s047g11 Sunday 14 3/7/2011
'a glutton and a drunkard' Matthew 11.19
I was reflecting a while ago that we don't see Jesus really addressing the inter-faith question. In the milieu of Jesus' day, there were Jews, Samaritans, adherents of the Roman pantheon and the poor. Jesus addresses the 'enemy within' – the despised Samaritans, the hated Roman overlords and those who had no pretence of theological acumen – the 'untouchables' – those near at hand, and so he addresses the life and circumstances of us all. Jesus invites us to love those around us, love those it is possible to touch, if not physically, but immediately. As our world becomes bigger through the communications revolution – 'the untouchables' that are far off become 'the untouchables' near at hand. Those of other faiths and none become accessible, become able to be loved.
Recently I was present at a bible study led by a biblical scholar much more qualified than myself and much more 'literal' in his approach to the bible, discussing this passage. At the end I was moved to say that we are invited to appreciate that Jesus did come, eating and drinking, so much so that the orthodox and the devout did think he was a glutton and a drunkard. They were scandalized that he associated with tax collectors and sinners (and not just them), a fact testified across the gospel writers. The reaction by the bible study leader was instant denial! And I thought how fascinating. He, the conservative literalist, didn’t believe the words he studied! It is the extent of the incarnation that is at question. If we do not believe that the Son of God could actually be charged with being a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners, then we as the church, and as a consequence humanity, remain in competition with others. But God calls us to love one another, not win the fight or the debate over others. And this caused me to remember when I was considering testing my vocation last century, because it came as a result of the teachings of a parish priest for whom religion was all about winning the debate – and he hasn't changed. It was, and is, my dissatisfaction with this confrontational religion that continues to energize me. And I reflect that I stay in the church because I am, and we are, the church. I can no more leave the church than I can leave the human race. If I left the institution I would be condemning the real world of sinners to more marginalization, alienation and condemnation. I like ‘ordinary’ people too much to leave them to such maltreatment. And I continue this internet sermon ministry and my hospital chaplaincy work, not to proclaim 'what a good boy am I', or to join in a fracas, but to encourage others to see that Jesus' incarnation means that there is no marginalization, alienation and condemnation with the Almighty. The rest that Jesus offers is a reprieve from trying to convert the world, to win others over to our point of view, to endlessly compete with others. The yoke of Jesus is the yoke of loving acceptance of others, and this is exceedingly light. It means that we can receive from others as well as give of ourselves. It promises refreshment in communion rather than burnout resulting from division and schism. It is founded in humility, that we need be no better than others and nor do we need to pretend to be. And we are compared twice with the city of Sodom whose sin was that of bullying those who had come into their space. How often has parish life really been about welcoming the gifts and talents of those who come to worship? It is more likely to be bullying by the self-appointed patriarchs and matriarchs who don't want their authority questioned and their ministries eclipsed. Newcomers are there to admire and perpetuate what is, not make their own contribution. The enemy within all over again. And I wonder how competitive infants really are and how often do we teach them to be competitive? My World Book Encyclopedia says: 'In some societies, particularly those in the West, such personality traits as competitiveness and independence are encouraged. In other societies, these traits are considered abnormal and so are discouraged' so perhaps this is evidence that it is indeed learned. In a curious reversal, Jesus says: 'wisdom is vindicated by her deeds'. It is the wisdom of the infants, their lack of competitiveness, that is eternally vindicated because it is only renunciation of competition that holds out any hope for real peace – for ourselves or for anyone else. Jesus rebukes the towns where he preached and where he did his deeds of power. Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum and of course Jesus was rejected by the devout and orthodox who knew him best, those who had worshipped with him in his home synagogue all his life in Nazareth. It was the enemy within, the poor and the outcast, who heard the good news that they were accepted to the chagrin for those who wanted to retain their special status over these others. And we as 'christians' need to hear these words: 'Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.' (Matthew 7.21-23) It is as 'christians' that we have to renounce competitiveness. And as I often say, we can personalize this but my little lack of competitiveness is not going to make a scrap of difference to the world while the church continues to assert her superiority over people of other denominations, faiths and those who have none.
There is little sense in the Church criticizing the world for competitiveness and lack of compassion when she has historically been ready to condemn those outside her fold to eternal damnation.
I will finish with some words of James: 'Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.' (James 1.27) We are called to visit those who are the heavenly orphans, the heavenly widows and widowers, not challenge, marginalise and alienate them.