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Readings: 12 October 2012 - 19th Sunday after Trinity

05 October 2012


Proper 23: Amos 5.6-7, 10-15; Hebrews 4.12-16; Mark 10.17-31

O God, forasmuch as without you we are not able to please you; mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

TWO strong imperatives resound from the readings: "seek" and "go". Discipleship is about seeking God and taking action, which, given our waywardness, throws us into the petition of the collect for the Holy Spirit to direct and rule our hearts.

Jesus set out "on a journey", which was Mark's way of referring to his journey to suffering and death. Immediately, his path crossed with a man who was seeking, and who asked Jesus a big question. Jesus gave him a big answer, which cut through the fluff to the heart of discipleship for an earnest, faithful Jew. The temptation to make it easy for this man, whom Jesus instinctively loved and might have wanted with him in these last difficult days, could have been considerable.

Jesus focused on the commandments about behaviour with others. Rather than condemn what the man had, Jesus pointed out and offered what he lacked - freedom from the hold that money had over him. Our problem is the love of money, not money itself (1 Timothy 6.10, Hebrews 13.5). Tantalisingly, we never know how the man responded in the long run: in his shock, he went away, grieving at the implications, but discipleship is a process, and being shocked may be a necessary stage on the journey.

Interestingly, Jesus inserted "do not defraud" into what was otherwise an extract from the Ten Commandments. Defrauding people is condemned in Leviticus 6.2 and 19.13, and reading around those verses sheds piercing light on the practical implications, then and now.

The peasant Amos was given a hard message for wealthy and corrupt people in his day. His words looked ahead to the fall of Israel, connecting it with the nation's unjust living, which rendered the life of the poor intolerable. Today's Psalm (22.1-15) vividly expresses the resulting suffering. From the king down (1 Kings 21, with Deuteronomy 19.4), people defrauded and exploited the poor.

We can say glibly that, as a nation or as individuals, we do not defraud people by moving boundary markers or taking excessive levies of produce (grain in an agricultural economy, but many other things for us today). But what about tax avoidance: when does that become tax-evasion by individuals on our tax returns, or by corporations that can afford large numbers of staff dedicated to finding loopholes? What about the way we make our neighbours' lives difficult through the way we live and relate to them? What is lawful might not equate with what is ethical. Jesus called the man to go beyond keeping the law into doing good.

The recent report on the Hillsborough disaster forces us to hear Amos's words afresh: "Ah, you who turn justice to wormwood and bring righteousness to the ground. They hate the one who reproves in the gate [where justice was dispensed] and they abhor the one who speaks the truth."

South Yorkshire police may have something to answer for, as may those involved in banking scandals, but, like the man who met Jesus, we may be shocked if we dare to examine how we, too, can defraud others.

This is difficult territory; so no wonder the disciples were perplexed. Jesus reassured Peter that, in God's economy, complex equations did add up, but perhaps not as expected: they had to subtract and divide, then add and multiply; to give away in order to receive.

The collect and epistle remind us that we cannot do this without the Holy Spirit's direction and rule of our hearts: the living and active word of God must pierce our lives to lay bare before God, as Jesus laid bare for the man, the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Mercifully, when facing what is exposed, we have a great high priest to whom we can turn for grace to help in our need.

The readings point us to eternal life's being rooted in life now, not beginning at death. Jesus and Amos made connections with the way we live. The hard words of judgement on corruption in its many manifestations sit alongside the hope that God's graciousness will abound if we seek the Lord and live; if we go to take action.

This applies to us as individuals, and also to us as nations that tolerate corporate misdemeanour and corruption. Christian Aid's campaign against tax avoidance is one place to start, along with a ruthless audit of our own lives, and attention to how we vote for police commissioners.

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