Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Monday of Holy Week: Counting Costs

I was walking home one day in my clerical garb, and just up the road from here (St Mary's Somers Town) a couple of homeless men who were having a drink on a step stopped me, with the usual request. I don't carry cash in Camden Town for just this reason, and normally when I say I'm not carrying any, that's enough - or if someone is really desperate for food, I'll go with them and buy them some on my card. But these gentlemen had a bit of Dutch courage in them and clearly wanted a bit of sport. "The Church has got lots of money," one of them said. "You're meant to help the poor. That's us. So why don't you give us all the Church's money?"

The homeless people were genuinely poor, which lends their objection some strength. However, you do hear similar arguments from wealthier people, too. I once received a nasty little email from someone in Berkhamsted saying that the best thing we could do for him would be to turn the church into a block of affordable flats, and several times I've heard people who are quite happy spending a fortune on cars and holidays questioning how the Church can "waste" money on fancy robes and candlesticks and incense. We can probably all think of someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

There is a word which keeps coming up in the gospel readings for Holy Week. In the original Greek that the gospels were written in, it is the same word, over and over again, but it has several different meanings, so our English versions end up losing something in translation. The Greek word is "paradosis," which basically just means "handing over," but also means "betrayal," and even "tradition" - so when you hear of Judas "betraying" Jesus, Jesus "handing over" bread and wine, and even in St Paul's letters the "tradition" of the Eucharist, just bear in mind that these are all actually one and the same word, “paradosis.” I'm not just saying this to look clever, but because I want to show how the Bible uses this one word to link together Jesus' betrayal, his being "handed over" to death on the cross, with his "handing over" of himself to his disciples in bread and wine the night before he died. Jesus is handed over to death, and he hands himself over to us. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

These first three nights of Holy Week the gospels give us three different answers to this question, in three different people: Judas, Peter and Mary. This is Lazarus' sister, the Mary who St Luke tells us chose "the better way" when she sat and listened to Jesus rather than bustling about like her sister, Martha. So she has listened and understood what Judas does not: that Jesus is going to give all that he is and all that he has, going to hand himself over, for her. And so she buys the best she can afford to send him on his way, that expensive ointment, and she gives without counting the cost. Judas does the maths: 300 silver pieces; that’s 300 days' wages! But Mary counts it as nothing compared with what Jesus is going to give her and all who believe in him. The love that gives eternal life cannot be weighed or measured - and yet Judas puts it on the scales and finds it wanting.

We could "be Church" the Judas way: we could set quantifiable targets for the sale of the faith; we could close down the branches which do not achieve the required quotas of bums on pews. We could sell the useless old buildings and baubles, house a few people, give the money to a handful of the poor to spend as they please, and too bad that when it's gone, it's gone. At least we’d get the glow of feeling that we'd done something nice for someone. Or, we can do it the Mary way. We can remember that everything we have is only on loan from God anyway, and so stop counting the cost. We can make sure that there is a place for generation after generation to come and waste their time and money and effort on God. Not because we think we can buy a place in heaven; not because God needs our cash; but because we know the value of what Our Lord has done for us, because we know that the body and blood he hands over to us on the Cross and in the mass are beyond any price, because we know that his sacrifice matters more than anything we can give, and because we like Mary are grateful.

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