Monday, 11 August 2008

Week 19 (Year 2), Monday -- 11 August 2008

Readings: Ezekiel 1:2-5,24-28; Matthew 17:22-27

I was wondering earlier what on earth I could say to link today’s readings and memory of St Clare with what we’ve been doing in the chapter today. The first reading is a classic Old Testament theophany, something we thought about yesterday, with fire and wind, impressive presence and frightening power. By contrast when God comes to dwell among us it is as a human being, in the ordinary flesh of humanity. Jesus is our ‘leader’, one of us, but the one who goes ahead of us and steps out before us on the way back to the Father.

A comment of Timothy’s gave me a clue as to how to link things. He spoke of the leader as someone who should not be deflected by other people’s agendas from the path that he or she believes to be right. Jesus is very clever in this regard. Again and again he is presented with ‘awkward questions’, attempts to catch him out; again and again he refuses to answer on the basis on which the question has been set. He shifts the ground, taking his stand in a different place and in doing so not only avoiding the trap but also opening up a new perspective different from anything intended by the questioner.

The question in today’s gospel, about the Temple tax, is one such awkward question. It had moral and political aspects. Although mentioned in the Book of Exodus the rabbis seem to have disagreed about how binding this tax ought to be. At the time of Jesus this was further complicated by the fact of Roman occupation: who was entitled to collect this tax? And in the Temple itself, as a kind of protest against the Romans it seems, it was necessary to change all other currencies into one particular currency, the only one acceptable within the Temple.

In today’s gospel Jesus says that it is not yet the time, not yet the place, for him to speak about the Temple and its tax. Later he will do so, and with a vengeance, when he clears the Temple of the moneychangers. He has much to say then about the Temple, and the Temple system, and how he has come to replace both. He himself is to be the place of the presence of God and the source of life and grace, offered freely and requiring no payment. But for now he decides not to engage with these questions.

Peter is with him here as in so many places in Matthew’s gospel, learning how to be a leader by hanging around with Jesus. He is full of enthusiasm and puts his foot in it again and again. Sometimes he puts his foot in the water and cannot stay standing. He is the rock and a rock sinks in water. He is Simon who becomes Peter and in the next minute Satan. He fails to understand but he continues with Jesus, he stays with him, even after he has denied him he comes back to him, always returning to Jesus and struggling to stay with him. Whatever is happening we can continue to learn from Christ.

Does Clare teach us anything about leadership? She is clear (Clare means clear) and strong in relation to the men who wanted her to live differently – her father in the first place, the pope who wanted her to live a less austere life, and tradition says that she courageously confronted the armies of Frederick II when they threatened Assisi. You might say she is strong and clear towards them only because she is in love with another man, Francis, but it seems clear that their friendship was collaborative. Francis and his brothers would come to Clare and the sisters whenever they had difficult problems to pray and decide about. We can imagine him consulting her about these things, sharing her wisdom and experience as she shared his.

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