Luke 11. 47-end and Romans 3.21–30
“I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they
will kill and persecute.”
Being a prophet is a dangerous game. Jesus himself recognised that ‘a prophet is
never welcome in his own town’ (Luke 4.24).
In today’s passage (from Luke 11) he expands on that theme. He appears to quote from Scripture, when he
says that the Wisdom of God has said ‘I will send them prophets and apostles,
some of whom they will kill and persecute’ – but actually, there is no single verse
of the Hebrew Bible which puts the case in quite that way. Nevertheless, it is a consistent general theme
of Scripture – and Jesus is effectively summarising it for his listeners.
He does so as part of a blistering attack on the religious
leaders of his day – who he has just accused (in earlier verses) of complete hypocrisy. He describes how they tithe their wealth, but
fail to lift a hand to help or bless the poor.
He rails at them for their greed and their injustice, and for how they
love to take the places of honour in gatherings. He roundly criticises them for loading people
with rules and regulations, rather than showing them love and generosity.
But now, in today’s passage, he takes special aim at the way
these religious leaders love to build tombs and memorials for the prophets of
old, without paying any attention to what those self-same prophets taught and
preached in their lifetimes. This is of
course a tendency that we all share, to a greater or lesser extent. We are all very capable of putting notable dead
people onto pedestals, without necessarily living, ourselves, by the principles
they espoused. Or we are very capable of
choosing only those parts of a
prophet’s wisdom that are most convenient for us to follow.
What do I mean?
Well let’s consider a prophet like Moses. He was, in so many ways, the single most
influential prophet (other than Jesus himself) in the history of Judaism and
Christianity. He codified, in clearly
written laws, how we should behave towards God and one another. These were, of course, summarised in the 10
Commandments, which at the Reformation were legally mandated to be nailed to
the wall of every church in our land. You
can still see examples of them in churches all over this area. But those ’10 Commandment Boards’ were like
the tombs and memorials erected by the religious leaders against whom Jesus
railed. They were nailed onto the walls
of our churches by the command of a monarchy and church hierarchy who,
themselves, often had no interest in living by the self-same commandments. How could a King who wanted to conquer France
ever claim that he was not coveting his neighbour’s possessions?
And we, too, treat Moses in a similarly selective manner,
don’t we? We all agree - I hope – with his command not to murder
each other – unless a criminal has done something really horrific, and then the
cries of ‘bring back hanging’ quickly surface.
And what about his command to give a tenth of all we earn to the work of
God? The church’s bank balance tells me
what we answer. Or his prohibition
against graven images of things in or above the world? I’m looking at stained glass pictures of
angels, right now. Or his command to
keep the Sabbath holy? How many of us
cause our neighbours to have to work on Sunday (the Christian Sabbath) – in Waitrose or the Coffee Shop
- for our convenience?
We do the same to modern prophets too. Who here would deny that Mother Theresa was a
living Saint? And yet how often do we
rouse ourselves to give aid to the poor, as she did? Who could deny that Martin Luther King was
not a modern prophet? And yet, how often
do we tut contemptuously at footballers taking the knee.
No, just like the religious leaders of old, we are fully
capable of raising up great prophets as examples to follow – and then
steadfastly refusing to actually follow their examples ourselves. This is our human curse. We are completely capable of holding two
completely opposite views in our head at the same time. We can agree with all our heart that such and
such a course of action is the right one to take, and then at the same time
utterly fail to do that very thing.
St Paul recognised this essential weakness in our human
nature. As we heard in our reading from
his letter to the Romans, he knew that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the
glory of God’. Perhaps this ability to
hold two entirely contradictory ideas in our heads is exactly what falling
short of the Glory of God means. God
cannot be anything but consistent with who God is, and what God knows to be
right. He would not, and cannot, act
contrary to his (or her) own nature, and contrary to what he knows to be right. But
we can. That is our sin, our hypocrisy,
and our curse.
But thanks be to God, that through the life, death and
resurrection of Jesus Christ, celebrated at this and every Eucharist, we have
been given a way to be restored to a God-like state of harmony. Through living and active faith in Jesus, we
have a way to resolve the conflict with which we all live. How?
By simply asking ourselves in every situation that our hypocrisy inspires
the simple question, ‘what would Jesus do?’.