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.


Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Consider the Lilies

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, 'Consider the Lilies'. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity.

The Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Luke 12:32-40

If you talk to people about Jesus’ teaching, it soon becomes clear that most people see Jesus’ teaching as the sort of feel-good thinking you get in a Ted Talk. It’s positive and interesting and not the sort that you would disagree with. It does not mean you follow it, but you approve of it. After all, what’s there to disapprove of? For many, Jesus’ teaching can be summed up in the phrase: ‘Be nice and be kind.’ You can’t really argue against it.

Immediately before our reading this week, we read of how Jesus tells his disciples:

‘Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.’ (Luke 12:27)

People put these words on pictures of lilies and hang them on their wall or post them online. And again, what’s not to like? They provide comfort and reassurance in a world that is often hard and demanding: ‘Consider the lilies!’ Who could take offence at that?

It comes, then, as a bit of a shock to be told that with these words Jesus has effectively:

rejected the present economic system upon which our society and that of the developed world as a whole is based together with the educational system that goes with it

condemned the values and attitudes that most people subscribe to and live by

criticized the mission priorities of many churches

Now I realize that these are sweeping claims, and it is not going to be easy for me to justify them in less time than a speaker is given for a TED talk, but I hope at least to indicate where I am coming from and why I think this is what Jesus’ words imply.

As we saw in the sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, Jesus’ teaching in chapter 12 of St Luke’s Gospel is given after Jesus has attended a dinner party at the home of a Pharisee, which St Luke describes in chapter 11. At the dinner, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for being ‘full of greed and wickedness’ (Luke 11:39). This is certainly not how the Pharisees thought of themselves and, perhaps more to the point, it is not how anyone else thought of them. As far as most people were concerned, the Pharisees were both deeply devout and role models of religious commitment. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, writes that people held the Pharisees in the highest esteem. The Pharisees showed what a good Jew should be like. People listened to the Pharisees and took them seriously (Josephus, Antiquities XVIII, 11-17). Jesus’ criticism of them would not only have shocked the Pharisees, it would have shocked everyone else as well.

Jesus, however, strongly condemns the Pharisees for their love of show, their concern for status, and their desire for stuff. They made a point of tithing even the smallest item but neglected what really mattered (Luke 11:42); they loved having the best seats in the synagogue and being greeted with respect in the market-place (Luke 11:43); and their greed (Luke 11:49) was to be seen in their love of money and what it bought (Luke 16:14-15). It is dangerous to criticize those with power and influence, and Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees leads to them becoming, not unsurprisingly, ‘very hostile’ towards him (Luke 11:53).

When Jesus leaves the dinner, a large crowd is waiting for him. Jesus begins by speaking to his disciples warning them of the ‘yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy’ (Luke 12:1). Jesus tells his disciples that there will come a day when not only the truth about the Pharisees will come out, but when everyone’s secrets will also be revealed. Jesus warns them not to fear those who can kill them but to fear the One who after killing them can throw them into hell (Luke 12:4-5).

These are strong words, and so Jesus seeks to reassure his disciples that they are valuable to God. Anyone who acknowledges Jesus has nothing to fear; when the time for judgement comes, he will acknowledge them. When they find themselves having to defend themselves for belonging to Jesus, they are not to worry about what words they use, the Holy Spirit will teach them what they are to say (Luke 12:12).

Again, as we saw last week for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, this talk of judgement leads a man in the crowd to ask Jesus to act as a judge now to make sure the man gets what is due to him from the family inheritance. The man wants what is his own. Jesus rejects the role that the man wants to thrust upon him and warns the crowd that life is not about what we own.

Jesus then tells the famous story of the rich man who thought he had everything he could want and had nothing to worry about. What he had would last him for many years to come. He could ‘relax, eat, drink, be merry’ (Luke 12:19). God tells him, however, that on that very night he will die. God asks the rich man whose what he owns will belong to then. What use to him are his possessions when it matters? Jesus tells the crowd that this is how it is with those who save up for themselves but are not rich toward God (Luke 12:21).

Having challenged the crowd to think about what constitutes real wealth, Jesus speaks to his disciples. They are not to worry about material things; Jesus tells them that ‘life is more than food and the body more than clothing’ (Luke 12:23). Jesus invites them to ‘consider the lilies’: the lilies do not engage in productive economic activity, yet not even Solomon in all his glory looked as good as this. God will look after the disciples’ physical and financial needs; they are to concentrate on what really matters. Referring to his followers’ material needs, Jesus says:

‘For it is the nations of the world that seek all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.’ (Luke 12:30-31)

It is not that ‘these things’ are wrong; as Jesus says, the disciples’ Father knows that they need them. It is wrong, however, for Jesus’ followers to prioritize these things and centre their lives on them. Yes, they need them, but they are to trust God for them. They have more important things to concern them. Jesus tells them:

‘Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.’ (Luke 12:31)

God’s kingdom is what they should want to discover above everything else. Given how important Jesus says finding God’s Kingdom is, the disciples may have understandably been afraid that they might not find it. Jesus seeks to reassure them. Jesus tells them not to be afraid, God wants to give them the Kingdom (Luke 12:32).

And so, we come to this week’s reading in which Jesus begins to draw out the practical implications of his teaching for how his disciples are to live. Jesus uses language and imagery that would have been familiar to the disciples, but which means little to us. Jesus tells them that instead of acquiring possessions, they are to sell them; and rather than spending the money on themselves, they are to give it to those in need. This much at least we can understand, even if we are reluctant to do it. But what does, ‘Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out mean’?

Speaking to us today, Jesus might say, ‘Make investments for yourselves that do not fall in value’. This type of investment is every investor’s dream, but, as the banks always warn us in the small print, ‘investments can go down in value as well as up’ and our ‘capital is always at risk’. Jesus encourages his disciples to put their trust in an unfailing investment in heaven. As Jesus observes, where what they value is, there their heart will be also. Jesus wants his disciples’ hearts to be with God, who will never fail them, and for them not to trust in material things, as such things can never offer any security.

Jesus’ teaching is a rejection of our economic system, then, not only because it encourages us not to trust in what we can earn and get, but because buying and acquiring stuff is fundamental to our economy. If you think this unfair or more than a little na├»ve, I would simply point to how the government at the moment is giving out the latest batch of ‘consumption vouchers’. So essential to our economy is it that we consume and purchase stuff, that the government is even giving us money to do it. The money is not to make our lives easier but is to encourage us to spend, whether we need what we spend it on or not. Consumption is essential to a modern market economy. The economy would collapse without it.

Our educational system is, of course, inextricably bound up with our economic system. Its principal aim is to enable those who will be its products to leave with the qualifications they need to be a part of the economy and to keep it functioning. The nations of the world may seek all these things, Jesus’ disciples are not to.

The obvious question in response to what Jesus says is, ‘Wouldn’t taking Jesus’ approach make his disciples seem a bit odd?’ And that’s rather the point, it will make them seem very odd, that is why people will bring them ‘before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities’ (Luke 12:11), and why they will need the Holy Spirit to teach them what to say (Luke 12:12).

We may not understand the implications of Jesus’ teaching, but the writer of the letter to the Hebrews certainly did. In our second reading, he is writing about those who have been examples to us of faith in the past. It is worth quoting in full what he writes of them. He writes:

‘They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.’ (Hebrews 11:13-16)

As Jesus’ followers, we do not belong to the cities of the earth whether that be New York, London, Beijing, Hong Kong, or wherever. We belong to the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, which is above, ‘she is free, and she is our mother, as St Paul puts it (Galatians 4:26). It is the values of the New Jerusalem that we are called to make our own. We live here as ‘strangers and foreigners’, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it. We are, in other words, ‘resident aliens’.

The fact that we don’t look odd and that we live as if we are entirely at home in the cities of this world says a lot about the extent to which we as Jesus’ followers today are failing to follow Jesus’ teaching. We have allowed ourselves to be conformed to this world rather than being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2), and we are failing in the charge Jesus gave us to seek first his Kingdom, both in our own lives and in that of our churches.

How then should we be living if we are to take Jesus’ teaching seriously? I would suggest three words to describe it: expect, express, expose.

1. Expect

If, as the writer to the Hebrews says, we are strangers here, if we desire a better country, a heavenly one, and if God has prepared a city for us, it follows that we should be looking out for it and eagerly expecting it.

This is precisely what Jesus in his teaching in chapter 12 of St Luke’s Gospel goes on to say. Jesus begins his teaching about wealth and possessions in chapter 12 by talking about the Son of Man and who he will or will not acknowledge when he comes (Luke 12:8-10). The phrase, ‘Son of Man’, is Jesus’ way of referring to himself. It is at the coming of the Son of Man that the secrets of all will be revealed. Having spoken about what his disciples’ priorities should be, Jesus goes on to speak of the importance of being ready when the Son of Man comes.

In our reading, Jesus tells a parable about slaves waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet and how they need to make sure they are able to open the door for him as soon as he knocks. Jesus says that those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes are blessed and will be rewarded. Jesus continues with the observation that if a house owner had known when the thief was going to break into his house, he would have prevented it from happening. Jesus is making two points. Firstly, that, like the slaves in the parable, it is essential to be ready for the Son of Man’s return, and secondly, that the Son of Man is coming like a thief at an ‘unexpected hour’.

The expectation of Jesus’ return does not figure very highly in most parts of today’s church. In those parts where it does figure, discussion focuses on the precise date when Jesus will return and the details of what will happen when he does. This is particularly ironic, as the exact timing is something that Jesus tells us we cannot know (Matthew 24:36). That’s rather the point. It is because we don’t know when it will happen that we need to expect it at any time and to allow that expectation to govern our thoughts, actions, and emotions.

We cannot settle and make our home here because we are expecting Jesus’ return at any time. The obvious response is that it has already been some 2,000 years, so isn’t it about time we accepted that Jesus is not going to return or, if he is, that it is not going to be any time soon?

This, I think, is to misunderstand the idea of being ready. Being ready is a mindset, a way of thinking that should determine how we see the world around us and our role in it. Whether Jesus returns in our lifetime or not, our attitude and outlook should reflect the belief that he could. If this was how we thought, it would have major consequences for how we lived as individuals and as a church, and also for how we viewed our mission in the world around us.

In about 597 BC, the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, carried off into exile some of the ruling elites in Judah. Things looked pretty desperate for the southern Kingdom. Quite understandably, this all came as quite a shock to the people of God. How could God let this happen? Why hadn’t God come to the aid of his people?

So unable were they to accept that this could be happening and that even Jerusalem, the Holy City, was at risk, that they believed that even at the last moment God would intervene and save his people from the disaster that was facing them. They clung to the hope that those who had been taken into exile would soon be allowed to return.

Many of the priests and prophets encouraged them to think like this. For example, Hananiah, one such prophet said:

‘Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.’ (Jeremiah 28:3-4)

It may have been what the prophet wanted the Word of the Lord to be, and it may have been what the people wanted to hear, but it was not what God had said nor was it what God had planned. Hananiah dies as a punishment for his false prophecy (Jeremiah 28:16-17).

There is to be no last-minute reprieve for the people of God. Destruction had come upon them because of their idolatry, apostasy, and sin. The exile and what was happening was God’s judgement on them, and it would only be when they had served their sentence and learned their lesson that they would be allowed to return to their homeland. The prophets who are telling them otherwise are telling them a lie (Jeremiah 27:16).

Jeremiah sends a letter to the exiles with a Word from the Lord for them in it (Jeremiah 29:1). The exile is not going to be short. They are to settle in the place where they have been taken into exile. They are to marry and have families. Jeremiah tells them:

‘But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’ (Jeremiah 29:7)

This message for the exiles to seek the welfare of the city has been taken up by many in the Church who see it as also defining what the mission of the Church should be today. We too, they argue, are to settle in the cities and places where we live and to have families and make our home here. We also, they say, are to work and pray for the welfare of the city.

It is a plausible and attractive message. It tells us what we want to hear, and it not only gives us a strategy for mission, it also gives us one that fits our own priorities and concerns. It is though, I believe, deeply flawed and as false a word in our day as Hananiah’s was in his. For now, briefly, three reasons why I think it should be rejected as a strategy for mission:

1. The New Testament writers never use this idea in relation to the situation of the Church and believer in the world. It uses the idea that we are exiles and that we are foreigners and strangers in this world, but not the idea that we are to settle here and make ourselves at home. This alone ought to make us cautious about basing the Church’s mission strategy on Jeremiah’s words.

2. The people of God in Jeremiah’s day were in exile because of their sin and as a judgement on them. In the New Testament, however, the Church is not in the world as a punishment. It is made up of those who are being saved from punishment. In other words, our respective situations are not analogous; they are very different.

3. Jeremiah’s word to the exiles was that they were not to live as if their exile would end soon. He tells them that it will, in fact, last a lifetime (Jeremiah 29:10). It will be some time before God will visit them. This is the exact opposite of Jesus’ message in the Gospel, which is that we are to live as if the Son of Man could come at any time.

The cities we live in are now under the same judgement that Jerusalem was under when Jeremiah lived there. Even now, St Paul tells believers in the Church at Corinth, the present form of this world is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:31). St Paul’s word to the Corinthian believers is also the exact opposite of what Jeremiah tells the exiles in Babylon. St Paul writes:

‘I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.’ (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)

St Paul here is reflecting Jesus’ teaching, and it is this teaching that should be the basis for the Church’s mission. Yes, there are questions to be asked and answered about what it means to live as if the Lord could return at any time, when for 2,000 years he hasn’t! But again to emphasize the point: a Word of the Lord to exiles God is punishing in Babylon is not his Word to those who he is saving in Hong Kong. Jesus tells us to be alert and look for his coming, not to settle in the city and forget about it.

2. Express

In chapter 12, Jesus has at times been talking to the crowd and at times to the disciples in the presence of the crowd. Peter asks Jesus whom the parable about slaves waiting their master is for. Is it just for the disciples or is it for everyone? Jesus answers by telling another parable that makes plain that both it and the previous parable were for his disciples. In this parable, Jesus again describes what will happen when the master returns. The previous parable told how the master would reward the slaves he found alert and waiting for him. In this parable, the master will reward and punish his slaves depending on how they have behaved in his absence. Those given great responsibility while he is away will receive the greatest reward or punishment (Luke 12:43-46). Those other slaves who knew what their master wanted them to do but did not do it will receive a severe punishment (Luke 12:47). Those who failed to do what their master wanted out of ignorance will get a light punishment (Luke 12:48).

This is a tremendously important parable. As followers of Jesus today, we think that Jesus’ return is something that we don’t have to worry about. If it is going to happen, it will happen some time in the future. It is not something that need concern us now. Jesus makes absolutely clear it should very much affect us now, and there will be severe consequences for us if it doesn’t, especially for those who have positions of leadership and authority in the church. Jesus says:

‘From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required, and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.’ (Luke 12:48)

If, as clergy, that doesn’t keep us awake at night, I don’t know what will.

Jesus tells his disciples that the coming of the Son of Man should always be on their mind and influence their behaviour in the present. God’s Kingdom will only come with the coming of the Son of Man. Sadly, but perhaps understandably, during its history the Church has grown impatient and has wanted to establish God’s Kingdom for him. While it might be understandable, it can’t be done, and the Church’s attempts to do so have been a dismal and tragic failure. Despite this, many have not given up on the idea.

We can’t establish the Kingdom, that’s why we pray to God for it to come. We can, however, express its values and ideals in our thinking and behaviour. Our worldview as Jesus’ followers should be that of God’s Kingdom, and we are to show something of what God’s Kingdom will look like in our lives and that of the Church. As a Church we should seek to give people a preview of what the Kingdom of God will be like when it comes. Our task as a Church is to prepare people for it when it does.

This is why the New Testament writers put such a strong emphasis on teaching and growing in the knowledge of God, while also warning against false teaching (see, for example, 1 John 4:1-6). It is especially important that we pass Jesus’ teaching on to our children, for they are constantly being taught to seek what the nations seek rather than to seek first God’s Kingdom and then to wait patiently for it. As St Paul writes:

‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Philippians 3:20)

3. Expose

We have, as believers, come to accept the idea that Jesus’ teaching was all about being nice and kind. We have accepted it to such an extent that we cannot imagine Jesus criticizing anyone and certainly not passing judgement on them. All of which makes his uncompromising criticism of the Pharisees difficult for us to understand, and so we simply filter it out or deliberately ignore it altogether.

The Jesus we present to people is welcoming, inclusive, and non-judgemental. This image of Jesus is given credence by our selective use of Jesus’ teaching and actions. Jesus did tell his disciples that they should do to others as they would have others do to them (Luke 6:31). Jesus did teach that we should love our neighbours as ourselves and show mercy to those who need it (Luke 10:27; 10:37). He did forgive those that others refused to forgive (Luke 7:36-50). But as we shall see as we continue to look at Jesus’ teaching in this chapter and into the next, Jesus also spoke about how he had come to bring the fire of judgement to the earth (Luke 12:49).

After telling his disciples that they must be ready for the coming of the Son of Man, Jesus asks whether they think he has come to bring peace to the earth. This is precisely what we do think he came to bring. No, Jesus tells them, he came not to bring peace to the earth but division (Luke 12:51). His coming will, he says, from now on divide families (Luke 12:49-53). When Jesus is told about how some fellow Galileans have suffered a dreadful death at the hands of Pontius Pilate, Jesus asks those present whether they thought the Galileans have died as a punishment because they were worse sinners than other Galileans (Luke 13:2). Jesus tells them that those who have been killed were not. But rather than dismissing the idea that God punishes people, Jesus continues by telling them:

‘No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.’ (Luke 13:5)

We are to preach the good news of Jesus and tell people how he offers forgiveness, but that means exposing what it is people need forgiveness from and what will happen to them if they don't find forgiveness in Christ. St Paul writes:

‘Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness; rather, expose them.’ (Ephesians 5:11)

This is what Jesus did with the greed and wickedness of the Pharisees, and it is what we need to do with the greed and wickedness in our own world.

We wait expectantly for the coming of the Son of Man and the City that is to come, we do so as foreigners and strangers here. But while we wait, we extend a welcome to people to find forgiveness in Christ and to join us in waiting for his coming.

May, then, we consider the lilies and seek first God’s Kingdom, knowing that it is the Father’s pleasure to give it to us.


Monday, August 15, 2022

Images of Mary

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, 'Images of Mary'. It is for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Images of Mary

Reading: Luke 1.46-55

For some in the Church, Mary’s role is limited to giving birth to Jesus. In fact, the only time they give her any thought at all is at Christmas, and then it is solely to acknowledge the part she played in bringing Jesus into the world. To many of us, however, apart from any other consideration, this simply doesn’t feel right. Surely there is more to her role than that? But if her role is more than that, what is it?

It is very hard for us to think clearly about our Lady’s role because of all the arguments there are in the Church about her and all the different images that people have of her. Indeed, the images we have of her rather than helping us to understand her role only get in the way of it. But if our images of her are wrong, what image should we have?

In thinking, then, about Mary’s role, we need to begin by asking what our images of her are and in what way they are wrong.

There are, of course, many images of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These images are expressed in various ways: in music, in art, and in literature. They lie behind what gets said in Church about her and in devotion to her. I would suggest that four are the most common.

1. The Porcelain Image

The first image that people have of Mary is what I call the ‘Porcelain Image’. You see examples of this image everywhere not least in many of the statues of Mary in church buildings and on sale in places that supply ecclesiastical ornaments and furniture. But it is one that also appears in many paintings of her. In these statues and paintings, Mary is normally western, immaculately presented, and her clothes all perfect. She is completely free from any blemish, her skin smooth, clear, and white. This is not a woman who needs lotions and creams to achieve a flawless complexion!

Models in fashion magazines are often airbrushed or photoshopped to achieve whatever it is that is the editor’s idea of beauty and perfection. This is what this image tries to do with Mary. It projects on to Mary a cultural and essentially male view of feminine beauty. This image is femininity idealized according to a particular understanding of female attractiveness.

2. The Passive Image

Secondly, there is the ‘Passive Image’. This image, which does not exclude the first, and in some ways builds on it, focuses on what is seen as Mary’s submissiveness. In this image, Mary is portrayed as meek, humble, and dutiful. In pictures of her, her eyes are turned down to emphasize her subservience. This is a good girl, not one to argue, someone eager and willing to please. She is modest and demure.

It is the Passive Image of Mary that so upsets feminists today. It leads them to reject Mary as a ‘feminine icon’, and to turn instead to another Mary, Mary Magdalene. In contrast to Mary of Nazareth, Mary of Magdala is seen as sensual, spirited, and independent. She is someone far more in tune with the spirit of our age and more acceptable to it: not only a feminine, but a feminist icon. Regardless, however, of whether they are attracted or repulsed by it, this second image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, expresses the passivity that many believe to be central to her character and role.

3. The Prayerful Image

The third image of Mary, which again does not exclude the other two, focuses on Mary’s spiritual devotion. In this image, depictions of her present her in positions of prayer and of worship. She has her hands clasped together in prayer and she either has her head bowed down reverently or else she is gazing upwards with her eyes turned appealingly to heaven. It is the image of a devout Mary, someone in touch with the divine.

This Prayerful Image is of a Mary who is other-worldly. A Mary who would be at home in the sort of religious community that shuts women off from the world and makes it possible for them to avoid all material worries and distractions. Not for her the worries and concerns of daily life; her mind is set on higher things.

4. The Powerful Image

Fourthly, a somewhat different image of Mary to other three is the ‘Powerful Image’. Taking its inspiration from St John’s vision of the woman clothed with the sun, in chapter 12 of the book of Revelation, this image portrays Mary in dazzling splendour with a crown on her head. She is riding on the clouds or ascending to heaven where she is enthroned as its Queen. In some paintings, all heaven seems to centre on her and on her beauty and power. This is Mary transcendent.

Like the Prayerful Mary, this is a Mary removed from the world, distanced from its sin and temptations. This is the Mary who invites the adoration that protestants are so suspicious of, but who, like a goddess, draws others to her who are seeking comfort and help.

These, then, are four of the most common images of Mary. The ‘Porcelain Mary’, who looks like she might break; the ‘Passive Mary’ who looks like she would always do whatever is asked of her; the ‘Prayerful Mary’ who looks like she should always be in a church; and the ‘Powerful Mary’ who looks like she has now left this world behind her and achieved heavenly glory.

I have absolutely no intention to mock. I accept the sincerity and devotion behind each of these images. And they appeal to churchgoers precisely because there is truth in each one of them.

The porcelain image seeks to capture our Lady’s purity. When the Angel Gabriel tells Mary she will conceive and bear a son, Mary asks the Angel Gabriel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin (Luke 1:34)?’ In an age which has so highly sexualized any depiction of women, any talk of virginity beyond puberty is seen by many as de-humanizing. A person’s identity today is believed to lie in asserting a sexual identity not denying it.

This makes our Lady’s virginity both controversial and challenging. Our Lady’s virginity, however, is not simply about sexual purity, but also about her spiritual purity. The Angel Gabriel’s first words to Mary were:

‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ (Luke 1:28)

Mary begins the Magnificat with the words:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour …’ (Luke 1:46-47)

Mary’s purity is rooted first and foremost in the purity of her relationship with the Lord who is with her in a special way and in whom she rejoices.

The passive image seeks to capture our Lady’s obedience. Mary famously responds to the Angel Gabriel’s words to her:

‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38)

Then, when Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who has herself conceived miraculously, Elizabeth says to her:

‘And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Luke 1:45)

Doubtless, as Elizabeth is saying these words praising Mary, Elizabeth is also thinking of her husband, who didn’t believe what was spoken to him by the Lord, and who now can’t speak as a consequence. Mary, however, willingly both believed and accepted the role that God chose her for, and she carried it out faithfully.

The prayerful image seeks to express our Lady’s spirituality. Immediately after the birth of our Lord and the visit of the shepherds, St Luke tells us that Mary ‘treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19)’. Twelve years later Mary and Joseph take Jesus with them to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. On their way back, however, Jesus goes missing, and his parents eventually find him in the Temple with the elders. Jesus returns with them to Nazareth but, St Luke tells us again, that Mary ‘treasured all these things in her heart (Luke 2:51)’.

The last historical mention of Mary in the Bible is in Acts chapter 1 after the ascension. St Luke describes how the disciples return to Jerusalem as Jesus has told them to. St Luke writes:

‘All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.’ (Acts 1:14)

The last thing Mary is recorded doing in the Bible is praying!

The powerful image seeks to assert our Lady’s ongoing role for the Church and that her significance for us as believers did not end with her death. Instead, this image wants to affirm that she has a continuing ministry in heaven praying for us. This is the most controversial image of her amongst Christians.

For protestants, any role that they are willing to allow Mary came to an end with her death. The idea that Mary has any ongoing role is not only rejected but is seen as of a form of idolatry. Indeed, many would argue that we shouldn’t have any image of Mary, although some who argue like this don’t seem to have the same scruples when it comes to other significant figures in the Church.

Those, for their part, who see Mary as having an ongoing role reject the idea that they worship Mary, although, it has to be said, some do come very near to doing so. However, for the majority of those for whom Mary still has a part to play in their lives and in the life of the Church, her role now is not as the recipient of people’s worship, but as an intercessor and the mother of the Church and of believers.

I believe in the purity, the prayerfulness, the obedience, and the ongoing intercession of our Lady. So, I mean absolutely no disrespect to her or to those who value the images of her that I have described. I would, however, suggest that each of these images, while seeking to express a valuable truth about Mary, is a failed image because of the way they express it. These images not only fail to convey fully the truth they are trying to depict; they instead distort it.

We need an image or images of Mary that express the truth that lies concealed in the common images of Mary, but which avoid giving another misleading and false image of her.

It is, of course, hard to suggest any single image that accurately and completely expresses all these truths about her. My problem, however, is not just that the various pictures and depictions of Mary fail in what they are trying to express, it is that they miss an essential part of the character of Mary, and it is because they miss it that I believe they end up presenting a distorted image of her.

So, what exactly is it that I think they are missing? Quite simply, it is her strength. Too many of the portrayals of Mary make her seem as fragile as some of the statues of her. She comes across as delicate, vulnerable, and weak.

And yet here is a woman who accepts a role that, in the community in which she lived at the time, would mean her being labelled and treated with contempt. She would inevitably bring disgrace on her family. We are not told what the reaction of her family and neighbours was in the small village in which she lived, but judging by what St Matthew tells us was Joseph’s reaction, we can guess. Joseph, on hearing the news that the woman he is engaged to is pregnant, wants to get rid of her (Matthew 1:19). It takes a direct intervention by God to prevent him from doing so.

Forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to the Temple, as the Law prescribed. A man there called Simeon, whom St Luke describes as ‘righteous and devout’, tells Mary that a ‘sword will pierce her own soul too’ (Luke 2:35). In other words, Simeon is predicting great pain for Mary. The Porcelain Mary, however, would crack at the first sign of trouble. She certainly would not have the strength to flee for her life as a refugee to Egypt. Nor would the Prayerful Mary have what it takes to cope with the day-to-day realities of raising the Son of God.

When we start to see Mary as a strong woman of faith, everything else about her begins to come into focus. Her purity lies, not in the first place in her virginity, but in the purity of her character and in her sense of purpose. Her obedience is not a passive submission, but a willing acceptance of the will of God that she actively embraces. Her prayerfulness expresses itself, not in an unworldly detachment from the realities of life, but in her commitment and trust in God. And her power resides not in herself, but in the ‘Mighty One who has done great things’ for her, whom ‘her soul magnifies’, and in whom her ‘spirit rejoices’.

Surely this strong woman of faith provides a role model for us that is ‘for life and not just for Christmas’? Mary teaches us how we too should respond to God. For Mary’s strength lay not in herself but in the One whom she was blessed for believing. It was her faith that gave Mary her strength. The strength, not to follow her own dreams and desires, but willingly to abandon them to do what God asked of her.

Make no mistake: what God was asking of her was tough and demanding, and yet God’s will for her was not something she accepted reluctantly but welcomed with joy.

Repeatedly today we are told that we will only find peace and fulfilment by putting ourselves first and pursuing our own goals. Mary shows that precisely the reverse is true. We find peace and fulfilment, not by following our hearts, but by following her Son, and serving God through him: ‘in his will is our peace’. But how are we to know his will? St Paul writes:

‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (Romans 12:1-2)

Discovering the will of God for our lives begins with a commitment to God that involves presenting our bodies, that is, our whole selves, to him as a ‘living sacrifice’. It means, as St Paul tells us, not being ‘conformed to this world’, but being ‘transformed by the renewing of our minds’. It is when our minds are renewed in this way, and only then, that we are able to ‘discern the will of God’.

To put it another way: Mary presented her body to the Lord, not only by conceiving and carrying our Lord, but in a life of service. We are to do the same. We are to stop seeing things as society and the world around us see them, and to start seeing them as God sees them. Seeing, as Mary saw, that God is the One who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; who fills the hungry with good things, but sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53).

God asks of us what he asked of this young woman in Nazareth: to believe his word to us and to embrace his will for us as we follow his Son. Jesus said:

‘If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.’ (Luke 9:23-24)

Faith, in the sense of believing in the truths of the faith, isn’t enough. Jesus commands us actively to take up our Cross; to commit ourselves fully to what it is he is asking of us. The call of God is something that like Mary we have to obey, trusting God to give us the strength we need as we do so.

It isn’t easy. We are weaker than we like to admit. We fall and we fail. Mary provides us with the encouragement we need to see that it is God’s grace that enables us to be strong. For some, seeing Mary as a role model in this way is as much as they can accept. And that’s fine. All the Blessed Virgin Mary wants is for you to follow her Son. And in the Blessed Virgin Mary, the strong woman of faith, we have one who gives us an image and example to look up to as we seek to follow him.

But, as we think of her especially this week, who better to ask to pray for us that we may find the strength we need than she whom God favoured with his grace and by whose grace she lived her life.

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee:
blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.


Saturday, August 06, 2022

Memento Mori

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, 'memento mori'. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity.

Memento Mori

Reading: Luke 12:13-21

In the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus is described as having an uneasy relationship with the Pharisees and, in our reading, it is not a relationship that is about to get any easier. In chapter 11, we read of how Jesus has been invited to dinner at a Pharisee’s home (Luke 11:37). The Pharisee is amazed when Jesus doesn’t follow the normal religious protocols for washing before dinner. Jesus then criticizes the Pharisees in very definite terms for worrying about things being ‘clean’ on the outside while being themselves ‘full of greed and wickedness’ on the inside (Luke 11:39). When the lawyers present protest that Jesus in saying this is by implication criticizing them as well, Jesus, in no uncertain terms, makes clear that that is exactly what he is doing and explicitly condemns the lawyers too!

It has not been a very successful dinner party and the outcome bodes ill for future relations between Jesus and the Pharisees and their allies. St Luke writes:

‘When he [Jesus] went outside, the scribes and the Pharisees became hostile to him and began to interrogate him about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.’ (Luke 11:53-54)

Jesus may be falling out with the Pharisees, his popularity with the crowds, however, is only growing. In chapter 12, St Luke describes how the crowd has gathered by the ‘thousands’ (Luke 12:1). Jesus speaks first to his disciples, warning them of the ‘yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy’. Jesus is referring to how the Pharisees by their religious practices act as if they are very holy people, while in reality their outward religious show only hides what they are really like. This leads to Jesus warning his disciples, in more general terms, that there is nothing hidden that will not be exposed. The Pharisees may be able to hide their greed and wickedness by their external religious rituals, but one day the inner secrets of everyone will be revealed (Luke 12:2-3).

No wonder, then, that Jesus continues by warning the disciples not to fear those who can only hurt them physically, but to fear the One who after killing them can also throw them into hell (Luke 12:5). This is genuinely scary stuff, but Jesus seeks to reassure his disciples by telling them not to be afraid, even the hairs of their head are counted (Luke 12:7). They are of great value in God’s sight.

What matters most, therefore, is people’s attitude to Jesus. Those who acknowledge Jesus before others, the ‘Son of Man’ will also acknowledge; equally, those who deny Jesus will be denied. The disciples, Jesus tells them, will be brought before the authorities because of their faith in him. They are not to worry about what words to use to acknowledge Jesus when that happens; the Holy Spirit will teach them what to say.

All this speaks of God’s judgement, and it may be this that prompts a man in the crowd to say to Jesus:

‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ (Luke 12:13)

The man obviously thinks Jesus would be a good person to act as a judge in settling a family dispute between him and his brother. The man has failed completely to understand Jesus’ message.

Jesus has just criticized the Pharisees for greed, and Jesus now also warns the crowd against it. The man in the crowd wants what he believes rightfully belongs to him; what he thinks should be his own. Jesus tells them that the meaning of life does not lie in how much we own. This is a very challenging statement and one which would have huge implications for all of us if we took it seriously, which, of course, we don’t. To make his message clear, Jesus, as he often does, then tells a story.

The story Jesus tells is about a rich man whose land has ‘produced abundantly’, so abundantly, in fact, that the man’s storage facilities are not adequate to store all he has. Jesus describes the conversation the man has with himself. He decides to pull down his existing store houses and build bigger ones to store his grain and all his goods. When he has done this, he says, he will say to himself that he now has enough to live on comfortably for many years; he can ‘relax, eat, drink, and be merry’. Jesus now describes an unusual twist in the story. Jesus’ stories are often about God but God himself does not appear in them. Here God actually speaks. This is of the utmost significance. God says to the rich man, ‘You fool!’ That very night, God tells the rich man, he will die. God asks him who his goods will belong to then? Jesus concludes with the message of the parable:

‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.’ (Luke 12:21)

The Psalmist writes:

‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”’ (Psalm 14:1; 53:1)

Today, we understand this to mean a denial of God’s existence, and it can certainly be applied to those who claim to be atheists, but it also refers to those who live as if there is no God. The rich man in the story would have believed there was a God. In all probability, he would have attended synagogue on the sabbath, but his belief in the existence of God didn’t change how he thought of his life and how he approached the future. There may as well be no God for all he cared. There will, however, Jesus teaches, come a day when everyone will have to care. By which time, of course, for many it will be too late.

Jesus will go on to draw out the practical implications of this for his disciples and for how they should live their lives in the present. Life, Jesus will tell them, is more than food and the body more than clothing (Luke 12:23). Rather than storing up riches on earth, as the rich man in the story did, they should instead seek to make sure they have riches in heaven. Jesus says:

‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ (Luke 12:34)

Jesus is telling his disciples that their heart will be with what they value. Jesus then goes on to warn his disciples to be ready, not as we might expect from the story for their death, but for the coming of the Son of Man. The Son of Man, Jesus says, will come at an hour they do not expect (Luke 12:40).

Jesus is urging his disciples to live their lives in the context of two realities. The first is the reality of death. We see this in the story of the rich man. The rich man had forgotten a fundamental fact of human life. Without exception, we will all die, and none of us know when the moment of our death will be. The second is what scholars refer to as the eschatological. In Christian theology, this is when Jesus will return, what is often described as the ‘second coming’. In the Gospels, Jesus often refers to this moment, as he does in chapter 12 of St Luke’s Gospel, as the coming of the Son of Man. In Jesus’ teaching, the coming of the Son of Man is related to the coming of the Kingdom of God. We saw in the sermon last week, for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, how in the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray for God’s Kingdom to come (Luke 11:2).

Jesus teaches his disciples that as they don’t know when the coming of the Son of Man will be, they are to live their lives as if it could happen at any time. They are to resist the temptation to think that because it doesn’t seem as if it will happen soon, they can do whatever they like without having to worry about the consequences. They must always be ready for the coming of the Son of Man.

Being ready

There are two tendencies in the Church when it comes to this teaching about the coming of the Son of Man and of God’s Kingdom. Firstly, to do the precise opposite of what Jesus commands and ignore it, and secondly, to obsess over the details and to miss the whole point of it.

In the mainline churches, Jesus’ return and what it will mean is largely ignored. I doubt, for example, that at the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops, which is taking place in England at the moment, you will hear much about the return of Jesus. Most churchgoers don’t give it much thought either. They simply don’t think that Jesus is going to return any time soon, if, that is, they think he will return at all. On the other hand, there are some who are obsessively interested in Jesus’ return and speculate on both when it will happen and the precise details of it.

In the New Testament, the return of Jesus is taken as a given, and the assumption is that it could occur at any time. There is also, however, a recognition that it may not occur immediately. The attitude of the New Testament writers is that we should live in obedience to Jesus’ teaching as though he could return at any time while at the same time waiting patiently for his return. The important thing is for us to be living in such a way that we are ready for Jesus whenever he does come.

In addition to this eschatological perspective in which we are to live our lives in the light and expectation of Jesus’ return, there is what can be called the mortal perspective. This emerges from the first reality in which we live. Not only as humans will we all die, we are also to live our lives in the expectation of our death. St Paul, for example, often reflects this perspective in his own life.

These two perspectives are not the same, but they do belong together, as they are in this chapter of St Luke’s Gospel, and both are important. While we may feel we can put off considering Jesus’ return in the belief that it will not happen in our lifetime, we don’t have that luxury when it comes to our death, that is something that will definitely happen in our lifetime! Nevertheless, despite the absolute certainty that we will die, our death is not something that many of us want to think about. We prefer to put it out of our mind and to get on with our lives. God, however, calls us back to reality with the words, ‘You fool!’

Rather than ignoring the fact that we will die and refusing to face up to the reality of our mortality, an ancient medieval practice is that of ‘memento mori’, Latin for ‘remember your death’ or ‘remember that you will die’. This practice encourages us to live our lives in the light of our death. St Benedict told his monks to keep death daily before their eyes (Rule of St Benedict, 4:47).

Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, a nun of the Daughters of St Paul, has done much to revive the ancient practice, although perhaps not everyone would want to keep, as she does, a skull or similar artefact on their desk to remind themselves that one day they will die! The idea is that, by reflecting on our death, we get life into perspective and see what is important and what not.

Reflecting on our death brings two themes in Jesus’ teaching into sharp focus.

Life is not about what we own

Firstly, life is not about how much we have and what we own. The rich fool in Jesus’ story thought that because he was well off materially, he had nothing to worry about; he could stop work and enjoy himself. He may have realized that one day he would die, but that wasn’t going to stop him enjoying himself in the meantime. Nowadays, we would say that the fact that one day we are going to die is an added reason for getting on with enjoying our life now. Hence the idea of the ‘bucket-list’: things a person wants to do in their lifetime before they die.

What the rich man did not realize in his self-satisfied materialism was that the rich man wasn’t going to die sometime in the future; he was going to die that night. Not only was all that he possessed going to be of no use to him, he was going to have to face the God whose existence he had ignored.

We are all aware that one die we will die. We also know that it is foolish to act as if we are going to live forever in this world. We even know how precarious life is, and yet we still prefer to chance it now, in the hope we will have the time and opportunity not only to acquire stuff but to enjoy it as well.

Nowadays, we do not store things up ‘where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal’ so much (Matthew 6:19; Luke 12:33)’. Nevertheless, while we may not live in an agricultural society, which keeps its goods in barns, we do make investments that market forces and inflation can devalue overnight. Jesus is not suggesting that we should not be prudent or that we shouldn’t make financial plans for the future. He is, however, warning forcefully against greed and against making such financial provision the basis for our hope and security in life.

As a priest, I am used to taking funerals for people. It is not uncommon to hear the bereaved say things like, ‘I would give everything to have her/him back with me.’ It often takes the death of someone we love to make us question our priorities in life. Sadly, even after losing someone close to us, it is not long before we are back to putting material wealth and possessions at the centre of our life. Jesus’ warning against greed and materialism is one we need both to hear and to act on.

But Jesus’ words have a wider application. We not only value material wealth and possessions as individuals, we live in a materialist society, which depends on us doing just that. Consumption, constantly acquiring stuff, is intrinsic to the society we live in. If we don’t buy stuff – stuff we don’t need or want – the economy collapses. Only this week past, I got a text notifying me that my next ‘consumption voucher’ will soon be available. Apparently, the only way out of the pandemic economically is for us to do the very thing that Jesus warns us against. If we don’t allow our lives to be about the abundance of our possessions, then businesses go broke, people are made unemployed, and the economy collapses.

Economic growth, that is, producing an ever-increasing amount of what we don’t need for people who don’t need it is what a market economy is all about. As believers, we cannot hope to change this, but we do need to change our own personal attitude to wealth, consumption, and possessions. We also need to challenge the mentality that thinks that the acquisition of things is what life is all about and what defines whether we are living a successful and fulfilled existence.

One day we will find out just how successful we really have been in life when we stand before the judgement seat of Christ, the Son of Man. Memento mori: remember your death and change your life now, while there is still time to do so.

Rich toward God

Secondly, Jesus says that what he has described in the story of the rich fool is how it is with those who store up possessions for themselves and who are not rich toward God.

I don’t know if your bank does the same, but my bank keeps sending me promotional material telling me how easy they are making it for me to check my bank balance and the value of any investments I may have. They want to encourage me to check my financial health and see how much I am worth financially (or not, as the case may be!). Jesus uses this idea of our financial worth to challenge us to consider our spiritual worth. How much have we got invested in the bank of heaven?

Now the Church is, in many ways, its own worst enemy when it comes to encouraging people to check their spiritual account. We quite rightly want to assure people of God’s love for them. We want to tell them of God’s grace and forgiveness, which is given freely and which cannot be earned. All of which is true. But what we also communicate is that it doesn’t matter what we do, what our values and attitudes are, or how we live our lives, which emphatically is not true. All of this does matter. In our second reading from Colossians, St Paul writes that the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient (Colossians 3:6). As we saw in the sermon for the Second Sunday after Trinity, St Paul having described the works of the flesh, says to the believers in Galatia:

‘I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.’ (Galatians 5:21)

Jesus tells his disciples to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33; Luke 12:31). He tells the Devil that man shall not live by bread alone (Luke 4:4). He tells the crowd in the synagogue in Capernaum that unless we eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, we have no life in us (John 6:53). In other words, that we need to depend on him utterly if we are to live. He tells a lawyer that the two greatest commandments that we must keep if we are to have eternal life are to love God completely and our neighbour as ourself (Matthew 22:36-40; Luke 10:27-28). He tells his disciples that anyone who wants to be his follower must deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow him (Luke 9:23).

We hear all these words and many more like them often enough, but they wash over us. They don’t resonate with us. Instead, we listen to the message that we hear everywhere that tells us that we ourselves are what matters: our desires, our hopes, and our dreams. Even the government, for example, is now using this language to talk about its policies towards young people. It does so because it knows instinctively that this is the language that people understand and respond to.

Let me tell you now as bluntly as I can that it is the language of hell. Jesus saw it as coming from Satan himself when St Peter used it (Mark 8:33). It is the language of the rich man in Jesus’ story. In the story in our English translation, the rich man speaks three sentences to himself. He uses the word ‘my’ five times and ‘I’ six times. This is someone completely self-centred who is very pleased with himself. He has achieved his dreams.

The irony is, of course, that it wasn’t even him who achieved them. How does Jesus begin the story? Jesus begins, ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly.’ The man got lucky with his land. But instead of using what he had been given, he sought to save it all for himself. He was rich in himself, but poor in God.

Jesus’ message to us who are so used to checking our bank balance is to check our spiritual balance. What’s our spiritual statement? How much have we got invested in God? Anyone investing for a purpose such as for their child’s education or for their own retirement won’t leave it until the very last moment to check how much they have got. ‘Memento mori’, remember your death. Don’t leave it until your death to discover how much you have got invested with God.

So, check your spiritual balance today and start investing with God while there is still time because there really will come a day when it will be too late.

Memento mori: remember your death and find life in God.