It is the lowly who are most loved by God

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- If we are unfamiliar with the setting of our Gospel (Matthew 11:25-30) and the social mores of the time, we could very easily fall into the trap of thinking of Jesus’ message as advocating a denial of this world, indeed even animosity towards it. This would be quite wrong, for Jesus was as happy as the next man to party and enjoy food; why else would some of his most memorable miracles centre around great feedings, weddings, or meals with his disciples after his resurrection? In much of what occurs in our Gospel today, it is the context that helps to explain his remarks. Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is increasingly threatened by the Jewish authorities, and the scribes and Pharisees, those who thought godly behaviour confined one to a strict code of behaviour they had prescribed. Immediately before our passage, Jesus has criticised those Jews who are never satisfied with his behaviour, and he went on to deliver something very close to a curse on the towns of Israel because of their scepticism of his way of reaching out to the needy. The start of our Gospel is not therefore an anti-intellectual attack in any general way, so not an admonition against the University down the road in Oxford. It is a pointed attack on the scribes and Pharisees who are so opposed to his ministry, and who insisted that a right relationship with God could only be secured by following their rules, those he castigates as the “learned and clever”. These were the literate men, who spent hours debating the Mosaic law and writing commentaries on it. By way of contrast, Jesus commends those he calls ‘children’, in other words the ordinary and uneducated, who took him at face value. Jesus respected these ordinary men and women, the despised ‘sinners’ who could not keep the law because of their defiling professions or illnesses, yet who met in him someone who spoke and ministered to their need for help and their search for God. It is precisely to this social non elite that he speaks of his own “fully knowing” of the Father, and of his own fully laying open of the Father to those whom he chooses, since he himself is open, opaque, known and loved by the Father. We have to enter the world to which Jesus spoke. It was a highly status conscious one with clearly demarcated lines between haves and have-not’s. Those with money and position in society did not work with their hands but employed and denigrated those who did. Day-labourers were a common feature in largely agricultural societies, often casually employed when slave labour was not enough for the harvest. It was a world of patronage, of total dependence on your patron for a hand-out or your next meal, and the loss of such support meant starvation and death to the poor. It had its price too. Small wonder then that Jesus, with his healing relief to the sick, and free food for the hungry attracted such a following, for Godlike, he truly bore their sorrows and ministered to their needs.

When Paul wrote Romans (8:9.11-13) we find a similar situation. In the Jerusalem Bible it is badly translated as a conflict between the spiritual and the unspiritual, but in the Greek, the contrast between sarx (flesh) and pneuma (spirit), is not Paul deriding the material world but the way in which so many lived it out. We have to remember that the city of Rome, to which he wrote his letter to Christians, was a powerful, vibrant and ultimately very dangerous city. Christians made up a microscopic element of the population in this place of socially advancing people. It had an enormous array of pagan gods in your face, in the home, in the street corners, in the baths and in every public place. Literally everything was for sale in Nero’s Rome, where life was cheap and one lived for the moment. Much of Romans is Paul’s reflection on the dangers and difficulties of living in such environments, where the ‘flesh’ was all too evident in the crowded tenements and market places and the baths they all frequented. Paul had just lamented in Romans 7:14-18 the seeming impossibility of living by the Spirit, God’s way, even when one knew what was right and appropriate; but where our fallen nature continually drags us back into old and sinful ways. In our chapter, he explores how our only hope lies in the redemption wrought for us by and in Christ. For Paul, no amount of striving on our own part will sort us out. It is only when we face the implications of what God Incarnate has achieved for us in his passion, death and resurrection, and allow ourselves to be enfolded into his new life, the life of the Spirit, that we can ever aspire to live as God wants and in the way he offers us. This will not be about a personal decision to embark upon great moral reform. It is not about any ‘New Year’s resolution’, like a decision to shed those pounds in the gym, but is like Paul’s own life, when on the Damascus road he was captured by Christ and his life was completely turned around. Paul asks the Christians of Rome, who of course continued to live in their demanding city, to allow the power of the risen Christ to enter their hearts, and only then would their behaviour conform to that of Christ. That is surely as true for them as it remains for us today.

This necessity for a complete change of tack, features in our Old Testament Reading from Zechariah (9:9-10). On the surface it all sounds rather bright and cheery. Zechariah was one of the prophets of the return from exile in Babylon, and the rebuilding of the temple under the Persians, in the 520’s BCE; and of course this passage is used of Jesus, in his entry into Jerusalem for his passion. What we don’t quite recall is its original and militant context, as the apocalyptic Zechariah writes in happy expectation of the rise of a military and militant Zion, which will ultimately triumph over its oppressors. We might even say he set the seal on the messianic hopes of Israel for centuries, writing visions of power and the smashing of enemies equal to those of Ezekiel, or even the gleeful and much later, and equally wacky Apocalypse. What we have to remember is that the New Testament writers who take over this passage, and ascribe it to Jesus, were in fact embarking on a radical revision of its hopes, because the messiah met in Jesus did none of the militant things Zechariah hoped for, and his way of being God-with-us is of a very different order.