(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
‘Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.
‘Of course I want to!’ he said. ‘Be cured!’ (Mark 1:33-34a)
The gospel presents us with a miraculous healing which ends up spreading Jesus’ fame as a healer and wonderworker to such a great degree that by the end of it people from far and wide come to seek the Lord’s help wherever he went (Cf. Mark 1:45). And out of this short story there are two key elements I would like to look at with you. First, let us look at the leper himself. We read that a nameless man suffering from leprosy (or more likely by an unidentified skin condition) approaches Jesus to ‘plead on his knees’ (Mark 1:40). He does not profess faith in Jesus in any explicit way, but his posture before the Lord gives away what he actually believes; in Biblical time, and perhaps even today, kneeling and/or bowing down was a manifestation of “worship”. This man somehow knows and believes that he is standing before the Son of God. And in him we see a person who comes to Jesus asking for healing with confidence about the Lord’s power and faith in him. St Mark doesn’t give us his name so that each of us could picture him or herself in his place, kneeling, pleading before Jesus; ‘If you want, you can cure me.’
Then, we should look at the issue of ritual purity. Last week’s gospel showed us how Jesus healed those who sought his help under the cover of night – probably because nigh-time was the only time they could have wandered around without being judged against the strict standards of Jewish purity laws. Today’ story follows on from that, by showing us yet another person oppressed by the sigma of being ritually unclean because of their illness, someone who had to live outside built up areas, had to warn others about his uncleanliness, and had to abide to the purity rules set out in our first reading. Undoubtedly, Jesus could have cured the man without even a word. But instead he chooses to reach out to the man and to touch him, jeopardising his own ritual integrity, and contracting the same social stigma by association. Why?
‘Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. ‘Of course I want to!’ he said. ‘Be cured!’ (Mark 1:33-34a)
Jesus feels sorry for him. Or, in a better translation, Jesus has compassion for him; Jesus in that moment is moved by the literally gut-wrenching feeling of compassion – “suffering with”. He reaches out to heal and to give the poor man that human contact which had been denied to him since the very first moment he had been pronounced unclean. But in touching the leper Jesus also shows that nothing whatsoever we could bring to or share with him could ever make him unclean – he has authority over illness, the law, and whatever stigma we can think of.
On Wednesday we will enter the holy season of Lent. This time of spiritual renewal calls us each year to do two things; to return to God with all our hearts, acknowledging our sins, so as to discover anew forgiveness and freedom in Jesus; and also to exercise self-denial and charity so as to break bad habits, growing into the likeness of Christ. During this time our church will look increasingly sombre as the weeks will go by, we’ll put ash on our heads, a few of us will give up pleasurable things, and others will redouble their efforts in doing good works and in giving to charity. In all these things, it is as if we humbled ourselves before God, so as to move him to move his compassionate heart towards us, and through compassion to win pardon and grace. So, as we stand on the threshold of Lent, today’s reading teach us something about the season we are about to enter. First, as Jesus shows us that no illness can make ritually unclean, let us imitate him in the way we show compassion and reach out to others. Today, the Lord Jesus shows us divine healing powers which we do not possess, but the principle behind his actions holds true for each one of us. By imitating Jesus, striving to grow into his likeness, let us be moved to compassion towards those affected by the stigmas of our society. And in compassion let us reach out to heal. Secondly, on a personal level we are all like the leper who approaches Jesus; sin is something that not only we do, but something that pervades our society, something that we cannot cure ourselves. So during Lent let us approach the Lord Jesus with the same confidence and faith shown by this man. Let us fall on our knees and say to the Lord with one voice; “If you want, you can cure me.” Let this be our Lenten prayer – If you want you have the power to save me, my family, my neighbourhood, my world. Please, Lord, do it!
‘The whole town came crowding round the door,
and he cured many who were suffering’ (Mark 1:33-34a)
Not many months ago news of proposed changes in the NHS Devon trust sparked a debate across the Country; should the NHS offer routine surgery to morbidly obese people and to smokers only when these have either shed a few pounds or quit smoking? Or should the system be left as it is, offering appropriate care for all? According to officials, the proposed changes were driven by an attempt to save public funds and to focus the attention of healthcare professionals on those patients with better chances to make a full recovery, without “wasting” – for want of better words – resources on those who were considered more prone to illness because of the their lifestyle. However, this debate quickly revealed a broader ethical dilemma at the root of our society, about whether or not to deny treatment to those who have brought illness upon themselves through bad habits. That is to say, “Who is worthy of care?” and “On whom should we invest our limited resources?”
“Who is worthy?” This was (and still very much is) the underlying and divisive question which transcends NHS care to encompass every aspect of our lives. “Why should we show compassion to those whose conditions ae ultimately self-inflicted?” “What charity is more deserving of our money?” “Why should I worry about people outside my family or circle of friends?” To all these questions, and more, a growing number of people might respond that we should not pay for those who have been the cause of their own downfall; that “charity begins at home”; and that limited resources should be invested on those who promise better returns. “Who is worthy of care?” In our first reading Job, a just man whose life has been turned upside-down by circumstances beyond his control, speaks about his dreadful condition. He is very ill, all the members of his family have died, and his great fortune is lost. As things stand, nothing is can bring joy or hope to Job, and in the lowest pits of depression he feels completely abandoned by his friends and by God. Those around him reproach him saying that if he is so stricken down it must be because has sinned; he must have brought illness and misfortune upon himself; what he is experiencing just retribution for his behaviour; and it would be of no use to help or comfort him until he has changed his life and abandoned his bad habits. The people who professed to be Job’s friends are indeed the first to shut their ears and hearts to his plea because, as they see it, he himself it the cause of his own tragic condition, and therefore he is not worthy of care.
However, as we turn to the pages of the gospel Jesus teaches us a different way. Here we see the Lord curing those who came or where brought to him without assessing their worthiness, asking them about their faith, or enquiring about the cause of their conditions. But, what we might find even more interesting is that Jesus does not turn away, or judge, or scold anyone, even those who may have brought about their own illnesses. As Jesus meets people in difficulties, people who may well have been in the depths of despair like Job; he just cares for them and cures them. In fact, this scene has two beautiful features; silence and night. Mark tells us that the sick started arriving after sunset, when they could leave their homes or hiding places without fear of being judged or driven away in cold light of day. Then Mark does not report any words said by Jesus – a silence only occasionally interrupted by commands to the demons to shut up. There, in the dead of night, in the silence of prayer, the Lord administers healing beyond comparison and demonstrates that love and care is available to everyone who approaches him.
“Who is worthy of care?” We may not have the gifts of healing Jesus demonstrated; yet Jesus gives us a pattern of life for us to imitate, so that we may strive to bring relief to others like the Lord did in the gospel. Our resources, both as a society and as individuals are always limited, yet, the moment we start to question whether a person is worthy of our care, that is the moment we depart from the path Jesus traces for us.
‘The time has come’ he said ‘and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.’ (Mark 1:15)
One of the most annoying things a satnav can say is, “Use the next roundabout to make a U-turn.” Unfortunately, it is also something that I hear often. And if you’re anything like me, you would find it rather frustrating precisely because there, in the middle of your plodding along and trying to find your way through the traffic, the satnav suddenly reminds you that something has gone wrong – heck, not something, but that you have gone down the wrong road – and that only possible way to reach your destination is to turn around immediately and go back to the appointed route.
Today’s gospel – and first reading for that matter – does precisely that, as we hear the Lord Jesus saying, ‘Repent, and believe the Good News.’ To repent literally means to turn around. To repent is to turn around and away from what we are doing, and to re-orient ourselves toward Jesus. Just as at Mass we all orient ourselves in one and the same direction towards the Lord present on the altar, so we are called to do in life, as Jesus invites us to make a U-turn from our self-centred, self-seeking (and sometimes self-destructing) ways, and start to follow after him instead. Simple enough to say, but what does repentance actually look like in practice? Perhaps unfortunately, repentance has been badly typecast, and I guess most of us would associate it with doing penance, with giving up things for Lent, with fasting and putting on sackcloth like the citizens of Nineveh, and even with a time of boring, joyless sobriety. But all these things are just tools to lead us to true repentance, which is simply a genuine movement of both heart and mind towards Christ… the start of a journey in his direction.
Mark’s gospel gives us a practical example of what repentance should look like by describing how the first disciples begin to follow Jesus. Last Sunday we read together a passage of John’s gospel where Jesus is manifested by John the Baptist as the Christ. In that version of the events, John and Andrew immediately start to follow Jesus after that testimony. But Mark presents us with the different version of the events, where it is Jesus who calls Peter and Andrew, and then James and John to follow. So which one was it? Which version of the events is more likely to be a true account of what happened when the first disciples encountered the Lord? I personally would suggest that John’s description of how him and Andrew begun their journey with Jesus is probably the more accurate, because John the Evangelist was actually one of the people involved.
However, there is no need to set one version against the other, because they both agree in putting the same two points across. First, Jesus is this hugely charismatic and compelling figure and whether his call to them was individual and explicit or not, the disciples are instinctively drawn to him, to attach themselves to him. Secondly, to follow Jesus means repenting; turning away and leaving one’s life behind in order to be with the Lord. And this aspect is more prominent is Mark’s version. See how Peter and Andrew are surprised by Jesus in the middle of their working day, and how James and John are called by the Lord in the ordinariness of their daily routine... When the Lord calls them, it’s not like they don’t have anything else to do. As fishermen they own their own businesses, so to speak; they have families to provide for and things to do. Yet, all of them turn away from what they were doing, because they can instinctively see that to follow Jesus is far more important than anything else. So without a word they make their first steps in a new direction, in a new life. And for them this is the beginning of true, life-long repentance.
It is never easy to realise when we are going wrong, to eat humble pie and to make a U-turn. But if we carry on and let ourselves be guided by social conventions, bad habits, unfulfilling occupations, or human values with very little meaning, our journey through life can easily become an aimless (if not disastrous) wandering along unsuitable roads. Yet, turning around is always possible and well worth the effort; to repent and accept the gospel is to make the first steps is a new direction toward something different, something better, and something altogether more satisfying.
‘Andrew met his brother and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ and he took Simon to Jesus.’ (John 1:41-42)
The Sunday readings between the Feasts of the Epiphany and Candlemas present us with a number of other epiphanies, other moments in which Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, the Christ. Last week a star led the Wise Men to the Lord and they adored him as “King, and God, and Sacrifice”. Today John the Baptist and the Apostle Andrew are among the first to lead other people to Jesus – not coldly and from a distance like the star did, but in a warm and personal way. Andrew and the beloved disciple John are the first to become disciples of Jesus after John the Baptist revealed him as the Saviour, the ‘Lamb of God’ (1:35). As Jesus sees the two men literally walking behind him, he says to them, ‘What do you want?’ Jesus didn’t expressly invite them to follow him, so his question might seem entirely reasonable, if a little abrupt. But Jesus implies something more meaningful; “What is it that you actually want? What are you searching for?” And when they tell him, Jesus invites them to become his disciples with a very simple invitation; ‘Come and see’ (1:39). “Come and see where I live, the way I live” the Lord seems to say, “and stay with me as long as you wish.” Then it is Andrew’s turn to reveal Jesus as the Christ to someone else. He finds his brother Simon and leads him to Jesus after announcing to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (1:41). We are not told Simon’s feelings about being taken to meet Jesus; maybe he goes with Andrew out of politeness, maybe he is just curious, but one thing is certain; Andrew’s words change his brother’s life forever, so much so that Simon is even given a new name by the Lord; Peter.
After this, the series of revelations and invitations to follow Christ continues, even though our gospel reading today ends with the joining of Peter. A couple of verses later, it is the turn of another disciple – this time Philip – to go to Nathanael (one of his friends) and to say to him “We have found the Messiah” (Cf. 1:45) followed by the simple invitation first extended by Jesus; ‘Come and see’ (1:46).
John the Baptist, Andrew, and then Philip give us examples of what to do. They all led someone to Jesus, but not someone at random – Andrew and Philip especially did not stand on street corners talking about Jesus like the preachers one finds on Oxford Circus. No. John the Baptist, and Andrew and Philip led to the Lord people whom they already knew; a friend, a family member, a companion… Their invitations were warm and personal, and so should ours be.
But where does this leave us? When I was young my parish priest quite often used the same refrain at the end of a poorly attended service, “Next time” he would say, “if we each invite someone else – a member of our family or a friend – there’ll be a few more of us at Mass”. And this is what today’s gospel invites us to do as well. We are called to act like John the Baptist, Andrew, and Philip. Our common vocation is to reach out, to our family members, friends, and neighbours, showing them something about the joy of having found Christ. We are called to invite the Simons and Nathanaels of our times to “come and see” the Lord Jesus present in our midst, “come and see” how his presence reshapes our lives; “come and see” how he teaches us ways of justice and love.
‘Come and see’ is an open invitation to join that community that the Lord calls “his church” (Cf. Matt 16:18), because it is this unique gathering of extremely different people that Christ has chosen to be a continual epiphany, a constant manifestation of his presence in the world.
Well done, good and faithful servant; you have shown you can be faithful in small things, I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness. (Matt 25:23)
On Friday I paid a short visit to the church of Christ the King, Gordon Square, in London – and if you ever find yourselves at loose ends in Bloomsbury, I encourage you to do the same as it is a masterpiece of English gothic revival. This church was built by the Catholic Apostolic Church, which was a Victorian religious group (with very little to do with the Church of England, or with Roman Catholicism) that emphasised the second coming of Jesus – in fact members of this church, genuinely expected Christ to come in glory at any moment and they forecasted it to happen in their lifetime. Rumours even have it that in the vestry of this church the best set of vestments was always laid out on the vestment press, ready for the Lord to wear them at his coming. We may find this custom amusing, or even outlandish, but perhaps it should prompt us to reflect on how we relate to Christian belief in the second coming of Christ as sovereign Lord and judge of all creation. Faith in the second coming is often misrepresented by both Christians and non-believers alike, and it may even seem out of place when we think that scientists can now calculate the life expectancy of stars. Yet, the Creed we say together affirms that Jesus ‘will come again to judge both the living and the dead’.
The theme of Jesus’ return is embedded in today’s parable of the talents – indeed, it is the dominant feature of Matthew 24 and 25. And here we read that, at his coming, the Lord will reward those who to have faithfully invested their talents, whilst he will reject from his presence those whom failed his trust. Then, our faith in the Lord’s return should lead us to see ourselves as the characters of the parable, as the servants whom the Master entrusts with a lavish array of talents from his own fullness. In Jesus’ time a talent was an enormous sum of money; it corresponded to the wage for over eight years of work – if not more. But in the parable, talents represent more than just money; they are a symbol of the extraordinary number of flairs and abilities God freely bestows on each one of us. And regardless of whether we see ourselves in the servant with five talents, or in the servant entrusted with one, all we need to recognise is that God has, in fact, given us much… No-one among us here – in fact, I go as far as saying no human being – is deprived of at least a special quality, a something, they can invest to the glory of God – we just need to be able to recognise what has been given to us, and put it to its best possible use.
But what could our talents be? Do you have free time? Offer it to the Church, or spend it in prayer for others. Do you have a lively faith, or delight in learning about God? Encourage those whose faith is weak. Are you an artist? Say something about God with your art. Do you have administrative skills? There are plenty of churches who need your help. Do you have money or wealth? Give what you can. Do you have musical skills? Join the choir. Do you have a vocation to ministry? Devote your life to it. Are you outgoing and cheerful? Befriend the lovely. These are just examples, but they give us an idea that almost everything can be used to glory of God, and that we are charged with this task.
So, what impact should the parable of the talents and our belief in the second coming have on the way we live? And what should we do so that the Lord may say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant”? The answer is rather simple; whilst people outside these walls would use everything in their power to advance their position in society or to gain fame and wealth, we, as Christian, should use everything we have received from God so as to further his glory. Only then we can hope to enter the master’s joy, the joy of heaven, and be admitted into the Lord’s presence.
Once saw a fridge magnet at a friend’s vicarage that read, “Jesus is coming. Look busy!” And I guess there is a little bit of truth in this. Our faith teaches us that Jesus will indeed come again. But, even though Christians have often tried to forecast his appearing, today’s parable remind us that the point of our faith is neither to determine an Estimated Time of Arrival for Jesus nor to pretend to be busy; rather faith should make us faithful and diligent in working for him.
Jesus says, ‘you have only one master, and you are all brothers.’ (Matt 23:8)
The Bible texts we have just read, with their references to priesthood and teaching ministry, are sadly not the texts used at ordinations within the Church of England. Maybe this is a missed opportunity for checking, at the eleventh hour, that the candidates standing before the bishop truly understand what they are letting themselves in for. But I suspect that introducing these texts might also lead to an increase in the numbers of last-minute drop outs.
In today’s gospel, we see Jesus criticising once again the religious elite of his time as we have seen him doing many times already in the last few weeks. These people, and especially the scribes, were considered the official interprets of the Law, of the Scriptures, and because of this they could claim for themselves position of power in Jewish society, the respect and admiration of everyone, and they could also express judgment – often harsh judgment – on the morality of others. And so the Lord reproaches them because they exalted themselves above fellow Israelites, because they themselves failed to live up to the high standard they set for others, and because through their strict teachings they caused people to stumble in their faith (cf. Mal 2:8). The Church too does not have good track record on this issue. History records countless times when individuals charged with the governance of God’s people have abused their positions of authority, promoted moral double-standards, and failed to care for the flock of Christ. So both the Lord’s criticism to the scribes and Pharisees, and the prophecy of Malachi in our first reading, still ring true today.
Yet, the Lord’s teaching is not directed to the scribes and Pharisees, or priests and theologians, alone; it is aimed to all his disciples and the crowds as well. This is because the point Jesus is trying to put across is not a subversive message against the entire religious establishment, but against those who misuse religion for personal gain, to acquire for themselves moral high ground in every situation, and to conquer the respect of others. The point Jesus wants to understand is this ‘you have only one master, and you are all brothers’ (Matt 23:8). If we excuse the gender exclusive language, Jesus is saying that we are all equal before him, and all equal before the Father in heaven. Jesus does recognise that there are people called by God to positions of authority and by saying, ‘You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say’ (Matt 23) he invites everyone to respect their ministry and, if possible, to learn from them – even when these prove themselves to be wanting in the way they lead their lives.
Within our Christian family there are those who have special responsibility, people entrusted with a duty of care, but this does not change the fact that we are all fundamentally siblings – beloved children of God by adoption whom the Father sees as equal members of the body of his only begotten Son Jesus Christ. In this sense, when Jesus commands us to call no-one father or teacher he wants us to reflect on what those titles mean. This is not a blanket ban on using the words “father” and “teacher”. Jesus is not saying that to call a priest Father is wrong, like many evangelicals would have us believe. In ancient times fathers had the ultimate say in everything – even life or death – for everyone in their household, they could even sell off their children. Teachers too could be harsh masters of their pupils. So Jesus says, no-one but God should have this level of authority over anyone of us, because we are all brothers.
The words of the liturgy help us understand this better. However we refer to our priests in terms of titles – Father, Reverend, Mother, Vicar – at the moment in which the offerings of bread and wine are placed upon the altar, the celebrant says, ‘Pray, my brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours will be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father’. As the liturgy of the sacrament enters into its most profound part, the balance between congregation and priest, the balance among the people of God, is redressed to highlight the fact that actually “we are all brothers and sisters” before God the Father.
The ground-breaking teaching of today’s gospel is not “don’t call anyone father or teacher” but is ‘you are all brothers and sisters’ before God. And, as our society appears to become more and more fragmented, more and more divided by the partisan language of “us” and “them”, the Lord’s commands us to rediscover what it means to be part of the same family, the same household of God.
Jesus says, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.” (Matt 22:21)
The age-old saying ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ plays a key role in today’s gospel reading. The Pharisees and the Herodians were two rival factions at the time of Jesus; the first a group of fierce religious nationalists who hated the Romans and their ways, the second a group of collaborators who thrived under the Roman occupation of Palestine, and had embraced many of the non-Jewish customs imported by the Empire. Yet, these two bitterly divided groups found a point of unity in persecuting Jesus and – as Mark’s gospel tells us – in plotting to kill him (cf. Mark 6:3).
Jesus had been a strong critic of sectarian groups such as these, and he had lashed out against their interpretation of religion many times before. Now it was the time for Pharisees and Herodians to hit back. And today’s question about taxation finds its origin in their unlikely alliance. In the minds of both groups, their clever question would have been a catch 22 for Jesus; if the Lord answered that Roman taxation was wrong, he could have been accused before the authorities and put to death; while if Jesus endorsed paying tributes to the foreign super-power of his day, he would have lost the support of many of his followers who were, after all, mostly Jewish. But, as we read, Jesus is not fooled by clever arguments; not then, not now, not ever. And I guess many people still struggle with his response to this day.
Even among us there are those who would find it rather satisfying if Jesus had launched himself into a long discourse about unjust taxes, or if he had laid the foundations of modern democracy saying things like “no taxation without representation”. But he didn’t. Likewise, other people would be rather pleased if Jesus had used this occasion to endorse, one and for all, a specific way of government or another, or if he had laid out some clear guidelines for political leaders. But he didn’t. In fact, Jesus only said then, and says to us now, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.”
But what does it even mean? Is this some clever trick Jesus used to get out of a tight spot? Are these are the words of someone who wishes to sit on the fence in order not to lose followers? One could definitely interpret the story in this way, but it would not quite fit within the Christian narrative.
Here Jesus is giving us a simple moral commandment. He is establishing some ground rules for the ways in which Christians are to behave in in the world. On one hand, Caesar represents the state, and for Jesus giving back to Caesar means paying the taxes we owe and striving to be upstanding members of society. From the gospels it is clear that Jesus does not endorse the brutalities committed by the Roman Empire, or by any other political system for that matter, but he commands his followers to be good citizens of whatever nation they find themselves living in. This idea of good citizenship is also picked up in the writing of St Paul where he says, ‘supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity’ (1Tim 2:1-2).
On the other hand, giving to God that which rightfully belongs to him may not seems so clear-cut, so well defined, as filling out an HMRC form or respecting the rules of society. But in Jesus we see that giving to God means paying to him our homage of worship in a way that encompasses everything we do; being constant in prayer, faithful in worshipping together, confident in the faith, generous towards those in need and towards the Church, and pursuing (campaigning for) justice and peace for this world.
In short, today’s gospel recognises that Christians – all of us – are caught up between two competing worlds; between God and Caesar, between the demands of religion and demands of the society we live in; and with his words Jesus strikes some sort of truce between these two worlds. He invites us to play our part in society as good citizens, as long as our duties towards God have the absolute priority, because – as St Paul wrote to the Philippians – at the end of the day ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (Phil 3:20).
The king said to his servants, “The wedding is ready;
…go to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone.” (Matt 22:8-9)
If you have ever been invited to a wedding you would know how important etiquette and preparation are. Invitations must be sent out well in advance with a clear indication of timings; menu choices and dietary requirements must be returned; suitable gifts and clothing have to be purchased… It wasn’t like this at the time of Jesus. Invitations to important weddings were more like announcements that the marriage would take place at some point in the future; neither the date nor the time were clearly specified for very practical reasons. Only once the bridal party had gathered all the food, wine, musicians, and everything else that was needed, only then the wedding celebrations could go ahead. Only once everything was ready the household servants would go out to round up the guests. And if you had been put on the spot by the sudden call to attend the party, you didn’t have to worry; even suitable wedding garments would have been provided. So if you had been invited, all you had to do was turn up. A bit haphazard, you might think, but in the days before clocks and professional wedding organisers, this worked pretty well, even when the wedding was not an ordinary one. This is a marriage celebration organised by the king; a party that would have lasted at least a week. The closest thing we could compare it to nowadays would be being invited to Buckingham Palace for a week-long lively programme of state dinners with food, entertainment, clothes, and accommodation all provided. Imagine that.
And it is in this cultural context that Jesus places today’s parable. A story in which the King is God the Father, his Son is Jesus himself, and the servants are the prophets of old – some of whom had been maltreated and even killed. The original guests – the ones, who though invited, backed away from God’s invitation to be his holy nation – are an illustration of Israel’s religious elite. To them Jesus contrasts the new guests, gathered from the most unlikely of places; from crossroads. These are the gentiles, the non-Jewish people, us; the ones to whom God willingly extends his call to become his holy people. The wedding garments, which are so crucial in order to be admitted to the feast, are a representation of the habits faith and love we must practice. And finally, the celebration itself is an image both of the eternal life which we hope to enjoy, and of holiness we are called to live in the present.
So reading this parable, what does the call to holiness look like? First, we can say that God’s call is open to everyone. Even if so many people turn his offer down, God keeps inviting. Secondly, we can say that God’s call is a free gift. There is no charge, fee, or hoops that we have to jump through in order to be called to become saints. We do not need to be to prove ourselves worthy of it, because God’s invitation is, and always will be, there. And lastly, we can say that the call to holiness is essentially a call to joy; an invitation and a cause for celebration. For too long saints, holy people, and faithful Christians have been seen as killjoys, but the parable of the wedding feast essentially says, “God calls you to joy now, and to celebration in the life to come.” The only thing we have to do is to clothe ourselves in the wedding garments of faith and good deeds which God provides for us.
As unoriginal as it may sound to us now, the meaning of this parable was ground-breaking for Jesus’ original listeners; everyone is invited to the wedding feast – not just one nation or type of people; each one of us, as the parable says ‘bad and good alike’, is called to become a saint. And we should do well to rediscover this meaning.
The man went and said to the first son,
“My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” (Matthew 21:28)
As a curate, every time I went on holiday my training incumbent would perform his best impression of a martyr to parish life and say, “You have fun, I stay here working and treading grapes in the Lord’s vineyard”. And in many church contexts the Biblical expression of “working in the vineyard” is usually associated with spreading the faith, managing churches, and making disciples of Jesus, but this is not so much the case in today’s gospel reading. In the parable of the two sons we have just read the man is God the Father who extends to his children an invitation to work in his vineyard as an invitation to holiness, a call to enter the kingdom of heaven ever more deeply by leading a life pleasing to him. In the two siblings we see two examples of how a person might respond to the Father’s call; one who, though initially opposed, reconsiders the Father’s invitation and does his will, and another who, thinking either too lightly of his duties or too highly of his status as son, ends up disregarding the commitment he made, and disobeys the Father.
Jesus used this parable to criticise the Jewish religious elite of his time – we see he addresses the parable as a moral question to the chief priests and the elders of the people (cf. Matt 21:28); to those who failed to recognise God at work in the ministry of St John the Baptist and in his own ministry too; to those who paid lip-service to God, but thought too highly of themselves and did not see their need for repentance. They are represented by the son who said, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go’ (Matt 21:30) and so let the Father down. To them Jesus presents the example of faith, trust in God, and openness to conversion given by those traditionally on the margins of the Jewish religious and social establishment, the ‘tax collectors, prostitutes’ and others sinners who were shunned by society. These are represented by the son who ‘answered, “I will not go” but afterwards thought better of it and’ (Matt 21) did the Father’s will.
But this is not just a story from the past. The Lord Jesus speaks these words to us today as well. We could transpose it to our own time by casting in the role of the first son all those whom the Church has cast to the margins, and as the second son all those baptised and confirmed people who have promised to serve the Lord, but whose actions never match their words. And so the implicit question, “Which one of the two sons am I?” is a simple one, but it should encourage us to reflect how we respond to God’s invitation to holiness and to the Christian life.
This is something of which I am personally (and painfully!) aware. In my journey towards priesthood I was very much the son ‘who answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it’ (Matt 21), and after having put off ordained ministry for over ten years, and even after changing Christian denomination, I relented and decided to do something about it. But the call to holiness is not a call to be a priest; it is an open invitation to all, and things don’t get much easier on this front just because you’re wearing a white shirt collar back-to-front. Even now, when the Father calls for deeper holiness, for closer union with him, and greater personal commitment, I am the one who gets side-tracked by other, less productive, activities, and then has to make amends.
Like in the parable, every day the Father renews his invitation to you and me, and to every Christian to work in his vineyard, his call to change our lives and, slowly but surely, to become the person he wants us to be. The way in which we answer the Father’s invitation will determine the way in which we actually live our faith... we could be the ones who go to church, pay lip-service to God, and hide behind our religious paraphernalia fooling ourselves that we are the ones doing the Father’s will, but this is what the second son did. Or we could be the ones who do go to church, who are repentant when we fail, and also aim to live out our faith in a way that matches our words; in a way that what we say to God may be supported or even exceeded by our good deeds.
Jesus says, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’ (Matt 18:20)
I don’t know if you have ever walked into the middle of a conversation, like I have done many a time, and you ended up getting the wrong end of the stick altogether… It is easily done, and it can happen to anyone. In fact, the same type misunderstanding can also happen when we approach the Bible outside its proper context, or even more so when we focus on an isolated verse of the Scriptures and we draw all sorts of conclusions from just that one phrase.
Today’s gospel gives us a couple of examples of very common misunderstandings which can easily arise when we take the teachings of Jesus out of their proper framework. At the beginning of our reading we see that Jesus gives instructions on how to behave towards other Christians when they do something wrong – instructions that could lead even to the exclusion of a member (or as this is known in church terms, “excommunication”). A bit harsh, we might think, but pretty straightforward to apply on the whole. Then again, you see that Jesus says here, ‘If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him’ (Matt 18:15), so you can imagine how it could go horribly wrong. And if this were all the Christian teaching one had to go by, one could feel perfectly entitled to see it as their duty – their vocation even – to corner and to shame another person about their conduct… ‘go and have it out with them!’
The second example of a common misunderstanding comes a little further down as the Lord says, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them’ (Matt 18:20). Again, if this were all the Christian teaching we had to go by, we could think that (a) praying on our own wouldn’t get us very far all, and (b) as long as there was at least one other person with us, then we could pray and worship in any way we wanted because Jesus would be with us to make sure the Father would grant us all our wishes like a divine Genie of the lamp. For both of these examples, similarly to walking into the middle of a conversation, if we are unaware of the context in which they were set we could end up misunderstanding what Jesus actually meant to teach us and get ourselves caught up in a religion of our own making.
But what is the context of the Scriptures? Jesus identifies it as the Church when he says that all his teachings are applicable within “the Community” of believers. The word used here is “ecclesia” (Cf. Matt 18:17), meaning the assembly of all the faithful which the Lord gathers around himself, the collective body of all Christians. It is this Community that the Lord charges with recalling all people to repentance, whilst not to judge anyone; this is the community entrusted by Jesus with “binding or loosing” (meaning forgiving sins and welcoming back stray members); this is the community entrusted with the message of the gospel; and, regardless of its size, this is the place where Jesus primarily meets with his follower.
Oftentimes is can be all too easy to grumble and to feel dejected about “the Church” as an abstract reality, but if today’s gospel teaches us anything about our community of faith is that the ecclesia, the Church, is essentially the backdrop against which the true meaning of the Lord’s teachings could stand out and become relevant for us. Christian thinkers of several denominations, and first among them the Church Fathers, have taught for millennia one simple phrase; ‘extra Ecclesiam nulla salus’ meaning ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’. This is because the Church is essentially our context, the one body of which we became part at our baptism, and the backdrop against which we each play out our individual vocation to be the person – our true selves, as I said last Sunday – that God created, loves, and finds indispensable.
Maybe I sound like an idealist here, painting such a rosy picture of the Church as the community to which all people are called, and the place where each person can be their true self. But I have experienced the alternative to this view. I spent a good few years being angry towards the Church, wanting to ignore it, and to move on. But being part of this community gives full meaning to the gospel – in a sense, the Church brings the gospel to life in each generation as a tangible reality. Being gathered around the Lord Jesus – at least on Sundays – at Mass gives meaning to the saying, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’ And being Church gives meaning to our prayers. Indeed, being part of the Church is what gives meaning to our being Christians. To pretend otherwise, to think that Jesus calls everyone to follow him, but that “he doesn’t do Church” would be the biggest misunderstanding of them all.