July 14 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Deuteronomy 30:8-14; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37*
*[This Sunday is designated Sea Sunday: the readings suggested in the Lectionary for that are Job 38:1, 4-11; Acts 27:27-32, 39-44; Mark 4:35-41.]
Theme: Something fairly basic this week, I think. The connecting theme seems to be something about knowing and doing; in fact, something like the Summary of the Law, loving God and loving our neighbour. Following on from last week's notes about the whole idea of "Dismissal" at the end of the service, perhaps a good choice would be "Go and Do Likewise".
Introduction. We start with a short extract from Moses' 'Farewell Discourse' towards the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. The truly blessed way of life is one lived in accordance with the will of God, and it's no good pretending that we have no way of knowing what that will is. The word of God is on our lips and in our hearts. St Paul commends the Colossians for their faith, and the way in which they are growing in spiritual depth. He prays that this may continue, so that they may do good works and please God. And the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan features a lawyer – an expert in the Torah (the revealed will of God) - who wants to spend yet more time and energy in studying and debating, rather than putting all his great knowledge into actually doing the will of God. In relatively modern lingo, what we're about this week is walking the walk instead of talking the talk (although in the right context that is important, too.)
Background. In June a group of us from St Barnabas, Warrington watched a 3-part series on DVD on "Jerusalem the Holy City", by English historian Simon Montefiori. One of the recurring images that stuck in my mind was the ultra-orthodox men who seemed to spend all their time either studying the Torah or praying at the ancient Temple Wall. In fairness to them the only other thing I know about them is their present exemption from military service, a difficult issue for the Israeli government at this time. What, I wonder, do they do with all this knowledge of the Torah? No doubt they live their personal lives as best they can in accordance with its strict edicts, but do they do other stuff – for other people, for their local community, or for their country? Is their faith limited to personal piety, or do they sometimes go and bear much fruit, to coin a phrase?
The temptation to put ourselves, or our own households, in order before we worry about anyone or anything else is common to us all, and certainly not limited to religious groups, as our political parties constantly show us. Faced with issues of poverty, inequality, problem gambling, spying, privacy, global warming and heavens knows what our Labour Party turns its attention to in-house man-bans. And before we laugh (or worse) at others we might want to ask ourselves(yes, again,) why our Church spends so much of its time and resources on meetings, conferences, Synods and other in-house gatherings to discuss issues that rarely if ever have anything to do with proclaiming the kingdom, much less building it through active ministry. [Have you ever noticed that the people least likely to have the time to attend church meetings are chaplains?]
We have two classic examples of all this in our readings today. Moses, like St Paul, was a great psychologist – he understood human nature – after all he had seen enough of it during the wanderings in the wilderness. But now the people faced another, in some ways more challenging, spiritual danger. They were about to realise their long-held dream – a land of their own. They were about to experience "success", freedom, joy, and all those things denied to them in Egypt and in the wilderness. They were about to have the opportunity to become busy, building homes, tilling the land, pursuing careers, doing things for themselves. In those circumstances it's hard to find the time for God, isn't it? Worse, it is hard to see the need. Slaves, and refugees fighting their way through the wilderness, are far more likely to feel the need to pray than those who are settled in their own land and "making their own way in life. (Think about that expression for a moment.")
Moses foresaw at least one tactic of evasion to which the people might resort. Who can really know the will of God? Isn't it hidden in the clouds of heaven, far above our simple minds? Or isn't it foreign to us, something from over there, or back there, or anywhere but here? We're just practical jokers, doing our best to provide for our families. We haven't got time for Bible reading and all that carry-on.
This is where, somewhat surprisingly, Moses showed himself to be a true Jesuit! St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuits) stressed to his followers that God was operative, not only in outward events, but also in own inner beings, in our imagination, our thoughts, our will and our affections. Those who keep a journal will have experienced this for themselves: how often we "discover" something we didn't know we knew until we write it out. Moses puts it this way: the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
And there's something similar going on in the parable. The Samaritan doesn't have to look something up, or seek the advice of some learned man who has spent a lifetime studying the Torah (someone like the clever-dick lawyer who asked Jesus the question), or even pray for guidance. Why did the Samaritan get involved? Luke puts it this way: when he saw him, he was moved with pity. [See Luke 7:13 for a similar case.] Take those words slowly and carefully. He didn't decide to do something – he was MOVED to do something – passive, not active. Who or what moved him? St Ignatius has already answered that question: God working through the Samaritan's affections, that's who. We might want to talk of a "stirring of conscience" sometimes; but then the question arises, whose hand is on the spoon-handle – who is doing the stirring?
Isn't this what St Paul means in his writings when he speaks of living in and by the Spirit? (The expected answer is "yes".)
Deuteronomy. It may be worth making the point that the concept of blessing in this passage reflects the cultural norms of the time. In those days "a gospel of prosperity" approach would be normative: God's blessing would be manifested in "the fruit of your body, the fruit of your livestock and the fruit of your soil"; something a little more substantive than the fruits of the Spirit to which we aspire. But the idea of earning such blessings through obedience to God's commandments and decrees is not very different from the attitude of the lawyer who asks Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Taking It Personally.
- Reflect on verse 14. Can you think of an occasion when words just came to you, or something popped into your mind, that you knew was from God?
- How is God's blessing manifested in your life? Spend some time thinking of the different ways in which you have felt blessed by God in the last week. Give thanks.
- As you look forward to a new week, intentionally "turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul" (v.10.) Ask God to "prompt" you to do at least one specific thing this week. Then do it!
Colossians. A wonderful example of St Paul's pastoral prayer for those he cares about. Notice how positive he is; there is no hint of the somewhat petulant tone we find, for example, in his correspondence with the Corinthians or the Galatians. He lauds them for their faith in Christ AND for their love for all the saints (there's that twofold, vertical-horizontal love that is encapsulated in the Summary of the Law). In verse 6 he reminds them that the "gospel has come to them" – it's a gift, not something they have dreamed up or invented for themselves. The gospel (here meaning, perhaps, the kingdom) is growing throughout the world, as they are growing in spiritual depth. They are bearing fruit as they have grown in comprehension of the grace of God. But all this is a work in progress – we go on growing in the Spirit. And so St Paul prays for them that they "may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding", and on and on he goes. Marvellous stuff, isn't it?
Taking It Personally.
- Use this passage as a template for your own prayer, first for yourself and then for your local congregation. Remember to give thanks for what you have already received and then ask for more! More understanding, more hope, more wisdom, more strength, more endurance, and so on.
- Then focus on verse 10 – an antidote to the virus of personal piety that leads to the privatisation of the Christian faith. Use this verse as a guide for a short period of reflection and self-examination as you review the past week
- Looking back over a longer period can you see evidence of spiritual growth? Can you identify areas where you need a specific grace – to listen better, perhaps, to discern God's will in a particular circumstance, or perhaps simply a sharp prod to overcome inertia and get on with it?
- Pray for spiritual growth for your local church, giving thanks for the people who are on the journey with you. Avoid any sense of identifying specific faults or weaknesses in them, but pray for an increase in their spiritual growth as you pray for your own.
Luke. There is always a great challenge in coming with an open mind (and an open heart) to a story we think we are familiar with. This one is a prime example. How might we find a fresh approach to it? Here are a couple of random thoughts to play with. First, have you ever wondered what the Samaritan would have done if he had arrived on the scene a little earlier, when the violent robbery was still in progress? Nor had I until I was chairing a session of the annual conference of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship many years ago in Wellington and one of the invited speakers started with that very question. Is it enough to use our resources to care for the injured after the event, or should we get involved in the event itself? (Any pacifists out there, that's a question for you.) The second thought is to try to identify the Christ (God) figure in this parable. I guess most of us would go for the Samaritan, but one of the more entertaining and challenging writers on the parables, Robert Farrar Capon, contends that it is the traveller, the victim of the assault. Have another look at the narrative and read it alongside the Passion story and see what you think. But for me, the key line remains the last one. "Go and do likewise". And here is the answer to the question the lawyer asked: who is my neighbour? It is anyone to whom I am prepared to be a neighbour – anyone for whom I give a damn – or in more biblical language, anyone whom I love. In Christian terms, I do choose my neighbours; the catch is that, as with every other choice I make, I am accountable for it.
Taking It Personally.
- A classic story for praying with the imagination. Place yourself in the story. Whereabouts are you? What is your first inclination?
- What might stop you getting involved? (This is a good question to reflect on next time you drive past a would-be hitchhiker.)
- If a friend asked you what he/she must do to inherit eternal life, what would you say?
- What are your feelings as you ponder this parable? Is it one of your favourites? Does it make you feel comfortable or uncomfortable?
- To give the story more local impact, who would you put in the place of the Samaritan?