Damian Thwaites, Bishop Robert Innes’ Attaché to the European Institutions and Diocesan Communications Director, examines curses, woes and blessings in this week’s Lectionary readings from Jeremiah 17.5-10, Luke 6.17-26 and 1 Corinthians 15.12-20.
In March 1985 the band Tears for Fears released the song, ‘Everybody Wants to Rule The World’. I remember listening to it on the school bus … I admit it’s still a favourite among my collection of 80s classics … It was a popular hit, reaching No 2 in the UK charts. At the time, there were East-West power struggles for global domination (Mikhail Gorbachev was only just coming to prominence in the Soviet Union). The lyrics are not just a sharp criticism of leaders’ desire to hold power, and how this can have damaging consequences. They’re also a plaintive cry about heads and hearts making decisions: ‘all for freedom and for pleasure’, ‘it’s my own desire, my own remorse, help me to decide’, ‘can’t stand this indecision, married with a lack of vision’. We’re all tempted to run our own individual worlds. This Septuagesima Sunday, 70 days from Easter, we learn about curses, woes and blessings in our Lectionary from Jeremiah, St Luke’s Gospel and 1 Corinthians.
I like the Book of Jeremiah. I think it’s because his soul searching when called by God characterises the unexpected, at times deeply reluctant self-doubt when we’re confronted by some of biggest challenges life throws at us, and how our faith should guide us. In this Jeremiah 17 passage, we learn three key things: man trusting in man alone is cursed (Jeremiah 17.5-6); trusting in Yahweh (God) is blessed (Jeremiah 17.7-8); and the human heart is truly deceitful, and God searches it out and examines the mind (Jeremiah 17.9-10). And there’s an important link here to Psalm 1 for this Sunday. We learn in very similar words to Jeremiah 17.8 that those who will trust in our Lord will ‘be like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season; and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers.’ (Ps 1.3).
It’s also in Jeremiah (31.31-34) that we find God’s promise of a New Covenant for his people. He delivered them from slavery in Egypt, but they departed from his ways, repented, but reverted to backsliding mode repeatedly. But for all this, God promises to ‘forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more’ (Jeremiah 31.34). We can read this in connection with Hebrews (8.6-13), where we see it is written that ‘Jesus has obtained a superior ministry, since the covenant that he mediates is also better and is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.’
Luke’s Gospel account (in Luke 6.17-22) of Jesus’ teaching is one of the two Gospel passages including the Beatitudes; the other is Matthew (5.3-12). Whereas Matthew references nine blessings, Luke recounts four blessings, and four woes. Jesus is addressing people in economic and social need on the impoverished margins of society. They have come to hear, be healed, be blessed, and to be inspired. St Luke’s account goes beyond St Matthew’s to state Christ’s divinely-determined, new order will reverse the fortunes of the rich in favour of the poor.
1 Corinthians affirms the Gospel of Christ’s Resurrection in which St Paul is admonishing those in the early church at Corinth who are expressing doubts about Jesus’ Resurrection. ‘There had been no justification, or salvation, if Christ had not risen. And must not faith in Christ be vain, and of no use, if he is still among the dead?’ (1 Corinthians 15.12). In the context of old and new order, it is clear that the supreme blessing for us can only come through the Resurrection, because it brings with it ‘the first fruits’ promising the ‘newness of life’ which we recite in our Anglican liturgy. The first step in understanding Christ’s eternal Kingdom is to start building it on earth today, transforming it in the likeness of his teachings.
I read in these passages a challenging message here for Europe’s current leadership as an old order; and I hope, emboldening inspiration for its younger generation of future leaders in a renewed one. In the Brexit context, it takes on those who would make claims about allowing people to ‘take back control’ of their country. They promise a wispy aspiration of a better tomorrow, but do not acknowledge honestly the impact now of a ‘no deal’, above all for the lives of the poor and most vulnerable. The same message challenges how the people of Greece were allowed to languish in protracted, desperate economic and social poverty, that caused some to question what values of the EU as a cohesive community really are. And it tackles head on those who play on people’s fears of migration with populistic narratives that ‘other’, marginalise or oppress those fleeing conflict. None of these approaches blesses others in time of uncertainty and/or adversity across Europe.
The time is surely ripe to revive genuinely democratic, inclusive, participatory Christian social unity in Europe, as we look ahead to elections to the European Parliament in May, and onwards in 2020 to the 70th anniversary of the Schuman Plan. This would be a true manifestation marking a Christ-inspired and centred ‘new deal’ for Europe; and it has to be right that those who know the leaders of the past only from their history books get to write this new chapter for our continent. Christians should not want to rule the world, because God does, and wills us to steward it justly. Therefore, our Gospel mission is to change the inadequacies and injustices that we ourselves create – social, economic and political – and to do so guided by him.