The Fire

The Fire

Third Sunday of Lent. Fr Euan Marley preaches on the questions asked by children and adults.

Somewhere buried under a pile of books, I suspect one of the piles which is buried under another pile of books, I have a book on the psychology of children’s religious beliefs. One study involved interviewing some children about the story of Moses and the burning bush.

They were asked why Moses was afraid to approach the bush. Some of six year old group said that Moses was afraid to approach the bush because he thought someone would blame him for setting the bush on fire, some said that he was angry because God told him to take off his shoes, and others said that Moses felt sorry for God because he was on fire.

Older children who were interviewed were much more boring, trotting out the standard responses they had learned in class. The interviewers felt that the older children didn’t necessarily show more understanding of the passage, they had just learned to give teacher what he or she wants.

I think I could make a case for various heresies, misconceptions that grow up in the Church from time to time, being examples of these childish attitudes, only theologised and often allied to great intelligence. An intelligence that nonetheless shows how hard it is to put off childish things.

Jansenism saying that it’s not my fault but I am still to blame is very like Moses expecting to be blamed for the fire. Pelagianism, which sees God as a denial of human freedom rather than its source, or God made me take my shoes off. Process Theology, which sees God as being in need of redemption by us rather than the other way around, or God’s on fire and I haven’t got a big enough bucket. All three attitudes are forms of guilt, feeling responsible but in a self-important way, not the humility of the Christian seeking redemption.

This week’s Gospel is also about guilt. On the face of it, our Lord seems to be saying something shocking. He seems to be blaming the victims. They were victims of a massacre or of human pride and greed in building too high. How can they be to blame, how can we even talk of their sin in this context?

Remember though, that he is asking a question, not making a statement. Do you think they sinned more? Perhaps they did think just that. Or perhaps the survivors felt to blame. The obvious emotion to feel might seem to be anger, anger against Pilate or the builders of the tower.

Yet anger is of its nature prone to misdirection. The person we are angry with is often enough not the person we are angry with. Remember the child, the confusion of the child’s emotions. Bad things happen to me because I was naughty, so bad things happen to other people because they are naughty. Deep down we blame the victim or we blame ourselves.

The anger becomes a way of avoiding guilt. It’s not a search for justice but an avoidance of emotion. How many terrorists or makers of war have been motivated by guilt? Those who suffer most are often those who have least desire for revenge. It’s the people who have been insulated from the suffering of their people who turn to violence. In the end, they are not seeking vengeance but redemption.

Later on in the Gospel of Luke, ch. 14: 28-33 poses questions about someone building a tower without working out if he can finish it, or a king going up against a superior army. Two questions which mirror the historic events of today’s gospel. The king will fail and the tower will not be finished because they fail to renounce all that they have. That is to say, they think too much about themselves.

Perhaps we have asked the children the wrong question. Not, why was Moses afraid to come close to the bush, but why did he approach it at all? Then the children might have said it was because he saw something wonderful, or he wanted warmth and light. It’s about the fire; it’s about God. Jesus set his face for Jerusalem because he was thinking about the kingdom, not himself.

Readings: Exo 3:1-8,13-15 | 1 Cor 10:1-6,10-12 | Luke 13:1-9

fr. Euan Marley O.P. lives and works at Blackfriars, Cambridge.