Readings: 1 Cor 10 v, Saint Luke 16 v 1
“Now these things were our examples”
Today’s Epistle and Gospel form a complementary exhortation to the practise of a Christian life. It is well captured in the Collect: “the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful; that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will”.
Our thinking and our doing are intimately related. What we think, what we believe, what we know are to be expressed in what we do. Our actions reveal our intentions. We endeavour to live a life worthy of our calling. We are all pilgrims who know, in some fashion or other, the incompleteness of ourselves but acknowledge our completeness in God through God to God. Our purpose lies in the Son’s love for the Father in the embrace of the Holy Spirit. Such an understanding impells an activity of purpose in our everyday lives. It is the note which the Gospel sounds.
The Gospel exhorts us to be prudent, not unrighteous. To be prudent means to discern the Good, “such things as be rightful”, and to pursue it, “living according to thy will”. It means to think and do - thinking and doing the right thing at the right time, in the right way and for the right reason. It is, we may say, a tall order. The challenge is to get all of those things together.
The unrighteous steward in the Gospel is simply all of us. We are all stewards - those to whom things are entrusted. It is a profoundly biblical view. Nothing we have is of ourselves. We can only enter into what God has provided for us. Our wills and our actions apart from the will of God are never right. My ways and your ways, considered in themselves, are at best ways of self-righteousness, tinged and coloured by our own agendas and motives whether known or unknown to ourselves and others. They are always less than the full righteousness of God; in short, they are ways of unrighteousness.
Yet who we are and what we have are given by God, who, like the “certain rich man” in the parable, demands an account of what we have done. We stand accountable. This, too, is a profound point-of-view which speaks to the dignity and freedom of our humanity. How do we stand in the light of God’s truth and justice, the ground and measure of our standing? How faithful have we been to God with what he has entrusted to us?
To be prudent is to be faithful in that which is least for the sake of that which is most. It means to make proper use of the goods of this world but with an eye firmly fixed on the highest good of God in whom are “the everlasting habitations”. In themselves, apart from the justice of God, the things of this world are “the mammon of unrighteousness”. Prudence means their proper use according to God’s justice - righteous dealing with things according to their purpose in the rightful ordering of all things by God. Being faithful in the least things of the world - honesty, courtesy, kindness, consideration in our families, churches and workaday lives - is the condition of our being faithful in much. In other words, right dealings in the world through right dealings with God. In a way, it is about the much in the least.
The Epistle offers a marvellous correspondence between the ancient people of Israel and Christians, then and now. All are pilgrims who walk and live under the providential care of God who has made his love known to his people: their deliverance from the bondage of Egypt through the Red Sea waters; our deliverance from the chains of sin and death through the “red sea” of Christ’s blood in our baptisms.
And his providential care extends beyond deliverance to sustenance. He provides for the means of our wayfaring. He feeds his people spiritual food, the manna in the wilderness, the water from the stricken rock. He feeds his people with the holy bread of eternal life, the Body of Christ, and the cup of everlasting salvation, the Blood of Christ, flowing out like water from the stricken side of Christ crucified, for “that rock was Christ”.
But Paul, writing to that particularly cantankerous congregation at Corinth and so to the canker of Corinth in each of us, recalls as well the disobedience of the people of Israel even in the face of God’s deliverance and sustenance of them. They did not act in accord with the knowledge of God’s providential care. They were unfaithful and unrighteous with respect to what had been given to them. To act contrary to what has been made known to you is sin. It has consequences.
Paul specifically warns against lust and idolatry. Both treat the things of this world as if they were the be-all and end-all of everything. This is false to things of creation, false to their place and purpose in the justice of God. To lose oneself in the appetites of the flesh - food, drink or sex, for instance - or to be defined by the nature and number of one’s acquisitions is really to deny God from whom all things do come, to whom all things return and upon whom all things depend.
Our bodies, our appetites, our daily lives must share in the right way of the pilgrim; they, too, must be directed and ordered to that home and end with God, “the everlasting habitations” of our wills at one with God’s will. That end gives purpose to our lives and calls us to act in accord with the reasoned will of God manifest in the just order of his creation. For we are neither self-complete nor wholly self-sufficient. We are not our own; we are God’s. Indeed, we are God’s dearly beloved whom he has loved in his Son who was made man and dwelt among us, who died for us that his life might live in us.
Our pilgrimage proceeds in God’s awesome and accessible love by way of the practical means of that love. We come not to the food of idols, not to the idolatry of our false worship of ourselves in our self-made imaginings and the conceits of our complacencies, but to the great groaning-board of God’s infinite love. Prudence calls us sacramentally to make use of the good things which God has given us. In the sacrament we see the use of the things of this world but for the higher purpose of our life with God.
“These things were our examples”, both Israel in the wilderness and the wild ones at Corinth, but also the prudence of the unrighteous steward - both what to do and what not to do. They are our examples, but bring us to what is more than an example. They bring us to Christ and to our abiding in him, to him in the Sacrament by which he would be in us and we in him. It is our prudence to enter faithfully into what he wills to give us.
“These things were our examples”