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On a wing and a prayer

 

29th Sunday of the year                     15/16 October 2016

Exodus 17:8-13               2 Timothy 3:14-4:2              Luke 18:1-8

 I’m not complaining, but I’m having a busy weekend. You know how it is, things just all seem to happen at once. Last night, before the Mass of Induction for Fr Paul, I was telling our small band of servers how I had just travelled back from a meeting in Yorkshire, that I needed to prepare a homily for a baptism on Saturday afternoon, was due to attend a business meeting on Saturday morning, and on top of that had to prepare for preaching at all masses.

 One of the servers said, “Just wing it, you’ll be all right.” It’s certainly tempting.

And then during Fr Paul’s induction, he made a public oath of fidelity with his hand on the book of gospels, which included the phrase, “In fulfilling the charge entrusted to me in the name of the Church, I shall hold fast to the deposit of the faith in its entirety; I shall faithfully hand it on and explain it, and I shall avoid any teaching contrary to it.”

It was a powerful and immediate reminder to me: Preaching to the faithful is a privilege and a serious responsibility, given with the authority of the Church through Archbishop Bernard giving his clergy permission to preach. We clergy are ‘under authority’, and we have to make sure you don’t lead people astray in out teaching. So, I have prepared. Actually, it wasn’t as rushed a job as that. I’d looked up the reading a fortnight ago, and have pondered on them, consciously and unconsciously for several days. In preparing to preach I want God to ‘move in me’, so to speak, perhaps even without me realizing it. Because preparing to teach the Word is more than sitting down and writing out a script. It’s about prayer, and it’s about opening up to the Holy Spirit to inspire God’s message to come through to His people. A usual sign for me that I am on the right track is when I’m myself surprised by what I’m saying, and I think, ‘Where did that come from?’

 As committed Christians, prayer should be part of our daily lives; indeed, we regularly come together like today to deliberately to pray not just as individuals but also as one, as a Christian community and also to pray for each other. That’s why last night, Fr Dominic, our Dean, asked all of us if we would pledge to do our part in the Parish by carefully listen to the scripture readings and listening to the homilies. Can you remember what we all said? “With God’s help, we will.” And we were also asked if we would “join in prayer with our parish priest as opportunity allows”. And again we replied, “With God’s help, we will.”

With God’s help. Not on our own, through our own will. No, by God’s will. No matter how hard we work, prepare and practice, ultimately, we rely on God. Of course, we have to do our bit, by using our brains, working things out, putting our plans into action…. but at the centre of it, as faithful Christians, we know that everything comes from God. And, through prayer, we can ask for His help.

Yesterday, we also heard Fr. Paul’s letter of appointment from Archbishop Bernard, giving his advice on how to be a good parish priest. It so happens that today’s second reading is something similar – it is Saint Paul writing as a bishop to Timothy, the newly appointed Priest in Ephesus, guiding and encouraging Timothy’s in the task of being a good Christian leader. The message from St Paul to St Timothy was the same as the message from Archbishop Bernard to Fr Paul – lead people to their salvation by teaching them the wisdom inspired by God in the holy scriptures.

So what can we learn from the readings today that will, as St Paul says, guide our lives and teach us to be holy?

The theme today is prayer. As a child I used to be amused by that story about the very old Moses standing on the hilltop watching a battle between the dread Amalekites and the Army of Israel led by Joshua. I thought it was comical the way Moses would wave his staff and lift his arms, and the Israelites would start winning; then, as he got tired, his arms would slowly come down, and the baddies would start getting the upper hand. And then two other men, Aaron and Hur, would help him hold his arms up again, and then the army led by Joshua would start winning again. This all sounded a bit too much like magic to me. But it is not. The Jewish people would immediate recognises what was going on. Because in those days, when praying, you stood with your arms stretched out to God in heaven. We still see this today. Christians cry out, “Praise the Lord” and raise their arms. If you’re slightly more reserved in your worship, you can still see it, every time you come to mass. Watch Father Paul during the Mass today. At certain key points he raises his arms in prayer. It’s an echo of our Jewish roots. He says ‘The Lord be with you’ with his arms raised. (You may have noticed that I don’t, I keep my hands held together. Do you know why? The priest is our leader, like Moses, arms outstretched. I have a different ministry, of service. Hand held together are a reminder to us of the way Christians would pray when their hands were tied before they were martyred.)

We know from the history of Israel that the battle we heard described today was an unprovoked raid mounted on the Israelite camp by the Amalekites. They attacked the Israelites from the rear, attacking the defenceless people – killing the old, the weak, the women and the children, with the intention of stealing their belongings. It is then that Moses appoints Joshua as the general to lead his army to defend Israel – the first time, incidentally, that the country had fought to defend itself since being enslaved in Egypt. It’s the first time Joshua is mentioned in the history of Israel, and he was the man who was to go on and lead the people after Moses dies. Joshua was the man who led the nation into the Promised Land.

Joshua – that Hebrew names comes out in English as the same as “Jesus”. Early Christians would not have missed the point. We are led by Jesus. And our leaders pray fervently to Jesus to come and save us from evil. And our leaders need all the help they can get in their prayers. Aaron and Hur are raising their arms as well. They can see what is happening, they know what to pray for, and they join in the prayers with Moses, literally helping him. So when Fr Paul ended his induction Mass with a plea for you help in praying for him, he meant it.

Just like Israel relied on Joshua in its hour of need, on its journey through the dangerous wilderness, so we turn to Jesus in prayer for help, and it is He who will lead us from this fallen world to the promised land of heaven.

And this message is reinforced by the gospel story told by Jesus: the story of a corrupt, unjust judge who is repeatedly petitioned by a woman who has been denied justice. The judge eventually gives in to her demands for justice to avoid being worn out by the process. Her persistence pays off. So how much more can we expect to receive justice if we pray to God through our own special advocate, Jesus Christ. But there’s a real danger that we might give up. Jesus makes it clear through His story that He understands that in this world we can face terrible situations, injustice and unpleasantness. Yet we must always remember to ‘Trust in God’. Don’t give up. Have faith. Just like Moses facing a murderous attack on his people; like Saint Paul, falsely accused by his opponents and put on trial in Rome; and like our Lord Himself, shamelessly denied justice by His own people and executed in the cruelest way imaginable. To they end all three persevered and remained faithful to God. We must pray for that same strength to persevere, assured of finally receiving our reward. If not in this world, then definitely in the next.

 

 

 

 

 

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Worship, praying & good works

25th Sunday Year C                           18 September 2016

Amos 8:4-7                                 1 Timothy 2:1-8                          Luke 16:1-13

Today’s readings offer essential advice for Christians living in a fallen world. The theme is about putting into practice two of the Ten Commandments: the First and the Seventh. One and Seven. Remind yourself occasionally over the next few days about ‘One and Seven’ and how they make a difference to your life. If they don’t make any difference to your behaviour, something has gone wrong, and you need to think carefully about it. Incidentally, thinking carefully about things like that is called ‘repentance’. Call it re-thinking, turning things around to the way they should be… repentance.

A reminder of the First and Seventh Commandments: they are about not worshipping false gods; and stealing.

So, the First Commandment is ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’

Now, maybe you’re thinking, ‘Yes, I’m OK on that one, because…., well, here I am at Mass. There’s a danger is that we can simply get into the habit of being at Mass, ticking a box. The question is, do we completely submit to God in the sense that we recognise that without God we are absolutely nothing? Are we grateful God created us and our world? Have we rediscovered our child-like sense of awe and wonder in the midst of God’s people?

You see, the cares of this world can knock us off track and we can end up going through the motions, but not letting the beauty, the mystery and the sheer power of our Mass carry us to a higher plane – to that place where we completely submit to God’s will, where we rest in the palm of His hand and are inspired to goodness. To a place where we really MEAN our prayers.

The problem of lukewarm worship is nothing new. The Prophet Amos was warning against it 750 years before the birth of Jesus. Israel at that time was experiencing an economic upturn. Growing trade and relative peace meant Israel was getting quite wealthy. But in the process people were forgetting about the First Commandment. Their faith became lukewarm. As countries get wealthy they can begin to worship a false god called ‘the economy’. And things are likely to go badly wrong. Con merchants, sharp practice, fiddling, cheating everywhere. You can’t trust anyone. Think about those unwanted emails and nuisance phone calls. And all such greedy, grasping behaviour is breaking the Seventh Commandment: ‘You shall not steal’

Something else happened in the time of Amos, which is equally true today: it was the age-old story of the rich getting richer while the poor got poorer. In fact, then as now, the poor were being exploited by the rich few, with a growing social divide between the rich and the poor. Don’t make the mistake of thinking, ‘I’m OK, I’m not a thief’. The problem is we are living in a den of thieves called modern society. All the time ordinary people are very much the victims of theft, sacrificed on the altar of that false god called ‘the economy’. Think zero hours contracts; think hungry people at food banks. Think, ‘What am I going to do about it?’

Another problem is that growing inequality in society seems to go hand in hand with people abandoning God. The Prophet Amos reminds us that the one true God should always be at the very centre of our daily lives; and he fearlessly warns those who are exploiting the poor that there is a price to be paid, in the shape of divine judgment: God ‘will never forget a single thing you have done.’ Amos’ words are a timely reminder for us too. As Christians we cannot simply allow ourselves to passively accept things that are wrong. And neither can we cop out by turning a blind eye to injustice by presuming that God will forgive us – that itself is serious error the Church calls ‘presumption’. No, we need to be in the forefront of the fight against worldly sin by doing three things: worshipping God; praying; and leading good lives that help the disadvantaged.

We’ve also heard today Saint Paul writing to one of his young converts, Timothy. Timothy was Paul’s travelling companion; he had been ordained and then took on been the challenging responsibility of being the new pastor in charge of the community of Christians in Ephesus. Paul is writing to Timothy to guide and encourage him in his new work as a Christian leader. If you like, Paul’s letter is a very useful guidebook for newly appointed parish priests. I’m sure Fr Paul would agree, and in fact I think he has read it at some stage, because I’ve noticed in the short time since he arrived that he often starts Mass with a reminder on the need for and the power of prayer. 2,000 years ago, being a committed Christian was not an easy option. It’s the same today. Those in charge don’t like troublesome Christians. An example of the price of being a Christian is touched on when Paul writes about praying “especially for kings and others in authority”. Being a true Christian means bravely standing up to the serious errors accepted by the society around us. And Paul is certainly doing this. The early Christians were living in the pagan Roman Empire, an Empire where the Emperor himself was worshipped as a god. It may not be obvious to us, but to those early Christians Paul’s words are very much about that First Commandment, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’ Paul is saying, ‘Oh no you don’t’: the Emperor is NOT divine – Christians pray FOR the Emperor, not TO him.’ That idea was certainly a pretty brave thing to say in those times. But the early Christians’ faith and commitment to the one true God was certainly not lukewarm and it was more important to them than toeing the line and keeping their heads down. Paul’s message is a stark reminder of the personal consequences of living as a Christian. There are places in the world, even today, where people accept baptism through faith despite knowing they are risking their lives in proclaiming the truth.

 

Finally, let me mention today’s gospel. Paul’s role model is Jesus. Did Jesus mince His words? He did not. Those listening to Jesus 2,000 years ago would not have needed a fancy theological analysis of what He was saying. They too would have immediately recognised what he was talking about. Because Jesus was referring to real events and real people, but without mentioning names. It would be a bit like me telling a parable: ‘There was a very rich man who owned a supermarket chain. He lounged on his enormous yacht in the Mediterranean whilst his staff were all being made redundant.’ You’d know who I was talking about, wouldn’t you! Jesus was doing the same. His parable of the crafty steward has deliberate echoes of a shameful political scandal that were taking place at that time. The poor were being double-crossed by greedy, scheming bosses. Yes, Jesus was very controversial in His preaching. And elsewhere Jesus warns us that people will hate us Christians, and persecute us for daring to challenge such wrongs.[1] But Jesus bravely challenges these false ideas because what is happening is plain and simply against God’s Commandments, in this case worshipping false gods, and stealing by exploitation and injustice. Commandments One and Seven again.

 

In the gospel Jesus is NOT praising the man’s apparent dishonesty: Jesus is congratulating the steward for his management skills when he suddenly faces being sacked by his rich boss. He is praising him for being quick-witted, the way the man turns things around, the way the man, if you like, repented, in an urgent situation. Jesus then makes the most important point of the story: how ironic it is that such a disgracefully immoral man is so good at knowing how to deal with other shady characters like his rich boss. If only, says Jesus, if only God-fearing, honest people like us would be as quick off the mark to realise how close our own end is, and the urgency need we have to make sure we’re obeying Commandments One and Seven, by repenting and leading upright, honest lives, forgiving others and doing good deeds – before it is too late.

 

So try to keep Commandments ‘One and Seven’ at the front of your mind in the coming days. When you come across little injustices, little fiddles, little bits of exploitation next week, in your own little way try to do things that offer help and comfort to the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden. For, as Amos reminded us, your Father in Heaven will never forget a single thing you have done.

 

[1] cf Matthew 5: 11-12

Fishy story

Luke 11: 29 – 32                                            Monday 12 October 2015

At the time of Jesus there were many people going round the country preaching, even claiming to be the Messiah. When Jesus arrived on the scene, to many Jewish people, it seemed like he was just another charlatan, trickster, false prophet. What the religious leaders wanted to know was how He would prove He was the genuine article.

The bible has many examples throughout Jewish history of signs being worked. The earliest happened when Moses was being instructed by God to go and set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt.[1] Moses was sceptical worried that the people would not believe that God sent him, so God gave him the signs of the rod becoming a snake and his hand becoming leprous. God said these signs were “that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you. God told Moses that if the people still did not believe, Moses was to take water from the Nile and pour it on the ground, where it would turn to blood.

The signs were done by God to convince Moses that he was dealing with a really powerful God, the true God. (Remember, Moses had drifted away from worshipping God). And then the other signs described in that theophany were done to convince other people that Moses was a genuine messenger from their God.

And further on [2] God tells Moses that He would multiply His signs and wonders in Egypt, so “the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.”

The signs and wonders were so the (pagan) Egyptian people to know that the god of Moses was the one TRUE God.

We also have stories in the Old Testament of signs ands wonders worked by the prophets Elijah (1 Kings 18: 36), and Joel (2:27)

Signs and wonders are ways to convince different people that God is present and working amongst humanity, and that the people performing such signs and wonders are genuine prophets.

Then in Acts 2:1-21, we hear about the Holy Spirit descending upon the Church and the Apostles speaking in tongues. Why? To prove to the people that the message of the Apostles was genuinely from God.

It is exactly the same with Jesus performing signs and wonders.

This is today’s gospel. When the Pharisees ask Him for a sign, Jesus’ words sound very aggressive: ‘This is a wicked generation; it is asking for a sign. The only sign it will be given is the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.

Two questions:

What was the sign of Jonah?

and

Why is Jesus sounding so frustrated by the Pharisees?

So, first, what was the sign of Jonah?

In the story of Jonah, God commands Jonah to travel to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria. Problem – the Assyrians were sworn enemies of the Israelites and Nineveh as a very wicked city. Jonah defied God’s instructions, and travelled in exactly the opposite direction, towards Tarshish.

But God sends a violent storm, and when the crew find out that Jonah is running away from his God, they blame him for the disaster; the pagan sailors try their best to save the ship, but eventually they throw Jonah overboard as a sacrifice to Jonah’s god. And the storm immediately subsides. A sign to the pagans that Jonah’s God is a powerful, real god.

Meanwhile Jonah is desperate for God’s forgiveness, and prays for forgiveness for the wrong he has done in defying God. In response, Jonah is saved – swallowed by a whale. And note this: Jonah spent three days inside the whale, just as there were three days between the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection.

When he emerged from the whale, Jonah was a changed man. He indeed went to Nineveh, and preached to the wicked people there that they needed to repent of their sins by wearing sackcloth and covering themselves in ashes. Jonah, still a bit sceptical, and very human, didn’t think it would work (rather like Moses didn’t think anything would come of his mission). In fact, Jonah was really disappointed when he realised that the pagans were doing exactly what he preached, and repenting. Jonah even got angry that God was having compassion on them and forgiving them their sins. Jonah would rather the people who were the sworn enemies of Israel would be destroyed by God.

And now to answer my second question, of why Jesus sounds so frustrated by the Pharisees.

Well, can you see the parallels between the story of Jonah and the Pharisees? The Pharisees were well-intention believers in God, just like Jonah. They desperately wanted to please God but couldn’t bring themselves to do as they were told. The Pharisees made their own rules and regulations and did not go in the direction that God wanted them to go. And the Pharisees did everything they could to try and catch people out doing wrong, to try and make sure they would be punished by God.

Just like Jonah, the Pharisees thought they knew better than God. They were stubborn, they were judgmental, they were hypocrites. They refused to accept the signs worked by Jesus, indeed they rejected them; some evewn suggested that Jesus had power through the Devil. That really is perverse and foolish. No wonder Jesus got frustrated with them.

In Jesus they were being given a sign, a sign they wouldn’t understand until after Jesus had been offered as a living sacrifice to God; a sign of new life, a new creation, and forgiveness reaching out from God to ALL people, not just the chosen Pharisees. The sign for the Pharisees from Jonah, from Jesus, was that God offers love and forgiveness to everyone, to all people of the world, IF, like the people of Nineveh, they would just bring themselves to listen to God’s messengers, to do as they are told, and turn away from sin towards a new way of living.

This week, look out for small signs and wonders that God is leading you on your mission through life. And don’t be like the Pharisees and ignore the nudges you’re getting from God. Don’t get angry when God sends you a message. Listen, discern, and do as you’re told!

[1] Exodus 4: 1-9

[2] Exodus 7:3-5

The local lad Tommy sure plays a mean pin ball. The Who?

23rd Sunday of the Year

Isaiah 35:4-7           James 2:1-5          Mark 7:31-37

This Sunday I will be baptizing a baby girl called Catherine. Her parents, John and Christiana are from Nigeria. John’s an engineer who is in England because we don’t seem to produce enough fully qualified engineers in this country to maintain and improve our electricity infrastructure. John’s here helping to keep our lights on.

Catherine’s parents asked me if I could help them to find some godparents for her, because they didn’t know many people in this country. The idea appealed to me. The original idea of godparents was precisely that – people who were established Christians who would help and encourage people in developing their faith properly. Rosie and Inky Moss were delighted to be those godparents. And now the two couples have got to know each other, they are all delighted for Catherine. A few days ago I said to John, “I hear that Rosie and Inky are getting on with you like a house on fire.” John was shocked and stunned. He had never heard that expression before, and despite speaking very good English, he thought it meant that things had gone disastrously wrong!

Of course, it means the exact opposite. And this is one of the perils of different languages. Unless you’re speaking in your mother tongue, you can’t always pick up the subtle little meanings hidden in words and the way they are said. Had I been able to speak to John in his mother tongue, Yoruba, there would have been no misunderstanding.

This sort of language problem is not new to people hearing the scriptures. Today’s gospel is a clue that Jesus’ first language was Aramaic. And the way in which we have a homily after the scripture readings at Mass is a direct copy of what happened in the synagogues at the time of Jesus, precisely because of language problems. The Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, was originally written in Hebrew; but it was also translated in to Greek because so many Jews spoke Greek; yet in Palestine at the time of Jesus, so many people only spoke Aramaic, that after reading the scripture, an explanation, a homily, was required. This is what we see Jesus doing when he hear of Him preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum and in Nazareth after reading from the scrolls.

In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus using a word in the Aramaic language, when he says to the deaf man ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ Today’s gospel takes place in Tyre, a region where most of the people spoke either Greek or Aramaic, so Jesus is praying in the language the deaf man would have understood. It is also a strong reminder to us that Jesus travelled outside his own country to preach to those in foreign lands – showing God’s mercy and grace beyond national borders.

Now, the gospel uses language that to us may seem rather inconsiderate. ‘Deaf and dumb’ offends our sensibilities. It’s simply an old-fashioned use of words. Don’t be offended by the language, because there is a very important point going on behind this healing miracle performed by Jesus.

There’s a lot more to this story than meets the eye. What you need to know is that in ancient times, at the time of Jesus, there was a widely held belief that if someone could not hear, they would also be unable to speak – hearing and speaking went hand in hand: it was simply assumed that if you were deaf, you were also mute. And ancient logic went beyond that. Being unable to speak would severely limit your potential because speaking skills were highly regarded in the prevailing Greek culture – being unable to speak was more than simply a physical condition. It raised questions about a person’s ability to reason, it questioned their intelligence!

At the time of Jesus, this Greek way of thinking had greatly influenced the teaching of the Pharisees, teachings that were later written down in what is known today as the Mishnah. For example, deaf people were treated more leniently by the courts for criminal actions because they were considered to be in some way less responsible for their own actions. The culture at the time of Jesus was an oral culture – it relied much more on the spoken word rather than the written word. The logic ran that someone who was deaf, and therefore also unable to speak, would be incapable of being educated and would have very limited reasoning skills. And if you couldn’t speak, you would be unable to take part in the daily Jewish prayers required of the faithful. Every day an observant, practising Jew would be required, and is still required to this day, to recite the Shema prayer, declaring faith in the one true God. It starts:

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

HEAR, O Israel. Oh dear, if you were deaf, you definitely could not satisfying the required to literally ‘hear’ God’s word, and you would be excluded from take part in the most basic requirement of the Jewish faith.

In performing this miracle, Jesus is doing three astonishing things, that really challenge anyone being told this story:

Firstly, He is revealing Himself as God, as foreshadowed in the Old Testament. In the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah we hear,

“Look, your God is coming…..he is coming to save you….. the ears of the deaf shall unsealed…..”[1] Isaiah was prophesying 700 years before Jesus came.

And even further back, 1,500 years before The Christ was born, when Moses was commanded by God to liberate the Israelite from Egyptian slavery, Moses was frightened of the challenge facing him. He said he wasn’t eloquent, a slow speaker, not able to speak well. And the Lord answered,

‘Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him dumb or deaf, gives him sight or leaves him blind? Is it not I, the Lord?[2]

So there we have it, Jesus reveals his divine nature. It is God who makes someone able to hear. And Jesus grants the deaf man the gift of hearing and of speech.

The second thing that Jesus does in performing this miracle is to liberate the man. That man’s life would have been transformed by Jesus’ actions. He could become a full and active member of the community, someone capable of taking part in worshipping God, and a visible sign to everyone who knew what had happened to him that God was present and at work amongst them.

And the third thing this miracle demonstrates is that idea that deafness was a sign of limited intellect – it’s shown up as nonsense. The second reading from James rams this message home in the bit that, ironically, starts with a word linked to being with able to hear:

LISTEN…. : it was those who are poor according to the world that God chose, to be rich in faith and to be the heirs to the kingdom which he promised to those who love him.”

James is saying that the idea that deaf people should be second-class citizens is nonsense.

In performing this miracle, Jesus is exposing the prejudice of His times for what it was. He was demonstrating that, once again, the teaching of the Pharisees was often based on false human understanding and tradition, not on God’s will.

And let me close by returning to the baptisms we have in church this weekend. After a baptism it is an old tradition for the newly baptised to be prayed over, with the bishop, priest or deacon gently touching their lips and ears as he prays the Aramaic word uttered by Jesus, ‘Ephphatha’ (‘Be opened’). In this significant little prayer, we are praying that the newly baptised will have their ears opened to hear the word of God, and their mouth opened to declare God’s praises and to spread the gospel.

Just as Jesus liberated than man by granting him hearing and speech, so our own baptisms liberate us from slavery to sin and the potential to become fully mature and active Christians in the world.

[1] Isaiah 35:5

[2] Exodus 4:10

Hypocritical leaders: Jesus attacks the Pharisees

Matthew 23: 23-26                            Tuesday 25 August 2015

Today I would like to try and explain the three gospel readings this week for yesterday, today and tomorrow, which are all taken from Chapter 23 of Matthew’s gospel. Why pick on the Pharisees? I think it would be helpful to take a look at what these three groups represented, and how Jesus fitted in to the picture.

I was talking yesterday about the coming of the Messiah in the Old Testament; the Messiah, it was predicted, would perform three functions (or ‘offices’) in his earthly ministry: prophet, priest and king.

In Psalm 110 King David prophesied that the Messiah would be a priest:

‘You are a priest of the order of Melchizedek, and for ever.’ [1]

The Prophet Nathan told King David that the Messiah would be a king:

‘I will establish his throne forever. I will be his Father, and he shall be my Son.’ [2]

And in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses said that the Messiah would be a prophet:

‘a prophet like me from among your own people, and you are to obey him.’ [3]

It is from these sources that the Catholic Church today still teaches that Jesus ‘accomplished perfectly the divine mission….. Jesus fulfilled the messianic hope of Israel in his threefold office of priest, prophet, and king. [4]

And in today’s gospel, the writer Matthew is highlighting Jesus role as a PROPHET. Matthew does this by highlighting the phrase traditionally used by prophets to denounce poor leadership of the Jewish people. The prophets used the expression ‘woe’ to signal that they were speaking to the people who were in charge, the political leaders and rulers and their advisers – the ruling elites. Matthew lists seven “woes” against the scribes and Pharisees.

The rulers and Chief Priests lived at the top of the hill, on Mount Zion, looking down over the rest of the City of Jerusalem; and so it was, for example, that the Prophet Amos would warn the leaders of his day, saying,

‘Woe to those ensconced so snugly in Zion…..’ [5]

So in today’s gospel Jesus’ words place him in the role of a prophet criticizing the Jewish leaders

Who were these leaders? Well we know from the First Century Roman historian called Josephus that there were three main groups in the Jewish ruling classes in the period leading up to and during the life of Jesus. I think we would probably call them parties nowadays, but they were influential groups. These three groups, who held different opinions on how Jews should practice their faith in the world, were the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes. [6]

The Sadducees and the Essenes were two priestly classes who emerged as distinct group in the 200 years before Jesus, during the Maccabean revolt against the pagan Syrian kings leading to the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Sadducees were closely associated with Jewish aristocratic leaders, leaders who had fallen under the influence of Greek culture, and they were considered to be out of touch with ordinary Jews.

The Essenes formed as a group opposing some of the changes introduced into customs in the restored Temple (such as new methods of calculating the Jewish feast days). The Essenes were seen as being very pious and ascetic, devoting their lives to contemplating God through strict religious disciplines, living in communities rather like monks or nuns nowadays.

And then the third group of leaders, the Pharisees. Ah, the Pharisees. Don’t they get a bad press in the gospels! It sounds like Jesus can’t stand them. But this is why I am emphasizing the point that Jesus is addressing the LEADERS, not the ordinary, pious, God-fearing majority of Jews.

Now the Pharisees were not a priestly group, and they had a different approach to the Jewish religious laws from the other two groups. They were certainly strict in observing the laws…. but the Essenes were even stricter; and unlike the Sadducees they were more open to new interpretations, new theologies. For example, like Jesus, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the body and in angels.

Historically there was very bad blood between these three factions of Jewish leaders. The High Priests in Jerusalem were associated with the Sadducees, and they did some pretty murderous and terrible things against the Essenes; in turn the Essenes denounced the Sadducees as wicked priests who broke the commandments. And the Pharisees openly encouraged violence against the Sadducees. This is the climate of political hatred and violence in which Jesus was living in the First Century. Think about the present-day murderous mayhem in Syria between different groups of Moslems, complex disagreement and grudges and historic hatred playing out in extreme violence, and you will realise why Jesus is never identified with any particular one of the three groups in His own times.

So why do the gospel writers seem to pick on the Pharisees all the time?

It is because they were the ruling party at the time of Jesus, and their ideas seemed to have the greatest influence on the thinking of ordinary Jews. And I stress, Our Lord is criticizing the LEADERS when He refers to the Pharisees: He is NOT condemning the ordinary, powerless man and woman in the street. Jesus was not part of the ruling system, he was preaching and teaching as a plain ordinary, observant working Jewish man.

Indeed, given this false idea that Jesus was really strongly anti-Pharisee, it’s ironic that Biblical scholars recognise that in His teaching Jesus has far more in common with the Pharisees than with the other two parties: unlike the Essenes, Jesus was not a priest and He much more realistic and practical in His interpretation of how to apply the Jewish religious laws; and Jesus certainly was not an aristocrat, nor would He wish to be associated with the High Priests of the Temple, like the Sadducees were.

In this gospel Jesus is denouncing the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders and pleading for justice and peace for the ordinary people. We know from our own times the horrors of terrorism and religious fanaticism, orchestrated by political thugs who hide behind the cloak of religion. We can recognise the hypocrisy of clever politicians with their honeyed words that encourage division and greed against those who are poor or who have suffered injustice. We know that Jesus experienced first hand what is still happening today in our world. He understands the issues. And that is why we must persevere in our prayers for peace and justice and be resolute in our trust in God, His promise that He will be with us through it all.

[1] Psalm 110: 4b

[2] 1 Chronicles 17:12-13

[3] Deuteronomy 18:15

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 436

[5] Amos 6: 1a

[6] See Brown, Raymond (1997) An Introduction to the New Testament pp. 75-83.

You ain’t seen nothing yet!

John 1:45-51                                      Monday 24th August 2015

Saint Bartholomew

Saint Bartholomew, whom we celebrate today, is one of the 12 apostles, but you may have noticed in the gospel that the story today is about someone called Nathaniel. There are two reasons why we think Nathanael and Bartholomew are the same person: Firstly, the name Bartholomaios appears in the lists of Apostles following the Apostle Philip in all three gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke; in the same list in John’s gospel Bartholomew is not mentioned at all, but the name Nathanael is listed instead after Philip.

It looks like the first three evangelists are using his surname (Bartholomew, a family name which means ‘son of Talmai’; whereas John uses his first name, Nathaniel, which means ‘gift of God’. Nathaniel Bartholomew.

When Philip tells Nathaniel about Jesus he says he has found someone special, he describes Jesus as ‘the one Moses wrote about in the Law’. Do you know where Moses wrote in the Law about Jesus? Well, Moses made a lot of remarks that could be interpreted as references to the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, but probably the most explicit reference is found in the Book of Deuteronomy (which is indeed where Moses wrote about the Law), when warning his people against pagan religion, saying that insterad, God would ‘send a prophet like me from among your own people, and you are to obey him.’[1] This is probably the clearest reference made by Moses to the coming of the Messiah. And who is ‘the one about whom the prophets wrote’?

There are many prophecies in the Old Testament, here are just a few:

  • The Prophet Nathan told King David that one of his descendants would be a king, saying ‘I will establish his throne for ever. I will be his Father, and he shall be my Son’;[2]
  • King David himself prophesied in many of the psalms he wrote of the coming of the Messiah;[3]
  • Isaiah prophesied the virgin birth[4]; that the Messiah would preach in the region of Galilee[5]; and that He would perform miracles by healing the sick, blind and lame[6]

Daniel, Amos, Zachariah…. I could go on (other prophets are available).

But we certainly know from this gospel that Nathaniel was an observant, devout Jew who knew his scriptures well. He certainly knew that the Messiah was predicted to be born in Bethlehem, as prophesied by the Prophet Micah.[7] That’s why Nathaniel immediately challenges Philip when he hears about Jesus coming from Nazareth: ‘Can anything good come from that place?’ He is not saying Nazareth is a bad place; he is merely noting that the Messiah is not destined to come from Nazareth.

But then, when Nathaniel meets Jesus, there’s an amazing change of heart. All doubt leaves Nathanielh. It happens when Jesus says he had seen Nathaniel ‘under the fig tree’ even before Philip had spoken to him. Nathaniel is astonished, and in an amazing declaration of faith he spontaneously declares, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.’ Thus it is that Nathaniel is the first of the 12 disciples to recognise Jesus for WHO He is and WHAT He is.

It was in using the simple phrase, ‘I saw you under the fig tree’ that Jesus seems to have achieved a miraculous conversion, to have convinced Nathaniel beyond all doubt as to the true identity of Jesus. Why? What’s so special about that phrase?

‘Under the fig tree’ was a figure of speech used by the Jews to mean ‘studying the Torah – meditating on the Law. Perhaps Nathaniel had indeed been under a fig tree, but I think it is much more credible, given his reaction, that Nathaniel had been meditating and praying in private. And if he were a devout Jew, he may have been praying for the coming of the promised Messiah. That is because, given all the prophecies of a messiah in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), it was an article of faith for devout Jews to pray for the messiah to come. That may be why Jesus referred to Nathaniel as an ‘Israelite’ who was incapable of deceit. Perhaps Nathaniel had been devoutly, earnestly praying for the Messiah to come; perhaps in his prayer Nathaniel had pleaded with God to listen to him, using the words, ‘I am incapable of deceit, please hear my genuine prayer, I’m not praying like this just because I have to…. I REALLY mean it.’

Who knows for sure? But the fact is, Nathaniel immediately recognised Jesus as ‘The Son of God, the King of Israel’ – the exact description of the Messiah prophesied to King David one thousand years earlier. Nathaniel knows his scriptures; and he recognises Jesus. The startling transformation might have been because only Nathaniel knew WHAT he had prayed to God, and Jesus knew what he had prayed. In other words, Jesus had knowledge of Nathaniel’s private prayers known only to God. Conclusion – Jesus is someone VERY special indeed!

And Jesus finishes by telling Nathaniel, to use a phrase, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!’ Jesus shares the beatific vision, the vision of heaven described by the Prophet Daniel.[8]

As always, there is a message here for us. We need to pray fervently, honestly, without deceit, without fooling ourselves. God will hear our prayers. And then we have to be ready for unexpected things to happen. We need to be ready to, as they say, to ‘join the dots’. The basis for so much of our faith is in the scriptures. So linking the scriptures with prayer is a powerful combination. Praying the scriptures, interpreting them, being open to inspiration by the Holy Spirit to respond to God’s word, is what we believe as devout Christians. Simply having a completely honest conversation with God in our prayers, letting go and meditating rather than just ‘going through the motions’ is the key to a transformation in our outlook. The problem is that if we think prayer is a private activity, not to be shared with others, we can miss the revelations, the insights, and the wisdom given to us. We must have the courage of our convictions to act on our faith and talk about it amongst ourselves, not to be embarrassed. Just like Philip and Nathaniel, who clearly knew each other and talked about their faith with each other; and just like Jesus, who never hesitates to discern what is needed by other people and then to tell them, in the process gaining followers and changing their lives forever.

[1] Deuteronomy 18:15

[2] 1 Chronicles 17:12-13

[3] e.g. Psalm 2, 8, 16, 17, 19, 20, 22, 31, 41, 45, 48, 49, 55, 65, 67, 68, 72, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 110, 118, 132

[4] Isaiah 7:14

[5] Isaiah 9: 42

[6] Isaiah 35: 5-6

[7] Micah 5:2

[8] Daniel 7:13

Solidarity with the poor

Matthew 20: 1-16                  18th August 2015

At the time of Jesus there was tremendous social change going on in the rural society.

The Palestinian economy before the Romans had been based much more on bartering between individuals, it was basically a cashless society. But wherever the Roman Empire took over they would introduce the Empire’s common currency, and this was the mechanism through which taxes could be collected much more efficiently. And people who fell behind with tax payments had a hard choice – cruel punishment at the hands of the Romans, or selling off their land. People sold off their land. The centuries of passing on land passing from father to son was destroyed overnight, and many traditional landowners ended up hanging round looking for work as labourers.

And the new, modern employers exploited the workers. To maximize their own wealth they would ruthlessly try to cut costs, by reducing wages, increasing working hours, and making the workers ‘more productive’. Does this sound familiar?

Now, in today’s parable, something unheard of happens – the landowner himself comes at the crack of dawn to hire some workmen for his vineyard. Instead of sending his foreman, the boss goes himself to find out the real situation. You can get an idea of this if you’ve seen those TV programmes about ‘undercover bosses’. Sometimes the bosses on TV are really shocked at the conditions their workers are having work in, or the problems they are having to face. Sometimes they find out that their managers are charming to the senior management but bullies to their own subordinates. (Again there are examples of this in the Bible too.) All too often, the plight of the poor is hidden from us unless we go and look ourselves. I have been myself in the queue at 7 o’clock in the morning at Ladywood Neighbourhood Office to try and help someone who was homeless. It is shocking the way people are treated. I’ve been at the doctor’s surgery in Winson Green trying to get an asylum seeker treatment for recurrent injuries inflicted on him when he was tortured by soldiers in their own country before he managed to escape by pretending to be dead. Only after I made a protest did we get to see a doctor.

Do you notice how the unemployed workers hang around all day? They don’t give up when they’re not hired at 6am. They live in hope of someone coming to help them. To save them. And they hang around with their mates all day – they need the social contact and friendship. Poor people help each other out. Perhaps at the end of the day they would meet up with a pal who had been lucky enough to be hired that morning, and perhaps borrow some money to tide them over.

That’s why the landowner keep coming back, throughout the day for more workers – he could have easily hired the number of workers he needed in one go at 6am, but he is showing solidarity with the workers.

This is the key to Jesus’ parable. What we see in this parable told by our Lord is an astonishing protest against ‘zero hours contracts’ in favour of the workers receiving a proper living wage. B being there himself the owner of the vineyard is making a political protest against the injustice of the Romans tax system.

And he makes sure everyone finds out about his protest by paying the workers in reverse order. First he pays the men who only started worked last. [Do you remember Jesus saying yesterday at the end of the gospel, ‘Many who are first will be last, and the last, first.’? He repeats it today.]

Think about it. If instead he had started by paying the one denarius to the workers who had been there since first thing in the morning, they would have gone on their way happy, not knowing even the latecomers had been paid the same. No-one would have realised the latecomers had got the same, unless they were paid first. By paying them in reverse order, the employer gets maximum publicity for his protest.

Today’s gospel is an excellent example of how relevant the teaching of our Lord is to the modern world. It’s a tough challenge that our Lord makes to us all. And each of us needs to ponder on the way that we can respond to such circumstances of social injustice. Perhaps we can think about going on holiday to Greece to help their desperate economy; perhaps we could only buy milk that is a bit more expensive but allows the dairy farmers to make a living; perhaps we can donate something to our monthly Parish collection for St Chad’s Sanctuary, to help the asylum seekers who are deliberately impoverished by government policy.

Jesus parable today is at the core of the Church’s social teaching – solidarity with the poor, and action to alleviate their misery. And as I say, a tough challenge to us all.