God’s radical plan for us

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Few of us really give much consideration to the enormity of the gift of God to us in Christ, or precisely what that means, and just how life changing that truly is. Our Readings this week focus precisely on this seismic shift in reality, as Jesus and Paul grapple with this issue and seek to bring home to their followers what it means. For us, one of the traps we easily fall into with our Gospel, (Luke 14:25-33) with all its hard talk of abandoning family and possessions, is that we read it literally especially as we only read bits of the text. In so doing we easily miss the point and end up bewailing our inability to do precisely that, rather than look at the larger picture. It is to this larger picture that we must turn our attention.

Our Reading from Wisdom (9:13-18) speaks of the inadequacies of the human being in relation to God and of the impossibility of our ever knowing ‘the intentions’ or mind of God. Coming from a philosophically dualist valuation of the human being, it separates the human mind from the body and sees the latter as of little value. “For a perishable body presses down the soul, and this tent of clay weighs down the teeming mind.” For such men, schooled in a Platonist tradition, the best that could be hoped for was to shed the confines of the earthly body and hope for a linking of the immortal soul with the source of creation.

But this is not the Christian view. The whole point of the Incarnation, of God becoming human and redeeming us in and through his fleshly body, lies precisely in his hallowing, making holy, the very materiality of our earthly existence. In vivid contrast to Wisdom’s claim that God’s mind (intention) is unknowable; the Christian claim is precisely the opposite. God the Son, who ‘threw away’ divinity for us, has shown us precisely what God’s plan for us is. Ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven by the bodily death and resurrection of God the Son, we are now fit for heaven, sharers in the divine nature in the wording of the Petrine Letters, destined as St John has it in Jesus’ great prayer, to be One as Jesus and the Father are One. In Jesus therefore the mind of God is not hidden but opened wide for you and for me.

In our Gospel Jesus is shown working desperately to get both his followers, and all those in Israel, to appreciate the enormity of the change which has come upon them. God’s revelation of himself, and therefore of his plans for us in and through Jesus, imply a radical transformation of society, both that of his time and ours. You will remember that last week’s Gospel was about the tragic-comic grab for the best seats at a banquet following Jesus’ healing of a man with dropsy. We are flies on the wall at this most challenging and awkward moment when Jesus pulls the plug on the carefully crafted system of rules governing the way society ticked, and showed it up for what it was. The story then continues with the great banquet in which the giver represents God the Father and the invited all cry off with fatuous excuses. It is a scene painfully vivid with rejection of God’s great offer of himself. Our Gospel is its sequel, and as I previously remarked, we can miss the point if we just get hung up on the ‘rejection of family’ stuff.  The whole context points us in a much more significant direction, and we need to keep this uppermost in our minds. Renunciation is there but its entire purpose is quite different.

This is beautifully, even hilariously illustrated by Paul’s Letter to Philemon (9-10.12-17). The situation is as follows. Paul has pinched the services of a trusted slave of the wealthy businessman Philemon from Colossae. Paul was in prison in Ephesus and needed someone to continue his missionary work and help him out. Stealing someone’s slave was a very serious thing and potentially could have made matters far worse for Paul. His solution was to exploit the existing patronage system to get both himself and the hapless Onesimus off the hook, and boy, does he play the system to perfection.

Paul plays both on the system of slavery and that of patronage. Onesimus may be a slave of Philemon’s, but Paul is Christ’s slave – now giving slavery a power and glamour it never had in the real world. Christ himself is describes as becoming as a slave in Philippians. Philemon was a Christian, so he would not want to fall out with Paul, one of the predominant preachers and missionaries of the time. Paul claims that in Christ he ‘begat’ the slave, making him as it were of his own flesh. When therefore Onesimus returns, he bears as it were, the imprint/identity of Paul himself. By implication, he could not be given his deserved punishment – flogging or death. Paul plays on the fact that whilst he is Christ’s slave, he is also his agent or ambassador, acting in the person of Christ himself and therefore of enormous clout, a far superior patron to Philemon. Paul insists that through Onesimus he sees Philemon himself acting as his co-agent for the Gospel. Here then, in this dramatic overturning of traditional society and its mores, we see Paul both play the system – if Philemon accepts he will have Christ for his patron like Paul – and both will have the most superior patron imaginable; and of course, Paul gets himself off the hook for Philemon could not possibly charge Paul with theft, or beat Onesimus! What a tour de force

The whole point of all this rambling set of stories is to emphasise just how God overturns the social order. None of us will ever be worthy of the Kingdom, but by His grace we will be gifted it. We have to begin by opening ourselves to the enormity of God’s love for us, and somehow or other emulate Jesus who ‘emptied himself’ for our salvation. That requires us radically to rethink entire areas of our own lives. If we can do so with the wiliness of a Paul, then even better.

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God’s kingdom is free of status or privilege

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- The ancient world was a society of ‘honour’ and ‘precedent’, one in which everyone knew their place in the pecking order, and woe betide the upstart who stepped out of line and pushed his way into prominence over and above his ‘betters’. Indeed so divided was society, that even seating in the amphitheatres, theatres, or at the Games, were carefully delineated. The seating for the elite in such venues would have been carefully marked off by decorative seat ends, and those sitting in the best seats would have had their slaves bring cushions and throws as well as food and drink. We know that this segregation extended to dinner engagements in the houses of the elite. Their real friends might well be entertained in small rooms and served much superior food and drink to those clients of varying degrees for whom such events could be an exercise in humiliation – as we see in the excoriating Satire V of Juvenal. Such events served many purposes, and one at least was precisely to emphasise the power of the rich and powerful over their dependents and others. Far from being simply events of communality, of coming together, all of these minglings of different classes also highlighted in excruciating clarity their differences, and maintained the status quo.

In Luke’s Gospel we meet Jesus at two dinners with wealthy Pharisees, ours today is the second (14:1.7-14). In both, Jesus quite deliberately takes the Pharisee to task. The earlier one (7:36) is where the woman anoints Jesus with costly ointment and her tears, in contrast to the host who deliberately snubs him. In today’s example, Jesus uses the issue of seating precedence as a parable of the kingdom. Our Reading has omitted the related healing of the man with dropsy in the house of the Pharisee and on the Sabbath. This juxtaposition brings a stark clarity to the situation. Jesus has just healed a man with a serious and debilitating disorder – a true sign of the Kingdom of God – and there people are jealously sizing up their personal clout in the dash for the most important seats for a meal, with someone who saw himself as highly influential in the local community of the Jewish devout. Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisee is truly ground breaking in its radical rejection of the social conventions encapsulated in power and place in society. True to his mission, he suggests that real greatness, even God-like generosity, would better be demonstrated by the negation of convention in favour of giving dinners which were offered to the socially outcast, the unclean crippled, lame and blind. In short, as Jesus remarks, it is precisely because these people can never compete on the social scale, or ever pass as real ‘friends’ that they are the very means by which a truly virtuous man can get into heaven. Giving to them would be truly altruistic.

Today we view such passages solely in terms of do-gooding, and fail to perceive their truly radical and ground breaking nature, and hence their power as Parables of the Kingdom in which we can see and measure our total dissimilarity from our Creator and Redeemer God, who has thrown away everything for love of us. Those of us familiar with the way in which the account progresses will be aware of just how precisely Jesus puts the boot-in, relentlessly refusing to let the matter drop, and shaking social convention to its very roots. We ought to be made acutely uncomfortable by this Gospel, for it is rare, I suspect, for most of us to open our homes to social outcasts.

The Letter to the Hebrews (12:18-19.22-24) continues this theme of radical difference, in this case that between the Jewish faith and that of those who were converting to Christianity from Judaism. It begins by taking the believers right back to their earliest origins in Judaism, to moments when Israel first encountered God. Some of those occasions would not have been very dissimilar from those of their pagan fellow countrymen, who met their gods in storm and earthquake, and worshipped them in the mountains of Syria and the Lebanon. We all recall the stories of similar encounters with God by people on the Exodus, or the great meeting of the prophet Elijah with God in 1 Kings. The writer of Hebrews is at pains to emphasise that faith in Christ guarantees something of an entirely different order, one in which everyone is now “A first-born son.. and a citizen of heaven.” This vision is light years away from the earlier understanding of God, met in fear, in a “Blazing fire, or a gloom turning to total darkness, or a storm.” Instead, the believers are invited to God’s great banquet, the place in which they truly belong, and are accorded full rights and an honoured place in society. At this great festival there will be no second or third class citizens, and no one can expect to be humiliated, or have to cow-tow to others of superior rank; for every one of us will be treated like a “First born son”, someone to be cherished, adored and gloried in by God himself.

It is then, all the more interesting that Ben Sirach or Ecclesiasticus (3:17-18.20.28-29) whose words of wisdom were published by his grandson in the 2nd century BC should write as he does. The work come from a period of his residence in Egypt, significantly also a place of great social discrimination between the classes, by then ruled by the Ptolemy’s – heirs of Alexander the Great. Egypt was deemed to be a place of great culture and learning, with famous libraries in Alexandria, yet Ben Sirach advises that the path to true wisdom and greatness lies in humility, gentleness and the willingness to learn from others, rather than overbearing attitudes or the pursuit of power. Significantly this book was not included in the Jewish Canon, though it has found its way into the Christian one which insistently teaches and worships one who ‘emptied himself’ of his divinity to become like a slave and suffer and die for our salvation. This surely means that the God of ultimate power, who shares his own nature with us, has no other desire than that we too take on his form, that of the total self-gift to others of all that he is.

A challenge to the smug

Frances writes on this coming Sunday’s readings :- These Readings are a reminder to those of us who are devout, and think that we have got our relationship with God all sorted, to think again. It can be so easy for those of us who are regular Mass attendees and who try to live carefully within the bounds of our faith to be critical of others, even to consider them to be quite beyond the pale. It is quite clear that both Third Isaiah and Jesus had a serious problem with such ‘devout’ men and women, and wanted them to think again, to consider very seriously where they were and what they really believed they were up to. An attitude which understood the precariousness of life, and the extreme fragility of the relationship between God and humanity, was what was and is called for ; and seems to have been much more what these people held as correct, rather than any smug security. Believers  must always live life on the edge.

Indeed, it is startling that Third Isaiah, (66:18-21) the prophet of the return from exile in Babylon, should end this great work on a note of such castigation on those in control of religious thought and practice in Jerusalem. The narrow complacency of the elite is threatened by the glorious promise of the story of the Jewish faith being taken out to the Diaspora, indeed, to dark foreign parts where it would be practised by those who had been dispersed and their descendants, even (horror of horrors!) where they had married among foreigners and where their practice of the faith almost certainly did not match up to the demands of those in Jerusalem. We are talking here of a widely diffused collection of Jewish believers, some from parts of Africa with dark skins (Put and Lud); some from the farthest reaches of the Mediterranean from Spain(Tarsish); others from up on the Black Sea and even possibly as far as the reaches of Mongolia. The prophet sees them all coming to worship in Jerusalem and even being made priests in the new temple which is under construction in Jerusalem – truly the cages of the establishment are to be rattled. Whilst the Books of Isaiah end on a note of triumph, it is redolent with the winds of change and even threat. Things will not and never will just settle down to ‘business as usual’.

By the time of Jesus, things seem to have gone from bad to worse, the aggro has just ratcheted up and up. In Luke’s Gospel (13:22-30) we continually meet Jesus at loggerheads with the religious authorities in the holy city. Since Chapter 9 verse 53, we have been following Jesus en route for Jerusalem and his Passion, and at every turn we find him in bitter, even savage conflict with the religious purists, whether from the temple or from among the Pharisees and lawyers. Jesus’ mission was to the sick and the outcast, either because of their defiling jobs or their illnesses and he also commended the despised and hated foreigners like the Good Samaritan, or travel out of Israel over the Jordan to heal a demon-possessed man, almost certainly a foreigner. Jesus castigated the cities of Judaism and its upright members, insisting that when God’s kingdom finally came to its fruition on earth, the purists would find themselves out in the cold. Indeed, according to Jesus’ understanding of events and expectation of God, at the end those who had believed themselves true to the faith of Abraham and the prophets, would find themselves excluded, whilst those from all the quarters of the globe, and those representing the unacceptable and iffy, would find inclusion in the glories of the Kingdom.

Perhaps the nub lies with the Letter to the Hebrews (12:5-7. 11-13) and all its uncomfortable talk of the need for the believer to be continually ‘reprimanded’, ‘punished’ and ‘trained’, and the writer’s understanding that this includes suffering. All this is very difficult language for us modern people, but for the ancient world, even the Christian world, children were harshly dealt with and corporal punishment was common. The attitude of fathers to sons was far from sloppy, and their training more often might have resembled physical training for the Games. Schooling was hard and harsh. It was even more so for Christians living in a hostile environment, even expecting public antipathy and possible persecution. One needed to be tough, and fitted for the trials which the faith might bring upon one. Such an outlook clearly required constant alertness, revision of one’s values, and a real commitment to the faith, rather than of casual Church attendance on Sundays if one feels like it. All this poses serious questions for us today, and it is right that we should be asking these difficult and disturbing questions of ourselves. Where do we stand on this spectrum of belief? With the cosy and the smug, those who think they have got it made? Where do we make room for the fragile, the unclean, those whose arrival on our shores might mess up all our cosy notions of belief in Jesus? After all, the original was, I suspect rather a curious shade of off-white!

 

 

Enfolded in God

Frances writes on the Readings for the Feast of the Assumption:- In one way we expect the Feast of the Assumption to be all about Mary, as we celebrate the significance of her unique contribution to the salvation of the world in the incarnation. It is therefore about her triumph. In another, it reflects on her humility, as one insignificant peasant woman responds to her God. Yet in another sense, the Assumption is not really about Mary at all, but rather about God and his action in her and through her. It is precisely in and through Mary that our whole understanding of God shifts from traditional expectations of any gods or God, and in our case takes our faith origins in Judaism way beyond the understanding of so many of its people. Yet ,as we shall see, this understanding that we inherit, of God revealed in Jesus the Son of Mary, was there all the way through Jewish history, just waiting to be unveiled. The Assumption is also primarily about the Church, the culmination of Mary’s gift to the world of Christ. Mary’s story and ours as Christians are irrevocably entwined, and each of us is enfolded in God.

 

It will be easiest to begin with the Gospel. (Luke 1:39-56) Immediately after the visit of the angel, Mary goes off to visit her cousin Elizabeth to rejoice at the pregnancy of this formerly barren woman. In a passage heavily plagiarised from Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2, we find Mary voicing her joy at the divine action in the vision of a deity whose power and majesty will be demonstrated, not amongst the great, the rich or powerful, but rather in the humble, the hungry and the downtrodden. In short, God manifests himself both to Hannah and centuries later to Mary in ways which overthrow normal understandings of the divine. That this great manifestation should be rooted in that most significant thing for any nation’s thriving – the birth of children – and also to those believed barren and therefore despised, since they were unable to fulfil their most fundamental role in society, is significant. God has touched and made fecund the core of his creation. It will be the story of Israel’s, and our, continual refashioning. It is about the victory of God.

 

This too is what is celebrated in our Reading from 1 Corinthians (15:20-27). For those without belief in Christ, either in the ancient world or even today, physical death represents a stunning and bleak end, the wiping out of a human existence. Ancient paganism had no sense of what we call ‘eternal life’. The very best one could hope for was for some shadowy existence in Hades, some lingering sense of the person, but no more. Even in first century Judaism, ‘resurrection’ would all have been tied up with the eagerly awaited eschaton, the full reign of God on earth, when Israel gained supremacy over all the nations and ruled the roost. The Christian claim that through the bodily resurrection of Jesus after his death, we all have life with and in God himself, living as divine creatures, was and is something quite other. It means that the dark oblivion which threatens every creature is swept away and that believers are party to the life and eternally creative energy which is the being and nature of God himself. For the citizens of Corinth, living in a vibrant lively city with two ports and a myriad of peoples and ideas, few things would have been more stark and sobering than to walk outside the city walls to its roadside cemeteries. For hundreds of them, death was an ever present threat, annihilation literally at a bend in the road. Paul’s magnificent promise that Christ had overcome death itself, and that he is more powerful than any earthly king, and that he can with utter certainty subdue all that gets in the way of our ultimate union with the Father, would have had immense appeal for the Christian community, and been a powerful propaganda tool. They too, like Mary Christ’s mother, have the promise of life in God.

 

Our Reading from The Apocalypse (11:19; 12:1-6.10) needs to be understood in its context. John, its writer, wrote to Christian communities in south-western Turkey to reinvigorate their faith at a period when they might have been flagging under persecution, or even becoming complacent. ‘The woman’ he speaks of here is the Church, in a sense the offspring of Mary. It is a Church under threat of annihilation from the Roman authorities with their many gods – the ‘huge red dragon which had seven heads and ten horns’ – a representation of the city and its empire stretched out to control the Mediterranean. John has taken well known stories or myths of battles between true princes and usurpers and used them in his own ‘myth’ making of the battle between good (Christianity) and evil (Rome). He wants his readers to understand that our God will triumph in the end. His message for the beleaguered churches lies in the dramatic story of God’s rescue of the male child and his mother. They may appear very small and vulnerable, as indeed they are; but Israel’s story, from which Christianity emerged, is that it is precisely the humble, lowly and insignificant who God chooses to work through, and in whom he will triumph.  It has always been the Christian story, and in our day when we feel threatened by acts of terrorism or other forms of oppression and hatred, it is good to remember that this great feast celebrates precisely these moments, and our origins in Mary Mother of the Church. “There is no need to be afraid; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

Not God’s puppets but players in the game!

Frances writes :- In this weeks readings our relationship with God is presented in something akin to a contractual sense, one in which we gain somehow or other by the amount we ourselves contribute or ‘put-in’ to the relationship. It might almost serve as a metaphor for our understanding of the Mass in which armchair observers; couch-potatoes ‘don’t get much out of it.’

This is beautifully illustrated in our gospel (Luke 12:32-48). We are speaking here of the slave to master relationship, so not one ever of equality; and it is fundamental to the understanding of the story and the point I am making that we appreciate this. Most Roman citizens owned slaves, indeed as did many throughout the Greco-Roman Empire. Owners of slaves frequently lived in apprehension of their slaves, especially since the huge slave revolt in the first century BC under Spartacus. Owners had learned to control and get the co-operation of slaves, especially those in urban and domestic situations, by the promise of giving them their freedom. Trusted household slaves, noted for their fidelity to their owners and the family; their careful management of their resources; or as tutors; financial managers; or even managers of their estates (stewards as in our story) could ultimately gain their freedom, and were frequently set up in business by their former owners, now patrons, of whom they now became clients. Ex slaves without a patron were likely to have a very hard life. The threat of being sold and having your family split up was the safety device by which owners often secured the loyalty of their slaves.

The good slaves therefore in our Gospel are those who remain on the alert, waiting for the master’s return in the small hours; or those who guard his property against burglars and those with oversight of estates who manage them diligently and well. Conversely, those who abuse the system can expect harsh punishment, and all would have been well aware of the score. The benefits of obedience and loyalty were well known and could pay dividends, and so Jesus uses this pattern of living as a very pertinent illustration of the relationship between the believer and God. The trustee would be ensured of enormous rewards and the idle slacker or dishonest severely punished. In short, the Christian only reaps what he/she sows.

The picture in the Letter to the Hebrews (111-2.8-19) is not dissimilar. It almost speaks of faith as an investment in the future, one in which the investor makes a calculated commitment to an as yet uncertain future, but in the conviction that he/she is doing the right thing. The writer of Hebrews, clearly addressing converts from Judaism to Christianity, is at pains to stress the continuity of the faith in the God Abraham, the Father of the Jewish faith, discovered and worked at so long ago. He is convinced that Jesus is the final and culminating manifestation of the God of the Hebrews, indeed God with us in the person of Jesus. The writer therefore appeals to these new converts to follow Abraham in a similar and powerful act of faith, and cites other heroes of the past as back-up. For Jews, turning their backs on the long traditions of their fathers and the laws, circumcision and sacrifices which Christianity rejected, this re-interpretation of their founding fathers and their faith could only have served as an encouragement in what were uncomfortable and difficult times. Placing your faith, and therefore your religious actions, in something, rather someone, uncertain, and leaving behind what was so sure rooted, took nerve and real conviction. The writer of Hebrews really made this well known material work for the Christian cause, and indicated that, like the founders of Judaism, it required a lot of hard work.

The Book of Wisdom (18:6-9) is the work of a writer of the first century BC at a time when Palestine was under Egyptian occupation. Although ascribed to Solomon, it is of course almost a thousand years from that ‘wise’ king, and is rather a piece of propaganda designed to boost the morale of the people under Egyptian rule and harshly exploited. Our passage in particular reminds the people of the Lord God’s defeat of the Egyptians, and the great Exodus event which brought the Jewish nation into being. It speaks of a divine pact, almost a treaty, between God and his people under which they would be rescued in return for their loyalty to the God of Judaism. It is a great praise-song to God in which the downtrodden place all their faith and hope in God, and trust not in their own power or force of arms, but in the saving grace of the Most High.

So we have been talking about acts of trust (faith) and their acknowledgement in behaviour in all three readings. There are pacts made, but never between equals, rather between those of huge inequality. For us moderns today, all this talk of being like slaves, or the occupied and downtrodden, in relationship to God may well grate. What we have to remember is that however we choose to express our relationship with God, somehow or other we must attempt to capture the enormity of the difference between us and God, yet realise the offer of grace held out to each of us and the invitation given – that we can participate, that we are never simply the objects of divine benevolence but are responsive too. That is God’s invitation to us. We are not mere puppets on his string, but players in the game.

 

Dealing with our desire for wealth

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings:- The Greco-Roman world, far more than ours, was governed by status and ‘honour’. Who you were, your status in society, mattered and was made highly visible in the clothes you wore; the manner of your speech; indeed, even how you moved. In the theatres and amphitheatres different tiers of seating were reserved for different groups, the senators nearest the orchestra at the front with the second class behind them and going on and up to the provision for slaves and women at the top. Slaves would often have been branded, and so freedmen and women would wear clothes that hid such marks. Rich freed, no matter how wealthy, could never expect to compete with wealthy land owning elites and would often be pilloried for their ostentatious wealth and vulgar showy houses. Any visitor to Pompeii will have made their way to the house of the Vetti, and know exactly what I mean.

 

When St Paul wrote to the Christians of Colossae (Col 3:1-5.9-11) he was addressing a similarly status conscious society, and he was at pains to spell out the significance of the Christian message to this small and probably snobby group. Last week I remarked that his Greek does this by speaking of the believer as “co-buried; co-raised, co-quickened to life with Christ”, hinting at the intimacy of our union with and in Christ by his death on the cross. This is again how our passage reads, though the Jerusalem Bible’s “Since you have been brought back to true life with Christ” fails to retain the intimacy, the indissolubility of our remaking in, by and with Jesus. This is precisely why Paul points out to them just how completely inappropriate their continuing of any former behaviour must now be considered. We have to recall here that this was a slave owning society, and that owners frequently sexually abused their slaves as well as frequenting brothels, since under their previous pagan existences, no moral reform was ever considered necessary. It is only in the light of the enormity of the Christian message, to which every believer is given access and invited to live a God-like life, that any of us can truly consider the rightfulness or abhorrence of our behaviour. St Paul never questioned the existence of slavery, that would have been far too difficult, but he quite simply lays before the Christian community of Colossae the nature of their new and stunning relationship with God, as a God moreover so staggeringly different from the pagan ones they knew, with their pushy power, immorality and fickleness. He offers them Christ the Son who dies to unite us to God and who gives us infinite love and freedom, and asks them/us to choose how to live henceforward. With such an understanding, how can one who is truly of God, made for eternity with him, treat foreigners, slaves and the freed with contempt? His message has never been more relevant.

 

At the complete opposite of the spectrum, we have the tired, world weary and contemptuous answer of Qoheleth or the writer of Ecclesiastes (1:2; 2:21-23). He wrote in the early second century BC, possibly in the Holy Land or Egypt. He wrote at a time when his country Israel was under the rule of the Ptolemy’s, heirs of Alexander, and was exploited by them, and as a result seems to have produced a writer of the most world denying and jaundiced values. There is very little joy or fellowship in his writing, and any idea of values which contribute to the good of others seem entirely lacking. Those familiar with this text will shudder at its views on women and society in general. Perhaps the compilers of our lectionary deliberately included it to remind us precisely what the alternative looks like at its most deathly and unpleasant.

 

The Christian life, as presented to us by Jesus, both in what he said and in how he ultimately lived and died, is one in which such values find no place at all. In our Gospel (Luke 12:13-21) we are given a small glimpse of this. A man in a crowd has found this impressive teacher, and thinks that he can appeal to him to sort out his legal dispute with his brother. Jesus resolutely declines the offer. Of course, he could have obliged and made a judgement favouring one or the other, or even offering a fair distribution of the property, but he refuses. It is not that Jesus did not care for justice or fairness, but perhaps behind the request he sensed the animosity and anger, the divisions within a family, and the build up of explosive tensions there, where his intervention would inevitably result in his taking sides. Perhaps, given the second part of the Reading, he was aware of the selfishness and satisfaction any judgment might bring, and knew that it was not part of his mission and identity to be party to such divisions. Given that this part of Luke’s Gospel is also about the build-up of increasing tension between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees (those who lived by and for the Jewish law in all its strictest application, thereby using it to exclude those less able to be observant) are we to see it as an indication of Jesus’ rejection of the things, the ways of living, which divide people and keep them apart, enslaved to other values, and ones not in accord with the divine will?

 

Those of us, who contribute to things like Facebook, can often be heartened by the generosity of others towards foreigners and visitors. Sometimes we are appalled and saddened by the ferocious lack of charity voiced by some. We, who today are faced with the enormous tensions within our own nation and across Europe, as thousands of refugees flood out of the Middle East, not to mention the economic migrants, need to take to heart the enormity of Paul’s message to Colossae. It wasn’t written just for this small and relatively isolated community, nor was it given because their behaviour was especially noticeable. No, it was precisely because their attitudes were so common. They and we have a long long way to go, as we reach out into the heart of God, and even more, allow him to reach out into ours.

Discovering the nature of God

Frances writes on Sunday’s readings :-  There is a wonderful journey of discovery of the nature of God laid out in our readings for this week. In them we move from an Old Testament view, and a very early one at that, in which the divinity can both create and destroy, and is willing to do so and, in the minds of his followers, on a colossal basis. In our Readings, we move forward to St Paul’s ecstatic and refined ideas about our relationship with God and his purpose for us.

I always love the Genesis (18:20-32) picture of the relationship between God and humanity set out for us in the discussion on the proposed destruction of the city of Sodom. In this picture we meet Abraham, the Father of the Jewish people, arguing for the preservation of the people and the city like a haggler in a souk, reducing the bill from 50 down to 10; and we see that eventually Abraham ‘saves’ the city from the supposed wrath and destructive power of God. Sadly it appears that most of us have not moved on in our understanding of God, for a surprisingly great number of us still seem to think that evil, death, destruction and grief come from God. This is a dualist view and is not in fact what Abraham actually learns about God at all. What he really discovers is that God is merciful, and merciful to just and unjust alike. The reputation of Sodom was apparently horrendous in antiquity, if we are to believe our Genesis stories about it, and yet we find that a God, who reveals himself as caring and merciful, refuses to destroy the city despite its bad behaviour. Perhaps therefore the story is an allegory for the entire Jewish people, who the patriarch realised had little to commend them from their personal behaviour, but were nevertheless beloved of God and therefore are preserved, despite their lousy morals and their continual flouting of God’s will.

In our Gospel (Luke 11:1-13) we have a tiny insight into where this teaching from Genesis led some people. We are still in a Middle Eastern, haggling society where bargaining usually pays dividends. In this parable Our Lord gives us this as a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, a form of address and interaction between people and God in which our closeness to him is stressed as God becomes not a remote and fearsome deity but an accessible and close ‘Father’, indicating precisely the nature of this relationship and the confidence within which we can approach the divine. In his brief and yet staggeringly revelatory career, Jesus quite literally blew apart Israel’s carefully guarded ideas about God, centred as they were on the keeping of hundreds of rules and temple sacrifice. Clearly it was his absolute conviction that God not only loves his creation, and humanity within it, but will bear with the faults in our perception of his way for us. His insistence is that God wants us to have a close relationship with the divine, one so close that the rules and the things humans bring in to bar us from communication and absolute openness to God will be thrown down. In pursuance of this goal Jesus gives in his commentary a radical and new and daring prayer to God.

Imagine he says, for a moment, if God were like your neighbour and friend, and in the middle of the night you need to go and scrounge some loaves off him to feed a late visitor. Probably your friend will be a bit put out, everyone is in bed and you have disturbed the household. Yet you refuse to be rejected and persist in your request for bread until finally he relents – more to shut you up and get some rest than out of any great care for you or your late visitors. This, in a nutshell, is our relationship with God .We can always ask him, and know that our repeated and often desperate prayers will be answered. Perhaps behind it all is something of the endless alertness of God and of his continual outreach and compassion to an unworthy humanity – but that is not what matters.

St Paul, writing to the Christians of Colossae in South West Turkey around 53 AD, gives us a real insight into the stunning effect of the life and death of Jesus, the Son of God, upon the beliefs and thinking of one special group of Christians, who at that early date still had very strong links with Judaism. Gone here are the great divisions separating God and humanity. For the Jesus event has quite simply brought God and human beings face to face, up close and personal, and things can never be the same again. Our Jerusalem Bible translation rather loses the finesse of the connection with its phrases “You have been buried with Christ….when you were raised…brought back to life”. All of these phrases suggest something done to us, something from which we stand apart. But what the Greek actually says is that we are “co-buried”, “co-raised” and “co-quickened” with Christ. In Him, through Him and by Him we are totally remade, reformed, refashioned into christs.

It is when we realise precisely to whom this letter was in part at least addressed, that its amazing and powerful significance emerges. In 213 BC one of the heirs of Alexander the Great resettled Jews from Babylon in the then Province of Lydia, which included the cities of the Lycus/Meander Valley, including Colossae. Subsequently we know that there were significant numbers of Jews in this Diaspora, and Paul and his missionary colleagues were at great pains to bring home to such people precisely the enormity of the shift in relationship Jesus brought between God and humanity. Now no longer is any division to be found between Jew and Gentile, circumcised and therefore with privileged in access to God and the uncircumcised. Christ, God in human form, has smashed such notions apart and, one with us, one of us, Jesus has by his death on the cross made absolutely certain that all of us, all alike, are made to be one with God. Nothing now stands in our way or, putting it in very Roman terms, the records of our debts (sins) are nailed to Christ’s cross. His death is the answer to all that stands in the way of our relationship with the Father, and he himself has paid all our debts. Truly we are free! His so human and so mangled body, a picture of you and me in the snare of our sins, is lifted and quite simply done away with. You and I now meet God face to face.  We have come a very long way from Abraham and haggling. Something of which we need continually to be aware.