A cure for the curse of self-absorption

Will Ridpath, 20 March 2022

Isaiah 55: 1–9; Psalm 63: 1–8; Luke 13: 1–9

I recently heard a tale of a very religious mother: she was about to celebrate her 80th birthday and her eldest of three sons rung her, ‘Mother, mother, you have been so good to me over the years, I would like to buy you a house with magnificent views to live out the rest of your days’. The mother replied, ‘Thank you, son, but I am old and my eyesight is failing – what use is a big house?’

Her second son rung, ‘Mother, mother, you have been so good to me over the years, I want to buy you a car with a chauffeur to drive you sightseeing, all round the country’. ‘Thank you son, but I am old and my eyesight is failing – what use are views that I cannot even see?’

But her third and favourite son had thought long and hard about what his mother would like and spending a small fortune he bought a specially trained parrot – a parrot that could quote any Bible verse, any theologian, anytime, anywhere.

As expected, after sending his mother the gift, he received a phone call. ‘Son, son, my dearest son, you have always been my favourite child and have always known what I really wanted. Thank you for the chicken … it tasted delicious!’

This, of course, is a tale of someone not understanding the gift they were being given. And so it is with the gospel story today: it is a story of first-century Jews not grasping what was being offered to them and, typically of Luke, a story that challenged the accepted thinking of the day.

The gospel recounts of a group of people telling Jesus of militant Galileans who had been murdered by Pilate while at worship in their temple, their blood mixing with the blood of animal sacrifices – this was an absolute abomination in their religious tradition. The tragic death of 18 men working on a tower in Jerusalem also came into focus.

Clearly these events were terrible but something in the attitude of the crowd must have really got Jesus’ goat, for he was pretty short in his response to them. Were they doing a lot of finger-pointing at those who died, suspecting them of having some sort of moral weakness? Could Jesus smell the subtle and very unpleasant odour of self-righteousness? Or was he just frustrated that they were focused on rules and rituals to honour the Lord of Hosts, whilst the living God was standing there, right in front of them?

Whatever was going on, Jesus was having none of it. ‘Do you think those who suffered were worse sinners than anyone else?’ he asks. To paraphrase his words, ‘You get your own lives sorted out and get straight with God before you too end up being carted off in an ambulance to meet your maker’.

To drive the point home, he tells a parable, and a pretty blunt one it is too. A man has a fig tree planted in his front yard and after three years it proves to be fruitless, worthless and useless; the owner wants it tossed away but the gardener pleads with him. ‘Give me one more year with it’, he implores. He is told the tree is in the last chance saloon. It is … and so are the people of Israel.

As in many other instances in scripture, the image of a tree or a bush is loaded with meaning – remember the shoot of Jesse and the branch of David? Jesus is referring to a nation here – the nation of Israel – and judgement, he says, will soon be upon her.

Like so many of the sayings of Jesus, the original Aramaic has been translated into Greek, into Latin and into English, but it retains much of the emotional power of the language of Jesus’ time. It is a language full of vivid imagery, often extreme to our Western minds and intended to shock us into response.

And boy – do I, for one, need to hear that message! I confess to having a distinctly unpleasant habit of making snap judgements about people based on nothing more than prejudice and ignorance. For example, how do I know what that mother in the high street shouting at her kids is going through? What has the rocketing fuel bills and the cut in universal credit done to her housekeeping? Is there an abusive partner waiting for her at home? What stresses are there in her life that I have absolutely no idea of?

So what is the cure for this attitude of mine? Well, as is so often the case, the lectionary reading points the way: ‘Ho, everyone who thirsts’, announces the prophet Isaiah some 700 years before Christ walked the earth.

Come to the waters. And you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk, without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good, and delight yourself in rich food.

Isaiah is beckoning us, calling us, reminding us of the unique goodness of God, for this goodness is like rich food that satisfies our very souls, not the scrawny meal of the old lady in the tale or the mean diet of strict religious rules.

At this time of Lent could this be a word in season to us all? As we begin to pick ourselves up after over two years of pandemic, as we recoil in horror at the events unfolding in Ukraine, maybe now, more than ever, is the time to have our hearts warmed by the presence of God?

As we begin to pick ourselves up after over two years of pandemic, as we recoil in horror at the events unfolding in Ukraine, maybe now, more than ever, is the time to have our hearts warmed by the presence of God?

Maybe now is the time to be still in God’s presence, open, ready to receive? Maybe now is the time to nourish our souls with beauty, with good words, good music? Maybe now is the time more than ever to build up our inner lives as Kathleen does by praying and meditating here in the parish rooms every Tuesday.

For once we begin to grasp again just how close God’s goodness and love is, and that that is where our real life lies, then we can begin to grasp that our very existence, our very life itself, is all gift. We know this – it is all pure gift.

And once we begin to grasp this, it becomes impossible to stand over others in judgement: we become free to be the people we have always longed to be – generous, understanding, patient, prayerful of others. And from there our praises easily flow.

The psalmist reminds us how profoundly important to our wellbeing is our love life in the Lord: ‘O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you’. ‘My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.’

And when we begin to praise and honour God, our souls begin to be cured of the curse of our self-centred, self-absorbed ways: we start to move closer to our deepest calling – to live in the love and for the worship the Lord.

As we draw near to Christ now, may we remember that the Eucharist we celebrate this morning is a sacrament whose very title itself means thanksgiving. May we have the eyes and ears and heart to receive the gift that is no less than the person of Christ himself. May we have the confidence to open up ourselves to that inner life that no amount of religious observance, no piety, no amount of good works can ever, ever earn. May we find peace in that infinite gift now and for evermore. Amen.