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To be in the world but not be worldly

One of the biggest challenges we Christians face is how to live in the world, and be a full part of the world, and yet not be worldly – to be taken over by the world with all its many faults and temptations. Some Christians have solved this problem by separating themselves as far as possible from the world around them. For example, from very early on, there were men and women – later called monks and nuns – who chose to live separately from the world, and there have been other Christian groups down the ages who in different ways have tried to do the same.

But for most of us this is just not a practical solution. We have to live in a world in which we must mix with all sorts of people, and some of them have the kind of lifestyle that would make any good Christian shudder. We all know that it’s almost impossible to watch TV without seeing things that are simply not good – whether it is explicit sex or an obsession with money and possessions.

Jesus had the same challenge. Many of his fellow Jews chose the way of cutting themselves off as much as possible from those who lived a worldly life-style. They refused to eat with them and felt that if they even touched them then they were polluted and would need purification. These polluted people included everyone who mixed with or worked for the Romans and their soldiers, which clearly included prostitutes and tax collectors.

As you know, Jesus chooses to do quite the opposite, and because of this is accused, not only of mixing with these polluted people, but agreeing with their way of living. It’s a fair criticism, isn’t it? If you are prepared to live and eat with such people, are you not by implication approving of the way they live? Surely if you don’t approve of the way certain people behave, you should say so, and refuse to mix with them?

Pope Francis has this problem too. He gets accused by some of watering down the moral teachings of the Church, because of the way he stresses that God’s mercy and love is available for everyone, even notorious sinners. Recently he told the story of a priest who was prepared to baptize the baby of a divorced man, but had said that the man could not attend the ceremony. Pope Francis made it clear that he disagreed with this priest and would have made the man welcome. Most people would agree with Pope Francis’ approach in a situation like this, but what about a more extreme case like a father involved in violent crime? Think how the Church in Sicily is sometimes accused of condoning the Mafia when it does not bar such men from the Church.

So the question put to Jesus in today’s Gospel, (Matt 22:15-21) where they ask him whether people should pay money to the Romans, is not just about money. It is also about his whole approach to the world around him. The purists are challenging him to take sides. Is he for the world of the Romans and the rest of the pagan world? Or is he for God? His answer is to refuse to take sides, to put people into two camps, good holy people on the one side, and bad worldly people on the other. Instead he says : Decide for yourself. Each of us must work out in our own situation where to draw the line. A classic example is going to a party. Jesus goes to parties all the time with a lot of drinking, and probably quite a lot of swearing and suggestive remarks and behaviour.  The Greco-Roman world, like our world, was fairly explicit about such things. Somehow good Christian people, especially young people, have to be happy to go to parties, and yet manage to stay sober, to keep themselves pure, and to avoid getting into loose talk and gossip. It’s a tall order and many people fail, so no wonder the other solution of keeping oneself separate is often suggested.

Some Catholics wish that everything was cut and dried, that the Church could make absolutely clear what is right and what is wrong, and then act towards those who are wrong in a way that makes absolutely clear what we think of them. But the Church’s task is to draw all men and women to God. That is why when Jesus is criticised for mixing with bad people he points out again and again that his mission is to sinners. Think of the story of the nasty tax collector Zacchaeus up the tree. Jesus doesn’t look up and say “Zacchaeus change your ways, and then I will come and eat with you.” No, he simply says he will come and eat with him, as he did with so many other so-called sinners. Some, like Zacchaeus, do change their ways, but whether they do or not, Jesus shows them that God loves them. Despite the risks, we must do the same.

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Power is not God’s way

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- All of our readings today are a commentary on power and its use and abuse, as we get ever nearer to the Passion and death of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel (22:15-21). These readings are not without significance for us today, as we watch the tragic ruin of Syria, with a ruler prepared to go to any lengths to maintain his brutal hold on power, or we become bystanders in the obscene drama of the war of words, backed by nuclear threat between the Trump regime and that of North Korea. One could go on and on, it is truly sickening; but within all this there stands the life and message of Jesus and his Church, and we know that for all the many temptations to power which afflict us in our own small lives, we are committed to a different way, the way of the cross, of the foolishness of God, whose ‘power is perfected in weakness’.

When Second Isaiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon in the 6th century BCE with his messages of hope through the despair and shame of the exile, his school, or a later one, inserted this praise song honouring Cyrus the Persian whose overthrow of the Babylonian empire brought about a policy whereby the families of the earlier exiled from all over the Near and Middle East could return to their homes – dutiful vassals to Persia. Isaiah wrote of the terror of the Persian war machine and its devastating impact. Here was a regime which could slaughter and wipe out earlier dynasties; forcing their gateways, so giving us a dramatic insight into siege warfare and the slaughter involved and of the ruined cities they left behind, ravaged remnants of the rape and slaughter which went with such a fall. One cannot but remember Aleppo and its heap of stinking ruins, and think of the ruined lives etched out in the dust and tangled metal. Yet for all his praise of the new regime, Isaiah was aware that the power of any king ultimately came from God alone and that in the end all once mighty ‘Great kings’ would be but dust. When Alexander the Great visited the tomb of Cyrus he was devastated to find the tomb robbed and broken to pieces. He could not have failed to understand that it would be his fate too.

But back to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is in Jerusalem for Passover and what would become his Passion. Over the weeks our Sunday Readings have inexorably built up the hostility of those in power in Jerusalem against him, and we have seen how he responded with a series of highly symbolic parables criticising the nation, Israel and its leaders, be they aristocrats and temple priesthood or the religious purists, the scribes and Pharisees. Between them these very different groups, well versed in Israel’s sacred story and the practice of the faith, should have been the ones to recognise God’s anointed when he came, but who rejected him in favour of their own interests and the status quo. They simply could not accept that God’s Messiah would not come surrounded by the trappings of power and surrounded by an all conquering army. What they wanted was ‘more of the same’, of the tactics of conquest and force so familiar to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent. Jesus’ way was unforgivably shocking. Here in our Gospel we find groups attempting to entrap him on a charge of treason to Rome which he simply turns aside. We know that in the Passion these issues, threats to the temple and the pursuit of kingship, would rise again and procure Jesus’ death. He quite simply will not play their game. This is not God’s way of salvation.

When we come to Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians, (1 Thess1:1-5) we meet this scenario etched out in the life of one of the earliest Christian communities. Paul visited and lived in Thessalonica in about 50 CE and, along with those in Philippi, they were to prove some of the most steadfast and supportive churches, surprisingly lacking in the traumas of those at Corinth or Galatia. Yet Thessalonica knew all about power and clout. Founded by the brother in law of Alexander in 316BCE, it had become a Roman colony in 146 and subsequently became an Imperial city under the Emperors. It must have reeked of power, and was a great centre of the Imperial cult with massive temples to the emperors. Through its port Neapolis it had access to the Adriatic and the Mediterranean, and became the centre of many a commercial empire. It had road access over the Via Egnatia to Rome and Italy in the west and east to Byzantium and the wealth of Asia Minor. It would have had all the trappings of Roman buildings, with its forum, amphitheatre and facilities, and was also full of many eastern gods especially those of Egypt. Legions would have been stationed nearby so that strict control could be exercised at any time. Thessalonica was a city of power where its rich elites met to flaunt their wealth and influence and win imperial favour when the emperor visited. One gets the feeling that it was very much a divided society, with the common people disenfranchised and the various elites in control. It was to the poorer that Paul devoted his attentions, for he frequently speaks of “working” or as the Greek has it, ‘labouring for love’, something the elite would never have done. It was to these nobodies that Paul preached the gospel of salvation in Christ, and enabled them to identify with Jesus and the hope and love he held out to the myriad of lesser mortals in this fabled city of power. Poor they might have been in monetary terms, but they became rich in faith and ultimately even sent money both to Paul and to the Church in Jerusalem during a famine. Indeed, Paul had to remind the lippy Corinthians of their promise of cash, prising it out of unwilling hands. Poor and needy Thessalonica has gone down in history as among the most receptive to the Christian message. We would do well to imitate them.

Union with God is union with others

Why do we Christians call God “Our Father”? The answer is pretty simple really, but it’s surprising how even people who go to Church struggle with this, as they also struggle with – Why do we go to Mass? And in each case the answer is….. “Because Jesus told us to.” But there is a bit more to it than that, because when Jesus called God  “Father”, he was actually expressing out loud the most important and personal thing in his life. Remember how he said “I and the Father are one” and “To have seen me is to have seen the Father.” (See John 10:27-38) And then, remember how when he was praying in agony and fear at Gethsemane, Jesus calls out in the midst of his tears “My Father”, and then again “My Father”. (Matt 26:36-42) So when we are asked to call God our Father, we are not just being asked to address God in a personal way, but are being drawn by Jesus deep into the heart of God’s love, of the love that is what God is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Some people do tend to think however, that speaking of God as a loving Father is something Jesus taught, in contrast to the fierce God of the Jewish Old Testament.  But this is not so. Jesus fulfils the old thinking, he does not cancel it. He teaches us how to interpret the Old Testament by selecting those passages that are most important. Indeed not only are there passages there which express the love of God, as a Father, “Oh praise the greatness of our God….Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you? (Deut 32:3-6), (or as in our 1st Reading today Isaiah 25:6-10) but there are even passages that speak of God as being like a mother “This is what the Lord says:. As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”

But, of course in the Old Testament, these images of God as a Father are mainly about God as the first origin, the first cause, of all other things. This is very important in its own right, because it makes clear the link between religion and science; which by the way, I was glad to see Prof Brian Cox affirming some years ago. He wrote “So if you want to think there’s an eternal presence that causes things to happen, that’s not illogical” As a physicist, he disagrees with Dawkins, and his stupid idea that religion and science are incompatible; unless of course you think everything in the Bible is literally true and the earth was made in 6 days! Not a teaching of the Catholic Church!

However on its own, this image can make us think of God simply as, yes the first cause – an immense power underlying the Universe – but still remote, and way beyond any personal relationship with us humans. So, many people can say, “Yes, there must be something there, behind all this”, and assume that somehow this gives us life after death. But this doesn’t really make any difference to their lives. Maybe they try to be good, just as the Pharisees did whom Jesus so often condemned, but they do not see that this is not really enough.

It is Jesus then, who shocks the Pharisees and many others around him, by taking the more personal passages from the Old Testament, and making them even more personal. It is in the process of sharing with us his own personal relationship with God, that he teaches us to pray to God as “Our Father”. We take this for granted, don’t we? We say the “Our Father” without realising that every time we do so, we are being drawn into the love of God. This is one of the reasons why it is such a powerful prayer, and therefore why, at Mass, we are asked to use this prayer to speak to God in this most intimate of ways, just before people receive Holy Communion. Indeed those of you who do not receive Holy Communion for one reason or another should aim to use the prayer like this, as you make what the Church calls your “spiritual communion”.

But the other thing we should notice is that calling God “Father” also draws us into union with one another. As our Gospel (Matt 22:1-14) shows us, we are called by God to come to a party, to a feast, not to some mystical oneness just between me and God.  We do not call God “My Father” as Jesus does, but “Our Father”, and it becomes even more strange as the prayer goes on, because each of us does not pray “May my sins be forgiven” but “Forgive us our trespasses”. So we are praying for one another to God. You are praying for me that my sins may be forgiven, and you are also praying for all the different people around you, even maybe for those who you find most difficult to forgive! Thus significantly the prayer goes on, “As we forgive those who trespass against us” – which is surely the most challenging part.

In the end, it is this personal and communal friendship with Jesus, and thus with God our Father and Creator, that we Christians believe supports and sustains us; especially when we face the hardest things that life can throw at us – most of all sickness, pain, fear and death.  Hear again what St Paul can say from prison – because that is where he is in the passage I am about to quote! He can say, as a man who knows how weak and sinful he can be, and who has faced all kinds of hardships. He can say (2nd Reading Phil 4:12-14) “I know how to be poor and I know how to be rich too…. I am ready for anything anywhere.. There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength”. And then, in a prayer that is clearly deeply personal to him, and also ought to be for us too, then he says, “Glory to God the Father, for ever and ever. Amen.”

And Amen means for Paul, and should mean for us every time we say it, “It is true. I really mean this. It is not just words. It comes from my heart.”

“Glory to God the Father, for ever and ever. Amen.”

We must broaden our horizons

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- We are getting ever closer to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Passion. In this account, Jesus has been in Jerusalem for some time and his confrontation with the chief priests and the Pharisees is unrelenting. Matthew, you will remember, wrote his Gospel to explore the tragedy of the Jewish rejection of Jesus and his understanding of God by those best equipped to greet the Messiah when he came; and for him, as a Jew this tragedy was all the more marked by the failure of the Jewish Revolt which saw his country devastated and millions killed or sold into slavery. The Temple was destroyed and with it the central image of the faith as it was at the time. Christianity increasingly became a Gentile religion, as the followers of Christ did not participate in the Revolt. Over the last few weeks, we have seen Jesus exploring this division, this devastating parting of the ways, by the use of a number of critical parables delivered to the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, in which he takes up time-honoured themes and images from the Jewish scriptures, and deliberately turns them into razor sharp commentaries on his opponents. We have met the parable of the favoured son who refused to carry out his father’s wishes – representing Judaism, and the other son – representing the Gentiles. We have heard again the chilling story of the slaughter of the beloved son by the tenants who went their own way, so reminiscent of Isaiah 5 with its shattering denouement as the vineyard is leased to others, more worthy. This week we have the parable of the wedding feast of the king’s son, and the deliberate rejection of the invitations by the invited, the kings ‘chosen people’. Matthew 22:1-14.

Quite clearly the king in this parable represents God, and those invited to the wedding feast his closest associates, his advisors, friends and dignitaries. All those in fact dependent on the king for his favour. In ancient societies, where rising to power and prominence was entirely dependent on status and the wealth this brought, we must try to imagine the extent of the slight offered to the king/God by these men. This was no casual ‘drop-in-if-you-can affair’, a marriage such as this would have been meticulously planned and invitations of long-standing. To have spurned such an event, and for the trivial pretexts offered, was an indication of revolt, the deliberate shunning of the most powerful figure in the land. It was a suicidal action, and the king’s reaction proportionate to the damage the offenders has done. In response, the king turned elsewhere, sending his servants out to bring in guests from the most unlikely quarters, off the streets and the crossroads, and we note they collected ‘good and bad alike’. Now these people represent the riff-raff of society, they would have been the poor, even starving, the beggars, the sick, and even the deformed. They would have included foreigners, non-citizens, and even other slaves. What we have here is Jesus’ devastating critique of elite Judaism, and his unremitting rejection of it in favour of others, those unable to keep the Jewish purity laws, and foreigners who never even attempted to do so. It represents God’s turning away from the ‘chosen people’, Israel as it had become, and turning towards a more worthy people, amongst them many of Gentile, pagan origin. The sting in the tail of this story, that of the man without a wedding garment must be about an imposter, someone who got in clandestinely, for wedding robes would have been provided. Perhaps he was a spy from the opposition, and Jesus’ solution to the problem of this interloper is harsh and unremitting.

It is interesting to look at our Parable from Matthew from the perspective of Isaiah (25:6-10). In the late 8th century BCE the Assyrians, a fierce warrior people from northern Iraq grew to prominence and devastated the near-east, conquering much of Mesopotamia and what is now Turkey, and down through Lebanon and Samaria. Nation upon nation fell to their vicious war machine, thousands and hundreds of thousands were enslaved, and great trading nations like Tyre and Sidon went down the pan. Some of these traders simply took to their ships and moved to the western Mediterranean. What Isaiah did during this period of crisis was not to bury his head in the sand, but to pray to the God of the Hebrews and look to better times, times when all the death and destruction would end, and “the mourning veil covering all peoples, and the shroud enwrapping all nations”, would be destroyed. Significantly, what he looked forward to was God’s great banquet, not just for his own, but for all, for all the nations. Isaiah has a sense of a universal understanding and following of God, which was very unusual for his time, and certainly for Jewish people, especially those of the elite with their strong sense of their separatism from all others, it would have been a difficult call. By the time Jesus and Judaism read Isaiah in the 1st century CE, one imagines it to have been near impossible. Yet there were Jews, and Jesus was one of them, who looked to his message and Isaiah’s understanding of God; and Jesus clearly allowed it to shape his ministry, for we know that he often quoted the prophets and was shaped by their subversive teachings, which ran so counter to those of the Jewish elite. Matthew would have known this, and in his grief and pain seen the way forward for the Christian community as it parted from Judaism.

In writing to the Christians of Philippi, (Phil 4:12-14.19-20), from prison in Ephesus in the mid 50’s CE, Paul reflects on the up’s and down’s of being a missionary, giving thanks for the support and financial help of this Church. Philippi was a Roman city, once the scene of the battle between Caesar and Pompey and had many retired soldiers in its population. It would have been very foreign indeed to the Jewish Pharisee Paul, and yet they became his dearest followers. Like Paul, like Jesus and Isaiah, we must all broaden our horizons.

Paying rent to God for what?

The question that springs to mind when we hear this story from Jesus (Matt 21:33-43) about people who refused to pay rent is – Why did they think they could get away with it? Of course, the answer is that Jesus is talking about the rent that we all owe to God,; and lots of people choose not to pay that. Think of it! God has given us life, friends, family, the whole world of good things, and the only rent he asks for is that we listen to him, love him and thank him, and try to do his will. So how do we do those three things? Again, the answer is obvious. We listen to God and we thank him by coming to Mass as he has asked us to do when Jesus said “Do this in memory of me”, and we do his will by putting into practice in our daily life the messages of love and kindness that we hear about at Mass. It’s as simple as that.

So why don’t people want to pay this rent to God? Often the answer is that they think they are too busy with other things, or that they just find coming to Mass a bit dull. It’s extraordinary isn’t it. If you live in a house for which you pay rent or mortgage payments, you wouldn’t stop paying them because you were too busy; and of course no-one would describe paying over that money as exciting – there are much more fun things to do. The problem is that, unlike a landlord or a mortgage company, God doesn’t chuck us out on the street if we don’t pay. God carries on loving us whatever, but that doesn’t mean that our non-payment doesn’t matter. Slowly our non-payment makes us care about God less and less, and then when a crisis comes our link with God has almost disappeared.

But I think the other reason people do not acknowledge God as much as they should is that they don’t recognise him when he comes to them in their daily life. They expect God to be a power that soothes and comforts them when they are sad, and gives them joy; but we know the real God that Jesus brings who that challenges us to think about life in a different way from the world around us. Being different from the selfish pleasure-loving world is very difficult, isn’t it?  Jesus constantly told the religious people of his day that they are looking for God in the wrong way and in the wrong place. He tells of two people praying (Luke 18:9-14) – one scruffy and dirty, muttering “God have mercy on me”, the other all clean and nice saying his prayers of thanksgiving with great devotion; and he says that the scruffy one is nearer to God. He tells of two people giving money to the Church (Mark 12:41-44) – one gave a very small amount very quietly because that was all she could afford, whilst others gave lots and made sure everyone saw them do it.  Again we know which offering was accepted by God.

Let me tell you a true story from when I lived and worked in East Oxford. One day I met an old rather scruffy man wearing an old woolly hat called Joe, pushing a push chair with a little Pakistani toddler in it. His name was Ajaz. I saw them in the street regularly, and gradually got to know them, and Joe began to come to church, scruffy as he was. I later discovered that Joe had spent most of his life in and out of prison. He had been a hardened criminal often using extreme violence, and so his times in prison for what is called GBH were long. Finally, as an old man, Joe realised what a fool he had been all his life and looked for someone from whom he could rent a room. Now most respectable people would not have been too keen to have a man like Joe living in a room in their house; but a Pakistani Muslim family took him in, and not only let a room to him, but trusted him as they go to know him to look after little Ajaz.

So where was God in that story? First of all in that Pakistani family, who turned scruffy Joe from a lodger into a trusted family friend. Then, of course in Joe himself, the scruffy ex-convict. I suppose Joe was lucky, in a weird kind of way, because he knew what a sinner he’d been, and he knew to thank God things had changed so dramatically for him.

Most of us have so much, surrounded as we are by all the good things of life, but take too much of it for granted. I have just been on a lovely holiday to Cyprus, so I need to thank God not just for the sunshine but for the staff at the airport and on the plane, including the people we forget like the cleaners and baggage handlers.  I came back home to collect the new bright red car that I’ve just bought – a Skoda Fabia for those who want to know, and how easily am I so excited by the car, that forget to thank God for those who designed it and those who made it in the factory. I go into hospital tomorrow to have a new knee fitted free of charge, and will then come home to a nice house and good food, with great TV to watch as I get better. Yes we can thank God for our favourite TV programmes too, even Game of Thrones! And as we give to CAFOD this weekend we can thank God of course for those we will support who help the poor and starving of the world, but also we need to remember to thank God for those who are starving, and yet help one another.  All of these things, and many more, would not happen without God, and all we have to do in return is to get to Mass and to pray with thanksgiving in our hearts, and then to try our best to do God’s will.

It’s so simple really, and yet so many people would rather go their own way and do their own thing. Thank you here in church today for joining me in as we paying our rent to God. Let us rejoice that we are one of the scruffy Christians of the world. Let us rejoice at being different for God, and thank him for so many many things.

 

 

The true Israel recognise the owner of the vineyard

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-  Throughout Israel’s long story of being God’s ‘Chosen People’ one image stood out as symbolising the nation and this special relationship. It was the vine, or the grape, and it encapsulated all that was unique and holy. Its image was on coin, mosaics and wall paintings, and it was built into the very heart of their scriptures. When spies returned to the camp of Israel after their escape from Egypt and their spying out of the Promised Land, they carried a huge bunch of grapes, an indication of the prosperity of the land they were to enter.

When therefore a prophet, here First Isaiah of the 8th century (Isa 5:1-7) and the Assyrian conquest, looked to find reasons for this calamity and believed it to be divine retribution for the nation’s apostasy, he explored it in terms of a passionate love-song, the story of the vineyard. It is the poetry of a love–song gone wildly astray, something turned into an abomination, an abortion, something to revolt the soul. “My friend”, here clearly God has tended his vineyard, here the symbol for Israel with every possible attention, lavishing care upon it – how could it possibly fail? Yet in the end all it produced were wild grapes, unpalatable, unfit for wine making and just rubbish. Isaiah then speaks for his ‘friend’, for God, asking Jerusalem, the heart and soul of the nation, what more he could possibly have done to cement their relationship. He had done everything for them. In fury and vituperation God smashes the vineyard to bits. One is reminded of the devastation of Northern Iraqi cities or of Aleppo, other Dresden’s, which was precisely the fate of those who succumbed to the Assyrian war machine, damaged irreparably, their fate sealed by their own actions, “He expected justice, but found only bloodshed, integrity, but only a cry of distress”.

In our Gospel from Matthew (21:33-43) we have to remember that Jesus is in Jerusalem, and will shortly be crucified on the authority of the Jewish leaders who have consistently been at odds with his entire mission and his whole understanding of God; the one Jesus dared to call ‘Father’. Jesus’ outreach to the sick, the poor, and those cut off from elite Judaism, foreigners and the outcast; and his claims that in himself God’s Kingdom was about to come, but not in the ways expected by the majority, had made him a figure they were no longer prepared to tolerate. Jesus battled scribes, Pharisees and the Jewish aristocracy at every turn, and saw their lives as a scandal to God. They in their turn could no longer brook his teachings, his healing ministry or his presence. When therefore Jesus entered the Temple and threw the money changers and market profiteers out of the temple, it was time for the showdown. The authorities questioned his authority for his actions, and Jesus turned to the one, perfect image of the relationship between God and Israel, the vineyard, with its unmistakable echoes of Isaiah and Jeremiah, to leave them in absolutely no doubt as to the situation. This parable follows immediately on last weeks, with its clear rejection of the disobedient son (Israel) in favour of the son who later changed his mind, representing the Gentiles.

In this parable Jesus begins word for word with Isaiah 5, of God’s care for his land, only later shifting to the issue of the evil tenants. The picture of tenants farming the land and returning part of the produce to the owner was a common one, and to renege on the promises made in the way these tenants do would have been an appalling infringement of the law – an act of revolution, overthrowing the established order – and guilty of the most extreme penalty of the law. Moreover, in this case the tenants, here clearly representing Israel, murder not merely the trusted servants of the owner whom he sends to sort out the mess, but the landlord’s son and heir! There were few crimes more vicious or more heinous; it spelt the death knell of all involved in such a crime. When Jesus added to that the refrain from Ps 118: 22-23, part of the great Hallel psalms of Passover, with their heralding as Messiah one previously rejected by the ‘builders’, those charged with the very construction of the ‘Chosen People’, we can see that the situation was desperate, far beyond compromise or any ordinary resolution. As we note the last sentence of our Reading about the Kingdom being taken away from Israel and bestowed elsewhere (to Gentiles), we can only be painfully aware, as were our Gospel writers, that by the time of their writing Jerusalem was a heap of ruins and the country devastated, the loser’s in the savage Jewish Revolt and Civil War – three million dead, and an equal number enslaved.

When Paul wrote to the Christians of Philippi, (Phil 4:6-9) he had already made that great move out to the Gentiles. True, the Gentile mission was only in its infancy and the Revolt had not even begun by his death, yet Paul has made that great sea-change, leaving behind Pharisaic Judaism with its dependence on the law. He himself was writing from prison and to a Christian group which may itself have known much about persecution for the faith. With this in mind, he can address words of comfort and support to them – a community basically on the right track – encouraging them both in the faith and in their daily behaviour, in the attitudes they needed to foster as they lived amidst the challenges of the pagan world.

It all helps us to understand the yawning gap seen in our scriptures between those who remain true to the faith and those whose appreciation of it may have gone wildly off beam, and who follow interpretations of it which betray the truth. Mere following of the letter of the Jewish law to the detriment of any real exploration of the love of God clearly moved Jesus to fury, and others to kill him out of self-righteousness. Perhaps we need to look at our understanding of our faith and our behaviour with the precision with which both Jesus and Paul were capable.

 

 

To realise our need for God’s mercy

It’s easy to suggest that if only everybody made the effort to be good, and to stop being bad, then the world’s problems would be solved. There are many Christian texts that seem to support this view. St Paul writes today in our 2nd Reading: “Everybody must be self-effacing. Always consider the other person to be better than yourself.” (Phil 2:2) But although there are many texts like this, St Paul also makes it clear that however hard we humans try to be good, we can never succeed all the time. He knows this because before he became a Christian he was one of those very strict Jews, that Jesus was often in conflict with, called the Pharisees. They had a very strict code of life and believed that being perfect was possible.  He knew it was not.

St Paul certainly wanted people to aim to be perfect, but also to face the reality that something more was needed if people were to be acceptable to God. He writes, For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.… For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self,  but I see in my body another law at war with the law of my mind.” (Romans 7:19-23) I expect we all know what that is like, when we get irritable with people we live with, and make some cutting remark, or even lose our temper and say things that later we regret. Then we might, with St Paul again say, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) Well maybe we wouldn’t be as dramatic as that; but we certainly wish at times that there was something that would stop us when we go over the top like this, and hurt someone we love!

Christianity is based on the view that however hard we humans try, sometimes we will fail. Jesus knew this only too well, which is surely why he expresses again and again how much God loves us, even when we mess up. It is absolutely central to our Christian faith that we admit that we fail, that unlike some people out there in the world, we do not have a “so what” attitude. Some of you may have seen on the TV or on the Internet cases where someone caught out doing something selfish, like parking in a disabled space, simply said “So what?”- displaying no sense that he or she might have done something wrong. This ignorance of what is right and what is wrong is normal in a tiny child; but gradually good parents teach their child about caring about others and sharing what they have. What is sad is that some are either never taught or never learn that they can do things that are wrong and then need to say sorry. At its worst this attitude leads to the violence and war that we hear on the News every day. Things we just wish would not happen.

Of course we think that we’re not like that, don’t we? And that’s our danger; that we begin to think that we, unlike other people, are good and kind all the time, and conveniently forget the times when we have failed, as well as the many other times when we could have done good but didn’t. Then, we are just like the son Jesus talks of in the Gospel today, who said he would go and work in the vineyard, but then failed to do so. (Matt 21:28-32)

We Christians have a couple of technical terms that we use to describe this situation in which we find ourselves – with war and violence around us, and the failings that we can’t cope with within us. We call the whole messy situation “The Fall”. This comes from the idea that God intended us to be good and perfect from the beginning, but by giving us free will, also allowed us to fail. And fail we did! It’s expressed in the story told at the beginning of the Bible (Genesis 2:15-3:19) where the story teller imagines a man and a woman living originally in a beautiful garden in perfect harmony with each other and with the world around them. But then they become aware of other things they could do that were not good, and so everything goes wrong and they have to leave the garden for the big hard world outside. Yes – it’s the story of Adam and Eve. That’s what we mean by the Fall.

Our second technical term is the one we use to describe the way each of us seems programmed to mess up despite our best intentions. We call this “original sin”. This is not the same as “the sins” – plural – that we commit. By sins we mean all our imperfections and failures, not just very bad things. No, original sin (singular) is something in all of us humans that we cannot solve, that leave us, like St Paul, from earlier, saying  “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  Death!- you might say – surely it’s not as bad as that? Well yes it is, because we Christians believe that if we are to be with God in eternal life when we die, we must be perfect as he is perfect, and that is just what we cannot be, despite our best efforts. And the alternative to eternal life, is eternal death.

I am not going to talk today in detail about the solution that Jesus brings us to sort out our mess, this problem that we humans find ourselves in; but we certainly have to accept that we need a solution, that we need to be delivered, or to be saved – as we sometimes say. This is why we disagree with humanists and atheists. They can often be very good people – sometimes better than us – but they believe that humanity can save itself – that it is just a matter of everyone being kinder and more loving, and then the world will be at peace. All of humanity needs to realise instead that we are more often like the son who said “No” to his father, and need to change our mind. Every day we need to realise how much help the whole of humanity, including you and me, needs for this change of mind to happen, help that can only come from the source of goodness and love that is God rather than from our own resources. We all need to be saved.