Are You Ready?

The Second Sunday of Advent

Matt 3;1-12

“Prepare the way for the Lord” cried John the Baptist. While thinking about preparing, my mind turned to school inspectors, from a body known in the United Kingdom as OFSTED. Although their approach is more measured these days, it is not so long since news of an OFSTED inspection produced something like panic in schools. Normally after just a day or two’s notice, the inspectors descend, taking no special circumstances whatsoever into account: if the Head Teacher had had a nervous breakdown – sadly not a rare occurrence – too bad – they judged on what they saw, and many careers were destroyed.

St. John the Baptist,
NCC Church in Oslo.

So we ask if Christians should not with equal seriousness prepare, as John the Baptist calls us, for the coming of the Lord? These are well known words, but words which may have been blunted through their very familiarity. Also in the United Kingdom today, Kings and Lords are abound but are largely toothless tigers: so, Lord this or Lord that is paying a visit to town, so what difference? After all, they are just human! My guess is that in the feudal society of medieval England, or indeed in the police state of Herod’s Palestine, things would have been very different.

So when John cried “Prepare the way for the Lord” my guess is that for many ordinary people it would have been a call to be ignored at their peril. If you weren’t ready, heaven protect you. Yet at another level, remember, all this happened at a time of great religious ferment, the Jews were expecting something momentous to happen, they believed that God was going to intervene decisively in his world, they were looking for the coming of a Messiah. So on both scores, ordinary people would have rushed to get themselves ready in every possible way for the coming of the great King. The mass baptisms undertaken by John, are proof enough of a great spiritual awakening among the people, even if for their own reasons, the rich and powerful, the upholders of the status quo chose to remain deaf.

What has this to teach us? We all know that, for a host of reasons, our faith grows stale. Two thousand years of Christian history have come and gone and still we sing “When comes the promised time, that war shall be no more?” We also know that the things of this world can so easily lure us away. It may be the sheer necessity of doing the household chores, it may that we simply give in to the prevailing culture and join the great throng of those who seem simply to live life for our own selves, heedless of others, careless of the things of God.

Advent is one of the most beautiful seasons of the Church’s year: it is rich with promise, it has wonderful music that almost aches for the return of the Lord in his glory. Every time we say the Creed we affirm our belief that one day, in God’s time, it will happen, and the age will close. Because we do not know when, because it seems sometimes as though it will never happen, the temptation is to put off getting our spiritual house in order, is to defer our preparations for the coming of the King to another time, when the things of this world are not pressing in so hard upon us. But it is precisely for that reason that we should act now; we should try to see ourselves through God’s eyes; eyes which express love, an infinite love, let it be said, but eyes which also express great sadness that we have strayed so much from his paths and followed our own devices and desires.

Busyness should never be an excuse for neglecting our souls; if our souls are right with God, then we can sit light to all the bustle and frantic activity that surrounds us and can so easily suck us in. If not, then we risk sinking under the pressures that we allow to rule our lives. A good resolve for Advent is the opening words of another old hymn – thy way, not mine O Lord. So let it be for us.

Fr. Edward Bryant

Be Prepared

Advent Sunday

Matt 24;37-44

The writer Rod Dreher begins his book The Benedict Option with these words: “No one saw the flood coming.” This theme matches the gospel passage of St. Matthew that opens the new liturgical year on Advent Sunday recalling Noah and the need for preparedness. Noah was a man who lived by faith in God and was well prepared to face natural or man-made disaster, unlike the people of Dreher’s home town, Baton Rouge, who never imagined the consequences of the August 2022 floods. The whole community was shell shocked very much like the people of Europe are today, also facing the perfect storm of food and fuel shortages, inflation and economic confusion, political turmoil and social conflict. For decades people have been asleep believing everything they have been told, that such things could never happen again in our enlightened world, that lessons had really been learned.

Anonymous, Greece (Public domain)

The Christian world has likewise indulged in a similar lack of preparedness, not listening to the warnings that have been given by the likes of Pope Benedict XVI and others, who decades ago, saw the storm clouds gathering over the Church, with ingredients that would create a spiritual crisis. Christians have been asleep like the foolish virgins who said, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.’[Matt. 25;11] There is no assurance in the illusion that today’s creeping secularism could be trusted and tolerated, that somehow Christians could live alongside or even modify their faith to a godless culture. Rarely have Christians been less prepared to work together to face the storms and supporting each other in the face of destruction. We approach Advent 2022 with this monumental challenge, that Jesus, in his coming and taking our humanity, by his birth in Bethlehem and by his death as a man in Jerusalem, he makes possible our participation in his divinity, enabling us to face the storms. This is the only message we take into our own lives as alert and sensitive worshippers in the coming months. It is the same message of St. Paul to the Roman Church, “Put on Christ” and do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep.” [Romans 13;11]

Banish the idea that Advent is just “a countdown season” before the Christmas parties and return to the crucial point of a serious Advent season and with the mind of Matthew’s Gospel, ready to resist inertia. “Know this, if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into” says Jesus. [Matt 24;43] The setting in which Jesus spoke these words was perfect! It was Jerusalem on the first day of his Holy Week Passion and the teaching he gave of vigilance was crucial if his followers, who must be in a state of readiness. John Henry Newman, preaching to his parishioners on this predicament, said, that those who watch for Christ “in all that happens, would never be surprised or overwhelmed”.

Never has it been more vital for Christians not to be so preoccupied with daily living that they are indistinguishable from everyone else, being taken by surprise by a terrible turn of events unable to fight the good fight in readiness for the Son of Man’s coming at an hour we do not expect.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

The Compassionate Christ
– If You Are a King

Sunday before Advent, Christ the King

Luke 23;33-43

In six months, Britain will witness the coronation of the new King Charles III. Few will realise that the ceremony is not just a pageant, but is rooted in the kingship of the compassionate Christ of the Christian tradition. We however are fortunate to have a dramatic liturgical drama at this time each year that reflects upon this theme. The season of Pentecost turns to the season of the Incarnation in a climax with this Sunday proclaiming Jesus Christ as King of the saints of the faith through the ages. If it remains true to its tradition, the Coronation next year will underline the monarch’s links with the Kingship of Christ. The setting is the Holy Eucharist, and the symbols of the crown, the sceptre and orb each bearing a cross that together with the Bible are brought from the High Altar and bestowed upon the King who will be consecrated with the holy oil of Chrism. We must hope that this will not be altered or its significance glossed over, and some may see the message.

Christ the King, The Melkite Catholic Annunciation Cathedral in Roslindale.
[Boston at English Wikipedia & John Stephen Dwyer, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Meanwhile we are grateful to have this Sunday, first recognised in 1925 by Pope Pius XI providing a climax that formally underlines the Biblical title “King of Kings,” and confirms the full meaning and purpose of the Holy Spirit’s coming on the day of Pentecost to build a Kingdom of disciples and saints for the Lord.

However there is still much to untangle in the Christian interpretation of Kingship, because our present age, awash with propaganda, has filled our minds with political dogma about figures of power, wealth and status. Believing that the world encourages on the one hand the creation of rich celebrity idols, yet at the same time signals a better world achieved through a processes of “levelling up” for the rest of us. Monarchy has naturally been caught up in this net, and depicted as an institution of power and great wealth derived in the past from an empire built on the transportation of populations across the oceans to work on plantations. The Kingship of Christ far from being part of any of these ideas. It is the remedy for distorted worldly power.

At his trial when challenged by Pontius Pilate’s question, “are you a King,” Jesus said “my Kingdom is not of this world”, “I came to testify to truth.” Jesus is for us King of compassion and truth, just as he was at his humble birth in the stable at Bethlehem where God gave him “the throne of David and a kingdom that will have no end”. The entire adult ministry of Jesus between his birth and crucifixion were about this vision of a Kingdom of heaven that is the vehicle for renewing humanity and the world by being utterly distinct from the kingdoms of Caesars, dictators, princes and presidents. The healings that accompanied his time among people, all witnessed to the Messianic Kingdom built one built on God’s original plan to live by truth and not by evil and lies. This is why we pray daily, “thy will be done and thy kingdom come.”

All this is on display as Jesus stands before his alter ego, Pilate. This is an image of Kingship so totally removed from the modern mind. How different from the power of princes of this present age? The first followers saw very clearly this difference, and that they could not put their trust in Princes of mankind who would compel them to offer incense to Lord Caesar and call him “Kurios”. From Nero and Diocletian, Stalin and Mao it has been the same story.

Let us pray that in our age the people of God will stand by Jesus the one Lord and King in the way St. Paul gave in a final instructions to his disciple Timothy; “I urge you in the sight of God who gives life to all things, and before Christ Jesus who witnessed the good confession before Pontius Pilate, that you keep this commandment without spot, blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ’s appearing, which He will manifest in His own time, He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords.” [1 Timothy 6;13 -15]

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Peace In Our Time?

2nd Sunday before Advent

Remembrance Sunday

Luke 21;5-19

One of the saddest things about growing old is that short term memory starts to fade, though one can often recall events that happened years ago with total clarity, while being totally unable to remember where you left the keys you had in your hands two minutes ago. November is a time heavy with remembering.

Philip Stevens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Christian feasts of All Saints and All Souls Days, in England, Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder plot to blow up Parliament, and then, Remembrance Sunday (its American equivalent being Veterans Day), falling on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. We all remember how so many people had their lives changed forever by two World Wars and other conflicts of the twentieth century.

Now once again, the spectre of world war looms, and though, comfortable in our relative peace, we can easily overlook this, there is always war going on somewhere in the world. A hymn that was once popular on Remembrance Sunday began with the words “O valiant hearts,” which sprang out of the overwhelming grief generated by the litany of death of the First World War. In context its emotionalism is understandable, yet I always felt uneasy about it, because it compared the deaths of all those young soldiers to the death of Our Lord himself.

It was the seventeenth century Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne, who wrote “Any man’s death diminishes me” and so it does; it is in no way to belittle the sacrifice made by many for the protection of liberty and democracy to say that Our Lord’s self-sacrifice is of a totally different kind. Yet in such a terrible year as this it is tempting to ask, blasphemous though it might appear, whether either the Cross or all the sacrifices in recent wars have accomplished anything, so great is the evil which confronts us.

My answer to that, though, has to be a resounding yes. Although we still must reflect about the causes of the First World War, and the consequences, who can doubt that the Second World War was a necessary conflict; had the Allies not gone to war, what would have happened is too horrible to contemplate. And though we have to be a little cautious about the narrative relating to the present conflict in the Ukraine, the bellicose pronouncements of President Vladimir Putin and his cronies, together with, sadly, the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, can give no cause for comfort.

Jesus and Apostles, anonymous, Cappadocia, c.XII,
[Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons}

And as to the Cross: the problem is not with Our Lord’s sacrifice, the problem is that men and women continue to live as though it did not matter. They abuse the priceless gift of free will that God has given them, and they sow dreadful seeds of hatred and envy and greed; who can doubt it, for the fruits are everywhere to be seen. Vital though it is for us to fight against evil, it is just as vital for us to root evil out from our own lives, that they may be truly mirrors of Our Lord’s own life. It must never be forgotten, that Jesus went meekly to his Cross, praying all the while for those who had condemned him. We should remember in order to learn and to apply the lessons of the past, but we should also remember, as a spur to renewing our own lives in the image of Christ, who came to bring peace to a troubled world, and who still calls us all to share in his work of bringing peace and hope and reconciliation to others.

Fr Edward Bryant

The Trap

3rd. Sunday before Advent

Luke 20;27-38

The Reflections using Luke’s gospel will end with the final Sundays before Advent. This Gospel has given us a syllabus on the meaning and cost of discipleship. The passage for the week is just one of the five battles Jesus faced before his trial. In its context it follows an earlier encounter with the Pharisees who had been trying to trap him, by sending spies, pretending to ask sincere yet double-edged questions, saying “is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar?” The wrong answer here could lay Jesus open to treason! In this case the Lord not only saw their deceit and avoided the trap, but declared his own conviction that it was possible to be both loyal citizens of the state but also to fulfil commitments to God.

Now Jesus faces another trap with the stricter party of Sadducees who accepted the Torah, the five books of the Law of Moses. This battle with Sadducee lawyers was a theologically complex trap involving marriage and the resurrection, by which they tried to ridicule Jesus and drive him into the party of the Pharisees. The trap used a popular controversy of the time about remarriage which Jesus answered at a far deeper level. He explains that for those who love God deeply that life does not end with death but will be transformed at the resurrection through the love God, or in words of St. Paul, “and now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love”, [1 Corinthians 13;13]

Anastasis, Unknown Author, 11th Century, Chora Church Museum, Istanbul,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

These passages before his Passion have several purposes. They are based upon the Lord’s own experiences which are used as important guides for the first disciples. Jesus was facing a real human world of intrigue, trickery, deceit and entrapment in which he and we, and all his followers need to be alert to at all times responding in ways that reflect not the world of mankind but the kingdom and love of God. “Be wise as serpents but innocent as doves.” It will get more and more difficult with more vicious and sophisticated traps set by the enemies of Christ. Facing this adversary is like facing “a prowling lion seeking whom he may devour”.

Although the arguments and battles Christians face today are different to those in the gospel, the traps and deceits remain ever present. Indeed they may be more difficult and intimidating today because the means of manipulation are far greater and far more widespread as a result of global communication which sets up controversy across the internet in matters of seconds. For example the battle over abortion or gender, over human rights (whatever they are) or the stewardship of the world of nature are examples of new moralities that have the power to override orthodox belief. The State is now using every means to increasingly manipulate public opinion and taking greater and greater powers to enforce compliance with the new and godless mind. The enemy is a creeping totalitarianism we are all now confront. Mass media manages propaganda radically restricting freedom of speech and belief.

These are changes now facing Christians across the entire world as huge numbers are becoming trapped by state regulations enforced by the police. Others who would like to be openly faithful are feeling impotent to react to mass conditioning. St. Paul in his writing to his disciple Timothy was urgent in making him aware of the dangers of entrapment, “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. Evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But you must continue in the things which you have learned. The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but they will …… turn their ears away from the truth….but you, be watchful in all things”. [2 Timothy 3;12ff]

This lesson is so very serious for us that the NCC together with our friends in the Union of Scranton are heavily engaged in making a future in which faithful disciples in the fragmented denominations can work together for the truth, supporting each other in the battles, and avoiding the traps.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Be ye holy

All Saints Tide

Would you like to be a saint? The whole idea of sainthood arouses very mixed feelings for most of us. Saints are OK, but they’re better at a distance than close at hand: even that gentlest of saints, like St. Francis of Assisi, the one whom they called a second Christ, could be decidedly difficult, and when we think of people like the Apostle Paul or St. Augustine of Hippo, we might quickly conclude that it’s safer to honour them in their absence rather than in their presence. Indeed, it has been said that the best definition of a martyr is “someone who lives with a saint”!

To be a saint simply means to be holy, which is one of the marks of the Church – “one holy catholic and apostolic Church”, but a sign of individual believers also – be holy, for the Lord your God is holy, we are enjoined. What then is this holiness? Do we actually see it in the church as we experience it, and in the lives of Christian men and women? Again, popular accounts of the lives of saints seem to put such ways of living impossibly out of our reach. How can we begin to emulate such heroic deeds, such long hours of prayer, such self denial?

Yet we should not allow pious biographies to obscure the essential humanity of the saints. St Francis of Assisi left a life of self-indulgence to embrace poverty. St Augustine of Hippo was pursued by an anxious mother who seemed almost to despair at his early behaviour, and when he reformed he left a mistress and a child. St Teresa of Avila, when her carriage was grounded halfway across a ford, wound down the window, shook her fist at the heavens and said “If this is the way you treat your friends, God, no wonder you’have so few of them.” St Peter denied he even knew Jesus when questioned by a serving girl at the height of his Lord’s trial.

Of course these saints turned away from lives which denied their Lord or which sought only personal pleasure – but their capacity to be less than good surely remained. Holiness for them must have been a constant choice of God’s will, a daily acceptance of what they saw that love demanded of them; sometimes heroic, often ordinary. Peter, martyred for his faith, was still the man who had denied his Lord. Francis, in his poverty and delighting in the natural world about him, was still the man who had once delighted in fine and worldly things.

Synaxis of All Saints, early 17th Century. Vatican Museums,
[Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

For the saints, to become holy was not an instant remedy, a once for all event, it was a constant taking up of their cross and following in Jesus’ way, a constant choosing of God’s love; a constant recognition that no matter what was done, no matter what lay in the past, so strong was that love that it could never let them go.

Peter, Paul, Francis, and all the rest, were ordinary people, but people whose lives were transformed into holiness by the fire of God’s love. Like them, we too are ordinary people. In a special way All Saints day is our feast too, because in all our lives there are times when we achieve sanctity; when we act purely out of care for another person; when in our prayer we feel God’s presence, however briefly. When we go on doing what is right even though it takes constant acts of our will; when suddenly, unexpectedly we feel a kind of holy joy – all these are times of holiness.

Let us think of these things also when, in receiving the body and blood of the Lord in Holy Communion, that we may experience a particular realisation of his presence with us. This festival ending the season of Pentecost when we have reflected on “being the Church” is the reminder and the challenge to us all that God can and does work in the lives of ordinary people to conform them to the pattern of Jesus himself. Truly this is a great feast day for all of us.

Fr. Edward Bryant

The Great Divide

The 19th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 18;9-14

C. S. Lewis reflects on St. Luke’s parable of two men at prayer in the Temple in his own tale of a ghostly coach trip in which tourists are taken by a well respected social worker to visit heaven and hell. The coach first stops in heaven and the guide sees walking around a face he recognised as a notorious murderer. He is outraged and shouts out, “this can’t be right! This criminal should be in hell by rights.” Hearing this outburst, the murderer replies, “I am not here because of my rights but because I asked forgiveness and have been reconciled with my victim; I am here because of God’s mercy”.

The Pharisee and the Publican, watercolour on paper, by John Everett Millais (ca.1860), Aberdeen Art Gallery [Public Domain]

St. Luke’s parable is a beautifully crafted teaching about this keyword “Mercy” so frequently misunderstood, not least within the church by people who complain that using the word mercy regularly in our prayers and services amounts to grovelling. Whereas in this gospel it is again and again proclaimed as a vital step in the journey of the soul. The parable dramatically contrasts two men at prayer. The scene is set in verse 11“the Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself”. He is supposed to be an example of how things should be seen to be done in organized religion; he is a pillar of society as he gives thanks for his blessings, he observes all the rules, he fasts and is not greedy or dishonest publically, not even an adulterer. Who would not be rejoicing to have such a fine parishioner? But lift the veil only a little and we encounter the tipping point. This one has slipped into delusion as he prays “with himself” and God must listen to this display of zealous superiority which so quickly has fallen into the trap of judging and comparing his prayer and life with others. He is seeing the speck of dust in his neighbour’s eye before the plank in his own eye. His is the prayer without knowledge of the need for mercy which in Old Testament language means, God’s loving kindness, and is used so frequently in the Miserere Psalms, like 57, “Be merciful to me O God”.

Here we have the great divide between the Pharisee’s attitude to prayer and that of the despised tax collector, a man who collaborates with the Roman occupiers but who knows his deepest needs and who relies on the spirit of the Psalms that are the daily diet of religious Jews. We are told that this man, “standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’

Jesus responded to those who have not fallen into the trap of self delusion and who acknowledge their frailty, the people, so often looked down upon, yet will become the first disciples of the early Church and to whom this parable is first addressed. Then it is for all of us, that we do not fall into the trap of creating a bespoke, tailor made prayer life, like the Pharisee, trusting in ourselves that our virtuous acts make us right with God. Disciples of Jesus Christ recognize what Our Lord said at the end of this teaching “he who humbles himself will be exalted” and St. Gregory of Palamas when preaching on the passage went on to explain that from humility flows the sense of mercy which raises us to the heights of holiness.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

O, For a Closer Walk With God

The 18th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 18;1-8

Jesus told the disciples a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart. Luke’s gospel tells us, with a hint in the closing words of our reading, that the disciples had been expecting instant answers to prayer, and were getting disillusioned when they didn’t get them.

The Unjust Judge and the Imortunate Widow, John Everett Millais 1864
[Brothers Dalziel, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons]

That gives us the opportunity to reflect on what Christian prayer is, and how we should be practicing it. Christian prayer encompasses a much wider range of activities than is often thought. Many of us as children grew up to think of prayer as essentially learning by heart and repeating well known prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer. I would be the last to decry the value of such prayers – for many devoted Christians they provide real sources of stability, and strength in times of need, and for many on the fringe they remain, the last vestiges of Christian practice that they continue to observe. But there is much more to Christian prayer than that.

The dictionary says that prayer is a petition made to a God, and, of course, that is all right, for Jesus tells us that we must be ready to ask God for things in prayer, and the point of this parable of a persistent widow is precisely that God will answer such prayers, when they are made in his name and according to his will, though in his way and at his time, and that requires of us that what we ask for is, as best we can tell, truly in accordance with God’s plans, and that we wait patiently on God.

But let us get down to basics! Prayer is about building a relationship with God, and that can be done in many ways. It can be done through set prayers, though there is the obvious danger that they become sterile, mechanical, and cease to serve the overall aim of prayer; as we have said, prayers of petition – in which we ask – are also part of prayer, but only part, and it is a blasphemy to ask without being ready to be part of the answer. For example, to pray for those in need without being ready to lift a finger to give practical help must be highly displeasing to God, who calls us to work with him in righting injustice and relieving suffering with all the means at our disposal. But the boundaries of what constitutes true prayer are in fact very broad – we can build a relationship with God in many ways. You could sit and look at a religious painting or a icon or stained glass window, you could listen to a piece of superb music, you could go for a walk across the hills, you could of course remain silent before the Blessed Sacrament, and, if you want, all these things could bring you closer to God.

So, first rule is, keep praying – it is so easy to give up when times are hard, when prayer doesn’t seem to be achieving anything, but second don’t be afraid to find whatever ways are helpful to you to bring you closer to the living God – do that, and you will be praying, even if it seems worlds away from the words of that teacher who said to you many years ago “Hands together and eyes closed.”

Fr. Edward Bryant

Kyrie Eleison

The 17th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 17;11-19

Christians should think regularly about the word “mercy”. It is not only used frequently in Scripture but is especially used traditionally in worship, although possibly less so now in modern services. Mercy is a theme in many of this month’s gospel readings.

In Luke chapter 17 we read of ten lepers who receive God’s mercy when directed towards humanity and in two weeks time in the parable the Pharisee and the taxman mercy is used to demonstrate mankind’s overwhelming need and dependence on God’s loving kindness.

Unknown author, c. 1035-1040, Codex Aureus Epternacensis,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet mercy, it seems is no longer a word widely used either within the church and certainly not outside it, for there is an inclination among modern people to exult themselves, mistaking their technical and scientific achievements for a kind of moral virtue, and believing that it is possible by our own efforts to be an improvement upon the past and make things better and better. The past century however with monumental conflicts, persecution, slavery and ruthless cruelty or even the political correctness that is manipulating the present cultures, must surely disabuse us of such confidence in ourselves as being able to create a better moral world.

Within the religious community, prayer can often amount to a hope that healing and comfort may be obtained by prayer so that normal life can be resumed. This seems to have been the case when Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem, passing villages in the border between Samaria and Jewish Galilee. In both these regions lepers would be forced to exist outside their communities. Ten of these outcasts appear crying out to the master for pity, hoping that in some way they can be restored to full membership of their villages. The healings of Jesus do not depend purely on the requirements of religious observances which all the lepers are happy to undertake, but upon faith that is the herald of a changed life. Only one leprous sufferer, a man who is a double outsider, both leper and Samaritan, makes this step. Knowing the full extent of his wholeness, seeing himself as God sees him, returns to prostrate himself in heartfelt thanks, [17; 16]” with a loud voice glorified God, falling down on his face at His feet.”

“But where, says Jesus, are the nine?” Are they not like the majority of humanity who are not ready to be healed and changed into the likeness of God? Are the majority not aware of the “mercy” that must be triggered before the flawed individual is fully healed? The Samaritan get’s it! It is divine mercy that is the real game changer [verse 19]; “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you whole.” The gospels tell us of many others who approach God in this way with sincerity and humility.

Looking honestly at ourselves or the others in the pews, we cannot be surprised that St. Luke is confronting Christians with the truth that the practice of religion without the sense of divine mercy leaves us like the nine healed lepers. We remind ourselves of this every time we recite the Kyrie eleison at the heart of our worship, and thus we stand with the solitary Samaritan who falls down before Christ, proclaiming that because God has made himself know, we are able to restore in our distorted lives the image of His wholeness. “Blessed are those who know their need for mercy” is the heart of the Lord’s spiritual teaching in the Beatitudes [Matthew 5;7] for it is this which sets divine love in motion, and why the Kyrie is the cornerstone of Christian piety.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Unprofitable Servants

The 16th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 17;5-10

People today are constantly searching for the truth, about Life, Death, about relationships with neighbours as well as the truth about God, Jesus and the Spirit, and how to make sense of it all. Well-meaning Christians often urge the reading of the Bible to help. Yes, the Bible does have a lot to say about loving our neighbours; but not the details for implementing this. When it tells us to “feed the hungry” it doesn’t give us cookery, or dietary lessons, or by giving a starving man a good square meal, we will probably kill him! Not what God wants us to do to him!

Icon Museum Recklinghausen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

St. Luke, “the gentle gentile” in the preface to the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel of his Gospel, says that he specifically wants to enlarge, and explain what Matthew and Mark had already recorded about the work and teaching of Jesus Christ, “That you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.” [Acts 1;4] Our reflection continues taking us through the subject of Christian discipleship with its many nuances for implementation.

Many people think St Luke’s Gospel, written later than Mark and Mathew, is the ‘easiest to understand’. He wrote it in Greek as a Gentile, for a largely Gentile readership, whilst he was travelling in Asia Minor as St Paul’s companion. He was a poet (and perhaps an artist), and we owe to him such gems as the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, and Parables like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. But Luke also has passages still not easy to understand. One of these occurs in our Gospel reflection “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty”. [Luke 17;10].

The great problem Luke and Paul had, was to deal with the issues raised by Judaism and the strictures of Hebrew Law. Jesus was most insistent that so far from contradicting the law, his mission was not to destroy the Jewish Monotheistic beliefs but to fulfill them which implies that there may well be “more to come” to complete their “full-fill-ment”. But the problem with the Mosaic Law, was that it had become the centre of faith, an End-in-Itself, not just the Means-to-the-End. This gave rise to many problems, especially between Christian Jews and Gentiles, especially for St Paul in his missionary work. For many Jewish converts, the Faith was the Law and anything that suggested otherwise was simply unthinkable.

This is the context in which the first disciples having heard many parables and stern teachings which make them feel unworthy, ask the Master to help them increase their faith. “Lord, “Increase our faith”. Faith he says begins like a mustard seed in a very small way but given the right support will grow into a large tree with a secure root. The faith that Jesus teaches by his words and deeds, is based not on rules but attitudes which go further. Disciples are to think of themselves as servants of God who owe Him everything as a servant depends upon his master.

Both Jews and Gentiles thought that keeping the laws were very important, as indeed they are. But ‘doing Good Works’ isn’t at all the same thing as ‘having faith in God’ upon whom they depend completely for forgiveness and ultimate Salvation. Thus Jesus adds that having done everything the laws require, his disciples will humbly recognize that they are never worthy of the mercy they receive, so there is more to come, “when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”

This is yet another of those ‘Hard Paradoxes’ (which Jesus used so often in His teaching on earth). It is so much at variance with the Gentle-Jesus-Meek-and-Mild, which some still think of, but what a difficult conclusion for the modern mind with little interest in humility while believing more in entitlements and human rights to which the World of today has become addicted.

Fr. Francis Gardom

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