Featured

Boundary lines and the kingdom of God (Mark 9–10; Pentecost 18B to 20B)

Last week (Pentecost 18) we heard a Gospel passage in which Jesus affirmed that “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). He refused to draw strong and clear boundaries around his “inner group” simply on the basis of explicit identification with him—rather, he affirmed that it is the actions of people that define where people are to be placed in relation to him. Deeds, not words, define the followers of Jesus.

That line of argument would be take up by his brother, James, in his “letter” affirming that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), and by another follower (by radiation, the evangelist Matthew), who quoted him as saying, “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). It is a strong theme in the testimony to Jesus in Christian scripture: actions, not words, define allegiance to Jesus.

This week (Pentecost 19), we hear a Gospel passage in which Jesus becomes indignant with his closest followers, rebuking them for hindering children from gaining access to him. In contrast to the attempts of the disciples to keep the children at a distance, Jesus drew children close to himself and blessed them, saying, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15). The boundary line which Jesus draws is clearly not based on age. The ability to articulate a complex theological affirmation is not the key criterion. Rather, it seems that a willingness to search out Jesus, a desire to be with him, is the key criterion.

Jesus has already affirmed the central significance of a child in his consideration of this issue. Mark notes that “he took a little child and put it among them” (9:36), speaking the very clear affirmation that “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (9:37). Still earlier, Jesus had placed the health of a child at the centre of his focus, when approached by a synagogue leader, who pleads with Jesus, “my little daughter is at the point of death; come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live” (5:23).

We have noted that the child was a person with no authority, no status, no prestige or power, in the society of the day; yet the low-status, not-important child is the exemplar, not only of Jesus, but of God, “the one who sent me” (9:37). Welcoming the child is a clear manifestation of the paradox that lies at the heart of the Gospel. Jesus is the one who will walk resolutely towards death (8:31: 9:31: 10:34), becoming “the slave of all” (10:44) who will “give his life a ransom for many” (10:45).

Those who follow Jesus on this pathways will need to take up their crosses (8:34), lose their lives (8:35), be “last of all and servant of all” (9:35), “receive the kingdom of God as a little child” (10:15), sell all that they possess (10:21), leave their families (10:29), and become “last of all” (10:31). (See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/06/the-paradoxes-of-discipleship-mark-8-pentecost-16b/)

Next week (Pentecost 20), we will hear a Gospel passage in which Jesus sadly informs a man of means who prides himself on keeping all the commandments, that still “you lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). The man left, shocked and grieving; he could not do what Jesus instructed. Jesus here draws the line of belonging or being alienated from him on the basis of whether a person is able to implement radical actions of obedience.

We have seen the way that the author of this account of Jesus (by tradition, Mark the evangelist) redraws the boundaries of the people of God, by his actions in relating to people in need (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/24/on-not-stereotyping-judaism-when-reading-the-gospels-mark-5-pentecost-5b/) and by the geography that he traverses, as he edges outside of the land of Israel (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/24/stretching-the-boundaries-of-the-people-of-god-mark-7-pentecost-14b-15b/).

We have also seen that it was the courageous rhetorical challenging of Jesus by a Gentile woman which provoked him to be absolutely clear about this more inclusive boundary (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/02/on-jesus-and-justa-tyre-and-decapolis-mark-7-pentecost-15b/) And again, in this incident, it is the health of a young child which draws action from Jesus (7:26, 29).

The passages in our current stream of lectionary readings reinforce the perspective already developed in these earlier sections of the Gospel (chapters 5 to 10). Jesus is not an exclusivist, drawing hard boundary lines close around his group. He is an inclusivist, looking to welcome those from beyond the traditional inner group, inviting in those on the fringe or outside this conventional group.

That’s the consistent message about Jesus in the stories that we read through the central chapters of this account. It’s the consistent theme that followers of Jesus in the 21st century need to ensure are the key markers of the Christian church today.

Featured

Convicted (2): Bridget Ormsby

My ancestor Bridget Ormsby arrived in the colony of New South Wales on the ship Hooghly 190 years ago today, on 27 September 1831. Bridget was my great-great-great-great-grandmother on my father’s maternal line. She is the second reason that I was born in Sydney. (The first is my ancestor Joseph Pritchard; see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/14/convicted-1-joseph-pritchard/)

On 13 March 1830, at Limerick in Ireland, Bridget Ormsby was convicted of stealing clothes and sentenced to transportation to NSW for 7 years. She was identified as a Servant who was a native of County Limerick, Ireland, and was aged 22 years the time of her conviction.

She was one of 184 female prisoners who were transported on the ship Hooghly, which set sail from Cork on 24 June 1831. The ship sailed under Captain Peter J. Reeves, with James Ellis as the Surgeon Superintendent. Also on the ship were ten free settlers and twenty children, travelling steerage.

A contemporary account in an Irish newspaper described the terrible situation in Ireland, where famine was gripping the population. “On 15th June 1831 the Bury and Norwich Post and reported: The accounts from Ireland are truly appalling. At the lowest estimate, ascertained from personal and minute inquiries, upwards of two hundred thousand human beings are in danger of perishing from famine. A deputation from the Mayo Relief committee waited upon the Lord Lieutenant, at Dublin, on Saturday, to implore of the Government to interfere and endeavour to rescue the population of that county from the dreadful fate which awaits them.

“The Freeman’s Journal states that the members of the deputation offered themselves for examination on oath before the Privy Council, to prove that 148,000 human beings are exposed to the most horrible of deaths—starvation. In Newport 15 have actually died of hunger in four days. Fever, too, in its worst and deadliest form, is setting in, and will soon rise to the wealthy and the noble.

“No words can describe the terrible scenes that overspread the country. Persons endeavouring to support life on sea weed, on nettles, and the common weeds of the field – poor mothers wailing for their children, and hordes of men roaming about asking for work and food – families stretched in sickness, without one to attend them.”

It is quite possible that Bridget Ormsby could have resorted to stealing in order to survive in such tenuous circumstances, like so many of the other women sentenced and transported. Indeed, transportation to the colonies might well have been preferable to remaining in Ireland.

The ship Hooghly in arrived at Sydney Cove on 27 September 1831. A muster of 181 women was held on board by the Colonial Secretary on 29 September. Three women were absent from the Muster as they had been sent straight to the hospital in Sydney on arrival.

The Hooghly was one of four convict ships bringing female prisoners to New South Wales in 1831, the others being the Kains, the Palambam and the Earl of Liverpool. A total of 504 female convicts arrived in the colony in 1831. But the Hooghly soon gained quite a reputation in Sydney Town. In “Free Settler or Felon?”, at jenwilletts.com, we read:

“It wasn’t long before the Hooghly women made their presence felt. They were often charged at the Police Office before being sent to the Female Factory at Parramatta; and soon their names were entered in the Principal Superintendent of Convict’s List of absconding convicts as well.”

Mary Ann Agnew, a recent importation per Hooghly made her maiden appearance, charged by Mr. Flynn, her master with walking off, bag and baggage, from his premises, and taking up her abode with a number of notorious characters. She was recommended a six weeks’ specimen of Factory discipline, by way of opening her eyes a little. Sydney Gazette 10 November 1831

The list of charged at the Police Office on Monday was unusually long; some few of them were of a serious nature, but the majority the effects of that hydra headed monster, rum; no less than six of the damsels recently imported per Hooghly figured among the number. Sydney Gazette 24 November 1831

The women per the ship Hooghly have turned out a rare set of incorrigibles, the Police office daily overflows with them, while the factory can bear testimony to their conduct. Sydney Herald 28 November 1831

Despite the company of which she was a part on this ship, once in the colony, Bridget worked out her seven years’ sentence and duly obtained her Certificate of Freedom on 29 March 1837. This document describes her as being 5 feet 3 inches in height, of a ruddy and freckled complexion, with light brown hair and grey eyes. The certificate also notes that she was “the wife of James Jackson”.

At the age of 24, Bridget Ormsby married James Jackson, a fellow convict (more about him in a later post). James Jackson had already married once, to Elizabeth Crasby, in 1820 (and presumably had been widowed); he married his second wife, Bridget Ormsby, aged 24, on 19 March 1832.

The ceremony was one of three for convict couples conducted on the same day by Rev William Cowper in Sydney. The couples being married were all identified by the ship on which they had arrived (James Jackson, Mariner; Bridget Ormsby, Hooghley).

The couple had a son, James, born in 1832. This son, James Jnr, married Margaret Jane Crowley in 1856. Their daughter, Maria, b. 1862, married Joseph Pritchard in 1880. Two further sons were born: John in 1834, William in 1836. I am descended from this 1880 marriage, of Joseph and Maria Pritchard.

Two years after she gained her Certificate of Freedom in 1837, Bridget was cross-examined in relation to a crime. The interchange is recorded in the Sydney Monitor & Commercial Advertiser, on page 2 of the issue of Monday 26 August 1839.

(There is a record of the death of Bridget Kingsley in 1840. Could this be her?) (Also the death of a Bridget Jackson, aged 53, at Camperdown, in 1861)

Featured

As an example, take the prophets (James 5; Pentecost 18B)

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” So we read in this week’s selection from the treatise of James which is offered by the lectionary (James 5:13–20). As a further encouragement, a few verses earlier, we are enjoined, “as an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (5:10).

In this rhetorical question and proverbial statement, we find that the author of this treatise does something that we have seen to be quite familiar from other sections of the book; he makes reference to Hebrew scripture. In doing this, James, the author, was doing what his more famous brother—Jesus—so regularly did. Referencing scriptural traditions was a family trait; indeed, it was what any faithful Jewish man would do, and provide scriptural resonances in what he was saying.

A number of statements in the treatise of James resonate with the teachings of Jesus that we know so well in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3–10). Most strikingly, the final beatitude spoken by Jesus, in which he exhorts joy in the face of persecution, in the manner of “the prophets who were before you”, is reflected in the opening exhortation of James, “whenever you face trials…consider it nothing but joy” (1:2), as well as the later reminder of James, “as an example of suffering and patience, take the prophets” (5:10). The two brothers are simply providing variations on a theme.

Other teachings in the book of James provide similarities to the teachings of Jesus spoken in the beatitudes, in the form found in Matt 5:3–12. The question posed by James, “has not God chosen the poor in the world…to be heirs of the kingdom?” (2:5) is similar to the first beatitude of Jesus, “blessed are the poor” (Matt 5:3).

The promise that James envisages, of “a harvest of righteousness…for those who sow peace” (3:18), is reminiscent of another beatitude of Jesus, “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt 5:9). The instruction to “purify your hearts” (4:8) echoes “blessed are the pure in heart” (Matt 5:8).

Perhaps we should not be surprised about these resonances between the teachings of Jesus and the treatise of James; if this work was indeed written by James, the brother of Jesus, a leader of the church in Jerusalem (Gal 1:19), would we not expect him to know what Jesus was teaching? The two brothers are singing from the same songsheet.

These similarities between the teachings of Jesus and the writings of James are significant. The fact that they are preserved in different documents, shaped and then preserved by the followers of Jesus, is suggestive of an awareness of a common tradition of these ethical guidelines amongst Jewish members of the growing messianic movement.

James quotes Hebrew Scripture directly in verse 4:6, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Prov 3:34). This is the basis for his instruction, “humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (4:10).

The same scripture undergirds the words of Jesus which declare the same thing: “whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23:12; see also Luke 14:11, 18:14). It is also informs the prophetic words sung by his mother before his birth, “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52). The two sons of Mary (Jesus and James) are singing from the same songsheet as their mother!

When James writes a warning about laying up treasure (5:3), we are reminded of Jesus’ parable about the same topic. (Luke 12:13-21). In these words, both Jesus and James are drawing from Hebrew scriptures. Speaking against the oppressive actions of the rich sounds very much like a number of oracles thundered by the ancient prophets (Amos 2, 4, Micah 6, Hosea 12, Ezekiel 7).

The details use snippets of pertinent prophetic denunciations. “The last days” evoke “the Day of the Lord” (Isa 34:7-8, Jer 25:33-34, Ezek 7:1-4, Joel 2:1-3, Amos 5:18-20). The withholding of the wages of the labourers (5:4) contradicts the Law (Lev 19:13, Deut 24:14-15) and echoes denunciations spoken by prophets (Jer 22:13, Mal 3:5).

The condemnation of “fattened hearts” (5:5) evokes Jer 5:27-28, Ezek 34:2-4. And murdering the righteous person reminds us, not only of the wrongheaded approach of wicked people (Wisdom 2:10-20) and the fate of the righteous servant (Isa 53:3-5, 7-9), but especially of the fate of Jesus, the Righteous One (John 15:20; Acts 3:14).

Then, the command of James, “be patient until the coming of the Lord” (5:7), sounds a note that we hear in the final teachings which Jesus gives to his disciples, not long before his arrest. The earlier version of these teachings infers that patience will be required as “the beginnings of the birth pains” are seen (Mark 13:5–8), before Jesus exhorts his disciples: “the one who endured to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13).

Interestingly, “be patient” in the midst of these tumultuous happenings is a refrain found elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul advises, “let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess 5:6); John encourages, “little children, abide in him” (1 John 2:28); and Jesus himself is quoted as saying, “I am coming soon” (Rev 22:7).

It was a widespread belief amongst the followers of Jesus in the first century, that Jesus would soon return, and that God would establish the kingdom of heaven on earth. (That is the final, climactic vision, offered in Revelation 21:1-22:6). “The coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:8) is a recurring New Testament motif (Rom 13:12; Phil 4:5; 1 Pet 4:7).

Over twenty centuries later, we know that this did not eventuate in the timeframe that was imagined, and hoped for, in the first century. Does that invalidate all that those earliest believers thought, wrote, and prayed for? Or is there another way that we are to take their words for our times?

Certainly, the direct ethical instructions found in this passage of the treatise of James sound like they are timeless: cultivate patience (5:7-8), avoid complaining (5:9), remain steadfast (5:11), be as good as your word in all you do (5:12), prayer and sing praise (5:13), seek healing and forgiveness (5:14–15) after confessing your sins (5:16). This is what we are called to do as we await the coming of God.

Featured

We are buying more debt, pain, and death: a case against nuclear-powered submarines

Today is the International Day of Peace. That is an appropriate time to reflect on the fact that, as a country, we have just scrapped a $90 billion contract with Naval Group of France for a new fleet of submarines—in favour of a currently proposed (a d as yet uncosted) deal with our American and UK allies to purchase nuclear-powered submarines. At least, in nothing I have read is the actual cost of this awkward AUKUS deal specified–it seems that is still to be negotiated.

It seems to me that, whatever the actual dollar cost of this new deal, it is outrageously expensive, and will prove to be incredibly costly. I believe we are buying, not only more debt, but also pain and death, for future generations. I am happy to leave the debate about the precise financial cost to the politicians, journalists, and defence pundits in the months and years ahead. What is perfectly clear to me, however, is that the cost to our country will indeed be large and invasive, penetrating deeply and impacting widely.

Allocating money in the federal budget to defence matters is a highly contested matter. By making this a high priority, other matters are pushed down the priority list. We hear regular pronouncements about the need to tighten our belts and reduce the deficit in our federal budget. But we rarely if ever hear considered reflections

about the impact of this on essential elements of our federal spending which are essential to our lifestyle—social security, Medicare and health care, education and training, and veterans’ affairs.

What will it mean for future federal budgets, to have massive and increasing commitments to defence spending, such that these other areas will need to be limited or even reduced? Allocating a large amount of the limited funds available to the Federal Government to this deal will mean less money for other areas. That will impact on the everyday lives of all Australians.

But it is not the financial costs that concern me. Nuclear-powered submarines have the simple function of contributing to efforts to defend our coastline—something that has been a high priority for the current federal government. But they also have the capacity to go on the attack (and against China, of all countries—what are we thinking?). They are agents of warfare, dedicated to be at our disposal to wage war.

At the moment, there is no country in the world with a repository to dispose of high-level nuclear waste. There is only one repository in the world capable of disposing of intermediate-level nuclear waste, in New Mexico (USA), and it was shut for three years (2014–2017) because of a chemical explosion. How are we planning to dispose responsibly of our nuclear waste?

And further: do we really want nuclear-powered weapons to be involved in any future war? The environmental impact of a nuclear blast is serious. We have seen the scale of illness and death from nuclear explosions, in the 1945 bombings of Japan, the Chernobyl explosion in 1986, and the Fukushima accident in 2011.

An incident involving a nuclear-powered element in current times would be even more potent and damaging. Most worryingly, the ABC has reported that nuclear-powered submarines “have a ‘long history’ of involvement in accidents across the globe”. See https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-09-17/nuclear-submarines-prompt-environmental-and-conflict-concern/100470362

Alongside these concerns, we know that there are costs associated with warfare other than the finance required to train troops and provide weapons for the battle—costs that go deep into people’s lives and spread wide across society. War means injury and death, to our own troops, and to the troops of those we are fighting against. Every death means a family and a local community that is grieving. There is great emotional cost just in one death, let alone the thousands and thousands that wars incur.

Every person injured in waging war experiences suffering, anxiety, and pain, with their loved ones looking on, suffering with them, and with the medical and hospital system having to devote resources to their healing.

I have a friend who has served with pride in the Australian Navy, in the troubled region of the Persian Gulf. He and his mates have returned home after their service, and they are living “regular” lives in society, with families, jobs, friends. Yet I know from my friend just how costly his service was. Psychological trauma and emotional scarring place heavy burdens on an apparently healthy man in his “regular” life. Those burdens ripple out in unhealthy ways to those around him–both family and friends. It is another cost of war, that is multiplied time and time again by the numbers of people who have served in the military.

But these are the expected, observable costs of war. War also brings “collateral damage”, in that terrible, dehumanising phrase first used by the US military during the Vietnam conflict. It is a euphemistic way of referring to “civilian casualties of a military operation”. But the reality is much starker than what this smooth phrase conveys. Countrysides are invaded, villages and towns are looted, women are raped, civilian women and men are injured or killed, buildings are destroyed, and people can be forced to seek refuge in another place.

We see these consequences of war again and again on our screens, in so many places around the world. Whilst we might enter into a war in order to resolve an immediate problem, the reality is that it is usually a short-term “fix”. War never fully resolves a conflict or solves a problem; war inevitably generates further conflict and raises more problems. The history of Afghanistan in the last 43 years testifies to this—the 1978 Saur Revolution, the 1979 Soviet Invasion, the guerilla war of the 1980s, the rise of the Mujaheedin, civil war from 1989, the rise of the Taliban, the American Invasion of 2001 and the war which has run on for two decades through into this current year. At every point, warfare has generated yet more conflict.

As people of the Uniting Church, we are committed to being a peacemaking people, firmly working for the cause of peace in our world. We are also a church which sees the problems inherent in the use of nuclear power—and especially, the use of nuclear power in waging war.

We should be totally opposed to this latest deal signalled by the Federal Government. It is not simply a matter of purchasing new nuclear-powered submarines. We are buying more debt, pain, and death, for future generations of Australians. We should be pressing our political representatives to urge the government to back away from this deal.

In 1979, the Uniting Church Assembly received a statement advocating opposition to the mining and export of uranium; see https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3137-a-world-free-of-nuclear-weapons

In 1982, the Uniting Church Assembly declared that “affirm that the Uniting Church is committed to be a peacemaking body, seeking to follow the Lord of the Church by encouraging political authorities to resolve political tensions by peaceful means”, in a statement on Militarism and Disarmament, at https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/uniting-for-peace/uca-statements/item/500-militarism-and-disarmament

In 1988, the Uniting Church Assembly adopted a comprehensive statement relating to nuclear power and the nuclear arms race. See https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/uniting-for-peace/uca-statements/item/499-nuclear-deterrence-disarmament-and-peace

The same year, the Assembly adopted the Statement to the Nation: Australian Bicentennial Year, 1988, in which it describes itself as a church which had “engaged constructively with the peoples of Asia, the Pacific and the rest of the world as peacemaker.” See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/introduction/item/133-statement-to-the-nation-australian-bicentennial-year-1988

In 2003, the Uniting Church Assembly declared once more that “the Church is committed to be a peacemaking body” and adopted the Statement, Uniting for Peace; see https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/uniting-for-peace/uca-statements/item/497-uniting-for-peace

The Uniting Church has supported the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of non-governmental organisations in one hundred countries, promoting adherence to and implementation of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Canberra Region Presbytery signed a letter of support for this campaign in 2020, on the 75th anniversary year of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. See https://www.icanw.org/australia

See also a fine blog on this topic by Chris Walker at https://revdrchriswalker.wordpress.com/2021/09/21/nuclear-submarines/

and an address for International Day of Peace by the Moderator of the UCA in NSW.ACT, Simon Hansford, at https://talbragar.net/2021/09/21/when-peace-is-not-peace/

Featured

Giving priority to “one of these little ones” (Mark 9; Pentecost 18B)

Two weeks ago, we read and heard the passage where Jesus berated Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33). Jesus went on to teach about the need for those who follow him to take up their cross and lay down their lives (8:34–37). The hubris that Peter demonstrated, when he rebuked Jesus for what he was teaching, is met head-on by Jesus. He rebukes Peter for his focus on “human things”.

The nature of those “human things” is made clear in the passage that we read and heard last Sunday. “What were you arguing about on the way?”, Jesus asks his followers (9:33). No answer comes; those followers of Jesus were shamed into silence “for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest” (9:34). Arguing about who is the greatest is a clear manifestation of a focus on “human things”. It’s what human beings do, all too often–we see it demonstrated in our politics, in domestic violence, in sexual assaults, and in the constant stream of uprisings, civil wars, and international wars that are never-ending.

Jesus has been with his followers since the start of his public campaign in Galilee (1:14). By this point in his time with these followers, Jesus no time left for such matters. He teaches them here, as he has already done in the previous passage, about what lies in store for himself as he heads towards Jerusalem—betrayal, and death (9:31; see also 8:31). These are the heart of the “divine things” that he has encouraged his followers to set their minds on. Jesus is resolutely fixed on what is important to God, not what is the focus of humans.

The story we read and heard this coming Sunday (9:38–50) contains further insights into this distinction. The disciples want to exercise their authority by forbidding an unknown person from casting out demons from those possessed by them. “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us”, the disciples report (9:38), expecting to be congratulated by Jesus. (Did you notice the pronoun: following US!!)

But their expectations fall flat. Jesus, once again, rebukes his followers: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me” (9:39).

Such manifestation of authority will receive a further rebuke from Jesus yet again, at a later point in the story that is being told in this Gospel. Returning to the theme of authority, two of his followers petition Jesus: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). Jesus gives them short shrift: “You do not know what you are asking” (10:38). By this time, surely, he must have been seething with frustration—will they never understand? “Do you not understand?” Is a question that Jesus has already posed to his followers, no less than four times previously (4:13; 7:18; 8:17; 8:21).

Three times, in chapters 8–10, Jesus rebukes his followers. Three times, they have acted in ways that indicate their fixation is on authority, prestige, power. Three times, Jesus has responded with a clear explanation. Each time, as they journey southwards towards Jerusalem, he recounts what will take place to “the Son of Man”; a prophetic circumlocution for describing oneself (Ezek 2:1, 3, 6, 8, 3:1, 3, 4, 10, etc). Each time, the fundamental purpose of his mission is explained in short, staccato phrases.

That purpose, and the fate that lies in store for Jesus in Jerusalem, is that he will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected … and be killed” (8:31); there, he “is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him” (9:31); there, he will be “condemned to death; handed over to Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him” (10:33–34). The end in view is surely sobering, cautionary, worrying, for those who follow with him. Yet each time, they revert to a focus on authority—“human things”.

This threefold description of the imminent fate of Jesus, increasing in detail at each restatement, provides an intense focus on the journey ahead. Jesus will arrive in Jerusalem (11:11) with a cohort of followers who have repeatedly failed to understand that, instead of a focus on their own authority, leading to a seat in glory, they are in company with the one who will take up his cross (8:34), lose his life (8:35), “be last of all and servant of all” (9:35), and ultimately be the slave of all (10:44). “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45).

This final, definitive affirmation of his role comes after the three instances of the misguided orientation of his followers, and the three corrective teachings offered by Jesus (8:31; 9:31; 10:32–34). This sequence is surrounded by two stories of healing, symbolising the need for the followers of Jesus to open their eyes and see the reality of Jesus. In Bethsaida, a blind man seeks healing from Jesus (8:22–26). In Jericho, blind Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus for mercy (10: 46–52). The two healings clearly symbolise the need for the followers of Jesus themselves to open their eyes to see Jesus.

Despite their physical blindness, these two men have a deeper sense of the presence of Jesus as he passes by, and reach out in hope. Yet those travelling along with Jesus are impervious to what he offers, and blind to the fate that Jesus is walking towards. The irony, the penetrating incongruity, of these juxtapositions, is searing.

It is within this context that the story of the unidentified exorcist (9:38–41) is to be understood. Indeed, the sense of irony is clearly present in this story. The ministry of Jesus has incorporated the casting out of demons alongside his teaching, preaching, and healing. “Proclaiming the message and casting out demons” is how the activities of Jesus have been characterised from the start of his public activity (1:39).

In fact, the casting out of demons was integral to the charge that Jesus had given his followers earlier in their time with him: “he appointed twelve…to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message and to have authority to cast out demons” (3:14–15). And these very activities had formed the basis for the mission of the twelve as it is reported at 6:7–13. They model their words and deeds on Jesus: “they proclaimed that all should repent … they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:12–13).

So there may be some sense of self-assured certainty when they report to Jesus that “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (9:38). (Yes—notice the pronoun: following US! Not Jesus—but US.) But were they not aware that Jesus was not interested in this claim to authoritative ownership of the franchise of “casting out demons”? The irony, surely, is that Jesus is more interested in the wellbeing of the person possessed, than in the delegated authority of his followers as the ones who should rightly cast out the demon.

Those following Jesus have heard his teachings explaining that his focus is on the cross, losing your life, becoming a servant, drinking the cup of suffering, and being the servant of all who “gives his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). Yet they have not understood. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”, he has just informed them (9:35). Yet they act as if they can continue to be first, lord over all. So again he will need to underscore his views: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (10:43), “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:44).

The irony is intensified by the placement of this incident involving the unidentified exorcist immediately after the previous parable-in-action, in which Jesus took a child into his arms, and declared, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (9:37). A child was a person with no authority, no status, no prestige or power; yet the low-status, not-important child is the exemplar, not only of Jesus, but of God, “the one who sent me”.

So Jesus teaches that how “one of these little ones” is treated, is the benchmark of faithfully following in his way (9:42–48). Not the one with authority, power, glory. But the “little one”, the child. In his characteristic parabolic-hyperbolic style, Jesus instructs his followers to respect “one of these little ones” by cutting off their hands, cutting off their feet, tearing out their eyes, placing the millstone around their necks and drown in the sea of they cause “one of these little one” to stumble. These are hyperbolic exaggerations, of course, about the importance of respecting, caring for, and prioritising “ one of these little ones” (9:42–48)—not literal instructions!

(**Caution: Do not try this at home. Do not take these words literally. But learn the lesson that they teach.)

In this passage, as we hear it this Sunday, the irony is intense. It is the child, the little one, the unidentified exorcist, who has priority, in the eyes of Jesus, ahead of those who seek authority, status, power, glory. The challenge is clear. The word is proclaimed. The Gospel is enacted. The way of the cross awaits …

Featured

On vaccinations, restrictions, and fundamentalism

I have never before been tempted to be a fundamentalist. As a child, I had the good fortune to attend a Sunday School and then a worshipping Congregation where fundamentalism was given a wide berth. Thinking about our faith, learning the essentials of Christianity and pondering how they related to the world we live in, was my spiritual bread and butter.

As a teenager and young adult, I was encouraged to question and explore. As a theological student, I was expected to question and explore! As a minister, I regularly and consistently encouraged people not to be content with the status quo, but always to explore and investigate for themselves. Always for the sake of deepening their faith, gaining better insight into how we are to live as faithful disciples in this world.

But recently, I have begun to wonder. Am I turning into a fundamentalist? Have I succumbed to the lure of absolute certainty? Have I lost the nuances and shading that I have so enjoyed over the decades of exploration, research, discussion, and debate?

It’s that blessed pandemic that has done this to me. Before early 2020, I would never, ever have considered myself to be a fundamentalist. But now, eighteen months down the track, I feel myself sliding into the assured convictions, the absolute dogmatic certainty, and the hardline declarations of a fundamentalist.

Well, it’s not the pandemic as such. It’s the way that people are responding to the pandemic—or, more particularly, to the restrictions that have been put into place because of the pandemic that SARS-CoV-2 has brought to the world. Or, to be even more specific, it’s the matter of vaccinations and the role that they play in our response to the pandemic.

Yes, it is true: I am now a vaccination fundamentalist. Now, perhaps some people might have observed that over the period of my ministry, I have been something of an inclusivist fundamentalist. I have always believed that the church should be open, welcoming, inviting, incorporating diversity, valuing people no matter what they bring into the community of faith.

But that quasi-fundamentalist viewpoint has been shaken, and rather stirred up, by some of my experiences of the past few years—and particularly in very recent times. So much so, that it now allows me to claim my real fundamentalism: on vaccinations.

I believe, first and foremost, that everybody should get vaccinated. Well—everyone who can safely and legitimately get vaccinated, should. I’ve been vaccinated. I think everyone else who can, should be vaccinated.

Of course, there are exceptions. We know that some people are being advised not to get vaccinated, because they have an impaired immune system, or for other legitimate and serious medical reasons. And, in addition, we know that there is currently no vaccination that has been developed for children under the age of 12.

And more than this, we know that there are people in regional areas and in poorer communities who have not yet been able to access a vaccination centre. There are structural flaws in the way that the vaccine has been rolled out, meaning that there are inequities—not everyone has equal ease of access to being vaccinated, just yet.

So, with those caveats, I believe that everyone who can safely get vaccinated, should get vaccinated. Vaccines have a number of benefits. Being vaccinated lessens the time that a person who becomes infected, remains infected. Being vaccinated lessens the likelihood that an infected person would be hospitalised, or even die, if their situation became serious.

A person who is vaccinated carries the viral load for less days than an unvaccinated person. A person who is vaccinated does not get as unwell as an unvaccinated person. And it may well be (this is an assumption—it has not yet been rigorously tested) that a vaccinated person does not suffer as many of the problems that Long Covid brings, compared to an unvaccinated person. Let us hope that turns out to be a valid assumption.

As well as benefits for the individual who is vaccinated, there are benefits for the community as a whole. In general, being vaccinated reduces the likelihood that an infected person will infect other people with whom they come into contact. Being vaccinated lessens the rate of spread of the virus through the community. It’s a positive contribution, not just to an individual’s health, but to the health and wellbeing of the community of which that person is a part.

A really important reason for getting vaccinated is that this course of action lessens the likelihood that a variant strain will develop and spread through the community—and beyond. High rates of vaccination will reduce the pool of people amongst whom a new variant of the virus can develop, and then spread. It is a contribution to the common good.

Now, I am not so much of a fundamentalist, that I don’t recognise that there are limits on vaccination. I accept that being vaccinated doesn’t guarantee that I won’t get infected. I still could. And if I do get infected, I can still become symptomatic and infectious and spread the virus to others. Being vaccinated doesn’t guarantee that I am completely safe from all of that; it doesn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t be a spreader in the community. It just reduces this likelihood.

So being vaccinated doesn’t mean that a community can “get back to normal” without any restrictions. There are still all the usual precautions that need to be followed, even when vaccinated. We know them because they are regularly promoted: wear a mask, practise good hygiene, wash your hands, sanitise with alcohol-based hand rubs, maintain social distancing. (And we should continue to practise some of the less-publicised means: don’t touch your face; cover your mouth or nose with your arm, not your hand, when you cough or sneeze; close the toilet lid before flushing.) A person who is vaccinated, and infected, will still be infectious to others, whether they are symptomatic or asymptomatic. They will just pose a lower risk to other people.

So getting vaccinated isn’t a magical fix. It is a sensible, reasonable way to respond to the pandemic. Which is why, I believe, it is entirely reasonable for governments to require people to be vaccinated before they enter places of business, or hotels and clubs, or other places where people are gathering. Including churches. Especially, in my mind, churches. (At least, this requirement for churches is being mooted by the NSW Government for a few weeks’ time. Not yet in the ACT, where I live.)

What we do in church—in worship services, to be specific—is high risk behaviour. Perhaps the highest risk behaviour. We come into one building from all sorts of different locations. We sit close to each other. In “normal times”, people will hug one another or shake hands quite freely as they “pass the peace”, at least in many (if not all) churches. We used to be quite unaware of how readily we were passing “bugs” to each other week after week.

And most strikingly of all, we sit and listen to people talking towards us (praying, reading, preaching), projecting their breath towards us. And, of course, we sing together, indeed, we may sing heartily and joyfully—that is, we use the force of breath from our lungs to expel air, droplets carried through the air from the force of that breath. That expelled air mingles amongst us all. We all breathe it in.

We drink coffee and eat morning tea, sometimes after we have shared a plate of bread and some wine or grapejuice earlier in the gathering. (Lots more touching went on there, back in the “normal times”.) We do lots of things that are high risk for passing the virus from one person to the next.

So it makes sense for churches to adhere to the government directive that only people who are vaccinated can be permitted to enter and participate in worship. I agree with that. I agree absolutely. To be honest, this is actually my point of absolute fundamentalism.

We can only have vaccinated people in worship services because we are committed to making church a Safe Place for everyone who participates. We already require church leaders to have undertaken a compliance check (a Working With Children Check in NSW, or Working With Vulnerable People in the ACT). We already have a requirement that a Person of Concern can only attend worship services or other church activities if they have signed a Safety Agreement. We already adhere to the government requirement that everyone attending worship will first check in using a QR Code to register their presence.

We can only have vaccinated people in worship services because we are committed to prioritising the vulnerable, making sure that their needs are given clear attention and the highest priority in the way we operate. That’s why we have had check-in codes, hand sanitisers, socially distanced seating, and no “free-for-all” morning teas at worship services, when we are meeting in person, over the past year. And, of course, when we resume services in person, we will need to continue with wearing masks, not singing, not having a collection plate, not handing out hymn books or orders of service, and we will need to follow appropriate food handling protocols.

We can only have vaccinated people in worship services because this is one of a number of restrictions we operate by, that are designed to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus, should there be an infected person present amongst the worshippers. And if unvaccinated people do attend and participate in worship, then they are placing themselves at great potential risk, as well as possibly exposing others to greater risk, if there is anyone present who is infected.

So I can’t understand those church leaders who, even before we are able to gather in person, are already claiming that they will exercise civil disobedience, that they will not turn away anyone who has not been vaccinated. My newly-found inner fundamentalist says, “No: you must turn them away”—as much as that goes against the grain in a church that prides itself at being open, welcoming, inclusive. Because it is the loving thing to do. Because it is the responsible thing to do. Because it is the Christian thing to do.

And what we have learnt over the last 18 months, is that we can actually include people in community, even when they are not able (or now, not permitted) to participate in person. The various online options for communal worship—Facebook, YouTube, ZOOM—as well as the multiple means of one-on-one communications—telephone, email, FaceTime, GoogleDuo, and even AusPost—and group communications—WhatsApp, Facebook groups, Snapchat, and many more—have demonstrated that there are multiple means for maintaining (and even, I have learnt, expanding) community connections as the body of Christ.

So forbidding the physical presence of a person in worship (because they are not vaccinated) does not mean that we are giving up our connection with them, or that they are no longer a part of our faith community. Those connections, that sense of belonging, can be nurtured in many other ways. We can continue to be an open, welcoming, inclusive—and safe—community for everyone.

I recently came across this quote, which sums it up for me: “Given the nature of churches — places where children and adults closely intermingle, where seniors and the immunocompromised regularly gather, where diverse groups share food, sing together, and meet in often small, old, poorly ventilated buildings — wouldn’t a mandatory vaccination policy make sense? Wouldn’t it be the Christian thing to do?” ( John van Sloten, pastor at Marda Loop Christian Reformed Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada)

So at the moment, I will advocate for complete adherence to government restrictions. My faith calls me to work for the common good, to care for the vulnerable, to love my neighbours, both near and far. Minimising risk of transmission as we gather is our first duty. Ministry takes place in many ways other than sitting in an enclosed space for an hour once a week!

*****

My friend and colleague Rob McFarlane has written a most helpful and measured consideration of the ethical issues involved at https://www.insights.uca.org.au/vaccination-inclusion-and-exclusion-the-ethics-of-regathering-for-worship-in-a-part-vaccinated-world/

*****

Appendix: in further conversation, I have clarified my thinking. I maintain my overarching commitment to be an inclusive church. I believe that we can do this by (a) ensuring that any in-person worship service is as safe as it can be for as many as are able safely to attend, and (b) ensuring that those who cannot gather in person—because they are vulnerable to infection or because their medical condition prohibits vaccination or because they have chosen not to be vaccinated—are welcomed and included and valued in the regular weekly online worship that is offered alongside of the in person worship.

Featured

The woman of valour (Proverbs 31)

A sermon peached by Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on 19 September 2021.

I suggested last week that the purpose of the book of Proverbs is to make suggestions as to how one might learn to live faithfully in everyday life. This passage (Proverbs 31:10–31) is no exception to this. Like other passages, it is meant to inspire moral ideals and guide people in living the best life possible.

If you are a woman and you know this passage, or were paying close attention to the reading, you might be thinking something like: is this even possible? how am supposed to live up to such an ideal? how is this meant to inspire wisdom in me?

And these are very good questions. The superwoman of Proverbs 31 has often been used to try and put women back into kitchens and keep them subservient to their husbands.

Today I am going to challenge this reading of Proverbs 31, and I am going to start by looking at how the first verse of this passage is translated. If you have a bible to hand feel free to look it up.

How do bible translations describe the woman of Proverbs 31? Generally, you will find that she is described as a noble, competent, capable, excellent, virtuous or good wife. Occasionally she is described as a woman, rather than a wife.

But is this actually what the Hebrew says? There are two primary issues in translation that shape how we interpret this text. The first is the status of the woman. Biblical Hebrew does not have separate words for “woman” and “wife”, so which is correct? The second issue is how the woman is described.

Let’s start at the beginning of the chapter. The claimed source for the words of this chapter is quite unique in the Old Testament. According to the text itself (31:1), a woman, the unnamed mother of the unknown King Lemuel, composed this poem describing a woman of worth and taught it to her son, who writes it down here. So it is a woman describing a woman. That might give us some clues. Secondly, the poem is an acrostic one, meaning the first word of each verse begins with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet in succession.

Like most of the wisdom literature, the purpose of this poem is to draw attention to the often-overlooked importance in one’s faith journey of doing everyday things. It is an acrostic so it is easier to remember, so obviously the ancient writers thought it was important enough to be memorised.

This poem is one of the most misunderstood passages in the bible, where it is seen as a list of virtues that form a job description for the ideal and faithful wife/woman. It has been trotted out on Mothers’ Days, weddings and in complementarian Christian circles where it stands as the pinnacle which woman should strive to emulate.

I am suggesting this is not the best way of understanding this passage, and that the purpose of Proverbs 31 purpose is to celebrate wisdom-in-action, not to instruct women everywhere to get married, have children, and take up weaving.

Let us go back to our translation issue. The Hebrew is eshet chayil, a ‘woman of valour or strength’ and this is how the opening verse should be translated. It has a male equivalent gibor chayil, or ‘man of valour’. It is a reminder to men (who are the intended audience of Proverbs) that as well as ‘men of valour’, there are also ‘women of valour’, the Hebrew emphasising the equality of the terms as applied to both genders.

 

The Hebrew word, chayil, has a primary meaning ranging from ‘military might/power’ and ‘(physical) strength.’ Its plural form designates warriors or an army. Translations that erase this woman’s physical strength and power create a construction of stereotypical “femininity” that is not present in the text. In verses3, 17 and 25 when chayil occurs translators nearly all translate it as strength. So why translate it as dutiful, capable, good noble or virtuous here?

Other language in the text points to the woman being strong, and we find a number of military terms to emphasise this. In verse 11, she provides ‘spoils’ (a term from war time plundering) for her Lord (no, it is not the word for husband (ish) as translations suggest).

In verse 17, she “girds her arms with strength and makes her arms strong”, again in military style. In verse 15 the Hebrew reads that she rises while it is still dark to provide “prey” for her household (this infers she is slaughtering the beasts, usually a man’s task). Verse 25 emphasises she is clothed in ‘strength and dignity’.

Professor Brent Strawn in an online article points out that the sentiments of verse 17 and verse 25 go far beyond both home and market: they are worthy of the mightiest of warriors (see Psalm 77:15; 83:8; Ezekiel 30:22; Nahum 2:1).

Like the feminine version, these gibor chayil, “men of valour”, have suggested military strength. We find the young David being described as a “gibor chayil ve-ish milchama,” a man of valor and a man of war (I Samuel 16:18). This is proved in his fight with Goliath, and becomes a central feature of David’s success as king. Later in 2 Samuel 23:8, David’s men are described as gibor chayil.

Gideon is described as a gibor chayil in the book of Judges (6:11), as is Joshua’s army as they prepare to take Jericho (Joshua 1:14). 1 Chronicles 5:18 identifies the sons of Reuben, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh as gibor chayil.

We have one other ‘woman of valour’ in the Hebrew bible, and she is found in the book of Ruth.

In this book, Ruth is presented as a destitute Moabite who followed her mother-in-law back to Jewish Bethlehem.  Once there, her daily work involved gleaning for barley and wheat. For over three chapters, she is neither a wife nor a mother. Her life looked nothing like the life of the woman depicted in Proverbs 31.

Ruth didn’t spend her days exchanging fine linens with merchants, running a home full of servants or buying fields.  Instead, she worked all day in the sun, gleaning leftovers from other people’s fields, which was a provision made for the poorest of the poor in Israel. 

And yet Boaz says of Ruth in chapter 3:11:  “all the assembly of my people know that you are an eshet chayil” (Ruth 3:11 NRSV).

Ruth is a woman of valour, not because she checked off the Proverbs 31 domestic goddess list, but because she lived her life with resourcefulness, compassion, courage, wisdom, and strength.  In other words, she lived her life with valour.

In the book of Ruth, Boaz is identified as gibor chayil, a man of valour. So when Boaz uses eshet chayil of Ruth, he clearly sees her as his equal.

The Proverbs woman is not defined by her husband or her children, particularly sons, as many other women in the Hebrew bible are. Rather, this woman is someone who is motivated, and she is defined by a string of verbs such as “seeks,” “rises,” “buys,” “provides” and “makes.”

We are also not given much in the way of the woman’s appearance. Normally, unless they are judges or prophets, women are described in the Hebrew bible by their physical attributes such as beauty or gracefulness. Not here though – we have no clue as to her weight, height, shape, or clothes. Is she beautiful? Is she built like a tank?  We will never know – and it doesn’t matter.

So how does this woman of valour have relevance for us today as both woman and as church people? What message does she bring to a world where women are bombarded with messages about aging, body shape and beauty?  On Working Preacher, Professor Amy Oden suggests that

This passage offers a radical counter-cultural message in the profound silence about what she looks like. The closing verse reminds us that “beauty is vain,” not something women (or men) hear anywhere in the daily visual assault of airbrushed female bodies on billboards, magazine stands, and pop-up ads. The silence of Proverbs 31 on appearance is striking, and refreshing. She is praised for the content of her character and the excellence of her endeavors rather than the surface of her skin.

Oden also sees the subversive nature of the Proverbs woman as a “tangible expression“ of Lady Wisdom, who we met last week. Oden says the woman’s “virtue and worth are a result of her own agency, her actions and choices…she leads her own life rather than following someone else’s. She pursues her own ends rather than obeying orders. There is no hint that her industry is not her own, that she is demure or deferential, or that her pursuits are directed by others.”

In other words, the ‘woman of valour’ is as independent as Lady Wisdom, as clear on what her pursuits and her purposes are. Like Lady Wisdom, she is also operating in the male domain of buying and selling, and things occurring outside of the household.

When we see Proverbs 31 in the larger context of the book of Proverbs and the wisdom literature, and in the more immediate context of Lady Wisdom, the woman of Proverbs 31 could be understood not as an actual flesh and blood woman but as the ideal of Lady Wisdom herself.

Indeed, several verses pick up some of earlier depictions of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs – for example, she is far more precious than jewels (v10), opens her mouth with wisdom (1:20-21, 24; 31:26), both are strong (8:14 with 31:17, 25) and both “laugh at the time to come” (31:25; cf. 1:26).

The words eshet chayil, the ‘woman of valour’, is used by modern Jewish women as a way of cheering each other along. The say it to one another when they are celebrating things such as promotions, pregnancies, divorces, and battles with cancer. It is the Jewish equivalent of saying “you go girl” or acknowledging someone is wearing the ‘Wonder Woman tights’. In fact, Wonder Woman, on Israeli TV, is known as “Eshet Chayil.”

According to this Jewish practice, being a women of valour isn’t about what you do, but how you do it. Surely this is the message to us today, men and women. This isn’t about being a dutiful wife excelling in housewifery, though that is OK if you do it with valour. It isn’t about how we look, or about meeting the expectations of others on how we look.  It is about how we do things, our motivations, our faith and our inner qualities.

If you if you are retired, do it with valour. If you are a nurse, be a nurse of valour. If you are a CEO, a pastor, a check out chick, mountain climber or a barista at Café Guru, if you are rich or poor, single or married—do it all with valour. And if you are a Christian, a person of faith, be counter-cultural, speak out about the superficiality of much of our society, show courage when facing injustice and support the equality of women.

For this is what makes us eshet chayil, ‘women of valour’.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/12/in-the-squares-she-raises-her-voice-lady-wisdom-in-proverbs-pentecost-16b/

Featured

The wisdom from above (James 3; Pentecost 17B)

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him”. So we read at the start of the treatise of James (1:5). There is a strong wisdom flavour to this treatise. The word appears in just four verses (1:5; 3:13, 15, 17), but the nature of the book is quite akin to the most famous work of wisdom in scripture: the book of Proverbs.

The “letter” of James is, in reality, a moral treatise (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/25/on-care-for-orphans-and-widows-james-1-pentecost-14b/) Sometimes called “the Proverbs of the New Testament,” the book of James provides practical guidance on how to live. It canvasses matters such as perseverance, controlling one’s tongue when speaking, submitting to God’s will, responsibilities towards the poor, dealing with anger, and fostering patience.

In terms of its style, James reflects the wisdom tradition that is so evident in Hebrew Scripture and in continuing Jewish traditions. An important place was ascribed to Wisdom amongst Jews of the Dispersion; Wisdom became a key figure for such Jews, as is reflected in a number of writings.

Wisdom is highlighted in Proverbs, which affirms that Wisdom was present with God at creation (Prov 8:22–31). Wisdom was the key creative force at work beside God, in conjunction with God, in creation the world. Wisdom plays a key role in the book of Sirach, where she gives knowledge, makes demands of those seeking instruction from her, imposes her yoke and fetters on her students, and then offers rest (Sir 6:24–28; 51:23–26). Furthermore, Wisdom is portrayed as the intermediary assisting God at creation and throughout salvation history (Sir 24:1–8).

Another document which highlights the role of Wisdom, is the work known as the Wisdom of Solomon—a work which the anonymous author tells of his own search for Wisdom. But the description of Wisdom that is given in this book is more philosophical than biblical; it owes much to the developing middle platonic philosophy of the late Hellenistic period. Wisdom is described as “a breath of the power of God, a pure emanation of the Almighty” (Wis Sol 7:25) and reflects a most dazzling sequence of attributes (Wis Sol 7:22–24).

A comparison with Proverbs and Sirach can be drawn with Matthew, where it is said that Wisdom is at work in Jesus; when the Son of Man eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus declares that “Wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matt 11:19b). Soon after those words, the Matthean Jesus explicitly adopts the language of Wisdom in a well-known set of words. Like Wisdom, he is a teacher (Matt 11:27). Like Wisdom, he invites his followers to take on the yoke of learning, and through this, find true rest (Matt 11:28–30).

Jesus teaches extensively in the style of the wise teacher, employing strings of short, pithy epithets and succinct maxims (see, for example, the collation of such sayings at Matt 6:19–34; 7:1–27; 9:10–17; 10:24–42; 18:1–14).

*****

The divine gift of wisdom occupies a central position in the treatise of James (1:5–8); this “wisdom from above” is to be contrasted with wisdom which is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” (3:13–18).

Numerous epithets typical of the wisdom style are included in the treatise; there are succinct sayings which provide a definitive conclusion to discussion of a topic; for example, “mercy triumphs over judgement” (2:13; compare Matt 9:13) or “who are you to judge your neighbour?” (4:12; compare Matt 7:1).

Practical guidance, which also features in wisdom literature, runs through the treatise of James: “do not be deceived” (1:16), “care for orphans and widows” (1:27), do not favour the rich over the poor (2:1–7), curb your tongues, like putting a bridle in a horse’s mouth (3:3), “do not be boastful” (3:14), “humble yourselves before the Lord” (4:10), “do not grumble against one another” (5:9), “do not swear…by any oath” (5:12), “pray for one another” (5:16).

The treatise of James includes a biting tirade against the oppressive actions of the rich (5:1–6). James quotes snippets of pertinent prophetic denunciations of the rich (Isa 5:9; Jer 12:3), yet the same perspective is evident in Wisdom Literature. We see this, for example, in: “riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death” (Prov 11:4); “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver or gold” (Prov 22:1); “whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty” (Prov 22:16).

In an extended diatribe against wealth and honour (Eccles 5:8–6:12), The Teacher notes, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.” (Eccles 5:10). In Job, Zophar the Naamathite speaks of the wicked: “He swallows down riches and vomits them up again; God casts them out of his belly” (Job 20:15). Antagonism to the rich accumulating more and more wealth is found in various Wisdom works.

A diatribe against engaging in various prohibited actions (arguing, coveting, murder, adultery and impurity, 4:1–10) includes the statement, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6), which is perhaps citing Prov 3:34, “toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favour”.

The treatise as a whole ends with another saying which includes words from Proverbs: “if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:20), citing the later part of Prov 10:12, “hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses”.

The numerous scriptural allusions peppered through the moral exhortations of each chapter certainly demonstrate that the influence of Hebrew scripture on this book, and particularly of the Wisdom literature, cannot be underplayed.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/12/in-the-squares-she-raises-her-voice-lady-wisdom-in-proverbs-pentecost-16b/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/08/wisdom-cries-in-the-streets-proverbs-1-pentecost-16b/

and there’s a fine sermon on this passage by Avril Hannah-Jones at https://revdocgeek.com/2021/09/18/sermon-avril-preaches-to-herself/

Featured

Convicted (1): Joseph Pritchard

My ancestor Joseph Pritchard arrived in the colony of New South Wales on the ship Roslyn Castle 187 years ago on this day, 15 September 1834. Joseph was my great-great-great-grandfather on my father’s maternal line. He is the first reason that I was born in Sydney.

Joseph was born on 14 January 1817 at Macclesfield in Cheshire, England, the son of Joseph Pritchard and Hannah Ridgway, both born in Macclesfield, Cheshire (Joseph in 1791; Hannah in 1797). On the record of his baptism in the local church records (on 13 April 1817), his father’s occupation is listed as Silk Spinster. The minister performing the baptism was Jonathan Barker.

On 7 April 1834, at the age of 17, Joseph appeared at the Chester Quarter Sessions, charged with Larceny. We don’t have any more details than a note in the court records (in a very faint copy). His sentence, of transportation for a period of 7 years, can be found amongst a long list of men convicted of Larceny on the same day in that court.

Joseph was transported to NSW on the ship Roslyn Castle (pictured), which arrived at Port Jackson on 15 September 1834.

The Master of the ship was a Mr Richards. The ship records list amongst the convicts aboard, Joseph Pritchard, aged 17, from London, where he was a Shoemaker’s Boy. Joseph was recorded as able to read (but not write); his complexion was “Dark and Sallow”, his hair was Brown, and his eyes also were Brown.

Joseph was rather short, at 5’ 1 3/4”. Many of the others on the pages of the ship’s log are similarly short (from 5’5” down to 4’10”), suggesting that there was widespread malnutrition amongst the working class in Chester.

A commentary under each convict notes the tattoos on their skin; this writing is tiny and hard to decipher without seeing the original document. Fortunately, this document has been transcribed; the full description is as follows:

The crime for which Joseph was sentenced is clear: “Stealing [from] Master”, for which the sentence of 7 years was given.

On arrival in Sydney on 15 September 1834, Joseph was one of a number of convicts from the Roslyn Castle who were “disposed of”—in his instance, he was sent to a “W. J. Homan, Sydney”—most likely a misspelling of William Holman, who was a cabinetmaker in Sydney at that time.

A further document from the records of the ship Roslyn Castle indicates that Joseph Pritchard of Macclesfield, a Roman Catholic who was a Shoemaker, was then “disposed of” on 1 October, on Bond to a Mr Grey at Wooloomooloo.

Another record indicates that on 20 July 1835, Joseph Pritchard, a Shoemaker from Macclesfield, who had arrived on the Roslyn Castle, was sent to Parramatta.

Just over six years after Joseph Pritchard arrived in the colony of NSW, he applied for permission to marry—as was required of all convicts seeking to marry. The application was made on 8 August 1840, to the Rev. John Murphy, Roman Catholic, of Sydney. Joseph was 23 years of age; His wife-to-be, Mary Sullivan, was 19 years of age, and described as “Native of the Colony”.

A month later, on 7 September 1840, Joseph Pritchard married Mary Sullivan at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Sydney. The celebrant was Father H. G. Gregory; the witnesses were James White and Mary Ryan, both of Sydney. That year, there were just under 30,000 residents of Sydney—almost double the number of residents compared with the year, just six years earlier, when Joseph Pritchard had arrived in the colony.

Two years later, on 23 November 1842, Joseph was issued his Certificate of Freedom.

There are records of Joseph Pritchard living in a house in Phillip Street, Sydney, in 1842–1843, and in a “dwelling house” in Bridge Street in 1851–1852. It is fair to assume that his wife, Mary (née Sullivan), was living there with him; indeed, in the decade after their marriage, Mary gave birth to six children—and in the ensuing 15 years, another nine children arrived!

Mary Sullivan was born in the colony of New South Wales, probably near Appin, NSW, in about 1823. The baptismal register of one of the early Roman Catholic priests of the colony, Rev. J.J. Therry, confirms that he baptised Mary at Appin on 21 August 1823. The sponsors for young Mary were Denis O’Brien and Bridget Dwyer.

The parents of Mary are listed in the register as Daniel Sullivan and Margaret Gorman. Mary was probably one of three children, her siblings being Daniel (baptised on March 13, 1822) and Ellen (born in 1825 or 1826). Her parents had probably each come to New South Wales from Ireland. No record of a marriage between Daniel and Margaret appears to exist in the NSW records.

It is possible that Mary’s father was a convict. A convict, or child of a convict, marrying another convict, or child of a convict, was quite common—they were part of the same strata of society in terms of where they lived, what work they did, and so on. And whilst convicts were still arriving into the colony, a free person marrying a convict was indeed possible, but perhaps not common.

One possibility is Daniel Sullivan, Labourer, of Cork, who was transported in 1820. Another possibility is the Daniel Sullivan, a Sailor/Labourer, who was transported in 1818. A third option is Daniel Sullivan, tried in London in 1799 and transported in 1800 on board the Royal Admiral. There currently are no records which link Mary to any one particular Daniel Sullivan, unfortunately. If anyone can provide me with such a link, I would be most grateful!!

Mary and Joseph had fifteen children in total, between 1842 and 1865. The 1856 birth certificate of Ellen, the eighth child, provides clear information about the origins of Joseph and Mary.

In 1866, the year after the last of these children, Herbert, was born, Joseph died at Spring Creek, near Young, in western NSW. He had been suffering from hepatitis for five months. Mary was left with a large brood of children.

Mary died in 1904.

Joseph and Mary’s fourth child and second son, Joseph Sullivan Pritchard, was born in 1847. He was the third Joseph in a row (in the same way, I am the third John in a row of my direct paternal line.) Joseph carried his mother’s maiden name as his middle name, before his surname, his father’s surname. My parents named me and my two brothers in the same way.

This Joseph (1847–1924) married Maria Jane Jackson in December 1880. Six months before she married Joseph, she birth to a daughter, Margaret Jane. Sadly, Maria Jane lived only a short life (1862–1891). Her daughter lived a long life (1880–1963). I think I can remember her from an encoder when I was a small child.

Margaret Jane Pritchard, in turn, married Edward Thomas Mathias (1871–1941) in November 1899, and gave birth to six children. The eldest of these was my paternal grandmother, Edna Mathias (1905–1992). And so my line of descent from the convict Joseph Pritchard can be traced.

Featured

Remembering John Shelby Spong (1931–2021)

Bishop John Shelby Spong has died, at the end of his ninth decade of life. He has been an extraordinary figure in the life of the church in the 20th century. His legacy is large. Whilst a bishop in the Episcopalian Church in the USA, his influence has been across denominations and across continents, with countless thousands of thinking, exploring Christian believers, questioning received doctrines, exploring new ways of understanding what it means to be a person of faith, living out their discipleship in fresh and innovative ways.

Bishop Spong had his critics during his lifetime; every new book that he authored drew critical words from those who felt he had betrayed the Christian faith. He was regularly accused of hypocrisy, drawing a stipend from the Church yet speaking out against the beliefs of the Church. That kind of criticism is now being levelled once again against Bishop Spong, so soon after his death.

Critics of Spong should know that he advocated nothing that had not already been proposed and debated within biblical scholarship of the mid to later 20th century. Unlike many of the academics who in engaged in scholarly debate about details of exegesis and theology through articles and footnotes, Spong had the gift of speaking in ways that the headlines and opening paragraphs of newspaper articles could handle. He popularised a widespread and deeply debated series of discussions amongst academics.

Spong himself attributed great significance to the scholarly work of New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann and theologian Paul Tillich. We can’t avoid grappling with the important ideas that these scholars advocated and explained. Both demythologisation (Bultmann’s key idea) and existentialist theology (Tillich’s central contribution) need to be engaged with, explored, and critiqued—not just dismissively brushed aside with slogans and stereotypes.

Personally, I haven’t agreed with everything that Spong has published, either in written or spoken form. I have clearly benefitted from close reading and careful thinking about many of the issues that Spong himself has canvassed—both in terms of Spong’s publications and, more extensively, in the academic discussions about those issues in monographs and journal articles. His stimulus has been particularly important in the more popular arena.

Many people of faith who hold to what is called a “progressive theology” point to Spong as the person who first opened up their understanding about faith. He drew new visions, offered different understandings, provided viable options for people to hold to their faith in the increasingly complex and secularised world of the later 20th century. The miracles of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus (and of believers), the Virgin Birth, the inerrancy of scripture—these, and more, he explained in his books in ways that “the ordinary believer” could understand.

Many then went on to discover, and rejoice in, the work of Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, the Jesus Seminar (to which both of these scholars belonged)—and locally, Australian voices such as Val Webb, Rex Hunt, and Greg Jenks. Many across the church have been enriched by the articulate, faithful writings and speaking of such people. Spong opened the door for them to experience a wider audience.

Bishop Spong visited Australia with his wife, Christine, in 2007. He spoke at the inaugural Common Dreams conference in Sydney and visited churches in a number of other cities whist downunder. His influence on the Progressive Christianity movement in Australia has been very significant. A number of my colleagues have testified that “Spong and his ideas helped my find my place (or recover my place) in the church”. We can be grateful for these testimonies.

Not only people with progressive viewpoints are in the debt of Spong. There are many evangelical scholars who have benefitted from the spadework done by more progressive scholars—adopting historical criticism, using it to illuminate the biblical text, and eventually enhancing understandings of scripture amongst evangelicals, even conservatives, and not just more progressive folks.

I think of the work of Don Carson, I. Howard Marshall, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, and many more—conservative biblical scholars who have faithfully grappled with the challenges posed by more progressive points of view, who have utilised the methods developed within so-called “liberal” circles of scholarship. Our academic understanding, and from this our practice of discipleship across the church, has been enhanced by this conversation, taking place in ways that reach across the stereotypes of separated schools of thought.

Spong played some part in that. Not a huge amount in the academic discussions, per se; but a very large role in the public discussions about faith. It is the faithfully determined work of people such as Spong that has shaped the articulation of academic discussions in ways that are understandable to the public, that communicate to ordinary people of faith.

At the end of his life, let’s acknowledge the fine work that John Shelby Spong did in popularising and making widely known an extensive set of insights about what it means to have an informed faith that “makes sense” in the contemporary world; and let’s give thanks for his ministry of deepening and broadening the whole Christian exploration of scripture, faith, and discipleship.

Featured

In the squares she raises her voice: Lady Wisdom in Proverbs (Pentecost 16B)

A sermon by Elizabeth Raine, preached at Tuggeranong Uniting Church (in the ACT, Canberra) on 12 September 2021

The purpose of the book of Proverbs is to guide us in learning how cope with life (Prov 1.2-6). It places an emphasis on teachings gathered from tradition of the elders (e.g., 4.1-4) and from experience (e.g., 6.6-11). In contrast to many other books of the Hebrew Bible, major themes such as the Mosaic and Davidic covenants are absent; Temple worship and sacrifice are rarely mentioned.

Most of the sayings are meant to inspire moral ideals. Guided by the principle that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9.10; 1.7; 15.33), the authors emphasise values such as honesty, diligence, trustworthiness, self-restraint, and appropriate attitudes toward wealth and poverty.

This first chapter of Proverbs introduces us to Lady Wisdom, a mystical feminine aspect of God. She calls to us and invites us on an unexpected journey. She is a central character in many chapters in this book, and those who know her are seen as righteous people. She is offered as a role model for us, her teachings are a template for life, and she a pioneer who opens upa pathway to faith and obedience.

Lady Wisdom, by Sara Beth Baca,

Lady Wisdom, as she is known, has fascinated ecclesiasts and scholars since the inception of the Christian church. She has been described in many ways—as an aspect of God, as a divine entity existing in her own right, even as something approaching a feminine deity, as Proverbs 8 states that Wisdom was present at the beginning of creation, and was a co-creator with God, who delighted in her presence.

This personification of wisdom as a female in Proverbs is one of the most extraordinary portrayals of femininity in the Hebrew Bible. 

This very positive image of the feminine is a stark counterpoint to the very negative metaphorical depiction of women generally encountered in the Old Testament: for example, the whore with many lovers (Jer 3:1); the slaughterer of the Lord’s children (Ezek 16:21), and the adulterous woman in Proverbs itself (Prov 7).

Wisdom offers us a radical example of faithfulness yet she remains a disturbing presence. She transgresses boundaries by standing amidst the male elders at the city gates and presuming to teach them. She has a clear voice, a colourful personality, a dominant presence, and offers words of hope and the promise of life. She is a vehicle of God’s self-revelation, and grants knowledge of God to those who pursue her through scripture and learning.

Unlike most woman of her time, Wisdom occupies what was the domain of men, teachers and prophets. She stands on busy street corners, she is at the town gate; she sets her table at the crossroads where many pass by. Unlike her counterpart in Proverbs 31, there is nothing of the domestic goddess about her. She is counter cultural and subversive. She teaches knowledge and leads her people on their way through history. In a most unladylike way, she raises her voice in public places that are the domain of men and calls to everyone who would hear her. 

The prominent biblical scholar, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, has written this about Wisdom:

“Divine Wisdom is a cosmic figure delighting in the dance of creation, a ‘master’ crafts wo/man and teacher of justice. She is a leader of Her people and accompanies them on their way through history. Very unladylike, she raises her voice in public places and calls everyone who would hear her. She transgresses boundaries, celebrates life, and nourishes those who will become her friends. Her cosmic house is without walls and her table is set for all.”

In short, the biblical figure of Wisdom represents a spirituality of roads and journeys, of public places and open borders, of nourishment and celebration, of justice and equality – rather than a spirituality of categories, doctrines, closed systems and ideologies.

Her dramatic modus operandi stands in striking contrast to the slow and methodical way of operating that we see in the classic formulations of Christendom, doctrines that have come to define the church in the eyes of those outside of it.

Wisdom calls us to work together, for the common good, with others in our society. She is not a figure bound to books and writing; she is out in the community seeking relationships with people, engaging wholeheartedly in public discourse, and living by example the key elements of a faith-filled life.

The church fathers, the male patriarchs of the church, loved making categories; they articulated their doctrines by amassing data, analysing the information, systematising the component parts and categorising the key dogmas. From this intensely rational approach to faith, we have inherited works such as the Congessions of Augustine, the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, the institutes of the Christian Life by Jean Calvin, the string of creeds and confessions from the Westminster Confession onwards, and the massive Church Dogmatics of Karl Barth.

By contrast to these closed systems of knowledge, the biblical figure of Wisdom asks for a relational faith and invites us to develop a wide openness in the way we approach others and God. She requires of us that we really listen to others, including those we don’t agree with … she calls us to listen, to understand, to speak in ways that connect with others and ways that build productive and fruitful relationships across the differences that separate us.

I think that Wisdom is precisely the kind of person who would have relished the invitation, once offered to his disciples by Jesus, to push out to sea again and fish on the other side of the boat. She would value the opportunity to look in a different direction, to reconsider the task at hand and seek a new way of undertaking it. She would jump at the chance to explore a new arena, to pioneer a new task and to reshape her missional engagement so that it was fresh, invigorating, and creative. What a role model that is for us today!

So, the question that I invite you to ponder at this moment is: Where will we find Wisdom? Are we open to the exploration and discoveries that the biblical figure of Wisdom invites us to pursue?

Are we content with repeating our tried and true traditions from the past? Are we content with staying in our familiar comfort zone? Will our mission be simply no more than wishing people to walk through the door, as we remain in our comfortable, self-contained space?

Or will we choose the way of the rather unladylike Wisdom, the radical at the street corner, crying out to all who pass by? Can we understand Wisdom’s model as invitation to the church today? Should we be more concerned with ‘raising our voices’ in the public arena than confining ourselves to church buildings?

Hopefully we will choose to follow the path which offers us the potential to transform contemporary situations of injustice, brokenness and violence into communities that truly reflect the love of God, and we will take our stance in the marketplace in ways that show our deep and profound relationship with God. Hopefully we will follow Wisdom out of our enclosed gatherings to the space where social and spiritual change can take place.

*****

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/19/the-woman-of-valour-proverbs-31/

and also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/08/wisdom-cries-in-the-streets-proverbs-1-pentecost-16b/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/15/the-wisdom-from-above-james-3-pentecost-17b/

Featured

Wisdom cries in the streets (Proverbs 1; Pentecost 16B)

The lectionary is currently providing selections of Hebrew Scripture texts which focus on Wisdom. This focus started some weeks back, with the account, in 1 Kings 3:9–12, of Solomon praying for wisdom and discernment, and God responding by promising to deliver this gift.

After then recounting the prayer of Solomon at the opening of the Temple (1 Kings 8:22–43), we were offered a small section (2:8–13) from the Song of Songs. This work is attributed to King Solomon 1:1), but most likely it was not actually written by him. (It is also known as the Song of Solomon).

The following three Sundays provide selections from Proverbs, another work attributed to Solomon (Prov 1:1; 10:1; 25:1)—although, once again, most likely not written or compiled by him. The book contains a series of short, pithy proverbs (thus, its name), an example of which is provided in the excerpts from chapter 22 (verses 1–2, 8–9, 22–23; a most curious collection of unrelated sayings!).

Wisdom accosts her audience as “simple ones” (1:22, 32) and accuses them of ignoring all that she offers (1:24–25, 30). Wisdom therefore mocks the panic-stricken and laughs at the calamities they experience (1:26), “because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord” (1:29). This is full-on rhetoric, uncompromising speech, from a very feisty female character.

The figure of Wisdom is described in some detail in the passage that is offered this Sunday, in which Wisdom is portrayed in dramatic fashion. She “cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice; at the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates, she speaks” (Prov 1:20–21). The city gates, of course, is the place where the (male) elders of the town would sit, to receive matters for judgement, to apply the details of the Law, day after day.

She accosts her audience as “simple ones” (1:22, 32) and accuses them of ignoring all that she offers (1:24–25, 30). Wisdom therefore mocks the panic-stricken and laughs at the calamities they experience (1:26), “because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord” (1:29). This is full-on rhetoric, uncompromising speech, from a very feisty female character.

The lectionary also provides the full section of text from the last chapter of Proverbs (31:10–(31), where the eshet hayil (the woman of valour) is praised. While “her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land” (31:23)—to spend hours each day, no doubt, debating the finer points of the Law—this woman is energetically running her household, undertaking multiple daily tasks (spinning, making clothing, preparing meals), as well as overseeing the vineyard and the animals, assisting the poor and needy, running a successful merchandise business, undertaking commercial transactions—and, apparently, keeping her husband happy. “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all”, he says, admiringly (31:29).

There is more to her than is revealed in this initial portrayal, however. Wisdom is highlighted in Proverbs 8, which affirms that Wisdom was present with God at creation. In a clear retelling of the creation narrative of Genesis 1, Wisdom declares, “the Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago … when he established the heavens, I was there … when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Prov 8:22–31). Wisdom was the key creative force at work beside God, in conjunction with God, in creation the world.

The woman of valour is to be praised, for she is “a woman who fears the Lord” (31:30). And in the midst of all of this, “she opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (31:26).

“The fear of the Lord”, of course, is the central feature of the teachings of Wisdom, both in Proverbs (1:7, 29; 2:5; 9:10; 14:26–27; 15:33; 19:23; 23:17), and also in other works of wisdom literature (Eccles 5:7; 8:12–13; Job 28:28; 37:23–24; Sir 1:11–20, 27; 19:20; 21:11).

The lectionary continues on with further works drawn from the wisdom literature, part of the third main section of Hebrew Scripture (what the Jews call Kethuvim, or “the writings”). There are excerpts from Esther, Job, and Ruth over the ensuing seven Sundays.

Wisdom plays a key role in two further works, not included in the Protestant canon, but recognised as scripture within Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Wisdom appears in the book of Sirach, attributed to one Jesus, son of Eleanor, son of Sirach, of Jerusalem (50:27). In this book, Wisdom gives knowledge, makes demands of those seeking instruction from her, imposes her yoke and fetters on her students, and then offers rest.

Early in the book, the invitation is extended to engage with Wisdom. “Put your feet into her fetters, and your neck into her collar. Bend your shoulders and carry her, and do not fret under her bonds. Come to her with all your soul, and keep her ways with all your might. Search out and seek, and she will become known to you; and when you get hold of her, do not let her go. For at last you will find the rest she gives, and she will be changed into joy for you.” (Sir 6:24–28).

At the very end of the book, Wisdom extends her invitation: “Draw near to me, you who are uneducated, and lodge in the house of instruction. Why do you say you are lacking in these things, and why do you endure such great thirst? I opened my mouth and said, ‘Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money. Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by’.” (Sir 51:23–26).

In Sirach 24, Wisdom is portrayed as the intermediary assisting God at creation and throughout salvation history. “Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people. In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth, and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory: ‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in the highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. Alone I compassed the vault of heaven and traversed the depths of the abyss” (Sir 24:1–4). Wisdom played a crucial role in creation, surveying the whole scope of the created order for God.

She continues with a description of how she became connected specifically with Israel. “Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.’” (Sir 24:1–8). He link with the chosen people was secured.

Another document which highlights the role of Wisdom is the work known as the Wisdom of Solomon—a work which the anonymous author tells of his own search for Wisdom. “I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me”, the author declares (Wis Sol 7:7), a passage which echoes the plea of King Solomon, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great peoples” (1 Kings 3:9).

The description of Wisdom that is given in this book is more philosophical than biblical; it owes much to the developing middle platonic philosophy of the late Hellenistic period. Wisdom is described as being “more mobile than any motion, because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things” (7:24).

Furthermore, it is said that “she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty” (7:25). She reflects a most dazzling sequence of attributes: “there is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle” (Wis Sol 7:22–24). The work continues for chapter upon chapter, extolling the virtues of Wisdom, praising her glory and insight and knowledge.

The book ends with an extended recitation of the role that Wisdom played in the mighty acts of God, beginning with Adam (10:1-2), and moving through Noah (10:4), Moses and the Exodus (10:15), across the Red Sea. Through Wisdom, God has “exalted and glorified your people, and you have not neglected to help them at all times and in all places” (19:22).

And, of course, Wisdom, the teacher of understanding and the co-worker of God in creation, appears in another form in the New Testament: in the figure of Jesus, Teacher supreme, Word of God present and active from the very moment of creation. She is an important figure to understand.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/12/in-the-squares-she-raises-her-voice-lady-wisdom-in-proverbs-pentecost-16b/

Featured

Rosh Hashanah: Jewish New Year

For Jews, last night, today, tonight and tomorrow during daylight hours forms Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew: ראש השנה). It begins at sundown on Monday 6 September and ends at sundown on Wednesday 8 September. The best translation of Rosh Hashanah is “head of the year”, meaning that this is the Jewish New Year. It begins Hebrew Year 5782.

Rosh Hashanah is the first of the High Holidays, a series of ten “Days of Awe”. These ten days provide a period when observant Jews devote themselves to prayer, good deeds, reflection on the mistakes of the past year, and making amends with those whom they have hurt. It culminates with Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”, which this year will fall on Thursday 16 September.

In Jewish tradition, so I understand, there is a belief that God spends these ten days determining whether to give life or death to all creatures during the coming year. Jewish law teaches that God inscribes the names of the righteous in the “book of life” and condemns the wicked to death on Rosh Hashanah; people who fall between the two categories have until Yom Kippur to perform teshuvah, or repentance.

This concept is clearly reflected in the scriptures of Christianity. At the final judgment in Revelation 20:15, we read that “anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.” That “Book of Life” reflects Jewish tradition, as the place where God records the names of those people adjudged as worthy of life in the coming year. In Revelation, the book is “the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev 21:27). Paul exhorts his “loyal companion” to help Euodia and Syntyche, noting that “they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life” (Phil 4: 2–3).

Is this what Jesus is alluding to when he tells the 70 disciples to rejoice because “your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20)? For the person writing “to Timothy” in the name of Paul towards the end of the first century, it is in fact Jesus himself who will carry out the judgement about this matter (2 Tim 4:1, “Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead”).

Rosh Hashanah is observed on the first two days of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. It is described in the Torah as יום תרועה (Yom Teru’ah, a day of sounding [the shofar]). The day begins with the sounding of the shofar, a ram’s horn, and then during the service a trumpet is blown 100 times. The festival, not surprisingly, is called The Feast of Trumpets.

That festival is described in Leviticus 23:24–25: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall present the LORD’s offering by fire.”

There is a similar description in Numbers 29:1, although that passage then continues with detailed descriptions of the burnt offering (involving nine animals) and grain offerings associated with each burnt offering, which provide “a pleasing odour to the Lord”, offered “to make atonement for you” (Num 29:2–5).

These texts are priestly prescriptions, contained in books written after the return from exile in Babylon from the 520s BCE onwards, presenting as requirements for the people of Israel centuries before, when the Temple built in Jerusalem under Solomon was the focus of religious life.

After five decades of living in a foreign land, the priests are reinforcing these sets of laws for use in the rededicated Temple in the rebuilt Jerusalem in the time of Ezra, as the governor of the city, Nehemiah, reports (Neh 7:73–8:3). This is clear from the way the date is specified (“when the seventh month came—the people of Israel being settled in their towns—all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate”, 7:73–8:1). What follows is an account of a covenant renewal ceremony, as the Law is read, and explained, to all the people (Neh 8:1–12).

In this way, the traditions of centuries past are revitalised for a new situation. Jewish traditions relating to the Festival of Trumpets continue to be revitalised in subsequent centuries. Philo of Alexandria, the first‑century BCE Jewish philosopher, describes the first day of the seventh month as the great “Trumpet Feast”. He connects it with the sounding of the horn at Mount Sinai when revelation took place (Exod 19:13–16).

Philo interprets the trumpet as an instrument and symbol of war, and reinterprets the festival as relating to peace and abundance: “Therefore the law instituted this feast figured by that instrument of war the trumpet, which gives it its name, to be as a thank offering to God the peace‑maker and peace‑keeper, who destroys faction both in cities and in the various parts of the universe and creates plenty and fertility and abundance of other good things” (Philo, Special Laws, 2:188-192).

The significance of the festival is being reinterpreted and re-applied in the city of Alexandria in the decades prior to the time of Jesus. There is no reference to the festival signifying the new year. Had this dimension of the festival been dropped, at least in Alexandria, five centuries after Nehemiah? Or was it simply assumed, and not mentioned because it was common knowledge at the time?

Two centuries later, well after the Second Temple built under Nehemiah had been destroyed, Rabbi Judah ha-Nazi drew together the many oral traditions about the Law in a document we know as the Mishnah. The title is a Hebrew word which comes from a root word meaning “repetition”. The Mishnah contains the teachings of rabbis from centuries past, which were learnt by male Jewish students by study and repetition.

In the Mishnah, the eighth tractate (Rosh Hashanah) in the second order (Moed, meaning Festivals) deals with this festival. It provides the description, “On Rosh Hashanah all human beings pass before [the Lord] as troops, as it is said, ‘the Lord looks down from heaven, He sees all mankind. From His dwelling place He gazes on all the inhabitants of the earth, He who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all their doings’ (quoting Ps 33:13–15)” (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1.2).

Other sections deal with the various stages of the festival, and provide a set of laws relating to the shofar, the trumpet sounded to give the festival its name.

In the Talmud, a later expansion of the discussions found in the Mishnah, further expositions are provided, including a detailed set of provisions relating to the shofar, which is to be blown on two occasions on Rosh Hashana: once while “sitting” (before the Mussaf, the additional prayer to be said on a festival day), and once while “standing” (during the Mussaf prayer). This increased the number of blasts from the basic requirement of 30, to 60.

An even later rabbi, Nathan ben Jehiel of Rome (1035–1106), provided for 100 blasts: 30 before Mussaf, 30 during the Mussaf silent prayer, 30 during the cantor’s loud repetition of Mussaf, and 10 more after Mussaf. And so the development and re-interpretation of the festival continued.

I found a good page on the history.com website that explains a number of the customs currently associated with Rosh Hashanah.

Apples and honey: One of the most popular Rosh Hashanah customs involves eating apple slices dipped in honey, sometimes after saying a special prayer. Ancient Jews believed apples had healing properties, and the honey signifies the hope that the new year will be sweet. Rosh Hashanah meals usually include an assortment of sweet treats for the same reason.

Round challah: On Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) and other holidays, Jews eat loaves of the traditional braided bread known as challah. On Rosh Hashanah, the challah is often baked in a round shape to symbolize either the cyclical nature of life or the crown of God. Raisins are sometimes added to the dough for a sweet new year.

Tashlich: On Rosh Hashanah, some Jews practice a custom known as tashlich (“casting off”), in which they throw pieces of bread into a flowing body of water while reciting prayers. As the bread, which symbolize the sins of the past year, is swept away, those who embrace this tradition are spiritually cleansed and renewed.

“L’shana tovah”: Jews greet each other on Rosh Hashanah with the Hebrew phrase “L’shana tovah,” which translates to “for a good year.” This is a shortened version of the Rosh Hashanah salutation “L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem” (“May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year”).

See https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/rosh-hashanah-history and https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/rosh-hashanah-customs/

My friend Peta Jones Pellach has written a lovely blog for Rosh Hashanah at https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/storytelling-for-the-new-year/

Featured

The paradoxes of discipleship (Mark 8; Pentecost 16B)

The section of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one that is offered in the lectionary this coming Sunday (Mark 8:27–38) contains two striking paradoxes.

It reports the paradox that the fundamental identity of Jesus was recognised by Peter—followed by a command silencing Peter from telling anyone else about this. It also includes the paradox that Jesus anticipates the public shaming that he will experience on the cross—followed by his call to his followers, to take up the cross themselves. Each paradox invites considered reflection.

The first paradox: the silence about the central identity of Jesus

Mark reports that Jesus asked his followers, “who do you say that I am?”; to which Peter answered, “You are the Messiah” (8:29). The identification of Jesus as Messiah (or Christ) is central to this book. (Messiah is from the Hebrew word to anoint; Christ is from the Greek word with the same meaning.) This identification appears in the very first sentence of the work, in what may well be regarded as the title of the book: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God” (1:1).

The identity of Jesus continues as a motif running through this Gospel. It is reiterated in a variety of ways in statements made at crucial moments in the story (see 1:11; 8:29; 9:7; 10:45; 14:62; 15:39). But it also forms a recurring question, asked by many characters throughout the story.

We can’t read Mark’s Gospel without being confronted, again and again, by this question, in whatever guise it comes: “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1:24, from a possessed man); “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41, from the disciples); “what have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (5:6, from the disciples); “what have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (5:6, from the Gadarene demoniac); “where did this man get all this? what is this wisdom that has been given to him?” (6:2, from his extended family in Nazareth).

Once he is in Jerusalem, Jesus encounters the same question from the High Priest: “are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14:61); and from the Roman governor: “are you the King of the Jews?” (15:2). So, the key question remains for us: “who do people say that I am?” (8:27, asked by Jesus)—a question which he immediately sharpens into “who do you say that I am?” (8:28).

The question of the identity of Jesus is posed once again in the trial of Jesus before the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. Mark reports that the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”, to which Jesus replied, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (14:61–62).

And at the midpoint of the Gospel narrative, at the central climactic moment of conversation at Caesarea Philippi, the question is put by Jesus to his followers. The question posed by Jesus comes at the high point in his public ministry—just before he is transfigured, before he makes his fateful decision to turn towards Jerusalem, in the Synoptics.

The scene is located at Caesarea Philippi, at the foot of Mount Herman, to the northeast of the Sea of Galilee, in the Tetrarchy of Philip. It was the northernmost point in ancient Israel (in modern terms, it is in the Golan Heights, the Israeli-occupied territory overlooking Syria). It is as if the story needs to take us to the very edge to hear the clarifying conversation about Jesus.

And in this clarifying conversation, Peter goes to the heart of who Jesus is. Not simply one of the prophets—although he clearly stands in the tradition of the prophets. Not Elijah, the one charged with preparing the way for the Messiah, the anointed one, specifically chosen by God amongst all of humanity. Rather, it is Jesus himself who is that chosen, anointed one.

Peter has identified him accurately; Jesus is the Messiah. Yet immediately we hear the paradoxical note that Jesus “strictly charged them to tell no one about him” (8:30).

Yet, it is a striking fact that, in this gospel, Jesus never himself claims that he is the Christ. (The irony, of course, is that the term used to describe the followers of Jesus throughout the centuries, Christian, is based precisely on the claim that Jesus is the Christ.)

The closest Jesus gets to this self-identification is his clipped response to the question put to him by the chief priest, when he is asked, “are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (14:61). Jesus admits this in two short words, “I am”, before proceeding immediately to speak about the Son of Man coming in glory.

Indeed, in his final set of teachings given to his followers outside the Temple, when he speaks about the time still to come, Jesus explicitly warns against those laying claim to such a title: “if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it; for false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect” (13:21–22). The implication is that these other claimants are false, because Jesus is the true Messiah; yet he never specifically says this.

And Jesus persists in instructing people not to spread the news about him after he has healed them or cast out demons from them. He gives this instruction directly to demons (1:24; 1:34; 3:12), as well as to a healed leper (1:43), a healed blind man (8:26), crowds who have witnessed healings (5:43; 7:36), and the disciples (8:30; 9:9). (These verses provide the basis for the so-called “Messianic Secret” in Mark’s Gospel.)

There is one place where Jesus is acclaimed as Messiah, with no come-back from Jesus: when the crowd of onlookers cry out to Jesus as he hangs on the cross: “let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (15:32). This isn’t an affirmingly positive acclamation of Jesus; rather, the term is used to mock and deride him in his helpless state.

The second paradox: the shame of the central dynamic of crucifixion

The cross is, in fact, the place where the second paradox appears in the Gospel passage set for this coming Sunday. The cross is introduced by Jesus himself, when he teaches his followers: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).

So important is this teaching, that Jesus repeats it twice more: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise” (9:31) and “the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles; and they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him; and after three days he will rise” (10:33-34).

I don’t think that three predictions were spoken, historically, by Jesus, as he made his way towards Jerusalem. Rather, the author of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, Messiah placed them in this strategic place in the centre of his narrative. They mark the turn on the story from Galilee, where the earlier activity of Jesus took place (1:14–9:50), towards Jerusalem, where the final days of Jesus will play out (10:1–16:8). The dynamic of the narrative indicates that, as Jesus leaves behind the days of preaching and teaching, healing and casting out demons, his focus turns to the confrontation that he knows lies in store for him.

The public nature of crucifixion was humiliating and shaming. The typical process of crucifixion involved moment after moment of humiliation, undermining any sense of honour that the victim had, increasing the sense of public shame that they were experiencing. In the Roman world, crucifixion was variously identified as a punishment for slaves (Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.168), bandits (Josephus, War 5.449-451), prisoners of war (Josephus, War 5.451), and political rebels (Josephus, Antiquities 17.295). These were people whose situations or actions had generated shame.

In the case of Jesus, he is accused of treason through the inference that he is King of the Jews—a claim that was anathema to the Romans (John 19:12)—and he is crucified in the company of political rebels (Mark 15:27; Matt 27:38; the term used, lēstēs, is the one most often found in the writings of Josephus to denote a political rebel).

A public trial, followed by a public execution on the cross, was a ritual in which the accused person was shamed, through a public ritual of status degradation. Cicero, in speaking as the counsel of Rabinio, a man accused of treason, asserted that “the ignominy of a public trial is a miserable thing” and described a public execution as “the assembly being polluted by the contagion of an executioner … [exhibiting] traces of nefarious wickedness” (Pro Rabinio 11, 16).

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/26/reading-the-crucifixion-as-a-scene-of-public-shaming/

And yet, immediately after he spoke this prophetic word, Jesus issued his disciples with a call to take up their crosses themselves: “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34). He invites them—indeed, he commands them—to enter into the public shame that he will experience in his own crucifixion.

In the narratives that recount the crucifixion of Jesus, it is not so much the physical torment of Jesus which is highlighted (although, admittedly, a slow death by suffocation whilst hanging on a cross for hours, even days, was a terrible fate). Rather, it is the various ways in which Jesus was shamed: he was spat upon, physically struck on the face and the head, verbally ridiculed and insulted, and treated contemptuously.

This is the way of Jesus; and the way of his followers. Instead of saving their life, the followers of Jesus are instructed to lose their life (8:35). Instead of aiming to “gain the whole world”, and thereby “forfeit their life”, a follower is, by implication, to let go of all hopes of “gaining the world” (8:36–37). To gain the world was presumably referring to occupying a position of power, prestige, and popularity—precisely the kind of issues that later writers, Matthew and Luke, reflected in their more detailed accounts of the testing of Jesus in the wilderness.

(See https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/johntsquires.com/2019/03/05/a-testing-time-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-1/)

Then, Jesus specifies the sense of shame that is involved in “taking up your cross” and “losing your life”, but he turns the tables as he declares that “those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (8:38).

This declaration of shame reflects the shame, in God’s eyes, of rejecting Jesus. Here is the paradox: to gain honour, Jesus had to be subjected to the shame of the cross. Likewise, to gain honour as a disciple following Jesus, a person must take up the shameful instrument of punishment (the cross), lay aside all desire to gain prestigious and powerful positions of honour, give up any claim on life itself, and (as Jesus later asserts), live as a servant, being willing to be dishonoured for the sake of the shame of the Gospel.

And that’s the second paradox of discipleship that the passage illuminates.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/02/22/2740/

Featured

On Jesus and Justa, Tyre and Decapolis (Mark 7; Pentecost 15B)

In the selection from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one, that is provided by the lectionary this coming Sunday (Mark 7:24–37), we see encounters that Jesus has with two different people. The first is a woman who comes to Jesus, begging for his help (7:25–26). The second is a man who is brought to Jesus by some people who beg for him to help (7:32). The woman has a daughter who is gripped by “an unclean spirit” (7:25); the man is deaf and suffering from a speech impediment (7:32).

The response of Jesus is quite different in each scene. To the woman, he is curtly dismissive, inferring that she is but a dog under the table, begging for scraps (7:27). He appears not to want to engage with her. To the man, Jesus is immediately attentive; indeed, the actions he performs reflect the typical acts of a healer—he “put his fingers into his ears, spat, touched his tongue, and sighed” (7:33–34).

On touching and spitting during a healing, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/19/in-the-most-unlikely-way-touching-the-untouchable-john-9/

The second encounter leads swiftly to resolution; the man can immediately hear and speak (7:35). The amazement of the crowd that had witnessed the change in the man leads them to bear zealous witness to Jesus to anyone who will listen (7:36–37). It is a triumphant ending to a remarkable encounter.

Not so with the woman who had come, begging Jesus to cast the demon out of his daughter (7:26). The disdain expressed by Jesus towards the woman does not end the scene. On the contrary: it intensifies the interaction. The woman responds swiftly and courageously, pushing back against Jesus: “let the children be fed first” (7:28). She will not let him get away with such a demeaning remark!

The scene ends with Jesus admitting that the woman had bested him in this public interchange: “for this statement you may go your way” (7:29). Implicit in his admission of defeat is the recognition that he had overstepped the boundaries.

There’s a fine consideration of this encounter in a book by James McGrath which has recently been published. McGrath considers the many and varied ways that Jesus learnt from women during his life, including this striking scene. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/04/jesus-growing-learning-a-review-of-what-jesus-learned-from-women/

In her response to Jesus (“even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”, 7:28), the woman picks up on the language used by Jesus. The term “dog” was deliberately provocative, even demeaning. Some interpreters have wanted to claim that “dog” was a typical Jewish slander for Gentiles—but there is actually no evidence supporting this specific claim. Nevertheless, in general, we can sense that the words of Jesus would not have been heard by the woman as being very encouraging or supportive.

Miracle of the Canaanite Woman, from the Codex Egberti
German (Reichenau), c. 977-993, Trier, Stadtbibliothek
Ms 24, fol. 35v

What we do see in the words of Jesus is a glimpse into the character of Jesus. He reflects his Jewish heritage and culture. His reference to “children” is widely taken to refer to his own people, the people of Israel. They saw themselves as the children of God (see Exod 3:10–11; 1 Kings 6:13; Ezra 3:1; Isa 45:11; Jer 32:30–32; Hos 1:10–11; Luke 1:16; Acts 7:23; 9:15). The contrast between “the children” at the table and “the dogs” underneath is clear. If Jesus is one of the children, eating at the table, then the woman is the dog under the table, begging. The inference is clear.

The matter of territory is important in these two particular stories. One is set in the region of Tyre (7:24), which is to the north-west of the Sea of Galilee, and just outside of Jewish territory. The other is set in the Decapolis (7:31), a predominantly Gentile region across on the eastern side of the River Jordan. Both scenes clearly bring Jesus into Gentile territory.

Earlier on, Jesus left Jewish territory by crossing to “the other side” on the east of the Sea of Galilee (4:35, 5:1). He returns to Israel by boat (5:21) before once again heading east to “the other side” (6:45), not too long before these two incidents are narrated. (He returns to Jewish territory once more at 8:13).

Interestingly, while he is in Jewish territory, after the first return crossing of the lake, Jesus feeds a crowd of more than 5,000 people (6:30–44). The account of this miracle has a strong Jewish flavour: there are allusions to the Old Testament, such as how the Lord shepherds and feeds his people in the desert (see Psalm 78:18–25 and Psalm 23 — note the “green grass”). The baskets used are kophinoi, small Jewish baskets. The relevant numbers are 5 (as in the books of the Pentateuch) and 12 (Tribes of Israel).

When he heads over to “the other side”, Gentile territory, Jesus feeds a crowd of “about four thousand people” (8:1–10). In this story, the flavour is quite different: the Old Testament allusions are missing, the baskets (spuridas) are non-Jewish, and the numbers are 4 (signifying, in Jewish thought, the four corners of the world) and 7 (thought to signifying all the nations).

In both scenes there are also strong eucharistic allusions, with Jesus taking the bread, giving thanks, breaking it, and giving it to his disciples (6:41; 8:6). The pattern replicates his words and actions at the Last Supper (14:22). Is the symbolism significant? With eucharistic overtones, Jesus has fed both Jews and Gentiles, teaching by his words and actions that there are no food boundaries between Jews and Gentiles—precisely the point made in a debate located right in the centre between these two scenes, at 7:19.

Linked with the matter of territory, so also the matter of nationality of the people involved is important in these two scenes in Mark 7. In each story, Jesus encounters a person who is unclean: a Gentile woman who has been in contact with her daughter, who is possessed by a demon; and a Gentile man who is physically disabled in speech and hearing.

Miracle of the Canaanite Woman, from Sermons of Maurice de Sully
Italian, ca. 1320-1330; Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 187, fol. 9v

The woman had been born a Syrophoenician; she is clearly a Gentile (7:26). Matthew, in reworking this story, actually makes her a Canaanite (Matt 15:22), a member of the race native to the area long before the Hebrews lay claim to the land. Most certainly, she is not a Jew.

Contact with such people would make a person unclean and thus alienated from the holy people of God. Jesus is pushing the boundaries of his faith, deliberately engaging with people on the edge (or beyond) in territory which is outside the realms in which the rituals of purity and holiness apply—the land of Israel.

This is important when we consider how the story of the Syrophoenician woman was received and retold in later Christian tradition. Although anonymous in both passages where she appears in scripture (like so many women in the patriarchal world of the day), she is gifted with a name—Justa—in the same way that the unnamed woman of Samaria who encountered Jesus (in John 4) is gifted with a name by later Christian writers. (She gains the name Photini—and she also becomes a saint; see https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/12/from-the-woman-at-the-well-to-a-byazantine-saint-john-4-st-photini-and-the-path-to-enlightenment/.)

Hans Vischer, The Canaanite Woman Approaches Jesus
German, 1543; Munich, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum

Not only is the Syrophoenician-Phoenician woman named, but in later Christian writing, she actually converts. In the Clementine Homilies, a third century work, the story of the encounter between Jesus as Justa, as she is named, is retold, clarified, and expanded in Homily II, Chapter XIX. Jesus says to her, “It is not lawful to heal the Gentiles, who are like to dogs on account of their using various meats and practices, while the table in the kingdom has been given to the sons of Israel.”

The woman obtains healing for her daughter, not through her words back to Jesus (as in Mark 7:28), but by her actions: “hearing this, and begging to partake like a dog of the crumbs that fall from this table, having changed what she was, by living like the sons of the kingdom”. The women becomes a proselyte, changing from a Gentile to one of “the sons of the kingdom”.

Does this mean she became a follower of Jesus? The phrase “the sons of the kingdom” is found twice on the lips of Jesus, both times in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 8:12; 13:38). After healing the servant of a centurion in Capernaum (8:5–13), Jesus teaches that “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness”. Here, the phrase refers to Jews who do not believe in him. In his explanation of the parable of the weeds (13:37–43), Jesus declares that “the field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom”, whilst “the weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil” (13:38–39). Here, the phrase describes Jews who accept the message of Jesus.

Does the description of the change undergone by Justa in Homily II indicate that she had converted to Judaism, or to Christianity? The former option would completely undermine the impact of the Gospel narratives, in which, as we have seen, her Gentile status is critical to the narrative. But the Homily is resolute, providing this clear explanation: “For she being a Gentile, and remaining in the same course of life, He would not have healed had she remained a Gentile, on account of its not being lawful to heal her as a Gentile.” So she had no choice. She had to convert. Jesus would not dare to heal a Gentile!

Ironically, this later patristic assertion that the woman converted undermines the very testimony of the Markan account. It is for her saying—not her faith—that Jesus commends her (7:29) and heals her daughter. (This is in contrast to the version told by Matthew, where Jesus explicitly commends her for her faith; see Matt 15:28).

James Tissot, Jesus and the Canaanite Woman; French, 1888-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum. (This interesting late 19th-century image
by Tissot shows the moment in a more archaeologically correct
setting and costume than in many medieval depictions.)

There is a further reference to Justa through her daughter, who lived in “Tyre of Phoenicia” and was familiar with Peter and other followers of Jesus—suggesting a conversion to Christianity. Later in the Clementine Homilies, in Homily III, Chapter LXXIII, Clement, Aquila, and Nicetas are instructed by Peter to travel to Tyre and stay in the household of “Bernice the Canaanite, the daughter of Justa”.

Then, in Homily IV, Chapter I, we read that the same three believers arrived in Tyre and lodged with “Bernice, the daughter of Justa the Canaanitess”, who lavished hospitality on them for some time. “She received us most joyfully; and striving with much honour towards me, and with affection towards Aquila and Nicetas, and speaking freely as a friend, through joy she treated us courteously, and hospitably urged us to take bodily refreshment”, writes Clement.

Bernice had certainly learned from her mother Justa the importance of providing generous, welcoming hospitality, with good food on the table, ensuring that her guests had no need to beg for the scraps. Her encounter with Jesus left a lasting impression on Justa.

*****

The front image is by Peter Gorman, Exorcising the Canaanite Woman’s Daughter; sauce-crayon on paper; 1990, еsize:36х50, from https://www.erarta.com/en/museum/collection/works/detail/G081009103/

The images above have been taken from http://imaginemdei.blogspot.com/2014/08/ilustrating-miracles-canaanite-woman.html

*****

My thanks to Elizabeth Raine, with whom I have had many discussions about this woman and the way she is portrayed in the two Gospel accounts.

Featured

Wisdom from ages past for the present times (Leviticus, Jesus, James, and Paul) (Pentecost 15B, 23B)

There’s a book in the Bible that gets really bad press. It is is cited as being irrelevant to modern life, because it talks about “in the camp” and “outside the camp”. It seems to contain pages and pages of laws about sacrifices and offerings and festivals and the Temple, none of which seem relevant to Christian faith. It has chapters devoted to what you can eat, and what you can’t eat. It talks about how to deal with skin diseases and sexual misbehaviour.

And we know that a couple of verses in this book have, most unhelpfully, been quite abused by some people in some churches, being misused to berate, judge, and condemn some people in society—in ways that are quite out of keeping with the original intentions and application of these verses.

Have you guessed which book? If you thought, “ Leviticus”, you are right.

Leviticus—the book of the Levites, the group within ancient Israel that were responsible for all that took place in the Temple—contains all of these things. And those passages that gave directions about worship, sacrifices, offerings, ordination, priestly activity, dietary matters, relationships, illnesses, and more, were important for the people of Israel in centuries past.

But in the present—how relevant are these things? That’s a fair question (but it requires an explanation much longer than can be given in this short article).

There is one thing in Leviticus, however, that is important. Very important. So important that it has been quoted at many times in subsequent generations. So important that it shapes faith and discipleship for us even today. So important that is provides the guiding principle for life in a global pandemic.

There is a story when Jesus engages in conversation with a teacher of the Torah (the law), recounted in Mark 12:28–34 and parallel passages. To the question, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”, Jesus responds by citing two commandments, each drawn from Hebrew Scripture.

The first commandment, “love God”, comes from Deuteronomy (Deut 6:5; 10:12). Deuteronomy literally means “second law”; it is believed to be the book discovered in the Temple under King Josiah (2 Kings 22:8–11; 2 Chron 34:14–16) which was the catalyst and guide for the widespread reforms that Josiah undertook. Deuteronomy contains the Ten Commandments (Deut 5:1–21), as well as the Shema, which became the daily prayer of the Jews (Deut 6:4–9), and a series of blessings (28:1–6) and curses (28:15–19) which formed the basis for the beatitudes spoken by Jesus on the mountain (Matt 5:3–12) and the parallel set of blessings and woes on the plain (Luke 6:20–26).

The second commandment, “love your neighbour”, actually comes from Leviticus (19:18), a book which, as we have noted, contains a comprehensive set of laws which cover a wide range of issues and situations.

The command to “love your neighbour” culminates a series of instructions regarding the way a person is to relate to their neighbours: “you shall not defraud your neighbour .. with justice you shall judge your neighbour … you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour … you shall not reprove your neighbour” (19:13–18). It sits within the section of the book which is often called The Holiness Code (Lev 17–26), a section which emphasises the word to Israel, that “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2; also 20:7, 26). Being holy means treating others with respect.

It is not only Jesus who quotes these words from Leviticus. In the treatise of James, the brother of Jesus, the command to love your neighbour (Lev 19:18) is quoted. It leads into a discussion of the need to fulfil the Law as a whole (2:8). James makes reference to two of the Ten Commandments (2:11), before drawing a succinct moral conclusion: “so speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (2:12). These verses appear in this Sunday’s epistle reading.

The command to love your neighbour is also quoted by Paul, not once, but twice. The first time is in Rom 13:8–10, in a section of that letter where Paul claims that “love is the fulfilment of the law”. The second is in Galatians, where Paul reminds his audience of a key theme of that letter, that “you were called to freedom”, before asserting that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal 5:13–14).

It is worth noting that both James and Paul link this central command to the issue of liberty—James 2:12, Gal 5:13–14. Keeping the law is not a matter of bondage and oppressive restrictions; rather, loving your neighbour is an expression of freedom, for as we orient ourself to the other person, we release our own person from what might hold and constrain us.

So the big three of first century Christianity—Jesus, his brother James, leader of the church in Jerusalem, and the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul—each refer to this one commandment from Leviticus, and give it prominence amongst all the other commandments. It is one of the two “greatest commandments” (Mark 12:31), it is “the royal law” (James 2:8), it is the one word that sums up all the other commandments (Rom 13:9) and fulfils the whole law (Gal 5:14).

And for us, today, in the world of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Delta strain, these ancient words of wisdom hold good as the guiding principle for all that we do. We love our neighbour by taking all the precautions necessary: careful hand washing and sanitising, wearing a mask when in public, getting vaccinated, social distancing when we are permitted to interact in person, staying at home when we are required. As we reduce the risk of transmitting infections by these means, we show that we truly love our neighbours.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/30/fulfilling-the-law-james-2-pentecost-15b/

Featured

Fulfilling the Law (James 2; Pentecost 15B)

I have already given some consideration to the strongly Jewish ethos of the book we know as the letter of James—which, as I have argued, is better portrayed as a moral treatise. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/25/on-care-for-orphans-and-widows-james-1-pentecost-14b/

The passage in view in the lectionary epistle reading for this coming Sunday (James 2:1-17) places this characteristic right to the fore, when it declares that “you do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (2:8).

The recipients of the treatise of James are identified in the opening verse as “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1). This is a generic description giving no specific clues as to their identity. This does, however, provide a testimony to the continuing presence of Jewish believers within the Jesus movement.

The readers of this work would well have recognised the reference to Leviticus 19:18, which clearly states: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. They would also have known very easily that the laws cited in James 2:11 are drawn directly from The Ten Words which God gave to Moses to give to Israel (Exodus 20).

This Jewish element can be seen in much of the treatise, particularly in the way that God is portrayed. God is the Father (1:17, 27; 3:9), the One God (2:19), both “lawgiver and judge” (4:12), who is acknowledged as being “compassionate and merciful” (5:11). God has created the world (1:17) and made humans in image of God (3:9). God acts as the champion of the poor (1:27), and requires human beings to act with justice for the poor (5:1–6). All of these claims about God can be seen to have been drawn from the testimony of the people of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The treatise of James thus draws on the prophetic tradition of Israel for its view of God. It shares this viewpoint with Matthew’s Gospel, where God is acknowledged as Creator, judge, lawgiver, showing mercy yet demanding righteousness. These two books of the New Testament testify to the ongoing vitality of “Jewish Christianity” in the middle and latter decades of the first century.

Also similar to Matthew’s Gospel is the way that this treatise includes numerous explicit references to Hebrew scripture. In the Gospels, we see that Jesus quoted often from his scripture and drew on biblical imagery as the basis for his teachings. This characteristic is heightened both by the Matthean narrative’s emphasis on fulfilment of scripture (Matt 1–4; 8:17; 12:17–21; 21:4–5; 27:9–10) and the words attributed to Jesus concerning the fulfilment of the law (5:17–20) and of the prophets (13:14–15, 35; 26:52–56).

In the treatise of James, there are two significant passages which contain direct citations of the Law. First, the Levitical command to love the neighbour (Lev 19:18) introduces a discussion of the need to fulfil the Law (2:8). There is reference to two of the Ten Commandments (2:11) before a succinct moral conclusion is drawn: “so speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (2:12). These verses appear in this Sunday’s epistle reading.

Second, in his consideration of faith and works (2:18–26), the author engages in a midrash on the Genesis account of Abraham being reckoned as righteousness (Gen 15:6); once again, a concise conclusion is drawn, that “faith without works is dead” (2:26).

Ever since Martin Luther dismissed James as a “right strawy epistle”, interpreters have tended to assume that James 2 stands in direct contrast to Paul’s argument in Gal 3:6–18; more recent interpretation has questioned this assumption. James here defines “faith” as mere verbal assent, with no practical outworking (2:18–19)—a sense which it does not have for Paul, who links faith and love by referring to “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).

In fact, it is claimed, both authors regard authentic faith as inextricably linked with “works”. But the sense remains that this treatise reflects a strand of the Jesus movement which differed from Paul’s views—and was perhaps more in tune with the opponents with whom Paul often argued. The polemic against a Pauline understanding certainly underlies the argument of James 2:14–26; the twice-stated conclusion (2:17, 26) is pointed in rebutting the Pauline criticism of relying on “the works of the Law” (Gal 2:16; 3:2, 10–12). It’s a matter of priority: faith comes first, the “works of the Law” come as a consequence of that first priority. Trusting first in works has the order the wrong way around.

But simply relying on faith with no regard for the Law is not good enough for James. In affirming that “faith apart from works is dead” (2:26), the treatise of James affirms the ongoing validity and central importance of “the royal law”, continuing the ancient Israelite commitment to living a life consistent with the intentions of God that they be a holy people.

The ethic imbued by keeping the Law is fundamental to the life of faith. In this way, for followers of Jesus, the model of Abraham continues to inform their discipleship; “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (2:22).

In this regard, viewing Abraham as a model of faith, this letter is consistent with what Paul writes, in Romans: Abraham “did not weaken in faith … no unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom 4:18-21).

And Paul, like James, also affirms the ongoing validity of the ethic that is taught in the Law, asserting that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12) and “neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor 7:19).

Indeed, Paul affirms that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law”, citing some of the Ten Commandments in support (Rom 13:8-10). So whilst there are some points of disagreement between James and Paul, as to how the Law is used in specific ways, there is a fundamental commitment to keeping the ethic, the way of life, that is taught by the Law. James can’t simply dismissed as being as unsubstantial as straw–sorry, Luther!!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/01/wisdom-from-ages-past-for-the-present-times-leviticus-jesus-james-and-paul-pentecost-15b-23b/

Featured

Wash your hands (Mark 7; Pentecost 14B)

Wash your hands. It’s a simple instruction.

Wash your hands! It’s guidance that has been particularly pertinent over the past 18 months, as we have grappled with the dangers of transmitting a novel coronavirus which has been responsible for a global pandemic. Wash your hands—carefully, thoroughly, singing “Happy birthday to you” through twice.

So the opening verses of the Gospel passage offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday sounds quite relevant: “when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them” (Mark 7:1–2). Eating without washing hands, to us, is not a wise thing. Surely, the same applies to the disciples of Jesus, back 2,000 years ago?

Well, it’s not that simple. It’s not just a matter of washing your hands, using soap and warm water, for 30 seconds—not in the biblical text. It’s a more complex and nuanced matter, in this biblical story. The author of this Gospel makes it quite clear that it’s not just a matter of “wash your hands”.

The opening phrase identifies that it was the Pharisees and some scribes who noticed what the disciples were (or rather, weren’t) doing.

That’s significant, because they were the people amongst the Jews who attends carefully to all the details of what the Law required the people of Israel to do. The scribes and the Pharisees devoted their lives to teaching and explaining each of the 613 commandments and ordinances that were included within the books of Torah (the books of the Law—the first five books of Hebrew Scriptures).

So they knew that washing hands before eating was a part of life that included many details. There were quite a number of factors involved in preparing to eat. It was a complex matter—as, indeed, was attending to each of those 613 laws.

This complexity is signalled in a significant aside as the story is told (marked by parentheses in our Bibles), as we read that “the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles” (Mark 7:3–4).

In terms of the “many traditions” that the Pharisees valued, the washing of hands included a number of factors. How much water would be sufficient to cleanse the hands? From what vessel can the water be poured onto the hands? How much of each hand should be washed when performing this action? What water is acceptable, and what will not be acceptable? Who is required to perform this action? Is everyone required to do this? What might make the handwashing ineffective?

Now, before we come down heavily on the scribes and the Pharisees, and accuse them of legalism and of being fixated on details and of placing heavy burdens on the people, let’s remember the ways that our own court system operates today. We have laws, covering all manner of situations, addressing many different actions. Each law has a number of sections and subsections in the relevant legislation.

Then each magistrate or judge applies that law to the specific situation before the court. Case law develops, providing precedents for this situation of that situation. Before you know it, you are looking at a whole bookcase full of documentation that is required to be known, before actions can be assessed under the law.

The Pharisees and the scribes were doing the same. They were exploring all the options, all the possibilities, in applying the law. And they were teaching the people, instructing them in how to attend to the commandments and ordinances that were given by God to the people through Moses—and through the line of interpreters which followed on over the ensuing centuries.

Eventually, the accumulation of explorations and considerations about these commandments and ordinances were written down—some centuries after the time of Jesus—in a document which we know as the Mishnah, a Hebrew word which comes from a root word meaning “repetition”. The Mishnah contains the teachings of rabbis from centuries past, which were learnt by male Jewish students by study and repetition.

One of the tractates in the Mishnah is entitled Yadaim, which means “hands”. It is the eleventh of twelve tractates in the sixth order of the Mishnah, which is entitled Tohoroth, meaning “purities”. The whole section deals with the distinctions between clean and unclean, and provides guidance on how to maintain the state of purity, or being clean.

The Orders and Tractates of the Mishnah, a compilation
of discussions about the commandments and ordinances
made under Rabbi Judah ha-Nazi in around 320CE

Yadaim provides a detailed discussion of washing hands prior to eating, and canvasses precisely those questions that I posed above. It is important to note, however, that the matter of washing hands before eating is not simply (as we would understand it) a ritual which is designed to remove germs and ensure that no infections occur. It is not about physiological cleanliness and medical health. Rather, it is about holiness, about being clean before God, about being in a right state when sharing in a meal.

The commandment to wash hands does not actually appear in the Hebrew Scriptures. There are instructions to wash hands prior to various actions, involving a person with a discharge (Lev 15:11) and in sacrificing a heifer in relation to an unsolved murder (Deut 21:6). There is also an instruction for the priests to wash their hands and their feet with water from the bronze basin before they approach the altar of sacrifice (Exod 30:17–21).

However, the practice of washing hands before praying is attested in a document some two hundred years before the time of Jesus. The Letter of Aristeas (written around 150 BCE) reports that the 72 translators of the Septuagint, “following the custom of all the Jews, washed their hands in the sea in the course of their prayer to God” (Aristeas 305). Some decades later, one of the Sibylline Oracles states that “at dawn, they [the Jews] lift up their holy arms toward heaven, from their beds, always sanctifying their flesh with water” (Sib. Or. 3.591–93).

A prayer of blessing for the washing of hands—
a later rabbinic development beyond the time of Jesus

The argument, then, for the development of the practice that the scribes and Pharisees advocated, is that a faithful Jew would pray before eating—a prayer of blessing, in gratitude for the food—and thus would wash their hands before praying. Thus, always washing hands before eating would have been commonplace by the time of Jesus.

It is often argued that what the Pharisees and scribes have done, is to extrapolate from the requirement placed upon the priests before they enter the presence of God (Exodus 30) to apply the principle to all faithful Jews as they approach the meal, a time of fellowship with God (Mishnah tractate Yadaim).

This is not an unreasonable line of argument. The Pharisees and the scribes did precisely this over and over again, with regard to all manner of actions prescribed for the priests. The enterprise of the Pharisees was to take the instructions placed upon the priests in Jerusalem as they conducted their daily rituals in the Temple, as guidelines for the way that faithful Jewish people in towns and villages were to act as they went about their daily business. The Law, in their view, was not simply for the elites in one place; the Law was God’s instruction to all the people, on how to be faithful to God, reverent and devout, in every aspect of their lives.

The Law was a gift that was provided by God, to ensure that the people of Israel maintained their state of being as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession” (1 Peter 2:9), in obedience to God’s declaration, “you shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44, cited at 1 Peter 1:16).

To be consistently and thoroughly holy—set apart, consecrated, dedicated to God—means that each mundane action in daily life is to be carried out in ways which reflect the faith of the people, their ongoing commitment to the covenant relationship with God. They were to live in a way that invited God into every aspect of life—including, in this instance, preparations for eating at table. Washing hands before praying before eating ensured that each meal was seen as a holy action performed by a holy people.

A Jewish prayer of blessing for the washing of hands

However: Jesus appears to be arguing against this, when he declares, “you leave the commandment of God and hold to human traditions” (Mark 7:8). What do we make of this direct and clear negation of the Pharisees’ position?

The first factor to note is that whenever Jesus engages in debate and discussion with the scribes and the Pharisees, he is actually engaging them on their home ground, undertaking the very activity that they took part in each and every day. Debating the details of Torah, exploring alternate interpretations, posing options for application, was the very essence of the work of the Pharisees. Quoting one passage of scripture as counterpoint to another passage already cited (as Jesus does in Mark 7:6–13) was a standard element in such debates.

Exaggeration and over-statement was also integral to these debates, as the participants pushed and probed the case put forward by their opponents, contesting the claims made and advancing counter-claims with gusto. Jesus is doing precisely this in his interactions with the scribes and Pharisees. He most likely was quite assertive—it was the style of such debates—and could well have been aggressive and controversial in such debates.

See https://asiasociety.org/countries/religions-philosophies/art-debate-jewish-style

However, a second factor is that this narrative is not an eye-witness report, direct from the time precisely when the encounter occurred. Rather, it is a narrative created in the oral traditions of the early church, not written down into the form we have it until some decades after the event. This context is important.

The way that the canonical Gospels portray disputes between Jesus and other Jewish teachers of the Law reflects the context in which tensions between Jews in the synagogues and Messianic Jews (followers of Jesus) had become heightened. Portraying the interaction as an aggressive, polemical encounter reflects the life setting within which the narrative is written. The encounter has most likely been exaggerated and intensified because of the context in which the written narrative was shaped.

After all, once the early followers of Jesus (who were overwhelmingly Jews) had made the decision that Jesus was in fact their long-awaited Messiah, and then articulated this decision within their local communities of faith (the Jewish synagogues where they participated in faith-based activities), they were criticised, corrected, disputed, denounced, and eventually, so it seems, expelled from all synagogue involvement. It was an increasingly unhappy environment. So, portraying the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark 7 as an aggressive, polemical encounter reflects the life setting within which the narrative is written. The encounter has most likely been exaggerated and intensified.

The conclusion that Jesus reaches, “what comes out of a person is what defiles him” (7:20; see also verses 15 and 23) does not overturn the laws of purity, taught and advocated by the scribes and the Pharisees. Rather, it is the distinctive contribution to the debate about purity that Jesus makes; that our morality is shaped and influenced by what we have internalised, by the very ways that we live each and every day, by the principles that guide and even determine our actions. And that, after all, is what the scribes and the Pharisees were seeking to inculcate amongst the people of the covenant. How we live influences what we believe, and what we believe shapes how we act.

So: wash your hands! And make sure that all that you do reflects all that you believe and hold dear.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/24/stretching-the-boundaries-of-the-people-of-god-mark-7-pentecost-14b-15b/ and https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/21/in-defence-of-the-pharisees-on-humility-and-righteousness-luke-18/

Featured

20 years on, and the shame continues: the Palapa, the Tampa, and “children overboard”

It was 20 years ago today that the “Tampa incident” occurred. That began a series of actions that has left a permanent stain of shame on the national identity of Australia.

The “Tampa incident” involved the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter which was sailing in the Indian Ocean, and a small Indonesian fishing boat, the KM Palapa 1. The Indonesian fishing boat had left from Indonesia a few days earlier with 438 asylum seekers aboard. The boat was heading to Christmas Island, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. As that island was part of Australia, the asylum seekers were aiming to land there so that they could make new lives in Australia, eventually on the mainland.

On 26 August 2001, the engines of the fishing boat stalled in international waters between Indonesia and Australia. The Palapa lay stranded for three days. The Australian Coast Guard put out a call for boats in the area to rescue the people on the boat. The MV Tampa was plying its commercial route in the Indian Ocean, so it headed for the Palapa and rescued 433 of the 438 people who were aboard the stranded boat.

The Tampa draws alongside the Palapa

On board the Tampa, the Norwegian crew set up makeshift accommodation and bathrooms on the deck, out in the open air. Indonesia have permission for the Tampa to return passengers to the Indonesian port of Merak. Those on board became distressed at this news. The captain of the ship, Arne Rhinnan, met with a delegation from the asylum seekers, who asked to be taken to Christmas Island (four hours away) rather than being returned to Indonesia (11 hours away).

The asylum seekers rescued from the Palapa on deck on the Tampa

Rhinnan told the coast guard he planned to take the rescuees to Christmas Island. Most of the refugees were Hazaras from Afghanistan. To be returned to their country would mean certain death for those fleeing the political situation of their homeland. To be allowed to land in Australia would mean life—a new life, in a new land, a new start. It would mean everything.

It’s a wonderful story. It’s the Gospel in action. It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, acted out in a different setting and a different time—our time. It’s reaching out in love and concern to people whose lives were in imminent danger. It’s embracing the stranger, the homeless, and taking them in.

I love the welcoming actions of Arne Rhinnan and his sailors, in taking the asylum seekers on board, feeding them, giving them water and shelter, advocating for them. It’s exactly what Jesus advocated in his command to “love your neighbour” (Mark 12) and his story about “whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me” (Matt 25).

Except that’s not the end of the story. The intransigence of the Australian Government soon became evident. Within hours, the Tampa was told it was prohibited from entering Australian waters. The penalty for doing so would be the imprisonment of Rhinnan and fines of up to A$110,000. A stalemate ensued. The captain of the Tamp had to decide what to do with the asylum seekers now on board that ship.

Australia’s policy to this point had been to rescue asylum seekers at sea and detain them in Australia while their claims for protection were processed. Success in this process would mean release into the community on permanent protection visas. Failure would mean being returned to their country of origin.

But the Federal Government changed their practices. Enter the practice of “boat turnbacks”. Boats carrying asylum seekers were called Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels, or SIEVs. No SIEVs were to be allowed to enter Australian waters. No asylum seekers on boats were to land on Australian shores. The Government had set the course for the next two decades of rejection and stereotyping of asylum seekers as “illegal” (which they weren’t, and aren’t, under international law).

And boat turnbacks morphed into border control. And Immigration, a federal department, transformed into Border Protection. And Labor governments (2007–2013) followed the practice of conservative governments (2001–2007, continued from 2013 onwards) in refusing entry to “boat arrivals”—even though there were thousands of “plane arrivals” each year, and they all managed to enter Australia. And the success of a certain Minister for Immigration and Border Protection would catapult him into the leadership of the nation.

It’s the exact flip side of the parable of Jesus—those who fail to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, those who fail to give shelter to the homeless—these are the ones who fail to recognise Jesus in “the least of these my brothers and sisters” (Matt 25:45). These are the one to who Jesus declares that their fate is, “these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”. That’s in the story that Jesus told.

But in the story of the Palapa and the Tampa, the Norwegian sailors and the Afghani asylum seekers, a very different fate lay in store.

The shameful saga of the claims about “children overboard” took hold in the public narrative. The claims were later proven to be entirely confected. But the stigma attached to the asylum seekers took hold. It exacerbated the racist denigration and discrimination that had been fostered already in Australia by Pauline Hanson in 1997–98, and which Prime Minister Howard refused to condemn or even to address.

None of the asylum seekers came to Australia. An Australian naval vessel collected them and took them to Nauru. Some were then taken to Aotearoa New Zealand. A small number were eventually given entry to Australia, some years later, under very limited restrictions.

Of course, the history of Australia over the past 250 years has been one in which racist discrimination has occurred again and again. The people who travelled on the First Fleet and set about making their new life beside Sydney Cove were not benign colonial settlers; they were the violent imperial invaders.

The “settlement” of the “colony” in 1788, bringing the overflow British population of petty criminals, was an illegal invasion by imperial forces. They established a society that took land, raised lynch mobs, murdered Aboriginal people, executed massacres, built mission ghettos, and managed to all but eliminate the indigenous peoples who had lived on the continent and its islands for millennia.

A representation of the many First Peoples nations present on the continent of Australia in the late 18th century

However, in the outback of Australia, Afghan camel handlers had long plied their trade. In the mid century gold rushes, Chinese prospectors worked alongside English and Scottish men. Indeed, on the First Fleet, there had been eight Jewish convicts as well as eleven convicts of Afro-American heritage. Australia had been “a multicultural society” since the very beginning of the British imperial invasion and settlement, to establish their colony.

When Australia became a nation in 1901, one of the earliest legislative acts was to establish “the White Australia Policy”, which lasted into the 1970s. Blacks and Asians were under no illusion that they were not welcome. The dictation test was set up to ensure that non-English speakers would fail and thus not be granted entry.

A White Australia badge from the early 20th century

Yet tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders were taken to Australia to work on plantations in Queensland, often by force or trickery, in the mid to late 19th century. They existed in slavery in this country; it was not the land of “the young and free”. Right up to 2020 there had been thousands of Pacific Islander seasonal workers, caught into slave-labour conditions, picking fruit on Australian farms.

And the Chinese who had worked in the goldfields and across the country in countless towns had suffered under the press of stereotyping and vilification throughout the 19th century; this surfaced in a new form with the claims of the “yellow peril” threat in the 20th century.

And throughout all of this, the First Peoples of this continent and its hundreds of associated islands were marginalised, mistreated, and massacred; their children were stolen, their jobs were unpaid, their health suffered, their reputation was disfigured.

The incident involving the Palapa and the Tampa was not a one-off, unusual occurrence. It actually taps deep into the Australian psyche that has been fostered in various ways since 1788. It is a continuing shame that stains our conscience and disfigures our society. It provides a warning, a rebuke, a challenge. Is this really who we are? who we want to be? who we should be?

Twenty years years on from the Palapa and the Tampa, and the dishonesty of “children overboard”, it is time to reconsider—to leave behind the racist discrimination and vilification that has too often been evident in Australian society. It is time we became something different.

*****

For more discussion of the Tampa incident and its consequences, see:

https://theconversation.com/australian-politics-explainer-the-mv-tampa-and-the-transformation-of-asylum-seeker-policy-74078

https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/FlagPost/2011/August/Tampa_ten_years_on

https://www.smh.com.au/national/from-the-archives-2001-three-nations-cast-refugees-adrift-20210819-p58k2m.html

Featured

Stretching the boundaries of the people of God (Mark 7; Pentecost 14B, 15B)

Here’s a Bible Study that I wrote a few years ago, which canvasses some of the key issues that we will encounter in the Gospel readings for the next two Sundays, drawn from Mark 7 (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 and Mark 7:24-37).

The hearers and readers of this earliest Gospel, the beginning of the good news about Jesus, Messiah, struggled to live out their faith in a vibrant but challenging situation. As they did so, they remembered and treasured stories about Jesus’ travels to Gentile lands (4:35–5:21; 6:45–8:13) and his encounters with a range of people who were regarded as being either “on the fringes” of Judaism or beyond the limits of God’s people.

They treasured these stories because they showed that, as Jesus traveled outside the Jewish homeland and encountered marginal people, he indicated that the kingdom would include Gentiles and people who were regarded by many Jews as being “on the outer”: people disabled by physical ailments, and mentally ill people (that is, demon-possessed)—and even, in the patriarchal society of the ancient world, women, who occupied places “on the edge”.

People who were considered unclean by the priests were considered to be beyond the realm of God’s chosen people. Jesus’ interactions with these people reflect his belief that they ought to be considered as able to belong to God’s people. The stories of such encounters also indicated that Jesus came into conflict with the dominant authorities of the day—the scribes and Pharisees, as well as the priests and Sadducees—as he engaged with these people, and debated the issues with his contemporaries.

These stories mark out the territory, as it were, for the renewed people of God, as Jesus understood them. A sociological understanding of these passages points to the role that they play in defining the boundaries of the group of “Jesus-followers”, and in providing identity markers for members of this group.

Skim read through Mark 6:45–9:1.

A. Notice the geographical markers (6:45; 6:53; 7:1; 7:24; 7:31; 8:10; 8:13; 8:22; 8:27).

Locate each place on a map of ancient Israel.

What characterises the area that Jesus travelled to in 6:53–8:13?

What races might be represented in the crowd that follows Jesus during this visit?

Comment: Mark refers to “the other side” (4:53 and 5:1; 6:45)—that is, across on the Gentile side of the Sea of Galilee. He is making the point that Jesus twice intentionally left Israel—a region considered holy by all Jews—and travelled into Gentile territory. One rabbi is recorded in the Mishnah as commenting, “the lands of the Gentiles are unclean”. Jesus’ visit makes a clear statement that stepping on Gentile land does not automatically render a person unclean.

B. Read Mark 7:1. Who comes to hear Jesus at this point in the story? Where do they come from? What do they debate in the following verses?

Comment: The Pharisees and scribes were experts in interpreting Torah. Here, Jesus has a vigorous debate with them. They discuss the procedures which are necessary to ensure holiness. Jesus disagrees with their interpretations. He cites scripture to refute their views (Isa 29:13 at Mark 7:6–7; Exod 20:12 and Deut 5:16 at Mark 7:10) and argues that these texts must take priority over the oral traditions developed by the rabbis. This was exactly the way that the Pharisees argued themselves.

Jesus debates the Pharisees using their own methods, but he comes to a different result. In his concluding remarks (7:18–23) he sets out different criteria for true holiness.

C. Read Mark 7:19. What is the impact of this narrative comment? What does it say about the nature of the community that is formed by the followers of Jesus?

Now read Mark 7:21–22. Compare this list with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17) and notice the similarities.

Comment: Jesus does not the reject purity system of Judaism. The ethic he proposes remains faithful to his Jewish faith. Yet the criteria for “belonging” are made wider and less exclusive. Mark interprets Jesus as relaxing the food laws (7:19); this will allow for Jews and Gentiles to mix more freely. (Other Gospel writers had a different interpretation of this incident—Matthew omits this sentence and Luke deletes the whole scene from his Gospel.) Yet, for Jesus, the fundamentals (7:21–22) still apply. Mark presents him as redefining and radicalising his Jewish faith—not rejecting it.

D. Read Mark 7:24–37. What is the impact of these two healing stories?

How significant is the location of these healings?

How does Jesus relate to the main person in each story?

What message do these stories convey about who is included in the people of God?

Comment: Tyre (7:24) is just outside of Jewish territory. The Decapolis (7:31) is a predominantly Gentile region. In each story, Jesus encounters a person who is unclean: a Gentile woman who has been in contact with her daughter, who is possessed by a demon; and a Gentile man who is physically disabled in speech and hearing. Contact with such people would make a person unclean and thus alienated from the holy people of God.

Jesus ignores these taboos and extends the boundaries of the people of God. He does this reluctantly at 7:27, only after conceding that the woman has won her point in debate with him (7:29, “for saying that…”). He does it willingly at 7:33–34, but then urges the healed man to keep quiet (7:36)—although the man just cannot keep quiet! In each case, Jesus’ actions were provocative.

E. Where else on this journey does Jesus encounter such marginalised people?

(Note Mark 6:56 and 8:22–26.)

Where else in this Gospel does Jesus encounter such marginalised people?

(Start with Mark 1:21–26 and skim through until Mark 10:46–52.)

How does Jesus interact with such people?

(Note especially Mark 5:34 and 10:52.)

What is the effect of the inclusion of so many stories about Jesus encountering marginalised or unclean people? What message does it convey to the followers of Jesus who heard and retold these stories? What kind of community might they aim to create, as a result of these stories?

F. Finally, note the promise that Jesus makes to his disciples at Mark 14:28. It is repeated at Mark 16:7. What significance might there be in the fact that it is Galilee, not Jerusalem, where the risen Jesus will meet his disciples?

Comment: Galilee is where Jesus preached and healed. Jerusalem is where he was tried and killed. It is as if the new community of faith will thrive in precisely those areas outside of the control of the Jewish authorities. This community will not reject its Jewish origins and heritage; but it will interpret them in a more inclusive and yet more radical manner.

*****

This blog draws on material in MARKING THE GOSPEL: an exploration of the Gospel for Year B, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).

Featured

Declare boldly the gospel of peace, put on the armour of God (Ephesians 6; Pentecost 13B)

This morning, as the Canberra Region Presbytery gathered online to meet in council, the theme for consideration was Advocacy. At the start of the meeting, the Rev. Andrew Smith led the gathering in a time of reflection and preparation. Andrew read from the closing section of Ephesians 6 (the epistle that is offered in the revised common lectionary for the Sunday after the meeting).

Andrew invited members of the presbytery to listen, reflect, and then write in the chat what stands out for them, as we consider advocacy and hear these words about “the cosmic powers … the armour of God … the gospel of peace … the mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6:10—20).

Those present noted motifs such as “speaking boldly” … “boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” … “declare it boldly” … “speak directly and bluntly to power”. One person noted that perseverance is required, and there is no indication of victory only resources for the fray. One participant observed, “I saw a shimmering chainmail ‘armour’, more the quality of water that is soft, resists and extinguishes flaming arrows, and wears down hard places over time” and, a little later, “I also wondered about cloaks of feathers as ‘armour’ insisting on identity, diversity, justice for all – those cloaks we have seen in parliaments in recent times”.

Some people noted the imperative present in this passage: “I MUST speak” … “ the imperative is incontestable; we have the armour to take whatever gets thrown at us” … “we have no other option but to speak up for justice” … “we MUST stand strong against evil and pray continually,  we have the armour of God to give us strength and protection”. Another person observed the need for “thorough preparation and then to stand”. One noted, “I was struck by the phrase “fighting against the spiritual forces of evil”.  It brings out the spiritual nature of injustice and the need for faith and commitment to address this.”

Some participants related the biblical text to current circumstances: “In the electronic world in which we live, the actions of the principalities and powers for good and evil are more clearly revealed, so our enemies and allies are more clearly seen.”

One commented at length: “An Ambassador in chains to me shows three ideas. Firstly the idea of servant leadership the need to take actions in the service of others. Secondly, the idea that an advocate has no choice but to be a prisoner to their passion to help others an idea of a destiny to do good. Thirdly, the need to be empathetic with the suffering of others not from a vantage point outside their hardship but from a feeling of a common struggle and hardship.”

Another highlighted that “faith in Christ is the basis to understand and do good”; another said, “first we must read the Bible and understand God’s will, then proclaim it in the need for justice for others”. Others commented, “pray constantly, be bold, be well prepared, promote peace” … “every footfall can bring peace to our context” … “’Be Strong in God’ – struggle against evil, with Prayer, Preparation, God’s Protection, and then Action”. One noted “the promise of being able to ‘stand firm’”, another highlighted “feeling that you are armed with God’s love to speak up with no fear”, yet another, “constant prayer in the Spirit”.

One observed that the passage speaks of “the whole armour, not just feet, we have been given the armour to use”; another that “the whole armour of God evokes a gathering of so many things- love, peace and truth. These are in uneasy relationship. Here faith comes in that there is a way through.” That led another person to note “the irony of dressing like a Roman soldier”, and yet another to observe “the internal contradictions between putting on the armour and proclamation of peace”.

A good question posed was, “Where is the distinction between God’s justice and human justice? or are they the same?” That’s a question worth pondering beyond this particular reading, in each of our actions, day by day, week after week.

Collated from the chat at the August 2021 Presbytery meeting by John Squires

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/16/justice-and-only-justice-you-shall-follow/

Featured

A Pastoral Letter for the people of the Canberra Region Presbytery

Colleagues in ministry leadership, and people of the Congregations of the Canberra Region Presbytery,

The news, late last week, of the return of lockdowns to all locations within our Presbytery did not come as a surprise. The Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus appears to be a potent variant, and the wisdom of locking down while it is spreading cannot be doubted.

We encourage you to think of the restrictions that we are currently experiencing as our contribution to the common good. We are avoiding social contact in order to lessen the risk of transmitting the virus. We are accepting deprivations for ourselves in order to lessen the number of people who might become ill, hospitalised, or die. As we act in this way to contribute to the common good, we are demonstrating the priority of loving our neighbours. This is how Jesus called us to live.

The impact on each and every one of us will be to the fore of our thinking in the coming days. No doubt each one of us has our own personal ways of dealing with the lockdown period. Special routines are helpful for the duration of lockdown. Special treats at designated times can assist to encourage us. We are experienced in caring for ourselves; we have done this before, we can do it again.

We can spend time praying for others who have needs greater and deeper than ourselves. The events in Afghanistan, the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Japan and Turkey, the bushfires occurring in the northern hemisphere: these news items remind us that there are people in other places on the globe who are in terrible peril. We can pray for them. We should pray for them.

We can offer thankful gratitude for the blessings that we experience. We are able to connect with other people in so many ways other than in person—by phone, FaceTime, ZOOM, email, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter … the list seems endless. We can gather-apart for worship using one of the platforms available (YouTube, Facebook, ZOOM) to reconnect as a community of faith.

We can give thanks for the doctors, nurses, cleaners, security guards, police officers, contact tracers, and others who ensure that hospitals, vaccination centres, walk-in clinics and COVID testing centres continue to operate well, despite the pressures they are experiencing.

We can know that “we are in this together” is not just a slogan—it can be the way that we gain strength from our encouragement of one another. We have friends to connect with at our point of need. We can give thanks for the existence of LifeLine, Beyond Blue, Headspace, YarnSafe, MindSpot, ACON, and many other agencies dedicated to ensuring that we have a safe, caring listening ear available to us when we need it.

And in our praying and reflecting, let us hold one another, the people whom we serve, and those for whom they care, in the bonds of compassion and care.

Ross Kingham and Judy McKinlay, Presbytery Co-Chairpersons
Jared Mitchell, Presbytery Deputy Chairperson
Robbie Tulip, Presbytery Secretary
Elizabeth Raine, Pastoral Relations Committee Chairperson
Andrew Smith and John Squires, Presbytery Ministers

*****

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

Lynn Ungar, March 11, 2020

http://www.lynnungar.com/poems/

Featured

In order that all the peoples of earth may know your name (1 Kings 8; Pentecost 13B)

This week I am taking leave of my consideration of New Testament passages in the lectionary, to turn to the Hebrew Scripture passage offered by the Revised Common Lectionary: 1 Kings 8.

If you have been following the Old Testament readings offered by the lectionary since Pentecost, you will know we have encountered some fascinating characters. We started way back in May with Hannah, mother of Samuel, offering her prayer of thanks (1 Sam 2).

We saw the adult Samuel, arguing with the people of Israel about whether they should have a king (1 Sam 8). Not everyone was supportive of the idea.

The first king of Israel was Saul; the lectionary offered us the passage where David was chosen as the successor of Saul—the young shepherd who “was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome” (1 Sam 16). Then came the account of David’s encounter with the giant from Gath, the Philistine named Goliath (1 Sam 17), and the telling of David’s love for Jonathan (2 Sam 1). After the death of Saul, the tribes gathered at Hebron, to make a covenant together supporting David as the new king (2 Sam 5).

The following week we had the story of Michal, daughter of Saul, looking out of the window, watching King David leaping and dancing before the ark, dressed only, we are told, in a linen ephod (2 Sam 6).

The ephod is basically a very loose fitting outer garment; given that David was leaping and dancing, we can only surmise that it left little, if anything, to the imagination of onlookers, as it flapped and swirled.

And then, in a dramatic change of mood, we heard Nathan receiving the word of the Lord instructing David to build a house—a temple, no less (2 Sam 7).

The following Sunday provided another insight into the character of David—not only was he a scantily-clad dancer, but an adulterer and murderer as well, as we learn in the well-known story that involves Uriah, his wife Bathsheba, and the king’s officer Joab (2 Sam 11).

This was followed by the gory account of the death of Absalom, the third of David’s 21 children (yes, that’s correct: from his eight wives and ten concubines, David bore at least 21 children!)

Poor long-haired Absalom was murdered after his hair got caught in the branches of an oak tree, and he was left swinging, until ten of the king’s soldiers butchered him. And all of this took place after a battle which was marked by the slaughter of 20,000 Israelites (2 Sam 18).

David, we are told, was grief-stricken. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!”, we are told he lamented. “Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” That is a sardonic reflection, however, on the faux-love of David for his estranged son and his faux-grief on Absalom’s death.

All of these stories reveal to us the character of the leaders in Israel. All of these stories have featured in our lectionary over the last three months—have a look at what has been offered and read those stories, I encourage you. Leaders are human, after all, we find in these stories, and life in those days was tough, rugged, challenging.

The leaders whom we encounter in these stories are devious, unscrupulous, scheming, manipulative, emotional, hard-headed, self-serving, and deeply flawed. All of this. From these ancient texts—as if we didn’t already know this from our own observations of leaders in our own situation!

Which brings us, through these sagas of violence, conflict, betrayal, and drama, to Solomon, son of David, installed as king of Israel after the death of his father (1 Kings 2). God made a promise to Solomon: “I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you” (1 Kings 3:12).

*****

Then we come to the passage set for this coming Sunday, where all the stops are pulled out, as Solomon gathers people for the opening of the Temple (1 Kings 8).

This journey through the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures reaches it climactic point in this passage, where the greatest king of Israel, Solomon, prays to dedicate the grand religious building, the Temple, on the top of the highest hill in Jerusalem, the capital city of the kingdom at the point of its greatest influence and power. (The readings in following weeks will move into the literature attributed to and inspired by Solomon, the wisdom literature.)

So, we hear the account of this moment of dedication: “Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of the city of David, which is Zion. Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherub. And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD.” (1 Kings 8:1–10).

Man, this is serious stuff: heavy, important, serious. The king. All the elders. The heads of each of the 12 tribes. And the priests, with the ark of the covenant. All assembled at the place where Solomon, king in all his majesty and power, had arranged for a temple to be built. “Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven” (1 Kings 8:22), and prays a long prayer of blessing for the new edifice.

Now, Solomon, I am sure you are thinking, is remembered as the wise one. “The wisdom of Solomon”, we say. Jesus relates how “the Queen of the south [the Queen of Sheba] came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon” (Matt 12:42).

In 2 Chronicles 1, God says to Solomon, “because you have asked for wisdom and knowledge for yourself … wisdom and knowledge are granted to you. I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like” (2 Chron 1:11–12).

And later, King Solomon is said to have “excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. Every one of [those kings] brought his present, articles of silver and of gold, garments, myrrh, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year.” (2 Chron 9:22–24).

This wonderfully wise, insightful, discerning man, Solomon—bearing a name derived from the Hebrew for peace, “shalom”—became a powerhouse in the ancient world. But he did not always live as a man of peace. “Solomon”, the text continues, “had 4,000 stalls for horses and chariots, and 12,000 horsemen, whom he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem.” (2 Chron 9:25). Solomon had amassed a great army, exercising great power, imposing his rule across the region.

And Solomon, the tenth son of David, the second child of Bathsheba, came to the throne by devious means. It was Adonijah, son of David’s fifth wife Haggith, who sought to succeed his father on his death; Solomon, however, had Adonijah murdered, as well as dispatching the henchmen of Adonijah—Joab the general, who was executed, and Abiathar the priest, who was murdered. This paved the way for Solomon to succeed to the throne. He did not come with clean hands.

But he became a powerful ruler. More is said of Solomon: “he ruled over all the kings from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt.” (2 Chron 9:26). Solomon was remembered as king over the greatest expanse of land claimed by Israel in all of history. That’s a claim that is still held by the hardest of fundamentalist right-wing Israelis in the modern state of Israel today—claiming that God gave all this land to Israel under Solomon, and that is the extent of the land that should be under the control of the government of modern Israel. Which is not going to happen, given the realities of Middle Eastern politics on our times.

And we see the utilisation of this power by Solomon, the man of peace, in the Chronicler’s comment that “the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah; and horses were imported for Solomon from Egypt and from all lands.” (2 Chron 9:27–28).

So Solomon was a warrior. And warrior-kings were powerful, tyrannical in their exercise of power, ruthless in the way that they disposed of rivals for the throne and enemies on the battlefield alike. Think Alexander the Great. Think Charlemagne. Think Genghis Khan. Think William the Conqueror. Solomon reigned for 40 years—a long, wealthy successful time.

*****

Yet in the passage set for this Sunday, Solomon appears not as a powerful king. Rather, he is a humble person of faith. He stands before all the people, raises his arms, and prays to the God who is to be worshipped in the Temple that he had erected. He is a person of faith, in the presence of his God, expressing his faith, exuding his piety.

Now, the prayer of Solomon goes for thirty solid verses; there are eight different sections in this prayer. The lectionary has mercy on us this Sunday; we are offered just two of those sections, eleven of the thirty verses. We have heard the shortened version! In these two sections of this prayer, Solomon identifies two important features of the newly-erected Temple. The first is that the fundamental reason for erecting this building is to provide a focal point, where people of faith can gather to pray to God (1 Ki 8:23–30).

Perhaps we may be used to hearing about the Temple in Jerusalem in fairly negative terms. Jesus cleared the Temple of the money changers and dove sellers who were exploring the people. He predicted the destruction of the Temple during the cataclysmic last days. For centuries, people from all over Israel were required to bring their sacrifices to the priests in the Temple, to offer up the firstborn of their animals and the firstfruits of their harvest. The Temple cult was a harsh, primitive religious duty, imposing hardships on the people. The priests, the elites who ran the Temple, lived well off the benefits of all of these offerings.

I could offer you a counter argument to each of these criticisms; but today I simply want to note that Solomon, in his prayer of dedication, makes it clear that the fundamental purpose of the Temple was to provide a house of prayer, a place where the people of God could gather, knowing that they were in the presence of God, knowing that the prayers that they offer would be heard by God and would lead to God’s offering of grace, forgiving them for their inadequacies and failures.

The Temple was to be a place of piety for the people. It was to foster the sense of connection with God. It was to deepen the life of faith of the people. It was to strengthen their covenant relationship with the Lord God.

All of which can be said for us, today, about the building that we come to each Sunday, to worship. The church—this church—is a place of piety for us, the people of God. It is to foster the sense of connection with God. It is to deepen the life of faith of each of us, the people of God. It is to strengthen our covenant relationship with the Lord God through the new covenant offered in grace by Jesus. That’s what the church—this church, your church—is to be.

So we read in the first part of Solomon’s Temple prayer. For the people of ancient Israel, standing in the shadow of this wonderful new building, the prayer might encourage a strong sense of self identity, blessed to be part of the people of God. Of course, it could also develop narrow nationalism, a jingoistic praising of the greatness of Israel, extolling their identity as the chosen nation, the holy people, the elect of God.

The Temple invited the people of God to meet the God of the people, to pray, to sing, to offer signs of gratitude and bring pleas and petitions—in short, to keep the covenant, to show that they are keeping the covenant, to be satisfied that they are keeping the covenant, as they worship. It had a strong, positive purpose for the people.

But that is not where the prayer ends. The second key element of Solomon’s prayer that the lectionary offers us today (1 Ki 8:41–43) is striking. It also relates to prayer. But it is not the prayer of the people of God, covenant partners with the Lord God. It is about the prayer of “a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, [who] comes from a distant land because of your name”. This is a striking and dramatic element to include in this dedication prayer before all the people.

Solomon prays to God, imploring God to “hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.”

Now that is an incredible prayer for the King of Israel to pray! It reflects an openness to the world beyond the nation, an engagement with the wider geopolitical and social relatives of the world at that time. Solomon was not an isolationist. He was not inward focussed on his nation. He had an outwards orientation. He did not want the Temple to foster a holy huddle, shut off from the world. He had other intentions. He wanted the Temple to be a holy place, open to people from across the region, from far beyond the territory of Israel—a gathering place for all the peoples.

That was the vision that Solomon set forth for his people. That was not always the way that the Temple actually did function, we know. But that was the foundational vision—articulated by Solomon, remembered by the scribes, included in the narrative account of the kings, placed in a strategic position at the opening and dedication of the Temple. It is a vision which speaks, both to the people of Israel, but also to people of faith today, in the 21st century world.

*****

On the temple of Solomon, see https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/first-temple

Featured

Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.

“Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” So we read in scripture (Deut 16:20). And once they were in that land (even though they colonised it unjustly), the people of Israel were reminded of the centrality of justice. “What does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”, one prophet asked (Micah 6:8). “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”, another of the prophets declared (Amos 5:24).

Justice is an important and oft-recurring theme in scripture, in both Old and New Testaments. It is not an add-on, an optional extra. It sits at the centre of the scriptural witness

1 Jesus and Justice

When one of the evangelists told the story of Jesus, the person chosen by God for a special task, he related him to the words (from yet another prophet) in which God affirmed, “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles … a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory” (Matt 12:18–20, quoting Isaiah 42:1–4).

Jesus himself had made it clear that when his focus was on fulfilling all the Law (Matt 5:17–20), it was “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” that ought to be given priority (Matt 23:23). So when Jesus instructs his followers to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33), he is pointing to the centrality of justice in the ways of God. And when he affirms that “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” are blessed, “for they shall be satisfied” (Matt 5:6), he is placing justice at the centre of his message. (The Greek word translated here as “righteousness” can equally be translated as “justice”.)

2 The Justice [Righteousness] of God

The letters of Paul place this justice (“righteousness”) at the heart of the gospel which he proclaimed: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness [justice] of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous [the just] shall live by faith.’” (Rom 1:16–17).

Indeed, in his excellent analysis of Paul’s letter to the Romans, identifies this clearly in the title of his book: A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (Yale University Press, 1997).

Justice [righteousness] is the very essence of God, given as an act of grace to all who put trust in God. It is through this “righteousness [justice] of God, through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe”, that “all are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:21–26). Paul asserts that it is “one act of righteousness [justice] [which] leads to justification and life for all” so that “grace also might reign through righteousness [justice] leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5:18–21). Justice is the very essence of God, given to all through Jesus.

3 Justice and Grace

One way of expressing this quality of justice, or righteousness, in the life of faith, is to show grace, or compassion, to those who are in need. Jesus recognised this when affirmed “whoever gives a cup of water to drink” (Mark 9:41), and in his parable about the Samaritan who went out of his way to assist and care for an injured traveller (Luke 10:25–37).

Both the manifesto for mission that Luke highlights at the start of the public activity of Jesus (Luke 4:18–21) and the climactic parable of the sheep and the goats that Matthew places at the end of the public teaching of Jesus (Matt 25:31–46). Jesus declares his intention to enact justice by setting free the captives, giving sight to the blind, and liberating the oppressed (Luke 4:18). He tells his followers that whenever they sheltered the homeless, fed the hungry, or gave a drink to the thirsty, “you did it to me” (Matt 25:35–40). James, his brother, likewise asserted that to practice true religion was “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27).

So acts of kindness give expression to the very heart of who God is, by manifesting God’s justice, or righteousness. “Unless your righteousness [justice] exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”, he declares (Matt 5:20), and so “blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness [justice], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:10).

4 Advocating for Justice in Scripture

Taking care that justice is done also requires speaking out for those who are silenced, marginalised, oppressed, or persecuted. In Proverbs, the sage advises, “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Prov 31:8–9).

Likewise, the Psalmist affirms, “Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the LORD delivers him” Psalm 41:1).

Advocating for justice is thus seen as integral to faith in God.

One of the prophets delivered the word of the Lord: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” (Zech 7:9). Another prophet asserted, “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed.” (Isa 56:1).

Jesus is remembered in the preaching of his followers as The Righteous One—we might also say, The Just One. This is what he is called by Peter (Acts 3:14), Stephen (Acts 7:52), and Paul (Acts 22:14). The title recalls the centrality of justice in the ministry of Jesus.

And Jesus maintains the importance of advocating for justice in his teachings. We have already noted his teachings in which he advocates that we care for the little ones and those in need (Matt 25) and instructs his followers to work for liberty for the oppressed (Luke 4). He teaches the central significance of love for neighbour (Mark 12:31), which surely entails advocating for justice.

And he tells the parable of the widow calling persistently for justice (Luke 18:1-8), which concludes with the powerful rhetorical question, “will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7), followed I meant the striking affirmation, “tell you, he will give justice to them speedily” (Luke 18:8). A commitment to justice requires advocacy for justice.

5 Justice in the Basis of Union

The centrality of justice, so evident in the witness of scripture, is reiterated in the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church. If we are followers of Jesus, called to walk the way he sets out before us, then as faithful disciples, we are called to walk right into what the Basis of Union envisages as a “new order of righteousness and love” (para 3). The words in that phrase are drawn from the deep wells of tradition, especially in scripture, where both live and righteousness are frequently-occurring words. It is the kingdom of God which is the new order of righteousness (justice), manifested in love.

These words call us to care for one another but also to do what is right. They call us to live a live grounded in justice, in the same terms that Jesus and the prophets before him cried out, seeking justice for everyone—not just for ourselves or those close to us, but for the whole of society.

These words challenge us to live with the same self-giving, fully-emptying love, that we see in the cross at the centre of the story of Jesus. And they lead us to the conclusion that as we live in this way, we will advocate for justice.

6 Advocating for Justice in the Statement to the Nation

The Uniting Church inherited from its predecessor Churches this resolutely firm commitment to advocating for justice for all. Many Uniting Church congregations and members are actively committed to serving those people who find themselves on the margins of society. This commitment was clearly articulated in the 1977 Statement to the Nation, which declared, “We pledge ourselves to seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur.”

That Statement then identified specific forms of injustice: “poverty, racism and discrimination, acquisitiveness and greed, and the daily widening gap between the rich and poor”. It identified a number of rights to be supported: “equal educational opportunities, adequate health care, freedom of speech, employment or dignity in unemployment if work is not available”.

It also noted some just actions that were to be followed, including “the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources”, as well as a concern for the welfare of the whole human race.

The Statement spoke out publicly about these matters. It models for future Uniting Church people the importance of advocating for justice.

7 Advocating for Justice in Action

This commitment to advocating for justice has been evident in many actions undertaken by Uniting Church members over the decades. The Uniting Church has joined in common cause with other groups and organisations in society, in standing in covenant solidarity with First Peoples; in advocating for a welcoming attitude towards refugees; in lobbying for a fair and just system of caring for people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness; in seeking equity for workers in their workplace; and in many other issues. A regular stream of policy documents and public resolutions point to a clear and unbroken commitment to seeking justice for all.

“Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.” The words of the ancient prophet sound clear, still, today. “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” has become a compelling guide for people of faith. And as we walk the way of The Just One, we do well to “seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice”.

*****

On justice in scripture, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/26/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-2-worship-and-justice/. For the Basis of Union, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/basis-of-union. For the Statement to the Nation, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/introduction/item/134-statement-to-the-nation-inaugural-assembly-june-1977. For policy documents and Assembly resolutions on matters of justice, see the many resources collected at https://unitingjustice.org.au

There are further articles about justice and advocacy in the Spring 2021 issue of Viewpoint, the magazine of the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia, at https://canberra.uca.org.au/media/10701/viewpoint-crp-advocacy-august-2021.pdf

Featured

The climate is changing; the planet is suffering; humanity is challenged.

For some years now, Elizabeth and I have been supporting the Climate Council. It used to be an independent Commission which was funded by the federal government—set up to study the impacts of climate change, and to give expert advice to the Australian public on climate change.

But then, Tony Abbott happened. One of its first orders of business by the incoming Abbott government was to abolish the country’s Climate Commission. Soon after that, the body was independently relaunched as the Climate Council, with the same commissioners that the Commission had, with the head of the Council being Tim Flannery.

So the Climate Council has continued, operating on the basis of financial support from sympathetic individuals and organisations. And they have produced regular reports on a range of climate-related issues. You can see the most recent reports at https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/news/

In its most recent email, the Climate Council has written: “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has now released the first instalment of its landmark Sixth Assessment Report. This is the most comprehensive and authoritative overview of the physical science of climate change to date.”

They go on to note that “the threat now facing all of humanity due to inaction on climate change is more serious than ever, and every day of further delay puts us more at risk”. They note that the findings of this report will be confronting for many people. They also press the point that “strong action today will make a profound difference to communities and ecosystems worldwide, both in our lifetimes and well into the future”.

The Climate Council summarises the four key findings of the IPCC report under four headings:

The scale and pace at which humans are altering the climate system has almost no precedent. Human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last two thousand years.

Climate change and its impacts are accelerating, and more impacts are on the way. Lack of action, despite decades of warnings, means we are now seeing these alarming changes unfold at a faster and faster rate. In other words, our climate is not merely changing, the rate of change is now accelerating.

Every fraction of a degree matters. Every additional increment of warming means more extreme weather, including increases in the intensity and frequency of heatwaves, damaging rainfall, and droughts.

Responding to climate change means doing everything possible to reduce emissions, while also adapting to the impacts that can no longer be avoided. Past inaction means that more impacts from climate change are on the way but the right choices made today will be measured in lives, livelihoods, species and ecosystems saved.

What does the IPCC’s latest report mean?

The need for action is clear: advocacy of government, lobbying of companies, protests in public, letter writing by individuals—as well as reviewing our own lifestyles, encouraging friends and family to adjust their lifestyles, and pressing the companies from whom we buy products to ensure that they are operating in sustainable ways.

In Australia, since the commencement of a federal government comprising members of the Liberal and National parties, our environmental policies have been hamstrung by the grip of reactionary conservatives renegades within these parties. Our commitment to environmental responsibility has gone backwards. Our situation is shameful. The need for action cannot be any clearer.

In this context, the Climate Council has joined with 55 organisations across the Australian climate movement, representing millions of Australians, in calling on the Federal Government to cut emissions by 75% by 2030, and reach net zero by 2035. “Now, more than ever, we need to demonstrate the sheer number of Australians that want to see strengthened emissions reduction targets”, they say.

You can support this call to our federal government—“We need to adopt a science-backed target of at least 75% emissions reduction below 2005 levels, by 2030”—by clicking on https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/actions/petition-cut-emissions-75/ and signing the petition. It’s the least you can do.

Featured

This is a hard saying; who can listen to it? (John 6; Pentecost 9B—13B)

John’s Gospel, it is often said, is the place to go in the New Testament if you want to find “proof texts” in support of antisemitism. In this Gospel, “the Jews” are labelled as children of the devil, accused of rejecting the belief that Jesus is God, tarred with the claim that they plotted against Jesus, and blamed with bringing about his death.

However, the passage that is providing the basis for the lectionary Gospel at this time of the year (John 6, Pentecost 9B—13B) does not feed into this negative perspective about “the Jews”. As we read it carefully, we see a different relationship unfolding between the Jew Jesus, his Jewish followers, and the crowd of Jews that interact with him throughout the chapter.

(And let me be clear—I am neither advocating antisemitism nor tarring John’s Gospel as being unredeemingly antisemitic.)

Whilst the terrible claim that “the Jews killed God” was not uttered until some centuries later—from the lips of John “the golden-mouthed”, Bishop of Antioch, in one of his Homilies Against the Jews—there is enough within the way that the author of the book of signs tells the story to apparently vindicate the claim that “the Jews killed Jesus”—at least in the eyes of many interpreters throughout Christian history.

1 Jewish opposition to Jesus

Jewish opposition to the message and activities of Jesus is evident from early in the book of signs. Jesus has identified himself with “the Jews” in his conversation with the woman by the well in Samaria (4:19–22).

However, he becomes caught in a dispute with “the Jews” while he was in Jerusalem, before travelling to the Sea of Galilee (6:1) and then to Capernaum (6:17). This dispute arose because these Jews in Jerusalem interpreted Jesus’ healing of the lame man on a Sabbath as being a breach of Torah (5:10). They seek to kill him, accusing him of making a blasphemous claim (5:18).

A footnote for verse 10 in my electronic copy of the NRSV helpfully clarifies that “the Greek word Ioudaioi refers specifically here to Jewish religious leaders, and others under their influence, who opposed Jesus in that time; also verses 15, 16, 18”. We will return to that notion later.

Jesus disputes the interpretation of the crowd, claiming that by healing on the Sabbath he continues to do “the works which the Father has granted me” (5:36). This is language which recurs in the conversation that takes place in chapter 6, where a crowd of Jews in Capernaum enquire of Jesus, “what must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (6:29).

Dissension continues to haunt Jesus, however; once he is back in Jerusalem, the crowd accuses him of having a demon (7:20; 10:20). This is later repeated by “the Jews” in Jerusalem at 8:48–52, and again at 10:20, with the added insult that he is a Samaritan (8:48). A third criticism levelled against Jesus is the inference that he was born illegitimate (8:41).

The words of “the Jews” represent a tense argument which was taking place within the Judaism of the first century, as Jewish followers of Jesus debated with the authorities in their synagogues about the status of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, Jesus later predicts that his fate will set the pattern for the fate of his followers; “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (15:20). The tensions within Judaism are clearly reflected in references to followers of Jesus being excluded from the synagogue (9:22; 12:42: 16:2–3).

It is true that “the Jews” of Jerusalem prepared to stone Jesus twice (first at 8:59, again at 10:31). This seems to validate the claim made earlier by Jesus, that his fate is to be hated by the world (7:7); as well as the prediction in the Prologue pointing to the rejection of the Word (1:10–11).

2 The role of Jewish leadership

It is not, however, “the Jews” as a whole who plot to arrest Jesus. It was the chief priests who first made plans to put Lazarus to death (12:10), just six days after those same priests had conspired with the Pharisees, making plans to arrest Jesus so they could put him to death (11:47–53). The text makes it clear that this was done despite the fact that “many of the Jews who had come with Mary and had seen what he did [in raising Lazarus] believed in him” (11:45).

It was clearly the leadership of the Jews involved in the plotting against Jesus. Was it not likely, then, that the same group had been conspiring throughout the whole story, planning his demise? That is clearly what is intended in the earlier account we attribute to Mark, which notes early in the Gospel that, immediately after a healing by Jesus, “the Pharisees went out and … held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6).

We read that “a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees” come to seize Jesus in the garden (18:3). When Jesus appears before Pilate, the governor notes, “your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me” (18:35). When Jesus is sent out of the governor’s praetorium, it is “the chief priests and the officers” who cry out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” (19:6a).

This leads to Pilate saying to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him” (19:6b). This is one of the key texts that shifts the blame for the death of Jesus from Roman to Jewish leadership—a factor that is included in all four canonical Gospels (Mark 15:6–14; Matt 27:11–26; Luke 23:4, 13–14, 18–25; John 19:12–16).

The Passion Narrative in John’s Gospel continues to press the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus directly onto the chief priests. When Pilate asks, “shall I crucify your King?”, the chief priests answer, “We have no king but Caesar” (19:15). When Pilate orders an inscription to be prepared for Jesus, the chief priests say to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews’” (19:21).

Both of these incidents appear to be quite implausible historically, given what we know of Jewish nationalism under Roman rule. Likewise, the scene where the Jewish crowd bays for the blood of Jesus rather than Barabbas could not have occurred—there is no evidence for the release of a prisoner at Passover, as the Gospels suggest.

These factors underline the strong likelihood that the author of the book of signs—along with the other authors of the Synoptic Gospels—has placed more of the blame for the death of Jesus onto the shoulders of the Jewish authorities, rather than the Romans. The charge of antisemitism in these Gospels needs to be considered and dealt with.

3 “The Jews” in John 6

Nevertheless, a more careful reading of the book of signs as a whole points to a more nuanced understanding, one that makes space for sympathetic readings of the role of “the Jews” in this document. We have already noted the important distinction between “the Jews” as a whole, and specific Jewish leadership in Jerusalem.

The passage that provides the basis for the lectionary Gospel at this time of the year (John 6) pushes us in this more nuanced interpretive direction. In this story, Jesus and the disciples—who, let us remember, were all Jews—are engaged with a large crowd—who also were Jews, as the scene is clearly set in Jewish territory near Capernaum (6:24).

The interaction between Jesus and the crowd begins “when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus” (6:24). In the scene that plays out over the ensuing fifteen verses, the crowd of “the Jews” behave, in my view, quite responsibly and respectfully towards Jesus. They are seeking him—looking to engage further with him, be with him, learn from him.

The first interaction comes “when they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’” (6:25). This is a genuine enquiry, which evokes an explanation from Jesus. It’s a straightforward conversation, with no hidden agendas at play.

The crowd then said to Jesus, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (6:29). This, too, is simply an enquiry soliciting information. “Doing the works of God” references a standard biblical phrase. It usually describes the work that God did in bringing the whole creation into being (Heb 4:4; see Job 37:14; 40:19; Ps 73:28), although in Psalm 78, “not forgetting the works of God” (78:7) is set into the context of teaching the law and keeping the commandments (78:5–8).

Could the Jewish crowd in Capernaum be asking Jesus about how they might join with him in living as co—creators with God, in harmony with the created order, in obedience to the covenant promises they have made, through keeping the commandments of the Law?

In true Johannine style, however, Jesus in this story reduces the whole covenant relationship to one simple factor: “this is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (6:29), to which they reply, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (6:30-31).

The interaction taking place here is not antagonistic or accusatory. The crowd is pressing Jesus on what they have seen, and exploring what he meant to do when he fed the crowd, as reported earlier in the chapter. The crowd refers to scripture to interpret their experience; this was a normal part of Jewish discipleship. They know very well the story about Moses leading the people of Israel through the wilderness, and the provision of manna from heaven for them to eat (Exod 16:27–36; Num 11:4–9).

The response from Jesus provides an explanation to the crowd in terms of the scripture story to which they have referred—the manna given to Israel in the wilderness (6:32–33). That was a gift, not from Moses, but from God.

The crowd responds to the teaching of Jesus in a way that is enquiring and appreciative. They do not respond in anger, or in disagreement, or with a mocking tone. They simply say to Jesus, “Sir, give us this bread always” (6:34). The crowd remains open to what Jesus is teaching, keen to learn more of what he speaks, engaged with the lesson that Jesus is providing. This crowd of Jews is not at all like the groups who “seek all the more to kill him” (5:18), who press Jesus antagonistically (7:20; 8:48–52; 10:20).

Of course, we as the readers can see how the author of this Gospel is, typically, running a narrative at two levels—the surface level of discussion about bread, and the deeper level of discussion pointing to “the living bread which came down from heaven”. But this is typical Johannine style. There is nothing negative to be said about the crowd to this point. The explanation from Jesus, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (6:35), then draws together both the levels at which the narrative has been running.

Rustic bread

4 Questioning Jesus about “bread from heaven”

From this point on, the interaction becomes more complex. First, we read that “the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven’” (6:41). The reference to the Jews “grumbling” also evokes the wilderness stories from Jewish tradition. The people of Israel grumbled against Moses (Exod 15:24; 17:3) or against Moses and Aaron (Exod 16:2; Num 14:2, 29; 16:41), resenting their leadership when things became tough for them as they continued their way through the wilderness. They had no water, no food, no comfort, in their wilderness wanderings.

The grumbling of the people in this scene, however, does not relate to lack of provisions—after all, the crowd had earlier been fed with abundance (John 6:5–13). The crowd focuses on the identity of Jesus. The crowd said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (6:42). Jesus is described as “son of Joseph” only in the book of signs (1:45, and here). Luke introduces him as “the son (as was supposed) of Joseph” (Luke 3:23), whilst Mark identifies him as “the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3), and Matthew has the crowd in Nazareth asking, “is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary?” (Matt 13:55).

Whatever was thought about the parentage of Jesus, the question of the crowd here has to do with the contrast between his earthly and heavenly origins. Jesus was known to his contemporaries, quite understandably, through his family of origin; claims about his heavenly origin sit uncomfortably with this understanding.

Yet for the author of the Gospel, the heavenly origins of Jesus are indisputable: “you are from below, I am from above”, he later tells the crowd (8:23; see also 3:31). The people in the story act as we might reasonably expect; the people outside the story, hearing it from the perspective of the narrator, know of the deeper level of meaning that is so typical of the Johannine narrative.

The answer provided by Jesus reinforces his central claim, “I am the bread of life” (6:48), “I am the living bread” (6:51), and extends it by noting “this is the bread that comes down from heaven” (6:50). Belief in this leads to eternal life—a claim that is a regular refrain in this Gospel (6:47; see also 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24; 6:27, 40, 54, 60; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2–3). And, more shockingly, Jesus ends this section with the word that will provoke, at long last, a dispute amongst “the Jews” listening to him.

The Greek word translated as “dispute” is schisma, from which we get schism and schismatic. The same dynamic of division is reported amongst the Pharisees when confronted with the healing of the man born blind (9:16) and again amongst the crowd in Jerusalem as they hear Jesus teaching that he is “the good shepherd” who has authority from the Father (10:19). The response is a typical pattern amongst those who listen intently to the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus concludes with another short burst of teaching which presses the final point of the last section into an even harder claim. The bread Jesus gives is his flesh. He sharpens the point, however, by referring directly to the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood—actions utterly anathema to faithful Jews. It is as if the author is deliberately placing Jesus in dangle of total rejection by the crowd.

Jesus concludes by reasserting his earlier polemic, “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (6:58). He will not step back from the dissension he has produced.

5 The response of the disciples

The last section of the chapter provides a most intriguing resolution to the narrative. The immediate response of “many of his disciples” is sharp: “this is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (6:60). It is not the crowd that responds in this way; it is a group within the disciples that react.

It is interesting that, at this point, the narrator observes that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (6:66). If anyone is to be seen as the opposition in this chapter, the ones turning their back on Jesus, it is surely this group of “many of his disciples”. We rarely hear about the failures of Jesus. This chapter reports a clear instance. Not every disciple of Jesus stuck with him all the way.

In fact, Jesus reassess the point, saying to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” (6:67). Apart from the description of Thomas as “one of the twelve” (20:24), this is the only place in this Gospel where the inner group of twelve disciples is explicitly identified (6:70, 71). Jesus takes the key issue right to the heart of his followers.

The answer of Simon Peter is noteworthy. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (6:68-69).

This is a climactic moment, a high point of confession of the true identity of Jesus. It evokes the Caesarea Philippi confession of Peter in the Synoptics (Mark 8:29; Matt 16:16; Luke 9:20)—although in the book of origins, it is actually Martha, not one of the male disciples, who mirrors this confession as she makes the ultimate confession, “you are the Christ, the Son of God” (11:27).

Jesus presses the point with his disciples, seeking to make sure that they are, indeed, committed to continue following him. “Did I not choose you, the twelve?” he asks, continuing, “yet one of you is a devil” (6:70). Another “hard saying” from Jesus, for his followers to hear.

The narrator then explains, “he spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him” (6:71). At precisely the moment when the remaining disciples seem to be firmly committed to their following of Jesus, he punctures their assurance, demonising one of their number with these incisive words. Even this group of faithful followers will be fractured.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/02/claims-about-the-christ-affirming-the-centrality-of-jesus-john-6-pentecost-9b-13b/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/07/20/misunderstanding-jesus-they-came-to-make-him-a-king-john-6-pentecost-9b/

Featured

International Day of Indigenous Peoples

Today (9 August) is International Day of Indigenous Peoples. Last Wednesday (4 August) was National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day.

The theme for National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day 2021 is proud in culture, strong in spirit.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities have provided love and care for their children, growing them up strong and safe in their cultural traditions, for thousands of generations.

For our children, safety, wellbeing and development are closely linked to the strengths of their connections with family, community, culture, language, and Country.

The continent of Australia and its surrounding 8,222 islands have been cared for since time immemorial by the indigenous peoples of these lands. When the British began their colonising invasion and settlement of the continent, it is estimated that there were over 400 nations across the continent and its islands, with about 250 languages being used at this time.

The land was not terra nullius (nobody’s land), despite the action of “claiming” the continent for Great Britain.

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/31/whats-in-a-name-reconciliation-ruminations/

The situation of our First Peoples merits particular and ongoing attention. In Australia, we have NAIDOC WEEK in July to celebrate the survival and continuing culture and language. We have National Reconciliation Week, running from 27 May, the anniversary of the 1967 referendum which recognised the indigenous peoples of Australia and gave them the right to vote, through until 3 June, the day in 1992 that the legal case brought by Eddie (Koiki) Mabo was decided and the lie of terra nullius was laid bare by Koiki in the Australian High Court.

We also have Sorry Day, a time to pay respect and acknowledge the many thousands of Aboriginal and Torries Strait Islander children who were taken away from their homes, whom we now know as The Stolen Generation. And for indigenous peoples, 26 January is commemorated as Invasion Day, or Survival Day, as they remember the invasion that led to countless massacres and their systemic marginalisation as the imported European culture grew and dominated the land.

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/26/saying-sorry-seeking-justice-walking-together-working-for-reconciliation/

These occasions are very important for focussing our attention on the wonderfully rich heritage of the First Peoples of Australia. They also help us to remember the ways that we can work together with our First Peoples, to ensure a better future for the present and future generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This year, the theme for International Day of Indigenous Peoples is Leaving No One Behind: Indigenous peoples and the call for a new social contract. That is particularly relevant in Australia, where the call for a Treaty (or Makarratta) with the First Nations of this continent has been growing in strength in recent years.

See https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/07/giving-voice-telling-truth-talking-treaty-naidoc-2019/

I recently participated in a workshop on advocating for First Peoples, led by Nathan Tyson, an Aboriginal man, of Anaiwon and Gomeroi heritage in North Western NSW. (This was part of the excellent Out Of The Box mission conference held in July.) Nathan is currently working as Manager, First Peoples Strategy and Engagement, with the Synod of NSW and the ACT of the Uniting Church.

The workshop had two parts. In the first part, Nathan offered us a series of insights into the experience of the First People’s of Australia, drawing on what we know about the history, customs, and current situation of indigenous peoples across the continent, and in the associated islands linked to this continent.

The five areas were: the impact of invasion and colonisation — the many massacres that occurred, and the almost complete absence of calling British settlers to account for these massacres — the Doctrine of Discovery and the resulting claim of terra nullius about Australia — the Stolen Generations — and the current push to tell the truth, listen to the Voice of First Peoples, and establish Treaties with the various nations of the First Peoples.

You can read my reflections on this part of the workshop at https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/04/working-with-first-peoples-and-advocating-for-them/. On the Doctrine of Discovery, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

In the second part, Nathan then provided a comprehensive set of practical pointers for us to consider. Given what we know about the situation and perspective of our First Peoples, what can we do to support, collaborate with, and advocate for these peoples? Here are the practical steps that Nathan provided for us to consider and adopt:

Learn about First Peoples, their history, their realities, their aspirations, with an open mind, with a compassionate heart

Put yourself in the shoes of First Peoples and try to walk the journey with them as they experience it

Talk with family and friends about the issues that you hear about, encourage truth telling, stand up against racism

Develop relationships, listen deeply to the needs and aspirations of First Peoples

Respect the right of self-determination of Aboriginal Peoples

Undertake simple advocacy activities to support the needs and aspirations of First Peoples (synod, assembly, Common Grace, ANTAR, Amnesty all have resources)

Join rallies and marches to show solidarity with First Peoples

Pay to undertake a Walking on Country experience with a local Aboriginal organisation

Employ First Peoples in your business, purchase goods from Aboriginal businesses, collaborate in social enterprises and community initiatives

Make your church space available for use by the Aboriginal Community, for elders, community, social gatherings

Help with fundraising to support Aboriginal community initiatives

Use the system: help a person to lodge a complaint with agencies such as NSW Ombudsman’s Office, Anti-Discrimination NSW, NSW Office of Fair Trading, Ombudsman for Telecommunication Industry, Energy Industry, Community Legal Services (for civil matters)

There are links to many resources relating to First Peoples at https://nswact.uca.org.au/first-nations-resources/

The UCA Assembly has produced a study guide based on the UCA Covenant with Congress, available at https://assembly.uca.org.au/walkingtogether/item/download/881_c020cd5241975ded067ba11194535b24

Featured

A Safe Place for Rainbow Christians

A post from guest blogger Delia Quigley

July 2015 saw the beginning of  Rainbow Christian Alliance (RCA) as a joint program run in partnership between Tuggeranong Uniting Church (TUC) and Diversity ACT community services. RCA was initiated to provide a Safe Place for LGBTIQA+ people of faith, their families and friends who wanted to be able to get together in fellowship in an environment away from the judgement, hurt and pain often caused by Christian Churches and other faiths to the LGBTIQA+ community.

See the source image

RCA  gathers  on the second Sunday of each month with a dinner church format, meeting with LGBTIQA+ people of faith and their allies; gathering, chatting, eating, then sharing in a variety of worship styles including modified liturgy, readers theatre, discussion groups, guest speakers and the evening is usually wrapped up with dessert and much more chatting!

Initially RCA was led by Delia Quigley, Rev Anne Ryan and  Megan Watts

Initially the RCA project was set up utilising the space in the Erindale Neighbourhood Centre, next door to TUC, but since the arrival of COVID-19 and the requirements for modifications including increased space for those gathered, RCA has been meeting in the TUC auditorium.

Following the commencement of RCA in July 2015, an invitation was extended by Rev Aimee Kent and a partnership was also created with Goulburn Grace Community. Dare Café commenced in Goulburn in February 2016, meeting monthly, and later incorporating a Bible Study group. The Dare Café and Grace Community has been impacted by COVID-19, but Pastor Amy Junor is now keen to work with the Dare Café group and keep things moving where possible.

See the source image

Over its six years, RCA has provided support to many people, including Ministers or Pastors who lost their congregation or Church because of their own sexuality, as well as people who faced exorcism, conversion therapies or even had lobotomies performed on them to cure their sexuality!

RCA also provided information to other congregations on LGBTIQA+ education and issues, including at the very stressful time of the Marriage Plebiscite. Following the June 2016 Orlando shooting at the Pulse night club in the USA, where 49 patrons were killed and 53 were wounded, RCA partnered with Canberra City Church to hold a Blue service for Orlando which was catered for with heart warming soups and fresh bread rolls by the City Church Congregation.

In more recent times RCA has had increasing support from TUC Congregation members, who provide a core support group to assist with set up, catering and running of RCA, giving more space for the leadership team of Rev. Miriam Parker-Lacey, James Ellis and Rev. Elizabeth Raine to concentrate on working with the group activities.

Rev Aaron James pictured speaking online to the RCA gathering in October 2020
with Rev Miriam Parker-Lacey and James Ellis 

RCA has provided a safe place for many and has had steady numbers of attendees of approximately 20-22 people at each gathering over the past 6 years.  Obviously there has been changes as to who attends, but the numbers have remained steady and in recent months there has been an increase in LGBTIQA+ youthful attendees. These younger attendees may not face some of the issues older generation LGBTIQA+ people faced but there are still many  ongoing issues for LGBTIQA+ plus Christians.

6th Birthday gluten-free chocolate mud cake 

Sadly, since the Marriage Plebiscite, there has been an increased push from certain quarters to demonise Transgender or Non-Binary people, and the current Olympics has been used to push fears that Trans people are stealing women’s rights and your children! (The “protect your children” fears was also previously used to push the falsehood that homosexuality equalled paedophilia.)

There are ongoing pushes for legislative changes being introduced by Mark Latham in NSW to prevent even mentioning LGBTIQA+ issues in classrooms.  LGBTIQA+ people are also faced with possible legislation to be tabled by the current Federal Government on ‘Religious Freedom’. Initially the Prime Minister promised to look at legislation to keep LGBTIQA+ young people safe, but there is much cynicism as to what may be introduced and many LGBTIQA+ people fear exclusion or even loss of employment because of their sexuality or gender identity

The Rainbow Christian Alliance continues to provide a Safe Space for people who have been hurt or marginalised within society–even by the church–to gather, relax in each other’s company, and share their faith.

More information on RCA can be found at  https://tuc.org.au/worship/rainbow-christian-alliance/ or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1025029234182558

See also https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-17/what-is-it-like-to-be-christian-and-in-the-lgbtiq-rainbow-family/8808584

Featured

Working with First Peoples and advocating for them

I recently participated in a workshop on Advocating for First Peoples, led by Nathan Tyson, an Aboriginal man, of Anaiwon and Gomeroi heritage in North Western NSW. (This was part of the excellent Out Of The Box mission conference held in July.) Nathan is currently working as Manager, First Peoples Strategy and Engagement, in the Synod of NSW and the ACT of the Uniting Church.

The workshop had two parts. In the first part, we explored what we know about the history and current situation of First Peoples. In the second part, we considered what actions we might take to work with and advocate for First Peoples.

What do we know?

In the first part, Nathan offered us a series of insights into the experience of the First Peoples of Australia, drawing on what we know about the history, customs, and current situation of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders across the continent, and in the associated islands linked to this continent.

The five areas were: the impact of invasion and colonisation — the many massacres that occurred, and the almost complete absence of calling British settlers to account for these massacres — the Doctrine of Discovery and the resulting claim of terra nullius about Australia — the Stolen Generations — and the current push to tell the Truth, listen to the Voice of First Peoples, and establish Treaties with the various nations of the First Peoples.

First, there is the story—now becoming well-known and widespread— of the impact on First Peoples from the invasion and colonization that took place from 1788 onwards. (I use these terms deliberately; describing the British colony as a settlement is far too benign; it ignores much of the harsh reality of what took place.)

The period of invasion and colonisation saw innumerable massacres take place. As well as the thousands of Aboriginal deaths that occurred through these massacres, British invasion also led to the deliberate marginalising of people in many of the Aboriginal nations that existed at that time.

There is a powerful visual symbol of these massacres at The killing times: a massacre map of Australia’s frontier wars | Australia news | The Guardian

The map is interactive. The number of massacres that were perpetrated by ordinary people—not soldiers, not government officials—is truly horrifying.

Associated with this is an observation that provides a second area worthy of note. It is the case that virtually no white persons were charged for the acts of violence and murder that they perpetrated. (The Myall Creek Massacre provides one of the rare exceptions to this claim. See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/myall-creek-massacre-1838)

Third, Nathan referred to the rationale that was driving both the colonisation of the continent and the massacre of First Peoples—the Doctrine of Discovery, promulgated in medieval times and driving the expansionary colonisation policies of many European nations, including Britain. It was this Doctrine which formed the foundation of the claim of terra nullius—the notion that the there were no people in the land who were settled in the land.

The Uniting Church in Australia has joined with other churches around the world in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

Fourth, Nathan noted the issue of the Stole Generations, a blight on the history of Australia since the nineteenth century. This matter was addressed in Bringing Them Home, a highly important report issued in 1997. The commission that produced this report was led by Sir Ron Wilson, a High Court judge who had served as UCA Moderator in Western Australia and then as the fifth national President (1988–1991).

See https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-social-justice/publications/bringing-them-home

The continuing saga of Aboriginal children being taken from their homes remains with us today, to our national shame. Even in the 21st century, indigenous children continue to be taken from their families. In fact, there are far more Aboriginal children in out-or-home care now, than there were in 1997 when the Bringing Them Home report exposed countless stories of terror and tragedy amongst the Stolen Generations.

The final area canvassed in the first part of the workshop focussed on the theme of Voice. Treaty. Truth. This was the theme for NAIDOC Week 2019. It consists of a call to give Voice to the First Peoples of Australia by establishing a representative body to advise federal law makers; to establish a Treaty with each of the nations that were in the land before the British sent their invading colonisers; and to tell Truth about the history and the present situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

See https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/07/giving-voice-telling-truth-talking-treaty-naidoc-2019/

Nathan encouraged all of the workshop participants to learn about First Peoples, their history, their realities, and their aspirations, and to approach First Peoples with an open mind and with a compassionate heart.

What can be done?

In the second part, Nathan then provided a comprehensive set of practical pointers for us to consider. Given what we know about the situation and perspective of our First Peoples, what can we do to support, collaborate with, and advocate for these peoples? Here are the practical steps that Nathan provided for us to consider and adopt:

Put yourself in the shoes of First Peoples and try to walk the journey with them as they experience it

Talk with family and friends about the issues that you hear about, encourage truth telling, stand up against racism

Develop relationships, listen deeply to the needs and aspirations of First Peoples

Respect the right of self-determination of Aboriginal Peoples

Undertake simple advocacy activities to support the needs and aspirations of First People’s (synod, assembly, Common Grace, ANTAR, Amnesty)

Join rallies and marches to show solidarity with First Peoples, eg those advertised by FISTT (Fighting In Solidarity Towards Treaties, a Facebook group)

Pay to undertake a Walking on Country experience with a local organisation

Employ First Peoples in your business, purchase goods from Aboriginal businesses, collaborate in social enterprises and community initiatives

Make your church space available for use by Aboriginal Community, for elders, community, social gatherings

Help with fundraising to support Aboriginal community initiatives

Use the system: help a person to lodge a complaint with agencies such as NSW Ombudsman’s Office, Anti-Discrimination NSW, NSW Office of Fair Trading, Ombudsman for Telecommunication Industry, Energy Industry, Community Legal Services (for civil matters)

There are plenty of practical suggestions in this list. It is worth the effort to start implementing some of them!

Featured

Jesus, growing, learning: a review of ‘What Jesus Learned from Women’

Jesus, fully divine, was yet also fully human. So we affirm: in creeds, in songs, in sermons and prayers. As fully human as each one of us, Jesus—like us—grew and developed, broadening in his understanding and deepening in his maturity over the years. This growth into maturity took place as Jesus learnt. He was exposed to new experiences, offered different perspectives, given fresh insights, and so, as he learnt, he grew.

Indeed, we read this claim quite explicitly in scripture, in the only place in our canonical Gospels that explicitly deals with Jesus as a growing child: “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40), and then, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature” (Luke 2:52).

If we accept this claim—consistent with the creeds and articulated in scripture—then it is quite legitimate to ask, “from whom did Jesus learn?” Perhaps from scribes in his local synagogue, as he grows and develops in his understanding of Torah. Perhaps from others of his age in that setting, as they delve deeper together, sharing insights about their customs and scriptures. And perhaps from members of his own family, as a young child, encountering new things each day as he grows.

In all of this, Jesus is “one who in every respect … [is] as we are” (Heb 4:15). He was fully one of “the children [who] share in flesh and blood, [who] himself likewise partook of the same things” (Heb 2:14), who “in the days of his flesh … offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death” (Heb 5:7). His full humanity must surely also mean that he learnt from his interactions with all manner of people in his life.

Including women. Including his mother, and perhaps his grandmother, if she was still alive during his childhood. Including the feisty Syrophoenician woman he encountered near Tyre, as well as the sisters of Lazarus whose home he visited in Bethany; and including Joanna and Mary of Magdala who followed him faithfully, as well as other women whom he encountered at various times during his travels in Galilee and Jerusalem. Jesus learnt from each of these women.

This is the thesis that is proposed, explored, and advocated in detail by North American biblical scholar, James McGrath, in his most recent book, What Jesus Learned from Women (Cascade Books, Oregon, 2021). The book has twelve chapters, and deals with the interactions between Jesus and a dozen women, with conclusions drawn about what Jesus learned in each instance.

If the notion of Jesus, the human being, needing to learn and grow, is problematic for a reader with a strong theology of Jesus as “fully divine”, then the claim that this learning was from women is sure to antagonise those who lay claim to the (unbiblical) notion that women ought not to teach men. But of course Jesus developed, of course Jesus learnt, and of course he learned from women.

In the 16 page Introduction to this book, matters of method in interpreting biblical texts are canvassed. In the 10 page Conclusion, a summary is provided as to “what Jesus learned from women”, and some pointers for other possibilities to explore are offered. If you don’t want to read the whole book, dip into these bookends. But the book is most certainly worth reading in full!

Each of the intervening chapters begin with a creative monologue, from the perspective of the woman in the encounter or another woman closely involved. These creative monologues draw heavily on what we know, from decades of scholarship, about the cultural customs and religious practices of Judaism at the time when Jesus lived in Galilee.

What follows, in each chapter, is a careful discussion of the key issues identified in those monologues. The chapters show thoughtful interaction with contemporary scholarship, with judicious use of footnotes enabling Dr McGrath to engage in the more technical interactions with other scholars. Indeed, there is a comprehensive bibliography of 26 pages at the end of the book, signalling that the author has canvassed other scholarly views most thoroughly.

This book is readable and engaging. The scholarly foundations of James McGrath’s thinking are evident, but these do not, for the most part, impair the flow of the writing or the stimulus of ideas canvassed. Indeed, because I’ve known James in person for many years, I feel confident to say that the book is equally as engaging and enjoyable as the enthusiastic and energetic author is, himself.

That’s not to say that every detail is amenable to my own predilections and beliefs about various aspects of the biblical texts that are explored. I don’t think that chapter 3, that pins a lot on what a fanciful second century document claims about Jesus’s family (Joseph and Mary, and her parents Joachim and Anna), really works–at least, not for me. Nor am I taken by the harmonising down into one incident of the various accounts of the woman who anointed Jesus, dealt with in chapter 7—although I do quite like the notion that the woman, in this incident, functions as a divinely-inspired prophet, foreseeing with clarity the fate of Jesus.

In the longest chapter, treating perhaps the most well-known woman in the life of Jesus (apart from his mother), my willingness to run with the creativity of the opening monologue and the claims that then followed in the ensuing 30 pages, was severely tested. I was minimally persuaded by reliance on abstracted explanations and hypothetical extrapolations from some isolated sections of the late second-century Valentinian gnostic work, the Gospel of Philip.

The kiss that Jesus gave Mary of Magdala, referred to in that work, must be read, I believe, not as a physical act, but as a spiritual claim: Mary was loved more than the one identified as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in John’s Gospel. The distinctive connections of salt and Jonah with Magdala seem too far fetched to me; was not salt, for instance, widely-used in the ancient world? And yet, the proposal about the relative ages of Jesus and Mary, the economic context of Mary, and the explanation of how the demons left her, have some attraction.

When I arrived at the final substantive chapter of the book, dealing with Joanna, wife of Chuza and one of the witnesses to the empty tomb, I was well-schooled in the McGrath style of beginning with a creative, dramatic-style monologue (in italics) followed by a careful, academic-style analysis of what the ancient texts (biblical and others) report. By the end of the chapter, I was thinking: why was not all of this in italics? That is to say: this whole chapter felt like a free-wheeling historical drama set in the ancient world, not a closely-argued forensic analysis of the character.

I’m a confirmed sceptic about the identification of Joanna with Junia (the apostle named in Rom 16:7). It comes from the work of one scholar, known for his dramatic hypotheses, and not substantiated by other scholarly work. The Nabatean origins of the name Chuza seem to rest simply on one inscription noted in an 1898 archaeological work. The possible relationship of Paul to the family of Chuza and Joanna (perhaps Andronicus and Junia?) does not seem to be demonstrated, at least to my thinking. It’s a creative chapter, but it’s relationship to history is tenuous (like the Star Wars saga that McGrath alludes to at the end of the chapter).

However, a number of the other chapters have strong persuasive power, at least to me. It is clear that the Mary who is depicted in Luke’s Gospel expresses views strongly consistent with key teachings of Jesus (compare Luke 1:46–55 with 4:16–21 and 6:20–26). Was this because the same person authored these passages? (as is most often assumed by scholars). Or was it because Mary in fact taught her son Jesus these central scriptural insights when he was a young child? (as James McGrath advocates in chapter 2). The possibility is enticing, and plausible.

I am also persuaded by the chapters which explain what Jesus learnt from the woman he encountered beside a well in Samaria (chapter 4) and the Syrophoenician woman in the region of Tyre (chapter 5). The way that each of these encounters is reported in the Gospel narratives (the former in John, the latter in Mark and Matthew) provides clear validation for the claim that Jesus did, in fact, learn significant things from each of these women. It seems to me that the discussion in these chapters does a fine job of amplifying what is in the text. And the encounter by the well in Samaria gave the inspiration for the wonderful artwork on the cover of the book, by Indianapolis artist Macey Dickerson. (See https://www.maceydickersonarts.com/)

And, despite my earlier comments about the historical implausibility of the chapter on Joanna, I found the brief discussion of the “intersectional” nature of life for people such as Saul/Paul and Joanna/Junia, living with two names that signify their two cultures, two languages, two places of being. That dynamic is so important for contemporary living in the global society.

The “thickest” chapter, in my view, is the chapter dealing with the young woman who was “presumed innocent”. We know her in Christian tradition as “the woman caught in adultery”—a story told in a section of text that is missing from the earliest manuscripts of John’s Gospel, and also floats into Luke’s Gospel in other manuscripts. The chapter draws from passages in Hebrew Scriptures and rabbinic texts to shed light on the scene. Who knew that dust on the mosaic floor in the Temple could be such a vital clue to this reconstruction?

Dr McGrath reconstructs the scene develops a thesis about what took place in a detailed, well-researched argument which is quite rabbinic in style and character. In the end, the chapter offers a creative interpretation that I find at once persuasive in many aspects—yet enticingly unresolved. Did Jesus learn from this woman the importance of not judging, and the imperative of not assuming one person is any more “without sin” than any other person?

Perhaps the most interesting claim that is made in this book is nestled into a footnote in the consideration of “two suffering daughters” in chapter six, relating to the woman who had bled for 12 years and the twelve year old daughter of Jairus, the synagogue leader (Mark 5:21–43). Noting that the world of the time was a strongly oral society, Dr McGrath proposes that the written Gospels “may well have served as memory aids for those who reflect stories about Jesus in Christian communities”.

Functioning in this way, those who used these written narratives may well have elaborated and expanded on them, drawing from what they knew as people of the time, and responding to questions from those hearing the stories. This fits very well into what we know of ancient (and, indeed, modern!) Jewish practices of storytelling.

We know that the Pharisees (and Jesus), and the rabbis in later centuries into the modern era, were masterful storytellers, using exaggeration, expansion, elaboration, and dramatic techniques to “get the point across”. And ancient synagogue congregations were not at all like the sedate, restrained congregations of contemporary Protestantism—schooled not to interrupt or ask questions! Synagogue gatherings were hectic, bustling, noisy events.

So what does this mean, then, for the whole enterprise that has developed, of careful, meticulous, written scholarly examination of each and every word in the biblical texts? Are we overegging the enterprise in our zealous focus on minute details, given the hypothesis that the texts were simply the springboards for more expansive and creative storytelling? As someone who thrives on that scholarly enterprise, I am stunned by this possibility. But it bears further consideration.

Yet the suggestion that the written text formed the basis for a more extempore, elaborated account of each story involved, is an enticing prospect. And we know that it can work, since the book itself shows how the biblical text can generate a fuller story, offered in the creative monologues at the start of each chapter (and at the end of some).

That’s one of the great gifts of this book—along with the theological affirmations that Jesus was human, and thus did learn from other human beings; and that, in fact, he did learn from women at multiple points throughout his life. For establishing the reality of these insights, through this book, we are most grateful to James McGrath.

*****

Postscript: I have read this book in company with a group of friends, from three continents, meeting once a week online to discuss a chapter at a time. It’s one of the gifts of the pandemic—we have learnt to be agile in the way we function online. It’s meant we can draw together people who are geographically dispersed—including, in this case, the author himself! It’s been a great way to explore a whole host of ideas that have emerged within the book, or during our conversations about it.

See also https://www.insights.uca.org.au/new-book-to-explore-what-jesus-learned-from-women/ and https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2021/03/what-jesus-learned-from-women-insights.html where James McGrath engages in conversation with Jonathan Foye about the book.

The book can be ordered from https://wipfandstock.com/9781532680601/what-jesus-learned-from-women/

Featured

Claims about the Christ: affirming the centrality of Jesus (John 6; Pentecost 9B—13B)

“I am the bread of life” (John 6:48), says Jesus, in the passage set as the Gospel selection in this coming Sunday’s lectionary offerings. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (6:35), he had said, in the final verse of the section offered as last Sunday’s lectionary Gospel.

This claim about Jesus is a major element in the way that he is presented in the book of signs. This work not only contains a sequence of seven signs, or miracles, that give the name to the whole Gospel: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples … these [signs] are written so that you may believe” (John 20:30–31).

It is also the Gospel in which significant statements about Jesus are offered, particularly in the series of seven I AM statements that it contains. “I am the bread of life” (6:48) is the first such instance in this series. The others are “the light of the world” (8:12), “the door of the sheep” (10:7, 9), “the good shepherd” (10:11, 14), “the resurrection and the life” (11:25), “the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6), and “the true vine” (16:1).

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:51), Jesus declares, in the opening verse of the reading for Sunday week. “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died; but the one who eats this bread will live forever” (6:58), he says again in the passage for the Sunday after that.

Get the picture? Week after week, following the various sections of this long chapter within the book of signs, the lectionary presents us with insistent reminders of this central Johannine teaching of Jesus. Jesus is “the bread of life” (6:35, 41, 48, 50, 51, 58).

The context in which Jesus makes these claims is instructive. The scene at the beginning of the chapter introduces this motif, when the narrator writes: “Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?'” (6:5).

The motif of bread is thus established through this rhetorical question. The narrator explains, in 6:6–7, that this was said to test Philip; it opens the door for Andrew to report, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish” (6:9). So begins the account of the feeding of the multitude (6:10-14).

And so, this incident is used by the narrator to form the basis for some significant teaching by Jesus–a technique familiar in other chapters. Think of the encounter with Nicodemus (3:1–14), leading into a teaching about salvation and judgement (3:15–21), and the encounter with the unnamed woman in Samaria (4:5–26), the basis for another section focussing on salvation (4:27–42). These two scenes make use of a literary technique which is employed to good advantage by the author of the book of signs in subsequent chapters.

We might also think of the healing of the invalid man in Jerusalem (5:1–9) which leads into teaching about the work of the Son (5:10–47), and the multi-scene drama later in Jerusalem (9:41), in which the healing of the man born blind (9:1–7) leads to a dramatic playing out of the teaching provided earlier (8:12; repeated at 9:5), that Jesus is “the light of the world”.

A further example of the literary skills of the author of the book of signs is found in the series of scenes in and near Bethany (11:1–44), in which the narrative of raising of Lazarus from the dead contains teachings on the claim that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life ” (11:25).

Indeed, each of these scenes contain a climactic moment in which a significant Christological affirmation is uttered. Jesus is “God’s only Son”, given to the world in love (3:16). He is “the Saviour of the world” (4:42), confessed in a Samaritan township. He is the Son of Man with “authority to execute judgment” (5:27), the Holy One of God (6:69), a prophet (9:17) who is, by inference, the Messiah (9:22). And Martha makes the ultimate confession of faith in Jesus: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (11:27).

For the author of the book of signs, affirming the identity of Jesus shapes the whole narrative of this Gospel. Each sign points to the significance of Jesus: manifesting his glory (2:12), fostering belief (4:48), identifying him as “the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (6:14), the Son of Man (9:35), the Son of God and Messiah (11:27). And each interpersonal encounter illuminates his signal identity, as we have noted.

Then, each I AM claim undergirds the central role of Jesus in the plan being worked out in this Gospel. A number of these statements draw on scriptural terms and imagery in presenting Jesus in this way.

When Jesus describes himself as “the true vine” (John 15:1–11), he is drawing on a standard scriptural symbol for Israel (Ps 80:8; Hos 10:1; Isa 5:7; Jer 6:9; Ezek 15:1–6; 17:5–10; 19:10–14).

When Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd” (10:1–18), he evokes the imagery of the good shepherd as the true and faithful leader in Israel (Num 21:16–17; Ezek 34:1–31; Jer 23:4), and the people as the sheep who are cared for (Pss 95, 100; Ezek 34:31).

When Jesus calls himself “the bread of heaven” (6:25–59), he makes it clear that he is referring to the scriptural account of the manna in the wilderness (Ex 16:1–36; Num 11:1–35; Pss 78:23–25; 105:40). The discourse which develops from this saying includes explicit quotations of scripture, as well as midrashic discussions of its meaning.

Jesus, “the light of the world” (8:12; 9:1–5), evokes the story of the creation of light (Gen 1:3–5) and the light which the divine presence shone over Israel (Exod 13:21–22). The Psalmist uses the imagery of light to indicate obedience to God’s ways (Pss 27:1; 43:3; 56:13; 119:105, 130; etc.), and it is a common prophetic motif as well (Isa 2:5; 42:6; 49:6; Dan 2:20–22; Hos 6:5; Mic 7:8; Zech 14:7; cf. the reversal of the imagery at Jer 13:16; Amos 5:18–20).

The claim that Jesus is “the way” (14:6) may also owe its origins to scriptural usage. The term describes God’s activity in many Psalms 5:8; 18:30; 25:9; 27:11; 37:34; 50:23; 67:2, and so on. In Isa 40:3-5 (cited at Luke 3:4-6), the return from exile in Babylon is marked as a preparing of the way by the Lord, leading the exiled people back to their homeland.

The term is also appropriated in the Dead Sea Scrolls as a means of defining the Qumran community (1QS 9.17–18,21; 10:21; CD 1:13; 2:6). This most likely reflects competing claims for being the authentic keepers of Torah amongst Jewish sects. Jesus, in the book of signs, is clearly honoured as the Teacher supreme for the community of Jesus followers for whom this work was compiled.

And although it is not part of an “I am” statement, the description of the Spirit as “living waters” which flow from Jesus (4:7–15; 7:37–39) are reminiscent of the water which were expected to flow from the eschatological temple (Ezek 47:1; Joel 3:18; Zech 14:8), and, more directly, refer to the description of God used by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 2:13).

Of course, the very phrase I AM resonates directly with the name that the Lord God revealed in Exodus. When Moses asks, “What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”, God replied, “I AM WHO I AM. Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exod 3:13-14).

In addition, biblical scholars have noted that rabbinic symbolism has affinities with Johannine symbols; for example, the terms bread, light, water and wine are all used by the rabbis in connection with the Torah.

Thus, the distinctive set of Christological claims made for Jesus in the book of signs, the Gospel according to John, are both thoroughly grounded in scriptural images and familiar from the ongoing traditions taught by the rabbis. The role that Jesus plays is in fulfilment of scriptural ideas.

This is a key factor in the way that the author of the book of signs has shaped his distinctive narrative. And it is highlighted in the middle of the extended narrative that occurs in John 6, when Jesus declares: “it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven” (6:32). This is the role that Jesus fulfils in the book of signs; he has been sent by the Father, a gift of living bread, for those who hunger.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/06/i-am-the-way-john-14-from-elitist-exclusivism-to-gracious-friendship/

Featured

“The exercise by men and women of the gifts God bestows upon them”: celebrating women in leadership in the Uniting Church

The National Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia has just installed the Rev. Sharon Hollis as President of the Assembly for the next three years (2021–24).

15th President Dr Deidre Palmer and General Secretary Colleen Geyer
pray over the Rev. Sharon Hollis as she is installed as the 16th President

At the same meeting (being held online because of the COVID pandemic), members of the Assembly have elected a female President-Elect, the Rev. Charissa Suli. She will serve as President-Elect for three years, and then take up the position of President in July 2024.

President-Elect, the Rev. Charissa Suli

The UCA employs a system where the current President, the immediate former President, and the President-Elect all serve as ex officio members of the Assembly Standing Committee, the body that oversees the church during the three years in between National Assembly meetings.

For the next three years, the President, the Past President, and the President-Elect will all be females: the Rev. Sharon Hollis, Dr Deidre Palmer, and the Rev. Charissa Suli, respectively. In addition, the current General Secretary of the Assembly is also female: Colleen Geyer. Her term has just been extended by the current Assembly. It is a striking symbol, when considering the national leadership of Christian churches across Australia. All of our key leadership are female.

The symbolism is potent, when Heads of Churches gather: women in such ranks have, to this point, been somewhat rare. The Uniting Church contribution has been, and will continue to be, a reminder, of the importance of providing a female perspective when issues of national social and political importance are being considered. (It’s a message that our national political leadership seems incapable of hearing and implementing—despite the power of the #EnoughIsEnough movement from earlier this year.)

Women in leadership is not an unusual thing for the UCA. To be sure, women have served in leadership roles in a number of denominations. But amongst the historic mainstream denominations, the Uniting Church stands out from Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, with many more women stepping forward in leadership.

Heads of Churches in 2018:
Melbourne’s Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier,
President of the Uniting Church Dr Deidre Palmer,
and Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop, Anthony Fisher.

The same comparisons can be drawn with Baptist, Church of Christ, and Pentecostal churches over the past half century. (And a number of women in leadership in Pentecostal or other conservative churches have been in married teams, where their role has been “covered” by the “headship” of their husband—partner).

The first Moderator of the NSW Synod was Mrs Lilian Wells (1977–78) and the second Moderator of the Victorian Synod was Mrs Ethel Mitchell (1978–79). The South Australian Synod elected Mrs Elizabeth Finnegan as the sixth Moderator (1987–89) and then the Rev. Margaret Polkinghorne as the tenth Moderator (1995–97) in that Synod. The seventh Moderator of the Tasmanian Synod was Dr Jill Tabart (1984–85). Dr Tabart went on to be elected as the seventh President, serving 1994–97 in that role. She was the first female President.

Top: Moderators Lilian Wells (NSW) and Dr Jill Tabart (Tas)
Bottom: Moderator Elizabeth Finnegan (SA) with husband Paddy;
Presidents Dr Jill Tabart and Dr Deidre Palmer in 2015

This is completely consistent with the affirmation made in the Basis of Union—the document on which the formation of the Uniting Church was based. Paragraph 13 of the Basis, after recognising the existing ministries in the three participating denominations at the time of union, states, “The Uniting Church will thereafter provide for the exercise by men and women of the gifts God bestows upon them, and will order its life in response to God’s call to enter more fully into mission” (para. 13).

This was consistent with the practice of those three earlier denominations, which each had ordained women to serve in ministry: the Congregational Church had ordained Rev Winifred Kiek in 1927; Rev Dr Coralie Ling, a deaconess, became the first woman to be ordained in the Methodist Church in 1969; and Rev Marlene (Polly) Thalheimer was ordained as the first female minister in the Presbyterian Church in 1974. You can read about these women, and more, in a fine article by Rev Dr Avril Hannah-Jones, at https://revdocgeek.com/2013/06/22/women-in-the-uniting-church-by-a-partial-prejudiced-ignorant-historian-to-quote-the-immortal-jane/

Top left: the Rev. Winifried Kirk.
Top right: the Rev. Coralie Ling, in 1969,
and (below) in 2018.

Indeed, this practice is also consistent with the fundamental theological affirmation made earlier in paragraph 13 of the Basis, declaring that the church “acknowledges with thanksgiving that the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts, and that there is no gift without its corresponding service: all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ.” This, of course, derives from the crystal clear affirmations about the gifting of the Spirit that Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 12. The Spirit knows no limits of gender in gracing individuals with gifts for ministry.

And Paul (despite the inaccurate ways in which his letters are portrayed) was completely accepting and affirming of women in ministry leadership as partners with him in the work they were undertaking. See my considerations of this matter at https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/19/women-in-the-new-testament-1-the-positive-practices-of-jesus-and-the-early-church/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/19/women-in-the-new-testament-2-six-problem-passages/

So, women in key leadership roles is a practice consistent with scripture and in accord with the central values and practices of the Uniting Church. Along with the women already noted in the opening paragraphs above, a number of the Synods have had female Moderators, Queensland being the last to elect a female in Kaye Ronalds, who was the first female in that role in that Synod, serving 2011–14 (pictured below).

Moderators Denise Liersch (VicTas),
Kaye Ronalds (Qld), and Susy Thomas (WA)

Five years ago, there were four female Moderators around the country: Myung Hwa Park (NSW.ACT, 2014–17), Sharon Hollis (VicTas, 2016–19), Thresi Mauboy Wohangara (Northern Synod, 2015–21), and Sue Ellis (SA, 2016–19) (pictured below).

Moderators Sue Ellis (SA), Sharon Hollis (VicTas)
Myung Hwa Park (NSW.ACT),
and Thresi Mauboy Wohangara (Northern Synod)
in 2016

Currently, there are three female Moderators: Thresi Mauboy Wohangara in the Northern Synod, Denise Liersch in VicTas, and Susy Thomas, in WA.

Whilst the Assembly has elected two lay women to the top leadership role—Dr Jill Tabart (1994–97) and Dr Deidre Palmer (2018–21)—lay female Moderators have been more scarce. In two Synods, lay women were elected as Moderator early in the life of the Uniting Church—in Victoria, Mrs E.A. Mitchell was the second Moderator (1979), whilst in NSW, Lilian Wells was the first Moderator (1977).

NSW subsequently elected Freda Whitlam (1985–86) and Margaret Reeson (2000–02) as Moderators. Tasmania elected Isabel Thomas Dobson (1997–99) and then the VicTas Synod elected her as Moderator for a second term (2009–13). The last Moderator for the Synod of Tasmania, before it joined with Victoria, was Colleen Grieve (2001–02).

Top: Moderators Colleen Grieve (Tas) and Freda Whitlam (NSW)
Bottom: Moderators Margaret Reeson (NSW.ACT)
and Isabel Thomas Dobson (Tas, and then VicTas)

South Australia elected Jan Trengove as Moderator (2001–03) and Dr Deidre Palmer (2013–16). In the Northern Synod, Ros McMillan served as Moderator (1996–2000)—her husband, Stuart McMillan, served as both Moderator (2010–15) and then as President (2015–18). In Western Australia, three lay women have served as Moderator: Beryl Grant (1985–87), Lillian Hadley (1993–95), and Elizabeth Burns (1999–2001).

Top: Moderators Beryl Grant (WA)
and Ros McMillan (Northern Synod)
Bottom: Moderators Jan Trengove (SA)
and Dr Deidre Palmer (SA)

Lay men have served in Western Australia (Ron Wilson, 1977–79, then Robert Watson, 2005–08), Tasmania (Neville Marsh, 1979–80, Dr Peter Gunn, 1991–93, and Don Hall, 1995–97), NSW.ACT (Bruce Irvine, 1989–92, and Jim Mein, 2004–07), Queensland (Dr John Roulston, 1990–91), South Australia (Dr Don Hopgood, 1997–99), and VicTas (Charles Lavender, 1982–83, Alex Kilgour, 1985–86, and Dan Wootton, 2013–16). In South Australia, the current Moderator is layman Bronte Wilson (2019-22).

The Rev. Charissa Suli, a second-generation Australian of Tongan heritage, is the first person of non-Anglo origins to serve in the National leadership role, although some Synods have elected non-Anglos as Moderators: Tongan Jason Kioa in VicTas (2006–09); Chinese Dr Tony Chi (1992–93) and Korean Myung Hwa Park (2014–17) in NSW.ACT. In the Northern Synod, indigenous leader Djiniyini Gondarra served as Moderator (1985–87) and now Thresi Mauboy Wohangara is Moderator. All of these leaders have been ordained people.

Top: Moderator Djiniyini Gondarra (Northern Synod),
President-Elect Charissa Suli.
Bottom: Moderators Myung Hwa Park (NSW.ACT)
and Jason Kioa (VicTas)

And the age of Charissa Suli is striking: she is a “young person” by church reckoning, having been ordained for just seven years, and still being in her thirties. That must surely be something not often seen in church leadership.

Of course, all of this recounting of females in prominent leadership roles hasn’t yet taken into account the numerous females who have served as Chairperson of Presbyteries, Church Councils, and Congregations—to say nothing of the thousands upon thousands of females serving as active members of Congregations and Fellowship Groups and living out their discipleship in community groups right around the country. Females outnumber males within the church by a factor of at least 2:1, so it is way beyond time that our leadership reflects this!

As we look back on 44 years of the Uniting Church, it is clear that we have sought to reflect the affirmations made in the Basis of Union, in undertaking the discernment about who would provide the leadership required in the various councils of the church. It might have looked better if the ratio of male/female, and ordained/lay, and even Anglo/CALD had been more evenly balanced. (The names of other leaders not noted in my survey above were all, like me, ordained males, usually “of mature age”.)

Nevertheless, the array of leadership we can point to provides a sign of our commitment as a church, to be open to the moving of the Spirit. We have seen that in the gifted leadership of Dr Tabart (who signed the Covenant relationship with the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress in 1985) and Dr Palmer (who has steered the church through the difficulties of the 2018 decision about marriage, and who has been key to the development of a fine resource on domestic violence in 2021).

May that be what transpires under the leadership of Sharon Hollis, our first ordained female President, and then Charissa Suli, our first Pacific Islander female President.

*****

Confession: I haven’t done an exhaustive search into the names of all the Moderators. Those noted in the blog are those whose names I found in online resources (largely Wikipedia). Not every Synod has provided a full list of Moderators online. If there are other females, or lay people, who should be included amongst those I have noted, please let me know, and I will add them in!

*****

Footnote: a month later, the NSW.ACT Synod elected the Rev. Mata Havea Hiliau as Moderator-Elect, to take office for three years commencing in early 2023. Gender, generational change, and CALD leadership all in one go.

*****

See https://uniting.church/installation-of-rev-sharon-hollis/ and https://uniting.church/rev-charissa-suli-announced-as-president-elect/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/02/the-identity-of-the-uniting-church/ and https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/20/providing-for-the-exercise-by-men-and-women-of-the-gifts-god-bestows-upon-them-lay-people-presiding-at-the-sacraments-in-the-uniting-church/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/ and https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/20/alongside-the-basis-of-union-there-was-the-statement-to-the-nation/

Featured

Looking into the mirror: what does the Uniting Church look like?

This month, the 16th National Assembly meeting of the Uniting Church is being held. Assembly meets every three years, rotating around state capitals. This year, the plan was to meet in Brisbane—but last year the decision was made to meet online.

The papers for the July 2021 meeting of Assembly are available to read online at https://uniting.church/16thassemblyresources/

Each Synod reports to the Assembly. The report of the Synod of NSW and the ACT includes a section that provides a description of “who we are” as the Uniting Church in this Synod.

That description uses data from the 2016 NCLS results and also a single respondent Census of Congregations (2019) which included an estimate of average worship attendance and an actual headcount.

I thought it was worth extracting this part of the Synod report and hinting it a wider airing. So, when we look into the mirror of these surveys, what do we see? What is the Uniting Church like, right across Australia.

The 2019 Congregational Census reported that the NSW—ACT Synod has 23570 worship attenders each week, including 2896 children under 15 and 2556 youth and young adults aged 15-30. There are 533 local churches oversighted by 375 church councils and 85% of congregations participated in the census.

80% of our churches were monocultural (more than 80% one group), 14% multicultural with one group making up 50-80% and there were 6% of churches where the largest ethnic group made up less than 50% of the population.

In 2019, just 14% of congregations had direct relationship with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, although we know from the 2016 NCLS that 26% of churches conduct an acknowledgement of country in worship.

Just 12 churches had a weekly average of more than 150 people in worship.

31% of churches had no children, 34% had less than 5 children, but there were also 29 congregations had more than 20 children involved in congregational life, 6 of which had more than 50. 40% of churches had no young adults, 30% had less than 5, but 36 congregations had more than 20 young adults and 3 had more than 50.

As reported to the previous Assembly, the 2016 National Church Life Survey (NCLS) surveyed 10,183 adults and 392 children (8 to 14) from 275 local Churches across the Synod. The 2021 NCLS will be conducted in August-September this year.

The average age of UCA members was 66, compared to the average age 38 for the Australian population at the same time. In 2016 70% of NSW-ACT UCA attenders were over 60, compared to 21% of the wider population. 63% of NSW-ACT UCA attenders were women and 37% were men.

That’s who we are, according to these surveys. Ask yourself, as you look into the mirror: do you recognise yourself?

Featured

Misunderstanding Jesus: “they came to make him a king” (John 6; Pentecost 9B)

At this time of the year, every Year B, the lectionary offers us five weeks of readings from John 6, revolving around the motif of Jesus as “the living bread which came down from heaven”. The story of the feeding of the crowd of “men … about 5,000 in all” (John 6:1–14) replicates the story omitted from the last week by the lectionary, where the crowd also comprises “5,000 men” (Mark 6:44).

The Gospel offering provided by the lectionary last week omitted the feeding narrative (Mark 6:35–44) and provided only the surrounding sections (Mark 6:30–34, 53–56). It also omitted the account of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45–52)—a story paralleled in Matt 14:22-33 as well as John 6:16–21.

In doing this, the lectionary had excised the important reference to Jesus crossing over “to the other side”, from the Decapolis across to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45). In this Gospel, Jesus had left Jewish territory earlier, when he crossed “to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes” (5:1), then returned “to the other side” (5:21), where he visited “his own country” (6:1) before venturing again across “to the other side” (6:45–52). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/07/14/whats-in-and-whats-out-mark-6-pentecost-8b/

In the book of signs, the Gospel of John, Jesus moves freely between Galilee and Judea, a number of times; but there is no indication that he visited Gentile territory, despite the question of people in Jerusalem, “does he intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” (John 7:35).

The story of feeding the crowd is also retold by the other two evangelists. In the book of origins (Matt 14:15–21), the crowd comprises “about five thousand men, besides women and children (Matt 14:21). In the orderly account of things fulfilled (Luke 9:12–17), the crowd is recorded, as in the Markan source, as being “about 5,000 men” (Luke 9:14). The Johannine version, as we have seen, also estimates the total number of men present as being “about 5,000” (John 6:11).

So the early sections of John chapter 6 tell of incidents that are told also by the authors of the Synoptic Gospels: feeding a crowd (6:1–14) and walking on the water (6:16–21).

Woven through this long chapter, however, are a series of encounters that Jesus had with people around him—the crowds in Galilee (6:2, 22), his own disciples (6:3, 16, 60, 66-67), and a group of leaders who had come north from Judea into Galilee, to hear and see him (6:41, 52).

Note: Most translations describe this latter group simply as “the Jews”. The Greek word used, however, can equally be translated as “the Judeans”. There is a good case that has been mounted that the way the word is used in the fourth Gospel means that it should be translated as “a group of Jewish leaders who exercise great authority among their compatriots and are especially hostile to Jesus and his disciples … it refers to certain authorities rather than to the people as a whole.” See D. Moody Smith, “Judaism and the Gospel of John”, accessible at https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/sites/partners/cbaa_seminar/Smith.htm

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel thus offers a series of encounters that reveal misunderstanding, antagonism, and conflict in the ways that people relate to Jesus, even whilst he sets forth this significant teaching that he is “the bread of life” (6:35, 48).

*****

The first of these encounters takes place in the opening scene of this chapter, near to Passover, when Jesus and his disciples are gathered with “a large crowd” beside the Sea of Galilee (6:1-15). The issue, of course, is how to feed the large crowd; the scene thus provides the pressing situation which enables Jesus to speak, at length, about the gift of living bread that he offers.

The scene, as we have noted, is reminiscent of the Synoptic scene of feeding recounted at Mark 6:32-44, Matt 14:13-21, and Luke 9:10-17; and also the parallel scene of feeding “4,000 men” recounted at Mark 8:1-10 and also at Matt 15:32-39; although Matthew indicates that there were “4,000 men, besides women and children”.

In each of those cases, the accounts provide the opportunity for Jesus to model the traditional pattern of a Jewish meal, as he “looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people” (Mark 6:41; Matt 14:19; Luke 9:16; and again at Mark 8:6 and Matt 15:36), prefiguring the familiar pattern from the last supper (Mark 14:22; Matt 26:26; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24; and see also Acts 20:7, 27:35).

In John’s Gospel, the last supper (13:1 onwards) does not contain any such remembrance of bread (and wine); whatever Eucharistic overtones are contained in the book of signs appear later in chapter 6, with references to “feeding on my flesh and drinking my blood” (6:63-58).

In the opening scene, nevertheless, there is an allusion to this pattern in the description of Jesus as he “took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated” (6:11)—although this is immediately followed, not by drinking wine, but by distributing fish (6:11b).

The miracle that is experienced by “the large crowd”—five barley loaves and two fish (6:9), which not only feeds the crowd (6:12) but also provides twelve baskets of left-overs (6:13)—is, understandably, interpreted by the people as a prophetic sign (6:14).

Jesus is this described as “the Prophet who is to come into the world”, alluding to the eschatological expectation of “the prophet to come” (Deut 18:15–18; Mal 4:4–6). Prophets were know to be capable of performing signs, following the model set by Moses (Acts 7:36; Exodus 4:1–17; Deut 34:10–12).

*****

The insight that Jesus was a prophet has already been expressed by the woman of Samaria, beside the well (John 4:19). In that encounter, the woman moves from a recognition of Jesus as prophet, to an awareness that he is Messiah (4:25-26, 29), and then to her testimony that he was the saviour of the world (4:39-42). So the initial response of the crowd is positive, affirming Jesus as “the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (6:14)

Immediately, however, it turns sour: “when Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (6:15).

To make him king: this is the first misunderstanding of Jesus that can be identified in this chapter. (There are a number of other misunderstandings that can be noted in the remainder of this chapter.)

The appointment of a king in Israel was contested, according to the narratives included in 1 Samuel. The prophet Samuel did not wish to anoint a king (1 Sam 8:6) and argued against this before the people (1 Sam 8:10–18). But the voice of the people (1 Sam 8:5, 19–20) prevailed; Samuel duly anointed the first king, Saul (1 Sam 10:1) and begrudgingly declared him to be king (1 Sam 10:17–24). So Israel had kings, and they ruled for some centuries.

Of course, by the time of Jesus, the institution of the monarchy had been well established, and had flourished under David and Solomon, Omri and Josiah. Then the monarchy had been dismantled through the violence of foreign invasion and the upheaval of large scale movements into exile, from 721 BCE in the northern kingdom, then from 587 BCE in the southern kingdom.

The accounts that we have of the role of kings in Israel (in 1–2 Kings, and 1–2 Chronicles) comes from later, after the return from exile on the 6th century BCE. The vision of the king in these documents was highly romanticised; the tradition about David and Solomon in particular had minimised their numerous faults and strongly valorised their virtues (1 Chr 18:14; 2 Chr 9:13–28).

In Christian tradition, this trajectory continues. Jesus is acknowledged as King of the Jews (Mark 15:2 and parallels) and even has a feast day in the liturgical cycle named after this: Christ the King. The author of the book of signs knows the irony of the fact that this is where Jesus will come undone: from the moment when Pilate put to Jesus the notion that he might be “the King of the Jews” (18:33). The very claim was enough to ensure that he would be scorned and ultimately crucified (19:3, 19-21).

To the Romans, a king was not a position to be valued. The terrible experience they had with Julius Caesar, the one-man ruler called rex, was enough to turn them away from having a king for centuries. There was a political naïveté in the Jewish crowd’s actions in acclaiming Jesus as king, at least in terms of how the Romans would have viewed him.

And to a pious Jew like Jesus, it was clear beyond doubt that only God was king over Israel (Ps 72)—indeed, over the whole earth (Ps 47). Jesus definitely wants to avoid such an acclamation about him at this point. The crowd are misunderstanding him. So he withdraws.

The author includes this clear indication, dripping (as is typical in this Gospel) with irony. The one whom the crowds excitedly wanted to crown as king, will be savagely put to death by the Romans as “King of the Jews”, pretender and aggravant.

Featured

What’s in, and what’s out (Mark 6; Pentecost 8B)

At this time of the year, every Year B, the lectionary strays away from choosing the Gospel readings from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark. Next week, we will launch into a series of five weeks of readings drawn from John 6. That chapter revolves around the motif of Jesus as “the living bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:51). Because of this looming focus, the Gospel passage provided by the lectionary for this Sunday is curiously shaped. It takes two separate sections of Mark’s Gospel, and omits a large section that sits in between these two passages.

The story of the feeding of the crowd of “about 5,000 in all” (John 6:1–14) which we will read next Sunday replicates the story omitted from this Sunday’s reading, where the Jesus was able to feed a crowd comprising “5,000 men” (Mark 6:44).

The lectionary provides the surrounding sections (Mark 6:30–34, 53–56) and omits the feeding narrative (Mark 6:35–44). It also omits the account of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45–52)—a story paralleled in Matt 14:22-33). Thus, we have a curiously disrupted passage for consideration.

We need, then, to consider, both what’s in, and what’s out, in this week’s lectionary selection.

What’s in: three key terms

The selection offered by the lectionary includes reference to Jesus taking his followers aside, to rest (6:31). We know well the words that Jesus spoke, offering rest to his followers (Matt 11:28–30). But we perhaps give little thought to the need that Jesus had, along with this followers, to rest from the bustling business that he engaged in. Mark states it well: “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (6:31).

Jesus moves away to a deserted place with his followers. He goes into the wilderness. The Greek word used here, eremon, is significant. This is where Jesus goes when he is tested by God (1:12), immediately after he had been completely immersed in the water by John the baptiser, resident in that wilderness (1:3, 4).

It was in the wilderness that Israel came to know its essential identity: a people, beloved by God, rescued from slavery, called into covenant, equipped for the battles of entry into the land, as the great myth from the past declared. It was, likewise, in the wilderness that Jesus came to know his mission in life, and where he came to know his identity as the Son of God, chosen for that mission. So it is fitting that he moves to a deserted place, seeking respite from the crowds.

Yet the crowds will not let the healer and his followers rest; they continue to press on Jesus, and as they saw him, with his followers, in the boat, they hurried on foot to that deserted place, “and arrived ahead of them” (6:33).

The response of Jesus is instructive. Here we find a second significant term. He “had compassion for them”, the NRSV reports (6:34). The distinctive Greek term used (esplangnisthē) appears here, and in the parallel of Matt 14:14 (as well as an editorial comment at Matt 9:36).

The term refers to that deep-seated churning in the gut that takes place when an emotional cord is struck. It is a profound and penetrating feeling. The same term is found in the paired story of the feeding of the 4,000, where Jesus tells his followers, “I have compassion on the crowd” (Mark 8:2, par Matt 15:32).

Such compassion is characteristic of Jesus on many occasions. The term has already appeared in Mark’s report of the leper who came to Jesus, seeking to be made clean, where it describes the way that Jesus responds to him (“moved with pity” in the NRSV, reflecting a textual variant in Mark 1:41, par Matt 10:6). It’s also used to characterise the way Jesus deals with two blind men near Jericho (“Jesus in pity touched their eyes”, NRSV Matt 20:34).

Other places where the word appears are in the story of the mute boy who suffers convulsions (Mark 9:14–29). The father of the boy begs Jesus to cast out the spirit which possesses the boy, imploring him, “if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (9:22). Jesus responds by rebuking the spirit, which leaves the boy (9:25–27).

In the orderly account which we attribute to Luke, the compassion of Jesus is noted when he interacts with a widow who is mourning her dead son (Luke 7:13), and is also found within two of the parables told by Jesus, reported only in this Gospel. The Samaritan has compassion (Luke 10:33), as does the father when he sees his prodigal son returning home (Luke 15:20).

A third important idea is found when the author implicitly draws an analogy between Jesus, and a shepherd (6:34). In the book of signs, Jesus explicitly calls himself “the good shepherd” (10:1–18). This evokes the scriptural imagery of the good shepherd as the true and faithful leader in Israel (Num 21:16–17; Ezek 34:1–31; Jer 23:4). The phrase also alludes to the people as the sheep who are cared for (Pss 95, 100; Ezek 34:31).

People who are “sheep without a shepherd” recall the description of Israel in Hebrew Scriptures (Num 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17, par 2 Chron 18:16; and Judith 11:19). The narrator’s reference in Mark 6:34 contains these deep scriptural resonances. The compassion demonstrated by Jesus fits with his role as shepherd of the sheep.

A third key idea is contained in the brief statement that the compassion of Jesus is expressed as “he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). The teaching activity of Jesus runs through this Gospel. Jesus teaches beside the sea (4:1), in the synagogue (1:21–27; 6:2), beside the lake (2:13; 4:1–2; 6:34), in the villages (6:6), and as he and his followers walk along the way towards Jerusalem (8:31; 9:31).

When Jesus reaches Jerusalem, he is said to be teaching the crowd in the courtyard of the Temple (11:15–18). A little later, some Pharisees and Herodians approach him, observing that “you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God” (12:14). “Day after day I was with you in the Temple teaching”, he says to the armed crowd sent from the Jewish authorities to arrest him (14:43–49).

The same emphasis on his teaching is found on the other Synoptics (Matt 4:23; 7:28–29; 9:35; 21:23; 22:33; 26:55; Luke 4:31–32; 5:17; 6:6; 10:39; 13:10; 13:22; 19:47; 20:1; 21:37; 23:5).

What’s out: two substantial scenes

So much for what’s in this week’s selection. What about what’s out?

First, the Gospel offering provided by the lectionary includes the surrounding sections (Mark 6:30–34, 53–56) but omits what it surrounds—the feeding narrative (Mark 6:35–44). That feeding story is also retold by the other two evangelists. In the book of origins (Matt 14:15–21), the crowd comprises “about five thousand men, besides women and children (Matt 14:21). In the orderly account of things fulfilled (Luke 9:12–17), the crowd is recorded, as in the Markan source, as being “about 5,000 men” (Luke 9:14).

The scene is reminiscent also of the parallel scene of feeding “4,000 men” recounted at Mark 8:1-10 and also at Matt 15:32-39; although Matthew indicates that there were “4,000 men, besides women and children”. (Luke omits this story.)

In each of those cases, the accounts provide the opportunity for Jesus to model the traditional pattern of a Jewish meal, as he “looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people” (Mark 6:41; Matt 14:19; Luke 9:16; and again at Mark 8:6 and Matt 15:36). This prefigures the familiar pattern from the last supper (Mark 14:22; Matt 26:26; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24; and see also Acts 20:7, 27:35).

So Mark recounts the scene: “And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.” (Mark 6:41–44).

And the resonances with the central Christian ritual, the remembrance of the last supper, are surely strong and deep.

Second, the lectionary omits the account of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45–52) which plays an important role in Mark’s account. By omitting this, the lectionary has excised the important reference to Jesus crossing over “to the other side”, from the Decapolis across to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45).

In this earliest Gospel, Jesus had left Jewish territory earlier, when he crossed “to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes” (5:1), then returned “to the other side” (5:21), where he visited “his own country” (6:1) before venturing again across “to the other side” (6:45–52).

This maritime movement makes an important symbolic point for the the author: the ministry of Jesus incorporated not only territories in Jewish areas (to 4:41, then 5:21 to 6:44) as well as the Gentile territories. Jesus firstly crosses into the Decapolis (5:1–20), where he cast out multiple demons from the tomb-dwelling man, sending them into the nearby pigs. (This story is also omitted by the lectionary during this particular year.)

One of the striking aspects in this story is that this man, possessed by an unclean spirit, fettered in chains, dwelling beside tombs, self-harming and acting inappropriately (5:2–6), becomes the first active missionary in this Gospel; after the encounter with Jesus, “he began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marvelled” (5:20). A pity we missed that this year.

Jesus is active on “the other side” again from Mark 6:53, when he enters the regions of Gennesaret (6:53). Subsequently, Jesus is located at Tyre and Sidon (7:24), and then “the region of the Decapolis” (7:31), before returning to Bethsaida (8:22) and Caesarea Philippi (8:27), in Jewish territory.

These geographical references are treated variably in the later accounts which used Mark as a source. Matthew retains Genessaret (Matt 14:34) and Tyre and Sidon (15:21), but removes the reference to the Decapolis (15:29). The geographical references from Caesarea Philippi onwards then appear in his ongoing narrative. Luke omits the whole section containing these earlier references (Mark 6:53–8:26), removing the clear indication that Jesus spent quite some time on Gentile soil.

Omitting the “crossing over” movement in the narrative lessens the significance of this observation: much of what takes place in the ensuing four chapters, takes place on Gentile soil. This is very important for our understanding of the stories that Mark reports. We need to hear that in mind as we read the later stories in this section of the Gospel: Jesus is “on the other side”, moving amongst the Gentiles of the Decapolis.

Featured

The Spirit was already in the land. Looking back on NAIDOC WEEK.

In the revised Preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church, adopted at the 2009 Assembly meeting in Sydney, our church made the affirmation that “the First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony.”

That statement articulates something deeply important. The Spirit had been at work, long before the time of Jesus, millennia before the time of Israel, revealing God, through ancient indigenous stories, customs, and ceremonies.

What our First Peoples have long known about God, is consistent with what Christian people are discovering about God through Jesus. “The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways”, the revised Preamble continues. So we listen to the voice of the First Peoples. We listen, and learn. We hear resonances with the Gospel. And in this way, we encounter God.

I am writing this at the end of NAIDOC WEEK (4-11 July 2021). Each year, NAIDOC WEEK has a theme. And as I reflect on the themes of the past few years, I realise that each of them articulates something that is central to the faith that we hold and the Gospel that we proclaim.

In 2017, the theme was Our Languages Matter. That’s a message which is integral to the Gospel—the Gospel that says, in the beginning, God spoke … and there was life (Gen 1). The Gospel that claims that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, and that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (John 1).

We know God best of all, most intimately of all, because God speaks, God is word. Language connects us with God. Language matters. Language connects us with one another, enables us to know one another. Languages matter for First Peoples. They communicate, they articulate deep truths. Languages matter.

In 2018, the theme was the inspired message: Because of her, we can. That is another theme that resonates with countless stories throughout scripture. Because of the faithfulness of Mary, his mother, Jesus came. Because of the witness of Mary of Magdala, exclaiming “I have seen the Lord”, the male disciples believed.

Because of the proactive intervention of Shiphrah and Puah, Hebrew midwives in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Moses survived and grew to lead Israel. Because of the fiercely powerful leadership of Deborah, centuries later, Israel survived the onslaught from the troops of Sisera, commander of the army of Canaan. Because of her, we can. (And there are many more such women; just ask the people who took part in Elizabeth’s Bible Studies last year, on women in the Bible!)

Two years ago, inspired by Statement from the Heart that was adopted in 2017 at Uluru, the 2019 theme was Voice. Treaty. Truth. The Statement called us to listen to the Voice of Indigenous peoples. As we do so, we realise that the settlement of this continent was a colonising movement, generated by foreign imperialism, manifesting in violent invasion and genocidal massacres, spread from north to south, from east to west, of this continent. This is the Truth we must hear.

The Voice of First Peoples speaks Truth. And truth is something that we value in our Christian faith. Jesus said, “I am the truth” (John 14:6); and he declared that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Truth liberates. Truth is important.

The next year, 2020, building on the call from the Statement from the Heart, we heard the theme of Always Was. Always Will Be. This recognised that these lands of the continent of Australia and its surrounding islands had not, indeed, been terra nullius. Rather, a complex interrelated web of nations had been living on the land, and the islands, fishing in the seas, meeting in ceremony and trading with each other, and caring for country in a deeply spiritual way for millennia upon millennia.

We know the importance of land in biblical stories—the identity of Israel is completely bound up with land. The land where Jesus walked, we call “The Holy Land”. Land is important.

This year, the theme is Heal Country. This theme takes us to the heart of the Gospel. In scripture, Paul offers his vision of hope for the whole of creation, “the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18–22). Because he can see that those who are in Christ are “a new creation”, he charges the followers of Jesus to commit to “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:16–19). That includes reconciliation with people, but it also points to “that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation” as articulated in the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union (para. 3).

This vision of reconciliation is built upon the affirmation that the land, earth, sea and skies which God created, are indeed “very good” (Gen 1:1–31), and that human beings have a responsibility of respectful care for that creation (Gen 2:15). Furthermore, scripture tells of the ancient Israelite understanding that God made a covenant, not only with human beings, but with “the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground” (Hosea 2:18; see the narrative of Gen 9:8–17).

And the view of scripture is that God will ultimately “heal the land” (2 Chron 7:13–14), “renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:29–30), at that time when God will restore everything (Acts 3:21) and bring universal reconciliation (Col 1:20; Eph 1:10).

So the theme of Heal Country is a central motif throughout the books of scripture. And we can see how, in our time, it draws together environmental concerns with indigenous matters. This theme recognises that respect and care for country has been integral to the life of indigenous peoples for millennia, and there is a need to recapture that care and respect in the present time. The impact of just two centuries of western living on this ancient country has been incredibly damaging. It is time for us to listen to the wisdom of the elders, and Heal Country.

The Spirit was already in the land, “revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony”. The Spirit had been at work, long before the time of Jesus, millennia before the time of Israel, revealing God, through ancient indigenous stories, customs, and ceremonies, Indeed, “the same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways”, as the revised Preamble states.

Our continent is greatly blessed by the long and faithful heritage of the people of those nations which have called this country home: for millennia, across this continent, and in the adjacent islands, they have cared for the land, nurtured their law, and showed resilience, and they are gracious enough now to seek continued relationship with those of us whose forbears have invaded, colonised, and decimated their lifestyle. We are living in the midst of a people of persistence and determination, and of abundant grace. For this, we give thanks.

From their stories, we can learn the importance of caring for country, of honouring the land in which we walk and live. Something that has been so important from so long ago; something that is so important in our own time, as we respond to the challenge of climate change, with global issues such as rising sea levels, widespread deforestation, the destruction of species and a deliberate blindness to the perils of continuing to burn fossil fuels with impunity; and the pressing personal demands of environmental responsibility and sustainable lifestyle. From the testimony of the First Peoples, to care for country, we are challenged.

So we listen to the voice of the First Peoples. We listen, and learn. And we encounter God. Thanks be to God!

Featured

Heal Country: the heart of the Gospel (for NAIDOC WEEK 2021)

This week is NAIDOC WEEK (4-11 July 2021).

NAIDOC WEEK is usually held in the first week (Sunday to Sunday) of July that incorporates the second Friday. Historically, it began life as ‘National Aborigines Day’, then it became known as ‘The Day of Mourning’, before it was taken on by the National Aboriginal Day Observance Committee (NADOC). Some time later, the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) was formed, and this provides the name to the week.

Each year, NAIDOC WEEK has a theme. Two years ago, inspired by the Statement from the Heart that was adopted in 2017 at Uluru, the theme was Voice. Treaty. Truth.

In that same year, the NSW.ACT Synod of the Uniting Church adopted a proposal to lobby the commonwealth government to establish a Makarratta Commission and to advocate with state governments that they make treaties with the indigenous peoples of their region.

In the Uniting Church, as we have drawn on the voices of Indigenous peoples, we have named the settlement of this continent as a colonising movement, generated by foreign imperialism, manifesting in violent invasion and genocidal massacres, spread from north to south, from east to west, of this continent. The commission and these treaties would have Voice to the First Peoples, ensuring that their Truth was known.

See https://www.insights.uca.org.au/what-synod-support-for-the-statement-from-the-heart-means/

The next year, building on the call from the Statement from the Heart, was the theme of Always Was. Always Will Be. (It was held later in the year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

This theme recognised that these lands of the continent of Australia and its surrounding islands had not, indeed, been terra nullius. Rather, a complex interrelated web of nations had been living on the land, and the islands, fishing in the seas, meeting in ceremony and trading with each other, and caring for country in a deeply spiritual way for millennia upon millennia.

In the Uniting Church, the National Assembly adopted a proposal in 2018 that affirmed “that the First Peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal and Islander Peoples, are sovereign peoples in this land.” The proposal noted “the Statement from the Heart’s acknowledgment that sovereignty is a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and First Peoples”. Connection to country is deeply important, profoundly spiritual, amongst all of the First Peoples of this land.

We have continued to strengthen the covenant relationship with the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) and we have worked hard to give priority to the Voice of First Peoples in our church. See https://uniting.church/sovereignty/

This year, the theme is Heal Country.

This theme takes us to the heart of the Gospel. In scripture, Paul offers his vision of hope for the whole of creation, “the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18–22). Because he can see that those who are in Christ are “a new creation”, he charges the followers of Jesus to commit to “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:16–19).

That includes reconciliation with people, but it also points to “that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation” as articulated in the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union (para. 3). Such a vision is offered in a highly imaginative, and much more detailed way, in the final book of scripture, where “a new heaven and an new earth” is described (Rev 21:1–2, 21:9–22:5, drawing on the vision of Isa 65:17–25).

These visions are built upon the affirmation that the land, earth, sea and skies which God created, are indeed “very good” (Gen 1:1–31; so also Neh 9:6; Psalm 104:24–25; Job 26:7—14), and that human beings have a responsibility of respectful care for that creation (Gen 2:15; and see the laws that command respect for the land, such as Lev 18:26, 28; 25:23–24; Num 35:33–34; Deut 20:19).

Further to that, scripture tells of the ancient Israelite understanding that God made a covenant, not only with human beings, but with “the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground” (Hosea 2:18; see the narrative of Gen 9:8–17). The eschatological view of scripture is that God will “heal the land” (2 Chron 7:13–14), “renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:29–30), at the time when God will restore everything (Acts 3:21) or bring universal reconciliation (Col 1:20; Eph 1:10).

So the theme of Heal Country is a central motif throughout the books of scripture. And we can see how, in our time, it draws together environmental concerns with indigenous matters. This theme recognises that respect and care for country has been integral to the life of indigenous peoples for millennia, and there is a need to recapture that care and respect in the present time. The impact of just two centuries of western living on this ancient country has been incredibly damaging. It is time for us to listen to the wisdom of the elders, and Heal Country.

Our continent is greatly blessed by the long and faithful heritage of the people of those nations which have called this country home: for millennia, across this continent, and in the adjacent islands, they have cared for the land, nurtured their law, and showed resilience, and they are gracious enough now to seek continued relationship with those of us whose forbears have invaded, colonised, and decimated their lifestyle. We are living in the midst of a people of persistence and determination, and of abundant grace. For this, we give thanks.

From their stories, we can learn the importance of caring for country, of honouring the land in which we walk and live. Something that has been so important from so long ago; something that is so important in our own time, as we respond to the challenge of climate change, with global issues such as rising sea levels, widespread deforestation, the destruction of species and a deliberate blindness to the perils of continuing to burn fossil fuels with impunity; and the pressing personal demands of environmental responsibility and sustainable lifestyle.

The theme of Heal Country is important for the life of the whole of Australia at this moment in time. It is also a theme that draws deeply from the scriptural witness. It is a theme that people of faith should embrace, proclaim, and live with all our being—this week, this year, and on into the future.

*****

A whole series of statements and policies relating to the environment have been produced by the Uniting Church, at national, regional, and local levels. The national statements and policies are collected at https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/environment.

Many local churches of various denominations have participated in projects promoted by the Five Leaf Eco-Awards, which has its own website at https://fiveleafecoawards.org

There are links to many resources relating to First Peoples at https://nswact.uca.org.au/first-nations-resources/

There is a prayer for Healing Country at https://www.commongrace.org.au/healingcountry_prayer

The Roman Catholic Church has been guided by the papal document Laudato si’, which provides an extensive exploration of environmental issues from a faith perspective. I’ve posted a series of reflections on this important statement at

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” (3)

“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” (4)

Featured

To the saints [not just in Ephesus] who are faithful (Ephesians 1; Pentecost 7B)

This Sunday, we start a series of readings from the letter to the Ephesians. Your Bible may state that it is “Paul’s letter to the Ephesians”. Indeed, when you read the opening words of the letter, the first thing you note is that the letter says that Paul wrote it (Eph 1:1a). Then it goes on to say that the letter was written to “the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1b).

What do we know about the situation in Ephesians, to which this letter is addressed? This letter is not like many of the letters of Paul, where we can glean much information from those letters about the faith community in the city to which it is addressed (Corinth, in Achaea; Thessaloniki and Philippi, in Macedonia; the region of Galatia; and Rome, in Italia). We know little, if anything, about the situation in Ephesus from this letter.

The letter does not begin with a thanksgiving. In most letters by Paul, the thanksgiving identifies the key characteristics of the community to which the letter is sent, as well as the issues which will be canvassed later in the letter. Instead, here there is a lengthy blessing in which a grand theological statement is developed (1:3–14), before a brief thanksgiving is offered for the faith and love of the recipients (1:15–16).

This opening blessing (1:3–14) is the reading set for this Sunday. In the CEV, there are no less than 12 sentences in these 12 verses; in the GNB, there are 10 sentences. In the NIV, there are 8 sentences in this passage, whilst the NRSV offers it all in 6 sentences. (Decades earlier, the RSV had also used 6 sentences for the whole.) In the KJV, there are just 3 sentences, although a punctuating colon (:) appears on six occasions, with a further three semicolons (;).

Fred Sanders’ translation (in 4 sentences) of Eph 1:3–14.
For a poetic paraphrase of this section of Ephesians by Sanders,
see https://scriptoriumdaily.com/ephesians-and-the-god-sized-gospel/

But in the original Greek, this whole passage is just one long sentence — a main clause (“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”, 1:3), followed by a long series subordinate clauses, setting out what this God has done: “who has blessed us in Christ … who predestined us in love for adoption … in him we have redemption … according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us … making known to us the mystery of his will … according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ … in him we have obtained an inheritance … In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit”.

These parallel charts (left in English, right in Greek)
show the syntactical structure and the relationship
of each subsidiary clause
in the long single sentence in Eph 1:3–14
(accessed at http://www.teleiosministries.com/ephesians.html)

Incidentally, the ASV grasps the mantle, rendering all 12 verses in one long, complex sentence (with numerous colons and semicolons interspersed). It reads very heavily in English. At the other extreme, The Message (more of a paraphrase than a translation, in my mind) takes no less than 16 sentences to translate it (in expanded, colloquial form). And the NCB takes a poetic approach,,putting the whole section into unrhymed verse, using 6 sentences for the whole poem.

(You can check out these, and more, translations, at https://www.biblegateway.com)

*****

So this blessing sets out a number of wonderful claims about Jesus—as God works through him, we have redemption, the forgiveness of trespasses; we are adopted as his children, grace is lavished upon us, revealing the mystery of his purpose; and he offers the promise of an inheritance. The blessing ends with a final exultation, “to the praise of his glory” (1:14b).

There is nothing in these opening verses—this one, long sentence—to give any indication of the specifics of the particular situation in Ephesus. And, it must be said, the existence in this letter of this mammoth long sentence—along with other complex multi-clause sentences in later section (1-9, 11-15, 19-22; 3:1-13, 14-21; 4:1-6, 7-16) is a very strong suggestion that the document was not actually written by the apostle Paul.

Like this general opening blessing, the elements which follow also have broad, generic qualities, as the general prayer which is offered (1:15–16) veers off almost immediately into further theological exposition (1:17–23).

The end of the letter also offers no clues as to what is happening in Ephesus. The final section actually replicates, almost completely word-for-word, some of the greetings at the end of Colossians, in an abbreviated form, suggesting a later writer imitating the style of an earlier letter—but in a rather clumsy way, simply copying word-for-word.

Colossians concludes, “Tychicus will tell you all the news about me; he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts; he is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” (Col 4:7–9).

Compare this with the final greetings in Ephesians: “Tychicus will tell you everything. He is a dear brother and a faithful minister in the Lord. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, to let you know how we are, and to encourage your hearts.” (Eph 6:21–22). It is so similar, with the same structure, and many phrases in common. (If I were looking for plagiarism—which I once did as part of a job that I had—I would rate this as a direct copy.)

Did the author of this sermon-letter actually know Tychicus? Or did he simply copy something that was at hand, to lend an air of “authenticity” to the document?

In the body of the letter, we find indications a few sparse details. We learn that Paul is a prisoner (3:1; 4:1) and that the recipients are Gentiles (2:11; 3:2). But that’s it. Not much at all to go on. After that, the final prayer and grace (6:23–24) is likewise entirely generic. These are very slim clues to work from, if we want to reconstruct a picture of the community to which the letter was sent.

*****

Another clue emerges from the first verse of the letter, for it contains a striking textual variant. Although we commonly read the letter as sent “to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1), a number of early manuscripts of this letter omit “in Ephesus”. This is a most important phrase, as it identifies the people purportedly addressed in the letter.

Whilst we traditionally read the letter as being addressed to “the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus”, it is far more likely that the original document was addressed to “the saints who are faithful in Christ Jesus”—a generic, all-encompassing orientation, rather than a letter to specific group of people in a particular place.

from Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the NT
at https://rdrdbiblestudy.com/bible-versions-102-textual-criticism/

Indeed, one early Christian writer knew this document as a letter “to the the Laodiceans”—not to the Ephesians!

An important fact that sits alongside this claim, and validates the idea that this was not a context-specific letter, but a widely-offered sermon, is the observation that the letter contains no other indications that it is specifically related to the city of Ephesus and the community of faith established there.

We can find references to people being “blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming” (3:14) and to those who “deceive you with empty words” (5:6), but these are no more than generalised description of opponents.

The main content of the letter reflects the general situation developing in the early churches, as Gentiles have found their place alongside Jews within the communities. It gives no clues of a specific context which is grounded in a particular community of faith.

The body of the letter reads more like a sermon, offering general theological teaching and ethical instruction. It’s highly likely the letter wasn’t sent by Paul to believers in Ephesus, but originated later in the first century, after the lifetime of Paul, as a sermon setting out the fundamentals of the teaching that began with Paul, and was handed on by those who followed him in proclaiming the good news to gatherings of believers.

The theological teaching in the letter—sermon provides doctrinal instruction about the divine plan, beginning in the opening blessing and prayer (1:3–23), followed by sections explaining the role of Jesus Christ (2:1–10); the inclusive nature of the church, in which Jews and Gentiles are brought into one body (2:11–3:6); an excursus on Paul’s role (3:7–21); and further reflections on the church (4:1–16).

Paul is presented as the one who reveals God’s plan, which had been hidden until his ministry (3:1–12). Key concepts in this plan include wisdom (1:8, 17; 2:10; 5:15), mystery (1:9; 3:3–5, 9; 5:32; 6:19), God’s will (1:1, 5, 9, 11; 5:17; 6:6), revelation (1:7; 3:3, 5) and fullness (1:10, 23; 3:19). These elements underline the assessment that this letter—sermon showed significant developments and elaborations of ideas, when compared with the authentic letters of Paul.

Like Colossians and the three Pastoral Epistles, Ephesians testifies to a more enculturated church, from a period later than the time in which Paul was active—a time and place in which the way of Jesus has begun to merge with the dominant ethos of the society. The sharp edges of The Way have been softened; the clear focus of the teachings of Paul, the energetic preacher of good news, has become blurred and fuzzy under the weight of pressures from the dominant Greco-Roman culture.

Although the rhetoric of this letter purports to present a distinctive Christian ethic, in fact it is becoming much more strongly influenced by hellenistic ethics. It demonstrates the way that the radical movement initiated by Jesus gradually becomes domesticated, institutionalised, and less distinguishable from the dominant culture.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/18/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-letters-attributed-to-paul-3/

This blog draws on material in PAUL: an exploration of the writings of the apostle, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

Featured

NAIDOC WEEK 2021

Today we start NAIDOC WEEK (4-11 July 2021). NAIDOC WEEK is usually held in the first week of July (Sunday to Sunday) that incorporates the second Friday – which historically was celebrated as ‘National Aboriginal Day’. (Yes, like Easter, it moves around in a rather arcane fashion!)

On Australia Day, 1938, protestors marched through the streets of Sydney, followed by a congress attended by over a thousand people. One of the first major civil rights gatherings in the world, it was known as the Day of Mourning. Following the congress, a deputation led by William Cooper presented Prime Minister Joseph Lyons with a proposed national policy for Aboriginal people. This was again rejected because the Government did not hold constitutional powers in relation to Aboriginal people.

From 1940 until 1955, the Day of Mourning was held annually on the Sunday before Australia Day and was known as Aborigines Day. In 1955 Aborigines Day was shifted to the first Sunday in July after it was decided the day should become not simply a protest day but also a celebration of Aboriginal culture.

Major Aboriginal organisations, state and federal governments, and a number of church groups all supported the formation of the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC). At the same time, the second Sunday in July became a day of remembrance for Aboriginal people and their heritage.

In 1974, the NADOC committee was composed entirely of Aboriginal members for the first time. The following year, it was decided that the event should cover a week, from the first to second Sunday in July. In 1984, NADOC asked that National Aborigines Day be made a national public holiday, to help celebrate and recognise the rich cultural history that makes Australia unique. While this has not happened, other groups have echoed the call.

Next, the committee became known as the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC). This new name has become the title for the whole week, not just the day. Each year, a theme is chosen to reflect the important issues and events for NAIDOC Week.

Last year, 2020, the theme of NAIDOC WEEK was Always Was, Always Will Be—a reference to the reality that the lands of Australia have been cared for over millennia by the First Peoples of the continent and its nearby islands. The now-discredited ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ and the notion of terra nullius undergirded the colonial enterprise of “claiming the country” for Britain? See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

That focus is further developed in this year’s theme, Heal Country—a theme that draws together environmental concerns with indigenous matters. This theme recognises that respect and care for country has been integral to the life of indigenous peoples for millennia, and there is a need to recapture that care and respect in the present time. The impact of just two centuries of western living on this ancient country has been incredibly damaging. It is time for us to listen to the wisdom of the elders, and Heal Country.

Our continent is greatly blessed by the long and faithful heritage of the people of those nations which have called this country home: for millennia, across this continent, and in the adjacent islands, they have cared for the land, nurtured their law, and showed resilience, and they are gracious enough now to seek continued relationship with those of us whose forbears have invaded, colonised, and decimated their lifestyle. We are living in the midst of a people of persistence and determination, and of abundant grace. For this, we give thanks.

From their stories, we can learn the importance of caring for country, of honouring the land in which we walk and live. Something that has been so important from so long ago; something that is so important in our own time, as we respond to the challenge of climate change, with global issues such as rising sea levels, widespread deforestation, the destruction of species and a deliberate blindness to the perils of continuing to burn fossil fuels with impunity; and the pressing personal demands of environmental responsibility and sustainable lifestyle.

The theme of Heal Country is an important and entirely relevant theme for all Australians, this year!

This week, also, the Uniting Church Assembly launches its first Covenant Action Plan (ACAP) – a strategic and practical framework which gives shape to our commitment as a national church to walk together as First and Second Peoples.

The plan is being launched 27 years after the UCA formally entered into a covenantal relationship at the invitation of and with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC). See https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/

The plan can be read at https://mk0unitingchurcq6akw.kinstacdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Assembly-Covenant-Action-Plan-2021_Feb2021-FINAL.pdf

******

The full list of themes of each NAIDOC WEEK, back to 1972, can be found at https://www.naidoc.org.au/previous-themes-posters

and posters from previous years are collected at https://www.naidoc.org.au/resources/poster-gallery

The history of NAIDOC WEEK is taken from https://www.naidoc.org.au/about/history

Featured

Shake off the dust that is on your feet (Mark 6; Pentecost 6B)

Mark’s Gospel emphasises the necessity of faithful discipleship; “follow me” is an important refrain from the beginning of Mark’s story. In three early scenes, the command of Jesus, “follow me”, is set forth (1:16–18; 1:19–20; 2:13–14). Jesus calls people to follow him. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/29/just-sandals-and-a-staff-and-only-one-tunic-mark-6-pentecost-6b/

The narrative of the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one that ensues provides a sequence of events in which individuals, groups, and crowds all respond to this charge to follow Jesus. In this narrative, Jesus challenges people to respond to him with an active, informed discipleship; to leave the comfort of the familiar and set out, walking alongside him.

But following Jesus is not just about walking along beside him. The Gospel account makes it clear that followers are to step beyond Jesus, to walk out ahead of him, into unchartered territory. Following Jesus (discipleship) involves being sent forth (mission). And Jesus does this very thing with his followers. He sends them out, on mission.

Later in this narrative, leave Jesus and undertake his mission in the wider community (6:7–13). In this enterprise of mission, the disciples model their words and deeds on Jesus: “they proclaimed that all should repent…they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:12–13).

As they undertake this mission, the followers of Jesus are to be characterised by an ascetic mode of dress (6:8–9) as they undertake their public proclamation (6:10–11). And Jesus instructs them to “read the room” when they are welcomed into the houses in the villages and towns they visit. They are to be sensitive to the reception that they receive.

“So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent”, Mark reports (6:12). But with the caveat: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So Jesus advises his followers (6:11). What did it mean, in the ancient world, to “shake the dust off your feet”?

Dust is central to who we are as human beings. The story of the creation of human beings indicates that the man was “formed from dust of the ground” before God breathed the breathe of life into him (Gen 2:7). But in the foundational myth that is told in the earliest chapters of scripture, dust is at the centre, also, of the punishments that are handed out after the sin committed by Adam and Eve.

The serpent, as a result of its role in tempting them, is told, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life” (Gen 3:14; Isa 65:25).

The man is told, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).

Dust is used as a sign of cursing in various stories: in the plague of dust (Exod 9:8-10); in the ritual for cursing an unfaithful wife, when dust from the floor of the tabernacle is mixed into the water of bitterness (Num 5:11-31); in the destruction of the golden calf (Deut 9:21); and in various punishments by the Lord (Deut 28:24, Ps 78:27, Isa 25:12, 26:5, 2 Sam 22:43, 2 Ki 53:7, 2 Chr 34:4).

And the action of shaking out one’s clothing is integral to the scene in Nehemiah, where the leaders of the people who have returned to the land are required to “shake out their mantle” as a sign of their agreement to the economic arrangements made (Neh 5:13). Nehemiah warns them: “so May God shake out every man from his house and from his labour who does not keep this promise”. Shaking out has a sense of judgement, of being cursed by God.

However, in association with the tearing of clothes, the placing of dust on a person’s head is also a symbol of repentance. Joshua repents of the sin of Achan by tearing his clothes and placing dust on his head (Joshua 7:6). Ezekiel speaks of the people of Tyre, lamenting, as “they cast dust on their heads and wallow in ashes” (Ezek 27:30). Jeremiah reports that “ the elders of the daughter of Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have thrown dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the young women of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground” (Lam 2:20; see also Isa 25:12; 29:1–4).

The three friends of Job see him coming, and they “raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven”, before they then sat, grieving with him, “on the ground seven days and seven nights” (Job 2:12–13). Dust means mourning and repenting.

In like manner, after being raped by Ammon, Tamar put ashes on her head and tore her robe (2 Sam 13:19), as did Judas and his brothers when preparing for battle (1 Macc 3:47) and when they entered the ravaged temple (1 Macc 4:39).

The same actions involving dust are performed by Judas after being deceived by Simon (2 Macc 10:25), Jews at the news of Nicanor’s imminent invasion (2 Macc 14:15), and grieving daughters and mothers in Jerusalem when the victorious Ptolemy attempts to enter the temple (3 Macc 1:18). We might also note the messengers who arrive with torn clothes and dirt on their heads (1 Sam 4:12; 2 Sam 1:2, 15:32). These are all stories involving grief and despair.

Job himself uses dust and sackcloth to signify that “my face is red with weeping, and on my eyelids is deep darkness” (Job 16:15–16). As a result, he laments, “ God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes” (Job 30: 19). Returning to dust is the final state for those punished by God (Job 34:5; see also 10:9; 17:6; 20:11; 21:26; Ps 7:5; 22:15; 90:3; 104:29; Isa 26:5; Lam 2:21)—or, indeed, for all human beings (Eccles 3:20; 12:7).

In the end, though, Job “repents of dust and ashes” (42:6). He has had enough of being repentant. The book ends with a return of the defiant Job. He will have no more use for the dust and ashes of repentance.

In a number of scriptural incidents, dust is used in curses signalling divine punishment. Shimei, for instance, casts dust into the air to curse David (2 Sam 16:13). When Deutero-Isaiah speaks of the coming salvation that God will bring, to remove the punishment of exile, he exhorts Jerusalem to “shake yourself from the dust and arise” (Isa 52:2).

Dust had been a sign of the place of mourning, the place of despair, the place which signifies worthlessness and emptiness. Dust had been where the poor sat (1 Sam 2:8; Amos 2:7); it was where the enemies of Israel were pressed down and beaten into fine particles by the Lord (2 Sam 22:4 3; 2 Ki 13:7; Job 40:13; Ps 18:42; 44:24–25; 72:9; 83:13; Isa 41:2; Micah 7:17). Now, the people were called to leave that dust behind and move on in hope.

Jesus instructs his followers to shake the dust off their feet “as a testimony against them” (6:11). This seems to be an action warning the listeners that they are liable to judgement because they have failed to repent. However, the phrase could also be translated, “as a witness for their benefit”, suggesting that the action was intended to provoke the listeners to think further, after the disciples have left, about their message of repentance?

This latter sense is how the same construction functions earlier in Mark’s narrative, where the cleansed leper is to show himself to the priests “for a proof to them” (1:44). But later in the narrative, the very same phrase (eis martyrion autois) describes the function of the disciples defending themselves when on trial before “governors and kings” (13:9).

Could the action of shaking the dust off their feet signal that there would be hope, in the future, from the message of good news that the disciples proclaimed? The implication would be that this is the hope that they carry, and their “witness for the benefit” of their unwilling hosts is that this hope. This hope travels on with them as they journey onwards, with their proclamation of repentance. It also rests, along with the dust, with those they leave behind, who have not yet come to that point of repentance.

Or could the action of shaking off the dust have the function of warning recalcitrants—a graphic demonstration of the warning, ‘God will turn you to ashes if you do not repent’? As the disciples move on to the next town, they were leaving behind a warning with an implicit demand for their repentance.

That seems more likely to be the effect of the phrase, “as a testimony against them” (6:11). Certainly, that’s how it is understood in the parallel account in Matthew, where the action of shaking off the dust (Matt 10:14) is immediately followed by a reference to the fate experienced by Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement (Matt 10:15).also ev

This is ident in the Lukan parallel, where a slight tweaking of the Greek makes it clear that this is understood as “a testimony against them” (Luke 9:5). Then, in the Lukan doublet of the sending out of the 72, the saying about the day of judgement (here referring only to Sodom) clarifies the expected judgement beyond doubt (Luke 10:12).

By implication from these later interpretations of the action, shaking the dust off the feet and moving on would appear to provide a sign of judgement to those who refuse to accept the message of the disciples, and repent.

Featured

Just sandals and a staff—and only one tunic (Mark 6; Pentecost 6B)

Mark’s Gospel emphasises the necessity of faithful discipleship; “follow me” is an important refrain from the beginning of Mark’s story. In three early scenes, the command of Jesus, “follow me”, is met each time with an immediate response: Simon and Andrew follow him (1:17), then James and John follow him (1:19), and then Levi the tax collector follows him (2:14). Each leave what they are doing and follow Jesus.

These scenes set the pattern for the rest of the narrative bout the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one: Jesus challenges people to respond to him with an active, informed discipleship; to leave the comfort of the familiar and set out following him. He reiterates the call, “follow me”, in later scenes (8:34; 10:21).

The disciples in the narrative of Mark’s Gospel readily demonstrate this response. The disciples, and indeed a larger crowd, did indeed follow Jesus in his journeys around Galilee (2:15; 3:7; 5:24; 6:1; 10:28, 32, 52) and then southwards towards Jerusalem (11:9). Indeed, a group of women who followed him in Galilee continue all the way to Golgotha, watching from a distance as he dies (15:41).

But following Jesus is not just about walking along beside him. The Gospel account makes it clear that followers are to step beyond Jesus, to walk out ahead of him, into unchartered territory. Following Jesus (discipleship) involves being sent forth (mission). And Jesus does this very thing with his followers. He sends them out, on mission.

On the very first occasion when Jesus gathers all twelve apostles together, he gives them a twofold commission: “he appointed twelve … to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message and to have authority to cast out demons” (3:14–15). To be with him, following as disciples; and to be sent out, engaged in mission.

As the Gospel then reports how Jesus speaks and acts, the meaning of this discipleship and mission is spelled out. The apostles—and other followers—have the opportunity to learn from his teachings and to witness his actions while they are with Jesus, and then to replicate these teachings and actions through their presence in other places.

“Proclaiming the message and casting out demons” is how the activities of Jesus are characterised from the start of the narrative (1:39). His earliest message was clear: “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, believe the good news” (1:15). His activity, also, was striking: he rebukes unclean spirits (1:23–26), “healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons” (1:34).

These same activities form the basis for the work of the twelve as they leave Jesus and undertake his mission in the wider community (6:7–13). In this enterprise of mission, the disciples model their words and deeds on Jesus: “they proclaimed that all should repent…they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:12–13).

As they undertake this mission, the followers of Jesus are to be characterised by an ascetic mode of dress (6:8–9) as they undertake their public proclamation (6:10–11). Both elements deserve careful attention.

“He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.” So Jesus instructs his followers (6:8–9). In the parallel passages for this incident, Jesus is even more strict. In Luke, he prohibits sandals as well (Luke 10:3), and in Matthew, he prohibits both sandals and staff (Matt 10:10)

The description of the mode of dress for the followers of Jesus given here is often compared with the form of dress of a wandering philosopher, particularly of a Cynic philosopher.

Cynic philosophy is named after Diogenes of Sinope, who lived c.400–325 BCE. Diogenes was known as “the dog” (kunos, in Greek) because of his shameless and primitive style of living. Diogenes was given the nickname ‘the dog’ because of his shamelessness. He used to live in a barrel with his only possessions being a robe to wear and a stick to walk.

There are many stories told about Diogenes’ rebellious and nonconformist character. Those who promulgated his philosophy of life, called Cynicism, lived equally simple, basic lives. Sandals, a staff and a cloak characterised many of them (although it seems that a double cloak was worn by many).

Was Jesus telling his disciples to emulate the Cynic philosophers? They were itinerants, travelling from town to town, speaking their views with frankness and then moving on to the next town or village. The followers of Jesus were also to be itinerant, travelling from place to place, boldly proclaiming their message, and staying nowhere for too long.

The second century document, The Didache, clearly instructs followers of Jesus not to remain for more than two or three days in any one place (Didache 11–13). Jesus here is a bit more lenient; he doesn’t set a time limit, but instructs his followers to move on if they meet resistance. In this way, still, they were to emulate Jesus, as “the Son of Man who has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58).

It’s not at all clear that Jesus knew Cynic philosophy; the evidence of Cynic activity comes from places outside Israel. The Cynics were active long before Jesus, but continued on into his time, and beyond. Diogenes lived four centuries before Jesus, and adherents to his type of philosophy are known three centuries after the death of Jesus.

The second century CE writer, Diogenes Laertius, includes accounts of a number of key Cynic philosophers in his large work, Lives of Eminent Philosophers. The second century CE philosopher and orator, Dio of Prusa (nicknamed Chrysostom, meaning “golden-mouthed”), noted how many wandering Cynic philosophers were encountered in every town or village.

In his 32nd Oration, Dio describes the typical Cynic: “posting themselves at street-corners, in alley-ways, and at temple-gates, [they] pass around the hat and play upon the credulity of lads and sailors and crowds of that sort, stringing together rough jokes and much tittle-tattle and that low badinage that smacks of the market-place.”

Dio’s criticism continues: “they declaim speeches intended for display, and stupid ones to boot, or else chant verses of their own composition, as if they had detected in you a weakness for poetry. To be sure, if they themselves are really poets or orators, perhaps there is nothing so shocking in that, but if in the guise of philosophers they do these things with a view to their own profit and reputation, and not to improve you, that indeed is shocking.”

For Jesus to be calling his followers to a way of life that could be seen as comparable to this way of living, would be quite a challenge—and quite a shock.

Indeed, there may be a sign of differentiation from the Cynics. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus is reported as saying that the features which distinguish a Cynic are “his provision-bag (peran) and his staff and his big mouth” (Arian, Discourses of Epictetus 3.22.50). Jesus states that his followers should carry a staff, and speak their message—but here he prohibits them from carrying a provision-bag (peran, 6:8).

Another point of differentiation may be the command not to put on two tunics (6:9). The Greek word used is chiton. The chiton was a knee-length tunic worn as an undergarment; Josephus reports the common practice of wearing two chitones when travelling (Antiquities 17.136).

Musonius Rufus (Epistle 19) notes that Cynics typically wore two tunics—a tribon over their chiton. The tribon was a more humble garment than a chiton, so the outward appearance projected by a Cynic would have been, quite deliberately, that of a person of very lowly status. But for Jesus, the direction to wear only one tunic reflects an even more ascetic mode of living.

Was Jesus deliberately projecting an image—and a reality—deliberately differentiated from the Cynics? Certainly, direct contact by Jews with wandering Cynic philosophers was most likely reasonably rare. And I think that Jesus isn’t advocating specifically that his followers emulate the Cynics.

Jesus has his own reasons for the call he makes. Being on the move and not tied down to one place, and living simply without all the extraneous baggage, reflected an ethos that Jesus wished to cultivate. The focus was to be on the message and the key actions of the disciples, not on any extraneous or additional elements.

Perhaps what is in mind here is the Exodus story, in which the Israelites prepare themselves to be on the move, with minimal complications. They are to wear their clothes (which lasted them the whole time—Deut 8:4, 29:5). They are to fasten their belt and carry their staff (Exod 12:11), and wear their sandals (Exod 12:11; Deut 29:5). They are to take no bread—God will provide in the form of manna and quail, falling from heaven.

The attention of the disciples, as they engage in mission, proclaiming the message, healing, and casting out demons, is to be directed entirely to the task at hand. They are directed away from carrying too many accoutrements, worrying about provisions, and to focus on the task of proclamation and healing. In this way they are to follow the example and pattern of Jesus.

For that is what he himself taught: “do not be anxious, saying ‘what shall we eat?’ or ‘what shall we wear’?” (Matt 6:31). And that is what Jesus himself did: “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58).

Featured

Values and Principles in the context of a pandemic (revisited)

Cases of COVID-19 continue to occur in Australia. Lockdowns and enforced periods of isolation have taken place in numerous locations over the last few months; they are taking place again now across the country; and given the slow vaccine rollout and the emergence of variants that spread far more easily and rapidly, they will take place again in the future.

As these new strains of the virus emerge with greater rates of infections, uncertainty continues as to how long and and how hard the restrictions will be needed, and where the next outbreak will occur. In this context of uncertainty, people of faith would do well to reflect on how we respond to the guidance provided by our leaders.

Our faith offers us some support as we navigate the difficulties and dangers that we find ourselves in. There is comfort, as well as guidance, in the beliefs we hold, and in the ways that they are applied to our current situation of pandemic. Whether we gather together for worship and fellowship, or we are gathering-apart by online means, there are principles which hold good for us.

My thoughts follow on from my earlier biblical and theological considerations in https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/ and repeat what I wrote in a subsequent post, https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

So here are some key principles, along with some associated biblical passages that, in my thinking, shape our ethos and inform how we make responsible ethical decisions about how we gather as church.

1. Gathering for worship is important, but safety of people is more important

We know that, across society, there are many people who are vulnerable, who needs our particular care, support, and attention. Whilst gathering-together for worship, prayer, discussion, fellowship, and conversation, is highly valued, our highest priority must be to act in a manner that ensures the lowest risk for people in society, that offers a safe place and safe manner for people to gather-together.

We have committed to being a Safe Place some years ago, and whilst we have applied that to matters such as the safety of children and young people, the physical arrangement in our buildings, and acceptance of diversity. Can we now apply that to the matter of community health and wellbeing?

The psalmist reflects, “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD; “I will place them in the safety for which they long” (Psalm 12:5). In another psalm, we hear the prayer, “O Lord, let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever” (Psalm 40:11). We need to echo that sentiment and follow that commitment to safety as we gather together.

2. The weakest or most vulnerable is the test for any decision we make

The people who have high risk of infection are those who have the following vulnerabilities: an impaired immune system, one of a number of chronic medical conditions, age, and people with Aboriginal and Islander descent.

Paul writes to the believers in a number of his communities, exhorting those who are “stronger” to attend to “the weak”, with the fundamental principle that “orientation to the needs of the other” undergirds everything. That orientation should govern how we think about, and how we act in, the days ahead. Those who are most vulnerable in terms of age or health should be the litmus test for anything that we consider doing when we gather-together.

Our own personal needs (or desires), the hopes and wants (or desires) of a community of faith, need to have this first consideration governing all that they decide. As Paul writes:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:3-4)

“Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” (Rom 14:13)

You can read more about this way of operating in Romans 14:1-15:13. This would form an excellent focus for a Bible Study to go alongside a Church Council discussion of what steps can be taken as we consider gathering-together once more.

3. Relationships with others are our first priority. Loving our neighbour takes priority over programs and activities

“Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)

Relationships with other people are given priority in this passage, and in the teachings of Jesus throughout the Gospels. That’s a fairly simple observation, but it is incredibly potent in the current situation. How do we ensure that we are “loving our neighbour” in what we decide and what we do together?

Jesus places this as the second “greatest commandment”, alongside the first, of loving God. We need to hold these two aspects in tension, and ensure that we do not focus solely on “loving God” (and doing that in the old, familiar ways, unthinkingly), but we hold together “loving our neighbour” with “loving God”, and that we prioritise these over “returning to business as usual”. If business as usual is just about ourselves as a group, then our higher priority needs to be about how we operate in relation to all those around us.

4. We have a commitment to the common good—the good of all people in society

Almost a decade ago, the Uniting Church adopted a snappy slogan which expressed our commitment to “the common good”. This has been a rallying cry at many gatherings where matters of social justice are being addressed and advocated for—refugees and asylum seekers, affordable housing, care for the creation and environmental policies, sheltering the homeless and feeding the hungry, for instance.

Now, in this challenging time, we need to apply that same commitment “to the common good” to the question of what the implications are when we gather-together, after a time of gathering-apart. We need to ensure that whatever steps we take do contribute to that common good, not simply to the benefit of the group gathering together—be that Congregation, Church Council, Fellowship Group, Bible Study Group, our informal lunch gathering at the church.

And let us remember that “the common good” is itself an important biblical marker:

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Gal 6:10)

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:7)

5. We need to ensure the safety of vulnerable people in leadership (ministry leaders, both ordained and lay)

“So the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.” (Num 11:16-17)

This story from the Hebrew Scriptures demonstrates that God was concerned to take care of the leadership of the people of Israel. The seventy Elders were he people. appointed to assist Moses in his growing role as a leader of the people in a stressful and challenging time (as they journey through the wilderness, seeking a way to the promised land). The story from of old has strong resonances with our current situation!

If we accept that God demonstrated concerns for the pressures on Moses, can we see that this provides an analogy for the way that we offer care for our leaders, especially those who are vulnerable themselves, or living in a household with another vulnerable person?

Pressures on ministry leaders (both those ordained, and those lay people who are providing local leadership) to lead their people in gatherings should not be countenanced, until such time as it is clear that all the required protocols can be, and are being, adhered to, and they are not in any position of extra vulnerability because of this. That requires careful discernment and wise leadership at the local level.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

Featured

SUE: Canberra’s new Pink Sleepbus

Men in Canberra who are without a home have been able to sleep safely under the Safe Shelter scheme for the last decade. The Uniting Church has been at the forefront of assisting such men, with overnight sleeping available on the Northside at St Columba’s church hall in Braddon, and breakfast and associated services available each morning at the Early Morning Centre at Canberra City Church in Civic.

Where do women who are homeless find shelter at night? The limited spaces available in homeless shelters mean that many sleep rough—in door alcoves, under bushes, or, for the more fortunate, in their car, or couch surfing in the homes of friends. Until now. Until the coming of SUE, the Pink Sleepbus.

In a partnership including the Tuggeranong Uniting Church and the National Council of Women in the ACT, Sleepbus is about to open a service for women only, based in the Southside of the national capital. Already the Blue Sleepbus is operating in Queanbeyan, with beds available for men and women. SUE, the Pink Sleepbus, will be the first of its kind—offering safe sleeping for women, including women with children, as well as associated services such as breakfast and information about what services are available locally.

The Rev. Elizabeth Raine has had a concern for homeless women for some time. When she ministered at City and St Columba’s, she saw the value of “stop-gap” services—limited as they may be. They don’t solve the housing crisis for society, but they do offer support, care, and nourishment for those who live on the streets. When she moved to Tuggeranong, Elizabeth began exploring with her Church Council how the Congregation might reach out to needs in the community. Replicating the model of Safe Shelter, but for women, was on the cards.

Then the church became aware of the possibility of hosting a Sleepbus. Elizabeth had been involved in the Southside Homeless Initiative, which became aware of the initiative underway in Queanbeyan. Juanita Flett, of the National Council of Women in the ACT spearheaded a fundraising drive in late 2019, raising the $100,000 that is required to bring a Sleepbus to the area. By early 2020, everyone was poised, ready to go—and then COVID hit.

“We know that more than half the homeless in Canberra are currently women, and we know that the homeless rate of women over 50 is currently rising—not just in Canberra, but right around Australia”, the Rev. Raine said. She cited the most recent census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which shows:

• over half of Canberra’s homeless population are women

• 59% of people accessing ACT homeless services are women

• 53 percent of Canberrans living in low-income households are women

• older single women are the largest growing cohort of homeless people in the ACT.

“That situation is a real concern to us as compassionate people of faith”, Elizabeth said. “When I read the Bible, I see that God charged the people of Israel with providing special care for the vulnerable members of society—widows and orphans, with no males to protect and support them—as well as the “aliens in the land”, foreigners residing in Israel (Deut 10:18, 14:28–29, 16:11,14).

In his teachings, Jesus praises “whoever gives a cup of water to drink” (Mark 9:41), and in the parable of the sheep and the goats he indicates that whenever you shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and give a drink to the thirsty, “you did it to me” (Matt 25:35–40).

“So we’re hoping that those women who are housed in very vulnerable circumstances can find a place on the Pink Sleepbus, to at least get a good night’s sleep, clear their heads, think properly, and hopefully access services that will give them a more permanent solution to their situation. That’s the least we can do for them.”

The bus is a large bus which can sleep up to 22 women each night—each in their own separate pod. Each pod (see picture above) is air-conditioned and comes with a mattress, pillows, sheets, blankets (washed daily), USB charging, portable toilet, fire extinguisher, lockable door and a television with a special channel showing services in the area for pathways out of homelessness. Inmates from the ACT Corrective Services unit, the Alexander Maconochie Centre, have been making sheets, quilt covers and pet beds for the bus.

The bus also has a special purpose-built larger pod (pictured below) that can cater for women with children, with two double bunks in its own area. There is a storage area running underneath the sleeping pods that includes pet pods, so that if women are travelling with their pets, there is somewhere for their pets to stay overnight.

The women are met each night by volunteers from local service groups and workers from employers who have a community service scheme. The pods are cleaned thoroughly each morning by a new set of volunteers, and fresh linen is provided for each night’s stay.

The front of the bus has its own self-contained section, where a caretaker sleeps at night. Juanita Flett explained that “the bus is really an emergency stop-over for the women; it’s not meant to be a permanent solution, it just provides a safe sleep for that night, and then the women can face the next day after having a good rest.”

“One of the contributing factors for some women who find themselves experiencing homelessness is trying to get away from a violent situation at home”, Juanita continues. However, the lack of available crisis and transitional accommodation in the ACT is also often a leading factor for women returning to abusive relationships and unsafe housing situations.

The ABS data indicates that over half of ACT women experiencing domestic and family violence become homeless in the first year post-crisis. “We are well aware of that”, says Juanita. “Given the extra challenges that this presents for those women, having a trained caretaker on hand at all times is important.”

Elizabeth adds, “With safety concerns in mind, the caretaker is able, if the situation requires, to drive the bus away from the scene to a safer location. Simon Rowe, the CEO of Sleepbus, has ensured that local police and other services are aware of the operations of the Sleepbus and are on hand to intervene should any situation escalate to that point.”

Simon Rowe (Sleepbus), Rev. Elizabeth Raine (Tuggeranong Uniting Church), Juanita Flett (National Council of Women ACT)

Juanita notes that “the bus is surrounded by CCTV. At night, the pods are completely blacked out, so you can’t see into them—nobody could know who is in a particular pod. All the CCTV cameras are connected to the caretaker’s cabin, and there is also security on call.” “Yes—the bus is on wheels”, Elizabeth noted, “so it can be moved if a desperate situation arose. That’s one of the things that originally appealed to us.”

The Pink Sleepbus will be stationed at Tuggeranong Uniting Church’s car park for three nights a week to start off with—Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Elizabeth notes that “We expect it will take some time to build up the service, for people to develop a trust in the volunteers who meet them. We want people to know that if you’re sleeping rough and you’re not getting a good night sleep, you don’t need to keep doing that. You can sleep on the Sleepbus, have a good breakfast, and be pointed to some of the local services that can assist you longer-term.”

Local community workers estimate the homeless population in Tuggeranong, in Canberra’s south, to be about 40 people sleeping rough at any one time, but they say it is hard to know. Georgie Fowler, President of the Tuggeranong Rotary Club, is involved in the Safe Shelter for men that operates in Tuggeranong. “The leading cause of homelessness is legal issues and family crisis,” Ms Fowler said. “So that surprised us, because there’s a common misconception that drugs and alcohol and general substance abuse lead to those situations—but that’s not the case.”

SUE the Pink Sleepbus was launched on Saturday 19 June in the car park of the Tuggeranong Uniting Church in Wanniassa, with a good crowd of almost 100 people from the Uniting Church, the National Council of Women ACT, and a number of local service organisations (SeeChange, Rotary, Lions, Communities At Work, and others).