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!

 

 

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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)

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.

Finding God in all our activities

It is important to realise that when Jesus criticises Martha in today’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42) he isn’t saying she shouldn’t cook the dinner for him and the other guests. No. What he is concerned about is the fact that she is so worried about it all that she has missed the point of doing it. Someone I know said, “Oh I used to be just like that, fussing that the house was clean and the dinner was perfect and getting stressed for no good reason.”  

 

But cooking and cleaning are not the only things people can get obsessed about. Think of something you love doing – watching and talking about football or some other sport – playing some game on the computer – or watching a particular programme on the TV. Now God is very happy for us to enjoy things. Look how shocked the holy people in the time of Jesus were, when he kept on going off to parties and having meals with some not very proper people. But everything we do must be done for God.  What I mean by this is that when we are doing the thing we enjoy, we must know why we are doing it. As Christians, everything we do is meant to be done for God, and that must include not just the more serious things, like helping other people, and praying for them and for ourselves, but also the fun things that we do.

 

Let’s take football, or some other sport, as an example, and before those of you who don’t like football or any sport sigh and turn off, let me tell you that I rarely watch it and have hardly ever played it except when I was made to at school!  But as Christians we have to work out what is the relationship between football and God? In other words, does God approve of football? The answer must lie in deciding what is football for? Well it fulfils a number of roles. It makes many people happy either playing it or watching it. Indeed for many very poor people struggling with life, football can be a very welcome distraction from their misery. It helps to keep people fit, and to play together as a team. It encourages people to enjoy something together, to shout and laugh and sigh. Surely all these things, God wants. God doesn’t want us to be dull. He made us to fill the world with happiness and laughter, to make a world where people work and play together as friends. He gives us ways through sport of supporting our country against others without going to war, to create a friendly rivalry that spurs people on to be the best they can.

 

But if football becomes an obsession, if someone neglects his family and his friends because all he is doing is watching it, or analysing the results, or worrying about how his team is doing, and so on, then he is like Martha, isn’t he… or occasionally she?  Jesus will say to him or her – You are worrying and fretting about this, and in the process you are missing the point of life.

 

St Benedict, whose day we celebrated last week taught his monks that they must have a balance in their lives. They must work and pray and rest. Rest here means not just sleep, but any kind of relaxation, though I am pretty certain his monks never played football!  So anyone who works all the time, or prays all the time and never rests, never has any relaxation, is not actually doing the will of God. But a lazy person who sits around enjoying himself all day and never works or prays would also be failing God. Each of us must have a balance in our lives, and we do that by trying to remember that everything we do, whatever it is, should be done for God, should be something that God wants us to do.

 

Let’s go back to Martha now, entertaining Jesus. A famous TV chef once said that when you entertain people you should aim to cook something that does not leave you in the kitchen all the time stressed out at getting the meal right, because if you do, you have missed the point. That was Martha’s problem and that is why Jesus told her she was wrong. To put it another way, St Paul tells us in the 2nd Reading (Col 1 :24-28) that we must remember the mystery that we believe is at the heart of life – “The mystery is Christ among you – your hope of glory.”  How easily we can get fussed about the outward things and not realise God’s presence in everything good we do.  Some of us can get obsessed like Martha with how we entertain, or like my example can get obsessed about football, but we can also get obsessed about getting our prayer right, or our work.  As St Paul says a little later in this letter to Colossians (Col 3:23) Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters”

 

Homily on finding God in unexpected people

It’s easy to forget, when we read stories from the Bible, that Jesus wants us to think less about ourselves and what we should be like, and much more about God and what he is like, and how he can and does help us in various ways. The story of the Good Samaritan from today’s Gospel (Luke 10:25-37) is a good example of this. We tend to concentrate on the last words, “Go and do the same yourself.” Doing this, we easily miss the other more important point about what God is like – in this story that God is like a Good Samaritan to us. We may not be very good at loving and caring for people who are strangers or foreigners, but God cares for everyone whoever they are and whatever they are like, even for people that others have long given up on.

 

The question we may well ask when we hear this message is how does God help me. Often people tell me “I prayed and prayed for help Father, but no help has appeared.”  The answer to this is not an easy one to give, because it is one we may not want to hear. Perhaps God is helping you, indeed perhaps God is at work in you now, but not in the way you expected. Deep down we would all like God to work in a magic way – I make a wish…a prayer.. and it all comes true. But actually true prayer is not like that at all. True prayer is opening ourselves up to the ways of God.

 

When I was a priest for a hospital, I remember visiting on ward where I got to know the nurse in charge very well. She didn’t believe in God, so once she got to know me, she was able to pose the hard question. She pointed towards all the sick people on her Ward and said, “So, where is your God in all this?” On this occasion I found the right reply straight away. “God is in you.” I said “As you care for each one of them in such a splendid way. God is in you.”  

 

That’s the first point the Good Samaritan story makes. We might expect to see God at work in the priest or in the Levite – that’s the equivalent of a good church-going person. They are the sort of people who often do good, and we might well see God at work in them. But instead in this story, God is found at work in the Samaritan who is the hated foreigner with a different religion. So the answer to our prayer may come in unexpected ways and through unexpected people, and we must be careful not to be so concentrated on what we think the correct answer to our prayer will be, that we miss God helping us in a different way.

 

The other point the story makes relates to the condition of the man being helped. He’s described as “half-dead”.  Indeed, that’s probably why the other two didn’t help him. They thought he was dead, and were scared of touching a dirty dead body, so they “passed by on the other side.”  We know that he was still alive, because we know the end of the story, and my guess is that he was unconscious. So when the Samaritan helped him and took him somewhere to be cared for, the man may not have known who was helping him. Think of him eventually becoming fully conscious at the inn where he is now in a nice clean bed being looked after. He asks who helped him, and is astonished, even shocked, when the innkeeper tells him that the man who rescued him, and has paid for him to be looked after is “a Samaritan.”

 

Surely that’s the same for us. Often it’s only later, when we look back on a time in our lives when things were hard, at times when we prayed and prayed for help, and nothing seemed to happen. But now, looking back, we can see how God was at work, helping us, but in ways that we were not aware of at the time. We were in a way “unconscious”. We were “half-dead”. Indeed St Paul actually says to the Christians at Colossae “When you were dead in your sins… God made you alive with Christ.” Often our own selfishness makes us unconscious of what God can do in our lives. We look for help in the wrong way, but looking back we can now see that God did help us, but in his way and in his time.

 

It reminds me of the story of the man who thought that God only worked in magic ways, so when he was drowning he prayed for this magic hand of God to come down and save him, and instead he died. In heaven he said to God indignantly “Why didn’t you help me when I was drowning?” and God replied. “But I sent you help and you refused it. I sent you a life-saver but you refused his help. I sent you a lifeboat and you refused their help. I sent you a helicopter and you sent it away. In each case you told them you knew that God would help you so you didn’t need them, and so you drowned.”

So let’s keep our eyes open for the unexpected ways and for unexpected people  For this is the way God often works.

Practical ways to speak of the Gospel

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- The great danger, either with referenda or ancient foreign policies, is or was that they induce people to think in terms of phantasy worlds – everything will be all right now! This of course is absolute rubbish. When 3rd Isaiah (66:10-14) wrote his ecstatic song of the joys of returning to Jerusalem of those whose ancestors had been exiled by the Babylonians, he paints a wonderful but totally unrealistic picture -“That you may be suckled, filled with her consoling breast, that you may savour with delight her glorious breasts.” – and peace will be like a stream in spate -Jerusalem would be the glory of the nations. What a load of old cobblers! In fact, Jerusalem was a shabby ruin and its temple smashed to bits and of course, the country was filled with the foreigners put there by the Babylonians. You might say that those who opted to stay back in Babylon were the real ones to savour prosperity, education and the delights of civilisation.

 

When Luke was writing his Gospel (Luke 10:1-12.17-20) Jesus sends his disciples out as missionaries with a much more realistic and pragmatic sense of the world in which they are to preach the Good News of the kingdom; and he is altogether more aware of the way they need to present themselves to their listening public.  Far from coming as powerful, wealthy and reforming visitors from distant parts, with a message to impose on others less fortunate, they are sent out like Lambs among wolves”. They are to be utterly vulnerable. Indeed, as they are told to carry no purses, no haversacks or sandals, they appear to be sent out as beggars, dependent on the generosity of the natives, rather than as having some superior knowledge or power to impart. Contrary to Isaiah’s spurious vision of wealth, power and riches (all that metaphor of breasts), it is by their very vulnerability, their own need, that the disciples will attract others to the Gospel.

 

Now it is true that Jesus attracted followers to his teaching by way of healing and miracles of feeding; but the setting surely of such events is almost always communal, situations where he meets people and responds to their needs: communities of mourners; families with sick members. Even when people are solitary, as in the case of Zacchaeus the tax man, or John’s Samaritan woman at the well, it is precisely their need for community which is actually addressed. The Kingdom is a place of sharing and giving, and Jesus, we note, wheedles himself into their homes and communities precisely by making apparent his own needs, a bed for the night or food and drink to sustain himself and his lagging followers. This is to be the pattern of future ministry too, as we see Jesus instruct his disciples to eat what they are given and, perceptively, ‘Do not move from house to house’. In other words, do not reject the simple and humble first offers when something better comes along later, remember the society in which you are staying and do not think to embarrass the poor, or be preferential to the better off.

 

What stands out is the urgency for the coming of the Kingdom of God displayed in this short Gospel passage. Twice we are told “The Kingdom of God is near.” Generations of people have chewed over what Jesus meant by this statement, along with his remark “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven”, and consider that it is all about an imminent eschaton and the end of the world, or some such phenomena. But if we stop to consider the context of all this, and where we are in Luke’s account of Jesus’ story, surely all becomes rather clearer. We have already witnessed the Transfiguration. (Lk 9:28-36) We have already had Jesus’ great predictions of his passion and the feeding of the 5000, so redolent as it is of the Eucharist with its three great consecration verbs, took, blessed and broke. We have already been told (9:53) that Jesus was resolutely heading for Jerusalem and his passion. If what we have come to believe about him subsequently – that he has redeemed us from sin and restored us to a proper relationship with the Father –  is true, then there can be no doubt that the Kingdom of God has come in his person and his sacrificial life. The sadness for Jesus lay in the fact that so many Jews, his own people, would not follow him, as seen in his crotchety rebuke of the towns of Israel and omitted from our Gospel passage today.

 

It was into this mission to the Gentiles, (Galatians 6:14-18) pagan converts to the faith, that St Paul flung himself with such magnificent and wild abandon, travelling in all some 10,000 miles, often on foot. It was to be a slow and arduous mission, as archaeologists of South/Central Turkey point out to this day, and Paul, like his Lord, suffered willingly for the gospel many beatings and other problems, including defamation of his character. There is no doubt that on rare occasions he met with wealth and real financial support on his travels, but by and large, it was his willingness to live alongside those he wished to convert to the gospel that won through in the end. Clearly those of us who refuse to identify with those we would convince will in the end be doomed to failure.

Homily on loving God

St Paul makes a dramatic statement in is Letter to the Galatians that he is “dead to the law” and that he has been “crucified with Christ”! But what on earth does he mean by these two startling declarations? (Gal 2:16-21) I think we should start by working out what he means by “the law”. The law for us is the law of the land wherever we happen to live, but clearly St Paul does not mean that he is dead to that kind of law. Indeed he says elsewhere that Christians must respect those in authority (1 Tim 2:1-3). No, as many of you probably know, the Law, when spoken of in the Bible means the Law of God – the things that God expects of those who are truly good human beings. Well we know what that means from the passage where Jesus sums up the law as two things – to love God with all our heart and mind and soul, and to love our neighbour as our self. (Matt 22:36-39)

 

Now this is certainly hard stuff isn’t it? We may well try to love God, but to love God completely, as Jesus suggests, is much more difficult for we have so many other competing interests! I may love God when I say my prayers, or am desperate for help, or very thankful when something good has happened, but a lot of the time my love for God has to compete with lots of other things happening in my life. The idea of loving God completely is  therefore something I aim for, not something I actually achieve.

 

This is even more the case with loving our neighbour, especially when Jesus adds elsewhere that this includes loving our enemies. What would you feel like if someone in your family was killed, maybe by some careless driver in a road accident? I even get angry with people who damage trees, so what I would feel for a fool driver I cannot imagine! I am always impressed by the quiet dignity of someone who says that they will forgive the person who has killed their loved one. But I am not sure whether I would be that good, even though I must admit to being disgusted with people who still rage with hate in such circumstances.

 

So there it is. The Law of God is a wonderful thing to aim for, but it is actually impossible to follow completely, and it is because of this that St Paul says that he is “dead to the law”.  He had thought, along with many other people both in his time and today, that getting to heaven, being accepted by God, was achieved by keeping the law. Taught by Jesus, he had now to die to this old way of thinking – so that is what he means by being dead to the law and crucified with Christ – and, as he says “to live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me.”

 

We see now why our other two readings are all about the way God forgives us. (2 Sam 12:7-10.13 and Luke 7:36- 8:3) We have to rely on that forgiveness of God, given us through Jesus, because we cannot, however hard we try, keep God’s law completely. Now some of you may well have heard me go on about this before, and the reason is simple. However many times we hear this message, most of us easily revert to the old way of thinking. When I was a University Chaplain I met many students who came from good Catholic families and really thought of themselves as good people. They had never committed any really big sin, and so deep down they did not think of themselves as sinners.  Then suddenly they faced at University new and far bigger temptations, and they found themselves doing things that they knew, according to what they have been taught, are really big sins. Faced with this, some just gave up on the Church, and some even gave up on God, because they thought that such sin cuts them off from the Church. Somehow they have missed out on the heart of the message of Jesus.

 

Look at it in practice in the Gospel. This woman with a bad name comes into the house and begins to weep and to kiss the feet of Jesus. The Pharisee who is the host is horrified that Jesus is allowing this. How can such a person be accepted by Jesus? But it is the Pharisee that is wrong. He thinks being close to God is all about being a good person, but Jesus turns the whole thing upside down. He says that the more we realise how much God forgives us, the closer we are to God’s love. He says cuttingly to the Pharisee, and to us, “It is the man who is forgiven little who shows little love.”  Ouch!  That’s really hard! 

 

I wonder too if this is also a man/woman thing? I hate to stereotype, but perhaps we men tend to like things to be absolute. We like solutions. Either this person is bad and need punishing or he is good. Women, maybe, are more like God. They prefer to talk things through, to accept that things are less than perfect and get on with life. It was the male apostles who failed Jesus, and needed to learn to be forgiven. The women got the new message and lived it much more easily, and maybe it is still the same today