Blog

Continual growth is the only way

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.

 

God in the sound of silence

On Saturday, I conducted a wedding for a couple where the man was my age and the woman about 10 years younger. They were sealing a friendship which had already lasted many years, and it reminded me that true marriage is not about love as the world thinks of it – a feeling that takes you over – but about love as Christians think of it – a steady ongoing care and concern for others. Normally, for younger couples, I preach quite strongly on this theme – that love is an act of will NOT a feeling – but it was great to relax with this couple and celebrate love in a rather different way.

We humans easily get overwhelmed by our feelings don’t we? That’s why some people  stop coming to Church or even stop believing in God. They are looking for the wrong kind of God. Those who stop coming to Mass often say that they have stopped because they don’t get anything out of it; but what they mean is that they don’t feel they are getting anything out of it. It’s why some people turn to a more happy clappy Christianity which appeals to their feelings. But mostly Mass is not like that. God is present quietly, and comes to us like that, and we have to take that on trust without necessarily feeling anything.

In a similar way, those who don’t believe in God say “Show me this God, and then I will believe.” They think that because we Christians talk about God as a massive power, which he is, then they should feel God like that. They don’t understand that if God did reveal his power like that, we and they would have no choice but to believe – it would be so overwhelming. God chooses instead mostly to be with us simply and quietly, and that’s because God wants us to love him freely, not  to be forced to obey because we are overwhelmed. This is because God is love, and true love is not a feeling that overwhelms us, but a quiet trust that lasts all through life.

Both our 1st Reading (1 Kings 19:9-13) and our Gospel (Matt 14:22-33) express this truth for us today. Elijah, hiding in the cave, wonders if God is in these powerful natural forces that make him feel afraid – the wind, the earthquake or the fire. The Reading says God was not in any of these, but what it surely means is that God did not show himself through any of these, for God is actually in all things unless they are evil. In doing this God is surely showing Elijah the relationship he wants with him, and so (as we all know) he reveals himself in what our translation calls “a gentle breeze”. Other translations have it as “a sound of sheer silence.”, which is rather good. Think what silence sounds like! But those of us who know the hymn that tells this story, will know it best as the “Still small voice of calm”. Each translation is an attempt to convey something of the wonder of the way God talked to Elijah, and talks to us.

The Gospel presents the same message in a different way, when Jesus appears to the disciples when they are “battling with a heavy sea”. Impulsive Peter, as usual, wants to be part of the action. At last, he thinks, Jesus is revealing his real power. Now no-one can doubt him, and all this talk of suffering and dying can be swept away. So now Peter decides to test his theory. Note what he says “If it is you.” Jesus then allows Peter to learn a hard lesson, that God is not a powerful magician who can throw some protective shield over us, so that we can be like Superman or Wonderwoman. Peter has to sink, almost to drown, and to learn that he will find God in his weakness not in his strength. He has to learn, as we do, that we need saving, that we need to cry out as he did “Lord save me”.  And then comes a gentle hand, so gentle that we may not feel it, and yet is there, so gentle that it is a sound like silence, a still small voice, which tells us simply to trust, to have faith even in our darkest moments. 

Our 2nd Reading today (Romans 9:1-5) appears to have no connection with this theme at all. But actually it has. Paul is agonizing about his fellow Jews who cannot see that the Jesus who has died on the cross is the culmination of all their hopes, that he is the still small voice that Elijah heard so long before. Sadly most of them are still looking for a God who will show his power in a way that no-one can withstand. Only a few Jews realise the different way of Jesus. Supreme among them of course, is that simple Jewish girl whose day we celebrate on Tuesday. Mary, Our Lady, knew this. She knew that her strange quiet son was a full revelation of her God. She trusted in this even when everything went dark as she stood at the foot of the cross and still believed, whilst all his disciples but John had run away. This is why Mary is a model for all of us, of simple trust, and why we ask her regularly to pray for us, that we may have the faith she had, and thus come with her one day to see the glory, that for now is veiled from our sight.

 

God offer us a different kind of relationship

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-  I suppose most of us, when really pushed, think we want a God who is in control of things. Surely this is why so many say they ‘Don’t believe in God’, because he doesn’t control the evil in the world, doesn’t stop suffering. Ancient people too had a similar viewpoint, as we see in our Reading from 1 Kings (19:9.11-13). In a period when no one understood how tornados were caused or knew about seismic activity – something all too frequent if you lived on a major fault line like the Jordan rift – it was normal to understand these events as the display of divine power and even anger, and many peoples believed you could meet God up mountains; indeed this was not lost on Jesus as we see in the Transfiguration and the Sermon on the Mount. The dwellers in the Holy Land were a very mixed lot, and continued to be so, even way beyond the time of Christ. There were Canaanites with Baal and their sacred prostitution, Philistines on the coastal strip with their own gods, and all those inland, over the Jordan. Small wonder then that the Old Testament judged everything in terms of who your gods were, and decried the ways of others, albeit we know that even among ancient Jews there was much syncretism actively encouraged by the kings to get their states to gel properly. Our story of Elijah is the prophet’s attempt to get the people of Israel to think about God in a different way, and in doing so he rejects the loud and dramatic doings so commonly associated with other gods, in favour of the God of quiet, of the  ‘gentle breeze’, in other translations the ‘still small voice’. Within this meeting surely there is a depth, and a suggestion that they/we meet God on different terms, not as the supreme fixer, but as someone / something quite different, and as one who offers us a more mature, and even challenging relationship, one Christians would eventually meet in God Incarnate.

Our Gospel (Matthew 14:22-33) takes up a number of elements from ancient attitudes and understandings of God and the gods and turns them into a teaching exercise. We have the dismissal of disciples and the crowd immediately after the feeding of the 5,000, truly an impressive miracle and a great sign of Jesus’ divine power. Jesus leaves them to go alone into the hills, or rather in Greek,  ‘Up the mountain’ to pray’, to commune with his Father, the source of his power and the one with whom we know he is always in touch, in communion. Then the disciples are found to be struggling in the boat, beset by contrary winds. Jesus walks out on the water to meet the disciples, who are terrified until reassured of Jesus’ identity. At this point, happily convinced of his master’s old style power, Peter seemingly wanting to bask in the glory of Jesus, nips overboard, ‘If he can do this then so can I!’ Naturally, he comes a cropper.

Jesus is saying that it is all about motive and understanding. He is as God capable of giving ample demonstration of his divinity and his power, but that is not the point.  The real point lies in something much deeper, in a relationship of belief and trust in the divinity, which was not something required in those earlier understandings of the gods or of the One God. We have moved from a rather slot-machine approach, in Judaism one of rule obedience, to one in which there is a giving of self both on the part of God, in Jesus, and of the disciple – an exploration of what being divine entails; and in this case Peter comes to realise that his very life is held in Jesus’ hands, he is life giver and saviour, and Peter and we need to explore that and respond appropriately to it. But what we and the disciples have to come to terms with is the hostility of the leading Jews towards Jesus, and the continual friction his ministry has aroused; and Jesus’ three great predictions of his passion and death are just round the corner. The God-man who can perform such awe inspiring miracles is also the person who will die in utter weakness and rejection. God he may be, but ultimate fixer he is definitely not, for this God is offering us all a quite different kind of relationship.

We see something of this when we turn to Paul in Romans (9:1-5). Here we find a Paul who has recognised the utter inability of the Jewish law to put him into the right relationship with God, and in situations in which he accepts that no amount of intellectual understanding can alter his predisposition to sin and in which he is thrown entirely on God’s grace met in the humanity and weakness of Christ. But what Paul has learned is that, whilst he cannot save himself, he can emulate the loving generosity and self-giving of Christ. In our passage we find him in agonies over the failure of his Jewish compatriots to accept the saving life and mission of Jesus. In a quite remarkable piece of personal insight, Paul wishes that he could, Christ-like, throw away his life to save them. So dear is Israel to him, a Jew born and bred, so profoundly does he understand that knowledge of the revelation of Christ comes through Judaism, and that he is the culmination of all their long history of searching for God, that he can see that their accepting of Christ is of more importance than his own salvation. Surely here at last we meet that great kernel of the truth about our relationship with the God of Jesus Christ. Just as his relationship with the Father is about total gift, unconditionally of self, so Paul has understood this in his relations with both his converts, and his fellow countrymen who reject the Christian way. If putting aside one’s own salvation for others is the only way, then that is what must be done.

 

We have come a long way from Elijah and sacred mountains, and have indeed seen and respected their part in our great epic of redemption, but in the end, something of a quite different order is called for, something we meet in the self-oblation of Jesus on the cross, and which we see that Paul has understood. The mountains are not external hills to be climbed but heights to be scaled in the psyche of each one of us, a throwing off of self.

What visions are for

Every now and then, most people are given a vision of God. Sadly, they often do not recognize it for what it is, and almost always it is after the event, often long after the event, that a fuller realisation of their experience dawns on them.

Let me give you an example. I was 12 and had just been introduced to Jesus as a real inspiration for my life, and through him was beginning to have a rather wobbly idea that God might exist. I was on holiday on the Isle of Man at the time. Sitting with a friend beside a river, I was suddenly gripped with a beauty that was beyond words. “Oh look” I said to my friend; but all he saw was a pretty rippling river dappled by sunlight coming through the trees. I couldn’t explain to him, or to you, how I saw so much more than that; but the experience, which I now believe was of God, has stayed with me ever since.

Now you might say “Ah, so that was the moment when you first really believed in God.” or “Ah that was the moment when you first thought of becoming a priest.”; and I would have to say a firm “No” to both those ideas. My belief in God was very shaky all through my teens, and despite my vision of glory I could well have lost my faith altogether; and I certainly had no notion at all of becoming a priest.!

The three disciples were surely in a similar position, when they had that vision of Jesus transfigured and glorified, which we heard of in our Gospel today. (Matt 17:1-9) They clearly had no idea what to do with the vision. Peter has a bright idea, but has to listen to what Jesus says, and is told to tell no-one about the vision he and his friends have seen. It’s a bit like me trying to share my vision with my friend. I realized almost immediately that he did not and could not understand. Peter and James and John however clearly kept the memory of it in their hearts, and only shared what they had seen after others had experienced the risen Jesus in the days after his death on the cross.

Putting visions into words is an almost impossible thing isn’t it? Daniel attempts it in our 1st Reading today (Dan 7:9-14) piling images of fire and snow and light and clouds on top of one another, and confusing many to think that God IS an old man on a throne with white hair, when this is only one image, and never the fullness of what God really is. Others have had visions of angels, or of Our Lady or one of the saints, but the Church wisely tells us not to rely on the vision itself but on what it does for us. So, if people ask me if a vision they think they have had is real, I ask them if it has made them a more loving caring person, if it has brought them closer to God. If it has, then the vision is of God, but if it has brought them into some cranky idea that they should impose their vision on others, then I warn them that they may have been deceived.

It’s worth noting that Jesus often went away to pray alone, and my view is that on each occasion his glory would have been seen, if anyone had been there to see it.  It reminds us that Jesus was one with God from the beginning, way before he rose from the dead, and it was this union with God the Father that gave him the courage as a flesh and blood man to face the suffering and death that he knew he had to undergo. The presence of Moses and Elijah reminds us of this, as it must have reminded him. For these two great prophets also faced immense difficulties and dangers as they tried to do God’s will.  Indeed, in Luke’s story of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) they actually speak to Jesus of his “departure” – meaning his sacrificial death on the cross.

Maybe you can look back on your life and see moments when you too had a vision that has helped you to be a better Christian? Perhaps you haven’t thought like that before? It’s worth doing. Your vision, your realization of the presence of God, may have come to you in a beautiful way, like the one I described to you from my life; but it may equally have come to you at some moment of great sadness or suffering when somehow you were given the strength to get through ; and now looking back you can say “Yes, God was with me then, even though I might not have realised it at the time.”

In the prayer that the priest says at the end of Mass today, we hear what such visions are for. The Priest asks that we may be Transformed  into the likeness of God’s Son whose radiant splendour you Lord God willed to make clear in his glorious Transfiguration.” Each of us, whether we know it or not, is hopefully on the road to that oneness with the glory of God that Jesus showed on that day.

The glory of Jesus challenges us

Frances writes on the Readings of the Feast of the Transfiguration which is celebrated on Sunday this year :_  Apocalyptic language is the most misunderstood and frequently distorted of sacred language. There was President Bush’s megalomaniac idea of a US divinely appointed mission during the Gulf War to control the planet with an all-American singing, dancing super state and now we have Mr Trump and his rhetoric which similarly speaks of power, and above all control, with his walls and other daft ideas. Others misinterpret it in an-other worldly manner, thereby making a rigid division between the Jesus of human hunger, thirst and action, and the Jesus of the miracles, passion, death and resurrection; thereby turning him into a supernatural, magical figure. Such a dualism is equally as mistaken as that of American Presidents, both obscure and cut us off from contact from the graciousness of God, who wills to share his being, his identity and his life with us.

So what are we to make of Daniel (7:9-10.13-14) and Matthew’s apocalyptic Gospel, (17:1-9) in particular the account of the Transfiguration of Christ? Israel used apocalyptic language like that of Daniel (not incidentally written in the 7th century BC during the Babylonian captivity, but some 150 years before the birth of Jesus) as a mode of political comment. The story of Daniel is about the confrontation of good and evil, and Israel, so frequently occupied and plundered by different bully-boy nations. In Jesus’ day it was the Romans; and his listeners would have found in these texts of the overthrow of evil beasts and the reign of a ‘figure in white’, a promise of the triumph of good and the overthrow of evil. Daniel dreams of a ‘Son of Man’, a super hero, victorious through suffering. Daniel himself, like Jesus, was a confronter of rulers, the Babylonian kings providing a thin veneer in this story, hiding his polemic against the native Hasmonean priest-kings of his day who controlled Israel and had become increasingly corrupt, notwithstanding the purity of their forebears who gained a brief 70 years of independence for the nation. Jesus was also in conflict with the Temple, its High priests, the Law, and the corrupt Jewish monarchy. Daniel suffered, at one time thrown to the lions for his confrontation with the kings, but was protected by God and survived; he stands like his ancestor prophets for Israel’s faithfulness, and calls the nation to devotion to God. By the time of Jesus this literature was immensely popular, and well known for shaping the expectations of many in Israel, from revolutionary groups, to quietist separatists like the Essenes of the Dead Sea who believed that only by complete separation from the corrupt contemporary Jewish society could redemption be found. Jesus seems to have combined a number of these traits, opposing the ruling elite, but appealing to the common man, with a conviction that in him God was finally to give himself completely to the world. Jesus did not call for any revolutionary overthrow of existing society, nor revolt against the Roman occupiers, for he saw, as did Daniel, that it was futile to look to become one more in a long line of super-thugs of limited duration condemned ultimately to decline and overthrow.

Instead Jesus was transfigured on the mountain in dazzling white, mirror of the white one of Daniel, the ancient of days, who gives all to the Son of Man; thus showing his complete identity with the Father. He appears talking with Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the prophet of God’s final promises to Israel; and he is acclaimed by God as his ‘Beloved Son’. Our account from Matthew’s Gospel is inserted after the first of Jesus’ predictions of his passion and death. Jesus has made clear his identity as the final, the definitive, Son of man foreseen by Daniel. In Daniel, the Son of man is proclaimed by divine power as the one true king, and given eternal dominion over the whole earth. In our Gospel, God himself proclaims him ‘Beloved Son’; but Jesus instructs his disciples to hide all knowledge of the event until he has risen from the dead, and the divine voice demands they ‘listen’ to him. It seems that the Transfiguration is a hint of future glory for Jesus, and a comfort and consolation for the apostles in the midst of adversity. This is not without fear, as we see from their reaction, and they needs must still puzzle out who and what he is. For Jesus it seems that this encounter with Moses and Elijah is to be connected with his radical challenge to current interpretations of Law and Prophetic writing, for it was his confrontation with interpretations of Law: healing on the Sabbath; teaching outside the Temple and synagogue; his welcoming of sinners and foreigners, and his turning of his back on Jerusalem and its temple, which brought about his death. Jesus, throughout Matthew’s Gospel, is described as a scandal to the Jewish authorities, and it was this that provoked his death. He was too radical, outrageous in his understanding of God, and in his being incarnate, God’s man. Jesus challenged the belief that Israel alone was the chosen people and that its hierarchy held a monopoly on the truth.

Jesus was, and continues to be, a challenge who disturbs the belief that the status quo is the right way for things to be. His understanding of Judaism and its practices got him killed, so his Transfiguration was not a cosy premonition of how things would be, albeit he is seen in glory; but is a map of the hard road to the achievement of that glory, a road we must follow too. As 2 Peter (1:16-19) says, those moments of insight are to be depended upon, for they are “a lamp for lighting a way through the dark until the dawn comes and the morning star rises in your minds”. Clearly, for this writer, those touches of glory, which come to all of us in this life, are genuine moments of consolation, as well as confrontation and challenge, as we wrestle with the trials of life.

 

Apocalyptic was never intended as some divine ‘buck-passing’ exercise, or for complacency. It is about God sustaining our hope and trust in himself. Like Peter, we will frequently fail to get our heads round the actual event at the time, and it may be a while before other events help us to see the significance of things; but we can live with the promise of the dawn, awaiting that morning star who came back from the dead. Perhaps then, apocalyptic is given to us precisely to cut us all down to size, enabling us to recognise that God is God, and that we are simply humans. But, in his grace, we are humans destined to share his life, but it must be on God’s terms

Finding the good in many places

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.

 

God with us in all things

I am now deep in the countryside of South Devon and have all about me the natural world that we all love so much.! The Gospel today, and last week, on seeds and sowing and reaping and weeding (Matt 13:24-43) reminds us how often Jesus uses examples from nature and agriculture to speak about God. Of course we must first remember that Jesus does not want us to take his examples literally. A bit further on from the passage we heard today, he warns his disciples about yeast (Matt 16:5-12) and they take him literally and think he is talking about bread. His response is quite sharp “Oh you of little faith”, he says, “Why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? ……. How is it you do not understand that I was not talking to you about bread?

But Jesus does want us to recognize that in the mystery of the workings of nature, indeed of the whole created Universe, we see glimpses of the mystery that is God. This is why I am infuriated when atheists try to use the Big Bang Theory of the beginning of the Universe – a theory first put forward by a Catholic priest and physicist – to try to prove there is no God. What is extraordinary to me, and probably to you too, is that they can work out, using very complicated Mathematics, how old the Universe is and how far away the Sun and the Stars are from us. How they do it beats me, as I have only to see a very simple Maths formula and immediately get confused, but the fact that they can do it, that there is an order in the Universe that they can discern and calculate from, is just one more reason for believing that there is a God, a power, behind the whole thing.

This idea of God as the power underlying the Universe is a fairly constant theme of mine, isn’t it? People tend to think it is a modern idea, getting rid of a rather childlike view of God, a response to the Scientific discoveries of the 20th Century. It is therefore interesting to note that a well-known hymn written way back in the 1830’s also uses this theme. Let me remind you :-                                                      Immortal invisible, God only wise                                                                                                 In light inaccessible hid from our eyes                                                                                   Most of what the scientists now know about light wasn’t known then, and yet the author gets right to the heart of it and places God there, underlying all that was later discovered about the Universe he created.

In the Gospel today however, Jesus talks also about things that go wrong in the natural world. Again we need to be careful not to take literally his description of the devil planting the weeds deliberately. He is using the story to remind us that the world is a place where all is not well, a place where there is evil as well as good. And that is certainly an important thing to remember. It is always dangerous to underestimate evil, not least the way it can be at work in us, often without us realizing it.

It is all too easy for me and you to go all dreamy about the beauty of nature and the wonder of the stars, and forget all the troubles we all face both personally and in the world as a whole. Surely the point Jesus is making is that if we zoom out from the things that are wrong and sad, and look at the glory of the created world as well, we will find it easier, not to understand, but at least to cope with all the sad things our world has to face. It is right for example that we should be really sad about the conflicts and cruelties going on in the world, but we must never forget all the unreported good things going on too in the midst of all this. The acts of love, heroism and self-sacrifice that happen daily but are rarely reported. That’s surely what Jesus is getting at when he says that if we try to rip up the weeds we will pull up half the wheat as well. We might of course contemplate what the Universe would be like if there were no difficult things to face, but what’s the point of that, since there is nothing we can do about it. Somehow we have to live with both the good and the bad, to face the fact that this is what Creation is like, and get on with making the best of it. For what else can we do?

So let’s look at the glory and goodness of the world that God has given us to live in, and use it to inspire us to work for a growth in the good crop even in the midst of the weeds – a crop which is love, kindness, gentleness beauty and truth. Let us be good farmers rather than stupid moaners! Let’s remember encouraging words from our 1st Reading (Wisdom 12:13)  There is no God, other than you, who cares for everything”,  and when we do get down, let us hear St Paul reminding us that in our weakness the Holy Spirit of God is within us and will come to us and help us to go on. (Romans 8:26)