Good teachers and good spiritual teachers highly value the experience of their disciples. They will often return to these experiences as they journey together, as a way of making things clearer. Good spiritual teachers often invite their disciples to begin to recognise patterns in their experience. Or, to put it another way, to map the sequence of their growth in understanding.
For example, St Paul, in his letter to the infant church in Rome (Romans 5,3-5) proposes a sequence that begins with suffering. Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because the Love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. Mother Theresa of Albania often handed out a business card with this information: The fruit of SILENCE is prayer. The fruit of PRAYER is faith. The fruit of FAITH is love. The fruit of LOVE is Service. The fruit of SERVICE is Peace.
Sometimes the patterns of our experience and what these have taught us can be easily grasped. When this happens, their wisdom is clear. At other times, the patterns of our experience and what these have taught us is less clear. It is harder to 'get it' or to put Wisdom into action.
This week’s Parable of the Woman at The Well is one of these patterns. It might go like this:
- the one who hears the voice of the bridegroom greatly rejoices
- bringing the bridegroom children
- that one disappears into the fullness of joy.
Notice this great woman's journey as she develops her
understanding of Jesus which takes her past his Jewishness, past his prophetic status, past his role as messiah, finally arriving at the realisation that He is the 'l Am' or God made visible. When she grasps this, she is filled with the love she has always been looking for. Her joy is complete. She has found the Bridegroom.
The first joy is found in hearing the voice of the bridegroom, the wedding and the wedding night. Now it matures into a fuller joy when the marriage becomes fruitful with children. The first joy becomes the impetus for mission. She moves out, attracting people to the voice she has heard. She presents these 'children' to her true husband, so that they too might experience the gift of God.
Now she moves into deep waters. If the experience is true, she must not claim permanent status as a messenger. Her 'children' tell her that she is no longer needed. Now that they have seen for themselves, no other intermediary is required. If she is mature enough, she will be happy that, like the Baptist, He must increase while they decrease. But they aren't having to be dragged from centre stage. Their leaving is gracious and, as they decrease, their joy increases!
So, what is going on here? When we see clearly the gift of God, there is a 'knowing' that enables us to grasp more fully the work of the Holy Spirit. Strangely the gift arrives as 'living water' which can never be grasped. Nor can we ever use it to promote ourselves or our ego. Whoever tries to seize the Spirit watches it move elsewhere. By disappearing, we have permanent access to the fountain. I think this is what the woman at the well realised. I hope that one day we will too
Jesus has just been baptised in the river Jordan and has heard a voice from heaven saying, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased' (Matt 3,17). But what does it mean to be the Beloved Son? The devil will have a few suggestions, but it is the Spirit who leads Jesus into this encounter with the devil. This 'testing' will serve The Spirits agenda and will deepen Jesus' understanding and commitment. The Tester first suggests that, as Beloved Son of God, Jesus should always be 'full'. And if he likes he can suspend any law he likes to make this happen. Jesus rejects the connection between being physically filled and being spiritually loved. Hungry or full, he will still be the Beloved Son. Empty, he will still be the Beloved Son.
Engraved on the pinnacle of the Temple are the wings of an eagle. As the wings of a mother eagle catch her young when they flutter in their first attempt to fly, the Tempter suggests that God will lift us his Beloved Son whenever he falls. As Beloved Son, Jesus will always be safe. The devil even quotes Scripture to bolster his case. He wants Jesus to presume on divine love and toy with danger. But Jesus thinks this way of thinking is ridiculous. You don't put yourself in danger so God can protect you. In the course of Jesus life, he will not be safe but neither will he waiver in his conviction that God loves him. Hurt, he will still be the Beloved Son.
So, for now, the devil plays his final card. He offers Jesus unlimited power over others. The price tag is that Jesus will fall on his knees and worship the devil. But Jesus is a Jew of the First Commandment and he rejects the Tempter and his seductive offer. Now, Jesus will have no political power and influence in the Kingdoms of the world. Powerless, he will still be the Beloved Son.
Temptations, like the ones above wait to ambush all of us in some way. They get to make the first move and can look like they are running the show. It's only on the third go that Jesus finds the strength to tell the devil to get lost. And isn't this our own experience. Sin pulls us along at great speed. We often describe this as being 'led astray'. We went along because for a moment we couldn't find the brake. We were no longer in charge of ourselves. So it doesn't really matter if it's a bit of gossip here, a little theft there, or some big deal which is sinful as well as criminal - what they all have in common is that they include the question of who we think we are. If we do not know who we are, we probably won't step back from the edge of the cliff.
What Jesus remembers is every word that comes from the mouth of God. Especially, he remembers the words he heard in the Jordan river. He has pondered these words in sacred time - forty days and nights - and has reached some amazing conclusions about what they mean. Only then can he push back and say “No”. Step one for us then seems to be an invitation to slow down. To create the spaces where we can know ourselves better, which should include being willing to hear from friends what they know of us. The Tempter will ask the same question. If you are loved by God, then .... And each of us has to be able to say, “Even if I am empty, hurting or powerless, or even dead; I am still loved by the Love that never fails".
Masters always make servants! Whatever dominates our thinking and dictates our lifestyle will give us a clear understanding of what is really valuable to us. We attend so completely to the 'one' thing that we often ignore other concerns. This is probably most true with the problem of money. If we feverishly seek money as the foundation of our security, we won't have much time for the kind of security God provides. Next to our bank balance, God may seem a tad vague. On the other hand, if we put our trust in God, the anxious quest for wealth may not seem as important as it once was.
And yet, there are no shortage of masters in our current situation. In the workplace, workers’ rights have been seriously eroded over the last thirty years. Business is driven largely by greed and, unless we are lucky, most employers nowadays expect everyone to do two peoples jobs. Sickness and holiday pay are becoming a rarity as greedy company directors find ways around the laws which support workers lives. Unions no longer have the pull they once had and employees are told more and more that, if they don't like it, there is a queue of other people waiting to take their job. Is it any wonder that people are anxious?
Then there is the other question of the great divide globally where 2% of the human community have access to most of the worlds wealth. We look on the plight of our sisters and brothers who have little or no access to healthcare, education, housing, quality of life and, if we have a conscience at all, we are left deeply uneasy at the part we may be playing in this situation.
Worst still, as we shall hear from Sharon Westby this weekend, there is a new slavery in town, where millions of our sisters and brothers are violently wrenched from their homes and put to work in dreadful situations to serve the greed and lust of a few. Like all the big sins, fabulous wealth is less about having nice things and more about having power over others, marking our territory and filling the world with the weapons that make sure it stays where it is.
All these situations, and more, tell us something important about the human heart. That while it was made for love, creativity, beauty, pleasure, God and eternity, if it allows money to become its master it is destroyed from within. Our pursuit of it can become insatiable and blind us to the cost to others. It’s the old question: you might know where you're going but do you know who is paying the fare? When God gets pushed to the sidelines to make space for money, there is never enough to fill the empty space.
If we set our hearts on Gods Kingdom and seriously play our part in bringing it to birth, we are not absolved of the need to be responsible about our own lives. God does not miraculously supply food and shelter. This was Satan’s lie to Jesus in the desert and Jesus refused it. But Jesus does present us with a real choice. (A) We spend our lives anxiously filling the bottomless hole of greed or (B) We celebrate our lives as a gift from God to be shared in a simplicity of life where all are nurtured and sustained. Which will I choose? Which will we choose
Moses did not easily come to the Wisdom and understanding he is so sure of in today's first reading. He had to work hard at it. Even so, it is only a small step in the right direction! For while he invites the community to holiness of life, expressed in the refusal to hate, to be two faced or to be imprisoned by the need for revenge, he is still upholding club rules, which have yet to find their way to the world outside the community.
Over time, we begin to see hints that this teaching will be replaced by something better. And today's Gospel text from St Matthew is a fine example of this. So far, we have learned that balance demands an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This teaching was a major step towards controlling violence. Previously, the Law of Lamech prevailed, 'I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.' (Genesis 4,23) There was no equality in inflicted damage. But under the eye for an eye dictum, retribution was carefully measured.
The teaching of Jesus supersedes this now and disciples need to be careful that we don't go back to the older ways of Moses or Lamech! We are better supported in this regard when appreciate how clever the teaching of Jesus really is. He gives three examples of how to be creative when faced with violence in His own day. These clever
actions are designed to change the balance of power from the violent in favour of the non-violent. Walter Wink, in his "Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination", writes, 'Turn your cheek, thus indicating to the one who backhands you that their attempt to shame you into servility has failed. Strip naked and parade out of court, thus taking the momentum out of the law and the whole debt economy and flipping them. Walk a second mile, surprising the occupation troops with a sudden challenge to their control.' p.185
There is an adventure in the teaching of Jesus and we don't need to be afraid that if we apply the same creativity to our own situation that we will be more vulnerable. The danger for the afraid is that we might talk ourselves out of following this light, or water it down so much as to make it worthless.
The Parable of the Snake is helpful here. The snake hears the stunning teaching of Jesus from a wandering preacher and immediately adopts a life of total non-violence. He will bite no one. When the local children realise that he won't bite, they begin to make fun of him and beat him with sticks every day. The snake is near death when the preacher returns and asks how he is doing. The snake tells the preacher of his heroic actions, expecting to be praised. But the preacher says, " I told you not to bite. I didn't say you couldn't rattle and hiss!"
We are always praising heroic Christians who have laid down their life for their faith. Perhaps it will prove wiser, over time, to praise clever Christians who are able to find new ways to bring non-violence and universal loving into stubborn hearts and stubborn systems. These amazing women and men hold these values with an inner strength. They combine them with experience and their knowledge of science and art. They show us how unseen paths open beneath our feet and how to surprise the worldly wise to new ways of living.
Life and a Death. These are matters of great importance, and the readings this week invite us to consider these precious things which are in our hands. We are also encouraged not to give up on the quest for holiness of life. Our faithfulness unfolds in our commitment to the Charter for just living - the law- and to the teaching of the Prophets. But notice how Jesus elevates certain aspects of these and allows others to fall away. He affirms and deepens the heart of the Law and Prophets and sweeps away what doesn't really matter.
The higher calling of His Disciples is the struggle for community in an age of holocaust. The struggle begins when we aim to strengthen our inner life. The religious leaders seem to be fixated on externals and their need to be 'seen' by others. Their egos are so huge, they can no longer see, or give priority to, those who are hurting. They tinker with trifles, obsess about details of the law and bury their passion for justice, love and compassion in the graveyard of their own self-importance.
Jesus calls his disciples to attend to their inner life. Life and Death, Love and Hate, Adultery and Faithfulness are huge polarities that we have to navigate every day. The rabbis often speak of 'evil imaginings'. If our angry hearts overflow into abusive talk we have sown the seed for murder. If we escape the need for reconciliation by just talking to God, Jesus sends us back to the person we have wronged to ask for forgiveness. If lust and deceit leads us to break people's hearts, we must enlarge our hearts by honouring the values which underpin love.
One of the oldest, and wisest, spiritual injunctions is 'Know Yourself!' We are pushed down the path of searing honesty and self-discovery. We set up a watching and listening post in the centre of our being
and begin the difficult task of seeing ourselves as we really are. We need to know how anger rises in us, comes to expression and then recedes. We need to watch lust and note how it can grip us and rush us along
paths we may not choose. We need to understand how we want shortcuts to forgiveness, how we hesitate and sometimes stall when it comes to
starting a conversation with someone that might bring us peace.
As St Matthew considers the size of the problem, he takes a no nonsense approach. Whatever causes us to sin must be removed! Of course, he is right because sin is pretty ugly. So, we just have to keep chiselling at our own statues.
When I was about seven, my granny took us to Saltcoats, the holiday Mecca of the west coast of Scotland. It was mid-summer and still an icy gale swept from the North Pole over the sunbathers who shivered behind their windbreakers! My first trip to the beach, I dashed towards the sea and ran straight into an underwater hole. I sank like a corpse and managed to swallow what felt like a gallon of water. I can still taste it to this day. Too much salt, too much salt.
Isaiah's poetic prophecy in today's first reading is beautiful but it lacked maturity as it only applied to people in the community. I've always thought that one of the marks of any genuine spirituality is the wideness of its embrace. I become suspicious the moment I hear the language of exclusion, whether that is of individuals or groups. Exclusions create control, heightened security and territory that needs to be defended.
The Divine Teacher, on the other hand, situates His disciples in another place. You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the World! We are something and we may not know it. When this happens, people lose their flavour. There is nothing to savour. It gets trampled underfoot. Jesus seeks to convince us of our high value. He cuts through any sense of self that cripples and halts - I am a sinner - I'm no good - I'm useless - I lack the skill etc. He fixes a new truth in the minds and hearts of His disciples. Hot on the heels of this compliment there is a warning which is meant to strengthen our freedom to be the salt that we are. We are here for the benefit of the earth. He calls us to bring zest, meaning and light to all.
Over the last few weeks, we have lost some wonderful members of our community. It was important to family members that they are remembered as people who made the world a better place. I guess we would all like people to say that when our own time comes. But what if people were to say, after we are gone, that the world has become a less interesting place! We were a shot of zest, adding just the right amount of salt to every bland situation. I wonder if something gets lost when we limit our understanding of salt and light to just good works. We seldom think of it as meaning creative engagement with a wily world. Yet the people of salt and light are called to be visionaries who are not afraid to try something new. If the experiment fails, we don't retreat to our old ways but find even more creative energy to address the situation before us. Think Big. Think New. Think Creative.
Teilhard de Chardin once wrote that he was afraid that people would lose their zest and passion for the coming to be of the world. He noted that if we do not find this drive in ourselves, we have not yet searched the full depth of our heart and mind. Perhaps we are afraid of what we might find there. Jesus reminds us that we have no need to be afraid. No need to be afraid!
The Beatitudes are the beginning of the massive teaching of Jesus known as the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon ends with a contrast between Wisdom and foolishness. The Wise, are those who hear The Words of Jesus and put them into action. The foolish, also hear His Words but do nothing with it.
Each time I hear or read this beautiful Sermon, it touches something deep inside of me in a way that other Sacred texts do not. It is so clear eyed and so daring, so sure of itself as it contradicts common thinking. It sweeps me along in a torrent of love and takes me to the place where, however dimly, I see what Jesus sees when he looks at me and you. Hearing it is like, as David Whyte said of poetry, "the art of overhearing ourselves say something from
which it is impossible to retreat".
So what is it that Jesus sees when he moves to the higher plain? He sees people. He sees the circumstance of their lives. He sees the sacredness of their lives. He sees with three eyes and invites His disciples to do the same.
Jesus sees the people before Him and the negative circumstances that surround and pervade their lives. The poverty that goes so deep it crushes their spirit and reduces them to a constant state of mourning. In this situation they are meek, not violent or vengeful but hungering and thirsting for equality. Caught up in an unjust system, they are trying to better their lives and He is eager to support them. Jesus also sees a 'blessedness' dancing in the centre of their struggle for community. This blessedness is given by God, so is more powerful than the social and political systems that overwhelm them. It is already present and working its way towards a fuller space. It is moving mourning towards comfort, meekness towards inheritance and hunger and thirst towards satisfaction. It is giving notice to the current situation that it will not have the last word. The blessedness not only survives and overcomes human evil, it shines forth bringing its energies to the task of making life better.
When blessedness flows as Mercy, Purity of Heart, Peace-making, and Justice Making it becomes an atmosphere that all are invited to breathe. This is what Jesus sees and what He wants us to see. As Hopkins said in 'The Wreck of the Deutschland', "Ah! There was a heart right / There was a single eye".
As we listen to the Gospel for this fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we are given another chance to be caught up in the stunning teaching of the Beloved Son of God. If we will allow it, it will grip us. Once heard, they are words from which it is impossible to retreat. It is being said. It is taking us to a higher plain. We might not stay there for long but we know that way back. The lightning bolt of truth which first touched us through these words, will never cease to call us to the abiding light that the darkness can never overcome.
It was all going wrong. John has been arrested by Herod and swaps desert for dungeon. His wilderness voice must find a way through the prison bars. Authority figures do what they like to do best - silence what threatens them. But notice what Jesus does. He moves immediately right into the heart of Herod's domain, steadily into the teeth of resistance. This is a dangerous move. But it was always so for those who carry light into darkness, life into death. What will happen to Jesus now?
Notice again Matthews insight. Underneath the machinations of human monsters, prophecies are unfolding. As Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah he is no fool, playing into the hands of evil men. He is moving according to Gods plan, proclaiming a message that cannot be locked up or silenced. The torch has passed from John to Jesus. The voice that cried in the desert now zings down the town streets, into residential areas and into the houses of Gods' children. The Kingdom of Heaven is closer than you think. If you are sitting in darkness and the shadows of death, God is arriving as the remedy. As Light and Life! Problem: God is now but people are not!
So, Jesus needs help to uncover the hidden heaven. He needs people to fish for people. But first they must let go of one way of seeing the world and embrace another. If they are going to swim in the spiritual sea where all people swim, they must come to see the deeper and wider dimensions of life. They see hints of this in Jesus and move to follow Him. He will teach them that people are not fish and that they will 'catch' people only by appealing to the deepest desire of their hearts.
Jesus is not hiding from Herod. He is teaching, proclaiming and healing through all Herod's territory. He is on a mission. Johns' imprisonment is not going to stop Him and people are fascinated by him.
Here we must pause to remember all the people who have fascinated us in our life. Can you remember those you admired and wanted to imitate? Every day, people are leaning into life and coaxing it towards redemption. These are people who make the world a better place. When we catch them 'at it' we are fascinated and want to know more. When we see someone thinking, speaking or acting in a way that we are not yet able to but we wish we could - we apprentice ourselves to them. Isn't a disciple just a fascinated person who desires to know and do what they see in another? We gravitate towards them and learn something new. We have probably been doing this all our lives.
I heard a story once about a drug rehabilitation centre. One day, an ex-resident turned up in the reception area with a cricket bat, shouting and screaming and banging his bat on the furniture. Everyone dived for cover. But the manager came out of her office, walked right up to the guy, put her arms around him and gave him a big long hug. His violence transfigured into sobs. She held him in that strange embrace for a while then led him to a chair and waited for the police to arrive. He never let go of the bat.
I want to know what makes this woman tick! And I have a hunch that she knows exactly what drove Christ back into Galilee.
John the Baptist doesn't just see Jesus, he sees into the heart and mission of Jesus. His invitation to 'Behold' means something worth looking at is before us. John calls Jesus the 'Lamb of God' and so do we. Yet, the sin that He takes away cannot just be seen as the individual transgressions we might make. What is taken away is the experience of being isolated from God. Jesus frees the temple animals, because they are no longer needed. The disciples go with Him at the time when animals were sacrificed in the Temple and find everything they need in Him. What is needed is to have communion with the Beloved Son of God.
John also admits to what he does not know. He has to grow in his understanding and relationship with Jesus. John is granted a sacred communication that Jesus and the Spirit are inseparable. He has to work at this insight to make it bear fruit. Coming to see the truth of Jesus takes time, patience and a genuine desire to come and see what He is revealing. We see a pattern develop. John sees Jesus, witnesses to Him and creates new disciples. Two new disciples see Jesus, witness to Him and create more disciples. It seems that we have to find out the truth about Jesus for ourselves but others who have already discovered it can show us the way.
This weekend, Bishop Philip will be asking a question in his pastoral letter about our relationship with Jesus and how we share this with others. We don't do this by having yes or no, right or wrong answers but by sharing the adventure we have been enjoying. It means we have to be honest about how our faith in Him has changed and developed. This kind of uncompromising honesty means that our sense of the adventure might be complex.
I came across a story about three people who arrived at the door of a spiritual teacher. She asked all of them the same question. "Did you come to me because of others or because of yourself?" The first answered that they had been sent by others. They were dismissed. The second answered that they came of their own accord. They were dismissed. The third stammered that they had heard of the teacher from others and yet, they also felt that they had come on their own - part curious, part frustrated, part searching and a whole lot of other reasons and motives which were hard to describe. The spiritual teacher said, "You'll do." The honest, complex person was accepted.
I don't know all of the reasons I am drawn to Jesus and struggle to follow Him. But in my own mind, hallmarks of genuine testimony begin to take shape. Honest self-examination, complexity and humility. If my testimony is meant to attract others to Jesus, I worry sometimes that after hearing or seeing me they might look elsewhere. But I also see that I must not over worry on this point. If I try to package Jesus, I lose the only truth that sustains me. You might agree that giving testimony is tricky ground. But what's the alternative?