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Disturbance, disruption, and destabilising words (Mark 8; Lent 2)

The Gospel passage that is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Mark 8:31-38) is filled with elements that disturb, disrupt, and destabilise.

Disturbance. The disturbing element comes in the words that Jesus speaks, about a crisis that he sees ahead for himself and his disciples. Jesus declares that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).

The crisis will plunge Jesus and his followers into the depths of death: first, a trial and a verdict; then, a crucifixion and a burial. Although he warns them of this (here, and twice more on later occasions), they seem not to be prepared for this sequence of events when it eventually transpires.

There is a curious end to the words Jesus spoke: “after three days, rise again”. How did the disciples understand this? Why did they not show any understanding of this, when Jesus was crucified and buried?

In my reading, this prophecy placed on the lips of Jesus is the work of the author who crafted this Gospel narrative. The author knows the end of the story. He seeds these words into the narrative to give greater authority to Jesus, portraying him as a person in tune with the way of God, knowing in advance the fate in store for him.

But the fact that when these things happen, the disciples fail to remember, let alone comprehend, what Jesus had said, makes me suspicious. Death by crucifixion was a fate reserved by the Romans for political rebels and criminals. How could the disciples not remember that Jesus was identifying himself with this marginalised, despised group?

Immediately after this passage, Mark narrates the Transfiguration (which was offered by the lectionary two weeks ago, on the Sunday at the end of Epiphany, the season of light). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/02/08/transfigured-lives-in-the-here-and-now-mark-9-and-1-kings-2/

And after that revelatory mountaintop event, the same prophecy of Jesus that he uttered (according to Mark) prior to the Transfiguration, is repeated and expanded, on two further occasions, in the narrative that follows. Mark asserts that Jesus persists with his prophecy.

Soon after the transfiguration, after returning to the level plain, Jesus repeats his words, that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (9:31), and then offers a variant of his central claim on his followers: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).

And for a third time, some time later on, Jesus declares, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:34-35).

This is followed, once more, by clear instructions to his followers: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44).

These three predictions, followed immediately by challenging teachings, form a central pivot point in the overall storyline of this Gospel. They pivot from the activities of Jesus in Galilee (chapters 1-8) and the fateful events that take place in Jerusalem (chapters 11-16). The pivot is emphasised by the bracketing, around this whole section, that is provided by two accounts of Jesus healing blind men: first in Bethsaida (8:22-26), then later in Jericho (10:46-52). These bracketing scenes cry out: do the followers of Jesus not see what he is saying?

This is a literary device, intentionally planted here by the author, to sharpen the focus on to the central characteristic of following Jesus. And that is what Jesus then elucidates, with piercing insight, for the first time, after the prophetic words of 8:31.

Disruption. The teaching which Jesus provides is destabilising for his followers. Jesus leads into this destabilising teaching with a dialogue that creates a clear disruption for the disciples. This disruption comes in the interchange between Jesus and Peter (8:32-33).

Peter, acting and speaking on behalf of the disciples (and perhaps on behalf of us as well?) is affronted by talk of suffering, rejection, and death—to say nothing of resurrection! His rebuke of Jesus (8:32) is quite understandable; after all, he was the one chosen by God to bring renewal to Israel. How could he do this, if he is to die as a criminal, hanging on a cross?

However, Jesus appears quite clear about what his fate will be: it is as if he has entered into a covenant with God which involves suffering, and leads to death. At his baptism, he was declared to be the beloved son with whom God was well pleased (1:12); then, at his transfiguration, he was reaffirmed as beloved by God, the to whom people should listen (9:7).

Those passages sound like Jesus will be accorded a prominent position, well on the pathway to glory. Perhaps that is how the disciples understood those words.

Jesus, however (at least, the Jesus whom Mark portrays to us) appears to know the inner dynamic involved in this divine recognition. He knows of the necessity of suffering and death. (The Greek uses the tiny word dei, signalling the inevitable fate, the inescapable future: the Son of Man must suffer.

This pathway is set to follow the way of the Servant of Israel, set out in the series of great poems reflecting on the fate of the servant (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; 52:13-53:13). For in each of these songs, the servant faces opposition, harassment, violence–and then, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity”, he encounters his fate: “he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases … he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed … by a perversion of justice he was taken away … he was cut off from the land of the living” (Isa 52:3-5, 8).

That Jesus saw the relevance of these songs to his mission is signalled in various places in Mark’s narrative–see, for instance, his words at 10:43-45, on being a servant, and especially 10:45 (“giving his life as a random for many”).

The disciples are focussed on the promises and possibilities in following Jesus; they can see only a wonderful glory. Jesus himself is portrayed as being aware of the very different dynamics he will face as he walks the pathway to a new future.

Destabilising words. So Jesus articulates what this pathway entails. What he says to his followers is thoroughly destabilising (8:34-38). Because in what he says, he turns things right upside down. (This might be behind the accusation raised against followers of Jesus in Thessaloniki, where they were known as people who have been “turning the world upside down”, Acts 17:6).

Jesus begins by relating discipleship to the fate that he has predicted is in store for himself, personally: it is a pathway to the cross. As he will be crucified, so his followers must “take up their cross” (8:34). Not only he, but also they, will be identified with the fate of hardened criminals and treasonous rebels.

In the Roman world, crucifixion was variously identified as a punishment for slaves (Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.168), bandits (Josephus, War 5.449-451), prisoners of war (Josephus, War 5.451), and political rebels (Josephus, Antiquities 17.295).

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

This is the way of Jesus; and the way of his followers. Instead of saving their life, the followers of Jesus are instructed to lose their life.

Instead of aiming to “gain the whole world”, and thereby “forfeit their life”, a follower is, by implication, to let go of all hopes of “gaining the world” (8:35-37). To gain the world was presumably referring to occupying a position of power, prestige, and popularity–precisely the kind of issues that later writers, Matthew and Luke, reflected in their more detailed accounts of the testing of Jesus in the wilderness. (See https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/johntsquires.com/2019/03/05/a-testing-time-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-1/)

Jesus ends his words by referring to a central cultural element: that of shame. The ancient Mediterranean world was infused with a set of values and practices shaped by a clear and unambiguous honour—shame culture. Everyone had their place in that culture; to act inappropriately would mean that a person was seen to be out of their assigned place, disrespectful of the honour code, meriting the assessment of others, for them to be ashamed of that person.

The honour—shame culture runs through the Hebrew Scriptures. The ancient Hebrews affirmed that honour belongs primarily to God (1 Chron 16:27), so that God could bestow honour on those who were faithful to his ways (Ps 92:14-15). The same idea is expressed in the version of Isa 28:16 which is cited at 1 Pet 2:6, which modifies the ending to provide explicit reference to the claim that God will not shame believers.

God can thus honour human beings (Ps 8:5), even those regarded as shameful (Zeph 3:19)–and conversely, God could shame those accorded honour by humans (Isa 23:9). Paul later reflects this in one of his letters to Corinth (1 Cor 1:27).

Honour was likewise praised by Greek philosophers as “the greatest of all external goods” (Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 1), whilst Xenophon considered that honour was what differentiated humans from animals (Hiero 7.3).

Philo of Alexandria, bridging both Jewish and Hellenistic worlds, affirmed that “fame and honour are a most precarious possession, tossed about on the reckless tempers and flighty words of careless men” (Life of Abraham 264).

Of course, identification with the cross, in Jesus’ earlier saying (8:34), would be a cause of shame, not of honour (Heb 12:2). It would be seen by other humans as being shameful.

However, that’s not the case in God’s eyes, as Jesus articulates it; the cross would become the badge of honour for the followers of Jesus, not the mark of shame.

So the declaration of shame in this last verse (8:38) reflects the shame, in God’s eyes, of rejecting Jesus. This section ends with yet another paradox: to gain honour, a person must follow Jesus, take up the shameful instrument of punishment (the cross), lay aside all desire to gain prestigious and powerful positions of honour, give up any claim on life itself, and (as Jesus later asserts), live as a servant, being willing to be dishonoured for the sake of the shame of the Gospel.

And that’s the challenge that confronts us in this passage: disturbing, disrupting, destabilising as that may be.

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Forty days, led by the Spirit: Jesus in the wilderness (Mark 1; Lent 1)

This week we once more read and hear from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one, which we attribute to the evangelist Mark. We hear specifically this Sunday from the very beginning of the story that Mark tells, about the very early stages of the public activity of Jesus.

We have already read about John the baptiser during Advent (Advent 2), and heard Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus (Epiphany 1). Now, in this week’s Gospel reading (Lent 1), Jesus is baptised, plunged deep into the water, from which he emerges changed (1:9-11).

This scene is sometimes regarded as Jesus attesting in public to a deeply personal religious experience that he had in his encounter with John, who had been preaching his message of repentance with some vigour (1:4-11). His encounter with John deepens his faith and sharpens his commitment.

The relationship between Jesus and John is interesting. In the orderly account of things being fulfilled, which we attribute to Luke, it is clear from the start that John is related to Jesus (Luke 1:36). By tradition, they are considered to be cousins–although the biblical text does not anywhere expressly state this.

It seems also that some of the early followers of Jesus had previously been followers of John himself. This is evidenced in the book of signs, which we attribute to the evangelist John. Andrew, later to be listed among the earliest group of followers of Jesus, appears initially as one of two followers of John (John 1:35-40). They express interest in what John is teaching (John 1:39).

Andrew is the brother of Simon Peter, later acknowledged as the leader of the disciples of Jesus. He tells his brother about Jesus. It is Peter who comes to a clear and definitive understanding of the significance of Jesus, even at this very early stage: “we have found the Messiah” (John 1:41). Andrew and John are thenceforth committed disciples of Jesus.

Was Jesus engaging in “sheep-stealing”? Certainly, the dynamic in the narrative is of a movement shifting away from John the baptiser towards Jesus the Messiah; the juxtaposition of these two religious figures can be seen at a number of points (John 1:20, 29-34, 35-36; see also 3:22-30).

See further thoughts on John the baptiser in John’s Gospel at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/07/the-witness-of-john/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/

None of this is in view in the account we read in this Sunday’s Gospel. The rapid-fire movement in this opening chapter simply takes us from John, baptising in the Jordan, to Jesus at the Jordan and then in the wilderness, and on into Galilee, beside the lake and in Capernaum (Mark 1:1-45).

See my comments on the character of Mark 1 at https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/18/lets-get-down-to-business-beginning-the-story-of-jesus-mark-1/

Mark has no concern with exploring the relationship between Jesus and John. He wishes only to indicate that, at the critical moment of the beginning of the public activity of Jesus, it was through contact with John, his message and his actions, that Jesus was impelled into his mission.

*****

The Gospel account moves quickly on from the baptism, to a very different scene, set in the wilderness, where Jesus is tested, challenged about his call (1:12-15). The wilderness was the location of testing for Israel (Exod 17:1-7; Num 11:1-15; Deut 8:2). By the same token, the wilderness was also the place where “Israel tested God” (Num 14:20-23), when Israel grumbled and complained to God (see Exod 14-17, Num 11 and 14). Wilderness and testing go hand-in-hand.

The reference to Jesus being forty days in the wilderness evokes both the “forty years” of wilderness wandering for the people of Israel (Exod 16:35; Deut 2:7, 8:2, 29:5; Neh 9:21; Amos 2:10, 5:25), as well as the “forty days” that Moses spent fasting on Mount Sinai (Exod 34:28; Deut 9:9-11,18,25; 10:10).

Forty, however, should be regarded not as a strict chronological accounting, but as an expression indicating “an extended period of time”, whether that be in days or in years. It points to the symbolic nature of the account.

We see this usage of forty, for instance, in the comment in Judges, that “the land had rest forty years” (Judges 5:31, 8:28)–a statement that really means “for quite a long time”. Likewise, Israel was “given into the hands of the Philistines forty years” (Judges 13:1) and Eli the priest served for 40 years (1 Sam 4:18).

David the king reigned for 40 years (2 Sam 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11; 1 Chron 29:27), his son Solomon then reigned for another 40 years (1 Kings 11:42; 2 Chron 9:30), as also did Jehoash (2 Kings 12:1) and his son Jeroboam (2 Kings 14:23). If we take these as precise chronological periods, it is all very neat and tidy and orderly–and rather unbelievable!

Other instances of forty point to the same generalised sense of an extended time. Elijah journeyed from Mount Carmel to Mount Horeb “forty days and forty nights” (1 Kings 19:8), whilst the prophet Ezekiel’s announcement of punishments lasting forty years (Ezekiel 29:10-13) is intended to indicate “for a long time”, not for a precise chronological period. Jonah’s prophecy that there will be forty days until Nineveh is overthrown (Jonah 3:4) has the same force.

So the story of the testing of Jesus for “forty days in the wilderness” is not a precise accounting of exact days, but draws on a scriptural symbol for an extended, challenging period of time.

Details about the conversation that took place whilst Jesus was being tested in the wilderness are provided in the accounts in the Gospels attributed to Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13). This is not the case in Mark, where the much shorter account (1:12-13) focusses attention on the key elements of this experience: the wilderness, testing, wild beasts, angels–and the activity of the Spirit.

For more on Jesus in the wilderness, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/08/sacred-place-and-sacred-scripture-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/05/a-testing-time-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-1/

*****

The Markan account of this period of testing is typically concise and focussed. The constituent elements in the story continue the symbolic character of the narrative.

The note that “he was with the wild beasts” sounds like the wilderness experience was a rugged time of conflict and tension for Jesus. However, commentators note that the particular Greek construction employed here is found elsewhere in this Gospel to describe companionship and friendly association: Jesus appointed twelve apostles “to be with him” (3:14); the disciples “took him [Jesus] with them onto the boat” (4:36); the man previously possessed by demons begged Jesus “that he might be with him” (5:14); and a servant girl declares to Peter that she saw “you also were with Jesus” (14:67).

If this Greek construction bears any weight, then it is pointing to the companionable, friendly association of the wild beasts with Jesus—a prefiguring of the eschatological harmony envisaged at the end of time, when animals and humans all live in harmony (Isaiah 11:6-9; Hosea 2:18). The wilderness scene has a symbolic resonance, then, with this vision.

Alongside the wild beasts, angels are present—and their function is quite specifically identified as “waiting on him” (1:13). The Greek word used here is most certainly significant. The word diakonein has the basic level of “waiting at table”, but in Markan usage it is connected with service, as we see in the descriptions of Peter’s healed mother-in-law (1:31), the women who followed Jesus as disciples from Galilee to the cross (15:41), and most clearly in the saying of Jesus that he came “not to be served, but to serve” (10:45). The service of the angels symbolises the ultimate role that Jesus will undertake.

Finally, we note that the whole scene of the testing of Jesus takes place under the impetus of the Spirit, which “drove him out into the wilderness” (1:12). This was the place that Jesus just had to be; the action of the Spirit, so soon after descending on him like a dove (1:11), reinforces the importance and essential nature of the testing that was to take place in the wilderness.

And the action of driving out is expressed in a single word which contains strong elements of force—the word is used to describe the confrontational moment of exorcism (1:34, 39; 3:15, 22-23; 6:13; 9:18, 28, 38) and is also used with great force at 11:15. The testing in the wilderness becomes a moment when Jesus comes face to face with his adversary, Satan—and casts his power aside. The more developed dialogues in Matthew and Luke expand on this understanding of the encounter.

*****

Both of the key elements in this reading (baptism and testing) serve a key theological purpose in Mark’s narrative. They shape Jesus for what lies ahead. They signal that Jesus was dramatically commissioned by God, then rigorously equipped for the task he was then to undertake amongst his people. The two elements open the door to the activities of Jesus that follow in the ensuing 13 chapters, right up to the time when the long-planned plot against Jesus, initiated at 3:6, is put into action (14:1-2).

Of course, this story is offered in the lectionary each year on the first Sunday in the season of Lent. It serves as an introduction to the whole season. Jesus being tested in the wilderness points forward, to the series of events taking place in Jerusalem, that culminate in his crucifixion, death, and burial.

The narrative arc of Mark’s Gospel runs from the baptism and wilderness testing, through to death at Golgotha and burial in a tomb. The weekly pattern of Gospel readings during Lent follows a parallel path, from the wilderness testing of Lent 1, to the entry into Jerusalem on Lent 6, the farewell meal on Maundy Thursday, and the death and burial on Good Friday.

That is the path that Jesus trod. That is the way that he calls us to walk.

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Celebrations in Canberra (in the Uniting Church Presbytery)

Before I moved to Canberra, people told me about the north/south divide: people north of the lake rarely venture south of the lake, and vice versa). As I was moving from Perth (where people north of the river rarely venture over the river, and vice versa), this was not a new experience for me.

This past weekend, in Canberra, there were joyous celebrations taking place on both sides of the lake. And some people even crossed over the lake to take part in those celebrations!

North of the lake, the Gungahlin Congregation was celebrating 25 years of ministry and mission in the northern-most region of our capital city. The Congregation started as a church plant, beginning from almost nothing—Mark Greenlees arrived in January 1996 to a rented house, one couple willing to work with them, and three partly-completed new housing estates with a population of 12,000, surrounded by paddocks and hillsides.

Over a decade, Mark and his wife Robyn worked with a growing group of dedicated disciples, building a faith community that was in a position then to call a new minister, plan and build a purpose-built church and community complex (opened in 2010), and develop a distinctive identity as an inclusive, community-oriented gathering of people.

Mark Faulkner came to ministry at Gungahlin in 2007. He reflected on this group as “a genuine Christian community, where people of all ages, relationships, cultures and theologies sat side by side, where people were welcoming to the stranger, the hungry, the troubled, the refugee … a community who shared leadership, encouraged ideas, took risks and sought to live out their faith”.

Darren Wright is now in placement with a strong group of lay leaders, sharing the site with a Korean UCA Congregation, looking to harness the energy of the people into engagement with the neighbours that now surround them—households with two working parents, refugees moving into the region, with places of worship for Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Bahai, Buddhists, and other faiths.

A group of people which which filled the worship space and foyer (with the requisite social distancing) heard stories from each era in the Congregation’s life, tapped and clapped as the band played and sang worship songs, shared in prayer for the local community and for people beyond, and then shared in fellowship for an extended time after the worship had ended.

It was worth the trip all the way from the southern-most suburb of Canberra, to this northern urban region, for this joyful celebration!

Meanwhile, south of the lake, another celebration was taking place, as the Woden Valley Congregation formally came into existence. Ross Kingham, Co-Chair of the Canberra Region Presbytery, presided as the members of two existing southern Canberra Congregations joyfully and wholeheartedly pledged their commitment to working together as a unified Congregation, seeking to express itself in worship and service in the Woden Valley in ways that are appropriate and relevant for the context.

Two parallel processes had led to this conjunction of Congregations. As Chris Lockley neared his retirement, throughout 2019 and 2020 he worked with the St James Curtin Congregation to explore possibilities for their ministry and mission in that part of Canberra’s inner south in future years.

Janet Kay, Chair of the St James Congregation, notes that “we started meaningful planning conversations early in 2018, after a significant number of people from St James had attended the Pathways conversations and had come back with ideas about what makes a healthy church.” Over time, explorations of these ideas were undertaken with every church in the southern region of Canberra.

At the same time, the South Woden Congregation, which was sharing the ministry leadership of Gary Holdsworth with the Weston Creek Congregation, was exploring their future. Chair of Church Council, Stephen Brand, explains that they wanted to “take a new and dynamic approach to our place in the community and also to seek out a like-minded congregation with which to consider working closely or merging.”

In the best of timing, the two processes converged about a year ago, and—working through all the challenges that COVOD-19 restrictions imposed—the two Congregations each came to a consensus decision about their future together.

Janet Kay observes, “our combined enthusiasm, talents and skills are now available to make something greater than the sum of the two parts.”

Stephen Brand notes, “we were considering a future horizon of 5 to 10 years and not reflecting an immediate terminal ‘decline’. In fact, the congregations [each] remain strong communities of faith with energy and purpose.” So, this is a merger made at a moment of strength, with a clear mutual commitment to a shared future—a most hopeful sign!

Andrew Smith, Presbytery Minster for Congregation Futures, notes that “after vows by the members of the new Congregation and a welcome by Presbytery, there was a gathering coloured pieces of wax from all those present to form a community candle. The worship music filled us with hope of new light streaming in this place as God gathered us in, and we were sent out trusting in God who gives us a future, daring us to go.”

Canberra Region Presbytery is also celebrating the commencement of new ministry leadership in three Congregations—Apelu Tielu at Queanbeyan, Geoff Dornan at Wesley Forrest, and Andrew Jago at North Belconnen. It is exciting to be in the middle of multiple communities of faith where hope for the future and commitment to the present are expressed so strongly!

Congregations in the Canberra Region Presbytery
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Coping in the aftermath of COVID-19: a global perspective, a local response

Now that 2020 is behind us, and 2021 lies ahead of us, we are beginning to consider how we might deal with the aftermath of the pandemic. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has spread around the globe, bringing the COVID-19 disease to millions of people—including some that we may know personally.

We have been dealing for many months now, with the lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings, inability to travel, loss of worship and fellowship times, greater vigilance with hand washing and social distancing. Coping with all of these factors requires careful attention, and patience.

One thing is for certain: life is going to be different post-COVID. For my part, I reckon that we will be pushed back to living our lives much more locally. Whilst we see the pandemic still raging in so many countries around the world, in Australia we have been fortunate to have been spared the very worst of the situation. It has felt bad, but (excepting those grieving for the loss of a loved one from COVID-19), it has been nowhere as bad as it has been for many millions of people in other countries.

For us in Australia, I would think that there will at least be regional connections that will be possible in the good times, and hard lockdowns that may come in the difficult moments. There will be minimal international travel for many more months (even years) yet, and limited interstate travel, fluctuating from time to time between “open borders”, limited travel, and “hard borders”.

We know we won’t be controlling the spread of the virus and the rate of infection until vaccinations have been rolled out; indeed, that assumes that current vaccinations will be effective against the newly-emerging variants of the virus.

So what is clear, is that nothing will “stay the same” for any real length of time. We will be shifting and shuffling week after week, for at least another year. We will just have to adjust and accept this. We have these shifts and changes in recent ones, with the Avalon and Berala clusters in Sydney, and now the Holiday Inn cluster in Melbourne.

These changes and adaptations will apply to our daily lives in society, as much as to our church lives in congregations and faith communities.

As I was thinking about this a few days ago, I started reading a newsletter from one of the NGOs that Elizabeth and I support—an organisation that works in the poorest and most needy countries of the world. It does good work: bringing fresh water supplies and sustainable “climate-smart” farming methods to local communities, developing local industries that will provide support for families, providing medical and psychological support to strengthen the mental health of communities, responding to crisis situations in countries with poor infrastructure, and (for the past year) offering guidance in appropriate COVID-safe practices.

The pandemic has hit us—and it has hit others around the world. But as we reflect on how we have been impacted, let us remember that people who are poor and vulnerable have been hardest hit by the impacts of the pandemic. Here are some key examples.

Hand hygiene. In the poorest tier of nations, 3 out of 4 people do not have immediate access to clean water and soap. How do they do their “20-second hand wash singing Happy Birthday” multiple times each day? (See the discussion by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/hygiene/ldc/index.html)

Job insecurity. Half of the world’s workers (1.6 billion people) rely on jobs in the informal economy. They don’t have job security with equitable pay and conditions. When the pandemic hit, many of the people saw their jobs either disrupted for a time, or closed down. (The World Bank provides statistics on this and other aspects of the global economy at https://datatopics.worldbank.org/jobs/topic/employment)

Medical services. Over 40% of all countries have fewer than 1 medical doctors per 1,000 people and fewer than 4 nurses per 1,000 people. By comparison, the figure for Australia is just over 20 doctors and 12 nurses per 1,000 people. (The data is based on World Health Organisation statistics; see https://www.who.int/data/gho/data/themes/topics/health-workforce)

Ratio of doctors to population (per 1,000)

Gender-based violence. Calls to helplines have increased five-fold in some countries as rates of reported intimate partner violence increase because of the stresses introduced by the pandemic. Women are always the vast majority of victims in such situations. (See the discussion by UN Women at https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures)

Poverty. And, as a summary headline, this NGO estimates that the pandemic will mean that another 163 million people will be living in poverty by the end of this year. Add to that, the impact of the other huge and long-term crisis that we are facing—climate change—will push yet another 132 million people into poverty by the end of this decade. These are very sobering statistics.

If we really do “love our neighbour”, as Jesus commanded us to do, we will be concerned not only for the neighbour who usually sits beside us in church, and the neighbour we pass at the local shopping centre who is homeless and asking for money … but also the neighbours who are hit hard because they live in nations where poverty, violence, unemployment, and poor hygiene are rampant — neighbours for whom the past year has been even more difficult and challenging.

We can assist by supporting UnitingWorld, Act With Peace, UNICEF, UNHCR, Oxfam, TEAR Fund, Red Cross, Medicins Sans Frontièrs, or our choice of another reputable organisation that works on the ground in third world countries. It’s an integral part of being faithful followers of Jesus.

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Transfigured lives—in the here and now (Mark 9 and 1 Kings 2)

Every year at this point of the year, the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we read the story of Jesus on the mountain, when “his clothes became dazzling white”, and—quite amazingly—Moses and Elijah appear alongside him (Mark 9:2-8). This is a story which pierces the constraints of history, which gathers three greats of the faith together.

Alongside this story, on each of the three years in the lectionary cycle, we read a companion story from Hebrew Scripture. This year, we read a story about Elijah—the moment when he passes the mantle of his prophetic leadership to Elisha, and “ascended in a whirlwind into heaven” (1 Kings 2:1-12). This story also breaks open the constraints of how we normally see life, as the whirlwind whisks Elijah into the heavens.

Both stories are pertinent for the times we are living; both stories are relevant to the context of a global pandemic, rolling lockdowns, restrictions on social gatherings, and constraints on “life as normal” (at least as we knew it up to this point in time).

Both stories invite us to look carefully for those moments when things suddenly look different from what we were expecting. We had become so accustomed to life with no limits on travel, no constraints on gathering, shaking hands and hugging, eating together without a second thought, visiting friends and family in other suburbs, other cities, whenever we wished. All of those things have changed over the last year. Life is different. Our patterns of behaviour are different. Life looks very different.

Both stories invite us to undertake a process of discernment; to perceive how the heavenly realm is breaking into the earthly realm; to sense how the barrier between heaven and earth is opened wide. That’s the special gift of these stories at this time of the year, as this season of Epiphany draws to a close. Where is God, in what is happening to us now?

In Celtic Christian spirituality, such moments when we perceive just how different things are, are called “thin places”. The thin place offers an opportunity to glimpse a different dimension, to review the regularity of our lives, to grasp a vision of the deeper things of faith, to sense a deeper reality in the midst of the mundane.

Now, describing the onset of a global pandemic as a “thin place” is a big call. We need to be careful about how we describe an event that has resulted in millions of deaths, caused deep grief to many millions of people, stretched already over-stretched medical resources to breaking point, ensured that hundreds of millions of people will have long term enduring medical conditions well into the coming decade (and beyond), and upturned the way of life of almost every human being on the planet.

But could it be, that in this moment of challenge, overturning established patterns, reshaping familiar practices, reimagining ways of living—could it be that this was in fact a “thin place”, a moment when a force from beyond breaks into the mundane, when heavenly realities reset earthly patterns?

The stories in our readings this week invite us to consider how this might be.

******

The story of the Transfiguration tells of the moment that Peter, James, and John perceived Jesus in a new way. No longer did they see him as the man from Nazareth. In this moment, they see him as filled to overflowing with divine glory. He was not simply the son of Joseph; he was now the divinely-chosen, God-anointed, Beloved Son (Mark 9:7).

Jesus brings the heavenly realm right to the earthly disciples. They had the possibility, in that moment of time, to feel intensely close to the heavenly realm, to stand in the presence of God. They symbolise the desire of human beings, to reach out into the beyond, to grasp hold of what is transcendent—to get to heaven, as that is where God is (see Gen 28:10-12 and Deut 30:12; Pss 11:4, 14:2, 33:13, 53:2, 80:14, 102:19; although compare the sense of God being everywhere in Ps 139:8-12).

But how were they then to get to heaven, the perceived dwelling-place of God?

Elijah. The story of Elijah, known to these Jewish men from their religious upbringing, hearing the stories of scripture, offers one possibility. The account in 1 Kings 2 indicates that it might, indeed, be possible for a human being to go straight to heaven, to be with God. This was the experience of Elijah.

Elijah did not die; he was simply whisked up directly into heaven. He had a “get out of gaol free” card, as it were; go straight to heaven, do not pass the moment of death, go straight to heaven. If it was possible for him—could it not also be possible for us?

Elijah, on the mountain, standing beside the shining, dazzling figure of the transfigured Jesus, represents this possibility. Were the three followers of Jesus thinking about this possibility as they saw Jesus, transfigured, alongside Elijah?

Moses. Standing next to Elijah, however, was Moses. And Moses represents another, very different, way of gaining access to the presence of God. It was to Moses that the commandments of the Torah were given. It was to Moses that every tiny detail, every instruction and regulation and commandment of the Torah, was given, so that he might pass them on, in turn, to the people of Israel.

Following the way of holiness and obedience that was set forth in the Torah, was another way by which faithful people might gain access to heaven, the dwelling place of God. Obedience to the Law was the pathway, in this case.

Those who would diligently and scrupulously keep all the commandments which Moses had instructed, would find their pathway to heaven set forth with assurance. Such people would be finding heaven as their place of destiny, after they had achieved fulfilment of the laws. (Perhaps the claim of the rich man in Mark 10:17-20 reflects this kind of understanding.)

Were the three followers of Jesus thinking about this possibility as they saw Jesus, transfigured, alongside Moses? Did they envisage a pathway to heaven through their faithful obedience to all the prescriptions of Torah? After all, Jesus had explicitly affirmed those who keep the commandments as “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:28-34).

However, the larger story of Jesus, told in the various accounts created by the early evangelists, makes it clear that, for Jesus, and for those who follow him, neither of these pathways are, in fact, the way to gain access to the heavenly realm where God dwells.

******

Jesus. For Jesus, in contrast to Elijah, ascending into heaven in order to be with God, and Moses, advocating adherence to Torah in order to be with God, the aim is to bring the kingdom of heaven, and all that entails, into life on earth in the here and now.

“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” ( Mart 6:10) is what Jesus is said to have instructed his followers to pray. His was a mission, not to enable his followers to ascend into heaven, but to bring down to earth, from the heavenly realm, the rule of God.

The moment of being transfigured, for Jesus, was a moment that signalled the gracious presence of God on earth, amongst the creatures of God’s creation. The transfigured Jesus, shining forth the glory of God on the mountaintop, symbolised the possibility, for his followers on the mountain, and for his followers in subsequent times and places, that they might have the glory of God shining from their lives in the here and now.

For us, today, as followers of Jesus in own time, that means that we are called into a commitment to serve others who are around us, to work for justice for those we encounter, to seek to do what is right here and now, to love our neighbours—immediate and far away—as we love ourselves and love God and God’s ways.

As we do this, we might realise that keeping the law offered in the covenant with God is integral to our discipleship; and whilst we fix our vision on the ultimate goal (heaven—the kingdom of God—the vision of God’s way—whatever we might call it), the work that we undertake in the here and now is actually the full realisation of that ultimate goal.

As the story of Jesus itself indicates, the way that Jesus took to realising the reality of heaven on earth is through submission and death. The Apostles Creed affirms that Jesus “descended to the dead; on the third day he rose again”. Jesus models the pathway of dying to self in order to rise as a new self. All of this takes place within this life, for the sake of this life.

Following Jesus. The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is surrounded by teachings which highlight this central element for his faithful followers. Immediately before ascending to the mountaintop, Jesus states that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).

He follows this with a clear word of commission to his followers: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:34-35).

Soon after the transfiguration, after returning to the level plain, Jesus repeats his words, that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (9:31), and then offers a variant of his central claim on his followers: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).

And for a third time, some time later on, Jesus declares, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:34-35), followed, once more, by clear instructions to his followers: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44).

This is what it means to perceive the glory of God in our midst in the transfigured Jesus, and to commit to follow him in all of life—here, now, in the present. And this story invites us to look at our present times with new eyes—to see the glory of God in our midst in unexpected and enlivening ways!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/02/26/bringing-his-exodos-to-fulfilment/

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The whole city? (Mark 1) Let’s take that with a grain of salt

Should we take everything we read in the Bible as clear, unquestionable fact? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean that we toss everything out. We need to be critically discerning.

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is a case in point (Mark 1:29-38). There’s a brief reference to a crowd scene, outside the house of the mother-in-law of Simon Peter, in Capernaum. After the healing that took place inside, word spreads, and people begin to gather outside. That then provides the basis for the healing and exorcising activities of Jesus (1:29-34).

How big was the crowd that gathered outside the house? Mark makes the claim that “the whole city was gathered around the door” (1:33). Now that is some crowd: the whole population, outside one house in the town!

It is thought that the population of a town like Capernaum in the first century would have been about 1,500 people. So that’s quite a crowd squeezed into the street next to this little house!

For myself, I take such a claim with a pinch of salt. (That’s a saying that is thought to have originated with Pliny the Elder, who included a recipe for an antidote to poison, in his Natural History, that included “a grain of salt”.)

In other words, whilst there is some truth to what is said, let’s not take it uncritically, unthinkingly, literally. There were lots of people there; but not every one, not every single inhabitant of Capernaum. Mark most likely is here exaggerating.

He has already indicated that Jesus was with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” (1:5). After his teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum (1:21), he becomes renowned “throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (1:28), visited by “all who were sick or possessed with demons”, indeed by “the whole city” (1:32-33).

Then he is told that “everyone is searching for you” (1:37), and so he sets off, touring throughout Galilee (1:39), where “people came to him from every quarter” (1:45). Much later in the story, Mark declares that in Jerusalem, “the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (11:18).

Lots of exaggerations there!

We find the same in Luke’s writings. For instance, after they were arrested in Philippi and incarcerated in prison, Paul and Silas are praying. Suddenly, we read that “a great earthquake” shakes open the prison doors (16:26). The universal scope of the earthquake’s impact (“all the doors opened … everyone’s chains unfastened”) is striking, but perhaps a Lukan exaggeration. Everyone was set free? Really?

This is characteristic of the Lukan narrative—notice how many times “all” the people say, or do something (Luke 3:21, 4:14, 20, 22, 28, 36, 40, 5:26, 6:17, 19, 7:16, 17, 29, 8:37, 40, 52, 9:43, 13:17, 18:43, 19:7, 48, 21:38, 23:5, 48, 49; Acts 3:11, 4:16, 9:35, 17:21, 19:10, 19:17, 22:12, 26:4). That’s a lot of “all the people” doing things and saying things in complete unison! I take this as a sign of his literary licence. He’s a garrulous story-teller, not a clinical historian.

And Matthew is not immune from the same tendency. Some of the sayings of Jesus that are reported in this Gospel reveal the same tendency to extremism, hyperbole, exaggeration. For instance, “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?

And similarly, “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 splinter, maybe— but not a log. And when Jesus condemned the Pharisees , he berated them as “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). Again: imagine swallowing a camel. Urgh. That has to be excessive exaggeration, told for dramatic impact, and not an actual documentary description.

So let’s not get hung up on rigid literalistic readings of scripture. Let’s allow for the artistic input of each evangelist—and, indeed, for the creative impact of Jesus himself, as he exaggerates and overdraws his words for the sake of making an impact. And let’s read with careful attention to the symbolic sense of the story, rather than focussing on the words as the literal truth.

And have that pinch of salt at the ready!!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/18/lets-get-down-to-business-beginning-the-story-of-jesus-mark-1/

and https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/21/textual-interplay-stories-of-jesus-in-mark-1-and-the-prophets-of-israel/

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A vision, a Congress, and a struggle for justice

Charles Harris: A Struggle for Justice (William W. Emilsen, 2019, MediaCom)

In August 1983, a National Conference within the Uniting Church was held from 22-26 August at Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island, in the Northern Territory. The Conference inaugurated the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress within the UCA. It built on the work that had taken place in 1982, as a series of meetings brought together Aboriginal and Islander members of the Church and other interested people in a conference at Crystal Creek, near Townsville.

The UAICC, or “Congress”, as it is more commonly called, has remained a significant feature of the UCA nationally, as well as in a number of Synods. Two Synods have contained Presbyteries composed entirely of Congress Congregations.

The Northern Regional Council of Congress (NRCC) functions as one of two Presbyteries in the Northern Synod. Representatives of more than 28 Aboriginal congregations from East Arnhem Land, West Arnhem Land, the West Kimberley region of Western Australia, Alice Springs, Aputula and the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia, make up the Council.

For many decades, Calvary Presbytery served as the regional Queensland body of Congress, a Presbytery in the Synod of Queensland. It oversees Indigenous congregations in the Cape York and Gulf region (Mapoon, Napranum, Aurukun and Mornington Island), as well as Congress congregations at Gordonvale (south of Cairns), Townsville, and Zillmere (in northern Brisbane). Since 2016, Calvary Presbytery and North Queensland Presbytery have worked together as Carpentaria Presbytery, one of seven Presbyteries in the Queensland Synod.

This unique ecclesial arrangement, of a Congress body functioning within the denominational structures of the UCA, but having the authority to make decisions in all matters relating to ministry with Aboriginal and Islander peoples, had been the vision of the Rev. Charles Harris, an Aboriginal community worker and pastor who was ordained a UCA minister in November 1980.

Charles was the first President of the national body of Congress when it was formed in 1985. This was a role that, over the ensuing decades, has come to be seen as equal and complementary to the position of President of the national Assembly.

Charles Harris would later describe the 1983 conference as a time “of discovery, of one another, of culture, and of common faithfulness. It was a conference dedicated to searching for the will and purpose of God.”

The passion and vision birthed at these historic meetings for First Nations Peoples has not subsided in hearts and minds of members of the UAICC.

William Emilsen has written much on the work of Charles Harris; after a series of articles published over some decades, he has now published a book-length account of the whole of the life and work of Harris, entitled Charles Harris: A Struggle for Justice.

See https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3060-a-destiny-is-born-uaicc-beginnings. The book is available from MediaCom at https://www.mediacomeshop.org.au/test/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=426

At the end of his life, the activist and public servant Charles Perkins, a long-time friend, described Harris as one who helped set ‘the moral and ethical standards for relationships between Aboriginal, Islander and white Australians. A man of principle, whose impact will never be forgotten’ (Foster 1993, 5, quoted in https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-charles-enoch-18183)

The book by Emilsen provides multiple examples of how Harris lived and worked by his ethical principles, grounded in the understanding that God’s justice is the heart of the Gospel, and our discipleship is to be focussed on seeking that justice in all of life.

The vision of an Aboriginal Congress was central to Charles Harris’ church ministry and community leadership. He toured the country, encouraging, urging, negotiating, to bring this vision to reality. In 1985 the National Assembly welcomed the formation of Congress, and in 1994 the Uniting Church in Australia formally entered into a Covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, to work together for a more just church and nation.

See https://uniting.church/covenanting-resources/

That work arose out of his work with local Aboriginal communities in Queensland, where Charles offered an integrated ministry that attended to material and spiritual needs, whilst building networks and undertaking advocacy for his people.

And the creation of the Congress formed the springboard for the work that Charles Harris undertook among nest Aboriginal communities across Australia, preparing the converge on Sydney in January 1988 for the BiCentenary celebrations. Charles was the driving force behind the creation of the Day of Mourning, with a march through Sydney and a rally at Hyde Park, which attended by 40,000 people, on 26 January.

See https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/history/The_1988_Bicentenary_Protest

The Bicentenary protest was carried out in the spirit of the earlier Day of Mourning protest, also organised by indigenous leaders, led by William Cooper. This took place in 1938, on the 150th anniversary of the landing of the first fleet. See https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/history/Day_of_Mourning_protests_held_in_Sydney

It is a legacy continues in the current marches and protests organised each January to fight for rights and justice for Aboriginal and Islander peoples.

In telling the story of the role that Charles Harris played in 1988, and in other key events in his life and ministry, William Emilsen had access to the history that Harris himself had begun to sketch, before his health issues predominated, and which led to his early death in 1991.

However, Emilsen has gained access to a wide range of sources–not only published accounts and transcripts of speeches and meetings, but also letters and recollections of events by the colleagues and friends of Charles Harris. He has interviewed and corresponded with key people, including the late widow of Charles Harris, the much-respected Aunty Dorrie (see https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3221-pastoral-letter-rev-dorothy-harris-gordon-1941-2020)

This makes for a rich account, with a proliferation of material enabling the reader to enter into a deep appreciation of the values and commitments of Charles Harris: pastor, community worker, evangelist, student, orator, organiser, visionary, and prophet. It’s a work that is well worth reading.

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This whispering in our hearts: potent stories from Henry Reynolds

I have recently finished reading This Whispering in our Hearts, by the doyen of living Australian historians, Henry Reynolds. (Thanks to Barbara Braybrook for loaning me her copy and suggesting I read it, because she thought I would appreciate it. I have, and I did!)

The whole career of Reynolds has been devoted to researching and writing about the Indigenous peoples of Australia—including his investigations of the stream of violent confrontation and massacre of indigenous peoples in what he has, memorably, called “The Frontier Wars”.

The book tells a story that all Australians need to know. It is an inspiring narrative with potent stories. We need to hear the words, sense the passion, know the sagas of our recent post-invasion history.

Time and time again, as I was reading the book, I found myself greatly appreciating its accounts of courageous, deeply-committed people in early Australian society. They saw and spoke out against the terrible racist attitudes towards Australian Aboriginal people, and especially the many massacres that have peppered our history since the late 18th century.

However, I found it equally a rather depressing account. I had to read it in “chunks” of a chapter or two at a time. I needed to let the information in each chapter settle in my mind, as the battle between passionate advocates and redneck racists was played out over decades.

The book is based on Reynolds’ research into debates, and actions, that took place in white Australian society throughout the 19th century, into the early 20th century. There are numerous quotations from all manner of primary sources—letters, speeches, sermons, pamphlets, newspaper articles, books, and more.

“All over Australia there were men and women who stood up and demanded justice for the aborigines”, writes Reynolds (p.xvi). The book tells the stories of nine such men and women—although, truth be told, only one, the 20th century activist Mary Bennett, is a woman.

Mary Bennett, pioneering feminist and advocate for Indigenous Australians

The others canvassed include Lancelot Threlkeld, George Augustus Robinson, Louis Giustiniani, and Robert Lyon (active in the 1830s and 1840s); John B. Gribble and David Carley (from the 1880s); and Ernest Gribble (from 1926 to 1934).

Pictured: Lancelot Threlkeld (top);
G. A. Robinson and Louis Giustiniani (middle);
Robert Lyon, John B. Gribble, and Ernest Gribble (bottom).

The regions of Australia under scrutiny include the colonies of New South Wales (Threlkeld and Robinson), the Swan River (Giustiniani and Carley), Queensland (with fascinating quotations from letters published in the press in the 1880s), and then Western Australia (both Gribbles, father John and then son Ernest).

The title comes from the closing line of a public lecture delivered by a Sydney barrister, Richard Windemyer, in 1842, a year before he was elected to the Legislative Council. Windemyer had set out to undermine the words and actions of humanitarians who had been advocating for the rights of Aborigines, but ended with the wistful observation, “how is it our minds are not satisfied? what means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?”

Richard Windeyer (1806-1847),
journalist, barrister and politician

That whispering is still with us, into the 21st century, as we have lived through the High Court judgements of Wik and Mabo, the Stolen Generations Report and the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, the Reconciliation March and the National Apology, and the Statement from the Heart at Uluru. And still, despite these and other important happenings, the life expectancy of indigenous Australians is lower and their incarceration rates are far higher than the Australian average; and awareness that white Australia is premised on living on stolen land is still low amongst the general population.

The most recent NAIDOC Week slogan–Always Was. Always Will Be.–has much distance to go to before it gains traction amongst the general Australian population. As Reynolds notes in the final paragraph of the book, “if true reconciliation is ever consummated in Australia and justice is not only done but seen to be done … after 200 years, the whisper in the heart will be heard no more” (p.251). What he wrote in 1998 remains still the case today. We wait in hope …

*****

From the earliest days, Reynolds reports, there was a clear awareness that the indigenous peoples had the right to possession and ownership of the land, and the British colonisers were there because of an act on invasion. Before Cook, Banks, and the crew of the endeavour had set sail, they were in receipt of instructions from James Douglas, President of the Royal Society until his death in 1768, which clearly stated, “they are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit”.

James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton
(portrait with his family by Jeremiah Davison, 1740)

Douglas continued, “no European nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent”, and asserted that “shedding the blood of these people is a crime of the highest nature”, and that “conquest over such people can never give just title … they may naturally and justly attempt to repel invaders who they may apprehend are come to disturb them in the quiet possession of their country” (quoted on p.xii).

The book recounts how all nine of these people, along with others, advocated for Aboriginal people, and how all nine of them encountered various pushbacks—arguments, rejections, persecutions or sackings. In the face of strong community resistance, biased legal judgements, and pure racist political leadership, these people continued their prophetic tasks of advocacy, social work, political strategising, and grassroots activism.

The courage, persistence, and zeal of these nine humanitarians, advocates and activists, and of the many others who worked with them, is offset, at times, by the character evaluation that Reynolds provides. Robinson was “thought to be a tiresome and discredited officer, a pompous, prickly upstart” (p.55). Ernest Gribble was “relentlessly self-centred, tactless, self-righteous, courageous” (p.181). Mary Bennett was “excessive in her righteous passion” (p.241).

Yet the dogged, even intransigent, nature of their various characters was probably what fitted them for the roles they undertook, in the face of massive public opinion oriented in the opposite direction. The closing chapter of the book documents the very significant shift that occurred in the aftermath of, first, the 1926 Forrest River Massacre, and then the 1928 Coniston Massacre.

Both of these massacres occurred in Western Australia, long the heart of racist repudiation of any rights for Aboriginal peoples. This shift in the 1930s was only possible because of the persistent and penetrating critique of the time, driven from the eastern states, with leadership from Elizabeth Bennett and active participation from Christian churches.

The commitment of Christian voices throughout the decades is one striking element in the story that Reynolds tells. He cites a number of early clergymen who argued that discrimination against “the Natives” was contrary to the clear teaching of scripture, by which all races are “of one blood” (drawing on the old translation in the King James Version of Acts 17:26).

Ministers of religion were frequently at the forefront of activism in colonial Australia. Their advocacy for the view that black-skinned people are humans with the same capacities and rights as white-skinned people was clear; but, sadly, not compelling enough. After a century and a half of British settlement, the federal parliament actually legislated for a racist policy, popularly known as the White Australia policy.

Before I read this book, I knew about some of these activist-advocates (for instance, I had blogged about Gribble senior in https://johntsquires.com/2019/08/18/dark-deeds-in-a-sunny-land-the-expose-offered-by-john-b-gribble/).

However, there was much that I did not know. This year, as we approach Invasion Day, January 26, commemorated officially as “Australia Day”, I think it is appropriate that we remember, and give thanks, for those who in years past have spoken and acted in support of the First Peoples of Australia and its surrounding islands, as Henry Reynolds reminds us.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/08/always-was-always-will-be-naidoc2020/

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

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

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Honours. Honestly?

Every year, for as long as I can remember, around this time of the year, there are media stories that report the honours that are being bestowed upon citizens in our society.

Every Australia Day in January (as well as every Queen’s Birthday in June), a long list of names is published, honouring lots of people. The awards are categorised under various levels in the Order of Australia: Companions (AC), Officers (AO), Members (AM), as well as a list of people awarded a Medal (OAM). There are both Civil and Military sections in each of these levels.

The reasons identified for the various honours given are identified by various activities undertaken by the recipients. This can include “service to the community” in philanthropic and other worthwhile ventures, often in voluntary capacities with charities, religious groups, community organisations, and the like. These awards say something like “we appreciate that you gave your time, energy, expertise” to this good cause, usually over an extended period of many years, even decades.

I’ve got no complaint about such recognitions being made. Indeed, this seems to fit very well with the stated aim of the awards system, to honour “Australians who have demonstrated outstanding service or exceptional achievement” (see https://www.gg.gov.au/australian-honours-and-awards/order-australia)

There is also “service to the community” through the various professional sectors of society—basically, awards which say “you did a good job in the work that you were paid to do over these many years”. That’s a different kind of recognition. Surely, if a person is paid to do their job, and they do it well, even very well, then their employer should recognise and celebrate this—and perhaps even hold an event to make this acknowledgement more public than just within the in-house of employment?

It is instructive to read the reasons for the upper levels of awards given. Here’s a sampling from the AC and AO awards issued in June 2020. First, there is “For eminent service to the people and Parliament of Australia, particularly as Prime Minister, and through significant contributions to trade, border control, and to the Indigenous community” (yes, that was Tony Abbott); “For distinguished service to the people and Parliament of New South Wales, particularly as Premier, and to the community” (Mike Baird, in NSW); “For distinguished service to the Parliament of Australia, to the people of New South Wales, and to women in politics” (Bronwyn Bishop, NSW Senator); “For distinguished service to the Parliament of Australia, to the people of Queensland, and to fisheries research and development” (Ron Boswell, Qld Senator). Enough said.

After all these political personages, there follows awards for “distinguished service to business in the energy, gas and oil production and infrastructure sectors … to aerospace and mechanical engineering, to education and research … to business, particularly through a range of travel industries, to professional tourism organisations … to public administration, and to international legal practice, through senior counsel and advisory roles … to higher education, particularly in the field of economics and public policy, and to professional societies.”

So that’s one way to analyse the awards. The higher awards go to politicians and people at the peak of their respective professional fields. All for doing their jobs well. Occasionally the phrase “and for community service” sneaks in, but not often. So it’s really about awarding the privileged and powerful who have “made it”.

They have “made it” by the hard slog of winning lots of elections, or by the hard slog of doing their demanding job really well. We could well debate whether we need this whole complex system to pat on the back those who’ve already received accolades, the trappings of office, the height of their professional work, for this hard slog.

There’s another way to looks at all of this. That’s an analysis that our own Governor General, David Hurley (pictured below), has offered this year.

As the person responsible for overseeing this whole process, he has noted some very striking biases. Such as:

The higher awards – the Companion of the Order of Australia and the Officer of the Order of Australia – tend to go to the rich, male and powerful. About 130 directors of boards of ASX 300 companies are members of the Order of Australia, and the suburbs in which AC and AO members are most likely to live are Toorak in Melbourne and Mosman in Sydney, followed by Melbourne’s South Yarra and Kew, and Sydney’s exclusive Vaucluse.

No one in the “Multicultural” or “Disabled” fields of endeavour have been made members of the AC, but the “Parliament and Politics” category has 42 ACs, while “Business and Commerce” leaders have 48 of them.

And indigenous Australians are completely under-represented in the honours system. In fact, there has not even been an indigenous member of the Council for the Order of Australia for almost a decade, now.

That’s an extraordinary admission by the very person charged with overseeing the system—a clear, public recognition that (as he wrote recently to the various peak bodies who need to bring recommendations), “quite candidly, ‘I don’t think you’re doing well enough.’ ”

It’s a system for rich, white, privileged blokes — rich, white, privileged blokes, who reward other rich, white, privileged blokes — and who sometimes let others squeak in, just a little, but not at the upper level, no thank you, just at the lower levels of recognition.

It’s a system that is completely inappropriate for the current context. It’s a system that needs to end. And there is already one extremely high-profile award in this year’s Australia Day honours that has highlighted, once again, the embedded inequities, biases, and discrimination that is at the heart of a system that rewards a person for things that are so far removed from recognising “Australians who have demonstrated outstanding service or exceptional achievement”.

So here’s the deal: what if all those “little people” who are nominated for an award, actually say, “thank you, but no thanks”. What if all the folks who genuinely merit such recognition — women, Aborigines, faithful community group leaders, devoted church and charity people, and even philanthropists, and the like — what if they turn it down, and leave only those rich, white, privileged blokes as the recipients?

And wouldn’t it be great if this mass rejection movement was led by all those folks (good, honourable, decent devoted) who are people of faith? After all, the central ethos of following Jesus calls for a focus on servanthood, placing others before self, and not doing things for show.

So wouldn’t it be a wonderful testimony to our faith, if the move not to accept an honours nomination would be led by those who live by the guide, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44)?

Who adhere to the instruction, “whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others … when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret” (Matt 6:2-4)?

Who pattern their whole lives on the word that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24)?

Such a wholesale mass repudiation of the honours system would expose that system for what it is. And would hopefully drive us closer to closing down this biased, anachronistic, self-congratulatory system once and for all.

https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/order-of-australia-biased-against-women-admits-governor-general-20201222

*****

Update on 27 Jan 2021: see https://www.theage.com.au/national/faith-rattled-in-australia-day-honours-20210127-p56x9m.html?fbclid=IwAR30XdhVn9MeWGuj3eSxwZC1LcaZB2Uv7ooKFhjLc0e73XGVi1Mm_V3l2rs

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Textual interplay: stories of Jesus in Mark 1 and the prophets of Israel

The Revised Common Lectionary is shaped with deliberate intention, offering a selection from Hebrew Scripture each week, alongside a portion of the designated a gospel for the year (this year, Year B, it is Mark). For about half the year, there is no specific intention to correlate the Hebrew Scripture passage with the Gospel passage. In some seasons, however, there is a careful selection of the Hebrew Scripture passage, so that it resonates with and complements or intensifies themes in the Gospel passage.

This appears to be the case in the season of Epiphany, during Year B. Whilst the Gospel sections largely trace the opening scenes of Mark (1:1-3:6), the Hebrew Scripture sections are drawn from a range of Hebrew prophets: Isaiah, 1 Samuel, Jonah, Deuteronomy, Malachi, Hosea, and stories about Elisha in 2 Kings. (Not all of these passages, nor all of Mark 1:1-3:6, appear in Epiphany in 2021; in other years, when Easter is later in the year, the season of Epiphany stretches over more weeks, as the image below indicates.)

The selection of a prophetic passage alongside, and directly oriented towards, a Gospel passage, invites readers and hearers of these scripture passages to explore in creative ways what themes are highlighted. Back in Advent 2, Isaiah 40:1-11 was offered alongside Mark 1:1-8, the account of the activities of John the baptiser in the wilderness. The logic of this is clear; the Gospel actually directly quotes Isa 40:3 in Mark 1:2b-3, depicting John as “crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’.”

On the feast of the Baptism of Jesus, Hebrew Scripture passages underline the breaking open of the heavens for the voice of the Lord to be heard (Ps 29:3-9 and Gen 1:3; see Mark 1:11). The words of that heavenly voice are drawn from Psalm 2:7 (“you are my Son”) and Isaiah 42:1 (“with you I am well-pleased”).

In following weeks, there are clear resonances of theme between the two selections. On Epiphany 3 (24 January), both Jonah 3:1-10 and Mark 1:14-20 recount call stories. We read the story of Jonah, called to proclaim God’s message to the city of Nineveh, alongside the story of Andrew and Simon Peter, John and James, called to become followers of Jesus.

Jonah is effective in his proclamation to Nineveh, which in turn provokes God to change his mind about the calamity that he had promised for them. That is power!! But this was the second call that Jonah had received (3:1); the first had ended in quite a catastrophe (Jonah was thrown overboard and swallowed whole, 1:15-17).

Andrew and Peter, John and James undergo a period of learning-on-the-road with Jesus, before they start to proclaim with power. Theirs was a slowly-evolving call, requiring diligent attention and persistence. And other calls following this pattern are narrated by Mark—Levi (2:15), a crowd following him (8:34-36), and women in Galilee (15:40-41).

On Epiphany 4 (31 January), words attributed to Moses in Deut 18:15-20 are placed alongside Mark 1:21-28. These passages address the question: once we are called by God—then what?? Deut 18 contains a story about the promise God made to Israel, to “raise up a prophet”, while Mark 1 tells the story of the man possessed in the synagogue in Capernaum, who was exorcised by Jesus.

Both stories focus on the distinctive nature of faith in the particular contexts of these stories. The prophet of Israel stands over against “other gods” (Isa 40:20). Jesus of Nazareth is recognised as one who speaks “a new teaching—with authority” (Mark 1:27).

Both stories indicate that being faithful to the call will place us in challenging, daunting, perhaps even threatening situations. Faith is a call to trust in God as we enter into those situations. How is your call being challenged? How are you responding?

On Epiphany 5 (7 February), Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39 offer stories at the start of a significant period of ministry; an unnamed prophet of Israel, speaking to the people as they prepare to step into the wilderness, journeying to the promised land; and Jesus, interacting with people soon after his own wilderness experience (Mark 1:12-13). Both passages are set at the start of a significant period of time; both stories reveal important things about the nature of God, and the ways that God engages with human beings in their lives.

God is portrayed as powerful and sovereign in Isaiah 40; that was comforting and reassuring for the journeying Israelites. God comes with power, also, in Jesus; yet in his humanity, Jesus needs time to replenish and rejuvenate (Mark 1:35).

His example tells us that we need to hold in balance the desire to do great things, with the need to care for ourselves and remain connected with God.

In other years, we would follow on to explore the interplay of passages in Mark 2 and 3 with excerpts from 2 Kings 5, Isaiah 43, Hosea 2, and Deuteronomy 5. But this year, Epiphany ends on 14 February, the last Sunday before Lent. On this day, the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, in the presence of Moses and Elijah (Mark 9:2-9) is linked, quite understandably, with the account of Elijah ascending into heaven, after his mantle is passed on to Elisha (2 Kings 2:1-12).

This account contains the second of three occasions in Mark’s Gospel where we encounter the voice of God, affirming his Son, in the words, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7; cf. Ps 2:7). The other instances are at the Baptism of Jesus (1:11) and at his Crucifixion (15:39, although this affirmation is placed on the lips of the centurion who was guarding him).

The three occurrences of this affirmation encompass the whole Markan narrative within this clear claim about Jesus—echoing the very title of this work: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God “ (1:1).

Readings for Epiphany 2021, from the website
of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library in the USA,
http://divinity.library.vanderbilt.edu/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/18/lets-get-down-to-business-beginning-the-story-of-jesus-mark-1/

and https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/24/the-kingdom-is-at-hand-so-follow-me-the-gospel-according-to-mark/

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“Let’s get down to business”: beginning the story of Jesus (Mark 1)

“Before I begin, let me give you the genealogy of Jesus, so you know this is about a real person” (so says the author of the book of origins, whom we label as Matthew).

“Before *I* begin, let me tell you the backstory that led up to all of this” (so we read in the orderly account of the things fulfilled amongst us that we attribute to Luke).

“Well, before I begin, let me explain why it’s important to believe that Jesus is the Son of God” (in the book of signs, as the author we name as John launches into his Gospel).

By contrast: “Let’s get down to business”, says Mark. And so he does!

The first chapter of Mark’s Gospel rips right in to the story. No preface, no prologue, not set up; just straight down to business. The various scenes in this opening chapter are offered in the revised common lectionary in Year B, largely during the season of Epiphany.

First, the striking moment when Jesus of Nazareth was declared to be the beloved Son, anointed by the Spirit, equipped for his role of proclaiming the kingdom of God (Mark 1:1-13, offered in the lectionary back during Advent, and part-repeated two Sundays ago for the Baptism of Jesus). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/01/advent-two-the-more-powerful-one-who-is-coming-mark-1/

Then, the succinct summation of the message of Jesus; just four short, snappy phrases: “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, believe in the good news” (1:14-15). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/24/the-kingdom-is-at-hand-so-follow-me-the-gospel-according-to-mark/

This summary is followed by two compressed accounts, told in formulaic exactitude, in which Jesus calls four of his key followers, brothers Simon and Andrew (“follow me; they left their nets, and followed him”), and then brothers James and John (“he called them; they left their father, and followed him” (1:16-20). Mark 1:14-20 is the Gospel passage offered in the lectionary this coming Sunday (24 January).

These two call narratives establish the nature of the movement that Jesus was initiating. He sets out a call to all four brothers; an exclamation, to which they must respond: “follow me!” The call invites a specific, tangible, and radical response: “leave everything”. And both encounters result in a new, binding commitment to Jesus: they “followed him”. The same pattern repeats with Levi in 2:14, and then with others (2:15; 8:34-36; 15:41). A rich young man comes to the brink, but then pulls away at the last moment (10:21).

Ched Myers offers a good exploration of how this scene establishes the dynamic of radical discipleship which permeates Mark’s Gospel, at https://inquiries2015.files.wordpress.com/2002/08/02-1-pc-mark-invitation-to-discipleship-in-ringehoward-brook-discipleship-anthology.pdf

After these stories of announcement and call to follow, there comes a scene in a synagogue, revealing the authority that Jesus had, in calling people, to command “the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, [to] come out of him” (Mark 1:21-28—the lectionary Gospel for 31 January).

This scene defines the cosmic dimension in which the story of Jesus is set, as he grapples with unclean spirits (1:23-26; 3:11; 5:1-13; 6:7; 7:14-29), also identified as demons (7:24-30; 1:32-34, 39; 3:14-15, 22; 5:14-18; 6:13; 9:38). Jesus is a human being, situated in first century occupied Palestine—but he is engaged in a contest in a cosmic dimension.

Ched Myers offers a compelling interpretation of the scene in the synagogue: “The synagogue on the Sabbath is scribal turf, where they exercise the authority to teach Torah. This “spirit” personifies scribal power, which holds sway over the hearts and minds of the people. Only after breaking the influence of this spirit is Jesus free to begin his compassionate ministry to the masses (1:29ff).” See https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2015/01/29/lets-catch-some-big-fish-jesus-call-to-discipleship-in-a-world-of-injustice-2/, and the complete commentary on Mark by Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988).

This is followed by a number of scenes (Mark 1:29-39) which are offered in the lectionary for Sunday 7 February. We begin with a pair of complementary scenes—the first set in the hustle and bustle of the village, where Jesus heals the sick and casts out more demons (1:29-34); the second an early morning start, where Jesus prays “in a deserted place” (1:35-37). This contrast is deliberate, and instructive. Both settings are vital for his project of radical discipleship.

This latter scene evokes an earlier scene, immediately after the public dunking of Jesus in the Jordan river (1:9-11), when Jesus spends a highly symbolic forty days “in the wilderness” (1:12-13). Although it was the Spirit which drove him into wilderness (1:12), it was Satan who tested Jesus during this period (1:13). And that seminal encounter sits alongside the first public declaration of Jesus as “beloved Son”, made over the waters of the Jordan (1:11).

The author then provides a characteristic summation of the activity that Jesus was called to do: “he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (1:38-39). Subsequent summaries in this vein appear at Mark 3:7-8, 4:33-34, 6:12-13, 6:56, 10:1. The opening chapter sets the pattern of behaviour by Jesus.

A final, intensely emotional scene brings this substantial opening sequence to a close. Jesus is approached by a leper, seeking to be “made clean” (1:40-42). The way Jesus responds to this need is striking: what the NRSV translates as “moved with pity” is actually better rendered as “being totally consumed by deep-seated compassion” (1:41). An alternative textual variation renders the emotions of Jesus more sparsely: “and being indignant”.

The command to adhere to the law by bringing a sacrificial offering to the priests for his cleaning (as any teacher of Jewish Torah would advocate—Lev 14) is, strikingly, expressed in the typical manner of a wild magic healer; the NRSV translation, “sternly warning him”, is better expressed as “snorting like a horse”—the use of striking, dramatic language being a characteristic feature of ancient healers (1:43-44).

The final scene collects all the activity of the opening chapter into the bustling energy of the swarming public square. Jesus can no longer remain isolated or removed; “people came to him from every quarter” (1:45). This passage, along with other section of chapter 2, appears in the lectionary only in a year when Easter is later and thus the season of Epiphany is extended by further weeks.

*****

It is worth our while considering the flow of events and sequence of scenes that Mark provides, as he hurriedly “gets down to business” in his narrative of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one. Why has this author chosen these particular scenes? What insights into Jesus, and his followers, does he want to offer us, as his story gets underway?

One clue is in the way that he portrays Jesus: Jesus is intensely religious (1:9-11, 35), articulately focussed on his key message (1:14-15, 22, 39), building a movement of committed followers (1:16-20), regularly living out his faith in actions alongside his words (1:26, 31, 34, 39). Jesus was energised by personal contacts with individuals: the brothers whom he called (1:17, 20), the man in the synagogue (1:25), Simon’s mother-in-law (1:30-31), and a begging leper (1:40). In the midst of all of this, he makes sure that his central message (1:14-15) is conveyed with clarity and passion (1:27, 39, 45).

Jesus is nourished by quiet moments, in his wilderness testing (1:12-13) and in early morning prayer (1:35), and yet is consistently immersed in the public life of his community. Mark most likely exaggerates, but he does indicate that Jesus was with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” (1:5), teaching a crowd in the synagogue in Capernaum (1:21), renowned “throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (1:28), visited by “all who were sick or possessed with demons”, indeed by “the whole city” (1:32-33), told that “everyone is searching for you” (1:37), and touring throughout Galilee (1:39), where “people came to him from every quarter” (1:45).

It is an holistic portrayal of Jesus, setting the scene for the story that follows. Jesus is passionate and articulate, compassionate and caring, energised and engaged, focused on a strategy that will reap benefits as the story emerges. And yet, as we know, that passion and energy will also lead to conflict, suffering, and death; a conflict already depicted in some of these opening scenes, as the story commences, but soon to make its presence felt in full force as the narrative continues.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/21/textual-interplay-stories-of-jesus-in-mark-1-and-the-prophets-of-israel/

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Let there be light: the season of Epiphany (Gen 1)

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany. The word epiphany refers to the manifesting of light, the shining forth of revelation. It is applied to this season, which follows on from Christmas, and is initiated by the story of “the star in the east” told in Matthew 2:1-12.

The birth of Jesus, and the story of the Magi following the star, signals the early Christian belief that God was acting in a new way through this child. The Magi come from the east, following the star, to pay homage to the infant Jesus. Light is of symbolic significance in this story, as is the theological claim that the child Jesus provides a revelation of God.

During the five Sundays of Epiphany, we start into the long haul of this year, following week by week the stories contained in the earliest account of Jesus, the beginning of the good news of Jesus, which we know more typically as the Gospel according to Mark.

Alongside these Gospel excerpts, the passages set in the lectionary from the Hebrew Scriptures have been carefully chosen. These passages illuminate the message of the Gospel which we hear each week from the New Testament, as we celebrate Christ as the light that comes into the world, illuminating and enlightening.

The Hebrew Scripture passage this Sunday (Genesis 1:1-5) tells of the creation of light, the first act of creation. It stands at the head of the whole story about creation. All that happens after that is bathed in the light of God’s creation. Telling of the creation of light establishes a pattern which is then repeated, five more times, for each of the various elements whose creation is noted in this narrative.

This repetition provides a structure, an ordering of the story. That reflects the very strong likelihood that the origins of this narrative lie, not in the distant mists of “the beginning of time”, but in the period after the exile of the people of Israel, in the 6th century BCE.

Many ancient cultures had their own creation stories, told in dramatic narratives and recorded for posterity. The ancient Israelites had their stories, but the account that we have in Genesis 1:1-2:4a comes from that time of returning from exile.

As the people returned from their decades of living in Babylon, they encountered the distressing scene of their former glory, the city of Jerusalem, in ruins. The hard work of rebuilding the city lay ahead of them. Under the leadership of the priests, the work of construction was inspired by the story of the creation. The structure and order in the creation narrative reflected the needs of the people at that time.

The same structure and order also reflected the liturgical structures set up in association with the rebuilt temple. Books were written, drawing from older oral traditions, that set out a complex and highly regulated system of sacrifices and offerings, to be brought to the temple overseen by a priestly class (the Levites, men descended from Levi).

The first two verses introduce the key characters: God, first described as the one who creates; a formless void, which is how the earth is first described; darkness, an entity in and of itself (not defined in any further way); and the breath of God, sweeping over the waters of the void. The fundamental image of God, then, is of a creative being, bringing order out of chaos; an image pertinent to the situation of the returning exiles.

The third verse introduces light, which comes into existence through a single word of command. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light (1:3). Light is the key entity in the creation story, the first creation of God, a signal of the creative process which then ensues.

Each subsequent creative action results from something that God said (verses 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26). And each creation is affirmed with the phrase, and it was so (verses 7, 9, 11, 15, 24, and then verse 30). The pattern is regular and clear.

The fourth verses tells of God’s approval of what had been created: And God saw that the light was good (1:4). Likewise, God then affirms as good the creation of earth and seas (1:10), vegetation (1:12), the sun for the day and the moon for the night (1:18), all living creatures in the seas and in the sky (1:21), then the living creatures on the earth (1:25).

Finally, after the creation of humanity in the image of God, there comes the climactic approval: God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good (1:31).

In a number of the six main sections of the narrative, God explicitly names what has been created: he called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night (1:5), then God called the dome Sky (1:8), God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas (1:10), followed by plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it (1:12), and the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars (1:16).

After this, the categories of living creatures are identified (1:21, 25), before the climax of creation is identified: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (1:27); and finally, God’s blessing is narrated (1:28).

Finally, each section concludes with another formulaic note: “and there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (1:5; likewise, at verses 8, 13, 19, 23, 31), before the whole narrative draws to a close with the note that “on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done” (2:2).

Of course, it is from this demarcation of the sections of the creative process as “days” that there came the traditional notion that “creation took place over seven days”. But this flat, literal reading of the “days” is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the narrative in Genesis.

The story is thus told with a set of simple, repetitive phrases, but arranged with sufficient variation to give aesthetic pleasure, and with a growing sense of building towards a climax, to shape the narrative arc towards the culmination of creation (humanity, 1:26) and the completion of the creative task (sabbath rest, 2:2-3).

The noting of the “days” gives the story a shape that we can appreciate—they are not literal 24-hour periods, but a literary technique for the story, much like we find that some jokes, some children’s songs, and some fairy stories are constructed around threes (“three men went into a pub …”, or “three blind mice”, or “Goldilocks and the three bears”, etc).

And on the first “day”, God speaks and Light is created. It is a fine passage for us to reflect on at the start of the season of Epiphany, when we focus on the manifesting of light, the shining forth of revelation.

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Tales from the Magi (the Revelation of the Magi)

Soon we will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and remember the story that Matthew tells, of wise men travelling from the east, with gifts to bring to the infant Jesus (Matt 2:1-12).

Matthew doesn’t record how many Magi made this trip; this Gospel indicates only that there were more than one, by using the plural form of the noun magus. It is likely that the mention of three specific gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh, at Matt 2:11) led the tradition to settle on three as an appropriate number.

The Magi don’t have names in Matthew, either. They are given names, and places of origin, in a document written in Greek around 500 CE, although this survives only in a Latin translation from the 9th century with the title Excerpta Latina Barbari . Because of this document, the Western churches identify the Magi as Melchior, from Persia; Caspar, from India; and Balthazar, from Arabia. But in many early churches, especially in Syria, there were actually twelve magi visiting Jesus and bringing him gifts.

In amongst the documents from antiquity that are explicitly Christian, but not included in our canonical collection, there is a work called The Revelation of the Magi. The text is found, along with other works, in a Syriac manuscript known as the Chronicle of Zuqnin.

The story is told from the perspective of the Magi, who certainly number more than three in this document—perhaps even more than twelve. They are described quite differently from how they appear in the canonical account. Brent Landau completed a Harvard ThD dissertation on this document in 2008, and has since published Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2010), based on his dissertation. He summarises the work:

The Magi hail from a mythological eastern land named Shir, and the name “Magi,” it is said, derives etymologically from their practice of praying in silence. They knew to follow the star to Bethlehem because they are descendants of Seth, the third child of Adam and Eve, who passed on to them a prophecy told to him by his father Adam.

The star appears to the Magi in the Cave of Treasures on the Mountain of Victories. There it transforms into a small, luminous being (clearly Christ, but his precise identity is never explicitly revealed) and instructs them about its origins and their mission.

The Magi follow the star to Bethlehem, where it transforms into the infant Jesus. Upon returning to their land, the Magi instruct their people about the star-child. In an epilogue likely secondary to the text, Judas Thomas arrives in Shir, baptizes the Magi and commissions them to preach throughout the world.

*****

Of course, we recognise this to be pure fantasy—a story developed from the shorter, more modest account that we find in the Gospel of Matthew. And even that canonical account, when we read it with care, can be recognised as an elaboration of a story derived from various “prophecies” in the Hebrew Scriptures—which is the way that the author of Matthew’s Gospel shapes all of his first two chapters (see Matt 1:22; 2:5,15,17,23).

The rising of the star in the east, for instance, correlates with the prophet Balaam’s prediction in Num 24:17 that “a star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”. The identification of the star as being “in the east” comes because, in Greek, the word for “east” is the same as “rising”. The Greek translation thus is ambiguous about whether the star simply “rises up out of Israel” or whether it is “to the east” of Israel.

We can see this ambiguity if we compare how different recent translations of the Bible render this phrase in Matt 2:9 — “a star they saw in the east” (KJV), “the star they had seen when it rose” (NIV and ESV), “the star they had seen at its rising” (NRSV), “the star they had seen in the east” (NLT)

The story reflects a verse in an oracle in Third Isaiah, addressed to the nation of Israel, which foresees a time when “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa 60:3).

Two of the three gifts draw from later in this oracle (Isa 60:6), reflecting gold and frankincense being brought to Jerusalem by visitors from Sheba (a kingdom in South Arabia). The gifts, it is claimed, are symbolic of what is to come. The gold is considered to symbolise the royal status of the child, as he is of the line of David. The frankincense is connected with the Temple cult, and thus considered a symbol of the priestly role eventually to be played by the child.

And the myrrh, in Christian tradition, is linked with the death that will be experienced by the infant when he has grown to maturity—death at the hands of a Romans, who offered him wine mixed with myrrh as he hung dying on a cross (Mark 15:23). This symbolism reveals the reasons for adopting and expanding the earlier oracle.

And the notion that was developed later in Christian writings, that the three Magi were kings in their respective kingdoms (as in, “we three kings of orient are”), derives from the application of Isaiah 60:3 , noted above, and Psalm 72:10-11, as the psalmist praises the King of Israel and prays, “may the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts; may all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.”

It is more likely that the Magi were astronomers, rather than kings. The word magi is the plural of the Latin word magus, borrowed from the Greek magos. This, in turn, is derived from the Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan term magâunô, which signified the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born. This was the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism.

As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained a reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. Their religious practices and use of astrology has since led to a development from Magi to the English term magic. It is in this sense, of magician, that Luke uses the word magus to describe both Simon, in Samaria (Acts 8:9-13) and Elymas, on the island of Paphos (Acts 13:6-11).

So there are a lot of accretions clinging to the story in Matthew 2, about the Magi from the east visiting Bethlehem. The basic story itself is an expanded midrash on older scriptural prophecies, worked up for the purpose of telling a fine tale. (See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/17/why-the-christmas-story-is-not-history-2-luke-1-2-and-matthew-1-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/04/herod-was-infuriated-and-he-sent-and-killed-all-the-children-matt-2/)

*****

Landau makes further observations about the Revelation of the Magi.

The “Cave of Treasures” is mentioned also in the Syriac version of the Testament of Adam (a Christian work from the fifth or sixth century) and from there is taken up in a work which itself is entitled “The Cave of Treasures” (dated to the sixth century) and another entitled “The Book of the Bee” (from the thirteenth century). Several elements of the story of the Revelation of the Magi are found also in the Liber de nativitate salvatoris, an expansion of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew with curious features that may have originated in a very early infancy gospel.

Some aspects of the Revelation of the Magi were also passed on in summary by the anonymous author of a fifth-century commentary on the Gospel of Matthew known as the Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum. From here some elements found their way into chapter 6 of the 13th century collection of stories of the saints, known as the Golden Legend. The traditions found in the Revelation of the Magi are thus surprisingly widespread for a text that, were it not for that one manuscript, would have been lost to history.

See also https://www.apocryphicity.ca/2014/08/20/more-christian-apocrypha-updates-2-revelation-of-the-magi/ and https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/magi

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In the beginning … the Prologue and the book of signs (John 1)

The book of signs, which we know as the Gospel according to John, begins with a beautifully poetic Prologue (1:1–18). As well as being a piece of poetry, it is a piece of theology; it sets out many of the key themes of the whole work. The Prologue is the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, the second Sunday in the season of Christmas. It offers a rich array of ideas for consideration. Only some of them are in focus in what follows.

1. The Prologue begins by introducing the main character of the story: the pre–existent Logos, the word made flesh, Jesus Christ, the one who “makes God known” (1:1, 14, 17-18). This motif of word runs consistently throughout the work: Jesus “speaks the words of God” (3:34; 8:47; 12:50; 14:8–10; 17:14), gives teaching which is “from God” (7:16–18; 14:24; 17:7–8), makes known “everything that I have heard from my Father” (15:15), utters words of “spirit and life” (6:63, 67). For the author of this Gospel, Jesus is, indeed, the Word who was always with God (1:1).

2. Already in the Prologue the narrator speaks of the rejection of the Word (1:10–11). This is played out in the body of the Gospel, especially in chapter 10, with references to the threat posed to the sheep by thieves and bandits (10:1, 8, 10), strangers (10:5), the hired hand (10:12–13), and wolves (10:12). The menace posed by these figures leads Jesus to infer that some of his sheep will be “snatched” out of his hand (10:28–29). At this, the Jews prepare to stone Jesus for the second time (10:31; the earlier instance was at 8:59). This enacts the revelation made by Jesus in an earlier discourse, that his fate is to be hated by the world (7:7).

A fuller and more explicit exposition of this theme of opposition is given in the second Farewell Discourse, under the rubric of “the world hates you” (15:18–25). Jesus here predicts that his fate will set the pattern for the fate of his followers; “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (15:20).

3. The words and ideas found in the Prologue to the gospel (1:1–18) have led to the hypothesis that Hellenistic Judaism had been influential in the context in which the gospel was shaped. The role of the Logos is akin to the role of Wisdom within Hellenistic Jewish literature —both as the agent by which God created the world, and as the means by which God reveals knowledge and truth to the world.

That Judaism had long been engaged with the dominant hellenistic culture, has been well proven by contemporary scholarship. Influences from the Greek–speaking world, and its hellenised culture, are reflected in numerous Jewish writings. In this gospel, the account of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus (12:20–22) is a clear indication of the interaction between the community of the gospel, and the wider hellenised world.

The issue is also raised by the question of the Pharisees at 7:35; “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” The kind of Judaism which has influenced the gospel is not of the dominant, Pharisaic–rabbinic kind. It has become open to the wider hellenised world; perhaps the community which first received this Gospel had already become somewhat diversified in its composition.

4. An important motif running throughout this Gospel is that Jesus is to be regarded as the fulfilment of scripture. This feature is common to all four canonical Gospels. This interpretive stance is hinted at as early as the Prologue, in the comparison between Jesus and Moses (1:17). It is stated explicitly in the claim put on the mouth of Philip, “we have found him of whom Moses and the prophets wrote” (1:45), and in the words attributed to Jesus, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (5:39).

There are fifteen clear quotations from Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel. There are eight explicit references to scripture in the early chapters (1:23; 2:17; 6:31; 6:45; 7:38; 7:42; 10:34; 12:13–15), while a fulfilment formula is used in later chapters, to introduce seven such scriptural quotations (12:38–40; 13:18; 15:25; 18:9; 19:24, 28, 36–37). There is also a passing note that Judas died after betraying Jesus “so that the scripture might be fulfilled” (17:12).

However, the total significance of the Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel is much greater than these sixteen occurrences, as the Gospel contains numerous allusions to specific scripture passages, such as references to Jacob’s ladder (1:51) and the sacrificial lamb (1:29, 36), as well as more generalised allusions to scripture. These allusions are much freer in their form and indicate that, for the author of this Gospel, the Hebrew Scriptures had become an integral part of his mind and heart, for he treats them with a freedom born from intimate familiarity.

5. In like fashion, a series of Jewish titles is embedded in the narrative as confessions by key characters of the significance of Jesus. The Prologue has introduced a key Johannine title for Jesus: the Word (1:1, 14).

In the extended preface that follows (1:19–51), Jesus is addressed as “Rabbi” (1:38, 49), “Messiah” (1:41), “King of Israel” (1:49), and “Son of God” (1:49). These claims about Jesus are all made also within the Synoptic traditions. The Johannine Jesus himself refers, in the allusive synoptic fashion, to the “Son of Man” (thirteen times, from 1:51 to 13:31), which we must presume to be a self–reference. In later scenes, Jesus is also called “prophet” (4:19), “Messiah” (4:29; 11:27), and “Rabbouni” (my teacher, 20:16). These are all Jewish titles.

6. The ultimate Christological confession of the Gospel is uttered by Thomas, when he moves beyond this viewpoint in the phrase, “my Lord and my God” (20:28), echoing the perception of the Jews, that Jesus was “making himself equal to God” (5:18). Is this already alluded to in the conclusion of the Prologue, in the affirmation, “it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18)?

For the most part of this Gospel, Jesus is presented in terms drawn from within a Jewish context. Indeed, even the confession by Thomas can be understood within a particular stream of Jewish tradition, for the hellenisticJewish author Philo uses the terms “Lord” and “God” to designate the two major divine powers of creation (signified by “God”) and eschatological judgement (signified by “Lord”).

7. Another characteristic which dominates the Christology of this Gospel is the Father-Son relationship (3:35–36; 5:19–23, 26; 6:37–40; 8:34–38; 10:32–38; 14:8–13; 17:1–5). This relationship is hinted at in the Prologue in 1:18, where the “only-begotten son” is portrayed as being “next to the breast of the Father” (my literal translation), or “close to the father’s heart” (NRSV). In one of his disputes with the Jewish authorities, Jesus declares that he does his works “so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I am in the Father” (10:38).

This mutual interrelationship is brought to the pinnacle of its development in the lengthy prayer of chapter 17: “you, Father, are in me, and I am in you” (17:21). The purpose of describing this relationship in this way is to strengthen the claims made for Jesus, to validate him as authoritative, in the context of debates with the Jewish authorities.

8. Finally, Jesus is perceived as being “equal with God” (5:18). At the narrative level, this is a polemical view of Jesus, attributed to the Jews. However, the author of the Gospel clearly wants the readers to agree with the claim. This is supported by further comments such as: it is clear that he is the Messiah, for he is “doing the works of God” (10:24–25); he is “making himself a god” (10:33); “he has claimed to be the Son of God” (19:7); and he is acclaimed as “Lord and God” (20:28). It is also signalled in the closing verse of the Prologue: “it is God the only Son [or, the Father’s only son], who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made [God] known” (1:18).

This is the strongest claim made about Jesus; it lifts him above the realm of human debate and, as a consequence, it also lifts the claims made by his disciples, in his name, above that human realm. By this means, the community of his followers lay claim to a dominant, privileged position, vis–a–vis the Jewish authorities. The Christology which is proclaimed in the written Gospel has thus been developed and refined in the controversies and disputes of the community over the preceding decades.

9. Later Christian theology developed the doctrine of the Trinity, in which God, Jesus and the Spirit relate to one another as equals. Whilst the Gospel of John provides biblical warrant for the equality of Father and Son, the role of the Spirit is less prominent. Jesus is endowed with the Spirit at his baptism (1:32–33) and gives the Spirit to others through the words he speaks (3:34).

However, the Spirit is clearly subordinated to the Son in this Gospel. It is not until after Jesus is glorified that the Spirit is given (7:39; 20:22). The role of the Spirit is to be the Advocate of the Son (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7), sent by the Son to testify on his behalf (15:26) and to represent what has already been spoken by Jesus (14:26; 16:13–15). As the Son testifies to the truth (1:14, 17; 8:32, 45–46; 14:6; 18:37), so the Spirit is “the spirit of truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13).

So the book of signs provides pointers towards this central Christian doctrine, but does not actually articulate it in the categories and using the terms from later debates amongst the Church Fathers and decisions made by the various Councils of the Church. We need to hear the message of this Gospel in its own terms, in its own context, in its own right.

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I love Christmas !

A dialogue about the origins of various Christmas traditions, written by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires, December 2020

What are you looking so pleased about?

It’s Christmas! I love Christmas! It is a time when we remember the old, old story, from centuries ago, when we do all sorts of things that people have done each Christmas for years and years—hundreds, even thousands, of years. All those wonderful traditions, stretching all the way back. It all reminds us of that very first Christmas, doesn’t it?

Well, I am not so sure about that.

But I love Christmas! It’s all about the presents, isn’t it?

Well, actually, it seems that Christmas presents in the way we give them—to family members and close friends—have only been around for 200 years.

It started in New York in the early years of the 19th century with donations in the streets to the poor. Even then Americans worried about socialism, so this Christmas tradition moved from the streets into homes. One of these benefactors decided to celebrate Christmas by giving family gifts to promote his enormously popular poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”.

So Christmas presents as we know them are just a modern American commercialisation of the season.

But weren’t there presents given long ago?

Well, kind of. The story of Nicholas of Myra who was Bishop there (in Turkey) in the 4th century says that he rescued three young girls from prostitution by providing them with a dowry. Nicholas secretly dropped a sack of gold coins through the window in the dead of night—one sack for each of the three girls, three nights in a row. That meant their father could marry them off instead of selling them. 

But didn’t the Wise Men give presents?

They took gifts that matched prophecies in the scriptures. Hardly the gift fest of modern times.

Anyway, I was telling you about Nicholas of Myra. He became Saint Nicholas. He is known as Sinterklaas in Holland, Miklavz in Lovenia, and much later onhe became jolly old St Nick, and then Father Christmas in Britain, and Santa Claus in America.

Ah—Santa Claus! Christmas is all about Santa Claus, isn’t it?

Santa Claus is really only 150 years old. During the 1860s, the cartoonist Thomas Nast created an image of Santa Claus that portrayed him as a warm, grandfatherly character who appeared with his arms full of toys. 

The familiar red suit and long white beard appeared only in 1931, when Coca Cola commissioned Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa for their Christmas ads. Sundblom based his portrayal of Santa on the 1822 poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”. In Coca Cola’s colours, of course.

Well I still love Christmas!. It’s all about the cards and carols and Christmas cheer, then.

Cards. Actually, the first Christmas card was invented only in the 1840s, by Sir Henry Cole—best remembered today as the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was a way of encouraging people to use the newly-formed postal service.

Well what about carols, then? The carols that we have sung for centuries and centuries.

Sure. There are lots of Christmas carols. And that is an old tradition. But I reckon you don’t actually sing the really old Christmas carols. Sung “Jesus refulsit omnium” (“Jesus illuminates all”) lately? St. Hilary of Poitiers composed it in Latin in 368. Another carol from the 4th century was written by the Roman poet, Aurelius Prudentius Clemens. Prudentius composed “Cordenatus ex Parentis”, which was subsequently translated into English as “Of the Father’s love begotten”. That’s in the hymn book, but I don’t think you will hear it in the Christmas muzak when you shop in the stores!

Most of the carols we sing were written in the late 19th or early 20th century. So they are old-ish, but not really ancient. And people today are still writing new carols. We should be singing some of those!

But how good is Christmas. It’s all about putting up the Christmas tree. And the Christmas lights. I love Christmas! Lots of spectacle. It’s a great time. Christmas tree and Christmas lights, just like people have always done.

Yes, there is an old, old connection with light shining in the darkness at this time of the year. From an oil lamp, presumably and not electricity! Christmas Day is right near the Winter Solstice—the day where there is the shortest time between the sun rising and the sun setting. It hardly applies here in the Southern Hemisphere, as there is an abundance of light, but we still celebrate Christmas in December.

There was a pagan festival at this time, to celebrate that light will come despite it being winter. The early Christian missionaries just took this festival and Christianised it, and made it their festival. Clever tactics, really.

And the Christmas tree?

The honour of establishing this tradition belongs to ‘good Queen Charlotte’, the German wife of George III, who set up the first known English tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December, 1800.

Legend has it that Martin Luther, the religious reformer, invented the Christmas tree. One winter’s night in 1536, so the story goes, Luther was walking through a pine forest near his home in Wittenberg when he suddenly looked up and saw thousands of stars glinting jewel-like among the branches of the trees. This wondrous sight inspired him to set up a candle-lit fir tree in his house that Christmas to remind his children of the starry heavens from whence their Saviour came.

So the Christmas tree is around 500 years old. Hardly biblical, is it?

OK, I still love Christmas! It’s all about celebrating with family and eating lots of food and drinking lots of booze. Turkey and ham and prawns and pudding and mince pies and eggnog and wine.

What? No beer?

Well, yes, beer—of course! In the Aussie summer, you must drink beer at Christmas!

Well I guess you must! It’s the Victorians who really gave birth to the traditional Christmas dinner as we know it. Actually, Charles Dickens was the one who spread the idea of a table filled to overflowing with food, with a roast bird in the middle, surrounded by all the trimmings and a pudding. 

Legend has it that Henry VIII was the first person to eat a turkey on Christmas Day, but it wasn’t until Victorian times that it became more common. 

The Christmas cake we all know and love today originates from a cake made for and eaten on Twelfth Night (5 January), which was when the three wise men supposedly arrived in Bethlehem to see baby Jesus. The use of spices was supposed to symbolise the gifts the three men brought with them, whilealmonds and dried fruit were a rare sweet treat in the colder months. 

However, in the 1640s Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans banned feasting of any kind on Twelfth Night, so people started to make it on Christmas Day instead. 

What about Christmas pudding? It’s an ancient custom, surely.

You think the wise men turned up with it as well? Christmas pudding began life as something called plum porridge (first referenced in 1573), a pretty unappetising sounding dish made from beef shin, spices, sugar and fruit, boiled in a broth and reduced until gelatinous. It was eaten on Christmas Eve after fasting, and then stored for weeks afterwards (back then people believed if something jellified it was good to eat for a long time). It wasn’t in the form of the delicious Christmas pudding that we know until—once again, the Victorian times. No biblical joy here!

Well, seafood, then—what about Christmas prawns and oysters?

Prawns and seafood are a special downunder addition to the menu. They reflect that our Christmas is right in the middle of summer, days are long and hot, having the oven going full pelt for hours is not really sensible, so cold seafood is a good alternative. Again, not in the Bible (unless you eat sardines—they are caught in the Sea of Galilee).

I love Christmas!. It’s all about the sales, isn’t it? Bargains!!

Yes: Christmas has been completely turned into a commercial event by these sales. Before Christmas is bad enough; but Boxing Day is another thing. This comes from the ancient practice of giving boxes of money at the midwinter holiday season to all those who had given good service throughout the year. Boxing Day, December 26, was the day the boxes were opened. 

Later, it was the day on which the alms boxes, located in the churches on Christmas Day, were opened and the contents given to the poor. We don’t have alms boxes at churches any more. And the sales in the shops only really came into being in the last two decades or so. Another commercial element introduced by America! And this is distinctively anti-biblical, where Jesus tells us to give our possessions away—not buy more and more!

I still love Christmas!. Because it must be all about the holidays. Days at the beach. Lazing around and sleeping in and doing nothing.

And travelling to get there. Stuck in the Boxing Day traffic snarls. Polluting the atmosphere with exhaust fumes and particulates and poisons. Good one. All very recent additions to the celebrations. Nothing ancient here as in biblical times they walked everywhere.

I still love Christmas!. It’s all about the nativity scene when the wise men came with the shepherds to give the newborn baby gifts.

True that every Christmas, we are surrounded by images of the nativity scene: the infant Jesus, in a cradle, with his mother Mary sitting and his father Joseph standing nearby, surrounded by animals (cows, most often), with a group of shepherds (with their sheep) to one side, whilst on the other side three exotic blokes stand with presents in hand: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s as historical as the Little Drummer Boy is and not a particularly accurate portrayal of what was happening at the time when Jesus was born.

The traditional scene that we see today was invented by the medieval friar, Francis of Assisi. Before that, it did not exist because it wasn’t very biblical!

Besides, it is only in Luke’s story that we have the shepherds in the field, listening to the angels. And it is only in Matthew’s account that we have the wise visitors from the East, travelling long distances to bring their gifts to the child. Shepherds in one story, wise ones in the other; not there at the same time, despite all the nativity scenes we see!

I still love Christmas!. It’s all about celebrating the birth of Jesus on his real birthday, December 25.

What? In the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere? When the ground was covered with snow and all the animals like the sheep should have been under cover—not out in the fields listening to the angels! When no one travelled anywhere?

No one knows the real birthday of Jesus. No date is given in the Bible. The early Christians had many arguments as to when it should be celebrated.Also, the birth of Jesus probably didn’t happen in the year 1 but slightly earlier, probably in 4 BCE.

The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (he was the first Christian Roman Emperor). I’ve already told you it was a pagan festival that the early Christians stole, could even have been from the Roman Saturnalia.

Christmas was actually celebrated by the very early Church on January 6th, when they also celebrated the Epiphany, which means the revelation that Jesus was God’s son. In Eastern Orthodox churches, they still do this.

I love Christmas!. It’s all about Christ. Let’s keep Christ in Christmas.

Finally! The name Christmas comes from the Mass of Christ. A Roman Catholic Mass service (which is similar to our Communion) is where Christians remember that Jesus died for us and then came back to life. The ‘Christ-Mass’ service was the only one that was allowed to take place after sunset (and before sunrise the next day), so people had it at Midnight! So we get the name Christ-Mass, shortened to Christmas, and for many centuries it was celebrated at midnight on Christmas Eve, not on Christmas morning.

Oh well: Happy Christmas, anyway!  

And Happy Christmas to you, too!

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Advent Greetings from Canberra Region Presbytery

The Canberra Region Presbytery Co-Chairpersons and Presbytery Ministers offer these greetings as Advent draws to a close and we enter the Christmas season.

HOPE (John Squires)

During December, we have been in the season of Advent. It is a season of four weeks; a season marked by HOPE. The word “Advent” literally means “towards the coming”. It is what pregnant women do; they look with hope “towards the coming” of the expected child. It is what young children do, as dinner time approaches; they look with hope “towards the coming” of their working parents, returning home to share in the evening meal and associated rituals. It is what we have been doing during these four weeks; to look with hope “towards the coming” of Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Day.

It was just over a year ago that the Presbytery elected Judy McKinlay to the position of Co-Chairperson. It was just ten months ago that Andrew Smith and I stood at the front of Canberra City Church, in a service where we were each inducted into our ministry placements as Presbytery Ministers. And it has only been four months since Ross Kingham was elected to fill the other position of Co-Chairperson. We all serve with a desire to encourage, support, equip, and sustain the mission of all the Congregations in this Presbytery.

What a year it has been, to maintain hope! A year ago, many communities were already coping with the immediate impacts of the bushfires; as the fires grew, our anxieties rose, and grief spread wide. Early this year, countries overseas were beginning to experience the devastating impact of a new viral pandemic; the effects of COVID-19 became all to apparent for us as the year proceeded. Fear flew in on top of grief and anxiety. Four months ago, we were just beginning to hope that life might move out of heavy restrictions, and some manner of COVID-normality might be achieved. Hope was knocking on the door, peeking through the curtains.

Hope invites us to stand firm in the midst of these challenges: hope based in who we are, as people of faith. Hope grounded in the resilience of humanity. Hope based on our relationship with a loving God, who extends to us divine Grace so that we might work for compassion and justice in society. Hope made manifest in the story of Jesus, God-with-us, whose coming we remember and celebrate at Christmas.

PEACE (Ross Kingham)

May the PEACE of Christ be yours this Christmas Season!

The following words of James McAuley have enriched the lives of many over the years:

Incarnate Word, in whom all nature lives

Cast flame upon the earth: raise up contemplatives

Among us, those who walk within the fire

Of ceaseless prayer, impetuous desire.

Set pools of silence in this thirsty land:

Distracted folk that sow their hopes in sand

Will sometimes feel an evanescent sense

Of questioning they do not know from whence.

  ……………………………………………………………….                                         

Scan (Mercator’s map) who will, with faithless eyes,

It will not yield…. its mysteries….

He shall not see Leviathan hunt the deep,

Nor Jacob’s ladder rise from stony sleep;

For him the serpent is not lifted up,

Nor Mystery poured red into the cup…

Open, eyes of the heart, begin to see

The tranquil, vast, created mystery,

In all its courts of being laid awake,

Flooded with uncreated light for mercy’s sake.

(James McAuley, Selected Poems, 1963

JOY (Andrew Smith)

JOY springs to my mind and heart when I read the Isaiah 40:1-11 passage that was part of the lectionary for the second Sunday in Advent. In verse 6: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” Part of the answer comes in verse 9. It overflows with joy. The one who cries out is the herald of good tidings. Another who cries out is again the herald of good tidings. They joyfully cry out, “Here is your God!”

There is great joy for the exiles in this passage as their expectancy is raised for the longed-for return of God. They cry out these good tidings to one another, “Here is your God”. When we apply this passage in Advent it raises our expectancy about the coming of Jesus Christ – “Here is your God”. These are good tidings of great joy. Here is forgiveness, restoration, and justice. Here is the coming of the Kingdom of God.

We cry this out to each other as we gather for worship through Advent and Christmas. And joyfully we will get to sing it as well! We also cry it out to the world as we gather with our local communities for Christmas Carol outdoors or indoors. We also experiment in finding ways to cry it out in the course of the whole year in connection with our loving service. In these notices see the article “On the Journey, Know Christ is Here” that touches on some of how Eurobodalla “cried out” in its card that accompanied gifts to fire affected people.

“What shall I cry?” We need help to be heralds of these good tidings. The Gospel Project of our church (running through Uniting Mission and Education) identifies that we need help with developing a clear understanding of the gospel that we can confidently share and speak into the public square. The project aims to develop a Uniting Church perspective on both the good news Jesus proclaimed and the good news about Jesus.

These are good tidings of great joy. Lift up your voice with strength, O herald of good tidings. Lift it up, do not fear. Lift it up in Advent and Christmas. Lift it up all year.

LOVE (Judy McKinlay)

For most in our community, Christmas is primarily about love and family. It seems that’s one reason TV channels air Love Actually every Christmas season. Against the background of Christmas merriment and ritual, it touches on the complications of love and family relationships, and issues of commitment, faithfulness and trust. At the end, Great Britain’s bachelor Prime Minister and his young, sweet staffer publically declare their love. The viewer accepts their declared love as real. How it is actualized from that point on is left to our imagination.

For many of our contemporaries, Love Actually seems more about believable love than the story of a baby born millennia ago to a devout Jewish girl in a Palestinian village. They are wrong. The wonder once evoked by heraldic angels, quaking shepherds and wise men may have faded for 20th Century society, but the plot remains fully explained in 1 John 4, and summarized in John 3: 16. Take a moment to read them again. God leaves nothing to our imagination. He declares and actualizes his love synchronically, because Love is who he is. From the beginning, he has unceasingly, steadfastfully, faithfully, loved the world for which his Son died.

So I was taught that love was our Lord’s meaning. And I saw most certainly in this and in everything, that before God made us he loved us, and this love has never abated nor ever shall. And in this love he has done all his works; and in this love he has made everything for our benefit; and in this love our life is everlasting. In our making we had our beginning, but the love in which he made us was in him from without beginning, and in this love we have our beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end, which may Jesus grant us. Amen. (Julian of Norwhich).

“Beloved, we love because He first loved us.” In this Christmas time when God’s beloved world is so hurting, and so many are grieving, suffering and needing to be loved, may we make Love real in all our words and actions. And may the blessings of hope, peace, joy and love be with you all.

******

Christmas Greetings

The Moderator of our Synod, the Rev. Simon Hansford, has issued a 2020 Christmas message on video. It is available to watch and upload at https://vimeo.com/485752056

The President of Assembly, Dr Deidre Palmer, has also issued a 2020 Christmas message on video. It is available to watch and upload at https://vimeo.com/489203297 The President of Assembly has also issued a Pastoral Letter. The letter can be read at https://uniting.church/pastoral-letter-end-of-2020/

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Advent Three: The witness of John (John 1)

Last week, the lectionary offered a Gospel passage from the beginning of the good news about Jesus, featuring the fiersome desert-dwelling prophet, John, known as the Baptiser (Mark 1:1-8). This week, we have a section from the book of signs in which the same person, John, figures. But he is quite a different person in this week’s text–and the way he is portrayed offers a glimpse into another world.

The book of signs introduces John as a much more domesticated figure, compared with the way that he appears at the start of the beginning of the good news of Jesus. In John’s account, he appears, all of a sudden, in the midst of the majestic poetic Prologue (1:1-18) which opens this Gospel. 

The Prologue is focussed on the eternal character of the Word of God (1:1-2), present at the moment of creation (1:3), shaping the world that we know and inhabit (1:14, 16-17). In the midst of this, the human figure of John appears—as somewhat of an anomaly in the midst of the ethereal poetic lines (1:6-8, 15).

The Prologue is followed by a more prosaic Prelude (1:19-51), which narrates a series of encounters involving John, Jesus, and their followers. These encounters establish the centrality of Jesus in the narrative, first through the testimony of John the baptiser (1:19-36), then by having various individuals “come and see” him (1:39, 46). 

Both John and these individual disciples confess the significance of Jesus through a variety of Christological titles. This Prelude ends with Jesus himself adopting a title to explain his significance (“Son of Man”, 1:51).

That John is a witness to Jesus is already indicated in the Prologue, through some prosaic narrative insertions into the grand poetic opening. The Lectionary this coming Sunday offers us both the initial prosaic comment (1:6-8), and the ensuing story relating what John said about Jesus (1:19-28).

But the John whom we meet in this gospel is a very different figure from the desert dwelling apocalyptic visionary whom we encountered in last week’s reading from Mark’s gospel. The Johannine John does not frequent the desert, as in Mark 1; rather, his activity is located in Bethany, near the Jordan (1:28). 

The Johannine John does not issue a clarion call for repentance, as in Mark 1; rather, he bears witness to Jesus, “the one coming after me” (1:27), as the one “who ranks ahead of me” (1:30). As John, in this gospel, bears witness to Jesus (1:6–8, 15; 1:29–36; 3:25–30; 10:41), he testifies that Jesus is the light (1:7), of greater rank than John himself (1:15, 30), the Lamb of God (1:29, 36), the Son of God (1:34), the bridegroom (3:29), and, by implication, the Messiah (1:203:28).

What is the reason for this different portrayal of John the Baptist in this Gospel?

The Gospel of John includes some pointers to the development of a faith community which looked beyond the parameters of Judaism as it was being shaped by the Pharisees, towards other forms of Jewish faith and life—and perhaps beyond. The Gospel is being painted on a wider canvas. It offers us glimpses 

The early prominence accorded to John the baptiser, and other content such as the fact that the first large–scale success enjoyed by Jesus was in Samaria, and the appearance of Greeks in Jerusalem, seeking Jesus, and even the way that the Logos (the Word) is portrayed in the Prologue, each point to this wider canvas. Sometimes this is defined as “heterodox Judaism”, in contrast to the dominant Pharisaic stream within formative Judaism.

John the baptiser is prominent at the start of each canonical gospel; scholars wonder if there was originally a link between the Jesus movement and the movement led by John the baptiser. Evidence for this link is also drawn from places such as Acts 19:1–7, and the Q passage in Luke 7 (par Matt 11). It is John’s Gospel which provides the clearest evidence, when it recounts that the earliest followers of Jesus were drawn from the followers of John (1:35–42).

John the Baptist, pointing to Jesus.
A panel from the Isenheim altarpiece,
painted by Mattias Grünewald around 1515.

This emphatic depiction of John as deflecting attention from himself, to Jesus, indicates that there was, at an early stage, some competition between the two figures—or, at least, between their respective followers. This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandaean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.

Thus, the reform movement within Second Temple Judaism headed by John is seen to have had some influence on the gospel, in its early stages, at least. John stands outside the Pharisaic–rabbinic stream of Judaism which would become dominant after 70 CE. This is the first indication of the influence of a different kind of Judaism on this Gospel, which led to the development of a different form of Christianity in the ensuing centuries.

Likewise, the prominence accorded to Samaria in John 4 can be seen as a significant indicator of an important influence shaping the gospel.  This scene (like all others in this gospel) is not a straightforward historical narrative, but rather a remembering of an important part of the beliefs of the community, conveyed through the narration of a “typical” incident. 

The encounter at the well (4:5–8) leads into a long scene where Jesus engages in deepening theological reflection with the Samaritan woman (4:9–28a), climaxing in the first successful missionary venture within the Jesus movement (4:28b–30, 39–42)—at least, as John recounts it. The first missionary is this anonymous Samaritan woman, and the first body of converts to Jesus are inhabitants of the Samaritan village. 

This story has a powerful function within this particular community’s traditions. Samaritans are depicted as sharing a common Jewish ancestry (“our father Jacob”, 4:12) and holding an eschatological hope in the Messiah (“I know that Messiah is coming”, 4:25). Yet embedded in the story are clear indications of the tensions between this northern form of Judaism and the dominant southern mode; ordinary dealings between Jew and Samaritan are unusual (4:9), and liturgical–theological differences mark them off from one another (4:20–21). The success of Jesus’ message in this context indicates its attraction to those outside the “mainstream”.

The words and ideas found in the Prologue to the gospel (1:1–18) have led to a further hypothesis that Hellenistic Judaism had been influential in the context in which the gospel was shaped.  The role of the Logos is akin to the role of Wisdom within Hellenistic Jewish literature —both as the agent by which God created the world, and as the means by which God reveals knowledge and truth to the world. 

That Judaism had long been engaged with the dominant hellenistic culture, has been well proven by contemporary scholarship. Influences from the Greek–speaking world, and its hellenised culture, are reflected in numerous Jewish writings. In this gospel, the account of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus (12:20–22) is a clear indication of the interaction between the community of the gospel, and the wider hellenised world. 

The issue is also raised by the question of the Pharisees at 7:35; “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” Other signs, less immediately obvious, pointing to this influence, are claimed at various points throughout the gospel. Once again, we see that the kind of Judaism which has influenced the gospel is not of the dominant, Pharisaic–rabbinic kind. It has become open to the wider world; perhaps the community which first received this Gospel had already become somewhat diversified in its composition.

This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandaean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.

Contemporary Mandaeans

So, the distinctive figure of John at the start of this distinctive Gospel, offers a keyhole through which we can gain a glimpse of a little-appreciated strand amongst the wide diversity of options in early Christianity.

See also John (the baptizer) and Jesus (the anointed) in the book of signs (the Gospel of John) – An Informed Faith (johntsquires.com)https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2020/01/preview-the-mandaean-book-of-john.html
What the Mandaeans know about John the Baptist | Bible and Beyond (earlychristiantexts.com)
and https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2019/11/the-symbolism-and-meaning-of-johns-baptism.html

https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/24/towards-the-coming-the-first-sunday-in-advent-mark-13/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/01/advent-two-the-more-powerful-one-who-is-coming-mark-1/

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Revelation: a complex and intricate world of heavenly beings and exotic creatures

When we come to the end of the New Testament, we find that the final book bears the name of the apostle John. We know it as the book of the Revelation of John. This book, however, is dramatically different from the Gospel that also bears John’s name. It has its own utterly distinctive character and style.

This book has some indications that it is to be understood as a letter. The opening section (1:1–20) includes an explicit identification of the author (1:4) and the location of his writing (1:9); a brief description of the situation of the recipients (1:9) along with a listing of the specific cities in which they lived (1:11); and a short blessing and doxology (1:4–5).

The book also contains the text of seven short letters, to the churches in these seven cities (2:1–3:22). The closing section (22:8–21) reiterates the role of the author (22:8) and concludes with a blessing formula (22:21). Each of these elements reflects traditional letter-writing style.

The author identifies himself as John (1:4, 9; 22:8) and notes that he was living on the island of Patmos (1:9); church tradition has equated him with John, the disciple of Jesus, as well as the author of the fourth Gospel and three letters. However, this book is strikingly different from the Gospel and the three letters.

Some have argued that the tone of the book might reflect the style of one of “the Sons of Thunder”, as the disciple John was labelled (Mark 3:17); but such a generalisation is not grounded in specific evidence.

Both the style of Greek employed and the way that biblical imagery is deployed sets this book apart from the Gospel which bears John’s name; whilst that book is steeped in biblical imagery and language, it is done in a more subtle and sophisticated manner.

The issues addressed in each of the letters which are attributed to John are internal church matters, quite different from the broader view of society which is in view in Revelation. These letters require separate consideration from the dramatic scenes which follow.

The recipients of the book, identified generically as “the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4), are then named one by one, by city (1:11).  In the details of the seven letters which are addressed specifically to these seven churches (2:1–3:22), we might imagine that we will find insight into the specific situation in these churches, which is being addressed in this book.

Yet, a careful reading of these particular letters indicates that they are written and delivered in response to a dramatic vision of a distinguished figure with an ominous presence, who instructs the author to write the letters to the angels of the various churches (1:9–20).

Furthermore, the content of a number of these letters introduces additional elements which are striking and unusual—seven stars held in a man’s hand, seven spirits of God, seven golden lampstands, white robes and a white stone, immoral behaviours and strange teachings which exhibit Satanic influences.

As we read on, we discover that this turns out to be just a little “sampler” of the far more complex and intricate world of heavenly beings and exotic creatures, who populate a series of increasingly bizarre and disturbing visions throughout the rest of the book. The whole book is much more than a letter, or a series of letters.

The opening and closing chapters give a number of clues in this regard. The work is characterised as being words of prophecy (1:3; 22:10, 18–19). The prophecy which is presented in this book is summarised as what must soon take place (1:1; 22:6). Both at the beginning and at the end of the book, the author declares that he is looking forward in time, reporting events that will soon occur.

However, this is not simply John’s view of what is to happen; what he writes, he maintains, has first been made known to him by an angel (1:1; 22:6, 8). So, the visions reported in chapters 4–21 are encircled by strong assertions of their significance and import.

As the book ends (22:6–21), a series of statements and affirmations reinforce the importance of what has been revealed in these visions.

First, the author repeats the explicit claim that this was shown to him by an angel (22:8–9). The instruction he is given, to make this known (“do not seal up the words”, 22:10), ensures that the message will become public—the author must write letters and report visions to those who will listen.

Then the author intensifies the moment by reporting the direct words of Jesus: “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you” (22:16); the message has a clear heavenly origin.

Next comes a dire warning not to tamper with the words as revealed by these means (22:18–19); the style is that of a solemn oath. The work closes with a prayer which looks to the way of Jesus in the future, “Come, Lord Jesus” (22:20), and a final formulaic benediction of grace (22:11, evoking the opening blessing of 1:4).

Ways of interpreting this book

The book of Revelation has probably become the most misunderstood book of the New Testament—because of the enigmatic nature, and the dramatic power, of these visionary sections. There are numerous theories seeking to ‘explain’ the meaning of the visions and to ‘prove’ the identity of the various figures who appear in these visions.

There are many approaches that have been taken to explain the vivid imagery which depicts the future judgement of humanity, which has led to this also being one of the most misused books of the New Testament. It has been interpreted by groups of fervent believers throughout the centuries as evidence that the end of the world was at hand.

How, then, do we seek to “understand” this book? When ever we turn to scripture, are we looking for clear doctrinal statements? In which case, this book could be mined as a source for teachings about “the last days”.

Or do we hope to encounter stories which help us to understand what has transpired in history? In which case, we will look for evidence that pins down the content of this book and grounds it in real-life events.

Both approaches require us to develop an extensive system of interpretation for reading this book. This is not a simple or straightforward task.

An alternative (and often employed) way of reading this book is to consider that it is prophecy which provides a set of predictions about the future. Sometimes this is seen to relate to the times immediately in the future of the writer, in the late 1st century. Other interpreters claim that the book is pointing forward in time, to events that will take place beyond the time of the reader, in our own times (that is, the 21st century). 

Some people will want to read the book simply as literature in its own right; as a work of art, it has the power to generate ideas and responses without necessarily tying these down to what is “true” or “accurate”. Ideological critics might wish to engage in dialogue with the book in relation to the violence which runs throughout the visions. 

Some readers have considered this book to be an expression of patriarchal power, caught up in the masculine enterprise of solving disputes through coercion and violence. Others have undertaken a search for an alternative vision of peacemaking in the midst of human warfare, as the lamb who was slaughtered is the one who ultimately triumphs.

How do you come to this book? What is the lens, the perspective, that you employ, to read this dramatic and different book?

Whatever the way is that we seek to approach our reading of this book, it will influence the kind of understanding that results. Because the work does not lay down one simple narrative line; because it is so rich and intricate in its symbolism; because it places layer upon layer, image upon image, it will produce multiple readings with multiple appreciations. Such is the complex nature of interpreting biblical texts.

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Reflections on a significant anniversary

On this day forty years ago (3 December 1980), I was ordained to the Ministry of the Word in the Uniting Church, in my home church in Seaforth. Forty years!!!

As I reflect on that day and the intervening decades, I am grateful for the early testimony, encouragement, and challenging I received from Phyl Spencer and her various Sunday School teachers at Seaforth over the previous two decades; from Len Cliff, my minister as I candidated and then my field education supervisor for a year in prison chaplaincy; from the late Milton Coleman, who asked me the provocative questions as I candidated and later became a valued Faculty colleague; and from the late Graham Hughes, teacher, thesis examiner, colleague, and friend over the years.

In my reflections, also, I am struck by the developments and changes that have occurred since that time. No females and only one lay person in the group appointed for the laying on of hands (even though one of my major final-year essays was on feminist theology!). A lack of inclusive language in the ordination vows. These matters have been clearly rectified in the liturgy now used at ordinations. Yet being an inclusive church, living that out in actual reality, continues to be a challenge even into the 21st century.

Those questions to which I answered affirmatively in 1980 had no requirement to be “guided by the Basis of Union” or “submit to the discipline of the church” (two important additions to the vows in later years—which I happily affirm). There was no reference to the First Peoples of Australia (it would take decades for that perspective to be accepted).

These and so many other changes that have taken place over the decades that I have served in ministry, learnt so much from fellow disciples, and experienced a variety of ministry opportunities in urban, rural, and regional roles: in six Congregations (Southern Illawarra, Waverley, Wauchope, and Queanbeyan, as well as Woodbury Methodist and Mount Carmel Congregational in the USA), two Presbyteries (Mid North Coast and Canberra Region), and two theological colleges (United Theological College in Sydney, and Perth Theological Hall in Western Australia).

Each of these placements has given me the opportunity to serve with people of deep faith, alongside colleagues with all manner of gifts and skills; to share in significant life moments with many parishioners; to work with people preparing for a lifetime of ministry in the church and in the community, expanding their biblical understanding, sharpening their pastoral and missional skills, and deepening their faith through the process of questioning and exploring; and to step out in new paths of ministry in activism, fostering care for the environment, working with indigenous peoples, and advocating for environmental responsibility.

And throughout these decades of ministry, I have had wonderful opportunities for deepening theological and biblical understandings with intensive study (at Yale, in the USA) and then further study leave periods (at Durham, and at Cambridge, in the UK). More recently, in my fourth decade of ministry, I have undertaken training in Resource Ministry, Transitional Ministry, Mission Shaped Ministry, and Supervision, exploring new ways to engage in ministry and mission.

And, of course, I have immense gratitude for the deep love and friendship, as well as collegial working, learning, and challenging, with my wife Elizabeth Raine over the past three decades, throughout many of those experiences, as we have been together in a whole range of opportunities for ministry and mission.

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Advent Two: the more powerful one who is coming (Mark 1)

This coming Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary takes us to the very start of the earliest written account telling the story of Jesus of Nazareth: to the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one, Son of God (Mark 1:1).

But there’s much about Jesus that we “know” that isn’t evident from this earliest and shortest story. We can deduce that Jesus was born to a Jewish family in a small town in Galilee (northern Israel). The precise date of his birth is not known, although it is now thought to be somewhere around the year 4 BCE. The town was most likely Nazareth. Indeed, in this work (the Gospel according to Mark), he is clearly identified as Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 1:24, 10:47, 14:67, 16:6).

There is no story in this Gospel which places the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, as we find in two later works (Matt 2:1-8; Luke 2:4,15; see also John 7:42). Elsewhere, he is known as “Jesus, the son of Joseph” (Luke 2:23; John 1:45, 6:42) and “the carpenter’s son” (Matt 13:55); but this particular Gospel contains no reference to the father of Jesus, only to his (unnamed) mother (Mark 3:31).

The region of Galilee was governed by Herod (Luke 1:5), and the whole of the land of Israel was part of the Roman Empire (Luke 3:1). Few people were extremely well off in the Roman Empire. A flourishing merchant class plied its trade on land and sea, but, like the vast majority of people in his country, Jesus did not enjoy a lavish lifestyle.

Jesus’ father, Joseph, worked in the building trade, probably as a carpenter. His mother (who was probably only 14 or 15 when he was born) had a number of other children after Jesus was born (see Mark 3:31-35). The family would have lived in a basic house made of mud or wood, and divided into two: one half for the family, the other half for their animals.

Jesus was raised as a good Jew. We can hypothesise much about his upbringing and faith. He knew the daily prayer of the Jews, the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One”). He also knew the major annual festivals of his people: Passover, Harvest (later called Pentecost) and Tabernacles.

Jesus attended the synagogue each Sabbath, where he watched the scrolls containing the Hebrew scriptures unrolled, before they were read (in Hebrew, the sacred language) and explained (in Aramaic, the language of the common Jewish folk). Jesus, like all his fellow–Jews, believed that his God, Yahweh, was the one true God. He followed the traditional practices of worship and studied the scriptures under the guidance of the scribes in his synagogue.

Since Israel had been occupied by foreign forces for many centuries before Jesus was born, first by Greeks, and then by Romans, he would have grown up in an environment where Greek (the common international language of the time) was spoken. Jesus would probably have understood Greek; but it would have been unlikely that he used Greek often; Aramaic was his native tongue.

Jesus would certainly have encountered the soldiers of the Roman Empire, and knew the kind of deference that they expected. Some of his contemporaries, in zealous obedience to the Torah, attempted to use force to overcome the Roman colonisers. Unlike them, Jesus did not take up arms in an attempt to rid the land of the Romans. He understood the constraints of living in an occupied land.

At a mature age (by tradition, in his early 30’s), Jesus made his way south towards Jerusalem, into the desert regions, along with other Jews of the day. Beside the Jordan River he listened to the preaching of a strange figure—a desert-dwelling apocalyptic prophet named John (Mark 1:4-8).

This man, named John, had a number of striking features (1:6). His dress, a tunic made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt, is reminiscent of Elijah the Tishbite, who dressed in a similar manner (2 Kings 1:8). His diet, comprising locusts and honey, evokes the ascetic life of a desert dweller ( …). The impression is clear: John intends to evoke the prophet Elijah.

Elijah exercised his role of prophet under the corrupt rule of Ahab and Jezebel. The most famous stories about Elijah take place in the desert, as the prophet speaks of a coming drought (1 Kings 17:1-7), and then challenges the dominant authorities, berating them for worshipping Baal rather than the Lord (1 Kings 18:20-29), and calling for their repentance (1 Kings 18:30-40). He is remembered as a fearsome figure with an apocalyptic message (Mal 4:4-6).

In Mark’s Gospel, the later desert-dwelling prophet, John, evokes the memory of the earlier desert-dwelling prophet, Elijah. He comes on the scene right at the start of the story, dressed in the manner of Elijah, and in a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy (1:2-3), announces that he is preparing the way for the coming of a “more powerful one”, who will baptise God’s people with the Holy Spirit (1:7-8).

This is real “fire-and-brimstone” preaching! The fire in the message of “the more powerful one who is coming” is implicit in Mark’s story; it is made explicit in the accounts of Matthew and Luke, who each report John as saying, “he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11, Luke 3:16).

John’s message was the traditional prophetic call to repent (1:4). Prophets occasionally call directly for repentance (Isa 1:27; Jer 8:4-7, 9:4-5, 34:15; Ezek 14:6, 18:30; Zech 1:1-6), but so many of the oracles included in both major and minor prophets provide extended diatribes against the sinfulness of Israel and call for a return to the ways of righteousness that are set out in the convening with the Lord. When prophets called for repentance, they were seeking a striking and thoroughgoing change of mind, a reversal of thinking and acting, a 180 degree turnaround, amongst the people.

Accompanying this, however, was a very distinctive action that John the desert dweller performed, of immersing people into the river (Mark 1:5). Our Bibles translate this as “baptising”, but it was actually a wholesale dunking right down deep into the waters of the river.

Our refined ecclesial terminology of “baptism” is often associated, in the popular mind, with cute babies in beautiful christening gowns surrounded by adoring grandparents, aunties and uncles. This leads us far away from the stark realities of the act: being pushed down deep into the river, being completely surrounded by the waters, before emerging saturated and maybe gasping for air.

Such a dramatic dunking was designed to signify the cleansing of the repentant person. Repentance and baptism were necessary for the ushering in of the reign of God, according to John. Jesus appears to have accepted this point of view; it is most likely that his baptism was an intense religious experience for him. He underwent a whole scale change of mind, a reorientation towards the mission that was thrust upon him.

From the moment of this intense experience, Jesus was fervently committed to the renewal and restoration of Israel. His first words, as reported in this shortest and earliest account of his ministry, were clear and focussed (1:14-15). There are four key elements: fulfilment of the time, nearness of the kingdom, the need to repent, and belief in the good news. Repentance is pivotal in this succinct summary of his message. It was the heart of the message that Jesus instructed his followers to proclaim (6:12).

After this dramatic dunking by the desert dweller, Jesus left his family and began travelling around Galilee, announcing that the time was near for dramatic changes to take place. He gathered a group of men and women who accepted his teachings, journeying with him as he spread the news throughout Galilee. The intense religious experience of his dunking meant that the fierce apocalyptic message spoken by the desert dweller was lived out in a radical way in daily life by this group of deeply committed associates of Jesus. The intense religious experience associated with his dramatic dunking by the desert dweller had a deep and abiding impact.

Messengers like John have always been an important part of God’s “strategy” for working in human affairs. There are always those who are called to prepare others for God’s coming and to announce what God is doing.

The challenge for us in this Advent season, then, is to create an environment in which we can listen to the sharpness of the words spoken by God’s messengers, and recognise the ways that we ourselves are called to bring this challenging message to our world in our time. Aligning ourselves with the message of John is quite a challenge!

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Advent One: Towards the Coming (Mark 13)

Keep awake! These are the last two words of a dramatic passage towards the end of a work entitled the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one. We know this by the name bequeathed by Christian tradition: “the Gospel according to Mark.”

I Keep awake!

Keep awake! are the last two recorded words spoken by Jesus in this long speech, given to his disciples outside the Temple in Jerusalem. This is the last long speech of Jesus recorded in this Gospel, uttered just hours before he is arrested and put on trial for blasphemy.

After his arrest, Jesus, the master story-teller, the wordsmith supreme, is uncharacteristically silent in this story (14:61, 15:5). He speaks only once at his trial before the Sanhedrin (14:62), and once again when brought before Pilate (15:2). So this speech to his disciples (13:5-37), and especially these last two words, keep awake!, are significant and important.

Keep awake: these two words set the theme for the four weeks of Advent, that start this,coming Sunday. Advent literally means towards the coming. It is what pregnant women do; they look towards the coming of the expected child. It is what young children do, as dinner time approaches; they look towards the coming of their working parents, returning home to share in the evening meal and associated rituals.

It is what we are called to do during these next four weeks; to look towards the coming of Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Day.

And as we look towards the coming, we are instructed to keep awake (13:37, and see also 13:35), to keep alert (13:33), be alert (13:23), and beware (13:9 and 13:5).

II Prophetic oracles and apocalyptic writings

The context for these exhortations is instructive. These words are uttered to people who will find themselves in the midst of a series of challenging crises. There will be wars and rumours of wars (13:7), earthquakes and famines (13:8), persecution and trials (13:9-11), ruptures within families (13:12) and unwarranted hatred (13:13). Sacred places will be despoiled (13:14) and religious imposters will flourish (13:22), while sufferings will be widespread (13:19) and a global environmental disaster will ensue (13:24-25).

These events are all standard elements in apocalyptic works of the time—writings which were created in the midst of events perceived as tribulations and catastrophes, out of which a message of hope was born. Apocalyptic writings developed after the return from Exile of the people of Israel, from the uprising led by the Maccabees in the 2nd century BCE onwards, and were particularly common in Jewish literature through until the century after the time of Jesus.

Apocalyptic emerged out of the oracles delivered by the prophets in earlier centuries, when kings were in power in Israel. The prophets spoke out against the injustices seen in their society. Their oracles spoke of the punishment that they believe God was going to bring on the people. Over time, through the experience of exile, captivity, and then return to the land under foreign rule, the message of doom was strengthened.

The prophets, and then the apocalyptic works, include many references that resonate with what Jesus is saying in his speech in Mark 13. The threat of future wars is noted in Isaiah 19:2, Jeremiah 51:46, and Daniel 7:21. Graphic prophecies in Daniel 9:25-26 and 11:40-45 intensify this portrayal of the wars that are to come.

2 Baruch 70:7-8 ramps this up even more: “And they shall come and make war with the leaders that shall then be left. And it shall come to pass that whoever gets safe out of the war shall die in the earthquake, and whoever gets safe out of the earthquake shall be burned by the fire, and whoever gets safe out of the fire shall be destroyed by famine.”

Hatred and falling away from God is included in a number of apocalyptic writings: 1 Enoch 90:22-27, 91:7, 93:9, Jubilees 23:14-17, and in one of biblical commentaries found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1QpHab 2.1-10. That sacred places will be despoiled is described in the Testament of Levi 15:1 and the Apocalypse of Elijah 2:41 4:21.

Suffering and distress are signs of what is to come in many books within apocalyptic elements: in the prophetic oracles of Jeremiah 30:7 and Joel 2:2, in another scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1 QM 1.11-12; and in the Testament of Moses 8.1.

Cosmic signs are associated with the coming time of doom. The Lord will shake the earth, according to Isaiah 13:13, 24:19; Joel 3:16; Amos 9:1,9-10; Haggai 2:6,20-22; and 2 Baruch 70:8, cited above; and see also Job 9:6.

Flashes of lightning are noted at Psalm 97:4, in prophetic oracles at Isa 62:1, Zech 9:14, and the Epistle of Jeremiah 61, as well as in 2 Baruch 53:9. What looks quite like an eclipse is regularly noted in prophetic oracles: Isaiah 13:10, 24:23, 34:4; Jeremiah 4:23; Ezekiel 32:7-8; Joel 2:10, 30-31; Amos 5:20; and Zephaniah 1:15. It also features in apocalyptic writings such as 1 Enoch 80:4; 4 Ezra 5:4-5; and the Testament of Moses 10:5 (and see also Job 9:7).

The darkness that ensues takes us back to the chaotic origins recounted in Gen 1:2, evoked again in Jer 4:23. Darkness is understood to be a sign of judgement in the prophets: Exodus 10:21-29, Isaiah 13:9-16, Jer 13:16, and Amos 5:18,20.

“If this is what life is like now”, the argument of apocalyptic writings usually goes, “with all of these catastrophic events tumbling one upon another — then because of our faith, we have confidence that the future will be a time when God will intervene, dramatically and affirmatively, to ensure that justice is done.”

And so, hope is affirmed, even as these works provide extensive lists of the terrible hardships and dramatic crises being experienced. Indeed, hope itself features in prophetic oracles (Isa 29:17, 38:18, and 51:5), as well as apocalyptic works such as 4 Ezra 6:25, 7:27, and 9:7-8, and 2 Baruch 70:9.

III Hope in the midst of despair

The apocalyptic signs and portents noted in Mark 13, whilst resonating with ancient experiences and expectations, also seem to have some resonances with our current situation, and the year of serial challenges that we have all experienced.

What has 2020 been like for you? For myself, I have experienced suffocating smoke, followed by the threat of a spreading fire in a nearby national park, clearly visible from my front door, even if still a few kilometres distant.

I myself was not directly damaged by the fires, but I have seen numerous frightening images and videos of firefighters standing firm right in the midst of terrible firestorms, heart-wrenching images of animals who have been hurt or whose habitat was destroyed, and so many tragic scenes of people surveying the devastation wrought by the fires to their homes and possessions. That in itself felt cataclysmic enough to be “apocalyptic”.

However, the fires, there came a very sudden and severe hailstorm, and then the frightening irruption of a pandemic bearing a virus that spread rapidly across the globe. Smoke and fire, hail and plague: it has felt like a massive year!

Since the impact of COVID-19 became evident in March, we have all experienced restrictions on how we gather and how we live, the stresses that this placed on our regular ways of living, and in some cases the fracturing of relationships that ensued. Some people have experienced illness or loss of friends or loved ones because of the pandemic.

Community grief is deep in some regions. Recovery from the bushfires in the midst of a pandemic is a hard task. Envisaging life in the “new normal” presents multiple challenges to everyone.

And the environmental warnings from what we have experienced are clear and strong. Our climate is changing, and the way it is impacting our society is significant and enduring. No longer are we faced with the task of mitigation; we need to take seriously the process of adaptation, at a rate more rapid, more,extensive, and more insistent than we might previously have considered. The “new normal” must be very, very different, indeed.

The challenge offered to us by this passage, as we read it this year, in the context of all that has transpired, is to hold fast to the note of hope, that Jesus offered his first disciples, and which holds still for us today.

In the midst of all these trials, Jesus affirms that the one who endures to the end will be saved (13:13). He assures his followers that the Lord has cut short those days (13:20), and looks to the time when the [Lord] will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds (13:27). Once again, the speech in Mark 13 draws from standard apocalyptic elements to provide assurance in the midst of despair.

How might these words of hope be the dominant notes for us at the end of 2020? Each one of us needs to work out how we respond, what we can do, who we can work with, how we can adapt. Reimagining the way we gather, worship, shop, visit, eat together, and travel, requires dedicated commitment over the coming months. It is a task for us all.

And if we continue to hold to that task, then perhaps this imaginative story might actually become the story of our future: The Great Realisation

See also The kingdom is at hand; so follow me. The Gospel according to Mark. – An Informed Faith (johntsquires.com)

https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/07/the-witness-of-john/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/01/advent-two-the-more-powerful-one-who-is-coming-mark-1/

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The kingdom is at hand; so follow me. The Gospel according to Mark.

Jewish people of the first century lived in one of two ways. Some were members of the nation of Israel which was occupied by a foreign military force, the Romans. (The Romans called this region Palestine). Others were members of a minority group of Jews who were permitted to exist in another nation. (These are known as Jews of the Dispersion).

Life in such situations demanded compromise. For Jews living in the Dispersion (also called the Diaspora), the degree of compromise might vary—but compromise was inevitable. For those living within Israel, the need for compromise was a constant irritant. Some groups, like the Sadducees and the priests, accepted the compromises and did well out of them. Many common folk simply made the best of the situation.

Others resented what was imposed on them. They looked back to an earlier time in the history of Israel, when the troops of another foreign force, the Seleucids, held power in Israel. An honoured group of Jews, the Maccabees, had led an armed insurgency which brought victory over the Seleucids in the years 167 to 164 BCE. For a time, Jews had ruled Israel once again.

From the time that Roman troops had occupied Palestine, in 63 BCE, there was tension. It would wax and wane according to the attitudes of the Jewish leaders and the political imperatives at work through the Roman governors. In the year 66, the governor, Florus, demanded money from the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. This was too much for some Jews; hostilities broke out in various places across Palestine. The war which resulted lasted eight years; in 70CE, the Temple in Jerusalem would be burnt to the ground, and by 74CE, all active Jewish resistance to the Romans would be quashed.

In this setting, amidst the battles fought in Galilee, Samaria and Judaea, apocalyptic hopes were inflamed. Many of the Jews actively fighting the Romans believed that their actions would help to usher in the long-promised kingdom of God. This kingdom would represent a new era, in which God would reign over Israel and foreign troops would be banished.

The term apocalyptic describes this attitude. It comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, which mean ‘unveiling’ or ‘revealing’. It indicates a belief that God would act to unveil, or reveal, the new era.

Perhaps a significant number of the followers of Jesus also believed that the kingdom of God was drawing near, as Jesus had proclaimed some decades earlier, in the events of their own day. After all, Jesus spoke the language of apocalyptic and told stories about the kingdom that God had in store for his people.

Should the followers of Jesus, then, join with the rebel groups in rising up against Rome? Was the way to the kingdom to be won through conflict, martyrdom, and military victory? Or was there another way?

Remarkably, one writer chose to answer these questions by writing about the way which would have been chosen by Jesus. The earliest written account that we have for the life of Jesus, which opens with a declaration about the beginning of the good news of Jesus—which we know, by tradition, as “the Gospel according to Mark”—appears to deal with precisely these issues as it assembles and reshapes many of the stories told about Jesus.

It is strongly marked by apocalyptic overtones, from the urgent message which Jesus utters (the kingdom is at hand, 1:14–15) to his parting description of
apocalyptic terrors (there will be earthquakes and terrors … you will be hated by
all … there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the
creation … the powers in the heavens will be shaken … they will see ‘the Son of
Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory
, 13:3–37).

This Gospel was written for first century Jews who were who were caught up in a fervent hope that the kingdom of God was soon to be ushered in, but who were also struggling with what it meant to follow the way of Jesus.

So Mark tells the story of Jesus, a person who submitted to his death, at the hands of the Romans, without raising any weapons in defence. The way of Jesus, according to Mark, was the way of suffering obedience and faithful discipleship. The answer to the questions posed lay in following the way of Jesus. And this Gospel particularly emphasises the necessity of faithful discipleship; follow me is an important refrain (1:17, 19; 2:14; 10:21).

The high cost of this following is also made clear in Jesus’ teachings. As the earliest readers of this Gospel struggled to live out their faith in a vibrant but challenging situation, they remembered and treasured stories about Jesus’ travels to Gentile lands (4:35–5:21; 6:45–8:13). During these travels, Jesus showed that the kingdom would include people who were regarded by many Jews as being unclean, dishonoured, and beyond salvation: disabled people, Gentiles, women, and mentally ill (i.e. demon-possessed) people.

So this account of Jesus is infused with drama and intensity as the story moves from one incident to the next. Yet, the whole Gospel is a carefully-crafted piece of literature. The structure of the work conveys the significance of Jesus and the necessity of faithful discipleship in the midst of suffering. (See my outline of this Gospel below.)

Mark writes to help believers understand what it means to follow Jesus and to take up our cross (8:34) in the time of expectant waiting as the kingdom is at hand (1:15). Just as Jesus crossed over the margins of society, so must we; as Jesus suffered, so may we; but as he lives, so may we know the presence of God’s chosen one with us. The Gospel story is an invitation to follow Jesus along this pathway.

This year we have the opportunity to listen to the story of Jesus as it is offered in this Gospel. Each Sunday, the lectionary offers a selection from the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one. May we listen, hear, engage — and be transformed.

An outline of the story told in the beginnings of the good news about Jesus

This blog draws on material in MARKING THE GOSPEL: an exploration of the Gospel for Year B, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012).

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Women in the New Testament (2): six problem passages


This post continues the discussion begun in https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/19/women-in-the-new-testament-1-the-positive-practices-of-jesus-and-the-early-church/

There are six passages in the New Testament which traditional (patriarchal) interpreters have considered to be warrant for the view that women hold an inferior, subordinate position in the church and in society.

In many cases, however, the constraints placed upon women in these passages might be said to be due to the particular circumstances in which the letter was written. They do not provide prescriptive commands that apply at all times and in all places to all women.

In what follows below, I offer some very general comments about each passage, and some links to more detailed discussion of the issues involved in interpreting these passages in the contemporary context (many are from the wonderful blog of Marg Mowczko).

1 Corinthians 14:33b-35. The invocations to women to be silent in church most likely form part of an interpolation into the text by a later writer, and were not written by Paul. However, even if this is not the case, the specific context of the letter suggests that there was a need for Paul to reign in the excesses of at least some of the women believers in Corinth.

He exhorts them to keep silent, as he also instructs others – presumably males as well as females – to keep silent at the appropriate times, when they prophesy, or when they speak in tongues, so that worship may be seemly and orderly. The primary concern is not the role accorded by gender, but the proper conduct of worship.

There’s a more detailed discussion at https://margmowczko.com/interpretations-applications-1-cor-14_34-35/

1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Paul informs women that head coverings were compulsory when they gathered in worship. Again, this instruction may relate to the particular situation in Corinth, where certain pagan religions allowed women almost unbridled freedoms and brought them into contempt of “mainstream” Corinthian society.

Perhaps Paul wrote as he did because he did not want Christian women to be dismissed as extremists in this same manner. An interpretation of his words about “headship” which differs from the traditional view, hinges on a linguistic argument that the Greek word may also mean “source”, and the fact that some of the other statements in this passage seem to support the claim of mutuality and equality which Paul elsewhere upholds.

On head coverings in this passage, see https://margmowczko.com/head-coverings-1-corinthians-11/

On the image and glory of God, see https://margmowczko.com/man-woman-image-glory-god-1-corinthians-11-7/

On what “head” means, see https://margmowczko.com/head-kephale-does-not-mean-leader-1-corinthians-11_3/

And there are more links collected at https://margmowczko.com/category/equality-and-gender-issues/1-corinthians-11-2-16/

1 Timothy 2:8-12. This passage further commands to women to keep silent in church may also be interpreted in the light of the specific context which is addressed in the letter. It appears that those addressed in this letter were under threat from a rather disruptive group of “heretics”, including some prominent women.

Grammatical analysis may suggest that the command is not a universal injunction with universal applicability, but a specific command to a particular situation.

The traditional interpretation of the words in 1 Timothy 2:13-15, that salvation comes to women only by childbirth, may also be debated in the light of linguistic and grammatical argumentation. This is not the only way the phrase can be translated.

For detailed discussions, see https://earlychristiantexts.com/what-1-timothy-says-about-women/, https://margmowczko.com/1-timothy-212-in-a-nutshell/, and https://margmowczko.com/a-woman-not-all-women-1-timothy-212/

There are more articles collected at https://margmowczko.com/category/equality-and-gender-issues/1-timothy-212/

Ephesians 5:21-33. The exhortation to wives to submit to their husbands has traditionally been taken in isolation as a principle valid for all times and places. However, the precise form which is employed in this text (the “household table”) was widely known in the ancient world. It was a way of keeping social order by establishing the superior and the inferior in any relationship.

The three “tables” in the household table of 1 Peter:
husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves

What is quite significant in Ephesians 5 is the way that such a traditional form is modified by the writer of this letter. Indeed, the key to interpreting the passage is sounded in 5:21, with the command to practice mutual submission in marriage (and in other relationships). The typical ancient pattern of inferior/superior is transformed by the Gospel, resulting in a radical equality and mutuality in relationship.

See also https://margmowczko.com/pauls-main-point-in-eph-5_22-33/ and https://www.patheos.com/blogs/allsetfree/2018/12/no-ephesians-5-doesnt-argue-in-favor-of-complementarianism/

Similar matters are to be brought to bear in an interpretation of 1 Peter 3:1-7, where the “household code” is used in a particular rhetorical manner (“apologetic”). The teaching of submission in marriage has a specific function related to the overall purpose of this letter, and need not be seen in isolation as a universalised teaching.

On “the weaker vessel”, see https://margmowczko.com/weaker-vessel-gender-justice-1-peter-3_7/

There are more articles on 1 Peter at https://margmowczko.com/category/equality-and-gender-issues/1-peter-31-7/

In these ways, then, long-standing interpretations of these passages can be challenged as patriarchal, and alternative feminist readings can be proposed from within a reform paradigm. The debate is not concluded, but has opened up important issues for further consideration. Responsible biblical interpretation can no longer avoid confronting the inherent biases and presuppositions of past generations of interpreters – and also of present interpreters.

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A final parable from the book of origins: on sheep and goats, on judgement and righteous-justice (Matt 25)

This Sunday, we are approaching the end of Year A, the year when we have been tracing the story of Jesus was it is reported in the book of origins, the Gospel we attribute to Matthew.

During the month of November, we have heard a series of parables–stories which Jesus tells about the kingdom of heaven. Just in case the disciples didn’t actually get the message about what it will take to enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus uses this string of parables to end this last section of his last long teaching block, as we have it reported in the book of origins.

After launching in to a dramatic depiction of the coming times—wars and famines, etc—Jesus tells four stories, one after another, each ending with an admonition to be alert, be prepared; each one ending with a dire warning about what will happen to those who are not adequately prepared. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/04/discipleship-in-an-apocalyptic-framework-matt-23-25/

A story about an unprepared slave (24:45-51) ends: “He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (24:51). To conclude the story of the ten virgins, some prepared, others unprepared (25:1-13), the final words of Jesus to those unprepared are, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you” (25:13).

At the end of the story of the talents given to various slaves (25:14-30), Jesus concludes, “From those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (25:29-30).

And towards the end of the famous parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46), Jesus says, “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ (25:41), and he concludes that “these will go away into eternal punishment” (25:46).

All of these dire warnings are consistent with the teachings of the Matthean Jesus, who warns about “weeping and gnashing of teeth” when he tells a story about weeds sown in a field amongst the wheat (13:42), another story about good bad fish caught in the same net (13:49), and a later story about a man who attended a wedding banquet with inappropriate dress (22:14). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/06/darkness-weeping-and-gnashing-of-teeth-the-scene-of-judgement-matt-22/

This is the same Matthean Jesus who also predicts that evildoers (a better translation would be, “those who do not live by the Law”) will be “thrown into outer darkness” (8:12), as will the poorly-dressed man at the wedding banquet (22:13) and also the slave who buried the talents that he was given (25:30).

It is the same Matthean Jesus, in the much-loved ‘Sermon on the Mount’, who tells those who talk the talk but do not walk the walk, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers [lawless ones]” (7:23). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/17/the-missing-parts-of-the-sermon-on-the-mount-matt-6-and-7/

It is the same Jesus who pronounces a series of woes upon the scribes and Pharisees, accusing them of being “hypocrites” (multiple times), children of hell (23:15), blind (23:19), neglectful of the Law (23:23), self-indulgent (23:25), full of filth (23:27) and lawlessness (23:28). He ends this series of invective denunciations with the clear condemnation: “you snakes, you brood of vipers—how can you escape being sentenced to hell [Gehenna]?” (23:33). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/26/sitting-on-the-seat-of-moses-teaching-the-law-but-they-do-not-practice-what-they-teach-matt-23/

It’s a perspective that presents us with quite a challenge!

This particular Gospel highlights and intensifies the theme of judgement. Is this something that the author of the book of origins has created, as some interpreters might suggest? My sense, on the other hand, is that even though this message is very strong at so many places in this book, the author of the book of origins gets this from the historical Jesus.

In Luke 13:28, as Jesus speaks about the narrow way, he warns his followers, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers! There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.”

That saying is a doublet, found also (in a modified form) at Matt 8:11-12. It is thus part of what is known as the “Q material”—sayings of Jesus found only in Luke and Matthew, but not in Mark, and thus hypothesised to have come from an early oral collection of sayings of Jesus (called Q, after the German Quelle, meaning source).

This saying is not unique to Jesus, however. It draws on language from a number of Psalms. In Psalm 6:8, the writer cries out: depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping. Psalm 9:17 declares that the wicked shall depart to Sheol, and Psalm 139:19 offers the prayer, O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and the bloodthirsty would depart from me. The command to the wicked to depart has good biblical warrant.

Likewise, the image of the wicked gnashing their teeth is found in Hebrew Scripture. In Psalm 35:16, lamenting the activities of “malicious witnesses” who attacks the Psalmist, the writer accuses them: they impiously mocked more and more, gnashing at me with their teeth. The same phrase appears in Psalm 112:10, where the psalmist declares that, in the face of the grace and justice demonstrated by “the righteous”, the wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away; the desire of the wicked comes to nothing. (There are similar descriptions of gnashing teeth at Lamentations 2:16 and Sirach 30:10.)

So Jesus stands in the tradition of the Psalms, affirming the righteous-justice exhibited by those who faithfully live by the Law, and imploring God to exercise divine justice in dealing with those who are wicked.

And alongside these Psalms, we can invoke many of the prophetic oracles, decrying the injustice and failure to live by the covenant, disregarding the commandments and statutes of the Law. Consistent with the prayers of the Psalms, the oracles of the prophets call on God to be good to God’s word and adhere to the punishments prescribed for the wicked.

Therefore, Matthew does the right and fair thing, by depicting Jesus as consistently and insistently holding the people of Israel in his time to account: live your lives in accord with righteous-justice, or be prepared to face the fate that is in store for you if you breach the covenant by ignoring the Law. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

Of course, this is destabilising and disturbing for us today. Did not Jesus establish a movement founded on love and grace? (Thank you, Paul.) Did he not carry out a ministry that was invitational and attractive, calling people to the excitement of discipleship discovery? (For some, that’s a way to read Mark.)

Surely he spent his years reaching out beyond traditional barriers, offering an inclusive vision of the kingdom, throwing open the doors of welcome to all comers? (Luke, take a bow.) And was he not the very image of God, enfleshed in our lives, speaking truth and love, offering abundant life? (That’s how John portrays him.)

Yet, for Matthew, Jesus speaks truth, calls out sin, adheres to standards, advocates for a deep righteous-justice. The perceived negativity of the attack mode, the damaging denunciation of those who fall short, is harnessed in the service of advocating the positive, affirming the heart of covenant relationship with God. It is not only the teeth-gnashing, wailing, cast-out wicked ones, that are in view for Jesus.

Rather, it is the blessing that he offers to “the slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives” (24:46). It is the affirmation of the wisely prepared virgins who were ready, who “went with him [the bridegroom] into the wedding banquet” (25:10). It is the slaves who made constructive use of the talents that they were given, who are commended with the words, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (25:21, 23).

And it is in the abundant welcome offered to “the sheep”, whose good deeds lead them to be invited, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34), and who, as “the righteous”, will inevitably experience “eternal life” (25:46).

And how is it that these people “inherit the kingdom” and experience “ eternal life”? They feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit those in prison (25:35-36).

Each of these actions, of course, is carrying out a commandment of the Law. Ezekiel 18:5-9 includes amongst actions undertaken by a righteous person who “does what is lawful and right”, the fact that such a person gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment (the same phrase is repeated in a subsequent list at Ezekiel 18:16). Similar actions are noted at Job 22:7, when Eliphaz the Temanite condemns Job from Uz with you have given no water to the weary to drink, and you have withheld bread from the hungry.

Care for those “in bonds” is noted at Psalm 70:33 and liberty for the captives is clearly part of the mission of the one anointed by the Spirit at Isaiah 61:1. Care for the stranger and their inclusion on the festivals of Israel is exhorted in the laws set forth in Deuteronomy 10:18-19, 16:11,14, and commended in Psalm 146:9. Visiting the sick is commanded in Sirach 7:35.

A larger list of such actions is canvassed at Isaiah 58:6-7, which poses the rhetorical question from God, “is not this the fast that I choose … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”.

What “the sheep” have done, is demonstrate an unflinching commitment to the way of life enjoined by the Law. They live, breathe, and offer righteous-justice in what they do.

And the kicker in this story is that “the sheep”, those who carry out these good deeds in adherence to the Law, are not drawn entirely and exclusively from the people of Israel. They are drawn from “the nations”–a phrase that is usually translated as “the Gentiles” (τά ἔθνη is translated this way, in the NRSV, at Matt 4:15, 6:32, 10:5, 10:18, 12:18,21, 20:19,25, and most famously of all, 28:19).

In this parable, the usual biblical description of Israel as “sheep” (Psalms 78:52, 95:7, 100:3; Jer 23:1, 50:6,17; Ezek 34:1-31; Micah 2:12; Zech 10:2) is turned completely on its head. Amongst the people outside of Israel, there are many who are now “the sheep”, who follow the way of righteous-justice.

So the faithful sheep are not just those within Israel who live by the Law, they also include many Gentiles, drawn from the regions surrounding Israel. They provide encouragement, they stand as role models, they live out the faith that is required to “inherit the kingdom that is prepared … from the foundation of the world” (25:34).

And they exhibit righteous-justice, the heart of the covenant, in contrast to lives which are lived without reference to the Law. There is no justice with judgement. There is no justice without righteous deeds. And righteous deeds require fidelity to the Law. Not in Matthew’s account of Jesus, and not in Hebrew Scriptures. Righteous-justice and fiersome judgement are the two sides of the one coin. We can’t have one without the other.

Belief in Jesus, as Messiah, as the authoritative Teacher of the Law, thus requires faithfulness to the ethical demands and instructions taught by Jesus—which themselves are drawn entirely from Hebrew Scriptures. The way of Jesus, according to Matthew, is the way of righteous-justice, the way of faithfulness to Torah.

*****

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). I am particularly grateful to Elizabeth for the ways in which her research and our conversations over the years have deepened my understanding of Matthew’s “parable of the sheep and the goats”.

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The Lectionary: ordering the liberty of the preacher

I am a longterm lectionary devotee (as preacher, as teacher, as thesis supervisor, as blog writer). There is a richness in the lectionary that I appreciate. It has a clear structure, an observable order, a logic to its pattern, a rationale to the progress that it offers us, year by year, through the seasons of the (church) year.

There are also some frustrations with the lectionary: what stories are not included, what stories appear more than once (even if in different versions), where the passage starts (omitting verses that give “context”), where the passage ends (omitting significant follow-one verses), how the passage is edited (such as parts omitted), and so on.

But this is only to be expected: it is a human creation, subject to the idiosyncrasies and prejudices of its compilers, bound in many ways to the traditions of the church, limited by the number of Sunday’s that are to be found over three years. So I take it as it is, with its own biases as well as the benefits it offers.

Alongside this structure and order, the lectionary invites choice. It stimulates in me a consideration of the options available to me, and offers ways of using it that generates creativity in whatever I do as preacher, liturgies, or instructor. Every week, there are four readings listed in the lectionary. That itself suggests some choice (at least, in my denominational context).

However, the lectionary is far more than just four readings. It is a three-year creation, following a similar pattern in each of the three years, whilst still being designed to allow for a different focus each year.

*****

The lectionary is is based on a repeating year-long cycle, following a well-established tradition of tracing the Christian story through a familiar pattern. It starts by looking to the coming of Jesus (the four weeks of Advent), before celebrating the birth of Jesus (the twelve days of Christmas) and rejoicing in the revelation of God (a season of varying numbers of weeks during Epiphany–sometimes simply called Ordinary Time).

It continues by walking the pathway towards the cross (another six weeks, in Lent) and then remembering the pivotal events of the last meal of Jesus (Maundy Thursday), the death of Jesus (Good Friday), a time of waiting (Holy Saturday), and the empty tomb (Easter Sunday).

This is followed by a season celebrating the appearances of the risen one and the shaping of the early church (seven weeks in the season of Easter), reaching a climactic point of with the Day of Pentecost (the gift of the Spirit).

But this is only the halfway point. After these six months of richness, the ensuing six months (with the rather unfortunate name of Ordinary Time) allow time for tracing through in order the story told in one of the Gospels; or the narratives, prophetic works, and writings found in Hebrew Scriptures; or the string of Letters found in the New Testament.

So, whilst the first half of the year is based on key moments in the story of Jesus, the second half of the year is more devoted to follow through passages from a common source in their narrative order. It is sometimes referred to as a season of growth–growing in understanding of scripture, growing in discipleship and faith.

*****

The lectionary that we follow is the Revised Common Lectionary. You can access it at https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/ and read responses to a whole range of frequently asked questions at https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/faq2.php

This ecumenical lectionary is based on an earlier version, The Common Lectionary, which derives from the daily and weekly lectionaries used for centuries in the Roman Catholic tradition. And behind those lectionaries, there sits the Jewish custom of reading right through the Torah, the five Books of Moses, each year, with a particular selection of chapters set for each Sabbath day.

There are other options for lectionaries–the Narrative Lectionary, Uncommon Preaching, Beyond the Lectionary–but the Revised Common Lectionary is the most widespread, used across a good range of denominations, right round the world.

Christian lectionaries can be identified as far back as the fourth century. A lection is a passage to be read; a lectionary is thus an arrangement of passages to be read (and heard). Over time, in monasteries, lectionaries developed to provide sets of readings for the monks to hear and chant, as they gathered to worship at set hours throughout each day, and then further readings for worship each Sunday, right through the year.

The Jaharis Byzantine Lectionary,
held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, USA

Following a lectionary in our time is a good challenge to preachers—it invites them to step away from that clutch of familiar, beloved passages to which they would turn when considering “what shall I preach on?”, and challenges the preacher not simply to lapse back into familiar themes week after week.

It is also a fine resource for a community of faith. It clearly indicates “what is on next week”. It means that keen members can read the passages in advance of worship–perhaps even following a lectionary-based Bible reading guide like With Love to the World, for personal use or with a group. (See http://www.withlovetotheworld.org.au/).

It also means that visiting preachers can have an idea of what has just been preached on and what is coming after their visit, to avoid embarrassing “double-ups”.

It’s also fascinating to note just how often a passage that seems to be quite unrelated to the current context can “come alive” and offer striking or unforeseen insights into that situation. That’s a real gift that the lectionary offers!

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Sometimes, people talk about what is “set” in the lectionary. (I confess to have been guilty of this on occasions.) That seems to be the expectation, even the requirement, in some denominations with a highly structured (and some would say inflexible) approach to worship.

But my own denomination has roots traced to the “non-conformist” section of the church: protestants emerging from the Reformation, pietists flowing from the Wesleyan revival, a congregational emphasis growing from anti-establishment commitments of the past. Perhaps it is better for us to describe the passages available each week as being “offered” to us. They are offered; we need to consider how we accept them, how we use them, what they each offer to us.

In Year A, the focus is on the first Gospel, attributed to Matthew, alongside the ancestral narratives and account of the formation of Israel in the first five books of Hebrew Scripture. Following one or the other of these threads over a number of months can be an enriching experience for a community of faith.

In Year B, the focus is on the shortest Gospel, attributed to Mark, paralleled with passages drawn from the Writings of ancient Israel, whilst in Year C, the third Gospel, attributed to Luke, alongside a series of passages drawn from the prophetic tradition of Israel. These years each offer their own distinctives. There is enriching variety across the three years.

The fourth Gospel, attributed to John, is spread throughout these three years, at designated places throughout the year, whilst passages from the book of Acts are offered each year in the season of Easter (the weeks following after Easter Sunday). And passages from the various Letters found in the New Testament are spread across all three years.

In each of the three years, on every Sunday and special feast day, a selection from the Psalms is also offered. This ensures that over the course of three years, virtually all the Psalms are offered for Sunday worship.

The same can’t be said, unfortunately, for many other books of scripture. There are some striking omissions from the lectionary, when we look at the whole set of offerings. Many of the stories relating to women, for instance, do not appear. Some of the more difficult passages (the “texts of terror”, as they have been called) are missing. Some of the juicy parts of certain letters are missing.

Even with four readings each Sunday, 52 times each year, over three years, there still is not time for everything to be included. The only way to deal with “the whole Bible” is actually to undertake one of those “read the whole Bible in one year” programmes. That will mean reading quite a few chapters each and every day! (For instance, I found this website, that offers a range of possibilities: https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-reading-plan/)

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How do we respond to the offering of four Bible passages each and every Sunday? There is nothing worse, in my opinion, than a sermon that stodgily treats the OT, then the Epistle, the Gospel (and sometimes even the Psalm), all with 20 minutes! This slavish, literalist use of the resources provided in the lectionary is inevitably (in the negative sense) utterly deadly. It deadens my mind and depresses my spirit.

Likewise, there is nothing inviting or encouraging in a preacher who starts, “this week the lectionary offers hopeless passages, but I have to follow it, so here goes nothing”. It offers a structure and an order, but it is not a demand and a non-negotiable requirement, surely.

There is actually an abundance of choices when I consider the lectionary: do follow the Gospel? or take a pathway though the OT readings and the enriching theological ideas they offer? Might I focus on the psalms for a season, or a month? Should I take a letter when it appears, and examine it with care over 4 or 6 or 8 weeks? Or is it best, in this age of small attention rates and high expectation of novelty, simply to change it up week by week?

Of course, there is also the option to follow the lectionary in the key seasons—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter—then after the Pentecost celebration, in the long stretch of six months leading up to Advent, reshape worship with a local focus, or topical issues, or even a series on a theme or a book, and so on.

After 43 years I still find enrichment, challenge, and stimulation, and frustration, when I turn to the lectionary each week. And because the UCA is committed to “ordered liberty”, in worship, and in preaching, I am grateful for the order offered by the lectionary and the liberty possible in considering whether, why, and how the lectionary might shape what I end up doing.

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The Revised Common Lectionary can be accessed at https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/

See also https://uniting.church/2020-2021-lectionary-is-available-for-free-download/

There is a rich collection of resources to assist anyone using the Revised Common Lectionary, at The Text This Week, http://www.textweek.com/

A useful daily Bible reading guide, based on the RCL, is With Love to the World, at http://www.withlovetotheworld.org.au/

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Always Was, Always Will Be. #NAIDOC2020

This week is NAIDOC Week 2020. Earlier this year, the decision was taken to postpone NAIDOC Week from the original July dates, due to the impacts and uncertainty from the escalating Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic across our communities and cities.

The postponement was primarily aimed at protecting indigenous elders and those in indigenous communities with chronic health issues from the disastrous impacts of COVID-19. So National NAIDOC Week 2020 celebrations are being held this week, 8-15 November. See https://www.naidoc.org.au/about/naidoc-week

The theme, Always Was, Always Will Be, recognises that First Nations people have occupied and cared for this continent for over 65,000 years; that they have a spiritual and cultural connected to this land. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were Australia’s first explorers, first navigators, first engineers, first farmers, first botanists, first scientists, first diplomats, first astronomers and first artists.

Australia has the world’s oldest oral stories. The First Peoples engraved the world’s first maps, made the earliest paintings of ceremony and invented unique technologies. They built and engineered structures on Earth, long before well-known sites such as the Egyptian Pyramids and Stonehenge.

The adaptation demonstrated by First Peoples and their intimate knowledge of Country enabled them to endure climate change, catastrophic droughts and rising sea levels.

Always Was, Always Will Be acknowledges that hundreds of Nations and our cultures covered this continent. All were managing the land (“the biggest estate on earth”, as Bill Gammage has described it) to sustainably provide for their future. Through ingenious land management systems like fire stick farming, they transformed the harshest habitable continent into a land of bounty. See https://www.naidoc.org.au/get-involved/2020-theme

So this week offers a good opportunity for people around Australia to pause, acknowledge the care that the indigenous peoples of the continent and its surrounding islands have given to the land, and give thanks for their resilience and dedication over many millennia, into the present age.

Within the Uniting Church, indigenous members of the Uniting Church have argued for a treaty within the councils of the Church, and some Synods (such as NSW.ACT) have supported this call. See https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/07/giving-voice-telling-truth-talking-treaty-naidoc-2019/

The Assembly, the national Council of the UCA, has recognised that indigenous people are sovereign over the land we stand on. See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/10/the-sovereignty-of-the-first-peoples-of-australia/

Sovereignty is defined with reference to two documents. First, the Preamble to the Constitution of Uniting Church in Australia, which defines sovereignty to be “the way in which First Peoples understand themselves to be the traditional owners and custodians”.

Second, the Uluru Statement from the Heart acknowledges that “sovereignty is a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and First Peoples”, and affirms that “the First Peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal and Islander Peoples, are sovereign peoples in this land”.

Statement from the Heart, Uluru, 2017
https://www.referendumcouncil.org.au/sites/default/files/2017-05/Uluru_Statement_From_The_Heart_0.PDF

Alison Overeem (UAICC Tasmania, Leprena) has written a moving reflection for NAIDOC Week 2020, at https://crosslight.org.au/2020/11/05/naidoc-week-2020-reflection/

Uniting Church resources for NAIDOC Week 2020 can be found at https://uniting.church/naidoc-week-2020/ and https://nswact.uca.org.au/about-us/first-nations-resources/

See also my blogs on the works of Gammage and Pascoe at https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/24/resembling-the-park-lands-of-a-gentlemans-residence-in-england/ and on sovereignty at https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

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Discipleship in an apocalyptic framework (Matt 23–25)

This coming Sunday, the Gospel passage in our lectionary jumps a chapter and plunges into the very last section of the teachings of Jesus that are collected in the book of origins, which we know as we the Gospel according to Matthew. For this Sunday, and following Sundays, Jesus speaks parables which contain instructions on the form of discipleship in a situation of anxiety, expectation, and waiting.

Last Sunday we were reading the teachings of Jesus in chapter 23, about following the Law in all of life. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/26/sitting-on-the-seat-of-moses-teaching-the-law-but-they-do-not-practice-what-they-teach-matt-23/

That passage (23:1-10) begins the fifth of five teaching blocks in this Gospel: the Sermon on the Mount (5–7), instructions on mission (10), parables of the kingdom (13), guidance for life in community (18), and this teaching block, which focuses on the imminent future—the coming kingdom of heaven, which was expected to come very soon (23–25).

The lectionary jumps over chapter 24; although, to be fair, we read an excerpt from this chapter right back at the beginning of the year in which we read through Matthew’s Gospel. This chapter is often labelled as the “apocalyptic discourse” in which Jesus tells his followers what is soon to take place. By tradition, the “apocalyptic discourse” is read on the First Sunday in Advent, which is when the new year begins in the Christian calendar.

So, you can think back to what you read, heard, or said back on Sunday 1st December 2019 … or you can read on and see my take.

Matthew sets out the teachings of Jesus concerning discipleship in chapter 25, within the context of an apocalyptic view of reality that is outlined in chapter 24. This view locates the present time in relation to the ultimate end of time, when God will reveal God’s ultimate will for the world (that’s what apocalyptic is), and calls for a way of living that will ultimately show responsibility for decisions made.

What ultimate end does Matthew have in view? Each Gospel writer tends to emphasis something slightly different as the climax for the story they narrate. In Mark, the focus is on the resurrection of Jesus (Mark 14:28; 16:7). In Luke-Acts, carrying the good news throughout the Roman Empire fulfils the story of the universal Gospel (Luke 24:47–48; Acts 1:8). In John, it is eternal life which is emphasised (John 20:31).

Matthew’s Jesus has in mind the coming eschatological deliverance, a deliverance which is expected imminently and that will vindicate the community as faithful and righteous to the will of God.

Apocalyptic hope

In this way, the community of faith reflected in this Gospel is typical of one type of Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple; that of apocalyptic hope. Most of the post-70 sectarian groups express hope that God will remember his covenant with them, the faithful few of Israel, and save them; for example, 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra write that God will provide consolation for their suffering and vindicate them, whilst also punishing their enemies on the Day of Judgement (2 Baruch 6:21; 82:1–2; 4 Ezra 8:51–59; 12:34).

In these sectarian documents, the kingdom of God is eschatological is nature; it has not yet arrived on earth, though signs telling of its coming can be detected. These communities also agree that much of Israel no longer truly follows the Law of God, and that the dominant Jewish leadership is unfaithful and wicked, and that they are the ones alone representing the true Israel. Therefore, entry to the kingdom is dependent upon faithfulness to the Law as interpreted by the community.

Much of this opinion can also be found in this book of origins. In fact, the evangelist redacts his sources and shapes his material so that this eschatological end is prominent, and the author makes it clear that there are two ages: the first is the current time for the evangelist, and the second is the age to come (Matt 12:32, from Mark 3:29).

The nearness of the second age

In this book of origins, the first indication that we have of the nearness of the second age is the announcement of John the Baptist, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2). This sets the tone for the rest of the Gospel, where Jesus calls people to repent and be obedient to God’s Law, as the end-time of God’s judgement is fast approaching.

In the teachings of Jesus in this Gospel, the kingdom is imminent, but not yet arrived; however, signs of its imminence break in to the present times as a demonstration and proof of its nearness. The ministry of Jesus is set at the end of the first age; the second age will commence very shortly with the triumphant return of Jesus after his death, within the lifetime of his disciples (10:23; 16:28; 24:34).

There is no real sense in this Gospel of the notion that the kingdom had already arrived and was present on the earth, though it can be seen in the ministry of Jesus (12:28), and in the continuation of his ministry by his followers after his death. Jesus and the disciples both preach that the kingdom of heaven is near, or at hand (4:17; 7:21–22; 9:35; 10:7), but it has not yet established itself on earth.

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). Before the coming of the Son of Man, it remains hidden and mysterious (13:31–33, 44–45), too small to be observed, but the day is coming when it will grow and become the “greatest of all things”, and the righteousness of God will triumph.

The promise of the coming age

On Jesus’ return as the Son of Man, the promised kingdom will be established for the faithful people of God. At this time, God will cleanse the earth of evil; Matthew’s Gospel emphasises the fate of the unrighteous as being the place of eternal punishment (25:46), where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42, 49; 22:14; 25:30). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/06/darkness-weeping-and-gnashing-of-teeth-the-scene-of-judgement-matt-22/

Much of the view of the eschaton and the judgement it entails reflected in this Gospel is dependent on prophetic texts such as Ezek 32:7; Joel 2:10–11; Zeph 1:14–15; Dan 7:13; as well as parts of Trito-Isaiah (Isa 56–66) and 1 Enoch.

Matthew’s Jesus states that the exact day of these events is not known (24:42), but its arrival will be heralded by cosmic tribulations (24:7), and the Son of Man will be the judge on that day (7:21; 13:41; 16:27; 24:30–31, 44; 25:31–46), separating the righteous from the unrighteous. The righteous shall enter the kingdom with God, the unrighteous will be cast into outer darkness and fire (5:20–22; 13:40–42; 25:30, 41).

The reference to the resurrection of the saints (found only at Matt 27:52–54) strengthens the eschatological interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus as the revelation of God’s Son. Though the kingdom has not been established in its fullness, nonetheless God has broken in to the world in a way that can only be equated with the end of time.

Matthew here has Jesus drawing on the tradition of Ezekiel, a text which assumed importance in Jewish apocalyptic literature, with references to an earthquake (Matt 27:52; Ezek 37:12), the opening of graves occurs (Matt 27:52; Ezek 37:12), a resurrection (Matt 27:52; Ezek 37:12) after which the risen saints enter into the Holy city, or Israel (Matt 27:53; Ezek 37:12). This reworking of the ancient prophecy underlines the sense of hope in God, even in the face of death.

Discipleship as active waiting

The form of discipleship that is required in such an apocalyptic context is to remain faithful, awaiting the return of Jesus (the parousia). There is some evidence of concern within the community that the delay of the return of Jesus may have given rise to tension, especially if those who actually knew Jesus were dead or few in number.

The text indicates that at least some of the community expected the parousia to arrive and vindicate them very soon; its non-appearance may have affected the faith of members or influenced others to leave the community. That is the issue which undergirds the chapter of the Gospel that appears in our lectionary this Sunday, and on the two following Sundays. The parables are told to foster a sense of active waiting.

Two parables contain specific warnings about this delay (24:45–51; 25:1–13); the second of these is unique to Matthew, and we encounter it in the lectionary this coming Sunday. It indicates that active waiting involves making wise decisions, persisting tenaciously in hope for what lies in the future. The wise virgins are commended: “those who were ready went with him [the bridegroom] into the wedding banquet” (25:10). The foolish virgins are rejected by Jesus: “truly I tell you, I do not know you” (25:12).

Similar warnings occur in other parables drawn from the Q tradition: the parable of the banquet (22:1–14), which we have read some weeks back; and the well-known parable of the talents (25:14–30), which appears next Sunday, in which the master commends his two “good and trustworthy slaves” with the words, “you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (25:21,23). By contrast, the third slave is condemned as worthless: “throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:30).

These parables all advocate active waiting as the desired form of discipleship. Being faithful to the way of Jesus means being ready for his coming, prepared for the kingdom. The message is driven home by the contrasting pairs: wise virgins, foolish virgins; trustworthy slaves, worthless slave”.

Chapter 25 comes to a rousing conclusion with perhaps the most famous parable of Jesus from this Gospel, the parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46). The parable uses the same contrasting pair: the sheep are the righteous, the goats are the wicked, those without law.

Faithful discipleship is following the teachings of Jesus in the time of active waiting–adhering to righteous-justice in all of life. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

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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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Invasion and colonisation, Joshua 3 and contemporary Australia

This coming Sunday, the lectionary offers us a passage from Joshua (3:7-17). It is the one and only time, in the three years of the lectionary, that we are invited to read from this book.

Joshua as history?

The story from Joshua tells, in a highly stylised way, of the entry of the people of God into the promised land. It is a key incident in the extended narrative history that stretches from Genesis to 1 Kings, recounting slavery in Egypt, the redemptive moment of Exodus, the giving of the Law, the long haul of wilderness wanderings, the battles waged to capture the land under the Judges, and the ultimate vindication of the establishment of the kingdom of Israel under King David.

Of course, it didn’t actually happen like this. For one thing, the book of Joshua is almost universally considered to be a wonderfully embellished and highly stylised narrative constructed by the priests in the sixth century BCE, as they prepared to lead exiled people of Israel in their return to the land from which they had been removed.

The book as a whole is marked by the schematic structuring that was so characteristic of priestly narratives. Structure and order was central to their style (see the various genealogies in various books of Hebrew scripture; the regular identifications of dates and locations; the repeated phrases throughout the “seven days” of Gen 1:1-2:3; the structure of the whole of the book of Numbers, as well as Joshua; and the repeated formulaic assessment of various kings in 1 Ki 11:6, 11:19, 14:22, 15:5, 15:11, 15:26, 15:34, 16:7, etc).

For another thing, we know that the division of Israel into the twelve tribes (3:12), so important in the story that the priests of Israel tell about the nation, was a later ideological construction of the priestly story-tellers—there were no neatly schematised tribes at the time of this incident.

And, of course, the whole story of Exodus, liberation, wilderness and conquest, is beset by multiple historical problems. There is no evidence in the records of the Egyptians about the escape of a large crowd of slaves, not any record of the destruction of the Egyptian Army in the Red Sea. There are no remains in the wilderness between Egypt and Israel that suggest that such a large crowd was travelling, for many years, through the desire—no remains of campsites, no graves of deceased people. And there is no archaeological evidence that correlates the biblical record of the capture of Jericho and other cities in the land. All we have is the story told in the Bible.

The form of the story we have was written down quite some centuries from when the event is alleged to have taken place. It serves an ideological purpose, as exiled people prepare to return to the land. As the 5th century exiles enter the land, the story of the wandering tribes entering the land centuries before provides encouragement and inspiration.

So it is not the historical reliability of this incident itself that is to the fore as the story is told. What we, in the post-Enlightenment era, understand to be “history”, is very different from the way that “history” was understood in the time when the story was written.

Joshua as saga

Rather than history, the narrative offers us a saga that invites us into a creative, thoughtful pondering of the story. It offers the people of Israel, exiles returning from Babylon, hope and assurance for their future. The best question we can ask of this story, is not, “did this actually happen?”, but rather, “what does this story offer to us, today?”

Central in the story is the ark of the covenant. The story tells of the time at Mount Sinai when God established a covenant with Moses and Israel, and the giving of the Law within that covenant relationship. The ark is a sign of the presence of God, continuing on with the people of Israel beyond Mount Sinai (Exod 25:10-22). God is not an absentee God, but very present amongst the people. The ark symbolises and reinforces that message.

The priests serve to mediate the presence of God. They carry the ark of the covenant, maintaining it, ensuring that it remains safe (Deut 10:8, 31:9, 25-26; Josh 3:3, 6, 8, 13). The story offers an indication that holy people are necessities in life; their mediation of the divine in the midst of the mundane is important. (As an ordained person, I confess that I have a vested interest in this claim!) As the priests shape the story, they make sure that priests play a central role in what is narrated.

Joshua as testimony to faith

The story contains a memorable description of God as “the living God” (3:10). The phrase appears elsewhere in a Hebrew Scriptures (Deut 5:26, 1 Sam 17:26, 36, 2 Kings 19:4, 16, Pss 42:2, 84:2, Isa 37:4,17, Jer 10:10, 23:36, Dan 6:20, 26, Hos 1:10) and also in the New Testament (Matt 16:16, 26:63, Acts 14:15, Rom 9:26, 2 Cor 3:3, 6:16, 1 Thess 1:9, 1 Tim 3:15, 4:10, Heb 3:13, 4:12, 9:14, 10:31, 12:22, Rev 7:2). The ark is a sign that this living God is present, active and engaged in the lives of the people.

A striking event demonstrates this: as the priests stand in the river, the waters stand still (3:16), and so the people are able to cross the river and enter the land. Of course, later on in Joshua, another miraculous event takes place, as the sun stands still (10:13). These were not actual events, but symbolic of divine intervention.

We might well compare the New Testament story of the earthquake and resurrection of the saints (found only in Matt 27) after the resurrection of Jesus. This, too, was not an historical event; it was a dramatic tale told to underline that God was active in the story.

The key aspect of the story of the escape from Egypt, as the story is found in Exodus 14-15, is the connection with the Feast of the Passover. The story that is attached to the Exodus actually serves a liturgical purpose; the priests have developed the story to reinforce and highlight the way that God was able to redeem the people—as in the story, so in the experience of the returning exiles.

Likewise, the key aspect of this story of the entry into the land, in Joshua 3, is not the actual physical wading across the river, but the assurance of faith that comes from the telling of the story of entering the land. God is not only the redeemer, who delivers the people into freedom, but the one who delivers the land to the people. The promise of the gift of land, first made to Abraham (Gen 12:1, 15:7, 17:8), then reiterated to Jacob (Gen 28:4,13, 35:12) and again to Moses (Exod 3:8,17, 6:4,8, 12:25, 13:5,11), is now coming to fulfilment.

Joshua as military victory

Indeed, the crossing of the river itself points to the symbolism that this story contributes to the overarching narrative. Leaving Egypt, the Lord God parts the waters, the people pass through, the army is bogged and drowned, and their escape from Egypt is secure. Entering Canaan, the Lord God once again stops the flow of the waters, the priests who carried the ark of the covenant enable the people to cross the river and enter the land, and their hold on the land is made secure. Josh 4:19-24 draws this comparison quite explicitly.

The parallel continues in the strong militaristic element, found in the list of the peoples whom “the living God who without fail will drive out from before you”. The text specifies “the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites” (3:10). Even before the battles are waged, the victories have been declared. This also provides a neat bookend: the army of Egypt is crushed in Exodus 15, the inhabitants of the land are subdued and defeated in Joshua 3.

What follows on from this story of entering the land is a highly schematic presentation of the military conquest of the land, in the rest of the book of Joshua. The invaders take the key areas in turn: first the Central area (chs. 6-8), then the Southern regions (chs. 9-10) followed by the Northern areas (ch 11). Chapter 12 then provides a summary of the conquest, listing “the kings of the lands whom the Israelites defeated”—a kind of victor’s gloating, “thirty one kings in all” (Josh 3:24).

The story of taking control of the land is then followed by a parallel schematic account of the allotment of the land to each of the tribes. The Transjordan (the land to the east of the Jordan River) is allotted in ch. 13; the Central regions in chs. 14-17; and then the peripheral regions to the north and south in chs. 18-19. Chapter 20 details the allocation of the five “cities of refuge”, whilst chapter 21 identifies the forty-eight towns which were allotted to the tribe of Levi, from which the priests came.

None of these are historical accounts. The schematic ordering carries symbolic weight, rather than being an historical account. Indeed, the twelve tribes of Israel were a later construction by the compiler of the narrative, rather than being an actual organisational principle at the time of any such conquest.

And even as the list of conquered peoples are identified, the savagery of this glorious moment is revealed. The memorial stones provide a reminder of the event (Josh 4:1-10), a reminder of the power of the invading force as they colonise the settled inhabitants of the land. We hear the story from the perspective of the victorious invaders—the people of Israel. The dispossession and death of so many Canaanites is simply “collateral damage” in this process.

Joshua and Israel, Britain and Australia, and the indigenous perspective

This is a story of land, invasion, massacre, colonisation, and victory. It is an ancient story which resonates strongly with the experience of indigenous peoples in the modern era of history. Time and time again, from late medieval times onwards, “explorers” set out from Western powers, “discovered” new lands, followed by “settlers” who came and established “civilisation”, most often by means of “subduing” the indigenous peoples, making them subservient to the “new order”—and even, in many instances, punishing those who resisted their new ways, even utilising means of killing the indigenous peoples.

This is the dynamic of the story of “Israel entering the promised land” which is told in Joshua, as well as the story of “establishing British civilisation in the land of Australia” which is the story of our own continent. The imposition of a new way of living by a more powerful force, the subjugation of those who already were living in the land, and the use of violence and murder to ensure that the new order was maintained and could flourish—all of this is in the history of Australia since 1788.

The story of invasion and settlement, defeat and decline, resonates with the contemporary Australian experience of the indigenous peoples of the continent and its islands. Which gives us pause for thought: how, then, do we hear and understand that story recounted in Joshua?

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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