In Jewish tradition, there are seven women identified as prophets (Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther). Concerning Huldah, we know of only one of her prophetic acts, when she gave advice to King Josiah (2 Kings 22–23; see also 2 Chron 34).
However, this single piece of advice was extremely important; it guided Josiah to undertake the thoroughgoing reforms of religion in Judah that characterised his reign. “Josiah took away all the abominations from all the territory that belonged to the people of Israel, and made all who were in Israel worship the Lord their God. All his days they did not turn away from following the Lord the God of their ancestors” (2 Chron 24:33).
Huldah’s husband, Shallum, had a prominent position in the royal court. He was the keeper of the king’s wardrobe (Jer 34:5); he therefore had daily access to the king and was able to meet him in relative privacy. He was better placed than most to talk with the king and advise him. Huldah was therefore among the inner circle surrounding King Josiah.
According to rabbinic tradition, Huldah was a relative of Jeremiah (Megillah 14b). The last thing said in Hebrew scripture about Rahab and Joshua is that “Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, Joshua spared; her family has lived in Israel ever since” (Josh 6:25). The rabbis, however, maintain that Joshua and Rahab married, and that their descendants included Hilkiah, Jeremiah, Huldah, Seraiah, Mahseiah, Baruch, and Ezekiel. That’s quite a family!
The significance of Huldah is that it was she, a woman, who was consulted by the king, and she, a female prophet, whose guidance led to a pivotal reform in Judah. Claude Mariottini writes that “Huldah’s oracle is significant because she is the only woman prophet who proclaimed a message about future events. She begins her speech, like the other male prophets, claiming that her words were the words of God: ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel.’ This expression is the messenger formula that was used by the Old Testament prophets to introduce their oracles. As a prophet, Huldah saw herself as a messenger of God set apart to speak in God’s name.” (see https://claudemariottini.com/2013/09/17/huldahs-oracle/)
Josiah reigned from 640 to 609 BCE, with the reforms noted above taking place during the late 620’s. What drove the reforms was the discovery, in the midst of the restoration of the Temple, of an ancient book of the Law, at the bottom of a money chest that had recently been raided to pay for renovations to the Temple (2 Ki 22:8–10). The book set out the requirements of the Law; Josiah panics because he realises that the nation has not been faithful to the covenant, and that God will punish them.
Josiah repents in contrition, consults with Huldah, and then implements extensive reforms. Many scholars believe that the book referred to in 2 Kings 22 could well have been what we know as a Deuteronomy, which literally means “second law”. This book was supposed to have been lost during the wholesale destruction of anything to do with worship of the Lord God, from the previous two kings, who were hostile to worship of Yahweh during their reigns.
Did the fact that the consultation with Huldah is reported without any “excuses” or “explanation” mean that there were female prophets at the royal court, as a matter of regular practice? The group that came with Kimg Josiah included the priest Hilkiah, two men identified as “Shaphan the Secretary and the king’s servant Asaiah”, as well as the sons of Shaphan and Micaiah, obviously another court official. This was an impressive group of high-status people.
The excerpt from chapters 11 and 12 of the letter to the Hebrews, offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday, concludes a long chapter of forty verses, providing a long list of the many witnesses who have lived their lives by faith. There was is a reference to Abraham and Sarah in the section we heard last week, but there is also mention of Abel and Enoch, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, Joshua and Rahab, Gideon and Barak, Samson and Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets—people who lived through many adventures, women who were faithful throughout their lives, martyrs who met an early death and rulers who bore responsibility for leading a nation.
These people are all drawn from the pages of our shared scriptures, the “heroes of the faith” from the stories of the Hebrew people. The excerpt offered this coming Sunday by the lectionary (Heb 11:29–12:2) canvasses many examples of faith, culminating in the opening verses of chapter 12, where the final example of faith which we are offered is the most familiar figure: “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2).
Faith, it is stated, is about what we cannot see, and what is not immediately evident in tangible ways when we look around us. We cannot point to an object, and claim: “there it is”. We cannot hold up a particular item, and say: “look at it ..? do you see it?” Because faith, in the end, is about what we value inside ourselves; it is about the qualities we hold dear, the principles by which we live.
And yet, in the stories offered in this reading, we are invited to consider what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews described as something which is “hoped for, but not seen”. This is a real thing, there is no doubt about it; but it cannot be documented or measured in specific, physical, tangible ways. It points us to something different, something other, than the obvious reality in front of our eyes. Faith, in the understanding of the author of this letter, invites us to look at the world in a different way; to perceive reality in a new fashion; to consider the evidence from an unfamiliar angle.
And in the story of Jesus, that faith becomes tangible, visible, knowable—a story filled with many details, a multitude of scenes, encounters, teachings, travels—all providing material that enable us to perceive of Jesus as a real, tangible human being, a fine example of faith.
Three images of Jesus dominate the extended sermon which we know as the epistle to the Hebrews: Jesus as the pioneer of salvation, the great high priest, and the perfecter of faith.
These images are combined at key points (2:8b–11a; 5:7–10; 12:1–2), as they are developed in an interconnected fashion throughout the book. Their common point is the author’s focus on the death of Jesus on the cross (2:9; 5:7–8; 12:2). It is this “suffering of death” which transforms Jesus from his state of being “lower than the angels” to being “crowned with glory and honour” (2:9).
In his death, Jesus is the “pioneer of salvation” (2:10) who “endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (12:2). Through his death, Jesus “brings many children to glory” and is made “perfect through sufferings” (2:10). This image recurs in the claim that Jesus was made perfect after “he learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8–9; see also 7:28; 12:2). It is this claim which undergirds the call for believers to “go on toward perfection” (6:1; see also 10:14; 11:40; 12:23).
The image of Jesus as the perfecter of faith is also related to the third image, of Jesus as the great high priest (4:14; 7:11). This image is firmly grounded in his humanity. Jesus shares “flesh and blood” with God’s children (2:14) and became like these humans “in every respect” (2:17). He has been “tested as we are” (4:15) and is chosen to be priest from among mortals (5:1, 5).
Yet this image also allows a place for the transcendent nature of Jesus. When he is designated high priest according to “the order of Melchizedek” (5:10; 6:20), Jesus is understood to be the high priest who has “passed through the heavens” (4:14) and is “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (7:26).
As Jesus is seated at God’s right hand (8:1), he is able to enter into the holy place of “the greater and perfect tent” (9:11–12) to offer the sacrifice which “makes perfect those who approach” (10:1, 14). This sacrifice brings the process of sanctification to a head (13:12; see also 2:11; 9:13–14; 10:10, 14, 29) and enables believers to “approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:19–22).
Paradoxically, Jesus both stands in the place of the priest slaughtering the sacrificial beast (2:17; 3:1; 5:1–6; 6:20; 7:26–28; 8:3; 10:12) and simultaneously lies on the altar as the one whose blood is being shed (9:11–14; 9:26; 10:19; 12:24; 13:20). Although the details of the imagery are confused, there is a consistently firm assertion developed through this image: Jesus is the assurance of salvation (2:10; 5:9; 10:22).
A sense of hope thus permeates the sermon, with references to “the full assurance of hope” (6:11), the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain” (6:19), “the confession of our hope” (10:23) which is undergirded with the assurance that it is offered by God, for “he who has promised is faithful”. (See other references to hope at 3:6; 6:18; 11:1.) It is the work of the high priest which brings believers “a better hope” (7:19) and assures them of their salvation—“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22).
Throughout the sermon, the author of Hebrews presses his audience to live a moral life in response to this message, beginning with an opening exhortation which warns of penalties if the message is not heeded (2:1– 4). This warning is intensified by references to God’s anger in response to “an evil, unbelieving heart” (3:7–12), leading to the directive to “exhort one another every day” (3:13). In his capacity as high priest, Jesus has “passed through the heavens”, resulting in a further encouragement, “let us approach the throne of grace with boldness” (4:14–16).
More practical guidance regarding the behaviour which is expected of believers is set out in succinct commands: “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another’ (10:24–25); “pursue peace with everyone…see to it…that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble” (12:14–17). A more extensive list of instructions appears in the final series of exhortations which close the sermon (13:1–19). These exhortations are delivered in a sharp, staccato style, one after the other, in short, sharp bursts.
By contrast, a distinctive and well-loved feature of Hebrews is the lengthy paean in praise of “so great a cloud of witnesses” (11:1–12:1), in which each attest to a vibrant faith in God. The poem, as we have noted, offers many examples of faith from amongst this cloud of witnesses, culminating in
Jesus, through whom “God provided something better” (11:40).
By his entrance into the heavenly realm, Jesus has been proven “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2), an exalted status similar to earlier descriptions of him as “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (3:1), “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (4:14), “the mediator of a new covenant” which offers “the promised eternal inheritance” (9:15).
The hope of these witnesses points to the deeds of Jesus, which provide the motivation for the lyrical exhortation which draws this section to a close: “therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed” (12:12–13).
As Sarah and Abraham travelled this journey, as pilgrim people; as Moses and the people escaped slavery and trod the long wilderness path to Canaan; as people conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, quenched raging fire, endured so, so many battles; as people were tortured, suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment, were stoned to death and were killed by the sword; as others were persecuted and tormented; and as Jesus “endured the cross, disregarding its shame”, so we also are invited to travel in similar manner – on a journey into the future, a journey infused with hope, a journey grounded in faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, which was their fundamental resource for life. And so may it be for us.
Continuing my series of blogs on the prophets: today, Jeremiah, who was called to be a prophet at an early age (Jer 1:4–10). Some commentators consider him to be in his early 20s, while others note that the distinctive Hebrew word used in this passage indicates he was in his teens. When he heard God declare to him, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations”, the NRSV translation says that the young man replied, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (1:6).
Actually, when they say he replied, “Ah”, he was using a Hebrew word that actually means “alas” or “woe is me” (see also 4:10; 14:13: 32:17; and also Joel 1:15). Strong’s Concordance says this is “a primitive word expressing pain”—so, more like “ouch!!!” So perhaps it’s better to think of his response as more like “oh no, oh no, oh nooooo—I couldn’t possibly do that! no way at all!!”. Jeremiah just did not want this gig at all. See my sermon on this passage at
Yet Jeremiah faithfully carried out the task committed to him; it is thought that he was active from the mid-620s in Judah, through into the time of exile in Babylon, from 587 BCE onwards—that is, over four decades—although Jeremiah himself was exiled, not into Babylon, but into Egypt (Jer 43:1–7).
The task he was given when called to be a prophet was to declare the coming judgment of God on the people of Israel, for continuing to ignore their covenant commitments. The Lord tells him, “I will utter my judgments against them, for all their wickedness in forsaking me; they have made offerings to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hands” (1:16). As encouragement, he urges the young man to “gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you” (1:17).
Jeremiah proclaims both God’s judgement and God’s hope for repentance by the people. This dual focus appears in God’s instructions to Jeremiah “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow” but also “to build and to plant” (1:10). In his later years, in solidarity with the people who have been “plucked up” into exile in Babylon, Jeremiah urges his people to make the best of their time in exile: “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce … seek the welfare of the city” (29:5, 7). Many centuries later, a clear allusion to that same oracle is made by Simeon as he meets the infant Jesus: “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34).
The overall progression of the book is chronological, as it begins with the call of Jeremiah (ch.1) and ends with an account of the destruction of Jerusalem (ch.52). Nevertheless, the arrangement of the book is more topical overall, rather than chronological, since oracles on the same topic are grouped together even though they may have been delivered at different times. There are various theories as to how the book was put together; most scholars believe that someone after the lifetime of Jeremiah has brought together material from collections that were originally separate.
Indeed, A.R. Pete Diamond concludes that “like it or not, we have no direct access to the historical figure of Jeremiah or his cultural matrix”; we have “interpretative representations rather than raw cultural transcripts”, and thus he argues that the way we read this book should be informed by insights from contemporary literary theory, and especially by reading this book alongside the book of Deuteronomy, as it offers a counterpoint to the Deuteronomic view of “the myth of Israel and its patron deity, Yahweh” (Jeremiah, pp. 544–545 in the Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, 2003). Whereas Deuteronomy advocates a nationalistic God, Jeremiah conceives of an international involvement of Israel’s God.
The chronological disjunctures can be seen when we trace the references to various kings of Judah: in order, we have Josiah in 627 BCE (Jer 1:2), jumping later to Zedekiah in 587 BCE (21:1), then back earlier to Shallum (i.e. Jehoahaz) in 609 BCE (22:11), Jehoiakim from 609 to 598 BCE (22:18), and Jeconiah in 597 BCE (22:24), before returning to Zedekiah in 597 BCE (24:8) then back even earlier to Jehoiakim in April 604 BCE, “the first year of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon” (25:1)—and then further haphazard leaps between Zedekiah (chs. 27, 32-34, 37–38, and 51:59) and Jehoiakim (chs. 26, 35, 45) as well as the period in 587 after the fall of Jerusalem when Gedaliah was Governor (chs. 40–44). It is certainly an erratic trajectory if we plot the historical landmarks!
The topical arrangement is easier to trace: 25 chapters of prophecies in poetic form about Israel, 20 chapters of narrative prose, and six chapters of prophecies against foreign nations. Early in the opening chapters, as Jeremiah prophesies against Israel, he reports that God muses, “you have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (3:1). The idolatry and injustices practised by the people of Israel have caused God concern. Throughout the poetry of the prophetic oracles in chapters 1—25, God cajoles, encourages, warns, and threatens the people.
“I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful” (3:13), the Lord says; then Jeremiah instructs the people, “put on sackcloth, lament and wail: ‘the fierce anger of the Lord has not turned away from us’” (4:8). Next, God says, “I am now making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall devour them” (5:14), and then, “take warning, O Jerusalem, or I shall turn from you in disgust, and make you a desolation, an uninhabited land” (6:8), and so on, for 25 chapters.
Whilst God laments the “perpetual backsliding” of the people, who “have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return” (8:5), the prophet laments, “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (8:18–22). As Jeremiah denounces their worship of idols (10:1–16) and breaches of the covenant (11:1–17), his life is placed in danger: “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter, and I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes” (11:18–20).
Others prophesying are condemned by God; “they are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them; they are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds” (14:13–18). The prophet dramatises his message of divine judgement on the people with reference to the familiar image of the potter, shaping and moulding the clay (18:1–11), a broken earthenware jug (19:1–15), two baskets of figs (one bunch good, the other inedible; 24:1–10), and “the cup of the wine of wrath” which, when “all the nations to whom I send you drink it, they shall drink and stagger and go out of their minds because of the sword that I am sending among them” (25:15–38).
The punishment that is coming to Israel is a cause of great grief for Jeremiah, and so he is sometimes known as “the weeping prophet” (see 9:1; 13:17; 22:10). He doesn’t sit easy with the terrors associated with the execution of God’s justice in the nation—perhaps we can resonate with the angst of this ancient figure?
The most common criticism that I hear of Old Testament passages is about the terrible violence of the vengeful God—an element of Israelite religion that seems quite at odds with so much of modern sensibilities. Jeremiah gives a clear and potent expression to this image, when he has Jeremiah report that God says, “I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and mighty arm, in anger, in fury, and in great wrath. And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both human beings and animals; they shall die of a great pestilence” (21:5–6).
A number of passages in the first main section of this book are seen to reflect this angst about a powerful, vengeful God—they are often called “Jeremiah’s confessions”, as he confesses his pain and grief to God, and prays for a release from his condition (see 11:18–23; 12:1–6; 15:10–14; 15:15–21; 17:14–18; 18:18–23; 20:7–12; 20:14–18). These “confessions” share stylistic and thematic similarities with the “psalms of lament”, such as Pss 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 86, and 90 (psalms of communal lament), and Pss 3, 6, 13, 22, 25, 31, 71, 77, 86, and 142 (psalms of individual lament).
“Woe is me”, or “woe to us”, is a common phrase in Jeremiah’s oracles (4:13; 4:31; 6:4; 10:19; 13:27; 15:10; 22:13; 23:1; 45:3; 48:46). It is the same term that we found in Isaiah’s call (Isa 6:5) and oracles (Isa 24:16), Hosea’s declarations (7:13; 9:12), Micah’s prophecies (Mic 7:1), and Ezekiel’s utterances (Ezek 13:18; 16:23; 24:6, 9). All lament the imposition of divine justice in ways that wreak havoc amongst the people.
Jeremiah conveys the specific timetable of God’s judgement in explicit announcements: first, “the whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (25:11); then, “after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, making the land an everlasting waste” (25:12).
The result of this is conveyed in another oracle, when God declares, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply” (23:3). The end result, it seems, will be positive; but the process of journeying to that desired end will be difficult, to say the least.
The seventy years noted in these prophecies (25:11–12) has occasioned some debate amongst the scholars: was this a prediction of exact years, an approximation of the length of time of the exile, or a symbolic statement, typical of biblical numbers, which should not be taken literally? (such as, 40 years means “a long time”, 1,000 means “very many”, seven means “complete” or “fulfilled”, and so on).
Many conservative commentators (and especially Seven Day Adventists) who take biblical texts literally, spend much time and ink in wrestling with this issue! One such commentary or, for instance, notes that, if this is an exact period of 70 years, it could be: (a) from the initial attack of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon against Jerusalem in 605 BCE, to the return of the Jews under Cyrus of Persia in 536 BCE; or (b) from the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE to the completion of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem in 516 BCE.
He continues by noting that some scholars claim that “these years were in actuality shortened by God’s mercy, since when one works backwards from 539 B.C. (the occasion of the capture of Babylon), it is obvious that none of the traditional starting dates—605 B.C., 597 B.C., or 587/86 B.C.—provides a time period of exactly seventy years”. Some other suggestions include that “these years represent a lifetime, since Ps 90:10 presents seventy years as a normal human lifespan”, or that “the expression [is] simply a term that referred to the period of desolation for a nation”, as it is used in that way in an Esarhaddon inscription concerning Babylon. (Ross E. Winkle, in an article in Andrews University Seminary Studies, 1987, vol. 25 no. 2, pp. 201–202)
Jeremiah invites our consideration in a number of ways. He continues the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. He begins a development which sees the role of Israel’s God as stretching beyond the bounds of Israel. He expresses personal emotional angst with regard to the aggressive, power-based actions of God. And, as we shall see next week,
This week and next, the lectionary leads us into distinctive and well-loved feature of Hebrews: a lengthy paean in praise of “so great a cloud of witnesses” (11:1–12:1), in which each witness attests to a vibrant faith in God.
The author begins this paean (a song of praise) with a tightly-worded definition of faith, using complex technical terms which were used in philosophical discussions: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen … what is seen was made from things that are not visible” (11:1–3); after the consideration of numerous instances of such faith, the section moves to a climactic vision of Jesus as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:1–2).
The language of 11:1–3 is most unlike Paul’s usual terminology—one of the clear clues that undermine the claim that Paul wrote this letter. That claim, made by some patristic writers, debunked by others, cannot be substantiated. This is an anonymous work by an unknown writer. See
Whoever wrote this letter—described at the end as a word of exhortation (13:22)—accorded great value to scripture (the works that we have collected as the Old Testament in our Bibles). In arguing the case for Jesus to be seen “as much superior to the angels as the name he inherited is more excellent than theirs [the prophets]” (1:3), the author initially draws from a number of psalms to make the point (1:5–13).
In subsequent sections, we find that the author discusses Ps 8 (Heb 2:5–18); compares Jesus with Moses using Num 12 and Ps 95 (Heb 3:1–19); combines two psalms (Ps 2:7 and 110:4) to identify Jesus as “high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 4:14–5:10); and then returns to the story of Melchizedek from Gen 14, linked with Ps 110 (Heb 6:13–7:28).
In a lengthy discussion of the priestly role of Jesus (Heb 8:1–9:28), Lev 26 and Jer 31 are considered; in a further discussion (Heb 10:1–39), Ps 40 is canvassed, along with Jer 31 once again, and the famous prophetic assertion, “my righteous one will live by faith” (Hab 2:3–4, cited at Heb 10:37–38; we find it also at Rom 1:17 and Gal 3:11). See emails at
Such faith is expounded with a series of lyrical descriptions of the faith of numerous scriptural figures—Abel, Enoch and Noah (11:4–7), Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (11:8–12, 17–21), Moses, the people at the Red Sea, and Rahab (11:22–31), judges, prophets and kings (11:32–34), and many others (11:35–38). Each of these figures shared the same fate: “they were strangers and foreigners on the earth” who “desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one”, and yet they each “died in faith without having received the promises” (11:13–16; see also 11:39).
Faith is described as something which is “hoped for, but not seen” (11:1). Such faith is a real thing, there is no doubt about it; but it cannot be documented or measured in specific, physical, tangible ways. It points us to something different, something other, than the obvious reality in front of our eyes. Faith, in the understanding of the author of this letter, invites us to look at the world in a different way; to perceive reality in a new fashion; to consider the evidence from an unfamiliar angle.
The portrayal of the figures of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob in this reading is striking: “they confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth … they made it clear that they were seeking a homeland” (11:13–14).
In other words, as they looked at the people and the places where they were living, these ancient people of faith held out a firm hope for the ultimate goal that lay beyond where they found themselves at that time. In the end, they were not going to be bound by the restraints and demands of the immediate, observable present. They had a faith which swept beyond the immediate; for their faith was in the promise that God had extended to them.
Sarah, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham: each could look at their neighbours, and see the dislocation, hurts, and needs of their society. But as they looked at their neighbours, they were able to grasp the ways in which they might change those situations; they sensed the ways in which they might offer compassionate hope, and begin to transform their companions.
In other words, they looked with the eyes of faith; what they saw was far more than the flesh and bones, the tents and animals, in front of their eyes. They were able to see what might be; they were able to live in faith because of their belief in what was to be. They held fast to the belief that there was “a heavenly country”, and that God had “prepared a city for them” (11:16). It was this faith, in what God was calling them to do, and to be, which motivated and sustained them in their journeys through life. They were future-oriented people, partifipating in a pilgrimage towards a future goal.
Indeed, this view of things has been at the heart of the identity of the Uniting Church, over the four decades since it was formed. In the Basis of Union, the Uniting Church is described as “a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come.” This attitude of openness and expectation towards the future is one that runs throughout many of the paragraphs of the Basis of Union. It is at the heart of who were are as a church; it is the essence of our DNA as a community of faith.
The same attitude of openness towards the future is also articulated at the very end of the Basis of Union, in the final paragraph: “The Uniting Church affirms that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end. The Uniting Church prays that, through the gift of the Spirit, God will constantly correct that which is erroneous in its life, will bring it into deeper unity with other Churches, and will use its worship, witness and service to God’s eternal glory through Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.”
This positive and hopeful orientation towards the future resonates with what we read in the word of exhortation of Hebrews, concerning the people of faith from past eras. To return to Sarah and Abraham: “If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return” (11:15), the writer warns. But they were not fixated onto the past; rather, they were oriented towards the future. It was not the land they had left, which motivated them; it was the promise of what was to come, that guided them. That was the essence of their faith.
As Sarah and Abraham travelled this journey, as pilgrim people, so we also are invited to travel in similar manner – on a journey into the future, a journey infused with hope, a journey grounded in faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, which was their fundamental resource for life. And so may it be for us.
In the lectionary, the next two Sundays include passages from the prophet Isaiah—namely, the opening oracle (1:1, 10–20) this Sunday, and the story of the vineyard and its failure to produce good fruit (5:1–7). So, in the course on The Prophets that Elizabeth and I are teaching, we come to Isaiah.
We are considering the book of Isaiah in three parts, as most scholars believe that these three sections originate from three different periods during the history of Israel. The first section (chs. 1–39) is located in Judah in the eighth century BCE, as the final decades of the northern kingdom of Israel play out. Two decades after conquering the north, the Assyrians attempted to gain control of the southern kingdom, but that effort failed. These events provide the context for the activity of Isaiah and the oracles include in chapters 1–39.
The second section of Isaiah (chs. 40–55) dates from the time of exile for the southern kingdom, after the people of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians in 587 BCE; it offers words of hope as the people look to a return to the land. Then, the third section (chs. 56–66) is dated to a time when the exiles had returned to Judah, sometime after 520 BCE. By convention, the three parts are known as Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and Trito-Isaiah.
The opening verse of the book of Isaiah says that Isaiah son of Amoz saw a vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem “in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isa 1:1). That places his prophetic activity over a period of some decades in the latter part of the 8th century BCE. Amos and Hosea had been active a little before Isaiah, but in the northern kingdom. Isaiah was a contemporary of Micah in the southern kingdom; both prophets would have known about the attacks on towns in Judah by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 (see 2 Kings 18–19; Micah 1:10–16; Isa 7:17; 8:1–4, 5–8).
Isaiah was based in the southern kingdom, and the account of his call (6:1–13) takes place in the temple in Jerusalem, for Isaiah “saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (6:1). This location, as well as a number of subsequent passages, suggest that Isaiah served as a “court prophet” to various southern kings; we see Isaiah providing prophetic advice to Ahaz (7:1–17) and Hezekiah (37:1–38; 39:1–8; 39:3–8).
The call narrative is dated quite specifically (“in the year that King Uzziah died”, 6:1), suggesting that Isaiah began his activity right at the end of Uzziah’s reign, around 740 BCE. The prophet, initially reluctant (6:5), eventually accepts the call (“here I am; send me!”, 6:8), and hears the difficult charge given to him: “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (6:9–10). It’s a charge that we hear at a number of places in the New Testament: beside the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:10) and in a house in Rome (Acts 28:26–27).
In the opening oracle (1:1–31), the prophet berates Judah as a “sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!” (1:4). Justice and righteousness have disappeared (1:21–22); the rulers “do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (1:23). The covenant with the Lord has been seriously damaged.
The main substance of this oracle involves a criticism of the worship practices in the Temple (“bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me; new moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity; your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates”, 1:10–15). Instead of these rituals, God demands that the people “wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:16–17).
The prophet indicates that God will countenance repentance and a return to the covenant: “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness” (1:27); but if there is no repentance, the familiar prophetic indication of divine punishment is heard: “rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed” (1:28). Thus, the dual themes of punishment and forgiveness are sounded early; they recur throughout the rest of this section of the book.
There are many well-known oracles in the ensuing chapters. First comes the vision of when “nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:1–4; the same oracle appears in Micah 4:1–4). Next, the concept of the faithful remnant is introduced (4:2–6; see also 10:19–23; 11:10–11, 16; 28:5).
Isaiah tells the story of the nation in God’s “love-song concerning his vineyard” (5:1–7); after “my beloved” undertakes all the activity required to establish and nurture the vineyard, only wild grapes were produced; and so, “he expected justice (mishpat) but saw bloodshed (mispach); righteousness (tsedakah) but heard a cry (seakah)” (5:7). What follows is a searing denunciation of the ills of society: the excesses of a debaucherous elite, the oppressive state of the lowly (5:8–23). As a result, the Lord threatens invasion of the land (5:24–30); “he will raise a signal for a nation far away, and whistle for a people at the ends of the earth; here they come, swiftly, speedily!” (5:26). The threat from Assyria looms large in this oracle.
There is mention made of a group of disciples of the prophet (8:16–22), as well as the children of the prophet, who serve as “signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion” (8:18). These children are named as Shear-jashub, meaning “a remnant shall return” (7:3), and Maher-shalal-hash-baz, meaning “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens” (8:3).
Both names provide testimony to the fate that lies in store for Judah: the planned attack by Assyria will fail (7:4–9), and “the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria” (8:4). The mother of these two sons, unnamed, is simply “the prophetess”, who “conceived and bore a song for Isaiah (8:3)—although married to the prophet Isaiah, might she have been a prophet in her own right?
Chapters 7–11 deal with the Assyrian threat; we know about the Assyrian interest in Israel and Judah from 2 Kings 15—20 and 2 Chronicles 28—33. These chapters of Isaiah include oracles that are well known in the church because of their Advent connection, when the lectionary offers them, inferring that they are “predictions of the coming Messiah”. Isaiah speaks of “the young woman [who] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (7:14); in context, this is a promise to king Ahaz, that God will not desert him and his people, even as they experience “such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria” (7:17). What lies in store for Judah (7:18–25) will need this assurance to help them survive it.
Then comes reference to “the “child [who] has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6), and the “shoot [which] shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots; the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him” (11:1–2). This will lead to the promised time when “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (11:6)—a wonderful Messianic prophecy.
However, in reading Isaiah, we need to banish thoughts of a Messiah to come centuries later; in each case, Isaiah was not foretelling a far-distant event, but forthtelling to the king and the people of his time. In the midst of injustice and aggression, the prophet assures Judah that, in their own time,j “the root of Jesse … will raise a signal for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (11:10–16).
Chapters 14 to 21 contain a string of oracles against other nations (Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Ethiopia, and Egypt). The destruction of Jerusalem is foreseen (22:1–25) before resuming further oracles, against Tyre (ch.23) and against the whole earth (ch.24). God’s wrath is cosmic in scope: “on that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth” (24:21). Anticipatory celebrations are reported (chs.25 to 27) before further oracles of judgement erupt, against corrupt judges, priests, and prophets (28:1–29), who have entered into a “covenant with death … [an] agreement with Sheol” (28:18).
The siege of Jerusalem is graphically described by the prophet (29:1–24) and further oracles reinforce his message: both judgement, “they are a rebellious people, faithless children, children who will not hear the instruction of the Lord” (30:9); and compassionate mercy, “the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you; for the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him” (30:18).
Foreign alliances are futile (chs. 30–31), for “a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule with justice” (32:1). Under this king, justice will prevail (chs. 33–34) and “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing” (35:1–10).
In the wonderful vision of chapter 35, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water” (35:5–7). One commentator calls this “a majestic poem on God’s final salvation of his people” which goes “beyond restoration to the land … it speaks of a restoration of all creation” (McConville, Exploring the Old Testament, vol. 4, The Prophets; SPCK, 2002, p.21).
The final scenes of the first section of the book involve Isaiah and Hezekiah, who was king from 716 to 687 BCE. Whilst most of the book comprises oracles in poetic form, chapters 36–39 are prose narratives concerning the events of around 701 BCE, when the Assyrians pressed into Judah. Isaiah provides Hezekiah with a prediction of the failure of the Assyrian assault, saying that the Lord had told him, “I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor, and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” (Isa 37:7). And so it comes to pass; Judah is saved, the future looks positive—for the moment.
The lectionary is currently taking us on a journey through various prophets found in the Old Testament. It is currently offering passages from the prophet Hosea, for last Sunday, and next Sunday. Concurrent with this, Elizabeth and I are leading a series on The Prophets, in which we cover most of the prophetic books in the OT—at least, more than are covered in the lectionary sequence.
As I’ve posted already about Amos and Hosea, and also about Micah (see the links below), this blog relates to four “minor prophets” who, like Amos, Hosea, and Micah, are labelled as “pre-exilic prophets”.
That term indicates that these four prophets—Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Obadiah—were each active in the few decades leading up to the conquering of the southern kingdom by Babylon in 587 BCE, and the removal into exile of the people as a result of that event. Obadiah is most likely to have been active just after the exiles started to leave (verses 11–14 could well refer to the fate of Jerusalem).
Each book is short; the first three have three chapters each—63 verses in Zephaniah, 56 verses in Habakkuk, and 47 verses in Nahum—whilst Obadiah has only one chapter of 21 verses. Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (in that order) are grouped together in the canon; Obadiah appears before them, coming after Amos and before Jonah and Micah. The arrangement of books amongst The Twelve (the minor prophets) is not by chronology, nor by theme; the precise reason has occasioned a still-unresolved scholarly debate.
Each book contains the prophetic rhetoric that we have met in the earlier northern kingdom prophets: calls for justice, criticism of oppressive actions, and threats of intense punishment from a wrathful God. Most of them also contain glimpses of hope.
Habakkuk says “I will stand at my watch post, and station myself at the rampart” (Hab 2:1), from where he declaims the words of judgement given to him by God: the wealthy will be called to account by their creditors, violent terrors will arise, and “the cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and shame will come upon your glory” (Hab 2:15).
Amidst these thundering pronouncements, Habakkuk does offer hope, declaring that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (2:14), and imploring the people, “the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” (2:20). He affirms that God’s “glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise” (3:3)—but that glory will swiftly lead to “the days of calamity” (3:16).
Habakkuk is best known for just one part of one verse, “the righteous live by their faith [or faithfulness]” (2:4b), for this verse stands as the text upon which Paul developed his important theological statement in Romans: “in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘the one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Rom 1:17). As well, Paul quotes this verse in his letter to the Galatians (Gal 3:11) and the verse is cited in the “word of exhortation” sent to the Hebrews (Heb 10:38).
In the context of Habakkuk’s prophetic activity, this verse is the word that God gives to the prophet, responding to his complaints about what sufferings are taking place. God is “rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation,who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own” (1:6), and through their dreadful and fearsome activities, God is “destroying nations without mercy” (1:17).
Habakkuk laments and complains; God instructs him to “look at the proud—their spirit is not right in them”, and to be assured that “the righteous live by their faith” (2:4). The theme of righteousness that is signalled here by the prophet is a central motif in Hebrew Scriptures. It appears in the ancestral stories concerning the key figures of Abraham (Gen 15:6), Saul (1 Sam 26:23), David (2 Sam 22:21–26; 1 Ki 3:6), and Solomon (1 Ki 10:9).
Further, Job exults in his righteousness (Job 27:6; 29:14) and the psalmists petition God on the basis of their righteousness (Ps 5:8; 7:8; 112:1–10). Righteousness is praised in assorted proverbs (Prov 1:3; 8:20; 11:4–6; 12:28; 15:9; 16:8; 21:3, 21) and figures in numerous prophetic oracles (Isa 1:22; 5:7; 28:17; 32:16–17; 54:14; Jer 22:3; Ezek 18:19–29; Dan 9:24; 12:3; Hos 10:12; Amos 5:24; Zeph 2:3; Mal 4:1–3). The message given to Habakkuk holds throughout Israelite history.
Nahum starts with a clear declaration: “a jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful” (Nah 1:2). He expands on this with a series of images showing how God’s power is manifested in punishments (1:3–11). Idolatry, once again, lies at the root of the problem: “Your name shall be perpetuated no longer; from the house of your gods I will cut off the carved image and the cast image; I will make your grave, for you are worthless.” (1:14).
His oracle contains a long and troubling list of “devastation, desolation, and destruction” (2:10) which is enunciated in dramatic imagery: chariots and horsemen charging, piles of dead bodies, and the debaucheries of a prostitute (3:1–4). Because of this, says God, “I will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame; I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt, and make you a spectacle” (3:5–6).
The people who are the recipients of Nahum’s words are not from Judah, for he addresses the people of Nineveh (1:1), the capital of Assyria. Assyrians had invaded the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE and conquered Thebes in 663 BCE (3:8–10); there, as in other places, they demonstrated a savage brutality. However, in 612 BCE the Assyrian dominance had given way to the new power, the Babylonians (this seems to be reflected in 3:7).
Nahum holds firm to the claim that that God will punish Nineveh: “the fire will devour you, the sword will cut you off, it will devour you like the locust” (3:15). The die is cast; “there is no assuaging your hurt, your wound is mortal” (3:19). His final words are scathing: “all who hear the news about you clap their hands over you; for who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?” (3:19).
Zephaniah also does not mince words; his opening statement is “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord” (Zeph 1:2), cataloguing a complete cosmic catastrophe. “Be silent before the Lord God, for the day of the Lord is at hand”, he exhorts (1:7). Those who complacently assert, “the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm” (1:12), will find that their trust in that mantra will be shattered, for “the great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast” (1:14).
The familiar declaration of the “day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom” (1:15) shapes the oracles that Zephaniah delivers; the prophet itemises the punishments on Israel’s enemies (2:1–15) and on Jerusalem herself (3:1–7). On “Canaan, land of the Philistines”, God declares, “I will destroy you until no inhabitant is left” (2:5). To the south-east, “Moab shall become like Sodom and the Ammonites like Gomorrah, a land possessed by nettles and salt pits, and a waste forever” (2:9).
Looking north to Assyria, Zephaniah hyperbolically claims, “what a desolation it has become, a lair for wild animals!” (2:15). In Jerusalem, corruption is rife: “the officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning; it’s prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law” (3:3–4).
Yet he ends with a declaration of hope (3:8–13) and a psalm-like celebration of the ultimate restoration which God promises: “sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (3:14), for this will be a time when “I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth … when I restore your fortunes before your eyes” (2:19–20).
The prophecy echoes what Micah, a century before him, had seen: “I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away, and those whom I have afflicted: the lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation” (Mic 4:6–7). It’s a wonderful vision!
It also resonates with Isaiah’s vision of when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Isa 35:5-6)—a passage which itself inspired the way that the ministry of Jesus could be reported: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22).
Finally, in the shortest book in the Hebrew Scriptures, Obadiah repeats the message of his contemporaries about the punishment of God; however, he has in view the people of Edom, to the south of Judah (1:1), whom God will make “least among the nations” (1:1–4). The oracle of judgement that Obadiah delivers is directed to the Edomites, who helped to capture Israelites who were fleeing when the might of the Babylonian army took control of their territory (2 Kings 24–25).
Because they share a common ancestry with Judah—the Edomites descend from Esau, the Judahites from Jacob (Gen 25:21–26, 30)—God is angered with them for not assisting the fleeing Judahites (see the repeated “you should not have …” in verses 12 to 14).
Obadiah describes the day when “strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem” (1:11), when the Edomites gloated over the misfortune of the Judahites, looted their cities, and “handed over his survivors on the day of distress” (1:12–14). For these people, too, there is “a day of the Lord” in which retribution will be enacted (1:15–16). Punishment is severe and complete: it shall be “as though they had never been” (1:16).
Yet, as with other prophetic voices, Obadiah too foresees that God will not abandon his holy people; the book ends with a short recitation of the geographical areas which are to be allotted to returning exiles, and “those who have been saved shall go up to Mount Zion to rule Mount Esau; and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s” (1:17–21). There is still hope.
Footnote: Ten of the Minor Prophets, and all four Major Prophets, appear in the Revised Common Lectionary—some of them (like Isaiah and Jeremiah) appear many times. The two Minor Prophets who miss being in the lectionary are Nahum and Obadiah. 😢
Continuing my series on the prophets in ancient Israel … this blog relates to Micah. Although this prophet offers significant passages for reflection (as noted below), no excerpts from this book appear in the Year C sequence of Hebrew Bible readings on the Prophets. (There are three excerpts at other times in the lectionary, as noted below, but none of Micah appears in the current sequence of readings from the Prophets.)
The prophet Micah is introduced in the opening chapter of the book bearing his name, as “Micah of Moresheth in the days of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah” (Mic 1:1). This places him in the second half of the 8th century BCE. As he was active in the southern kingdom, he does not directly experience the conquest and exile of people in the northern kingdom in 721 BCE, although he must have been aware of the disasters falling his countrymen to the north. His prophetic activity is thus a couple of decades after Amos and Hosea.
Indeed, the southern kingdom of Judah directly experienced a military attack from the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701, attacking several towns in Judah (see 2 Kings 18–19; Micah 1:10–16) before retreating from Jerusalem. As Micah says, “the sins of the house of Israel” (1:5) have reached down and infected the house of Judah; “her wound is incurable; it has come to Judah; it has reached to the gate of my people, to Jerusalem” (1:9, 12).
Under Hezekiah, the economic patterns in Judah changed from a reliance on barter, to an international trading society. Literacy rates rose, and the size of Jerusalem grew to be a large city with a population of around 25,000—which is considered to be about five times larger than the population of Jerusalem under Solomon!
Associated with this growth was the development of corrupt practices and the rise of hypocrisy amongst the people. The rulers in Jerusalem “give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, ‘Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us’” (3:11).
Micah, like many other prophets, conveys God’s deep concern about the way that some in society were profiting unjustly from their mistreatment of the poor. He rails against those who “covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (2:2). Their haughty demeanour will swiftly turn to lamenting, as they cry out “we are utterly ruined; the Lord alters the inheritance of my people; how he removes it from me!” (2:4).
In another oracle, he dramatises the state of the people, attacking the heads and rulers of the people as those “who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron” (3:1–3).
Micah decries their selfish actions in very specific terms: “its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money” (3:11). (This particular condemnation of leaders in Judah appears in the lectionary towards the end of the Pentecost cycle in Year A, to accompany the strident words of condemnation of the leaders of his day, uttered by Jesus in Matt 23:1–12.)
Still later, Micah remonstrates with the people for “the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is accursed” (6:10). He conveys God’s displeasure: “Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights? Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.” (6:11–12). He laments that “the faithful have disappeared from the land” (7:2); of those who are left, he says, “their hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice” (7:3).
The people are accused of following “the statutes of Omri and all the works of the house of Ahab” (6:16)—two kings who are condemned for their idolatrous and evil ways (on Omri, see 1 Ki 16:25–26; on his son Ahab, see 1 Ki 16:30, 22:37–39).
Micah, like Amos before him, declares that punishment will come on the people in a time of deep darkness: “it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation; the sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them” (2:6; cf. Amos 5:18–20). Because of the evil deeds of the heads and rulers, “Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height” (3:12).
In a future time of anger and wrath, says the prophet, God will wreak vengeance: “I will cut off your horses from among you and will destroy your chariots; and I will cut off the cities of your land and throw down all your strongholds; and I will cut off sorceries from your hand, and you shall have no more soothsayers; and I will cut off your images and your pillars from among you” (5:10–15). The disdain with which the people have treated their covenant with the Lord, described in some detail here by the prophet, will merit this savage punishment.
Although this is a short book (with only seven chapters), Micah is best known for a number of his oracles; first, the vision of universal peace that he utters: “many nations shall come and say, come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord … they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (4:1–4). This oracle is found also in Isa 2:2–4 (although because of the canonical order of books, the Isaiah oracle appears first in reading order). For an interesting discussion of “which came first, Isaiah 2 or Micah 4 ?”, see https://abramkj.com/2012/12/11/which-came-first-isaiah-or-micah-comparing-isaiah-22-4-with-micah-41-3/)
In Matthew’s Gospel, another oracle from Micah is cited: “you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel” (5:2–6; see Matt 2:6). This oracle is set in the lectionary for Advent 4 during Year C.
In the context in which Micah speaks these words, they refer to a coming ruler of Judah. In Matthew’s narrative, the prophetic word provides support for the notion that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (Matt 2:3–5; also John 7:42), which then means that the story of the birth of Jesus needs to take place in Bethlehem. Two evangelists work hard to tell stories that, in different ways, adhere to this requirement (Matt 2:1; Luke 2:4).
The third oracle of Micah which is well known appears within an extended scene that reads like a lawsuit being prosecuted in court. It begins with the charge: “rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice … for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel” (6:1–2). Then it moves through some argumentation, before the famous rhetorical question is posed: “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8). This oracle is offered by the lectionary at Epiphany 4 in Year A.
This verse has gained a life of its own; it is regularly quoted to support people of faith undertaking acts of social justice; and as you can see, it adorns a multitude of t-shirts as a succinct “quotable quote”.
The closing verses of this short book reiterate the central nature of God, in the mind of this prophet, and indeed of many of the authors of the material in the Hebrew Scriptures: “who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? [God] does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency” (7:18). This recalls the recurring scriptural refrain that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6; see also Num 14:18; Neh 9:17b; Ps 145:8–9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; as well as 2 Kings 13:23; 2 Chron 30:9).
Many scholars consider that this more hopeful ending (7:11–20), and indeed some other parts of the book, come from years well after the time of the prophet Micah (indeed, some date some oracles to a time when the exile was ending, in the 520s BCE). Yet the way the book is presented conveys the message that Micah does not give up; despite his fierce words of judgement, he inspires the people to hold on to hope.
As we follow the various readings from the Prophets during this season after Pentecost in Year C, we encounter a striking passage this coming Sunday. It contains an impassioned love poem, in the words of God, concerning the people of Israel (Hosea 11:1–11).
The poem depicts God as a human being, loving Israel as a child (11:1), calling to them (11:1–2), taking them up into God’s arms (11:3), kissing them and feeding them (11:4, showing warm and tender compassion (11:8), withholding anger (11:9), welcoming them back as they return from their wandering (11:11). God is the patient, loving, caring parent.
This is a striking passage. It confronts us in two ways: first, by depicting God in human form, and second, as it is a passage in the Old Testament which depicts God in a way that is quite different from many other passages that are often cited, where God’s anger with Israel bubbles over into aggressive punishment. I can’t count the number of times that I have heard this aspect of God used to characterise (or, indeed, caricature) the God of the Old Testament as violent and vengeful.
First, let’s consider the depiction of God in ways that indicate the deity is acting like a human being. Even thought there are clear injunctions against having any images (or idols) representing God (Exod 20:4, 23; Lev 19:4; 26:1; Num 33:50–52; Deut 5:8; 27:15; Isa 42:17), God is nevertheless portrayed in the scriptures as being human-like.
In Deuteronomy, Moses had reminded the the Israelites of what had taken place on Mount Horeb (Sinai of Exodus 19): “the Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deut 4:12). He continued, “since you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure—the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth” (Deut 4:15–18). That’s a comprehensive list of what is prohibited!
Nevertheless, at many places in Hebrew Scripture, God has eyes and ears (2 Chron 6:40; 7:15; Ps 34:15; Dan 9:18), a mouth (Deut 8:3; 2 Chron 36:12; Isa 1:20; 34:16; 40:5; 58:14; 62:2; Jer 9:12; 23:16; Mic 4:4) and nostrils (Deut 15:8; 2 Sam 22:9, 16; Ps 18:8, 15; Isa 65:5), as well as hands (Exod 9:3; 16:3; Josh 4:24; Job 12:9; Ps 75:8; Isa 5:25; Ezek 3:22) and feet (Gen 3:8; Ps 2:11–12; 18:9; Isa 63:3; Ezek 43:7; Nah 1:3; Zech 14:3–4).
God speaks (Gen 1:3; Exod 33:11; Num 22:8; Ps 50:1; Ezek 10:5; Jer 10:1; listens (Exod 16:12; Ps 4:3; 34:17; 69:33; Prov 15:29), and smells the aroma of sacrifices as smoke rises to the heavens (Gen 8:21; Lev 1:13, 17; 2:2, 9; 3:5, 11, 16; 4:10, 31; 6:15; 8:21; 17:6; cf. Lev 26:31). God even whistles (Isa 7:18) and shaves (Isa 7:20)!
This depiction of God in human form is despite the polemic of Psalm 115, which derides idols as “the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats.” (Ps 115:4–7; see also Deut 4:28; Isa 44:18; Hab 2:18).
The God with eyes and ears, then, laughs (Ps 2:4), has regrets (Jer 42:10), feels grief (Ps 78:40) and joy (Isa 62:5; Jer 32:41; Zeph 3:17). God experiences jealousy (Exod 20:5; Deut 4:24; 5:9; 6:15; 32:19–21; Josh 24:19; Job 36:33)—jealousy so intense that his wrath “burns like fire” (Ps. 79:5). “Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces”, says Nahum (Nah 1:2).
Which brings us to the stereotype I noted above: that the God of the Old Testament was always violent and vengeful. To be sure, we can see intense flashes of God’s anger in incidents told in the historical narratives (Num 25:1–9; Deut 28:15–68; 29:19–28; Judg 2:11-23; 2 Sam 6:1–11) and in the regular refrain, “the anger of the Lord was kindled against XX” (Exod 4:14; Num 11:33; 12:9; 32:13; Deut 6:15; 7:4; 11:17; 29:27; Josh 23:16; Judg 2:14, 20; 3:8; 10:7; 2 Sam 6:7; 24:1; 1 Ki 16:7, 13, 26, 33; 22:53; 2 Ki 13:3; 17:17; 21:6; 23:19, 26; 1 Chron 13:10; 2 Chron 21:16; 28:25; 33:6; Ps 106:40).
The prophets proclaim that judgement will fall with a vengeance on the people on the Day of the Lord (Isa 2:12–22, 13:6–16; Jer 46:10; Joel 2:1–11; Amos 5:18–24; Zeph 1:7–18; Mal 4:1–5) whilst the psalmists invoke the wrath of the Lord upon their enemies (Ps 2:5, 12; 21:9; 56:7; 59:13; 110:5–6), note that God’s wrath punishes Israel (Ps 78:49, 59, 62; 88:7, 16; 89:38; 90:7–11), and petition God to turn his wrath away from them (Ps 6:1; 38:1; 79:5; 89:46). Such punishment is the consequence of breaking the covenant (Lev 26:14–33; 2 Sam 7:14; Ps 89:31–32; Jer 5:7–9; Ezek 7:1–4).
However, this is not the sum total of God’s character in Hebrew Scriptures; there is much more to be said about God. The prophets, for instance, not only proclaim the coming “day of the Lord”, but also look with hope to a time when peace will reign and justice will be done (Isa 2:1–4, 5:1–7, 9:6–7, 28:16–17, 42:1–9, 52:9–10, 66:12; Ezek 34:25; Mic 4:1–7; Hag 2:9; Zech 8:12).
The psalmists praise God for the steadfast love (heșed) that he expresses to Israel (Ps 5:7; 6:4; 13:5; 17:7; 18:50; 21:7; 25:6–10; 26:3; 31:7, 16, 21; 33:5, 18, 22; 36:5–10; 40:11; 42:8; 44:26; 48:9; 51:1; 52:8; 57:3, 10; and so on) and prophets recognise this same quality in God (Isa 54:10; 55:3; 63:7; Jer 9:24; 16:5; 32:18; 33:11; Dan 9:4). As Jeremiah sings, “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam 3:22).
Micah asks, “who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession?” (Mic 7:18). The answer to that question is sounded again and again in the refrain, “the Lord is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod 34:6; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:5, 15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon 4:2).
This steadfast love (heșed)—also translated as loving kindness, or as covenant love—is a consistent characteristic of the God found in the pages of the Old Testament, along with the God who executes judgement and inflicts punishment. Like human beings, the God of Hebrew Scripture is complex, with multiple characteristics, exhibiting a wide range of behaviours.
Hosea 11 not the only passage where the deity is depicted as acting a human being. God is occasionally imaged as a woman, such as in the palmist’s comparison, “as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until [God] has mercy upon us” (Ps 132:2–3).
God is described as being “like a woman in labour; I will gasp and pant” (Isa 49:15); she gives birth (Deut 32:18) and comforts her child “as a mother comforts her child” (Isa 66:13). The psalmist compares themself to “a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me” (Ps 131:2). Such female descriptors for God emerge in the New Testament as Jesus evokes the image of “a hen [who] gathers her brood under her wings” (Matt 23:37; Luke 13:34), as well as in the parable of the woman searching for her lost coin (Luke 15:8–10).
In the love song of Hosea 11, God exudes heșed, loving kindness, or covenant love. In return, God expects that Israel will demonstrate that same covenant love (Hos 4:1), for “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6). The prophet calls to the people, “return to your God, hold fast to covenant love (heșed) and justice (mishpat), and wait continually for your God” (Hos 12:6).
The chapter offers beautiful insights into how God deals with people; it stands in stark juxtaposition to the many passages that describe the anger of the deity. It reminds us that the mercy of God, expressed in deep covenant love, must always be held alongside the justice of God, expressed in angry punishments meted out when that covenant is broken. Indeed, Hosea describes the covenant relationship between Israel in this manner: “I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy” (Hos 2:19).
Mercy and justice are two sides of same coin, two key aspects of the character of God. Accordingly, God requires of us both mercy and justice, as Jesus notes: “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:23).
The section of the letter to the Colossians that appears in the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Col 2:6–15) contains some intriguing phrases. It offers a portrayal of Jesus that stretches beyond what we find in the earlier, authentic letters of Paul. There, Jesus is a Jewish man, chosen by God, designated as God’s Son, raised from the dead, and designated as Lord (see, for instance, Gal 4:4 and Rom 1:1–4).
In this letter, Jesus becomes the one “in whom the fullness of deity dwells” (2:9; also 1:19). There is no evident sense of the humanity of Jesus; he is swept up into the mystical-philosophical world of “elemental spirits” (2:8) and deals with the “rulers and authorities” of that dimension (2:15). Indeed, in the previous chapter, the writer of this letter (whom I don’t believe was Paul) praises Jesus in full blown terms: “he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him” (1:15–16).
In contrast to the expressions that Paul provides about the community of believers being “the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:12, 27), in this letter, the mystical speculation grows; “he himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:17); and indeed, rather than the whole body being Christ, here Christ is “the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything (1:18).
So when we see the figure of Christ placed into this mystical-speculative-philosophical context, we know that we have moved quite a way from the thoughts about Jesus that the apostle Paul dictated in his letters; we have entered a world that scholars call proto-Gnosticism. Gnostics were those who—to put it very simply—believed that salvation came, not through faith, but by means of knowledge. The one who knows is the one who is saved.
Thus, in this letter written to “the saints and faithful ones in Colossae” (1:1), knowledge is emphasised (1:9–10; 2:2–3; 3:10). The author sends this letter to the Colossians to encourage and strengthen them in their knowledge. Paul, by contrast, commends those to whom he writes for their faith (Rom 1:5, 8; Phil 1:25; 1 Thess 1:2–3).
To be sure, the anonymous writer of this letter, drawing from Paul’s practices, does commend the Colossians for their faith (Col 1:4), but it is his prayer “that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (1:9), that they may “grow in the knowledge of God” (1:10), that they may “have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:2–3).
So, this letter is somewhat different from the style and theology of the seven letters authentically written by Paul. Another way in which is is different from the thoughts set out in those letters, can be seen in verses 3–15 of chapter 2.
First, let’s note that the verses immediately before this do seem to correlate with Paul’s way of thinking. The notion of “spiritual circumcision” (2:11) bears similarities with the claim that “it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 2:3), or “real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal” (Rom 2:29). Although, Paul does also dismiss circumcision as being “nothing” (1 Cor 7:19), “for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything” (Gal 6:15). Perhaps in those verses he is dismissing physical circumcision as it gets in the way of “spiritual circumcision” ?
And the description of being “buried with [Christ] in baptism” (Col 2:12) does seem similar to the statements that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death … we have been buried with him by baptism into death … we have been united with him in a death like his” (Rom 6: 3–5).
Although, once again, it has to be noted that the sequence in Romans 6 looks to a future union with Christ in his resurrection, whereas in Colossians that union is now present, having been achieved by a (perhaps recent) past event: “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:12). So there is a subtle difference; a development in thinking beyond that of the authentic Paul.
It is in what follows, however, that a striking difference emerges. In verses 13–15 the letter writer considers exactly what was achieved by Jesus when he was crucified. In Paul’s authentic letters, he draws on what many consider to be a very early, pre-existing formulation which seeks to convey just what Jesus did when he submitted to death on the cross, when he gave up his life.
In those letters, Paul notes that “Christ died for us”. That’s a short and simple way to describe the significance of the death of Jesus; we find it at Rom 5:6,8, 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11, 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Gal 2:21; and 1 Thess 5:10. That’s five of the seven authentic letters; the matter of the death of Jesus does not figure at all in what is being discussed in Philemon; and in Philippians, the death of Jesus serves to emphasise his humility and obedience (Phil 2:8), and Paul’s main interest is in his this death serves to effect a transformation in believers (Phil 3:21).
This affirmation, “Christ died for us”, forms the foundation for an intricate and complex system of sacrificial atonement theology which is developed beyond the time of the New Testament. These eight times when Paul says, “Christ died for us”, join with a number of other passing comments elsewhere in New Testament texts, to provide the basis for what would become, over time, a detailed understanding of the death of Jesus as a death made on behalf of, and in the place of, believers. An explanation is developed, drawing especially on the Jewish sacrificial system, in which the sacrifices of animals were understood to be the way by which the sins of people were forgiven.
But not in the letter to the Colossians. A different understanding of the significance of the death of Jesus is offered. A different way to explain how God forgives us our sins, how we have atonement made for our transgressions, how we are reconciled with God. The language used, and the concepts referenced, are quite different. And this opens the door to a different way of understanding and appreciating the death of Jesus.
This area of Christian theology—how to understand the death of Jesus—is known as soteriology (relating to “how we are saved”), with a strong emphasis being placed on atonement (that is, what is the mechanism for bringing us back into reconciled relationship with God). The atonement has become a debated and disputed arena. How do we understand this today?
One concern that is often expressed concerns the way that a religious system has a focus on a violent action at the centre of its belief system. Can it be a good thing to celebrate the way that God causes, or at least approves of, the putting to death of Jesus? We have every right to ask critical and penetrating questions about this aspect of our faith.
Another element of the debate is the claim that can be paraphrased as “Jesus died in my place, he was sacrificed for my sins, to save me from hell”. This is the classic way that I hear this view expressed, and it is often described as the substitutionary atonement theory. It depends on, but moves well beyond, the understanding that was inherent in the Jewish sacrificial system.
Certainly, dealing with the sinful manifestations of human nature is at the heart of Christian doctrine, and theories of atonement regularly grapple with how this is effected. However, I can’t see that the New Testament, anywhere, sets forth such a fully-developed theory of atonement. In true systematic theology style, verses have been plucked from various places in the New Testament, and woven together, with little regard for their original context or intention, to form a developed theory that owes more to rationalist deductive argumentation, than it does to biblical texts.
The explanation in Col 2:13–15 is quite different. Here, the author sees the scene of the crucifixion in his mind’s eye; but rather than relating what was happening there to the Jewish sacrificial system, the vision of the author draws on other imagery. The scene envisaged is much more like a triumphal procession, as seen in the Roman Empire, when captured slaves were paraded through the city streets as captives, and the people celebrated another great victory of the Empire.
The cross, the place where Jesus was nailed and hung until he died (most usually from suffocation), is not envisaged as similar to the place in the Temple where the sacrificial animals were burnt, or even where the blood of the slain animals was smeared (the language of Rom 3:25 draws on on this quite explicitly). It is seen as a public place where “legal demands” (dogmata, 2:14) are nailed for all to see; a public place where those “legal demands” are erased. The language here is about “stripping bare” so that the inequity of those demands is revealed for all to see.
As a result of this, what Jesus is doing on the cross is “disarm[ing] the rulers and authorities”, removing their power, rendering them ineffective (2:15). The Greek word translated as “make a public example of” in this verse, points to a scene of public shaming. The only other place it is used in the New Testament is Matt 1:19, where it refers to the “public disgrace” of Mary being revealed as pregnant without a husband. It would be a moment of intense shaming for her, such that “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her” in this way was planning to “dismiss her quietly”, in accordance with custom—until an angel of the Lord intervened!
So the “legal demands” have been “disarmed” or (in another possibility) “divested”, in a process of “making a public example”. As a consequence, what the author sees as Jesus hangs, naked, whipped, gasping for water, dying on the cross, is nothing other than a celebratory triumphal match (“he made a public example … triumphing over them” (2:15).
Who does Jesus triumph over? The “rulers and authorities”—most likely the same as the “thrones, dominions, rulers, powers” referred to earlier (1:16), or the “elemental spirits of the universe” (2:10). The crucifixion has been the location for God’s cosmic battle— remembering that Hod is the subject of the whole clause of 2:13–15.
These “rulers and authorities” are most likely the same entities referred to in Colossian’s companion letter, Ephesians; “all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Eph 1:21), “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10); “the rulers … the authorities … the cosmic powers of this present darkness … the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12), that are best combatted by “tak[ing] up the whole armour of God” (Eph 6:13–17).
Almost a century ago, a theologian named Gustav Aulen wrote a hugely-influential book, Christos Victor, in which he put forward a theory of atonement quite different from the sacrificial-victim, ransom-theory, penal-substitutionary-atonement line of thought. This passage fuelled his argument. The crucifixion, Aulen proposed, declared the liberation of humanity from the bondage of sinfulness and death; it was the way that God declared victory over demonic forces.
Later, an American biblical scholar named Walter Wink took this theory, re-engaged with the relevant biblical texts, and proposed that the victory won by God was not simply over spiritual beings in a heavenly realm, but actually a gritty, this-earthly battle with the systems and forces within society that embedded sinfulness in our very way of living. Wink wrote an influential series, Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), Engaging the Powers (1992), When the Powers Fall (1998), and The Powers that Be (1999), in which he wrote about the myth of “redemptive violence”.
So this short passage in Colossians is very important. It opens the door to a different way of thinking about the crucifixion. It invites us to take seriously our earthly context, and to consider how we are engaged, along with Jesus, in executing the work of God, to disarm the rulers and authorities, publically expose them, and triumph over their evil force.
For more discussion of the atonement and the way that the New Testament writers understood this, see
Which version of the Lord’s Prayer do you pray? Do you petition God to forgive your sins? or your trespasses? Do you seek to be saved from the time of trial, or not to be led into temptation? Do you end with a doxology of praise, or simply conclude with “deliver us from evil”?
This coming Sunday, the lectionary offers us the shortest of the three versions of this prayer which were known in the early decades of the movement that Jesus founded (Luke 11:1–4). That’s right—from the very earliest stages, there were already three versions of this central, foundational prayer!
The version that we are offered for this coming Sunday, in Luke 11, is (as I have noted) the shortest of the three; it ends with “deliver us from evil”. The version in Matthew 6 is closer to the version that we pray today, with the familiar closing doxology (except that this is omitted from most of the earliest manuscripts). Then, there is the version in the Didache (a late first century work which is not part of the New Testament) which includes all the familiar phrases, and ends with a shorter doxology (“yours is the power and the glory forever”).
Luke’s version, as well as being the shortest, is located in the journey section of this Gospel, as Jesus makes his way towards Jerusalem. It comes after the story about the wounded traveller and the Good Samaritan (10:25–37) and the meal in the house of Mary and Martha (10:38–42), and before an encounter with a demon and a discussion about the conflict that Jesus was having with Beelzebul (11:14–26). In short, the context is of minimal importance.
Matthew, by contrast, places this prayer as the centrepiece in a block of teaching about dikaiosune (translated as “piety”, NRSV; “righteousness”, NIV; “religion”, CEB; Matt 6:1–18). Here, Jesus considers the three key markers of Jewish faith: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In each instance, Jesus contrasts the practice of “the hypocrites” (later identified as scribes and Pharisees; see Matt 23:13–36) with the instructions he provides )”do not [do that] … but rather, [do this]”). So the context indicates that this prayer sits at the heart of discipleship and faith, for those who follow Jesus.
The full text of the version in the Didache is: “You shall not pray like the hypocrites but like the Lord commanded in his gospel; in this manner you shall pray: Our Father, who is in heaven, your name shall be made holy, your kingdom shall come, your will shall come to be as in heaven and upon earth; you shall give to us our bread for our need today, and you shall forgive us our debt as also we are forgiving our debtors, and may you not bring us into a trial, but you shall rescue us from the wicked one, since it is your might and glory into the ages. You shall pray three times of the day in this manner.”
The context is one in which the worship life of the Christian community is in view; ch. 7 considers baptism, ch. 8. discusses fasting and prayer; chs. 9 and 10 concerns the Eucharist. The liturgical form of the prayer is important in this context—thus, the firm inclusion of an appropriate doxological benediction.
The significance of a number of the variations can be noted. As we do so, it is worth recalling that the synthesised, printed versions of our scripture are far from the experience of the followers of Jesus in the first few centuries. Oral traditions were the dominant way by which teachings were passed on; memorising and retelling stories, parables, ethical instructions, and prayers, was the modus operandi of everyone.
Furthermore, any tangible written resources were relatively rare; this was many centuries before the printing press and the mass distribution of standardised documents, and even a few centuries before the imperial weight of Constantine saw monks in many places copying manuscripts by hand. A scroll or codex would be valued as a rare and important document. The passing on of teachings—and, in this case, prayers—by word of mouth, was the dominant pathway for handing on the traditions. See https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/story/oral.html
Thus, as we consider the variations of The Lord’s Prayer that these three ancient documents offer us, let’s remember that they existed in the midst of a swirl of varieties of the early Christian faith.
Some variations, such as thine or yours, and sins or trespasses, are simply a function of our time. Language changes over time; the words preferred for particular items change, the customs prevalent at the time change. Thine was the common second-person singular possessive in the time of King James; yours is now the common term. You would only ever hear thine in a church sticking doggedly to the Authorised Version from the time of King James, these days.
But five variations in wording do contain significant theological differences.
1. Father, or Father in heaven, is the first significant variant encountered. Scholars typically argue that the shorter version is more likely to have been the original, so the phrase in heaven was added under the influence of other places where that phrase appears (Mark 11:25; Luke 10:21; the phrase is particular common in Matthew, see Matt 5:16, 45; 6:1; 7:11, 21; 10:32–33; 12:50; 16:17; 18:10, 14, 19). In other words, if we are looking for what could have been the original version, Jesus most likely simply said, “pray, ‘Father’”.
2. Next, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. This phrase appears after your kingdom come in both Matthew’s version, and in the Didache, but not in Luke’s shorter version. These two petitions clearly belong together; although, in a sense, I consider the second petition redundant. If God’s kingdom is to come, then God’s will shall surely be done! (The close connection of the two concepts can be seen in the parable of Matt 21:28–32 and the saying of Matt 21:43; and negatively, in Gal 5:16–21.)
Nevertheless, the longer version of Matthew and the Didache sees fit to duplicate the first request, for God’s kingdom to come, with a second petition, for God’s will to be done. The notion that what is done in heaven should also be done on earth can be found in sayings of Jesus at Matt 16:19; 18:18–19; and in the citation from Joel found at Acts 2:19.
3. Each day, or this day? The bread that is prayed for is described as “bread for today” (sēmeron) in Matthew and the Didache, but as “bread for the day” (to kath’ hēmeran) in Luke. What is signified by this subtle difference?
We should first note that this petition includes an unusual Greek word, epiousion, a word which Davies and Allison describe as “one of the great unsolved puzzles of NT lexicography” (Matthew, ICC vol. 1, 1988, p.607). It could refer to “what is needful for existence” (a generic sense ), or “for the current day” (an immediate sense), or even “for the coming (next) day” (a futurist sense). Davies and Allison opt for this latter sense, which means that the prayer is certainly for what lies immediately in front of the person praying, but also has an eschatological sense, referring to the messianic banquet in God’s kingdom on the day in the future, which is yet drawing near.
The difference between the two canonical versions, then, comes down to whether the emphasis is on the bread “for now, for today, for this very day” (Matthew) or the bread “for each and every day” (Luke). John Nolland (Luke, Word Commentary 35B, 1993) believes that Jesus would have been more likely to instruct the former—“a prayer for our mundane sustenance needs” as this would be “most at home in the Jewish context” (and he quotes Prov 30:8 in this regard).
4. Forgive us our sins (trespasses), or forgive us our debts? This difference is quite significant. The forgiveness of sins (in older language, trespasses) is a common theme in the Gospel narratives, and especially in Luke’s orderly account. When Jesus forgives the sin of the paralyzed man on a bed (5:17–20), he affirms that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (5:24). Jesus discusses sin and forgiveness with Simon the Pharisee and the so-called sinful woman (7:36–50).
God’s gracious forgiveness is recounted in the three striking stories about the lost being found, the wayward being welcomed back home (Luke 15). Jesus instructs his followers to forgive the disciple who sins (17:1–3). Luke alone reports that Jesus, hanging on the cross, offers forgiveness to those crucifying him (23:24, although there are problematic textual variants about this verse); whilst alone in Luke’s account, once again, the risen Jesus gives as a parting word to his disciples: “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47).
The Lukan version thus, understandably, has Jesus instruct us that we pray for forgiveness of sins, and offer forgiveness to others. This is a strong Lukan theme. Paradoxically, however, the version in Matthew uses a word whose fundamental sense is debt—as in something tangible owed, like money, or a return favour. The Didache, which seems to share a common version of the prayer with Matthew, also uses this word, opheilēmata.
If the reference is to a financial debt, then the strong reference in the version of Matthew and the Didache must surely be to the Jubilee year, during which debts are to be remitted (Lev 25:8–17; see esp. v.13). The irony is that Luke explicitly signals this theme in the opening speech of Jesus that he alone reports: “the Spirt of the Lord is upon me … to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (4:18–19). The reference to “the year of the Lord’s favour” is commonly taken to be an indication of the Jubilee.
Yet the matter is complicated by the fact that in the phrase that follows forgive us our sins, the Lukan version uses the word for debts; so in this Gospel, the petition is actually forgive us our sins, as we ourselves let go of everything that is owed to us. That’s a mixed message!
Nevertheless, when we pray, let’s bear in mind: do we have in view our responsibility to forgive the sins of others, or to let go the debts that others owe to us? That is a question to galvanise our thoughts and challenge our actions!
5. Lead us not into temptation, or save us from the time of trial? This difference is quite important. The options reflect, not differences in the Greek text, but different choices made by translators. The Greek word (peirasmon) is the same in all three versions, but it is capable of different English translations. On the one hand, it can refer to discrete actions which tempt us to stray from the path of righteousness; thus, lead us not into temptation; that is, keep us faithful, righteous, diligent, obedient.
On the other hand, the same word, peirasmon, can have an apocalyptic sense, referring to the coming Day of the Lord, the time of birth pangs (Mark 13:8) and testing (Rev 3:10) which is envisaged, when God’s eschatological intervention confronts humanity with the extent of our sinfulness. The prayer is thus for God, not to let us experience that time of trial, but in fact to intervene, declare us righteous, and realise the promise of life eternal. (Yes, I realise that I am mashing together multiple scriptural verses—but that’s what happens when theological argumentation develops!) Nolland summarises thus: “the primary image her is one of standing up under pressure that threatens to overwhelm” (Luke, p.619).
The additional petition in Matthew and the Didache, rescue us from the evil one, intensifies this eschatological sense; the evil one is Satan, who will sift wheat from chaff (Luke 22:31), whilst God is the one who will step in and “rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim 4:18). As the Didache’s expanded eucharistic prayer offers, “Remember, Lord, your church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in your love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for your kingdom which you have prepared for it” (Did 10:5).
There are other variations found in the textual variants that occur in the mass of manuscripts from the earliest centuries. One fascinating variant in the Lukan text, for instance, occurs in the phrase your kingdom come; some manuscripts read, at this point, your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us—reflecting the interest that Luke has in the activities of the Holy Spirit (1:15, 35, 41, 67, 80; 2:25–26; 3:16, 22; 4:1, 14, 18; etc).
Other manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel quite deliberately follow the phrase your kingdom come with the addition, as in heaven, so on earth. The influence of the dominant tradition of the prayer—reflected in both Matthew 6 and Didache 8—has led various scribes, copying Luke’s Gospel, to harmonise what they have before them with what they know from their daily prayers and from Matthew’s Gospel.
After reporting the instruction of Jesus, to pray this way (11:2), Luke has Jesus continue with a short, somewhat comic, story of a friend, incessantly knocking on his friend’s door at midnight, asking for three loaves of bread—at once hilariously burlesque and exactingly precise. This leads to the instruction, “ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (11:9; this is found also at Matt 7:7), and the didactic conclusion, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (11:13; a variant form appears at Matt 7:11).
We might compare this with what happens in Matthew’s reporting of this prayer; he has Jesus continue with teaching relating to the forgiveness of sins (paraptōmata, Matt 6:14–15), which is curious, since the Matthean version of the prayer has a clause about forgiving debts (opheilēmata) rather than the sins (hamartias) in the Lukan account.
So, however you pray this prayer, do so remembering that the version you use is one of a range of options, chosen by translators, interpreters, and liturgical editors, which nevertheless provides a collection of clauses that focusses on the central teachings of Jesus and recalls us to the challenges of discipleship in the contemporary world.
Of course, all of this close scrutiny of the textual versions of the prayer in Greek (because that is the original language of the New Testament documents, and of the Didache) overlooks the simple historical fact that Jesus, as a first century Jew, would have been conversing with his followers (also first century Jews) in Aramaic, the ordinary language of Jews in Israel at that time.
So what did Jesus actually say? We need to translate back, from Greek, into Aramaic–and thus, already the interpreter’s bias and presupposition comes into play!! We won’t ever know the original version that Jesus taught; but we can still pray the prayer that he taught his disciples, with confidence, in faith.
As we continue to follow the prophets in the readings from Hebrew Scripture that the lectionary offers, we hear from Hosea this coming Sunday (Hos 1:2–10) and the following Sunday (Hos 11:1–11). The two passages offer quite a contrast.
In the first selection in the lectionary, the opening chapter of the book, we hear about the prophet’s own situation. Hosea receives direction from God as to how he is to behave. The actions he undertakes provide a series of signs to the people of Israel concerning their fate (1:2–10). The future looks grim. In the second section offered by the lectionary (11:1–11), the prophet speaks on behalf of God to the people, reminding them of God’s persistent love for them. There is hope for the future, he tells them.
Hosea was active as a prophet in the northern kingdom in the 8th century BCE, over six decades, from the reign of Jeroboam II to the time of Hoshea. He seems to reflect an awareness of the war between Syria and Ephraim, a northern tribe (see 5:8–15), but his oracles do not indicate any knowledge of the defeat of the northerners by the Assyrians in 721 BCE, and their subsequent exile (2 Kings 17).
The name Hosea means “salvation”, and the oracles in this book provide occasional glimpses of that desired outcome (1:7; 2:24; 6:2–3; 10:12; 11:3–4, 8–9; 13:4–5) before the final oracle assures Israel, “I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them” (14:4–9). The love song of chapter 11 represents the height of this aspiration. However, the predominant tone of the book is a relentless condemnation of Israel for her sins. This fate is signalled in striking fashion in the opening chapter, through the names of Hosea’s children. They indicate exactly what fate is in store for the people.
The opening chapter presents a challenge to orthodox views of morality and the nature of God. God commands Hosea to “take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (1:2). Let’s note that: God commands behaviour that is generally regarded as immorality!
Hosea’s wife is named as Gomer, from the verb gamar, which means “to complete or bring to an end”. Is she the one to bring to completion the salvation to which Hosea looks? The promiscuity of Gomer is noted at 3:1; Hosea wins her back with “fifteen shekels of silver and a homer of barley and a measure of wine” (3:2). Her behaviour seems to signal the infidelity and then return to God of the Israelites (3:3–5). Hosea regularly pleads with Israel to “return to the Lord” (2:7; 4:5; 6:1; 12:6; 14:1–2).
Not only does Gomer signify the behaviour of Israel; the names of her children are similarly significant. The first son, Jezreel (“God sows”) signals punishment (1:4). A daughter, Lo-ruhamah (“not pitied”) signals God’s continuing refusal to forgive Israel (1:6). A second son, Lo-ammi (“not my people”) seals their fate, it would seem: “you are not my people and I am not your [God]” (1:9). The names tell a story; a story that does not bode well for Israel.
Wrath infuses the whole book, from the opening series of names and in the indictment set out in legal form, “the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land” (4:1), with the threat from God that “I will punish them for their ways, and repay them for their deeds” (4:1–11). It is present as the prophet tells of the wrath poured out on Ephraim like drowning water (5:8–11) and in his words about God’s smouldering anger over idol worship (8:1–6). It climaxes in the threat of destruction and the removal of the king (13:9–11). Paradoxically, for a book bearing the name “salvation” (Hosea), the message is consistently about punishment for wrongdoing.
The metaphor of Gomer’s behaviour as a whore (1:2; 2:5; 3:1) permeates the book: the divine accusation is that Israel has “played the whore” (4:10–14; 5:3; 9:1), that “a spirit of whoredom has led them astray” (4:12; 5:5), that “they have forsaken the Lord to devote themselves to whoredom” (4:10–11), that because of this whoredom, the nation is defiled (6:10).
Yet in the opening chapter, Hosea strongly affirms that all is not lost; there is hope. “The number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea”, says Hosea, “which can be neither measured nor numbered” (1:10a)—and more than this, “in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God’” (1:10b). The new name for the people signifies the promise that Israel will be saved; “I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. From there I will give to her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope” (3:14–15).
This fluctuation between the threat of punishment hanging over Israel, and the alluring words of love that God speaks to her, takes us into a deeper level of concern, for this is precisely the kind of behaviour that is experienced by women caught in abusive relationships. Is the Lord nothing more than a manipulative, power-wielding tyrant of a husband, inflicting damage, driving his woman away in fear, then pleading for his woman to come back to him, offering all manner of blandishments and promises of transformation? “Come, let us return to the Lord, for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up” (6:1)
How we answer that question determines how we read the second passage offered by the lectionary (11:1–11). Is this a truly loving, gracious, ever-forgiving God? or a violent, devious, never-changing tyrant?
Certainly, the larger context of the prophetic literature and of the whole sweep of the story told in scripture encourages us to see God in a good light. This is surely the God who is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6, and a number of other places in Hebrew Scripture). Hosea plays out in one specific time what God and Israel enact time and time again, over the centuries.
Indeed, the words of promise (“after two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him”, 6:2) were even cited by church fathers and scholars as the place in Hebrew Scripture which provides a prediction of the gospel affirmation, “he was raised on the third day” (2 Cor 15:4; and see Acts 10:40; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46).
These words were not, of course, intended to point forward in this way in the time of Hosea; they are poetically non-specific (“after two days… on the third day” is typical Hebraic parallelism with a linguistic variation), and are spoken by Hosea into the context of his own time, as an insight into the divine offer of hope that he senses, for the Lord “will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth” (6:3). This is forthtelling, and not foretelling.
So the “cords of human kindness … bands of love” (11:4) depict God in an anthropomorphic manner, loving Israel as a child (11:1), calling to them (11:1–2), taking them up into God’s arms (11:3), kissing them and feeding them (11:4, showing warm and tender compassion (11:8), withholding anger (11:9), welcoming them back as they return from their wandering (11:11). God is the patient, loving, caring parent. The chapter offers beautiful insights into how God deals with people, to set alongside our concerns about the nature of God.
As we noted in considering the prophet Amos, the king of Assyria began to deport Israelites to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29; 1 Chron 5:26), perhaps in the 730s, while Hosea was still alive. Two decades later, after Hosea’s death, a new Assyrian king captured the northern capital, Samaria (2 Kings 17:3–6). The northern kingdom had come to an end; the people taken into exile would never return to their land. They became known as “the lost tribes of Israel” (see https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ten-Lost-Tribes-of-Israel).
Boaz made another visit to Tuggeranong Uniting Church today, all the way from the first century, accompanied by his wife Deborah. They engaged in a discussion of what they had heard about the scene in the house of Mary and Martha (that we know about because it is told in Luke 10:38–42). The dialogue was written and presented by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine and the Rev. Dr John Squires.
Elizabeth begins. This gospel passage about Mary and Martha is very well-known one. It often provokes some strong responses, especially from women who have followed more traditional and domestic lifestyles. Many feel a sneaking sympathy with Martha.
After all, the reading says that Jesus and his disciples went to Martha’s house for a meal. Even if the guests were only Jesus and the twelve apostles, that still makes dinner for 15 people. Dinner for that many is not easy to prepare, especially in a first century kitchen consisting of an open fire, and maybe a small brick oven outside. And she is doing it by herself. Her sister Mary is sitting on the floor at Jesus’ feet, listening to him. No wonder Martha is upset.
Today we attempt to explore this story as we listen to a dialogue between two dinner guests at the house of Martha and Mary, their neighbours Boaz and Deborah.
Boaz: I am shocked. Outraged, even. I was expecting a dinner where the men gather, are served by the women, and then sit together discussing learned things, like the Torah. Such a spectacle we saw! Martha should not have allowed it. And that Jesus fellow, what was he thinking? Aiding and abetting the decay of society as we know it. And I thought he was a holy man. Deborah, I trust this has not given you any ideas.
Deborah: Aiding and abetting the decay of society! Boaz, you are just old fashioned. You need to get with the times. I am excited! I am feeling liberated! I am worthy of being taught by the great teacher. How can you think treating women equally is a problem?
Lots of reasons. For example, you know that in the synagogue, “a woman should not be allowed to come forward to read the Torah in public.” (Tosefta Megillah 4.11,226). So this notion of equality is not in accord with our practices and beliefs.
And I thought Mary’s attitude, claiming this equality, was nothing short of rebellious. She will be wanting to learn to read before you know it, and then what? Educated women are a menace. They get above their station in life and then refuse to be submissive. In fact, as Rabbi Eliezer has decreed: “If any man gives his daughter a knowledge of the Law, it is as though he taught her lechery.” (Mishnah, Sotah 3.4)
Well, I thought Mary’s sitting at the feet of Jesus was a wonderful demonstration of how women have the right to be taught.If Jesus had no problem with it, why do you?
Look, I am not saying that SOME learning for women might not be a bad thing. But with a household to run, there are other duties that need to be done. How is learning going to help Mary prepare a big dinner? You musthave heard the murmurings of the disciples. They were not impressed by Mary’s action.
Well, I don’t think it is any business of the disciples, or ours, or anyone else’s if Mary wished to learn from Jesus.
Martha had a problem with it. I heard her ask Jesus to tell Mary to help her. Martha knows what the true role of women should be. The true role of women is doing the kind of things that, I understand, some people have called ‘domestic duties’.
Domestic duties ??!!??
Yes, you know what our scrolls tell us: “She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls … She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.” (Proverbs 31)
Yes, yes, yes…I know all of that. But what did Jesus say when she sat at his feet, expecting to be taught by him? You seem to be skipping over that bit.
Listen, Deborah, we are talking about The Law here. We are talking about the whole stability of society. If you do not want to show appropriate regard for The Law, then what are you regarding?
How can you condone an action which is clearly in breach of the very respect and honour that the Law requires we show it? How can a woman, sitting at the feet of a teacher of the law, be showing respect and honour? She should have been in the kitchen, with Martha!
Well, I believe that Jesus was very clear that Mary, by sitting at his feet and learning, had chosen the good part, and it would not be taken from her.
And Martha, her elder sister, made it clear that she had chosen the lazy path, and was not fulfilling her duties. How was dinner going to get on the table if we all sat about distracted by Jesus’ teaching? How can you be so sure that Mary was doing the right thing?
Well, it is true that Martha is very generous with her hospitality – nothing but the best is laid before Jesus and his followers. I agree that this is an important part of our traditions, to be generous in any hospitality to our guests.
And why couldn’t the male disciples take a turn in the kitchen? Why couldn’t they contribute to the generous hospitality of the occasion? Why must women always serve? Isn’t it time Peter swept the floor and Thomas did the dishes? Or James and John stirred the soup and served the bread?
What nonsense! Men serving women, indeed!! You sound just like that Rabbi Hillel with your liberal notions.
Wait a minute: Jesus serves men and women and feedsthem. Look at his recent actions. Apparently he managed to feed a whole crowd, men, woman and children recently with only five loaves and two fish. And the male disciples cleaned up afterwards. So where does that leave your argument?
Surely this is an exaggeration. I am sure women did most of the serving and tidying up. After all, I heard that they followed Jesus around and ministered to him out of their own resources. This clearly included the cooking and cleaning.
Really, you are most frustrating. There are precedents in our faith, you know, for women leaders and prophets. Look at Deborah the judge. Or Huldah, the prophet. Or what about the mother of Jesus himself? I heard she said….
Oh, you make it all sound very normal indeed, for women to be spouting revolutionary leadership talk. But just think about the way Mary went about it. Sitting with the men. Sitting on the floor at the feet of a man. This isn’t customary. And in public like that! Shocking!!
Well, I suppose it wasn’t the best image she might have presented of herself. I was a little taken aback myself to see her sitting at the feet of a man who wasn’t related to her. In some ways, it could be seen as shameful.
But still – why must it be so? Why can’t the sexes be equals?
Well, they just aren’t. What about how Jesus spoke to Martha? Surely this was harsh. She must have been very hurt.
Yes, I can see that. Here was Martha, wanting to provide the best dinner, and Mary as her sister should have helped. She did have some obligation to attend to the guests.
Yes. “Martha, Martha, you are distracted with too much serving”, he said. Or something like that. Well, of course she was, getting a dinner for all those people. What did he expect?
It may not have been meant unkindly. Jesus doesn’t need to defend traditional roles of women. There are plenty of people, just like you to do that. But he does need to defend our right to learn, to be disciples, to be on the same level as the men.
Mary’s right to learn is precisely what Jesus is protecting by refusing to send her into the kitchen. Jesus will not let dinner take that good thing away from Mary. What justice would there be if he did?
And what if Martha has wanted to sit by Jesus, too? Where is the fairness for Martha here? Then what have happened to dinner?
Well, I suppose there is that. But perhaps our real problem is that we are trying to put the two sisters and the two things they are doing in a stark contrast. We see one who puts aside her distractions to listen to Jesus, and we see another who worries herself to distraction with trying to make dinner for all of them.
Mary and Martha are sisters, not enemies. They complement each other. Why, one could even argue that they are two parts of a legitimate whole that includes them both.
Hmmmmm, I am not sure what you mean. I know they are sisters, but I am missing your point…
Let me put it another way. Martha engaged herself in the necessary task of serving others. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, in the necessary task of spiritual and faithful learning. And both of them surely did each thing out of love for Jesus.
That is a very good point. I am thinking that l would have to say both learning and serving are necessary to be a righteous and holy person.
I don’t think the only lesson here is about traditional duty versus anew feminist wave. Surely the two sisters represent together who we should be as people. Listening to Jesus is not opposed to serving Jesus. Jesus didn’t tell Martha she was doing the wrong thing. He said Mary has chosen the more needful thing at that point. Surely it was Martha’s anxiety he was criticising, not her service. We all needed to eat.
But I thought this complimentary togetherness was not about a single person, but about society, male and female, we have different roles which complement each other. So I don’t have to wash the dishes to be whole anymore than you have to learn to read the Torah.
Nonsense. How many men in our scripture offer hospitality? Look at Abraham. And what about when David seeks food for the troops? He asks Nabal, not his wife – though she was the one who showed sense when she took the food to David. I mean, really. Are you honestly trying to tell me that if you as a man did nothing but contemplate the Law, with no other activity, you would be a happy, content person? If we did one thing constantly at the expense of the other, we would be far from well-rounded people.
Well, I know we need both hospitality and learning. No argument there.
And I hope you noticed the word that Jesus used to describe Martha’s serving. He said Martha was performing a “diakonia”, and I understand this is an important word Jesus uses to describe his disciples. Jesus was surely suggesting that her hospitality was a ministry, that it was something sacred.
Perhaps part of the genius of Jesus is that he can hold this stuff together himself. He reminds those serving to be attentive and not distracted. He reminds those who listen carefully to his words about the necessity of service.
Back to the present … Elizabeth resumes as the *preacher* for the day.
I am going to ask you a question. Don’t think about it too much. When you look for a role model in this story as to how you express yourfaith, who do you pick? Martha or Mary? Which one do you act like most of the time and is the same one you chose? What does that say to you?
Many, many people see their faith in practical terms— making tea, organising social afternoons, looking after people’s material needs and so on. Across the world churches would not function without those who are busy with the activities that go towards keeping a building open, running programmes, and maintaining the life of the church asa visible entity in the eyes of the membership and the community.
There is no question that the gift of hospitality is as important as the gift of learning. There is also no question that Mary’s action would still be the more unusual one. Did Jesus know this? Do those of us serving perhaps need to be reminded of the grounding provided by being attentive to spiritual needs?
With all the challenges that we face in today’s world, we can’t lose sight of the need for God’s people to make time to grow their own personal faith in a way that works for them. We know from research that this is what unchurched people seek when they come through our doors.
What will they find? Mary or Martha? Or will they find both, well-rounded disciples ready to share the love of God with all?
This coming Sunday, we hear a story in which Jesus is in the home of two women: Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42). It’s a passage that is much beloved for the radical portrayal it offers: Jesus willing to teach a woman, Jesus willing to break the mould of traditional patriarchal expectations. This story gives is opportunity to consider the strong emphasis on women that is found in the story of Jesus told within the orderly account that we attribute to Luke.
Feminist scholars have noted the prominence accorded to women as followers of Jesus throughout this orderly account, and the particular emphasis on women that surfaces at specific moments in the narrative. The presence of women amongst the movement initiated by Jesus, and their taking on of leadership roles within that movement, is no surprise, given that it is only in the second of the two volumes attributed to Luke that we find such a clear declaration about this matter.
Every Pentecost, when we read and hear the story of that day, we are told that Peter, in beginning his speech, cites in detail a prophetic word uttered centuries earlier by Joel. Speaking in the name of God, the prophet declares, “God declares that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy … even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2:17–18).
This prophecy is significant, both in what follows in the events recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, but also in terms of the place that women occupy in the Gospel of Luke. Women have significant roles, both in the stories told in the ensuing chapters about the movement initiated by Jesus, and also in what has come before, the account of the words and activities of Jesus himself.
In the Acts of the Apostles, this strand of female faithfulness continues, but appears to become somewhat diminished as the narrative continues. We need to keep asking, is what we find in this narrative (and what is missing) a result of the ordering of material undertaken by the author? If the specific mentions of women fade later in Acts, was this intentional or accidental?
Very early in Acts, the spirit is poured out upon males and females alike (Acts 2:17–18). This Pentecost scene in Jerusalem has a paradigmatic function for the narrative that follows (in the same way as the scene in the Nazareth synagogue functions in the Gospel). Many of the elements in the Lukan Pentecost story recur throughout the ensuing stories of the good news being proclaimed in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Antioch, throughout Asia Minor and Macedonia, into Greece (Corinth and Athens) and ultimately to Rome.
Amongst the significant women who are presented as positive models of faithfulness, we find Tabitha in Joppa, a woman “full of good works, acts of charity” (9:36); Mary, in whose house the believers meet in Jerusalem (12:12); Lydia in Philippi, who likewise provides hospitality to Paul and his companions (16:15); Priscilla, who with her husband, Aquila, teaches Apollos in Ephesus (18:26); and the four female prophets in Caesarea (21:9). Each of these women, we must conclude, exercise a leadership role in the early church.
However, the frequency of explicit references to women in Acts lessens as the narrative continues. Whilst there are faithful women noted amongst the converts in some places, women fade from view and are almost entirely absent from the latter sections of Acts. Is this intentional on the part of the author?
There are women in the audiences to whom preaches in various towns and cities in his travels, often specifically identified as being women of higher social status. We might assume that this was par for the course in the towns and cities of the Hellenistic world; at least, in four locations, this is clearly the case, as those listening to Paul include “devout women of high standing” in Antioch (13:50), “not a few of the leading women” in Thessaloniki (17:4), “not a few Greek women and men of high standing” in Beroea (17:12), and “a woman named Damaris, and others with them” in Athens (17:34). Were there, likewise, women in other crowds which heard Paul?
In Corinth, Paul stays for some time with “a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla” (18:1–4). We know about this couple from Paul’s own letters (Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19; and see 2 Tim 4:19; in each case, the female is identified as Prisca). The gathering in the house of Aquila and Priscilla clearly included females, hearing the proclamation of the good news that Paul brought.
However, in the face of intense opposition, Paul, with Silas and Timothy, “left the synagogue and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God; his house was next door to the synagogue” (18:7). When we learn that “Crispus, the official of the synagogue, became a believer in the Lord, together with all his household” (18:8), we can reasonably assume that this household included women—a partner, some children, and certainly some female servants.
There are no women specifically mentioned when Paul falls into difficulties in the theatre, the public arena, in Ephesus (19:23–41), nor when farewelling the Ephesian elders in Miletus, presumably in a private meeting (20:17–38). Yet, could it have been possible that this latter group included women? Whilst it may seem unlikely to us, if we focus on the dominant patriarchal makeup of society at the time, Jesus had established a movement in which equality of males and females was clearly advocated.
As Marg Mowcko notes, “In Paul’s more general teaching on ministry and ministry gifts, including his teaching on leadership ministry gifts, the apostle gives no hint that some ministries are for men and some are for women”—so could this apply to the group with whom he met in Miletus. See https://margmowczko.com/pauls-qualifications-for-church-leaders/ ; whilst the quote is from footnote 13, the argument of the whole post keeps open this possibility. If it was a possibility, and if the author of Acts knew this, then his failure to mention this would be striking. But this is a rather hypothetical line of interpretation.
When Paul travels from Greece to Troas (20:1–6), only males are noted as his companions: “he was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Beroea, by Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, by Gaius from Derbe, and by Timothy, as well as by Tychicus and Trophimus from Asia” (20:4). There are no clear indications, either in Acts, or in Paul’s own letters, that women travelled with him on his journeys.
In Troas, when he meets to “break bread” (20:7), we can reasonably hypothesise that women were present along with men as “Paul was holding a discussion with them … [and] continued speaking until midnight” (20:7). Why might not the same apply to those travelling with Paul? Especially since this would have continued the model that was first provided by Jesus (Luke 8:1–3; 23:55).
When Paul arrives in Ptolemais, he greets “the believers” (21:7), presumably a mixed group of males and females. In the next city, Caesarea, Paul stays with Philip, the father of “four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy” (21:9). They remain unnamed, and also apparently inactive in terms of their giftedness; it is Agabus, a male prophet visiting from Judea, who provides active prophetic words (21:10–11).
On the next leg, into the house of “Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple”, Paul was accompanied by “some of the disciples from Caesarea” (21:16). Again, given the nature of the movement established by Jesus, the presence of women amongst those disciples can reasonably be assumed.
When he is arrested whilst undergoing a ritual in the Temple in Jerusalem (21:27–36), he is in the company of “four men who are under a vow” (21:23). It is considered that this was most likely to have been a Nazirite vow, akin to what he had previously undertaken in Cenchreae (18:18). Such a vow was originally open to men and to women (Num 6:1–4), but it is thought that it had become a specifically priestly vow by this time (see https://www.thetorah.com/article/can-a-husband-annul-his-wifes-nazirite-vow ) So no females are in the story of Acts 21, nor might we expect them to be.
After this arrest, when Paul is brought before a series of officials whilst under arrest (chs.22—26), before being taken as a prisoner to Rome (28:14–16), the protagonists in the story are all males. Only the consort of Felix, Drusilla, in Caesarea (24:10–21) and her sister Berenice, the consort of Agrippa, in later scenes in Caesarea (25:13, 23; 26:30), provide a female presence in this long section. Berenice engages in the discussion about Paul after his speech (26:30–31); the decision about Paul, however, is made by the two men, Festus and Agrippa (26:32).
Have the faithful female followers of Jesus and the spirit-inspired women of the Pentecost prophecy dwindled away to nothing as the movement spreads across the Hellenistic world?
From the first sermon of Jesus, set in Nazareth and presented as a key moment for Jesus, Luke has him explicitly draw attention to the faithfulness of a woman. The anonymous widow from Zarephath in Sidon (Luke 4:26), alongside the named male from Syria (4:27), formed prototypes of those who would become faithful followers of Jesus. Both males and females became disciples of Jesus, and later, members of the early church communities. Discipleship was seen to be inclusive in gender terms.
At an equally-significant moment, in the way that Luke orders events and tells his story, at the coming of the spirit during the festival of Pentecost, Luke has Peter refer to an older prophecy which now is coming to pass: “God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy … even upon my slaves, both men and women” (Acts 2:17–18). The equal role of women and men is clear and central.
The movement appears to have followed that vision, but the way that the Lukan narrative is developed sadly allows that vision to slip from view. Women, spirit-inspired and strategic in leadership within the movement, disappear from view, even though, as we have indicated above, it is quite plausible to argue for the presence of women, alongside men, at virtually every step of the way.
Later evidence for the developing Christian church attests to the ongoing activity of women in preaching, leading, caring, hosting, and even writing. That Luke had a particular reason to hide, or at least diminish, this fact, is a worrying conclusion to draw—but it seems to be the most logical deduction. What that reason is, however, is not at all clear to me. Had the author of this second volume succumbed to the dominant patriarchal culture of the time, and allowed women to fall from view in his narrative?
This coming Sunday, we hear a story in which Jesus is in the home of two women: Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42). It’s a passage that is much beloved for the radical portrayal it offers: Jesus willing to teach a woman, Jesus willing to break the mould of traditional patriarchal expectations. This story gives is opportunity to consider the strong emphasis on women that is found in the story of Jesus told within the orderly account that we attribute to Luke.
Feminist scholars have noted the prominence accorded to women as followers of Jesus throughout this orderly account, and the particular emphasis on women that surfaces at specific moments in the narrative. The presence of women amongst the movement initiated by Jesus, and their taking on of leadership roles within that movement, is no surprise, given that it is only in the second of the two volumes attributed to Luke that we find such a clear declaration about this matter.
Every Pentecost, when we read and hear the story of that day, we are told that Peter, in beginning his speech, cites in detail a prophetic word uttered centuries earlier by Joel. Speaking in the name of God, the prophet declares, “God declares that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy … even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2:17–18).
This prophecy is significant, both in what follows in the events recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, but also in terms of the place that women occupy in the Gospel of Luke. Women have significant roles, both in the stories told in the ensuing chapters about the movement initiated by Jesus, and also in what has come before, the account of the words and activities of Jesus himself.
First, it is often noted by interpreters that the author of the orderly account that we know as the Gospel according to Luke has a particular penchant to pair a female character with a male character at various moments in the story. It’s one way of “ordering” the material at the disposal of the author. A key instance of this is in the expanded Lukan version of the visit that Jesus makes to his hometown, and the address that he makes in the synagogue (Luke 4:16–30).
Jesus refers to two prophets in his sermon, Elijah and Elisha. Although both prophets are male, they are sent to individuals of different genders. Elijah is sent to a faithful woman, who perhaps typically remains unnamed; Elisha is sent to faithful man, identified as Naaman (4:25–27). Each of these figures receives the prophet and their message; Jesus does not elaborate on the point, but it must have been self-evident to his Jewish audience from their knowledge of the scriptural stories (1 Kings 17:8–24; 2 Kings 5:1–14). The male and the female who responded with faith and obedience signify the equal ability of both genders to respond in faith, and to follow Jesus.
Other dual-gender pairs can be seen in the account of Jesus healing the servant of a male centurion in Capernaum, followed by his raising the son of a widow in Nain (7:1–10, 11–17). Soon after these paired stories, there is one scene which juxtaposes the extravagant actions of a sinful woman with the more constrained hospitality of Simon, a Pharisee (7:36–50). Whilst the man is questioned about his lack of understanding (surprising, it would seem, for a man of learning), the woman is affirmed for her faith expressed in tangible actions.
Similar pairings appear in the parables of Jesus as Luke reports them. The parable of the mustard seed (presumably planted by a man in his field) is followed by the parable of the yeast (used by a woman in her household duties) (13:18–19, 20–21). The parable of the lost sheep, searched for by a male shepherd, is followed by the parable of the lost coin, searched for by a woman (15:3–7, 8–10).
This orderly account contains two strongly-apocalyptic discourses (17:20–37; 21:5–36). It’s another sign of how the author orders his materials, dividing the apocalyptic material available to him into two discrete speeches. In the first of these speeches, Jesus refers to two men on a couch and two women grinding at a mill to make a point about the judgement that is coming (17:34–35). And although they are not adjacent to one another, the parable of the persistent (male) friend (11:5–8) bears similarities to the parable of the persistent (female) widow (18:1–8); these stories resonate with one another so that the one informs the other.
Although this is not unique to Luke’s account, the Lukan Jesus also use pairs in his discourses, referring to “men and women” (12:45), as well as “father and mother, son and daughter” (12:53). Jesus also says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple” (14:26).
Ben Witherington suggests that such pairs demonstrates that men and women are “equal recipients of God’s grace and equal participants in the community of Jesus’ followers” (Women in the Ministry of Jesus: A Study of Jesus’ Attitudes to Women and their Roles as Reflected in His Earthly Life; Cambridge University Press, 1984, 52; quoted by Marg Mowczko in https://margmowczko.com/gendered-pairs-and-parallelism-in-lukes-gospel/)
Each evangelist tells of women, as well as men, who hear the message of Jesus and respond in obedience, with faith. In Luke’s Gospel, the motif of faithful men and faithful women is heightened. Luke’s distinctive beginning to the story of Jesus introduces us to two faithful pairs: Zechariah and Elizabeth (1:5–25, 57–80), and Simeon and Anna (2:25–38), as well as to Mary, “the servant of the Lord” (1:38).
The end of the Gospel has a similar tendency. The Markan portrayal of the last hours of Jesus is stark: the male disciples desert him (Mark 14:43–46, 50, 51–52) and Peter betrays him (Mark 14:66–72) whilst the women watch from afar (Mark 15:40–41). In Luke’s version, Peter’s betrayal of Jesus is interpreted as having been forced by Satan (Luke 22:31); the Markan comment that the men deserted him is omitted; and those who watched from afar include both genders: “all his acquaintances, including the women” (Luke 23:49). Luke does not indicate complete abandonment by the male followers of Jesus, but still maintains the priority of the female followers.
After this, Luke resumes the Markan account, in which the strategic role of the first witnesses to the empty tomb is delivered to women (Luke 23:55–56; 24:1, 10; compare Mark 15:47; 16:1).
In his account of Jesus’ preaching and teaching, Luke intensifies the theme of the faithfulness of women which was available to him in his sources. To the Markan account in which Jesus blesses an ill woman for her faith (Mark 5:34; Luke 8:48), Luke adds a similar commendation of another woman (7:50).
Only in Luke does Jesus receive a blessing from a woman in the crowd (11:27–28). Only in Luke do we learn of the woman who was healed by Jesus after suffering from “a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years”, who was “bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight” (13:10–17).
Only Luke specifically notes that in the early period of Jesus’ public activity, women travelled around with the group of male disciples of Jesus (8:1–3). That might be assumed from the comment made, after the death of Jesus, at Mark 15:41, but Luke places this fact in the spotlight much earlier in his Gospel narrative.
And only Luke tells the story which we hear this coming Sunday; the story of Mary and Martha, sisters who gave Jesus hospitality, and of Jesus’ commendation of Mary for her desire to learn from Jesus (10:38–42). It is a striking account of an important claim: that women, equally with men, are able to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from him.
Elizabeth and I are leading a weekly study on The Prophets, because excerpts from these books appear in the Revised Common Lectionary as the Hebrew Scripture selection each week during the current church season (the long season of Pentecost). See
Our study series kicked off last week with two sessions of robust, engaged discussion (one on Thursday morning, the same session repeated on Thursday evening). I’ll be blogging material relating to this series and these readings 8n coming weeks.
The concept of a prophet was widely-known in the ancient world. Marvin Sweeney writes that “prophets were well known throughout the ancient Near Eastern world as figures who would serve as messengers or mouthpieces for the gods to communicate the divine will to their human audiences.”
He notes, in particular: “Mesopotamian baru priests who read smoke patterns from sacrificial altars, examined the livers of sacrificial animals, read the movements of heavenly bodies … ecstatic muhhu prophets from the Mesopotamian city ofMari drew blood from themselves and engaged in trance possession as part of their preparation for oracular speech … the assinu prophets of Mari were well known for emulating feminine characteristics and dress as they prepared themselves to embody the goddess Ishtar of Arbela to speak on her behalf … Egyptian lector priests (see image) engaged in analysis of the worlds of nature and human beings in preparation for the well-crafted poetic compositions that gave expression to the will of the gods”. (“The Latter Prophets and prophecy”, pp.234–235 in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, ed. Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney, CUP, 2016)
The Hebrew Prophets typically claim that the word of the Lord came to me and pepper their speeches with the interjection, thus says theLord. They often report visionary experiences which provide the divine authorisation for what they speak. Some are reported as having had ecstatic experiences where they travel out-of-body and, they say, see things from God’s perspective. A number of prophets engage in symbolic activities which underline the message delivered by their words. Woe to you is a standard introductory phrase, leading to condemnations on nations or people for their sinfulness.
Adherence to the covenant of the Lord lies at the root of all that the prophets say—they recall Israel to their distinctive task of being a holy people, dedicated to the Lord. “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations”, Isaiah declares (Isa 42:6); “cursed be anyone who does not heed the words of this covenant”, cries Jeremiah (Jer 11:3); “I pledged myself and entered into a covenant with you, and you became mine”, Ezekiel declaims (Ezek 16:8).
Daniel prays, saying, “Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments, we have sinned and done wrong … turning aside from your commandments and ordinances” (Dan 9:4–5). Amos announces that Israel has “rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes” (Amos 2:4); Hosea denounces the people, for “you have forgotten the law of your God” (Hos 4:6); Malachi berates the people in the name of God, for “ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them” (Mal 3:7).
Similar declarations of the sinfulness of Israel, turning away from the covenant, recur in other prophetic books (Isa 30:9–11; Jer 2:20–22; Ezek 18:21–22, 24; Hos 8:1; Mal 2:4–17). So many of the oracles of judgement pronounced by the prophets are built on the assumption that the sinful behaviours being described indicate that Israel and Judah have turned from the covenant and are ignoring the commandments that God gave.
Ezekiel also notes that God says “I will establish with you an everlasting covenant” (Ezek 16:60), whilst Jeremiah says that God promises “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:31–33). Hosea declares that God promises, “I will make for you a covenant … I will make you lie down in safety” (Hos 2:18).
The prophetic call for repentance is heard often (Isa 1:27; 45:22; 59:20; Jer 15:19; 18:11; 22:1–5; 35:15; 36:5–7; 44:4-5; Ezek 3:19; 14:6–8; 18:21–32; 33:8–9; Mal 4:4–6). This call is based on the premise that God will relent, and redeem those who turn from sinful practices. Sadly, Jeremiah notes that “the Lord persistently sent you all his servants the prophets”, but “you did not listen to me, says the Lord” (Jer 25:4-7). The work of a prophet is often thankless.
In the course, we are exploring each of the named prophets in our Bibles: the four Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) and the twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea—Joel—Amos—Obadiah—Jonah—Micah—Nahum—Habakkuk—Zephaniah—Haggai—Zechariah—Malachi); the latter ones are collected together in one scroll by Jews, who call this The Book of The Twelve. Some merit more detailed attention than others (because their works are longer), but all of them share a common concern to “set right” the people of Israel and Judah.
We have noted that there are others in scripture who are declared to be prophets, but who do not have a book dedicated to them. We’ll be paying some of them some attention as we work through the books. The first prophet mentioned in scripture is Miriam, the sister of Moses, who led the women of Israel in song, to celebrate victory over the Egyptians; the short Song of Miriam (Exod 15:20–21) was then attributed also to Moses, and placed at the head of a much longer song in his name (Exod 15:1–18).
Such musical leadership is recognised as an act of prophecy in the story of Saul: “you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre playing in front of them; they will be in a prophetic frenzy” (1 Sam 10:5). Both males and females were able to serve as musicians who prophesied (1 Sam 18:6; 1 Chron 25:1–8).
Miriam is described as a prophet at Exodus 15:20 and again at Micah 6:4. She shares this designation with Deborah, who is introduced as a prophet “who was judging Israel” (Judg 4:4);. Deborah sits under a palm tree, the place for exercising judgement (Judg 4:5). However, the function of a “judge” was more akin to that of a military leader—a tribal elder who led military activities to protect their tribe from enemies and to establish justice within their group.
Deborah exercises such military leadership against Sisera, who led the army of King Jabin of Canaan. She recruits Barak to lead the fight (Judg 4:6–7); persuaded by her oracle, Barak insists that he will not fight unless Deborah goes out with him (Judg 4:8). When the Israelites gain victory over the Canaanite general (Judg 4:23–24), Deborah sings a song to celebrate her victory (Judg 5:1–31), maintaining the musical connection already noted in Miriam.
After the conquest and settlement of the land of Canaan, Samuel and Nathan figure significantly in the historical narratives about Israel. Samuel anoints Saul as the first king (and one interesting story about Saul ends with the question, is Saul also among the prophets? (1 Sam 19:18–24). Nathan, of course, is the prophet who promises David that “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam 7:14). This is the oracle that assures the Davidic dynasty in Israel.
Nathan also is the one who confronts David about his adultery with Bathsheba, ending his famous parable of “the poor man [who] had nothing but one little ewe lamb” with the scathing denunciation: “you are the man” (2 Sam 12:1–7). Still later, Nathan tells the dying David of the plot by Adonijah to become king (1 Ki 1:11–14), leading to David’s final machinations which saw Solomon appointed as king (1 Ki 1:15–53) and the death of Adonijah (1 Ki 2:13–25).
Later in the time of the divided kingdoms, Elijah and Elisha serve as prophets to call the king to account for the sinfulness of the court, and of all the people. Elijah spectacularly defended Yahweh against the might of the prophets of Baal, who were being worshipped in Israel, even by King Ahab. The prophets of Baal were unable to call down fire for the sacrifice (1 Ki 18:26–29), but Elijah, building an altar and drenching it with water, was able to call down “the fire of the Lord [which] fell and consumed the burnt offering” (1 Ki 18:30–40).
Elisha raised the son of a Shunnamite woman (2 Ki 4:8–37), turned a poisoned pot of stew into an edible meal (2 Ki 4:38–41), and fed a hundred men with twenty loaves of barley (2 Kings 4:42–44); these stories evoke Jesus.
Elijah is taken up into heaven in a whirlwind (2 Ki 2), passing his mantle to Elisha. The last words of the prophet Malachi indicate that Elijah would return “before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5–6); this prophecy plays an important role in New Testament texts. Just as it is not said that Enoch dies, but “walked with God, because God took him” (Gen 5:21–24), so this ascension of Elijah is believed to indicate that he did not die.
The final words uttered over Elisha were the same as those uttered over Elijah: “my father, my father! the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” (2 Ki 13:14; cf. 2 Ki 2:12). His miraculous power lived on after his death; it is said that the body of a Moabite soldier killed in battle was thrown into his grave, and immediately “he came to life and stood on his feet” (2 Ki 13:20–21).
We might also include the woman of Endor as a prophet; despite the condemnation of divination (Deut 8:10–11), this woman provides Saul with guidance at the point where traditional means have failed. She consults with the ghosts; she sees “an old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe” (1 Sam 28:14), and Saul recognises this as the ghost of Samuel. The deceased prophet thus directs the terrified king (1 Sam 28:15–19).
Later, we meet Huldah the wife of Shallum son of Tikva, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (2 Kings 22; 2 Chronicles 34). Both narratives tell of the reforms that took place under King Josiah, when a “Book of the Law” was discovered, and the king ordered that its prescriptions be followed. It is striking that Huldah, a female prophet, was consulted in relation to this book (not a male prophet). In a detailed oracle (2 Ki 22:16–20; 2 Chron 34:23–28), she speaks the word of the Lord to the king. Huldah validates the book that has been discovered.
Another female prophet is the wife of Isaiah, noted (without name) at Isa 8:3, who become the mother of one of Isaiah’s children; all of these children are given to be “signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts” (Isa 8:18).
There were many more prophets active alongside Elijah and Elisha. Throughout the historical narratives, there are regular refences to “the prophets” (1 Sam 10:11–12; 1 Ki 18:4, 13, 20; 20:41; 22:6, 13; 2 Ki 23:2), “my servants the prophets” (2 Ki 9:7; 17:13, 23; 21:10; 24:2), a “band of prophets” (1 Sam 10:5, 10), a “company of prophets” (1 Sam 19:20; 1 Ki 20:35; 2 Ki 2:3, 5, 7, 15; 4:1, 38; 5:22; 6:1; 9:1), 2 Chron 18:5, 12), and “all the prophets” (1 Ki 19:1; 22:10–12; 2 Chron 18:9–11).
Indeed, later Jewish tradition refers to the forty-eight prophets and the seven prophetesses who prophesied on behalf of the Jewish people.The relevant section of the Talmud reads: “In fact, there were more prophets, as it is taught in a baraita*: Many prophets arose for the Jewish people, numbering double the number of Israelites who left Egypt. However, only a portion of the prophecies were recorded, because only prophecy that was needed for future generations was written down in the Bible for posterity, but that which was not needed, as it was not pertinent to later generations, was not written. Therefore, the fifty-five prophets recorded in the Bible, although not the only prophets of the Jewish people, were the only ones recorded, due to their eternal messages.” (Talmud, Megillah 14a) [* A Baraita is an ancient teaching that was not recorded in the Mishnah]
That would make the sum total of prophets a whopping 1,200,000 prophets! (This assumes the number of 600,000 “men on foot” as given at Exod 12:37—a gross exaggeration, by any account—-and also overlooks the complicating comment, “besides children”, and the complete omission of any reference to women!) We can at least say that there were more people undertaking prophetic activity than are named or designated in the scrolls of Hebrew scriptures. Whether each of them would meet the criteria that is set out for a true prophet (Deut 18:15-22), we will never know!
In the New Testament, the words of Joel that Peter cites on the Day of Pentecost indicate that the gifting of prophecy continues in this new era: “God declares that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy … even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2:17–18).
So we find Anna described as a prophet (Luke 2:38), as is Zechariah (Luke 1:67) and his son, John the Baptist (Mark 6:15; Matt 11:9; 21:26; Luke 1:76; 7:26; 20:6), while Jesus himself is recognised as a prophet (Matt 14:5; 21:11, 46; Luke 7:16; 24:19; John 4:19; 6:14: 7:40–42; 9:17).
There were prophets active at the time of Jesus, as we see in his saying about welcoming a prophet (Matt 10:41). The movement that continued after the time of Jesus had prophets active such as the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9) and Agabus (Acts 21:10), as well as those gifted by the Spirit with the gift of prophecy (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 12:10, 28–29; 13:2; 14:1–5, 22–25, 29, 37; Eph 2:20; 4:11; 1 Tim 4:14), although the activity here described as prophecy may well differ in significant ways from what is found throughout Hebrew Scripture.
A dialogue from the first century, presented at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 10 July 2022, by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine and the Rev. Dr John Squires. The characters are Boaz and his neighbour, Abigail.
Ah, Abigail. I have been looking for you. I wanted to get your opinion of the story that was told by Jeshua yesterday. Imagine! A Samaritan helping a Jew! Unheard of! Impossible! What was Jeshua thinking?
I thought it was a good story. It showed that God’s love should be extended to all people by all people. Don’t you think that by using the character of the Samaritan Jeshua made the point well?
Well, yes, I understand the broad principle. But a Samaritan helping a Jew? I haven’t forgotten the time when the Samaritans scattered bones of dead people in the Temple precincts and defiled it. To say nothing of their wholesale rejection of Jerusalem and our priests.
But isn’t that part of Jeshua’s point? This is a story to push the boundaries. This is a story about radical love. This story is not just about etiquette for travelers. It is not even just about compassion, and generosity. This story demands that we embrace opportunities to practice love for others in powerful and new ways.
Whoa, there, Abigail. You are getting carried away. Let us talk about this story a little bit more. I want to start at the beginning. You know, of course, that one of the scribes challenged Jeshua about his knowledge of the law. I thought it was a good question, aimed at seeing whether the disciples were operating within the law when they went on their mission. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Well, I thought the question came from nowhere. I thought the scribe was testing Jeshua. I thought the scribe was trying to embarrass Jeshua in front of the crowd, and trying to make himself look good.
Of course the scribe was trying to make himself look more learned. That is the whole point of these debates, Abigail. You women do not understand these things. This was a normal debate between men, a verbal banter with Jeshua about interpretation and understanding of Torah. The scribe did this because he respected Jesus. This is a common social exchange in which one learned person challenges the actions or words of another. The scribe was not “testing” Jeshua in a right and wrong sense. This was a challenge about honour, to see whether Jeshua could back up his beliefs.
You can see this from the way that Jeshua responds to the scribe’s question with two questions of his own: “What does the law say? What do you read there?” The scribe would have been well versed in the law and would know the answer to the question he poses to Jeshua. He would also have known the answer to the question of the law Jeshua asks of him. This is how these things work.
I think I understand. You are saying that is why the scribe replied with an answer based on the law (Deut. 6:4–5; Luke 19:18), and why Jeshua commends him.
Yes. The scribe then keeps the debate going with the next question: “And who is my neighbour (v.29)?” This is a good question. The Torah states clearly who is a neighbor and how that neighbour should be treated. The scribe is waiting for Jeshua to give a response that is consistent with the teaching of the law.
Ah, But he doesn’t does, he? I thought Jeshua’s response was very unexpected. He tells a story. I think this appreciated by the crowd. Not everyone understands these learned debates about Torah. Jeshua set his teaching in a place that is familiar, though a place that is a bit uncomfortable – on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem.
You are right about the uncomfortable bit. That road is notorious for bandits and thieves. I thought it strange that Jeshua had all his characters alone on this road. Sensible people travel this route in groups for protection. I can tell you, the thought of being alone on this road made me feel very uncomfortable, even a tad afraid.
Yes, I felt the same way. A lone man going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is asking for trouble. It was no surprise to hear that he was stripped beaten, and left half dead. And imagine how difficult it would be to help him. He has been stripped of his clothes, and everything that would identify him and his social class and his religion. You wouldn’t be able to tell whether he was Jew or Gentile, or Roman or Greek.
The next part of the story reminded me of those jokes you hear. A priest, a Levite and an Israelite come walking by … you know the ones I mean.
Ah, but that was the twist. You know, beginning with a priest made me feel a bit awkward. You know how high and mighty they can appear. And they are in cahoots with the Romans. Not surprised a priest wouldn’t stop.
Or a Levite. They are just as snobbish. Think they are better because they are descended from an ancient lineage. I am descended from equally ancient people, so I don’t see why they believe they are closer to God than me.
Yes indeed. But it is the next bit that is surprising. You mentioned those stories that start with a priest, a Levite and an Israelite. That is the twist. We expected Jeshua to make an Israelite the hero of the story.
Well, that’s right. The hero is meant to be one of our kind, a regular down-to-earth type like you and me, the one you are expecting to come to the rescue of the poor, wounded man. But no! Jeshua goes and gets it mixed up. It’s not one of our own kind who saves the day – it’s an enemy, a Samaritan, an outsider. Samaritans don’t worship like us, they don’t act like us, they don’t live where we live, and there’s no way one of them should have been the hero.
I bet your stomach was churning by then, Boaz! But really, why should you be so offended?
You seem to have forgotten how Jeshua himself was treated by the Samaritans. Remember when a Samaritan village refused to welcome him? This was very poor form, you know how much hospitality means to travellers.
Well, the priest and the Levite weren’t much use, were they?
My friend Zedekiah says that the priest and Levite couldn’t stop because they risked making themselves unclean on behalf of a stranger. Or maybe they were afraid they would become victims themselves if they stopped. I suppose we should remember that the priest and Levite are both descendants of the tribe of Levi with different sets of duties in the temple, and they are bound to obey the Law. They could have been in violation of the Law as written in Leviticus (Lev. 21:11) if they touched a body by the road.
I think you are asking the wrong question here. Jeshua did not mean us to start inventing excuses as to why the priest and Levite didn’t stop. I think that Jeshua wants us to consider why he picked a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan. What were they symbolizing, do you think?
Mmmm, let me think. The wounded man, though unidentified, is a Jew. The Priest and Levite are also Jews. The debate with the scribe is about interpreting Jewish law governing ‘neighbour’. Are you suggesting that the Priest and the Levite somehow represent the law?
Well, one would expect them to know the law. And the law says ‘Love you neighbour as yourself’. They would know that. They were not obeying this law by walking past, and let’s face it, they could easily purify themselves once they got back to the Temple and Jerusalem. No, Jeshua is asking a deeper question here. To really drive home his point, Jeshua then sticks the most unlikely hero into the story, the one most likely to make us feel uncomfortable.
I am sorry, but the hostility between our races is well founded. We do not worship in the same place. We have different versions of the Torah. The Samaritans married foreign women. And the list goes on.
You forget that we are all descendants of the same ancestors. Why should we allow what are really small things to become a great wall that divides us?
The Torah speaks of loving of God and loving neighbour, and surely it is clear that the neighbour being understood is a Jew.
This comes back to my original point. This is a story to push the boundaries. This is a story about radical love. It challenges us to think differently. The Samaritan, the one who is hated and despised by Jews, becomes the hero of the story. Surely this must bring a new dimension to understanding what we mean by ‘neighbour’?
I think I begin to see your point. The scribe’s question: “Who is my neighbour?” has a different answer from what we are expecting.
Yes. Jesus does not answer the question directly for this reason. The parable poses a new question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
Of course. The Samaritan is the one who tends the injured man. Jeshua is saying that acting as a neighbour is what is important. Neighbour is not a group, or a religion, or a race. It is about doing the right thing.
I cannot help thinking, Boaz, that Jeshua wants us to act in this way ourselves, not just with very injured people, but with others in need. Surely he is asking us who are those fallen by the way in our communities and the ones who need our help? I am ashamed to admit that like the Priest and the Levite, I see situations where I could help and walk away because I have other things to do or I don’t want to get involved.
So to truly follow the law is to embrace everyone as neighbour. So you think that for the scribe, God is the God of Israel, and neighbours are Jewish neighbors. But for Jeshua, Israel’s God is the God for the whole world and a neighbour is anybody in need.
Yes, but it is more than that. Jeshua is not just saying ‘help those in need’ but also don’t judge others who you don’t agree with – like the Samaritan.
It seems to me that a lot of hatred in our country is religiously based and rooted in historical things like wars and other arguments. No doubt Samaritans are taught to hate the Jews in the same way Jews are taught to hate them.
And remember that the Samaritan in the story is in our territory, and the robbers might still be hanging around, waiting for their next victim. But he doesn’t let the Law, or fear, or the knowledge that he is hated keep him from providing care and compassion. He doesn’t even know if will be paid back, yet he still does this amazing act of kindness. Surely this is the sort of kindness and faith that Jesus is all about?
(at this point we lose contact with the dialogue, and return to the 21st century)
This story prompts us to be more open to opportunities to be neighbour. We need to look for places where we can engage with those who need our help, and not just with those who are like us.
Can compassion move us in a way that defies traditional stereotypical understandings of people and embraces all as equals, as neighbours, as residents of a global community?
Jesus challenges the lawyer to go out and do likewise, to be such a neighbour. Are we willing to do the same?
This coming Sunday, we turn from a letter written in the name of Paul, which few interpreters doubt is an authentic letter of Paul, to a slightly shorter letter which also claims to be written by Paul—but about which there is quite some debate as to whether Paul did write it. We will hear the opening section of the letter this Sunday (Col 1:1–14).
The letter begins with a clear claim to be a letter from “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae” (Col 1:1-2). Despite this claim, there are signs that Paul may not be the author.
A more complex grammatical structure at some points, and some unusual vocabulary when compared with the vocabulary of the authentic letters of Paul, suggest a different hand in the creation of this letter. Some theological motifs are developed further than is found in the authentic letters of Paul, while the situation addressed appears to be different from—and probably later than—any situation envisaged in the lifetime of Paul.
It is typical of Paul’s letters that the opening “prayer of thanksgiving” sets out some of the key contenders which will be addressed in the body of the letter. (This is the case in many other letters from the time that survive to today; whether Christian, or Jewish, or pagan, letters invariably flag key issues in the opening sentences.) Here, the key concerns seem to be about “the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” which will enable the readers and hearers of this letter to “lead lives worthy of the Lord” and “be prepared to endure everything with patience”.
The letter refers to Onesimus (Col 4:9), the slave about whom Paul wrote to Philemon (Phlm 10), as well as one of the addressees of that letter, Archippus (Col 4:17; Phlm 1). The greetings at the end of the letter contain a number of names also found in the greetings of Philemon 23–24: Epaphras (Col 4:12), Mark and Aristarchus (Col 4:10), and Demas and Luke (Col 4:14).
This suggests that the two letters might have originated at the same time in the ministry of Paul—when he was in prison (Col 4:3, 8; Phlm 10, 13), perhaps in Rome towards the end of his life. However, there is little else to connect Colossians with Philemon. The content of each letter is quite different.
Alternatively, the Colossian references to Paul’s imprisonment might link the letter with Philippians, written similarly during an imprisonment (Phil 1:7, 12– 14, 17). This would be so if Epaphroditus in Philippians (2:25; 4:18) was the same person as Paul’s associate, Epaphras, noted in Colossians (1:7–8; 4:12– 13). That possibility suggests a common origin; but no further links between these letters are evident.
A more fruitful connection is found between Colossians and Ephesians, where there are a number of similarities in theological development as well as a significant overlap of text. Eph 6:21b–22 replicates almost exactly the underlined phrases in Col 4:7–9. The most persuasive theory is that Ephesians, written well after the death of Paul by a follower of Paul’s teachings, drew on that section of Colossians, believing it to be the words of Paul.
Returning to Colossians itself, we note that it follows the traditional form of a letter, with opening greetings (1:1–2) and thanksgiving (1:3–8) leading into a further prayer for the Colossians (1:9–14) before the body of the letter (1:15–2:23) and a series of exhortations (3:1–4:6). The closing greetings (4:7–17) and grace (4:18) bring the letter to a close in conventional fashion.
There are a number of indications of the distinctive situation to which the letter is addressed, although these insights are mediated through the perspective of the writer of the letter. The Colossians, although believers in Christ, continue to recognise the “elemental spirits of the universe” (2:8, 20). They are “deceived with plausible arguments” (2:4) and thus are captive to a “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8) which is contradictory to Christian belief. They take part in “festivals … new moons … sabbaths” (2:16), engage in “self-abasement and worship of angels” (2:18) and adhere to strict regulations (2:20–22).
These terms seem to be describing people who are Gentiles (elemental spirits) who have adopted some Jewish practices (new moons, sabbaths, worship of angels) yet have an ascetic flavour (self-a basement) with rhetorical interests (plausible arguments) mediated through their philosophical interests. That’s quite a thick description of the presumed recipients, and not like others who received authentic letters from Paul.
Along with clear evidence for syncretism amongst the Colossians, there is a thought that the believers in Colossae were proto-Gnostics—that is, precursors of the kind of Christianity that emerged fully in the second century onwards, and which we know about most directly through the documents collected in the Nag Hammadi library (discovered in Egypt in 1945). See http://gnosis.org/naghamm/nhl.html
Over against this cluster of beliefs, the letter-writer advocates the gospel, which is described as “the word of truth” (1:5) and “the faith” (1:23; 2:7), and exhorts the readers to be “mature in Christ” (1:28; 4:12). The opening thanksgiving (1:9–10) contains key terms which express the writer’s hopes for the readers: understanding (2:2) and growth (2:19), and especially wisdom (1:28; 2:3, 23; 3:16; 4:5) and knowledge (2:2, 3; 3:10). These last terms, particularly, point in the direction of the developing Gnostic movement which held sway in some parts of the developing Jesus movement.
Some of these terms do appear in Paul’s authentic letters; some others appear less frequently, if at all. They do appear, however, in the Pastoral Epistles (written “in the name of Paul” some decades after his death) and then in various documents, not part of the New Testament, which demonstrate the growing Gnostic and speculative-philosophical tendencies in some parts of Christianity in the late first century and on into the second and third centuries.
The positive qualities which are highlighted in this letter, noted above, are especially related to Christ, in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells” (2:9–10), a doctrine which sits at the core of a distinctive hymn in which Christ is portrayed as an all-encompassing cosmic figure (1:15–20). This is one key point where the letter moves beyond what is found in Paul’s authentic letters to the formulation of a post-Pauline doctrine. This, it seems, is central to “the word of truth” that is highlighted from the start of the letter.
My own conclusion is that Colossians was most likely written by a follower of Paul, writing in his teacher’s name in order to claim his authority as he addressed a situation different from, and some time after, Paul’s own time. Paul’s theological and ethical positions are known by the author. However, the problematic situation addressed, the theological ideas expressed, and the ethical instructions offered, each point to an origin after the lifetime of Paul.
In this third post on the story of “the Good Samaritan” (the story set as the Gospel passage for this coming Sunday), we give consideration to the portrayal, in the story, of the Priest and the Levite. Were they acting in an uncharitable manner? Or were they simply adhering to the provisions of the Torah, which governed their lives?
A common interpretation of the lack of assistance provided by the Priest and the Levite, in contrast to the Samaritan, rests on the commandment of Lev 21:1–4, at the start of a long section relating to the ways that “the priests, the sons of Aaron” should ensure they remain holy (Lev 21–24). The first commandment relating to this priestly holiness is, “no one shall defile himself for a dead person among his relatives, except for his nearest kin” (Lev 21:1).
These commandments are given to ensure the holiness of the priests as they minister within the Temple, in the area just outside the Holy of Holies itself (see Lev 21:21–23). However, the Priest and the Levite are both heading away from Jerusalem (“going down from Jerusalem to Jericho”, Luke 10:30), so they are not required to keep holy in order to conduct the ceremony. Furthermore, the commandments of Lev 21 do not actually apply to the Levites, only to the Priests.
Indeed, Josephus (writing at the end of the first century) notes that there is a command, relating to a person who has been convicted of a crime and left to hang on a tree, that “his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day” (Deut 21:22–23). He indicates that all Jews should obey “those things which our legislator ordained for us beforehand, which of necessity we ought to do in common to all men; as to afford fire, and water, and food to such as want it; to show them the roads; not to let any one lie unburied” (Against Apion 2.211).
So neither Priest nor Levite are excused from attending to the traveller, even on the presumption that he may have appeared dead to them as they passed by. Indeed, the expectation of normal human compassion is for the travellers to stop and render assistance. The Samaritan was a neighbour, to whom compassion and love (and practical assistance) ought to be offered. They are not excused by obedience to Torah; they are condemned by their hard hearted indifference.
The three characters in the story may well indicate that Jesus is riffing off a well-known threefold categorisation of the people of Israel: there are Priests, and Levites, and Israelites. (In the same way that we have the threefold categorisation, often told in jokes, “an Englishman, and Irishman, and a Scotsman walked into a pub …”)
The Priests all descended, it was claimed, from Aaron, the brother of Moses, regularly designated a priest (Exod 31:10; Lev 1:7; Num 3:6; Deut 10:6; Ezra 7:5; Neh 10:38; and see the note that Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah, was “a descendant of Aaron”, Luke 1:5–which puts John the Baptist into a priestly line.) The Levites, as their name suggests, traces their lineage back to Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah (Gen 35:23; 1 Chron 2:1; Ezra 8:18), and thus Levi gave his name to one of the twelve tribes of Israel (Deut 27:12–13)
The Levites were “set apart … to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord” (Deut 10:18) and thus had no inheritance (Josh 13:14, 33), were not counted in the census of Moses (Num 1:49) and received “no allotment or inheritance within Israel” (Deut 18:1; Josh 13:14). They were to be devoted to assisting the priests (Num 3:6), 53: 3:7–9), to be responsible for “the tabernacle of the covenant, and over all its equipment, and over all that belongs to it” (Num 1:49–50). Whilst all the other tribes were allocated land (Judges 13–19), the Levites were given the cities of refuge to care for those fleeing acts of retributive justice (Num 35:9–34; Deut 19:1–13; Josh 20:1–52).
The Israelites were all others, descended from the other sons of Jacob (the early stages of these genealogical tables are given at Gen 46:8–27).
So those listening to this story (presuming the disciples, present at 10:23, are still nearby) are expecting the typical pattern: first a Priest, then a Levite, then (of course) an Israelite. Instead, Jesus punctures these traditional expectations and moves from the Priest and the Levite, to the Samaritan (v.33). This is the first punchline in the story.
Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington, in their recent New Cambridge Bible Commentary on this Gospel (CUP, 2018) , suggest that the story that Jesus told may have been influenced by the incident reported in 2 Chronicles 28, when the armies of Adam and Israel conquered the people of Judah, and “intend[ed] to subjugate the people of Judah and Jerusalem, male and female, as your slaves” (2 Chron 28:10). A prophet named Oded spoke in the name of the Lord, commanding the victors “you shall not bring the captives in here” (2 Chron 28:13).
As a result, “they got up and took the captives, and with the booty they clothed all that were naked among them; they clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them; and carrying all the feeble among them on donkeys, they brought them to their kindred at Jericho, the city of palm trees. Then they returned to Samaria.” (2 Chron 28:15).
We can hear the echoes of this story reverberating in the story of the traveller and his Samaritan rescuer: bandaging and anointing the man, putting him “on his own animal”, and leading him to an inn (on the road to Jericho? or actually in Jericho??).
NAIDOC WEEK (3–10 July) is an opportune time to reflect on the situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia, and to celebrate Aboriginal and Islander history, culture and achievements.
Each year, the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) selects a theme to provide a focus for the week. This year, the theme of Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up! encourages Indigenous peoples “to work for systemic change and to keep rallying around their mob, their Elders and their communities”.
I have noted in earlier posts (see links at end of this post) how previous themes have highlighted the Indigenous commitment to community, the priority of family and the consequent valuing of young people, and the respect for Elders as the custodians, both of the land of this continent and its islands, but also of the many Indigenous cultures—collectively, the oldest continuing culture in today’s world.
In looking back over the past decade of themes, I can note some very clear and strong resonances between what First Peoples have been saying, and what the Uniting Church has articulated and sought to enact.
The 2014 theme referenced the celebrations taking place around the globe relating to the centenary of World War I: Serving Country: Centenary & Beyond. The poster, with artwork by Harry Alfred Pitt, explicitly depicts three Indigenous men in service uniforms.
The 2015 theme provides a clear and strong link to Uniting Church values and commitments, through resonances relating to the land: for land to be valued in its own right, and as an integral part of the very being of the people living on it. From early in the life of the Uniting Church, land rights for Aboriginal people was prominent on the agenda. Resolutions urging the federal government to recognise the land rights of Aboriginal people at the 2nd Assembly (resolution 79.45), the 3rd Assembly (82.50), and the 4th Assembly 85.06). The 5th Assembly agreed to a proposal that added to this wording that sought to have the government “acknowledge the immense and continuing destruction of their people imposed by the adoption of the doctrine of Terra Nullius” (88.22.22(c)).
These resolutions, and other actions, reflect the commitment to the importance of the land in the NAIDOC WEEK theme for 2015, We all Stand on Sacred Ground: Learn Respect & Celebrate.
This commitment is also evident in the 2020 theme, Always Was, Always Will Be.
For my reflections on the 2020 theme, see
Next, there are commonalities which relate to the call for a treaty which has been made by Indigenous leadership many times over the decades. The 2020 theme built on the theme chosen for 2019, Voice. Treaty. Truth. This, in turn, echoes the 2017 Statement from the Heart which was issued by a group of indigenous leaders, meeting at Uluṟu in that year. See https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement/
In 1994, the President of the Uniting Church Assembly signed a Covenant with the Chairperson of the Congress. Although neither body represented a sovereign entity in the way that a state or federal government does, the move signalled that it is possible to conclude such an agreement with the First People.
In the past decade, the Uniting Church has articulated its clear commitment to all three components of the 2019 theme—giving a voice to First Peoples, agreeing to a treaty (or a series of treaties with the various Indigenous nations), and ensuring that truth-telling about our recent history as a colonised country.
In 2015, the 14th Assembly gave detailed consideration to the matter of the doctrine of terra nullius and the claim to sovereignty of First Peoples. This lead, in 2018, to the 15th Assembly making a significant about sovereignty:
In 2019, the Synod of NSW.ACT addressed this theme
Reference to the land recurs also in the 2021 theme (see below)
There are connections with story, which sits at the heart of Indigenous cultures in many countries, but especially in Australia; and I am taken by the ways that story is at the heart of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. We share this commitment together—although Second Peoples have much to learn about the ways that First Peoples value and practice story telling!
2017 provided a focus on language, in the theme Our Languages Matter. That’s a message which is integral to the Gospel—the Gospel that says, in the beginning, God spoke … and there was life (Gen 1). The Gospel that claims that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, and that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (John 1).
We know God best of all, most intimately of all, because God speaks, God is word. Language connects us with God. Language matters. Language connects us with one another, enables us to know one another. Languages matter for First Peoples. They communicate, they articulate deep truths. Languages matter.
In the Uniting Church, alongside worship in English, there are worship services held each week in another 40 languages—the mother tongues of many Second Peoples who have been welcomed into our century and now call Australia home. This is alongside the many Indigenous languages which are used by First Peoples as they worship each week.
The revival of languages amongst First Peoples is signalled by this theme, and resonates with the Uniting Church’s commitment. There are also 13 National Conferences, which gather together people of the same linguistic or cultural group: Tongan, Samoan, Fijian, Indonesian, Korean, Tamil, Chinese, South Sudanese, Filipino, Niuean, Vietnamese, Middle East and Ibero-Latino.
2018 invited a focus on women, with the theme Because of Her, We Can! The experiences that Elizabeth and I have had with Indigenous communities in a number of places is always that women are key leaders in those communities, the Aunties have power and draw respect! This is another theme that resonates with countless stories throughout scripture. Because of the faithfulness of Mary, his mother, Jesus came. Because of the witness of Mary of Magdala, exclaiming “I have seen the Lord”, the male disciples believed.
Because of the proactive intervention of Shiphrah and Puah, Hebrew midwives in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Moses survived and grew to lead Israel. Because of the fiercely powerful leadership of Deborah, centuries later, Israel survived the onslaught from the troops of Sisera, commander of the army of Canaan. Because of her, we can. And there are many more such women. Throughout the pages of scripture. Women always have, and always will, play key roles in communities of faith, just as they have, and do, in Indigenous communities,
For my reflections on women in leadership in the Uniting Church, see
On the themes of 2017–2021, see
A commitment to sustainable living, demonstrating environmental responsibility, was signalled by the Uniting Church in the 1977 Statement to the Nation. That commitment has become more important—indeed, it presses as urgent—in recent times. The theme for NAIDOC WEEK 2021, Heal Country, underlined this area, and brought together Indigenous care for the land and Indigenous spirituality, which has also been noted in earlier themes.
The 2022 theme, Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up!, is a call to advocacy, and to solidarity in that cause. The Uniting Church has always been committed to speaking with, speaking along with, and speaking for, the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. We have not always got it right, but there has been a consistent thread of standing with and working to support and advocate for First Peoples, from the Noonkanbah action in 1980, through the years of various land rights claims, alongside the work led by Sir Ron Wilson leading to the Bringing Them Home report of 1997, into the more recent calls for Treaty (Makarratta) and an Indigenous voice to Parliament.
In this second post on the story of “the Good Samaritan” (the story set as the Gospel passage for this coming Sunday), we give consideration to where this story takes place—and whether than matters for how we hear and understand the story. Was Jesus telling this story in Galilee? Or in Jerusalem? Or somewhere else? And how might this matter?
Much of the activities of Jesus take place in Galilee, in both Mark’s earliest account (Mark 1–9), and in Matthew’s later reworking of his narrative (Matt 4–18). Those activities, in Luke’s orderly account, are compressed into a much shorter narrative (Luke 4–9). At a crucial turning point, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). Galilee was behind him; Jerusalem was before him.
However, to get from Galilee in the north to Judea in the south, it was necessary to pass through Samaria. Matthew, following Mark, skips over this essential component of this trip; Jesus leaves Galilee and arrives in “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” in the space of just one verse (Matt 19:1, following Mark 10:1a). For the Matthean Jesus, who insisted that he had nothing to do with Samaritans (Matt 10:5), the avoidance of any comment about this geographical necessity in this Gospel is quite understandable.
Not so for Luke. Jesus quite explicitly travels through the region of Samaria, as we have noted in exploring previous sections of this Gospel. He journeys in Samaria in 9:52–56. He is “on the way” to Jerusalem (10:38; 13:22, 31–35), but is apparently still in Samaria many chapters later. Curiously, Luke reports that, after a full seven and a half chapters, Jesus was still “going through the region between Samaria and Galilee” (17:11). He heals ten lepers and sends them to the priests to be “made clean” (17:14); and the one who returned to thank Jesus was a Samaritan (17:16).
We should note that when Luke tells of the meal that Jesus and with Martha and Mary (10:38–42), we might well expect that he was in Bethany, far to the south, near to Jerusalem—for this is where John locates the sisters (John 11:1; 12:1–2). However, Luke simply says that this meal was in “a certain village” (10:38), and it is clear that Jerusalem is still some way in the distance (13:33–35).
We know from other sources that there was entrenched, longterm distrust, even hatred, between the Jews and the Samaritans. John reflects this in his account of Jesus’s encounter with a Samaritan woman by the well of Jacob (“Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans”, John 4:9).
The Samaritans were regarded as being the descendants of the people who committed idolatry after the Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom (2 Kings 17:5–6) and resettled the northern region with people from other locations in their empire (2 Kings 17:24), from “every nation [who] still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived” (2 Kings 17:29).
Flavius Josephus, a late 1st century CE historian, retells the sequence of events we read in 2 Kings, indicating that the Samaritans descended from this hybrid, unfaithful group of people (Antiquities 11.297–347). He also recounts an incident which entrenched the antagonism of southern Judeans towards the northern Samaritans (Antiquities 11.297–347).
The Samaritans attempted to undermine the returning exiled Judeans with their Persian rulers and slowed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple (Ezra 4:6–24). Josephus notes disagreement about which site should be the location for the temple (Josephus, Antiquities 12.9-10); the same issue is reflected at John 4:20-22.
Samaritans had built a temple on Mount Gerizim, one of the ancient holy sites in the northern kingdom (Deut 27:12; Josh 8:33–34; Judg 9:7). That temple was destroyed in 107BCE, when John Hyrcanus destroyed the temple and the capital city of Samaria.
Josephus recounts a later time when some Samaritans scattered bones of dead people in the in portico of the Jerusalem Temple, thus rendering it unclean (Antiquities 18.29-30), and he gives a graphic description of the time when Cumanus (governor of Judea 48-52 CE) was bribed by some Samaritans, leading some Judean brigands to mount an uprising. Cumanus ordered the Romans to join with the Samaritans in battling the Judeans; many were killed, many more taken captive (Antiquities 20.118-123).
References to the Samaritans in the 3rd century CE Mishnah may reflect views current at the time of Jesus: “Rabbi Eliezer used to say, ‘He that eats of the bread of Samaritans is as one who eats the flesh of swine’” (m. Seb. 8.10); “the daughters of Cutheans [Samaritans] are menstruants from their cradle” (m. Nid. 4.1).
The Lukan Jesus takes a clear stance on the Samaritans; he is deliberate in his acceptance of those most hated of outsiders, the Samaritans. He stops his disciples from bringing harm on the Samaritans (9:52–56); he uses a Samaritan as an example of neighbourliness (10:29–37); and he commends a Samaritan leper for his faith after he had offered thanks to Jesus for being healed (17:15–19).
The Samaritan motif continues into the story of the early faith communities; it was the people of Samaria who first accepted the Gospel when it was preached outside of Judea (Acts 8:5–25). Indeed, Samaria figures in the programmatic statement that Jesus makes when he appears, resurrected, to his followers, and instructs them, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
These Samaritans bear witness to the ways that Jesus and the earliest followers of Jesus would welcome outcasts into their midst. The community of the faithful would reflect diversity in this way, that both respectable and disreputable would be given a place.
That Jesus was, according to Luke’s erratic geography during the journey narrative of chapters 9–19, still in Samaria when he tells a story about who is “a good neighbour”, is telling. That it is a Samaritan who is that good neighbour, adds power to the story he tells. In this story, no Jew exhibits the behaviour that the Torah mandates, of loving your neighbour; it is a Samaritan who lives this way. The power of the story is intensified by where it is being told.
I think that most people know about the story of the man who was “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers” (Luke 10:30). The story that Jesus tells probably rates as one of the two most widely-known “parables” of Jesus. Alongside the “parable of the prodigal son” (Luke 15:11–32), the “parable of the Good Samaritan” (10:30–37) must have a similar recognition level.
As we hear this story read in worship this coming Sunday, what is there that is new, or not much known, to be said about this story? I’m going to canvass three different aspects of the story, over three consecutive posts.
First, I want to propose that we consider the nature of this story—and we might reconsider whether this story was actually a “parable”. A parable is a story which puts one thing alongside another; in Hebrew, it was called a mashal, meaning “comparison”, whilst the Greek word, parable, literally means “thrown side-by-side”.
The classic parable in the Gospels begins, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed …” (Mark 4:30–31), or “it is like yeast that a woman took …” (Luke 13:21), or “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field …” (Matt 13:44), or “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard …” (Matt 20:1).
Most parables told by Jesus begin this way. But not the story of the man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho; Jesus simply starts into the story in response to a question from a lawyer, “who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). And the story of the prodigal younger son, and gracious father, and resentful elder son, simply begins, “there was a man who had two sons …” (Luke 15:11).
In this regard, these stories (found only in Luke’s Gospel) are much like the classic mashalim (comparisons) found in the Hebrew Scriptures, which simply launch into things: “there were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor; the rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb …”(2 Sam 12:1–3), or “let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard … “ (Isa 5:1).
The comparison is revealed at the end of the story: “you are the man”, says Nathan to David (2 Sam 12:7), “the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting” (Isa 5:7); and in the case of the story told by Jesus, a closing question, posed to the lawyer: “of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36). In this case, the lawyer draws the comparison intended (“the one who showed him mercy”), to which Jesus then concludes, “go and do likewise” (10:37).
So is this parable a parable? Yes, in the terms of the Hebrew Scripture, it is. But it is not explicitly a parable about what “the kingdom of God is like”. It is, rather, a story which instructs on how to live as a “good neighbour” to others in this world, in this time. The punchline (10:37) is instruction about living a just and righteous life.
As a story with a clear ethical punchline, it sits alongside of many of the explicit teachings of Jesus, indicating how we are to live in this life: “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return” (6:35); “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (9:23); “sell your possessions, and give alms” (12:33); “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13); “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (14:33); “you cannot serve God and wealth” (16:33); “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (20:25); and so on.
The story is told after a discussion between Jesus and a scribe (an interpreter of the Law), about the question raised by the scribe: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:25). In the discussion, conducted in typical rabbinic style (a question posed, answered with another question, leading to yet another question …).
This week, during NAIDOC WEEK, it is an opportune time to reflect on the situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this nation. NAIDOC Week runs from the first Sunday in July until the following Sunday. This year, it starts today (3 July) and goes until 10 July.
The acronym NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. It has its roots in the 1938 Day of Mourning which became a week- long event in 1975. The week is a time to celebrate Aboriginal and Islander history, culture and achievements.
It’s an undeniable—and unchangeable—fact that the Uniting Church took some time to arrive at the place where it finds itself today, in terms of its relationship with the First Peoples of the continent we call Australia, and the many islands that surround it.
Looking back, we can see the key steps that occurred to bring us to the present position, which places relationships with the First Peoples and advocacy for sovereignty and treaty at the centre of our commitments. It hasn’t always been an easy relationship, and there have been some difficult moments that required careful conversation to resolve, but some significant step have been taken over the years.
The first thing to note is that at the inauguration of the church in 1977, there was little (if any) attention paid to Indigenous matters. In terms of relationships with First Peoples, it was not an auspicious start. The inauguration service had no Aboriginal participation or recognition. There was no mention in either the Basis of Union or the Constitution of Indigenous people.
Whilst the Basis has remained virtually unchanged (apart from the minor wording changes of 1992), the Constitution now includes a revised preamble (adopted in 2009) which recognises the First Peoples, confesses our complicity in how they were treated from the time of colonisation, acknowledges the centrality of spirituality in their cultures, and even declares that the Spirit was already in the land, revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony.
Nor was there any mention of Aboriginal or Islander peoples in the 1977 Statement to the Nation. That Statement mentioned our commitment as a church to be a “sign of the reconciliation we seek for the whole human race”, and stated our intention to “seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur”; but it fails to mention Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders in any way.
This was a striking omission, as Aboriginal issues had already been to the fore in the previous decade, leading to the famous 1967 Referendum decision which altered the Australian Constitution to provide for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the population of Australia. See https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/1967-referendum
This unfortunate oversight was addressed in 1988, when a second Statement to the Nation was issued for Bicentennial celebrations of the founding of modern Australia. In this Statement, the church declared that “The integrity of our nation requires truth; the history of Australia, as it is taught in educational institutions or popularised in the media, must cease to conceal the reality and nature of Aboriginal society before invasion, what was done to them in colonisation, and what has been the fate and status of Aborigines within the Australian nation. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/introduction/item/133-statement-to-the-nation-australian-bicentennial-year-1988
There had been strenuous debate at the national Assembly in 1985, as to whether the Uniting Church should participate in those celebrations; in the end, we did, although some members joined the 26 January protest held at the same time as the commemoration of the arrival of the First Fleet, marching under a banner that asked, 1988: what’s there to celebrate? See https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/history/The_1988_Bicentenary_Protest
Some of the key markers that we can paint to are obvious: in 1985, the establishment of the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress; in 1994, the formalising of the Covenant between Congress and the Uniting Church, sealed by the then Chairperson and President of those bodies, respectively.
In 2005, Uniting in Worship 2 included wording for an Acknowledgement of Country to be used in Uniting Church worship services (see p. 239, in the section entitled “Resources for the Service of the Lord’s Day”. Many Uniting Church services of worship now include an Acknowledgement of Country as a matter of course.
Other moments of symbolic significance no doubt come to mind, such as when the appropriate Congress leader was invited to sit alongside the President of Assembly or the Moderator of a Synod, to signal our joint commitment to one another. My special memory of this was the 2011 Synod of NSW.ACT, when each morning began, not only with prayer, but with storytelling from a local Indigenous elder. That was the moment when, in my Synod, Indigenous voices were highlighted, heard, and valued.
There have been Walking on Country opportunities, the development and implementation of Reconciliation Action Plans by Uniting, Synod Boards, and Presbyteries, and the formation in 2018 of the Walking Together as First and Second Peoples Assembly Circle of Interest, which draws almost 300 Uniting Church members together through social media, to share news and develop ideas relating our commitment to reconciliation, to forging a destiny together, as the final, clause of the Revised Preamble to the Constitution states.
As I reflect on this history during NAIDOC WEEK 2022, I am reminded of the ways that the theological commitment of the Uniting Church has been focussed and refined in order to give priority to First Peoples and to crystallise our commitment to working together, seeking justice, advocating for and serving the needs and hopes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
And as I have looked back over the themes of NAIDOC WEEK over the past decade (see the links at the end of this post), I have been strengthened in my understanding that the Uniting Church has a deep-seated and thoroughgoing commitment to the hopes and ideals expressed by First Peoples through those decades. I’ll reflect on that in my next post in the series about NAIDOC WEEK.
Over the next five months, the lectionary is taking a dive into the books of the prophets. These are offered as companions to the Gospel readings from the “orderly account” of Luke that we are hearing, week by week. It is, after all, Luke’s narrative which most directly depicts Jesus speaking as God’s prophet (Luke 7:16; 24:19; Acts 2:30; 3:22).
In turn, over the coming months we will read and hear excerpts from the northern kingdom prophets, Amos and Hosea; then from the southern kingdom prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, two of the “major prophets” of Israel; followed by three “minor prophets”, Joel, Habakkuk, and Haggai; and then a section from the closing vision in the much later set of oracles collected at the end of the book of Isaiah. We should buckle up for the ride; the prophets pull no punches and speak in ways that can confront, accuse, and terrify!
We have these books in our scriptures and read and reflect on them in our services of worship because, although these voices sounded forth long ago, their message resonates still with us today. The call for justice and righteousness undergirds the entire narrative of the people of Israel, from the call attributed to Moses in Deut 16:20, “justice, and only justice, shall you follow”, through the words of Amos and Isaiah, into the declarations of Jeremiah and in the various “minor prophets” that we will encounter.
Justice is the common theme in these prophetic books—God’s justice; the justice which God desires for the people of God; the justice which God speaks through the voice of the prophets; the justice that God calls for in Israel; the justice that provides the measure against which Israel will be judged, and saved, or condemned.
In the later scriptures of the New Testament, we hear resonances from many of these selected passages of Hebrew Scripture. Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth, stands in this tradition and speaks “the voice of the Lord”, so the call for justice and righteousness sits at the heart of who we are, as people of faith, heirs of this tradition, in the 21st century.
As we read and hear these prophetic passages week after week, we are invited to reflect more deeply on how these ancient words, particular to their original time and place, can yet be for us the word of God to us, in our time, in our place.
This Sunday, we will hear the vision of the plum line (Amos 7:7–17); next Sunday, the vision of the basket of fruit (Amos 8:1–12). Amos, who came from Tekoa in the southern kingdom (1:1), was active in the northern kingdom (Israel) during the reign of Jeroboam II, the thirteenth king of Israel, who reigned for four decades (786–746 BCE; see Amos 7:10). It was a time of prosperity, built on the trading of olive oil and wine with the neighbouring nations of Assyria to the north and Egypt to the south. But the sinfulness of the time was too much for Amos.
Although the Temple in Jerusalem was the focus for religious activity in the southern kingdom (Judah), there were a number of religious sites in the northern kingdom—Dan, Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheba (Amos 5:5; 8:14)—where not only was the Lord God worshipped, but idolatrous images were used in worship services (5:26). Amos is trenchant in his criticism of the worship that the people offer (5:21–27); embedded in this crisis is a doublet of poetry, words most often associated with Amos: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).
Indeed, it is the perpetration of social inequity within Israel that most causes him to convey the anger of divine displeasure. He admonishes the rich for the way that they mistreat the poor: “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:6–7); “you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain” (5:11).
Again, Amos rails: “you trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land … buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat” (8:4, 6). In a biting oracle, he criticises the “cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria” for the way they “oppress the poor, crush the needy” (4:1).
Bashan was the mountainous area to the northeast of Israel (Ps 68:15), which rejoiced in majestic oaks (Isa 2:13) and extensive pasture lands (1 Chron 5:16). The luxurious lifestyle of these people can well be imagined. The reference to “winter houses … summer houses … houses of ivory … and great houses” (3:15) is telling. Luxury and opulence is evident amongst the wealthy.
So, too, is the description of “those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils” (6:4–6). The extravagance of the wealthy is obvious, juxtaposed against the plight of the poor, as we have noted.
Amos indicates that God had given Israel a number of opportunities to repent, “yet you did not return to me” (4:6, 8, 9, 10, 11). God pleads for Israel to “seek me and live” (5:4), “seek the Lord and live” (5:6), “seek good and not evil, that you may live” (5:14).
But this is all in vain; ultimately, the prophet insists, the Lord God will bring on the day of the Lord—a day of “darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it” (5:18–20). God is determined; “the great house shall be shattered to bits, and the little house to pieces” (6:11); later, he insists again, “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place” (8:3).
In a series of visions, Amos sees how the judgement of God will be implemented. He sees a plague of locusts (7:1–3), a shower of fire (7:4–6), a plum line (7:7–9), and a basket of summer fruit (8:1–6). Finally, he sees “the Lord standing beside the altar” (9:1–8).
The first two visions give Amos an opportunity to intercede on behalf of the people: “O Lord God, forgive, I beg you!” (7:2), “O Lord God, cease, I beg you!” (7:5). On both occasions, God relents, declaring, “it shall not be” (7:3, 6).
Not so with the following visions, however. The vision of the plum line signals that “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (7:8). The vision of the basket of fruits signals that “the end has come upon my people Israel” (8:2). In the vision of the Lord at the altar, God declares a definitive judgement on Israel: “those who are left I will kill with the sword; not one of them shall flee away, not one of them shall escape” (9:1).
Interrupting the sequence of visions, Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, confers with King Jeroboam of Israel, informing him that the prophet has spoken of the king’s imminent death and the people’s exile (7:11). Amaziah, disturbed by this pronouncement, commands Amos to flee south, to Judah (7:12-13).
Amos responds with what we recognise to be the humility of a true prophet: “I am no prophet” (7:14; cf. Moses at Exod 3:11; 4:1, 10, 13; Jeremiah at Jer 1:6), yet then he proceeds to reiterate his prophecy: “you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land” (7:16-17).
Returning to the sequence of visions, Amos notes that the day will come when God “will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight” (8:9–11). On that day, “the beautiful young women and the young men shall faint for thirst … they shall fall, and never rise again” (8:12–13).
Resolute in the intention to punish those who have perpetrated social inequity and religious idolatry, God insists that “I will fix my eyes on them for harm and not for good” (9:4); “the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth” (9:8).
Yet, at the very end, Amos relays the news that God has modified this intention: “I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the Lord” (9:8); “on that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old” (9:11). This final oracle from Amos (9:11–15) envisages a restored and rebuilt Israel, a land once again productive, and ends with a strong expression of confidence in the people: “I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord” (9:15).
Little did the prophet actually know what lay ahead; soon after this oracle, the king of Assyria began to deport Israelites to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29; 1 Chron 5:26), perhaps in the 730s; two decades later, a new Assyrian king captured the northern capital, Samaria (2 Kings 17:3–6). The northern kingdom had come to an end; the people taken into exile would never return to their land. They became known as “the lost tribes of Israel” (see https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ten-Lost-Tribes-of-Israel).
NAIDOC WEEK is an Australian observance lasting from the first Sunday in July until the following Sunday. This year, it starts today (3 July) and goes until 10 July.
The acronym NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. It has its roots in the 1938 Day of Mourning which became a week- long event in 1975.
Aboriginal and Islander people have a proud history of getting up, standing up, and showing up. They have therefore chosen this as their 2022 theme of Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up!
The NAIDOC Week Committee wants Aboriginal and Islander people to continue to Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up! for systemic change and to keep rallying around their mob, their Elders and their communities. Whether it’s seeking proper environmental, cultural and heritage protections, Constitutional change, a comprehensive process of truth-telling, working towards treaties, or calling out racism – they must do it together.
The Committee also says that the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non Indigenous Australians needs to be based on justice, equity, and the proper recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights.
This theme has many resonances with the theological commitments of the Uniting Church, for whom standing against racism, recognising the sovereignty of the First Peoples, standing up for the environment, working to strengthen reconciliation, and supporting the call for makaratta, treaty, are all central commitments as we stand for justice and advocate for justice.
I’ll post more during the week about the ways that the NAIDOC WEEK themes of the past decade resonate with Uniting Church commitments.
My posts on NAIDOC WEEK themes prior to 2014 can be found at
The Coming of the Light is celebrated annually by Torres Strait Islander peoples on 1 July. It marks the adoption of Christianity through island communities during the late nineteenth century. The Reverend Samuel MacFarlane, of the London Missionary Society, arrived at Erub Island in the Torres Strait on 1 July 1871, introducing Christianity to the region. Since then, Torres Strait Islanders, whether living in the islands or on the mainland, celebrate this anniversary.
It might have symbolic resonance, then, that today, 1 July, in my series about the themes of NAIDOC WEEK, we turn to the next series of themes that are from the period of the Labor Government (2007–2013). It was after eleven years of regressive conservative government at the federal level that Kevin Rudd led the Labor Party back into government in December 2007. Although Rudd was a control freak who ultimately undid his own position of leadership, that of Julia Gillard, and then his own government, his time in leadership did shine some important lights onto Australia society.
During the the almost six years of the Labor Government, led by Rudd, then Julia Gillard, then Rudd once again, the National Apology to the Stolen Generation was made. On 13 February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stood in Parliament to deliver the National Apology to Australia’s Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Apology recognised the injustices of past government policies, particularly as they related to the Stolen Generations.
For more than a decade, the Howard government had resisted making any apology. The stance that Howard took when he opened the 1997 Australian Reconciliation Convention, which we noted in the previous post, remained his opinion in the ensuing years. Still today, 25 years after that speech, Howard remains unmoved; he has called the apology that Rudd gave “meaningless” and “an empty gesture”.
But on 13 February 2008, newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke the federal government’s formal apology to Indigenous Australians. Rudd apologised on behalf of Parliament ‘for indignity and degradation’, declaring it was time to start ‘righting the wrongs of the past’. As he recognised the Stolen Generations, he affirmed that the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families ‘inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians’.
The key words of apology are worth remembering again:
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations,
their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry. To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters,
for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted
on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
The themes of NAIDOC WEEK in those six years were:
2007: 50 Years: Looking Forward, Looking Blak
This theme looks back to 1957, when the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC) was formed. It had support and co-operation from Federal and State Governments, the churches, and major Indigenous organisations. Its aim was to promote Aboriginal Sunday as a day to focus community attention on the nation’s Aboriginal people.
In 1940, the National Missionary Council of Australia (NMCA) had given its support to a permanent annual Aborigines Day. The NMCA encouraged churches to observe the Sunday before the Australia Day weekend as “Aboriginal Sunday’. In 1955, the NMCA changed the date to the first Sunday in July.
In 1985, NADOC agreed to change the dates of the week from July to September, and in 1988, the committee’s name was changed to NAIDOC – National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee – to acknowledge Torres Strait Islander people. In 1991, the committee decided to shift the celebrations back to the first week in July (Sunday to Sunday) starting from 1992.
The committee was wound up in the mid-1990s when the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) assumed control of NAIDOC Week, making decisions on the theme, venue and poster.
2008: Advance Australia Fair?
This theme recalls both the 1972 theme, Advance Australia Where?, and, of course, the title of the song that became Australia’s national anthem, Advance Australia Fair. The question mark in both themes is very significant—the themes are asking questions about the direction of Australia as a country (in 1972) and drawing attention to the continuing injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples (in 2008). The questions still stand today.
The artwork used was striking: a large blue SORRY overlaid with a version of the national coat of arms, gesturing the kangaroo and emu, and the five stars of the Southern Cross.
2009: Honouring Our Elders, Nurturing Our Youth
This theme is evocative of the 1976 theme, when Trucanini was remembered and honoured. It sits along with earlier themes that gave recognition, both to the culture of Indigenous peoples: 1978, Cultural Revival is Survival; Take a Journey of Discovery, 1984; Recognise and Share the Survival of the Oldest Culture in the World; 1990, Don’t Destroy, Learn and Enjoy our Cultural Heritage; as well as the importance of young people: 1979, What About Our Kids?; and 1994, Families are the basis of our existence: Maintain the Link.
2010: Unsung Heroes: Closing the Gap by Leading the Way
For the last fifteen years, we have had a national policy known as Closing the Gap. The gap refers to the the inequalities in health and life-expectation that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This inequality includes: shorter life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, poorer health, and lower levels of education and employment.
Indigenous Australians have a lower life expectancy than non-Indigenous Australians. Non-Indigenous girls born in 2010-2012 in Australia can expect to live a decade longer than Indigenous girls born the same year (84.3 years and 73.7 years respectively). The gap for men is even larger, with a 69.1 year life expectancy for Indigenous men and 79.9 years for non-Indigenous men
Indigenous women also experience approximately double the level of maternal mortality in 2016. In 2016, Indigenous children experienced 1.7 times higher levels of malnutrition than non-Indigenous children. In 2015, the Indigenous suicide rate was double that of the general population; Indigenous suicide increased from 5% of total Australian suicide in 1991, to 50% in 2010, despite Indigenous people making up only 3% of the total Australian population. The most drastic increase occurred among young people 10-24 years old, where Indigenous youth suicide rose from 10% in 1991 to 80% in 2010.
The employment to population rate for Indigenous 15–64 year olds was around 48% in 2014-15, compared to 75% for non-Indigenous Australians. Median weekly income for Indigenous Australians was $542 in 2014-15 compared with $852 for non-Indigenous Australians.
The Gap (or actually, the many gaps) still exist; despite an annual report on how the federal government is attempting to Close the Gap, there is still much ground to be covered.
2011: Change: the next step is ours
This was an invitation to the whole population of Australia to join and work for change for the better for First Peoples.
2012: Spirit of the Tent Embassy: 40 years on
The Tent Embassy had been established in 1972. See the blog I wrote earlier in the year for the 50th anniversary, in 2022, of the Tent Embassy.
2013: We value the vision: Yirrkala Bark Petitions
This theme commemorates events of 50 years earlier. Yolngu people from Yirrkala in eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory sent petitions to the Commonwealth Parliament in August 1963. On 13 March that year the Government had removed more than 300 square kilometres of land from the Arnhem Land reserve, with the purpose of being able to mine the bauxite which had been found there. Work started without talking to the people about their land.
The text of the petition was in two languages, English and Gupapuyngu. It was printed on paper then glued to a piece of bark that had been painted traditionally. The petition, signed by nine men and three women, stated that 500 people were residents of the land that was being removed, and that the whole deal had been kept secret from them.
It also declared that sacred sites in the area, such as Melville Bay, were vital to their livelihoods, and that the area had been used for hunting and food-gathering since time immemorial. The petition asked parliament to appoint a committee to hear the views of the Yolngu. They also asked that no arrangements be entered into with any company which would destroy their livelihoods and independence.
Two Labor parliamentarians, Kim Beazley (senior) and Gordon Bryant visited Reverend Edgar Wells, Superintendent of the Yirrkala Methodist church mission, in July 1963. Yolngu leaders made plain their objection to the lack of consultation and secrecy of the Government’s agreement with Nabalco, and their concern about the impact of mining on the land unless their voices were heard.
The petitions were not successful; mining commenced in 1968. The Yolngu people began a court case, in which Justice Richard Blackburn ruled against the Yolngu claimants in 1971. He recognised that they had been living on the land for thousands of years, but found that any rights they had before colonisation had been invalidated by the Crown. The Australian legal system had been built around the concept of terra nullius, meaning ‘land belonging to no one’.
The Yolngu eventually received native title to their land in 1978, under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, which established a procedure for transferring 50 per cent of land in the Territory to Aboriginal ownership. The mining leases, which they had objected to since 1963, were excluded from the provisions of the Act, and also from the Yolngu native title claim.
The Yirrkala bark petitions were the first example of a native title litigation in Australia. They paved the way for the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission and the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. In 1992 the concept of terra nullius, which had been used in the Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd judgement, was challenged by the High Court of Australia. Mabo v Queensland recognised the people of Murray Island as native titleholders to their land.
There is a post doing the rounds of Facebook at the moment that makes the claim that Jesus uttered “dangerous and heretical ideas”, “impossible, dangerous ideas—to love your enemy, to love the poor, to forgive others” which were “terrifying and unconscionable and forbidden in His day.”
It may be a fair assessment of the radical nature of the teachings of Jesus; taking his teachings seriously is indeed “terrifying”. But were his instructions “unconscionable and forbidden in his day”? Not at all! Such a fraudulent claim is built on the back of a completely erroneous portrayal of Jewish teachings, both in the time of Jesus, and in the centuries prior to his time. Hebrew Scripture, in particular, provides many passages that refute this hyperbolic claim.
On love of enemies, there are proverbs that are relevant: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink” (Prov 25:21); and “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble” (Prov 24:17). That’s love for enemies, surely?
There are injunctions in the Torah that are pertinent. “When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free” (Exod 23:4–5); and “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:33–34). Both passages instruct behaviour that exemplifies love in action: one for an enemy, the other for an alien (a foreigner).
There is the story told concerning Elisha, at a time “when the king of Aram was at war with Israel” (2 Kings 6:1). Elisha had asked God to strike the army of Aram blind, and God did so; Elisha then led them into a trap in Samaria, after which they were given back their sight. The story continues: “When the king of Israel saw them he said to Elisha, “Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” He answered, “No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.” So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.” (2 Kings 6:21–23). Elisha turned enemies into friends through this command to show love.
In relation to loving the poor, Hebrew Scripture is clear: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be” (Deut 15:7–8).
“Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land’” (Deut 15:10–11).
“You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt” (Deut 24:14–15).
Especially potent is the song found in the third, and latest, section of the book of Isaiah, where the prophet reports that God says: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not 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?” (Isa 58:6–8). That is crystal clear about the need to love the poor!
And there is a succinct proverb that informs us: “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honour him” (Prov 14:31).
As for forgiveness, there is a constant refrain in Hebrew Scripture that God is a God who forgives; “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6; this refrain also appears at Num 14:18; Neh 9:17b; Ps 145:8–9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; as well as 2 Kings 13:23; 2 Chron 30:9).
Alongside the many instances where God’s judgement is spoken of, there are also many references to the steadfast love and forgiving nature of God. The God of the Old Testament is not just a God of wrath; the Lord God requires justice, and will punish transgressors, but also offers an abundance of gracious, loving forgiveness.
The psalmist affirms that “there is forgiveness with you” (Ps 130:4), that “when deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions” (Ps 65:3). The prophet Hosea declares that God says, “I will heal their disloyalty;
I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them” (Hos 14:4). The prophet Jeremiah asserts that God promises that in the renewal of the covenant, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:34); while the prophet Ezekiel declares that God promises to “establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord … when I forgive you all that you have done” (Ezek 16:62–63). Finally, the prophet Daniel declares that “to the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness” (Dan 9:9).
This divine forgiveness is lived out in the story of human beings in various ways; take Abigail and David, for instance. Abigail asks David, “please forgive the trespass of your servant”; David replies, “Go up to your house in peace; see, I have heeded your voice, and I have granted your petition” (1 Sam 25:28, 35). Forgiveness, both divine and human, is clearly not unknown and unpractised in Israel.
Certainly Jesus is confronting and challenging; but let’s not pile on negatively to his predecessors and to the religion of the Israelite prophets, which nurtured the ground for the development of rabbinic Judaism as well as the Jesus movement and then, over time, grew into the Christian church. We Christians are inheritors of the fullness of Israelite—Jewish traditions, mediated through Jesus, and we should rejoice in the richness of this heritage.
I have blogged before about ensuring that we don’t fall into antisemitic stereotypes when talking about the Pharisees; see
This coming Sunday, the lectionary offers us a final section from Paul’s letter to the Galatians (6:1-16). In recent blogs on this letter, we’ve seen that Paul writes to the churches in Galatia with passion. He can be aggressive and cutting with his language. He writes as a person deeply convinced about what he is saying, intensely aggrieved by the resistance he has encountered, and fully committed—heart and mind, body and soul, and all his words—to the message he brings.
Paul was an innovator. Nowhere is this evident more than in his letter to the Galatians. It is clear that Paul knows, and appreciates, the worth of the Jewish tradition and culture in which he has been raised. In his letter to the Romans, he quotes a number of the Ten Words, which sat at the heart of the Law (Rom 13:9–10) and he praises these commandments as “holy and just and good” (Rom 7:12).
Paul’s own heritage as a Pharisee (Phil 3:5; Acts 23:6; 26:5) shaped the way that he valued and used scripture. His understanding is that Jesus has brought the Law to its final, climactic fulfilment (this is how teleios should be rendered in Rom 10:4; and see Gal 5:14; Rom 13:10). And yet, in writing to the Galatians, he criticises them for their adherence to this same Law.
We have noted in an earlier blog post that Paul argues that the gospel he proclaims brings believers into the unity of being “one in Christ” (3:28). This unity overshadows all divisions—as the most famous words in this letter declare, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (3:28). The incorporation of Gentiles into the community alongside Jews was fundamental for Paul.
Yet Paul shows awareness of a significant threat against this unity in Galatia; it has arisen through the insistence of teachers who do not have Paul’s way of seeing things, who insist that true faith in Jesus requires, first of all, circumcision. This is the group which Paul calls “the circumcision faction” (2:12; compare Acts 15:1, 5). They are advocating that the sign par excellence of being a Jew (for males, st least)—that of circumcision (Gen 9:9–14; Lev 12:1–3; Josh 5:2–9)—must continue to be practised by those who come to faith in Jesus.
Paul was always on high alert regarding people teaching differently from him (see Phil 1:15–18, 3:2–4; 2 Cor 10:5, 12, 18, 11:4–6, 12–15; and perhaps reflected in the ‘slogans’ of 1 Cor 6:12–13, 7:1, 8:1–2, 10:23). Here, he criticises the teachers in Galatia because they want their followers to be circumcised (6:12)—although he notes that they themselves, surprisingly, “do not obey the law” (6:13). This contradicts Paul’s understanding that every circumcised male “is obliged to obey the entire law” (5:3). But they teach that circumcision is necessary for (male) followers of Jesus.
Paul’s problem, of course, is that he himself is circumcised, as he mentions at Phil 3:5 (a fact which he omits when he rehearses his past at Gal 1:13–14). How can he advocate the opening of the faith to those who are not circumcised, when he himself bears this sign of the covenant?
He boldly insists that the Galatians “become as I am” (4:12), and yet threatens that “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (5:2). The believers in Galatia , it would seem, were Gentiles who had previously worshipped “beings that by nature are not gods”, namely, “the weak and beggarly elemental spirits” (Gal 4:8–10). What applied to these Gentile converts must be different from what is the case amongst Jewish converts, Paul maintained.
Paul makes his case against circumcision for converted Gentiles by re-interpreting the scriptural passage which lies behind this Jewish custom. It was Abraham who was the patriarch to whom the requirement of circumcision was first commanded, to be a sign of the covenant (Gen 17). So the story of Abraham needs to be addressed.
It is striking that Paul explains the story of Abraham without once mentioning circumcision (3:6–18). According to Paul, it is the faith of Abraham, in believing God’s promise, which secured him righteousness (3:6–7) and opens the promise to Gentiles (3:8–9). It is that promise which is now fulfilled in Christ (3:13–14, 16, 29). This compact argument in this letter would form the basis for the more expansive exposition that Paul,provides in his letter to the Romans.
Circumcision is central to the Law, and the Law is the basis of the promise that God has made, to Israel, and then to believers in Christ. Paul asserts that the Law supports the promise, in its role as a paidagogos (3:21–24). This word described a position in Greek society in which a tutor both instructs and disciplines a young man until he reaches his maturity. Now that maturity has arrived, in Christ, the paidagogos is no longer needed (3:25).
Paul has earlier asserted that doing “the works of the Law” does not result in justification (2:16); he cites Hab 2:4 to affirm that “the one who is righteous will live by faith” (3:11)—the same scriptural text which forms the basis for his argument in Romans. Does he portray the Law as now completely irrelevant? He does not draw this conclusion, and insists that “the Law is not opposed to the promises of God” (3:21).
Paul supports his position with an argument drawn from “the Law”, that is, Hebrew scripture—the accounts of the two children of Abraham (found in Gen 16 and 21) provides an allegory for the two covenants made by God (4:21–31). Believers are heirs of the free woman, Sarah; Jews are heirs of the slave woman, Hagar. This leads to a firm rhetorical conclusion for the Galatians: “for freedom, Christ has set us free” (5:1).
The point fits well with the situation which he addresses; it does a disservice, however, to his opponents, who were putting a position that had long been supported by Jewish tradition and scripture. And if Paul was really wanting to create unity within the church, then he has unfairly caricatured and marginalised those who came to Galatia, teaching about the Law.
Paul’s language is intensely passionate in this letter; when he describes the earlier stage of his relationship with the Galatians, his emotions are dominant (4:12–20). They once had much goodwill towards him; he claims that they were willing to tear out their eyes and give them to him (4:15). Paul here refers to his “physical infirmity” (4:13; see also 6:17); is this infirmity the “thorn in the flesh” to which he refers at 2 Cor 12:7? Although this infirmity tested the acceptance that the Galatians felt for Paul (4:14), they did welcome him “as an angel of God” (4:14).
Now, he fears that he has become “an enemy” (4:16), yet he still feels “the pain of childbirth” for them (4:19) and admits he is perplexed about them (4:20). They “bite and devour one another” and risk consuming one another (5:15).
All of this is Paul at his most impassioned, pleading what may well be a lost cause in Galatia. He notes that they have fallen back into their pagan ways (“enslaved to beings…that are not gods”, 4:8–9), mixed with practices that seem more Jewish (“special days, and months, and seasons, and years”, 4:10). Their previous religious practices may well have contained a combination of such aspects; this phenomenon, known as syncretism, was well-known in the Hellenistic world.
Undeterred by the complexities of the debate concerning the Law in 3:1–5:1, Paul presses on to sound a further notes of liberty and unity in his letter. The call to freedom (5:1, 13) is a platform for ethical guidance, grounded in love (5:13–14), manifested in living by the spirit (5:22–26), not by the flesh (5:16– 21). This ethic requires them to “bear one another’s burdens “(6:2) and “work for the good of all” (6:10). In this way, they will become “a new creation” (6:15).
And so it is that Paul concludes, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! (6:15). The gospel which brings liberation in community (3:28) will also lead to liberation for the whole creation (6:15).
Based on material in PAUL: an exploration, by John Squires and Elizabeth Raine (self-published 2014; revised 2018).
“I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves … carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road … cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:3, 4, 9). So Jesus instructs a group of his followers, preparing them to replicate the mission that he himself has commenced in the region of Galilee. It’s part of the passage that is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday.
Bearing witness in Samaria
It is important to note that this group of seventy disciples is sent out while the group is, presumably, in the region of Samaria. The earlier sending out on mission, of the twelve (9:1–6), was located in Galilee. The activity of Jesus, to this point, has been amongst his own people: in Galilee (4:14, 31; 5:17), in Nazareth (4:16 and presumably in 8:19–21), in Capernaum (4:31; 7:1), in Nain (7:11), and in synagogues in various towns (4:15, 33; 6:6; Galilee is inferred in 8:1; and the textual variant of 4:44, Galilee, is surely to be preferred). After a short sojourn across to the other side of the lake (8:22–40), Jesus returns to Galilee; soon after this mission of the twelve, he is in Bethsaida (9:10).
Just a little later, still in Galilee, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51), and thus he and his followers move south, into the region of Samaria (9:52–55). After some interactions relating to discipleship “follow me/you”, 9:57, 59, 61), Jesus sends out the seventy (10:1). So Samaria is the location for the mission of the seventy. And Samaria is the region where many hear the good news and respond in faith.
There is some debate as to whether there were seventy, or seventy-two, followers sent out by Jesus. Seventy represents the purported number of nations—as listed in Gen 10—or the number of Israelites who travelled to Egypt with Joseph (Gen 46:27)—or the number of elders appointed by Moses (Num 11:16)—but is found in only a small number of older manuscripts. There is a list of the names of the 70 disciples, drawn from later church traditions, at https://www.christian-pilgrimage-journeys.com/biblical-sources/christian-history/the-seventy-disciples/)
Seventy-two, found in most of the older manuscripts, is sometimes seen to correlate with the 72 scholars who translated the Septuagint, as the Letter to Aristeas reports: “In the presence of all the people I selected six elders from each tribe, good men and true, and I have sent them to you with a copy of our law. It will be a kindness, O righteous king, if you will give instruction that as soon as the translation of the law is completed, the men shall be restored again to us in safety. Farewell.” (Letter to Aristeas 46; the names of the 72 translators follow in Aristeas 47–50).
These seventy followers were to engage with people in the villages where they were, sharing a message of peace and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom (Luke 10:1-20). This is a critical moment in the development of the movement which was clustering around Jesus. And it is set in Samaria—not in Galilee, not in Judea, but in Samaria! In response to the call of the disciples to “call down fire from heaven” on some Samaritans, Jesus instructs his followers to move around the region, proclaiming the good news of the coming kingdom.
From learners to leaders
Throughout his “orderly account”, Luke portrays the inner circle of Jesus’ followers as disciples, committed to the task of learning from Jesus. They provide role models for those in a later generation who listen to the story which Luke has written in his Gospel and strive to be faithful followers of the way of Jesus in their own times. So the stories from long ago are not simply historical reminiscences; they are narratives which provide stimulus and encouragement for us, in the 21st century, as we seek to be faithful followers of Jesus.
Luke reports how, early in the ministry of Jesus, as growing numbers of people show interest in him (4:15, 36, 42; 5:1, 15), Jesus calls three fishermen to form the core group of his followers (5:1–11). Simon Peter is singled out at this point, but his business partners, James and John, are recruited with him to move from catching fish to “catching people”. The tax collector Levi then responds to Jesus’ challenge to “follow me” by leaving everything (5:27–28); these first four named followers thus stand as a pattern for how people were to respond to Jesus (as 14:26 reinforces).
Soon after these early recruitments, Luke reports the gathering of a group of twelve disciples, whom he names and designates “apostles” in recognition of their role in representing his message to those whom they encounter (6:12–16). This is the group that we often have in mind when we talk about “the disciples of Jesus”; but, as we shall see, Luke actually has many more in mind beyond this inner group.
Immediately after this scene, Luke reports at more length the teachings which Jesus directs towards his disciples: “love your enemies…be merciful…do not judge…hear my words, act on them” (6:20–49). The role of the disciples as learners is firmly established; these words are to be programmatic for all that they undertake. So their first task is to listen, and learner. Disciples are learners. (In fact, the Greek word translated as “disciple” actually comes from the root verb which means “to learn”!)
The narrative continues, and as the disciples travel with Jesus, they continue to learn—they witness how Jesus preaches, teaches, heals and exorcises (7:11, 22; 8:1, 9, 22, 45). After a period of such learning in the company of Jesus, this inner group is then commissioned to replicate these activities for themselves, going out in pairs to “proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (9:1–6). The twelve will later be promised a key role at the ultimate judgment of Israel (22:28–30). This inner circle thus transitions: from learners, to leaders.
Sent out to bear witness
An account of the sending out the twelve to bear witness to the kingdom is found in the source used by Luke, the beginnings of the good news (Mark 6:7–13), as well in the book of origins (Matt 10:5–25). Luke intensifies the importance of this missionary activity by reporting that, after sending out the twelve, Jesus then sends out a larger group of his followers, to do likewise. There were seventy such disciples (or in some versions, seventy–two) for the role that will later consume their lives: “cure the sick and say to them, ‘the kingdom of God has come near’” (10:1–12; cf. 9:2).
The rigour with which the seventy are sent out reflects the rigour required of the twelve before them: “no purse, no bag, no sandals”, intent on filling their purpose, instructed to “greet no on on the road” until arriving at the house of destination (10:4–5). The twelve were instructed to “take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic” (9:3).
One part of the instruction, to “greet no one on the road” (10:4) evokes the instructions of Elisha to Gehazi, “if you meet anyone, give no greeting” (2 Kings 4:29); another instruction, to say “peace to this house” (10:5) evokes the directions of David to ten young men to salute Nabal, “peace be to you, and peace be to your house” (2 Sam 25:5–6).
Alongside these moments of non-receptivity to the message, there are times when the message is accepted and believed. It is indeed striking that the success of these seventy, reported with great joy (10:17), occurs amongst the Samaritans. As we have seen, the Samaritans were difficult customers; James and John had actually wanted Jesus to invoke the wrath of God and consume them (9:54). Jesus, by contrast, refuses to do this (9:55) and charges the seventy to preach a message peace to the Samaritans (10:5) and to declare the good news, that God’s kingdom is right there, in midst of them (10:9,11; cf. 9:2). See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/20/through-samaria-heading-to-jerusalem-luke-9-pentecost-3c/
The prayer of thanks that Jesus offers (10:21–22) and the blessing that he bestows upon his disciples (10:23–24) recognises this startling fact: Samaritans have responded positively to the good news proclaimed by the followers of Jesus! (This is similar to the successful witnessing to the significance of Jesus that is reported in the book of signs, at John 4:39–42, after Jesus had engaged with a Samaritan woman beside Jacob’s well, at Sychar, 4:4–6.)
“The disciples” in Luke’s account is a broad, inclusive group of followers—including Samaritans! Time spent with Jesus involves not just learning from him—although this is the bedrock of the relationship—but also putting his ethic into practice. So the seventy, having spent time with Jesus learning, are now challenged to exercise leadership within the Jesus movement.
(As Paul writes in the letter to the Galatians, also set in this week’s lectionary: “Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher”, Gal 6:6.)
The seventy have been charged with moving on, from being learners, listening in the crowd as Jesus teaches and tells parables, to become leaders, undertaking activities for which they need initiative, resolve, and capacity. And such leadership means addressing the challenges of the context and plunging into the difficult situations with the message and actions of hope. Samaria was not an easy gig!!
Teachings to deepen discipleship and strengthen leadership
The inner group of twelve is thus not depicted as being isolated from, or elevated above, the others who travel with Jesus in Galilee and on into Samaria. They form a kind of model for the seventy, and, by extension, later disciples—right up to the 21st century. We are all called to move from being learners, to become leaders.
Thus, in the following chapters, the teachings of Jesus are explicitly addressed to disciples on matters such as prayer (11:1–4), integrity (12:1–2), the appropriate lifestyle to lead (12:22–34), fidelity to God (16:1–13), forgiveness and preparedness (17:1–10, 22–37) and the nature of the kingdom (18:15–17). In keeping with his focus on those who are poor (4:18; 6:20; 7:22), the challenge to “give to the poor” is a motif which runs consistently through the words of Jesus (12:21, 33; 14:13, 21; 16:19–31; 18:22; cf. 19:8).
All of these teachings were important for the first followers of Jesus. They deepen their discipleship, expand their understanding, and strengthen their leadership skills. All of these teachings apply to our discipleship, as well, and help to us make the move from learners, to leaders.
Strategically, these teachings also include Jesus’ revelation of his own fate (9:43b–44; 18:31–33) and the high cost of discipleship (14:25–35). Jesus emphasizes the distinctive nature of leadership in his movement (20:45–47; 22:24–30). “Deny yourself” and “be like one who serves” provide central motifs for Jesus’ instructions to those who will continue his enterprise after his passion. The twelve and the seventy, who first heard these words of Jesus, thus function as role models for the way that leaders are to operate after the lifetime of Jesus, as we in turn listen to these teachings.
The second volume of Luke’s work shows a range of figures who have learned from Jesus (or his disciples) and are reported as putting into practice the charge which Jesus gave to his disciples, to “proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal”. The followers of Jesus throughout Acts are offering leadership: proclaiming the good news, undertaking acts of mercy and charity, standing up for justice, and other ways of being faithful to the way of Jesus.
Overall, the lines of continuity can be clearly traced from the example of Jesus through the activities of the leaders of the movement. The learners were diligent, and became effective and faithful leaders. May that be the pathway that we each walk, also, in our lives, as faithful followers of Jesus—learners, who now exercise leadership.
The cover images come from The Seventy-two Disciples (Unknown artist, Provenance Ethiopia, Dated about 1480 – 1520; Tempera on parchment).
Based on excerpts from a 64-page study booklet, FromLearners to Leaders: an exploration of the Gospel for Year C, by John Squires and Elizabeth Raine (self-published, 2014)
It’s been interesting to see the recent posts relating to the 45th anniversary of the inauguration of the Uniting Church on 22 June. I saw largely positive commentary, as well as a handful of more negative observations. All in all, it was time to consider and identify some key factors, both positive, and negative.
In the midst of all of this, I am thinking that it must be time for another post about organisation and governance in the Uniting Church in Australia. So this is a blog about the word THE.
Yes, that’s right: THE. Specifically, about the meaning and significance of that little word “the” in one sentence in a church document: the Basis of Union, the founding document for the church that I belong to, the Uniting Church in Australia (formed in 1977).
The particular sentence that I intend to focus on is found in paragraph 15(a) of the Basis. It reads: The Congregation is the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping, witnessing and serving as a fellowship of the Spirit in Christ.
Now, the word “the” actually appears four times in this sentence. However, it is the second of these four occurrences that is in my focus of attention: “the embodiment”.
The, in English grammar, functions as a definitive article; it sits before a noun and gives shape, specificity, definition to the noun that follows. So, “the cat” refers, not just to any old cat, but to that particular cat which I can see before me, sitting on the mat (yes, that particular mat, as opposed to any old mat).
The little word “the” thus has a specifying role, defining a particular thing for our consideration, in distinction from the great mass of other things just like it that we are not considering. “The” can thus place an emphasis on the singularity and particularity of the item that is so qualified.
But “the” can also be a generalising term, placed in front of a noun without any intention to give it concerted specificity. In this instance, the word “the” just has the generalised of kind of smoothing out the sentence. “Cat sat on mat” sounds clunky. “The cat sat on the mat” has a rounder and fuller feel to it, without ever intending to refer to THIS specific cat sitting on THAT particular mat. It’s actually a generic reference to what cats do when they find a mat. ANY cat. ANY mat.
So, when we turn to the section of the Basis of Union that deals with Governance, we first should note that the Congregation is not defined as a council. The Council (that is, the governing body) in a local context is named in the Basis as “the Elders or Leaders Meeting”. In practice, it was often called “the Parish Council”.
Some time after the Basis was written, the Assembly of the UCA determined that this body would be called the Church Council. It consists of “the minister and those who are called to share with the minister in oversight”. That oversight is the governance function of the Church Council, which is clearly identified and defined as being “the council within a congregation or group of congregations”.
There are three other councils which are so identified in paragraph 15 of the Basis: the Presbytery (“the district council”), the Synod (“the regional council”), and the Assembly (“the national council”). Together with the Church Council, these four bodies have responsibility for governance, the oversight of the various matters specified and allocated to each council in turn.
Now, the Congregation is not a Council. But it is an integral part of the Church. The Basis says that it is “the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”.
Does this means that the Congregation, as “the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”, is THE one and only way, THE pre-eminent way, THE most significant way, that the church is made manifest, or embodied, in human society? I have heard and read this claim many times, over the four decades that I have been active within the church. It is a commonly held (mis)belief.
Such a claim places an inordinate amount of emphasis on that little word “the”. It invests it with a priority sense, with an exclusive connotation—this is THE Church, the one and only way that it exists. This is a huge claim.
And it is often spoken in contexts where decisions of the Presbytery, or the Synod, or the Assembly, are in contention. The implication is clear: THEY are not really the Church. THIS, the Congregation, this is the Church!
It is important to note that the Basis does not ever make this claim. It never says only the Congregation is THE church, the Congregation is the WHOLE church, and the Congregation is the NOTHING BUT the Church. Not at all.
Besides, the Basis says that the Congregation is the embodiment IN ONE PLACE of the church. Across the railway line, there is another Congregation that is the embodiment IN ONE PLACE, over there, of the church. And further away, across the river there is another Congregation that is the embodiment IN ONE PLACE, across the river, of the church. They are all embodiments of the church in their own places.
And so, with the other entities mentioned in the Basis. These entities are clearly part of the church, as well. They may well also be understood to embody the church, as each one exercises its responsibilities and carries out its duties in the prescribed areas allocated to it. They give expression to the church as much as the Congregation does.
Indeed, other entities which have developed and evolved since the time that the Basis was written (in the mid-to-late 1960s) are clearly a part of the church as well. We cannot afford to invest that little word “the” with the sum totality of what we understand the church to be. The church is also aged care facilities, preschool centres, meals for the homeless programmes and theological training colleges, chaplains to the Defence Force and chaplains to those ill and in hospital, mental health chaplains and Frontier Service Padres—and much, much more.
And the Basis also notes and defines other elements which are undoubtedly part of the church. Is the Congregation to say to the Synod, you are not part of the Church? Or to the Presbytery, you are not part of the Church? Or to the Assembly? (Yes, I can feel myself channeling Paul via 1 Cor 12!)
So I recoil when I hear or read that the Congregation is THE Church, prioritised, privileged, and exclusively THE Church. It’s not. It is an important, local, expression of what we understand the Church to be.
But the Congregation is governed by a Church Council, which is in relationship with the other Councils of the Church. It’s the Church Council which is the local council of the church, not the Congregation. And we certainly wouldn’t claim that this Council is THE embodiment of the Church, any more than we would say this of a Presbytery, or a Synod, or the Assembly. Nor is the Congregation. Each of these bodies is, in some way, an expression of the Church; and each, by the provisions found in the Constitution, has its own set of responsibilities.
In the end, the Congregation is ONE of the manifestations, or embodiments, if the Church, related to each of the other manifestations and expressions and embodiments of the Church, seen through the various bodies, agencies, gatherings, and councils of the Church.
A personal postscript: I have a clear and firm commitment to the life of the Congregation, having participated actively for over 40 years in the life of seven congregations in Australia (and three more whilst studying in the USA, and in a Methodist Circuit whilst living for a year in the UK). During that time I have been a member of four Church Councils, two times a Treasurer, and once a Church Council chairperson.
Much of the time I have done those roles whilst being engaged in fulltime theological education and presbytery oversight roles. My current position is fully focussed on resourcing, supporting, encouraging, and even challenging Congregations and Church Councils in their life, service, and witness.
I’ve been privileged to have been a member of a Congregation which had a strong Congregational heritage. In fact, it was the home Congregation of the sole Congregationalist lay member of the Joint Commission on Church Union, Maynard Davies. I understand that Mr Davies was the member who pressed for the inclusion of paragraph 11 in the Basis of Union.
That’s the paragraph that affirms that the Uniting Church will remain open to new insights which emerge from scientific thinkers, historical researchers, our encounter with other cultural customs, and our engagement with people from societies different from our own.
This, of course, is a really important element in the theology and practice of the UCA—from this strong Congregational heritage, a progressive and engaged church has developed. The policies and values that have been promulgated by Synods and Assemblies over the decades owe much to this commitment, and to the ongoing work that has been done within “the wider church” in such areas. All from a strong Congregational ethos!
So I think it is entirely possible to value the local expression of church whilst engaging in and supporting broader expressions. All of this is us, as we say.
Now that all the results have been finalised in the Australian Federal Election 2022, we can see clearly the extent of Liberal losses. It’s been extensive, cutting right to the heart of the party in the so-called “blue-ribbon Liberal” seats.
From early on it was clear that six House of Representatives seats were lost to “teal independents”, standing on a platform of real action to address climate change, and the introduction of a corruption commission to begin to repair the shocking state of integrity in public life.
Three of these seats were in Sydney: Kylea Tink in North Sydney, the seat of former Treasurer Hockey; Sophie Scamps in Mackellar; and Allegra Spender in Wentworth, the seat of former PM Turnbull amd former Opposition Leader Hewson.
Two more were in Melbourne: Monique Ryan in Kooyong, the seat of former Treasuer Frydenberg, as well as former Opposition Leader Andrew Peacock, and foundation Liberal leader and (twice) Prime Minister Robert Menzies; and Zoe Daniel in Goldstein.
The sixth seat to fall to a “ teal independent” was in WA: Kate Chaney in Curtin, the seat of former Deputy Liberal Leader Bishop.
They join existing members Helen Haines in Indi and Zali Steggal in Warringah, both of which were once blue-Liberal seats; the latter was previously held by the former PM, the Abbott of Inequity.
The Liberals also lost to Labor in Bennelong, the seat of former PM Howard, and Robertson in NSW; in Victoria, they lost to Labor in Higgins, the seat of former Treasurer Peter Costello and former Prime Ministers Harold Holt and John Gorton, and Chisholm. In SA, they lost Boothby to Labor, and the Centre Alliance held on to Mayo, which it had taken from the Liberals in 2016; while in QLD, they lost to the Greens in Ryan.
They lost massively in WA, with four seats going to Labor: Hasluck, Swan, Pearce, and Tangney. The map of electorates in the Perth area tells the story quite dramatically!
In the Senate, four Liberal seats were lost: to David Pocock in the ACT, to Labor in WA, to the Jacqui Lambie Network in Tasmania, and to “it’s my kinda party” Untied Australia in Victoria.
The Liberals now have only 23 seats in the Senate—but we add to that 5 from the Liberal National Party in QLD, 3 from the Nationals, and 1 from the Country Liberals in NT, to total 32 Senators as the main opposition body.
Labor now has 26 seats in the Senate, and no doubt they will work co-operatively with the 12 Greens and independent David Pocock on much of their legislative agenda. The 2 Jacqui LambieNetwork senators may well also figure in these negotiations.
The conservative rump is now irrelevant in the Senate, except for the predictably useless aggravating grunts that they will surely make as often as they can to gain media attention: Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts in QLD, and newcomer Ralph Babet in Victoria.
Lots of Liberal losses overall. And a clear indication that the Liberals are no longer anything like “liberal” in their policies or their practices.
The true cost of the Howard—Abbott—Morrison conservative hegemony is now evident: years of rhetoric about fiscal conservatism masking disastrous social policies, especially amongst the poor; years of dog whistling promoting xenophobia and overt racism, often in cahoots with various rightwingnutjobs; years of resistance to any significant action on climate, signing off on a bleak future for all humanity whilst profiting from the largesse of always-profitable fossil fuel companies; years of resisting real support for renewables; years of offering leftover scraps to the First Peoples of the country, while ignoring Royal Commission recommendations; and years of blithely ignoring the misogynistic culture that tolerated (and generated) many acts of sexist abuse.
The lectionary is currently providing a short series of excerpts from one of Paul’s earliest letters—the one he wrote to the Galatians, possibly in the late 40s, more likely (in my view) by the middle of the 50s.
This letter is distinctive in a couple of ways. The audience is not a gathering of believers in one city (as in Thessalonians, or Philippi, or Corinth, or even Rome), but the various communities of believers across the whole region of Galatia, which was one of the Roman provinces in the area we today call Turkey.
A second distinctive feature is that this letter completely omits any of the “friendly overture” elements that are typically found at the start of the letters widely recognised as the authentic letters of Paul. Many of these letters, after the requisite formalities (Paul, to the believers in X, grace and peace to you), contain a prayer of thanksgiving: “we always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly …” (1 Thess 1:2–10); “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus …” (1 Cor 1:4–9), “when I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus …” (Phlmn 4–7); “first, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world …” (Rom 1:8-15); and in the letter known as “the friendly letter”, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you …” (Phil 1:3–11).
The second letter to the Corinthians replaces this prayer of thanksgiving with an extended blessing: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction …” (2 Cor 1:3–7); that pattern is followed by the anonymous scribe who wrote decades later, modelling his circular letter on earlier Pauline examples, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places …” (Eph 1:3–14), just as the unknown person who crafted a letter to Colossae likewise followed the model of the earlier prayers of thanksgiving: “in our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints …” (Col 1:3–14).
The letter to the Galatians has no indication, either of a prayer of thanksgiving, or of a blessing. Instead, this letter cuts right to the chase, in direct words which accuse and denounce: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel … there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ … if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” (Gal 1:6–9). The letter continues swiftly, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal 1:10).
This opening accusation is reflected in words that we find in the section offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (5:1, 13–25) when, five chapters after this direct opening, Paul rounds back on his audience, declaring that “if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (5:15).
In a striking juxtaposition, however, the letter continues on from this warning, to provide a contrast, which has become well-known, between “the desires of the flesh” (5:16–21) and “the fruit of the Spirit” (5:22–26).
I have no doubt that most, if not all, sermons that are preached on this lectionary offering will focus primarily, if not exclusively, on the nine qualities identified as the fruit of the Spirit, namely, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (5:22-23).
Swimming against the tide, I intended to reflect here, not on the fruit of the Spirit, but on those earlier words, about “biting and devouring one another”.
To understand the reason for Paul’s direct words, we need to understand the presumed situation in Galatia which he was addressing. We can glean a number of clues about this from references and statements in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
It is evident from Paul’s opening comments that other teachers had visited the Galatian community, and had taught them things that were at odds with what Paul was teaching. He derogatively labels them as “some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (1:7), and later as those who have “bewitched” the Galatians (3:1) and, by inference, those who “prevented [them] from obeying the truth” (5:7). As a result, he calls the Galatians “foolish” (3:1) and expresses a wish that “those who unsettle you would castrate themselves” (5:12).
These teachers, in Paul’s opinion, proclaim “a gospel contrary to what you received” (1:9)—namely, what Paul himself had taught them, when he had earlier visited the Galatians, a time “when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods” (4:8). The Galatians turned from their gentile faith to adopt faith in Jesus, by which “you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (4:9). It is “for freedom [that] Christ has set us free” (5:1). See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/15/for-freedom-christ-has-set-us-free-galatians-pentecost-2c-3c-4c/
If we knew precisely who the Galatians were, what group of teachers had been active amongst them, or what specific matters caused Paul to write this letter, we might be better placed to adjudicate on this matter. Unfortunately, we do not have specific information about the identity of the addressees of this letter or their location.
Acts indicates that Paul had preached in a number of locations in Galatia: initially with Barnabas he visited Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14–52), Iconium (14:1–5), Lystra (14:6–20) and Derbe (14:6, 21–23). Subsequently he revisited the area, once passing through swiftly with Timothy, saying nothing (16:6), and later going “from place to place” in the region, “strengthening the disciples” (18:23).
In the first two cities there were Jews who were opposed to the preaching of Paul and Barnabas: they persecuted them in Antioch and attempted to stone them in Iconium. However, such figures are common in Acts, for in almost every place Paul encounters such Jewish opposition. We learn no specifics of the Galatian churches from the Acts accounts.
The threat against this unity has arisen through the insistence of these teachers, that true faith requires, first, circumcision. This is the group which Paul calls “the circumcision faction” (2:12; compare Acts 15:1, 5). They are the ones whom Paul blames for the destructive behaviour of the believers in Galatia, as they bite and devour one another, because they have been (in Paul’s view) bewitched and confused. (So much for the wonderful days of the “golden era” of the early church … … …)
Paul has much to say about the teaching of these people, identifying circumcision as the central issue, but actually dealing with a whole set of matters regarding the place of the Jewish Torah, the law, in the communities which recognised Jesus as Messiah. Paul comes back to this is his final chapter of the letter, which is what the lectionary offers us on the Sunday after next … so more musings on that, next week.
Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, in the northern region of Israel. His childhood and much of his adult life was lived in Galilee. Like many others of his time, that life included trips to Jerusalem, the city where kings had ruled; where the Temple sat at the pinnacle of Mount Zion; where sacrifices and offerings were presented to God; where festivals were celebrated, sins were forgiven, gratitude was expressed, psalms were sung.
But Jesus spent most of his time in Galilee, in the northern region of Israel, visiting the synagogues, encountering people on the streets, spending time at table with various people. There was a moment in time, however, when he made the decision to go to Jerusalem. It was a momentous decision; indeed, it would be a fatal decision, as it turned out. But at the time, nobody knew that would be the case. He had travelled south to Jerusalem, and then returned north to Galilee, on occasions before. But this time would be different. His disciples didn’t know that. Did Jesus himself have any inkling about this?
In the reading that the lectionary offers for this coming Sunday (Luke 9:51–62), we hear that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Then follows quite a saga, as that journey unfolds over ten full chapters. Matthew and Mark, by contrast, simply report that “he left that place [Galilee] and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan” (Mark 10:1; Matt 19:1). Short, simple, quick. Yet Luke makes a big deal of it. It was a momentous decision.
As Mark reports Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem, he notes that “crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them” (Mark 10:1). But what he taught is not evident; Mark does not report many more details. Instead, Jesus is suddenly “in the region of Judea, beyond the Jordan” (Mark 10:1), back where he was first baptised (Mark 1:5). Soon, he would enter the city and then the Temple (Mark 11:11–15). It all takes place quite rapidly.
By contrast, in Luke’s orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled amongst us, the journey to Jerusalem, which begins at Luke 9:51 (“when the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem”) takes ten full chapters to narrate. Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem at 9:51. He does not actually begin to approach Jerusalem until 19:11. Even then, his entry to the city is drawn out; Jesus tells a parable (19:11–27), rides down from the Mount of Olives on a donkey (19:28–38), and weeps over the city (19:39–44); then when he enters the city, he goes immediately to the temple (19:45).
Luke takes almost ten full chapters to narrate the journey that Jesus took, with his disciples, including much material that is found only in his narrative. What he taught on that journey, who he encountered on the road, and those whom he healed and exorcised along the way, are all reported by Luke. On this journey in Luke’s Gospel, see
The decision Jesus makes to travel to Jerusalem is reported in terms of weighty theological significance (9:51-56). “When the days drew near for him” might literally be rendered, “in the filling up to completion of the days”; the verb is an intensifying compound of pleroō, meaning to come to fruition or to be filled up.
Pleroō is the same verb used at the start of Luke’s narrative, at 1:1, where it also has a heavy theological sense (the things that God was bringing to fulfilment or completion). It also appears at the end of the narrative, when Jesus refers everything written about him “in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms” being fulfilled in accord with divine necessity (24:44).
The word appears also within the body of Luke’s narrative in relation to the fulfilment of scripture (4:21), the fulfilment of the time of the nations (21:24), and the fulfilment of the kingdom (22:16). And quite significantly, the exact same phrase introduces Luke’s account of the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). It is a signal that something very important is taking place.
The compound verb sumpleroo, which Luke uses at 9:51 and also at Acts 2:1, appears four times in the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of Hebrew Scripture. All four times it refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587BCE, and the seventy years that it lay fallow before the Israelites could return. So it is used with a weighty theological significance there, underlining its importance when it appears in Luke’s account.
(The other use of this compound verb is at Luke 8:23, in the account of the journey across the lake, when the boat in which Jesus and his disciples were sailing “was filling with water, and they were in danger” (8:23). The sense here is more prosaic—water is swamping the boat—but perhaps the linking of this word with “and they were in danger” points to the risk that Jesus was taking as he ventured across the lake, into Gentile lands, where he encounters the man possessed by a Legion of demons. See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/14/what-have-you-to-do-with-me-jesus-luke-8-pentecost-2c/)
The phrase translated as “to be taken up” is analēmpsis, which could also be translated as “ascension”; the verb is used of Jesus rising into the clouds at Acts 1:2, 11, 22. This, of course, is the climactic moment at the end of the Gospel (Luke 24:50–51) and the opening scene of the second volume (Acts 1:6–11). That scene is in view from this earlier place in the narrative.
And when we read that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51), the language indicates a steely resolve, a fixed determination, to head towards the city. The verb used here is found in the LXX to refer to God’s determination (Lev 17:10; 20:3–8; 26:17; Ezek 14:8; 15:7) and it forms a consistent refrain in God’s directions to the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 4:3, 7; 6:2; 13:17; 20:46; 21:2; 25:2; 28:21; 29:2; 35:2; 38:2). Jesus turns to Jerusalem with a fixed prophetic intent; when he arrives in the city, it is “a visitation from God” (19:44).
The determination that Jesus had to press on, heading south through Samaria, towards Jerusalem, is picked up by his disciples. Although some are sent on ahead into Samaria to make preparations from his coming, when Jesus and his group arrive, they encounter resistance from the Samaritans (9:52–53). It is presumed that the Samaritans, reflecting traditional antagonism between the two regions (as is reported at John 4:9), were not willing to provide hospitality to one known to be heading to the southern capital.
Incensed by this lack of support for their band as they made their way through the region, James and John said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (9:54). Their cry evoked a scene from the time of the king, Ahaziah, as two separate groups of fifty soldiers were consumed by fire when Elijah petitioned the Lord, “let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty [men]” (2 Kings 1:10, 12). God had acted with vengeance in the past; surely God would do the same once more, the disciples presumably reasoned.
God did not intervene. Jesus was not pleased. He rebuked them (9:55) and they moved on to the next village. The comparison with Elijah is deemed inappropriate, at least at this point. (Later manuscripts from the medieval period add an explanation as to why Jesus rebukes them: “the Son of Man has not done to destroy the lives of human beings, but to save them”. The addition follows the form of the saying of Jesus recorded at Mark 10:45, and the substance of the saying at John 3:17. There are, however, no similar sayings in Luke’s narrative.)
The final section of the passage offered by the lectionary focuses on the singularity of purpose required to follow Jesus. The call to follow (implicit at 5:10–11; explicit at 5:27; 9:23; see also 14:27; 18:22) is here intensified by the collating together of three originally independent sayings of Jesus.
The first and third sayings are spoken in response to an approach to Jesus, “I will follow you”. The first occurrence (9:57) is an absolute statement; it evokes the response, “foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (9:58). That is the same response which Jesus gave to a scribe who utters the same affirmation in Capernaum, much earlier in Jesus’s time in Galilee, in Matthew’s account (Matt 8:20).
The third occurrence (9:61) is conditional; “let me first say farewell to those at my home.” The response from Jesus, “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (9:62) is found only in Luke’s narrative. The saying evokes the scene where Elisha is called by Elijah, but seeks to say farewell to his father and mother before following (1 Kings 9:19–21). Elijah permitted this last act of familial duty, before Elisha “set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant” (1 Kings 19:21).
Jesus, by contrast, will not countenance any conditional response; it must be a total commitment, if you wish to follow him. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple”, he would later say (14:26). Refusing to allow the person to “look back” perhaps has in mind what happened to Lot’s wife, who “looked back and she became a pillar of salt” (Gen 19:26).
The middle saying of Jesus is a call spoken directly to one person, “follow me”, which is met by a conditional response: “first let me go and bury my father” (9:59). This response is also linked with the first response (“foxes have holes …”) in Matthew’s account (8:19–22). Jesus, of course, is unwilling to accept such a conditional response; he demands full and intense loyalty. (The words of Jesus, responding to Peter at Luke 18:29, verify this.) His rejoinder in both accounts is to “let the dead bury their own dead” (Luke 9:62; Matt 8:22); in Matthew, it is linked with the charge to “go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
The call to follow Jesus will be put to the test immediately after this, when seventy of the followers of Jesus are sent out, two-by-two, charged to “cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (10:9). That part of the story is what is provided by the lectionary for the Sunday after this coming Sunday (so see next week’s blog!).
Refugee Week is held each year, providing an opportunity to highlight aspects of the refugee experience and help the broader community to understand what it is like to be a refugee.
This year, Refugee Week runs from Sunday 19 June to Saturday 25 June. Healing is the theme of Refugee Week 2022. This theme builds on a recognition of the importance of human connections, which has been underscored by the current pandemic.
The website for this year’s Refugee Week says, “Mainstream and refugee communities alike can draw upon shared hardship to heal wounds, to learn from each other and to move forward. Healing can occur through storytelling, through community and also through realisation of our intrinsic interconnectedness as individuals.”
The first Refugee Week events were organised in Sydney in 1986 by Austcare (Australians Caring for Refugees). Austcare’s mission is to assist refugees overseas, displaced people and those affected by landmines to rebuild their lives, through the expert delivery of development programs in partnership with local communitities and other agencies.
In 1987, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) became a co-organiser of the week, and the week became a national event from 1988. RCOA took on responsibility for the national coordination of Refugee Week from 2004.
According to the UNHCR, the United Nation’s Refugee Agency, there are now 89.3 million forcibly displaced people, as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order in their countries of origin. (A year ago, the figure was 82.4 million forcibly displaced people.)
35 million of these people are children, aged under 18 years. 1 million of these children were born as refugees; in the years 2018 to 2020, an average of between 290,000 and 340,000 children were born into a refugee life per year.
Over half of these people (53.2 million) are classified as “internally displaced”, meaning that they are homeless within their own country. 27.1 million are officially classified as refugees, meaning that they are “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” This is the definition in the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees—an international agreement which Australia signed in 1951, the year it was published.
A further 4.6 million people are classified as asylum seekers. Under Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum The 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits states from imposing penalties on those entering ‘illegally’ who come directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened. (Terms such as ‘illegals’, ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘boat people’ are both inaccurate and unhelpful—even though they appear in the media with saddening regularity, they are terms that should be avoided.)
More than two thirds of all refugees currently under the UNHCR’s mandate come from just five countries: the Syrian Arabic Republic (6.7 million), Venezuela (4.0 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.2 million), and Myanmar (1.1 million).
The countries which are currently hosting the most number of refugees are Turkey (3.6 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Germany (1.1 million), Sudan (just over 1 million), and the Islamic Republic of Iran (just under 1 million). Developing countries host 86 per cent of the world’s refugees, and the Least Developed Countries provide asylum to 27 per cent of the total.
In the last full year (2020–2021), Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program was set at 13,750 places. We willingly accept this amount of incoming refugees, and recognise the value that such people do bring to the Australian society. we have fallen victim to the fear pedalled by unscrupulous elements in society, and in government, over the past decade, about the “hordes” of people seeking the safety of refuge in ur country.
In Australia, the most enduring myth about people seeking asylum is that most arrive by boat. They don’t. The clear fact is that most people seeking asylum arrive by air. It’s time for us to throw overboard the fear of people who come here seeking refuge and asylum on boats, and recognise that the fear fuelled by right-wing agitators over the past decade has not served us well at all.
Adhering to the provisions of the Refugee Convention, as a,country, would be an excellent step,for us to take this year. That would be a significant step towards Healing in our national life.
My sermon for the 45th anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia, preached at the Tuggeranong Uniting Church on 19 June 2022
On the Sunday closest to 22 June every year, across this continent, people gather to celebrate the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia. And as it happens, today the lectionary offers us a section of one of Paul’s letters, from our New Testament, which is quite relevant. It’s from the latter part of chapter 3 of his letter to the church in Galatia.
It is good to have this passage as our focus. It speaks to who we want to be, together, as the church. It is a word for our times. In fact, I think that this passage could well express the fundamental calling of the Uniting Church. It taps into many of those key things that are at the heart of our DNA as the UCA. (You might have read what I wrote about this in the newsletter this week, or on our website; see https://tuc.org.au/conversations/the-dna-of-the-uca/)
Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in the midst of an intense and ferocious debate within the early movement that had been started by Jesus. It was a time of great transition. Things were changing. Old practices were being challenged. New practices were being proposed.
In Galatia, a region in the area we today would call Turkey, the communities of new believers were practising Circumcision as a sign of their faith in Jesus. That was how Jewish people had long signalled their faith, by circumcising their infant males. Jesus himself was circumcised. So it made sense to the believers in Galatia to require that any males who professed faith in Jesus would be circumcised.
This practice came under criticism. In Galatia, as in many other places where the good news of the Jesus movement had been proclaimed, baptism was being proposed as a new ritual, to mark the new faith of the growing numbers of the followers of Jesus.
The argument about circumcision has behind it the issue as to how much, or how little, of the Jewish Law should apply to believers within that movement – those whom we now call the early Christians. This was an incredibly contentious issue at the time, which caused much dispute. Galatians is a letter that was written in the heat of this intense debate; so, at many points, it bears more evidence of rash fury than it does of considered reflection on the part of Paul.
Paul’s language in Galatians is ferocious. He accuses the Galatian believers of being fools who have been bewitched by deceivers; he attacks them for biting and devouring one another; he criticises them for urging Gentile converts to be circumcised and to adopt full adherence to the Torah. This is no gentle, reflective spiritual meditation; this is full-on partisan polemics! Nevertheless, it is part of the collection of letters that were included, long ago, in the canon of our scriptures. We are called to hear it, read it, and reflect on it.
So it is wonderful to find, right within the midst of this turbulent flow of argument and disputation, that we come across comments that do provide cause for reflection; ideas that do invite deeper consideration; insights that do offer the opportunity for spiritual growth to those who would read, ponder, and reflect.
In today’s passage, we find these two well-known verses from the third chapter of this letter: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).
Here, Paul sets out a vision for people of faith; a vision for believers within community; we would say, a vision for the church. It could well be our central mission statement, as the Uniting Church in Australia, for we so much value grace-filled inclusiveness, we so strongly reject divisive and judgemental stances, we so yearn to live in accord with this grand vision, where all belong to a welcoming and loving community.
It is a vision that should resonate with us here at Tuggeranong. In this congregation, we work to ensure that people are welcomed and included. The door is open to all who want to walk through it and gather with us. And such people do walk through the door: people of Anglo heritage, of Islander heritage, of Indian and Asian heritage; people of mature age, those “in their prime” (yes, that’s most of us!), those who participate regularly in Girls’ Brigade, and those in the very early years of their lives.
In the fellowship of this congregation, we have people who identify as heterosexual and those who identify as homosexual; those who have transitioned genders, those who are intersex, those who prefer the pronoun “they” to “he” or “she”. Rainbow Christian Alliance offers a safe place for such folks, as well as this morning worship gathering. We have in our midst people for whom life has been a struggle, and those who have been blessed with good health and happy relationships throughout.
People from this Tuggeranong congregation offer ministry to those at Karralika who are grappling with issues in their life, to those who are finding it hard to make ends meet and value the opportunities to shop at Red Dove, or to collect food parcels, and to those who simply want a weekly time of friendly companionship over a meal. All of these activities, and more, indicate that we are open, welcoming, inclusive. This resonates with the vision of the church that Paul long ago articulated.
And it indicates that we are, as we have prayed earlier, heading towards being a church that “dreams ambitiously, loves with purpose, and dances with danger … that lives the politics of the kingdom and discovers the beauty of humanity, that loves to bless the stranger … and has courage to step out in faith … as God’s companions on this way”. [Prayer by Rocky Hamilton, abbotsford.org.uk]
Paul’s vision of the church is one of harmony, inclusion, unity. Yet some were clinging to the old practices, of circumcision, while others were seeking to move on, through practising baptism. Paul envisages great changes within the community of faith, because of Jesus. If the people in Galatia had failed to achieve this change, nevertheless the vision stood firm; Paul envisaged a community that would bring together strikingly disparate opposites.
In this community, the religious differences of Jew and Gentile would matter no more; the different levels of social status, of people living in freedom and those serving as slaves, would become irrelevant; and the societal roles and expectations associated with the gender of a person—male or female—would no longer function as dominant. These three conditions of difference would melt away, within the community of faith, into a cohesive unity of co-operation and interconnection. This was a huge change to take place all those centuries ago.
Indeed, as we ponder these three key instances of the way in which difference would disappear, we might even push it further: is this vision not simply one for the church, but even one for society as a whole? Might it be that the vision, the hope, which Paul set out in his letter to the Galatians, could be brought about within the patterns of living and relating right across his society? Was Paul passionate, not only about partisan points of religious practice, but also – and more significantly – about visionary ideals for human society as a whole?
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – this unity within the church might well become a model for harmony within society. Certainly, that is the way that the church has interpreted this statement in the centuries since Paul wrote it.
The church of the late first century continued the battle begun in the time of Paul; over time, Jews and gentiles were equally welcomed within most of the faith communities of the ancient world.
The church of the Enlightenment was at the forefront of the movement to end the slave trade, to enable black Africans to live unhindered by white masters seeking to profit from selling them as slaves.
And the western church from the later part of the 20th century onwards has been active alongside many other community organisations to ensure that the opportunities available to women were not less than those available to men.
In each of these battles, the church at large has understood Paul’s words to the Galatians to be words for both the church, and for the society as a whole. It is a grand vision. Today in our society, we are pursuing this vision particularly in relation to gender and sexual identity, a conversation which has been to the fore in society in recent years, a conversation in which the Uniting Church has played a key role as a faith organisation.
Inclusion. Welcome. Unity. One in Christ Jesus. May this be a reality for us, in this community of faith, and amongst the people of the place where you live, sleep, eat, work, and rest.
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).
As the epistle is the lectionary for this Sunday and the following two Sundays comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, here is an Introduction to Galatians.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians begins in a dramatic, striking fashion. Almost all of Paul’s letters begin with a prayer of thanksgiving, designed to strengthen the relationship between Paul and those to whom he writes.
Not so in Galatians: in place of a friendly thanksgiving, Paul launches straight into a devastating criticism of the Galatians (1:6–9). In quick succession, he criticizes their activities, attacks the beliefs they have adopted from their teachers, and invokes a curse on their heads. What do we make of this language used by Paul?
Strong language is not uncommon in Paul’s letters. It was also widespread amongst the educated class of the day, who had been taught how to mount a strong and effective criticism by the careful use of rhetorical techniques. Rhetoric was taught to privileged young (male) members of Graeco-Roman society—which would have included Paul.
So Paul uses familiar rhetorical techniques to address the situation in Galatia. Other teachers had visited the Galatian community, and had taught the Christians there things that were at odds with what Paul was teaching. Paul uses rhetoric to persuade the Galatians to dissociate themselves from the teachings that apparently had been so effective amongst them.
If we knew precisely who the Galatians were, what group of teachers had been active amongst them, or what specific matters caused Paul to write this letter, we might be better placed to adjudicate on this matter. Unfortunately, we don’t have this kind of information.
The letter is sent to communities of faith in a whole region (Galatians 1:2), not a single city or town. Acts indicates that Paul visited there with Barnabas: he visited Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14–14:23) and later with Timothy (18.23). But we learn no further specifics of the Galatian churches from Acts. (There is a similar vagueness about the date of the letter: “late 40s or early 50s” is most often cited.)
The key themes of this letter relate to the Law, freedom, and unity.
The gospel that Paul proclaims makes believers “one in Christ”. This unity overshadows all divisions: as the most famous words in this letter declare, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (3:28).
The threat against this unity has arisen through the insistence of other teachers that true faith requires, first, circumcision (2:12; see Acts 15:1, 5). Paul asserts that these other teachers want their followers to be circumcised—although surprisingly, he notes, they themselves “do not obey the law” (6:13).
Paul claims that the “circumcision faction” were preaching “another gospel” (1:6) in which they actually “pervert the gospel” (1:7). He calls them “false believers” (2:4) who have “bewitched” the Galatians (3:1). His vehemence at one point is such that he exclaims, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (5:12).
Paul’s problem, of course, is that he himself is circumcised, as he mentions at Philippans 3:5 (a fact that he omits when he rehearses his past at Galatians 1:13–14). How can he advocate the opening of the faith to those who are not circumcised, when he himself bears this sign of the covenant?
He insists that the Galatians “become as I am” (4:12), and yet threatens that “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (5:2). What applies to Gentile converts must be different from what is the case amongst Jewish converts.
Circumcision was the pre-eminent sign of the Law for Jewish believers. Paul wants to move the Galatians away from their understanding of the Law. He re-interprets the scriptural passage that lies behind this Jewish custom. Galatians 3:1–5:1 thus contains a tightly-argued, complex argument concerning the Law.
Paul uses the story of Abraham, the patriarch to whom the requirement of circumcision was first commanded, as a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17). He interprets this story without once mentioning circumcision (3:6–18). It is the faith of Abraham, in believing God’s promise, that secured him righteousness (3:6–7) and opens the promise to Gentiles (3:8–9). It is that promise which is now fulfilled in Christ (3:13–14, 16, 29). This is the pathway to freedom in faith.
This letter demonstrates that freedom is at the heart of the Gospel. Paul offers this freedom anew to the believers in Galatia. The Gospel frees them from the complex web of duties and responsibilities under the Law.
The call to freedom (5:1, 13) becomes a platform for ethical guidance, grounded in love (5:13–14), manifested in living by the spirit (5:22–26), not by the flesh (5:16–21). This ethic requires believers to “bear one another’s burdens” (6:2) and to “work for the good of all” (6:10). In this way, they will become “a new creation” (6:15). The gospel, which brings liberation in community (3:28), will also lead to liberation for the creation (6:15).
Galatians is important because of the central theme of freedom that it articulates. In what ways does your faith provide you with a sense of freedom?
This coming Sunday is the second Sunday after Pentecost. This is the longest season in the church’s year, stretching all the way from Pentecost Sunday (two weeks ago in early June) to the Reign of Christ (on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, at the end of November). Each Sunday during this season, the lectionary offers a set of readings from the prophets in Hebrew Scriptures, some letters of the New Testament, and the orderly account of the things fulfilled amongst us, which we know as the Gospel according to Luke.
We have already launched into reading and hearing from Luke’s orderly account in the Sundays of Epiphany, earlier in the year, and in some of the Sundays in the seasons of Lent and Easter. From this Sunday, we hear passages from chapter 8 onwards, culminating in the final speech of Jesus to his followers in chapter 21.
The story for this Sunday tells of the encounter between Jesus as a man possessed by demons. At the moment of encounter, the man cries out a question which stands at the head of all we will read over the coming six months: what have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God? (Luke 8:28). That is a good question to pose as we read and hear each of the selections from the orderly account that we will encounter in coming weeks.
As Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem (9:51–56), what does he have to do with us? As Jesus teaches in the house of Mary and Martha (10:38–42), what does this have to do with us? As he teaches about prayer (11:1-13), tells parables about the right use of wealth (12:13–21; 16:1–13; 16:19–31), the generous hospitality of an open table (14:1–14), the gracious welcoming-back of the one who was lost (15:11-32), we should ask: what do you have to do with us, Jesus?
As Jesus receives the gratitude of a returning healed Samaritan (17:11–19), tells of the persistence of a widow (18:1-8), or enters the house of a reformed chief tax collector (19:1–10), we should ponder: what do you have to do with us, Jesus? When he enters the temple, debates with others (20:27–38), and speaks of the time still to come (21:5–19), we ask once more: what do you have to do with us, Jesus?
The Other Side
Jesus encounters this demon-possessed man “on the other side” (Luke 8:22). He has crossed the lake and arrived at “the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee” (8:26). His activity to this point has been amongst his own people, in Galilee (4:14, 31; 5:17), in Nazareth (4:16), Capernaum (4:31; 7:1), in synagogues in various towns (4:15, 33; 6:6; inferred in 8:1; and the textual variant of 4:44, Galilee, is surely to be preferred).
People in Galilee approached him to be healed or exorcised (4:40–41); others from Judea and Jerusalem had come to Galilee to hear him and be healed (6:17). Even some from “the coast of Tyre and Sidon”, to the northwest, beyond the land of Israel, had come (6:17). And in the story of the healing of the centurion’s son (7:1–10), Jesus has some contact—albeit at a distance, mediated through Jewish elders—with the Gentile centurion. To Jews and Gentiles alike, Jesus was much in demand!
By crossing the lake (8:22–25), Jesus steps onto Gentile territory—the Decapolis—and engages directly with non-Jews; not only this man (8:27), but “people [who] came out to see what had happened” (8:35), “all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes” (8:37). When these people, “seized with great fear”, asked Jesus to leave, he obliged; “he got into the boat and returned” (8:37), back to the Jewish side of the lake.
Nevertheless, the word about Jesus was “out” amongst the Gentiles; indeed, as Jesus had commanded the exorcised man to return home and “declare how much God has done for you” (8:38), so the man was “proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him” (8:39).
The phrase prefigures Luke’s later declaration about “all that Jesus did and taught” (Acts 1:1, summarising the whole of the Gospel story), and the apostolic proclamations of “all that God had done with them” (Paul and Barnabas in Antioch, Acts 14:27; in Jerusalem, 15:4, 12) and “the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry” (Paul in Jerusalem, 21:19). It also echoes the earlier affirmation of Elizabeth, “what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me” (Luke 1:25) and the song of Mary, “the Mighty One has done great things for me” (1:49).
The man is thus the first active evangelist operating independently in Luke’s orderly account—proclaiming the good news even before the twelve are sent out “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (9:1–6), even before the seventy-two are similarly despatched, two-by-two, to declare “the kingdom of God has come near to you” (10:1–12).
Signs of uncleanness
In exorcising the demons from the man in “the country of the Gerasenes”, Jesus encounters a man who is outside the boundaries of the people of God. There are a number of markers which indicate how “unclean” or “impure” this man would have been regarded by faithful Jews like Jesus and his followers. The location was outside the holy land of Israel (8:26); this is the first marker.
In a later rabbinic document, the Mishnah, a complex map of holiness was set forth, beginning with the statement that “there are ten grades of holiness: the land of Israel is holier than all other lands” (m.Kelim 1.6). (This discussion moves through the series of holiness grades, culminating with the statement that “the Holy of Holies is holier, for only the high priest, on Yom Kippur, at the time of the service, may enter it”; m.Kelim 1.9.) Assuming that this later understanding also applied earlier, at the time of Jesus, then his venturing across the lake was moving into unholy territory.
The man whom Jesus encountered was naked (8:27), another marker of his state of uncleanness. Being naked is linked with an unsatisfactory state of being in one of the stories found at the beginning of the scrolls of the Torah. The man (Adam, son of the earth) and the woman (Eve, source of life) experience this revelation after eating “the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden” (Gen 3:1–6), “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (Gen 3:7).
In stories following in later scrolls, nakedness may be portrayed negatively and linked with shame (Noah at Gen 9:22–23; the mother of Jonathan, 1 Sam 20:30), sinfulness (Jerusalem at Lam 1:8; Isa 47:3), poverty (Deut 28:48; Isa 58:7), violence (Hab 2:12–17), or sexual immorality (Ezek 16:36–38; 23:27–31; Hos 2:2–10; Nah 3:4–5). And in Roman society (the dominant culture within which the Gospel of Luke was written), nudity could be used as a powerful social constraint; a master could make a slave naked “for the explicit purpose of shaming them and reinforcing the power they maintain over them”. See http://www.humanitiesresource.com/classical/articles/roman_sexuality.htm
The man who approached Jesus “did not live in a house but in the tombs” (8:27). Dead bodies were a prime source of conveying uncleanness (Lev 21:1–3); so “those who touch the dead body of any human being shall be unclean seven days” (Num 19:11; see also Haggai 2:13). Living amidst the tombs where dead bodies were laid ensured that, under the prescriptions of the Torah, the man was perpetually unclean (Num 19:16), and thus should be avoided.
The man was “kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles which he would tear apart and break free (8:29). This description suggests a supernatural strength, but perhaps also signifies a refusal to be bound by the expectations of custom, with such reckless, violent behaviour. Certainly the demons which possessed the man have guided him to behave in ways that would be considered “anti-social”; so, he was not quite unclean in the ritual sense, but his actions placed him outside the expected patterns of society.
The anti-social behaviour of the man is intensified in Mark’s longer account; “night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones” (Mark 5:5). This detail is omitted in Luke’s version. However, Luke does report that the man was “driven by the demon [singular] into the wilderness” (Luke 8:29. The wilderness, of course, was the place for testing—of Israel (Exod 15:25–26; Deut 8:16; Ps 95:8–9); of Jesus (Luke 4:1–13), of Paul (2 Cor 11:26).
Indeed, it was not just one demon that had possessed the man; “many demons had entered him” (8:30), which explains his incredible strength and his actions outside the expected social norms. The man himself labelled these demons Legion—a clear allusion to the Roman army cohort of a legion, which at this time would have been 5,600 men, armed and ready to fight. The level of uncleanness in this man, therefore, possessed by so many demons, was immense. (The name of the demon is likewise Legion at Mark 5:9; Matthew omits this identification.)
Finally, the symbolism of sending the demons into “a large herd of swine [which] was feeding” on the nearby hillside (8:32) is potent. Pigs, of course, were anathema to Jews; “the pig, because it divides the hoof but does not chew the cud, is unclean for you” (Deut 14:8; likewise, Lev 11:7). From one person with numerous markers of uncleanness, the demons are sent into a group of animals that are clearly and definitively unclean. The making-unclean effect of Legion is transferred into the hapless already-unclean swine, who then plunge into the sea.
The sea, of course, for the people of Israel, is another marker of the territory beyond—a place of threat and danger. Israelites were not seafaring people; their natural habitat was wilderness and rocky hills. The sea was a dangerous place (Ps 30:1; 69:1–3). Only God could control the sea and the evil it symbolized (Ps 65:5–7; 77:19; 89:9; 93:3–4; Exod 14:15–16; Isa 51:10). The sea was the home for Leviathan, the great sea monster (Isa 17:12; 27:1; 51:9–10).
The prophet Daniel relates his vision of “the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea” (Dan 7:2–3)—those four beasts, it is understood, represent the political and military threats to Israel from the four great empires. So, sending the unclean swine, now possessed by the Legion of demons, into dangerous sea, represents a complete cleansing and restoration of the man.
Luke alone intensifies this moment in the story, as the demons begged Jesus “not to order them to go back into the abyss” (8:31). The abyss is identified in deutero-canonical literature with “Hades in the lowest regions of the earth” (Tobit 13:2), the opposite extreme from the heavens (Sirach 1:3; 16:18; 24:5). In Revelation, the word is translated “bottomless pit”, the source of a plague of locusts (Rev 9:1–11) and the home of the Beast (Rev 11:7; 17:8) and the place where “the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan” is thrown at the end (Rev 20:1–3).
Do the pigs actually plunge all the way down into abyss? This is left to the imagination of the hearer or reader of the story.
Luke has received the story of the encounter between this man and Jesus in the earlier account of Jesus that we attribute to Mark (Mark 5:1–20). As Luke uses this narrative as a key source for his orderly account, he has here maintained the structure and most of the details of Mark’s narrative. Matthew also has this story (Matt 8:28–34), but he has significantly reduced the narrative—and there’d are two men, not one, who emerge from the tombs (Matt 8:28).
Mark has Jesus return to Jewish territory after this encounter (5:21), but then make a second foray across the lake to the other side (6:45; he returns to Jewish land again at 8:13). During that second trip, there are significant events relating to the way that Jesus stretches the boundaries of the people of God.
Luke omits all of that second journey, and the key events included in Mark’s account of that second trip: the discussion about “the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:1–23), the encounters between Jesus, the Syrophoenician woman, and the deaf man (7:24–37), and feeding the 4,000 (8:1–10). Instead, Luke concentrates the visit of Jesus to Gentile territory entirely within this single narrative, telling of the casting out of demons from the unclean man in “the country of the Gerasenes, opposite Galilee” (Luke 8:26).
This single story contains all that we need to know about the attitude of Jesus towards “unclean” Gentiles. In one encounter, the massed forces of demonic opposition are engaged, subdued, and dispatched—the shackled man is unchained, the legion of unclean demons is sent into unclean swine, the swine dive into the chaos of the menacing, swirling sea, and the man is restored to right relationships.
Indeed, this man is the first to receive a commission from Jesus to “declare how much God has done for you”. His testimony to his encounter with Jesus begins a community of disciples “on the other side”. The good news is spreading far already, at this early stage of the public activity of Jesus!
I have known this principle, and voted in accordance with this principle, for decades. As well as holding as my personal principle to “always vote below the line” (something that has been quite challenging at various times, given the size of the ballot paper!), I have also maintained that the Senate should be a real house of review—not just a rubber stamp, like the House of Lords is in the British Parliament.
The reality is that, at times throughout the past 120 years, the Senate has indeed been simply a “rubber stamp”, acting to endorse the legislation introduced and debated in the lower house. Those times, especially, when the dominant party in the lower house has also had control of the Senate, have been times when the Senate has seemed to have lived up to its most famous description as “unrepresentative swill”. (Take a bow, Paul Keating.)
So in order to ensure that there is at least some measure of review that might occur when a bill is introduced into the Senate, I have held the practice of never voting for the same party in the lower house, as in the Senate. It has been my personal contribution to ensure (vainly, in many instances) that there are at least someone in the Senate who might advocate for a point of view different from what is advocated by the party in Government, and what is (often) blindly expressed as opposition to that point of view by those who, well, are in fact, the Opposition.
So it has been with great pleasure that I have heard the news, today, that in the ACT (the jurisdiction where I currently live), one of the two Senators elected will bring precisely that function of review—not toeing the Government line, not unthinkingly adopting the resistance of the Opposition, but considering each piece of legislation on its merits.
I’m referring, of course, to the election of David Pocock as the second Senator for the ACT. He was elected alongside Katy Gallagher, of the Labor Party—a fine Senator, in my eyes, who has been an excellent representative for the ACT over her term in parliament (as, indeed, is my local member in Bean, David Smith).
Ever since the ACT has elected senators, the second Senate spot has been held by the Liberal Party (John Knight—Margaret Reid—Gary Humphries—Zed Seselja). This year, however, Zed Seselja failed in his bid to return to the Senate. And so it is that Zed has dropped off the end of the alphabet (at least, in the ACT)!
Pocock stood as an Independent, with a platform advocating for real action in relation to climate change; the establishment of a national integrity commission; the adoption of what is advocated by the Statement from the Heart to ensure First Nations people have a voice in shaping our nation;
and measures to improve the safety of women and girls in their homes, schools, and workplaces. (He also had other economic measures and more parochial territory matters in his platform.) All of this augurs well for the next three years in Australia—especially if the Labor Government does act in accordance with its rhetoric about climate, integrity, and First Peoples. See https://www.davidpocock.com.au
Alongside the 12 Green senators (who are committed to similar policies) and the two Jacqui Lambie Network senators (Jacqui Lambie herself has a track record of independent thinking about legislation), the Senate is well-placed to be a real house of review that will consider, debate, and advocate for a range of important matters—holding the Government to account, refining legislation and e surging principles are adopted that are in the best interests of the country.
So I’m pleased that my choice has been elected—and that the Senate has a really good chance, over the next three years, of fulfilling its intended purpose.
Each year in the long season that stretches “after Pentecost”, the lectionary offers us selections from the prophetic literature of Hebrew Scripture, as companions to the Gospel readings from the orderly account of Luke. It is Luke’s narrative which most directly depicts Jesus speaking as God’s prophet (Luke 7:16; 24:19; Acts 2:30; 3:22).
Many of the prophets of Israel remind us that they speak forth “the voice of the Lord” (Isa 66:6; Jer 42:5–6; Dan 9:9–10; Mic 6:9; Hag 1:12; Zech 6:15). Jesus stands in this tradition, offering words of guidance, challenge, and judgement. He is the way by which, “in these last days, God … has spoken to us” (Heb 1:1–2).
This year, Sunday by Sunday, we are listening to “the voice of the Lord” mediated through a number of prophetic words. In the coming Sundays, the lectionary offers us stories of prophetic voices speaking to the people of the northern kingdom during the 9th and 8th centuries BCE.
We begin with sections relating to Elijah and Elisha, two great prophets who figure prominently in the history-like narratives of 1—2 Kings (Pentecost 2–4). Elijah encounters God, not in wind or earthquake or fire, but in “a sound of sheer silence” in a cave, where he gains clarity about his task (1 Kings 19:9– 15). Elisha picks the mantle of Elijah after he is taken up (2 Kings 2:13) and demonstrates this as he heals Naaman (2 Kings 5:8–14).
Next, we turn to Amos (Pentecost 5 and 6). Amos, the shepherd of Tekoa, humbly defers “I am no prophet” (Amos 7:14); nevertheless, he castigates those in Israel who “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land” (Amos 8:4). His most famous prophetic word is the call for “justice and righteousness” (Amos 5:22).
Hosea (Pentecost 7 and 8) was also active in the northern kingdom. The fractured relationship between Israel and the Lord God is mirrored in the naming of his children: “God sows”, “not pitied”, “not my people” (1:2–9). Yet Hosea sings of the love of the Lord for Israel, who “led them with cords of human kindness”, and assures them that God will not abandon them (Hosea 11:1–11). Nevertheless, soon after his long period as prophet, that kingdom would fall.
Then follows is a brief foray (Pentecost 9 and 10) to hear the words of a major and significant prophet of the southern kingdom, Isaiah, who was active from 742 BCE onwards. Isaiah criticises the sinfulness of the people (Isa 1:10-20) and exhorts the people to “learn to do good, seek justice” (Isa 1:17). The vivid “love-song concerning a vineyard” culminates in a potent condemnation that the Lord “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry” (Isa 5:1–7). This cry is a consistent prophetic message.
Then follows a series of passages from the great prophet Jeremiah (Pentecost 11–18). Jeremiah had the misfortune of being called to prophesy just at the time when Israel was crumbling and would be overrun by the Babylonians and sent into exile (721 BCE). He was called to declare words from the Lord, “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10).
Jeremiah is famous for his series of laments about the fate of Jerusalem (“how lonely sits the city … how like a widow she has become”, Lam 1:1); we hear two excerpts from Lamentations at Pentecost 17. In these words, we are invited into the experience of deep lament through the poetic wails of this prophet, as he first envisages, and then experiences, the devastation of exile.
Yet Jeremiah comes to terms with life in a foreign land, amongst people of different customs, speaking a different language, eating different foods, worshipping different gods. He leaves behind the laments of not being in the land that God gave the people; instead, he encourages his fellow-exiles to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile … build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce; take wives and have sons and daughters” (Jer 29:5–7), for the Lord “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer 29:11).
Nevertheless, Jeremiah also speaks a damning word over the people; God, he says, “is a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you” (Jer 18:11). How are we to hear and receive this striking word of the Lord? Yet the prophet “redeems” himself, perhaps, with the famous declaration about “the new covenant … I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:31–34)—a passage that a number of New Testament writers refer to in their portrayal of Jesus instigating a “new covenant”.
After Jeremiah, we visit famous words about “the time to come”, spoken by a number of prophets. Joel (Pentecost 20) describes the terrors of the coming time, yet promises that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). Habakkuk (Pentecost 21) laments “destruction and violence”, yet declares “a vision for the appointed time—the righteous live by their faith” (Hab 1:3–4; 2:3–4).
Haggai (Pentecost 22), living in a time of drought, “spoke to the people with the Lord’s message: I am with you” (Hag 1:10–11, 13). And a much later voice, active well after the return from exile (collected at the end of the book of Isaiah), affirms that God is “about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17; Pentecost 23).
These voices sounded forth long ago; their message resonates still with us today. The call for justice and righteousness undergirds the entire narrative of the people of Israel, from the call attributed to Moses in Deut 16:20, “justice, and only justice, shall you follow”; through the words of Amos and Isaiah, into the declarations of Jeremiah and a number of the “minor prophets”.
In the later scriptures in the New Testament, we hear resonances from many of these selected passages in Hebrew Scripture. Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth, stands in this tradition and speaks “the voice of the Lord”, so the call for justice and righteousness sits at the heart of who we are, as people of faith, heirs of this tradition, in the 21st century. As we read and hear these prophetic passages week after week, we are invited to reflect more deeply on how these ancient words, particular to their original time and place, can yet be for us the word of God to us, in our time, in our place.
See further at https:// johntsquires.com/2021/08/16/justice-and-only-justice-you-shall-follow/
It is 220 years ago today (13 June) since the East India ship Coromandel arrived in the Colony of New South Wales. The ship was captained by Master Alex Stirling and the welfare of all on board was the responsibility of the Ship’s Surgeon, Charles Throsby. The Coromandel had been built in India in 1793 and was owned by Reeve and Green.
In late 1801, the Coromandel was chartered by the Commissioners of Transport in London for the purpose of transporting male convicts, along with a group of free settlers, to the Colony. Also chartered at the same time, for the same purpose, was the ship Perseus, whose Captain was John Davison, with the Ship’s Surgeon being W.S. Fielding.
Both ships set out from Portsmouth on 8 February 1802, but it was a false start; after a delay of some days because of the weather, they sailed through the Spithead and into the English Channel on 12 February.
On board the Coromandel were 138 male convicts; 20 civilians provided by the Commissioner to serve as the guards of the prisoners; and a number of free settlers, with their families. On board the Perseus were 114 male convicts; 16 civilians provided by the Commissioner to serve as the guards of the prisoners; and another group of free settlers.
80 of the convicts that sailed on the Coromandel had been held on convict hulks at Gravesend, near the mouth of the River Thames, in terrible conditions. The remainder of the convicted men from various English prisons had been brought to Portsmouth to join the ship.
Six of the free settlers on the Coromandel were married men and with children: James and Jane Davison, with two sons; George Hall and Mary Smith, with one daughter and three sons; John Howe and Frances Ward, with two daughters; Andrew Johnston and Mary Beard, with five sons; William Stubbs and Sarah Wingate, with a son and two daughters; and John Turnbull and Ann Warr, with two sons and two daughters. Also on board were James Mein and his wife Susannah Skene (but without their two children) and Andrew Mein, unmarried.
During the voyage that they undertook to the Colony, all three Stubbs children, as well as a number of other passengers, contracted scarlet fever. Sadly, both Andrew Mein and the youngest Johnston child, Alexander, died of scarlet fever during the voyage.
These men had decided to accept an offer from the English government, set out in a document of January 1798, which George Hall had acquired while living in London. It reads as follows:
We whose names are undersigned acknowledge that, at our own request, we offered ourselves as settlers to go out to N.S.W. with our families on the following terms:
To have our passage found and our families victualled by the Government during the voyage. On our arrival in the Colony we have a grant of 100 acres of land at Port Jackson, or fifty acres at Norfolk Island.
To be victualled and clothed free from the Public Stores for a term of twelve months after being put in possession of our allotments, and to be allowed the labour of two prisoners maintained by the Government for the same term.
After which term we and our families are to be no further expense to the Crown. Likewise we have the same proportion of stock, such grain and agricultural tools as have been furnished to other settlers, together with such other assistance as the Governor need judge proper to afford us.
Outfit for men: 1 jacket, 1 shirt, pair of trousers, pair of shoes, 1 hat. ditto for women: 1 Jacket, 1 petticoat, 1 shift, pair shoes, 1 cap, 1 handkerchief, Children as above on stores.
In a character reference for William Stubbs, which he brought with him on the journey, five men who knew him certified that he was “a man of honest deportment, of a quiet and industrious disposition and well affected to the excellent constitution of our country”.
The Coromandel departed Portsmouth on 8th February 1802 and arrived in Port Jackson on 13 June 1802. It is said that this was the fastest time for this voyage between 1788 and 1819; it is also noteworthy that the Coromandel was the first convict ship to sail direct to Port Jackson without landing anywhere en route. The Perseus did not arrive in Port Jackson until 4 August 1802.
On 9 August 1802, Philip Gidley King, the third Governor of the Colony, wrote to the Transport Commissioners to inform them that:
The healthy state in which the Coromandel and Perseus arrived requires my particularly pointing out the masters of those ships to your notice. It appears by the log books, surgeon’s diaries and the unanimous voice of every person on board those ships of the utmost kindness to the convicts.
King continued with his positive appraisal of these ships’ journeys:
This, with the proper application of the comforts Government had so liberally provided for them and the good state of health all the people were in, induced the master of the Coromandel to proceed without stopping at any port. He arrived here in four months and one day, bringing every person in a state of high health, and fit for immediate labour; and although it appears that the Perseus necessarily stopped at Rio and the Cape, yet the convicts were in as good condition as those on board the Coromandel; nor can I omit the great pleasure felt by myself and the other visiting officers at the grateful thanks expressed by the prisoners and passengers for the kind attention and care they had received from the masters and surgeons.
After disembarking, William Stubbs took his family to the Hawkesbury River region, about 45 miles northwest of the small settlement known as Sydney. He took up a grant of 100 acres at Crescent Reach. The other freemen and their families also travelled to this area, where they had each been given grants of land in the region known as Portland Head. The land granted to Stubbs was, unbeknownst to him, liable to flooding.
In time, the men from the Coromandel would join with others settled in the region to erect a chapel where they could gather to worship in accordance with their Reformed faith. That church building (erected in 1809) still exists; it lays claim to being the oldest Christian church still standing in Australia, and the first non-conformist church built in the Colony. The name chosen for the church, Ebenezer, means “God is our help”.
But before this, and after the Stubbs family had arrived at their land grant and William had cleared his land and planting crops, the Stubbs farm and home was raided by people of the the local Aboriginal clan four times in 12 months. It is thought, now, that a cave on a neighbouring property was a sacred site for the local Aboriginal people. At the time, this would not have been known by Stubbs or by those granting the land to him.
Relations between blacks and whites at this time, early in the development of the British colony, were, understandably, very tense; after all, the British families had been given grants to settle the area which had been the country of the Dharug people for millennia.
A local history website notes that “The river, which they [the Dharug] called Derrubbin, was a focal point as a source of food, i.e. fish, eels, water birds, and mussels, and transport, in their bark canoes. Yams, a staple food, grew along the banks of the river. On the sandstone platforms they engraved images of animals and mythological figures and in the rock shelters they displayed their ochre and charcoal art. The Hawkesbury was also a source of stones for axes and pebbles for making barbs, points and scrapers.” See http://westernsydneylibraries.nsw.gov.au/hawkesbury/history.html
In the early years of the Colony, in June 1789, Lieutenant Watkin Tench had sailed up the Hawkesbury River with Captain Arthur Phillip. Tench observed that “Natives were found on the banks in several parts, many of whom were labouring under the smallpox”. Smallpox, introduced by the British settlers, would prove to be a major factor in drastically reducing the Aboriginal population; one estimate is that amongst the Dharug people, up to 70% of the population died in the outbreak of 1789. See https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/smallpox-epidemic
Another way of disrupting the Aboriginal population came from the settlers erecting houses and building fences on the land granted to them, and planting crops and running animals on their newly-established farms. In this way, British settlers interfered with the traditional lifestyle of the local people—whether unwittingly, or intentionally. And by fencing off part of the land that was so important to the culture and spirituality and lifestyle of the Dharug people, Stubbs and his fellow settlers had confronted the central element of Aboriginal culture: the land. “Aboriginal people feel a belonging to land rather than ownership of it. They respect it and refer to it as their mother.”
The scene was set for a conflict, between the longstanding traditional custodians of the land, respecting the land as their Mother, and the newly-arrived colonists, eager to replicate the best of life that they had known in the Mother Country. In this place, as in countless places across the continent, as British colonists settled on the land, they were regarded by those long- present as invaders, taking away the close knit connection between people and country.
It is said that 16 white settlers were murdered by the Dharug people during the early period of white settlement on the land around the Hawkesbury river. The number of Dharug people killed in these battles is not known. Certainly, by April 1805, Governor King had warned that “the natives … have in an unprovoked and inexcusable manner lately committed the most brutal murder on some defenceless settlers”. He instructed that if approached by the indigenous inhabitants, “the settlers are required to assist each other in repelling those visitors”. Relations had become antagonistic and brittle.
It is reported that on 28 May 1805, the Stubbs house was plundered of all its contents by Dharug people. The next day, William crossed the river in a canoe; it capsized, he struggled to swim to the bank, but was unable to do so. His eight-year old son, William, witnessed the drowning.
Because all the food in the house had been taken in the raid on the house, William’s wife, Sarah, had travelled to Parramatta to obtain provisions for the family. On her return, she discovered that she was now a widow with four small children to raise—William, Sarah, and Elizabeth, who were each born in England; and Keturah, who had been born in the Colony at Portland Head, just two months earlier, on 31 March 1804.
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser of Sunday 2 Jun 1805 reported the sequence of events of these two days in great detail (see the extract below).
Sarah Stubbs was initially dependent on the goodwill and support of friends. With a young family to raise, however, it is no surprise that she soon would marry again. Her second husband was James Painter, a carpenter who had travelled to the Colony on the Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet. They had no children.
Each of Sarah’s children married at St Matthew’s Church of England in Windsor. William and Elizabeth were married on the same day in 1819, and Keturah two years later in 1821. On 12 August 1822, Sarah married Thomas Yarwood, a convict from a Cheshire, who had been transported to the Colony on the Indefatigable in 1814. Elizabeth’s husband, Jeremiah Sullivan, was also a convict, transported from Cork City, Ireland, on the Three Bees in 1814. William and Keturah married children of convicts.
All four Stubbs children had children of their own, producing 33 grandchildren for Sarah, although five died in childhood, and six were born after Sarah’s death in December 1838. Son-in-law Thomas Woods (Yarwood) had died the year before her, in August 1837; it is saidthat he died at the hands of the Dharug clan in yet another raid that ended badly for the freed-convict-became-landholder.
The line of descent from William and Sarah continued through Sarah and Thomas Yarwood, who changed his surname to Woods; then through their son, William James Woods (1833–1915), who married Annie Keenan (1837–1913); their daughter, Ada Sarah Woods (1861–1941), who married William Owen Newbury (1850–1915); and on to their daughter, Mabel Newbury (1901–1998), who married Fred Lowe (1889–1971).
On Wednesday se’nnight Wm. Stubbs, a settler on the River Hawkesbury, was unfortunately drowned in crossing that river in a canoe ; a second person was accompanying him, and when in about the center the vehicle unexpectedly upset, and the above unfortunate man depending on his ability to swim on shore, advised his companion not to quit the boat, as it would be sure to drift, on the banks. He did so, and saved his life and Mr. Stubbs, after very nearly gaining the shore, unfortunately became entangled among a cluster of reeds, from which unable to extricate himself, it was his fate to perish in the presence of one of his children, who witnessed the melancholy disaster from the bank.
The accident is the more afflicting, as the deceased leaves a widow and large family to deplore his untimely fate ; the circumstances that led to which still heighten the calamity. The house was the day before surrounded by natives, at whose appearance Mrs. Stubbs being excessively alarmed, she fled towards the river side, and would have precipitated herself into the stream, had she not been prevented by assurances from one of the natives that she or her infants should not be harmed.
They afterwards gutted the house of its whole contents, and retreated with the plunder, and as soon as the deceased was made acquainted with what had happened, were closely pursued towards the Mountains, but in vain, as no single article of the property was recovered. As not a requisite to comfort remained to the family, Mrs. Stubbs set out that night for Parramatta, in order to procure a few requisites more immediately wanting ; and during her absence the unfortunate event of her husband’s death took place.
In addition to the lamentable circumstances that tend to multiply embarrassment upon the above unfortunate family, we have feelingly to mention, that within the space of twelve months they have been four times bitterly distressed by hostile natives, who have at either time stripped them of domestic comforts or “swept their fields before them.”
The poor child who sadly witnessed the dying struggles of an unfortunate parent is a fine boy, nearly eight years old; and eldest of four helpless Orphans in the dispensation of the Divine Will left to deplore a father’s loss. For poignant affliction, happy for the unfortunate, Heaven still provides by bestowing its bounties upon some among the many, who by the most delightful application give testimony, that all Mankind are not insensible of what they owe to Providence, and when distress like this presents her claim to sensibility, generously step forward to discharge the debt.
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Sunday 2 Jun 1805, Page 2.
This is the reflection that the Rev. Elizabeth Raine gave at the monthly gathering of Rainbow Christian Alliance at the Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 12 June 2022.
You may well be asking yourself the question: Why would I start a reflection with a title “the Kingdom is binary”? Good question and I am glad you asked it.
I know this story of the eunuch has probably familiar to you and has been done to death in many circles. But I thought it worth revisiting and looking at why it was such a big deal.
So we will start by considering Acts 8. The backdrop is one of great violence. The story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch comes after the stoning of Stephen. Saul, the instigator of this act, has launched a campaign of terror against Christians. Peter and John are waging their own campaign of oppression against alleged wicked magicians. Saul’s dramatic conversion follows in the next chapter. But before Saul’s conversion, we have this curious story of the Ethiopian eunuch.
Why is it here and how are we to read it? In its own way, this story is as dramatic as Paul’s conversion. We find Phillip, one of the apostles, chasing down an Ethiopian chariot. Even for the first century, it’s a bizarre image, and one that has some danger attached to it – after all, the Ethiopian eunuch is a high ranking official in the Ethiopian court and could order violence against this stranger pursuing him.
But as luck would have it, the official just happens to be studying Isaiah in his chariot, giving Philip the opportunity to explain that the redemption Isaiah anticipates has come in Jesus. The official is convinced by Philip’s understanding, they happen upon a convenient water source and the limousine screeches to a halt. The official says “What is there to prevent me from being baptized?”
To us, it probably seems a reasonable question. But just imagine for a moment the sort of prejudices that might have been present in the first century….
Well, there are a number of things we need to be clear about, Mr Official, before proceeding. There is the tiny matter that you are a gentile from beyond the bounds of the empire, and you are alien to us and we have heard that your people are enemies of the empire. And we cannot be sure of your attitude to scripture, or how you plan to use it. And your place of work – do you still plan to continue in that den of iniquity they call a court in Ethiopia? And of course, there is the little detail of your dubious gender. You are, without doubt, in a minority of people of dubious sexual orientation, and Deuteronomy 23:1 clearly states that you should be excluded from God’s people. It’s so important for people to know their place, and yours is, well … not the same as ours. We need to have a few decades of dialogue about your place — you can just wait over there.
Fortunately for the eunuch, Luke tells us that this is not the response he got from Philip, who did baptise him, and the text says that the eunuch then went on his way rejoicing.
So why is this story such a big deal? In the Hebrew Bible or OT, Deuteronomy 23:1 states that “no one who has been emasculated [i.e. had their genitalia removed] by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord”.
The words used here are very stern—emasculating, severing, crushed. So by virtue of this definition, our friend the eunuch would be barred from participating in the faith. In the ancient world, eunuchs – that is, anyone whose genitalia looked different or whose genitalia were made different – were thought to suffer from a disability. After all, they couldn’t father children, which was the primary aim of life in the Ancient Near East and a source of social shame.
Before Luke challenged this notion, it had already been taken up by the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 56, the prophet states:
Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’ And let no eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree.’ For this is what the Lord says: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me, and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure for ever.
Just to give some background to this text, it was written after the exile in Babylon and the chance for the exiled Jews to return to their ancient homeland had been extended by the Persian king. This raised the question of who was welcome in this soon to be reestablished community and religious environment. Was the old to be adhered to?
Isaiah says no, God is doing a new thing, and everyone is welcome in this community. The kingdom of God is open to all. Isaiah is presenting a unifying theme for not only Israel, but anyone else who wants entry into God’s kingdom.Salvation is available to all in this fully inclusive religious community.
Luke, who uses the prophet Isaiah heavily in his narratives about Jesus and the early church, uses the story of Philip and the eunuch to demonstrate how this particular part of Isaiah’s prophecy is being fulfilled. Luke underscores this by hisdescription of the Holy Spirit, who pushed Philip right out of his familiar comfort zoneto a new places with different practices.
This encounter will ultimately reform the early church as it currently exists into a new and diverse assembly, where genderdoes not matter, where sexual orientation does not matter and where the state of someone’s genitalia does not matter. It is indeed a radical move. God is doing a new thing, here it has sprung up, and all are welcome in this blossoming out of the kingdom of God.
This is a Holy Spirit that demands the church think in new ways. It refuses to allow tradition, familiarity and ‘comfortableness’ to get in its way of a radical inclusiveness.It does not allow us to lapse into ‘what we have always known’ and let our thinkingbe dominated by past beliefs, factual errors, misunderstandings and downright bigotry.
The last passage I want to look at is from the gospel of Matthew, in Matthew 19:12, Jesus says:
For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.’
What are the implications of what Jesus is saying here? Firstly, we note that Jesus acknowledges that people are born eunuchs—is he describing intersex people here perhaps? It is an acknowledgement that the binary male and female paradigm does not always apply in society or even the kingdom.
Jesus is probably also describing boys who were carried off into captivity and castrated as they were brought into the service of the conquerors (Dan 1:3). Others were simply sold into slavery and either set to guard harems or made eunuchs to keep them in an ever-present state of societal shame and subordination.
Lastly, some decide to chose celibacy, or become eunuchs for the sake of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ statement, simple as it is, acknowledges all of these “eunuchs” have a place in the kingdom.
Jesus has effectively destabilized the normative categories of his time, ‘queering’ scripture in relation to gender, sexuality, and roles in society. J. D. Hester (in “Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus: Matthew 19:12 and Transgressive Sexualities”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 28.1 (2005): 13–40) asserts that the only way to read this Matthean pericope today is the inclusion of those who transgress normative categories of gender and sexuality.
Hester believes that the eunuch was a social identity radically undermining the foundational assumptions used to reinforce the conservative heterosexist reading of the Bible, precisely because eunuchs and their social identity threatened the allegedly sacred boundaries between male and female. Jesus, by affirming the inclusion of eunuchs in the kingdom is stating the kingdom itself is non-binary.
What would we do today when confronted by our modern-day equivalents of eunuchs and Ethiopians? Do we show such people the love of God and actively welcome them into our church, community and country?
See the UCC ad Ejector Pew:
The church has not been good at hiding our prejudices. The church claims to accept everyone equally, but the reality is the traditional church likes some folk better than others, finding some people to be cleaner, more articulate, more socially acceptable than others.
But while sometimes we might despair and think that people cannot change, churches cannot change, and even perhaps that society cannot change, I ask you to remember that if this was true, we should remove a good percentage of our New Testament, as many of the letters we treasure were written by a man who not only changed from being a persecutor but was also converted to become a zealot for those he persecuted.
That the Uniting Church now has a task group to prepare an apology for the harm done to LGBTQI people is a sign of hope, and also hopefully a sign that the kingdom is finally inching its way into reality.
The following dialogue was written by my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, and myself, and was presented at the Tuggeranong Uniting Church in the ACT on Trinity Sunday, 12 June 2022.
The dialogue does not come from the time of the Bible, when Christians were a tiny minority group; but a little later, in the mature years of the Holy Roman Empire, when Christianity had become the state religion across the western world.
The character who opens the dialogue is Rufinus, who was present at the council of Nicea in the year 325, when the first formal declaration of the doctrine of the trinity was made by a council of bishops. Rufinus was one of the scribes at the council, taking notes for the eminent historian, Eusebius of Caesarea.
Rufinus is full of enthusiasm for what has taken place at Nicea. He is anxious to address you on the topic. But he is quickly joined by a mysterious and rather shadowy character, who questions the whole foundations of the Nicaean decision on this topic. She is a devotee of Sophia, or Lady Wisdom, who is described in Proverbs 8 (the Hebrew Scripture reading for Trinity Sunday) and other texts from the “wisdom literature”. We subsequently learn that this character is named Sophilla.
JOHN: What do we mean when we speak of the Trinity? This is a good question, and one frequently asked by Christians.
The first thing to say is that Christianity is unique. We believe that God is One; but we also hold that the one God has three distinct “persons”: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This unique threefold God of Christian belief is referred to as the Trinity (from Latin trinitas, “three”).
It is true that the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible. However, we believe that some of the texts of the bible point to this doctrine. Yetwhile this concept is rather scarce in the biblical texts, there is no reason we should doubt the words of the early church fathers, where it appears often.
We should consider the early councils of the church—and especially the one held at Nicaea under the patronage of our great emperor, Constantine—to be authoritative. In these councils, doctrine is formally and correctly defined by the doctors and fathers of the church.
The Nicene Creed declares Jesus to be: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” That is the trinity in essence. It is elegant in its simplicity!
ELIZ: Now just a minute. This is not as beautifully simple as you claim,at all. There are lots of reasons for questioning this doctrine of the Trinity. For example, as you said, the word ‘trinity’ is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. And think about it – it simply doesn’t make philosophical sense. It isn’t taught in the scripture of the Jewish people, the Old Testament. These were the scriptures of Jesus, and he never mentioned such a thing. Whoever heard of such strangeness as this ‘one in three’ business?
Further, the idea of trinity is not compatible with monotheism. In fact, this is really why it was invented. The church fathers needed to explain away why they were worshipping two gods—God the Father, the supreme God; and Jesus, also regarded as a God. This would be polytheism. Sothey threw in the holy spirit for good measure, and came up with this notion of the “three in one”.
JOHN: Well, you may be right about the word ‘trinity’ not being biblical, but I have to point out that the concept is found indirectly in various statements in the Bible. The three figures of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are associated in such great New Testament passages as the Great Commission: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19).
It is also found in the benediction of the apostle Paul: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Corinthians 13:14). So there: it’s in the Bible!
ELIZ: Well, if we are going to claim that the holy spirit is divine, we must acknowledge, then, that the spirit is a female. She is sent by God, to increase human understanding, to bring change and renewal, and to announce the will of God.
JOHN: She???!!!! What do you mean, she? The holy spirit, the blessed third person of the trinity, is male. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Three persons in one being. Of course the spirit is male. How could it be otherwise? All three persons are male. And come to think of it, just who are you anyway, to be putting forth such ridiculous ideas?
ELIZ: I thought you would never ask. I am Sophilla, handmaiden to Wisdom, and one of the keepers of the feminine tradition. Wisdom has been described in many and various ways—as an aspect of God, as a divine entity existing in her own right, even as something approaching a feminine deity. All of these have some truth to them.
Wisdom’s primary function is, of course, to be a mediating force between God and the world. Wisdom is very old; as it says in the book of Proverbs: The Lord created [Wisdom] at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old (Proverbs 8:22). Wisdom also functions as a vehicle of God’s self-revelation, granting knowledge of God to those who pursue her.
JOHN: I am sorry, this is getting out of hand here. What you are talking about is the function of Jesus. These are the things Jesus does. Let us consider these verses which come early in the letter to the Colossians: He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. This makes it very clear.
ELIZ: All that this makes clear is that the New Testament writers usurped Wisdom’s function and gave it to Jesus. The name of Wisdom was used by you men at the early Church gathering at Nicaea to try and explain how a ‘three persons in one’ related to the created world. You just conveniently forgot that Wisdom is female.
JOHN: My dear Sophilla, the spirit, as part of the trinity, is masculine. The parakletos, the comforter, the spirit, is of masculine gender. This is female bias gone mad!
ELIZ: I would remind you that the holy spirit was alive and active in the Old Testament, and the ruach, which is one of her names, is most definitely feminine gender in the language of Hebrew. The ruachelohim is literally the Spirit of God who descends on kings and prophets alike, anointing them for the role of leadership of the people. And the ruach is female!
Further, we find in the Hebrew scriptures the presence of two other figures: the Shekinah, also known as the glory of God, who always indicates God’s “presence”; and the bat kol, “the Daughter of the Voice,” which is how any proclamation made by God is described. Both of them are female characters. Every action of God in the ancient writings is feminine. What have you to say to that?
JOHN: What are you talking about, with bat kols and Shekinahs? These are not words I have heard; we did not discuss these at Nicea.
ELIZ: Let me spell it out for you then. The Hebrew word ruach means “spirit”, just as the Latin word spiritus means “spirit”; but in Hebrew, ruach is a feminine noun, while in Latin, spiritus is a masculine noun. The Holy Spirit changed its sex somewhere in the last few centuries!
Rabbi Hillel, who was a contemporary of Jesus, understood that the Hebrew understanding of Wisdom and Spirit was the same as the Greek understanding of the Logos, and therefore she was feminine. It was Paul and John who first claimed that the Word or Logos was Christ, and therefore masculine.
In the Eastern Church, the Spirit was always considered to have a feminine nature. She was the life-bearer of the faith. But instead of recognizing this feminine aspect of the divine, you have tried to satisfy women throughout the world by presenting them with models of martyrs and virgins, thereby setting a standard that no normal female can aspire to. You tried to turn Wisdom into the mother of Jesus, rather than seeing her as true divinity.
JOHN: You still haven’t explained what you mean by bat kol.
ELIZ: The bat kol, the ‘daughter of the voice’, was the voice of God that proclaimed God’s will and intention, God’s judgments and his promises, the warnings and commands of God to various people, sometimes even to all of Israel. Jewish tradition always spoke of the bat kol. And every time, she is a woman!
But later Christian writers have taken the bat kol and made her masculine! The ruach, the spirit of God, who descended from the heavens was changed into the pneuma, or spiritus, and made masculine. The qualities of Wisdom and the Shekinah were grafted onto Jesus – again the feminine became masculine. And the bat kol, the voice of God and the means of communication between God and the people, morphed into a male.
So you could say that all three ‘persons’ of this newly invented trinity were in fact, originally female. And did I mention that the bat kol is represented in Jewish tradition by the symbol of the dove?
Returning now to the 21st century: This view of the Trinity that we have presented today is not meant to discredit the traditional doctrine. On the contrary; what we hope to have done is to open up new possibilities for further exploration of the idea of the divine attributes and the different aspects of God. The trinity can be a stimulus for such exploration in our thinking about God, and how we experience God’s presence in our lives.
One important consequence of what we have noted today, is that instead of keeping this feminine aspect of the divine, early Christian male leaders have tried to satisfy women throughout the world by presenting them with models of martyrs and virgins, thereby setting a standard that the vast majority of females cannot aspire to.
Wisdom fast lost her independence and feisty nature, and the meek, obedient woman, characterized by the mother of Jesus, was held up as the model to which all women should strive to be.
It should be no surprise, then, that Christian faith is seen by some as being at odds with women who identify as feminist. Women are looking for new ways to know themselves and to connect with God.
So the Wisdom of scripture, who offers wise counsel, who offers an authentic feminine experience and interpretation of the divine, has grown more relevant to feminist Christian life. She reflects real women’s real experiences of community in the world, and the characteristics of justice, grace and love that can be said to be the preservers of community, a role most often occupied by women.
Unlike the virgin martyrs of early Christianity, Wisdom is a cosmic figure delighting in the dance of creation, a master craftswoman and teacher of justice. She is a leader of her people and accompanies them on their way through history. In a most unladylike way, she raises her voice in public places and calls everyone who would hear her. She transgresses boundaries, celebrates life, and nourishes those who will become her friends. Her cosmic house is without walls and her table is set for all.
Wisdom offers us a radical example, a subversive model, and a disturbing presence. She is not confined to a building, but is out there in the public space, meeting people where they are, and offering a spirituality of roads and journeys, of public places and open borders, of nourishment and celebration, of justice and equality – rather than a spirituality of categories, doctrines, systems and boxes that have come to categorise the Christian church. Instead of an enclosed gathering, she offers a space where social and spiritual change can take place.
It is a spirituality that offers connection and integration, rather than the separation and differentiation that has characterised patriarchal Christianity for centuries. As such, Wisdom spirituality has the potential to transform the church into a life-giving force in our community.
I trust we will continue to encounter Wisdom, and learn from her, again and again in the coming years.
John Howard came to power in 1996, after 13 years of Labor dominance under Hawke and Keating. We have already noted that the themes chosen for NAIDOC WEEK in the early Howard years, 1996 and 1997, were both incisive comments about our public life.
Over the ensuing decade, Gardiner-Garden notes that “perceived inactions on reconciliation and in responding to the rhetoric of the new One Nation Party placed a strain on relations with the Indigenous community”, and records a series of decisions and actions which provided ongoing concern within Aboriginal communities: the ultimate demise of ATSIC, the attempt to establish a Special Auditor “to make a determination on whether a prospective grantee was ‘not fit and proper’ to receive public money”, a contentious Ten Point Plan to deal with the Wik decision, alterations to the Native Title Act which were seen as racially discriminatory, a Racial Hatred Act (1996) which fell short of many provisions that had been requested, and finally the Northern Territory Emergency Response, more widely known as The Intervention.
This latter event was applied to 73 Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory, and involved withholding 50% of welfare payments from Indigenous welfare recipients—-bans on alcohol and pornography—-increased police presence in Aboriginal communities—-compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children—-and the power for government to take possession of Aboriginal land and property.
The Intervention was a highly controversial policy, with many Aboriginal leaders speaking out against it.
There was some support within the Australian Indigenous community as well as beyond it. Australians Together report that “two of Australia’s most influential Indigenous academics and leaders, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton, supported several of the more controversial aspects of the Intervention.”
The Intervention, however, is viewed by most Aboriginal people as yet another instance of white colonial supremacy over blacks. It is perhaps appropriate, then, for this blog to go live on 10 June, which was the day that the infamous Myall Creek Massacre took place, in 1838. This event has come to be a symbol of all that has been wrong about the way that the invading British colonisers treated the indigenous peoples who had been the continuous inhabitants of the land “since time immemorial”.
Creative Spirits describes the 1838 event as follows: “12 heavily armed colonists rounded up and brutally kill 28 Aboriginal people from a group of 40 or 50 people gathered at Henry Dangar’s Station, at Myall Creek near Inverell (NSW). The massacre was believed to be a payback for the killing of several hut keepers and two shepherds. But most of those killed were women and children and good relations existed between the Aboriginal people and European occupants of the station. Seven stockmen are eventually hanged for murder. This outrages the colonial press and parts of the public who cannot understand why anyone should hang for murdering Aboriginal people.”
A pivotal event took place in 1997, when Prime Minister Howard addressed the Australian Reconciliation Convention, a forum for Australians to discuss Indigenous issues. The conference drew widespread participation, but was overshadowed by the controversy that Howard generated in his opening address on 27 May 1997.
Howard said: In facing the realities of the past, […] we must not join those who would portray Australia’s history since 1788 as little more than a disgraceful record of imperialism […] such an approach will be repudiated by the overwhelming majority of Australians who are proud of what this country has achieved although inevitably acknowledging the blemishes in its past history.
The reference to “blemishes” in Australia history was an incendiary remark. Indigenous delegates who were listening to the lecture stood up and turned their backs on the Prime Minister.
It was a shameful moment, a deliberate aggravation by the elected leader of the First Peoples present. The 1997 theme, Gurindji, Mabo, Wik—Three Strikes for Justice—Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, offered a striking rejoinder to the mean-spirited assessment of the Prime Minister (see previous post).
In 1998, the theme for NAIDOC WEEK was equally striking. It was a direct reference to the landmark report on the stolen generations which had been issued in April 1997 by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The report was entitled Bringing Them Home, and that exact phrase was used for the NAIDOC WEEK theme in 1998: Bringing Them Home.
Sir Ronald Wilson, former High Court justice and the President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission at that time, had led the National Inquiry along with Mick Dodson, the Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner. They heard testimony directly from 535 people and read a further 600 submissions that had been made. Wilson stated that they encountered “hundreds of stories of personal devastation, pain and loss. It was a life-changing experience.”
The report, entitled Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, estimated that “between 1910 and 1970, up to 100,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and put in white foster homes”. The commissioners found that this was in breach of international law, and called for a national compensation fund to be established. They also recommended a national “sorry day”; the first one was held in 1998 and this has remained an annual fixture of growing significance to Aboriginal Australians.
The response of the Howard Government to this report was jarring: Howard refused to make a public apology to “the stolen generations”. Apologies were made by the governments of South Australia (May 1997), Western Australia (May 1997), the Australian Capital Territory (June 1997), New South Wales (June 1997), Tasmania (August 1997), Victoria (September 1997), Queensland (May 1999), and the Northern Territory (October 2001), as well as a number of local governments and churches across the country.
The Howard Government did not offer a formal apology; instead, they brought a motion to the Parliament in 1999 which expressed “deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations”, noting “the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices”.
The government described this intentional, systemic, multi-generational mistreatment of Indigenous Australians as the “
“most blemished chapter” in Australian history. The understatement of this language (“regret” rather than “sorry” or “apology”; “blemish” rather than “systemic injustice”, for instance) reflected the conservative white preference for minimising—or perhaps removing from sight—the story of Aboriginal people in recent centuries.
Subsequent NAIDOC WEEK themes would speak back to this inadequate and insulting governmental response.
In 1999, the theme was Respect: Show Some, Earn Some. This was a plea to provide what many Aboriginal people had felt had been missing over the decades: respect.
In 2000, the theme was Building Pride in Our Communities. This connected back with earlier themes in which community had been a motif. It also offered an encouragement to Aboriginal people, to be proud of who they are and what they have to offer.
2000 was the year when hundreds of thousands of people “walked for reconciliation”, a strong statement of the popular support that existed for clear action in the way that Aboriginal and Islander people are treated. The most memorable walk was across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 28 May 2000, when a quarter of a million people (250,000 people) walked across the bridge.
For the centenary of Australia as a nation, the theme for 2001 was Treaty—Let’s Get It Right. This was another strong statement to government and public intransigence in the face of a growing recognition that the situation of Indigenous peoples was damaged by injustice upon injustice.
The history of seeking a treaty reveals stalled attempts, negative responses, and inaction by various governments. In 1979, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank, ‘Nugget’ Coombs, had convened a number of prominent non-Aboriginal Australians, working towards the implementation of a Treaty with Aboriginal peoples.
In 1981, the Fraser Government responded by rejecting the notion that a Treaty was needed. Treaties, it was said, are concluded between separate sovereign nations; the Aboriginal people were not a nation with which a treaty could be concluded.
In 1983, the National Aboriginal Conference proposed that, rather than a single national treaty, each individual Aboriginal nation might negotiate its own treaty or agreement. By 1987, the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, had signalled a willingness to produce some form of agreement for the Bicentenary of 1988. The BarungaStatement was presented to him in June 1988, but no action ensued.
By 1991, a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation had been formed. In 1996, iconic rock band Yothu Yindi released their single, Treaty, which peaked at number 11 on the Australian charts and number 6 internationally. But no action followed. By the end of the decade, Prime Minister Howard had definitively rejected any notion of a treaty, because “it implies that we are two nations; and we are not, we are one nation”. Thus, the 2001 theme of Treaty—Let’s Get It Right was a clear political statement.
In the following years, the NAIDOC WEEK themes referenced familiar motifs.
For 2002, the theme continued the explicit political plea of 2001, with the triple alliteration of Recognition, Rights and Reform. In 2003, the theme of Our Children Our Future looked back to earlier themes.
In 2004, the theme had four parts: Self-determination—Our Community—Our Future—Our Responsibility. The poster had a striking indigenous image set within a pair of cupped brown hands.
The 2005 theme, Our Future Begins with Solidarity, reinforced once more the importance of working together, both within the Aboriginal community as a whole, and also with white allies in the wider Australian society.
Perhaps the theme for 2006, Respect the Past—Believe in the Future, was chosen with an eye to the prevailing “black armband” view of history that had been actively prosecuted in the so-called “history wars” during the Howard years.
The “black armband view of history” had been first suggested by historian Geoffrey Blainey in a public lecture he gave in 1993. A series of polemic interactions from historians and commentators ensued over the next decade, fuelled by comments made by John Howard in a 1996 lecture, soon after he had been elected Prime Minister.
Mr Howard asserted that “the ‘black armband’ view of our history reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.”
Howard continued, “I believe that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement and that we have achieved much more as a nation of which we can be proud than of which we should be ashamed. In saying that I do not exclude or ignore specific aspects of our past where we are rightly held to account. Injustices were done in Australia and no-one should obscure or minimise them. … But … our priority should … [be] to commit to a practical program of action that will remove the enduring legacies of disadvantage.”
This Prime-Ministerial advocacy added fuel to the fire raging in the debate. It was countered by the patient work of Henry Reynolds in advocating honesty in the public discourse about “The Frontier Wars”, a term which has come into popular usage to describe the series of aggressive engagements and terrible massacres that took place from early in the years of British colonisation, through into the 20th century.
Respect the Past—Believe in the Future was a fine and suitable theme to highlight in 2006. The theme for the following year built on this with its reference to Looking Forward, Looking Blak.
This coming Sunday is designated as Trinity Sunday. It’s an unusual occurrence, for two reasons. First, it’s the only time in the Christian calendar that a Sunday is named for a doctrine, rather than for a biblical story. And second, it is unusual in that it presents problems for the shapers of the lectionary, since (in my view) the Doctrine of the Trinity is not actually proclaimed in the biblical texts.
Yes, there are passages that canvass some aspects of the Doctrine—how the Son relates to the Father, what is the essential character of God, how the Spirit was experienced and understood, and how Son and Spirit might relate. But there is no biblical passage which articulates the full scope of the Doctrine of the Trinity: God is three, God is one, Father, Son, and Spirit, consubstantial, co-eternal, while unending ages run (as it were).
That’s quite understandable, since the full expression of this Doctrine took a number of centuries to develop, after the period in which the texts of the New Testament were written. If the latest NT text comes from the end of the first century, the earliest form of the Doctrine of the Trinity is found in the Apostles’ Creed, adopted by the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, and a more fulsome and complex form is to be found in the Nicene Creed, adopted by the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE.
So we should not expect the lectionary to provide any texts which set out the Doctrine of the Trinity. What we do find, however, is that certain texts are offered, in which some, or all, of the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit—are in view.
In fact, two texts name all three persons in a quasi-formulaic way: the benediction at the close of 2 Corinthians 13, and final words of Jesus in Matthew 28. Indeed, these two passages are set for Trinity Sunday in the first of the three years of the lectionary, Year A. Associated with these two passages is a text that expounds something of the nature of one of these persons, God the Creator, in Genesis 1.
In Year B, two texts are offered which focus somewhat on the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit: Romans 8, where Paul wrestles with the role of the Sprit, and John 3, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, which includes reference to the Spirit. The Hebrew Scripture offering in Year C draws from the wonderful depiction of Wisdom in Proverbs 8; while the epistle in Year C, from Romans 5, appears to be included because it manages to refer to each of the three person of the Trinity within the space of five verses.
The Gospel offered in Year C (the current year) is just a short section (John 16:12–15) from the last chapter in the lengthy “farewell discourses” of Jesus (chs. 14–16), which John reports as being given to the disciples at the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers (from 13:1 onwards). It contains the fourth of four brief references in these “farewell discourses” to the Spirit, identified as “the Spirit of truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13), the parakletos (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7) and “the Holy Spirit” (14:26).
These passages are considered to provide some biblical material for the Doctrine of the Trinity relating specifically to the third person, the Holy Spirit. In particular, I am interested in how the Spirit is defined in relation to the other two persons of the Trinity.
There are three ways in which the Spirit is defined in relation to Jesus. First, the Spirit is identified as a parakletos—a word with multiple translation options. It could mean one who advocates for, one who provides counsel, one who offers help, or one who gives comfort.
Whatever option we take in translating this word, it is striking that Jesus says that the main role of the Spirit (at least as we encounter the explanation in this gospel) is to be “another parakletos” (14:16). The implication is that Jesus himself has been a parakletos—an implication that is confirmed when we read the statement in 1 John, that “we have a parakletos with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1–2).
This first statement about the Spirit thus places the Spirit in the position that Jesus had whilst living in human form amongst the people of Israel. The Spirit is the present manifestation of the role that Jesus of Nazareth had all those centuries ago. The Spirit is, in effect, a “replacement Jesus”.
Indeed, this is strengthened by the affirmation that this figure will “abide with you … and be in you”, precisely the same terminology used of Jesus in the earlier parable of the vine (“abide in me and I abide in you”, 15:4) and in the final prayer that Jesus prays before his arrest (“may [they] be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one”, 17:22–23]). The reality of the presence of the Spirit is the same as the reality of the presence of Jesus when he was with the disciples.
This idea is confirmed by the second statement about the parakletos, who is the one “whom the Father will send in my name” (14:26), the one “whom I will send to you from the Father” (15:26). Indeed, Jesus makes it clear that “if I do not go away, the parakletos will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7). This seems to suggest that the Spirit is unable to take up the role assigned to it until Jesus has departed from his followers—the Spirit is a “replacement Jesus”.
Indeed, at an earlier point in the narrative, on “the last day of the festival, the great day” (7:37; the festival referred to was Booths, 7:2), Jesus was speaking about the Spirit, and portraying the “rivers of living water” that the Spirit would give, as something still to come. The narrator informs us that he was speaking “about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (7:37–39).
This, of course, is directly contradicted by the many references in Hebrew Scripture to the activity of the Spirit in Israel (Gen 1:1–2; Job 33:4; Ps 104:30; Isa 42:5, 44:3, 48:16, 59:21, 61:1, 63:11–14; Num 11:16–17; Deut 34:9; 1 Sam 10:6, 19:23–24; Ezek 37:1; Joel 2:28–29). Nevertheless, the definitive arrangement of things that is held to quite firmly in the book of signs, is that the Spirit comes only after Jesus has returned to the Father.
The language of sending is used frequently in the fourth Gospel, in describing the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Father is regularly described as the one who sent the Son (3:34; 4:34; 5:23, 30; 6:29, 39, 44, 57; 7:16, 18, 28–29, 33; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; etc). In the final prayer of Jesus, the Father is “him who sent me” (17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25). Amongst the final words of the risen Jesus, we hear Jesus say again, “as the Father has sent me” (20:21).
So, when Jesus refers to the parakletos as the one “whom the Father will send in my name” (14:26), he is reinforcing the notion that the Spirit is the “replacement Jesus”. This is further strengthened by the affirmation that the parakletos will “teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (14:26). The language of teaching also recalls a key function of Jesus, who “went up into the temple and began to teach” (7:14), who “sat down and began to teach” the people in the temple (8:2), who characterises his ministry as “I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together” (18:20).
Further, Jesus describes the role of the parakletos as “he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:15). Jesus has already declared that “my teaching is not mine but his who sent me” (7:16) and “the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me” (14:24); now he passes that divinely-given material on to the parakletos, clearly stating that “he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:14–15). The teaching function that the parakletos performs is to replicate the teaching role that Jesus has already enacted.
The content of the teaching provided by the parakletos is also evocative of the teaching that Jesus has provided. The parakletos will teach “about sin and righteousness and judgment” (16:8, expanded in 16:9–11). In relation to sin, what Jesus does as “the lamb of God” is to “take away the sin of the world” (1:29); he provides freedom from the slavery of sin (8:34–36), and the final commission that he gives his disciples (who are sent just as he has been sent) is to decree that they have the authority of grant forgiveness of sins (20:23).
Likewise, in relation to judgement, Jesus has stated, “as I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (5:30), and again, “even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me” (8:16)—although later, Jesus asserts that “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge” (12:47–48).
Thus, as the parakletos teaches about sin, and about judgement, the teachings of Jesus on these matters are repeated. (On the matter of righteousness—apart from a single reference to God as “righteous Father”, 17:25—this Gospel is silent.) Again, we see that the parakletos is a “replacement Jesus”.
Finally, the distinctive term used in this Gospel to describe the Spirit, “the Spirit of truth”, also reinforces this way of viewing the relationship between the Son and the Spirit. The Johannine Jesus is “the Word became flesh” who “lived among us … full of grace and truth” (1:14). It is through Jesus Christ that “grace and truth came” (1:17). Jesus describes himself to the leaders in Jerusalem as “a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God” (8:40), and to the Roman Governor, Pilate, he declares, “for this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (18:37).
So Jesus tells his followers that “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (8:31–32), and even affirms unreservedly that “I am the truth” (14:6). Again, the language applied to the Spirit links in with key terminology that describes Jesus and his role. The Spirit of truth now teaches “the truth that will make you free”, that the one who is the truth had taught.
Finally, it is noteworthy that nowhere in the book of signs is there any direct statement about the relationship between Father and Sprit. Although Jesus states that “God is spirit” (4:24), the relationship is always, apparently, mediated through the Son: the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the parakletos; the Son teaches what the Father provides, the parakletos continues the teaching of Jesus; the Father incarnates the Word “in truth”, the Son teaches and is “the truth”, so the Spirit is named as “the Spirit of truth”.
In summary, the relationship between Son and Spirit reads to me as a quite hierarchical style of relationship—not at all a relationship of equals who abide in each other, who are of the same nature and share the same substance with one another, who exist co-eternally and inherit co-equally. Indeed, in the relationship between Father and Spirit/Parakletos, there is no direct link, as there is in the classic Doctrine of the Trinity; all is mediated through the Son, as we have seen. The fourth Gospel offers a different, distinctive—we might even say, unorthodox—theology of Father, Son, and Spirit/Parakletos.
The Trinity is a complex idea, a doctrine with many subsets and dimensions and component parts. Although there are passages in scripture which many say point to this doctrine, nevertheless gaining a full understanding of this doctrine really means entering into the world of metaphysics, philosophy, and linguistics of a later age.
All of this is beyond the capacity of the lectionary to provide, nor can it be done in a relatively brief reflection time within a Sunday worship service—and it runs the risk of charging away from the world of ideas in which the biblical texts were written, and opening up the danger of imposing later ideas, anachronistically, onto those texts.
The little passage from the Gospel of John that we encounter in the lectionary this coming Sunday actually points us in quite another direction!
We have already noted that the Spirit is explicitly absent from the narrative of Acts, from after Paul is arrested in Jerusalem (21:22–28:31). It is only in the closing scene, in Rome, that the Spirit is again mentioned. This is quite unlike the earlier concentrations of references to the Spirit, both in the Gospel and in earlier sections of Acts.
We have explored—and dismissed—some possible explanations for this mysterious disappearance of the Spirit in this final section of Acts. What other explanations might there be?
Perhaps the notion of a divine spirit, so integral to Jewish thinking, was strange and incomprehensible in the hellenistic world? Could this have led Luke to be reticent to refer to the spirit in this later, more strongly hellenistic section of his work?
The key problem with such an hypothesis, however, is that belief in spirits was actually widespread throughout the hellenistic world; there is indication of this from centuries prior to the first century in works such as Cicero’s De Natura Deorum (and see a comprehensive survey of occurrences in Greek literature in https://www.academia.edu/8368040/The_Term_Demon_in_Greek_Literature)
Further, as already noted, the interactions that Jesus had with unclean spirits during his ministry in Galilee indicates that this perspective held strong during the first century even within Judaism. In an earlier post, we noted that Jesus confronted the spirits in a man in the synagogue in Capernaum (4:33), in a demon-possessed man the country of the Gerasenes (8:29), in the daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue (8:55), in the boy convulsing because of an unclean spirit (8:39, 42), and in the woman crippled for eighteen years (13:11). See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/02/towards-pentecost-2-the-spirit-in-the-story-of-jesus/
Another possible explanation for the disappearance of the Spirit after chapter 21 could be in the fact that the missionary activity of Paul came to an end with his arrest in the Jerusalem Temple. From this point onwards, there is no reporting of the speeches that Paul made to persuade people to believe in the good news of Jesus; rather, we hear series of apologetic speeches which Paul delivers to the various Roman authorities who are charged with dealing with him once he has been brought before them.
Paul speaks apologetically—that is, he defends himself and his beliefs, and also advocates for a better understanding of the beliefs and practices of The Way—in speeches that he delivers before a large crowd in Jerusalem (22:3–21), the Jewish Council and Roman Tribune in Jerusalem (23:1–6), Governor Felix and his wife Drusilla in Caesarea (24:10–21), Governor Festus in Caesarea (25:8–12), and finally King Agrippa, his consort Berenice, and Governor Festus in Caesarea (26:1–32). Luke explicitly notes that Paul offers a “defence” at (22:1; 14:10; 25:8, 16; 26:2, 24). His final speeches to the Jewish leaders in Rome (28:17–20, 25–28) also have the nature of a defence.
The techniques evident in these speeches (attributed to Paul, but clearly written and shaped by the author of the orderly account) reflect a high level of educational attainment and rhetorical finesse. Why would the Spirit be needed, we might ask, when the education of the speaker (mediated via the educated writer of the work) sufficed?
So a reasonable explanation could be that, because of the prowess that Paul demonstrated in his apologetic speeches, the inspiration of the Spirit was not needed. Certainly, the crowd in Jerusalem interrupted him to mock him: “up to this point they listened to him, but then they shouted, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live’.” (22:22). But Felix was persuaded by what Paul said (24:22–23); Festus was convinced by his argument (25:12, 25), noting the great learning that he displays (26:24); Agrippa wonders, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” (26:28), and then determines that “this man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment” (26:31). Paul is presented as a most persuasive orator.
So perhaps we might argue that this whole section of Acts, where Paul speaks with rhetorical finesse and convinces Roman authorities, provides a strong vindication of words that Jesus spoke, much earlier in the Gospel, when he assures his followers that “when they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities … the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say” (12:11–12). Suchpublic speaking is both spirit-inspired and learned.
Finally, we might observe that, whilst it is true that Paul is no longer on the front foot, travelling freely, preaching and establishing churches in numerous locations, and nurturing new believers, Paul is nevertheless still actively pursuing the theological agenda that Luke has outlined from early in his writings.
Simeon has declared that the child Jesus will bring “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32) and Luke has cited Isaiah’s words that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (3:6, quoting Isa 40:5). Gentile receptivity to the good news is affirmed in many places: in the report that Jesus attracted “a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon” (6:17; the people from the coast would clearly have been Gentiles); in the instructions that Jesus gives in his parables to “go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled” (14:23); in the closing declaration of Jesus, “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (24:47); and in other places in between these key markers.
Even though Paul is now prisoner, he is continuing the commission first given centuries before to The Servant: “I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (13:47, citing Isa 49:6). The narrative trajectory, as Paul travels from Jerusalem via Caesarea to Rome, is integral to Luke’s perception that the story demonstrates how Peter and John, Paul and his companions “will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). This geography reveals the theology at play: when Paul reaches Rome, he is at the centre of the Empire that reaches “to the ends of the earth”.
The story ends with Paul in Rome, spending two years proclaiming, debating, persuading, and we might well assume also guiding, nurturing and discipling. The fact that he is a prisoner under Roman arrest, not a travelling preacher, does not matter. The work of the Holy Spirit is continuing. The offer of salvation to the Gentiles (28:28) fulfils the ancient promise of the Spirit (28:25). Are we right, then, in deducing that the Spirit, barely mentioned explicitly in the final eight chapters, has been implicitly at work in all that has transpired? It seems the best possible understanding, to me.
We have seen how important the Spirit is within the orderly account that Luke provides, telling the story of Jesus and the movement he began.
Yet the Spirit is explicitly absent from the narrative after Paul is arrested in Jerusalem (21:22–28:31), apart from a brief note at 28:25. This is quite unlike the earlier concentrations of references to the Spirit, both in the Gospel and in earlier sections of Acts.
One obvious way to explain this is to refer to the pattern of occurrences of the Spirit in the Gospel: a concentration of activity by the Spirit in the opening chapters, some further references to the Spirit in the next half dozen chapters, but then silence until the scene where the dying Jesus hands over his spirit to the Father. The pattern in the Gospel, it would seems, is to establish that the life of Jesus as a whole is Spirit-led, and then leave that as assumed in the ongoing narrative.
Could that pattern then be followed in Acts? The early concentration of activity by the Spirit in Jerusalem establishes that the life of discipleship is similarly Spirit-led in what is told in the ensuing chapters.
This may be an attractive explanation; but it doesn’t deal with the observation we have made, that there are many explicit references to the activity of the Spirit, not just in the first few chapters, but right through the first three sections of Acts (into chapter 21). If Pentecost was to inform all that followed, why do these references to the Spirit still occur in the narrative?
A second explanation might be drawn from the fact that the story after chapter 21 moves explicitly and entirely into a hellenistic context.
Paul’s earlier activity had seen him regularly engaging with Jews in their synagogues: in Antioch (13:14–15, 43, 44), Iconium (14:1), Thessalonians (17:1–3), Beroea (17:10–11), Athens (17:16–17), Corinth (18:4) and Ephesus (18:19 and again in 19:8–10). The “place of prayer” by the river in Philippi (16:13) was, most likely, also a place of gathering for Jews. This section of Acts culminates with Paul visiting the Jerusalem Temple and taking part in a purification ceremony there (21:17–36, when he is arrested).
From this point onwards, as Paul is under Roman arrest, he is arraigned before various local authorities: first before Claudius Lysias, the tribune in Jerusalem (21:31–3, 22:23–29), then the High Priest Ananias, his lawyer, Tertullus, and Governor Felix, in Caesarea (23:31–23), then Felix and his wife Drusilla (23:24–26), then two years later before Governor Festus (25:1–12), and finally, still in Caesarea, before King Agrippa, his consort, Bernice, and the Roman Governor, Festus (25:13–26:32).
Eventually, he is sent to Rome, because of his claim to be a Roman citizen (22:25–29; this was already signalled earlier in the narrative, in Philippi, at 16:35–39). The preponderance of Roman officials and scenes where Paul’s case is being considered by these authorities may militate against references to the Holy Spirit in these scenes. Paul is a prisoner, under Roman authority, being scrutinised as to his ultimate fate. The Spirit is absent from this process. The scenes are secular, it might be claimed, not related to the mission of preaching the good news.
However, it should be noted that the context of chapters 13–21 was not exclusively Jewish. Paul engages with Gentiles in various locations: early on, with Gentiles in Antioch (13:48), “a great number of both Jews and Greeks” in Iconium (14:2), a priest of Zeus in Lystra (14:13), and “the Gentiles” throughout the regions traversed in chapters 13–14 (14:27: 15:3); on a later journey, with “a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” in Thessaloniki (17:4) and “not a few Greek women and men of high standing” in Beroea (17:12).
In two cities (Athens and Ephesus), Paul’s primary interaction is with Gentiles: with Epicureans and Stoics in Athens (17:18–21), with Demetrius the silversmith and others of that trade in Ephesus (19:24–27), with a large crowd of Artemis worshippers (19:28–34), and eventually with the town clerk of Ephesus (19:35–41).
It is true that, in both cities, Paul also visits the synagogue (17:17; 19:8). However, no Jew living in the Diaspora could escape the ubiquitous influence of hellenistic culture and customs. As the tribune in Jerusalem poses the question to Paul, when he addresses him, presumably in Greek: “Do you know Greek?” (21:37). Of course Paul did—as did countless thousands of other educated Jews!
The Jews in the synagogues in Athens and Ephesus—and, indeed, in every synagogue which Paul and his companions visited in chapters 13 to 20—were Diaspora Jews, living in ways that had been markedly influenced by the dominant hellenistic culture of the past three centuries. These were not “Jews of the homeland” (and even there, hellenistic influences were evident); they were Jews who had accommodated and acculturated to life in the Greco-Roman Diaspora.
So proposing a clear cut dichotomy to differentiate between Jews and Gentiles, between Jewish contexts and Hellenised contexts, does not hold water. Applying such an analysis to Acts fails to explain the absence of the Spirit in chapters 21–28.
How else might this be explained? See the next blog post …
Today, 3 June, we remember the day in 1992 that the legal case brought by Eddie (Koiki) Mabo was decided by the Australian High Court. The court effectively recognised the existence of Native Title rights and rejected the concept of terra nullius, which claimed Australia was a land belonging to no-one prior to British occupation. The judgement opened the way for the passing of the Native Title Act in 1993.
This decision of the High Court was one of the highlights in the area of indigenous affairs during the period that Paul Keating led the federal government. The Mabo case was decided just six months after Keating had become Prime Minister (in December 1991).
The other highlight was the powerful speech that Keating delivered a year later, in December 1992, which is known as the Redfern Speech. In this speech, Keating acknowledged the role played in destroying the culture of the First Peoples by those who invaded and colonised the continent in the early decades of British settlement.
“The problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians”, he declared. “It was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice.”
It was a searing recognition of the multitude of ways in which white Australian society had impacted the long-established cultures of the First Peoples; a recognition of the complicity of white Australia in the devastation of black Australians. It was a clear step beyond anything articulated in public in previous years.
In assessing the period when the Keating Government was in power, Dr John Gardiner-Garden began by referencing Keating’s Redfern speech of December 1992, as well as “his government’s decision to set up a national inquiry into the separation of Indigenous children”. Keating “sought to encourage recognition of past injustices. In his government’s native title and land fund legislation and proposed ‘Social Justice Package’ he sought to advance the process of making amends for the disregard of Indigenous common law rights which the 1992 Mabo judgement had found to have occurred.”
During the years that the Keating Government was in power, the following themes were chosen for each year of NAIDOC WEEK:
1991: Community is Unity—Our Future Depends On Us
1992: Maintain the Dreaming—Our Culture is Our Heritage
1993: Aboriginal Nations—Owners of the Land Since Time Began—Community is Unity
1994: Families Are the Basis of Our Existence—Maintain the Link
1995: Justice Not Tolerance
In 1991, the focus on community in the theme, Community is Unity—Our Future Depends On Us, echoed the earlier themes that referred to community: talking together in the 1983 theme, Let’s talk—we have something to say; seeking understanding in the 1985 theme, Understanding: it takes the two of us; and working towards peace in the 1986 theme, Peace, not for you, not for me, but for all of us. The theme also had a future orientation, expressing hope for what might lie ahead for Aboriginal people: Our Future Depends On Us. That “us” clearly included white and black together, working in common in community.
The 1992 theme, Maintain the Dreaming—Our Culture is Our Heritage, looked back just a couple of years, to the 1990 theme, Don’t Destroy, Learn and Enjoy our Cultural Heritage, and to the 1988 theme, Recognise and Share the Survival of the Oldest Culture in the World. It also referenced the 1978 theme, Cultural Revival is Survival. All four years focussed attention on the long-exisiting culture that was maintained and passed on by indigenous peoples around the continent.
In addition, the 1992 theme included a reference to Dreaming; this is a term, somewhat contentious amongst First Nations people, which has nevertheless seen widespread acceptance and adoption in the wider Australian society. It is generally understood to be a way to refer to the collection of stories that form the foundational mythology of Aboriginal peoples.
Reconciliation Australia, on its website shareourpride.org.au, states that “it is impossible to find words that adequately capture this core element of who we are but it’s something you feel when you sit with us on our country and hear our stories with an open mind and heart.”
The website affirms that “Dreaming is more than a mythical past; it prescribes our connection as Aboriginal people with the spiritual essence of everything around us and beyond us. Dreaming stories are not in the past, they are outside of time – always present and giving meaning to all aspects of life.”
The 1993 theme, Aboriginal Nations—Owners of the Land Since Time Began—Community is Unity, incorporated three distinct phrases. The final phrase looked back by incorporating one phrase of the 1991 theme, Community is Unity. However, the full theme included a clear reference to the struggle that had culminated in the 1992 Mabo decision. It identified Aboriginal people as Owners of the Land Since Time Began. This was the principle underlying the High Court’s Mabo decision, and which then enabled the development of the Native Title Act of that year (1993).
Furthermore, the 1993 theme included a clear declaration that Aboriginal people had not simply been “one nation” before British invasion and settlement commenced in 1788; the reference to the plural, Aboriginal Nations, was highly strategic. It had been the custom in the 19th and 20th centuries for Aboriginal people to be described and treated as a single cultural and historical unit.
By contrast, today, two decades into the 21st century, the claim made by the 1993 theme is widely accepted and commonly spoken. British settlers have dispossessed people from well over 250 different nations right across the continent and its associated islands. The clearest example of this recognition is the map published by the government agency AIATSIS (the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies).
On a website explaining this map, AIATSIS explains that it “attempts to represent the language, social or nation groups of Aboriginal Australia. It shows only the general locations of larger groupings of people which may include clans, dialects or individual languages in a group.”
The map presents a clear lesson in a graphic manner: there were many, many nations across the continent prior to 1788.
The NAIDOC WEEK themes of the next two years continued to articulate core beliefs within Aboriginal culture. The 1994 theme, Families Are the Basis of Our Existence—Maintain the Link, alluded to the 1979 theme, What about our kids?, and would provide a prophetic looking-forward to the key findings of the Bringing Them Home report issued just a few years later, in 1997.
The 1995 theme, Justice Not Tolerance, was a plea to move beyond ideas of merely tolerating indigenous people, and adopt the principles of justice that would see them treated equitably, with wrongs righted and reparations made for past errors.
In March 1996, John Howard’s Liberal Party, in coalition with the National Party, was elected, and formed a government that lasted for the next 11 years. The 1996 and 1997 themes for NAIDOC WEEK continued to provide sharp insights into what was needed in Australian society, even with a more conservative government at the helm. In 1996, the theme was Survive—Revive—Come Alive.
In 1997, the theme was equally pointed, as it,celebrated the 30th anniversary of the 1967 referendum,
Dr John Gardiner-Garden notes the many retrograde steps taken by the new Howard Government: they “dropped the terms ‘social justice’ and ‘self-determination’, withdrew support from many of the initiatives and institutions for which these terms were the raison-d’etre and declared its new priorities to be ‘accountability’, ‘improving outcomes in key areas’ and ‘promoting economic independence’.”
He furthered noted that “Government actions such as creating a Special Auditor, reducing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) funding, amending the Native Title Act and perceived inactions on reconciliation and in responding to the rhetoric of the new One Nation Party placed a strain on relations with the Indigenous community.”
The three events referenced in the 1997 theme, Gurindji, Mabo, and Wik, were pivotal moments in the advancement of Aboriginal claims in the 20th century.
The Gurindji Strike of 1966 was led by Vincent Lingiari. A protest against the Wave Hill station managers resulted in the return of some traditional lands to the Gurindji people under a lease arrangement in 1975, and later led to the granting of inalienable freehold title to this area in 1984.
In the Mabo decision of the High Court, handed down on 3 June 1992, the court recognised the land rights of the Meriam people. They were the traditional owners of some islands in the Torres Strait. Marked on the map as the Murray Islands, the Torres Strait Islanders called these islands Mer, Dauer and Waier). The case is significant because it rejected the view that at the time of colonisation, Australia was terra nullius, or land belonging to no one.
The case had initially been brought in 1982 by five indigenous people. Because Eddie Koiki Mabo was the first plaintiff in the case, it became known as the Mabo Case. In its judgement, the High Court acknowledged that “Indigenous peoples had lived in Australia for thousands of years and enjoyed rights to their land according to their own laws and customs.” See https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/mabo-case
The Wik judgement of 1996 built on the basis of the Mabo decision. The case related to the right to hold native title in an area where there were pastoral,leases in place. By a majority of 4–3, the High Court agreed that the pastoral leases did not extinguish the native title of the Wik and Tahyorre people of Cape York.
Sadly, the remembering of these three key events during the early years of the retrogressive Howard government, strikes a note of pathos. These advances were not built on by the Howard government. In the ensuing decade, due to the intransigence of the government, things would actually go backwards.
For the past year, I have been editing a quarterly publication called With Love to the World. It provides short commentaries on the biblical passages offered in the Revised Common Lectionary, which is used by mainstream denominations of the Christian church around the world. There are four passages each week—one each from Hebrew Scriptures, a Psalm, an Epistle, and a Gospel.
Every year, during September, there is a focus in the church around the world on the theme of Creation. This year, I’ve expanded that to encompass the full 13 weeks of one issue of With Love to the World, which runs from Pentecost 11 (in mid August) through to Pentecost 23, just before the festival of the Reign of Christ brings the church year to an end in November.
To the four lectionary passages, I’ve added three passages from Hebrew Scripture which offer resources for considering our relationship with the creation, and how we might live responsibly within that creation. I’m really pleased with the quality of what I have received from the contributors for this issue.
If you are looking for a way to focus your thinking on how to live in harmony with the whole creation, and deepen your discipleship practices of sustainability and environmental responsibility, through a daily reflection on a scripture passage—then this issue of With Love to the World will provide that.
The passages relating specifically to creation begin in the first week, Pentecost 11, with the priestly account of creation, a wonderfully crafted narrative shaped during and after the Exile in Babylon. The latter part of this account tells of the creation of all living creatures, culminating in the creation of humanity. This passage (Genesis 1) describes each category of living creature as a nephesh, a concept that signals the inherent interconnectedness of all creation.
Although this is a later (post-exilic) narrative, it is given prime position in the Pentateuch because it so wonderfully articulates so much of the fundamental worldview of the Israelites—a worldview which we have inherited, and which we continue to value. The insight that we are all interrelated and interdependent is central to contemporary understanding of ecosystems on the micro level and the cosmic scope of galaxies and universes alike. It is here in the opening narrative of scripture.
The book of Job contains an important section which makes it clear that the whole of creation was designed to function as a cohesive unity. Human beings have no special and distinctive place in that creation: God cares for all parts of creation equally and uniformly. Accordingly, we have a responsibility neither to claim a special place at “the top of the pyramid” nor to act in disregard of the consequence of our actions on others (Job 38–39).
A part of a wonderful psalm which praises God as creator and provider, Psalm 104, offers a reiteration of the perspective of Genesis 1, that all creatures are nephesh and are created by the inbreathing of God’s spirit (Ps 104:24–30). The Psalm restates in poetic form what the creation narrative that opens the pages of scripture has affirmed about the interconnected nature of all of God’s creation.
The story of Noah concludes with the account of God making a covenant “with every living creature (nephesh)” (Genesis 9), again underling the importance of the interconnected and interrelated creation. That is affirmed also in the first half of Psalm 19, which declares that the creation tells of “the glory of God” and undergirds the covenant with Israel (verses 7 onwards). This covenant is the fundamental agreement that undergirds every moment in the relationship between Israel and the Lord God throughout the centuries.
Three excerpts from the prophet Isaiah extend this theme. Isaiah 11 is usually read as a messianic prophecy during Advent; reading it in this context, with a focus on environmental matters, we can appreciate it as a vision of a fully cooperative creation. This vision, it would seem, undergirds the promise of returning to Zion in a creation which sings in harmony (Isaiah 35 and 40). Crossing the dry desert is enlivened by a lush watery hopefulness.
Then follows a sequence of passages from the Pentateuch. First, some of the Leviticus laws are read: the Jubilee, an important (of perhaps idealised) practice which provides opportunity for the land to recreate (Leviticus 25). We read this alongside one of the closing psalms of praise, in which all creation praises God (Psalm 148)—surely a chapter that provided inspiration for the famous hymn attributed to St Francis.
Next, two passages from Numbers 35 are offered. Here, faithfulness to the covenant establishes the need to respect the creation. The Levitical cities of refuge (Num 35:9–15) indicate the significance of places of sanctuary (oases, perhaps?), places to rest in the presence of God. The chapter ends with clear directions about how to treat the land as a whole (Num 35:33–34), which resonate with what we have learnt from the spirituality of the First Peoples of Australia. Then, the cries of Lamentations 1 and 5 provide further warnings about the dangers of straying from the covenant.
Deuteronomy 19–20 includes a series of laws that also indicate how care and respect are to be shown, even in trying circumstances: through the provision of cities of refuge (only three in this version) and through respect for the land whilst waging war. Then Deuteronomy 22 collates a number of miscellaneous laws, some of which relate directly to care for the land and its creatures, all of which are informed by the priestly view that everything has its own right and correct place in the scheme of things.
In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, we find three complementary passages. Loving care for the people (portrayed as sheep) is undergirded by loving care for the land (Ezek 34). The valley of dry bones (Ezek 37) retells the creation story in a dramatic setting, as God breathes spirit into the people and places them “on [their] own soil”. Then, Ezekiel’s idiosyncratic vision of the restored temple emphasises the importance of its environmental context (Ezek 43)—a nice watery counterpoint to the arid dryness of the valley.
In a well-known section from the prophet Joel, God’s abundance grace is said to be evident in the fruitfulness of creation, culminating in a renewed gifting of spirit (Joel 2:23–32). I have expanded this passage by including the earlier account of the people returning to the Lord, keeping the covenant, offering the first fruits, and being blessed by God in an abundance of care of the land (Joel 2:12–22). As a dramatic counterpoint to this, the prophet Hosea reminds the people of their responsibilities to keep the covenant; when they show no faithfulness, “the land mourns” (Hosea 4:1–10). Hosea 4:3 alludes directly back to the covenant (Gen 9:9–10) and to the creation (Gen 1:20–27).
In Pentecost 21, the prophetic call for justice is emphasised in the lectionary readings provided. The lectionary reading highlights this call in Habakkuk’s call for justice (Hab 1:4) and righteousness (Hab 2:4). The same standard is found in the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19) while the psalmist praises God for God’s righteous judgements (Ps 119:137–144). So I have added alongside that the call for justice in the parable of Isaiah 5 (an agricultural parable) and the warning about God’s righteous judgement when that call is ignored (Isaiah 24).
This portrayal of righteous judgement continues into the next week, with the dramatic pictures of Isaiah 24:12–20, warning about a global catastrophe when the environment is abused (Isa 24:13). This picture appears also in the lectionary offering, Haggai 1:15–2:9 (see 2:7). The importance of righteousness is evident also in 2 Thessalonians 2. This week also includes Reformation Day (Romans 4) and All Saints Day (Luke 6); the latter particularly offers opportunities for ecotheological reflection.
The issue comes to a close with Pentecost 23, with two sections from the Lukan account of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse (Luke 21), provided from the lectionary. This discourse links with the claim made in 2 Thessalonians 3 about the faithfulness of God, which undergirds all that is projected and provides hope for the future.
This also resonates with the closing visions of Trito-Isaiah, looking to the new creation (Isa 65) and the promise of new life, a vision which ends with an image of comfort (Isa 66). So we close this long sequence of passages with Job 12, which affirms that when we look carefully at the creation, we will see that “the hand of the Lord has done this, in his hand is the life of every living thing (nephesh)”—taking us right back to the early affirmations about God’s covenant with every nephesh, and God’s intentional creation of every nephesh within the interconnected environment in which we all live.