22nd October 2017
It is a time when the Babylonian empire is coming to an end. Many Jews are in exile there, bemoaning there lot by the rivers of Babylon (see Psalm 137, made into a song). But after a generation and a time that somewhat transformed their religion, God will set them free. The empire is being overtaken by one called Cyrus. The reading we have today (part of Isaiah 45:1-6) actually mentions this non-Jewish leader by name, thus dating the text to around 530 BC. The return will be a momentous experience for the chosen people of God. But as part of the dramatic transformation in their religion at this time, this text has God addressing Cyrus and calling him the anointed one – a phrase that in the original Hebrew is Messiah and in Greek is Christos. This is a word that we now think of as referring only to Jesus so it also gives us pause for thought. This may well mean that everyone who is contributing to the world how God wants it, is doing so through the wish and blessing of God. Maybe Christians, who share this name, should make sure we live up to it. The text implies that many without claiming to or even recognising any God can nevertheless be doing His will even though unknowingly. We must ask are we who should know the will of God for us, doing what we should?
The Second Reading is the beginning of the First Letter to the Thessalonians. Paul, together with Silvanus and Timothy, went initially about 50 AD to this capital city of Macedonia in Greece. There was a large community of Jews there and for the first few weeks he preached in their synagogue. But there were a lot of Gentiles who were enthusiastic in other religious cults as well; it was mostly these that came to hear the word preached; they gathered in the house of one called Jason and initiated the Christian community there; the Jews caused trouble for them and Paul and companions had to leave, according to the account in Acts (17:1-9). The opening of the letter shows the feelings Paul had for them now that they had formed into a strong community. Going straight to the important elements of their new found religion, which are also central for us, he notes their faith, their works of charity and the firm confidence – which we often name as faith hope and charity. Like them we too are chosen for particular roles in the world.
In the gospel extract we read today, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life is now moving towards its completion; it is clear that the Jewish leaders want rid of him, for his way of life is such a challenge to theirs; it also proved almost incomprehensible to his disciples when he tried to explain to them what he foresaw his fate would be (what we read as predictions of his passion). It is the Pharisees who want to entrap Jesus so as to have a case against him to put to the courts. They sent their disciples to link up with the enthusiasts for king Herod who ruled under the Roman emperor, with whom they would not want directly to co-operate themselves. But what they had to say to Jesus, according to Matthew, showed a real grasp of the driving force of Jesus’ life: addressing him as teacher, they said he spoke the truth, the truth about God, and he showed no partiality but rather indifference to people’s opinion of him. The question is about the legality of paying tax to the Roman emperor; Jesus is a Jew and in an occupied country; Jesus is known to be fearlessly outspoken for what he thinks is right. This is a good entrapment question for it seems the answer must undermine either the Jewish tradition or the Roman requirements, and whichever way he chooses they have something against Jesus; the coin for this poll-tax attributed divinity to Caesar which a Jew couldn’t agree to, but refusal to pay it would offend those supporting Roman rule. When we are caught in a dilemma because of our beliefs, we must either walk away or have a very clever answer to the situation as Jesus did.
15th October 2017
The first reading is a very upbeat announcement of the good times that the Lord will bring about for all nations. This is not just about the freedom of the Jews who have been in captivity, but it is a universal message of good times, with plenty of all the fruits of the earth and no fear of troubles. The destruction of death might be seen by Christians as the announcement of life after death, but when this message was first delivered, probably in the 6th century BC, it meant no more will enemies kill each other. All these wonderful gifts from God are, however, delivered to all peoples “on this mountain,” a phrase that initially refers to the city of Jerusalem which is centred upon and around a prominent hill in the countryside; though the phrase was used symbolically to refer to all the people of Israel. So we see in this passage the basis for a future view of what God will do for all people on earth, but with the restriction of it being centred on the people of Israel; it is the vision of a prophet who sees the future darkly, reading it from the worldly state of affairs that he interprets from the standpoint of his assured belief that his is also the god of those who share his faith. We know ourselves that many of us Christians are caught in similar limitations in our vision of God’s relationship with the whole world and its people.
The Christians of Philippi made up the first community that Paul established about 50 AD in Europe. Though at first he preached to the Jews, it soon expanded into a mostly Gentile Christian church. They had on several occasions sent funds to him during his further missionary activities, and there was a caring friendship between him and them. The letter to the Philippians that is in the New Testament is most likely a conflation of extracts from several (maybe three) letters that he wrote to them at different times and about different matters. The resulting letter that we have comprises different matters with different tones and we can detect a number of different apparent endings in the last chapter. The two passages we have as our second reading today, are from one of these endings (verses 12-14 and 19-20). They reflect a situation where Paul has received more financial support from them brought to him by a respected member of the community named Epaphroditus; but while thanking them, he indicates that he can manage, for he has experienced both sufficiency and hardship, but has always been supported by God. He wants them to know also that God will see that they are all right (as He does us), and he gives glory to God for this – as we should.
The parable in today’s reading, seems to be drawn from a source used also by Luke, and even in a writing not in the New Testament, the Gospel of Thomas; the source is often referred to as Q (which is just short for the German ‘quelle’ meaning source). Matthew has altered the parable to have a somewhat different meaning that is more in line with his way of thinking. It is addressed specially to the priests and the Pharisees. The story is about a king putting on a banquet for his son; the invitations are rebuffed and the carriers of them ill-treated (even killed), so the king has his vengeance on them destroying their city. And then the commoners are invited and respond gratefully, yet some of them are ill-prepared and get thrown out (to hell). This is about God trying to win over the people (the Jews) with prophets and preachers, but they were not heeded at all. It is about the disasters that have befallen them – even the destruction of the Temple which happened in 70 AD by the Romans. It is about the Gentiles being invited, like the Christian communities open to all people. But finally it is about the need to repent sin and put on the new Christian way of life (like a garment) even if you are part of the community, else it will not go well with you.
8th September 2017
In the first reading we have a very good illustration of a successful approach to delivering bad news when you are a prophet and that is your job. The book of Isaiah has been heavily edited, and our reading from chapter 5 is very likely the first public appearance of the prophet. If you want the crowd to listen to you, you don’t want to be known as a prophet of doom. So Isaiah draws a crowd by saying he is going to sing a song, like a street busker setting up his spot. It’s a song, he says, about his friend; it’s told as though it is about a man setting up a new vineyard, but it is really about unrequited love. He did everything one should for the vineyard to be successful, but it just produced (literally) stinking grapes. The friend then questions the crowd: “is there anything more I could have done?” And he tells them he is going to completely wreck the area and make it a wasteland. Then, when the crowd has grown and is listening intently, like a punch-line the prophet announces: “this song is about the Lord and you Israel!” The image of the vineyard became quite popular in the sayings of prophets and even among the people themselves; one of their hymns is the psalm that follows the reading for today.
The second reading is part of a final summing up of Paul’s wishes for the Christian community at Philippi. He himself is in a difficult situation in prison with an uncertain future; also there are some difficulties in the Christian community he is writing to; in the few verses before our reading Paul asks the church leaders there to help two females to make peace between themselves. He wants them to be at peace and tells them how to move towards it; “the peace of God” is a phrase that surprisingly only occurs here in the whole of the Bible (the name for such a single occurrence is hapax legomenon). There has also been a problem in Philippi with some Christians disdaining non-Jewish and pagan (secular) values for living. Paul, of course, as a Roman citizen, has had a good Roman as well as a Jewish education; and his attitude to non-Jews shows in the list of the six attitudes he recommends, all of which are those of contemporary philosophy (mostly Stoic). Many of the values that others hold, we would do well to aim for ourselves! Put this into practice and you will have peace; it is indeed the very peace that God Himself has, and that is why it is beyond human understanding and our unaided ability.
A parable is a story with a strong and telling overall meaning; there are many stories from Jesus in the Gospels that draw on the experiences of the listeners, but some of them are allegories rather than parables; an allegory is a story in which the people (or other elements) refer to people or things in the real world and often to the listeners themselves. The well-known Jewish story of the vineyard has additional bits added to it in Matthew’s gospel which we read today. The owner hands over the care of the crop and the business to tenants, but they are negligent and reject those servants sent by the master to see how they are progressing. It is an allegory about the rulers and priests responsible for the good of the people; the servants are the prophets sent by God and finally His own Son. It is difficult for us to hear this allegory, because the temptation is to relate the wicked tenants to our leaders, especially the ones in our worldwide church. Accusing others in this way might make us feel we are in the right, and then the story just inflates our pride and encourages our condemnation of others. Yet we too have responsibilities from God, and there are people who try to keep us on track whom we disregard. The allegory must be about us else it does no good at all for us to read or hear it when it should be challenging us to improve ourselves, that’s what today’s sermon should do.
1st October 2017
Reading Ezekiel we must remember that the Jews believed that they were the chosen people of the one and only God, Yahweh; they had laws and rules to live by and a covenant which they often thought of as ‘if we keep your laws, God, you will see that we prosper.’ Yet this arrangement didn’t seem to be working out in their history, especially when they were being taken over by a neighbouring empire. So much so that they began to think that they were being punished by God or even would die because of the sins of their ancestors; indeed they attributed all the difficulties and hardships of life to the original disobedience of the first humans (Genesis 3), and they had a saying: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Ezekiel was trying to replace this idea with the fairness and mercy of God. Not only was God punishing the wrongdoer for his own sins and blessing the good, but saying that there would be forgiveness and blessing if the sinner repented and turned away from sin.
In today’s second reading we have Paul’s full introduction to the quoted hymn included in the longer reading which was used for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (which see). Paul expresses his deep concern for the Christian community in Rome. He wants there to be no disagreements among themselves, this is what would please him most; and writing this confirms our view that there were some problems in the community in Rome. But he places before them a huge challenge; huge, but just the challenge of acting in a genuine Christian way. It is this that we should feel addressed to ourselves as we are presented with his words – treat others as more important than yourselves! After such an introduction the example of Christ’s life is drawn to our attention with the famous hymn of Jesus’ self-sacrifice for us and his elevation to be glorified by all.
The gospel gives us another radical message like ‘the last shall be first and the first last,’ presenting fearfully the contrast between those despised in society and the upright important citizens. For us it might seem slightly less radical if we are not important citizens of society, for the present passage is addressed not to all but to the chief priests and elders of the community – those who consider themselves to be worthy of God’s reward. However, we faithful, can easily come to believe that we are worthy of some reward from God, for we can reckon that we are living the way God would want us to. Jesus’ parable of the two sons, tells of the one who says ‘yes’ to the master’s request, but doesn’t follow this through in practice and vice versa. But we should know from the second reading that God’s challenge to us is to do nothing out of selfishness or vainglory; but to regard all others as more important than ourselves. it would surely be a lie if any one of us felt, yes, this is what I am doing with my life. Better to admit our failures but still try our best, like the second son in the parable, to say we wont, but then really do our very best to please God
24th September 2017
In this section from Isaiah we hear him telling us two contrasting notions. Firstly we must seek God and secondly God is utterly inaccessible to us. So we must live like an adventurer going where we do not really know – an exciting challenge!
Paul writes to the Philippians as though with the first reading in mind. He wants to be close to God as he will be after death, but it is probably God’s will that he has a few years to go, so he will still keep in touch with them for the time being at least.
Matthew loves to express the good news in with narrative and parables. This long parable is also about the length of life and the amount of time we live for God’s work – whatever the length we will all get the same reward in heaven.
Raed more background information here
17th September 2017
The reading from the Book of Sirach is making the wise and useful observation that God will deal with us in a manner similar to the way we deal with other people. So love and forgive others and God will love and forgive you. But if you… (you know what follows)
A couple of verses from Romans illustrates a way of expressing just what is the relationship between Christ and us; it is that He who lived on earth and is still alive after death, is the example for us of what our lives should be – living here in the way that He did, and hence living after death in the way that he does.
In the gospel there is a different style of communication from the wisdom we have had in the earlier two reading. Gospels tell us about God and His dealings with us with stories attributed to Jesus; and that’s just what we have here – a story making much the same point as the two earlier readings.
10th September 2017
God speaks harsh words to Ezekiel the prophet. For Ezekiel knows the harsh things he should be saying to his fellow Jews, and that this will be for their own good in the long term. But who likes to tell others off? So God actually threatens him with punishment if he does not speak out when he knows that he should.
In the letter to the Romans Paul is addressing the Christians living in a context which is not easy for them; they are among people who recognise a great variety of gods and cultic practices and are not at all in favour of these followers of the Way of Jesus who set themselves apart from the general public. Paul reminds that love is the important attitude and practice – love of all not just among themselves!
Matthew in the gospel if addressing organised Christians who seem to be getting a bit disorganised and are having problems with some of their fellow Christians. He wants them to know that there are ways of dealing with trouble-makers but they should always do it as gently and tactfully as possible. These ideas are behind the authorities that we have in the organised church to this day.
More details here.