Frances writes on the readings for this Sunday :- Following a Gospels like ours today (Matthew 21:28-32) and others, the Early Christian Church worried over issues such as whether the elite, the rich and well educated could be saved. Clement of Alexandria suggested they could provided they cared for the poor from their goods whilst John Chrysostom’s famous Lazarus sermons, coming from his invective against the prosperity of Byzantium were altogether more negative. Our gospel seems to offer a similar challenge as Jesus attacks theJerusalemhierarchy, those who would ultimately be responsible for his death, comparing their chances of gaining the kingdom of heaven unfavourably with those lowest of the low; the publicani, tax collectors and prostitutes. Why was Jesus being so negative? The tax collectors were hated and despised because they were part of an oppressive foreign occupation system, collaborators with the enemy who farmed out tax collecting to the highest bidders who in turn divided collecting up amongst smaller fry all of whom used strong-arm tactics to extort money from the poor, and who naturally took their cut thereby inflating the taxes charged. The prostitutes Jesus was thinking of here were not high class courtesans but those who lurked in the tombs on the outskirts of towns, plying their trade or those in the overcrowded and seamy brothels we know of from ancient cites. In general then, not those any of us would feel comfortable rubbing shoulders with. Clearly Jesus intended his remarks to be upsetting and discomforting, a wake-up call to converts. It is part of his call for us to continually examine our lives and not fall into complacency, thinking that we’re doing all right and that we must be acceptable to God.
When we come to the Letter of St Paul to the Philippians (Phil 2:1-11) we are given a real insight into what this means. To us two thousand years on it all appears to be a rather nice, praiseworthy letter telling us to model ourselves on Jesus, and it’s only when we understand the society of the times that its demands and real significance hit home. Among the virtues esteemed by the pagans were courage, practical wisdom and temperance–so far perhaps so good, but pagans also reckoned as virtues : wealth; beauty; fame; wit; pride and magnificence ;whilst friendship and truthfulness were thought to be necessary to the pursuit of the good life. When we appreciate this combination of ‘virtues’, we begin to see that Paul’s letter to the Christians of Philippi was calling for a truly radical revision in their thinking and acting. It called on them to take on the mindset of Christ, of God himself. From our list of pagan virtues we can appreciate that many of them are not what we would laud as virtuous at all, and indeed might all too easily become used for selfish motives and even the destruction of others. The devastating wit of a Cicero, or the courage and shape shifting of Caesar, not to mention the use all made of wealth to ‘buy’ elections to high office, is instructive here. Indeed, with the collapse of the Roman Republic and the rise of the great tyrant figures who ruled Rome, we see precisely the collapse of true friendship, truthfulness and loyalty in the rush for power and domination at any cost. Paul accordingly called for a set of new Christian virtues based as we see in ‘tenderness and sympathy’; he called for a ‘common mind’ and for the end of the ‘competition’ which could be so corrosive. Unheard of, he called on everyone to be ‘self-effacing’. “Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead.” Truly, for ancient thinkers such a prescription was the mark of utter madness! Paul then goes on to tie such a mindset inexorably with that of Christ who willingly set aside divinity for our salvation and died the death of a slave. For this, as Paul points out, Jesus is given eternal honour and acclaim in earth and heaven, and only by following his example can the Christian gain heaven. The wonder is that anyone accepted the Christian faith and way of life at all! Perhaps the reason the tiny minority did was that they did appreciate the benefits of adopting a different mindset following in the footsteps of Christ and wanted to turn aside from the dog-eat-dog values of their own society. “Be united in your convictions and united in your love.” Christianity offered them a new vision of humanity lived in the image of God made human which convinced and convicted them in the face of the power, arrogance and self-serving that was current in their day.
Clearly this was a message which has resounded down through the ages; indeed, this call to live as God lives, with all his radical freedom and justice, had also been the experience of 6th century prophets like Ezekiel (Ez 18:25-28) and we, like its original followers, have to seek to learn to live with its freedom and grace. It is of course a message with profound consequences, altering the way we live and our entire relationship to others, not only our fellow Christians but all our fellow human beings. If we take this teaching seriously, and let it penetrate our daily lives, or at least strive to do so, then it must lead the Christian to live, on the one hand deeply disturbed by our own continual failures to live by this radical message, but also happy in the joy sharing the lives of our fellow men and women will bring, and the growing unity with Christ which it will bring to us.