Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- On our return from holiday last week we weary travellers took a taxi from Oxford to Eynsham. Our driver turned out to be a young Muslim man full of passionate convictions. In this week in which so much news has been filled with horror stories, from the blowing up of the Malaysian air liner by fanatics in the Ukraine to the threat by Isis to execute Christians in Mosul who refuse either to convert or pay protection; it was welcome and important for the survival of our planet to meet a devout Muslim fully convicted of his faith and obedient to it and who was also committed to fostering good relations between peoples of Islamic beliefs and the West, Christian, Jew and non believers. This young man had been inspired by Cat Stevens’ visit to the UK in which he emphasised that believers in Islam must hold as imperative their need to be educated in the faith as a means of combating ignorance and misinformation. He had been emphatic that this was not simply about their personal survival but that of good relations between east and west and that it is the task of educated Muslims, (and also of course Christians), to know their faith and practise it properly. Discernment was and is the message of the time, and our readings for this week demonstrate that this is precisely what was and has always been required.
Our Old Testament reading, 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12 shows this cardinal virtue in the young Solomon. Now Solomon had inherited the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah; he was wealthy and powerful; a great leader of the people in his time. We know that foreign royalty and dignitaries visited his court and that under his inspiration an expedition was undertaken with Tyre to circumnavigate Africa, seeking out possible trading partners and routes. The young king could easily have become consumed by his own importance, yet here we see him praying to God for discernment and guidance from God.
Our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:28-30 explores this issue of the meaning of good and right behaviour, suggesting that it is when, and only when our behaviour is in accord with God’s, with the love of God that it can truly be good and right. When we actually live with the generosity and grace of God himself towards others, rather than selfishly or for our own personal ends and only then we are discerning the truth and being truly loving and when we live like that we become in Paul’s language true images of his Son. Moreover, he continues, when we do this we are truly members of the community of the Son who is the eldest of many brothers; then, we are justified, made capable of a full and proper relationship with the Father.
Our gospel, Matthew 13:44-52, explores this in parables, or metaphors. Parables are never about the literal material mentioned, be it treasure, vineyards or fish but are picturesque language by which we come to appreciate what ‘heaven’, our life in and with God is truly about. We are here presented with three images of the kingdom.
The treasure hidden in the field was presumably found by a labourer who had the sense to know that if he just took it he could be accused of theft and slung into prison. Instead, prudently, he bought the field and became entitled to the treasure. Similarly with the discerning pearl dealer; clearly not all pearls are of the same quality, and it takes knowledge and ability to pick the real gem – the crowning glory of his career. Those are a pale reflection of what the joys of the kingdom of heaven will be like.
When we come to the third parable, the haul from the dragnet, the tone appears to darken as real judgement is called for, and the fishermen select good fish and discard the rest of the catch. Those of us familiar with Leviticus 11 and its details of clean and unclean foods will recall that ‘fish’ are those with fins and scales and are acceptable food whilst other sea creatures, like crustations; or squid; or lobsters or octopus and mammalian sea creatures are forbidden to Jews as food. Indeed, they are described as ‘detestable’ by the Torah. I presume this division is again about discernment, as the believer is called to know himself and use his God-given abilities to find his way through life, here seen as the sea lest at the end he find himself condemned by God’s angels. Just like the wise householder, the discerning Christian, here a Jewish Christian has to use prudence in the management of his household to arrive at his final destination, life in God. There is no space here for a sloppy liberalism which just dumps everything onto God and allows us to continue in the sinful ways of the world
So I suggest that our readings this week are an effort by Jesus to compel the faithful to careful action both in the management of their own lives and that of their families and also an insistence that we educate ourselves in the faith we hold so dear. Otherwise, as our young Muslim taxi driver was trying to say, we fail to build a just and true humanity and in our ignorance create a world of crucifixions and fail to live by God’s Holy Spirit and do what he made us to do and be in the name of his Son.