Jesus Looking at Us

Sunday 11th February 2007
Year C, Sixth Sunday of the Year
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Luke 6:17; 6:20-26

There is a sense in which the greatest human beings are the most humble; it takes great wisdom to know what we don't know. And when we recognise the extent of our own ignorance it puts what we do into perspective. Some great artists, such as Virgil, have taken this humility so far that they have asked for their work to be destroyed; and many have destroyed it themselves. At a less drastic level, creative artists suffer from creative block; so overwhelmed are they with the prospect of creation that they think they have become incapable.

Most of us can only guess at this kind of tension; and the closest we come to it is probably in the complex world of amateur performance. Typically, actors want a part but dread being cast; they fear 'drying up' on stage; and once a run begins their only desire is that it should end. Once it ends, of course, they can look back with ever more rosy memories. They know, more than most of us, that we can't have the rosy memories unless we have been through the ordeal.

We prize creators and actors because they confront failure and, in their books, their art, their portrayal, they overcome it. Artists are the people of the first person, those entitled to say "I" whereas critics, commentators, those who sit on the sidelines, are only entitled to the third person, to "He, she and they".

Christianity is essentially the religion of the first person, it is all about "I" and "we" said not in boasting but in affirmation: The Gloria, the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, The Hail Mary, the Te Deum, the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis are all written in the first person. Our relationship to God our Parent and to our brother, our Saviour Jesus Christ, is an affirmative, first person relationship; so much so that Jesus warns us against the third person, against the implicit or explicit judgment of others bound up in the third person, the comment on him, her or them.

Strange, then, that St. Matthew's Sermon on the Mount has gained so much more currency than Luke's Sermon on the Plain of today's Gospel. Perhaps this is simply a matter of topography; Jesus delivering a sermon from a mountainside strongly echoes Moses receiving the tablets from The Lord on Mount Sinai (or was it Horeb?); and it looks so much nicer in paint. Jesus standing amidst his Disciples and a crowd on a plain is much less arresting, Biblically and artistically.

But neither of these arguments, the traditional nor the aesthetic, should obscure the superiority of Luke's account over Matthew's. Although Matthew later becomes direct, in the key passage In the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, he refers to the elusive "They" in terms which sound like a geometry proof; if those people will do those things then they will possess the kingdom of Heaven. Luke, on the other hand, portrays Jesus looking straight at his audience and saying: if you do these things you will possess the kingdom of heaven.

For us at the beginning of the 21st Century the Lucan approach is supposed to be more appropriate; we are more individualistic and person centred; we do not believe in theoretical forces on our society, we believe in the impact of people. And yet, at the same time, we are shifty almost beyond capture: we do our best in a difficult world, but they mess things up; we are not actors we are victims; we are not organisers we are pawns; we are not responsible, they are. We make a complete distinction between what happens in our unhappy world and our own individual behaviour as if the two were completely unconnected.

It is therefore important to reclaim the Lucan perspective and, for all its strengths, get away from Matthew's detached view. We, with God's grace, are responsible for what goes on in this world and we, with God's grace, are responsible for our own spiritual health; and, what is more, we, with God's grace, are responsible for our neighbour.

The second part of the message of Jesus in Luke's account is also much more direct than the account in Matthew. There is a direct trade-off between earthly and heavenly joy. The more we have now, the less we are likely to have later. The more hungry we are now, the better; the more hated we are now, the better; the more excluded, and rejected we are now, the better. This is the trade off none of us wants to hear.

Matthew's account is the beginning of a consolidated, magisterial sermon spanning three chapters, Luke's account is like a bleeding hunk torn from a greater body. Where Matthew has a reassuring architecture, Luke has severed veins; where Matthew has lucid argument, Luke has confrontation; where Matthew asks us to understand, Luke asks us to accept the commitment; Matthew, only transposed slightly by the Enlightenment, appeals to the head; Luke, who escapes the intellectualisation of Christianity, appeals to the heart.

To be a Christian is to be in a creative, sometimes tense, relationship with our Creator; we were not made to be an audience we were made to be players; we were not made to be escapists we were made to be realists; we were not made to be judges, we were made to be lovers.

And in all this we will write clumsy prose, paint blotchy pictures, forget our lines, fall on the ice and even argue with the referee; but however poorly we perform and however badly we behave, the Jesus who demands our action will be there to put things right.

In Luke's Gospel Jesus is looking at each of us and Jesus is looking at all of us. Will we flinch, will we look anywhere else but at his face, or will we face the only audience that counts?