Triumph of hope over experience

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- May I suggest this choice of Readings reflects the triumph of hope over experience? They are about what it is to be devoted followers of God, but all of them come from times when the reality was very far indeed from these expectations. They are there to instruct, to exhort, and to suggest in no uncertain terms that there are right and wrong ways of worshipping God. Theirs were not laissez faire worlds, cut loose from their foundations, but worlds in which the difference between being faithful to the God of Israel and the Lord Jesus Christ set one apart from the rest; and behaviour and belief really mattered and affected how the world treated the believer. As such, they do offer food for thought for us in today’s liberal society, especially for the Christian who still has to make serious choices about lifestyle and the meaning of the faith.

The prophet Zephaniah (2:3; 3:12-13), was active in the mid 7th century BCE during the time of the reformer King Josiah. Josiah was the ruler under whose hand the Deuteronomic historians wrote and reformed and refreshed Israel’s law. Under the previous rule of Manasseh, worship of Yahweh had fallen slack, even Passover was not always celebrated, and paganism was rife. It was a period of increasing Assyrian weakness, and the rise of the Babylonians who would later conquer Israel, enslave so many, and destroy the Temple. With this serious reform in mind, and the looming catastrophe which would occur in 587 BCE, it is imperative that we do not read these passages milksop- the confident and dull thinking of a secure order. That was far from the truth, as Zephaniah could well appreciate; and there is an urgency, even a desperation, about his work. He begs for a time of ‘integrity and humility’ in a time when this clearly was lacking; and begs that the ‘Perjured tongue will no longer be found in their mouths.’ In fact, when read correctly, Zephaniah’s tale appears to be one of impending doom, and the call for the people to get their act together. This was not a time for ‘anything goes’, and those in the know, as prophets and temple and court would have been, were desperate to build a strong theocratic state, one able to cope with the dangerous political scenarios in which they moved.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:26-31) with a message strikingly similar to that of the prophet some 600 years before, though in his case being Paul, he blasts the recipients of the letters in no uncertain terms and highlights their particular failures and responsibilities. As we have seen previously, Corinth was a city of new foundation and a nouveau-riche society where climbing the greasy pole to greater riches really mattered on the power spectrum. Formed originally from Julius Caesar’s veterans, and then others and freedmen and slaves, it was a wealthy port city heavily influenced by wealth and by ideas from its many trading links. As well as the established Roman pagan gods, they were flooded with additions from Egypt, Turkey the Levant and Persia. Among the new cults was Christianity, but what attracted many to these cults was often the sense that they were ‘knowledge’ cults, ones in which the adherent progressed by his superiority over others. Paul had to combat the ‘Spiritual’ Christians, those who thought they knew what the faith was about, and frequently grossly misinterpreted their behaviour as children of the Kingdom of God. Quite clearly, many of these elitist otherworldly interpreters of Christianity had no conception at all of the solidarity Christ won for us by his incarnation in the flesh and his death on the cross. Their values were far from aware of the need for communal care and thoughtfulness, and their behaviour was often entirely selfish and blatantly immoral. As witnesses to the life of Jesus, they were far off beam; and our part of Paul’s letter attempts to drag them, kicking and screaming, back to their roots, as he exhorts them to lead lives so wildly different from those they presently engage in: a life of weakness, an emulation of the self-emptying of Christ, a recognition of their ignorance in the face of the Father’s gift of the Son. For these men and women who believed they could hack it on their own, lessons in our absolute dependency on the salvation we have in Christ was essential.

When Matthew wrote his Gospel in the 80’sCE, it would also have been easy for Christians to think in superior terms as they became believers in the victory of Christ which has made everyone a sharer in God’s own eternal life. Paul had made abundantly clear that we are heirs with Christ of the Father, and whilst I am convinced this attracted people to the faith, it is also possible that it gave them a certain cache, which with the failure of the Jewish Revolt, might have led to ideas of superiority. With this in mind, the Beatitudes, Blessed are… of Matthew, are universally focussed on issues of community life, of care and concern for others. Be they persecuted, weak from ill health or poverty and so on, Jesus expounds these gifts and this self denigratory lifestyle relentlessly. Indeed, Matthew 5-7 is full of concrete examples of how to put these beliefs into practice. As the faith went out from its Jewish roots to become a largely Gentile religion, Matthew would have been painfully aware, as had been Paul, just what a hard task this would be for so many converts from paganism. (Luke 6 has a similar exhortation which includes a series of ‘woes’ to the rich). Indeed, the yawning gulf between our eternal expectations, and the pattern of the contemporary Christian life as represented by the Beatitudes, is dramatic and problematic. If it was difficult for the Christians of the first centuries, how much more so now for us, especially those Christians of the West where consumerism is our besetting sin, and the beliefs of Pelagius have convinced so many that mere moral uprightness can buy our way into heaven. Our Readings stand therefore as a healthy if painful reminder that we come to God empty handed and totally dependant on his grace.