Sunday Reflection with Fr Terry Tastard - 27 September 2009

Ary Scheffer: Faust et Marguerite

Ary Scheffer: Faust et Marguerite

Since the 16th century we have been familiar with the powerful story of Dr Faustus.  In this legend, Faust sells his soul to the Devil in return for 24 years of life during which he will enjoy every pleasure and have all the knowledge that he wishes.  Marlowe, Goethe, Wagner, Berlioz and others have all given us versions of the Faust story.  The fascination of the story is of course that it illuminates an aspect of human character.  It is possible to live only for yourself, banishing from the mind all accountability.  It is possible to live in such a way that you justify everything, and believe that there will never be a day of reckoning.  If you doubt that, consider in our own time the life and downfall of Bernie Madoff.
Our readings today give us sombre warnings against the temptation to imitate Faust.  The reading from the Letter of James (5.1-6) tells us of workers who were exploited and defrauded of their wages.  Their cries, we are told, have reached the ears of God, to whom we must all give account of our lives.  What then will the swindlers say?  And before we think how this does not apply to us, we have the uncomfortable realisation that we live in a global economy in which we benefit from the cheap wages of factories in Shanghai and Guatemala.  In the gospel (from Mark 9) Jesus has similarly strong words.  He says that if our hand, or foot, or eye should cause us to sin, we should be prepared to get rid of that part of ourselves rather than risk hell.  I am always a little shocked by these words, because there is a kind of violence in them.  But Jesus here is emphasising the urgency of choosing.  Moreover, the very force of his words cuts at our human tendency to procrastinate, to evade coming to the point.  If there was an equivalent of Faust in Britain from the 1990s until a couple of years ago, perhaps it was in the phrase ‘I want it all.’  You heard it often until the recession hit us.  Ah yes, the recession.  Not to mention the looming crisis of climate change.

The day of reckoning has already begun, you might say, even before we stand before God on that final day of reckoning.  You cannot have it all without destroying life for others and ultimately for yourself.
Just as the readings invite us to such sombre reflections, they invite us also to hope.  There are always those who speak prophetically.  Sometimes they are people of faith, men and women whose hearts are open to God.  They feel compelled to speak honestly and urgently about the world around them, drawing attention to evil and injustice.  But we know that this spirit of prophecy can occur even outside the official channels, as it were.  In our first reading from Numbers (11.25-29) we hear that the spirit of God unexpectedly seized two young men who then began to prophesy, just as in the gospel we hear about someone exorcising in the name of Jesus, even although he was not a disciple.  God’s presence is everywhere, and he can call anyone into action, even if they are not aware themselves that he is speaking through them. 

Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest of Holy Trinity RC Church, Brook Green, London W6.

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