Posts Tagged ‘responsibility’

Taking it seriously

November 11, 2017

Pentecost 23 – 2017

Matthew 25:1-13

Marian Free

In the name of God who has given us everything and to whom we owe everything in return. Amen.

My parents tell a story of my godmother Catherine. Neither Catherine nor her mother had any interest in cooking. Meals at their home generally consisted of meat and salad. On one occasion when my parents were staying with Catherine, my mother was making the dinner. When Catherine offered to help, mum asked her to stir the white sauce. Catherine couldn’t concentrate on the task. As a result the sauce was lumpy and inedible. When my mother asked why she hadn’t kept stirring, Catherine replied: “I didn’t think continuously meant that I had to stir it all the time.” Catherine had no commitment to cooking, so her approach was careless and lackadaisical with the result that the dinner was ruined.

I’m sure that you can think of many situations in which things don’t go as well as they could due to someone’s lack of commitment, their failure to think things through or their casual approach to the task or the event.

This morning’s parable is all about being fully engaged in the task at hand. It is, I think, one of the most confronting of all the parables. The shut door does not sit well with our image of Jesus as loving, forgiving and compassionate and I suspect that we all feel a chill at the possibility of Jesus slamming a door in our face.

It is essential that remember that this is a story not a real event. We don’t have to puzzle over details such as whether the markets would be open in the middle of the night or where exactly the girls were. We just have to take the story at face value. There are ten girls waiting for a bridegroom. Of the ten only five have thought to bring extra oil so that they can be sure to ready to greet the groom when he arrives.

We know very little of the marriage customs of Jesus’ time. Based on the practices of surrounding cultures we can assume that it was the practice of the groom to go to the bride’s home to negotiate the bride-price with the father. As this might involve a certain amount of haggling, the timing of the groom’s return home could not be determined with accuracy. Add to this the fact that the notion of time was quite fluid – “this evening” could mean anytime after sundown. The girls would have had no idea when to expect the groom. The groom was expected after dark as the girls had their lamps with them and their lamps were lit.

Five of the young women had extra oil and five did not. Even so, the reaction of the bridegroom appears to be harsh in the extreme. Five of the girls were foolish and ill prepared, but they were not bad. They had not broken the law or committed even a minor misdemeanour. I think that this is why the parable offends our sense of justice – the punishment does not seem to fit the crime. Surely mere foolishness is not enough to lead to such final and definitive exclusion?

In fact, foolishness is not the problem, neither, despite Matthew’s addition to the parable, is sleep. It is true that the five foolish virgins were not bad but they were thoughtless, careless and unfocussed. Theirs was an important responsibility, but they had not taken it seriously enough. They had one job and one job only – to greet the bridegroom and to lead him to his house, but when he arrived they were nowhere to be seen. Five of the girls had prepared for the eventuality that the groom would be delayed, but five had not. The first five had thought about the role and what it required and the others had not. The five foolish girls did not really have their heart in the task, they had taken their responsibility lightly and in so doing they have in effect shown their true colours and locked themselves out. Their actions (or rather their lack of action) demonstrated that they were only half-hearted about their involvement in the wedding, they were happy to be involved, but not willing to do what it took to take the role seriously.

A number of the parables point in this direction – that is they make it clear that it is not so much that God judges us, but that by our own inaction, our own carelessness or indifference we make it clear that we do not really want to belong. Take for example the parable of the man without the wedding garment: he was happy to come to the wedding but couldn’t be bothered dressing appropriately. The parable of the house on the rock and the house on the sand suggests that it is our decisions and our actions that determine how the future will play out. Whether we are invited in or locked out depends, at least in part, on how much we want to be included, on whether or not we are truly conscious of what a great privilege it is to have been chosen in the first instance.

Being good is not enough on its own. The parable shows that it is possible to be good but not attentive, to be good but not thoughtful, to be good but in some sense to be absent. Today’s reading from Joshua gives us some sense of what is required of us – to revere God and to serve God in sincerity and faithfulness – that is, to give ourselves completely and unreservedly, holding nothing back; not half-heartedly and superficially, distracted by worldly affairs.

Joshua’s challenge to the people of Israel rings out through every generation: “Chose this day whom you will serve” and having chosen: “Revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness – fully committed, totally focussed and completely engaged in our relationship with God – then and only then will we truly know God and know that God truly knows us.

 

 

 

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Our “nothing” will be more than enough

August 5, 2017

Pentecost 8 – 2017

Matthew 14:13-21

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who believes in us and pushes to believe that we can share in God’s work. Amen.

We are so familiar with the story of the feeding of the five thousand that we may not have noticed that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each tell the story somewhat differently. There are many differences, but today I want to focus on the conversation between Jesus and the disciples. Matthew, Mark and Luke agree that the disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds away to find food (and lodging) and all three are agreed that Jesus turns the situation around and says to the disciples: “You give them something to eat.” If there are five thousand men, there may well have been ten or twenty thousand people if they had all brought one wife and two children. Five thousand mouths to feed would have been overwhelming, ten or twenty thousand would have presented and absolutely unimaginable feat. (The disciples must have wondered what Jesus was thinking!)

According to Mark the disciples respond to this extraordinary instruction by saying: “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread?” In Luke also the disciples suggest shopping for bread: “We have no more than five loaves and two fish – unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” According to Matthew the disciples make no mention of buying bread. They say: “We have nothing, except five loaves and two fish”.

This is one instance in which John includes material that is found in the other three gospels, but in John’s account the conversation is quite different. According to John, Jesus takes the initiative. Before the crowds have even reached Jesus and the disciples, Jesus turns and asks Philip: “How are we to buy bread for all these people?” Philip, like the disciples in Mark, considers buying bread and like those disciples recognises that six months wages would not buy enough bread to give each person even a small amount.

John’s gospel gives a clue that may help us to understand what is happening here. He suggests that Jesus is testing the disciples. Now perhaps “test” is too strong a word for what is happening in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but it does seem possible that Jesus is putting the disciples on the spot, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own ministry and stretching them to see what they can do. The disciples are so used to Jesus taking the initiative that instead of doing something themselves they come to Jesus with their problem and expect him to do something about the impending dark and the need to manage such a large crowd. They have seen a need; they should use their own resources to try to meet it. So, instead of responding to their concern, Jesus put the responsibility back on them. “You do it,” he says. Was Jesus just worn out or did he, as John suggests, have another purpose in mind when he refused to act on the disciples’ request?

Let’s try to imagine the scenario as Matthew presents it. Jesus has just heard of the grisly death of John the Baptist. He needs time to grieve – and to process what this means for himself. Jesus tries to escape the crowds and takes a boat to a “lonely place”. However, by now the crowds know what he can do for them, and having seen the direction in which Jesus was heading, make their way there by foot. Jesus’ compassion overrides his need for time alone and he heals those who are sick. Evening arrives and the disciples begin to think about practical matters. Unless the crowd is dispersed now, it will soon be dark. The disciples seek Jesus out and tell him that he should send the crowds away to buy food before it gets too late.

Maybe Jesus has reached the limits of his endurance, maybe he is tired of the burden of responsibility or, more likely, Jesus wants the disciples to begin to take ownership of their ideas instead of expecting him to do everything. Either way, Jesus turns the situation around saying to the disciples: “You give them something to eat”.

The response of the disciples is contradictory: “We have nothing, but five loaves and two small fish.” Five loaves and two small fish is not nothing – it is something and, as we shall see it is something from which Jesus can make something much, much more.

How often do we depend on God to do or to fix something instead of doing what we can to help? How often do we think that we have nothing to offer instead of trusting God to use what we have? How often do we underestimate our own abilities instead of recognising the gifts God has given us? How often are we frozen in indecision instead of believing that God will guide and direct us if only we start moving?

In other words we have no excuse for sitting back and thinking that we are not worthy, or that we are not talented, or that we have nothing to offer, or that we do not have what God wants or needs. Our “nothing” is always something and, as so long as we have the confidence to offer it for God to use, God will ensure that it is always more than enough.

 

 

More to give – guidelines for modern living

July 18, 2015

Pentecost 8

Mark 6:31-34, 53-56

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who is the source of our strength and hope. Amen.

Whether it is caring for a baby, an elderly relative or disabled friend, many of us know the stresses and strains of being responsible for someone who is totally dependent on us. We know what it is like to fall into bed utterly worn out, only to be woken shortly after by a plaintiff cry, a shrill squeal or a grumpy moan. No matter how tired we are, we manage to drag ourselves out of bed and dig deep into our reserves to provide the love and care that is required. There are times though when we reach our limits, when we are so fatigued and physically and emotionally drained that we have little or nothing to give. If at those times we do not find a way to take a break we can end up not only by doing harm to ourselves but also to the person/child for whom we care.

Today those responsible for the care of the aged or those with a disability have access to some form of respite care. The government and society in general recognises that without extended families to share the role of caring, the burden often falls on just one person – sometimes someone who is as aged and frail as the person to whom the care is being offered.

In a world without psychologists and social workers, Jesus seems to have recognised how important it is to take time out to recharge the batteries, to seek spiritual, emotional and physical refreshment and to gather strength to meet the demands made upon those who care for others.

Today’s gospel consists of two fragments; so let me fill you in on the full story. Not long before today’s scenario, Jesus has sent the twelve out on their first mission. They have returned, filled with excitement and bursting to share with him everything that they have done and taught, but such is their renown that they are no longer getting a moment to themselves, not even time to eat – let alone process their new role and responsibilities and the demands that will be made on them as a result. Meanwhile, during the disciples’ absence, Jesus has heard about the death of John the Baptist – someone whom he admired and may even have followed for a while. Apart from the grief of losing a friend, Jesus bears a double burden in that he will have been forcefully reminded that the consequence of saying and doing uncomfortable things may be a violent and untimely death.

All of them, Jesus and the disciples, need some time out to think about what has been happened, to consider how their lives have changed by becoming representatives of the possibility that their discipleship might lead to death. At the same time, if they are to keep on giving of themselves to the many who seek their help they need some time to rebuild their reserves before leaping back into the fray. Jesus recognises this need and suggests that they go to a deserted place by themselves. Rest it turns out is impossible. People who are seeking their teaching and healing notice the direction in which the boat is heading and run ahead to meet them there.

Like the 88-year-old wife who gets up at 3:00am and uncomplainingly changes the sheets that her husband has unconsciously soiled, Jesus puts the needs of the crowd before his own need for rest. It is obvious to him that the people are desperate for leadership, for healing and for teaching – they are like “sheep without a shepherd”. Just as it is impossible for most parents to ignore a crying child, so it is not in Jesus nature to turn away those who need him. He has “compassion” for the crowd and not only heals and teaches, but manages to feed all five thousand with just five loaves and two small fish.

At last, having met the needs of those who came out to him, Jesus dismisses the crowd and sends the disciples ahead of him to Bethsaida while he himself, makes the most of the opportunity and goes up the mountain to pray. Whether because of the storm, or more likely because Mark has no real interest in geography, Jesus and the disciples land at Gennesaret on the opposite side of the lake. As we have heard, they were immediately recognised and people from all around brought those who were sick to be healed.

We all know the expression: “Stop to smell the roses” and our print media is always providing advice as to how to achieve a “work/life balance”. Not surprisingly, Jesus was there long before us. The gospels are not simply the story of Jesus, a partially historical record locked in time. The gospels provide help and guidelines for modern living – even for life in the twenty-first century. Spiritually, emotionally and physically none of us can keep on going without a rest. If we are to be of use to others spiritually, emotionally or physically we need to ensure that our own reserves are well stocked up. If our prayer lives are barren and empty, we have nothing to offer those who are looking for spiritual sustenance. If we are emotionally drained, we will have nothing to draw on when others come to us seeking love and care. If we are physically spent, we cannot offer support to those who need it. For all those reasons, it is essential that we build into our own lives times for contemplation and reflection, moments that feed our hearts and our souls and times of rest to allow our bodies to recover.

As disciples of Jesus we are called to give our all and to believe that when we feel we can’t go on God will support and uphold us. But we can’t give if we have nothing left to give. Jesus invites us to come away to a deserted place and rest. Let us accept that invitation so that our reserves are not depleted and that we always have more to give.


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