Reflection for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
As the Guardian is currently away, today’s reflections are those given during Sunday’s service by Christopher Belk, a worship leader in the Mission Area. The talks he gave are based on the readings for the day, Jeremiah 32, 1-2, 6-15, Psalm 91 and Luke 16, 19-31. Thanks go to Christopher for agreeing to do this.
Talk 1 This rather strange story may be hard to understand, but is very interesting and maybe topical. Here is Jeremiah, effectively in prison for having made unwelcome (though true) prophecies of doom, namely that Jerusalem and its environs was about to be conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar and all the people carried off to Babylon. Probably Anathoth, which is about 3 miles outside Jerusalem, had already been ravaged by the invading force, and we see from later verses that siege ramps were already being set up against Jerusalem itself. Imagine yourself as a Ukrainian inhabitant of Mariupol, with the Russians advancing and most of the buildings flattened by shellfire. Out of the blue you are asked to pay good money for a conveyance of a ruin, with all the legal formalities.
In Jeremiah’s case, he knew not only that the land was effectively worthless (to be fair, the price he paid does not seem to have been very high), but that he would never get to enjoy it himself. Leviticus 25 tells us about the procedure for selling land to a kinsman if you were hard up. The kinsman was bound to buy it, but the value depended on how many years to go to the next Jubilee Year, which happened every 50 years. If the original owner had not bought it back before that, in that year the land had to be transferred back to him free. So whenever the next Jubilee was, it would have been before expiration of the 70 years of captivity in Babylon, a period prophesied by Jeremiah, correctly as usual.
The point is that Jeremiah’s prophecies were not quite all of doom. He also foresaw the return of the exiles which happened under Cyrus 70 years later, though obviously not soon enough for most of his listeners at the time.. He arranged for the purchase deeds to be stored in a safe place, where hopefully they still were when his cousin or his family returned and could claim their land. This he did to show his confidence in what God had told him. Jeremiah himself died during the exile period, but Jewish tradition says Baruch did survive that long, though by then he must have been over 90 and was rather heavy and not fit enough for the journey back. We can hopefully assume he was able to tell the family where the deeds were.
So today we seem to be faced with doom laden prophecies once again: Covid may break out afresh, climate change is going to make the world uninhabitable, Russia may wipe more and more countries off the map, the refugee problem will escalate, Government seems not to know how to solve our economic crisis, more and more people may have to choose between heat and food. There are plenty of Jeremiahs around to emphasise the problems, though not many to tell us any message of hope.
What we still have is Psalm 91, which many think was written by King David at the time when there was an epidemic resulting from his disobeying God in listing all the people. It has been much quoted during the recent/current pandemic, but is of universal application in times like these.
Talk 2 Here we have another story, not strange and indeed uncomfortably familiar. How often has it been used to support cries for redistribution of wealth on a fairer basis, not least in response to Mr. Kwarteng’s plans for the country’s economy. But I humbly suggest that this was not Jesus main theme. When he was asked what was the greatest commandment he replied that the most important was to love God with all ones heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving your neighbour as yourself was the second, though it follows from the first. This passage follows on from others dealing with the right attitude to property: Luke 15 has the story of the Prodigal Son: the father in that story was clearly wealthy but did not land in hell. Then in Luke 16 is the story of the crooked manager who got the sack, but used such money influence as he had for the benefit of others, admittedly with his own interests in mind. No suggestion there that his rich boss would land in hell either. Of course there was one rich young man who was told to sell all he had, give to the poor, and follow Jesus. Then there was Zacchaeus, who apparently only had to sell half of what he owned and could carry on his business but had to give up cheating. So what was the difference?
It seems that riches are not as such incompatible with loving God, and indeed many of today’s mega rich devote large parts of their fortunes to charity. Our late Queen was at one time the richest person in the world, but knew where her priorities should be and valued everyone she met, however poor or humble. Jesus did say that, for a rich person, entering the kingdom of God is far from easy though not impossible. However rich or poor we may individually be, there is no doubt that the more material comfort we enjoy the less we are forced to rely on God, or think about the needs of our neighbours. It may be that the rich man who had Lazarus for a neighbour paid all his taxes and even gave to charity, and may have thought it perfectly OK to sit back and relax, until it was too late. So we need I think to dare to pray each day that God will show us to whom we are being called to be a neighbour, whether with time or money or just friendship, at long range through other charities or at close range with our friends and family and those we perhaps need to notice more than we do. Nobody suggests that the original Good Samaritan was either rich or poor: he just did what he could with what he had for who he met.