The young lad went home from the first day at school. His mother asked how he’d got on. “What have you learnt today?” she said. “Not enough” he replied. ”I’ve got to go back tomorrow”.
That’s a bit like our experience with new starts as pupils in the school of the Gospel. With our propensity to cock up, we always have to keep picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down, and starting all over again, eventually reaching what an elderly friend once called “cramming for finals”. (I was never any good at that, but that’s another story.)
So what are we trying to achieve as we progress to finals? According to red-top weekend supplements, the chief aim of mankind is good food, a state-of-the-art kitchen, exotic holidays, a good football team, and stupendous sex. Other supplements are more economically and socially ambitious: we are urged to aim for a good job, a good salary, a good pension and worthy hobbies. The more high-minded papers point us towards the ideal of making the world a better place; we are urged, according to taste and temperament, to become either activists, protesters, optimists, or doom merchants despairing at the state of the world.
But, said Jesus, “after all these things do the Gentiles seek” and then advised “strive first for the kingdom of God”. What are the values of the kingdom of God? What are the values that lead to newness of life?
The answer is in the Magnificat. It is the most revolutionary document in the world, and it comes from a pregnant teenager. My organ teacher writes here that when he approached his former professor of music at Cambridge, Patrick Hadley, to write a setting of the Magnificat, Hadley replied that he couldn’t possibly oblige, saying: “that Magnificat – it’s very RED, isn’t it?”
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts
A better phrase for “imagination” would be “devices and desires” since the Greek translated as imagination implies deliberate self-seeking intentions. It means “I did it my way”—the me, me, me cry of the super-confident who believe they have the ear of God, of the mock humble who plead “all I want is …” and follow up with a Harrod’s shopping list to the sky pixie, of all those who have got above themselves and forgotten that pride is followed by fall. For pride is the greatest of the sins; it arises from the serpent’s claim for Adam and Eve “Ye shall be as Gods”; it is the perverted selfishness and self-regard that spawns the other sins, the other perversions of loving God and neighbour.
But note how God scatters the proud. He appears in Christ who did not lord it over others with displays of power, but was one of us. And this, even at his death when much as he would have liked to have been spared, he put his human ego aside. We have a great capacity to deceive ourselves, to imagine that we’re doing things for the sake of others when in fact we’re just pleasing ourselves. Eugene Peterson’s wonderful translation of Luke’s beatitudes is spot-on: “it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made.What you have is all you’ll ever get. It’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.Your self will not satisfy you for long.”
For Christians it is not a case of saying “I did it my way”, but rather, “I try to do it his,” being vulnerable and seeing the Divine in others. Selflessness trumps selfishness.
He has cast down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek
Some interpret this as a call to revolutionary political activity. That certainly has its place, especially in the United Kingdom at this time. But Hebrew Scripture metaphor and language should not be taken literally. This is not power to the people, nor man the barricades. For it is not God but man who is described as a political animal, that is to say man is naturally community minded. Apes like us live in community.
But Jesus deals with individuals, fearlessly facing challenges from the rich, the powerful and the hostile, ignoring social, moral and ethnic standing. He has no favourites. How could he have if the divine spark is in each of us?
He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away
Two extremes are set against each other, again typical of Hebrew Scripture. Again we should not take it literally. This is about equality: each according to his needs, not his wants. This is a vain hope, given the acquisitive nature of the psyche. Warlords want guns, not irrigation schemes, and the people starve. And just look at our thirst for oil. What of the more vital thirst for water? There will be wars over water before long.
Magnificat values are the new values. We aspire to see the Divine in everyone, to have a share in the healing work of making rough places plain, to create a level playing field, to seek the common good. To relinquish “all the vain things that charm me most”.
Prophet Micah has it in six words: do justly love mercy, walk humbly.
For this reflection I’m privileged to acknowledge my friend, the late Primrose Wolstenholme.