Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- When St Paul wrote to the people of Thessalonica in northern Greece, (1 Thess 1:5-10) he was full of enthusiasm and great praise for the depth of their belief in Christ. Our translation rather loses the level of meaning implied here, for it says that they became ‘imitators’ of the apostles and of Christ. Imitation in English is not always a very positive term. The Greek actually uses the work ‘mimetai’, mime; from the theatre, implying a complete entry into the mindset of the person portrayed; becoming that person, here God, even to the loss of one’s own identity rather than the poorer ‘imitation’ which our translation gives. In the theatre a really fine actor becomes the person they portray, they are utterly convincing, persuading the audience that they actually are Oedipus or Clytemnestra. That is what real mime, really powerful acting is about, when we take on the personality of the character we are portraying, becoming one with that person. Paul paints a powerful picture of the effect of the faith of the Thessalonians as he speaks of the ‘pattern’ of their faith spreading over different Roman provinces, from Macedonia to Achaia, a large area. This sense of their oneness in the faith is shown by their ‘waiting’ for Jesus to come from heaven.
Again, our translation rather misses the point; we are not speaking of waiting for the bus. The Greek verb is anameno, related to anamnesis; what we believe happens at the Eucharist in which we are one with the original redemption of the slaves in the Exodus which ‘made’ the Jewish people, and true participators in the redemption Christ acted out at the Last Supper and achieved on the cross. In the Eucharist, and as members of that community, we are already joining in the consummation of all things; sharers now by the power of the Holy Spirit in all the fullness of the kingdom which God is and gives. In this understanding a far greater sense of the power and completeness of things is present, as Paul speaks of our lives as already fulfilled in Christ, and of our final end. Our ‘waiting’ here, or rather our full exposure to the original event of salvation in Christ, is then a corporate and above all an active thing, never a merely passive waiting.
We are powerfully reminded of the process of achieving this when Exodus (Ex 22:20-26) speaks of the kind of behaviour which fits us for contact with the Lord. Exodus of course was speaking to direct Jews in the right and appropriate behaviour, pointing out that their practice of their faith should always be directed outwards, towards justice and concern for others. Our passage from Exodus therefore speaks in very practical ways of caring for the stranger, the widow and orphan; of the manner to be adopted in lending money to others. Our God is a God of pity and mercy with his eyes continually on the needy, noting the quality of our care and outreach to them. As with the Thessalonians, so the founding material in the relationship between God and Israel is not about ourselves but rather our heart,s as experienced in our recognition and response to the needs of others.
Jesus reflects on this ancient tradition and teaching in our gospel. (Matthew 22:34-40). This is part of Matthew’s lengthy run-up to the passion and death of Jesus. Various groups, as we saw last week, are determined to destroy Jesus and his ministry of care and outreach to those in Judaism who did not fit the grade, the exacting terms for membership required by the religious purists. Last week we saw how the Pharisees would join with their bitterest enemies to achieve this, and in this week’s reading we see the Sadducees taking up the baton. Sadducees were the aristocrats and religious fundamentalists of their day, interpreting the bible literally and rejecting any attempt to look at alternative interpretations. The High Priests and temple authorities were all members of the Sadducees and controlled the wealth of the temple and access to it through the police force they ran. If the Pharisees were devoted to a scrupulous fulfilment of all the demands of the law, we can imagine just what a tight check on things was exercised by the Sadducees. Quite clearly they had monitored Jesus’ activities and were scandalised by his behaviour, not the lest because his actions by-passed the temple and denigrated their hold on power. They asked Jesus which was the most important commandment. He replied that it was about love of God but, knowing God as he did, he immediately joined that with outreach to others, “You must love your neighbour as yourself.” Those of you familiar with the 10 commandments (Exodus 20) will be aware that Jesus’ response is indeed a compilation of the commandments, but not the letter of the law, as Jesus well knew and made clear, “On these two commandments hang the whole law and the Prophets also.”
Fulfilling the letter of the law but neglecting its spirit, can have fatal consequences as Jesus foresaw in his clash with those who were so outraged at the manner and content of his messiahship. It is clear from these readings that our Church intends us to recognise that merely ticking the boxes; obedient to the requirements of the Church but strictly no more, is not enough. We have to be risk takers with and for the faith, ready to get a bit messed up and mixed up in our day to day living out of life as ‘mimers’, imitators of Jesus. To do that is indeed a very risky business, with the possibility of our becoming sacrificial victims along with Christ, just as have those who have been murdered whilst taking charitable aid to the oppressed in Iraq and Syria, or workers among the victims of Ebola.