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!