One of my very favourite TV shows is ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’. Of course it’s so long since they made a new season that we’re watching re-runs of re-runs – it’s got to the point where we tune in to the opening scene and immediately turn to each other and say, ‘oh, it’s the one where Raymond gets a cold and Deborah doesn’t believe he’s really sick’ – and we know exactly how it’s going to turn out but we watch it anyway. I guess what’s so good about it is the squirm factor – like any sitcom it’s an exaggerated version of real life – over the top but at the same time we can’t fail to recognise some of the basic dynamics. Things do go wrong in families. In the society we live in where so much value is placed on the perfect nuclear family, where family life is held up as the main way we can learn about enduring values like love and commitment, about caring for one another and making sacrifices for one another – all too often we aren’t very good at it. All too often we hurt one another, we let one another down, even though we never set out to try to be selfish or unloving we all too often find ourselves in competition with the very people whose lives are most connected with our own. It’s just a human thing. We struggle to take a perspective that’s wider than just our own needs, and all too often we’re not very good at it.
It’s one of life’s paradoxes, the more we try to find our identity, not just in ourselves as individuals, but in the project of living for and through one another – in that whole which is greater than the sum of its parts we encounter moments of grace, but we can also experience frustration and even anger. As somebody – I forget who - wrote in a book I read somewhere – ‘people who love community destroy community – only people who love people build community’. It’s why, in the weekly liturgy, we confess our sinfulness and it’s why we offer one another the hand of reconciliation and peace. Because as God’s forgiven people we continually find it necessary to forgive and to seek forgiveness from one another as well.
Our readings this morning reflect the challenges of interdependence, and perhaps especially, the challenges of living together in a community of holy reference. The story of Naboth’s vineyard is a classic fable that gets repeated over and over through every culture’s folklore. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, or, in this case, stoned. Those with power use it to get their own way at the expense of those without power, all too often justifying their actions to themselves on the basis of the national good or economic rationalism. It’s a pattern that’s so familiar it almost escapes notice, it’s just the way the world is.
But the story makes a bold claim, which is that when we take advantage of the vulnerability of others, there is a cost. That when we choose power over love, when we treat people as commodities, we pay a price. In the story the prophet Elijah shows up – Ahab greets his old sparring partner with what almost sounds like resignation – and Elijah informs the king that his own fate, and the fate of his wife, is going to be the same as Naboth’s. In a sense it’s not even that Elijah is passing on God’s judgement, more of a case of ‘what goes around, comes around’. What in New Age jargon they call ‘karma’, or the underlying symmetry that is essential to the interdependence of life. There is a certain remorselessness in the order of things. We reap what we sow, whether in hard-heartedness, inability to experience God, or to receive the love of other people. Injustice and selfishness limit the scope of divine possibility in our lives. Justice awakens us to the deeper presence of God in ourselves and in others.
And so our own experience of pain – in our lives as individuals and certainly in our collective life – might be connected with our inability to share the perspective of those whose lives are bound up with our own. So, for example, the mess in
Paul’s letter to the church in
Finally, the gospel shows us the grace of receptivity, the grace of accepting the holy gifts of others. Jesus shocks his host, a righteous (if not self-righteous) Pharisee, by allowing an unknown woman to anoint him with expensive perfume in a most intimate and socially embarrassing encounter. Mark and John each tell the story a little differently, Luke seems to need to interpret the scene by telling us she was a repentant sinner. Maybe so, but the uncertainty about whether she is forgiven because of her love or loves because she has been forgiven almost spoils the main point - which is that her gift is accepted. In communities of holy reference we dare to bring our most precious ointment out of its hiding place, and we offer it to one another. When you think about it, that’s probably the main reason we keep coming here. Some of us do it awkwardly, unsure of ourselves - some of us have never before dared to reveal our most precious gifts. Some of us know, deep down, that what we have to offer is gauche or clumsy or unattractive. The point is that we risk rejection.
For others, the hardest part is receiving the gift. We don’t know whether Jesus was impervious to social embarrassment, whether for him it was scary to not be in control of the situation, whether he was at all worried about the damage to his reputation – but if he was, it seems none of this mattered as much as receiving and honouring this unknown woman’s act of love and affection. Graciously receiving the inappropriate gesture is itself a great act of giving. Holiness involves receptivity as well as activity, and the willingness to accept the hesitant grace of others.
In one episode, Raymond is desperate to go on a golf weekend after Christmas, but he’s sure Deborah isn’t going to stand for it. So he gets her a really expensive Christmas present, at the same time dropping hints that all he wants is socks and hankies – on Christmas Day his face drops when Deborah gives him the DVD player he’s always wanted. Then he figures if he’s got her an expensive gift because he wants her to do something for him, what’s she after? Of course, it ends badly, as it always does. Because the real gifts we offer one another are not bargaining chips but acts of self-giving love.
We know that, just sometimes we need to remind ourselves.