Working out priorities in difficult times

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- “When we were baptised in Christ Jesus we were baptised in his death”.  (Romans 6:3-4.8-11) Remarks like this trip off the tongue all too easily, and we don’t often stop to explore their meaning; but when read alongside our Gospel (Matthew 10:37-42) things can take on a more sinister, not to say deeply troubling hue.

My feeling is that all our Readings for this week hail from difficult and challenging times. It is only we who live in largely peaceful Western countries that find them so uncomfortable. Our Christian brothers and sisters in the Near and Middle East, in parts of Africa and elsewhere, probably find these statements fit in far more with their day to day experience than we do. Our faith, indeed that of the major Old Testament prophets too, was born out of and endured great controversy and persecution for many years, until the faith of Constantine turned the tables and made us in turn a persecuting militant faith. I suggest that we, like ancient Israel’s prophets, have much to learn from persecution or other difficulties.

Many of Israel’s Major Prophets suffered persecution from their own people and others. First Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel certainly underwent exile, and it is likely that Isaiah was killed; and we all know the stories of the persecution of Elijah by Queen Jezebel. Today we read the story of his protégé Elisha (2 Kings 4:8-11.14-16), for once in a more cheerful mode, as he is able to reward the faithful woman of Shunem for her hospitality. Those who read on will hear of the death of this beloved son and the prophet’s timely intervention to restore him to life. Yet many of these prophets lived and worked in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, where worship of Baal was thriving; or had to oppose the entire nation as it deserted Yahweh for pagan gods, and were rubbished for their trouble. Yet the curious thing is that Judaism remembers these ‘unfortunates’, just as it recounts the story of the Exodus, as their formative moments, hardly Israel’s finest hour, as the Exodus is the story of human failure, and of God’s love and grace overcoming the intransigence of the nation.

It cannot surely be that all these stories are merely ‘triumph over adversity tales’. They are not there to build morale and stiffen backbones, but rather I am sure to emphasise the absolute difference between God and humanity, between earthly ways of thinking and acting, and divine grace; between human behaviour fundamentally rooted in power and control, and the absolute negation of power in the God who is actually all powerful but who continually stays his hand. In short, in what Paul describes as ‘the foolishness of God’, met in the Incarnation and Redemption wrought by Jesus, God the Son.

What Paul seems to be suggesting in our passage from Romans, written to a tiny Christian community around 60 CE, and in a very hostile situation under Nero, is that as Christians their entire lives and self-understanding has changed. In the fragile and febrile atmosphere that was Rome, at the time when even the richest and most powerful aristocrat could be deprived of his life, liberty and property on the whim of the emperor, and many lesser people were killed, Paul calls on the Christians really to take on board the Christian message of life in and with Christ. This was not a call to despise this material world, but to see it and its extremely tenuous nature from the point of view of eternal life in and with God. For the believer is marked at baptism for a different life, a different appreciation of the God-human relationship. Pagans, who had no belief in any post mortem existence, knew that their property and its descent through their heirs was everything; so the loss of their possessions and lives meant to be totally annihilated. Paul speaks a totally different language, one of redemption to eternal life with God himself. It was to prove an enormously effective message.

This is also the message of Matthew’s Jesus in our Gospel. Matthew’s Gospel is riddled with his key word for Jesus, ‘Scandal’. By the time we have reached this stage in the Gospel, Jesus is at loggerheads with the Jewish authorities and its cities, and will frequently have turned his attention to pagan territories in anguished rejection of the people who ought to have accepted him as the culmination of the Father’s ultimate revelation of himself to Israel.  Matthew’s Gospel is shot through and through with the tragedy of this rejection of Jesus; and my guess would be that our Reading comes from a heightened awareness of such a rejection and the pain it caused. How else can we explain Jesus’ remarks about prophets and holy men, when he knew full well the tragic history of their rejection by his own people?

It is not that Jesus was anti the family, but that he deliberately picked out what was most precious to everybody as the metaphor for the price of believing. This leitmotif of Christian commitment and belonging must be at the heart of our faith, wherever and in whatever situation we Christians find ourselves; for at the heart of it all is the matter of our conviction that Christ is our only source of salvation, and the giver of eternal life. Luckily, for most of us, this will always remain a thing of the mind, conviction. For those who live in tower blocks in the UK, or whose lives are as fragile as are those Christians abroad, these will be very different matters. We must be those who pray that we can find it in ourselves to give cups of water to those in need, and pray we will not lose our reward.