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Sitting on the seat of Moses, teaching the Law—but “they do not practice what they teach” (Matt 23)

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses; therefore, do whatever they teach you.” So Jesus instructs his followers, according to a teaching reported only in the book of origins, which we know by tradition as the Gospel according to Matthew.

This teaching comes at the start of a lengthy chapter (Matt 23), where Jesus does two important things. He reinforces the central significance of the Law of Moses which was taught by the scribes and the Pharisees. At the same time, he criticises the practices of those scribes and Pharisees, for again and again they fail (in the view of Jesus) to put into practice what they teach. Slightly modifying the end of verse 3 results in the familiar proverb, “practice what you preach”.

The passage set in the lectionary for this coming Sunday offers us twelves verses, which form the introductory section of this long chapter (23:1-12). It omits all that follows. There is long section of invective (23:13-33), where eight times Jesus utters his vehement criticism: “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees” (23:13, 14, 15, 16, 23, 25, 27, 29). We will come to this section later in this post.

The chapter closes with a plaintiff lament, as Jesus closes his speech: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together…but you were not willing” (23:34-39). Jesus yearned for the salvation of his people; but, being led astray by teachers who do not practice what they preach, the people are heading to their doom.

1. Affirming the Law

The first thing that Jesus does is affirm the importance of the Law which is taught by the scribes and the Pharisees. He instructs his followers to “do whatever they teach you” (23:3). Their authority is grounded in “the seat of Moses” from which they teach (23:2). Jesus speaks as a faithful Jew, holding firmly to the commandments of the Law, living in accord with the covenant relationship with God.

The Pharisees were scribes who specialised in the interpretation of Torah and in the application of Torah to daily living. In contrast to the priestly Sadducees, the Pharisees were very popular amongst the ordinary Jewish folk. This may well have been because they undertook the highly significant task of showing how the Torah was relevant to the daily life of Jewish people.

The story of Ezra, told in Nehemiah 8, gives an example of this in practice, referring especially those who “helped the people to understand the law” (Neh 8:7). Whilst the priests upheld the Torah as the ultimate set of rules for operating the Temple, the Pharisees showed how the Torah could be applied to every aspect of daily life as a Jew.

Most Jews went to the Temple only rarely—and found it to be an expensive enterprise when they got there! But in seeking guidance for daily life, the people were greatly helped by those skilled interpreters of Torah, the scribes and the Pharisees. Josephus comments that the Pharisees were usually held in high regard by the ordinary people of the day.

Since nine out of every ten persons could not read, the importance of scribes —literate, educated, and sympathetic—could not be underestimated. Whilst the Pharisees clustered around towns in Judea, the scribes were to be found in the synagogues of villages throughout greater Israel, and indeed in any place where Jews were settled.

The task of the Pharisees was to educate the people as to the ways of holiness that were commanded in the Torah. It was possible, they argued, to live as God’s holy people at every point of one’s life, quite apart from any pilgrimages made to the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Pharisees thus held sway in the synagogues, in all the places where dispersed Jews were living. Their interpretations were highly regarded amongst the people. But they stand as the chief sparring partners for Jesus, reflecting the competing claims for authoritative teaching about the Law.

2. Jesus, the Authoritative Teacher of the Law

Jesus regularly debates with the scribes and the Pharisees about their interpretations of the Law. He berates them for their failure to keep the Law in their daily lives. This chapter brings those vigorous debates to a climax.

As Matthew writes his Gospel, he intensifies the way that Jesus was in competition with the Pharisees, and takes pains to present Jesus as the one who provides the best and most accurate interpretation of the Law. We see this very clearly in this passage, where Matthew has Jesus declare, “you have only one teacher” (23:8), and then, even more pointedly, “you have one instructor, the Messiah” (23:10).

We might note that the disciples are commissioned to preach (10:7), but not to teach. They are cautioned that a “disciple is not above the teacher”, and that “it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher” (10:25). This reflects the later exhortation that the disciples only have one teacher, and that teacher is Jesus, and that the disciples are brothers, and are not to call themselves teachers (23:8–10). They are disciples (learners), not teachers (rabbis). Jesus is the only Teacher.

The motif of Jesus as the authoritative teacher of the Law has sounded throughout this Gospel. Only in this Gospel do we hear Jesus unambiguously declare that he comes to fulfil the Law (5:17-20), and then go on to provide his understanding of particular laws (“you have heard it said … but I say to you …”, 5:21-48).

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

Indeed, in this series Jesus employs a classic method from Jewish halakhic debate. (Halakha is a Hebrew word which literally means “walk”; it is used in a metaphorical sense to indicate the way to walk in life. It almost always describes debates which focus on the interpretation of the 613 commandments found within Hebrew scriptures.) The techniques of halakhic debate were known and used at the time of Jesus. He quotes a Pharisaic interpretation (“you have heard it said”), but then places alongside it his own interpretation (“but I say”). Jesus operates as a teacher of the Law.

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

The collection of sayings which we call “the Sermon on the Mount” ends with the affirmation that Jesus “taught as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (7:29). The instruction of Jesus to “take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (11:29) draws on the concept of “the yoke” as the teachings of a rabbi (see Mishnah, Sayings of the Father 3.5).

The parables of Jesus are offered as teachings about “what has been hidden from the foundation of the world” (13:35, quoting Psalm 78:2, a lengthy teaching psalm). And at the end of this Gospel, Jesus finally commission his disciples to “teach [the nations] to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:19).

In the book of origins, therefore, Jesus is The Authoritative Teacher, the one who instructs most accurately and faithfully in the Law, using the techniques of Jewish teachers.

3. Doing the Law

The second thing that Jesus does in the passage in the lectionary this Sunday is criticise those who teach the Law but do not (in his view) live by the Law. They say the right things, but their actions fail to bear this out—a familiar criticism in the book of origins, where Jesus taught that not everyone who says the right things will enter the kingdom, “but only the one who does the will of my Father”(7:21), and which includes a parable about “doing the will of God” as the prerequisite for entering the kingdom (21:28-32).

The following verses offer a fulsome list of the inadequacies and failures in the way that the scribes and Pharisees live: they impose heavy burdens (23:4), make public displays of their faith (5), seek the place of honour at feasts (6), and flaunt their status (7). The series of woes likewise criticises the scribes and Pharisees for keeping people out of the kingdom (23:13), praying at length (14), making converts (15), misuse of oaths (16), misdirected tithing (23), greed and self-indulgence (25), hypocrisy and lack of faithfulness to the Law (28), and hypocrisy in relation to the prophets (29-30).

Jesus is critical of those who do not keep the Law. He condemns them” “go away from you, you who are without the Law” (7:23) and says that those who dot keep the Law will be “thrown into the furnace of fire” (13:41). The end time includes “the increase of lawlessness” (24:12). And he specifically describes the scribes and the Pharisees as being “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (23:28).

Time after time in this speech, the scathing rhetoric of Jesus indicts the teachers of the Law with their failure to adhere to the Law. Eight times he says that they are hypocrites (23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 28, 29). The deduction to be drawn is clear: if those who teach the Law in the synagogues cannot be trusted, because they do not follow the Law in their lives, then whose teaching of the Law should be trusted?

It is surely the “one teacher”, the “one instructor, the Messiah” (23:8, 10).

4. Criticising the Teachers of the Law

The Jesus who is presented in this Gospel is a fearful and demanding figure. We have noted how, in his capacity as God’s Messiah, Jesus frequently promises (or threatens) judgement (5:21–26; 7:1–2; 10:15; 11:21–24; 12:36–37; 19:28–30; 21:33–44; 22:1–14; 24:29–31, 36-44, 45–51; 25:1–13, 14–30, 31–46; 26:64). Many of these declarations occur in eschatological contexts, where Jesus is warning about the punishment that is to come unless righteous-justice is followed in the present.

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/06/darkness-weeping-and-gnashing-of-teeth-the-scene-of-judgement-matt-22/

Later in his Gospel, Matthew has Jesus intensify and personalise his rhetoric, by applying it specifically and insistently to the “scribes and Pharisees” in this collection of woes (23:13-36). If we include the woe of verse 14 (which is missing in some early manuscripts), there are eight woes in this final teaching section of the Gospel—providing a perfect counterpoint to the series of eight blessings offered by Jesus in his first substantive teaching (5:1-12, at the start of the “Sermon on the Mount”).

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

These woes, carefully shaped by Matthew out of the various traditions available to him, appear to slander the scribes and Pharisees to such an extent that they have fuelled explicit anti-Semitic acts, and contributed to the more insidious stereotyping of “Pharisaic” attitudes, throughout much of subsequent history.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/01/producing-the-fruits-of-the-kingdom-matt-21/

However, we need to read these woes in the literary and historical contexts, which can provide a different view of their purpose when first written. In antiquity, “the rhetoric of slander” was not so much a way of attacking others, but a means of establishing the self-identity of the writer’s community. It often had more to do with solidifying one’s own position, than with undermining another position.

In a 1989 article published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Luke Johnson has demonstrated that such “rhetoric of slander” was found both within and beyond Judaism. He documents its use by Jews against Jews, most notably in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Community Rule 2:4-10, 4:9-14), but also in the Psalms of Solomon (4:1-5), in what Josephus writes about the Zealots (Jewish War 4.385-388, 5.443-4, 566, 7.260-2), and in assorted rabbinical works.

He also notes how it was used by Gentiles against Jews (book 5 of the History by Tacitus), by Gentiles against Gentiles (the Orations of Dio of Prusa, the Dissertations of Epictetus), and by Jews against Gentiles (Josephus, Against Apion 1.225-6).

Widespread use of such language mitigates against interpreting the woes of Matthew 23 in such a stringent and limiting fashion; in the context of its day, its effect was to define the identity of the Matthean community over and against the Pharisaic leaders, rather than to belittle them for the sake of spite or malice.

This series of woes culminates the debates with Pharisees which Jesus has been involved in throughout this Gospel. Each of the woes is a debate over the way in which a particular law should be applied. In this way, the woes repeat the emphasis of the Sermon on the Mount: what is most important is single-minded devotion to the principles set forth in the Law, and an intention to live by these precepts in all of life—both in actions and in attitudes.

That is what the “one teacher” conveys to his followers. That is what the “one instructor” passes on to his disciples. “Practice what you preach”, indeed!

*****

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/11/go-nowhere-among-the-gentiles-matt-105-the-mission-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins/

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On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matt 22)

In our Gospel this coming Sunday (Matt 22:34-40), Jesus reinforces the centrality of loving God in all that we do in our discipleship, as well as underlining the importance of loving our neighbour in all that we do. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/12/the-greatest-and-first-commandment-and-a-second-like-it-matt-22/

Thos affirmation of these traditions of the faith that Jesus knew and held have carried on in the movement which was initiated in the years after his life, death, and resurrection. Christianity stands on the firm foundation of Jewish faith and ethics, placing love of God and love of neighbour at the very centre of life.

There are other places in our Gospels where, with careful reading, we can see how Jesus affirms, strengthens, and intensifies the Jewish traditions which he has inherited, in the words that he offers his disciples. This is particularly the case in Matthew’s book of origins, which we have been reading this year.

Prayer. Whilst instructing his disciples how to pray (Matt 6:5–15), the Matthean Jesus offers a distinctive formula for prayer (6:9–13). Although this prayer has become known as the distinctive Christian prayer, a close study of Hebrew Scriptures shows that the concept in each clause (and in almost every case, the precise terminology of each clause) has originated in Jewish thought, as the following list indicates:

God is Father (our Father in heaven): Isa 63:16; 64:8; Jer 3:19; Mal 1:6

God is holy (hallowed be your name): Lev 19:1–2; Exod 19:5–6; Isa 6:3

God is King (your kingdom come): Ps 47:2, 8; Ezek 20:33)

God’s will is to be sought (your will be done, on earth as in heaven): Isa 46:10–11; Ps 143:9–10

God’s gift of bread is to be accepted (give us today our daily bread): Ps 104:14–15; 132:15; Lam 1:11).

God remits debt (forgive us our debts): Laws for the remission of debts are found in Deut 15, Exod 21, and Lev 25; deliverance by God is sought in numerous psalm (for instance, Ps 31:15–16; 39:7–8; 66:10; 79:9)

For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, the doxology which forms part of the traditional form of this prayer (it is included in some later manuscripts of Matthew) is similar to David’s prayer at the end of his reign as King (1 Chron 29:10–13).

Indeed, all the elements of this prayer are reflected in the synagogue Prayer of Eighteen Benedictions which was most likely in existence at this time, even though we do not have the precise wording prayer of Jesus thus reflects traditional Jewish piety. The central prayer of Jesus thus reflects traditional Jewish piety.

Beatitudes. Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with a series of Beatitudes, or blessings. Each one of these beatitudes is based on texts found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In blessing the poor (5:3) and the meek (5:5), Jesus echoes those psalms which speak of those who are poor and meek, who will receive the justice of God and an earth cleansed of evil-doers as their reward (Ps 9:18; 10:1–2, 8–9; 12:5; 14:6; 40:17; 70:5; 72:4, 12; 140:12). Isaiah 61:1 speaks of the good news to the poor; Proverbs 16:19 commends being poor and having a lowly spirit as desirable for those who trust in God.

The blessing offered to the meek, for they will inherit the earth, recalls the refrain of one of the psalms (Ps 37:11, 22, 29), whilst the blessing on the merciful evokes the prophetic valuing of mercy (Micah 6:6–8; Hosea 6:5–6).

The blessing of the pure in heart who will see God recalls Moses (Exod 3:4; 33:7–11, 12–20; Deut 34:10) as well as words of the psalmist (Ps 17:15; 27:7–9).

Jesus’ blessing of those who hunger and thirst (5:6) similarly evokes earlier biblical blessings on such people (Ps 107:4–9, 33–38; Ezek 34:25–31; Isa 32:1–6; 49:8–12). But in this saying of Jesus, it is specifically those who hunger and thirst for the righteous-justice, of God who are blessed. That righteous-justice, is a central motif of Hebrew scripture.

Righteous-justice is highlighted in the story of Abraham (Gen 15:1-6, 18:19), is found in many psalms (Pss 5:8, 7:17, 33:5, etc), and recurs regularly in the oracles of various prophets (Amos 5:24, Zeph 2:3, Zech 8:7-8, Mal 4:1-2, Jer 9:24, 33:14-16) as well as many times in Isaiah (Isa 9:7, 11:1-5, 42:6, etc). Jesus draws on this tradition in his blessings, and in other teachings.

The blessings uttered by Jesus upon those who are persecuted (5:10, 11–12) recall the promises of God to such people (Ps 34:15–22), as well as the psalms of the righteous sufferer (Ps 22, 31, 69, 71, etc.). God’s blessing is especially granted in situations of persecution.

The Beatitudes resonate strongly with key themes from Hebrew Scripture.

Sermon on the Mount. Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus affirms the central religious practices of his faith—alms, prayer and fasting—but instructs his disciples to carry them out with a different motivation : “do not display your piety before others” (6:1–18). Here, Jesus does not represent a radical break with the past, but the fulfilment of prophecy. The new does not replace the old; rather, it has evolved from the old.

We should readily recognise that the three acts which Jesus affirms are central to Jewish faith.

Prayer, of course, runs throughout so many of the stories told in scripture, and shapes the hymn book of ancient Israel, the book of Psalms. There are substantial prayers recorded at 1 Kings 8 and 2 Chron 6 (both Solomon), 2 Kings 19 (Hezekiah), 1 Chron 17 and 1 Chron 29 (both David), Ezra 9 (Ezra), amd Nehemiah 1 and 9 (both Nehemiah). “Hear my prayer” is a regular petition in the Psalms (4:1, 39:12, 54:2, 84:8, 102:1, 143:1).

Likewise, fasting is reflected in the Psalms (35,13, 69:10, 109:24) and in various stories in scripture (1 Ki 21:9, 2 Chron 20:3, Ezra 8:21, 9:5, Neh 1:4, 9:1).

Giving alms, by contrast, is not directly instructed in the Torah. This instruction appears in later Jewish literature, at Sirach 7:10 (linked with prayer) and is referred to a number of times in Tobit. Nevertheless, such generous action is certainly encouraged through the many commandments which instruct care for the poor (Lev 19:9-10, 15, 23:22; Deut 15:11, 24:10-15), the orphans and the widows (Deut 14:28-29, 16:11, 14, 26:12-15; Ps 68:5-6) and the stranger in the land (Deut 10:17-19; Ps 146:9).

The Sermon on the Mount includes the Golden Rule (7:12), a rule that is repeated in various ways throughout the Gospel. All that Jesus has been teaching and encouraging in 5:17–7:11 is summarised by this rule, which is the essence of the law and prophets. This Golden Rule is modelled on Lev 19:18, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, and emerges in various forms in the rabbinic writings.

In Jewish traditions, there is a story told about Hillel and Shammai, two Rabbis who consistently held opposite interpretations of Scripture. The story goes that a Gentile asked Shammai to explain to him the entire Jewish law while standing on one foot (i.e. briefly). Shammai drove him away. The Gentile made the same request to Hillel, and was told “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone. That is the whole law; all the rest is commentary.” That’s as close as can be to the words of Jesus in Matt 7:12.

Towards the end of the Sermon, Jesus criticises those who mouth the confession, “Lord, Lord”, but fail to do God’s will (7:21–23). Such people are condemned as “evildoers” in the NRSV; a more accurate translation is conveyed by the phrase “lawless ones”. It is their inability to live by Torah, the Law, which condemns them.

Alongside the affirmation of the Law in this Sermon (7:12) stands a fierce condemnation of those who do not follow its paths (7:23). The same Greek term (literally, “without law”) is applied in eschatological contexts to those who do not follow the Law (13:41; 24:12) and, with great irony, to the Pharisees (23:28)—those charged with the teaching of the Law! This provides a cutting edge to the stance of the Matthean Jesus: to follow his way means to take seriously the Torah—something which even its authorised teachers appear unable to do.

A relevant story is found in the writings about Hillel and Shammai, two Rabbis who consistently held opposite interpretations of Scripture. The story goes that a Gentile asked Shammai to explain to him the entire Jewish law while standing on one foot (i.e. briefly). Shammai drove him away. The Gentile made the same request to Hillel, and was told “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone. That is the whole law; all the rest is commentary.”

Which brings us back to the discussion between Jesus and the scribe in Matt 22, where the question posed to Jesus is about identifying the greatest commandment, the instruction which sits as the foundation of the whole Law. Jesus offers his answer, “love God … love neighbour”, and then concludes with the assertion, “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (22:40). He strongly affirms these elements of his Jewish tradition as fundamental for discipleship.

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The greatest and first commandment … and a second, like it (Matt 22)

The section of the book of origins which is offered as the Gospel reading this coming Sunday (Matt 22:34-40) reveals the fundamental commitment which Jesus of Nazareth had to the Jewish faith and ethic with which he was raised.

The Jewish nature of Jesus is evident right throughout this book, and indeed in each Gospel account in our Bible. The Torah and the covenant with God which were so important for Jesus, also undergird contemporary Judaism and continue as fundamental to the Christian life.

This is made very clear in the first part of this week’s passage (Matt 22:34-40), when Jesus engages in conversation with a teacher of the Torah (the law). To the question, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”, Jesus responds by citing two, each drawn from Hebrew Scripture, noting that he has quoted “the greatest and first commandment … and a second, like it” (Matt 22:38-39).

Love God. The first commandment cited by Jesus, “love God” (22:37-38), comes from Deuteronomy, the book which provides a comprehensive report of “the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe” (a phrase which occurs regularly—4:1,5,8,14,40,45, 5:1,31, 6:1,20, 7:11, etc).

Specifically, the command to “love God” is located immediately after The Ten Words were given to Moses and through him to the people (5:1-33), at the very start of the long recital of these “statutes and ordinances” (6:1-26:19).

Indeed, this commandment is nestled into the passage which forms the basis of the daily prayer of faithful Jews: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God ….” (6:4-9). The prayer is known as the Shema (שְׁמַע), which is simply the opening word in Hebrew: Hear!

The offering of these words in prayer twice each day is in response to the clear instruction to “recite them with your children and talk about them … when you lie down and when you rise” at all times (Deut 6:7). To this day, it is traditional for Jews to seek to say the Shema as their last words, and for parents to teach their children to say it before they go to sleep at night.

This portion of Deuteronomy also contains the instruction to “bind [these words] on your hand, fix them … on your forehead, wrote them on the door posts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:8)—from which the classic traditional pious Jewish garb is derived.

The third century document, the Mishnah (Berakhot 2:5), links the reciting of the Shema with re-affirming a personal relationship with God’s rule. Reciting the Shema was considered to be akin to “receiving the kingdom of heaven.”

In developing Jewish tradition, two additional texts were added to the Deut 6 text, to produce an expanded Shema: Deut 6:4-9, the fundamental instruction to love God; Deut 11:13-21, reiterating the words about binding and talking, and the blessings that ensue; and Num 15:37-41, reiterating the words about fringes as an important reminder to be obedient to God.

Centuries later, the Talmud points out that subtle references to the Ten Commandments the can be found in the three portions, so the Shema is seen as an opportunity to commemorate the Ten Commandments.

The importance of this commandment is clear in Hebrew Scripture, and continues in the tradition which Jesus has inherited, in that “love God” is the fundamental commandment.

Love Neighbour. The second commandment which Jesus cites, “love your neighbour” (22:39), comes from Leviticus, a book whose name comes from a Greek word derived from the priestly tribe of Levi, as many of its laws relate to priests.

Leviticus unfairly bears a negative reputation, our time, for containing pages and pages of “boring, archaic, irrelevant” laws and regulations. (That is, unless you are talking about *that issue*—in which case Lev 18:22 and 20:13, taken quite out of context, suddenly become of primary and enduring significance.)

The command to “love your neighbour” culminates a series a instructions regarding to the relationship with neighbour: “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—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).

Part of the Paleo-Hebrew Leviticus scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls,
found in cave 11 at Qumran, the which contains
the oldest known copy of the Holiness Code.

Holiness was central to the people of Israel. Those who ministered to God within the Temple, as priests, were to be especially concerned about holiness in their daily life and their regular activities in the Temple (Exod 28-29; Lev 8-9). The temple priests claimed their role as the authorised interpreters of the Torah, and they were responsible for determining how the matter of holiness was to be worked out in the system of sacrifices brought to the Temple (Ezekiel 44:15–16, 23–24).

Pharisees and scribes alike specialised in the interpretation of Torah and in the application of Torah to ensure that holiness was observed in daily living. They undertook the highly significant task of showing how the Torah was relevant to the daily life of Jewish people.

Whilst the Pharisees clustered around the larger towns in Judea, the scribes were to be found in the synagogues of villages throughout greater Israel, and indeed in any place where Jews were settled. Their task was to educate the people as to the ways of holiness that were commanded in the Torah. It was possible, they argued, to live as God’s holy people at every point of one’s life, quite apart from any pilgrimages made to the Temple in Jerusalem. So there was already an “alternative pathway” for living out holiness in daily life.

“Love your neighbour”, then, was a critical way by which the life of holiness was to be demonstrated.

In this context, then, Jesus reinforces the centrality of loving God in all that we do in our discipleship, as well as underlining the importance of loving our neighbour in all that we do. On these two commandments, says Jesus, “hang all the law and the prophets” (22:40).

That peculiar term, “hang”, has very clear resonances in Jewish tradition. In the third century document, the Mishnah (Hagigah 1.8), we find the claim that “the rules about the Sabbath … are as mountains hanging by a hair”. Centuries later, the Babylonian Talmud (b.Ber. 63a) makes the affirmation that Proverbs 3:6 (“in all your ways acknowledge him”) is “a short text … upon which all the essential principles of the Torah hang”.

Jesus’ affirmation of these traditions of his faith have carried on in the movement which was initiated in the years after his life, death, and resurrection. Paul of course, affirms that “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:8-10) and that “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment” (Gal 5:14). In both places he explicitly quotes Lev 19:18.

Centuries later in the developing Christian tradition, Augustine wrote that “all of God’s commandments … are carried out in the right manner when they are motivated by love of God, and because of God, for our neighbour” (Enchiridion 32.121). Still later, the 9th century mystic Theodore of Edessa affirmed that “love unites and protects the virtues” (A Century of Spiritual Texts 83).

We stand on the shoulders of a long line of Jewish faithfulness.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/01/producing-the-fruits-of-the-kingdom-matt-21/ and the Uniting Church Assembly Statement on Jews and Judaism, https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/key-papers-reports/item/1704-jews-and-judaism

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Paul the travelling philosopher (1 Thessalonians)

Thessalonika, the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, was a port city strategically situated on the Egnatian Way, the main transport link between Rome and the eastern part of the empire. It was an important trading post in Greece, second only to Corinth.

Evidence of its cosmopolitan nature includes an Egyptian settlement, a strong Jewish presence, and a Samaritan community in the city. Religion was a part of everyday life, and so worship of all manner of gods and goddesses thrived. There were also schools to learn philosophy, travelling preachers, and synagogues for worshipping Yahweh.

Paul, Silas and Timothy arrived in Thessalonika in the year 50 CE. The account in Acts 17 indicates that they went to the synagogue, where Paul declared that the Jewish scriptures pointed to Jesus as Messiah (Acts 17:2–3). This stirred up antagonism amongst the Jews of the city (Acts 17:5).

Those who accepted Paul’s message, realising that he was just recovering from the experience of prison in Philippi (Acts 16:19–24), sent him and Silas on to their next stop in Beroea after only three weeks in Thessalonica (Acts 17:2). Paul then travelled to Athens (Acts 17:15) and Corinth (Acts 18:1).

See the source image

Little of this is reflected in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, apart from a direct comment about his difficulties in Philippi (1 Thess 2:2) and some generalised references to the persecution he was suffering (1 Thess 3:4, 7). Although it is likely that Paul wrote letters before he had visited Thessalonica, none of them are known to us.

1 Thessalonians, dating from the same year (50 CE) as his visit to Thessalonica, is the earliest example of Paul’s letter writing that we have. The letter itself contains no explicit indication of the time or place of its writing; tradition has it that Paul wrote from Athens, although it is more likely that he penned it in Corinth just months after his departure from Thessalonica. His visit was still fresh in Paul’s mind, and he writes with love and concern for the community of believers that he left behind in Thessalonica.

It is obvious that Paul had developed a strong bond with this community, and he is anxious to keep in touch with them (3:5). The letter was in reply to what he had learned from Timothy about their recent progress (3:6).

In the opening thanksgiving of this letter (1:1-8), Paul characterizes the Thessalonians as undertaking a “work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 1:8). These terms summarise the key issues to be addressed later in that letter; all three return at 1 Thess 5:8.

Paul writes more about the faith of the Thessalonians at 3:1–10; he commends them for their love at 3:6 and 4:9–10, and prays for it to increase at 3:12. He strengthens them in their hope at 2:19 and 4:13–18. Also in the thanksgiving, he affirmed them for being “imitators of us and of the Lord” (1:6)—a central motif in Paul’s theology.

At the point in the letter where we would expect the body of the letter to begin (2:1), Paul turns his attention to his way of operating whilst he had been with the Thessalonians (2:1–12). He feels the need to defend himself, pointing out that his motivation was not based on “deceit or impure motives or trickery” (2:3), nor did he speak “with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed” (2:5).

Rather, Paul undertook his task with deep-seated care (2:8) and purity of motive (2:10). He invokes the divine no less than nine times in twelve verses, proclaiming that his methods were “approved by God” and that he spoke “to please God” (2:4).

See the source image
A statue depicting a Cynic, one of the popular
wandering philosophers of the time.

The language which Paul uses in this part of the letter is reminiscent of discussions of rhetoricians and philosophers of the time, a number of whom were accused of having base motives, an interest in self-promotion and a desire for immediate financial rewards! His itinerant way of life could easily leave him open to such a criticism. How Paul defends himself is similar to the way that the better class of philosophers and rhetoricians of the day tried to defend themselves.

See a good summary of Abraham Malherbe’s analysis of 1 Thess 2 in this vein, at http://www.religion.emory.edu/faculty/robbins/SRI/Examples/textures/inter/echo2.cfm

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Darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth: the scene of judgement (Matt 22)

Come to the banquet, there’s a place for you … sit you down, be fed and blessed … in your strength or in your weakness, you are welcome: come!

I always enjoyed singing that song, back in the days when we were able to sing when we gathered together for worship. It came to mind as I thought about the parable of the banquet that appears in the Lectionary, as the Gospel reading, this coming Sunday (Matt 22:1-14).

And the story that Jesus tells has wonderful moments of blessing–especially for those who didn’t receive an invitation to the banquet in the initial round of invitations. These people, “both good and bad”, invited in to the banquet hall direct from their business on the streets, were able to share in the largesse of the king (22:9-10). Is it a parable that points to the gracious welcome of God, as all manner of people come into the kingdom?

The very fact that there were, not one, not even two, but three rounds of invitations, underlines this point, surely? The king (presumably a symbol for God) really wants people to take part in this celebratory feast! And even the behaviour of those who decline the invitation might be explained in some reasonable way–the farm needs attending to, the business won’t look after itself (22:5), so their declining the invitation is understandable.

Although, it might be noted that declining the invitation was a breach of the honour-shame code which was dominant in the culture of the time. Reciprocity in relationships and dependence on a wealthy patron would surely have mandated accepting the invitation, one would have thought.

Indeed, the story that Jesus tells doesn’t necessarily lead to the result of blessing for all who come. Indeed, this parable is wracked by tragedy: as many in the first two rounds of people invited to the banquet decline the invitation, some of them mistreat and kill the messengers (22:6). This provokes a murderous retribution by the unhappy king, as he orders his troops to “destroy those murders and burn their city” (22:7). It sounds like yet another parable of judgement. (Matthew has quite a number of these parables–in case you hadn’t noticed!)

And, even when the guests are all present in the banquet hall, the king remains unhappy. Displeased at the lack of appropriate attire seen on one person, he gives the unfortunate guest a tongue lashing (22:12), and orders that a vicious punishment be enacted (22:13).

The parable and ancient customs

It had started off in the typical life-like setting of many of the parables: a scene known to the people to whom Jesus was speaking–or, at least, envisaged in realistic ways by them, even if they had not personally experienced such a scene. It sounded plausible, like it really could be happening.

There’s a wealthy king, a fine banquet, a hall filled with guests, tables laden with an abundance of food. A scene that the more wealthy would have experienced, and that the poorer would perhaps often have dreamed of. Jesus was a master at telling such tales; he knew how to draw people in and engage them fully in the scene.

In many ways, this parables reflects the code of behaviour ingrained in the culture. Meals were locations of intricate and complex rituals which set the patterns of behaviour required. There were expectations of rituals to be followed at the door, as guests arrive and wash their feet (see Gen 18:4, 19:1-2, 24:32; Luke 7:38).

There were rituals in greeting one another, following the prescribed sequence of blessing appropriate for the occasion and for the status of the people involved (amongst numerous examples in Hebrew Scripture, see Gen 18:2, 29:13, 43:27; Ruth 2:4).

There were rituals relating to the seating arrangements, which followed very strictly the hierarchy of status amongst those present (as Gen 43:33 and Prov 25:6-7 each indicate). Once seated, there were rituals relating to the food that was to be served and the order by which it was served to people, once again following the status hierarchy.

And, it would seem, there were rituals relating to the desired form of dress when attending a celebratory wedding banquet (perhaps Eccles. 9:8 is relevant; and maybe Rev 3:5 offers a glimpse of this?). Such rituals were expected to be kept with scrupulous care.

But one guest has breached protocol (22:11). It is precisely when the king pronounces the sentence on the guest who had not donned the prescribed wedding robe (22:12-14), that the parable blurs. The very end of the parable snaps out of the “realistic imaginary scene” that had been painted up to this point. The guest is not wearing his white robe. The guest is not “clothed with righteousness”.

The parable and aspects of judgement

The carnage from the aggressive interaction between the king, his messengers, the reluctant people of the town, and the murderous troops sent by the king (22:3-7), is bad enough. That might well be connected with the behaviour of arrogant, powerful men, who then (as now) ruled the world through the power of their armies; who even ordered the destruction of cities in enemy territory. That still has a ring of realism about it.

However, right at the end of the parable, the words of judgement and punishment that come from the mouth of the king plunges the story right into the midst of the hell-fire and brimstone, judgement and punishment rhetoric, that characterises the distinctive figure of Jesus who is centre-stage in the book of origins, the account of Jesus that we attribute to Matthew.

We have stepped out of the “parable scene”, and into the world of “eternal judgement”. We are no longer listening to Jesus the teller of enticing tales, but Jesus the fiery preacher of apocalyptic doom.

The instruction to “throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (22:14), recalls earlier pronouncements by Jesus in this book of origins: in his words of judgement spoken in Capernaum, where he encounters a distressed centurion (8:12), in his explanation of the parable of the weeds and the wheat (13:42), in the parable of the good and bad fish (13:50).

It is found also in subsequent pronouncements: to his disciples during his final apocalyptic teachings (24:51), and in the climactic parable of the sheep and the goats (25:30). In each case, darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth are threatened.

The vision that is depicted in this parable of Jesus is hardly an irenic, thoroughly enjoyable scenario. This is the way that “the heavenly banquet” is often depicted in Hebrew Scriptures–see Isaiah 25:6-7, 55:1-5, 65:17-25; Psalm 36:7-9; Proverbs 9:1-6. Not so, however, in this parable.

Along with those entering the kingdom in joy, there are those debarred from the kingdom, excluded with wrath, destined to endure severe punishment. The king who reigns in this realm exercises definitive judgement and imposes a decisive punishment (Matt 22:13). This is fear-inducing stuff.

Signs of Matthew’s hand in the parable

There are clear signs that Matthew’s hand has been at work throughout this parable, reshaping the story which Jesus told. The phrases found in the ending are one clear sign. Another sign comes from the kind of comparative analysis that we can do, when we compare this version of the parable with two other versions, known to us in literature of the time.

The Gospel of Luke reports that Jesus told this parable (Luke 14:15-24); this version is located in quite a different context, where the focus is on “seeking the lost” (Luke 14:12-14 and 15:1-32). In Matthew, the context is one of judgement and punishment, as is clear in the way the preceding parable ends (Matt 21:42-46). And the Gospel of Thomas also has a version of this parable, one of the teachings of Jesus found in that work (Gos. Thomas 64). Of course, in the Gospel of Thomas, there is no narrative context; the work is comprised of a long string of independent sayings of Jesus.

The host of the banquet in both those alternative versions (Luke and Thomas) was simply “a man”, not a king. That man had “a servant”, not a whole collection of slaves. The invitation was simply to “a dinner” (Thomas) or “a great dinner” (Luke), rather than to “a wedding banquet for his son”. Matthew has really ramped up the setting, placing the story in a very regal setting.

Whilst those unable to attend sent explanations (they are the same in Luke and Thomas), in Matthew’s version “they made light of it”. And the murderous rampage by the king is not found in either alternate version (Luke or Thomas). The whole scene has been ramped up to the highest possible level in Matthew’s version. Everything hangs on what transpires in the story. While the parable in Luke ends with a scene of inclusive celebration, in Matthew the parable ends with savage judgement.

Back to the theme of judgement in Matthew’s Gospel

This outcome of judgement is a recurring theme in the Gospel of Matthew. And this is the challenge for us, today, as we reflect on the version of the parable found in this Gospel. What do we make of a story that points to the inevitable judgement that God will exercise?

It is clear that the function of judgement belongs to God (7:1-2; 10:15; 11:21-24; 12:36). Jesus sets this into the eschatological framework of “the end of time”, when the Son of Man will implement this judgement (13:41; 16:27-28; 19:28; 24:29-31; 25:31).

This judgement is described in graphic terms in the final parable of Jesus in this Gospel (25:31-46). The division of people, at this moment of judgement, into “good and bad”, “sheep and goats”, is made abundantly clear. Those failing to show compassion to “the least” are clearly differentiated from those who are called “the righteous”.

That division has run through the Gospel. We see people distinguished as “evil and good” (5:45; 12:35; 22:10), we see “good trees” and “bad trees” (7:15-19; 12:33), “good seed” and “weeds” (13:24-25, 37-38), “good fish” and “bad fish” (13:47-48).

The Jesus who is presented in this Gospel is a fearful and demanding figure. In his capacity as God’s Messiah, he frequently promises (or threatens) judgement (5:21–26; 7:1–2; 10:15; 11:21–24; 12:36–37; 19:28–30; 21:33–44; 22:1–14; 24:29–31, 36-44, 45–51; 25:1–13, 14–30, 31–46; 26:64). Many of these declarations occur in eschatological contexts, where Jesus is warning about the punishment that is to come unless righteousness is followed in the present.

So the kingdom of heaven will be established “at the end of the age”, when the final judgement of righteous and unrighteous will take place (13:39–40, 49; 24:3). The key connection here must be with the demand for righteous-justice, which has been the central demand of the message preached by Jesus throughout this Gospel, from the early affirmations (3:15; 5:6, 10; 5:20; 6:33), through the parables in chapter 13 (see 13:17, 43, 49), through to the climactic final parable (25:37, 46). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

Judgement is linked to doing what makes for righteous-justice. Here is the key criteria for divine assessment. The man cast out of the wedding banquet was rejected because he was not “clothed in righteous-justice”.

Here is the central call for ethical living from the lips of Jesus, which strengthened and intensified throughout Matthew’s account. Here is the fundamental worldview of the fierce apocalyptic prophet, who comes from Nazareth onto the world stage, to effect judgement.

Now that is a challenge to preach today!!

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Producing the fruits of the kingdom (Matt 21)

The parable of Jesus which is set in this Sunday’s lectionary appears to offer an invitation to adopt a negative approach towards Jews and Judaism. The author of the book of origins (by tradition, the evangelist Matthew) interpreted this story as a polemic against the Jewish authorities (Matt 21:33-46).

The parable is set in a vineyard. That’s an age-old symbol for the people of Israel—indeed, this week the lectionary offers us two supplementary passages from Hebrew Scripture (Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:7-15) which show how old and enduring this imagery was.

The parable that Jesus tells recounts the hard-hearted way in which the tenants in the vineyard (a traditional symbol for the people of Israel) reject the messengers sent to them by the landowner (seen as a symbol for God), culminating in the atrocious treatment meted out to the landowner’s son (whom we are meant to identify as Jesus, son of God).

The son is put to death. The punchline that Jesus crafts for this parable is potent: those who do not produce the fruits of the kingdom will not inherit the kingdom (21:43). That’s a consistent motif in the teaching of Jesus in this Gospel. But the author of the Gospel reshapes the conclusion so that it seems to apply solely to “the chief priests and the Pharisees” (21:45).

The parable of the vineyard is one of the passages that has been difficult for us to understand accurately. When taken at a literal level, it has led to modern interpretations that are as damaging as they are unfair.

The assumption is that the Pharisees and scribes are the ‘bad guys’, and this has led to the belief that Pharisee equals hypocrite. It is disturbing that such a stereotype has found its way into the language of our modern church.

The context of the parable suggests that although its message was aimed at the chief priests and the Pharisees, it does not exclude other Jewish people. The parable immediately before it refers to the importance of doing the will of God (21:28-31), and concludes that “tax-collectors and prostitutes going into the kingdom of God ahead of you [i.e. the Pharisees and chief priests]” (21:31). The kingdom will certainly provide an interesting gathering of all manner of people! So the parable is a warning about obedience, not a denunciation of the leaders.

Equally disturbing is the notion that Jesus here seems to contradict his own teaching about loving one’s enemy and turning the other cheek. He depicts God as the avenging Lord. So what is really happening here?

I don’t think the parable of Jesus is intended to be simply an anti-Jewish polemic, an invitation to deride or dismiss Judaism and Jews.

It is true that, in the Gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus making some strident accusations and engaging in some vigorous debate with the Jewish authorities. But does he really believe that no faithful Jew will ever again enter the kingdom of heaven?

We need to read in context the rhetoric that Matthew places on the lips of Jesus in this Gospel. Judaism was in a state of flux as people lived under the continuing oppression of Roman rule. The destruction of the Temple in 70 CE was a pivotal moment. Evidence indicates that, during this time, there were various sectarian groups within Judaism who were contesting with each other for recognition and influence. Instead of making common cause against Rome, they continued to fight each other. Vigorous polemic and robust debate amongst Jews were not uncommon.

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/11/go-nowhere-among-the-gentiles-matt-105-the-mission-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins/

During this period, the Pharisees were becoming increasingly important as an alternative to the Temple cult, and emerging as the dominant Jewish religious movement. Their power base was moved from Jerusalem and spread throughout the area. When the Temple was destroyed, they moved into the vacuum that was created, and became even more dominant.

(From this time on, Pharisees evolved into the “Rabbis”, and they developed the kind of Judaism that became dominant through to the present time. We need to be sensitized to the fact that, for many modern Jews, when we make damning criticisms of the Pharisees, they hear that as a criticism of their Rabbis, and, by extension, of the faith that they practise today.)

The kind of debates that we see in the Gospels—debates where Jesus goes head-on with the Pharisees—need to be understood in this context. Jesus was not “cutting the cord” of his connection with Judaism. He was not rejecting his faith as irrelevant or obsolete.

He was advocating, vigorously and persistently, for the kind of faith that he firmly believed in—and criticisng the Pharisees for their failure, in his eyes, to adhere to all that they taught. He wanted to renew Israel, to refresh the covenant, as the prophets before him had done.

And let’s remember that the accounts that we have of these debates come from years later than when they actually occurred; years that had been strongly shaped by the polemic and antagonism of the intervening decades.

Older academic Christian scholarship and popular evangelical Christian tradition perpetuate the stereotype that the Judaism of the time of Jesus was a harsh, legalistic, rigid religion—a stereotype heightened by an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament caricature of the Pharisees as hypocritical legalists who made heavy demands but had no soul commitment to their faith. It was claimed that they were the leaders of a static, dying religion.

This stereotype has been completely demolished in recent decades—both through the growing interaction between Christian and Jewish scholarship, and also through a more critical reading of the relevant primary texts. I am very pleased that the church to which I belong, the Uniting Church in Australia, has made it very clear that we do not adhere to these inaccurate and hurtful stereotypes.

In 2009, the UCA national Assembly adopted a Statement which says, amongst other things:

The Uniting Church does not accept Christian teaching that is derogatory towards Jews and Judaism; a belief that God has abolished the covenant with the Jewish people;  supersessionism, the belief that Christians have replaced Jews in the love and purpose of God; and forms of relationships with Jews that require them to become Christian, including coercion and manipulation, that violate their humanity, dignity and freedom.

We do not accept these things.

See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/key-papers-reports/item/1704-jews-and-judaism

Indeed, when we look at the whole of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does nothing to overturn the Law or to encourage his followers to disregard the Law; he is portrayed as a Jew who keeps Torah to the full. “I have come, not to destroy, but to fulfil the Law”, he says (5:17).

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

And in that same section of the Gospel, Jesus is quoted as advocating for a better righteous-justice; a righteous-justice that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20).

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

Virtually all of his criticisms of the Pharisees can be understood within the framework of first century debates over the meaning and application of Law. The memory of Jesus in this Gospel is as a Torah-abiding Jew, who nevertheless stakes out a distinctive position within the context of those contemporary debates.

We should not interpret the parable of Jesus in Matt 21 as an outright condemnation of Judaism as a whole. As he debates the Jewish leadership of his day, he makes strong statements. But let’s not claim that Jesus validates any sense of anti-Jewish or antisemitic attitude.

Unfortunately, these words of Jesus and other parts of the New Testament story have been used throughout the centuries to validate anti-Jewish attitudes, to foster antisemitic hatred of the Jews. It is important for us to remember the real sense of the words of Jesus, and not follow the pathway to bigotry, hatred, persecution, and tragic attempts to annihilate the Jews.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/09/29/an-invitation-that-you-just-cannot-accept/

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An invitation that you just cannot … accept!

We are all used to receiving invitations. Sometimes, those invitations come as an invitation that you just cannot refuse—the special performance that is a must-see, the party that you don’t want to miss, the occasion with a special friend that wouldn’t be the same without you being there.

This week, the lectionary provides us with a series of invitations. Do you want to refuse them? Are you going to say, “this is an invitation that I just cannot refuse” ? I hope not. Because I want to convince you, that you do have to refuse those invitations. In fact, you need to be clear that you are not going to accept any of these invitations.

The invitations are shaped by the way that the Christian Church has approached and interpreted its scriptures. The invitations are subtle and pervasive; they simply invite us to read and understand the passages in this week’s lectionary in the way that so many interpreters, throughout the history of the church, have interpreted these passages. The invitations invite us to adopt an anti-Israel, anti-Jewish, antisemitic way of reading these texts.

My exhortation this week is: don’t accept those invitations. Don’t get drawn into traditional ways of interpreting scripture that lead down the pathway of negative stereotyping of Jews. Don’t get caught in the traditions of antisemitism that grew and flourished across the many centuries of the existence of the church. Don’t judge negatively, don’t demean or deride, don’t open the door for destructive depictions and careless caricatures of our Jewish sisters and brothers.

The first invitation comes in the reading from Hebrew Scripture that is set in the lectionary this week (Exodus 20:1-20). It is an invitation to reflect on the heavy burden of the Law, the weight of demands that were placed on the people of Israel through the giving of the Law. It is a recounting of the Ten Commandments, and the importance of following them to the letter—to have “the fear of God” instilled in us to obey them and not sin (Ex 20:20).

The second invitation comes in the section of the letter which Paul wrote to the Philippians (Phil 3:4-14). It is an invitation to cast the whole of Jewish scripture and tradition as being of no value whatsoever. In this part of his letter, Paul reflects on his upbringing, and has a very colourful description for what he learnt, as a member of Israel, a Pharisee devoted to living a blameless life under the Law. Of all that he learnt as he was raised in this way, Paul writes, “I regard them as rubbish”—the ultra-polite way that the NRSV translates what, in Greek, reads literally as “I consider them all to be bullshit!” (Phil 3:8).

And the third invitation comes in the parable of Jesus which is included in ‘the book of origins’, and which its author (by tradition, the evangelist Matthew) interpreted as a polemic against the Jewish authorities (Matt 21:33-46). The parable is set in a vineyard. That’s an age-old symbol for the people of Israel—indeed, the lectionary offers us two passages from Hebrew Scripture (Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:7-15) which show how old and enduring this imagery was.

The parable that Jesus tells recounts the hard-hearted way in which the tenants in the vineyard (a traditional symbol for the people of Israel) reject the messengers sent to them by the landowner (seen as a symbol for God), culminating in the atrocious treatment meted out to the landowner’s son (whom we presumably are meant to identify as Jesus, son of God), who is put to death. The punchline that Jesus crafts for this parable is potent: “the kingdom will be taken away from you” (Matt 21:43), he tells “the chief priests and the Pharisees” (Matt 21:45).

Do not be taken in by these three invitations! Do not succumb to even the merest whisper of anti-Jewish sentiment as you reflect on these passages! Do not be shy to decline these “invitations you cannot refuse”!

Why?

First: because the Law was given, not to be a burden, a heavy weight, a set of endless demands; the Law was given as a gift. In the Law, Israel was given a way of strengthening the Covenant relationship with God, of providing practical means for remaining in covenant relationship with God. No Jew regards the Law as a burden; universally, the Law is celebrated as a gift, and valued as a way to ensure a healthy and vibrant relationship with God.

The Ten Commandments need to be read in the context of the story as it transpired over time. The giving of the Law (Exodus 20) sits in the midst of the stories about Moses ascending the mountain, encountering God, and formalising the covenant relationship with God (Ex 19:16-25; and Ex 24:1-18). Before the Law is given (Ex 20), the Covenant is formalised (Ex 19). The requirements of Law follow on from the gift of Covenant. In this way, the Law itself becomes a gift—a way to ensure the strength of the Covenant.

And these scenes of Moses making the covenant with God and then ratifying it with all the people, need to be seen in the context of the still larger scope of the storyline, which tells of a series of covenants: with Noah, with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob (and on into future centuries, with David, with Solomon, through Jeremiah).

It is the covenant which is the primary context: the means by which God chooses, nurtures, and remains in relationship with Israel. The Law comes as the consequence of the gift of the Covenant; the Law provides a clear set of guidelines for maintaining that covenant and continuing in relationship with God.

That Law is embraced, valued, and celebrated in Jewish tradition and scripture. Just look at how it is described in the Psalm offered in this week’s lectionary selection, where the commandments and precepts of the Law are praised as “perfect, reviving the soul … sure, making wise …right, rejoicing the heart … clear, enlightening the eyes … true and righteous altogether … more to be desired are they than gold .. sweeter also than honey” (Ps 19:7-10).

Second: because the Jewish upbringing and Pharisaic practices that Paul had, were never totally jettisoned, even though this one colourful comment seems to suggest this. Paul has many ways by which he demonstrates that his Jewish upbringing, his years of study as a Pharisee, his intense dedication to the Law, all still continue to shape his life, his words, his actions, his very being, right through the years that he was a faithful follower of Jesus.

Paul had an extensive knowledge of Hebrew scripture; we see this demonstrated at many place in his letters (Rom 1:16–17; 3:9–20; 4:1–25; 9:6–11:12; 11:25–27; 1 Cor 1:19–25; 2:6–16; 2 Cor 8:15, 9:9; Gal 4:21–31) as well as in the reports of his preaching in Acts (Acts 13:32–41; 17:2–3; 26:22–23; 28:25–28). The whole argument that is developed in his letter to the Romans is an exposition of a key affirmation, made at Rom 1:16-17, which itself quotes and draws from the words of Habakkuk, a late 7th century Israelite prophet (Hab 2:4). That argument engages consistently and in complex ways with the Hebraic traditions and understandings that were so central to Paul’s spiritual life. He uses pearl-stringing, argument by analogy, diatribal argumentation, midrashic storytelling, and other techniques which he undoubtedly learnt from his Pharisaic teachers.

(See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/20/spirit-and-scripture-in-romans-rom-8/)

In writing to the Galatians, Paul asserts that the Law serves as a paidagogos (3:21–24)—a position in Greek society in which a tutor both instructs and disciplines a young man until he reaches his maturity. So Paul does not portray the Law as obsolete and completely irrelevant and; rather, he insists that “the Law is not opposed to the promises of God” (3:21). In fact, he supports his position with an argument drawn from “the Law”, that is, Hebrew scripture—the accounts of the two children of Abraham (found in Gen 16 and 21) provides an allegory for the two covenants made by God (4:21–31). And in Romans he affirms that “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom 7:12).

There are many other examples of how Paul uses the debating techniques and reflects the theological insights that he learnt during his formative years, right through into his mature years, even when he was the most intense and most passionate follower of Jesus. So let’s not get caught into the trap of adopting an anti-Jewish attitude and claiming that we are simply following the lead of the Apostle Paul. His understanding was far deeper than that, and his engagement with the issue much more complex. (We might well say that his claim that his Jewish past was “bullshit” to him, is itself a claim that is, well, “bullshit”!)

Third: because the parable of Jesus is not intended to be simply an anti-Jewish polemic without any further refinement of understanding. It is true that, in the Gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus making some strident accusations and engaging in some vigorous debate with the Jewish authorities. But does he really believe that no faithful Jew will ever again enter the kingdom of heaven?

We need to read in context the rhetoric that Matthew places on the lips of Jesus in this Gospel. Judaism was in a state of flux as people lived under the continuing oppression of Roman rule. Guerilla groups initiated battles with the Romans on and off throughout the first century. These encounters intensified from 66 CE onwards. The destruction of the Temple in 70 CE was a pivotal moment. Evidence indicates that, during this time, there were various sectarian groups within Judaism who were contesting with each other for recognition and influence. Vigorous polemic and robust debate were not uncommon.

During this period, the Pharisees were becoming increasingly important as an alternative to the Temple cult, and emerging as the dominant Jewish religious movement. Their power base was moved from Jerusalem and spread throughout the area. When the Temple was destroyed, they moved the vacuum that was created, and became even more dominant. (From this time on, Pharisees evolved into the “Rabbis”, and they developed the kind of Judaism that became dominant through to the present time.)

The kind of debates that we see in the Gospels—debates where Jesus goes head-on with the Pharisees—need to be understood in this context. Jesus was not “cutting the cord” of his connection with Judaism. He was advocating, vigorously and persistently, for the kind of faith that he firmly believed in—and attacking the Pharisees for their failure, in his eyes, to adhere to all that they taught. And the accounts that we have of these debates come from years later than when they actually occurred; years that had been strongly shaped by the polemic and antagonism of the intervening decades.

Older academic Christian scholarship and popular Christian tradition both contain a preponderance of the stereotype that the Judaism of the time of Jesus was a harsh, legalistic, rigid religion—precisely because of the claimed “hardness of heart” of the Pharisees in their debates with Jesus. This stereotype was heightened by an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament caricature of the Pharisees as hypocritical legalists who made heavy demands but had no soul commitment to their faith. It was claimed that they were the leaders of a static, dying religion.

This stereotype has been completely demolished in recent decades—both through the growing interaction between Christian and Jewish scholarship, and also through a more critical reading of the relevant primary texts. I am very pleased that my own church, the Uniting Church in Australia, has made it very clear that we do not adhere to these inaccurate and hurtful stereotypes.

(See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/key-papers-reports/item/1704-jews-and-judaism and the Statement linked at that page.)

Indeed, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does nothing to overturn the Law or to encourage his followers to disregard the Law; he is portrayed as a Jew who keeps Torah to the full. Virtually all of his criticisms of the Pharisees can be understood within the framework of first century debates over the meaning and application of Law. The memory of Jesus in this Gospel is as a Torah-abiding Jew, who nevertheless stakes out a distinctive position within the context of those contemporary debates.

(See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/)

Later written accounts of Jesus reflect the intensity of fervent debate as he encountered the scribes and Pharisees (see especially Luke 11:37-54; Matt 23:1-36). We should not interpret the parable of Jesus in Matt 21 as an outright condemnation of Judaism as a whole. As he debates the Jewish leadership of his day, he makes strong statements. But let’s not claim that Jesus validates any sense of anti-Jewish or antisemitic attitude.

(See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/01/producing-the-fruits-of-the-kingdom-matt-21/)

(See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/18/easter-in-christian-tradition-and-its-relation-to-jewish-tradition/)

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Reimagining—the spirit of our times

The city where I live, Canberra, has a regular annual festival. Each year, a large section of a central park is planted out with bulbs, around this time of the year. Lots of tourists come in September, joining with many of the residents of Canberra, to enjoy the festival known as Floriade.

The bulbs that have been planted grow, silently and stealthily, throughout winter, so that when spring arrives, they are fully grown plants, ready to burst into a display of spectacular colours—in time for hundreds of thousands of people to walk through, enjoying the display.

507,550 people saw the display in 2019 (see https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6456817/floriade-breaks-attendance-record/)

That’s not going to happen this year. The ACT Government wisely decided that it would not be sensible to plan for a large, crowded event in September—with the uncertainty that crowds of people would be able to gather, even in the outdoors.

So they have implemented Floriade Reimagined. Bulbs have been offered to community groups, to be planted at dispersed locations right around Canberra. Those bulbs are to be planted in locations that are visible from the road. Now, in September, people are able to drive around Canberra and enjoy the displays of flowers in many community locations. (See https://floriadeaustralia.com)

Alongside this, in the southern part of Canberra, there has been an annual festival in Tuggeranong, called, quite appropriately, SouthFest. This has been based around the Tuggeranong Town Centre in past years, with many stall lining the streets, and a festive atmosphere pervading the day.

But this year, again because of COVID-19, it has not been possible to plan for and hold the usual festivities. (See https://the-riotact.com/southfest-organisers-make-early-call-to-cancel-2020-festival/379080)

But SouthFest, alongside Floriade, has also been reimagined. And that’s where the Tuggeranong Uniting Church comes into the picture. They took their annual Spring Fair, and in 2019, gave it a strong sustainability focus. This year, they once again reimagined that that spring fair would look like. And so, SpringFest was born.

Tuggeranong, where Elizabeth is serving as Minister, submitted an expression of interest for Floriade Reimagined, and was awarded a set of bulbs. A crew of volunteers has worked hard to dig garden beds, build up the soil, and plant the bulbs. (See the picture, and https://www.insights.uca.org.au/tuggeranong-to-provide-a-symbol-of-hope-during-floriade/)

Now, in September, the Tuggeranong Uniting Church is surrounded with colour, as the bulbs burst into flower.

And this church, along with the Yarralumla Uniting Church (pictured below), is on the visiting list for Floriade Reimagined.

And Tuggeranong Uniting Church, under the enthusiastic and energetic leadership of Elizabeth, along with a fine team of dedicated volunteers, has partnered with SEE-Change to have a modified, downscale (but still very much appreciated) SouthFest happening, in the grounds at Erindale. The sustainability focus of 2019 was kept and expanded in SpringFest 2020.

SEE-Change, a local sustainability group, ran a series of workshops, in the community garden and the community hall, on topics relating to sustainability: composting, worm farms, bee keeping, and reducing plastic.

Meanwhile, in and around the church auditorium, the Red Dove Pre-Loved Op Shop was selling second hand clothes, the church was offering Devonshire teas and BBQ sandwiches, the Girls Brigade were selling delicious cakes, reuseable bags to replace single use plastic bags were on sale, as was a wide range of potted plants, and there was a Beeswax stall and assorted other goods for sale.

Why, the COVID Fairy was even in attendance (ensuring that all COVID Safe precautions were being adhered to). And she brought Senator Katy Gallagher along, to open the proceedings!

Floriade has reimagined itself. SouthFest has reimagined itself. COVID-19 has been the impetus. Tuggeranong Church has reimagined how it can partner with community groups to provide an enjoyable and inviting community event.

Can the church as a whole, similarly, reinvent itself? Can we take the stimulus of the present time to move out into the future with renewed creativity, imagination, and community engagement? Can we demonstrate that we are capable of the spirit of the times—reimagination?

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Pastoral Letter to Canberra Region Presbytery—September 2020

It has been six months since we were propelled into the new world that we are living in at this time. Restrictions on gathering, imposed because of the rapid and worrying spread of the corona virus, meant that we had to cease, with very little notice, all of our in person gatherings.

The time since then can be characterised by two important words. One word is Challenge. It has been a challenging time for many. The challenge of needing to find ways to continue worship, in different ways from what we had long been used to. The challenge of knowing that people continued to be hungry, living below the poverty line, some without a place to shelter each night—and that our usual ways of serving them needed to be drastically changed.

The challenge of not being able to meet in person for a cup of tea and a good chat, and the impact that this has on our own mental health. The challenge of being distant from family, unable to visit them, or have them visit us.

The second word that characterises this time is Innovation. In each of these areas, we have seen great examples of innovation happening, right within our own communities of faith. We have adopted online worship—by ZOOM, by Facebook, by YouTube; we have set up personal sanctuaries in our homes, and made use of worship resources prepared and delivered directly to us, whether by email or by post or by hand.

We have seen innovation in the ways that take-away meals have been prepared and distributed to those who are hungry, and how we have found the telephone and the internet to be wonderful tools to ensure that we remain in contact with all of our friends and family members.

The ways we have met the challenges and created innovative responses is clearly seen in the series of videos with people in our Presbytery that have been made for our two online Presbytery meetings this year.

The videos of the interviews can be seen at

Judy Grasby @ https://vimeo.com/418299030/4174c41797

Daniel Mossfield 1 @ https://vimeo.com/418299127/42c6d88bdf

Gary Holdsworth @ https://vimeo.com/418299249/6246c5d2f4

Daniel Mossfield 2 @ https://vimeo.com/447367026/9a2ffbdf9a

Duncan McDiarmid and Kaye Anderson @ https://vimeo.com/447648198/e40c32e225

Darren Wright @ https://vimeo.com/446697971/ba50b74460

Elizabeth Raine, Sue Wald, Dorothea Wojnar and Bill Lang @ https://vimeo.com/447030335/9f50ad75cd

Our sense, as Presbytery leaders, is that the health of our churches is strong; the commitment of our people is deep; the expertise of our ministry leadership—lay and ordained alike—is growing; and the possibilities for the future remain hopeful. Hard work, prayerful reflection, compassionate concern, and openness to exploration are the hallmarks of our Congregations.

Our Synod leadership switched into a strongly collaborative mode from the very start of this period. Weekly meetings with leaders from Presbyteries right around the Synod, and regular guidance notes which provided links to key government and health resources, were immensely helpful in the early months. The ongoing collaboration of our leadership has been of benefit to every Presbytery and every Congregation.

We have been able to maintain a community of learning amongst those who had started the Mission Shaped Ministry course last year, and a good cohort of people has just completed that course. We are encouraged, also, to see the establishment of a Community of Practice amongst people from the Inner North Congregations, and we pray that this group will share hopes, see visions, and implement plans, for a renewed witness on the inner north area of Canberra.

Of course, we are acutely aware that pandemic struck so soon after so many communities were just beginning the slow and painful task of regathering their lives after the devastation of the bushfires. People were looking to rebuild their lives and, in some cases, their homes; the pandemic struck deep into this enterprise. The pain and despair of many communities is something that we have been working together to address. It has been made more complicated by the pandemic. But it is very heartening to see how organisations, congregations, fellowship groups, and individuals have all pitched in to assist.

So, we rejoice in these signs of robust life across our Presbytery. We hope that you share our sense of confidence in what lies ahead, because of the evidence of how we have responded over the past six months.

We encourage you to pray with us for people caught in painful traumatic memories; for people offering assistance and support to those who have been impacted by fires; for communities where the road to recovery is long and slow.

Pray too for those for whom the past months have brought new experiences of feeling isolated and lonely, depressed and discouraged or brought loss and grief. Pray that the healing power of the Spirit may renew and refresh all those who are suffering in some way and reassure them that they are the beloved children of God.

We encourage you to maintain hope, to continue offering compassionate care to the people of your faith community and to your local community. We challenge you to seek new ways of sharing the Gospel, seeking to offer fresh expressions of faith to those in the places where we each live and work.

We are grateful for all the signs of faithfulness and hope in our midst, and we look forward with confidence to discovering who God is calling us to be, and what the Spirit is leading us to do, in the days ahead.

Judy McKinlay and Ross Kingham, Presbytery Co-Chairpersons

Jared Mitchell, Presbytery Deputy Chairperson

Andrew Smith and John Squires, Presbytery Ministers

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Banning “conversion therapy” and the essence of the Gospel

Last week the Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory debated, and passed, legislation which will ban the practice of “conversion therapy” within the territory. The legislation was introduced as the Sexuality and Gender Identity Conversion Practices Bill (2020). See https://www.legislation.act.gov.au/View/es/db_62959/20200813-74809/PDF/db_62959.PDF

The aim of the legislation was very simple: “to recognise and prevent the harm caused by sexuality and gender identity conversion practice.” The Bill was introduced on 13 August 2020, following two years of consultation with conversion practice survivors, schools, faith leaders and members of the community. Both before and after its introduction, the Government has engaged closely with these groups in order to clarify the Bill’s intent.

There can be no doubt that questioning one’s own gender identity is a very challenging matter; more so, in the case of younger people. Supportive counselling and the encouragement to explore with honesty in such a situation is imperative; pressure to change, to conform to an alleged “norm”, can be incredibly unhelpful and even damaging for people in such a situation.

The Bill was introduced by the Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, and supported by the leader of the Greens, Shane Rattenbury. The leader of the Liberals, Alistair Coe, spoke in support of the Bill in principle, but then raised questions about how “conversion therapy” was defined, citing in particular the possibility that a parent might be charged with a breach of the law simply by counselling their child about their sexual identity.

That the Bill did not imperil any parent undertaking such a counselling role in a supportive manner, was clearly explained in the FAQ material supplied by the ACT Government, to explain this law. See https://www.justice.act.gov.au/faq-recent-changes-make-act-more-inclusive-place-everyone

Prior to the debate in the Assembly, a group of 16 Uniting Church Ministers and Chaplains who are serving within the ACT decided that we would write to all 25 members of the Assembly, expressing our support for the Bill. I was pleased to be a part of this important action, bearing witness in a public way to an important element of our faith.

In supporting this legislation, we drew on our pastoral experiences of working with people who identify in ways other than “straight”, or opposite-sex attracted. Indeed, we wrote knowing that there are people within so many of our Congregations who identify with each of the letters in the LGBTIQ+ rainbow (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and more).

You can read the full text of the letter at https://johntsquires.com/2020/08/24/sexuality-and-gender-identity-conversion-practices-bill-a-christian-perspective/

The primary intent of the letter was to underline the ongoing commitment of the Uniting Church, to accept, value, and honour people who identify as same-gender attracted. Supporting a Bill that would outlaw “conversion therapy” is one way of making clear this fundamental commitment.

On Church Councils, in Congregational study groups, in local outreach activities, and amongst our ordained ministers, there are such “rainbow people”—each of them faithful disciples, committed participants in the church, willing followers of Jesus in all of their lives.

Our letter to the ACT MLAs was an expression of the joy that we have, in serving together, alongside people of a wide diversity of gender identities, expressing a wide array of sexual attractions. There is absolutely no need to persuade (or worse, force) such people to change in their own identity, or in their sexual preferences.

In this letter, we drew on theological work that the Rev. Elizabeth Raine had written, as she had reflected on the wonderful diversity of human beings, which is evident in many ways, not least in expressions of sexuality and gender identity.

“All creatures are ‘nephesh’, or sentient beings”, Elizabeth wrote. “We have a soul, a state of being, a life that is fully formed and given by God. All human beings are created with the spirit of God within us (Gen 1:20, 21, 24, 30, 2:7; Job 12:7-10). There are no exceptions to this in biblical understanding. All human beings exist within this understanding. Our human identity is grounded in the creative work of God’s spirit. Who we are is how God has made us to be—each human being is made in God’s image (Gen 1:27; Sir 17:3).”

This has been an important stance for Uniting Church leaders to take during the past ten days, especially since some fundamentalist lobby-group agitators who (mis)use the term “Christian” have been arguing that this legislation was fundamentally flawed, that people of faith had a right to persuade (or force) people to change their sexual orientation, and that all of this was consistent with “biblical Christianity”.

For some decades now, in the Uniting Church, we have allowed the possibility that people who are attracted to people of the same gender are not only welcome and valued in our churches, but can exercise leadership in ministry, can be ordained, and most recently, can be married in accordance with the rites of the Uniting Church. See https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/20/seven-affirmations/ and https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/31/a-diversity-of-religious-beliefs-and-ethical-understandings/

I believe that we can be proud that we have had leadership over many years, which has advocated for, offered support to, and worked constructively with, LGBTIQ+ people. Opposite-gender attracted people like myself have, over the years, moved from understanding such people, to welcoming them, accepting them, and valuing them, within our communities of faith, and within the wider society.

With this latest matter we are showing a firm commitment to protecting the vulnerable, advocating for them and working proactively alongside them, and declaring our clear acceptance of the wonderful diversity of humanity. This is the very heart of Christian community. This is the essence of the Gospel.

Featured

Sexuality and Gender Identity Conversion Practices Bill: A Christian Perspective

The ACT Legislative Assembly is this week considering some legislation which seeks to ban “conversion therapy”. There has been recent publicity that more conservative Christians are lobbying ACT MLAs about this legislation.

I have canvassed the opinion of Ministers in placement in the ACT, along with Chaplains, and have drafted a letter which today has been sent to all 25 MLAs, with the 16 signatories that you can see below. The ACT Legislative Assembly is to consider the Bill this Thursday.

To: Mr Andrew Barr MLA

From: Ministers of the Uniting Churches in the ACT

Re: Sexuality and Gender Identity Conversion Practices Bill

24 August 2020

Dear Mr Barr,

We write to indicate our support for the legislation which has recently been introduced into the Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory, to make illegal any activities which seek to change the sexual orientation of an individual (so-called “conversion therapy” or “reparative therapy”.

The Act seeks “(a) to affirm that (i) all people have characteristics of sexuality and gender identity; and (ii) no combination of those characteristics constitutes a disorder, disease, illness, deficiency, disability or shortcoming; and (b) to recognise and prevent the harm caused by sexuality and gender identity conversion practice.”

As Christians, we support this legislation. Not all of our fellow Christians hold this position. However, we are very clear about our commitment to support this piece of legislation.

The Bible speaks of all living creatures being given life by God’s spirit (Gen 1:1-2, 29-30; Ps 104:24-30). Our identity is shaped by God in that process of giving life, of bringing to birth the identity of a new human being.

Furthermore, all creatures are “nephesh”, or sentient beings—we have a soul, a state of being, a life that is fully formed and given by God. All human beings are created with the spirit of God within us (Gen 1:20, 21, 24, 30, 2:7; Job 12:7-10). There are no exceptions to this in biblical understanding.

All human beings exist within this understanding. Our human identity is grounded in the creative work of God’s spirit. Who we are is how God has made us to be—each human being is made in God’s image (Gen 1:27; Sir 17:3).

As further research has been done in recent decades, it has become increasingly clear that gender identity, and sexual orientation, as key elements of human identity, each exist on a spectrum. Neither is confined to a binary state. Humanity is not comprised, simply of heterosexual males and heterosexual females.

There are differences and variety within both gender identity (males, females, transgender, intersex, and third-gender such as fa’afafine) and sexual orientation (same-sex attracted, opposite-sex attracted, bisexual, and asexual). Both of these characteristics exist across spectrums rather than existing in oppositional binary states. And this is the way that God has created human beings.

For this reason, we believe that it is important not to invalidate, undermine, or challenge the identity of any individual. It is vital that, in accepting people as they are, we accept their sexual orientation, and their gender identity, without qualification.

“Conversion therapy” provides a direct challenge to such acceptance. It seeks to intervene and “change” the way that an individual identifies. Because we believe that who we are is a gift from God, we therefore believe that we are called to accept the identity of each individual, as they perceive and understand themselves.

In 2018, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) declared that it “unequivocally condemns conversion therapy, as does the World Medical Association.” (See https://ama.com.au/media/transcript-dr-bartone-conversion-therapy-pacific-islands-forum-and-asylum-seeker-health-phi)

“Conversion therapy is harmful to both the individuals who are subjected to it, and society more broadly, as it perpetuates the erroneous belief that homosexuality is a disorder which requires a cure”, their President, Dr. Tony Bartone said.

The AMA joined a number of other international bodies who have previously expressed this view. The United Nations Committee Against Torture raised concerns about the practice of conversion therapy in 2014 and Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, has reiterated those concerns in July 2020. (See https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26051&LangID=E)

The American Medical Association, The American Psychiatric Association, The American Psychological Association, The American Psychoanalytic Association, The American Academy of Paediatrics, and The National Association of Social Workers (USA) have all said that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and that sexual orientation cannot be changed.

A comprehensive report by researchers at LaTrobe University and the Human Rights Law Centre, Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice: Responding to LGBT Conversion Therapy in Australia (2018), recommended that the State Government “introduce legislation to specifically prohibit conversion activities.”

https://johntsquires.files.wordpress.com/2020/08/5ed93-lgbtconversiontherapyinaustraliav2.pdf

Other Christian leaders share the views which we hold. In the UK, during a 2017 debate on conversion therapy, Bishops in the Church of England spoke out against the practice. The Rt Rev. John Sentamu, the archbishop of York, said conversion therapy was “theologically unsound, so the sooner the practice of [it] is banned, I can sleep at night”. The Rt Rev. Paul Bayes, the bishop of Liverpool, said LGBT orientation was neither a crime nor a sin. “We don’t need to engage people in healing therapy if they are not sick.” The Synod adopted the proposal to seek to have “conversion therapy” banned.

See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/08/church-of-england-demands-ban-on-conversion-therapy and https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-11/gs-2070a-conversion-therapy.pdf

The Uniting Church in Australia has had a longterm commitment to supporting and valuing LGBTIQ people in our churches and in society, and we see our support for this legislation to be a logical extension of this commitment.

See https://revdocgeek.com/2018/07/16/reflection-my-chains-fell-off-my-heart-was-free/ and https://assembly.uca.org.au/images/marriage/SexualityandLeadership_DocumentingtheHistory.pdf and also https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/31/a-diversity-of-religious-beliefs-and-ethical-understandings/

We note that the explanatory statement for the legislation observes that “conversion practices cause harm. Evidence from survivors of conversion practices in the ACT and Australia reveal the extent and long-term impact of this harm”, and lists “depression, suicidality, anxiety, decreased sexual function, poor self-esteem, social isolation, and decreased capacity for intimacy” among the impacts. We do not wish to see any activity that produces such results encouraged.

We urge you to support this legislation when it is considered by the ACT Legislative Assembly.

Signed by Ministers of the Uniting Churches in the ACT:

Rev. Dr Ross Kingham, Co-Chairperson, Canberra Region Presbytery

Rev. Dr John Squires, Presbytery Minister, Canberra Region Presbytery

Rev. Dr Sarah Agnew, Wesley Forrest Uniting Church

Rev. Dr Paul Chalson, Canberra City Uniting Church

Rev. Dr Nikki Coleman, Senior Chaplain Ethicist, Australian Defence Force

Rev. Karyl Davison, Kippax Uniting Church

Rev. Aimee Kent, Kippax Uniting Church

Rev. Riana Kok, Yarralumla Uniting Church

Rev. Chris Lockley, St James Curtin and St Margaret’s Hackett Uniting Churches

Rev. Andrew Mead, Uniting Church Chaplain, Canberra Hospitals

Rev. Dr Neil Millar, St Ninian’s Uniting Church, Lyneham

Rev. Miriam Parker-Lacey, St Columba’s and Canberra City Uniting Churches

Pastor Heather Potter, Canberra Region Hub Chaplain, Uniting

Rev. Elizabeth Raine, Tuggeranong Uniting Church

Rev. Jangwon Seo, Canberra Korean Uniting Church, Reid

Lay Pastor Darren Wright, Gungahlin Uniting Church

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/13/affirmations-we-can-make-together/ and https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/20/seven-affirmations/

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James Cook: Captain? Discoverer? Invader? Coloniser? Cook, the Endeavour, and Possession Island.

It is 250 years ago, today, since British sailor James Cook “took possession” of the continent we know as Australia—a land that he named New South Wales—on behalf of the reigning monarch of one of the dominant world powers of the day, the British Empire.

We know Cook as “Captain Cook”. Technically, at that time, he was still Lieutenant Cook, although he was indeed captain of the ship HMS Endeavour, in the middle of a government-sponsored expedition in which he circumnavigated the globe.

During this journey, Cook and his crew observed the transit of Venus across the sun in 1769, circumnavigated both islands of New Zealand, and then mapped the eastern coastline of Australia, laying claim to the whole continent at the place he named Possession Island, before heading home via Batavia (now Jakarta) and the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa).

After he had travelled the length of the eastern coastline of Australia, Cook landed on Possession Island, in the area we now call the Torres Strait. It is known as Bedanug or Bedhan Lag by one of the indigenous peoples of the islands, the Kaurareg, whose country includes the lower western Torres Strait islands grouped around Muralag.

(The Ankamuti also lay claim to being indigenous to the island. They were based on the western side of Cape York, but frequented Bedanug, Muralag, and other islands off the coast.)

Today, Possession Island is located at the centre of the Possession Island National Park, an area of 5.10 km2 established as a protected area in 1977 and currently managed by the Queensland Parks and a wildlife Service.

See https://parks.des.qld.gov.au/parks/possession-island/about/culture

There, on Possession Island, just before sunset on Wednesday 22 August 1770, Cook declared the land to be a British possession:

Notwithstand[ing] I had in the Name of His Majesty taken possession of several places upon this coast, I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast . . . by the name New South Wales, together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the said coast, after which we fired three Volleys of small Arms which were Answerd by the like number from the Ship.

A monument in recognition of this event has been erected on the headland above the beach where Cook raised the flag in 1770. It states:

LIEUTENANT JAMES COOK R.N.

ON THE “ENDEAVOUR”

LANDED ON THIS ISLAND

WHICH HE NAMED

POSSESSION ISLAND

AND IN THE NAME OF HIS MAJESTY

 KING GEORGE III

TOOK POSSESSION OF THE WHOLE EASTERN

 COAST OF AUSTRALIA

FROM THE LATITUDE 38° SOUTH TO THIS PLACE

AUGUST 22nd 1770

See https://www.monumentaustralia.org.au/themes/landscape/exploration/display/100194-possession-island-

*****

Cook and the HMS Endeavour play a dominant role in our Australian historical awareness. The (misleading and inaccurate) claim that Cook “discovered Australia” is made even in our own times—when we should know better. Western scientific and historical knowledge now correlates strongly with Indigenous narratives that indicate that the land had long been inhabited and cared for, by the peoples we know call Aboriginal.

See https://www.aboriginalart.com.au/aboriginal_australia.html and http://www.workingwithindigenousaustralians.info/content/History_2_60,000_years.html

Our history did not start with Cook, however. Indeed, if we read the observations made by Cook in his journal as he sailed his ship alongside the eastern coast of New South Wales, we find that he was observing, not only the unfamiliar flora and fauna of the continent—but also the indigenous people of the land.

See my blogs on the time that Cook sailed along the eastern seaboard of Australia, at

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/23/they-appeard-to-be-of-a-very-dark-or-black-colour-cook-hms-endeavour-and-the-yuin-people-and-country/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/29/three-canoes-lay-upon-the-beach-the-worst-i-think-i-ever-saw-james-cook-at-botany-bay-29-april-1770/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/17/we-weighd-and-run-into-the-harbour-cook-the-endeavour-and-the-guugu-yimithirr/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/19/james-cook-the-endeavour-and-the-guugu-yimithirr-3/

So all along his journey beside the eastern coastline, Cook had recorded signs that the land was inhabited, and he even reported that he had met a number of the Aboriginal inhabitants. In his journal, on Saturday 21st April (at the southernmost point of this leg of his journey), Cook wrote:

Winds Southerly a gentle breeze and clear weather with which we coasted along shore to the northward. In the PM we saw the smook of fire in several places a certain sign that the Country is inhabited.

But he still pressed ahead with his report that he had claimed all the lands for the British Crown. This, despite the fact that he knew there were inhabitants in the land.

*****

Cook, of course, was acting in accord with his royal orders. And those orders had been promulgated under the Doctrine of Discovery, a long-standing understanding amongst European trading nations, that they had every right—indeed, a divine right—to explore, invade, colonise, and convert the “natives” of distant lands.

On the Doctrine of Discovery, see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/how-was-aboriginal-land-ownership-lost-to-invaders and my reflections at https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

So Cook planted the British flag on the continent of Australia. This action demonstrated how the imperial colonising power operated: the land, and the people, were to be subsumed under imperial rule, simply because the imperial power wished that to be so. The people already living in those places were simply to bend in obedience to this greater power. And, as we know, if they resisted, although there might be some initial attempts to live together peaceably, ultimately they would be met with force, violence, and murder.

What became a cause of enduring conflict over many decades was the subsequent activity of settling on the land, erecting fences, planting crops, farming animals, protecting the property and claiming exclusive rights to the crops and animals now installed on the land.

To those who had formerly lived on this land, this was theft from their land. To those who had established a “civilised” lifestyle on the land, the former inhabitants were irritants to be kept at bay, and eventually enemies to be removed.

Thus murder was normalised in the years of settlement. And the original inhabitants experienced this as aggressive invasion and enforced colonisation.

See https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/18/endeavour-by-every-possible-means-to-conciliate-their-affections/

*****

On this day, as we remember the actions and words of Cook, on behalf of the British monarch, we need to make a commitment to tell the truth, on behalf of the indigenous peoples, whose land was invaded, whose lifestyle was disrupted, whose peoples were massacred, whose families were torn apart, over the decades and indeed centuries that followed.

We need to tell the truth on behalf of these First Peoples, who have cared for this land for millennia, who have nurtured community, strengthened family, traded and visited amongst the 270 language and culture groups which existed prior to Cook and the subsequent British invasion.

http://www.shareourpride.org.au/sections/our-culture/index.html

The church in which I serve, the Uniting Church, is committed to telling truth. This truth is confronting and challenging. In the revised Preamble which was adopted a decade ago by the Uniting Church, we sought to tell the truth.

Drawing 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. We must continue to prioritise this commitment to tell the truth.

See https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/

Likewise, at the 14th Assembly, meeting in Perth in 2015, we decided to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, that medieval theological foundation upon which the worldwide invasion and colonisation of lands was based—including the invasion and colonisation of Terra Australis. This has been part of our commitment to tell the truth.

See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

As a result of this, the Uniting Church is committed to talking treaty. We are supportive of the formalisation of treaties with the various nations of Peoples who have inhabited, nurtured and cared for this land since time immemorial. This commitment is based on a recognition of the Sovereignty of each of those nations, sovereignty over the land that the people have inhabited, nurtured, and cared for over those many millennia.

See https://www.insights.uca.org.au/hear-the-statement-from-the-heart/

Sovereignty, as articulated in the Statement from the Heart of 2017, is understood by the First Peoples as a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and the First Peoples

See https://ulurustatement.org/

Also https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/ and https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/

And we need to listen to the voice of the indigenous peoples, in this a statement, and in other ways.

For an indigenous perspective on Cook, see https://www.nla.gov.au/digital-classroom/senior/Cook/Indigenous-Response/Maynard

There are fine resources on the website of the National Museum of a Australia relating to Bedanug (Possession Island) at https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/endeavour-voyage/bedanug-thunadha-bedhan-lag-tuidin-possession-island

As we remember Possession Island, 1770, may this be the legacy of Cook, 250 years on: that we remember his observation that the Country is inhabited, that we value those people who had long inhabited this land and held sovereignty of the land, who continue to live in our midst today, and that we tell the full history of this country.

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A rock, some keys, and a binding: clues to the identity of Jesus (Matt 16)

This year, the Revised Common Lectionary is offering us passages each Sunday from the book of origins, the Gospel that we attribute to Matthew. It is a Gospel with some distinctive and interesting elements.

It is only in this Gospel that Jesus commands Peter to offer forgiveness “seventy times seven” (18:22; the parallel version in Luke speaks only of seven times). The special name given to Jesus, “Emmanuel” (God with us), is reported only in Matt 1:23, while the assurance of Jesus’ abiding presence with believers (18:20) and his offer of “rest for your souls” (11:29) are sayings reported only in this Gospel. One of the most often-quoted verses in this Gospel comes right at the end of the gospel, in a text where the supreme missionary charter is set out: “go…and make disciples of all nations” (28:19).

Another distinctive in this book is the text which we find in this coming Sunday’s passage, which has been used to validate the Roman episcopacy as first among equals: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (16:18). How intriguing that the same Gospel has been used as the fundamental warrant for the way in which the Church has been structured by Roman Catholics and evangelical missionaries!

The book of origins is unique, amongst the canonical gospels, in indicating the authority which was to be given to Peter, the first leader of this community (16:17–19). Three of the terms used here come from the heritage of Hebrew Scripture. They also function within the contemporary context as sectarian markers, setting apart as distinctive the community in which they author is located—the community for whom the Gospel was written.

First, only in this gospel does Jesus declare to Peter, “on this rock I will build my church” (16:18). The phrase evokes the rock which provides the “sure foundation” (Isa 28:16-17). This language is used by the Dead Sea

sectarians to make similar claims about their fidelity to the Law. Peter (a name meaning ‘rock’) becomes the foundation of the church, put in place by Jesus, who has the authority to make this declaration.

Second, the imagery of the “keys” which Jesus gives to Peter (Matt 16:19) also makes claims about his authority. We find this image in Jewish texts which are dated after 70 CE (2 Baruch 10:18; 3 Baruch 11:1–2; 4 Baruch 4:4); here, the loss of the keys represent the failure of various Jewish priests to perform their duties correctly and faithfully, and thus protect the temple.

With the loss of the keys (which in the texts of 2 and 4 Baruch are thrown up towards heaven, to be taken back by God), comes the loss of authority as leaders of the people. Matthew claims the keys (and presumably the authority to interpret the will of God) for his own community (16:19). Jesus, holder of the keys, hands them over to Peter. The scriptural text which underlies this is Isaiah 22:20–22, which speaks of “the key to the house of David” being given to someone worthy of possessing authority over Jerusalem.

A third set of terms describes the authority that Jesus gives to Peter as an authority to “bind and loose” (16:19; it is subsequently granted to the whole community, 18:18). The Greek terms used by Matthew are equivalent to the terms used by Josephus to denote the authority granted the Pharisees under Salome Alexandra (Jewish War 1.110–111). Once again, Jesus holds this authority, and passes it on to Peter.

These terms are thus considered to be equivalent to the Hebrew terms for “forbid and permit” which are to be found in rabbinic writings, as a way for the rabbis to of claim their authority in leadership. The terms “binding and loosing” clearly referred to the political and legal powers of those in authority.

By reporting that Jesus gives these powers to Peter, and then to the whole community, Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is a rival to the authority of the Pharisees, and that the teachers in Matthew’s community possess the authority to challenge the teachings offered in the synagogues.

*****

The Matthean Jesus uses a number of symbols and terms that were used by the Pharisees and other Jewish groups. Matthew includes them to strengthen his claims about Jesus and to enhance the authority of his community. They are used to demonstrate the validity of the way that the people of this community, followers of The Way, disciples of the Messiah, Jesus, adherents to the details of the Law, over against the teaching about the Law provided by the Pharisees and other teachers of the time.

The Pharisees were scribes who specialised in the interpretation of Torah and in the application of Torah to ensure that holiness was observed in daily living. In contrast to the priestly Sadducees, the Pharisees were very popular amongst the ordinary Jewish folk. This may well have been because they undertook the highly significant task of showing how the Torah was relevant to the daily life of Jewish people.

The story of Ezra, told in Nehemiah 8, gives an example of this in practice, referring especially those who “helped the people to understand the law” (Neh 8:7). Whilst the priests upheld the Torah as the ultimate set of rules for operating the Temple, the Pharisees showed how the Torah could be applied to every aspect of daily life as a Jew.

Most Jews went to the Temple only rarely—and found it to be an expensive enterprise when they got there! But in seeking guidance for daily life, the people were greatly helped by those skilled interpreters of Torah, the scribes and the Pharisees. Josephus comments that the Pharisees were usually held in high regard by the ordinary people of the day.

Since nine out of every ten persons could not read, the importance of scribes —literate, educated, and sympathetic—could not be underestimated. Whilst the Pharisees clustered around towns in Judea, the scribes were to be found in the synagogues of villages throughout greater Israel, and indeed in any place where Jews were settled.

The task of the Pharisees was to educate the people as to the ways of holiness that were commanded in the Torah. It was possible, they argued, to live as God’s holy people at every point of one’s life, quite apart from any pilgrimages made to the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Pharisees thus held sway in the synagogues, in all the places where dispersed Jews were living. Their interpretations were highly regarded amongst the people. But they stand as the chief sparring partners for Jesus, reflecting the competing claims for authoritative teaching about the Law.

As Matthew writes his Gospel, he intensifies the way that Jesus stands in competition with the Pharisees, and draws on a range of scriptural terms and ideas to underscore the “richness” of the teachings of Jesus.

*****

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/14/let-anyone-with-ears-hear-matt-13/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/09/parables-the-craft-of-storytelling-in-the-book-of-origins-matt-13/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/03/come-to-me-take-my-yoke-i-will-give-you-rest-matt-11/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/11/go-nowhere-among-the-gentiles-matt-105-the-mission-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/23/repentance-for-the-kingdom-matt-4/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/27/reading-matthews-gospel-alongside-the-ahebrew-scriptures-exploring-matthew-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

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God has not rejected his people. All Israel will be saved. (Rom 11)

Has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Rom 11:1-2a, 29)

This coming Sunday, we read two short sections of chapter 11, from Paul’s longest, and most influential letter: the letter he addressed to “all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints” (Rom 1:7). This section of the letter is hugely important.

It hasn’t always been seen in this light. An earlier line of interpretation highlighted Paul’s words about “the righteousness of God” in Rom 3:21-26, or other affirmations in later chapters, as the key to understanding the argument of the letter as a whole.

Such interpreters usually saw the wonderful doxological exclamation of Romans 8:31-39 as the climactic moment of the letter (“[nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”). And some interpreters explicitly asserted that what followed after chapter 8 was really in the manner of an appendix, and not part of the main argument.

Today, however, many interpreters would agree that it is this part of the letter, chapters 9–11, which really provide the grand climax to the argument that has been advanced and developed since the first quotation from scripture, at 1:17, where Paul cites the prophet Malachi in support of his argument concerning “the righteous-justice of God”.

In this view, the climax of Paul’s argument to the community of messianic believers in Rome, comes not in the assertion that, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1); nor in the claim that “now you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification” (6:22).

The climax does not come in the exultation that “there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1); nor in the doxological outburst that “[nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39).

In fact, none of these—nor any of the many other theologically-rich, doctrinally-foundation phrases found in Romans 5-8, bring to a close the argument which Paul mounts from 1:16 onwards.

The true climax to the argument is in Romans 9-11, summarised in the following choice quotations, which have featured in the lectionary selections in recent weeks: “it is not as though the word of God has failed” (9:6) … “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all” (10:12) …“the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29).

The point of the letter is articulated in the sharp question that Paul poses: “has God rejected his people?” (11:1), which he immediately answers: “God has not rejected his people” (11:2). All of the argument in this section of the letter (chs. 9-11) and, indeed, of the whole letter to this point (from 1:17 onwards), can be summed up in one succinct phrase: “[and] so all Israel will be saved” (11:26).

*****

So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” (Rom 11:25-27).

“All Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26). Paul is insistent on this claim. The people of Israel, the Jews, have a valued place within the kingdom of God. They are vitally important in the scheme of things, to God. Faith in Jesus does not mean abandoning the sense that the people of Israel are loved, chosen, and saved, by God. “All Israel will be saved”

This claim plays an important role in how we approach and interpret the letter to the Romans. All the component parts needs to be seen in the light of this overarching framework. Paul was writing to a community where Gentiles had come to believe that Jesus was chosen of God. They had joined with Jews who had already come to the view that Jesus was, indeed, the very Messiah, anointed one, chosen by God from amongst their people, the people of Israel.

Jews and Gentiles coexisted alongside each other in the house churches that had been established in Rome. (All the early churches were house churches; there were no designated ecclesial buildings, so their gatherings took place in the homes of wealthy people, sympathetic to the ethos of the growing movement.) That, it seems, had been the case for some years before Paul dictates this letter to them.

However, a few years earlier, the Emperor Claudius had commanded the expulsion of Jews in the city of Rome—just one of the countless times throughout their history that the people of Israel were rendered homeless, stateless, sent into exile. It would seem that many Jews left Rome, in or around the year 49 by our reckoning. But five or six years later, as Paul dictated his letter, it would seem that Jews had returned to the city.

A coin from the time of
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
(Emperor 41-54 CE)

And amongst those returning Jews, there were Jews who held firm to the conviction that Jesus was Messiah. These Jewish Messianists joined in the fellowship meals and social gatherings and worship experiences where Gentile believers were also to be found.

These gatherings of the followers of Jesus in Rome reflected the all-inclusive nature of the Gospel. God is God of both Jews and Gentiles, as Paul affirmed. Salvation is available to Jews as well as Gentiles, as he clearly states. Paul knows of this rich diversity; he addresses by name 29 people in Rome (in chapter 16 of his letter to the Romans), and there are both Jewish names and Gentile names included amongst those 29 names. (And a good number of women, alongside the men!)

The church in Rome (or, to be precise, the churches in Rome) exemplified the message that Paul consistently articulates throughout this letter: “all have sinned, yet all are justified by God’s grace as a gift” (3:23-24); “is not God the God of Jews, and the God of Gentiles also?” (3:29); the promise is “not only to the aherents of the law, but also to those who share the faith of Abraham” (4:16); God has called people, “not only from the Jews, but also from the Gentiles” (9:24); “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him” (10:12); “salvation has come to the Gentiles” (11:11); and so, “all Israel will be saved” (11:26), for “God has mercy on all” (11:32).

Paul sounds this consistent theme throughout Romans: God is for all, God has mercy on all, both Jew and Gentile may participate in the full knowledge of God. The church in Rome lives out that message in the daily life of its members. The church in the place where we each are engaged is called, today, to live out that message in the daily lives of all its members.

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2020/08/04/a-deeper-understanding-of-god-through-dialogue-with-the-other-romans-10/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/27/praying-to-be-cursed-paul-the-passionate-partisan-for-the-cause-rom-93/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-best-theology-is-contextual-learning-from-pauls-letter-to-the-romans/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-righteous-justice-of-god-a-gift-to-all-humanity-romans/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

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Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945), and the commitment to seek peace (2020)

Today, on this 75th anniversary, we remember past events … we mourn the lives lost and grieve for the lives damaged and distorted … and we hear the invitation to commit to seeking peace in our own times.

75 years ago, on Monday, August 6, 1945, at 8:15 am, a nuclear weapon which had been given the ironic name “Little Boy” was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The bomb was dropped from an American plane, the Enola Gay.

Three days later, on Thursday August 9, 1945, at 11:01 am, another nuclear weapon was dropped from another American plane, the Bokscar, onto another Japanese city, Nagasaki.

The two bombings killed a number of people, variously estimated between 129,000 and 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians, and impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people for decades. It is estimated that between 90,000 and 146,000 people died in Hiroshima and 39,000 and 80,000 people died in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day.

Despite the high military presence in Hiroshima, fewer than 10% of the casualties were military personnel. In Nagasaki, only 150 Japanese soldiers died on the day of the bombing. Over 90 percent of the doctors and 93 percent of the nurses in Hiroshima were killed or injured—most had been in the downtown area which received the greatest damage.

Many people lived with the traumatic memory of those days, and grieved for relatives and friends who died. Many suffered terrible illness, physical disfigurement, or mental illness, for decades after those bombs were dropped. The personal and social impact was huge. Had this been considered before the bombs were dropped?

The United States was not solely responsible for these bombings. Under the Quebec Agreement, the US had to seek the consent of the United Kingdom for such an action. The Quebec Agreement was a secret agreement between these two nations, setting the terms for the coordinated development of the science and engineering related to nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.

The Quebec Agreement was signed by Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt on 19 August 1943, in Quebec City, Canada. These bombings had been intentionally planned and deliberately prepared for over the course of the two years prior to August 1945.

Hiroshima was a supply and logistics base for the Japanese military. It was a logical target for American aggression, as it was a centre for communications center, a key shipping port, and an assembly area for Japanese troops. It contained manufacturing plants in which were made parts for planes, boats, bombs, rifles, and handguns.

Winston Churchill (right) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (centre) in Quebec
in 1943, hosted by the Canadian prime minister William King (left)

Nagasaki was one of the largest seaports in southern Japan, and was of great wartime importance because of its wide-ranging industrial activity. It had manufacturing plants which produced ships, military equipment, weapons, ammunition, and other war materials. The four largest companies in the city employed 90% of the workforce: Mitsubishi Shipyards, Electrical Shipyards, the Arms Plant, and the Steel and Arms Works.

The strategic logic in targeting these two cities is clear. The city of Kokura had been the primary target for the 9 August bombing, but clouds and smoke drifting in from the Allied bombing of nearby Yahata, resulting in much of the city Kokura being covered, obscuring the aiming point.

The bombings had the desired strategic effect within the war that was being waged; on 15 August Japan surrendered to the Allies, and on 2 September the Japanese government signed the formal instrument of surrender.

Was the terrible cost from these two bombings worth it? In terms of military strategy, undoubtedly so. In terms of the overall picture across the world, torn asunder by a vicious war, it may well be possible to see the benefits of ending the conflict, even in such a dramatic way.

But the personal and social impacts of these two bombings set up severe consequences for hundreds of thousands people over the ensuing decades. The social fabric of Japan was shredded. The military hubris of the Allied powers was nourished and encouraged.

And the political consequences of these two bombs was that nations continued to distrust each, and to relate to each other in antagonistic ways, fostering secrecy, promoting public dissembling and posturing, generating a game of threats and power plays across the ensuing decades. The US threatened many times to make use of the superior nuclear firepower that they claimed—although, thank goodness, they did not ever act on that. But the public threats and bluffs continued apace for years.

Perhaps the one enduring benefit form these tragic events was that the nations of the world, despite this public braggadocio, did become very cautious about how nuclear power was used. No similar nuclear bombing or other large scale nuclear weapon has been used in warfare since then, probably because the devastating impact of these bombs was registered around the world, and a firm commitment was made to avoid such large scale and widespread devastation.

What lessons can we take, 75 years later, from these events? We can seek ways to interrupt the course of injustice, without adopting the means of injustice that is being experienced. We can seek to combat evil without adopting the patterns of evil. We can nurture a response that is neither fight not flight, but rather, seeking reconciliation and justice in all we do.

As we do this, we follow the way of Jesus, the prophet of old who speaks words for the present, blessing those who live out the qualities that he most valued:

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn.

Blessed are those who are hungering for righteousness.

Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. (Matt 5:3-12)

And as we follow this way, we seek to live as his followers proclaimed, pursuing what makes for peace (Rom 14:19; Heb 12:14; and see Gal 5:22; Eph 6:15; 1 Pet 3:11).

My colleague Chris Walker writes: ‘Let us then be peacemakers following the way of Jesus. Jesus himself rejected the way of the sword. At his arrest he told his disciples to put away their swords. He followed the way of suffering love and did not resort to violence. Even on the cross he cried out, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).’ (See https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/22/being-peacemakers/)

War causes such pain, such turmoil, such hurt, such dislocation. It has ongoing and enduring consequences. It might solve an immediate problem, but it inevitably sets up longer term dilemmas, difficulties, and discords. War can never bring deep, enduring peace.

To be sure, going to war is seen by many as a legitimate way to resolve disputes and solve arguments, on a large scale. There have even been, through the ages, sophisticated arguments mounted to justify warfare. Fighting evil is seen as essential. War is reckoned as the way to do this.

But war has many consequences. It damages individuals, communities, societies, and nations. It has many more innocent victims than the casualty lists of enrolled personnel indicate. And there is abundant evidence that one war might resolve one issue, but often will cause other complications which will lead to another war. Look at the outcome of the Armistice at the end of World War One: we can trace a direct sequence of events that led from World War One to World War Two.

Sometimes, pitched battle warfare seems to be the only possible way forward. Yet, overall, a commitment to peace is surely what we need to foster. An aversion to war is what we need to develop. A culture of respectful disagreement and honest negotiation, rather than pitched rhetoric and savage violence, is surely what we ought to aspire towards.

Can that be the commitment that we make, today, as we remember the tragedies of 75 years ago?

For this anniversary, the Uniting Church has joined with many other religious organisations, calling for a full nuclear weapons ban—for Australia to sign and ratify the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. See https://icanw.org.au/united-religious-call-for-australia-to-join-nuclear-ban/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/11/blessed-are-the-peacemakers/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/09/pondering-peace-worrying-about-war/

https://unitingforpeacewa.org/2018/11/28/perth-peacemaking-conference-statement/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/22/being-peacemakers/

On Peacemaking and the Uniting Church, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/blogs/item/download/508_0a66ead117d444388aac26cb064ff14c

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A deeper understanding of God, through dialogue with “the other” (Romans 10)

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. (Romans 10:12)

These words are found in the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans that is offered by the Revised Common Lectionary, for reading in worship this coming Sunday. They were written long ago, in a different language, to people of a different culture, in a location quite different from where you and I are currently located. How do they speak to us today?

Readers and listeners in the contemporary world have often assumed that in writing chapters 9-11 of Romans, Paul is addressing the issue of Israel and the Church. Jews and Christians. Those of the circumcision, raised on the Law;  and those of the uncircumcision, unaware of the Law.

We assume that this dynamic, familiar to us from the times in which we live, was precisely the dynamic that motivated Paul as he wrote to the Romans, as he instructed them in his beliefs, as he interpreted to them the scriptural proofs, and as he exhorted them in the way to live in response to these beliefs.

But was it? Paul writes in the early days of the church; when charisma, not institution, predominates. He writes when tensions and struggles within the early missionary movement still mitigate against a commonly-held, universally-accepted, consensus of opinion.

Paul writes as the matter of what to do about Gentile believers is still largely unresolved. Some said accept them; others wanted to circumcise them, to judaise them. He writes this letter into that unresolved debate. He writes when some—his opponents, we call them—became vigorous—perhaps violent?—in asserting their viewpoint.

Paul writes well before Gentiles have outnumbered Jews within the growing movement of Jesus’ followers; before the Temple is destroyed; before the city of Jerusalem is declared a Gentile preserve only; before John Chrysostom explodes with vituperative venom against Christians in synagogues; before the Emperor Constantine endorses a thoroughly hellenised, philosophically mature version of faith in God through Jesus Christ. So many changes; so many new layers of meaning from church developments, laid over the earlier texted Paul.

Is this text, then, beyond our reach? Is it impossible to grasp it, to seize it as our own? Is it too alien, too far removed from us? Can it ever be for us the word of God to guide and instruct us? Or despite these difficulties, can we not enter into the dynamic, attempt to reconstruct the reality, and thus appreciate the dynamic of Paul’s ancient words, as they speak to us today?

*******

The issue, I believe, which vexed Paul in these chapters, was that different people made claim that they could access God in strikingly different ways. The Jews had Torah; the commandments of the Law, handed down by Yahweh to Moses on Sinai. The Gentiles had the natural world; the revelation of the deity in creation. The followers of Jesus had a new model of faith; the faithfulness of the Messiah, no less, as the crucial instance of how all human beings might relate to God.

Paul agonises with what this might mean for his understanding of faith. He grew up on the Jewish understanding that access to God was through adherence to Torah, the living of a life in complete harmony with requirements of God’s Law.

Then came a dramatic, unexpected experience. He entered into a new way of relating to God. His “Damascus road experience”, as Luke vividly portrays it, opened up this new vista. To tradition, is added experience. The experience helps Paul to reinterpret his tradition; to shape a new understanding of faith.

But then, a third factor intrudes; Paul is called, and sent, to Gentiles. He preaches the Gospel, and people respond. He establishes new communities of faith—some, provocatively, right next door to synagogues; others, comprising Gentiles who meet in homes. These people, he nurtures. They have access to God; the same God Paul has known as faithful Jew, and as convinced Christian convert. The Gentiles can come to God, without the Law, in a different way from Jews.

Does this mean that the old way is now obsolete? Paul cannot stomach the thought. Indeed, he knows, from the events of his own life, that personal experience can reshape, reconfigure the traditional, “old” way, so that it is not rendered irrelevant, but is infused with new vigour and vitality.

That’s how I understand the controversial statement that Paul makes, in the verse just before our lectionary passage—when he declares to the Romans that Christ is “the end of the Law” (Rom 10:4). The word he chose, translated as “end”, has the sense of “end” as completion, perfection, bringing to fruition, reaching to maturity, arriving at the point of complete fulfilment. That, in Paul’s understanding, is how Christ stands in relation to the Law—not in opposition, but as the pinnacle of fulfilment.

So he cannot give up on the challenge that his success amongst the Gentiles has laid before him: God is working in this way!! But nor does he want to give up on the Jews; for they are chosen of God, and God does not abandon his promise, nor does God jettison his beloved people. So, Paul concludes, both “old” and “new” must cohere together. They each have a part in the overall scheme.

*******

The issue that Paul grapples with, is so very close to the issue that confronts us in our place and time. Australia of the 21st century is a multicutural country. In the last 75 years, 10 million people have migrated to Australia from over 150 different countries. Almost half of the Australian population has at least one parent who was born overseas, and almost one quarter of Australian residents were themselves born overseas.

We are undoubtedly multi-cultural, even if we do not yet realise the full implications of this new reality. As well as this, however, we are also multi-faith. Each country and culture represented in Australia now brings with it its own distinctive expression of its faith. So many people, making so many claims about how they know God, how contact God, how they commune with God.

How do we deal with this new reality? When “the heathens” lived in far distant countries, across deep, raging seas, then the way of stereotype and caricature went unchallenged. But now that they are here, the others in our midst, we cannot dismiss them so easily.

Other people have other ideas about God, other connections with the divine, other ways of relating to the deity. Do we dismiss them all, in a blanket fashion, as ignorant, wrongheaded, blighted by evil? Do we attempt to convince them that what they know is but a shadow of what we know? Do we shrug our shoulders, and say “whatever will be, that’s cool”?

My preferred option is one which I find emerging from texts such as Romans 9-11. Instead of staking out the ground to be defended, another option is to acknowledge that there is a greater reality, beyond our present knowing, transcending human capacity to articulate and systematise. Paul grapples with the issue, and concludes that the answer is, simply, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

The unifying factor of God extends beyond the precise doctrines and dogmas of each partisan point of view; the greater reality of God holds in creative tension each of the variant ways of seeking God’s presence. Jew and Greek are united, not by common beliefs, but by the God who shows mercy to each of them alike.

*******

Paul has argued this theme from early in Romans: “all have sinned, yet all are justified by God’s grace as a gift” (3:23-24), “is not God the God of Jews, and the God of Gentiles also?” (3:29), the promise is “not only to the aherents of the law, but also to those who share the faith of Abraham” (4:16), “God has called us, not only from the Jews, but also from the Gentiles” (9:24).

He will go on to push the point in subsequent chapters: “salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make Israel jealous” (11:11), and so, “all Israel will be saved” (11:26); “just as you [Gentiles] have received mercy, so they [the Jews] might receive mercy” (11:30-31); “God has mercy on all” (11:32). Paul’s “God-talk” sounds this consistent theme throughout Romans: God is for all, God has mercy on all, both Jew and Gentile may participate in the full knowledge of God.

Out of the struggle about the particularities of different ways of relating to God, comes the unequivocal assertion that all might be intimately bound with God. The preferred option which Paul adopts is not the rigorous exclusivism of a sectarian antagonist, not the woolly-headed universalism of an unreconstructed liberal, but the engaged and intense dialogue of one who believes both that his won way is right, but that it does not exclude other ways.

Paul offers the pattern of faith in which tradition, experience, and an openness to the insights of the other might come together and shape a new, vibrant understanding of God’s availability to all, of God’s open-armed yearning for each and everyone, of God’s willingness to encompass people of different upbringings, experiences, and creeds, into the one warm embrace.

The Uniting Church has issued a clear statement about relating across religious faiths, under the title of friendship in the presence of difference. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/about/theology and https://assembly.uca.org.au/fipd

*******

To conclude, I offer a reflective meditation. You may wish to use this meditation as a prayer; to join your spirit with the words of the prayer, and lift them to God. Or you may wish to use the meditation as a point of reflection, for yourself, so that you might ponder, without affirming or denying, the sentiments it contains. I invite you, then, you join in meditation; perhaps, in prayer, or perhaps, in reflection.

A Reflection

God has created us all,

and called us together from all the nations of the world,

to be one people—the people of God’s earth.

As Christian people, we regularly offer our prayers

            for one another, as we seek to serve God

            in obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In this time of reflection, we remember now

            people who call on God

            in ways which are different from the ways we know:

those who call on God through self-enlightenment;

those who seek to be raised to a higher plane of consciousness;

those who study the Torah or adhere to the Koran;

those who seek to walk a way revealed to them

by teachers and leaders of faiths other than Christianity.

What would it mean for us

            to cultivate tolerance and acceptance of such people?

If we were to gain a deeper understanding

            of the ways they call on God,

might it not enrich our own way of relating to God?

What would it mean for us

            to enter into dialogue with people of other faiths?

We could not relate to them as proponents of a narrow doctrine;

            we would need to meet as servants of one another,

            together seeking the truth of deep faith.

As we speak with one another, and work side by side,

            may it not be in arrogance or pride,

but in such a way

            that God might break through to us in new ways,

so that we may better know

the greater reality of God in our lives.

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/27/praying-to-be-cursed-paul-the-passionate-partisan-for-the-cause-rom-93/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-best-theology-is-contextual-learning-from-pauls-letter-to-the-romans/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-righteous-justice-of-god-a-gift-to-all-humanity-romans/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

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Praying to be cursed: Paul, the passionate partisan for the cause (Rom 9:3)

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. (Rom 9:3, NRSV translation)

In his longest letter, written to “all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints”, Paul mounts a long and detailed case about God’s righteous-justice, made available to those who believe through the faithfulness of Jesus (see Rom 1:16-17, 3:21-26, 4:22-5:2, 5:18-21, 6:17-18, 8:10, 38-39).

The argument is developed, step by step, through the first eight chapters. This argument of the letter comes to a climax in chapters 9-11, from which excerpts are heard in worship this coming week and the two following weeks. In these chapters, Paul develops a tightly–packed argument concerning the place of Israel, and the Gentiles, within the people of God.

Paul placed a focus on the priestly role, that of intercessor, which he was undertaking, when he declared, concerning Israel, that “my heart’s desire and prayer for them is that they may be saved” (10:1). This prayer summed up the central thrust of his extended, and at times convoluted, argument, throughout these three chapters.

What Paul dictates to Tertius (the scribe who writes down what Paul says—Rom 16:22) in these three chapters comes straight from the heart—a heart that yearns to see the full scope of God’s gracious inclusion of people of faith into the kingdom.

Paul is clear about what this means. He believes that “the word of God has not failed” (9:6) and “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29), so he prays for God to realise the promise that “all Israel will be saved” (11:26, citing psalms and prophetic oracles in support). That’s the universal scope for which he yearns: “all Israel”!

Paul grapples further with this question. Can it be that “God has rejected his people”? (11:1). Paul’s answer is definitive and unequivocal: “By no means!” (11:1).

Is it possible that “they have stumbled so as to fall”? (11:11). Once again, Paul cries out, “By no means!” (11:11), looking to the time of the “full inclusion” of Israel in the eschatological vision (11:12).

Since Israel, the “natural branches” of the olive tree, have been cut off because of their “unbelief” (11:20), their “disobedient and contrary” nature (10:21), are they doomed to remain “cut off” forever? “God has the power to graft them in(these natural branches will be grafted back into their own olive tree” (11:23-24).

And so, the “mystery” which was known to Paul is declared publicly at the climax of his three-chapter argument: “all Israel will be saved” (11:26), “they too may now receive [God’s] mercy” (11:31).

*******

This whole section of Romans is introduced with an astonishingly impassioned petition, I was praying for me, myself, to be separated from the chosen one by means of a curse, for the sake of my own people (9:3). This is my own translation, which differs from the familiar modern English translations at three points.

*** Warning: technical discussion of Greek syntax and translation options ahead ***

First, the phrase “accursed and cut off from Christ” (NRSV, NIV) states more than the Greek text includes; there is no verb “cut off” in the sentence. The NEB offers the concise translation, “outcast from Christ”, which provides three English words for the three corresponding Greek words. However, this ignores the curious order of words in the Greek sentence, which separates anathema, “outcast”, or “accursed”, from the phrase “from Christ”, and places the emphasis squarely on the intervening words, “me, myself, to be”.

Furthermore, the simple preposition apo (from) in the phrase “from Christ” has a force all of its own in this phrase [BAGD 86, meaning I.5, calls this a “pregnant construction”, presumably because there is no verb and the preposition seems to function as both verb and preposition simultaneously, as “separated from”]. Thus, I translate (rather inelegantly) for me, myself, to be separated from Christ by means of a curse.

Second, some modern English translations obscure the reference to prayer in this verse, preferring to use the secondary meaning of the verb euchomai, namely, “wish” (NRSV, NIV, NAB, GNB).

However, the basic sense of the verb is “pray”, and this translation is found in NEB, REB, NJB (cf. JB, “I would willingly be condemned”). This gives the sentence a much more straightforward, direct feel—this is my “prayer”—than the alternative, this is my “wish”—which implies some degree of conditional or hypothetical quality about the content of what is “wished”.

Here, I would argue, Paul was not being tentative, for the context was one of great fervour and passion (“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart”, 9:2). He spoke with a high degree of commitment and directness (“I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit”, 9:1). Paul here expresses, not a hesitant, possible wish, but a clear, unequivocal prayer to God. Paul was clearly praying for God to cast him aside, if his desire for his people to be saved is to be achieved.

Third, the imperfect indicative form of the verb euchomai confirms that this was not a hypothetical statement, but a clear expression of a recurrent activity undertaken by Paul in the past. The verb is not in the subjunctive; there is nothing hypothetical here; this is a clear, direct statement. This is what Paul prays for. Repeatedly. Consistently.

Thus, the plain sense of the verse is that, on many occasions prior to writing this letter, Paul had offered a prayer that he might be “anathema from Christ”, that is, regarded as separated from Christ by means of the cursed placed on him, for the sake of securing the salvation of his own people, Israel.

This is a strikingly partisan act, pleading for a desired result and volunteering his own life as a means to that end. It is a description of Paul that figures rarely, if ever, in scholarly analyses of his missionary work; and yet, like the prophetic and priestly functions which we have seen Paul performing, this partisan dimension is an equally valid element to factor into any consideration of Paul’s role, at least as he might have perceived that role.

That he is prepared to be, not with Christ, but to be cursed by Christ, for the sake of his people, Israel, shows a remarkable commitment to, and alignment with, his fellow Jews. He yearns for them to be saved, to be welcomed in the kingdom. He prays to God for this outcome. Paul writes passionately, as a partisan for the cause.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/20/spirit-and-scripture-in-romans-rom-8/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-best-theology-is-contextual-learning-from-pauls-letter-to-the-romans/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-righteous-justice-of-god-a-gift-to-all-humanity-romans/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

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Sighs too deep for words: Spirit and Scripture in Romans (Rom 8)

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)

In his longest letter, written to “all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints”, Paul places importance in the role played by the Spirit of God. The word spirit appears 32 times in this letter; many of these refer to the Holy Spirit. Some of those instances appear in the epistle section that is set in the lectionary for this coming Sunday, Romans 8:26-39.

This section also contains a quotation from scripture (Psalm 44:22, quoted at Rom 8:36). The whole letter is replete with such scripture quotations—it starts with a programmatic citation about the righteous and faith, from Habakkuk 2:4 (at Rom 1:17), and moves through discussions of the power of sin (3:10-18), the relevance of Abraham (4:7-8), a reflection on the story of Adam (5:12-21), and a consideration of some of the Ten Commandments (7:7).

There is a long and complex discussion of the place of the people of Israel alongside the Gentiles within the plan of God (9:1-11:36, where many scripture quotations are included), further discussion on the place of the Gentiles (15:9-12) and a declaration of the importance of proclaiming the good news (15:20-21). Scripture undergirds the whole of Paul’s argument in Romans.

Paul retains from his Jewish upbringing a sense of the Spirit as a manifestation of divine energy; the Spirit is God’s gift to believers (5:5) and thus the source of life and peace (7:6; 8:2, 5–6). The Spirit, in Hebrew Scripture, breathes over the waters of chaos as God’s primary agent in creation (Gen 1:1-5), gifts the elders appointed by Moses (Num 11:16-25), anoints the prophets (Deut 34:9, Judges 13:24-25, 2 Sam 23:2) and inspires their pointed words of warning (Isa 61:1, Ezekiel 2:2, 3:12, Joel 2:28-29, Micah 3:8, Zechariah 4:6).

The same Sprit plays an important role in the story of Jesus, especially as Luke tells it, from the conception and birth of Jesus (Luke 1:35), through his commission at his baptism (3:22) and temptation (4:1), his public ministry (Luke 4:14, 18; Acts 10:38), through to his death (Luke 23:46).

The Spirit continues to be creatively active in the subsequent outpouring of gifts at Pentecost (Acts 2:2-4, 17-18, 33) and on through the story of the early followers of Jesus: Peter and John (Acts 4:8, 31), Stephen and others (6:3, 5, 10, 7:55), Phillip (8:17-18, 29, 39), Saul (9:17), Peter (10:19, 44-45, 11:15, 24, 28), Paul and Barnabas (13:2, 4, 9, 52), the council in Jerusalem (15:8, 28), and then in Paul’s continuing travels (16:6-7, 19:6, 21, 20:22-23, 28, 21:4, 11, 28:25).

The Spirit is an essential element in the story that Luke tells. Where does the Spirit fit in Paul’s view of things?

Paul imbues the Spirit with an eschatological role—first, the Spirit acts by raising Jesus from the dead (1:4; 8:11) and then by adopting believers as “children of God” (8:14–17, 23). The Spirit is a marker of life in the kingdom of God (14:17). The kingdom, for Paul, remains a future promise, to become a reality within the eschatological timetable (1 Cor 15:23-26).

Paul speaks with passion about how the creation groans in the present time of distress (8:18–23), as believers hold fast to their hope in the renewal of creation (8:17, 21, 24–25; see also 1 Cor 7:28–31). The groaning of creation is an image that connects clearly and directly with the current times.

The impact of COVID19 evokes groaning as we are surrounded by illness, anxiety, loneliness, and death. But this groaning comes also from the earth herself, groaning under the weight of the damaging misuse and destruction wrought by human beings, erupting out now in the rapid and threatening spread of a tiny, potent killer.

The role of the Spirit in this period is to strengthen believers by interceding for them (8:26–27). The Spirit is not to take us away from the realities of the life we live; rather, the Spirit engages us wholeheartedly and fully in the life of discipleship. Paul’s explanation is that the Spirit facilitates the way that we reach out to God, seeking help, for others and for our world. The Spirit intercedes with “sighs too deep for words”. An empathic companionships in the midst of the groanings.

Paul reminds the Romans that they are “in the Spirit” (8:9); this is reminiscent of his guidance to the Galatians to live “by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16, 22–25) and his exposition to the Corinthians of the gifts which are given “through the Spirit” (1 Cor 12:1, 4–11). The understanding of the gifting of believers by the Spirit, articulated in the first letter to the Corinthians, has played a significant role throughout the history of the church over the centuries. The sighs of the Spirit are manifested in the gifts of discipleship.

The life of faith, lived “in the Spirit”, is therefore to be characterised by “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Paul immediately explains that this requires believers to be “transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Rom 12:2). After making this bold programmatic statement, Paul devotes significant time (in chapters 12–15) to spelling out some of the ways in which this transformation might take place.

So, for Paul, the Spirit effects transformation, which then governs the behaviour as well as the words of believers. The Spirit is not simply an internal, mystical, or ecstatic experience; the Spirit is manifest in practical ways in the lives of disciples. The “sighs too deep for words” are wrapped around the focussed attention that scripture requires from believers. And scripture provides resources for grappling with the very issues about which the Spirit groans and sighs.

(We will look further into the function of scripture in this letter in a later blog.)

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-righteous-justice-of-god-a-gift-to-all-humanity-romans/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

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James Cook, the Endeavour, twelve turtles and the Guugu Yimithirr (3)

Ngahthaan gadaai thawun maa naa thi hu. “We come to make friends.”

As the story is told amongst the Guugu Yimithirr people of the area we call North Queensland, one of the elders of the people, Ngambri Yarrbarigu, said these words to James Cook, captain of the HMS Endeavour, 250 years ago this week. The ship had been laid up on the land of the Guugu Yimithirr for some weeks, as the British sailors repaired its hull after it had struck a reef in May 1770.

The men withdrew, placed their spears on the ground, and sat down. They were acting in the manner prescribed, in their culture, to signal friendship.

What had caused this desire to seek reconciliation? That was the incident relating to the turtles, from the penultimate visit to the ship by the Guugu Yimithirr. That took place on 17 July. That visit severed the relationships that had grown over recent weeks, which they then sought to repair.

The British had been engaging with the Guugu Yimithirr on and off over the weeks that they were beached, beside the river which Cook names the Endeavour River. To the people of that land, this was Waalbumbaal Birri, the river wending its way to the sea from the nearby mountain Gaya.

Waalbumbaal Birri
(Endeavour River)

It was their land. They had their own customs, their own practices. They had every right to expect that the visitors would adhere to these customs and practices. It was their land, their river—they had been custodians of the land since time unknown. They had stories in their collective memory of times past (what we white folk later would call “the Dreamtime”).

On 15 July, Cook wrote in his journal: “Gentle breezes at South-East and East. P.M., got on board the Spare Sails and sundry other Articles. In the A.M., as the people did not work upon the Ship, one of the Petty Officers was desirous of going out to Catch Turtles. I let him have the Pinnace for that purpose, and sent the Long boat to haul the Sean, who caught about 60 fish.” The invaders must surely have rejoiced at this haul of sea creatures, destined, no doubt, to be cooked and eaten.

The next day, Cook’s journal records, “In the evening the Yawl came in with 4 Turtle and a Large Sting ray, and soon after went out again; but the Pinnace did not return as I expected.”

Then, on 17 July, another journal entry: “In the evening the Pinnace returned with 3 Turtles, 2 of which the Yawl caught and sent in”, recording the arrival of yet more bounty—before continuing with a lengthy technical discussion of astronomical phenomenon: “At 7 hours 41 minutes 17 seconds p.m. observ’d the first Satellite of Jupiter to Emerge …”

The area surrounding the Waalbumbaal Birri (Endeavour River)

What are we to make of this regular fishing-and-catching activity of the British? From one point of view—from the perspective of the invading sailors, arriving at this place from their sea journey—this natural bounty was there to be caught and used for their own purposes. There was no sign that announced “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted”. There was no expectation, in their minds, that these animals were there for any other reason, than to be observed, analysed, caught, and eaten.

But from the point of view of the people on the land—the Guugu Yimithirr who had lived on and cared for the land for millennia—this was their land, their river, their ocean, and their creatures. Theirs, not in the sense of personal possession and ownership; but theirs, in the sense of given over to them to care for and nurture, for which they bore an enduring custodial responsibility. What would they have made of the regular forays to capture their fish and turtles?

(The indigenous understanding of relationship to the land, articulated as one of sovereignty, is clearly expressed in the Statement from the Heart; see https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement. On the Uniting Church attitude towards the sovereignty of the land of Australia, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/)

Statement from the Heart
Uluru, 2017

So on 18 July, the British encountered the Yuugu Gimithirr once again. Cook writes, “Mr. Banks, Dr. Solander, and myself took a turn into the woods on the other side of the water, where we met with 5 of the Natives; and although we had not seen any of them before, they came to us without showing any signs of fear. 2 of these wore Necklaces made of Shells, which they seem’d to Value, as they would not part with them.” This encounter, as previous ones had been, was congenial and mutually respectful.

Cook continues, “In the evening the Yawl came in with 3 Turtle, and early in the A.M. she went out again. About 8 we were Visited by several of the Natives, who now became more familiar than ever.” He notes that he and Banks then took a trip along the shore for 6 or 8 miles, before returning, and noting that “we return’d to the Ship … and found several of the Natives on board. At this time we had 12 tortoise or Turtle upon our Decks, which they took more Notice of than anything Else in the Ship, as I was told by the officers, for their Curiosity was Satisfied before I got on board, and they went away soon after.”

The focus of attention was now very clearly on the turtles. They had obviously become a point of contention for the Yuugu Gimithirr. Were the British aware of this?

Twelve Turtles, by Wanda Gibson

The next day, 19 July, another group came to the British—this time, 10 or 11 of them. “Most of them came from the other side of the Harbour, where we saw 6 or 7 more, the most of them Women, and, like the men, quite naked.” It was clear that they had come to retrieve “some of our Turtles” (as Cook wrote). In the attempt to remove some turtles, “they grew a little Troublesome, and were for throwing every thing overboard they could lay their hands upon.”

Cook offered bread, which “they rejected with Scorn, as I believe they would have done anything else excepting Turtle”. The aim of the exercise was clearly to take some turtles with them.

Cook’s journal then reports the dramatic events that ensured: “one of them took a Handful of dry grass and lighted it at a fire we had ashore, and before we well know’d what he was going about he made a larger Circuit round about us, and set fire to the grass in his way, and in an instant the whole place was in flames.” The cordial relationships had turned to fierce antagonism.

“As soon as they had done this they all went to a place where some of our people were washing, and where all our nets and a good deal of linnen were laid out to dry; here with the greatest obstinacy they again set fire to the grass, which I and some others who were present could not prevent, until I was obliged to fire a Musquet load with small Shott at one of the Ring leaders, which sent them off.” The man whom Cook wounded with a musket shot ran away.

Cook reports that the fore “spread like wild fire in the Woods and grass”, and reports that one man was injured: “we saw a few drops of blood on some of the linnen he had gone over”. Cook and Banks stepped out and met 3 or 4 men. “As they had each 4 or 5 Darts, and not knowing their intention, we seized upon 6 or 7 of the first darts we met with. This alarm’d them so much that they all made off.”

The British pursued the Yuugu Gimithirr; “after some little unintelligible conversation had passed they laid down their darts, and came to us in a very friendly manner. We now return’d the Darts we had taken from them, which reconcil’d everything.”

The journal report then concludes, “all came along with us abreast of the Ship, where they stay’d a short time, and then went away, and soon after set the woods on fire about a Mile and a half or two Miles from us.” Descendants of the Yuugu Gimithirr recall, today, this encounter as a sign of reconciliation.

However, Cook appears to have omitted a significant detail at the critical point. Mark McKenna, an Australian historian, has explored this encounter by reading the journals of both Cook and of Banks, as well as interviewing descendants of the Yuugu Gimithirr, Alberta Hornsby and Eric Deeral. They told McKenna stories which have been passed down amongst their people. Those stories add other elements to the events that took place while the British and the Yuugu Gimithirr interacted.

(You can read a review of McKenna’s book, From the Edge, at http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/n4634/pdf/book_review03.pdf)

They claim this as an important historic event, as it is believed that this is the first recorded reconciliation between Europeans and Indigenous Australians ever. The explanation that Alberta Hornsby provides is fascinating, and revealing.

She tells McKenna the story she knows. Angered by several men who’d set fire to the grass where he’d left a “forge and a sow and a litter of young pigs,” Cook fired his musket, wounding an Aboriginal man, after which the men immediately retreated.

Seizing the spears that they had left behind, Cook and Banks were approached about an hour later by “a little old man” carrying a spear “without a point,” with several men brandishing spears walking only a few metres behind him. As he walked towards them, the old man halted several times, “collecting moisture from under his armpit with his finger” and drawing it “through his mouth.” Cook and Banks “beckoned him” to come closer.

At this point, the old man turned to his comrades, who “laid their lances against a tree.” Then, slowly, they all came forward to meet one another. After they exchanged gifts and greetings, Cook returned their spears, remarking later in his journal that this seemed to have “reconciled everything.”

Alberta Hornsby and her late uncle, Eric Deeral, have explained the story through Guugu Yimithirr law: how the old man, by drawing sweat from under his armpits and “blowing the sweat on his hands into the air,” was performing a ritual known as ngalangundaama, a call for “protection and calm.” In Guugu Yimithirr law, no blood was to be spilt on Waymburr, the land on which Cook had come ashore and fired his musket.

At last it was possible to understand the old man’s gesture of reconciliation from the perspective of the Guugu Yimithirr; it was a request for his law to be honoured and calm to be restored. For Alberta and Loretta, the story represents an inspiring moment of reconciliation; an historic moment in the history of this continent.

*****

I have written a series of blogs on the time that Cook sailed along the eastern seaboard of Australia, at:

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/23/they-appeard-to-be-of-a-very-dark-or-black-colour-cook-hms-endeavour-and-the-yuin-people-and-country/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/29/three-canoes-lay-upon-the-beach-the-worst-i-think-i-ever-saw-james-cook-at-botany-bay-29-april-1770/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/17/we-weighd-and-run-into-the-harbour-cook-the-endeavour-and-the-guugu-yimithirr/

See also

https://www.nla.gov.au/digital-classroom/senior/Cook/Indigenous-Response/Mark-McKenna

https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/endeavour-voyage/waalumbaal-birri-endeavour-river

https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/20/we-never-saw-one-inch-of-cultivated-land-in-the-whole-country/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/25/on-remembering-cook-and-flinders-and-trim-bungaree-and-yemmerrawanne/

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Minimising risks in the ongoing reality of COVID-19

Over the past four months, as a society, we have experienced various periods of restrictions: the most severe restrictions in response to the first wave of infections, requiring us to isolate in our homes except for essential matters; then gradual steps in easing those restrictions. And now, in the light of what looks like a second wave, a tightening of restrictions, with perhaps more of that still to come. It has been like a roller coaster ride.

And as a church, we have experienced the change from worshipping and meeting in person, to doing many things by phone, by email, and especially by ZOOM and YouTube. It has been a very significant time of transition—personally challenging, emotionally confronting, and draining of our energy. Yet we are all still moving on in the face of all that we encounter.

In the firm belief that it is helpful for us to keep up with the latest scientific research on COVID-19, I have been collating information about various matters that have drawn the attention of researchers, and produced clear guidance for how we function as we live with the ongoing reality of COVID-19.

A. On the importance of air circulation

Recently, 239 scientists from 32 different countries and many different areas of science (including virology, aerosol physics and epidemiology) penned an open letter urging the World Health Organisation (WHO) to change their advice relating to the ways that the corona virus spreads. “We ignore COVID-19 airborne spread indoors at our peril,” the scientists wrote.

In summary, the scientists who signed the letter have recommended three key ways to mitigate the risk of airborne transmission of COVID-19:

  1. Ventilation (maximise clean outdoor air, minimise recirculating air) particularly in public buildings, workplaces, schools, hospitals, and aged care homes
  2. Airborne infection controls such as local exhaust, high efficiency air filtration, and germicidal ultraviolet lights
  3. Avoid overcrowding, particularly in public transport and public buildings

These are practical and can be easily implemented and many are not costly.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-07-06/aerosol-transmission-of-covid-19/12425852

This video from a couple of months ago provides a striking demonstration about the way that aerosols operate:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=H2azcn7MqOU&feature=share

B. On the value of wearing masks

The ABC reports that scientific experts say masks are one of the best ways to stop aerosols in their tracks. “Masks stop the virus-laden aerosols exhaled by an infected person entering the indoor space and also protect others from inhaling it,” Professor Lidia Morawska of the Queensland University of Technology said.

Professor Guy Marks, an epidemiologist and respiratory physician at the University of New South Wales, agrees. “If you must spend time in a static environment with a lot of people, consider wearing a mask”, he says.

Physical distancing is insufficient by itself in a crowded, poorly ventilated space where there is rapid air mixing, says aerobiologist Professor Euan Tovey of the University of Sydney. A recent study from an outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt has shown that the best protection from infection in close quarters is a combination of distancing and masks.

However, the type of mask has an effect on protection. While a home-made cotton face mask significantly blocks large droplets, research UK research shows it only blocks a proportion of those tiny aerosolised particles.

Links to specific studies can be found in the article at

https://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2020-07-11/the-who-says-airborne-spread-of-covid-19-possible-what-now/12443268

C. An overview of what is involved in taking good precautions

The World Health Organisation has recently published an up to date guide for how we minimise the risk of infections spreading, in a paper entitled Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: implications for infection prevention precautions (WHO, 9 July 2020)

To prevent transmission, WHO recommends a comprehensive set of measures including:

  • Identify suspect cases as quickly as possible, test, and isolate all cases (infected people) in appropriate facilities;
  • Identify and quarantine all close contacts of infected people and test those who develop symptoms so that they can be isolated if they are infected and require care;
  • Use fabric masks in specific situations, for example, in public places where there is community transmission and where other prevention measures, such as physical distancing, are not possible;
  • Use of contact and droplet precautions by health workers caring for suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients, and use of airborne precautions when aerosol generating procedures are performed;
  • Continuous use of a medical mask by health workers and caregivers working in all clinical areas, during all routine activities throughout the entire shift;
  • At all times, practice frequent hand hygiene, physical distancing from others when possible, and respiratory etiquette; avoid crowded places, close-contact settings and confined and enclosed spaces with poor ventilation; wear fabric masks when in closed, overcrowded spaces to protect others; and ensure good environmental ventilation in all closed settings and appropriate environmental cleaning and disinfection.

https://www.who.int/news-room/commentaries/detail/transmission-of-sars-cov-2-implications-for-infection-prevention-precautions

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/05/passing-the-peace-sharing-the-elements-greeting-the-minister/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/03/pastoral-letter-to-canberra-region-presbytery-june-2020/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/19/pastoral-letter-to-canberra-region-presbytery-on-covid-19-pandemic/

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Let anyone with ears, hear! (Matt 13)

Jesus used parables as the chief means of his story-telling. A parable is a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. Parables are conundrums. They contain unresolved tensions. They invite multiple understandings. They press for exploration and investigation. We have another parable in the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday!

The accounts of Jesus that we have in scripture—Mark’s beginning of the good news of Jesus, Matthew’s book of origins of Jesus, Chosen One, and Luke’s orderly account of the things fulfilled—each contain a number of parables. Even in John’s book of signs, there are some parable-like sections, buried in the midst of the long discourses that this book contains.

This week, the lectionary offers the second parable in Matt 13. Last week, we had the parable of the seeds and the sower (13:3-9) and its interpretation (13:18-23). This week, we will hear the weeds among the wheat (13:24-30) and its interpretation (13:36-43). Then in the following week, we will hear the other five parables in this chapter: the mustard seed (13:31-32), the yeast in the flour (13:33), hidden treasure (13:44), a pearl of great value (13:45-46), and the net that caught fish (13:47-48)—each one offered without interpretation.

As with last week, so also this week we are given a parable, followed immediately by an interpretation of the parable. I had a spout last week about the way that a later allegorising understanding of the parable has been placed on the lips of Jesus, in this Gospel account. You can read that at https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/09/parables-the-craft-of-storytelling-in-the-book-of-origins-matt-13/

I don’t believe that Jesus would have spoken the words in this interpretation (13:26-43). I think it is a later addition from a tradition that found it hard to leave the parable standing in its own right. Somebody, somewhere, wanted to offer a definitive reading. The same thing happened last week, as the parable of the seeds and the sower was interpreted in a certain way (13:18-23). It has happened again this week, in relation to the parable of the weeds and the wheat (13:24-30).

In the parable itself, there is a simple contrast drawn between the weeds and the wheat. That is typical of parables that Jesus told. A number of these parables were short and direct, making a single point and needing little explanation: see the parables of the treasure (13:44) and the pearl (13:45), for instance. This made the parable easy to remember and repeat orally.

These parables are little more than an introduction (“the kingdom of heaven is like…”) and a single image which is used to describe a characteristic of the kingdom (hidden treasure, or fine pearls). The first part of this week’s parable (13:24-26) has this form. It is short and direct.

It starts with the classic introduction, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to …”. It goes on to tell of the good seeds, which grow into wheat, and the bad seeds, which grow into weeds. This part of the parable has a simple contrasting form, like the parable of the good fish and the bad fish caught in the net, as told in the last of the seven parables (13:47-48).

But the parable has a story attached to these weeds among the wheat (13:27-30). So Jesus continues with a little plot development, which brings in a reflection on the human characters who sowed the seeds. In this regard, this is like other parables of Jesus, which are a little more developed; they still make a single point, but it is developed or explained a little more.

The parable of the mustard seed (13:31–32) is a good example of this. This parable uses the same introductory phrase and conveys its main point in an image (mustard seed, 13:31) which is further developed to convey what happens to the mustard seed as it grows and forms “the greatest of shrubs” (13:32).

So the plot of the parable of the wheat and the weeds continues until the punchline is reached. It is not during the growing that any distinction is to be made; it is at the harvest that this distinction is enforced. Wheat that grew from good seeds is to be collected and stored; weeds that grew from bad seeds are to be bundled and burnt (13:28-30).

That much, as a parable, has a clear message: don’t intervene into the process of growing, don’t judge (recalling 7:1), but let the end result of the process of growing be the moment when the judgement occurs. And that taps into a strong interest, throughout the book of origins, for depicting Jesus as the preacher of judgement.

Consistently throughout the book of origins, Jesus is presented as a fearful and demanding figure. In his capacity as God’s Messiah, he frequently promises (or threatens) judgement (5:21–26; 7:1–2; 10:15; 11:21–24; 12:36–37; 19:28– 30; 21:33–44; 22:1–14; 24:29–31, 36-44, 45–51; 25:1–13, 14–30, 31–46; 26:64). Many of these declarations occur in eschatological contexts, where Jesus is warning about the punishment that is to come at “the end of time”, unless righteous-justice is followed in the present.

In the previous chapter, a quotation from the prophet Isaiah (Isa 42:1-4, at Matt 12:15–21) includes an extended quotation from Isaiah 42, where the servant of the Lord proclaims judgement to the Gentiles and they are said to have hope in his name (presumably because they repent and believe him). This is the function that Jesus, as God’s servant, the Chosen One, carries out. It’s not for us human beings to take on the role of judge. That belongs to God, carried out through his chosen agent, Jesus.

The parable of the wheat and the weeds has an intensity because of its focus and orientation towards this fearsome judgement, executed by Jesus in obedience to the desire of God. The interpretation of the parable defuses the intensity of the parable by fussing about what each element refers to: the Sower is the Son of Man, the good seeds are the children of the kingdom, the bad seeds are the children of the evil one, the enemy is the devil, and so on (13:39).

The interpretation ends with a repetition and expansion of the scene of judgement that ended the parable—but the good seed is not simply stored, it morphs into the righteous in the kingdom, and the bad seed is not burnt as seed, but it becomes the ones who disobeyed the law, burning in the furnace (13:41-43). And there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42; see also 13:50; 22:14; 25:30). So the same punchline holds in this section, as in the parable itself.

Interestingly, the interpretation ends with the same punchline that concluded the parable of the seeds and the sower: “let anyone with ears, listen!” (13:53, cf. 13:9). Jesus continues to press the point. Judgement is inevitable.

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

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The righteous-justice of God, a gift to all humanity (Romans)

Paul’s letter to the Romans is his longest letter, and is widely regarded as the pinnacle of his theological expression. It is closely related to the letter to the Galatians in its central theological concern for righteous-justice, law and faith. We have been hearing excerpts from this letter in worship in recent weeks, and that will continue for some weeks into the future.

The overall structure of this letter is very clear: after the usual introductory formulae (1:1–7) and thanksgiving (1:8–15), Paul declares his theme by means of a scripture citation (1:16–17) which he then expounds in a series of inter–related sections (1:18–3:20; 3:21–4:25; 5:1–7:25; 8:1–39), climaxing in his extended discussion of Israel and the Gentiles (9:1–11:36). Paul then conveys various ethical exhortations (12:1–13:14; 14:1–15:13) before drawing to a close with personal news and a direct appeal to the Romans (15:14–33), an exchange of greetings (16:1–23[24]) and a final doxology (16:25–27).

The opening verses (1:1–7) identify the author and the audience as well as offering a typically Pauline blessing of grace and peace (1:7b). This piece of writing is a contextual enterprise. It is not an abstract or theoretical undertaking. Paul offers words shaped for the situation he is addressing. (See my comments on this at https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-best-theology-is-contextual-learning-from-pauls-letter-to-the-romans/)

This opening is followed by a thanksgiving for the Roman saints (1:8–15), in another typically Pauline pattern. As Paul reports that he gives thanks for their faith and prays that he may be enabled to visit them, he introduces key elements of the argument. His prayer is oriented firmly towards what he knows of the believers in Rome.

In the body of the letter, Paul expounds a theology of universal righteous-justice, focussing particularly on its implications for Israel and the Gentiles (1:18– 11:32). The relation of Jews and Gentiles was a critical factor in the situation in Rome, as Paul is well aware.

First, he explores the nature of the human condition (1:18–3:20). This is based on keen observation and reinforced by a string of scripture citations (3:10–18).

Next, he considers the roles played by Jesus and the Spirit in making the righteous-justice of God available (3:21–8:30). The argument builds and develops, demonstrating how God has chosen to make righteous-justice available to all human beings, through Abraham as through Jesus, by means of the indwelling Spirit.

This was a critical issue for the diverse communities of believers in Ancient Rome—a city with inhabitants from all points of the Empire which had been conquered by the powerful Roman army, and which lived under the imposition of Roman governance. Many traders, artisans, merchants, and slaves in the city had come, willingly or by force, to this city. The gatherings of believers in the city reflected this diversity. The claim that the righteous-justice of God was available to all these people was an important aspect of the early Christian gatherings.

So, to conclude this section, in the midst of a string of climactic rhetorical questions, Paul erupts into a poetic acclamation of “the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:31–39). That was indeed good news for all those in Rome who heard this message.

Immediately, Paul plunges into a complex reading of scriptural texts in order to sanction the claim that God’s sovereign mercy offers a universal righteous-justice, both to Jews and to Gentiles alike (9:1–11:32). This section, again, is contextually relevant, as the names of believers of Rome to whom Paul sends greetings, in chapter 16, reflect both Jewish and Gentile people.

This critical section comes to another fulsome doxological climax in the joyously prayerful affirmations concerning God’s “riches and wisdom and knowledge”, leading to the attribution of glory to God forever (11:33–36). This is the ultimate response to the singular grace of God’s gift of righteous-justice to all human beings. All those I; the house churches of Rome who heard this section of the letter would surely have rejoiced in the extravagant abundance of God’s grace towards them!

The subsequent consideration of ethical matters (12:1–15:33) covers a range of issues, introduced with a general statement about the need to live in accord with the will of God (12:1–2). Much of the first part of this section (12:1–13:14) contains traditional ethical teaching: a string of pithy proverbs (12:9–21) and short reflections on loving one another (13:8–10) and living honourably (13:11– 14); a truncated reflection on the image of the community of faith as a body (12:3–8); and discussion of responsibilities towards the governing authorities (13:1–7). This last section seems particularly pertinent for the city which was the administrative centre of the dominant empire of the time, at least in the Mediterranean region.

This ethical section continues (14:1–15:13) with an extended reflection on the ethical dilemmas posed by differing views in the community about what foods should be eaten. Once again, this section of the letter is strongly contextual: it reflects the situation in the city, and for the people of the various groups of house churches, for whom this was a live issue. There were different points of view; the believers needed to show respect to one another in the midst of these different views.

This section climaxes with a clear call to inclusiveness (15:2, 5–6, 7) supported by a string of scripture citations (15:9–12). Paul concludes this section of his letter with a reminder of his planned visit to Rome (15:14–29) and one last exhortation (15:30–32), before offering a brief blessing of peace (15:33). Once again, the contextual nature of the letter is clear.

The letter ends with an exchange of greetings, in the course of which Paul identifies quite a number of the believers in the various house churches that existed in a Rome, before he reiterates some last–minute instructions (16:1–23).

Then Paul offers a further blessing (16:20a; and some ancient versions added another blessing as verse 24). The letter concludes in high liturgical style with an exalted doxological formula (16:25–27), an ending most likely added by a later editor of the letter, in which some, at least, of the central motifs of the letter are reiterated.

From this survey of the contents and the form of the letter, we can see how focussed the argument is on the righteous-justice of God, a central element in how Paul understands the Gospel, and how relevant that message was for the diverse groupings of people who had come to recognise Jesus as Lord and who were committed to following him as faithful,disciples in their daily lives.

As God’s gift to humanity, this righteous-justice invites and enables all people to enter into covenant relationship with God, and thus to shape relationships with each other that are accepting and hopeful. That message was powerful in the ancient Roman context. It retains that potency in the contemporary world, where diversity can fuel tension and conflict. In this context, the good news offers hope and invites reconciliation, in celebration of God’s wide expanse of gracious inclusion.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/07/to-articulate-faith-contextually/

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Parables: the craft of storytelling in the book of origins (Matt 13)

This week, the Gospel passage comes from the book of origins, whose account of Jesus we have been following for much of this current year. The chapter we are reading contains the first of seven parables that Jesus tells. The parable of the seeds and the sower is told in Matt 13:3-9 and an interpretation is then offered at 13:18-23. This interpretation shapes and orients our understanding of what “the seed” means; it directs us to interpret “the seed” as “the word of the kingdom” (13:19).

This is the first of seven parables in this chapter, and one of twenty-four parables in the book of origins. Many of those parables are explicitly identified as parables of the kingdom. After all, the kingdom was the focus of the preaching of Jesus, as is signalled in his opening public proclamation earlier in the book (4:17). (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/23/repentance-for-the-kingdom-matt-4/)

The kingdom features in the Beatitudes (5:3, 10), the Sermon on the Mount (5:19-20, 6:10, 33, 7:21), and then in many of the teachings of Jesus (such as 8:11-12, 18:3-4, 19:14, 23-24).

Preaching the kingdom was central to the activities of Jesus (9:35) and his followers (10:7) and will remain a key focus until the time when “the end will come” (24:14). And parables formed an important contribution to the ways that Jesus spoke about the kingdom in his teachings.

In this chapter, after the parable of the seeds and the sower, we find another six parables: the weeds among the wheat (13:24-30), the mustard seed (13:31-32), the yeast in the flour (13:33), hidden treasure (13:44), a pearl of great value (13:45-46), and the net that caught fish (13:47-48). Interestingly, every key item in these seven parables is a small, even seemingly insignificant, item: seeds, seeds, yeast, a pearl, and fish.

Later in the Gospel, there are further parables of the kingdom: the labourers in the vineyard (20:1-16), the two sons (21:28-32), the wicked tenants (21:33-44), and the wedding banquet (22:2-14). In the final section of Jesus’s teaching the disciples, he tells three further parables of the kingdom: the ten bridesmaids (25:1-13), the talents (25:14-30), and the sheep and the goats (25:31-46).

1 Understanding Parables

What are we to make of these many parables? Parables were quite widespread in the society of Jesus’ day. They were evocative and effective means for telling stories. The most common means of entertainment in the ancient world was telling stories. This was done by word of mouth, from one person to another, or in small groups gathered in market places, courtyards or houses. Education also relied on the voice.

Written materials were costly and only a small percentage of the population was literate. The natural tendency to tell stories was widely accepted, so that the most familiar pattern was that learning took place through the passing on of stories. So oral story telling was commonplace in the synagogues where Jews gathered for worship and instruction.

We can see the dominance of the oral medium most clearly in the literature which tells about the rabbis of Judaism. The story was the foundational building block for all the rabbis’ teaching activities. Beyond Judaism, we see it in the popularity of written biographies, romances, histories and adventure stories, throughout the ancient world. Indeed, a second century Christian (Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis) is reported as having stated that stories spoken by teachers are to be preferred as more reliable than written works (such as the Gospels)—an attitude that sounds incredible to our modern ears!

A parable is an important type of story-telling. A parable is a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. Parables are found in Jewish literature; the most famous examples in the Hebrew Bible are Samuel’s parable comparing David with a callous rich herdsman in 2 Samuel 12 and the prophet’s parable comparing Israel with an unfruitful vineyard in Isaiah 5.

Rabbis at the time of Jesus, and later, have used parables to make their point in their teachings. The Hebrew word for this form was mashal, a word meaning “to be like” or “a comparison”. Parables were told to make a point about something that may not be easily understood, by drawing a comparison with something else that was well-known or easily understood.

The mashal also opens up the possibility of a more developed form of comparison, the similitude, of which the best example is Nathan’s parable to David concerning the stolen lamb (2 Sam 12:1–4). This form flourishes in later Judaism, both in rabbinic literature, and in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ parables (“the kingdom of heaven is like…”). In fact, the parables told by Jesus follow the patterns and customs of the rabbinic mashal.

2 Understanding the Parable of the Seeds and the Sower

The specific parable that we hear in worship this Sunday, the parable of the seeds and the sower, is a particularly provocative parable. It leaves us with various questions. Why was the sower so extravagant in broadcasting the seeds, casting them not only onto fertile ground but also onto rocky ground and into the midst of thorns? Why did the sower not adopt good agricultural practice, culling the thorny plants as they grew, to enable the seeds to grow into healthy plants?

Other questions arise, as well, if we read the parable (13:3-9) without including the interpretation that is offered (13:18-23). That interpretation guides us to see the seeds as representing “the word of the kingdom”, and that understanding seems reasonably evident from the parable in its own right. But what does the path represent? And what about the thorns? And the rocky ground? Or the sun—is it a symbol of something?

The interpretation included in Matthew 13 closes down these questions. Many scholars believe that the interpretation did not actually come from the lips of Jesus, but, rather, was added by the author of the Gospel, drawing on interpretations that had developed over the intervening decades after the lifetime of Jesus. (This assumes, quite reasonably, that the Gospel was written some 30-50 years after the death of Jesus; and also, more controversially, perhaps, that the author was somewhat creative in reporting the actions and words of Jesus.)

One of the reasons for this view is that the interpretation really treats the parable as an allegory, rather than as a mashal-like parable. In an allegory, each and every character and event in the story is regarded as being a symbol for something else beyond the story.

Allegory literally means, “to say something other”; it comes from two Greek words, the verb agoreuo (to speak in the assembly), and the prefix allos (other). Allegories are found in ancient literature; in Greek, from the earliest literature, that of Homer, through to Plato, and on into the writings of people centuries after the time of Jesus. They were commonplace across Greek and Latin literature.

But not so, in Hebrew Scriptures, the tradition from which Jesus regularly drew. Here, there are more often parables, only rarely any fully-developed allegory. And parables are not allegories. A parable is a mashal—a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. And the single point of a parable is given in its punchline: which, in this case, is the enigmatic, “let anyone with ears, hear!” (13:9). If the seed is the word, the demand of this parable is clear: listen!

And yet, as the verses that follow make clear (13:10-17), understanding a parable is a tricky business. Its meaning is not self-evident. As Jesus speaks in parables, “seeing, they do not perceive, and hearing, they do not listen” (13:13, quoting directly from Isaiah 6:9-10). Parables are conundrums. They contain unresolved tensions. They invite multiple understandings. They press for exploration and investigation.

The technique of a parable is not to lay everything out in plain form, in straight-forward propositions—but rather to weave a story, to draw the listeners into the story, to invite wondering, to foster creative thinking and thoughtful grappling within the story. Nothing is set in stone. All sorts of possibilities arise, from the narrative of a story that is well-crafted and persuasively-presented. As we imagine that Jesus did in creating and telling his stories in parable form.

3 The Parable of the Seeds and the Sower in the Revised Common Lectionary

So the offering of the interpretation (13:18-23) immediately after the telling of the parable (13:1-9) that the Revised Common Lectionary offers (and that the author of the book of origins includes in this chapter) skews our approach to the parable. It closes off the possibilities of understanding. It limits the range of options for clearly comprehending what Jesus was offering. In my mind, it’s something of a menace.

So here’s the challenge: this Sunday, why not simply read the parable (13:1-9)—and then, STOP. Don’t read the interpretation (13:18-23). Let the parable stand in its own right. Invite your audience to imagine, explore, interpret. Encourage them with the sense that there is “no right answer”, or “no one interpretation”. Invite people to engage in the process that the very first followers of Jesus took part in: “let anyone with ears, listen!” And then invite them to respond. And rejoice in the richness and diversity of understandings that arise!

******

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012).

For a gentle, poetic retelling of the parable from Sarah Agnew, see https://praythestory.blogspot.com/2020/07/falling-seeds.html?m=1

Consideration of issues raised in this blog continues in https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/14/let-anyone-with-ears-hear-matt-13/

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Come to me, take my yoke, I will give you rest (Matt 11)

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30)

The book of origins, the first of four accounts of Jesus in the New Testament (known to us as the Gospel according to Matthew), locates Jesus firmly within his historical context, as a teacher and prophet within Israel. He is the one who has come to renew the covenant, to restore Israel, to instruct them in the ways of righteous-justice. He is the one who brings the Law to fulfilment and establishes the way into the kingdom.

This book has a high view of Jesus within that Jewish context. It positions Jesus as the most authoritative teacher in his community, the one who guides, directs, and inspires those who listen to him.

It is to the words of Jesus that believers are to look for guidance in their lives (7:24–27). In this Gospel, Jesus is the one and only teacher (23:8), the one and only instructor (23:10). Whilst “heaven and earth will pass away”, the words spoken by Jesus will endure (24:35). The last words of Jesus reported in this book are the instructions from Jesus, to his disciples, to go to the nations, “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20). His teachings stand supreme.

In the lectionary for this coming Sunday, we find a striking passage from Matthew’s Gospel (11:25–30) which depends this understanding of Jesus the Teacher. In this passage, Jesus offers a prayer to God in which he lays claim to this distinct, even unique, place.

The first part of this passage (11:25-27) is often nicknamed “the Johannine Thunderbolt from a Synoptic Sky”, because it seems so out of place in this Gospel; the language used (“Father” and “Son”, amongst other things) invites comparison with the Fourth Gospel, as does the insistence on Jesus as the one who “knows the will of the Father” and thus reveals “the gracious will” of the Father (11:26-27). How these verses found there way into this particular Gospel is an intriguing question. (If you have a compelling answer to this question, I would love to hear it!)

As this prayer continues (11:28-30), Jesus is depicted as laying claim to be the authoritative teacher; his words claim an absolute authority to interpret the Law, which is here portrayed as “the yoke”, a term for the Law which is found in rabbinic writings (Mishnah, Aboth 3:5, Berakoth 2:5; see also 2 Enoch 34:1 and 2 Baruch 41:3).

Jesus here is portrayed as claiming this high authority for himself; his yoke provides a sure understanding of the Law. His language is filled with scriptural words; he speaks in a way that is strongly evocative of certain passages in Sirach concerning Wisdom (Sirach 6:18–33; 24:19–22; 51:23–28). In this book (dating from around 200-250 years before the time of Jesus), Wisdom commands attention (“draw near to me”, “come to me”), offers instruction, commands submission to the yoke of her teaching, and offers rest.

A hymn on the values of Wisdom concludes that book, with the invitation to “acquire wisdom for yourself … put your neck under her yoke and let your souls receive instruction” (Sir 51:25-26). Earlier in the book, this invitation to learn from Wisdom had been issued by Wisdom herself: “come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits” (Sir 24:19).

And in the opening chapters of this book, an extended poem in praise of wisdom includes the invitation to “come to her like one who plots and sows … put your feet into her fetter 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 … search out and seek … when you get hold of her, do not let her go, for at last you will find the rest she gives, and you will be changed into joy for you” (Sir 6:19, 24-28).

The poem continues, “then her fetters will become for you a strong defence and her collar a glorious robe; her yoke is a golden ornament, and her bonds a purple cord; you will wear her like a glorious robe and put her on like a splendid crown” (Sir 6:29-31).

So many of these phrases resonate in the words attributed to Jesus in the book of origins (Matt 11:28-30). As he speaks, he claims the authority of Wisdom. His words provide insight, guidance, direction, as do the words of Wisdom in earlier Jewish traditions. Indeed, just a few verses earlier, the voice of Wisdom has been invoked by Jesus as he reflects on the criticisms he has received, as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (11:19). The proof of the pudding is in the eating—“Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”, is what Jesus responds.

Wisdom appears in the book of Proverbs, where she is portrayed as a teacher of “good advice and sound wisdom” who offers insight and strength (Prov 8:14), leading people along “the way of righteousness, the paths of justice” (8:20). She is also portrayed as the one who worked beside God to bring the created world into being (8:22-31).

Wisdom then appears in later Jewish literature, including Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), always as the teacher, instructing people in God’s ways, instructing and guiding people of faith through their journeys in life.

We have noted in earlier blogs that this Gospel, the book of origins, came into being in a community which found itself in competition with regard to other streams of Judaism. (See the blog posts listed below.) This Gospel, it would seem, seeks to validate the interpretation of scripture promoted by the followers of Jesus over and above other understandings and interpretations of the Law.

Who better to call upon for such validating support than the master exegete, the authoritative teacher, Jesus, the one to whom “all things have been revealed by the heavenly Father”, the one who speaks with the voice of Wisdom herself?

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

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Black Lives Matter. Now—and Then.

#BlackLivesMatter. The importance of this hashtag has been highlighted in recent weeks.

First, it gained attention in the USA, where yet another incident of the unwarranted treatment of a black man and the resulting unjust death of that man, George Floyd, led to widespread protests, resistance, and riots across the country.

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter originated in 2013, after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager, was killed in an argument in Florida. The man charged with his order was acquitted, resulting in the community response that saw #BlackLivesMatter gain traction.

See https://www.adl.org/education/educator-resources/lesson-plans/black-lives-matter-from-hashtag-to-movement

The hashtag has also had prominence in Australia, especially in recent weeks. After the death in America of George Floyd, a black man killed while in police custody in Minneapolis in early June, the BLM movement became active once again. The widespread unrest in the USA was clearly evident.

Around the same time, reports in Australia were indicating that there were 434 people—black men and women, indigenous Australians—who have died whilst in police custody, since 1991. (That was the year when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody ended.) And there had been no conviction of anyone responsible for any of those deaths over all that time.

See my blog on this at https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/09/racism-and-reconciliation/

So #BlackLivesMatter. We know this now, in our own time. This movement has generated widespread public support. The Pew Research Centre in the USA has reported their recent findings, noting that “two-thirds of U.S. adults say they support the movement, with 38% saying they strongly support it”.

See https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/06/12/amid-protests-majorities-across-racial-and-ethnic-groups-express-support-for-the-black-lives-matter-movement/

All of this points to the need for ongoing, continuing, relentless lobbying, advocating for First Peoples, protesting injustices and working towards a more just situation in our society, today. Without question, this is a critical priority.

Alongside that, let me suggest the importance of remembering that #BlackLivesMatter when we turn to scripture, when we listen to the Bible being read in church or in Bible study groups, or when we open its pages ourselves and read the stories it contains. Do we imagine the skin colour of the people who are in these stories? Do we remember that the vast majority of them are dark-skinned?

Some years back, an enterprising forensic artist, Richard Neave, created a model of a Galilean man for a BBC documentary, “Son of God”. Neave took an actual skull found in the region (not claiming that it was actually the face of Jesus) and built a model of what the person might have looked like.

The end result was not the blue-eyed, blonde-haired, “gentle Jesus meek and mild” of traditional Sunday School storytelling. The darker colouring of the skin (historically accurate) caused controversy at the time (and still does, whenever I use it with groups). The aim was to prompt people to consider how Jesus was a man of his time and place—a darker-skinned Middle Eastern man.

See https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-general/reconstructing-jesus-using-science-flesh-out-face-religion-004942

There’s a more detailed discussion of “what did Jesus look like?” by Dr Joan Taylor, of Kings College London, at https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35120965

Just this week I came across a fascinating art project, seeking to depict the well-known characters of the Bible as the black-skinned Middle Easterners that they were. You can see the full gallery of art created by photographer James C. Lewis in the “Icons of the Bible” gallery at

https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/2-cornelius-lewis

Take some time to explore these images. As you do, remember that just as we know that #BlackLivesMatter now, today, so as we travel back in time, in our imaginations, into the world of the Bible, #BlackLivesMatter in those stories. We learn from these tales about these ancient black people. We gain guidance for living as faithful disciples today from these dark-skinned people of these ancient stories.

#BlackLivesMatter. Now—and Then.

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When you come together (3) … wait for one another (1 Cor 11)

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. 1 Cor 11:33-24

In these words, Paul instructs the Corinthians—that raggle taggle group of disordered participants in an unruly worship gathering—to wait for one another, to ensure that they are all on the same page, to be committed to constructive group gatherings. Every member is important. Every voice is valued. Every need must be understood and responded to.

In the Uniting Church, we have adopted a process known as the consensus model. In that model, according to the Manual for Meetings, we value

listening skills: help us understand what another person is saying and develop new ways of responding.

conflict-resolution skills: enable us to deal with the emotional turbulence that typically accompanies conflict … these skills are likely to foster closer relationships.

collaborative problem-solving skills: help to resolve conflicting needs in such a way that all parties are satisfied.

(Manual for Meetings 1.6)

In the overview guidelines provided to people who chair meetings of the councils of our church (Appendix B), the guidance is clear:

“Treat everyone’s contribution as valuable, and be expectant that the Spirit is guiding the Church”.

I have heard many complaints about the consensus model, which although we have used it for some decades now, is still seen in a negative light by some people. Elizabeth and I have spent much time talking about such complaints over the years, exploring why that may be so.

One of the factors that plays a role in feeding these complaints, we believe, is gender. Have we paused to reflect on the role that our gender plays in our meetings process? What unspoken, unexplored assumptions might we have, about the place we have, as a female, or as a male, in the dynamics of a meeting? What expectations do we have about how we contribute to those meetings in which we participate?

A recent study that Elizabeth found online has some potent messages for us.

https://magazine.byu.edu/article/when-women-dont-speak/

The study analysed “the female experience in a top-10, predominately male collegiate accounting program—a program where the women, overall, matriculated with higher Grade Point Averages and more leadership experience than their male peers. The students move through the program on teams, and administrators wanted to know how best to build them.”

The students were put into mixed gender groups. Some had equal numbers of men and women. Some had only one woman. Some had only one man. The researchers observed the dynamics in each of the groups. They found clear problems:

1. Unequal talking time. At best, outnumbered women in the study spoke three-quarters of the time a man spoke; on average, women spoke just two-thirds as much as a man.

2. Routine interruptions. Put a woman alone with four men, and 70 percent of the interruptions she receives from men are negative. Compare that with having four women in the room: here, just 20 percent of the interruptions women receive from men are negative.

3. Limited influence. The same conditions that create disproportionate silence by women also create disproportionate authority by men.

They then explored what took place when groups employed a consensus model that worked to build unanimous support of all participants for any decision made. They determined that this meant:

Female talking time increased for women in the minority—a lone woman participated nearly as much as a man.

Positive interruptions—interjections that affirm and validate, like “Yeah” and “I agree”—were significantly increased. Such positive interruptions tripled for women in the minority. If the group sends signals that build confidence, women tend to participate more.

The influence gap narrowed for a lone woman—she had almost as much of a shot as a man at being voted the most influential member by her group.

How do we hear these results? How do they inform our practices? What must we commit to doing as a result of exploring this research?

What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 1 Cor 14:26

Building up the body is the bottom line in what Paul instructs those raggle taggle Corinthians. Valuing what each individual contributes to the whole is important. Ensuring that we function as a cohesive groupis the clear focus—whether that be as Church Council, as Elders, as Pastoral Relations Committee, as Standing Committee, as Presbytery-in-Council, or as a Congregational meeting.

The bottom line that the study proposes, is that men need to listen more, women need to speak more, men need to practice positive support for women’s voices, groups need to work hard to operate by consensus, participants need to avoid stereotyping (“you’re a woman, what do you know about this?”), and group leaders need to focus on positive participation processes.

This is what it takes to develop a constructive, cohesive, respectful environment for decision-making.

May we work to ensure processes that honours the voice of every participant, that respects female contribution and participation, and that develops consensus outcomes.

*****

[Of course, the irony is that as I have juxtaposed this study on the importance of women’s voices with words from the latter part of 1 Corinthians, which is precisely where the text informs us that women are to “keep silent in church” (1 Cor 14:34-35). We always need to bring a critical perspective into that we approach texts in scripture. We always need to deconstruct the ideology and discover the fundamental values at work. As in scripture interpretation, so also in meeting dynamics.]

******

A prayer

As we meet

Help us to listen with care and patience

Help me to remain quiet and attentive

Help us to speak in appropriate and helpful ways

Help me not to interrupt, but to wait

Help us not to feel intimidated, but rather valued

Help me to focus on discerning a common mind

Help us to participate in positive ways

Help us to be your people, O God.

Amen.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

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In memory of James Dunn (1939–2020)

Elizabeth and I heard the sad news this morning, of the death of James Dunn, at the age of 80 years. To those who read the fruits of his professional work in biblical scholarship, he was the pre-eminent New Testament scholar, J.D.G. Dunn. To those who had the fortune to know him in person, he was the gregariously ever-cheerful Jimmy Dunn.

This sad news rekindled memories for us of some times in the past when we had encounters with Jimmy and his wife, Meta. Because he was willing to take on the daunting task of supervising Elizabeth as a doctoral student, we travelled across the globe to spend the calendar year 1997 in Durham, in the north of England. It was a wonderful year for us, in so many ways.

Meeting Jimmy in person and getting to know him and Meta was an enriching experience. Participating in the weekly New Testament seminar for postgraduate students and the biblical faculty of Durham University, under the genial chairing of Jimmy, with his distinctive Scots accent and his rapier-sharp mind, was an equally enriching experience.

Having his eagle eye scrutinise our work in biblical studies (both of us—Elizabeth in her regular supervisory sessions, myself on the few occasions when I presented in the seminar) was a wonderfully deepening and expanding experience.

The controversial nature of Elizabeth’s chosen thesis topic (on Matthew’s Gospel) could have led to difficult supervisory sessions, especially as the Dunn interpretation and the Raine interpretation were not at all the same! Instead, Elizabeth had enriching and stimulating sessions with him as supervisor—a great model of how to engage in discussion across differences.

Meta Dunn, Rev Dr Philip Luscombe, Rev Elizabeth Oliver,
and Professor Jimmy Dunn, Durham, 1997

It was because Elizabeth had worked intensively with him during that year in Durham, that Jimmy agreed to include Sydney on his trip to “the Far East”, as he called it, in 2003. He planned his tour, lasting a couple of months, so that he spent a week or so in various locations in this part of the world, visiting his “Far East” students. Sydney was his only Australian stop—and that was because his student, Elizabeth Raine, was there!

Jimmy and Elizabeth, sorting “questions from the floor”
during the UTC–SCE Seminar Week 2003

So United Theological College and the School of Continuing Education benefited from Elizabeth’s connection and thus Jimmy’s presence. He gave a series of lectures on the oral traditions about Jesus, during the annual Seminar Week of the college. Rob McFarlane, Elizabeth, Jione Havea and I worked to ensure that we had a creative and productive week. Other biblical and theological minds joined in the panel discussions. Elizabeth had scored a magnificent coup for the college!

That year, 2003, Seminar Week attracted the largest number of people for many years, and probably the attendance numbers have not been matched in subsequent years. People of cautiously conservative, liberally oriented, and thoroughgoing critical perspectives, gathered each day, to listen, discuss, debate, and learn, as Professor Dunn lectured, responded to questions, and engaged in banter with people during the breaks.

Elizabeth Raine, Jimmy Dunn, Jione Havea, Jungmin Soo,
Dean Drayton, and Rob McFarlane, panel discussion
at North Parramatta, Seminar Week 2003

My earliest awareness of J.D.G. Dunn the scholar was when I was a theological student, in the late 1970s, at UTC. The people in my cohort of students candidating for ministry were, with only one exception, much more conservative than me in their theology. The charismatic renewal movement had influenced quite a number of them. Their focus was on the work of the Holy Spirit—tongues and prophecies, choruses and exorcisms, joyful and exuberant freedom in worship—these were what my fellow students appreciated. And exposure to the rigours of critical theological and biblical scholarship was hard for a number of them.

I remember that, for a time, the name of James Dunn was to the fore in many student common room discussions at that time. His work on the Spirit was gaining much attention. Here was a rigorously critical biblical scholar who took seriously the experiences of charismatic renewal and highlighted the place of the Sprit, bringing giftings and enthusiasms, in the Christian life. He was able to bridge the gulf between charismatic experience and thoughtful scholarship. That was a fine gift to possess.

Jump forward around 15 years, and I was back at UTC, as a member of the faculty, with responsibility for teaching New Testament subjects. In the intervening years, I had studied in America, been exposed to Jewish thinking, started a local Jewish-Christian dialogue group, and gained a strong interest in interfaith relationships. From those experiences, I set out to develop a new subject, grounded in the study of biblical texts, exploring the origins of the movement we know as Christianity, and tracing the ways it became a discrete entity separate from Judaism.

I gave the subject the name “The Partings of the Ways”—a deliberate choice to include two plurals, for the ways by which the emerging movement diverged from the parent body were multiple, diverse, and complex. The book by J.D.G. Dunn (with the same title) proved to be the foundation for the whole subject. If I recommended to,students that they buy any book, this was the one. Jimmy Dunn had provided the detailed exegetical and theological foundation for a subject that I loved teaching for the next 15 years.

So it was an experience with multiple levels of delight when Elizabeth and I lived in Durham, spending each day in the Theology Department of Durham University, getting to know the wonderful biblical faculty with Jimmy Dunn, Stephen Barton and Loren Stuckenbruck as New Testament professors.

How glad I was that Jimmy Dunn took on Elizabeth as student—meaning that I could spend the year researching Luke-Acts as she worked on her thesis on Matthew under his guidance. And that led, in due course, to a later invitation to me—a surprise phone call from England, quite out of the blue!—to contribute the commentary on Acts to the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, for which Jimmy Dunn was co-editor.

And it was a double delight when Jimmy and Meta travelled down under six years later, spending the week at UTC and then seeing the sights of Sydney with Elizabeth and myself, before heading back home to the UK. Knowing him personally, and professionally, has enriched both of our lives. It is with great sadness that we heard the news of his death.

Meta and Jimmy at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, Sydney, in April 2003

Baptism in the Holy Spirit, 1970

Jesus and the Spirit, 1975

Christology in the making, 1980

Romans 1-8, 9-16, 1988

Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 1990

The Partings of the Ways between Christianity and Judaism, 1991

The Epistle to the Galatians, 1993

The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 1996

The Acts of the Apostles, 1996

The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 1998

The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul (ed.), 2003

Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, 2003

Christianity in the Making: Vol. 1, Jesus Remembered, 2003

A New Perspective On Jesus: What The Quest For The Historical Jesus Missed, 2005

The New Perspective On Paul, 2007

Christianity in the Making: Vol. 2, Beginning from Jerusalem, 2008

Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels, 2011

Christianity in the Making: Vol. 3, Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity, 2015

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Paul’s vision of “One in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28) and the Uniting Church

A sermon on the anniversary of the Uniting Church (for the Project Reconnect resource)

Galatians 3:23–27

On 22 June every year, across this continent, people gather to celebrate the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia. Today, rather than address the passages set in the lectionary, I want to turn to a section of one of Paul’s letters, from our New Testament. It’s from the latter part of chapter 3 of his letter to the church in Galatia.

It is good to have this passage as our focus. It speaks to who we want to be, together, as the church. It is a word for our times. In fact, I think that this passage could well express the fundamental calling of the Uniting Church.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in the midst of an intense and ferocious debate within the early movement that had been started by Jesus. It was a time of great transition. Things were changing. Old practices were being challenged. New practices were being proposed.

In Galatians, those who advocated Circumcision came under criticism. In that place, as in many other places where the good news of the Jesus movement had been proclaimed, baptism was being proposed as a new ritual, to mark the new faith of the growing numbers of the followers of Jesus.

The argument about circumcision has behind it the issue as to how much, or how little, of the Jewish Law should apply to believers within that movement – those whom we now call the early Christians. This was an incredibly contentious issue at the time, which caused much dispute. Galatians is a letter that was created in the heat of this intense debate; so, at many points, it bears more evidence of rash fury than it does of considered reflection.

Paul’s language in Galatians is ferocious. He accuses the Galatian believers of being fools who have been bewitched by deceivers; he accuses them of biting and devouring one another; he criticises them for urging Gentile converts to be circumcised and to adopt full adherence to the Torah. This is no gentle, reflective spiritual meditation; this is full-on partisan polemics!

And yet, right within the midst of this turbulent flow of argument and disputation, we come across comments that provide cause for reflection; ideas that do invite deeper consideration; insights that do offer the opportunity for spiritual growth to those who would read, ponder, and reflect.

One of these passages is just two well-known verses from the third chapter of this letter: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

Here, Paul sets out a vision for people of faith; a vision for believers within community; we would say, a vision for the church. It could well be our central mission statement, as the Uniting Church in Australia, for we so much value grace-filled inclusiveness, we so strongly reject divisive and judgemental stances, we so yearn to live in accord with this grand vision, where all belong to a welcoming and loving community.

The vision of the church for Paul is one of harmony, concord, unity. Paul envisages great changes within the community of faith, because of Jesus. If the reality failed to achieve this change, nevertheless the vision stood firm; Paul envisaged a community that would bring together strikingly disparate opposites.

In this community, the religious differences of Jew and Gentile would matter no more; the different levels of social status, of people living in freedom and those serving as slaves, would become irrelevant; and the societal roles and expectations associated with the gender of a person —  male or female – would no longer function as dominant. These three conditions of difference would melt away, within the community of faith, into a cohesive unity of co-operation and interconnection. This was a huge change to took place all those centuries ago.

Indeed, as we ponder these three key instances of the way in which difference would disappear, we might even push it further: is this vision not simply one for the church, but even one for society as a whole? Might it be that the vision, the hope, which Paul set out in his letter to the Galatians, could be brought about within the patterns of living and relating right across his society? Was Paul passionate, not only about partisan points of religious practice, but also – and more significantly – about visionary ideals for human society as a whole?

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – this unity within the church might well become a model for harmony within society. Certainly, that is the way that the church has interpreted this statement in the centuries since Paul wrote it.

The church of the late first century continued the battle begun in the time of Paul; over time, Jews and gentiles were equally welcomed within most of the faith communities of the ancient world.

The church of the Enlightenment was at the forefront of the movement to end the slave trade, to enable black Africans to live unhindered by white masters seeking to profit from selling them as slaves.

And the western church from the later part of the 20th century has been active alongside many other community organisations to ensure that the opportunities available to women were not less than those available to men.

In each of these battles, the church at large has understood Paul’s words to the Galatians to be words for both the church, and for the society as a whole. It is a grand vision. May it be a reality for you, in your community of faith, and amongst the people of the place where you live, sleep, eat, work, and rest.

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

+++++++

Some questions to consider:

What did you find to be the most significant idea in this message?

Can you describe a time when you experienced the “unity in Christ” that Paul wrote about?

In what way does your congregation today model the vision of inclusive acceptance for all that Paul wrote about?

In what way might you be able to show that vision to the people where you live, sleep, eat, work, and rest?

To read more on the distinctive contributions of the Uniting Church to Australian society, you may wish to read my blogs at https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-i/ and https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-ii/

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/

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“We weigh’d and run into the Harbour”. Cook, the Endeavour, and the Guugu Yimithirr

On 11 June 1770, Lt James Cook and his ship, HMS Endeavour, ran afoul of the Great Barrier Reef and seriously damage was done to the ship’s hull. To avoid sinking, all the crew and stores had to be offloaded in order to free the Endeavour from the reef.

42 year old Cook held the rank of Lieutenant at the time; he was to be promoted to Commander on his return to England in 1771, and then promoted to Post-Captain in 1775. (See https://www.captaincooksociety.com/home/captain-cook-society/faq)

Cook provides a dramatic account in his journal for that day, writing “Upon my sounding the 2nd time round the Ship I found the most water a Stern, and therefore had this Anchor carried out upon the Starboard Quarter, and hove upon it a very great Strain; which was to no purpose, the Ship being quite fast, upon which we went to work to lighten her as fast as possible, which seem’d to be the only means we had left to get her off.

“As we went ashore about the Top of High Water we not only started water, but threw overboard our Guns, Iron and Stone Ballast, Casks, Hoop Staves, Oil Jarrs, decay’d Stores, etc.; many of these last Articles lay in the way at coming at Heavier. All this time the Ship made little or no Water.

“At 11 a.m., being high Water as we thought, we try’d to heave her off without Success, she not being afloat by a foot or more, notwithstanding by this time we had thrown overboard 40 or 50 Tuns weight. As this was not found sufficient we continued to Lighten her by every method we could think off; as the Tide fell the ship began to make Water as much as two pumps could free: at Noon she lay with 3 or 4 Streakes heel to Starboard.”

Cook needed to find safe waters for his ship, so he sailed his damaged 368 ton vessel towards the closest river he could find. After trying for some days, he was eventually able to bring the ship into safety.

He wrote in his journal, on 17 June 1770: “Most part strong Gales at South-East, with some heavy showers of rain in the P.M. At 6 a.m., being pretty moderate, we weigh’d and run into the Harbour, in doing of which we run the Ship ashore Twice.

“The first time she went off without much Trouble, but the Second time she Stuck fast; but this was of no consequence any farther than giving us a little trouble, and was no more than what I expected as we had the wind. While the Ship lay fast we got down the Foreyard, Foretopmast, booms, etc., overboard, and made a raft of them alongside.”

The crew set camp and prepared to repair the hull of the ship. Cook’s stay in that harbour was to be his longest onshore stay for his entire voyage. It would not be until early August that he was able to put out to sea once more.

He later named the river “Endeavour” after his ship. It was the only river in Australia that he would name (he named bays, harbours, headlands, mountains—but only one river!). The town which was later established near this site is named Cooktown, in honour of Cook. The mountain that rises behind the river, would become Mount Cook, and the mountain next to it, Mount Saunders. The visit of Cook and his ship would be impressed into white understandings of history. It stands as a seminal moment in white Australian consciousness.

However, the place already had a name, known and used by the Guugu Yimithirr people, who had lived there for millennia: it was Gangaar. The river was Waalumbaal Birri, the mountain was Gaya, the nearby mountain was known as Milngaar. These were the names given and used by the Guugu Yimithirr.

And they called Cook and his men the Wangaar: ancestors who had returned to their descendants, ghostly white as they came from another realm. They perceived their arrival as some form of spiritual encounter. They were, initially, reverent, apprehensive, and deferential. These weeks would be remembered within their stories, passed down over the generations, as well.

(Here I am drawing from the fascinating account of the encounter at Gangaar constructed by historian Mark McKenna, in his book, From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories. See https://www.mup.com.au/books/from-the-edge-paperback-softback and a brief review at https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/2016/10/31/the-edge/14764500003843)

This was the sixth place where members of the Endeavour’s crew had set foot on the land of Australia: first at Botany Bay on 29 April, and then at locations which Cook named in his journal: Bustard Bay, Thirsty Sound, Cleveland Bay, and Cape Grafton. The names he gave are retained in contemporary Australian society. The names by which these places had been known throughout millennia of inhabitation by the indigenous peoples, are largely lost to our knowing today.

(On the impact of Cook’s names and the search to find the indigenous names of places further south on his journey, see my posts at https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/23/they-appeard-to-be-of-a-very-dark-or-black-colour-cook-hms-endeavour-and-the-yuin-people-and-country/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/29/three-canoes-lay-upon-the-beach-the-worst-i-think-i-ever-saw-james-cook-at-botany-bay-29-april-1770/)

Today, 17 June, is when the Endeavour sailed into the safety of that river. It remained there for three weeks, as repairs were undertaken. During the time that the Endeavour was laid up, being repaired, Joseph Banks and others from the ship’s crew were diligently exploring the land, collecting botanical specimens. Banks recorded the sightings and the collections made in his journal.

Joseph Banks

A local tourist website portrays the significance of this time for tourists today, in this way:

“Banks and his team of botanists spent their whole time exploring and discovering many botanical and natural history wonders which were totally new to science at the time. Banks and Solander found a large portion of Endeavour’s East Coast botanical collection while here. They discovered many new species of insects, fish, bugs and butterflies.

Daniel Solander

“They saw, for the first time in this country, a crocodile, dingo, flying fox, and many species of lizards, snakes, fish and insects. The crew fished and collected giant clams and turtle for food. They found green vegetables and yams to supplement their diet.”

(http://www.cooktownandcapeyork.com/do/history/cookslanding)

One of Sydney Parkinson’s botanical drawings

Indeed, this period of time has imprinted itself into the Australian consciousness in another way. It was here, at Gangaar, that white men first saw a kangaroo. The unusual animal was duly shot and killed by the British, who then cooked and ate it. Sydney Parkinson, an artist working with Banks and Solander, drew a sketch of the animal.

Sydney Parkinson’s sketch of a ganguuru

Later, when contact with the Guugu Yimithirr people had progressed to a reasonable level of communication, the name of the animal was understood to be ganguuru—which has lived on in the Australian language as kangaroo. This was one of 130 words recorded by Parkinson, whose diligence has provided a documented collection of the basics of this language.

These three weeks thus have significance for the development of botanical understanding in the late 18th century, and for a unique contribution to the Australian language (and psyche).

But there was something else of great significance that took place during that period of three weeks, as the men of the Endeavour engaged in ongoing encounters with the Guugu Yimithirr people of that area.

And that’s another story for a later day ….

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/25/on-remembering-cook-and-flinders-and-trim-bungaree-and-yemmerrawanne/

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Going “back” to church—what will our future look like? (4)

We got an email from the church office last week. It said that “worship services are resuming” in our church building. There was much excitement! It has been so many months since we have been able to be in our lovely church building, with all our wonderful friends, for times of worship.

It would be great to see our friends again in person—and to share in the prayers and the singing when we all gather together—and to hear our minister in the flesh once again. It seems like it has been such a long time since we have been able to do this.

Don’t get me wrong, it has been great to hear her speak each week online; but there is nothing quite like being there, in person, with all the others in the building, to soak up the atmosphere. It’s like a weekly “hit” that keeps me going for the next week. It’s not the same, online. Not quite the same vibe, the same buzz. Ah well …

Anyway, after cheering was heard throughout the household about this great news, we read on through the rest of the email. “Back to normal”, we had thought. “Back to what we used to do.” Hmmm. Maybe—maybe not.

It seems that worship will not be quite like it used to be. No single service, for a start. There are going to be three services each Sunday morning, staggered by 45 minutes. So we need to book in advance for the one we want. 8:30 for the early birds. 9:15 for those who want the regular time slot. And 10:00am for those willing to have a slow start. OK, not a bad idea. But we won’t all be together. That’s a bit sad.

And each service will be just 30 minutes long. That feels like a rip-off. What, not a full hour? This will take some adjusting to get used to, I reckon. Anyway, we registered for the 9:15 slot. Trying to get back, as much as possible, to “normal”. It will be great to be there, back in church!

Except then another email came back, saying that the 9:15 service was already full. How could that be? Our church easily seats over 200 people (well, if you make sure you fill up each pew and set out some extra seats down the aisles.)

Seems that we can’t have more than 30 people in the building at any one time. There’s talk about 4 square metres and 1.5 metres apart and social distancing and so on. You know, the stuff that the PM and his chief honcho medical advisor guy have been talking about. In church. In our church. Who would have thought it?

So we are now going to the 8:30am service. Harumph. But better than waiting until 10am, I guess.

And the email also said, please arrive 10 minutes before the scheduled time, and queue outside the east door. What is that? I have been going to this church for years now, and have always used the south door, the one that opens right onto the street. Something about not confusing those arriving with those leaving, making them use separate doors. Oh well, if that’s what it takes ….

And, then, the email said, when you get the the east door, you will be allocated seat numbers, and you will need to go directly to those seats—do not stop to talk to anyone else, do not mill about in the foyer. And that we will find that the seats are arranged in a different way inside, so we will not be able to sit in our usual spot. Wow! Now that will be quite different! Sitting in a different place! That will be hard. And I can’t imagine church without all the catching up with people beforehand. That’s a bit of a downer, really.

And the email also said, “no singing”. Seriously: “no singing”! How will church be church, if we can’t all sing together? It is going to be one weird experience, I reckon, in that building, all sitting apart from one another, not singing—not even hugging our friends when we see them, no chance to say hello. It will be weird.

And then, the last straw: “when the service ends, please remain in your seats until you are asked to leave, then move straight to the south door to exit the building”. To keep people entering separate from people departing. How anti-social is that!

And there is more: “Please do not congregate on the footpath, or in the car park, after the worship service. Please leave the site as quickly as possible.” No morning cuppa. No chat with friends in our small group. No hanging around in the kitchen to scab extra goodies for the week. No socialising. None at all!

It won’t be church, will it? Not really church. I fear that we are in for a rather sterile experience. And we will have to use the hand sanitisers when we come in, and when we go out. Aargh! I hate the smell of that stuff! But no hand sanitising, no entry permitted, we are told. So there’s no question about it. That’s just the way of things everywhere, these days.

So, off we go. In to church. Then back out again. Will it be worth it? We’ll give it one go. And then, if it is not any good—back to looking at services online, I guess. Ah well. Such is life.

(… the views expressed in this piece come from a fictional character, solely the product of my imagination …)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/03/greet-one-another-2-cor-13-but-no-holy-kissing-and-no-joyful-singing/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/29/worship-like-the-first-christians-what-will-our-future-look-like-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

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“Even the hairs of your head are all counted.” (Matt 10:30)

Who goes around counting the hairs on the heads of people? I don’t, that’s for sure! Although it would be a lot easier for anyone wanting to count my particular head of hair (or not), than for other people.

But God does, according to this week’s Gospel passage. God counts the hairs on our heads. Or so we are told. It’s part of a speech by Jesus when he assures his followers that their lives are of value (Matt 10:28-31).

Now, I think the idea of God taking time to count the number of hairs on the heads of every single person alive today beggars belief. Think about it: 7.8 billion people (that’s 7,800,000,000 people—quite a lot!), each with one head, with approximately 100,000 hairs on each of those head—that’s 7,800,000,000,000,000 hairs to count.

At one hair per second, that’s 248,015,873 years. (Thank goodness for Google!!) 248 million years! And that’s just for the current population. It doesn’t count those who have already lived. Or those who might be alive when those 248 million years of counting have been completed.

Of course, we could reduce the number by arguing that there are some (like me) with much less than 100,000 hairs on their head. But that group is still a small minority amongst the 7.8 billion alive today.

And we could reduce it further by arguing that this speech of Jesus was addressed to believers who were following him—at that time, and then on across the ensuing years up to our time. That reduces the number of hairs to be counted quite a lot. But that is a problematic principle for interpretation: it means we take everything as applicable only to those who were part of the first audience, and not to anyone else later on.

All of which goes to the point I want to make about the words of Jesus in this passage: Exaggeration! Exaggeration is a common rhetorical technique employed by Jesus. Jesus exaggerates on a number of occasions in his teachings. Think about it:

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”. (Matt 5:29) Who obeys that command?

Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Matt 7:3) Who has ever had a log of wood in their eye? A speck, yes; a splinter, maybe— but not a log.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees as “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). Again: imagine swallowing a camel. Urgh.

For truly I say to you, if you have faith like a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20). Mountains moving? Perhaps possible in a massive seismic shift event, but not your normal run of the mill happening.

Or the Samaritan woman, who spoke of Jesus and said: “He told me all that I ever did” (John 4:39). Had Jesus really told that woman everything that she had ever done in her life? No, she was using hyperbole to make her point.

“John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:4-5). What, every single person?? Again, exaggeration, overreach, hyperbole. Typical of Jesus—and typical of the Gospel writers.

We do this in our everyday speech: “He’s got tons of money.” (have you weighed it?) “He is older than the hills.” ( were talking geological eras, here) “I’m so hungry I can eat a horse.” (OK, lets not go there.) “His brain is the size of a pea.” (Or there.) “My feet are killing me.” (Says the person who is still alive.)

Get the point? Exaggeration, hyperbole, is a common rhetorical technique. We use it. We find it in scripture. It’s a reminder not to take everything spoken, or written, absolutely literally. That’s a really important principle for interpretation. For this passage—and for everyone time we turn to scripture.

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“Go nowhere among the Gentiles” (Matt 10:5). The mission of Jesus in the book of origins.

Jesus had a mission to the Gentiles. The mission to the Gentiles was “the fundamental missionary dimension of Jesus’ earthly ministry”—so wrote the guru of modern missiological studies, David Bosch (Transforming Mission, p. 30). And thus, every theology of mission since that paradigm-shifting work of 1991 has echoed this claim as a given fact.

But when we turn to this week’s Gospel passage, we read that Jesus instructed his followers: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5-6). What is going on?

This is a very distinctive claim to make. Other New Testament books have a different take—Jesus did engage with Gentiles, even with Samaritans, and did encourage a mission to the wider Gentile world. And plenty of New Testament texts can be pulled out to support this claim.

Not in this Gospel, however. Jesus does not go amongst Gentiles. Or Samaritans. Just as the disciples of Jesus are entirely drawn from Jewish people in Matthew’s Gospel, so also Matthew makes it very clear that Jesus’ mission is “only to the lost sheep of Israel”—that is, exclusively to the Jewish people.

Elizabeth and I have had many conversations about this aspect of the Gospel according to Matthew. She has undertaken thorough research into the Jewish nature of this Gospel, and especially on how Jesus related to Gentiles. What follows is drawn from our conversations and particularly from the research of Elizabeth, as we have written this material together.

*****

The statement about going “only to the lost sheep of Israel” (10:5–6), in the mission directives to the twelve disciples, is clearly an addition to the original Markan passage (Mark 6:8–11) that Matthew used as a source. In this statement, Jesus directs that Gentile (and Samaritan) towns are to be avoided.

There is a second statement to this effect in this Gospel, when Jesus encounters a Gentile woman on the northern borders of Galilee. This also is a clear redactional addition to an account already found in Mark (Mark 7:24–30). In Matthew’s version, he declares, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). There is nothing of this in Mark’s report of this encounter.

A third Matthean statement about mission, the “Great Commission” (28:16–20), is completely different, as the disciples are commanded to go out and actively “make disciples of all nations”. This command correlates with nothing at all in the body of the Gospel, during the earthly period of Jesus’ life. The mission to the Gentiles is an entirely post-resurrection phenomenon.

So the two major statements of mission to Israel in this Gospel, as well as other accounts of the activities and ministry of Jesus, contain a number of significant differences to that of Mark and Luke. The ministry of both Jesus and the disciples is geographically quite limited in Matthew’s account.

*****

Jesus rarely sets foot on any Gentile soil in this Gospel. In Matt 15:29–31, there is no tour through Sidon and the Decapolis as is reported in Mark (Mark 7:31–37), and no missionary activity undertaken by the demoniac after the demons have been exorcised from him (Mark 5:1–20; compare Matt 8:28–34).

The Matthean Jesus never goes near Samaria (contrast with Luke 17:11–19 and John 4:1– 42), nor does he speak favourably about Samaritans, as he does in Luke (Luke 10:25–37), prefiguring the Lukan mission to Samaria (Acts 1:8; 8:5-25). The activities of Jesus and the disciples are concentrated in the Galilean area, and on the Jewish people.

In Matthew‘s account, there are no Gentiles who are intentionally sought out by either Jesus or the disciples. Rather, there are just a select number of Gentiles who seek out Jesus. They come to him; he does not approach them or seek them out. (I am indebted to Elizabeth for this striking observation.) In two instances, it is their faith which includes them in the kingdom of God (the centurion in Capernaum, 8:10, 13; the Canaanite woman in Tyre and Sidon, 15:28).

Ultimately, Jesus says to the Jews, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (21:43). He is not here saying that the kingdom will be opened to the Gentiles per se; his words are directed towards the chief priests and Pharisees (as 21:45 indicates).

It is those Jews who “produce the fruits of the kingdom” who will be given entry to the kingdom. Those who do “produce the fruits of the kingdom” include those normally considered as “unclean” by the Pharisees, and therefore outcasts or rejects from Judaism (9:10–13; 21:31, 32).

Jesus’ discourses and acts of healing, in general, involve only Jews. His contact with Gentiles, when it occurs in the Gospel, is always highly significant, and designed to illuminate some aspect of Jesus’ teaching or person regarding authority, inheritance of the kingdom, discipleship or messiahship.

It is noteworthy that those occasions when a person is asked whether they have faith before Jesus will heal them, are only when Gentiles are involved. Jesus readily heals Jewish people without requesting a prior faith statement (4:24; 8:3; 8:15; 12:13; 12:22; 14:36; 15:31; 21:14).

*****

More recent Matthean scholarship has recognised the Jewish character of this Gospel, and a consensus is emerging that this work was most likely written for a community that was still immersed within its Jewish tradition. It appears that members of this community had been ostracised and persecuted by other Jews (including their families) who did not believe Jesus to be the Messiah. They did not withdraw voluntarily from their local synagogues, but still operated as a group under Jewish authority (10:17; 23:34).

This community is still directly under Jewish law; the clear words of Jesus that are remembered and repeated are “the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it” (23:1-3). That law is not to be abolished, but fulfilled (5:17); it remains “until all is accomplished” (5:18).

In the teachings of Jesus which are recalled in this community, their faithfulness in the midst of persecution is valued (5:10–12); they report that Jesus identifies this persecution as taking place “on my account” (5:11; see also 10:18, 39; 16:25; 19:29). Thus the difference between this community and many other Jews of the time was the belief that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

Judaism was in a state of flux in the middle to late decades of the first century. The pivotal moment looks, from the benefit of hindsight, to have been the a Jewish-Roman War of 66-74 CE, and particularly the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple which took place in 70 CE, in the middle of this war.

Things were different after the Temple was rendered unusable. That is often taken as a marker for understanding events in the period of the New Testament, certainly, it is a key marker for understanding the major shifts that took place within Judaism—with no Temple in place, the importance of synagogues as gathering places in towns and cities across Israel (and beyond) grew.

What little evidence we do have from this general period indicates that there were a number of sectarian groups within Judaism, which were contesting with each other for recognition and influence. During this period, the Pharisees were becoming increasingly important as an alternative to the Temple cult, and emerging as the dominant Jewish religious movement. Their power base was moved from Jerusalem and spread throughout the area. They were well-placed to take advantage, as it were, of the situation when the Temple no longer served as a focal point for Jews.

Nevertheless, many Jews, particularly in the Diaspora, were not yet “Pharisaic”—they did not see their faith in the same way as the Pharisees. There were many disputes amongst Jewish communities as to the correct way of seeing things, and some of these disputes were quite bitter.

Many groups claimed to be the ‘true Israel’ as distinct from other groups, who were false leaders and teachers, and who failed to follow the Law correctly. The Law became the most accessible means of revealing God’s will for Israel after the destruction of the Temple, and most of these groups focused on what they believed to be the true interpretation and application of it.

The synagogues were the places where the Law was studied and discussed, where it was preached and understood. The synagogue was where the scribes and Pharisees most naturally operated. The Pharisees thus grew in significance over time. They had established synagogues decades before Jesus was born. After 70 CE, synagogues became the key gathering place for Jews, both within Israel, and across the Dispersion.

*****

Matthew’s Gospel reflects one such debate, between the authorities in the synagogues and the followers of Jesus. Biblical scholars suggest that this Gospel should be read alongside of other literature from after the time of the destruction of the Temple—books such as 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, and the Psalms of Solomon. This literature is trying to envisage what Judaism should be like in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple. Understanding and living by the Law is central in each of these documents.

Thus, although Matthew’s Gospel has been seen to have played an important role in the formation of early Christian theology, a more natural interpretation is to locate this Gospel within the first century Jewish debates about how the Law is best to be understood and applied.

These debates took on even more intensity after 70 CE. The survival of Judaism without the Temple depended on the faithful practice of the Law: all of its commandments and instructions. The polemic in Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees, and the warnings that are uttered to Israel, show that Matthew still had hope that his ideas would become normative for all Jewish people.

If the author of this Gospel knew anything about what was happening elsewhere, he would have known about the gathering strength of the movement led by Saul of Tarsus, for whom strict obedience to Torah was of less importance than belief in Jesus as Messiah.

This arm of the movement was opening a door wide for Gentiles, who did not follow the Torah, to belong to such communities. This had been underway since the 50s. It had gained momentum by the late 60s and would become the dominant form of Christianity later in the second century.

It was perhaps with this awareness that Matthew’s Gospel was created—to insist on the centrality and priority of the traditional teaching of Jesus, the Torah-observant Jew, whom God had chosen as the anointed one. And the picture that he offers of Jesus is a resolutely Jewish one. Remembering that Jesus said “Go nowhere among the Gentiles” (10:5) makes perfect sense in this context.

(In fact, I think that this Gospel might more accurately reflect the activity of the historical Jesus during his earthly activities—he was a faithful Jew who observed Torah and advocated for his particular interpretation of how the commandments were to be kept. Staying away from Gentiles and Samaritans would be a perfectly respectable course of action for such a person.)

So, in reporting the words of Jesus about mission, and in insisting on the thoroughly Jewish nature of this movement, this really is “the book of origins”. This is how I translate the opening phrase (1:1). Usually this phrase is related to the story that follows, about the origins of Jesus (1:1–2:23). And that makes sense.

In a broader sense, however, the author of the book of origins is making a pitch about the true nature of the movement that was formed by Jesus.

Jesus instigated a prophetic movement to renew the people of Israel, to recall them to the prophetic heart of their traditions and restore the sense of righteous-justice that was fundamental to his understanding of Judaism. That is the real story of our origins, the author of this book is declaring.

******

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

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Racism and Reconciliation

“I can’t breathe.” Three short words. Three words that shot around the world. “I can’t breathe.”

We all know who said that, and the circumstances that drew these words from his mouth. We all know that soon after he said this, George Floyd died. Another black man, dead, at the hands of a white police officer.

“Ah well, that was in America”, you might think. Yes, it was. And many other Afro-American people have died in similar circumstances, victims of what appears to be, quite simply racism. A shameful story. A shameful record. But in America. Not here. Not in Australia.

Except—not so fast! Because here, in Australia, we have recently been reminded, there are 434 people—black men and women, indigenous Australians—who have died whilst in police custody, since 1991. (That was the year when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody ended.)

And one of the more recent people to die in such circumstances in Australia also uttered those words: “I can’t breathe.” (David Dungay, in 2015. And he said this phrase twelve times, before he died.)

So we Australians are not exempt from the shame of this racist record. Our very own nation has not yet found a way to address the systemic bias, the systematic persecution, of indigenous Australians. They are only 3% of our population, but they are represented amongst the prison population in numbers out of proportion to their presence in society.

And from all of those 434 deaths, after multiple enquiries, there have been—how many convictions? The sum total remains at zero.

What does this have to do with our faith? How does this impact on us as we go about our lives as followers of Jesus?

Last week, Dr Deidre Palmer, the President of the National Assembly of the Uniting Church, wrote:

“In the Bible, our sacred text, we hear God’s cry for justice for those who are living in poverty, those who are oppressed by unjust systems, those who are excluded and discriminated against.”

She went on to say:

“The Jesus we know from the Gospel stories, calls leaders to use their power in service to others, to call forth in others compassion, justice and kindness, unity and community. These are the leaders, we are called to be and that we need in the world today.”

Pastor Mark Kickett, the Interim National Chairperson of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, joined his voice on this issue, saying:

“It boggles the mind as to how such inhumanity continues to exist in the modern world in which we live, yet it still does.” He quoted the Prophet Amos: “Amos speaks very clearly in relation to this matter where he says; ‘But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream’” (Amos 5:24).

Our faith includes a clear call, for us to work so that we avoid perpetuating such injustices in our society. Our President said, in her Pastoral Letter for National Reconciliation week:

“We need to strengthen our actions for justice, healing and reconciliation. This is not an abstract call – it is seen expressed daily in our relationships with one another in this country.

It is seen when we:

• call out racism;

• tell the truth about the history of colonisation, dispossession and the undermining of First People’s culture, language and spirituality;

• advocate for First People’s voice to be heard in determining their future;

• respect and appreciate the culture and stories of First Peoples, and work together to deepen our relationships based on reconciliation that arises from justice, and leads to healing; and.

• live in harmony with the sacred land that we share.”

That is the challenge that sounds forth from our church leaders. That is the challenge that sits at the heart of the Gospel. As we live our lives by faith, following the way of Jesus, might we know also the claim that these words have on us.

We are called to stand firm for justice, to stand firm against injustice. We have a charge to call out racism, to call for reconciliation.

If that means that no black person in custody will then have to utter those tragic words, “I can’t breathe”—it will be worth taking that stand, making that call.

https://www.abc.net.au/religion/how-should-christians-respond-to-black-lives-matter/11173976

https://www.eternitynews.com.au/opinion/black-lives-matter-a-message-from-chris-mcleod-national-aboriginal-bishop/

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jun/06/aboriginal-deaths-in-custody-434-have-died-since-1991-new-data-shows?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

See the links to the two pastoral letters from Uniting Church leaders at https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3196-pastoral-statement-racism-and-police-brutality

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“Greet one another” (2 Cor 13). But no holy kissing. And no joyful singing.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.” So the second (extant) letter to the Corinthians ends (2 Cor 13:11-12).

“Greet one another with a holy kiss” is also how Paul instructs the Corinthians in his first letter (1 Cor 6:20), as well as the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5:26) and the Romans (Rom 16:16). (The same instruction appears at 1 Peter 5:14). These five verses all indicate that first century worship was not just sitting formally and watching what went on at the front; it was interactive, engaging, personal.

What do we make of this instruction to kiss one another? Many people in churches that I know have interpreted “holy kiss” to mean “warm handshake”—so the “passing of the peace” has been shaking hands with as many people as possible in the Congregation. In some smaller gatherings, even, making sure that you shake hands with everybody present!

Well, not any longer. No more handshakes—not in church, not at the door after the service, not anywhere in society. COVID-19 has put paid to shaking hands for quite some time yet.

Other people have take a more literalist line of interpretation. A kiss means, well, a kiss! If not a lip-to-lip kiss, then, at least, a lip-to-cheek kiss. Yes, I have been in church gatherings where my hairy unshaven cheeks have been kissed. And even, when my hairy-encircled lips have planted a kiss on the cheek of another worshipper. I confess.

But not any longer. No more person-to-person contact; especially not any contact that involves the lips! COVID-19 has put paid to the socially-approved form of public kiss, for quite some time yet—if not forever.

One of my colleagues, Sarah Agnew, suggests that the best way to translate the reference to a “holy kiss” in these five verses, is by referring to a “holy embrace”. That understanding is premised on the fact that the Greek word which is translated as “greet” in these texts, contains elements of making personal contact which are both interpersonal (greetings) and also physical (the word can be used to signify hugging or embracing). See https://www.academia.edu/28243257/A_call_to_enact_relationships_of_mutual_embrace_Romans_16_in_performance

Given that, then, on each of the sixteen times that Paul instructs for greetings to be given to named individuals in Romans 16, he may well be saying something like, “give them a hug from me”. Such relationships were personal and intimate.

This rendering takes us to the heart of community—and to the centre of our practices during the current situation with COVID-19. The ancient practice clearly envisaged that physical contact was involved. The current situation proscribes any form of physical contact. It is just too risky.

Physical contact, in the intimacy of either a kiss (on the cheek) or an embrace (with the upper body), is now, we are told, not advisable, given the way that infectious diseases such as COVID-19 (or, indeed, the common cold—which is itself a form of a coronavirus) are spread.

How do we reconcile these current guidelines with the scriptural injunctions? Do we ignore current guidelines (and keep on meeting together) because “the Bible says…” ? Or, do we turn away from strict biblical teaching (and stop our gatherings), because of contemporary concerns about the pandemic?

Of course, we do not put our heads in the sand. We acknowledge the sense in the guidelines being proclaimed across society. We listen to those with expertise in infectious diseases and medicine. We refrain from physical contact. No kissing. No hugging. No handshakes. We look for alternatives to signify that we are greeting one another.

We aren’t yet meeting in person for worship. It will be some time before most Congregations are able to do this. But when we eventually do begin to worship in person, and it comes time to pass the peace, we might face the other person, place our right hand over our own heart, and say, “peace be with you”. That avoids direct physical contact, but incorporates a direct visual interaction.

Another option would be to clasp our hands together and place them in front of our chest, in the “praying position”, and then, as we face each other, bow in greeting.

A third option—one perhaps only utilised in a very distinctive liturgical setting—could be to “bump elbows”, using the recommended social alternative to “shaking hands”. But that option would need to be employed with care! And it may not be to everybody’s liking, to be sure.

Which brings me to singing. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord!”, the psalmist instructs us (Psalms 66:1, 95:1-2, 98:4, 6, 100:1). Sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”, an early Christian writer exhorts (Col 3:16). “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”, another letter writer directs (Eph 5:18-20).

So how do we interpret these passages? Do we adopt the same literalist approach—the Bible says we must worship, the Bible says we must song, so that’s what we must do! (Yes, I have heard this said, even in current times.) That is not really a satisfactory approach.

Of course, the same dilemma confronts us here. Just as direct physical contact is not advised in the current pandemic situation, so singing in a group of people is also deemed to be out of order, in the understanding of health professional and medical advisors.

Research clearly indicates that singing contributes to the spread of infectious diseases. Singing spreads droplets in aerosols which are expelled from a person’s mouth as they sing. They can carry the virus a significant distance and remain suspended in the air for some time after they have been expelled from a person’s mouth. A cloth mask is unlikely to be enough to provide protection as people sing together. This article canvasses the issues:

https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/does-singing-spread-coronavirus-choir-outbreaks-raise-concerns-1.4943265

So in the case of singing, as with physical touch, we need reinterpret our scripture in keeping with what we know about the spread of infectious diseases. We might have to be content with listening to a recording or watching a video of a favourite hymn or song being sung. One suggestion I have seen is to invite people to listen, then to share with a couple of other people what you have heard, what has connected with you, as you listen.

Another suggestion is to invite people to tap into their own wells of creativity, and after listening to the song, write or draw their own response. That could be in the form of a prayer, a modern psalm, an impressionistic artwork, a poem, a sketch drawing. The possibilities are endless.

Some other ideas are canvassed in this post:

https://godspacelight.com/2020/05/23/five-ways-to-worship-with-music-beyond-singing/?fbclid=IwAR07U327jYyIu8PKq3xmBnDSE3wDD56ySbiRlRxpT1Foc42o4ucgZOnHhJg

There’s another central aspect of worship that will need significant attention and careful consideration in the time ahead. Before we actually start meeting in person for worship, a decision will need to be made, in each local community of faith, with regard to holy communion.

We know that any action that involves direct physical contact is risky. We know that multiple touching of the same object is highly risky—it provides many more opportunities for a virus (any virus, not just COVID-19) to be passed from person to person. When we regather for worship, we will not be “passing the offering plate around”; it is too risky.

In the same way, we need to,consider carefully what we do when it comes to offering the bread, passing a plate of bread, drinking from the cup, or passing the small cups.

That’s a matter for future consideration. If anyone has any clear ideas or knows of useful guidelines in this regard, I would love to hear from you!

A prayer from Sarah Agnew https://praythestory.blogspot.com/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/29/worship-like-the-first-christians-what-will-our-future-look-like-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

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Pastoral Letter to Canberra Region Presbytery: June 2020

3 June 2020

Dear friends across the Presbytery,

It has been many months since we have been able to “live as normal”. For some people, the extended period of drought was already providing challenging circumstances last year. Then, for many people, the bushfires came tearing into their lives six months ago. Their lives were turned upside down and that turmoil has continued. Life has not been the same since then.

We watched as the fires spread across many of the regions in our Presbytery, and even threatened the southern suburbs of Canberra. Many, many people have been impacted—in the lives lost, in the destruction of homes and properties, in the fears and anxieties that grew as the fires spread, in the disruptions to the lives and livelihoods of many communities, and as the memories of past experiences swam back into view.

Then we all experienced the horror of watching the early reports of people around the world who were suffering, and some dying, from a new, previously unknown virus. In swift succession, we saw the WHO declare a global pandemic, the death rates in a number of countries rise exponentially, the first cases of death from COVID-19 in our own country, and then our Government issuing orders restricting gatherings.

We have not been able to live “life as normal” during these months of restrictions on gathering. It has been a time of change, and challenge. Many people have learnt new skills, as we began to realise the possibilities that ZOOM, YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, and other online platforms can provide. Many congregations began gathering-apart through one of these means. At the same time, we have continued to worship and care for one another.

Many of us have lamented the loss of face-to-face meetings. We have not been able to have coffee and catch up with friends, or family. We have not been able to go to our favourite cafes, museums or picnic spots. We have not been able to visit those whose mobility restricts them to their homes or rooms and we have not been able to gather together on Sunday morning, to worship.

It is now clear that the early movement to impose restrictions right across society has helped Australia to have fewer deaths in the pandemic. We are certainly saddened by the deaths that have taken place, and aware of the spread of suffering that has been experienced by those who have had their health impacted significantly because of COVID-19. We are relieved that there has not been more deaths, that we did “flatten the curve”, and that we have “slowed the spread” of the virus.

It is also clear that the restrictions of past weeks have had a heavy economic impact—on individuals and small businesses which have lost their income, as well as on the overall economy of our country. It is clear that political leadership wishes to address this matter, and is doing so by easing restrictions, in a staged process. We need to be mindful of what is now permitted—and what still remains restricted.

It is also clear that this easing of restrictions has kindled flames of hope amongst many people—hope that life can “get back to normal”, hope that “life will be easier”, hope that we can “go back to church”. Every one of us shares those hopes, to a greater of lesser degree. And yet, we know, deep within our hearts, that life will not soon be “back to normal”. Things have changed, and that’s the way they will stay, for some length of time yet.

With regard to the last of these hopes—to “go back to church”—there are some important factors for us to consider. It is not just a matter of sending out the emails, ringing up the folks, opening up the doors, and welcoming people back into the church building. Before we can do that, there will be planning and preparation—and prayerful reflection—that needs to take place.

Leaders of our church, from across every Presbytery, and in the Synod, have been meeting each week for the past ten weeks. This week, the leadership group approved a set of resources which have been prepared to assist each Church Council, as they discuss, plan, and prepare to resume church activities on church property.

Those resources are detailed, comprehensive, and carefully conceived. They will help each of our Church Councils to develop a set of COVID Safety Plans, one for each activity taking place in our church. Together, these Safety Plans will provide us with a COVID Safe Roadmap to re-gathering.

There is a very helpful collection of FAQs at https://nswact.uca.org.au/covid19saferoadmap/faqs/

We encourage Church Councils to begin by reading through this webpage and discussing together the questions that are posed here. After this, Church Councils can then begin to develop specific COVID Safety Plans, one for each activity taking place in their church property.

You can find resources to assist in the preparation of these COVID Safety Plans at https://nswact.uca.org.au/COVID19SafeRoadmap

We encourage you to go to the website and read these resources. They are comprehensive, so this will take time. Church Councils will need to take that time to give careful consideration to the responsibilities that they have. We need to ensure that we do not rush back into holding activities in our church buildings, before we are certain that we have done all the planning that is required.

We also need to take care to ensure that in all our planning, we prioritise the needs of those who are vulnerable—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, those with chronic medical conditions, people with impaired immune systems, and people aged over 70. Their health and safety needs to be the first consideration in any decision to commence worship gatherings in person.

We cannot simply assume that it would be wise for all of these people (including our Ministers and Pastors) to “come to church” when we start holding worship in person once more. In fact, it most likely is wise that they do not join with those who will be gathering in the church building. We need to plan and prepare with this in mind.

As we move along the path of stages taking society forward, let us be patient and compassionate. We need to be compassionate to one another, ensuring that when we start to gather again in person, all precautions have been taken, and the risks have been minimised as much as we can.

We need, especially, to be compassionate towards those whose vulnerabilities mean that they remain at home, waiting still for that safe place for gathering in church to come. They will need our particular care and attention. This is a central calling for us, as a church, at this time. We need to attend, today and in the months to come, to the hard work that will be required, to ensure that all of our buildings and activities are safe, for everyone who attends.

Further still, we are to be mindful of those who may have begun to make connections with our Congregations through this time of meeting and worshipping differently online, or by other means. We want the arrangements to which we now move also to be inclusive of them and their needs.

And let us be patient with each other; may our frustrations fall away, our anxieties dissipate, as we wait, pray, and prepare. As Daniel Mossfield recently wrote to his Congregation:

“In a culture where people are forced to rush back to work, and potentially risk their lives due to economic hardship, we the church dare to claim there is a different way the world could be. We dare to believe that our society can and must look after all its members in the coming weeks and months, because we believe the value of each of us does not rest in how much we earn but in the fact that we are all children of God. We believe not gathering yet is the very call of God upon our lives: to witness to the patience of the Gospel.”

Please be assured of ongoing prayers from each of us, as we all work our way through the challenges and opportunities of this time, and as we pray and plan for the future that we hope for, as Congregations, as a Presbytery, and as part of the whole people of God.

Judy McKinlay, Presbytery Co-Chairperson

Jared Mitchell, Presbytery Deputy Chairperson

Andrew Smith, Presbytery Minister—Congregation Futures

John Squires, Presbytery Minister—Wellbeing

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Worship like the first Christians. What will our future look like? (3)

I have been reflecting on the “where” of how we want to be, as the church, in post-COVID times, as well as the “when” of how we want to be. Do we want to be simply back in the church building on a Sunday morning? Do we want simply to be doing things in the old, familiar ways of past years?

You can read those posts at https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

In this post, I pick up the theme of “who” we are imagining ourselves to be in this future time. What might worship look like for us? Who do we reveal ourselves to be, when we gather for worship?

*****

If we want to rethink how we worship in the post-COVID era, and reimagine what we might do in a gathering of people as “church”, perhaps we could get some inspiration from what our scripture tells us about the early followers of Jesus? Could we being to rethink and reimagine so that church looked more like what these people did? After all, we have scriptures which we use as guidelines for various doctrinal and moral matters; why not also with worship?

The earliest followers of Jesus, we know, did not worship in English. They used their own languages—Aramaic, for Jewish People, and probably Greek, in many of the early Christian communities. And, no doubt, the native language of the particular region where new faith communities were established. Syriac. Coptic. Phrygian. Arabic. Latin. Each spoke to the other in their own language.

Unsurprisingly, that sounds just like Pentecost, the festival that we celebrate this coming Sunday, when those gathered in the Temple heard the early followers Jesus, and declared in amazement, “how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:8, 11).

Of course, I am not advocating that we take up speaking in Aramaic, or Koine Greek, or Syriac, or Phrygian, or Latin. In the Reformed churches, we have long adopted the custom of worshipping in our native language. But are there other practices from the early church that we could consider taking up? For instance, the early church did not have organs or pianos to accompany singing. Is that something that we could adopt? How many other places in society still have group singing accompanied by organ or piano?

*****

The earliest believers being Jewish, they most likely followed the pattern of worship that is attested in the Temple: “Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him with trumpet sound … with lute and harp … with tambourine and dance … with strings and pipe … with clanging cymbals, with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150).

I know stories from Congregations where drum sets, complete with cymbals, were introduced into worship—leading to even louder noises, as church conflicts broke out! But such musical accompaniment is actually biblical. Can we head in that direction in our worship today?

We know also that those early believers sang “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16). That sounds familiar. Not too much different from today. Except: singing. All the evidence points to the fact that singing, indoors, in a group with other people, standing close to one another, is one of the most risky behaviours in this current time of the pandemic.

So, there is very little room to move: if and when we gather together in person to worship, we will not be singing. We will, necessarily, be quite different in our worship practices, from the early believers.

*****

The early followers of Jesus did not have paid ministers leading worship. This was the case from the very earliest days, and this practice lasted for a long time. (They did, however, have provisions to provide for their leaders—hospitality, places to stay, the provision of resources to enable their living—as Paul makes clear.)

Not having a Minister in placement is a reality for a growing number of our Uniting Church Congregations, now, as the decrease in numbers has brought with it a decline in offerings and therefore a reduced capacity to support a stipended minister.

Is this something that might be considered by more congregations, in an intentional way, into the future? Do we need to move away from dependence on “the paid person” as the local leader (and often, the person expected to “do all the ministry”), and strengthen the resilience of the whole people of God who make up the Congregation in each of these places? Could we reshape local ministry so that it equipped and resources the gifted people of God to lead worship and other church activities, rather than sitting back and being consumers of whatever the paid person delivers?

And perhaps alongside that: should we be encouraging our stipended ministers to focus elsewhere than on the Sunday worship? To be resourcing and equipping people for their own ministries, to be developing missional plans and fostering community engagement? To be enabling the whole people of God to be confident in sharing their faith, serving people in need, and living as active disciples in all of their life? This would be more in line with the way that leaders functioned in the early church.

That’s a challenge that is worth considering. After all, our Basis of Union (picking up on 1 Cor 12) actually affirms that “every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant … the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts … all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ.” (Basis of Union paragraph 12).

We are all ministers. We are all gifted by the Spirit. We are all equipped to serve. We are all part of the ministry of Christ—not just the paid person! How might that best translate into a reshaped form of worship?

*****

Another insight into the nature of worship in the early church communities is that it was spontaneous. That is very clearly the case in Corinth, a community that caused Paul quite some angst. Indeed, the critical issues he addresses in the later part of the letter (1 Cor 12–14) arise out of the highly spontaneous, seemingly chaotic situation that characterised worship in Corinth.

Such worship had more the nature of a dialogue between conversation partners, rather than a monologue delivered by one person to a group of silent listeners. We can see this in a simple way, with the references to “interpreters” in what Paul writes to the Corinthians. Whilst there are people who contribute words of prophecy, pray in tongues, or speak in tongues (1 Cor 14), in each case there is the need for someone to interpret these phenomena.

What would it take to move towards a style of worship that more closely reflected this central ethos of gathering? That’s a challenging way ahead for us to consider. Could our worship be different, in this regard? As we explore the different possibilities for worship, once we start to gather together again in person, we ought to be stimulated by this kind of exploration of different options, of fresh expressions, of evolving ideas.

*****

Another question: where did the early followers of Jesus gather? Luke’s account of the early church in Jerusalem indicates that they met in homes on a daily basis (Acts 2:46; 5:42). Commentators on the letters in the New Testament have made it clear that the earliest churches met in the homes of wealthy patrons—there are pointers towards this in letters to Corinth, to Rome, and in the letters of John. (See Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philemon 2; 2 John 10, and perhaps also 2 John 1.)

When we start planning to regather as Congregations, how should we do this? Perhaps we should consider, not gathering en masse in a large building, but meeting others in smaller groups, in homes, sharing together on a regular basis (and not necessarily on a Sunday morning!)—with appropriate social distancing, of course. Let’s plan for some different ways of gathering, not all together in one large body, but in focused smaller groups.

*****

It is also worth pondering the fact that, for so many of the early followers of Jesus, coming together for worship was not the primary purpose for gathering. The indications from New Testament texts are that the earliest followers of Jesus came together to share in meals, to pray together, to share their lives with one another, to receive teaching on the life of faith, and to strengthen practices that are integral to discipleship.

Worship was part of that, but not ever the primary purpose (and certainly not the sole purpose) of gathering together. Worship was but one stream amongst a number of elements essential to these gatherings. What would it mean for us to work to this set of priorities into our planning for the future?

This central feature of the life of the early followers of Jesus is worth pondering and exploring: how might we follow this, and foster it, in our own times?

For Jews in the first century, the synagogue was more akin to a community centre, and much less like a sanctuary set aside for worship. Archaeology has shown that first-century synagogues did not have “Jewish” features; they were simply public buildings with benches lining the walls. The architecture of the buildings reflected the primary role of synagogues as Jewish community centres. People gathered for all manner of social and community activities. Worship was a secondary use of the space.

This carried over into the ways that early followers of Jesus lived out their faith in their daily lives. There was no separation between “church” and the rest of life. Faith was to be lived out in the actions and behaviours of life. Faith informed everything. Faith was a way of living, a way of doing, rather than a set of beliefs, a doctrinal creed. To be a follower of Jesus meant to be engaged with other people, assisting them, caring for them, serving them, attending to their needs.

Indeed, there is a strong view amongst scholars that the main reason for the growth of the church over the first two centuries was much less to do with doctrinal beliefs and verbal evangelism, much more to do with acts of charity, deeds of care and compassion towards others. Christians, simply, loved one another (just as Jesus commanded them to do!)

(See the work of Rodney Stark, summarised in https://thejesusquestion.org/2013/01/20/the-rise-of-christianity-by-rodney-stark/; for a discussion of the contemporary relevance of this view, see https://time.com/5824128/early-christian-caritas-coronavirus/ )

So, when Paul writes about “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1), he makes it clear that this means living a life wholly committed to discipleship in every way—reaching out to others, serving people in need, giving up self-interest, and not totally focussed on the worship gathering alone. That is most surely a way of being that we could well emulate in our own lives, today.

So Paul encourages the Romans to “contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13) and reminds them that “each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour” (15:2). He advises the Corinthians to maintain positive relationships with those who do not share faith in Jesus (1 Cor 10:27) and to follow the principle, “do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Cor 10:24).

To the Philippians, he writes “let each of you look … to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4), and he urges the Thessalonians to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them” (1 Thess 5:14). All of this is outward-oriented, community-focussed, and following the direction of the injunction to “love your neighbour” (Lev 19:18, quoted by Jesus at Mark 12:31).

And that, more than any particular style or form of worship, is what should best characterise the followers of Jesus today. Are we up for the challenge??

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Saying sorry, seeking justice, walking together, working for reconciliation

Today is National Sorry Day. It stands at the head of National Reconciliation Week, which runs from 27 May to 3 June each year. This week was initiated in 1996 by Reconciliation Australia, to celebrate Indigenous history and culture in Australia and promote discussions and activities which would foster reconciliation.

The dates of National Reconciliation Week hold special historical significance. On 26 May 1997, the Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Federal Parliament. This report addressed them impacts of the fact that in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, Australian government policies resulted in many Stolen Generations, in which thousands of Indigenous children were separated, often forcibly, from their families, with the aim of removing them from their culture and turning them into “white Australians”.

Because of this, the date 26 May carries great significance for the Stolen Generations, as well as for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and its supporters among non-indigenous Australians. So Sorry Day is an annual event that has been held around the continent on 26 May since 1998, to remember and commemorate the mistreatment of the country’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.

27 May marks the anniversary of the 1967 referendum in Australia, which gave the vote to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, while 3 June marks the anniversary of the 1992 judgement by the High Court on the Mabo v Queensland case.

Sorry Day (26 May) and the National Apology (made in Federal Parliament on 13 February 2008), the 1967 referendum, the 1992 Mabo decision, along with the Wik decision on native title (delivered by the High Court on 23 December 1996), are considered to be key events in addressing the historic mistreatment of indigenous Australians, and in taking steps towards reconciliation and restorative justice.

But these were only steps. The path still lies ahead. We need to take more steps, walking together, to foster deeper relationships, advocate for a more embedded restoration of justice, work for wider and more lasting reconciliation within our communities. We are in this together. May we tread that pathway with compassion and intent.

See https://www.reconciliation.org.au/national-reconciliation-week/

Click to access 150520-Sorry-Day.pdf

https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/1967-referendum/

https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/mabo-native-title/

The picture montage shows a Sorry Day poster, celebrations after the 1967 referendum, Eddie Mabo who brought the High Court case that was resolved in 1992, Gladys Tybingoompa dancing outside the high court in Canberra on 23 December 1996 following the Wik people’s native title win, and the front page of a national newspaper reporting the National Apology in 2008.

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It’s been two months under restrictions—what will our future look like? (2)

It’s now been two months since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As restrictions are gradually eased, people are starting to grapple with what that will look like. How will hope be found, in what lies ahead?

I took the opportunity after one month, to step back and assess: what have we learnt, during this intense and most unusual period of time? (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/)

Now my mind is thinking about what the future might look like. People are struggling with number of matters. These matters have been the subject of conversations in my household over recent weeks, as Elizabeth and I think about what the future might hold, and how we need to prepare for it, both personally, and as a church.

As we consider these struggles, I want to look beyond, to what a hope-filled, missionally-engaged future might await us. So this is the second in a series of posts in which I muse about a series of issues that emerge as we think about this. The first was focussed on “where” people are wanting to be in that future time.

This post reflects on the “when” of our hopes for the future. How often have you heard someone refer, longingly, to “the way things used to be”? How often have you heard people lament that they would really like things to be “just like they used to be”?

This is a refrain in society—let’s get back to when life was simpler, people were friendlier, choices were easier. It is also a refrain in the church—let’s get back to when buildings were filled on Sundays, Friday night youth groups were thriving, Sunday Schools were overflowing. Ah, the good old days …

It is still a struggle for some people to try to move beyond this yearning for the past. When they try to imagine what it will be like when we get back to meeting in person, such people simply have in mind that things will be “just like they used to be”. The natural human urge is for us to move out of a time of upheaval, right back into the comfort zone of what is familiar, what is predictable, what has been the comforting routine of “life as usual”.

That is no less the case in the present period of COVID-19 restrictions. Back to church worship on a Sunday morning, seeking the much-loved group of friends once again, sitting in the usual spot, singing the favourite hymns, sharing the chit-chat over morning tea—church as usual, just if nothing had happened!

We can’t, of course, go back to the old familiar patterns. COVID-19 has ensured that this will be the case. We will need to clean and disinfect buildings regularly, maintain contact lists of all people attending any event, ensure that all physical touch elements in worship are modified, and, for the moment, ensure that there is adherence to social distancing and the limits on numbers in the building. And we would be well-advised not to sing when we gather for worship, for that is a high risk activity. Things will be different.

“Behold, I am about to do a new thing”, the prophet of old long ago declared to the people of Israel (Isa 43:19). To the people of Israel who had been decades in exile in Babylon, the word of the Lord spoke of hope and promise, of a new initiative, stepping out in a new way. The people journey back across the wilderness, heading back to the land where their ancestors had lived for centuries.

Without the “new thing” of the Lord, the people of Israel would have remained in exile and, presumably, have diminished in their distinctiveness, threatening the existence of the people of God as a nation called to be “a holy priesthood”. Finding the “new thing” that is happening in our own time is important.

See further at https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/14/ministry-and-mission-in-the-midst-of-change-and-transition-luke-2113/

So the question for us could well be: what is the “new thing” that God is doing, that the Spirit is calling to us to take part in, as public society begins to reactivate, as church begins to regather, in the weeks ahead?

I have read a number of pointers about how about society will need to be structured differently after the current restrictions have been eased and then lifted. In what I have read, there are a number of things that point directly at how things will need to change when we gather as a church.

One commentator, Tomas Pueyo, has noted that “Social gatherings should be avoided if a lot of people are close to each other, sing, talk a lot, or commingle. Indoor, confined areas are much worse than outdoors activities.” (See Tomas Pueyo, “Coronavirus: Prevent Seeding and Spreading”, https://medium.com/@tomaspueyo/coronavirus-prevent-seeding-and-spreading-e84ed405e37d)

Both of those factors place church gatherings, worship services, morning teas, and other group gatherings, into the high risk category. They are usually indoors, inviting people into close personal contact with others. And singing—we always sing when we gather, for grace, for praise, for communion, for benedictions. All high risk.

The same commentator, Tomas Pueyo, has noted that “Time matters. A short time is probably ok. Hours probably not.” That might please some people, if we apply it to church—short is better, no more long droning sermons!

But short worship services will be hard to monitor—even a short time for worship sees many people on site for quite some time, first while setting up, then in social mingling afterwards (and even the occasional “car park conversations” that prolong the time together even more!).

How we gather, what we do when we gather, cannot simply be stepping back into what we used to do. We are entering a time when things must be different. How will we engage with that challenge? How will we ensure that we don’t just step back into the past and settle into the well-worn routines? What will church look like, for us, in the future? That is the challenging question that sits before us, now, as we consider our future as the church in post-COVID times.

Thanks again to Elizabeth for the conversations that have shaped these ideas as we talk about future hopes for the church.

See also https://millennialpastor.ca/2020/05/24/there-is-no-going-back-to-normal-or-the-glory-days-this-is-the-beginning/

and my series of blogs on life during COVID-19:

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/01/pastoral-letter-to-the-canberra-region-presbytery-of-the-uniting-church-in-australia-31-march-2020/

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It’s been two months under restrictions—what will our future look like? (1)

It’s now been two months since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The full set of restrictions that were put into place are beginning to be eased, with more changes still to come. Governments across the country are making announcements, indicating timetables, looking with hope to the future.

As restrictions are gradually eased, people are starting to grapple with what that will look like. Some are anxious about moving too rapidly to lift current restrictions. Some are hopeful that we can start meeting again in person very, very soon. And some are angry about the intrusion of governments into our lives, the measures in place seen as unwarranted restrictions on our freedoms.

I took the opportunity after one month, to step back and assess: what have we learnt, during this intense and most unusual period of time? (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/)

I want now to offer some reflections from my own perspective on what the future might look like. I am aware of a number of matters which remain a struggle for people, and I offer these thoughts with particular reference to the struggles that people in my church (the Uniting Church in Australia) are dealing with.

These matters have been the subject of conversations in my household over recent weeks, as Elizabeth and I think about what the future might hold, and how we need to prepare for it, both personally, and as a church. From within these struggles, I want to look beyond, to what a hope-filled, missionally-engaged future might await us. So this is the first of a series of posts in which I muse about a series of issues that emerge as we think about this.

First, lets think about Sundays. It is still a struggle for many people to imagine anything other than “Sunday morning” when they speak about “church”. The dominance of the Sunday morning worship service, in the minds of so many people, is abundantly clear. Ministers have known this forever—how many times have we heard the half-joking, half-serious comment, “well, you really only work for one hour on one day each week, don’t you?” Grrrrr!

Church, of course, is far more than Sunday morning worship. And people do make the connection from “church” as worship, to visiting hospitals, running a youth group, feeding the hungry, lobbying the local member, providing shelter to homeless people, or doing the shopping for the shut-in down the street. These are seen great things to do—but for many, they are viewed as a kind of optional extra beyond the Sunday morning worship gathering.

Somehow, over the centuries of history that the church has existed, the Sunday morning worship gathering has come to be seen as the very heart, the essential centre, of being church. The importance of gathering to worship has taken over all other elements in being church. In our own time, the dominance of the Sunday morning worship gathering is clear.

We talk about “going to church”—meaning worship in the church building. We ask, “what time is church?”—meaning the time for Sunday worship. We say, “see you in church”—often meaning next Sunday morning. Sunday morning worship has taken over our sense of what it means to be church.

In this view, “church” is really all about hymns and prayers, sermons and morning teas, rosters, and rosters, and more rosters! So the Sunday gathering has become an end in itself. Many people look to Sunday worship in the church building as the time and place for them to carry out their Christian duty. Church has been completely conflated to worship.

A fuller understanding of worship is required. Worship should not be the END. Worship should not be what is always in view, when we think about “church”. Worship should actually be a MEANS to fostering a sense of missional activity in which we share the good news of Jesus in order to build up the body of Christ. The end, from this perspective, is not the time of worship. The end is missional engagement in the world. One of the means to strengthen that end (and only one, amongst a number of things) is worship, as a gathered community.

We need to struggle some more with the implications of this way of seeing things. “Church” is much more than Sunday morning. But so much frenetic activity over the past two months, when gathering in person has not been possible, has been devoted to ensuring that, even if we can’t meet together in person, there is still some “church” happening on Sunday morning—online, on Facebook, on YouTube, on ZOOM. Because, you know, “church” means “worship”.

Let’s struggle to live beyond this blinkered and limited view. Let’s work to foster a strong sense of “church” being a seven-day-a-week enterprise. Let’s talk much more about being disciples, following the risky way of Jesus, and let’s be more active in the world amidst all the diversity of humanity that we encounter. Let’s talk much less about being members, settled into a comfortable club, and let’s not be bound by the traditional customs and practices of our own little clique.

Certainly, scripture contains an encouragement to meet regularly for worship (Heb 10:25), and there are passages that provide specific guidelines and instructions relating to worship in various places (1 Cor 11, 1 Cor 12-14, Col 3:16, Eph 5:18-20). But worship is not all that there is to being church.

Paul uses the language of worship when he writes to the Romans, appealing to them “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). The letter continues with a string of exhortations, injunctions, and instructions, which point very clearly to the view that “spiritual worship” entails living a life wholly committed to discipleship in every way, not simply focussed on the worship gathering. That outward orientation is something that we could do well to hold to. Church is more than just Sunday worship.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/01/pastoral-letter-to-the-canberra-region-presbytery-of-the-uniting-church-in-australia-31-march-2020/

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When we come together (2) … values and principles in the midst of a pandemic

In this blog post, I am reflecting on our values and principles, as we consider the possibility of Gathering-Together, after a time of Gathering-Apart during the COVID-19 restrictions. These 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/

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Last week, the Prime Minister indicated that, because of the good response across society to observe the restrictions on social gatherings and the limitations on moving around, there is now a plan for a three-stage move away from the current restrictions, towards a society where more mobility and more interaction in person will be possible.

This has, unsurprisingly, raised expectations amongst Congregations, that various activities might recommence. These activities include small groups, business meetings, hall rentals by local business or community groups, and, of course, Sunday worship.

In response to the statement by the Prime Minister, leaders of the 14 Presbyteries in my Synod met on Monday with the Synod leadership team. As a result, this leadership group has issued a clear statement, strongly recommending that we should not be meeting in person for services of worship or face to face meeting in our churches. You can read this at https://nswact.uca.org.au/media/8680/covid19-information-guide-gathering-12-may-2020v2.pdf

In the weeks to come, as the stages of easing restrictions come into play, there will undoubtedly be conversations about “can we meet together again, now?”. We will need to be prepared for such conversations.

In making decisions about these matters, we need to be sure that we are not simply rushed along with the excitement and anticipation that life will soon be “back to normal”. Life will return, step-by-step, to a situation that will be more like “normal” than the last few weeks have been. However, it is abundantly clear that life will not, indeed, be “back to normal”, as many are anticipating.

Life will change. Life will be different. Gathering-together, after a period of gathering-apart, will necessarily be different. Familiar customs and practices will not be able to be followed unthinkingly. Beloved institutions that have long been part of the Sunday worship rituals will need to be radically altered, or, indeed, put aside entirely.

There are a number of practical matters to be considered in relation to each activity that could re-commence with in-person gatherings. In my mind, these practical matters include:

* room size and spatial distancing (how do we ensure good monitoring of numbers of people in the building, and behaviours of people whilst in the building?)

* maintaining an accurate list of contacts (this is required, now, no matter what size of gathering, to facilitate tracing in the case of an infection, so—someone will need to take responsibility for this; people will need to be asked if they agree to having their contact details recorded; and will refusal to give permission mean access to the activity on the property will be refused?)

* ensuring non-contact in every activity (greetings at the door as people arrive for worship, shaking hands or hugging during the passing of the peace, the handshaking-line at the end of worship, the passing of the offering plate, the passing of the trays with individual communion glasses, and other elements—these will all need to be dropped)

* ensuring scrupulous adherence to thorough disinfecting procedures (the building must be thoroughly disinfected to be prepared before every use, and thoroughly disinfected at the end of every use—an activity that will take some time, each time the building is used)

* ensuring scrupulous adherence to strict food handling procedures (we need to adhere to commercial-standard protocols, and ensure that every volunteer understands exactly what they can and can’t do—and perhaps we should consider whether serving tea/coffee/nibbles after worship is to be banned?)

* the question of singing (latest research shows this is a high risk activity, especially inside, so singing the old favourite hymns or the new choruses will equally be out of bounds for some time—some experts suggest 18 months to 2 years, until a vaccine is available)

* and—pardon the gritty reality here—toilets (everyone will need to be committed to flushing with the lid closed and washing hands thoroughly after each use; we know that flushing toilets spreads aerosols which contain faecal matter—so the question to consider might well be, should toilets not be available for use? or should someone be rostered to thoroughly disinfect the toilet area after each and every individual use?)

Alongside that, there is a set of questions that we perhaps could explore in a fruitful way—questions which consider how we make decisions, how we undertake discussions, and who we are considering in the process of these discussions and decisions. And, from my perspective, reflecting on relevant biblical passages that can inform the way that we operate, can be helpful and fruitful.

Ministry leaders will be catapulted into such discussions (if we have not, already, found ourselves there). 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 regathering 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/

Chopping and changing: what the lectionary does to the parables of Matthew

This is the third week that the Revised Common Lectionary has provided us with parables, chosen from chapter 13 in Matthew’s book of origins. This chapter is the third of five “blocks of teaching” in this account of Jesus—blocks where originally disparate elements are brought together on a thematic basis, to form the “five discourses of Jesus” (chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, and 23-25). Many interpreters repeat the claim that these five discourses stand as an intentional complement to the “five Books of Moses” in Hebrew Scripture.

This particular chapter, I believe, was based on the earlier collection of parables found in chapter 4 of Mark’s “beginning of the good news about Jesus”, the key source for the works that Matthew and also Luke utilised (along with other hypothetical sources). There are three parables in Mark’s chapter: the seeds and the sower (4:3-9), the seed sown in secret (4:26-29), and the mustard seed (4:30-32). Of those, the first and the third are picked up by Matthew. The second, some interpreters believe, has been explicitly modified by Matthew to form the parable of the wheat and the weeds (about which see https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/14/let-anyone-with-ears-hear-matt-13/ and also https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/09/parables-the-craft-of-storytelling-in-the-book-of-origins-matt-13/)

Matthew has expanded this source of three parables, to seven parables, adding parables about the mustard seed (13:31-32), the yeast in the flour (13:33), hidden treasure (13:44), a pearl of great value (13:45-46), and the net that caught fish (13:47-48). What each of these parables have in common are their opening phrases “the kingdom of heaven is like …”, and their simplicity of form. All five of them are short and succinct, making their point without any expansion or extrapolation.

We see, week after week, that Matthew edits the sources that he uses. We can see this quite evidently with regard to Mark, where we have the source material to compare with Matthew’s redactional enterprise. If we compare the places where Luke includes material in common with Matthew (the Q material), we can explore hypotheses about what one, or the other, of these editors seems to have done with that common material. (We have no point of comparison for the other material, drawn form the “special M” source, as we have no specific evidence that it existed, let alone any wording of that hypothetical source.)

Comparing Mark’s beginning of the good news with Matthew’s book of origins, we find the editorial impact of Matthew to be strong. Material is expanded, contracted, revised, put into a different order, sometimes modified almost beyond recognition. (The parable of the wheat and the weeds, compared with the parable of the seed sown secretly, might be such an instance.)

In relation to the parables, we see that Matthew expands Mark in significant ways—possibly modifying Mark’s second parable (13:24-30), adding three parables (13:33, 44, 45-46) to the third in Mark’s collection, and offering a concluding commentary on the significance of these parables (13:52). As a trade-off, he has omitted the brief lecture found in Mark 4:21-25, concerning the lamp under the bushel or on the lampstand—a teaching that may itself have elements of a parabolic form.

However, Matthew deliberately keeps the discussion of the relationship between the parables being offered, and the Hebrew Scriptures. Mark had Jesus reflect on this (4:10-12) and explicitly relate parables to the prophecy of Isaiah, that to outsiders who look, they will not perceive, or listen, but not understand (Isa 6:9-10). This prophetic “explanation” appears to justify the drawing of a strict boundary between insiders who understand, and outsiders who are destined not to comprehend. A difficult theological claim, but one that is central to Mark.

Matthew retains this (13:13-15) and strengthens the sense of insider/outsider, both in the assertions that come before (13:10-12) and in the blessing that follows (13:16-17). This remains important for Matthew. And he undergirds it with a distinctive blessing of the disciples with whom has is speaking (13:16).

But—and here is the curiosity—the Revised Common Lectionary does not include any of these verses. They are omitted from the Gospel selection in that lectionary. So, two weeks ago, following the directives of the lectionary, readers of the Gospel would jump from the parable (13:1-9) straight to the interpretation (13:18-23), omitting the intervening verses (13:10-17) that, as we have just noted, were so significant for Matthew—and for Mark, his source at this point.

And last week, the same thing happened, as readers of the Gospel who followed the lectionary prescriptions would jump from the parable (13:24-30) to its interpretation (13:36-43), leapfrogging the second consideration of the purpose of parables, which Matthew alone includes in his account (13:34-35).

And this explanatory section, like the earlier one, reaches back into Hebrew Scripture to provide another explanation of the purpose of parables (Psalm 78:2). According to this scripture, parables enable Jesus to “proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world” (13:35).

Today, the same thing occurs. The lectionary offers us five parables, all quite short, and none with a separate interpretation: the mustard seed (13:31-32), the yeast in the flour (13:33), hidden treasure (13:44), a pearl of great value (13:45-46), and the net that caught fish (13:47-48). And once again, we jump over a block of text (in this case, the interpretation of the wheat and the weeds, 13:36-43).

So for the third week in a row, the lectionary has edited the text for reading, recasting it by removing it from the narrative context in which Matthew places it. I think we need a “hermeneutic of suspicion” with regard to the lectionary, at this point (and, indeed, at many other points throughout the three year cycle of texts).

Each one of these five parables is short and to the point. Each one is offered without interpretation. What do we make of each parable, heard in its own right, without any editorial gloss? That, at least, is the gift that the lectionary offers us this week.

To the parable of the mustard seed, a story about the potency of a tiny, seemingly insignificant, item, there is added the parable of the yeast; also a small, almost invisible, element, which when added into flour performs an amazingly powerful task, transforming the flour into a risen dough fit for baking.

And then, after the second scripture citation, two more short parables are offered, this time focusing on the great value, the immense significance, of two tiny and perhaps quite hidden elements: some treasure hidden in a field, and a pearl of great value nestling amongst many other commonplace pearls.

This is what the kingdom is like: small yet amazingly potent, hidden yet incredibly valuable.

Finally, to the parable of the wheat and the weeds, a story which points to the inexorable nature of God’s exercise of justice, there is added a final short parable which also underlines this message of divine judgement. The net is used to draw up baskets full of fish; but the task of the person fishing is to discriminate between the good fish and the bad fish—just as the person reaping the harvest must discriminate between good wheat and bad weeds.

So the focus is clear. The kingdom, valuable and powerful, will be the reason for sifting between good and bad. The good will enjoy “the kingdom of their Father” (13:43). The bad will be condemned to “the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:43, 50; see also 22:13, 24:51, 25:30).

“Have you understood all this?”, Jesus asked the disciples after he had related all seven of these parables (13:51). They replied, with confidence, “Yes”. But did they???