Frances writes on next Sundays’ Readings :- These days of the Trump administration in the USA raise questions on the meaning of personal integrity and moral probity in a way they were not so clearly raised before. If there are ‘alternative truths’ rather than ‘the’ truth; or if one can clearly state something one day and its apparent direct opposite tomorrow, where does the truth lie, where can moral value rest? Is there any such thing? These are in fact very old issues, which the advent of a corrupt and unworthy regime in the US is merely highlighting for the modern thinker, and something which should exercise our hearts and minds continually.
Jeremiah the prophet (20:10-13) also lived and wrote in such a time of turmoil. He was a prophet of the 6th century BCE and had seen the just and reforming king Josiah die unexpectedly in 609BCE. His successor sons returned the country to paganism and were witnesses to the defeat and decline of Egypt in its bid for power in Mesopotamia at the Battle of Carchemish in 605. The rise of Babylon to the political superpower of the area was swift and overwhelming, and Jeremiah saw their rise as due punishment on Israel for its unfaithfulness to Yahweh, as one of the sons of Josiah was deported to Babylon with his court. He believed that the ensuing struggles and deportations were God’s path to renewal for his people. Yet in all this political upheaval, Jeremiah stood alone against the court, the priests and the aristocracy, who persuaded the weak Zedekiah, vassal of Babylon to rebel. In a time when Jews did not have any belief in eternal life post mortem with God, but only saw their continual relationship with him via their progeny, Jeremiah stood resolute in his conviction that he could trust the God of Israel and be vindicated in his beliefs, however terrible the outcome of his faith might be – and that included undergoing the devastating siege of Jerusalem and his own torture and starvation. His would be the task of writing letters of reassurance to the deportees, and ultimately he too was taken to Babylon, one more prize of the country’s collapse and ignominy.
In writing to the Christians of Rome (Romans 5:12-15) St Paul pondered long and hard on the question of human sin, its falling away from God, from what it was always meant to be. Clearly, some at least of the Christians there were Jews, since he spent some time in the Letter pondering on the purpose and value of the Jewish law; and of course, Paul himself was a Jew and came from the Pharisaic strand of Judaism which held that perfect observance of the law made one right with God. The upshot of his thought is that this law is however merely provisional, there only to point out faults to the Jews and therefore of no salvific value. What gets to him even more is the all pervasiveness of human sin since the dawn of humanity, resulting in the inevitable death of everyone, Jew or Gentile and earlier, of course, he had argued (Rom 1) that Gentiles could, by reason come to a full knowledge of God. It appears then that he thought that human beings, however equipped to know God, turned away from him and chose badly, chose to go their own way and, falling away from God, died. Yet he is utterly convicted that this is not God the Creator’s intention for his creation; but rather, that it is meant for glory with God, and so every human being’s story must be one of redemption in the one man, Jesus Christ, God Incarnate.
We have to remember that this Letter, written to the Christians and their hangers-on in Rome, was to a very corrupt city and regime, almost certainly that of Nero, a man who successively moved to destroy his thoughtful advisers and members of the senate who opposed him, and ultimately murdered his own mother. Nero probably epitomised what bad kingship was about in a period desperate for good rule and careful shepherding. Paul however places all his hope on divine grace, in the promised relationship God grants to human beings and, most significantly, refers to this as “an abundant free gift”. As this passage continues we see that the promise of God is that we shall ‘reign in righteousness with Christ’, justified, made one with him.
In similar mode we find Jesus (Matthew 10:26-33) reassuring the disciples as he sends them out to tell the Good News of salvation to the peoples. Previously he had warned them to expect persecution, and had sent them out with no provision for their mission, totally dependant on those they were sent to, giving them a kind of equality and not superiority on this journey as they place themselves at the mercy of the world, just as Jesus himself did. Jesus knows the price of such missionary endeavour, for he warns them ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul’, here, in Greek the word for body is ‘soma’, the entirety of the human person, as they may and indeed ultimately did face being entirely wiped out in the service of the Gospel. Their immortality lies instead in their fidelity to him, to his message and his faithfulness to God the Father, and the eternal life which takes the human being absolutely beyond this mortal life, and into the realms of the divine. Clearly in this invitation and call any hanging on to family, posterity, status or sense of identity, must be thrown away, precisely as it was thrown aside by Jesus in becoming human for our redemption. That level of altruism, of conviction, may be hard to find, but it must be our aim.