Apocalypse is about the triumph of God

Meditation by Frances Flatman on next Sunday’s Readings :-

The modern world approaches ‘Apocalyptic’ in terms of terror and destruction, and I suppose when we have so many like the present incumbent of the White House chucking threats at all and sundry this may be understandable, but it was not the way in which ancient writers understood this term.

By the 2nd to 1st century BCE there were Jewish writers who were beginning to probe the nature of the God-man relationship, and clearly for them the time honoured text of scrupulously fulfilling of the law so that all would be well, along with temple sacrifice, was not enough. Among them were the ‘Wisdom’ writers, and it can be no accident that at the same time ideas of eternal life, and resurrection developed. For some Jews this simply meant that Israel would come out on top, and the reign on earth of the Messiah would be universal; Israel would be all powerful and destroy all those enemies which had smashed her and caused such suffering. It all remained a very material and earth-bound thing. But this was clearly not the case for everyone, and for the writer(s) of Daniel and others it was to develop into an altogether more mysterious and hopeful thing, in which the God of Israel would finally meet with his chosen, even those who had died, and whose relationship with Him would develop into something altogether more spectacular and glorious. The fact that this kind of Apocalyptic was born out of great suffering, in this case, the rule of the Seleucid tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes: he of the Maccabean Revolt, can be no accident. Certainly the belief that God would vindicate the dead, the ‘sleepers’ of Daniel, (12:1-3) and that they would thereafter have an immortal life, here described as ‘Bright as stars for all eternity’ is a pointer to the fact that we should not read apocalyptic literally but poetically, for the writers are stepping out into the unknown, searching for language with which to express this new and deeper understanding of our relationship to God. What we do know is that Jesus was influenced by this literature, for there are echoes of it throughout his teaching, and especially of Daniel 7 in which the Son of Man is brought into God’s presence and rewarded for his faithfulness.

The fact that the Gospel writers record Jesus’ own use of Apocalyptic, and the context within which he does so, is very important. In our Gospel (Mark 13:24-32) so close to his passion and death, we find Jesus coming out of the Temple in Jerusalem and passing judgment upon it, indeed, forecasting its utter ruin and desolation. I think that like all apocalyptic this is Jesus’ personal comment on his relationship with the Temple and its hierarchy who will so shortly put him to death. Time after time in Mark’s Gospel we have met Jesus in head-on collision with these very authorities, be they priests, Pharisees, Sadducees or scribes, and we have come to realise that the conflict between him and them was irreconcilable.

Then there was the ever growing hostility between Jews and the Roman occupiers of Palestine which we know was getting increasingly worse. Jesus did not have to be especially clairvoyant to realise that it would end in revolt, as it did in 66-70 CE, with catastrophic results for the Jews; and by the time the synoptic writers wrote their gospels between the 70’s-late 80’s it was simply a matter of fact, to be incorporated into their Gospel accounts. Describing these events, Jesus simply used time honoured language to convey the situations about which he was speaking. We should not suppose for a moment that either he or the Gospel writers, or indeed earlier apocalyptic thinkers, actually expected the implosion of the cosmos; but certainly they wished to convey by this language the dramatic, even shattering effects of the changes to be wrought by his death and resurrection, and on the Jewish people.  Just as we use poetic imagery to convey either great love or pain: ‘My love is like a red, red rose’, or Owen’s description of the dead of the Great War starkly as ‘Dying like cattle’, neither of which are true, but which convey so much; so Jesus used time-honoured images to convey the effect of his death and resurrection and the wholly new life into which it would incorporate his followers. Traditional inscriptions found on ancient city walls recording the once-in-a-lifetime visit of an emperor to some remote city in Turkey often speak of his ‘Coming in the clouds”, God-like in power and majesty. Small wonder then that our writers borrowed this turn of phrase for the one who really was what he said he was!

Our writer of Hebrews (10:11-14.18) continues his project of distinguishing between Jesus and the high priestly sacrifices of the Temple, and here delivers his devastating critique. The latter offer “Over and over again the same sacrifices which are quite incapable of taking sins away.” Christ, ‘By his single offering has achieved the eternal perfection of all….When all sins have been forgiven there can be no more sin offerings.” We have to get into the language of scripture, just as we do with so much language which we use every day. If we simply stick with its strange imagery, we can end up having all manner of strange and quite erroneous ideas about our faith. Apocalyptic is meant to convey a positive understanding of things to us, as it did to ancient Israel, for in the end it is about the triumph of God who has loved us in Christ into his life, and has a marvellous future for each one of us. Mind-blowing? Yes. Bringing death and destruction? Most definitely not.




On shouting in prayer and praise

Some people might find the idea of shouting in prayer a bit odd, but prayer is any way in which we communicate with God; and since we see two different people do that by shouting in today’s Readings, we need to look at what that’s all about. In our First Reading, Jeremiah (31:7-9) encourages us to shout when we want to praise God; whilst in our Gospel (Mark 10:46-52) we hear the blind man shouting to Jesus for help, and his shouts were heard. So two ways of shouting are worth using when we pray, in which one is a shout of praise and the other a shout for help.

When we shout in praise to God, we most often do it through song. “Sing to the Lord a new song; play skillfully on the strings with loud shouts.” is just one example from the great Hymns that Jesus knew by heart and would have sung with others. We call these Hymns, the Psalms, and that was from Psalm 33, but there are many many other examples encouraging us to sing and to shout. Most shouts to God in praise are best expressed in song, not least because we can do it altogether. Singing out in a loud voice to God is a vital part of being human. We should of course sometimes sing quietly, even almost under our breath, for singing of any kind offers to God a different part of our brain from speaking. That’s why we find it much easier to remember the words of songs, as we sing them, than words that are only spoken. We must always remember that these great shouts of praise to God are as much part of prayer as our quiet times. St Paul says that prayer will sometimes be “sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26) and we must pray in silence like that too; but we must have a balance, and shouts and songs of praise are equally important. As Jeremiah says “Proclaim. Praise. Shout.”

The second use of shouting in prayer is what we heard the blind man doing in the Gospel. He shouts for help, and note that he shouts even louder when the people tell him to be quiet. But remember that God knows our hearts and our needs even before we ask him, so we do not shout to God to make him hear us. Prayer is not about us trying to get God to open up to us, for he is always with us : he knows our hearts and our minds. Prayer is actually the way we open ourselves more and more to God, so that when we are sad or desperate or in pain, our shout, our cry to God for help, is the way we really share with God our deepest troubles, and our need for him, so that he can enter with his love in an even deeper way to bring us comfort and support. Here again we may shout out loud, or with silent sighs too deep for words. Both are ways in which we open up more and more to God in prayer.

There is however one other way that we can shout in prayer that might surprise you, and that is shouting AT God. There are times when things go so wrong for us that in our desperation, we want to really shout not just TO God but AT God, almost blaming him for the problem, even though we know it’s not really his fault.  In one great example of this from the Bible, Isaiah cries out (64:1) “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” ; and that’s certainly the way we can sometimes feel when we are really low. Now some people would say that shouting at God like this is wrong, but I would argue that God is big enough and loving enough to cope with us when we cry for help even like this; for we’re not meant simply to show our polite side to God, as some people think, as if prayer was like addressing some powerful person who we do not want to offend. Prayer does not have to be polite.

 If Jesus from the cross can shout out “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”, then we can too. Here again, he is using words from another of the Psalms, (22) which just shows how often these great Hymns can express some of our deepest feelings. I think that people get confused here because they know it is wrong to curse God, and think that shouting at God is the same. But as we can see from that shout of Jesus, it’s actually very different. Jesus doesn’t shout against God. That would be impossible for him; but he does share in as forceful way as possible the pain and agony that he is going through as he dies that horrible death; and we are thus given permission to do something similar when things are really tough for us.

As Christians we are meant to share everything with God, our greatest joys and our greatest sorrows, and all the other more ordinary things in between. Sharing our whole life with God is what prayer is, and that’s why we need to do it regularly both alone and with others; for in doing so we are not just letting God’s love and grace flow more fully into us, but also through us to others.


Jesus chooses to be a slave to serve us

Meditation by Frances on next Sunday’s Readings :-

When we modern men and women read about slavery in the Bible, we frequently just close our minds to its implications and simply consign it to history, and one of its evils at that. But our Gospel for the day (Mark 10:35-45) requires something more profound and thoughtful. Indeed, Jesus uses it as the paradigm for life in the kingdom of God, and as the pattern of his own life as divine Son.

In our Gospel we find Jesus quite deliberately presenting the disciples with two alternative worlds, that of the rich and powerful and that of the slave; and he leaves his followers in no doubt as to which of the two he espouses as the pattern for ministry, and life in general. At a time when Catholics vilify Pope Francis for the simplicity of his papal lifestyle, and pump up that of Cardinal Burke and others who frequently appear in trains of satin yards long, we can find this weeks Gospel giving profitable and salutary teaching on Church management and the behaviour of its prelates, not to mention our own understanding of the Christian life. We have to remember that our Reading follows immediately on from the third and final of Mark’s Passion Predictions given by Jesus, and of course we have the disciples response, one which demonstrates that they had neither listened to Jesus nor had the least understanding of what he was up to. Do we?

To be a slave in the ancient world was to lose one’s identity not just one’s freedom of action and choice. Slaves did not retain their own names, but took on the name of the master who owned them, so the first century CE had hundreds of thousands of Julii. You find them in Pompeii, in Gaul, and even in Britain and North Africa. Slaves were bought and sold like any other object of commerce; they were moved around the estates of their rich owners without any thought of their needs and families. Records from Egypt never show families sold en bloc, but always split up. As an object your master could use you for sex at whim, beat you or, as you aged simply free you to die on the streets. Slaves were encouraged to form relationships and breed as a way of keeping them quiescent. Slaves with families were less likely to rebel. True, those who worked in the urban households of the rich were often freed in their owners wills, or even earlier, and could be set up in business; and some became very wealthy through the shipping of grain to Rome, and some were the loved servants of the great, and might even be buried in their joint tombs; but for the many they were just expendable items. In Pompeii, there were two Julii families in the late first century CE, Julia who owned a huge David Lloyd like facility, and the other Julius Polybius who was wealthy enough and established enough to stand for public office by the time of the eruption of Vesuvius. Heirs of earlier freedmen and women they had survived to make it up the layers of society to be ‘big’ in Pompeii. The truly wealthy, the aristocrats, rich in land, assets and money would have been those at the top of the tree, men and women who lorded it over others, held powers of life and death over them, led armies to war and took more slaves and booty in battle. In general, they were what everyone else longed to become.

Clearly Jesus was continually battling to get his disciples to rethink the meaning of their solidarity with himself, as we see as he traces the journey to his cross and resurrection. The Church in the following centuries would have endless battles about the place of the rich in the Church, in which almsgiving played an increasingly important part. As the Church grew, its patronage replaced the public benefactions which had built Roman cities, replacing them with churches, hospitals and schools. Yet behind all that benevolence there remained something far more important, something we see etched out in our Reading from Isaiah. (53:10-11) This is part of one of Israel’s great Servant Songs, and familiar to us at greater length from our Good Friday Liturgy. In its original form we see personified Israel sacrificing itself for the nation with those searing words ‘So marred, he seemed no longer human’, words which would have meant so much to Jesus as he shaped his ministry to bring fallen humanity back to its final destiny with God. It was and is about the total surrender of all power and authority, as we witness in Isaiah. This is no victory tale of ancient warriors to be sung around firesides, of one who won lasting renown and established a great and powerful dynasty, though undoubtedly many in Israel interpreted it so, but rather of Israel ripped to bits, as we see in Jesus.

Surely this is why our Reading from Hebrews (4:14-16) following directly from last weeks passage speaks of Jesus’ capacity for ‘weakness’, his identifying himself entirely with those of no worth, those who had reached the very bottom of the pile, and whose need for redemption by someone else was absolute. Most of the time, most of us really think we can wing it on our own; on the cross Jesus knew what it meant to be way beyond hope, and to rely entirely on the Father whom he had obeyed absolutely, and who did come to his rescue – fallen humanity at its lowest. The writer of Hebrews insists that Roman Christians of a Jewish origin were like that. So too are we, those ransomed by Jesus who with him enter into the eternal self-giving of Father, Son and Spirit.





Christians seek the treasures of heaven

As Christians, we know only too well that outward goodness is not enough, not least because it can become an occasion for pride or even arrogance. We know that the important thing about life is to be open to God. What matters is that we humbly follow Jesus, aiming to be good and kind yes, but knowing that when we fail, he still loves us; and knowing too that a surface goodness is not enough.

We see this view of life expressed today, not only in our Gospel, (Mark 10:17-30) where the rich young man tells Jesus how he good he has been, and yet he senses there is something else; and then is told that this “something else” is to give up relying on his money, and as you know he finds that a step too far.  In our 2nd Reading (Hebrews 4:12-13) we’re told that God knows “Our secret emotions and thoughts”, so clearly no surface goodness will work here. And in our Old Testament Reading (Wisdom 7:7-11) we also get the same message : that we must love God (Here described as “Wisdom”) more than gold or silver or even health and beauty.

I’ve mentioned in my earlier Homilies on the Old Testament how it’s actually a series of writings composed over many centuries and this Wisdom passage comes right at the end of this process. These writings portray a people gradually discovering a God who is not like the pagan gods. Pagan gods act like selfish humans, often doing bad things if it suits them; and to start with the Bible often does portray God like that. Pagan gods are also meant to reward their faithful followers with health and prosperity, and this view of God can also often be found in the Old Testament. But alongside these wrong views of God is a gradual realisation that if there is one true God then that God must be entirely different.  If you didn’t get what you wanted from one pagan god, then you might chuck him or her and try a different one; but if you wanted to follow the one true God, then you had to accept that that life will include service and sacrifice.

The Jewish people learnt this the hard way, when their happy life was shattered about 500 years before Christ when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took away into exile all the significant people. They did get back to Jerusalem eventually, but out of their suffering two strands of thinking emerge. One is that things will be all right in the end, that even if they suffer, one day their children or their grandchildren will receive the happy prosperous life they are asking God for, when enemies will be swept away and peace and justice will prevail. The other strand believes that the good things that come from God are happiness and peace in the heart, not outward riches and health; and that the fullness of that happiness and peace will only come to us when we are one with God after we have died.

It is, of course, that second strand of thinking that Jesus teaches and acts out in a life and a death of suffering and service. That is why he was so often in conflict with many of the leading Jews at the time. They believed that eventually God would reward the people, drive out their enemies and bring them earthly riches. In stark contrast, the prosperity Jesus promises his followers is the riches of heaven not of earth. The houses that he promises them are the “many rooms” in God’s house in heaven. Notice that even Jesus’ disciples haven’t got the message. Jesus has to use one of his extreme exaggerations to get over his point. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 

This is why we always have to read the Old Testament through the mind of Jesus and the way he interprets it, or else we can get a very weird idea of what Christianity is. We are called to follow Jesus, however hard that way may be. How sad that the rich young man couldn’t face it. He’s like so many people in prosperous Europe who have lapsed from the faith. Meanwhile, the poor of other parts of the world continue to follow Jesus and be faithful members of his church; and that’s partly because they just can’t afford the distractions, the alternative and exciting other possibilities, that our prosperity offers us. Here at Mass we reject those other possibilities, because we have decided to follow Jesus. That’s why we’re here.

Our perspectives on what is human will be made immeasurably richer

Thoughts from Frances on next Sunday’s Readings :-  St Mark’s stark Gospel makes painfully clear just how often people came to Jesus because they wanted something from him. This is very apparent in the distinction Mark makes between those Jesus seeks out and heals or helps, and those who somehow or other think they have a claim on him, or rights in relationship with him. This is particularly well illustrated by the three passion predictions made by Jesus in this Gospel, and the reactions of his closest disciples, who ignore what he has said and instead resort to earthly and materialistic ways of thinking. We see this in the way Peter dismisses the first prediction – ‘This cannot happen to you’, and with the second where they are arguing about who is the greatest; and we will see it in the final and third as they lay claim to the top positions in the kingdom. Our man in our Gospel today is one more of the same. (Mark 10:17-30). The Hellenised society of 1st century Palestine, much like the rest of the Greco-Roman world, consistently moved and thought in a world of social advancement and success. Those respected by the world were those who had fought their way up to the top and were honoured members in this ‘honour society’, one in which status and the power and privileges it brought were esteemed above all else.

The man in question has indeed led a good life and had rigorously fulfilled all the demands of the Jewish law. He lived therefore in anticipation that he would be amply rewarded in ‘eternal life’; that very material existence Jews looked for as they anticipated the coming of the kingdom and the overthrow of Roman power and occupation, and invested all their hopes in their understanding that the kingdom meant Jewish world domination. In short, he expected the kingdom to be ‘more of the present that he enjoyed, only more so.’ Clearly ‘eternal life’ for him, and indeed for the disciples, was not what Jesus envisaged at all. What he worked and looked for was our being fully taken up into God’s life, the life he knew as the divine Son, and believed that his mission on earth would incorporate every believer into – life lived as God lives and loves and gives of himself. There are, it seems, things far above the worth of wealth, power and status in this life, and as Jesus so pointedly made clear, the fullness of this relationship with God the Father can only be achieved through renunciation of all worldly status as we follow him in our self-emptying, and the total gift of self in the service of others.

Hebrews (4:12-13), was written some years after Paul’s death, between the 70’s-80’s CE, to a still Jewish dependent congregation of Christians in Rome. The author’s purpose was to keep this Jewish-Christian group firm in its belief in Christ in a period when things may well have been quite difficult. Christians had deliberately separated themselves from the Jewish rebels and played no part in the revolt, so that the gap between the two groups was increasingly noticeable, and Christians could no longer claim the protection and privilege Jews enjoyed in relation to the pagan empire. Some in this community of Christians clearly did want to return to mainstream Judaism which still, despite the horrors of the failed Jewish Revolt, retained some protection against Roman insistence on worship of the gods, and clearly there was quite a lot of infighting and friction within this community.

The whole of the Letter is focussed on proving the superiority of Christ over the Jewish law and its claims. Our tiny snippet speaks of the ‘Word of God’, as ‘Alive and active’, capable of precision and incisiveness, like a surgeon’s scalpel or, even more powerfully, a power capable of penetrating between soul and spirit. Perhaps our writer is thinking, like St John, of God’s ‘Word’ as the power of Jesus himself, God from God, the being who can and does enter the very heart of every believer. Certainly he writes of a power capable of intimately knowing every person’s most secret thoughts. This was, as with so much of Jesus’ own teaching about his relationship with the Father, designed to get believers radically to rethink what their/our relationship with God is all about. If we/they still think in old ways about ticking enough boxes by our own good behaviour so as to ‘earn’ eternal life, then we are clearly on the wrong track. Jesus’ relation to the Father was not about this at all,; but rather that of a total entry into the life of God himself, and this is our invitation too. The project, says the writer of Hebrews, is of an entirely different order; and we need to hang onto that in any age.

Clearly in the decades before the birth of Christ in the 1st century CE, there were writers and thinkers whose understanding of the God-human relationship was developing and shifting away from the conventional ways of understanding that relationship. After all, Jesus didn’t simply spring up anew with no relationship to the Jewish world from which he came, rather, he and some others of deep devotion to God, like the Wisdom writers, realised that sticking to the time honoured band-wagon of power and wealth as the supreme sign of divine blessing was to aim considerably below par. After all, their fellow thinkers for generations, like the Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and even Job and many others had recognised that very good and holy men and women often got persecuted and had a very bad time of things. Questions of why the just and good suffer went back to the dawn of religious writing, as we see with the very early exploration of this in the story of what we call The Fall. No, our relationship with God is about something far more important than who is successful and who is not, nor is it simply about this material life. All this culminated in what we call the Incarnation, God the Son becoming human and taking us, rich and poor alike, into God’s life, where our perspectives on what it is to be human and divine will be immeasurably richer than we can ever imagine.

God’s amazing solidarity with us

Thoughts of Frances on next Sunday’s Readings :-

Those reading this weeks Bible passages might easily be trapped into thinking that this is all about the Church laying down the law on the iniquities of divorce. Indeed, not a few preachers may hold forth in this vein. However I beg to differ, since I believe that a far more significant project is held out to us, and that that is about the capacity for divinity of every human being.

We see this in our Reading from Genesis (2:18-24), a passage which is fundamentally about wholeness, and not just any completeness, but rather that of the divine. First of all the human being is invited by God to name all the wildlife of God’s creation. Now in the ancient world one’s name, or one’s capacity for naming, was not simply a functional thing but much more a recognition of a things entire being and identity. So the naming by the man in a sense makes him godlike, since he is the possessor of power over the animal kingdom. Significantly, as none of these creatures is sufficient to fit the needs of the man, he is put to sleep by God and gives of himself to fashion a woman. It is a sacrificial act, a surrender of self for other, which is an idea we must hang onto for it is critical to our story. Woman is created through this self-gift, and the two are heralded by the man: ‘At last, bone from my bones….flesh from my flesh’. We must for a moment put aside all that patriarchy stuff, it is a godlike act, one we shall see repeated in the giving of God the Son by God the Father, and the one who will surrender his very being for us. I suggest that the early compilers of Genesis, whilst they knew nothing of the Incarnation, did have a sense however inchoate of the gift linking creation to creator, and of the perfection achieved in this act of giving.

This surely is what the writer of Hebrews (2:9-11) recognised. Hebrews was written for Roman Christians probably around the 80’s CE, when the Flavian dynasty was at the height of its power and had conquered Palestine and put down the Jewish Revolt. Our author writes to Roman Christians, insisting on the superiority of the Christian claim in a city literally stuffed with pagan gods. But unlike them, he writes of the purpose of the Christian God, so unlike that of the pagan gods; and that intention was unity through the suffering and willing self sacrificial death of Christ. No pagan god ever suffered or gave of himself for others, even other gods, but Jesus, says Hebrews, the Son of God in complete unity of nature with his Father, as a human being is also complete in his unity with us, and indeed experiences the unthinkable – for a god – he dies for us. ‘By God’s grace he had to experience death for all mankind.’ This self sacrifice is gift, pure gift of the divine to humanity, grace such as the author of life itself will take on the suffering and death of human beings, experiencing everything which brings us down, reducing us to mere animals, and having undergone this death ensures not simply his own glory, but that of the human race too. ‘It was his purpose to bring a great many of his sons into glory.’ The point being our solidarity with God the Son, ‘For the one who sanctifies, and the ones who are sanctified, are of the same stock; that is why he openly calls them brothers’. It was a truly staggering claim to make for the Christians of Rome, a city in which no one became divine save the odd dead emperor. But Christians were claiming that all followers of Christ were called to become sons and daughters of God himself, and join in the perfect unity of the Trinity, heirs of the kingdom.

In our Gospel (Mark 10:2-16) we find Jesus back in Judea, in fact, he’s on his way to Jerusalem for Passover and his Passion. Pharisees ask him questions about divorce. Now my guess is that, along with the many other altercations between the Pharisees and Jesus, they were looking for ammunition to use against him. In fact Jesus just goes straight to our Genesis teaching and the Commandments, but remarks that because of their hardness of heart they were allowed to divorce by Moses. Just as in its original context, man and woman were ‘made for each other’ made for unity and harmony, so it is now. Jesus gives this teaching and does not really comment upon it. Perhaps the reason for his apparent silence is his awareness of the lack of unity in Judaism which was presently focussed upon bringing him down. Like any thinking person he was fully aware of the tragedies inflicted on humans by their partners during divorce, and saw this as indicative of the wider fractioning of society which so marks the separation of humanity from God which afflicts us all. The point is surely that divorce, and the pains and pressures which bring it into being, are not of Gods willing or making, and, like the solution, they stem from a world lost to harmony which he, God the Son, must have been aware of in all its tragic and appalling ugliness. Small wonder then, that he turned and embraced small children, the innocent in a world so thin on innocence, one whose lack of solidarity would shortly rip him to bits.

Not worldly but spiritual rewards

This is the first of four Homilies on how to read and interpret the Old Testament the way Jesus does. Why bother? Because sadly so many people think you can just take passages from the Old Testament to justify or condemn almost anything.

In today’s Reading from Wisdom (2:12.17-20) the author has the godless mocking the idea that if you are good and virtuous everything will come right in the end; but he does so to argue that this is true. He writes  “If the virtuous man is God’s son, God will take his part and rescue him from the clutches of his enemies.” The problem is that at the time of Jesus most of his fellow Jews took this literally. They thought that the “enemies” were the Romans, and that one day if they were faithful and good God would somehow get rid of these oppressors and bring them freedom and glory now in this present life. Today there are still people who hold that view, who think that if you are good, then you will be happy and prosperous, and if you are not it must be because you are not faithful enough.

As Christians of course we do not read this passage like that. We know that the disciples on the road in our Gospel today (Mark 9:30-37) had got a similar wrong idea of the rewards of being good and holy and following Jesus. We know that because despite all he had already taught them, they argued about which of them was the greatest. We also know that they got this wrong right up to the arrest and execution of Jesus, seeing this as a failure of all their hopes and dreams. Yes, as the passage from Wisdom says, they knew that the virtuous might be tested, but they still hung on to the belief that it would all come right in the end.

They knew this from so much else in the Old Testament. They knew well the story of their people struggling in the wilderness for many years, because they knew that eventually they reached the promised land. They gloried in the time when their land was rich and prosperous under King David and King Solomon. They were taught from these writings that things gradually went wrong after that, because the people were not faithful; but they also knew that eventually after exile the Jewish people returned and rebuilt Jerusalem. So even though things under the Romans were not good, they were sure that one day, through the help of God, everything would be put right. Of course, this is still today the view of extreme Zionist Jews, who believe that the growth in the strength and prosperity of the State of Israel is a sign that this promised glory is now taking place, and that their “enemies” are thus being defeated.

Many of the Psalms that we sing can also be interpreted in this worldly way. We sang today “The Lord upholds my life.” – which understood literally does give the impression that although proud and ruthless men may rise against us, God will protect us. As Christians however we know that the help that God gives us against such enemies is what we would call spiritual rather than worldly. We know that the real “enemies” we face are not other human beings, but the evil spiritual powers that lead some people (and all of us a bit) to be selfish and cruel. So we do not support those who seek worldly success, and we would be wary of any Christian whose first aim was to make money and be powerful and successful, especially if he or she said their success was due to their faith in God!

This does not mean however that we Christians sit around allowing other people to walk all over us; or that because our final goal is a spiritual one, to be close to God for ever in heaven, we do not need to work to make money to feed our families and improve the world economy.  Yes, we do have a duty to build worldly prosperity now, but our reason for doing this is quite different. We do so because we are called by Jesus to care for the poor and the sick and the hungry. Jesus said, did he not, that in doing this we are actually serving him?  So we believe that part of the way we help the poor is by building a good and prosperous but caring society, not just in our own country but throughout the world.

So rich people can be Christians, but if they are, they will see their prosperity as something to be used for others rather than squandered on their own pleasures, and they will see the success of the businesses in which they have a share, or their employment of many people, not as a way of making more money for themselves, but as a way of improving the common good of all, so that no human being has to live in poverty or die of starvation on the streets.

 Today in the Gospel Jesus challenges the worldly view of success by putting a child in front of us and saying If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.”  Thus wrong views from the Old Testament are challenged, and a better vision of being human is proclaimed for us all.