Speak Lord: Of Prayer

pharisee-and-publicanJesus spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else: ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector.

The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.”

The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.’

Luke 18:9-14

The parables that are such a significant part of Luke’s Gospel are the source of the Gospel again, this coming Sunday, the 30th In Ordinary Time.

The Pharisee prays ‘to himself’. It’s a telling phrase, descriptive of the prayer, and revealing that despite the words said the prayer is not in fact being spoken to God but simply it is the speaker, the supposed ‘pray-er’ speaking to himself. In this case it is the Pharisee who doesn’t speak to God, so taken up is he, with himself.

It is the tax collector, who knows his limits, and to his shame, who does speak, directly to God. And who is heard, and who is saved.

  • To whom do I speak in prayer? What proportion of the time is given to God, and how much to self reflection?
  • Doe the self-reflection precede the prayer to God? Or follow it?
  • How do I take responsibility for my prayer?

Pharisee and Publican: Tewkesbury Abbey. (c) 2016, Allen Morris.

Taste and See: God in the details

story-teller

Jesus said to the Pharisees, ‘There was a rich man who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast magnificently every day. And at his gate there lay a poor man called Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even came and licked his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
‘In his torment in Hades he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off with Lazarus in his bosom. So he cried out, “Father Abraham, pity me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.” “My son,” Abraham replied “remember that during your life good things came your way, just as bad things came the way of Lazarus. Now he is being comforted here while you are in agony. But that is not all: between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours.”
‘The rich man replied, “Father, I beg you then to send Lazarus to my father’s house, since I have five brothers, to give them warning so that they do not come to this place of torment too.” “They have Moses and the prophets,” said Abraham “let them listen to them..” “Ah no, father Abraham,” said the rich man “but if someone comes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Then Abraham said to him, “If they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.”’

Luke 16:19-31

The architect Mies van der Rohe said of his architectural projects: ‘God is in the details’. His buildings are so cleanly designed, so stripped back of fuss that what is there stands out with great clarity and beauty.

The parables of Jesus too are generally pared back to something extremely simple, so that the impact of what remains is all the greater

The parable heard as the gospel reading on Sunday, the 26th in Ordinary Time, was unusually long, but three details are worth noting.

The parable which demonstrates that we ignore doing good at our peril, also makes the point that for the most part what needs attending to, is on our doorstep. In today’s global village our doorstep may extend further than it used to… but a gentle, loving attention to those closest is always a good place to start to live out or calling as Christians, our responsibility as human beings.

It also makes the point that a very little sometimes came make a great difference – in his agony the rich man – just a drop of water…. For the poor man, just the scraps for the table. We might do more but to start where we can is good.

And finally it shows that the bad habits of a life time are hard to break. The rich man, so used to having his own way, still considers Lazarus as his to command.

And yet, as Amos (almost) put it, the sprawler’s revelry is ended.

Detail from ‘The past is the key to the future’, carving in the chapel at the National Arboretum, Alrewas, Lichfield. (c) 2016, Allen Morris.

Speak Lord: All change?

This coming Sunday, the 25th In Ordinary Time, we hear another parable from the Gospel of Luke, and the wisdom Jesus derives from it.

church-and-world

The parable that leads this Sunday’s reading exhibits Jesus having a bit of fun as story teller and teacher.

He tells the story of a crook to urge his followers to righteousness.

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘There was a rich man and he had a steward denounced to him for being wasteful with his property. He called for the man and said, “What is this I hear about you? Draw me up an account of your stewardship because you are not to be my steward any longer.” Then the steward said to himself, “Now that my master is taking the stewardship from me, what am I to do? Dig? I am not strong enough. Go begging? I should be too ashamed. Ah, I know what I will do to make sure that when I am dismissed from office there will be some to welcome me into their homes.”

Then he called his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, “How much do you owe my master?” “One hundred measures of oil” was the reply. The steward said, “Here, take your bond; sit down straight away and write fifty.” To another he said, “And you, sir, how much do you owe?” “One hundred measures of wheat” was the reply. The steward said, “Here, take your bond and write eighty.”

‘The master praised the dishonest steward for his astuteness. For the children of this world are more astute in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light.
‘And so I tell you this: use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity. The man who can be trusted in little things can be trusted in great; the man who is dishonest in little things will be dishonest in great. If then you cannot be trusted with money, that tainted thing, who will trust you with genuine riches? And if you cannot be trusted with what is not yours, who will give you what is your very own?

‘No servant can be the slave of two masters: he will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with respect and the second with scorn. You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.’

Luke 16:1-13

Jesus delights in the creativity of  the dishonest steward. He urges such creativity on his disciples.

In the parable, the steward is inventive and effective not only in drawing others into his scheme but earning the praise of his master. ‘He might be a crook but he’s our sort of crook!’

Jesus does not praise the crookedness, but longs for the children of light to give themselves over the more fully to the work of winning people not for this world only, but for the kingdom of God.

Church and world. London. (c) 2012, Allen Morris

Speak Lord: Story and Life

rembrandt-and-some-visitorsThe Gospel passage  to be proclaimed on Sunday, the 24th in Ordinary Time, is a long one.

The tax collectors and the sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and the scribes complained. ‘This man’ they said ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he spoke this parable to them:
‘What man among you with a hundred sheep, losing one, would not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the missing one till he found it? And when he found it, would he not joyfully take it on his shoulders and then, when he got home, call together his friends and neighbours? “Rejoice with me,” he would say “I have found my sheep that was lost.”

In the same way, I tell you, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine virtuous men who have no need of repentance.
‘Or again, what woman with ten drachmas would not, if she lost one, light a lamp and sweep out the house and search thoroughly till she found it? And then, when she had found it, call together her friends and neighbours? “Rejoice with me,” she would say “I have found the drachma I lost.” In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing among the angels of God over one repentant sinner.’

He also said, ‘A man had two sons. The younger said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of the estate that would come to me.” So the father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery.

‘When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch, so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled his belly with the husks the pigs were eating but no one offered him anything. Then he came to his senses and said, “How many of my father’s paid servants have more food than they want, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your paid servants.” So he left the place and went back to his father.

‘While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly. Then his son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we are going to have a feast, a celebration, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” And they began to celebrate.

‘Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. “Your brother has come” replied the servant “and your father has killed the calf we had fattened because he has got him back safe and sound.” He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out to plead with him; but he answered his father, “Look, all these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed your orders, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property – he and his women – you kill the calf we had been fattening.”

‘The father said, “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”’

Luke 15:1-32

It is permitted ro proclaim just the first part, the parables of the good shepherd and diligent woman – but that would be to omit the parable of the father and his two sons, which is so potent a story, in terms of our understanding of God, and of ourselves.

  • Which character in any of the three parables most speaks to you? Or which situation?
  • How does it help you to refelct on yourself, on God, and on others?

Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son. (Rembrandt and some visitors). (c) 2015, Allen Morris.

Speak Lord: Of how we are and might be…

Prodigal detail

The Gospel reading on Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Lent, is a parable famous for the way it presents us with an opportunity to reflect on mercy, and responsibility for the ministering of mercy. It presents heartbreak and reconciliation.

The tax collectors and the sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and the scribes complained. ‘This man’ they said ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he spoke this parable to them:
‘A man had two sons. The younger said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of the estate that would come to me.” So the father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery.

‘When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch, so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled his belly with the husks the pigs were eating but no one offered him anything. Then he came to his senses and said, “How many of my father’s paid servants have more food than they want, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your paid servants.” So he left the place and went back to his father.

‘While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly. Then his son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we are going to have a feast, a celebration, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” And they began to celebrate.

‘Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. “Your brother has come” replied the servant “and your father has killed the calf we had fattened because he has got him back safe and sound.” He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out to plead with him; but he answered his father, “Look, all these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed your orders, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property – he and his women – you kill the calf we had been fattening.”
‘The father said, “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”’

Luke 15:1-3,11-32

The Parable is famous and complex.

  • Complex in the central relationship between father and son; and complex in the relationship between the sons.
  • Complex too in what is it that is going on in the ‘prodigal’ Son.
    • What is his attitude to his father at the beginning, end and middle of the story?
    • And what is the fault he bears for what goes wrong? What is the fault of the father? What the fault of the brother? And where is the mother in all this?
  • Then there is the question of what is put right? Is the son reconciled? Is the father right to welcome as he does: or is he going to be responsible for the elder brother breaking with the family?

If we know anything of the mess and complexity of family relationships – of life! – we owe it to ourselves not to reduce the parable to a nice little fable about forgiveness and love. It is for grown-ups and it is dark. And it is given to bring new light to our darkness.

We need to allow its light to shine and – even slowly – dispel our shadows. For that we need time in the world of the story.

In the painting by Rembrandt, a detail of which is depicted above a figure, (a servant?) stands back, present to but seemingly abstracted from the central scene. He looks at us, looks to see what will happen next.

What will happen next?

  • What moves us in the story?
  • What challenges us in what happens
  • And what impact will it have on us?
  • Will we live differently in consequence as children? Parents? Siblings? Employers? Christians?

Detail of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt in the collection of the Hermitage, St Petersburg. (c) 2015, Allen Morris

Speak Lord: Make me worthy to be with you

800px-Angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410

The Gospel for today, the 28th Sunday in Ordinary time, avoids any quick and easy answers to things. Used to talk of the mercy of God we may find that the conclusion of the parable is harsh. Harshness and uncomfortable truths are not things that Matthew’s Gospel shies away  from.

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a feast for his son’s wedding. He sent his servants to call those who had been invited, but they would not come.

Next he sent some more servants. “Tell those who have been invited” he said “that I have my banquet all prepared, my oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, everything is ready. Come to the wedding.” But they were not interested: one went off to his farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his servants, maltreated them and killed them. The king was furious. He despatched his troops, destroyed those murderers and burnt their town.

Then he said to his servants, “The wedding is ready; but as those who were invited proved to be unworthy, go to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone you can find to the wedding.”

So these servants went out on to the roads and collected together everyone they could find, bad and good alike; and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

When the king came in to look at the guests he noticed one man who was not wearing a wedding garment, and said to him, “How did you get in here, my friend, without a wedding garment?” And the man was silent. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’

Matthew 22:1-14

  • Where might you compromise, rely unduly on the goodwill of others?
  • What is there about your way of life that authenticates your Christian discipleship, your living out of your calling?

Mercy may not be evident in the parable. But God is merciful. Bring any regrets and failings to him in prayer, as you pray to be helped by his mercy and love.

The icon of the Trinity by Rublev reminds of the constant invitation that God, in his love and mercy makes to us.

Speak Lord: speak love

Cardinal Manning

The Gospel at Mass tomorrow, the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, comes from Matthew’s Gospel. It is one of the longer parables, a parable that draws is into a consideration of the world as it ‘is’ so that we might consider afresh how the world might be, if God’s will is done.

Jesus told this parable to his disciples: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner going out at daybreak to hire workers for his vineyard. He made an agreement with the workers for one denarius a day, and sent them to his vineyard. Going out at about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place and said to them, “You go to my vineyard too and I will give you a fair wage.” So they went. At about the sixth hour and again at about the ninth hour, he went out and did the same. Then at about the eleventh hour he went out and found more men standing round, and he said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” “Because no one has hired us” they answered. He said to them, “You go into my vineyard too.” In the evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his bailiff, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last arrivals and ending with the first.” So those who were hired at about the eleventh hour came forward and received one denarius each. When the first came, they expected to get more, but they too received one denarius each. They took it, but grumbled at the landowner. “The men who came last” they said “have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat.” He answered one of them and said, “My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius? Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the last comer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be envious because I am generous?” Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.’

Matthew 20:1-16

Recently the Church in England celebrated the work of Cardinal Manning in helping to resolve the agony of the London Dock Strike of 1889, and helping dockers achieve their argued-for and just pay of a tanner (6d, 2.5p) an hour.

Here, in Jesus’ parable, the issue is not the withholding of a living wage, but an exceptionally generous employer, subject of (some of) his workers’ complaints.

The point Jesus makes, is that the kingdom of heaven is not only about fairness and justice. It is also, and surely is most of all, about love. Employers and workers alike are called to live by the primacy of love.

The image bears the insciption of the Cardinal Manning Lodge of the  Amalgamated Society of Watermen and Lightermen of Greenwich. It bears eloquent testimony to Cardinal Manning, one of the great leaders of the Catholic Church in the 19th Century.