Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- There are occasions in one’s reading of Augustine when you do think he is excessively gloomy about us and the world, and goes on alarmingly about the necessity of divine salvation and the extent of the difference between us and God. That is until one stops to consider what the world is truly like. From the security of the cosy Cotswolds and a moderately wealthy Britain, we can so easily fall into the trap of thinking things are going pretty well and we are fairly in control; and no doubt Augustine might have had a similar view until Rome was sacked by the Goths, and Italians streamed into North Africa as refugees. Certainly by the time of his death, as he watched his city and others fall to the Vandals, and his life’s work go up in flames, he can have had very little cause for any optimism about our capacity to ‘save the day’. Our present times are similarly desperate, with two seemingly grossly unbalanced statesmen who hold nuclear weapons threatening each other and the world, not to mention the incredible tales of the brutalities of Isis in Syria and Iraq, or the atrocities perpetrated on innocent men and women caught up in wars not of their making, and a refugee crisis of almost unimaginable proportions. In such circumstances I began to reflect that Augustine’s view of the great gulf between us and God, and the revelation of the immensity of divine love shown in the redemption gained for us by Christ, really is as yawningly cavernous as he has supposed.
When looked at from such a perspective our Reading from Romans (11:13-15.29-32) takes on a quite different perspective. If we do not take the time really to grapple with Paul’s difficult and complex thought processes we could easily fall into the trap of reading our passage as a simple and rather prim moral message: the pagans have been brought into the salvation offered by Christ in order to bring Jews up short and bring them to their senses. But surely this is not the point, as we learned from Paul’s agonised plea in last weeks passage, (9:1-5) in which the necessity for redemption in Christ is explored. Indeed, so great is the need as Paul understand it for his Jewish compatriots to accept Christ, that he likens it to “a resurrection from the dead”, a huge, an unimaginable, transformation of the human being, fitting us to share the glory of God. This, Paul claims, is achieved by Jewish rejection of Jesus, which gave the Gentiles the opportunity to meet God in Christ and be saved which in turn reopened the same possibility to Jews. Anyone with the smallest understanding of Paul’s letters must be aware that they are fundamentally NOT about some small tinkering with personal behaviour, some minor sprucing up of the personal psyche that will put things right with God. He, and Augustine after him, were all too aware of the extent of our estrangement from God, and therefore of the immensity of the gift given us in the sacrifice of Christ whose life-giving gift truly recreates a fallen, wretched world. This is the cause and the only cause for Paul’s optimism that a creation estranged from God and his entire purpose, may be brought back to him by one supreme act of love in the Son.
In our Gospel from Matthew (15:21-28) we meet this scenario as it is worked out in the human life of Jesus. In the preceding parts of the Gospel, we have met Jesus in ever increasing hostility with the leaders of Jewish thought and behaviour. They in turn have come to see him not as some minor irritant, but as the Greek so forcefully puts it, as a ‘scandal’, one to be got rid of, wiped off the map. As a consequence, Jesus’ ministry increasingly turns to the pagan world, and we meet him today in the territories of Tyre and Sidon, city states of great antiquity from the Bronze Age, whose ships ploughed the Mediterranean, and whose many gods were taken out all over their territories. Here he meets a Canaanite woman, a worshipper of the Baal’s at the end of her tether over her sick daughter, and who in her distress turns to Jesus. No doubt she had heard of his healing powers from others. So great is her concern for her child, so desperate her need, that she turns her back on her traditional gods and reaches out to Jesus. The disciples are embarrassed by her cries for help and want her shut up, even suggesting Jesus help her for this sole purpose! But Jesus is himself puzzling out the nature of his saving ministry and asking himself if it is indeed only for the rejecting Jews. The woman, as we see quite frequently in our Gospels, dialogues with Jesus, enters into a relationship with him, crossing the social and racial boundaries of the day, breaking open the barriers which kept Jew and Gentile apart. In fact we are told that she did far more, for in her meeting with Jesus she ‘worshipped’ him. The Greek proskunesis has sadly been lost by the Jerusalem Bible which has the woman kneel to Jesus. But this woman has recognised his power, and has thrown aside centuries of tradition to reach out to him, as of course he scandalously reaches out to her. That is what salvation is about, the coming together of two totally estranged ways of being, met in the life of this unique man.
In the late 6th century BCE, when the Persians conquered Mesopotamia and the Near East their policy was to allow children born to those captured under the Babylonians to return to their ancestral homes if they so wished. It is here that Third Isaiah takes up the story. (Isa 56:1.6-7) We know that under the Persians the returnees were encouraged to rebuild the temple, and that it was completed in 516 BCE. But life for the returnees was hard, their lands had often been occupied by foreigners sent there by the Babylonians, and things did not go smoothly. Indeed, by the time of our writers, it seems that temple cult and worship were frequently neglected. Isaiah issued a wake up call, welcoming all, Jew and foreign convert alike, who observed the rules correctly. Indeed from the text it appears that they relied heavily upon converts to keep the faith up to scratch. Understanding of our faith, real, devoted practice of it, and commitment to exploration of what its depths imply is something none of us can take for granted. All too frequently complacency, even contempt can creep in. Continual growth is the only way.