Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- We all live in a culture which encourages us to judge others, and usually not for praise, but for blame or negative criticism; and we give little thought to just how wrong this is. Indeed it determines whole mindsets and ways of thinking, be that of condemnation of peoples of different cultures such as those of Islamic faith – they’re all extremists, or those of different class, whom we criticise for their different clothing and habits. We may well laugh or alternately despair at the antics of Mr Trump, but perhaps, as Jesus is saying in the Beatitudes, we need to examine our own lives in relation to divine mercy before we can be quite so smart.
Both of our New Testament Readings, (1 Corinthians 4:1-5 and our Gospel Matthew 6:24-34) are the product of competitive societies. Corinth was a largely pagan nouveau-riche world in which those, largely not from the ‘best’ families, sought to make good as traders or industrialists; and as far as they could, amass enough cash and land to qualify for a place on the local political and magisterial scene. Those who feature in our Gospel, in an equally Hellenised society, would have had similar interests; and moreover Jews would have had the pressure from the Pharisees and religious right to conform to their image of upright citizens. It was a world in which neighbour watched and criticised neighbour in the tightly knit society of the village where anxiety caused great problems. The itinerant Jesus and his motley crew, with his alternative message, must have made many quite uncomfortable. Jesus was not of course advocating abandonment of all responsibilities or work or care for family and others; but he does seem, in this particular passage, to be concerned about a society in which people were continually looking over their shoulders, anxious about the opinions of others as to their lifestyle.
If the call of the Beatitudes is to divinity, to live as God the Father has made us and intended for us, and I think it is; then Jesus was surely saying that it is our attitudes to others that need to change, which is why he had previously gone on at length about the Jewish practice of marriage and divorce, abuse of women, and so much else. As I have said before, the Beatitudes are not moral imperatives for the community, but a recognition that God’s will for us is totally different from all our earthly opinions and valuations, both of ourselves and of others. What he is asking us to do here is to think in a different manner; and one which is of God not of the world, whether 1st Century Palestine or Corinth or Britain in the 21st Century. “Set your heart on his kingdom first, and on his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well.”
Poor old Paul, as we have frequently noted over the last few weeks in which we have been reading 1 Corinthians, seems to have met these issues by the cartload! Some converts to Christianity in Corinth, clearly from the up and coming, thought that they were the ‘wise’ or ‘spiritual’ who had got things taped. Some thought they were already so much within the Kingdom that they could live just as they wished, even going so far as to desecrate the Eucharist by their behaviour. Some committed incest. Indeed the list of their iniquities seems endless. They were full of factions, and lived just like, or even worse than, many pagans! Quite clearly the poorer in Corinth, those among the itinerant daily workers who lived a very precarious life, and slaves, were given short shift in the Christian communities, to Paul’s despair and horror.
He describes Christians in very interesting language, as ‘attendants’ on Christ (here badly translated as servants); and goes on to speak of them all as ‘stewards’ of God’s mysteries. Now any of his readers would have known that a trusted slave might expect to be promoted to act in the person of his master, either on his landed estate or, as here within his household, where the master might frequently be away from home. Such people literally acted to manage and rule the home or estate, and of course on being freed would be set up in business by their master to work in another trusted partnership with him. Ask yourself then just what kind of relationship this would have been at its best, and see it as a metaphor for God’s trust and expectations of his people. If some of the Christians of Corinth had so far departed from this vision of godliness, what a calamity it was, what a disaster it is for us too. The point Paul is labouring to make is precisely that we are those ‘Entrusted with the mysteries of God’. We are not just on some rubbishy slightly alternative project, and we need to face up to what and whose we are.
Perhaps this is why our Old Testament Reading is from the Isaiah of the exile, (Isa 49:14-15) with its powerful reminder that even when we feel that God has abandoned us, that is far from the case. We are never forgotten or rejected. God is always reaching out for us, we are the ones who must turn to him.