13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Genesis 24. 34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Romans 7. 15-25a;Matthew 11. 16-19, 25-30
Our church is experimenting with new collects (prayers) for each Sunday and these are printed in the NZ lectionary, with the result that each Sunday we face a new expression of faith. Sometimes we are startled by such ‘newness’. I was by the phrase ‘unpretentious’ – never ever thought of God in that way – but there is more muscle in the expression than I at first responded to. After all ‘unpretentious’ is far better than ‘pretentious’ and as one thinks of equivalent phrases, (I felt ‘self-effacing’ especially suitable) it seemed to me especially appropriate as a way to recognise the hiddenness of God as presence in creation and in incarnation. (An unpretentious presence instead of dramatic theophany with signs, wonders and appropriate fireworks.)
So, for instance in the OT lesson which closes off the Abraham story by the continuation of the next generation with the finding of a wife for Isaac. It’s an elaborate little story with the servant delegated to find the right woman. He is successful but is he successful because of the direction of God or is he just lucky? Is God active or not – and this question depends upon the reading one has of ordinary events. Whether he is right or not, the servant believes it is God’s providential guidance that has been at work - a God who works discreetly within this real world – in other words ‘an unpretentious God’.
Think now about the second lesson, that passage from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. It is a formidable piece of theological reflection upon human experience: a truth by recognised anyone who has ever faced the pressures of the ego, the indulgence of impulses to self-promotion, power, lust, fear or avarice. Paul’s analysis of an inner conflict between what we could be and what we settle for is a source of painful incomprehension: “I do not understand my own actions.” Within the framework of ordinary human experience Paul recognises a conflict: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” Within the natural order of things, the storm and stress of lived experience, Paul discerns a moral force and acknowledges the presence and purpose of ‘an unpretentious God’.
When we come to the gospel the words ‘But to what will I compare this generation?’ have the ring of condemnation as if from someone deploring the present state of things. We recognise something of this in our own behaviour – as we deplore the current state of things compared with how they used to be in some previous period.
The gospeller tries to make sense of how Jews of the day have responded to John the Baptist and to Jesus – he can make no sense of the indifferent reception to each of them – totally different personalities. It has no more rational explanation than the frivolity of a children’s game:
“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
Neither the joyful freedom of Jesus’ teaching awakened any signs of joy, nor the sombreness of the Baptist’s warnings, any signs of remorse. At the heart of this situation is the mystery of human freedom and our capacity to not respond and not commit to what God offers us. It is the mystery of our condition – this perilous, burdensome freedom; this wilful ignorance that we hide behind, of which Jesus says “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” This is truly the ‘unpretentiousness’ of God: nothing is imposed and we are free to interpret the world and make sense of our lives or not.
These diverse readings of scripture each present us with the presence of God within the diverse currents of our story of faith. The loving purpose of God and our fulfilment in God is the call that runs through the gospel… ‘Come to me…’
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’