Tag Archives: right relationship

I haven’t Blogged much lately. I’ve been thinking about writing things but work just keeps me too busy. But I was on the roster at church this week and managed to throw together a reflection on the readings. I used these first reading, psalm and gospel and added in Marina by T.S. Eliot (an old favourite of mine as regular readers know) as the 2nd reading.

I spoke without having written down my thoughts, because now that I teach and lecture that seems easier than reading…but later I reconstructed more-or-less what I had said. I also used a “Eucharistic prayer” that I wrote back in March but hadn’t had an opportunity to use today. It’s been sitting in a cupboard at church with noone aware it exists. It focusses on the earth.

Here  is my “reflection” on the readings:

I grew up with a “face value” reading of today’s gospel which I didn’t (in retrospect) find very helpful. In this way of thinking the Pharisee was wrong for thinking so highly of himself, whereas the tax collector was to be emulated as being humble and not thinking well of himself. I cultivated my low self esteem carefully, thinking it was virtuous to do so. It became self-hate and was quite a toxic thing to live with. I want to be careful today not to repeat the same mistake, to look with a more nuanced eye at today’s parable.

Parables are not simple surface-level morality tales anyway. They are meant to deeply challenge us, to niggle away at the things we think we know and invite us to come deeper, experiencing otherness rather than analysing it from the sidelines. Our experience of a parable should be a long journey of learning not a point of revelation or answers. Today’s section of the journey will be looking through the lens of the first reading. When the lectionary gives us groups of readings it is an invitation to consider them together and in light of each other.

So I will look back on Sirach. This reading is about God being responsive and empathetic to the plight of any who suffer from not being heard or having their needs disregarded.  God desires justice and will advocate for the widow and the socially, materially or emotionally vulnerable. The reading also has teeth- although I don’t like the violence sometimes present in the Hebrew scriptures I feel there is a risk when we sanitise our tradition too much. God break’s scepters, acts with anger and destruction toward those who hold unjust power. From our vantage point in a wealthy, overconsuming, exploitative country we would do well not to sanitise this part of our faith out.

But the focus is certainly comfort for the oppressed. God is not neutral is clearly taking sides here. This is consistent with a 20th century Catholic teaching that used to be spoken about more- that God has a “preferential option for the poor”. God is present in the relationships and angry at the inequities of our social world.

So if we take this social justice focus back to the gospel, how to we view the two men in Jesus’ parable? The pharisee is not wrong to think well of himself and his achievements, but he is displaying a faith that is performative rather than relational. His focus is on impressing other people, comparing himself and feeling superior to others who he can pre-judge at a glance. He has filled in all his spiritual KPIs but become separated from other human beings.

The tax-collector has no such shield against the world. He has come to God with his vulnerability, his knowledge of his own failings. I am probably projecting a modern-day understanding onto him if I talk about his awareness of privilege, but I will try to explore that idea in view of what tax-collectors were and did in Jesus’ day. The Roman Empire used to impose taxes on the people- these could be crippling, and the men who collected them added their own fee to the tax they collected. They were hated in part because people hated paying the taxes, but also because many of them may have added on an exorbitant fee and so enriched themselves.

A tax-collector then might be caught between the competing demands of his family (who will struggle or starve without his income) and the injustice and imbalance of the empire’s taxes and perhaps his own added fees. He is caught up in a system of injustice and oppression, not just caught up in a web of dependency but maybe even benefiting from it. We know this too, that although there is much that is wrong with the world these days we are often the ones who benefit from the inequitable distribution of wealth and the exploitation and demonisation of others. The tax collector brings his awareness and his worry to God, not able to find answers but showing a willingness to let God inform and infuse his life for a better future. Jesus says that he rather than the escapist priest is the one “justified”.

What does this mean? How does it help to be “justified”?

What is it that we come to church for?

Dare we be honest and less than shiny before God…and what does this look like?

If God listens to the poor and oppressed, what is our role in all of this?

There are no answers in the back of the book, but we can reflect on these challenges and share our thoughts with each other.

Love one another

I had the opportunity to preach (or offer a reflection if you prefer) this week at my church. As always I felt privileged to do so. This week’s gospel and my reflections on it have been poignant for me because I am very aware that it is the love and generosity of others that puts me back together when I am broken, weak or lost. The liturgy I was privileged to lead today would also have fallen apart without the loving support of a whole lot of people who know more than me and particularly of my youngest son who came back from his “holiday” at his dad’s house just to help me do the liturgy 🙂

For the sake of brevity I am going to pass over two of the readings and dive right into this radical and stirring gospel. Jesus here is teaching us something about relationships, is calling us to a courageous way of relating that involves our trust and the autonomy of the other. If we accept what Jesus is showing and telling us here, it could revolutionise both the structure and working of the church and our personal lives.

Jesus, quite beautifully begins by giving us a glimpse into his own life with God. There is a relationship here that is not about control and obedience but such implicit trust that whatever Jesus does glorifies God and God responds immediately by glorifying Jesus in Godself. We recognise this complete alignment of interests when we refer to Jesus as the “Word” of God. Jesus’ doings and very being constantly express God’s inner thoughts and agenda. Neither seeks to control the other, neither is required to obey, simply the good of one is identical with the good of the other.

We don’t quite achieve this in our relationships with others. We do not have perfect understanding and are reluctant to trust. Sometimes the closer we are to a person, an institution an idea or a way of life the more we are tempted to take ownership over it, to exercise control, to see deem others as inferior in understanding, morals or ability as a way of justifying our own control. At the same time, and particularly for women who get a lot of pressure to consider themselves inferior, there is the opposite temptation to shirk responsibility by clinging to the wisdom, ability or authority of another.

It could be tempting here to see the perfection of union between God and Jesus and decide that this is Ok for them because they are perfect and are always right. But we are not always right and neither are our fellow humans. And yet Jesus moves from this ideal and perfect relationship to turn to us, to flawed and clinging humanity and offer us too that trust and that freedom to breathe and grow.

“Little children” Jesus acknowledges our feelings of vulnerability and ignorance. We face big mysteries like our own mortality, like infinity, like the complex, rich, diverse life of our planet. We try to sort out the important from the trivial but our perspective changes even as individuals. How do we reconcile what we think we know with what others seem to believe? Jesus admits we will feel alone with this, but then Jesus himself will be heard to cry out that God has “abandoned” him.

This is the price of being trusted and treated as an equal. Is it good news? That we cannot stand back and cling to an idea of Jesus doing all the work of salvation and struggle that we are called to. We are invited into an independence of thought an action, to seek to glorify God through our choices in love not in mere obedience. We are called to be so committed to the reign of God, that all of God’s agendas of justice are what glorify us too.

How reckless of Jesus to first pour everything out for us and then trust us with the precious seeds of a better world. Human history is full of our failures as church and society to do this work, to relate in this way. My own personal history mirrors this constant failure in a microcosm. I would expect Jesus to know better than to keep trusting me, but Jesus says “Just as I have loved you, I want you to love one another” not recalling the reckless and trusting love but showing it as a model for how I ought to be.

Those times that we get this right, that we love each other with the reckless and undemanding love of God then we are a powerful sign of God’s reality. The world sees that our discipleship has meaning when we do not turn our backs on abuse victims, or asylum seekers, or the elderly or struggling families. The world sees that we believe in something greater, when we stop trying to control or narrow others and instead work to understand, affirm and liberate all into the good news and justice of God.

Looking around, I see people here who live this reality, and I acknowledge that I have been drawn to Christ and back to Christ repeatedly not by constricting traditions and heavy-handed language about “Lord, Lord” but by the way individuals and families reach out to each other or reach out to me. We are all called to follow the radical call to trust, to liberate and to love. We are fortunate to have each other as examples of how powerfully a kind word or deed can preach hope and life. Let us take up the challenge to glorify God by how we love each other. Let us always seek to broaden our circles of influence, not with control but with trust and support of each other’s discipleship and a determination to bring love to others.

I now invite you to reflect on any aspect of the readings that speaks powerfully to you, and when you turn to speak to the people sitting near you to sense in their loving discipleship the presence of GOD.