Keep in the company of the self-aware

Frances writes on the Readings for this weekend : These Readings seem to be about how we give ourselves totally to God in this life. For many of us this may be quite a difficult idea, since our daily lives seem to involve so many bits: looking after the children; getting to work; meeting friends and colleagues; possibly coping with elderly relatives; as well as all the clearly churchy stuff. So what does a life totally orientated on God look like? Surely, in some shape or form it’s about our focus, what drives us, what is at the basis of all our activity? Right now I am filled with admiration for the White Helmets, the volunteer men in Aleppo who risk their own lives daily in countless incidents, to rescue the people buried under rubble. I recently watched a small video clip of one of them who cried when he rescued a baby girl “I thought of my daughter”, he said. Clearly here was someone whose sense of humanity was still with him, guiding his actions after what might so easily have turned into an automatic thing. And we got the sense that he too has a family to care for. Day by day, he gives his all.

In 2 Timothy (4:6-8.16-18), an imprisoned Paul writes to Timothy, quite clearly summing up his life and at a time when he expects to be killed for the faith. The entire letter is full of angst over difficulties the Christian communities are already suffering, and the sufferings he anticipates will overtake them, not least the desertion of some leading men from the churches including some who will deliberately lead it astray. Nonetheless, he sums up his life positively, borrowing from the language of the Games with which he and so many were so familiar. He speaks the language of the original Greek foot race, the stadion of 210 yards, but it reminds us that in all the exercises in the Games there was only ever one winner, who literally took all, be it the Pentathlon or the Chariot race, Wrestling or the Long distance three mile run. Paul critically reviews his life and is convinced that he has done his all for God. “I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith; all there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me , which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day.” Anyone familiar with the Games, and thousands there, would have known of the praises, the crown, the statues and the vast wealth and honours heaped on any victor at the Games, immortalizing him forever in stone and bronze, would immediately have understood Paul’s meaning. Paul is quite confident of his claim to glory, despite the desertion of fellow workers and the suffering he will endure; for, as he puts it “The Lord will rescue me …and bring me safely to his heavenly Kingdom”. He can only rely on his life’s work, his work for the churches that he has brought into being and fostered for God.

Today’s parable brings us ever closer to Jerusalem and Jesus’ passion. Over the last weeks we have had a whole series of parables illustrating just how precisely we come to God totally empty, as beggars or slaves, from the story of the Loving Father and the disgraced son, through the witty tale of the unjust steward towards the devastating critique of the rich man and Lazarus; the importunate widow and so on. Now we find Jesus giving a parable with a truly lacerating edge. Luke (18:9-14) wants us to realise precisely how critical things are. He picks an account of two worshippers in the temple. One, significantly a Pharisee, for they believed that by following the Jewish law in every degree, they would become righteous and be found worthy in God’s sight; the other a tax collector. Jesus could not have found two men of such disparity, for tax men were defiled, despised collaborators with the Romans, men who deliberately bought the tax concession and upped the amount to cover their costs and enrich themselves. They paid henchmen to help in the collection, and frequently used violence to extract the money, even forcing some into slavery. They were hated, and were the utter antithesis of what a ‘good man’ could possibly be. Yet Our Lord has no time at all for the finicky, time-serving Pharisee, one who measure out holiness in accordance with some predetermined set of rules; and praises the heart-felt desperation of the soul-searching and self-aware tax collector who recognises that he stands empty in God’s sight, and can only call on God’s mercy and grace. One bargains with God, “I fast twice a week, I pay tithes on all I get’, and above all, ‘I am squeaky clean! I deserve to get into the Kingdom’. The other acknowledges that he is a thoroughgoing rogue, hopeless, helpless before God, and begs, as only the truly self-knowing can, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” It will not necessarily be our virtue that opens heaven for us, but our understanding of who we are in relation to God.

The much earlier 2nd century BC writer of Ecclesiasticus, the sage Ben Sirach seems to have had a similar valuation of the divine, and praises the poor man over the wealthy. Perhaps it was a time of exploitation of the poor, certainly during this time of Egyptian Ptolemaic occupation of Palestine, we know that the country was harshly taxed by their occupying forces, and possibly the wealthy could bargain for better treatment and jobs and even get richer due to favours acquired from their overlords. Certainly the sage argues on the side of the poor, and suggests that God’s ear is turned in the direction of the downtrodden, and that he listens to their prayers, knowing their state. “The humble man’s prayer pierces the clouds, until it arrives he is inconsolable.” It speaks to us of those on the edge, those who have nowhere else to turn than to God, those whose state is known to the Most High.

How then do we understand ourselves in relation to God? Some of us will be able to do great things for God, like my eye surgeon who daily ‘gives sight to the blind’, and does it with humour and grace. Most of us will perhaps take our very small and insignificant pots to God, apologetic, even afraid, straining with the effort to tell him we have done our best, and that it looks pretty pathetic, but there will be, I pray, a knowing there. Apparently after finishing the Summa, St Thomas remarked that it was all dross. We need to remain in the company of the self-aware!