Daily homilies by the Prior of Pluscarden at the Arundel and Brighton Clergy Retreat, 27-30 September 2016
Homily for the A&B Clergy Retreat, Wednesday Week 26 Year II, Sept 28th 2016
Job 9:1-16; Ps 87:10-15; Luke 9: 57-62
Today’s readings confront us with some very hard sayings.
In the book of Job we’ve jumped ahead now from Chapter 3 which we heard yesterday, to Chapter 9. In the passage just before today’s reading, Bildad the Shuhite had been defending God’s ultimate justice, and rebuking Job for daring to question it. If you only have patience, he argues, you will see how eventually God punishes the wicked, and upholds the cause of the righteous. But Job refuses to find any comfort in this argument. In the first place, of course, his own experience sharply contradicts it. Job is innocent and upright, and God has repaid him with every kind of affliction. But worse than that: today we hear Job arguing that it’s pointless even trying to defend oneself against God. Why? Because God is bigger than we are. He is the Creator of the Universe: how could any mortal, however wise and holy, stand against him? And anyway God will always be not only counsel for the prosecution, but also judge, and jury too, so what possible chance have we against him?
In response to all that, the liturgy offers us the darkest of all the Psalms to sing. The Psalmist here makes the attempt to set out, for God’s benefit, good arguments for his own restoration to health and prosperity. But he is not heard. So he is reduced to crying out: Lord, why do you reject me? Why do you hide your face from me?
We look to our Gospel today to see if we can find an appropriate answer to these difficulties, and we find none. Apparently well meaning people come to Jesus, and his responses to them seem to be deliberately unreasonable, demanding and difficult.
One says to him: “I will follow you wherever you go.” To paraphrase the retort of Jesus: If you do that, you’re a fool, because I’ve nothing to offer you.
Another asks only for permission to go and bury his father. That for a Jew is a most sacred duty, and a praiseworthy act of religious piety. What do we have in answer to that? Only a yet more harsh retort, with no hint of comfort or explanation in it.
Finally: let me just go first and say goodbye to my people at home. And in response, the rebuke: No one who looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.
What is the Holy Spirit saying to us through today’s readings? Perhaps in the first place he’s simply reminding us that immediate, easy, glib answers are not always to be found. People of good will, people of faith, people who sincerely try their best to be good, and to serve and please God, sometimes are simply baffled by what life throws at them. Perhaps they come to us for help, for light, for consolation, and we find we have nothing to say.
Perhaps there are times when we ourselves turn to the Lord in our distress, hoping for some help, some light, some consolation: and all we seem to get is a kick, and a rebuke.
But no. As Bishop Richard is fond of saying: God is good! We believe it, we know it; it’s true. Actually God is very very good! The Eucharistic context of our readings reminds of that, to the highest degree, and it shines the light of Christ’s death and resurrection onto the Scriptures with which we wrestle.
So: to the man who made the all-too-easy assertion of fidelity, Jesus indicated that there is always more. Of course this is for our good. He does not invite us to rest content treading water spiritually, but to press on, and on, in ever more radical conformity to himself.
Can I not even bury my father? Yes, of course you must love and honour your parents, and perform whatever other sacred duty that binds you. Yet nothing whatever in this life can ever take second place in our life to the call of Jesus.
What about the one who looks back from his plough? Let us take that as an image of one who looks back with regret to a time when the yoke of Jesus had not been laid on his shoulders, like the Israelites thinking with regret of the flesh pots, and the slavery, of Egypt. Such a one, he says, is not fit for the Kingdom. Is this harsh? No, it’s just the truth. For in Christ we are all God’s Sons; we are heirs of his Kingdom; we are invited to his wedding feast. How monstrous it would be, then, to look back towards a life of narrow selfishness; to yearn for the husks of the swine from which Jesus has rescued us!
What about Job, and the anguished Psalmist? All the answers of the Gospel are here in the Holy Eucharist. Job complains that God is too big, too transcendent, too powerful. But in Jesus God became small; he came to our level, and then bent low before us. In Jesus, God himself stooped down to serve us, put himself in our hands, showed that he truly does love us even to the end.
The Psalmist cries: Why do you hide your face? But God shows us his face in Jesus. He does answer our cry, definitively. In Jesus he shows precisely the lengths he will go to in order not to reject us.
Here then, in the holy Eucharist, we come to meet Jesus, himself; to enter the heart of his mystery, and become identified with him. And in the most holy Sacrament, Jesus gives us, yet again, a pledge of his presence with us, his love for us, his invitation to follow him into his heavenly glory.