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.

 

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.

 

 

Whatever we are doing, God must come first

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- I often think this Gospel (Luke 10:38-42) is the bête noire of most hosts or hostesses! There we are, trying our best to feed and satisfy our guests, and all we get is a load of flack. One’s sympathy is all with the unfortunate Martha and irritation felt towards Mary, and even Jesus. Perhaps the wisest solution is the one I once gleaned from a famous TV cook who said “Remember, your friends have come to see you, do something manageable rather than trying to impress them.” Yet there still remains the difficulty of actually getting them fed, and the need for nipping to the kitchen and the pauses in conversation that brings about.

 

Interestingly enough, the compliers of our lectionary, whether knowingly or otherwise, have given us a passage from Genesis (18:1-10) in which Abraham entertains an angelic/divine figure or three figures; it is uncertain as there is number slippage here; and in which he finds the solution. In this passage we see Abraham the ‘Father’ of the nation in full paternalistic flight. He certainly has no necessity to dash off to the kitchen, for he commands everything, servants, wife, and operations, and in so doing fulfils all the laws of hospitality perfectly. Sarah his wife is merely the passive recipient of his orders and stuck in seclusion in the tent. Yet the upshot of all this welcoming and feasting is that the heavenly guest promises a son to Sarah, and this child is only given we would discover if we read on from the actual text, after Abraham has learned some significant lessons, about the nature of his authority and the need for truthfulness in his dealings with others in the countryside in which they pass through, a lesson he repeatedly ignores. In a tight spot, don’t chicken out and pass your wife off as your sister and therefore available to any despot whose territory you happen to traverse. The question arises then as to whether simply following the time honoured customs about hospitality and social convention are the most important things; something which we know Jesus frequently and knowingly ignored.

 

Are we then to find the solution to our dilemma in St Paul’s Letter to the Colossians? (Cols 1:24-28) Those who know Paul well will be aware that in the opening of some of his letters he describes himself as the Servant or rather Slave of Christ, and we might expect this term to appear here too “I became the servant of the Church…. ” But this is not the case. The word here is “diakonos”, meaning “minister” or rather identifying his purpose or office, and the term significantly also used in our Gospel for Martha.

 

Paul has become the bearer of the great revealed mystery to the pagans, “Christ among you, your hope of glory.” For Paul, it was the knowledge that he had been given this mind-blowing message of the revelation of Christ to humanity, and of our ultimate destiny in him, which surpasses everything else, indeed, which even makes his own sufferings on Christ’s behalf as nothing.  Last week our reading from this same letter was the recitation of that great hymn about Christ as the “Image of the unseen God”, the ultimate creator and the one who is greater than any worldly or heavenly powers. We just rather take all that for granted, but if we could imagine the impact of those words on a pagan audience, which lived in fear of the demonic powers; fearful of marauding tax officials from the Emperor; terrified of the diseases which frequently ravaged entire populations; not to mention famines and earthquakes, such news that God himself had come down to earth as a human being and shared our lot, ultimately dying to unite us to himself eternally, would have had an enormous impact. His aim, according to the hymn, is to reconcile the entire created order to Christ, and that everything be at peace. Such a message would have been a miracle, opening a whole new understanding of the divine to the people of Colossae. The fact that Paul deliberately twice uses the term ‘mystery’, in an age of mystery cults which had nothing to do with the human lot, is significant. Here at last are the hidden depths of the one creator God laid bare and shared with the entire humanity, in Christ and through the service of Paul.

 

Is it then that Martha, whom we know also from John’s gospel at the raising of Lazarus to have shared her grief with Jesus equally with her sister Mary, is she simply just used as a foil at this point by Luke? Significantly, he interjects this tiny and troubling passage in-between the stories of the Good Samaritan, a type of Christ, (for he risks his own life for the Jew he saves), and Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer and the repercussions which follow, when Jesus casts out a demon and is accused of working with the devil. In other words, is our problem one more of the way modern people read an ancient text, which of course originally had no punctuation or chapters? The modern divisions we give certainly help us to reference material and find our way, but they do bring artificial breaks to the text. Are we meant to see Martha’s irritation with her service, her diaconal duties, as Our Lord’s criticism of anything which gets in the way of a true attentiveness to God, and no comment actually on Martha at all? She would stand in such a scenario in Luke for anything which got in the way of the Gospel and as such, we need to take it to heart, be it a rap over the knuckles to fussy liturgists, or any one else. God knows, there’s a lot of it about.

 

 

 

 

 

Homily on suffering and death

One of the questions that sometimes gets flung at us Christians is why so many good people suffer and die in horrible ways, whilst others, even bad people, live to a ripe old age. It just doesn’t seem fair, does it? Of course there is no answer to this, only a choice. Faced with a lot of awful things in the world, do we just throw up our hands in despair and say “It’s a horrible world and if there is a god he is horrible too.”? Or, do we say “It is because it is a horrible world that I choose to turn towards a power of goodness and love, however hard that may be, and in his power do what I can to make my bit of the world better.”?

The seven brothers in our Old Testament Reading today (2 Maccabees 7:1-14 –The Apocrypha) could have chosen the easy way out, and given up the religious practices that marked them, and just believed in God privately whilst conforming to the ways of the world outwardly. It is just what many people do today who have their private religion but rarely, if ever, go to Mass. What is interesting about the Book of Maccabees is that it comes right at the end of the Old Testament story less than 200 years before the birth of Jesus. Here, people know and believe that good people can often suffer far more than bad people, but that there is a reward promised to those who are faithful – in life after death with God.

However, the earlier parts of the Old Testament display the more primitive belief – that good people will be rewarded in this life ; and these more ancient peoples believed that not least because they did not believe in life after death. So when they tell the story, for example, of Abraham, the great ancestor – patriarch – of the people of Israel, they even exaggerate his age to stress that point. It reads: Abraham lived a hundred and seventy-five years. Then… breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years (Genesis 25:6-8) The same is said of Jacob and Moses and others. They may have had their troubles and challenges, yes, but in the end they died knowing that their life would live on in their children and their people loved and blessed by God.  The realisation that this is not a true picture of life is one of the major themes of the Old Testament. It’s not written however as one story, but is a collection of books written over a thousand years of experiences; and in these books we can see the gradual discovery that, if God does reward his people, then it must be in a spiritual life with him in glory after death, rather than happiness here and now. That, of course, is how some people misread the Bible, by reading bits of the Bible on their own rather than seeing it as a presentation of a people over history gradually learning about what God is really like, finally revealed in the life and death of Jesus.

We can see from our Gospel (Luke 20:27-36) that even in Jesus’ day there are many who still do not believe in life after death – in the resurrection as it is called – and Jesus has to explain to them that eternal life with God is a spiritual thing –“they are the same as the angels” – and is nothing like life now, where people have husbands and wives etc. Indeed Jesus teaches that far from being simply “life after death” – the life with God that we are promised after death is something we begin to enter into here and now. That is why he calls it “eternal life” and says to those who simply believe they WILL be raised up, “I AM the Resurrection and the Life… and whoever.. believes in me will never die.”

The Gospels stories also show us that not only did the followers of Jesus have to learn this, but also had to realise that choosing to follow him into eternal life is not an easy road. They want to prevent him being crucified, but Jesus knows such suffering is necessary from the later books of the Old Testament, the one we had as our 1st Reading yes, but also the great passages from the prophets. Faced with their people suffering and dying through war and exile, they had to discover this new way of thinking about God that Jesus brings to its fulfilment in his death and resurrection. So the prophet Isaiah (53:3-5) writes, in a passage we always read on Good Friday, of “a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering” and then “yet ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried.”

Our answer then to those who ask why does God allow us to suffer is to say “I do not know, but what I do know is that God chooses to suffer with us, and alongside us.”  It is thus, as we look at the cross, that we know his love and are given hope and strength to be faithful whatever we have to face. As we sing in that famous English hymn:

“Hold thou thy Cross before my closing eyes:

Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;

Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee.   

In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

On perseverance

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Just what are we to make of this account of Abraham arguing with God for or against the destruction of Sodom? (Genesis 18:20-32). Are we really meant to see it as an account of the forefather of Judaism haggling with God like a tourist in a souk and gradually bringing down the price of a carpet or is something more involved? I suspect the latter, for by this stage in Genesis Abraham has gone some distance in his relationship with the Almighty. Could it be that this is a rather humorous way in which the writers of the early Mosaic texts explored the extent of the mercy of God? They began with the idea of ‘collateral damage’, something Catholic theology has taken up in the Principle of Double Effect; the notion by which, say in war, or medicine an unintended consequence might result from an action such as where the bombing of an enemy might result in the killing of civilians; or life saving procedures on a mother bring about the unintended destruction of a baby. Clearly in all this ‘Abraham’, or the writers, are testing their ideas about God and his relationship to his creation and come to certain conclusions about Him. (If you read further in Genesis you will discover that this is not their only conclusion about the actions of God regarding humanity, or indeed his entire creation.) However, for the moment they come to some conclusions; here, that whilst we can tolerate any amount of non intended effects of our actions, this seems entirely inappropriate for the creator. Abraham gets God to admit that even with the wicked city of Sodom he could not destroy it because he might thereby also take away the lives of ten innocent men. God, they recognise, is not like us and cannot tolerate such piece-meal thinking; his approach to his creation is quite different and all embracing; here he seems to care for sinner and just man alike.

Those of you familiar with this story however will know that this is not the end of the story of Abraham and Sodom, which leaves us realising that our relationship with God is not a fixed thing, but a developing story. This is what is explored in the similarly humorous passage of our gospel. (Luke 11:1-13). Here we read of the importuning of a favour by one householder of his neighbour. One can well imagine the upset caused to the man and his household when, safely behind locked doors and tucked up in bed, he is awakened in the small hours by a neighbour’s demands for bread with which to feed a visitor. Doesn’t this man have any sense of the hour, of the need to respect the hours kept by a household, and how comes it that the importuner has no bread in his own home and therefore immediately turns to his neighbour to provide for him? Is this indeed an allegory, an indication of what God is like, ever to be called on, ever able to provide for us – provided of course that we get in touch and ask him? The point surely is that we must never cease to ask God in the shape of our neighbour – someone clearly the improvident householder knew he could rely upon. “I tell you, if the man does not get up and give it him for friendship’s sake, persistence will be enough.”

God, the story makes clear, does want and wait to be asked. Our problem is that all too often we just make simple demands of God in prayer and are easily discouraged if he doesn’t turn up trumps. The continuation of our reading surely suggests this with its strange series of aphorisms clearly well known to Jesus and often used in Judaism as a virtually identical set appear in Matthew 7, suggesting a body of sayings from which Jesus worked. They are all about fatherly love and real concern towards children and exemplify above all God’s eternal concern for his children. The point is simply that if we don’t get what we expect first time round, we give up. St Augustine realised this when in his Confessions he wrote so poignantly: Late have I loved you, O beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved you! For behold you were within me, and I outside; and I sought you outside and in my ugliness fell upon those lovely things that you have made. You were with me and I was not with you. I was kept from you by those things, yet had they not been in you, they would not have been at all. You called and cried to me and broke open my deafness; and you sent forth your beams and shone upon me and chased away my blindness.

Our second reading, (Colossians 2:12-14), explores by way of metaphor what the state of the baptised Christian is meant to be. You have been buried with Christ, when you were baptised and by baptism you have been raised up with him….from the dead. By becoming Christians these former pagans took on an entirely different reality from that so familiar to them from their pagan past. Living as they did in a world replete with pagan gods whom them met at every street corner in statues and temples; and living as they did in a world believed to be full of malign spirits or demons, they had entered into the life of the one, sole Christian God and been taken up into his life, eternal life. Paul quite deliberately used that most final and awe inspiring language of death and burial to convey the extent of the shift in being and meaning they had undertaken in their espousal of Christianity. From now on they are new human beings, beings changed out of all recognition by this momentous decision for Christ and they, and we, have embarked on a great journey of discovery, the greatest we shall ever make, a journey into God and we must persist in this exploration. However difficult the task seems, we have his unfailing promise that he is there to be found. Christ, as Colossians says, has overridden the Law and cancelled all the ‘debts’ that hinder our progress to Him. We have only to persist, to persevere.