22 October 2017

Seeing the face of
Christ in works of
mercy and justice

Christ Pantocrator … a fragment from a 13th century mural in the Church of the Archangel Michael in Preveliana in central Crete … where do we see the face of Christ? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 22 October 2017,

The 19th Sunday after Trinity (Proper 24).

11.30 a.m., The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion), Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

Readings: Exodus 33: 12-23; Psalm 99; I Thessalonians 1: 1-10; Matthew 22: 15-22.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

It is over 15 years (2002) since I worked as a journalist with The Irish Times. Once, two colleagues there went on a job-share programme, while one studied theology in preparation for ordination and the other studied law for the bar.

‘Ah!’ quipped another colleague, ‘so now we have a true partnership between the Law and the Prophets.’

To which came the quick riposte: ‘Are we not talking about the Scribes and the Pharisees?’

Of course, needless to say, the qualities of the Christian life and the life of the law and the courts are not mutually exclusive. There is a common interest in the values of justice and mercy.

To try to polarise false opposites is a futile and demeaning way of engaging in any discussion.

But this is what happens when people in this morning’s Gospel reading (Matthew 22: 15-22) bring the coins with Caesar’s image to his attention and ask a silly question about coins and taxes.

Educational psychologists tell us there are two types of questions, identified in what is known as ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy.’

Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues differentiated between higher-order questions and lower-order questions. Until recently I was teaching, so please indulge me just for a moment or two while I explain why they are relevant to our Gospel reading this morning.

Lower-order questions ask what and how, and they usually elicit clear-cut, straight-forward answers.

Higher-order questions can begin with words like why, and require answers that go beyond simple information and the language and thinking behind them is more complex. They take learners into more abstract language functions, such as giving and justifying opinions, speculation, and hypothesising.

As an example, asking ‘What colours are in a rainbow?’ is a lower-order or observational question. But asking ‘Why are rainbows beautiful?’ is posing a higher-order question.

Lecturers and teachers use lower-order questions to see whether students are grasping facts and figures. Higher order questions enable us to interpret facts and figures, to suggest solutions to problems, to explain why something is important, to give opinions, and to make comparisons.

We all hated history lessons when they were only about facts: when was the Battle of Clontarf? Who succeeded de Valera as President? But we loved it when we were asked why do we think Brian Boru was fighting the Danes? What de Valera achieve in his career? What did his constitution achieve?

So you see the difference, and how the good teachers ask lower-order questions and the better teachers ask higher order questions. But the best teachers ask both, for knowledge without application is useless, application without knowledge is impossible, but knowledge and application bring wisdom.

The denarius with the image of Caesar represented a day’s labour ... Roman coins in a private collection in Callan, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

If we apply ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ to our Gospel reading, then we can ask who is asking ‘lower-order questions’ this morning and who is asking ‘higher-order questions.’

It strikes me that the Pharisees and the Herodians are pretty poor teachers, for they train their disciples – the Greek word here (μαθητὰς, mathetas) means learners, pupils or students – to ask ‘lower-order questions’ only, and they send them to Christ with ‘lower-order questions.’ They ask: “Is it … or is it not?’

‘Is it lawful?’ allows only a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer – either it is lawful or it is not lawful.

Had they been teaching their students properly, they would go with a very different set of questions. But Christ confuses those who are sent and confounds those who send them by answering, not with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ answer, but – like a good teacher – posing both a lower-order and a higher-order question: ‘Why …?’ and ‘Whose …?’

In his approach to what is lawful and what is legal, Christ is more subtle and nuanced; throughout his ministry, he is concerned with what is lawful and what is right, with justice and with mercy.

Our Old Testament readings this morning remind us how God is the God who balances mercy and justice.

The Psalms speak of God as the God of justice, as the ‘Mighty King, lover of justice,’ who has ‘established equity’ (Psalm 99: 4) and ‘executed justice and righteousness’ (verse 4), the God who gives us ‘his decrees and … statutes’ (verse 7), but who also forgives and pardons (verse 8). The praises of God are a two-edged sword, bringing justice and mercy (Psalm 149).

But while God is the God of justice, this God is also the God of mercy. In the wilderness, when Moses asks God, nay, demands of God, to show his glory, God reveals himself as first and foremost the God who is gracious and the God who shows mercy.

It is such a core, central understanding of how God discloses or reveals himself that it is repeated throughout the Bible. God is constantly and repeatedly referred to as ‘gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy’ (e.g., see Exodus 34: 6; Psalms 100: 5; 103: 8; 111: 4; 116: 5; 117: 2 145: 8; Jeremiah 3: 12; 33: 11; Joel 2: 13).

But God’s unbounded mercy is balanced by God’s unbounded desire for justice. A little later, God says to Moses that he is ‘merciful and gracious’ (Exodus 34: 6), that his ‘steadfast love’ endures for ever, that he is forgiving (see verse 7), but he by no means clears the guilty (see verse 7).

Mercy without justice allows licence without responsibility; justice without mercy becomes vindictive and vengeful.

Those who emphasise justice tend to ask questions such as ‘What did he do?’ … ‘When did she do it?’ … ‘What should we do?’ – or lower-order questions. Those who emphasise mercy tend to ask questions such as ‘What makes someone do this?’ … ‘How can we transform people like this?’ … ‘How do we evaluate this situation with responsibility?’ – or higher-order questions.

But both questions must be asked if, on the one hand, we are not to become hard-hearted, or, on the other hand, to become emotionally burned-out and powerless.

We need to show justice and mercy, and they are both demands for the Church and for the Law. They are not mutually exclusive, even though the Church tends to see mercy as our preserve and justice as the prerogative of the law.

In truth, the Church has not been good in the past in living up to its call and claim to exercise a ministry of mercy.

Pope Innocent III asked King John to annul Magna Carta as soon as it had been signed, declaring it ‘not only shameful and base, but also illegal and unjust,’ to be condemned ‘on behalf of Almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.’

The Church was short on mercy throughout the Crusades, the Inquisitions and the Reformation, convinced it was giving its priority to justice. In 1566, the Council of Trent reaffirmed the morality of the death penalty, declaring: ‘The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to the Commandment which prohibits murder.’

More recently, in the last century, only one bishop of the Church of England in the House of Lords clearly supported the abolition of the death penalty in 1948. But mercy slowly began to win hearts, and by 1956 eight bishops voted for its abolition and one against; by 1969, 19 bishops voted for the abolition of the death penalty but, unbelievably, there was still one who voted against. By 1988, the Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference called for the abolition of the death penalty.

Mercy and justice, justice and mercy … they go together as an inseparable couplet or pair.

When we serve both, we serve the God who reveals himself to us in the Law and in the Prophets, and who comes to be present among us in Christ Jesus.

This is where we see the face of God.

A few months ago, while visiting an icon museum in Iraklion in Crete, I saw a frayed and peeling fresco. In my broken and faltering Greek, I asked one of the museum guides about the image.

He switched on the light, turned it one to the fragment, and told me in clear English, ‘It is an image of Christ.’

Well, I thought, I knew that. But he thought I was asking a lower-order question, ‘What is this image?’ For my part I was trying to ask higher-order questions, ‘Why is this peeling, crumbling fresco important? What is its significance?’

In this fragment, I could see that this fresco is an image of Christ Pantocrator, Christ the ruler of all. It is a fragment from a 13th century mural in the Church of the Archangel Michael in Preveliana in central Crete.

Perhaps I should have asked myself a different order of question: ‘Where do I see the face of Christ?’

In our Old Testament reading this morning, when Moses asks God in the wilderness to show him his ways, that to see God is in fact to see God’s ways and to look for God’s glory.

Moses sees only God’s back, for, as he is told, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live’ (Exodus 33: 20).

But Saint Paul tells us Christ is the icon or image of God (II Corinthians 4: 4): ‘ He is the image of the invisible God …’ (see Colossians 1: 15).

When we see Christ, we see God; when we follow Christ, we are following in the paths of God’s mercy.

The Christ who asks us to return to Caesar what is his and to give God what is God’s does not these are mutually exclusive exercises or duties. When we give each their appropriate place, when we see them in their appropriate place, then we can expect to see ‘justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5: 24).

For, as the Prophet Micah reminds us, what God requires of any of us is: ‘To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6: 8, NIV).

And so, may all we think say and do be to the praise honour and glory of God, who is just and merciful, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


O God,
without you we are not able to please you;
Mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit
may in all things direct and rule our hearts;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Holy and blessed God,
you feed us with the body and blood of your Son
and fill us with your Holy Spirit.
May we honour you,
not only with our lips but in lives dedicated
to the service of Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes.

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