OT Lectionary September 21st St Matthew Proverbs 3:13-18

To be honest I’m not that big on Saints: they have to be handled with extreme caution. The kinds of churches which most go on about them can easily be the kinds of churches where Christian people (or ‘saints’ as the NT calls them) end up feeling deskilled, ordinary and not quite up to the mark, and never likely to end up in a stained glass window. However much preachers tell us we ought to learn from their examples, emulate their holiness, and so on, I never find myself entirely convinced: I usually end up feeling told off instead. However, today is St Matthew the Apostle’s day, so here goes. At least Proverbs might not do us much harm.

It’s easy to see why this passage goes with Matthew: it’s about choosing wisdom rather than wealth, which Matthew went on to do. In the OT wisdom literature ‘Wisdom’ is often personified. The clearest example of this is in Proverbs 8 where ‘she’ is depicted as a wise woman who calls out to people as it were to buy her wares, to embrace wisdom rather than folly, ‘wisdom’ meaning, of course, what the French would call savoir-faire or ‘knowing what to do’. It is not primarily deep philosophy: it is much more about knowing what would be the sensible thing to do in the many decisions with which life presents us.

So in chapter 3 to choose wisdom brings several benefits. Blessedness, profit, value, long life, riches, honour, delight and peace. There is an interesting mix of things which the ‘secular’ world might value and those which would be rather lower on the agenda: profit and riches sound good, but ‘blessedness’ is a bit more vague. The implication, though, is that Matthew, in turning his back on the tax business, and no doubt the corruption, fiddling and profit which went with it, in order to follow Jesus, was choosing the better thing. We’re not told, of course, that Matthew was a villain before his call, but the story of Zaccheus perhaps illustrates Matthew’s call a bit further.

We live in a culture where money is pretty much everything. For some the issue is addiction and greed, for others the corrupt use of wealth, while for some it is the anxiety of knowing where the next bit is going to come from. Few of us have learnt St Paul’s secret of being content with our lot (Phil 4:12), and I can’t help but wonder whether there were times when Matthew looked back and wondered how much easier his life might have been if he had simply told Jesus to push off. Whether Matthew ended up being martyred for his faith is a matter of contention, but there is no doubt that he must have suffered some of the hardships which Jesus promised to those who became his followers.

So what does Matthew make you want to ask of yourself? I sometimes wonder whether a different job might have brought me a bit more fame and fortune than has been my lot as a poor vicar, especially when I see my kinds earning double what I do. On a good day I think wisdom is actually worth more, although I wonder whether poverty and wisdom necessarily go together. But all in all I’m glad I chose to follow Jesus, leave behind my dreams of being a rock star or a top executive. I know that one day it will turn out to have been worth every penny, when I hear my Father say to me ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’.

OT Lectionary Ash Wednesday March 5th Isaiah 581-12

Why ‘ashes’?

On Ash Wednesday in many churches around the world Christians will have ashes placed on their heads as they enter into the season of Lent. But why ashes? What do they symbolise?

It is common knowledge that in the OT ashes (along with sackcloth and sometimes dust) were used when in some way or another the chips were down. The first reference like this is to Tamar in 2 Samuel 19 who, having been raped by Amnon, tears her ornate robes and puts ashes on her head. But even before this Abraham acknowledges his unworthiness to intercede to God in Gen 18. There are several other references throughout the OT: is it possible to tease out the symbolism and understand more clearly what we are saying by what we do on Ash Wednesday?

File:US Navy 080206-N-7869M-057 Electronics Technician 3rd Class Leila Tardieu receives the sacramental ashes during an Ash Wednesday celebration.jpg

The first reference is to mortality. To put it bluntly, that’s how we’re all going to end up. ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ says the minister as ashes are administered, just as God spoke to the fallen Adam and Eve. Don’t get any ideas above your station, because at the end of the day you’re going to end up the same as everybody else. The Christian gospel, of course, tells us that this isn’t actually the last word, but it never does any harm not to think more highly of ourselves then we ought, and to remember that without the breath of God in us we’re nothing at all.

Tied in with this is the motif of poverty. Hannah recognises in her outpouring of praise in 1 Samuel 2 that the ash-heap is the place where the needy find themselves, among the spent residue of life that has no further use or purpose. God alone is able to raise people from the ashes and restore them, as Job was to discover when God did just that, taking him from the ashes where he sat and giving back to him much of what had been taken from him. Isaiah echoes this in chapter 61, where the ashes of poverty and devastation ashes will be replaced by a crown of beauty, just as the oil of joy will replace mourning, our third symbol. Mordecai, for example, in Esther 4, learns of the edict that all the Jews are to be annihilated, and shows his deep distress and sorrow by tearing his clothes and covering himself with sackcloth and ashes, a common motif in times of anguish.

Sometimes the anguish which calls for ashes comes from what others have done, but our fourth symbol is about distress at what we have done ourselves, when ashes become a sign of penitence. It seems strange to us to show that we’re sorry by putting ash on our heads, but maybe there’s a link to the other motifs: we’re desperately upset because of who we are and/or what we’ve done; we recognise that it has made us poor and useless, and it reminds us that try as we might to live a good life we’re only human and in the end death will get the better of us.

So with all this richness of meaning we can understand a bit more clearly why Isaiah has such a down on insincere penitence. ‘Is this the kind of fast I have chosen?’ he asks, ‘for lying on sackcloth and ashes’ whilst continuing in the very sins for which we evidently have not an ounce of sorrow or penitence, and which we only pretend to be upset about (58:5). Real penitence requires all that ashes symbolise, and not just the ashes themselves. If our sin doesn’t get to us that much, there’s not a lot of point in using ashes as an empty ceremony.