Monthly Archives: February2017

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Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. ‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 
  And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you….
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

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The new life of Spring is all around us, or soon it will be.  The days are lengthening.  It is the season of Lent.  The word ‘Lent’ comes from ‘lengthen’.  This is not a gloomy season; the Liturgy calls it “this joyful season.” 

The Liturgy is helping us to look to the roots of things to ensure that the new life will come from a deep place.  You could arrange today’s Gospel passage in two columns; at the head of one, you could write IN SECRET, and at the head of the other TO BE SEEN.  Read the passage again and see this for yourself. 

One is left in no doubt that a deep truthful interiority is essential to a Christian life.  A tree has to sink its roots deep into the ground, otherwise it comes down in the first storm (or perhaps it doesn’t, because it has never been able to raise itself up). 

If you project your imagination down into the ground where the roots are, you find a strange world of darkness, silence and stillness.  How frightening darkness can be, especially when it is filled with strange unaccountable shapes!  How deathly silent it is down there!  And it is like the tightest prison imaginable; nothing ever moves. 

This is the opposite of the world above ground; there you have light, noise, movement. 

We human beings are like trees.  There is a hidden half –  hidden even from ourselves, hidden in darkness and mystery.  And there is a half that is all light and noise and activity. 

If we identify ourselves only with the public part, the part ‘above ground’, we will not be able to withstand the storms of life, and we will have no profound resources for growth.  Our actions, our lives, like trees, emerge from a rich darkness, silence and stillness.

Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.  Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,  yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’  For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

“Look at the birds of the air…. Consider the lilies of the field…. Do not worry about tomorrow.”  There are people who would consider this New Age, if they didn’t know where it came from.  For many, the name ‘New Age’ has become a term of reproach, almost an accusation of heresy – or at the least a soft version of religion: ‘Religion Lite’.   People who emphasise the beauty of nature, the innate goodness of people, etc., are suspected of avoiding the reality of sin and suffering.  

It is true that a spirituality that makes only slight mention or no mention at all of the Cross of Christ could hardly be called Christian.  Where there is no affirmation that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” it is hard to see the shape of the Christian faith. 

There are two contrasting spiritualities, then.  But it would be better to think of them as two sides of the Christian faith, like the two sides of a coin.  The God of creation and the God of redemption are one and the same God.  It was the same Jesus who said, “Consider the lilies of the field,” and who died on the Cross.  

It is important for a Christian to have a positive view of nature – nature all around us, and our own nature.  The pollution of land, sea, and air in our generation is evidence that we have neglected and abused the earth.  This cannot be consistent with our faith.  “And God saw that it was good.”  This phrase is repeated six times, like an antiphon, throughout the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.  At the end of each day’s work of creation, “God saw that it was good” (verses 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25).  And at the end of the entire work, “God saw that it was very good” (verse 31).  This is the charter for a healthy-minded lyrical outlook on the natural world (of which we are a part).  We are entitled to have an outlook on nature that is religious in its scope and intensity.  God is everywhere manifest in nature, because it is his creature. “Every creature speaks God,” said Eckhart.  It was commonplace in the Middle Ages to refer to Nature as “God’s first book.”

But God’s greatness and compassion are revealed even more profoundly in the work of redemption.  “Jesus is the hand of God’s mercy stretched out towards us,” wrote Leo the Great.  We could scarcely have imagined that God was anything like the father of the Prodigal Son, if Jesus had not us invented that parable.  And we would certainly not have imagined the depths of God revealed through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  

Remember, again, that it was this same Jesus who said, “Look at the birds of the air…. Consider the lilies of the field…. Do not worry about tomorrow.” 

We are not meant to choose between these two sides of the faith, but to hold them together in fruitful tension.

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“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.  So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,  leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.  Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.  Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’   But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,  or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.  Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

The scribes and Pharisees get such a bad press in the New Testament that we might imagine they were purely malicious people.  This would certainly be unjust to them as a group.  They were generally dedicated and conscientious people, though narrow and legalistic in outlook.  Not all of them were as extreme as the sub-group called the Kizai, or ‘Stumblers’, mentioned in the Talmud, who shut their eyes when they went out, so that they might not see a woman.  St Paul, while he was still Saul, would not have remained long a Pharisee if they were all as we usually imagine them.  Even after his conversion he could still describe himself as a Pharisee (Acts 23:6-8).  Still, on the first notice of them in the New Testament (Matthew 3:7), they are ranked by Jesus with the Sadducees as a “generation of vipers.”

In today’s reading, however, Jesus might appear to be exceeding even the Pharisees in strictness of interpretation of the Law.  “Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”  Many Christians (and others) have a core feeling that religion is essentially about strictness and restraint; and so they feel that the more rigid they are, the more religious.  Of course there is a place for strictness and restraint, but it is not the first place.  Without wishing to trivialise this, one could imagine a driver who rigidly observed all the rules of the road, but drove “without due care and attention.”  It would be hard to imagine Jesus on the side of the Pharisees; so we have to read this passage very carefully.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.”  When is a law perfectly fulfilled?  When it is observed to the letter?  Hardly.  The scribes and Pharisees adhered to the letter of the Law, yet Jesus accused them of “setting aside the commands of God and clinging to human traditions” (Mk 7:8).  A law is being fulfilled, surely, when the purpose for which it was made is being fulfilled.  A law is a means to an end; but if the end is being subverted by the law, then it is no longer a law.  This is the revolutionary teaching of St Thomas Aquinas.  Law, he said, is an act of reason (ordering a means to an end), not an act of will.  Law is not the grip of someone’s power over you, but guidance for your mind.  It subverts neither your mind nor your will, but guides you along a path.  It does not take away your freedom, but supports, enlightens and defends it.  This is how there can be such a thing as the law of God.  It makes us open our eyes, not close them.  Strictness is not the essence of law; the essence of law is seeing.  Jesus told the Pharisees they were “the blind leading the blind” (Mt 15:14).

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” Jesus said, “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”   For ‘exceeds’, another translation says ‘goes deeper than’.  A shallow religion has to compensate for lack of depth by excessive strictness; and it tries in advance to make rules for every possible situation.  Konrad Lorenz gave a memorable description of the little semi-blind creature, the water newt, that makes its way around by memory rather than sight.  A superficial religion is like this.  We pay a heavy price for refusing to open our eyes.