Friday, September 30, 2022

Choose Life

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, Choose Life. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Luke 16:19-31

Last week, we were looking at the Parable of the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-9). Jesus tells the parable to teach his disciples that they should use money in such a way in this life that they will have a home to go to in the next. Using money wisely means not valuing it more than its worth. Jesus drives the message of the parable home with a series of short sayings about the importance of being faithful in how we use money (Luke 16:10-13). Jesus says that we can’t expect God to give us true wealth if we have let him down in our use of false riches. Jesus could not be clearer. Jesus says:

‘No slave can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.’ (Luke 16:13)

The Pharisees, who St Luke describes as ‘lovers of money’ (Luke 16:14), ridicule Jesus for saying this. We immediately have an impression of the Pharisees as being totally fixated on material wealth. I suspect they were no more lovers of money than most Christians. They simply don’t see that there is any conflict. They would have resolutely rejected any suggestion that it was alright to love money before loving God. Their attitude would have been to ask why you can’t love God and love what money buys and enables you to do. After all, that is what loving money is all about. The Pharisees can point out in their justification of themselves (Luke 16:15) that, in the Old Testament, riches and material well-being are seen as a sign of God’s blessing and a reward for faithfulness to God’s Law. The Pharisees were committed to God’s Law and probably thought that material wealth came to them as a consequence. Money was precisely what was given to you if you did love God.

Jesus’ statement that you can’t love God and money is, therefore, a radical one. Jesus is saying that you can’t have both God and money, and that if you try to have both, you will inevitably find yourself preferring one against the other.

Many Christians, however, think exactly the same as the Pharisees. Many Christians are committed to what is known as the ‘prosperity Gospel’. Quite simply, this teaches that if you are faithful in your obedience to God, God will reward you with money and material things. Perhaps not surprisingly, the ‘prosperity Gospel’ is particularly popular amongst some Christians in the United States.

Most of us, I think, would not express it quite so crudely, but many of us, without even realizing it, believe a version of it. We instinctively equate God’s blessing with things going well for us in this life. This is why we have so many spiritual problems, doubts, and questions when they don’t. If you listen carefully to people’s prayers, they are often for material things and for God to give them to us or to make it possible for us to get them.

Jesus says some things about money that we find difficult to accept, so we, like the Pharisees, seek to justify ourselves and try to explain away our love of money. Jesus warns that God knows our hearts. Jesus tells us that what we value and think important as humans is an abomination in the sight of God (Luke 16:15).

In our churches, clergy and church leaders themselves have a somewhat ambivalent attitude to money. This results in the church giving out mixed messages. On the one hand, we don’t like talking about money, but then, on the other, we never stop asking for it. It is rare that you are able to go to a church meeting without being asked for money.

Despite being ridiculed, Jesus won’t back down or soften his teaching, but doubles down on his message, and he does so by telling another hard-hitting parable that makes for uncomfortable reading. After all that Jesus has already said about money in St Luke’s Gospel, you might wonder what else there is to say. Quite a lot, as it turns out!

Jesus tells the story of a rich man who is not only well-off but who has the money to enable him to live extravagantly. Jesus describes him as dressing in purple and fine linen and feasting sumptuously every day. Purple dye was expensive and while the Jewish people had several festivals during the year where there was feasting, this man feasted all the time. We might say today that he wore designer clothes and dined out at expensive restaurants. Not only this, we know he lived at an exclusive address. We know this because Jesus says that at his ‘gate’ lay a poor man named Lazarus. Gated properties were not common and only the seriously rich would have been able to afford them. Designer clothes, an extravagant lifestyle, and a beautiful home, it is what many aspire to. It is the lifestyle of the rich and famous that we enjoy reading about and following online.

Our society takes the attitude that people should be allowed to do what they choose with their own money. The Lazaruses of this world we simply don’t want to know about. If their presence is brought to our attention, we either respond with charity or blame, or both. The charity we give is often less than the cost of a meal at the restaurants we like to visit; the blame is of them for not doing more to help themselves. Lazarus, though, doesn’t ask for charity; he would be happy just to get what the rich man doesn’t want and which falls from his table without the rich man even knowing it is gone. Lazarus lies there at the rich man’s gate not because he won’t work, but because he can’t work. He simply hasn’t the strength.

Lazarus is as badly off as the rich man is well off. Lazarus is covered with sores that the dogs lick, making him ritually unclean in the process. These dogs are not the nice cuddly pets that people post pictures of on social media, these are feral dogs that will eat the corpses of the dead if they can get to them. The dogs licking Lazarus’ sores is the equivalent of vultures pecking on someone while they are still alive. It’s about as bad as it gets.

Then it all changes. Both Lazarus and the rich man die. Lazarus, who has been unable to walk, is carried by the angels to be with Abraham where he is comforted, while the rich man goes to hades where he is tormented. It is, in the next life, a complete reversal of what it was like for them both in this life. The rich man did indeed get to choose what he wanted to do with his money. It is his choices that have landed him in the fires of hades.

In agony, the rich man looks up and sees Abraham far off with Lazarus at his side. He calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus to just dip the tip of his finger in water to cool his tongue. In life, the rich man had ignored Lazarus, now he begs for his help. Abraham reminds the rich man of how this is the complete opposite of how things used to be. But it is too late to do anything about it now. There is a great gap between the two places that it is impossible to cross. In despair, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house where his five brothers live to warn them, so that they will not end up where he is.

Abraham’s response is deeply disturbing. Abraham points out that they have ‘Moses and the prophets’, that is, they have the Scriptures. They should listen to what the Scriptures say. If they did, they would know what they needed to do to inherit eternal life. The rich man knows that his brothers are not going to listen to what the Scriptures say, any more than he did. He also had the Scriptures, but he didn’t listen to them, and he knows his brothers won’t either. If, however, someone were to go to them from the dead, then, he believes, they would listen. Abraham is blunt. If they don’t listen to the Scriptures, they won’t listen, even if someone rises from the dead.

Often when people hear this story, they ask what it tells us about the next life. This is to miss the point somewhat. Jesus in telling this story is making use of popular ideas at the time about what happened when a person died. Jesus is not, however, telling this story because he wants to give us a detailed guide to the afterlife. Nor is Jesus only wanting to encourage people to be aware of the needs of others as well as their own, although he does want us to have such an awareness.

We need to be clear about this. Many rich people are generous with their money and genuinely seek to do good with their wealth. I think many in the Church are happy for people to be rich as long as in addition to spending money on themselves, they give to the poor and don’t ignore the needs of the poor and hungry. While Jesus certainly does criticize people who ignore the needs of the poor and hungry, Jesus is doing more than encouraging us to give money to the poor.

Jesus, in telling this story, is also showing us what happens when someone tries to serve God and money. What happens to someone when they love money doesn’t just happen to them in the next life. The effect on a person of serving money is to be seen in this life. It is what serving money does to someone in this life that results in what happens to them in the next. The destructive effect of serving money begins now and Jesus describes it in this story. It is because even now we ourselves are being brought under money’s destructive power that we can only see the consequences of serving money in the story when Jesus describes what happens when the rich man dies. Jesus, in fact, describes the destructive effect of money on the rich man from the moment Jesus begins the story. They are three-fold.

1. Loss of Identity

Let me ask a question. What is the rich man’s name? We know the name of the poor man. His name is Lazarus. It is the only time in Jesus’ parables that one of the characters in them is given a name. This only emphasizes the fact that the rich man is not given a name. We know what the rich man wears, what he eats, even where he lives. But we don’t know who he is. He has lost his identity to what he values in life. It may appear as if he is doing well in this life, but money is already destroying him, and the extent of his destruction will be revealed when he dies. By which time, it will be too late.

2. Blind to the Needs of Others

Lazarus lies at his gate and the rich man must have to go past him several times a day, but he literally doesn’t see him. It is not that he actively wishes Lazarus harm; it’s that Lazarus is nothing to do with him. It is as if Lazarus doesn’t exist. The rich man has become blind to the needs of others; he cares only about his own appetites and desires. Lazarus himself doesn’t even want the rich man to do anything; he would be happy simply to get what falls from the rich man’s table that the rich man doesn’t know or care about. But the rich man is too fixated on himself to think about anyone other than himself.

3. Deaf to the Word of God

The reason the rich man knows that his brothers won’t listen to the Word of God in the Scriptures is because he hasn’t listened himself, and they are just like him. The rich man would have been a member of the synagogue and would have attended services at the Temple. He would have heard Moses and the prophets read every week, perhaps every day, but he has become deaf to the Word of God. So deaf spiritually does money make people that they would not be convinced of its danger, even if someone rose from the dead to warn them.

The loss of his identity, blind to everyone except himself, and deaf to anything that anyone said to warn him. What does that sound like? It sounds as if Jesus is describing someone who has money in the way we would describe a drug addict. Drug addicts also lose their identity to their addiction. They too are blind to everyone’s needs but their own. They too are deaf to what anyone says to them; all they care about is their next fix. Yes, they initially get a high from what the drug gives, but the drug steadily takes everything away from them until eventually it destroys them completely.

When Jesus says you cannot serve God and money. He is making a statement of fact. The two are completely incompatible. A choice has to be made. The rich man made his choice and suffered the consequences. So, what about us?

Money matters

If there is one thing we can all agree on, it is the importance of money. We may feel we don’t have enough of it, or we may feel others have too much, but either way we know we personally can’t live without it. Money makes the world go around! Gone are the days for most of us when we can supplement our incomes by growing our own food or making our own clothes. Most of us are some form of wage slave.

We may react against that description, disliking the idea in these egalitarian and self-centred times that we are not free to live as we please. But while some may be able to live off inherited wealth or past investments, most of us for most of our lives need an income and that means we need a job. The reason unemployment is regarded as a social evil isn’t because we would be bored if didn’t have a job to go to. Indeed, many who are employed are bored by their jobs; they just have no alternative but to do them. Governments might pass laws to regulate the employment market and to protect workers from the worse excesses of their enslavement, but there is no escaping the necessity of work and the dire consequences of not having it. We need employment, quite simply, because we need the money.

That we need money is not in question, but we use the language of need to justify what we spend money on whether we need it or not. It sounds better to say that we need something than to say that we want something. What we need and what we want, however, are two entirely different things. We need food and clothing; we don’t need the latest iphone or model of car. Nevertheless, whether it’s to spend on what we need or on what we want, we still need money.

This much at least seems straightforward enough, but it is not just individuals who need money. Society, in general, needs money. Countries need a functioning and successful economy if there are going to be the jobs their citizens need to survive.

Understanding money

And it is here that everything starts to get far more complicated. We are not just individuals who can make independent choices about our lives, irrespective of what is happening in the community in which we live. We are part of and bound up with a world dominated by money. Politicians, economists, and bankers may try to understand and control it, but money defies understanding and control. Money has a mind and a life of its own. To take just one simple example: at the moment, across the world, central banks are struggling to control inflation. Yet only a few months ago, the bankers were confidently predicting that inflation was nothing to worry about. They are worried now!

So great is the hold that money has over us as a society that the only way it seems for our economy to survive is for us to print more of it, borrow more of it, or spend more of it. So, at the present time, governments, in an attempt to solve the problem that their economy isn’t making enough money, are giving their citizens money to spend on things they don’t need and often don’t want.

Understanding money isn’t simply a political and economic question; money is primarily a spiritual issue. Money is the means the Devil uses to keep both communities and individuals in his power and prevent them from serving God. The Devil offered Jesus the glory of all the Kingdoms of the world hoping that the temptation would be sufficient to get Jesus in his power (Luke 4:5-8). Jesus rejected the Devil’s offer insisting that worship should be offered to God alone. Sadly, the Devil has had more success with many of Jesus’ followers. St Paul writes to Timothy:

‘Those who long to be rich, however, stumble into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils. Some people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains.’ (1 Timothy 6:9-10)

Some will argue that St Paul is exaggerating for effect here and that we should not see money as the root of all evils. Others argue that it is only the love of money and not money itself that is the problem. Many believers quite sincerely want to view money as something that is neutral in itself. They want to see it as something that can be used to do good or evil, depending on what choices we make. Money only becomes evil, they argue, if we do bad things with it, or if we allow it to have too big a part to play in our lives.

Seeing money as neutral and harmless in itself is another one of the many ways we ‘justify ourselves in the sight of others’. It allows us to have more of it than either we need or is safe. Convincing ourselves, however, that money is neutral and that we can have both money and God seriously misunderstands the nature of money and underestimates its power.

When talking about the relationship between money and power, many will respond that money is power, and crave for themselves the power that they think it gives. This again misses the real nature of money. Money doesn’t just give those who have it power, money is itself a Power. Money isn’t just the currency in our wallets or the numbers on our bank statement, money is a Power that first entices and seduces people, and then controls and enslaves all who love and serve it. It goes on controlling those it enslaves once they stop loving it. Like an addict, we may tell ourselves that we have our addiction under control, but like an addict in denial, money gets us hooked and renders us powerless to help ourselves.

Choose life

Jesus talks so much and so directly about money because he knows its power and that, as much as we may tell ourselves otherwise, money is not something that we can decide to use as we wish. Jesus warns that money is something dangerous and deadly, and that it needs to be taken seriously if we are to love and serve God. But if it is so powerful and integral to the world in which we live and of which we are a part, how are we to avoid falling into its power? How are we to love and serve God, not money?

Jesus said a slave cannot serve two masters either they will love the one and hate the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other (Luke 16:13). It’s a stark choice. We have to choose which master we are going to love and serve, God or money. We cannot serve both. It is only by loving God and despising money that we can be free from the destructive power and hold that money wants to have over us.

We mustn’t think this is easy. It isn’t. The Devil knows our weakness and knows how easy it is to tempt us with money and what it can give. The Devil shows us everywhere we look what could be ours if we had it: where we could live, what we could eat, the clothes we could wear, the things we could buy, the places we could go, even the good we could do.

In the same way that we can’t escape sin in this world, we can’t escape the presence and power of money, but we can make a choice to serve God, not money. Jesus told his disciples to seek God’s Kingdom and all the things they needed would be given to them as well (Luke 12:31).

It is by seeking God and loving him that we can begin to see how false and empty what money offers really is and, as the rich man discovered when it was too late, how destructive it is. The only way to escape the power of money is to discover the power of God; the only way to avoid the love of money is by falling in love with God. In the second reading this week, St Paul writes of the ‘uncertainty of riches’, that is, they can’t be trusted. God, though, is faithful, and he can be trusted. What money gives comes at a terrible cost. What God gives, he gives freely. St Paul wants Timothy to teach those who are tempted by money instead to take hold of the life that really is life. Jesus said he came that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

Money seeks to get us in its power by inviting us to accept all it offers; may we instead choose life.

Amen.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, God or Money. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity 2022

Reading: Luke 16:1-15

Here at Christ Church, we have some beautiful stained-glass windows. The windows on the left as you enter the Church depict the Days of Creation and, on the right, the Seasons of the Church’s Year. The Lady Chapel windows have symbols associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the west window at the back of the Church has the Agnus Dei symbol and the River of Life. The Agnus Dei symbol is effectively the Christ Church logo! If you go to some churches with stained glass windows, you will see scenes from Jesus’ parables depicted on them. The parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Sower are all popular.

One parable you won’t often see, however, is this week’s parable. It is often described as the hardest of Jesus’ parables to understand, and it is certainly one that causes many people a lot of difficulty. Why is this? At the heart of the problem lies the fact that in the parable the dishonest manager gets praised: does this mean Jesus is praising dishonesty?

The first thing to say is that parables are stories designed to convey a message. Jesus tells stories drawing on his audience’s experience in order to make a point. As such, we shouldn’t over-think the stories, but concentrate on the point that is being made in them.

This story itself is easy enough to understand as a story. A rich man has an estate manager, who is accused of dishonesty. We are not told the details, but the story assumes that the accusation is true. The rich man is certainly not taking any chances and tells his manager that he is going to get rid of him. The manager faces a personal crisis. What is he going to do when he loses his position? No-one is going to employ him as a manager. He is not strong enough to work as a manual labourer, and he is too proud to beg. The plan he comes up with is designed so that those in a material debt to his master will instead become in a moral debt to him. The manager’s hope is that, as a result, they will welcome him into their homes when he is no longer a manager.

The manager summons his master’s debtors one by one. We are given two examples of how he executes his plan. While it is difficult to be precise about how much each of these debts would have been worth, they were undoubtedly substantial.

The first example is of someone who owes a hundred ‘baths’ of olive oil (about 4,000 litres or eight hundred gallons). This would have been the yield of about 146 olive trees. The oil would have cost one thousand denarii, or a little over three years’ salary for an average wage earner. The debt is a significant one by any standards. The manager tells the debtor to sit down quickly and write fifty, reducing the debt by 50%.

The second example concerns someone who owes a hundred ‘kors’ of wheat (about 30 metric tonnes or 29.5 imperial tons). This represents the yield of about a hundred acres. The average tenant and their family farmed about 5 to 10 acres. This amount of wheat would cost from 2,500 to 3,000 denarii. This was anywhere from just over eight to nine and a half years’ wages. Again, it is a significant debt. The manager tells this debtor to write eighty, reducing the debt to 80 kors (24 metric tonnes or 23.6 imperial tons). A 20% reduction on the amount owed.

St Luke describes the rich man’s reaction when his master discovers what the manager has done. St Luke writes:

‘And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.’ (Luke 16:8)

Many people ask how Jesus can hold up a dishonest manager as a role model for his disciples? There are all sorts of ingenious theories to try to get round the imagined problem, including explanations that seek to suggest that the manager was not dishonest in the first place. Some argue, for example, that the dishonest manager is simply eliminating his own commission on the debt, hoping that those he is being generous to will be generous to him. If this is the case, then the manager’s commission would have been a generous one, and if this was his commission, it would have kept him going for quite a while after he lost his job without him having to do anything!

The trouble with these theories is that they read into the story things which are not there and, more to the point, those who suggest them forget that Jesus is telling a story, not giving a factual report about a situation that actually happened.

Far more likely is that Jesus is suggesting that by asking each of the debtors quickly to change the amount they owe, the dishonest manager is involving the debtor in his schemes, so that both the manager and the debtor are complicit in dishonesty with each other! This is surely something that will make the debtors more amenable to helping the manager when he asks for help after he loses his position. So, what can we say in reply to those who have problems with this story?

Well doubtless, no-one, no matter how rich, is going to be pleased at losing so much money. Nevertheless, the rich man is impressed with the manager’s shrewdness in planning for his future. The rich man commends the manager for his shrewdness, not for his dishonesty. There is no suggestion that the dishonest manager is anything but dishonest. There is, however, something important to be learnt from the way he behaves.

Having told the story, Jesus comments on it. Jesus says:

‘… for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.’ (Luke 16:8)

In other words, those who do not belong to God’s Kingdom are better at dealing with their own kind to their own advantage than are the children of light, that is, those who belong to God’s Kingdom. Jesus tells his disciples what they should learn from this. Jesus says:

‘And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.’ (Luke 16:9)

Jesus is not telling his disciples to be dishonest in their dealings with people, but to use what they have materially in such a way in the present that it will benefit them spiritually in the future. The manager was worried about what would happen to him when he lost his job, and so he behaved in such a way that he would have a home to go to afterwards. Jesus is encouraging his disciples so to use money in this life that they have an eternal home to go to when they die.

St Paul writes that we brought nothing into this world and can take nothing out (1 Timothy 6:7). When we die, we all enter the next life with exactly the same amount: nothing! Jesus is warning us that, like the manager, we too all have to give an account of our lives and that includes our use of money.

We don’t like bringing money into it, but Jesus insists that we can’t leave money out of it. So as to leave his disciples in absolutely no doubt about what his message is, Jesus says:

‘No slave can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.’ (Luke 16:13)

This, of course, is another reason we don’t like this parable and pretend to find it so hard to understand. We hate the idea that our attitude to money and how we use it in this world is going to affect our position in the next. Jesus could not be clearer that it will have a significant bearing on it.

Jesus has been speaking to his disciples. The Pharisees, who St Luke describes as ‘lovers of money’, over-hearing what Jesus says, ridicule him. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is very important. Jesus says to them:

‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts, for what is prized by humans is an abomination in the sight of God.’ (Luke 16:15)

One of the central beliefs of many believers is that of ‘justification by faith’. This is the belief that God accepts and forgives us solely on the basis of our faith in Jesus and not because of anything we do. We are saved by faith, not works. At the heart of the European Reformation in the sixteenth century was the phrase ‘sola fide’, by faith alone.

Faith alone, however, is about trusting God alone and serving him alone. When they are challenged by Jesus about their attitude to money, the Pharisees ‘justify themselves’. If, however, anyone is to be saved, they need to be justified by God. We can’t be justified by faith while we are still putting our faith in money. We can trust God, or we can trust money. It’s a clear choice. Putting the phrase, ‘In God We Trust’ on a bank note may suggest we can do both; Jesus, however, makes it plain that we can’t.

The sad reality is that very often many churchgoers, like the Pharisees, are also lovers of money. Not only do we love money, we also value both those who have it and those things which cost a lot of it. Jesus describes the things we often value as an ‘abomination in the sight of God’. These are strong words. We don’t ridicule Jesus for them as the Pharisees did; we just ignore them, or we pretend to love God, while really loving money. Jesus warns that God knows our hearts. He knows whom we love: him or money.

Jesus has already had quite a lot to say, in St Luke’s Gospel, about money and possessions, and about what his disciples’ attitude to them should be. He will have more to say after this! Jesus has warned about the stupidity of storing up goods and relying on material wealth (Luke 12:13-21). Jesus has urged his disciples not to worry about the future, what they shall eat or wear (Luke 12:22), but to make seeking God’s Kingdom their priority (Luke 12:31). Jesus tells them that where what they value is, there their hearts will be also (Luke 12:34). They will love what matters most to them.

We tend to let ourselves off the hook, that is, we justify ourselves (to use Jesus’ words) when it comes to what Jesus says about money. We do not think of ourselves as rich, and so don’t think that Jesus’ words apply to us. Of course, in making this judgement about ourselves, we always compare ourselves with those who have more than us, not with those who have less. Jesus, however, is not talking to the rich but to his disciples. Jesus does at times speak directly to those who are rich, but here he is speaking to his disciples in general, most of whom were anything but rich.

Jesus then is challenging those who follow him to use money wisely, not so much with a view to how it will affect us in this world, but in how it will affect us in the world to come. Jesus is challenging us both as a church and as individuals to get our values and priorities right.

1. A Challenge to the Church

Quite rightly in the Church we tell people to put God first. We warn, as Jesus did, that you can’t serve God and money. But then we never stop talking about money and asking for it. Try this simple test. When you go to a Church meeting, see how long it is before you are asked for money. Or when you visit a church website, before you are asked to donate or subscribe. We are obsessed with money.

When this is pointed out to us, we, like the Pharisees, seek to justify ourselves. We don’t want it for ourselves, we explain, we want it for God’s work. People, we argue, won’t give unless we ask them to, and not even then. That’s why, we claim, we have to go on asking.

There is much that could and should be said about church finances, but for now I would just highlight one question we should be asking every time we ask people to give money. Are we sure it is God’s work we want the money for? How much, for example, is it about our own pride and our desire for power and prestige? We need to take seriously Jesus’ words about how what is valued by humans is an abomination to God. Are our values the values of God’s Kingdom or have we simply adopted the values of the society in which we live and given them a religious gloss?

It is, of course, right to put the cost of the work of the Church to people who belong to the Church, but as Hudson Taylor famously said, ‘Depend on it. God’s work, done God’s way, will never lack God’s supply’.

So, what happens if that supply does not come? Our normal reaction as a church is to rush to fundraise and to make special appeals. When what we should be doing is asking is whether the reason the money isn’t coming is that it is not, in fact, God’s work we are doing. If we don’t have the money and resources for a project, the chances are that it is not a project we should be undertaking to begin with.

When Jesus says you can’t serve God and money, he is talking to churches as well as to individuals.

2. A Challenge to Us as Individuals

Obviously, as individuals, we don’t like the idea of giving away all that we have. Jesus does not ask all of us to do so. But he does ask some. Those Jesus calls to give away all that they have are a special gift to the Church not because they give their money to the Church, but because they model in a dramatic and vivid way what the values and priorities of the Church should be and also what the values and priorities should be of us as individuals.

It is impossible for us to ignore money. Money is inevitably and unavoidably central to our lives. Even those who give away all that they have and who take a vow of poverty have to beg for it. So, while we are not all called to give away all that we have, we are all called to be like the manager in the story. Again, not by copying him in his dishonesty, but by following his example of using the financial resources at his disposal to secure a home for himself in the future.

Many of us will have invested in a retirement plan in which we pay money now, so that we will be able to afford to have a roof over our heads when we retire. Jesus is telling us that we need an eternity plan, so that we will have an eternal home when we retire from this life. We are to use what money and material resources we have now in order to secure an eternal home, rather than to make ourselves at home here.

We have just celebrated the Feast Day of St Hildegard von Bingen (September 17). St Hildegard was consecrated to God as a child and lived in monastic seclusion while growing up and for a large part of her life. She came, however, from a noble family of some means, and she was to use that connection and draw on those means when she felt God was calling her to establish and lead her own monastery.

St Hildegard is an example of someone who lived out the message of Jesus’ parable, using money faithfully to obtain an eternal home, while not loving it or using it to make herself at home in this life.

The message of the Gospel is that we are saved by grace through faith alone. Again, that is, we are called to trust God alone and to live by trust in God alone. As Jesus says, we cannot serve God and money; but we can serve God with money, both by giving it away and by giving it to his service. We cannot, however, serve him by loving money and keeping it all for ourselves. Jesus says:

‘If, then, you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?’ (Luke 16:11-12)

We have been given money to use. But if we are unable even to use wisely what ultimately is of little worth, why would anyone entrust us with something of real value. Rather than worrying about how much we own in this life, which is temporary and passing, we should be thinking of the life to come, which is permanent and eternal. Jesus challenges us to be like the manager in his story, and to start thinking of the future, while we still have the time to do so.

St Hildegard, pray for us.

Amen.

Friday, September 16, 2022

The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity 2022

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, Humbled To Be Exalted. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity.

The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity


Reading: Luke 14:25-33

Last week in the Gospel reading for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, we read about Jesus’ visit to the house of a Pharisee for a meal on the Sabbath (Luke 14:1-14). Jesus heals a man in front of the Pharisees, even though it is a Sabbath and knowing that healing someone on the Sabbath is something that they disapprove of. Then when Jesus sees how the guests at the meal all want the best seats, Jesus tells a parable about where to sit at a wedding banquet (Luke 14:7-14). Rather than sitting in the seat highest in honour, you should, says Jesus, sit at the lowest seat. Those who sit at the highest seat can only be asked to move down, whereas those in the lowest seat can only be asked to move up.

Taking the seating at a wedding banquet as an example, Jesus is seeking to illustrate a fundamental principle. Jesus says:

‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (Luke 14:11)

Turning to his host, Jesus tells another parable about a man who invited the poor, crippled, blind, and lame to the dinner he was holding because those he originally invited all made excuses for not coming (Luke 14:15-24). Jesus seeks to encourage the Pharisee to be more outward looking and inclusive in his approach to people.

Now in our reading this week, we are told that large crowds are travelling with Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem. In the parable that Jesus told his host, those invited all made excuses for not coming; the crowd, however, are coming, but they have little appreciation of what coming to Jesus entails. Jesus spells it out in no uncertain terms for them. Jesus says:

‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ (Luke 14:26-27)

The crowds with Jesus are caught up in the excitement of the moment. Jesus is doing amazing things and making a huge impression, so much so that even the Pharisees want him to come for dinner. Jesus is a celebrity, and celebrities always attract crowds, regardless of what people think of what the celebrity has to say. But Jesus does want them to think about what he has to say. Jesus tells the crowds two parables to encourage them to count the cost and think about what following him really means.

In the first parable, Jesus asks what man, if he is planning to build a tower, won’t first try to work out the cost to see if he can afford it. If he doesn’t, he may find that having laid the foundation, he can’t manage to keep building and will have to stop. Having to abandon the project will mean people ridicule him.

In the second parable, Jesus describes how a ruler going to war will first work out what the chances are of his army beating the army of the ruler coming against him, especially if the opposing army is significantly larger. If he doesn’t think he can win, he will seek to negotiate a peace.

Having told the two parables, Jesus draws a conclusion. You would expect the conclusion to be that a person should count the cost of becoming a disciple before deciding whether he wants to be a disciple. And while that is basically what the conclusion is, Jesus doesn’t put it quite like that. Jesus says:

‘So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.’ (Luke 14:33)

Jesus tells them straight what the cost is of becoming a disciple, which is everything a person has.

Jesus then uses another illustration. Jesus asks how, if salt loses its saltiness, its taste can be restored (Luke 14:34). If it no longer tastes like salt, then, says Jesus, it is no use to anyone. It has to be thrown away. If a person tries to be a disciple without giving up all they have, they too will be of no use. A disciple is to love Jesus more than anyone or anything else, their own life included, and loving him means sacrificing everything for him.

The crowds are travelling with Jesus. If, however, any of them are to follow him and become his disciple, they need to decide whether they are willing to let go of all that they have, or they will pay a dreadful and high price.

We in the Church, and in the Anglican Church especially, don’t go in for this way of talking. It sounds too extreme and fanatical, and Jesus doesn’t want us to become fanatics, does he? So, we argue that Jesus is just putting it this way for effect and to make a point. There is, of course, the somewhat embarrassing fact that some people have taken Jesus’ words literally and have succeeded in living up to them, often making a great impression in the process. We deal with this by calling such people saints, thereby implying that this sort of commitment is just for a few select people.

Jesus, however, doesn’t say that anyone who does not carry the cross and deny themself cannot be a saint; he says they cannot be his disciple. By limiting Jesus’ words to the few, we have become a church of spectators rather than followers. We have accepted that many church members will simply come on Sunday, watch what is going on, perhaps pay to keep the show going, and then get on with their lives the rest of the time. This may seem as if I am being unfair, and I accept that there are those whose faith is much more than this. But many bear more than a fleeting resemblance to the crowds Jesus speaks these words too. Jesus wouldn’t accept people only coming along for the ride, and nor should we. What is more the challenge of the times we are living through needs disciples, not spectators.

Here in Hong Kong, we have, in the past few years, lived through the protests, and we are still living through the pandemic. It continues to be a time of social unrest and uncertainty. Many have had enough, and they are leaving while they can, hoping the grass is greener in England’s pleasant land or in other countries willing to take them.

They may be in for a shock. The United Kingdom, for example, is facing an unprecedented cost of living crisis, with strikes and civil unrest back big time. Europe, in general, is experiencing the cost of what has become a proxy war in Ukraine. Many of us grew up during the Cold War, when we lived with the constant threat of nuclear war. Ironically, the threat of mass destruction kept the peace in Europe. Now that the European nations have returned with America’s help and encouragement to their former warring ways, nuclear catastrophe is again back on the cards.

Apart from nuclear catastrophe, we are also facing a climate crisis. We have been shown this week what climate crisis looks like. We have seen the terrible pictures from Pakistan. Temperatures of 53 degrees, causing melting of Pakistan’s 7,000 glaciers, and monsoons, five times as heavy as normal, have put one third of the country under water, causing devastating suffering.

Finally, in these examples of doom and gloom, I would just mention Taiwan, which has all the potential to make the war in Ukraine look like a local skirmish.

So, what’s my point? My point is that all these different headline events combine to create a climate of fear and uncertainty that affects all our lives and how we see the future. We are faced with political uncertainty, an ongoing pandemic, financial instability, climate crisis, and war. It is no surprise, then, that some are calling for a great ‘reset’, with the calls themselves leading to all sorts of conspiracy theories, only heightening the sense of fear and uncertainty.

The hope, of course, is that the fear and uncertainty will pass. The hope is that political leaders will appear who are both competent and wise; that vaccines will enable us to put the pandemic behind us; that the central banks will get on top of inflation; that there will be the social and political will to tackle climate change; and that peace will prevail in Ukraine, and war be averted in Taiwan and the other flash points in our world.

It seems a tough ask! And some of the threats are greater than humanity has had to face before. Human history, however, leads us to think that it is possible for us to overcome the challenges we face, even if it is at a cost. Jesus warned his disciples that such things would happen, but it didn’t mean that that the end was about to come (Luke 21:9-11). Whatever happens, and even if we get through the present series of crises, we are, nevertheless, living through a time of great change. The changes that are taking place at the present time pose challenges that are considerably bigger and far more significant than even those caused by the events that are in the headlines at the moment.

We have, in our day, become used to the idea of rapid change, even though such rapid change is a comparatively recent phenomenon in human history. We haven’t, however, appreciated the significance of the changes we are living through and what their consequences are going to be for us all. I would just highlight three areas by way of example.

1. Technology

Computers have already changed the way we live, but we have not seen anything yet. I was ordained in the year that the first desktop PC came into production. It promised to be a useful tool. Now we are controlled by the PCs we call phones. And if that seems extreme, try going without your phone for a day and see how you get on. Soon computers will beat us humans at every task they perform.

The growth of AI, artificial intelligence, is going to have huge social consequences that will affect us all. It won’t just be factory workers who will find themselves replaced by robots; all the professions are going to be heavily impacted. Whether it is in the hospital operating theatre or in the school classroom: the robots are coming!

As we start a new school year, if you look at what children are being taught in school and the curriculums that teachers are currently following, it is clear that we are preparing the children for a world that will not exist when most of them leave school. The jobs of today will not exist tomorrow. Schools are wasting their and our children’s time by failing to prepare them for what life will be like when they come of age.

2. Transhumanism

As the saying goes, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’ Our love affair with technology is leading many to reimagine what it means to be human. Already for many young people, the virtual world is the real world with the physical world a pale shadow of it. It is so much more exciting in the ‘metaverse’ where you can be who you want to be without the limitations of your physical body.

There are those who want to take this to a whole new level with talk of ‘body augmentation’ in the form of brain microchips and mind controlled prothesis. And this is not to mention the possibilities offered by gene editing technology. Already some philosophers are speaking of a post-human existence.

Transhumanism, the merger of human and machine, which was once science fiction, is already a present reality. Doubtless there will be benefits, but, in any case, it is happening too quickly for us to evaluate the risk or to exercise any control over it. As with anything new, it seems exciting and to offer fresh and fantastic opportunities. By the time we realize the dangers and the cost, it will be too late. It amuses me seeing people protesting at what they see as the loss of political independence, while happily sacrificing their personal independence to an app on their phone that controls not only what they do but how they think.

And this is just the beginning. The clunky virtual reality headsets of the present will before long become museum pieces as they give way to implants and developments yet to be imagined.

3. Transgenderism

Transgenderism brings together many different social trends and movements. ‘Transgender’ was once (that is, three or four years ago), a term that defined people with a particular and distressing psychological condition. Now it is being presented as both a philosophy and a lifestyle choice. When you have politicians telling you that they do not know how to define what a woman is, then you know it is time to pay attention. And when J K Rowling is excluded from a Harry Potter reunion because she insists that the definition of a woman is in some way related to a person’s biological sex, you know you are living through significant social and cultural change.

Transgenderism doesn’t just affect the very small number of people who, sadly, are born with gender dysphoria. Transgenderism represents the logical outcome of our philosophy of Self. This teaches that we don’t have to be who we are told we should be, not even if we are told it by our own bodies. We are encouraged to believe that we can be both who we feel ourselves to be and who we want to be. It is argued that all of us get to choose who we are and, for those who think like this, fundamental to who we are and who we might want to be is being able to choose our gender.

This is why it is so important to transgender activists to control what is taught in schools and to change the school curriculum, so that, from the very beginning of a child’s schooling in kindergarten, it reflects transgenderism’s philosophy of Self. They don’t want a child to grow up thinking that who they are is in some way determined by factors or forces external to themself. Many in Hong Kong think that all this is something confined to the West, but which doesn’t affect us here in Asia. In response, I would just ask you whether your child likes Disney. If they do, then you are already affected by it.

By now, you may be wondering whether this is a sermon or a somewhat feeble attempt at social commentary, and what, if anything, it has to do with our reading.

I have been of the conviction for some time now that when it comes to the message that we in the churches are preaching, it all too often sounds as if we are simply taking the tune we hear being played in the world around us and giving it a theological remix. What comes out and what people hear may have religious flourishes, but it is recognisably still the same tune!

In these uncertain and changing times, we need a robust faith if we are to rise to the challenge they present. Jesus tells us in our reading what such a faith looks like. It has three central characteristics.

1. Relational

Jesus says, ‘Follow me’. We cannot know what God wants of us until we know God, and knowing God is not the same as knowing about God or going to places that talk about him. St John tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). In other words, God really has made knowing him something personal by becoming a person just like us. Our commitment is first and foremost to a person, for it is in this person that we meet with God. Our faith, then, is, or should be, faith in a person, who calls us to follow him.

This means that until we meet this person and enter a relationship with God through him, everything else is ultimately unimportant. This includes our beliefs and theology; our good works and acts of charity; and our churches and all their activity. All too often, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, there is the danger of allowing these otherwise good things to be the very thing that keeps us from meeting, close up and personal, the very one that they should all be for.

It is, of course, far easier and far less demanding for us to believe and do things, than it is to enter a relationship, which involves every aspect of who we are - body, mind, and spirit - and which engages us at the deepest level of our being. But nothing less will do.

2. Radical Commitment

A relationship with God in Jesus involves us making a radical commitment to him. This is what Jesus is getting at in our reading. Jesus says that anyone who comes to him and does not ‘hate’ even those who are closest to them cannot be his disciple. We try to soften these words of Jesus by explaining that Jesus uses the word ‘hate’ for effect. What Jesus really means, we tell ourselves, is that we should love him more than anyone else. The trouble is that having softened Jesus’ words, we then conveniently forget them and get on with loving people and things other than him.

I don’t know if you have come across cosplay. The word ‘cosplay’ is a word made up from the two words, ‘costume’ and ‘play’. Cosplay itself is when people dress up as their favourite fictional characters or superheroes and meet up with other cosplayers. There are all sorts of conventions and events for those who like cosplay, and many people take part in it.

Cosplayers take what they do seriously and often spend significant amounts of money on it, but they know it is just what the word says: play. It’s great to do at the weekend and on special occasions. It is also fun to meet up with fellow cosplayers, but the rest of the time the cosplayer reverts to their true identity. For some, church is a religious form of cosplay. It’s something they take seriously and enjoy doing, and they have many friends they enjoy doing it with, but it is separate from the rest of their life.

Jesus is warning the crowds and us that following him is not a game. It’s serious, so serious that Jesus warns against rushing into it. He encourages anyone thinking of following him to consider carefully what it means and what it will cost. ‘Whoever does not carry the cross’ cannot be my disciple’, says Jesus. Those who were to be crucified were made to carry their cross. Anyone carrying a cross was as good as dead. In the United States, anyone on death row was said to be a ‘dead man walking’. Jesus’ followers are to be dead men and women walking. We have died to all that holds us in this world and keeps us from following Jesus.

Is this the commitment we in our churches we are calling people to? To ask the question is to answer it. We are happy if they simply turn up to church on a Sunday, with no questions asked. Jesus is asking for more of people, much more. We each individually need to make the radical commitment that Jesus calls us to and then encourage others to do the same.

3. Rooted in the Past; Reoriented to the Future

Aware of the changes we are living through, many in the Church have argued that the worship, beliefs, and ethics of the Church belong too much to the past and are no longer relevant to the age in which we live. Our faith, they argue, needs substantial revising and updating.

Paradoxically, however, if we are to face the changes and challenges we are living through with confidence and hope, then we need now, more than ever, to be rooted in the past. Fundamental to our faith is that God has revealed himself at a specific point in human history in the person of Jesus. St Paul writes that when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son born of a woman (Galatians 4:4). St Paul describes the Church as built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20).

Our faith, then, should be rooted firmly in the past, but at the same time reoriented to the future, not to this world and how it sees its future, but to God and the future he has planned for those who love him, a future that the creation itself will share in (Romans 8:22-23).

As we saw in the reading and sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, Jesus instructed his disciples to be ready for the coming of the Son of Man (Luke 12:35-40). He warned them that the Son of Man would return at an hour they did not expect and that they needed to make sure that they were ready for when he did come. Jesus also warns those who think that they have nothing to worry about in the present. It is for people who think like this that Jesus told the parable of the rich man who thought he had everything he needed for a very comfortable life in the present and for years to come. Jesus says that on that very night, God said to him that his life would be required of him (Luke 12:20).

Jesus did not return as quickly as many expected him to, and he still has not returned some 2,000 years later. So, instead of making sure we are ready for his return and preparing for our death in case we die before he comes, we get on with living and enjoying our life in this world. We have a very here and now sort of faith. God, we argue, wants us to enjoy our life in this world and to do what we can to make it better and more enjoyable for those around us.

Our faith, rather than looking to the future, is geared to life in the present. We justify this emphasis with a theology that places us at the centre and in which God, if he exists, exists to make us happy and to give us help when need it. Jesus, however, simply does not talk like this. We may want him to, but he doesn’t. He talks instead of us being dead in the present and tells us to give up all our possessions. After all, if we are dead, we don’t need them.

We find this very hard to understand. Surely Jesus doesn’t mean that we should literally give away all that we have? That, we think, may be what he requires of the few, those who are to become saints, but not of most of us. So, rather than ask what Jesus does mean by these words, and they are pretty much central to his teaching, we just ignore them and get on with inventing a way for us to believe in Jesus without his words having to make too much difference to how we think and live.

Jesus is not, I think, saying that everyone who follows him should sell all they own, but nor is he saying they should hold on to what they have. How can both be true? Well, we know that Jesus did not ask, for example, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, whom he loved and called his friends, to sell all they had (John 11:5). He didn’t ask this of many who believed in him. Jesus did, however, require those who believed in him to be willing to do so if he asked them to (Mark 10:21) and to be detached from their possessions if he didn’t. This is what Jesus meant when he said to Martha that Mary had chosen the better part, which would not be taken away from her (Luke 10:42). Mary, by sitting at Jesus’ feet, rather than worrying about all the things that Martha was concerned about, had got her priorities right.

In human relationships, a parent will sometimes say how they have given up everything for their children, or a spouse will claim to have done so for their partner. They may mean that they have actually sold all that they have, so that they are left without anything, but more usually what they mean is that they have put their children or their partner before everything else, themselves included. A lover in expressing their love for another person will declare their willingness to give up everything for the one they love. What they are saying is that everything else has ceased to have any value to them by comparison with their love for the other person. They would willingly sacrifice all that they have if called upon to do so for the one they love.

Jesus tells the crowds that none of them can become one of his disciples, unless they give up all that they have. As Jesus travels to Jerusalem, those wishing to follow him will literally have to give up all that they have. But for many, now as then, letting go of all that they have means letting go of anything that keeps us tied to the present and prevents us from following Christ. Rooted in God’s past revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and built on the foundation of those he chose, we are to look forward with confidence to the future, knowing that the future belongs to God.

A robust faith for the present is, then, one that is relational in character, radical in its commitment, and rooted in the past while being reoriented to the future.

May God in his grace and mercy grant us such a faith.

Amen.

Monday, September 05, 2022

Humbled To Be Exalted

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, Humbled To Be Exalted. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity.

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity 2022

Reading: Luke 14:1-14

For anyone who has been reading through St Luke’s Gospel from the beginning, the opening verse of our Gospel reading this week ought to come as something of a surprise. St Luke writes about how, ‘on one occasion’, Jesus goes to the ‘house of a leader of the Pharisees’ for a meal on the Sabbath. Think for a moment of what we have been told so far in St Luke’s Gospel about Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees.

The Pharisees have accused Jesus of blasphemy when he forgave the sins of the paralytic who was let down through the roof by his friends (Luke 5:21). They have criticized his disciples for not fasting (5:35) and for doing what they consider to be work when the disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath (Luke 6:2). The Pharisees meant it as a criticism of Jesus himself for letting them. The Pharisees were waiting to accuse Jesus for healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Luke 6:7) and are out to get him after he does (Luke 6:11).

Two previous meals at the houses of Pharisees haven’t gone too well. At the first, a prostitute, having learned that Jesus is eating at the house of a Pharisee (Luke 7:37), finds her way into the house and anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment and wipes them with her hair (Luke 7:38). When Jesus’ host reacts negatively to Jesus for letting the woman touch him because the Pharisee sees her as a sinner, Jesus reprimands the Pharisee and forgives the woman (Luke 7:44-48).

At the second meal recorded by St Luke, the Pharisee who is Jesus’ host expresses amazement that Jesus does not ritually wash before the meal in the way the Pharisees do (Luke 11:38). This leads Jesus to a general condemnation of the attitudes and behaviour of the Pharisees, comparing them to ‘unmarked graves’ (Luke 11:44).

This is a very derogatory metaphor. An unmarked grave, of course, looks like any other piece of land. However, by walking over it, people are in danger of making themselves ritually unclean. According to God’s Law, physical contact with those who have died renders a person ritually unclean (Numbers 5:2; 19:11–13). The irony is that the Pharisees were very concerned about ritual cleanliness, and Jesus’ host at the dinner was amazed at Jesus’ apparent lack of concern for it. Jesus says that while the Pharisees appear clean, not only are they unclean on the inside, being full of greed and wickedness (Luke 11:39), they threaten to make those they come into contact with unclean too.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Pharisees become very hostile toward Jesus (Luke 11:53-54). Jesus for his part warns his disciples to beware of their hypocrisy (Luke 12:1).

It is, then, against this background of hostility that a leader of the Pharisees, no less, invites Jesus for a meal at his house on the Sabbath. The hostility is still there despite the hospitality the Pharisee is showing to Jesus, and St Luke tells us they are watching him closely. It is, however, worth noting that the Pharisees see Jesus as someone significant and worth bothering with. By now, they know that Jesus is capable of doing things on the Sabbath of which they disapprove. Jesus does not disappoint them!

There appears in front of Jesus a man with edema (some translations translate the Greek word as ‘dropsy’). Jesus asks the experts in the law and the Pharisees present whether it is lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not. They refuse to answer, so Jesus heals the man anyway. The Pharisees may be silent, but Jesus is not. Jesus points out that if they have an animal who gets into trouble on the Sabbath, they will immediately come to its aid. They cannot reply to this, as they know it is true. Jesus, however, hasn’t finished with them yet.

Jesus notices how the guests at the meal choose the ‘places of honour’. This is something Jesus has previously criticized the Pharisees for doing (Luke 11:43). St Luke tells us that as a consequence, Jesus tells them a parable. When, Jesus says, they are invited to a wedding banquet, they should not sit in the ‘place of honour’ in case someone more important than them comes, and they are asked to move down. Instead, they should take the lowest place, then they are more likely to be asked by the host to move up higher. Jesus is talking in a culture in which honour and shame are very important. In being asked to move down, a person would be ‘shamed’. In being asked to move up, they would be ‘honoured’. We might say that it is all about ‘face’.

Jesus, however, isn’t simply talking about seating at a wedding. It is, St Luke writes, a ‘parable’, that is, Jesus is using how people behave at a wedding banquet as an illustration to make an important point about what our attitude should be more generally. Jesus says:

‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (Luke 14:11)

Having made this point, Jesus turns to his host. Dinners with Jesus are never boring!

Jesus tells his host that when he gives a lunch or dinner, rather than inviting his friends and relatives or rich neighbours, he should invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. If he invites his friends and relatives or his rich neighbours, they may invite him back and his hospitality would be repaid. If he invites the poor, crippled, lame, and blind, they won’t be able to repay him, and he will be repaid instead by God at the resurrection of the righteous.

This, again, is a ‘parable’ in that Jesus is using an illustration to encourage his host to be ‘inclusive’ in his outlook and not to limit who he reaches out to. One of the guests at the meal, on hearing this, clearly realizes that there is more to what Jesus is saying than the issue of whom to invite to a meal. They somewhat piously say to Jesus:

‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ (Luke 14:15)

Jesus replies by telling another parable (Luke 14:25-33). A man gives a great dinner and invites many. The invitation to the dinner has gone out in advance. When the time for the dinner to take place comes, the man sends his slave to tell everyone who has been invited that the dinner is now ready. All those who have been invited, however, begin to make excuses.

The first says he has bought land that he has to go and see. Another that he has bought five yoke of oxen that he has to try out. Another makes the excuse that he has just got married. Commentators are divided over whether these excuses are real or made up. As it is a parable, we are not expected to push the details. The point is that in the parable the invited guests made excuses rather than go to the dinner. The excuses are to do with property, occupation, and family. Whether the excuses are real or not is beside the point; as Jesus will go on to say, the dinner should have taken precedence over all other commitments.

When the slave reports their excuses to his master, the master becomes angry and orders his slave to go out into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, crippled, blind, and lame. The slave reports back that this has been done, but there is still room for more people. The master orders the slave to go out again and compel people to come in, so that his house may be filled. It is important not to stop there, and to hear what the master says as the conclusion to this. The master says:

‘For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’ (Luke 14:24)

Those originally invited won’t now be allowed to attend the dinner, even if they change their mind and want to. It’s too late; they have had their chance.

Jesus has been preaching and teaching, inviting God’s people to ‘eat bread in the Kingdom of God’. Many, however, are making excuses or are tempted to do so! Those who are responding are not those who would have been expected to do so. It is people like the Pharisees and experts in the Law who are making excuses while tax-collectors and prostitutes are gladly accepting Jesus’ invitation. Jesus is explaining how even now in his ministry the invitation to the Kingdom is being extended to those not normally included, and Jesus is looking forward to the day when the invitation will be extended even further to include the Gentiles.

Engaging our critics and opponents

We feel safe today criticizing the Pharisees. It is now just accepted that they were shallow, legalistic, and hypocritical. We don’t have a good word to say for them. However, the fact that Jesus went so often to share a meal with the Pharisees and regularly engaged in argument and debate with them suggests there is another side to the story.

Firstly, we should not tar them all with the same brush. I recently came across a statement in a commentary that no Pharisee became a disciple of Jesus during his ministry. I am not sure that is quite true. It is certainly true that we don’t know of any becoming one of the 12 apostles, but it was, after all, Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, who together with another Jewish leader and disciple of Jesus, Simon of Cyrene, buried Jesus when other disciples had abandoned him.

St Luke tells us in chapter 15 of the book of Acts that a significant number of the Pharisees joined the Church after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (Acts 15:5). It is also worth remembering that it was St Paul, himself a Pharisee, who was one of those who led the way in taking God’s invitation to the Gentiles. St Paul was like the slave in the parable who was sent out by the master to compel people to come in.

It is perhaps ironic that one of the first major arguments in the Church was between believers in the Church who were Pharisees. At the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35), the argument seems to have been principally between the Pharisees who had become believers and St Paul.

It was perhaps because Jesus took so much time to engage with the Pharisees during his ministry that so many eventually became believers and that the Pharisees came to have so much influence in the Church.

Engaging with those who criticize or oppose us doesn’t mean compromising our message or approving of the behaviour of those we engage with. Jesus was fiercely critical of the Pharisees. He didn’t hesitate to tell the Pharisees what his criticism of them was. It is easy to share our message with those who agree with us. It is also easy to meet with those we don’t agree with if we keep quiet about our disagreements. Jesus challenges us to share our message with those who disagree with us and with those who reject and oppose us. We are to share the good news of Jesus with people and love those we share it with.

Loving people, however, does not mean that we should be frightened to tell them why we think they are wrong. For Jesus, loving the prostitute meant forgiving her sins and not condemning her; loving the Pharisees meant pointing out their sin and condemning their hypocrisy.

Seeing our own sin first

Of course, we never identify with the Pharisees. They are those who we are not in any way alike. In chapter 18 of his Gospel, St Luke has Jesus’ famous parable about the Pharisee and the tax-collector who go to the Temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee is very pleased with himself. He thanks God that he is not like other people. He is not a thief, a rogue, or an adulterer, and he is not like the tax-collector. The Pharisee tells God that he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of what he gets. The tax-collector, however, won’t even lift his eyes to heaven and standing far off simply asks God to be merciful to him, a sinner. Jesus says that it is the tax-collector who went home right with God. Interestingly, the conclusion that Jesus draws for us from this is the same as Jesus draws from the parable in our reading this week. Jesus says:

‘… for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (Luke 18:14)

The story is told of a church Bible study group. After studying Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the tax-collector who went to the Temple to pray, there is a time of prayer. The Bible study leader begins it by praying, ‘Lord, we thank you that we are not like the Pharisee in our Bible study tonight’!

That seems to be the attitude of most churchgoers, although we might not express it so plainly. We need to remember that the Pharisee in Jesus’ story was telling the truth. He wasn’t a thief, a rogue, or an adulterer, and he did fast twice a week and give a tenth of all that he earned. As far as anyone could tell, the Pharisee was a deeply devout and committed person. He was definitely, for example, someone who today would get elected to the church synod and be invited to serve on various church committees. Jesus makes clear that what the Pharisees did was not wrong (Luke 11:42), rather they had allowed their concern to get it right in all the details to blind them to some of the big things that really mattered. They had also in their genuine commitment to God’s Law become self-satisfied and pleased with themselves. They were not like other people who did not care about God’s Law.

It was because they were committed people and wanted to keep God’s Law that the Pharisees were so concerned about the Sabbath. The Sabbath was, after all, one of the most important commandments in God’s Law. But in their very desire to keep God’s Law, the Pharisees ended up missing the point of it. Jesus endeavours to remind them what the point of the command to keep the Sabbath is all about by asking them whether it is lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not (Luke 14:3)?

You may remember how it was popular at one time for church people when they faced difficult choices and decisions to ask WWJD? – that is, ‘what would Jesus do?’ People would wear jewellery with these letters on it. The idea being that we should follow the example of Jesus and look to him for guidance in what we do.

We need also to ask WWJS? – that is, ‘what would Jesus say?’ Jesus had a lot to say about the Pharisees and how they had allowed themselves to go wrong, even when they were trying to do what was right. What would Jesus say about us and about how we are doing both as a church and as individuals? Would Jesus be pleased with us and in the effort we are putting in to reaching out to people and compelling them to come in?

It is very easy to feel pleased with ourselves and to think that we are not doing too badly. We can only think and feel like this when we compare ourselves with others and look down on them, as the Pharisee did with the tax-collector.

St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) in her writing always speaks of herself as a sinner who is unworthy of God’s grace in her life. Yet if ever anyone was committed to doing God’s will and to living as God wanted, it was St Catherine. So, is she just saying what she says about her unworthiness because it is what she thinks she ought to say or in order to sound holy? No, not at all. St Catherine says it and means it because she is looking at herself in the light of God and not in light of other people. She knew that seen in the light of God, she was a sinner in need of God’s grace and forgiveness, no matter how good she might appear when compared to other people. St Catherine humbled herself, as Jesus said we must, and God exalted her, as Jesus also said he would. St Catherine is now a doctor of the Church and an inspiration to all who seek to follow her example of obedience.

Those who humble themselves will be exalted, and those who exalt themselves will be humbled

What if anything is the relevance of this to us today, especially as we look forward to another academic year? Jesus criticized the Pharisees not simply for their behaviour but for their values and attitudes.

As we have been seeing as we have been reading through St Luke’s Gospel, at the heart of Jesus’ message was the command to seek the Kingdom of God above all else, to deny oneself, and to follow him. Society in the 21st century in the developed world sees no point in seeking the Kingdom of God, for the simple reason that it doesn’t believe in God. It is pointless seeking what does not exist.

But if God does not exist, what should I seek? In the story of Moses and the burning bush, God sends Moses to Egypt to tell Pharoah to let God’s people go. Moses asks God what he should say when the people of Israel ask him the name of the one who sent him. God replies, ‘I AM WHO I AM’. Moses is to tell the people of Israel that ‘I AM’ has sent him to them (Exodus 3:14).

Jesus takes this up, and in St John’s Gospel, in particular, we have the well-known ‘I AM’ sayings of Jesus. Jesus also famously says in a discussion about Abraham with Jews in Jerusalem:

‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ (Luke 8:58)

People today begin somewhere entirely different. Descartes (1596-1650) said ‘cogito ergo sum’, ‘I think, therefore, I am’. Descartes himself didn’t mean to replace God with the Self, but the whole drift of thought since Descartes has been to do precisely that. God is not the ‘I am’ upon whom my existence depends, I am: me, myself, I. Rather than seeking meaning in something external to myself, I must seek it in myself. As Shakespeare put it, ‘To thine own self be true’. And so, the dominant philosophy of our day can be summed up simply as, ‘Be true to yourself; listen to your heart; follow your dreams.’

There are two principal problems with this. Firstly, what does it mean to be true to yourself? We are encouraged to think that there are no limits. You must find yourself in the way people used to think they should find God. One problem, however, has been that in the search for authenticity and in the attempt to be true to themself some have been led into very questionable and destructive behaviours. The result has been rather than finding themself, many have been left feeling very lost.

Secondly, the desire to be ourself also assumes that we actually have the freedom to be ourself. Most people still labour under the illusion that they have the freedom to be whoever they want to be. It was this illusion that was at the heart of the thinking that came out of the social and political movements of the 20th century, and which is now reaching its peak. You see it, for example, in the transgender movement. Gender, it is argued, is not the same as the biological sex as I was born as. So, it is said, while parents, schools, and society in general may try to determine my gender for me, gender is something I alone can and should choose. I may, so the argument goes, be biologically female, but, in truth, I really may be a man. If that is the case, I am free to change my body to fit with the person who I know I am.

The myth of human freedom that tells me I should be free to decide my destiny for myself also lies behind some of the political movements that we have seen in recent years here in Hong Kong.

Let me make a prophecy. In the next two decades, people are going to begin to realize what has been true all along, that is, that they are not free, that the idea of free will is a myth, and that what they have been pursuing in the name of freedom has only led to them becoming more enslaved. Having rejected any objective value and truth, there is nothing and no-one for them to turn to for help.

Jesus said that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and this applies to both individuals and society. But the opposite is also true: those who humble themselves will be exalted. We need to show people where true freedom can be found and that is in God, who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. We need to raise our children with the values and attitudes of the Kingdom of God not those of the world, and that’s the challenge we face in the year ahead and to which we are committing ourselves at this the start of a new school year.

The Eleventh Sunday of Trinity this year falls on August 28, the Feast Day of St Augustine. It seems appropriate, then, to close with a prayer by him. St Augustine prayed:

Eternal God,
the light of the minds that know you,
the joy of the hearts that love you,
and the strength of the wills that serve you:
grant us so to know you that we may truly love you,
so to love you that we may truly serve you,
whose service is perfect freedom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Sabbath, Satan, and Sickness

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, 'Sabbath, Satan, and Sickness'. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Tenth Sunday after Trinity 2022

Reading: Luke 13:10-17

Our reading begins simply:

‘Now he [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.’ (Luke 13:10)

This sentence brings together two things that were important for both Jesus and Judaism: the synagogue and the Sabbath. The synagogue was central to the life of the Jewish people. There were even synagogues in Jerusalem while the Temple was still standing and functioning (Acts 6:9). I say this because many think of the synagogue as a Temple substitute for Jews who lived outside of Jerusalem. The synagogue may have started this way, but by the time of Jesus it had become a focus of Jewish community life alongside the Temple.

The Sabbath was not only a fundamental part of a Jewish person’s observance of God’s Law, it was also fundamental to their identity as a Jew and marked them out as a Jew in the Roman world. The fact that Jews didn’t work on the Sabbath was something that was commented on by Roman writers, not always favourably!

We don’t appreciate just how important Sabbath observance was for the Jewish people. In God’s Law, failure to keep the Sabbath is a capital offence (Exodus 31:4-15; 35:2; Numbers 15:32-36). The Jews themselves had to learn how seriously God took Sabbath observance. The prophets emphasized the importance of keeping the Sabbath holy, condemning the people of Israel for their failure to do so. In our first reading this week, the prophet Isaiah tells God’s people that if they keep the Sabbath holy and honour it, not going their own ways, serving their own interests, or pursuing their own affairs, then God will bless them (Isaiah 58:13). The Pharisees had understood this and were trying to be faithful to what God had commanded and the prophets had told them.

God’s Law commanded the observance of the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15)) and an important part of that observance centred on the synagogue. Then, as now, Jews went to the synagogue on the Sabbath. Jesus was himself a Torah-observant Jew, who attended synagogue on the Sabbath.

St Luke describes how Jesus, after his time in the wilderness, begins his ministry by teaching in the synagogues (Luke 4:15). St Luke opens his account of Jesus’ ministry with a description of Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, even though St Luke knows that Jesus has already been active in ministry before then (Luke 4:23). It seems appropriate to St Luke to begin his account by giving the details of Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue where he had spent every Sabbath while he was growing up. The sermon is programmatic for Jesus’ ministry. It includes the phrase:

‘He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives …’ (Luke 4:18)

After describing what Jesus’ message is, St Luke tells us that Jesus continues proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea (Luke 4:44).

In chapter 12 of the Gospel, St Luke describes how Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for liking the best seat in the synagogue (Luke 11:43). In chapter 6, St Luke writes how Jesus comes into conflict with the Pharisees in a synagogue over the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11). The conflict begins outside in the grain fields when the Pharisees criticize Jesus for allowing his disciples to do something that the Pharisees see as not being lawful on the Sabbath (Luke 6:1-5). The disciples have been plucking the grain and eating it! Jesus defends his disciples, making a breath-taking statement that is the basis of his approach to the Sabbath. Jesus says:

‘The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.’ (Luke 6:5)

Jesus is claiming authority not only to decide what can or cannot be done on the Sabbath, but authority over the Sabbath itself. He is, in this sense, ‘above the Sabbath’. But the Sabbath is God’s Sabbath, the day God rested from his work of creating. The command to rest is one of the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath commandment is a fundamental part of God’s Law. Claiming to be able to interpret the Law is one thing: claiming authority over it in such an absolute way is another altogether. Jesus is claiming a role and a position that belongs to God.

In chapter 6, after making this claim to be Lord of the Sabbath, St Luke describes how Jesus puts it into practice in what seems to be a deliberately provocative way. Jesus enters a synagogue and teaches. There is a man there with a withered hand. The scribes and Pharisees, knowing that Jesus is prepared to do things on a Sabbath that they don’t approve of, watch to see whether Jesus will heal the man, so they can accuse him (Luke 6:7). Jesus says to the man to stand in the middle of the synagogue. Jesus asks the scribes and Pharisees:

‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’ (Luke 6:9)

Jesus is aware of what they are thinking and not only heals the man, but makes a point of doing so, looking around at the scribes and Pharisees as he does so. This infuriates the scribes and Pharisees, as Jesus must have known it would, and they discuss what to do with Jesus.

The Gospels are all agreed that arguments over the Sabbath are at the heart of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees. We find this hard to understand; we can’t see why healing someone on the Sabbath could be seen by anyone as wrong.

In our reading this week, Jesus is again in a synagogue on the Sabbath and again, very pointedly, he heals someone. This time it is a woman who is bent over and cannot straighten up. She has been like this for 18 years. Jesus calls her over and lays hands on her, healing her. The leader of the synagogue explains what the problem is. He says:

‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day.’ (Luke 13:14)

Jesus doesn’t just heal people on the Sabbath, he makes an issue out of doing so and seems to want to make sure that everyone knows what it is he is doing. So, he makes the man with the withered hand stand in the middle of the synagogue where everyone can see what is happening. He calls the woman over to him. There is nothing private about all this. It is very public and open.

The leader of the synagogue has a point. The woman has been like this for 18 years; would it really make that much difference to her to wait one more day? If this sounds hard, let me ask any doctors listening: if I were say to you on your way out of church one Sunday that I have a pain in my back, rather than examining me there and then, wouldn’t you suggest I come to see you in your clinic sometime in the week? You wouldn’t think you were being uncaring in saying this, and I wouldn’t take it that way. Doubtless, if I had a heart attack in the pulpit, you would rush to help, but for non-urgent problems, you would think that you shouldn’t have to deal with them on a Sunday. So why does Jesus make such a fuss about healing on the Sabbath?

Jesus is deliberately provoking the scribes and Pharisees partly because he wants to expose their faulty understanding of God’s Law, their hypocrisy, and their indifference to human pain and suffering. Jesus points out that they themselves would look after their animals on the Sabbath, why then do they have a problem with Jesus looking after a ‘daughter of Abraham’?

More than that, as far as Jesus is concerned, it is not only permissible to heal on the Sabbath, it is particularly appropriate to do so. In God’s Law, in the book of Exodus, we are told that the reason for the Sabbath command is that on the seventh day God rested from his work of creation (Exodus 20:8-11). In the book of Deuteronomy, we are given another reason. Moses says:

‘Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.’ (Deuteronomy 5:15)

The Sabbath is not only about rest; it is about liberation. Jesus has come ‘to release the captives’, and, as Lord of the Sabbath, what better day for him to do that than on the day which celebrates Israel’s release from captivity in Egypt? Jesus says:

‘And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?’ (Luke 13:16)

It is because we don’t believe in the existence of the Devil that we miss the significance of what Jesus is saying here. We understand Jesus’ words as being just a colourful way of speaking, not meant to be taken literally. The phrase, ‘Bound by Satan’, we take to be a metaphor for being in a bad way. With these words, however, Jesus is claiming not only to be Lord of the Sabbath, but also, as Lord of the Sabbath, to be the One who has the authority to do what the Sabbath celebrates, that is, to liberate people from what binds them and from the one who binds them. Behind all human bondage, Jesus sees the presence of the Devil. The Devil for Jesus isn’t just a metaphor or simply a personification or symbol of evil, but a Being who has people in his power. Sickness and disability is one of the means that Satan uses to keep people in his power.

The conclusion to Jesus’ healing is that his opponents are put to shame, and the entire crowd rejoice at all the wonderful things that are being done by him. The problem is that his opponents are not going to give up until they have silenced him, while the crowds don’t understand the significance of what Jesus is doing.

So, what is the significance of this for us?

1. Sabbath

At first, it’s not entirely obvious what the significance of this week’s reading is for us, as we don’t have a problem with Sabbath observance. We see it as being one of those things that we can be completely indifferent about. We may think having a day-off work is a good idea, as long, that is, as it doesn’t stop us doing anything we want to do. Given how big an issue Sabbath observance is in the Gospels and that all the New Testament writers were Jews, the New Testament has a surprisingly relaxed attitude to the Sabbath. It nowhere insists on Sabbath observance or makes it an issue for believers.

St Paul, for example, writes that it is OK for a believer to observe the Sabbath if they want to, but they don’t have to if they prefer not to (Romans 14:5-6). This is quite shocking given St Paul’s background as a strict Pharisee. During Jesus’ ministry, St Paul would have been one of those Pharisees who would have insisted that nothing even resembling work should be done on the Sabbath. For Jews brought up to observe the Sabbath in a certain way, this relaxed attitude must have come from somewhere, and, surely, that somewhere can only be from Jesus himself?

The Early Church transferred their ‘holy day’ from the Sabbath to the first day of the week, the Day of Resurrection. Over time, ideas that traditionally had surrounded the Sabbath were also transferred as well, and Sunday became a Christian version of the Jewish Sabbath with similar ideas about what could and could not be done on it.

Protestant Christians, in particular, became very Pharisaical about Sunday observance, and this was reflected in the laws of the lands where Protestants had influence. Growing up in the UK, Sunday was a truly awful day, and I am glad that Sundays are no longer like it. It wasn’t just that you couldn’t work on a Sunday; there wasn’t much you could do. Spending time with Orthodox Jews in Israel, however, helped me see how Sabbath observance need not be boring and legalistic. The key was that for Orthodox Jews synagogue attendance and being part of the synagogue community is at the heart of sabbath observance in a way church attendance and being a member of a church wasn’t when I was child.

Plenty of people will tell you how important it is to have a day of rest, but rest is about more than physical recouperation; we need to refresh ourselves spiritually as well. I would not want to go back to Sundays as they were, but I think we would all benefit from taking church attendance on a Sunday more seriously than we do. But perhaps, as a Vicar, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

2. Satan

These are just my own admittedly somewhat random reflections on the Sabbath. Where, I think, today’s reading is especially challenging, however, is in what it says about Satan. The Gospels portray Jesus as being in constant conflict with Satan and demonic powers. Before he begins his ministry, Jesus is tested by Satan in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13). Jesus’ reputation during his ministry is not only as a teacher and healer, but also as an exorcist. Jesus is shown in the Gospels, as he is in this week’s reading, freeing people from the power and possession of the Devil.

One of the reasons that popular presentations of Jesus and his teaching go so wrong is that they utterly fail to take seriously this dimension of his work. Popular presentations assume that Jesus sees people as fundamentally good and able on their own to do as he commands. Jesus is seen as the prophet of niceness, and we certainly don’t want him being mixed up with all this Satanic stuff.

Nowadays, the Devil is either simply ignored or the idea of his existence dismissed. The Devil may be good for movies and horror stories, but he has little to do with real life. Not believing in the Devil might not be so serious were it not for the way that very often rejection of the Devil can also lead to a rejection of the power of evil itself. I can understand why people may not want to believe in the Devil, but to reject the reality of evil in the world seems incredible and to fly in the face of all the evidence.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we want to see ourselves as fundamentally good and free to make our own choices, unhindered by any external forces, good or bad. It’s easier, then, simply to play down the reality of evil altogether. So, we reduce Christian faith to a belief in our own original goodness and Jesus’ teaching to being ‘nice and kind’. Believe that if you want to, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that it is the teaching of Jesus! Jesus is clear about the reality of the Devil and evil, and of our own powerlessness in the face of it. Jesus taught his disciples to pray ‘deliver us from evil’ (Matthew 6:13).

Jesus came, he said, to proclaim release to the captives, but that implies that there is something or someone who holds them captive. We may be prepared to admit to being captive to addictions and destructive behaviours, but these are just symptoms. Behind the things that enslave and destroy us lies a personal power of evil. Jesus saw the woman’s disability as Satan’s way of binding her and diminishing her. Jesus set her free from what bound her as God set free the children of Israel from bondage to slavery in Egypt.

Some may say that Jesus was simply reflecting the worldview and way of thinking in his day. You may like to reflect on which worldview most matches the reality of what we see in the world around us and, indeed, in our own lives and experience.

3. Sickness

The obvious and, for many, disturbing question about this week’s reading is the relation between Satan and sickness and the related question of sin and sickness. Many preachers when asked this question are in a hurry to say that there is no direct relationship between sin and sickness. Pastorally, I understand this. You don’t want people to assume that the moment they get sick it is either because God is punishing them for some sin they have committed or because the Devil is attacking them. Simply dismissing the link altogether, however, won’t do.

Firstly, in our reading, St Luke tells us it is a ‘spirit’ that has crippled the woman for 18 years. The Gospels contain other examples of evil spirits causing illness. If you don’t believe in evil spirits, then this won’t trouble you, but for those of us who do believe in them, it means, at the very least, that there are questions that need answering.

Something I personally find interesting is how the language of sickness is itself increasingly being used to describe addictions and compulsive behaviour. So, for example, people will refer to gambling and alcoholism as a sickness. In the BBC radio drama, the Archers, one of the characters, Alice, is an alcoholic. Alice deliberately smashes the local shop window with a brick while drunk. Later, looking back on the incident, Alice explains that she did it because she has a sickness. In other words, she could not help herself because she was possessed by a power over which she had no control. Modern medicine would look for physical causes for her addiction, and doubtless they exist, but may not ancient medicine be on to something in looking for spiritual causes as well? Irrespective of what the cause of such addictions may be, they do call into question the myth of human freedom that our society holds so dear.

Secondly, Jesus in his teaching and actions implies that there is some connection between sin and sickness. When, for example, the man who is paralyzed is let down through the roof of the house by his friends, Jesus tells him his sins are forgiven (Luke 5:20). When the scribes and Pharisees begin to question who Jesus thinks he is that he can forgive sins, something they believe only God can do, Jesus heals the man to show that he does indeed have the authority on earth to forgive sins (Luke 5:23-24).

In chapter 5 of St John’s Gospel, St John describes how, at a pool in Jerusalem, Jesus heals a man who has been paralyzed for 38 years (John 5:1-18). St John writes that later, after the healing, Jesus ‘finds’ the man in the Temple, implying that Jesus has sought him out. Jesus says to him:

‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ (John 5:14)

In the letter of James, St James, the brother of our Lord, gives those he is writing to instructions as to what to do should anyone be ill among them. St James writes:

‘Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.’ (James 5:14-16)

At the very least St James seems to imply a connection between sin and sickness similar to that implied by Jesus in healing the two paralyzed men.

Thirdly, St Paul in the first letter to the Church at Corinth establishes a direct connection between sin and sickness. The Corinthian believers have been behaving improperly at the Lord’s Supper. St Paul tells them that by eating and drinking in an ‘unworthy manner’, they have been eating and drinking judgement on themselves. St Paul writes:

‘For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.’ (1 Corinthians 11:30)

St Paul doesn’t go into details, but it is clear that here it is believers who are being punished by God for behaving badly.

Fourthly, in chapter 9 of St John’s Gospel, Jesus and the disciples come across a man who has been blind since birth. The disciples ask Jesus:

‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9:2)

The disciples are reflecting a popular belief at the time that illness and disability are a direct consequence of sin. Jesus rejects the link in this man’s case, but what Jesus does say raises other questions. Jesus answers:

‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.’ (John 9:3)

Commentators are keen to explain that Jesus is not saying that the reason the man was born blind is so Jesus could heal him. The purpose of the man’s blindness is not to make possible Jesus’ healing. Jesus’ healing, they say, happens as a result of the man’s blindness and in response to it. The man’s blindness, they argue, provides the opportunity for God’s works to be revealed in him. It isn’t God, they claim, who has made the man blind. Whether the commentators are right or not, Jesus is certainly saying that God can bring something positive out of the man’s suffering. Jesus says something similar when his friend Lazarus falls ill (John 11:4).

St Paul also writes of how God can use sickness positively. St Paul tells the Corinthian believers that in order to prevent him from becoming too elated by how many spiritual revelations God was giving him, he was given a ‘thorn in the flesh’ that he describes as a ‘messenger of Satan to torment him’ (2 Corinthians 12:7). St Paul says that he asked God three times to take the thorn away, but God would not. Instead, St Paul writes, God said to him:

‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Corinthians 12:9)

St Paul does not tell us exactly what his ‘thorn in the flesh’ was, but most interpreters think it was a chronic sickness of some sort. Whatever it was, it is important here to see that St Paul does not describe his ‘thorn in the flesh’ as being itself a good thing. The thorn is a ‘messenger of Satan’; it is rather what the result is of St Paul having the thorn that is good. God, St Paul believes, can bring good out of evil, including out of sickness.

What is clear from this all this is that the relationship between Satan, sin, and sickness is a complicated one. The bottom line is that sickness itself is seen as a negative thing and ultimately as a result of sin, though not necessarily as a direct result of sin. Sickness in general may be as a result of human sin, but an individual’s sickness may not be as a result of their own sin. Sometimes, however, it might be. We don’t like this thought, but it is inescapable that human behaviour can result in sickness. Furthermore, Satan can use sickness to enslave people and hold them captive. God himself can use sickness both as a judgement on people and as a means of revealing his grace to them.

What should be clear from this all too brief summary of the New Testament is that God does not prevent believers from getting sick or that he always heals them when they do. Sometimes he does, but often he does not. As St Paul wrote, ‘Trophimus I have left ill in Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20).’ Sadly, we have to leave many people ill and seek to comfort them in their sickness instead.

Sickness is part of the fallen and sinful state of this world, and Satan as the ‘god of this world’ (2 Corinthians 4:4) can and does use it. As believers, we look to the day when all sorrow and suffering will pass away and death itself will be no more (Revelation 21:3-4). Until then, we cannot say that God will heal all those who are sick, or even that in the present world that he wants to. Not all were healed by Jesus at the pool in Jerusalem. But one person was. Jesus did heal people during his ministry, and there is no reason to suppose that he doesn’t still heal people today.

There are, then, two equal and opposite dangers: saying Jesus never heals today and saying he will always heal if we ask him. What Jesus always does do if we ask him is to give us grace and forgiveness. That is why here at Christ Church we offer prayer at the altar rail during Communion. Jesus thought it was especially appropriate to free the woman in the synagogue from her bondage on the day which celebrated Israel being set free from captivity in Egypt. In the same way, when we share in the Lord’s Supper, it seems appropriate to pray for God’s deliverance from sickness, as we celebrate being set free from captivity to sin. We pray for those who ask us to that God will heal them of their sickness or give them the grace to bear it, and that he will release them from the hold their sickness has over them.

May we all, like the woman in the synagogue, experience his grace and release ourselves.

Amen.