THE YARDSTICK

FAITH IN FOCUS: THE YARDSTICK

It’s too easy to repeat parrot-fashion that we must love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and our neighbour as ourselves. What on earth does this involve? It’s such a broad thing that it seems to lose any practical meaning.

The Jews had a very efficient way of measuring love of God and neighbour. Three categories of people were used as a yardstick: strangers, widows and orphans. These people represented the disenfranchised of society, the truly vulnerable, those who had no social or economic support to back them up in trouble came on the horizon.  

Strangers or foreigners were, by nature, in a foreign land and lacked the network of friends and family, of framework and familiarity. People cheated them because of the ignorance of local currency values and their inability to speak the language.

Widows had no man to stand up for them. Intolerable language in the twenty first century but, in the first century, women were at the mercy of a male-dominated society and widows were at the bottom of the pile. Orphans were clearly vulnerable in a culture that could use children in so many unacceptable ways.

But we still have to love the strangers, widows and orphans today. Who are today’s strangers? We don’t mean tourists, but what about the growing file of refugees that search for a better life in other countries other than their own? What about those who seek asylum from torture or death in the native land? They are today’s strangers. And today’s widows? Women have fought for their rightful voice and pensions have eased the economic isolation.

Perhaps the modern widows are the single mothers, the lone parents and those who have been abandoned? Who are today’s orphans? We no longer have queues of orphans, orphanages have largely been closed down. Yet we need not look very far to see children who are abandoned to their own devices by adults who have no parenting skills, young people who are sexually exploited or employed for long hours in the sweat shops of the world.

We have our own modern-day strangers, widows and orphans. And, just as in days gone by, we show how much we love God and neighbour by the way we respond to these people in our midst. The yardstick still applies.

 

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN

FAITH IN FOCUS: PENNIES FROM HEAVEN

The Pharisees and Herodians were bitter opponents. The Pharisees favoured Israel’s independence as a religious homeland. The Herodians supported the Roman occupation. They both feared Jesus as a troublemaker and so they made an alliance to try and catch him out.  

The question about taxes in today’s gospel boils down to this: are you in favour of – Rome or Israel? Whatever he answered he was sure to step into the trap. We know what happened: give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

Besides being a very clever answer it also points to something much deeper than the obvious. Jesus is not some sort of revolutionary who invites his followers to overthrow the civil authorities. He recognises their legitimacy but he alludes to something beyond the here and now, to the things of God.

Is there anything that does not belong to God? Is there any arena of public interest that belongs only to politicians and has nothing to do with the divine? Presumably not, given that the world is God’s and it is God whose design is stamped upon it.

Nothing weakens the impact of our faith more than putting into a neat religious compartment. Never discuss religion or politics, they say. They only say it because they’re scared of what might happen if we do. And so we’re lured into the social convention of thinking that it’s somehow not decent to wear our religion on our sleeve. Religion should be a personal matter, they say. That’s because it has uncomfortable consequences when we display it in the light of day.

When politicians know that they have produced legislation that is questionable, they usually try to silence religious leaders by claiming they should keep religion out of politics, should stick to hymns and prayer rather than public demonstration.

Faith must be the leaven of society, not one of its side-shows. That’s because the image stamped on our tax coins may well be Caesar’s but the image stamped on those who pay the taxes is unmistakably God’s.

 

RESERVING A TABLE

FAITH IN FOCUS: RESERVING A TABLE

Two beautiful images of our God are put before us today. The first tells us that God has already prepared a sumptuous banquet of food and fine wine for us. The second is that on the day we are called to share in this everlasting feast he will wipe away every tear from our eyes and take away all our shame.

Everyone likes a good feast but rich food and drink were especially welcomed by people who lived in the arid desert. So Isaiah’s words from God were eagerly received by the Jewish people whose nation had been overrun by a foreign power and who had been taken captive into exile.

Despite all their present troubles God promises them that in the end they will be triumphant and that he will never abandon them.

The eucharist that Christians celebrate every Sunday is the ‘starter course’ of this promised banquet. What God has promised us for eternity,  in heaven has already begun. The eucharist is the sacred meal shared by those who have been baptised into Christ’s death and who now await a full share in his resurrection. The rich food and fine wine is the body and blood of Christ who is really present among us when we gather in his name.

So our liturgy puts us in contact with the eternal presence of God and is not something that we do alone. Here on earth we join the heavenly liturgy of saints and angels who already see God face to face and are moved to constant praise. And that’s why God has already begun to wipe away the tears from our eyes, for in our worship we are joined in communion with those who have gone before us and whom we once mourned and grieved for.

But liturgy is not simply what our parish or community is doing. Liturgy is cosmic. We join our voices with choirs of angels and saints of all time in our hymn of praise. Scripture tells us that those of our family and friends who have died are not dead for ever but are indeed alive in Christ. Liturgy joins together the communion of saints on both sides of the grave.

A banquet of rich food and fine wine, our tears dried, our shame taken away, and this is only the starter. Why not reserve a table?

 

HENRY’S FARM

FAITH IN FOCUS: HENRY’S FARM

People who saw Henry Jenkins’s farm would murmur to themselves. It was set in one of the most beautiful valleys in the area, with rolling fields that lolled into the distance and disappeared over the gentle inclines of the hills and mountains.

Although the farm was quite productive since Henry had a good herd of prize cattle and a flock of hardy sheep, there were one or two things that stood out as being rather bizarre.

The farmhouse was only just habitable. The rumour was that Henry had had a row with his family and when his father died Henry had been passed over and all the property had been bequeathed to Edward Jenkins, his younger brother with whom he didn’t get on.

Henry was allowed to stay in it until he died. But knowing that Edward would inherit the house and land, he had deliberately spent nothing on it and let it go to wrack and ruin. The roof leaked, the window frames were rotten and the wall was on the verge of toppling down.

The arable fields that once were vast swathes of corn and barley had been left to grow into brambles and briars. There was plenty of opportunity for the land to be productive, but this was yet another way for Henry to get back at Edward.

Henry didn’t mind living in the place. He earned more than enough to live on from the animals and he couldn’t be bothered to put himself out. A few buyers came and tried to offer him a large amount for the property, given its potential. But Henry wasn’t interested and of course never mentioned it to Edward.

The sting in the tail came one November’s evening. News arrived that his younger brother had died. And when the will was read, Edward had left the farmhouse and all the property to Henry.

 

FIXED PENALTY GOD?

FAITH IN FOCUS: FIXED PENALTY GOD?

All’s fair in love and war, they say. But all’s not fair when it comes to Christianity. This is because our human concept of fairness does not even come close to understanding God’s creative mixture of justice, mercy and grace.

We human beings seem to have an inbuilt sense of justice that is like the old-fashioned shop scales with two buckets. You put the food in one bucket and then balance it with some weights in the other bucket and this tells you the weight that is at stake and the price that must be paid. In fact we regularly depict Justice as a character holding a pair of scales. Whatever goes into one side has to be weighed up and balanced with a penalty of similar cost. In the early period of the Jewish Kingdoms this even led to a culprit’s family being punished for his or her crime although the relatives themselves had done nothing wrong. The scales had to balance.

Throughout history God has failed to take any notice of this type of justice. In today’s passage from Ezekiel the people are complaining that God is unjust because he allows wrongdoers to live rather than die. Ezekiel points out (speaking on behalf of God) that the weight of punishment should only be exacted against those who stubbornly refuse to admit their sin and to repent. And a similar scene greets us when Jesus discusses with the priests about someone who comes to their senses after behaving badly.

They are not to be condemned. This human view of justice and fairness is too crude for God to commit to it, for it leaves no room for manoeuvre, takes no account of the true circumstances of the person involved, and completely abandons any reference to Christ’s redeeming sacrifice for sin and the effects of grace.

Faced with our faults, God, who has every reason to be indignant, chooses to be forgiving and calls us to be the same with those who offend against us. Yet we obstinately cling to our appeals for ‘justice’ when in fact we often are only interested in revenge. We plead fairness when what we really want is graceless reprisal. God hates sin and wrongdoing as much as do our tabloids and politicians yet he always views things from a wider perspective of grace and forgiveness. And God’s passion for pardon is so strong that while we clamour for the scales to balance, God clamours for a balanced judgement.