Proper 18, Year B
Sunday, 2 August 2009
The Sentence for Years A & B calls to mind the Gospel today. The Collect and the two other Proper Prayers are on the same theme. Through this the bread God ‘sustains us in all our weakness’; it is the bread that ‘satisfies all hunger’. We pray that having tasted it we may live with God for ever. There is no doubt but that the primary theme for this Sunday is found in contemplating the Most Holy Eucharist.
The other morning after Mass at the Cathedral, a friend pointed out to me something on the Eucharist in Luther’s Small Catechism. The teaching is straightforward, almost blunt, and I commend the whole thing. It was the last question in particular that he wanted to bring to my attention and which I thought might be interesting.
19. What should admonish and encourage a Christian to receive the Sacrament frequently? First, both the command and the promise of Christ the Lord. Second, his own pressing need, because of which the command, encouragement, and promise are given.
The First Reading: 2 Samuel 11.26-12.12.13a
So the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to David to tell him a story. It sounded like the sort of law case that was submitted for the royal judgement, but was in fact a parable [12.1-4]. According to a note in the Harper Collins Study Bible, this parable was based in tribal law, which permitted someone to slaughter a neighbour’s animal if it was absolutely necessary to do so in order to provide hospitality. This was not permitted to one whose property included suitable beasts, and it was strictly forbidden when the neighbour’s animal was a personal pet. [I must mention that the note referred to no authority for this statement.].
David is outraged by the case and rises to take the bait. He must pay back fourfold! [Such was the law: see Ex 22.1, but the ancient Greek translation gives ‘sevenfold’.] According to the commentary of Rashi, David did repay his sin fourfold: David “was smitten through four children; the child (born to Bathsheba See v. 18.), Amnon (13:19), Tamar (13:14), and Absalom (18:15).” The same events show the meaning of the words the sword shall never depart from your house (vv. 10-12).
We did not comment last week on the fact that ‘took’ Bathsheba (11.4), but as we meet it again in 12.4, it is good to remember Samuel’s warning to the Israelites when they wanted a king: all a king would do is take (1 Sam 8.11-18).
The passage appointed to be read stops short of the end of Nathan’s prophecy, omitting both the response to David’s confession and the foreseen death of the child of David and Bathsheba (14, 15b-23). However, the passage which tells of David’s reaction to the child’s sickness and death is a beautiful piece of writing
The two passages we have read from the sordid story of David’s crimes show us the two ways we can behave when we do wrong. In the first part, David’s attempts to cover up show that he was aware that he had sinned. By calling Uriah back to Jerusalem and getting him to sleep at home, he is trying to make it seem that Uriah was father of the child David has begotten, and when this fails David moves to more desperate act and arranges for Uriah to be killed in battle. That’s one way, and though we might never go to such extremes of evil, we know the instinct to cover up our mistakes and hope they will just go away. But that never works: God knew, and sent Nathan. In today’s passage David is brought face to face with the truth, and with himself. He sees not only the wrong he did to Uriah and Bathsheba but his base ingratitude toward God, and confesses simply: ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ This is the other way of behaving when we know we have sinned. This is the one which is forgiven.
The Psalm: 51.1-13
Since the available space does not permit us to comment on the Miserere in detail, let us simply note the verse which touches the very heart of penitence, the prayer ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ [v. 10, or 11 in the BAS]. The point of penance is not only to have the guilt of sin wiped away but to embrace a new way of living. Here we find both the stupidity and the sad truth of the taunt so often heard that a penitent confesses to sin again with a clear slate. Only the most senseless of folk really think that penance has much value if you mean to go right on with the same sins. To repent and sin again is not the same as repenting so that we may sin again. The sad truth is that we do it without meaning to. Though owning up might seem the hardest part of repentance; really putting sin away and giving up habits one has become so used is truly hard and truly scary. Here we learn that to faith in God’s grace is as much a part of repentance as sorrow for our sins. Let us take to heart the refrain set for this Psalm: Turn from evil and do good. That is the promise and hope of penance.
The Epistle: Ephesians 4.1-16
T.K. Abbott summarizes the passage in the following three sections:
1. Exhortation to live in a manner worthy of their calling, in lowliness, patience, love, and unity [4.1-4].
2. Essential unity of the Church. It is one Body, animated by one Spirit, baptized into the name of one Lord, and all being children of the same Father. But the members have their different gifts and offices [4.4-11]
3. The object of all is the perfection of the saints, that they may be one in the faith, and mature in knowledge, so as not to be carried away by the winds of false doctrine; but that the whole body, as one organism deriving its nourishment from the Head, may be perfected in love. [4.12-16]
When we fix our minds on the third section, the object of all, we are reminded of the first words, the call to lowliness, meekness, and patience: all of these are expressed when Christians are “bearing with one another in love”. What is this mutual forbearance? It is “bearing with one another’s weaknesses, not ceasing to love our neighbour or friend because of those faults in him which perhaps offend or displease us”. In the life of the church, in parish, diocese, or among dioceses and national churches, this exhortation of St Paul is of the greatest importance. How much more willing and ready we are to break the unity than to preserve it because some opinions or actions of our fellow Christians displease us than to bear with one another!
The Holy Gospel: John 6.24-35
The quotation from Luther’s Small Catechism above called us to consider our need for the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood: the opening of the discourse on the Bread of Life calls us to examine this need. The crowd sought Jesus because he had fed them, and as he speaks to them, they come to think that he has some sort of magical bread (like the woman by the well at Sychar in John 4.15). They seem not to see, or at least not to care that the miracle was a sign, that it pointed to and meant something beyond itself. They thought no further than being fed and filled, and if the bread made them immortal, so much the better. In the discourse, Jesus spoke to them of the gift of life from God which is comes in believing in the Son whom he sent into the world.
Since in this form it is not possible to say everything we would like to about this discourse, here is William Temple’s note on Christ’s words to the crowd, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. (It should be noted that this was written just before the Second World War.)
“Whenever we try to use our religion as a solution of our temporal problems, caring more for that than for God and His glory, we fall unto the same condemnation. I have heard speakers commend the cause of Christian Missions on the ground that to spread the Gospel, at any rate under Anglican forms, it a way of consolidating the British Empire; but, short of that sort of vulgarity, we are all under the temptation to call in Christian faith as a means of delivering us from the agony of war, caring more for our own escape from that torture than for God’s glory. It is very natural; it is a state of mind with which we must all sympathize; but it is at best sub-Christian. If what is eternal is valued chiefly as a means to any temporal result, the true order is inverted, and it is likely that the eternal and the temporal goods will be missed alike.” [Readings in St John’s Gospel p. 82].
When I read this a passage from The Screwtape Letters also came to mind:
“On the other hand we [the devils] do want, and very much want, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferablt of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might as well think they can use the stairs of heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the grounds that ‘only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations’. You see the little rift? ‘Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.’ That’s the game.” [Letter XXIII see also the opening paragraph of Letter XXV].
That brings us to the end of the available space. If you read the gospel passage carefully, you will doubtless find more ideas and questions to pursue.