Belonging needs humility

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- In writing to the Christians of Thessalonika (1Thess 2:7-9,13), St Paul stresses the quality of the care with which he as an apostle and by implication all Christians are expected to treat others. What is interesting is the very intimacy of the language he chooses to use, comparing his treatment of them with that of a breast feeding mother. He says “We felt so devoted and protective towards you, and had come to love you so much, that we were eager to hand over to you not only the Good News but our whole lives as well.” His and our commitment to our fellow Christians must be one of total commitment, booking no boundaries. Lest this movement into feminine areas make the men uneasy he then goes on (in the omitted verses), to place this care in the context of the father, head of the household, on whom the well being of the whole family depended.

For ancient men and women, we have to remember that such language far from appearing sweet and sentimental would have been quite radical and shocking. Children born to 1st century men were only acknowledged as their own, of the family, by the wish of the senior male, and many were rejected and thrown out with the rubbish, and in an age of appalling infant mortality many may not have invested quite so much effort or psychological commitment to the very young who might up and die at any moment, notwithstanding the vital need for children to carry on the family name and inheritance. Paul therefore committed the spreading of the gospel, and the attitudes expected of its adherents, to the very heart and hub of family life at its most raw and basic, thereby setting a pattern for Christian belonging and authority quite different from that of both Romans and many Jews. Early Christians were forbidden the exposing of unwanted children.

In our gospel from Matthew (23:1-12) we find Jesus castigating the attitudes of the Pharisees and scribes. These were groups within Judaism who called for everyone to live in strict conformity to the Mosaic Law, with its hundreds of purity regulations. This placed conformity to the law quite beyond the reach of many professions such as farmers, who regularly became contaminated by their contact with animals or dung; it excluded all undertakers because of their continual contact with the dead; it excluded leather workers and those in the washing, dying and tanning industries for whom the use of urine was essential, and it can have been no accident that Paul deliberately became a leather worker. Its exclusion covered the chronically sick and any ill. You can see here that the term ‘sinners’ applied to such people was not a moral one, but designated their continually impure status and thus their exclusion from worship. Whilst Jesus seems to have sympathised with the Pharisees in their rigour for the law, he clearly had no time for the kind of behaviour which worked on pointless separation and heaped unhelpful burdens on those who desired to keep the Jewish law but were prevented from doing so. More to the point, Jesus attacked the Pharisees and scribes for their outward display of their superiority, knowing as he did the capacity for Jewish debate on the law to find ways out of these seeming ritual minefields. “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders.” In contrast to them, Jesus fixes a demand that those in charge of authority in the Christian communities be men who serve after the pattern of his own example, insisting that only through service could one be exalted after the example of his saving death. Those who look to the Church for status and honour and public acclaim have no place in its ranks. Service in the Church must be life-threatening or at least, following Paul, life-giving.

Quite clearly Malachi (1:14-2:2, 8-10) felt much the same disgust with the priests who governed the temple on their return from exile in Babylon. Like many an ex-pat returned home after a long absence, they were profoundly dissatisfied with conditions in 6th century Palestine and their behaviour “caused many to stumble by (their) teaching.”  Instead of bringing rejoicing at the rebuilding of the temple and the restoration of the nation, their intransigence caused the Mosaic Law, the covenant of Levi to be cast aside. The law which should have been a delight and the cohesion of the race was clearly being abused. Malachi accused them of that worst of sins, partiality in administration of the law, where they were called to complete impartiality and care of rich and poor alike, regardless of distinction; and where they were clearly dealing with their fellow Jews in ways mindful of their own profit. Malachi savagely accuses them of breaking faith with one another; those very ties which immemorially linked Jew to Jew have been disregarded.

How we therefore treat one another is therefore at the very heart of Christian (and Jewish) belonging and there can be no excuse offered to God for those who drive away would be members of the Church. This is not to call for an end to all rules and ways of behaving, but rather gentleness, service and generosity in the caring of others.

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