s062g99 Somerton Park Sunday 29 a 17/10/99

"aware of their malice" Matt 22.18

(There is another sermon around the parallel passage in Luke at http://www.geocities.com/Athens/2125/199.htm. This deals with sexuality.)

I suppose it is a function of my naïveté but I wonder about this comment that Jesus was aware of their malice. I wonder, did Jesus take the disciples aside privately after the incident and explain that he understood that malice was behind the question put to him? Perhaps the malice behind this question is obvious to others, and St Matthew is only pointing out to us that Jesus was not naïvé. Or perhaps it is another example of a flashback from the Old Testament. So Lamentations 3:59-63 says "You have seen the wrong done to me, O LORD; judge my cause. You have seen all their malice, all their plots against me. You have heard their taunts, O LORD, all their plots against me. The whispers and murmurs of my assailants are against me all day long. Whether they sit or rise -- see, I am the object of their taunt-songs." Or perhaps it is by way of explanation for the very harsh rejoinder: "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?" (Matthew 22:18).

I suppose I am not alone in enjoying some of our evenings at the moment. Perhaps it is the dearth of interesting programs on TV, but I've taken to enjoying a glass of my "chateau cardboard" outside after dinner. After our welcome spring rains a couple of weeks ago, I was particularly struck by a transformation that had taken place there. Our next door neighbour has a tree which I could only categorise as nondescript. It has a trunk, branches and leaves. It is unexceptional when it comes to height or shape or prolific-ness. To say I didn't know what genus it is doesn't say much - I don't know one tree from another. I can tell an orange tree from an apricot tree when they fruit :-) Yet the raindrops still on the new leaves of this very unremarkable tree, which reflected light from a "spot light" on the main road a block away, along with a gentle zephyr of breeze, made it sparkle delightfully - it became prettier than any Christmass tree with all its tinsel.

I don't often describe nature, for with my engineering brain, I know that the tree has no consciousness of the beauty in which it is seen. I suspect Molly Wolf (of "Sabbath Blessings" fame) is having a good effect on me. Beauty is indeed, "in the eye of the beholder". Yet I point out this "quantum leap" in the consciousness of those who had "eyes to see" this unremarkable tree transformed by the combination of rain, light and wind.

There is much good in the world around us, if we but have eyes to see. And yet the religious authorities of Jesus' day seemed not to see them. Today's gospel snippet tells us they were concerned with to whom the denarius belonged, and to whom did the seven times married woman belong. Again there is a quantum leap as Jesus invites them to consider, not what might be theirs or not, but what might be God's.

As I read the story of these seven brothers, I can just picture them bickering in heaven over this lady, as members of a family ever so frequently bicker over the distribution of a parents' estate. No consideration is given to whom this lady might choose to partner her in heaven, as so often the wishes of the deceased are sidelined, as personal matters are raised in the resolution of an estate.

C. S. Lewis, in his Chronicles of Narnia pictures the dwarves (who were "for the dwarves") fighting amongst themselves over what they perceived to be only the scraps (The Last Battle p 139), completely oblivious to the quantum leap of existence that surrounded them, if they had but eyes to see.

When we are concerned with what is "mine", or what is "ours", we are arguing over the scraps. It might be the money "we" have earned, "our" husband, wife or children, indeed even "our" faith. Can anyone really say that another person is their's? And our faith is surely based much more on the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ - than any merit derived from our intellectual or emotional acceptance by ourselves. Why then do we divide the world (in the name of Christ?) into those who have publicly assented to this faith and those who haven't?

The transformation, the paradigm shift, the quantum leap, comes as we give of ourselves - to God and to those around us. Again, I do not for a moment imagine that I am saying anything new to anyone. I am sure that all of us have perceived (in some measure) the joy of being able to contribute to another person's existence - to be valuable to them. Somewhere along the line we have to say that if St Paul's doctrine of "justification by faith alone" is taken practically to mean that we divide the world into Christian and non-Christian, then something is seriously wrong with our interpretation.

For when we consider what might be God's, that we are bidden to give back, the list is interesting indeed:

Firstly, we ourselves are God's, made children of God in baptism by "adoption and grace". So we come today to worship - not to become God's children or even more like God's children - for we are already God's children. We come to worship and to give God something back of ourselves - because we know that we are God's. The bread and the wine, the collection, the offerings of music, reading, prayer, the various articles in this church building which have our respective "names on them". All these are us giving to God - that which is God's - us. And we only do give, because we know that we are God's in the first place.

And other people are God's too. The word of God tells us "If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation." (Exodus 19:5,6). For all the special nature of the relationship of God with Israel, it is affirmed that everyone is God's. And God ends his journeying with Jonah saying: "Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?" (Jonah 4:11). They were just as much God's as the chosen race, the royal priesthood, so naturally God cared for them.

The same point is illustrated as Jesus travelled to one and to all, empty-handed, seeking out all people to accept such hospitality they offered. I have no doubt that this became such a trademark for Jesus, that the words: "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45 // Mat 20.28) became a necessary corrective, because by and large "coming to be served" is what in fact Jesus did. He came and accepted the hospitality of one and of all. And in coming, Jesus was saying to them - they were important - they were God's too.

For giving to God is not something we have to ask people to do, at least not in my experience. The difficulty is that so often, like the religious leaders of Jesus' day, we restrict those from whom we think God will accept gifts. Effectively we alienate people, we say that they are not "of God".

The gospel proclamation is that one and all are of God, and that God accepts each and every offering made. God accepts the offering of the Christian, the Jew, the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Muslim - indeed from all, because all are God's. And in this is life, life in all it's fullness.

Jesus says that the malice arises from putting him "to the test". Do we as the church act out of malice as we put others to the test? Do they hold the faith? The true faith? My version of the faith? Do we put to the test others to make sure they measure up to our expectations? One of the dramatic things that Jesus did was to clear out the money changers and the pigeon sellers from the entrance to the Temple. He cleared them out, not because he didn't like changing money or selling pigeons, or even that it was an inappropriate place to engage in these activities. He cleared them out because these people got in the way of God's ready acceptance of everyone's offerings, no matter how small or large. These were a group of people who made a living knowing what other people were able to give to God and what they didn't. They put others to the test.

I cannot conceive of anything more opposite of malice, but to proclaim to one and to all that they are God's, and that God seeks them out that they might make their unique contribution to the kingdom.

For clearly malice there was in the hearts of the religious authorities of Jesus day, for in the end they so objected to Jesus mission to the "ordinary" people, they had him killed.

The faith we hold is that all are God's, and it is through this faith alone that we, all people, and indeed the whole of creation are transformed, justified and glorified.

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