Tag Archives: T.S.Eliot

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.

Nursing mothers and children of God

Dear readers, thank you very much for putting up with me through this time of sporadic posting. It makes my heart sing to see that people have looked in on my blog nearly every day. This is what I will “preach” at church in a few hours. I hope you enjoy it. I used the lectionary for the second reading (1 Thess 2:7b-9,13) and the gospel (Mt 23: 1-12) but for the first reading I used Marina by TS Eliot because I wanted to undercut some of the kyriearchy in the readings taken together (although I would not presume to CENSOR the bible, I do call into question the way the church juxtaposes various readings). For the psalm I used a bit of Disney (Hunchback of Notra Dame) although Disney is not something I would ever recommend uncritical consumption of.

In the second reading today, apostleship is compared to being a nursing mother. Let’s just sit with that a moment. Gentleness, affection, tireless work, radical self-sharing. And then the joy and thanks-giving to have the living word received. Because that sort of preaching really works, we are always inspired when people live and work their love not just speak about it!

I had an opportunity this week to go to uni, and speak about my “Activist journey” about what over the years has politicised and motivated me. I kept God out of it, because it was a mainly atheist audience, but to my surprise they started mentioning “love, courage, justice, right relationship, being authentically human”. People everywhere in every context are looking for meaning even if they would say they don’t “believe” in God.

There is a goodness and a beauty in people when they seek the truth that makes life better for others, when they work tirelessly for something bigger than themselves. I tried to get away from “motherhood” as the main theme and metaphor of my talk, but other people clung to it with determination and then here it is even in the bible. The idea of “mother” is so evocative for so many people.

Imagine leaders who come to us like that. Not as authoritarian judges, but as nursing mothers. Imagine the trust that could be fostered, the community we become when we encounter that sort of a leader…well perhaps here it is not so hard to imagine.

The gospel flips over this vision to show us what happens when it all goes wrong. Sometimes leaders do not put the people first- we have all seen what happens when leadership is about ego or power or greed or even cowardice. The gospel gives us permission not to be overly obedient, not to be trusting- to remain faithful to whatever is true in the message channelled through such leaders, but to view the leaders themselves with a critical lens.

Having told us this, Jesus then moves the lens back to us, knowing that we must also be leaders. We are not to seek a higher status as a “teacher”, a “father”, a “master” setting ourselves over and above the people we serve. There is liberation for both sides in equalising the relationship- the leaders can have the support of an active, capable community where everyone contributes just as much as members of the community gain a voice and dignity and agency.

All of this by the way strikes chords with me in terms of early childhood where the higher our respect for the capability and dignity of the child, the easier our work becomes as children work with us to build a positive culture in the centre.

But these readings seemed to me to mesh with TS Eliot’s Marina because life is about more than status and responsibility, even for those of us who are leaders or activists, teachers, or healers. The  poem goes through several movements, some of them dark in a journey over water and into memory. The driving force here is relationship, “my daughter” as well as the mysteriously intimate and distant presence that I think is God (or the atheists might call the same thing consciousness).

All the different empty things we could focus on are listed and dismissed as meaning “death”- the need for power and domination, the need to be noticed and glamorous, the need for escapist pleasures and an easy life, the need for meaningless encounters. So many things we are supposed to focus on to advance us in the eyes of the world or to make life easy in some way.

So many things we can waste all we have on, all meaning death.

And even working hard for a good cause in and of itself can be meaningless, can be about ego and about how others perceive us. But there is (as Eliot points out) also grace dissolved in this place, the face of God becomes less clear and clearer. We remember connection, we remember meaning, we remember hope. Hope is what we need as we wonder how to articulate our humanity in the face of some very cruel happenings in our world.

Esmeralda the gypsy experiences life as part of an outcast people– she herself is capable and resourceful but her heart hurts for her people. In her song she comes out of herself to radically desire God’s blessing and healing for others. She begins tentatively “I don’t know if you would listen” and ends claiming “We all were children of God”.

How do we be nursing mothers to a hurting world? How do we practice the gospel and not just use it to make identity claims? Where is the movement that means something more than death? And considering the people heartlessly abandoned on Manus Island and others whose suffering is very urgent, how do we uphold our common identity as “children of God”.

Please take whatever inspiration you can from the readings, and after a short time to reflect share with each other as is our habit.

Please if you did not already, go back and click the hyperlinks to find out about the awful things happening on Manus Island. I usually put the links there with no issue whether people choose to use them or not but I would really urge you to look at the three in the final paragraphs anyway. May God give us all an active wisdom!