the gospel message and its implications into their very hearts and souls, not a surface thing at all, but ways of being and acting which suffused the very soul of the believer, and this surely is still relevant to us today.