Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- On the face of it, we could read all these readings as a call to do good works. If we are not very careful we then think that such works ‘buy’ our way into heaven; but this as we know is emphatically not the case. It is only when we explore these biblical passages in greater depth that we begin to see their significance and appreciate what they are talking about.
Our reading from Isaiah (58:7-10) comes from the final group of prophets of that name, writing during the return from exile in Babylon c.521BC.We have to remember that this would have been a period of chaos, very unsettling to the Hebrew returnee families. Their grandparents, surely now all dead, had been taken into exile in Babylon; their lands had been seized and apportioned out to other exiles from distant lands. How could those who returned, the grandchildren of the exiles, possibly prove their claim to ancestral lands; and what of the equally long settled exiles who now lived on those lands? We can imagine the hopes aroused, and dashed, the arguments and the fights which ensued. Yet this return had been granted by the Persian Cyrus and his sons, and for Jews he was acclaimed ‘messiah’, God’s anointed who gave them back the Promised Land. How could something given by God prove so challenging, not to say disruptive and disappointing? This surely is the context of 3rd Isaiah’s call for a sharing; a sharing with the homeless poor; the hungry; the naked; and his call to do away with the clenched fist and much more. This was not just theory, but day to day practicality he was addressing. It can only be when we live in the charity of God, as fitting tribute to his grace and generosity, that we can truly be his people.
St Paul knew all about elitism and the need to share too as we see in his letter to the Christian Church of Corinth (1 Cor 2:1-5). We have already seen in previous weeks how divided that community could be, with its calls to follow different missionaries. We have to recall that Corinth was a very nouveaux riche society; it had been founded by Julius Caesar in the 1st century BC, some 100 years after the original city had been destroyed by the Romans for their complicity with Carthage in the Punic Wars. It thrived as an imperial provincial capital and a double sea port; it was cosmopolitan, brash and noisy. Every god and goddess was touting for trade; every imaginable philosophy or way of life was pushing for recognition amidst groups clawing their way to the top. Who you were, your ideas, your wealth and political significance really mattered here. Paul spent about 18 months in Corinth, so he had got to know the people well, especially the problems of its tiny Christian community. Far from standing on his status as the bringer of the faith to this city, and getting into a battle with all those in the church competing for power by way of their precedence in society, or their education or wealth or their abilities as public speakers, Paul relied completely on his relationship with Jesus, and “Only about him as the crucified Christ.” His whole reliance was on the power of the Holy Spirit, directing his thoughts and what he said. Rather than try and compete with others, more ‘philosophically’ literate, he appealed to them through his personal journey to God; through the Spirit; through the journey he began on the Damascus road, and which we know from his letters, turned his life completely upside-down. It was not that Paul was uneducated; indeed, we know he was taught by Gamaliel, one of the foremost rabbis of his age in Jerusalem, but ultimately, he was prepared to cast aside his promising future as a Pharisee, a rabbi in Jerusalem, and become the humble, itinerant teacher of Christ that he did. Like Jesus, he was one of them. “I did this so that your faith should not depend on human philosophy but on the power of God.”
Our gospel (Matthew 5:13-16) recalls Christians to their true role in life, which is not about power, leadership, knowledge or status or wealth, but about the difference each of us makes in the life of others by our witness to the truth. Salt was the fundamental preservative and flavouring of the ancient world, as it was to remain for centuries as we still see in the ancient ‘salt routes’ scattered throughout Britain, often coming down from Cheshire, and archaeological seashore constructions frequently discover salt pans from Sicily to the Baltic. So Jesus’ metaphor about the usefulness of salt would have immediately struck home, illustrating the role of the Christian. The same was true of his comment about lamps and their light. Light has one sole purpose, to illuminate, and that again speaks to the whole purpose of Christian belonging. We are not ‘saved’, made Christian primarily for our own sakes, the faith is never a personal possession, but for others, just as Jesus did not suffer and die to prove some personal point about the abilities of God. He died for others, to take us to God and what we must do as faithful Christians is follow in his footsteps insofar as we can, shedding his ‘light’ on the world’s darkness. This will not be largely by the ‘efforts’ we make, but rather be seen in the quality of our lives, in our essential and true humanness, as we become what we are truly meant to be. As Irenaeus said “The glory of God is man fully alive.”