Why do we listen to the Bible at Mass week by week? Why do we have to hear about Put and Lud and Moshech, which were flyspecks even in Old Testament times, and certainly don’t make the headlines – or even footnotes – in our day?
Is the Bible a textbook for studying ancient history? The Church would not be commending it to us if it were just that: it’s our belief that God speaks to us now through the Bible, in which we hear his Word. Our readings are not history lessons, they are real teaching for us here and now.
In the gospel for today Jesus is travelling, as so often is the case. Jesus doesn’t just sit in one place and wait for people to come and listen to his teaching: he moves forward in obedience to his destiny; those who want to hear him must travel with him, and for us that means being willing to change and to learn. We can never say of the Gospel, ‘I’ve got it.’ If we do, we haven’t got it. We can’t be complacent; but nor can we condemn ourselves; neither of those attitudes helps us.
The Bible is full of movement – away from Egypt, to the Promised Land, away into exile, back to the promised land; and not only do God’s chosen people get moved: the people of all these foreign places like Put and Lud and Moshech are invited to move, to come to Jerusalem, the place of God’s glory. (They are even promised to be priests in God’s sanctuary; a pretty shocking idea to the Jewish purists). The call is to move – away from our smaller world into God’s bigger world.
So Jesus challenged his hearers not to imagine that just because they had had contact with God through the scriptures read in the synagogue, or had been visited by Jesus as he went round preaching, they were assured of a place in the kingdom: the question was, had they responded to God, had they truly desired a place in the kingdom? Had they really wanted him, like the people from east and west and north and south, the outsiders who would be welcomed into the feast with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob simply because they wanted to be there?
That is the only real price of admission to the heavenly banquet: if we are truly hungry to be there. Those who think they have a right to be there will get a shock; they have not tried their best to enter by the narrow door, which paradoxically welcomes countless unexpected guests through it; it is the door of humility, of need, of poverty in spirit. Those who have had a good, well-behaved upbringing may think that that is all they require; somehow they’re already in the club, and they needn’t bother to apply. But the fact is that we can only come into God’s presence if we come as needy people who know we have nothing to offer but everything to receive. If we are people who passionately want to be with God, if that is our heart’s desire.
Fr Chris Denham