31 August 2014
10.30 Priory Sung Eucharist
The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
Revd Simon Cowling
Jeremiah 15. 15-21; Matthew 16. 21-end
‘Shalu shlom Yerushalayim’. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. These words from Psalm 122 in the Hebrew scriptures have an especially haunting resonance for those of us – and that, sadly, is most of us – who have known little else but conflict in that part of the Middle East we call the Holy Land. We rejoice in the ceasefire agreed last Tuesday in Cairo. We pray for continued peace. Yet even so, we are aware that, on previous evidence, there will be an eventual, an inevitable, resumption of violence and death with all its accompanying grief and its reinforcement of hatred and division.
One of the great cultural archetypes, common to societies across the world, is the idea of the Golden Age: in our own culture, for instance, this idea permeates literature from Chaucer onwards. The Golden Age is a past that is just out of reach; almost, but never quite, tangible. It is a past into which people often express the wish to retreat, a haven from the uncertainties of the present. The introduction of printing, the invention of the telephone, the inexorable rise of the internet – all these have been blamed for the ills of modernity by some of those who lived through the changes they brought to society. And people’s attachment to particular religious practices has often manifested a resistance to change. In 1549 there was a rebellion in the West Country against the imposition of Cranmer’s new-fangled Book of Common Prayer. It was put down with extreme violence by the Tudor state, but not before the publication of the protestors’ manifesto which asserted, among other things, that we will not receive the new service because it is but like a Christmas game.
I said the Golden Age was virtually always in the past, because in the Hebrew Scriptures discussion about the Golden Age is usually conducted in the future tense. There is, of course, the account of Paradise Lost in Genesis chapter 3; but although this story has loomed large in Christian theology from St. Paul onwards, it has never had the same importance for Jews. Their past has been dominated by violence and tragedy: slavery in Egypt; exile in Babylon; the very destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans; centuries of persecution and expulsion by Christians in Europe, culminating in the Shoa, the Holocaust; most recently the expulsion of their ancient communities from Muslim lands in the Middle East following the establishment of the modern state of Israel.
The ministry of Jeremiah, in common with many of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, was shaped by, and was a response to, tragedy – in his case the events in the early part of the sixth century before Christ that led up to the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple by King Nebuchadnezzar and the subsequent exile of the Jews. Significantly Jeremiah’s anger, as in today’s portion of chapter 15, is often directed not at the invader but at those whom he might have expected to support him in Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah. Yet it is precisely these influential individuals who, as he sees it, have refused to read the signs of the times and have neglected their duty towards God’s people: O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me, and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance do not take me away; know that on your account I suffer insult.
We do not know what Jeremiah might have said to the leaders of modern Israel, how he might have seen the tragedy that continues to unfold there today, despite the merciful ceasefire that Hamas and the Israeli government have agreed. But here from the time of the Roman occupation of the Holy Land is a Midrash, a rabbinic exposition, of a story in Genesis which I have found suggestive.
The herdsmen of Abraham and his nephew Lot fell out over pasture rights. Although Abraham’s herdsmen kept their cattle muzzled while they were on Lot’s fields, Lot’s herdsmen let their cattle graze freely on Abraham’s land. When challenged about this they replied that, although Abraham had been promised the whole of the land of Canaan, everyone knew that he would have no direct descendants. Lot’s cattle were simply grazing on land that would soon belong to him, as Abraham’s only descendant. God replied, “Yes, I have indeed given the land to Abraham and to his descendants, but only after the seven native nations have left the land. Today, the Canaanites and the Perizzites are still living there so they have right of possession, until the proper time comes for Abraham and his descendants to take it over.
There are many ways of interpreting this fascinating piece of rabbinic wisdom. But at a time when Israel has been engaging in a policy of maximum force in an attempt to safeguard its people from Hamas rocket attacks, one way is to see in it a warning that in times of threat for the Jewish people it is wise diplomacy rather than outright military confrontation that is more likely to bring nearer the Golden Age so longed for by the prophets. Christians, of course, would want to say that we have glimpsed the reality of that Golden Age in Jesus Christ, though only through the death that Jesus predicts for himself in today’s Gospel reading, and through our own willingness to take up the cross and follow him. Jews are unlikely to see things that way. But we can surely join with them, with Muslims and with all people of faith, in praying for peace in the land of the Prince of Peace. Amen.