Seventeenth Sunday of the Year
Christianity is a religion of attention. Whom does one notice? What do we notice? Is it a person on the street or a person with a lot of social status? This is connected with the image, a few weeks ago, where Jesus self-described as meek. I wondered how our worship spaces might reflect that and what material parish bulletins might highlight.
I wondered how our worship spaces might reflect that and what material parish bulletins might highlight. Also, what difference would it make to training of religious leaders and how they lived if they really believed that the ‘little ones’ were privileged interpreters of God’s message. What verses and scenes do we hold in our hearts? What images direct our attention to the God of love. The parables suggest that God’s Reign is not only found in places such as monasteries or in the demands and rewards of human religion but in the ordinary, daily, in your face, reality.
In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd boy, near the Dead Sea, whilst watching his goats went up a steep cliff in search of a stray. Passing a cave, he threw a stone into it, as boys would, and heard something smash. Panicking, he found his friend, where together they returned to the cave to find several large clay jars. Inside, wrapped in linen, were one of the greatest of archaeological discoveries: The Dead Sea scrolls. Unaware of their value, they tried to sell the scrolls to a merchant in Bethlehem who refused to pay what was asked. Their value only became apparent when some of the scrolls came into the hands of the Syrian Patriarch of Jerusalem and others were smuggled into the USA. Carbon testing on the linen revealed that dated them around 33 AD.
In recent weeks, Jesus has used different images to describe God’s reign as he does again today. Each image connects the actions and the actors: seed and sower, yeast and woman, treasure hunter and merchants, fisher folk and fishing. God’s reign is not about places but relationships. Thomas Merton, to a friend wrote: ‘Do not depend on the hope of results…. you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself…..you gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people . . . .In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.’.
Near to where the scrolls were found, Jesus told the story the treasure. It is important to say that the metaphors of the treasure and pearl break down if seen as God’s reign able to bought and owned by good deeds. God’s reign costs everything and is expressed in the different routes taken by people to discover its ‘value’ and ‘cost’. These journeys may take many detours, many obstacles, littered with many failures as well as the joy of continuing and rediscovering God’s gracious design as did St Augustine, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Archbishop Oscar Romero. Their attention was a powerful witness to God’s reign and what is important – the value of each person, especially in the face of immense suffering such as the unimaginable pain of racism, dispossession, starvation, disease, mutilation, degradation
The Reign of God is not passive as the parables reveal. They are about kicking the dust of poverty, racism, dispossession and human degradation. Jesus’ parables don’t give us simple solutions. They serve to disrupt the disciples’, and our, views of how the world should be. Just when we, and the disciples, think we understand what Jesus is saying, another parable is thrown in that scrambles our understanding. God’s Reign is subversive, unstoppable, invasive, a nuisance, urgent, shocking, abundant. It inspires extreme behavior requiring action and commitment where choosing to change where we stand and who we stand with in the world and follow the follow the Gospel more completely. As Jesus walked the streets he noticed social injustice, oppression and marginalisation, and spoke out against them. He also found gems of humanity. Where we pay attention, we lend our power. As a church, we are called to this mission. It will not be comfortable and certainly messy. God’s reign is ruled by the crucified one – populated by the unclean, and as Pope Francis constantly reminds us, suffused with mercy rather than power. It is always found in the unexpected.
We see in story of the net how God’s embrace is wide enough and durable enough to draw all people without allowing anyone to slip through a tear in the net and be lost. The call is to live with mess, and trust in God’s loving kindness rather than be judgmental. We are to continue to work and serve others without judging their worthiness. There are no losers or anonymous people in God’s Reign. When Jesus asked what seemed a silly question - ‘who touched me’? -when touched by the woman with haemorrhage in a crowd, he reveals that no one is drowned or lost in the crowd – no person, no touch, no gesture is anonymous or impersonal.
We see hints of God’s Reign when it breaks into our lives when forgiveness is extended or peacemaking attempted or self-giving in service. Appearing to the frightened disciples in the upper room, Jesus did not simply forgive them but sent them out to pass on that ‘forgiveness’ by being ‘instruments of peace’ or servants of reconciliation. We see it when we shape our responses to reality based on God’s gratuitousness. God’s Reign is not beyond our world. Some politicians and church leaders would like to think it is when they try to silence religious dissenters, justice and peace advocates. Where the early church was more connected to poverty, imprisonment and persecution, today in many quarters it seems married to prosperity, personality and popularity. We see it as people claiming to be Christians (including bishops) support billionaire politicians and tycoons at the expense of health care and social welfare for the poor whilst supporting tax breaks for the rich and policies funded by cuts in programs like environmental protection and Indigenous health. When the faithful are working at cross purposes, Jesus is being pulled apart in these circumstances, as well as when we are silent where racism, neglect and other forms of injustice occur. Jesus is not saying something new. The parables tell us that different priorities exist in God’s reign which Christian communities must replicate in form of compassion, respect for difference, love for the sinner, forgiveness of those who have hurt us, passion against injustice. None of this is easy. But in all this we can seek to find gems of humanity and find surprising ways God's presence reveals itself daily. As we enter this world, we realise we too are caught in that ‘dragnet’ and we find ‘a treasure’. God is truly the God of surprises who opens our eyes to the discovery that what has been dragged in by the net is really a treasure and not rubbish. Where some go for a witch hunt, we are called to go for a treasure hunt. How often we have discovered that when we got to know the asylum seekers, refugees and migrants who have come to this country since the Second World War? Those who were feared, disliked, not trusted came to be seen as a treasure!! That treasure is God’s Reign but it is not just to be found, it is to be embodied by us. It is not an abstraction. This outlook enabled St Lawrence and other Christians (3rd century) to respond, in the face of persecution, at an edict to hand over the church’s treasures - treasures earmarked for the poor. Lawrence sold the Church’s vessels and gave the money to widows and the sick and distributed other property to the poor. On being summoned to hand over the treasures, Lawrence entered the palace, stopped, and gestured to the door where, streaming in behind him, were crowds of poor, crippled, blind, and suffering people, and proclaimed, ‘These are the true treasures of the Church.’ This act of defiance lead to his immediate execution.