25 January 2024

Being served at room
temperature at 72,
defending the poor, and
crushing the oppressor

72 on a front door in St Albans … but is this a significant number? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

I have spent much of the day in Birmingham at a training day in Acocks Green for the trustees of almshouses. It has been a long day, beginning with long train journeys, and this evening I am on my way back by train again and bus to Stony Stratford.

I have had time on these journeys to think about my birthday tomorrow and to reflect on the significance of reaching the age of 72.

In number theory, 72 is the natural number after 71 and before 73. It is a pronic number, as it is the product of 8 and 9, it is the smallest Achilles number, as it is a powerful number that is not itself a power.

The number 72 is an abundant number. With exactly 12 positive divisors, including 12 (one of only two sublime numbers), 72 is also the twelfth member in the sequence of refactorable numbers. It has a Euler totient of 24, which makes it a highly totient number, as there are 17 solutions to the equation φ(x) = 72, more than any integer below 72. It is equal to the sum of its preceding smaller highly totient numbers, 24 and 48, and contains the first six highly totient numbers 1, 2, 4, 8, 12 and 24 as a subset of its proper divisors.

The number 144, or twice 72, is also highly totient, as is 576, the square of 24. While 17 different integers have a totient value of 72, the sum of Euler’s totient function φ(x) over the first 15 integers is 72. It also is a perfect indexed Harshad number in decimal (28th), as it is divisible by the sum of its digits (9).

In addition, 72 is the second multiple of 12, after 48, that is not a sum of twin primes. It is, however, the sum of four consecutive primes (13 + 17 + 19 + 23), as well as the sum of six consecutive primes (5 + 7 + 11 + 13 + 17 + 19). Also, 72 is the first number that can be expressed as the difference of the squares of primes in just two distinct ways: 112 − 72 = 192 − 172.

In science, 72 is the atomic number of hafnium, and in degrees Fahrenheit 72 is 22.22 Celsius and is considered to be room temperature.

Tradition says the degrees of Jacob’s Ladder were 72 in number

Biblically, tradition says 72 is the number of languages spoken at the Tower of Babylon. The degrees of Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis 28:10–19) were 72 in number, according to the Zohar, a foundational work of Kabbalistic literature.

The conventional number of scholars involvinged in translating the Septuagint was 72, not 70, with six Hebrew scholars drawn from each of the 12 tribes. According to tradition, Ptolemy II Philadelphus sent 72 Hebrew scholars and translators from Jerusalem to Alexandria to translate the Tanakh from Biblical Hebrew into Koine Greek, for inclusion in his library.

The Gospel freading tomorrow for the Feast of Saint Timothy and Saint Titus, (Luke 10: 1-9), tells of the sending out of the 72, or the 70, depending on which translation you are reading. In the Eastern Christian traditions, they are known as the 70 or 72 apostles, while in Western Christianity they are usually described as disciples. Tradionally they aare said to include Saint Timothy and Saint Titus.

The number 70 may derive from the 70 nations in Genesis 10, but the number 72 may represent the 12 tribes, as in the significance of the number of translators of the Septuagint, the symbolism of three days, and understanding the meaning of 144, to appear again in the 144,000 in the Book of Revelation.

In translating the Vulgate, Jerome selected the reading of 72. In modern translations, the number 72 is preferred in the NRSV, NIV, ESV and the New Catholic Bible, for example, but 70 in the NRSV Anglicised and the Authorised or King James Version.

According to Kabbalah, 72 is the number of names of God. In Kaballah, the Shem HaMephorash (שֵׁם הַמְּפֹרָשׁ) or ‘the explicit name’ of God is composed of 72 letters. The 72-fold name is derived from a reading of Exodus 14:19-21. Kabbalist legends say the 72-fold name was used by Moses to cross the Red Sea, and that it could grant later holy men the power to cast out demons, heal the sick, prevent natural disasters, and even kill enemies. This, of course, relates directly to the commission of the 72 in Saint Luke’s Gospel.

So, at 72, having arrived at my prime – or, at least, between two prime numbers – perhaps I am best served at room temperature. I am now a powerful number, suited to translation, ready to be sent out.

The Tamworth Arms at 71-72 Lichfield Street, Tamworth is known locally as ‘The Bottom House’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I once stayed at the Tamworth Arms at 71-72 Lichfield Street, almost directly across the street from the Moat House, the former Comberford family home. The Cock Hotel in Stony Stratford, where the choir of Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church regularly adjourns after Wednesday evening rehearsals, is at 72 High Street.

But what is there to look forward after 72?

When the long-serving Labour MP for Rochdale Sir Tony Lloyd last week at the age of 73, the Guardian reported him as saying some years ago: ‘There’s this recognition that you only have a certain time left … I’m 70, and as such you think, “Well, I’m probably not going to be around in X years’ time, so use these years wisely. Use these days wisely.” That’s good advice for us all.’

Of course that’s good advice for us all. But surely there is more to look forward to than merely counting the X number of years ahead, to something that has more meaning than what is left of my mere temporal existence.

My life is filled with love and with a sense of purpose. I am looking forward not only to my 72nd birthday tomorrow, but, in the words of Psalm 72, to something beyond my own interest at my own age, including justice, righteousness and long life, so that that those with power and in government may defend the poor, deliver the needy and crush the oppressor, so that righteousness may flourish and peace abound. Perhaps the expected general election later this year will result in a promise of that future. I live in hope.

‘May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts’ (Psalm 72: 10) … the visit of the Magi in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 72 is a prayer for eternal life, for God’s blessings for ever. It is a song praying for gifts for ‘the king,’ including justice, righteousness and long life, so that he may defend the poor, deliver the needy and crush the oppressor and that righteousness may flourish and peace abound.

Psalm 72 is traditionally seen as being written by King Solomon, but some commentators suggest it was written by David to express his hope for Solomon.

Some commentators say the psalm contains memories of the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon and the Temple in Jerusalem, and associate it with the anointing of Solomon as king while David was still living (see I Kings 1: 39-43).

Some commentators see David’s prayers fulfilled in some sense in the reign of Solomon: a temple will be built and there will be great peace and prosperity; yet the language is larger than Solomon: ‘May his glory fill the whole earth’ (verse 19).

This psalm is also recommended in many lectionaries for Sundays in this time of Epiphany. The psalmist mentions the kings of three areas: Tarshish, thought to be present-day Spain; the Isles, which may refer Crete and Cyprus; and Sheba and Saba, present-day Yemen, with its capital at Saba.

They bring together the trade routes across the breadth of the whole Mediterranean, and from Jerusalem to the tip of the Arabian Peninsula at the entrance to the Indian Ocean and the African coast. In this way, they symbolise poetically all earthly rulers.

The psalmist prays these three kings may bring gifts to the one true king, who delivers the needy, hears the cry of the poor, has pity on the week, saves the needy, delivers them from oppression and violence, redeems their lives and saves them from bloodshed.

‘May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice’ (Psalm 72: 2) … 72 on a front door in St Albans (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Psalm 72 (NRSVA):

Of Solomon.

1 Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
2 May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

5 May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
6 May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
7 In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

8 May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
9 May his foes bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust.
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
bring gifts.
11 May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.

12 For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
13 He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.

15 Long may he live!
May gold of Sheba be given to him.
May prayer be made for him continually,
and blessings invoked for him all day long.
16 May there be abundance of grain in the land;
may it wave on the tops of the mountains;
may its fruit be like Lebanon;
and may people blossom in the cities
like the grass of the field.
17 May his name endure for ever,
his fame continue as long as the sun.
May all nations be blessed in him;
may they pronounce him happy.

18 Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
19 Blessed be his glorious name for ever;
may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.

20 The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended.

The Cock Hotel at 72 High Street, Stony Stratford … where the choir of Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church regularly adjourns after Wednesday rehearsals (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayers during
Christmas and Epiphany:
32, 25 January 2024

Peter Paul Rubens, ‘The Feast of Simon the Pharisee’

Patrick Comerford

The celebrations of Epiphany-tide continue today, and the week began with the Third Sunday of Epiphany (21 January 2024). Today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul also the eighth and closing day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

I am expecting to spend much of today in Birmingham at a training day in Acocks Green for the trustees of almshouses. But before I catch a train at Wolverton, I am taking some time this morning for reading, reflection and prayer.

Christmas is a season that lasts for 40 days that continues from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February) The Gospel reading on Sunday (John 2: 1-11) told of the Wedding at Cana, one of the traditional Epiphany stories.

In keeping with the theme of Sunday’s Gospel reading, my reflections each morning throughout the seven days of this week include:

1, A reflection on one of seven meals Jesus has with family, friends or disciples;

2, the Gospel reading of the day;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

James Tissot, ‘The Ointment of the Magdalene’ (‘Le parfum de Madeleine’) … however, the woman in Simon’s house, Mary Magdalene and the woman caught in adultery are three different people (Photograph: Brooklyn Museum)

5, The unwelcoming host: the meal with the Pharisee (Luke 7: 36-50):

My chosen meal this morning is a meal where Jesus is a guest, but the unwelcome guest at the meal, when he is invited to the house of Simon the Pharisee.

Jesus is accused at different times of eating with publicans and sinners. He knows that his detractors point to him and say: ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Luke 7: 34).

But Jesus also eats with Pharisees too. Indeed, he may have had many meals with Pharisees, although the Gospel writers simply make a passing reference to the host without naming him (see Luke 14: 1-24), or perhaps ignore the meals altogether.

However, at this meal, I imagine an evening when Jesus is found eating with an eminently respectable member of society, a Pharisee, and leading Pharisee at that too.

Jesus is invited to dinner by a leading Pharisee, Simon, although it is some time before we learn the name of the host that evening. Nor is it clear which city he lives in. Is it Capernaum? Is it Nain? I don’t know, I don’t know that it really matters. What does matter is that the man who should have been the host fails at his task, and the guest at the dinner becomes the true host.

Have you ever been at a dinner where you know some of the guests were invited simply to boost the ego of those who had invited them? Do you know what I mean by the dinner-party-name-dropping-syndrome?

Some might think Simon was suffering from DPND syndrome when he invited Jesus to dinner. I am not inclined to think so: after all, just a few verses earlier, Jesus has come in for some severe criticism, and has given a robust response.

Simon may have thought he was doing the decent thing … a Pharisee inviting a visiting rabbi and preacher to dinner would have been common courtesy and a common experience.

Nor is there is nothing unusual, anything offensive, about the behaviour of Jesus at this meal. He takes his allotted or allocated place at the table, and he probably enjoyed the conversation with the people beside him and opposite him.

But then the drama begins.

A woman in the city, a woman known as a sinner, manages to get in. Now, despite popular portrayal and the myths of centuries, it does not necessarily mean that this woman was an open and public sinner, a figure who was known for her sinful ways.

Those who were blind or who were suffering from leprosy or a physical ailment were often treated as sinners. They were seen as having brought their visible scars on themselves, or to be suffering because of the sins of their parents or their ancestors.

Perhaps she was not the easy woman of popular story-telling. Perhaps she was blind, or was disabled physically in some way. We are not told.

And some people ask: how did she get into the house anyway?

But on a balmy summer’s evening in a Mediterranean house, people will normally eat in the inner courtyard that is the part of any house of substance. I just love those long evening dinners in Greece, where you break bread and pour wine for each other at long tables, and as you hand the bread to and pour the wine for the person next to you, the natural response is σε ευχαριστώ (seh efcharisto, thank you), the very phrase that gives us the word Eucharist, thanksgiving.

Anyway, as they were sitting around, perhaps in the inner courtyard, giving thanks to each other, this woman slips in, unnoticed. There was no need for her to gatecrash, she probably just slipped in silently and unnoticed.

At first, even Jesus would not have noticed her, for she stands behind him.

What hurt this unnoticeable woman on the margins so much that she cried so profusely? She cries so much that she must have been deeply hurt, thoroughly dejected and rejected.

I think Rubens and the other great painters get it wrong when they show her in front of Jesus, washing and drying his feet. This woman’s very marginalisation is symbolised in four ways:

● No-one noticed her coming in, or if they did, she was not worth going to the bother of throwing out.

● When she is noticed, she is regarded by all present as being a sinner, although Jesus tells us that she has been forgiven … probably long before this incident took place.

● She remains unnamed, anonymous, throughout this story. At the beginning, Simon is unnamed, but eventually we get to know who he is. This woman is obviously well-known in her town, but no-one calls her by her name. And in Christian tradition, we have continued to deny her identity, often confusing her with Mary Magdalene and with the woman caught in adultery – two completely different people altogether.

● And by her physical place at the table: she is standing behind Jesus, at the back, perhaps just where the servants would have stood as they waited to bring more dishes, or clear away some empty plates. But she takes the place of the servant at the table … in other words, she is a true deacon.

The woman’s behaviour is embarrassing for Simon. He never went through the normal courtesies and formalities of welcoming a guest into the house, seeing that his shoes were taken from him, his feet washed, his head anointed.

But her alabaster and tears used for anointing and washing Jesus, his head and his feet, also prefigures something else: the women who come to wash the corpse of the Crucified Christ, and to anoint him in his grave (Luke 24: 1-11).

This woman prefigures those women who will be the first witnesses of the Resurrection … perhaps she even is one of them.

Wanting to eject her is a rejection of the Easter faith.

Simon thinks Jesus should know who this woman really is, failing to realise that Jesus knows what is really going on in Simon’s heart.

Simon is embarrassed, not by what Jesus might know about him, but by the woman.

But Jesus is not embarrassed at all. Instead of confronting the woman, he confronts Simon, and he commends this woman for her faith. He sends her out in peace – the very dismissal that we should experience at the end of the Liturgy every Sunday, week-by-week. She is sent out as a disciple, as an apostle, as a missionary.

And Simon wants to eject her.

Not because of who she is, or because of her reputation, but because she has shown him up to be a poor host.

There is a sharp contrast between the shallow faith of Simon, the pillar of the Church, and the woman, who has been pushed to the margins, a sharp contrast between those with apparent faith and no response, and those dismissed for having no faith but who are full in their response to Christ’s presence among us.

Simon fails in offering the proper hospitality to his guest. This woman on the other hand receives the full and generous hospitality of God.

Simon has no place in his house for this woman – and to be honest, no place in his house for Jesus. But God has a place for her in his kingdom.

The conversations between Jesus and this woman is a model for all our encounters with people we see as different or as strangers.

Am I like Simon, and only willing to count in within my inner circle those who are like me and who behave according to my standards?

If am going to enter into conversation with the stranger, am I open to listening to them, to talking openly and honestly with them about where they come from and what they believe?

When the conversation is over, will they remain strangers?

How open am I to new friendships?

How often do I think people get what they deserve rather than sympathising with their predicaments?

Do I live up to my weekly commission to go out into the world in peace and in the name of the Risen Christ?

Christ in the House of Simon, by Dieric Bouts (1440s)

Matthew 19: 27-30 (NRSVA):

27 Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ 28 Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

The anointing of Christ’s feet … an illuminated manuscript, ca 1500 (Wikipedia/ the National Library of Wales)

Today’s Prayers (Thursday 25 January 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is: ‘Provincial Programme on Capacity Building in Paraná.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Christina Takatsu Winnischofer, Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (25 January 2024, the Conversion of Saint Paul) invites us to pray in these words:

We pray for those outside of the Church, that they may feel God’s love. We also pray for those responsible for evangelism in the Church, ensuring it is done in a sensitive yet effective manner.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who caused the light of the gospel
to shine throughout the world
through the preaching of your servant Saint Paul:
grant that we who celebrate his wonderful conversion
may follow him in bearing witness to your truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Almighty God,
who on the day of Pentecost
sent your Holy Spirit to the apostles
with the wind from heaven and in tongues of flame,
filling them with joy and boldness to preach the gospel:
by the power of the same Spirit
strengthen us to witness to your truth
and to draw everyone to the fire of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection (The meal with Zacchaeus)

Continued tomorrow (The Last Supper)

A modern icon of the Conversion of Saint Paul

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org