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The shame continues: SIEV X after 20 years

It was 20 years ago yesterday, on 18 October 2001, that a small, overcrowded fishing boat set sail from Sumatra, Indonesia. On board were well over 400 asylum seekers—far too many for the small boat—who had fled the terrors of life in Iraq and Afghanistan. The boat was headed for the Australian territory of Christmas Island, a few hundred kilometres away. Asylum seekers sought to reach Christmas Island so that they could then claim asylum in Australia.

This was completely in accord with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which Australia accepted—and included in part within legislation adopted in the Migration Act 1958. See https://www.kaldorcentre.unsw.edu.au/publication/refugee-convention

Unfortunately the boat, which was seriously overloaded, sank the next day, 19 October 2001 (20 years ago today). This mean that 353 people drowned (146 children, 142 women and 65 men). The actual name of the boat is not known; it is known today as SIEV X. SIEV is the acronym used by the surveillance forces for a Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel Unknown. The Roman numeral X designates this as the tenth such boat so categorised by Australian authorities. The acronym dehumanises those on board the boat and generalises the tragedies of all those fleeing their homelands.

(This is not the vessel known as SIEV X. It is a photo of a boat filled with refugees, used as an example of the scenario on a SIEV X memorial page, https://www.safecom.org.au/sievx-memorial.htm)

According to survivors,more than 100 people remained alive in the water that night. Two vessels arrived and shone searchlights across the ocean, but they failed to rescue anyone. Some time later, 45 people were rescued by fishermen in the area.

The sinking and deaths occurred during an Australian federal election campaign, soon after the saga that involved the Palapa, another boat that sank, and the Tampa, the Norwegian vessel that rescued those on board the Palapa (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/26/20-years-on-and-the-shame-continues-the-palapa-the-tampa-and-children-overboard/) The Federal Government turned these two events into political footballs, tapping into the xenophobia and jingoism of some in the population—and won the election.

The shame that was generated by the callous and illegal actions of the Australian Government in events surrounding each of these incidents continues today, in the ever-worsening policies in our nation relating to refugees and asylum seekers. Whilst Australia has accepted around 190,000 migrants each year for the past few years (around three times the number admitted 25 years ago), there are only around 6,000 refugees admitted within that number each year. (I have taken these figures from a government publication, accessible at https://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/rp/rp1617/refugeeresettlement#_Toc461022111)

In 2002, a Senate Select Committee had been established to investigate “A Certain Maritime Incident” (the “children overboard” incident in the whole Palapa—Tampa affair). The committee also investigated the SIEV-X sinking. It concluded that “… it [is] extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of a theatre of intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three days after the event, without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision making circles.” (See “Findings” under “SIEV X -Chapters 8 and 9” at https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Former_Committees/maritimeincident/report/a06)

On the weekend almost five years after the sinking (15 September 2006), a memorial to the 353 people who died in that event was opened in Weston Park in Canberra, ACT. The memorial had 353 white poles, each of which had been decorated by a community group, a school group, or a church group, drawn from right around Australia. Each pole represented one of the deceased.

The Uniting Church has a strong connection with this memorial. The artwork for the 353 poles was gathered by a national competition. Pieces from this artwork competition were first displayed at Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, and then at Wesley Uniting Church in Melbourne, before being put on display in Canberra at the Canberra City Uniting Church. At that event in Canberra, the design for the memorial was announced—the poles were to be put into the ground in a design that represented the outline of the vessel, when viewed from above.

Overhead view of the memorial,
from https://www.sievxmemorial.com

The then Prime Minister indicated that the Federal Government was opposed to the project, but the ACT Chief Minister, John Stanhope, opened the project in 2006. Permission had not been granted to make the memorial permanent, so a crowd of people carried the poles into the places designated for them. The event received strong national coverage. Public opinion was galvanised against our inhuman national policy regarding refugees.

The next year, 2007, the memorial became permanent. It remains to this day as a reminder of the willingness of the Australian people to assist our neighbours in need; and the intransigence of our federal leadership (sadly, a bipartisan intransigence) when it comes to such matters.

The need to be a welcoming country to people who are rightly fleeing the persecution and violence being perpetrated against them in their homelands, is still an issue today, as the Christians United for Afghanistan project indicates. See https://www.unitedforafghanistan.com/#sign

The photos I have used were taken just recently (October 2021) by Willem Kok, a member of the Yarralumla Uniting Church, which is the Uniting Church Congregation that serves the area that includes Weston Park and the SIEV X memorial.

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Seeing and believing as Jesus passes by (Mark 10; Pentecost 22B)

The man sits on the ground, beside the road leading into Jericho. Sensing what was happening, who was passing by, what was being spoken about; unable to use his eyes, he was undoubtedly attentive through his listening ears, through the sounds he could hear, as well as the fragrances he could smell. Because of this, he knew the identity of the person passing by, so he calls out with confidence, “Jesus of Nazareth, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47).

Jesus pauses, engages with the man, and responds to his plea. “Go; your faith has made you well” (10:52). The man, all of a sudden, could see; all was clear, so he took his place among those following Jesus on the way (10:52).

The scene is familiar. Some chapters earlier, in Bethsaida, another blind man also engages with Jesus; and Jesus heals the man. “He saw everything clearly” (8:25), just as the second man “immediately regained his sight” (10:52). Yet the two scenes are remarkably different. The first man healed is not named; whilst the man outside Jericho is identified as Bartimaeus (10:46).

The unnamed man is brought to Jesus by some friends, begging Jesus to heal him (8:22). By contrast, the later man is initially is hindered from engaging with Jesus by the crowd, demanding that he remain silent (10:48). And whilst the restoration of sight takes place immediately in the Jericho scene (10:52), in the Bethsaida scene it takes two attempts by Jesus before the man can see.

First, Jesus performs the actions of a traditional healer, placing saliva on his eyes and touching him (8:23; on the traditional healing practices of the time, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/19/in-the-most-unlikely-way-touching-the-untouchable-john-9/). After that, because the man can only see imperfectly, Jesus touches his eyes for a second time; after this, the man can see clearly (8:25).

A number of interpreters have commented on the similarities and contrasts in these two scenes. They provide, it is felt, bookends to the important central section of this earliest Gospel (8:27–10:45). There are some key events that take place within these two bookends.

First, there is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah (8:29). This is one of the high moments at the mid-point of the whole narrative of this work. It serves to remind the readers what was already declared to them at the very start of the gospel: that it was about the good news of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God (1:1).

The other key moment in this section comes almost immediately after Peter’s confession: the scene of Transfiguration (9:2). This takes place on the top of a mountain, a traditional place for encountering the divine in Israelite stories (think Moses on Mount Sinai, Solomon’s Temple on Mount Zion, the vision of the prophet Isaiah that all the nations would stream to Mount Zion, and the place where Matthew locates the teaching of Jesus in the “Sermon on the Mount”).

This key mountaintop moment contains the words from the heavens about Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (9:7). These words link back to the initial baptism of Jesus, when the same words were heard (1:11) and forward to the final scene of crucifixion, when a centurion at the foot of the cross witnesses Jesus’ death, and declares, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39). All three scenes contain the foundational statement, recognising Jesus as Son of God, reiterating the other important element in the opening verse (1:1).

There are other significant components within this central section of the Gospel. Three times, Jesus makes clear predictions of what lies in store for him in Jerusalem (8:31; 9:31; 10:32–34). This triple passion prediction is actually the central spine of the whole narrative. The cross is the climax of the story; the road to the death of Jesus has been in view since early in the narrative, when “the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (3:6). From that moment onwards, the likelihood that Jesus would be caught and dealt with was strong.

Finally, after each one of these predictions of his fate, Jesus provides clear and direct teachings about the cost of discipleship. We hear “take up your cross” and “lose your life” in the first set of teachings (8:34–9:1). “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” is spoken in the second set of teachings (9:33–37), followed by guidance about taking care of “the little ones” (9:38–50).

“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” is uttered in the third set of teachings (10:35–45), an expanded saying with synonymous parallelism reflecting back to the earlier teachings. And the final set of teachings ends with a clear statement about the role of the Son of Man as the model and the means of redemption for his followers (10:45).

So this story of Jesus, blind Bartimaeus, and the crowd in Jericho (10:46–52) brings to a close a rich and deeply significant sequence of scenes, which began back in Bethsaida with Jesus, an unnamed blind man, and the crowd in that town (8:22–26). The two outer scenes provide a carefully-crafted literary framing for the central sequence of scenes.

The symbolism is significant: two scenes with people unable to see, reaching out to Jesus, experience the piercing light after their years of blindness—these two scenes surround the confession of Jesus as Messiah and his transfiguration, the three predictions of what lies in store for him in Jerusalem, and the three blocks of teaching about the way of discipleship.

What was not able to be seen, is now made manifest. What was hidden, incomprehensible, is now revealed. For the disciples, there can be no excuse, and no turning back. Jesus no longer will ask, “do you not understand?” (4:22, 13; 6:52; 7:18: 8:17, 21; 9:32), for understanding has been provided. The pathway is set. The way of discipleship is clear. As Bartimaeus joins with the disciples to follow Jesus on that way, so we who hear the story are invited also to “follow him on the way”.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/13/not-to-be-served-but-to-serve-the-model-provided-by-jesus-mark-10-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/14/a-ransom-for-many-a-hint-of-atonement-theology-mark-10-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/21/giving-priority-to-one-of-these-little-ones-mark-9-pentecost-18b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/28/boundary-lines-and-the-kingdom-of-god-mark-9-10-pentecost-18b-to-20b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/06/the-paradoxes-of-discipleship-mark-8-pentecost-16b/

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Celebrating creation: Job 38 and Psalm 104 (Pentecost 21B)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on 17 October 2021

This week, there have been many school students striking around the world for something to be done about climate change. Young people are very concerned about the impacts of climate change, and the future of life on our planet.

Despite the growing evidence of the consequences of climate change, such as huge fires, floods, rising seas and extreme weather events, many governments and corporations around the world continue to subsidise the fossil fuel industry, putting all of us at risk.

Young people (and many of the rest of us!) believe that if we don’t take action now and transition swiftly away from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy, things are just going to get worse.

Climate change is the greatest challenge we have confronted as a human species. To stop emitting waste carbon dioxide completely within the next five or 10 years, we would need to radically reorient almost all human economic and social production, a task that while it looks almost impossible, really does need to happen if human and other mammalian life forms are to continue existing. It will demand an agreement and global coordination between nations on a scale never seen before.

Despite this, much of our world still pursues a decidedly unsustainable environmental course. Even worse, a disproportionate share of the consequences of climate change is borne by the very poor, those 40% of our fellow human beings who live in “poverty” (1.5 billion people) or “extreme poverty” (the 1 billion people who earn less than $2 a day).

We have island nations that will be consumed by a rising sea, nations where subsidence farmers will no longer be able to grow food and climate refugees from places like Bangladesh who will see their land flooded and become uninhabitable. Without significant changes, planet earth will exact a heavy price for our choices.

But what does our scriptures have to say about this? Is there a faith imperative to act? There are many parts of the Hebrew bible that celebrate creation, and that emphasise that its gifts are God-given. In return for this gift, the human creature is meant to care for creation.

So as well as science and environmental expertise, our scriptural tradition is also informing our motives and choices. If God created the world and called it good, and then made a covenant after the flood narrative with every living creature, all life, and with the very earth itself, then surely we should be reaffirming our commitment to creation as its caring stewards.

Starting right at the beginning of our scripture with the creation narrative, we might note in Genesis that God states that God’s creation is “very good.” If the human creature is created in the image of God, and not only looking like God but having something of the character of God, then surely our purpose would not be to destroy the creation that God declared as ‘good’ but to keep it that way.

Two of the passages on the lectionary today take a different, but very important direction. Both Psalm 104 and Job put forward the notion that the human creature is but one among many creatures, and all are seen as equally important within the framework that is creation.

Psalm 104 makes it very clear that all creation is not only dependent on God, but there are many parts of it dependent on each other. God holds it all in balance, and each of the component parts interact with each other in necessary ways. Some would say it is a poetic way of describing an ecosystem. The creation is represented as a living, breathing entity, where all creatures are nephesh and filled with the breath or spirit of God. All have their place, none is more important than the other.

Our next reading from the book of Job describes creation as a delicately balanced system that God takes care of, including animals and isolated geographical areas, not just the human part of it. God provides food and shelter for wild animals that have nothing to do with humanity as such, and God causes it to rain in wild and desolate areas where humans are not.

This particular verse is very striking, as unlike Genesis, God is emphasising to Job that mortals like him are no more important in the creation than anything else. Everything is equal and all contribute to the goodness of the created. The book of Job has defined and marked the extent of things like rain, wind, snow and sunshine.

God in Job makes it clear that the creation of the earth and heavens runs on specific laws that allow the whole system to function for the benefit of everything. Therefore, the book of Job raises the question about whether it is advisable for humanity to irrevocably alter the creation as God has set it out. What will be the consequences if we do so?

Video: The Sixth Mass Extinction http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0aHPeqg2zI

So here we have two readings where humans are not the centre of God’s story and all creatures are — literally – created as our equals. The relationship appears to be non-exploitative, with all creatures secure in the place or habitat God has created for them.

Far from maintaining the delicate ecosystem balance set out by God that these writings imply, the earth’s capacity to sustain life is threatened by an ever-expanding human population and growing material demands. We are depleting earth’s nonrenewable resources and exceeding the environment’s capacity to absorb the pollutants we discard. This is particularly true of C02, the main gas driving climate change.

If nothing else, simple self-interest should remind us that all life remains fundamentally dependent upon being an integral part of a functioning ecosystem. Our fate is bound up with the fate of the planet.

Unless some miracle happens, the next 20 years are going to see increasingly chaotic global climate patterns, unpredictable biological adaptation and human responses that includes scapegoating and war over scarce resources. By the middle and later decades of this century — my grandchildren’s adult lives — this could look like a Mad Max story that should be filling us all with horror.

Our children and grandchildren will confront a range of outcomes that will be determined by the choices we make now. Whose voices will be heard the loudest? The fossil fuel industry and those whom it enriches? Or the voice of those who research the scientific evidence and those who are watching their homelands sink beneath the waves?

The worst outcomes of our consumptive lifestyles could be avoided if we did something concrete now. Are we willing to not only change our own habits, but to actively lobby our government to change theirs, and develop policies which will nurture and create life, rather than destroy and de-create it? Do we care enough to stop the sixth great extinction of species on the planet that God created and called “very good”?

The Christian Church has a particular calling to re-vision a much more holistic view of how we see and use God’s world, and how we look after the life that God has created on our planet. If we see the whole world and everything in it as the house of God, as the psalmist writes in Psalm 24, we may be more likely to treat everything and everyone with dignity and respect.

We need to value the things that cannot be counted, such as the beauty of a wilderness, river or forest. Consumer choices and economic growth should not be the only measure of good stewardship and well-being. Surely God intended us to treat our neighbours, including our fellow creatures, fairly and with love, and his creation with care. If members of God’s family continue to suffer because some of us are taking too much or many of God’s wild creatures continue to experience the threat of mass extinctions, we are not growing a more holistic household of God on our planet.

We are at a critical point in history, facing some considerable challenges including the damaging effects of human-induced climate change, the depletion of cheap abundant energy and a global food shortage. These challenges are global and they are connected to each other as both cause and consequence.

They are the results of social, political and economic systems that have come to do more harm than good; systems built on values of greed, power and materialism. We have developed a global economic system that is now diminishing, rather than improving our capacity to live sustainably on our planet.

The Christian life is not judged by comfort and prosperity and reward by God – especially not financially – but by suffering with the Christ and by the giving up of those things that distract or impede us. It is a challenging message. I hope that we, as the Uniting Church, can re-imagine a world where creation is treated with respect and all peoples are seen as equal.

And I hope that by doing so, we can tackle the cause of climate change appropriately and ensure the future of our planet and its fragile ecosystems for the grandchildren and great grand children of all the peoples of the earth.

See the source image
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See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/02/living-through-lifes-problems-job-1-pentecost-19b/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/10/hope-in-a-broken-world-job-23-pentecost-20b/

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A ransom for many: a hint of atonement theology? (Mark 10; Pentecost 21B)

When Jesus instructed his followers to tread the pathway of humility and submission (Mark 8:34–38; 9:35–37; 10:38–44)—the same pathway that he himself has been following as he walks towards Jerusalem (8:31; 9:31: 10:32–34)—he speaks about laying down his own life, just as he urges his followers to lay down their lives (10:45). This has been a regular refrain throughout his teachings. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/21/giving-priority-to-one-of-these-little-ones-mark-9-pentecost-18b/

However, in this particular saying, Jesus indicates that the laying-down of his life is to be seen, not just as the model for his followers to emulate, but as “a ransom for many” (10:45). Each word needs some exploration.

Ransom is a term that we associate with the forced kidnapping of a person and the demand for a payment in order for them to be released. This is not the way the term is used in biblical texts, where payment in return for release of a captive is not in view. Rather, the orientation is towards the idea that there is a significant cost involved in the process of ransoming.

The Greek word used in Mark 10:45, lutron, comes from a verb, lutrein, which means “to release”. It was a common term for the payment needed to secure the release of slaves, debtors, and prisoners of war. The noun, translated as ransom, occurs in the Septuagint. It identifies the price paid to redeem a slave or captive (Lev 25:51–52) or a firstborn (Num 18:15). It also indicates the price to be paid as recompense for a crime (Num 35:31–32) or injury (Exodus 21:30). In these instances, it translates the Hebrew word kipper, which has the basic meaning of “covering”, from the root word koper.

Another form of the word koper appears in the name of the Great High Holy Day in Judaism—Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (see Lev 16:1–34; Num 29:7–11). On that day, as the cloud of incense covers the mercy seat (kapporeth, Lev 16:13), the mercy seat is smeared with the blood of the sacrificed bull (16:14) and then the blood of the goat which provides the sin offering (16:15). According to Leviticus, it is these actions which “shall make atonement (kipper) for the sanctuary, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins” (16:16).

The process of atonement in the Israelite religion was to cover up, to hide away from view, the sins of the people. This is developed to some degree in the fourth Servant Song of Deutero-Isaiah, when the prophet honours the servant because “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53:5). His life was understood as “an offering for sin” (53:10) which “shall make many righteous” (53:11).

Indeed, as the Song ends, it affirms that “he bore the sin of many” (53:12). The Song resonates with the language and imagery of righteous suffering as the means of dealing with, and perhaps atoning for, sins. In addition, it indicates that this function deals with “the iniquity of us all” (53:6), and through his role, “he shall make many righteous” (53:11); “he bore the sin of many” (53:12).

The notion of one atoning for many is further expounded in a later text which provides an account of the way that a righteous man, Eleazar, was martyred during the time of upheaval under Antiochus Epiphanes (175–167 BCE). The death of Eleazar was understood as a ransom; “be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them”, he prays; “make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs” (4 Macc 6:28–29).

The Greek for “my life in exchange for”, antilutron, is a compound word, joining the same preposition anti and the same noun lutron which we find in Mark 10:45. The preposition clearly denotes a process of exchange, in which one person performs an action on behalf of, or in the place of, another. That notion feeds into a theory of atonement known as substitutionary atonement—that one person (Jesus) stood in place of many people (humanity). However, this isn’t a strong motif in either the fourth Servant Song in Isaiah or in New Testament passages.

However, there has been debate with regard to the word “many” in both the saying of Jesus, and the Servant Song of Isaiah. Does this refer, quite literally, to lots and lots of people, or does it refer to every human being? The way that “many” appears in the Servant Song (Isa 52:14–15; 53:11–12) places it in parallel with “all” (Isa 53:6). Here, the “many” quite clearly has a universal reference, to all human beings.

The interchanging of “many” with “all” can be seen, also, in Paul’s discussion of Jesus and Adam, where “all” (Rom 5:12, 18) and “many” (Rom 5:15, 19) have the same point of reference—the totality of humanity. Indeed, this is consistent with the overall argument running throughout Romans, where the Gospel is a universal good news of righteous-justice for all. (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-righteous-justice-of-god-a-gift-to-all-humanity-romans/) The same universal scope, by analogy from Isa 53 and Rom 5, is applicable to the words of Jesus in Mark 10:45.

In another later Jewish text, Philo of Alexandria observes that “every wise man is a ransom for a worthless one” (Sacrifices of Abel and Cain 121). The idea of an act of one person which serves as a ransom for another then appears in New Testament texts which describe the effect of the death of Jesus for those who have placed their trust in him. Paul uses ransom language tells the saints that they were “bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23).

Paul also uses apolutrosis, a compound word but from the base word lutrein, to describe the redemption which was accomplished by Jesus, both in a formulaic way (1 Cor 1:30) and in a more discursive manner (Rom 3:24; 8:23). The term recurs in later letters which likely were not written by Paul (Col 1:14; Eph 1:7, 14; 4:30), as well as in the Lukan redaction of the final eschatological speech of Jesus (Luke 21:28).

In another later letter attributed to Paul, most likely written by one of his students, we read of “one mediator between God and humans, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:6), using the term lutron. In another later work providing guidance an account of Paul by an author at some remove from him, the book of Acts, Paul was said to have declared of the church that God “obtained [it] with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28).

At the start of the book of Revelation, Jesus is identified as “the one who loves us and released us from our sins” (Rev 1:5). The verb translated “released” or “freed” in English versions is the participle lusanti, from the root verb luō, which is cognate with the noun lutron, meaning ransom.

It was the combination of such passages that led the third century scholar, Origen of Alexandria to develop an idiosyncratic theory of the atonement (the way that Jesus enables God to deal with human sinfulness). Origen’s ransom theory of atonement reads Genesis 3 as an account of Adam and Eve being taken captive by Satan; this state was then inherited by all human beings. The death of Jesus is what enables all humans to be saved; the means for this was that the blood shed by Jesus was the price paid to Satan to ransom humanity (or, in a variant form, a ransom paid by Jesus to God to secure our release).

However, none of these texts—and particularly not Mark 10:45—require this overarching theological superstructure to make sense of what they say. Origen’s ransom theory held sway for some centuries, but was definitively rejected by the medieval scholar Anselm of Canterbury. It is not a favoured theory of atonement in much of the contemporary church (though it is still advocated in various fundamentalist backwaters). Certainly, none of this should be attributed to the saying of Jesus in Mark 10:45. It is far more likely that he is drawing on the Jewish tradition of the righteous sufferer in his words.

*****

To explore the concept of atonement further, there is a very helpful study at https://www.turramurrauniting.org.au/aceaster/ace2main/ace2conv1/ and a clear summary of the seven main theories of atonement at https://www.sdmorrison.org/7-theories-of-the-atonement-summarized/

There is an abridged historical survey at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/history-theories-atonement/ and another helpful assessment of various theories at https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/29-march/features/features/is-there-one-doctrine-of-the-atonement-ransom-substitute-scapegoat-god

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Not to be served, but to serve: the model provided by Jesus (Mark 10; Pentecost 21B)

“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:35-45). So Jesus instructs his followers, after a bruising encounter with James and John, two of the leading followers of Jesus (10:35-40) which enraged the rest of the disciples (10:42).

The dispute was over status; James and John wanted to claim the places next to Jesus: “one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). This was not unusual in the world of that time (indeed, this is still the case in our own times). Public debate that was intended to best the other person was common in ancient Mediterranean societies. Seeking greater honour (higher status) by getting the upper hand, or the last word, in public debate, was common.

In an honour—shame society, such as that in which Jesus, James, and John lived, the culture was characterised by a constant and ongoing “challenge—riposte,” enacted in the public arena. Jesus engaged in such challenges on a regular basis; see the disputations of 2:1-3:6, early in Jesus’s time in Galilee, and later in Jerusalem, in 11:27-12:34.

Such challenge—riposte encounters typically involved the challenger setting forth a claim, through either words or actions; a response to the challenge by the persons who was challenged; then, after further back-and-forth amongst the participants, once the challenge and riposte has run its course, the verdict is declared by the public who was watching the encounter. (See a clear description of this process, as it applies in Mark 11:27–12:34, using the analysis of Jerome Neyrey and Bruce Malina, at https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/43/43-2/43-2-pp213-228_JETS.pdf)

At this moment, Jesus critiques the common process of public disputation; he distances himself from the common cultural practice of seeking honour and working for a higher status. Those who lord it over others, who act as tyrants, are not to be the role models for his followers; “it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43–44). Indeed, Jesus rubs salt into the wound by inferring that James and John were acting like Gentiles (10:52). That was an insult, to be sure, for good Jews (see the sayings attributed the Jesus at Matt 5:47; 6:7, 32).

This was the third time, after demonstrating their misunderstanding of what Jesus was teaching, that his disciples were directly rebuked for their attitude. First, Peter represents the disciples’ lack of clarity about Jesus (8:27–38); then a number of the disciples arguing about being great, and John fails to welcome the activity of a person casting out demons (9:33–48); and now, James and John demonstrate their continued inability to understand the attitude of Jesus towards status (10:35–40).

At least in this last scene, the other ten disciples are angry about what James and John have asked for (10:41). Far too often, on earlier occasions, Jesus has lamented that the disciples failed to understand (4:22, 13; 6:52; 7:18: 8:17, 21; 9:32). It seems that finally, at this moment, things had fallen into place for the disciples. (Or were they simply annoyed at the way the brothers promoted their own interests over the hopes of the other disciples?)

On each of those three occasions of misunderstanding, Jesus responds by correcting the inadequacies displayed by his followers: he refers to the fate that is in store for him in Jerusalem (8:31; 9:31: 10:32–34), and then he indicates that his followers must tread that same pathway of humility and submission (8:34–38; 9:35–37; 10:38–44). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/28/boundary-lines-and-the-kingdom-of-god-mark-9-10-pentecost-18b-to-20b/

On this occasion, Jesus goes one step further. His own life—or, more precisely, the laying-down of his own life—is to be seen, not just as the model for his followers to emulate, but as “a ransom for many” (10:45). There are important observations to make about this short statement. Those matters will be the focus of a subsequent blog post.

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A priest forever, “after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5; Pentecost 21B)

“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:6 and 7:17, quoting Psalm 110:4). This is a distinctive teaching, found only here in the New Testament. What are we to make of it? Who is Melchizedek? How is he relevant to Jesus? Why is this relevant for us today?

The book we know as “the letter to the Hebrews” is a most distinctive work. It is regularly described as a letter, but it doesn’t follow many of the conventions of a Hellenistic letter. It claims to be a word of exhortation, but many long sections in the work are in fact didactic expositions, not pastoral encouragements.

Alone amongst the twenty one letters in the New Testament, this book makes no claim as to its author. It sits oddly amongst the thirteen letters of Paul, the three letters of John, the two letters of Peter, and the single letters of James and Jude. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/29/the-word-of-exhortation-that-exults-jesus-as-superior-hebrews-1-pentecost-19b/

Whilst Paul describes Jesus as a sacrifice, whose death offers us forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, only Hebrews portrays Jesus as the priest who makes the sacrifice, slaughtering the sacrificial beast (2:17; 3:1; 5:1–6; 6:20; 7:26–28; 8:3; 10:12) and simultaneously as the victim, lying on the altar as the one whose blood is being shed (9:11–14; 9:26; 10:19; 12:24; 13:20). And only Hebrews makes the declaration noted above, that the nature of the priesthood of Jesus is that he is priest “according to the order of Melchizedek”.

Melchizedek is a Semitic name which is comprised of two separate words: melek, meaning king, and zedek, from tsedeqa, the Hebrew word for righteousness. These terms bring together two key aspects of life and faith for the ancient Israelites. The king was the ruler and leader, through whom the people were in covenant with God (2 Sam 7). Righteousness was the central characteristic of God, which was to be the central commitment of the people of Israel (Gen 18:19). So the king was to rule by righteousness (Psalm 72:1-4).

We meet Melchizedek, the king of righteousness, early in Genesis, when Abram is making his way from Egypt, where he went during the famine (Gen 12:10), through the Negev (Gen 13:1). Abram meets Melchizedek in a place named as The King’s Valley (Gen 14:17). It occurs after God had called Abram and Sarai from their life in Ur of the Chaldees (Gen 11:31) and before God makes a covenant with Abram (Gen 15), which Abram (at the ripe old age of 99 years) seals through the rite of circumcision (Gen 17).

The encounter with Melchizedek is a short interlude in the saga, immediately after Abram has recused his son Lot from a coalition of kings in the Mesopotamian region (Gen 14). Salem, of which he is said to be king (Gen 13:18), is very probably Jerusalem—Psalm 76:2 places Salem in parallel with Zion, pointing to this identification. And Jerusalem was the seat for King David and his descendants, so it makes sense that The King’s Valley would be in this area.

Melchizedek offers Abram bread and wine, and prays over him, conferring a blessing on him (Gen 14:19–20). It is the blessing of “El ʿElyon,” which is a name of Canaanite origin, probably designating the high god of their pantheon. Abram responds by offering Melchizedek a tithe (Gen 14:21), and is insistent that Melchizedek accept all that is offered.

In Roman Catholic tradition, the offering of bread and wine by Melchizedek is regarded as a “pre-presentation of the Mass”—a prefiguring of the sacrifice of Jesus celebrated in their liturgy. He is mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, and is remembered as a martyr each year on 26 August. However, the offering of a meal to troops returning from battle was simply a common practice at the time; see, for instance, the lavish meal provided for the returning troops of David at 2 Sam 17:27–29.

The portrayal of Abram as the leader of an army (Gen 14:13–16) which was able to defeat the forces of a coalition of many kings (Gen 14:8–9) is recognised as an anomaly; elsewhere in the section of Genesis recounting the saga of Abraham (Gen 12–25), there is no indication at all that Abram had any any warmongering tendency or any capacity to fight battles.

Because of this, Old Testament scholar Joseph Blenkinsopp has suggested that the story of Melchizedek was inserted into the narrative about Abram to give validity to the priesthood and tithes connected with the Second Temple, after the Exile (which was the period when the book of Genesis was compiled). The links are made in that the King of Salem blesses and breaks bread with the ancestor of David, king in Jerusalem, and confers a priestly blessing from one of the gods of the land on the ancestor, Abram, from whom the Levites descended and amongst whom the sacrificial system and tithing requirements evolved.

The story has a clear validating purpose for the patterns that are being (re)established amongst the returned exiles in Jerusalem. It explains why David set up his headquarters in Jerusalem, and established a priesthood there which would receive offerings from all the people under his control. That validated the claims of the priests as the administered and oversaw the sacrificial system of the Temple cult, for they were seen to be adhering to the pattern established long ago under David—and, indeed, demonstrated long before that, by Abram.

There is nothing else known about Melchizedek, either in the Hebrew Bible, or in other ancient texts. We have no genealogy of Melchizedek; he simply appears, blesses Abram, and disappears from the story. He serves his single purpose, and then is heard of no more.

Certainly, the unique role and distinctive character of Melchizedek—and perhaps his mysterious origins—have made him a character of fascination. And that has been intensified within Christianity, because of the way that the book of Hebrews equates Jesus with Melchizedek and puts them into parallel with each other.

The word of exhortation encourages those who received this “letter” to “hold fast to [their] confession” that they have “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (Heb 4:14; see https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/05/a-great-high-priest-who-has-passed-through-the-heavens-hebrews-4-pentecost-20b/)

Thus, Jesus is decreed to be son of God (Psalm 2:7, cited at Heb 5:5) and then “a priest forever” (Psalm 110:4, cited at Heb 5:6). Both psalms which are cited are royal psalms, considered to provide messianic indicators, and thus are picked up within New Testament writings to claim the significance of Jesus, son of God, priest of the new covenant.

These psalms feed into the line of interpretation which sees Jesus in exalted terms—in this book, at least—as the great high priest, the superior high priest, the perfect high priest, the one who is pioneer and perfecter of our faith. And that line runs on beyond the New Testament, into other sects and cults that accord prominence to Melchizedek.

Viewed in this light, some interpreters press the point, making the analogy claim that, “just as Abraham, the ancestor of the Levites, paid a tithe to Melchizedek and was therefore his inferior, so the Melchizedek-like priesthood of Christ is superior to that of the Levites. Furthermore, just as the Old Testament assigns no birth or death date to Melchizedek, so is the priesthood of Christ eternal.” See https://www.britannica.com/biography/Melchizedek

But for myself, that is pressing the point too far, and wringing every tiny drop of significance out of something that I see more as an exotic reference to an ancient tale—a story that is not historical, but was crafted for its own apologetic purposes amongst the returned exiles in Jerusalem. It’s a little bit of New Testament exotica. Thanks, Hebrews!!

*****

See also ten facts about Melchizedek:

1. Only three books of the Bible mention Melchizedek

2. The New Testament says more about Melchizedek than the Old Testament

3. Melchizedek is a contemporary of Abraham’s

4. Melchizedek has no recorded family

5. Melchizedek was a priest of God Most High

6. Melchizedek gives blessings (or at least one)

7. Melchizedek is the king of Salem

8. Melchizedek’s name means “king of righteousness”

9. The order of Melchizedek is royal and everlasting

10. Melchizedek was greater than Abraham and Aaron

https://overviewbible.com/melchizedek-facts/

See

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Convicted (3): James Jackson

My ancestor James Jackson arrived in the colony of New South Wales on the ship Mariner 205 years ago today, on 11 October 1816. James was my great-great-great-great-grandfather on my father’s maternal line. He is the third reason that I was born in Sydney.

The others are my ancestors Joseph Pritchard and Bridget Ormsby. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/14/convicted-1-joseph-pritchard/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/27/convicted-2-bridget-ormsby/

James Jackson first appears in the records in a list of men who appeared at the Chester Quarter Sessions on 17 October 1815. He is identified as a Labourer and Brick Moulder. He was aged 30. He was found guilty (the crime was not specified) and sentenced to transportation for 7 years.

The court record describes him as being 5 feet 1 1/2 inches, with a fair ruddy complexion, flaxen hair and grey eyes. James is recorded as being 30 years of age, meaning that he would have been born in 1785 in Cheshire. (This is corroborated by the record of a later marriage, noting that he was 46 when he marred Bridget Ormsby in 1832.)

James was one of many convicts transferred to the ship Mariner in May 1816, and the ship set sail for NSW in June 1816, under Captain John Herbert, with 146 male convicts on board. John Haslam was the Surgeon Superintendent; under his watch, all convicts arrived in a healthy state in NSW.

Those on board had experienced an eventful journey which included weathering “one of the most dreadful hurricanes remembered for the last 60 years” off Cape Logullos, in which she lost a topmast. (This was noted in the Sydney Gazette of 12 October 1816, reporting on the arrival of the ship at Sydney.)

Surgeon Haslam kept a very detailed account of the journey, which survives today in the State Library of Victoria. He described some of the events in September: “On the 3rd September when we were off the Cape of Good Hope, a heavy squall came on during the time I was officiating in the prison. There was a general apprehension that the vessel could not long withstand its fury.

“This appeared to me to be the favourable opportunity to impress the minds of the convicts with a due sense of their awful situation; and, as well as I was able from my own apprehensions I endeavoured to exhort them to a consideration of the necessity of employing the short time that probably remained in prayer and repentance – but in vain; the violence of the tempest had inspired them with additional excitement, and my admonitions were drowned in a roar of blasphemy.

“They recollected that it was the time of Bartholomew fair, and began a song commemorating the scenes of its licentiousness; and compared the rolling and pitching of the vessel to the swings which are employed during that festival.

“Notwithstanding the utmost vigilance was exerted to prevent their confederation for the purpose of seizing the ship, yet they made the attempt at a time when it was least expected. On the 8th September they contrived to open the prison door communicating with the forhold; this was speedily detected, but not until several articles had been stolen.

“On the 28th of the same month, during a tremendous storm at night, which excited the greatest alarm amongst those who navigated the ship; they found means during the general distress to cut a hole in the deck of the prison communicating with the hold, by which in a short time they might have rendered themselves masters of the arm chest, had they not been discovered. When I went into the prison accompanied by the master and a sufficient guard, they pretended the most perfect ignorance of the transaction, said they had been asleep and wondered how it could have been effected.”

James arrived in Sydney on the ship Mariner on 11 October 1816. The Mariner was one of nine convicts ships arriving in New South Wales in 1816, the others being the Fanny, Mary Anne, Ocean, Guildford, Atlas, Elizabeth, and Surry. Approximately 1,415 prisoners arrived in NSW in 1816.

James was to marry three times in the coming decades. A few years after arriving in the colony, he married his first wife, Elizabeth Crasby, on 5 June 1820.

Elizabeth had come to NSW on the Lord Wellington, which arrived in Port Jackson on 19 January 1820, with 120 female prisoners and 45 children. Further information about Elizabeth is lacking at the moment.

At the age of 46, James Jackson married Bridget Ormsby, aged 24, on 19 March 1832. The ceremony was one of three for convict couples conducted on the same day by Rev William Cowper in Sydney. The couples being married were all identified by the ship on which they had arrived (James Jackson, Mariner; Bridget Ormsby, Hooghley).

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

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

For more on Bridget, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/27/convicted-2-bridget-ormsby/. Unfortunately, the date of her death is not known. We do know that James married Eliza Onslow in 1849, so we presume Bridget had died by then.

Eliza was born Eliza Davis; she had married George Onslow in 1826, then George had died in 1841. James and Eliza had a daughter, Emma Jackson, born 2 June 1850. Eliza Jackson (née Davis) died on 13 September 1879. Emma Jackson died 30 Dec 1923 at Marrickville.

James Jackson died at the Liverpool Asylum on 30 May 1868. This death is registered at 4506/1868 and notes that the deceased was aged 77 years.

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Hope in a broken world (Job 23; Pentecost 20B)

The second in a series of sermons on the book of Job, by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine; Tuggeranong Uniting Church, 10 October 2021

***** *****

Last week, we left Job engaged in the task of theodicy, the theological examination of why a just and all-powerful God could allow suffering and evil to exist. Job had become convinced that God was not particularly reasonable and was personally responsible for the suffering of the world. Just to remind you, Job’s words about God were as follows:

To paraphrase the words of David Hume, Job seems to have accepted that God must be somehow malevolent (able, but not willing to prevent evil), as he doesn’t understand why suffering should exist if God is able and willing to prevent it.

When Job’s friends arrive to comfort him, this spirited debate continues as they all decide join in the exploration of theodicy and whether God is just, as well as defending Deuteronomy’s assertions that the wicked are punished and the righteous are rewarded.

The lectionary has made a big jump here from last week with 21 intervening chapters left out. These chapters have largely been poetic speeches by Job and his friends, where they assert Job must have some secret sins, and where Job responds by strenuously denying this. Job’s friends are convinced that God rewards the righteous and punishes the guilty, so they try to convince Job that he must repent of his secret sin. Job, however, refuses, as he believes that he is innocent, a fact we readers know is correct.

This lament of Job reveals his anger, loneliness and frustration. God has become very distant to him, and he cannot find God no matter where he looks.

His grievance at his suffering spurs him to call out to God to demand a day in court where he can put his case to God about the injustice of his treatment, and he is convinced that he will be vindicated. His well-intentioned friends have failed to satisfy him with their orthodox answers, indeed have failed to listen to him.

So even if he is being rebellious, Job decides that he needs to take a risk and deal with God directly, and he therefore becomes much more insistent and increasingly frustrated as God refuses to answer. Karl Jacobsen, in his article on Working Preacher, points out that “Job is clearly ready for his day in court. But therein lies the problem; Job can’t find his way to the courthouse…[and] God is nowhere to be found. God’s hand, it seems to Job, neither leads him nor holds him fast.”

Until God appears in the whirlwind, we have an impasse. Job has scorned the counsel of his three friends. He has decided that he they see blindly and listen deafly. They, on the other hand, cannot understand his stubbornness. They do not recognise that in his suffering, it is Job who actually approaches a closer understanding of God, as distasteful as that understanding might be. Though God might crush him, Job, almost defiantly, still declares his trust in God.

Throughout Job’s speech, there is a great sense of longing for God’s presence, for God’s attention and for God’s caring. This is surely a feeling that can resonate with us all and many of us may have experienced in tragic circumstances.

All of us have sought comfort in disturbing times through prayer, and even today, in the uncertain times of climate change, pandemics, warsand natural disasters, we continue to seek the presence of God in the midst of suffering and injustice. Suffering will always challenge a person’s sense of relationship with God, but it does not need to destroy that relationship. As Christians we believe that, in the midst of suffering God, does come to the afflicted and affirm the presence of grace.

Spill the Beans this week suggests that Job’s anger, like that of the author of Psalm 44 (“Wake up, Lord! Why are you asleep?”), raises important questions about what is and is not permissible to say to God in prayer. Are we honest with God? Do we allow ourselves to lament to God about the unfairness of the tragedies we encounter in life?

Surely it is important that such questions can be voiced before God. There is an honesty in Job’s story that challenges the superficial type of faith that crumbles when tragedy strikes, and there is a freedom here that gives us permission to say what we need to say to God even if we need, like Job, toapologise later. God can take it, and surely God’s grace and love will be there waiting for us.

Part of the power of the book of Job is the fact that it realistically addresses addresses the painful questions of life. Tragedy and suffering are never simple issues; they challenge faith and can create a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Like Job, we often find that there is no shortage of opinions from others trying to explain the pain they are not suffering, and simplistic answers are offered in response to life’s most painful questions.

The strength of Job’s book is that it allows all sides of the issue – the simple answers of the friends and the emotional turmoil of Job – to be heard and heard again. So though it seems to go on and on, repeating the same arguments over and over again, and then failing to provide any answers, this is often the way the problem of suffering is experienced, especially when it comes to the enormous issues of world poverty and economic injustice.

We need to sit as long as we can with those who have suffered and are suffering from injustice and immense suffering. And perhaps, as we ponder our own tragedies, and the fate of the uncounted and unnamed men, women and children who have died in war or ethnic violence, or pray for the current victims of poverty, famine and disease in our world, we might find our thoughts connecting with experiences and the suffering of Job.

And while we cannot measure how God heals, or answers every sufferer’s prayer, or upholds us in the experience of pain, grief or fear, as Christians who understand the grace of God we can surely still believe that God is there waiting for us, even if God seems momentarily absent, in the midst of God’s suffering people.

So from the paradox of faith, we remember:

from silence, comes the song of praise;

from darkness, shines forth the light;

from mystery, comes the kingdom of God.

It is this that allows us to continue to praise God, and to continue to seek out hope in a broken world.

For other sermons on Job, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/02/living-through-lifes-problems-job-1-pentecost-19b/

For other sermons on Wisdom, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/12/in-the-squares-she-raises-her-voice-lady-wisdom-in-proverbs-pentecost-16b/ on Lady Wisdom, and https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/17/in-order-that-all-the-peoples-of-earth-may-know-your-name-1-kings-8-pentecost-13b/ on the wisdom of Solomon

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Mental Health Day, 10 October

Every year in Australia, the month of October is designated as Mental Health Month. It encompasses World Mental Health Day, which is 10 October. This year, Mental Health Foundation Australia is running an Awareness Campaign with the very relevant theme of “Mental Health: Post Pandemic Recovery Challenges and Resilience”.

The focus for this month provides an opportunity to bring mental health out in the open, to improve understanding of mental health issues, and to remove the stigma associated with mental health. The aim is to showcase mental illness as a source of strength for people.

Each year 1 in 5 Australians experience a mental health issue. Approximately half of all individuals (45%) will experience issues with mental health in their lifetime. This could be anyone we know: a loved one, a family member, a friend, a colleague, a neighbour. It could well be ourselves.

People struggling with mental health issues often find themselves isolated, lonely and left to cope on their own. This month reminds us how important it is to reach out and support those in the community who suffer in silence. Simple things, like paying attention, listening carefully, and offering support, can mean much to someone having a mental health episode.

The best guidance for attending to someone struggling in this way is not to judge, not to dismiss their concerns as trivial, and not to try to cheer them up. Deep listening, quietly empathising, compassionate support, are the best things to offer such a person.

Curiously, recent data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that suicide rates are the lowest they’ve been since 2016. This aligns with what is being observed in many countries around the world, reversing a climbing trend prior to COVID-19. It is thought that the pandemic has fostered a deeper sense of connectedness or shared societal worry about facing the pandemic together. Alongside that, the JobKeeper payment and other economic support measures provided by governments may well have had a protective effect.

A recent ABC report indicates that younger people have been disproportionately affected by many of the pandemic’s negative consequences, with declining mental health outcomes reported by an increasing number. They are more likely to be unemployed or in insecure work, given they account for a larger proportion of the casual or gig workforce. Younger people have also had to encounter mass upheavals to their education, social connection and future employment or study prospects. This trend was already evident before the pandemic. It has increased over the past 18 months.

The Black Dog Institute, in partnership with Mission Australia, reports that one in four young people reported experiencing psychological distress in 2020, with the prevalence of this twice as high for young women than young men.

We have known for a long time that more men take their life than women each year. However, the data indicates that women engage in self-harm at a higher rate and make more suicide attempts than men. While rates of suicide overall have declined in the 2020 data, sadly the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people dying by suicide has increased in the past year.

Within the Uniting Church, we have a long partnership with Lifeline, which provides Australians experiencing emotional distress with access to 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention services. In fact, Lifeline started as a ministry outreach from the Methodist Church, a precursor to the Uniting Church; it began in Sydney as an initiative of the late Alan Walker, superintendent minister of the then Central Methodist Mission. Lifeline (13 11 14) is always just a phone call away. See https://www.lifeline.org.au/

On their website, Lifeline states that when you ring them, you will talk with a person who will: “Listen without judgment — Provide a safe space to discuss your needs, worries or concerns — and Work with you to explore options for support”. That’s a model that we each can seek to implement in our own interactions with people we know who may be experience a mental health episode.

Miriam Parker-Lacey, Minister in placement at St Columba’s Braddon and Canberra City, and UCA Chaplain at ANU, is a Mental Health Matters trainer, and she has provided this training to people within the Presbytery in recent times. Being aware of how we can help friends or family who are facing the challenge of mental health is an important skill for us to learn.

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The challenge of COVID-19 to Social Ethics as we know them

A guest blog by the Rev. Dr Geoff Dornan, minister with the Wesley Forrest Uniting Church Congregation in Canberra, ACT.

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. Its impact upon the way we reason ethically has been immeasurable. There were the portentous signs in the first wave of infection of 2019-2020, especially in Italy, as clinical practice was tested as never before. I recall the Italian peak body for anaesthetics and critical care issuing a divisive guideline about the allocation of intensive care resources, suggesting an upper age limit for ventilator eligibility, the implicit condoning of ventilator withdrawal if necessary, and a ‘pragmatic’ focus upon maximizing clinical outcomes.

It could be said that there was little new in this. After all, much of it had been anticipated in longstanding clinical policy about the allocation of scarce healthcare resources, in what was known as the “fair innings” argument. The point, however, was not the clinical theory per se, but rather the shock of having to actually put such theory into practice on a wide scale.

Another clinical issue, as the virus spread across the world, was the relationship between patients and healthcare providers. Hospitals cancelled elective surgery to save on PPE supplies, beds, and human resources. Access to ICU level care was restricted and strict infection prevention controls were also put into place. Many patients faced prolonged precautionary isolation without the reprieve of visits from friends or family.

As if these challenges to clinical ethical practice, were not enough, COVID has also tested public health policy. As governments implemented biosecurity powers to ensure compliance with business closures and social distancing measures, available technologies were deployed to ensure adherence to new laws and contact tracing of those who contracted COVID-19. The use of phone metadata to locate and track individuals, occurred even in liberal democracies, as the seriousness of the pandemic intensified.

Phone applications were also introduced by governments in several countries to communicate with surrounding phones through Bluetooth, so as to record those with whom a person had been in close contact. In some cases, GPS tracking was also utilized: something generally restricted to police functions.[i] The public health emergency powers enacted in liberal democracies during the COVID-19 crisis have permitted to some extent a power imbalance between governments and citizens. Moreover, and most importantly, the framing of public health as a security issue, continues to allow exceptional actions to be taken, beyond what would be normally politically acceptable.[ii]

The Church’s Conundrum: Inclusion and Safety

While COVID-19 has ‘set the cat among the pigeons’ in the ethics of clinical practice and public health policy, the impact continues, raising new issues and challenges for many institutions, not least the church. Most recently, as countries open-up, and governments set policies which distinguish between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, denominations have made their own responses. Roman Catholic and Anglican leaders of Sydney have been quite clear about their reservations in following public policy.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher OP, in his message of September 9th, declared, “I would insist that ‘Jesus is Lord of all, and his gospel is a gospel for all. A ‘No Entry’ sign at the door of the church is wholly inconsistent with the Gospel preached inside.’ Race, gender, ethnicity, age, education, wealth or health status (including vaccination) must not be points of division within the Christian community or barriers to communion with Christ Jesus.”

The motivation for this stance is the high view that Catholicism harbours of the Church and the centrality of the Mass as the fundamental liturgical expression of being church. Moreover, speaking broadly, as evidenced in recent statements of ‘push-back’ from the Polish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Catholic Church is wary of the extension of state powers as a weakening of democracy and a slide into authoritarianism. Something we have seen as not entirely without foundation.[iii]

There have also been evangelical responses, such as the “Ezekiel Declaration” recently published by three pastors from Queensland, directed to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, which states concern for those suffering mental and emotional stress from lockdowns, and which appeals to Morrison to resist the policy of vaccination passports on the basis that such a practice “risks creating an unethical two-tiered society”.

In spirit and mood, the declaration reflects not a high view of the Church in the Catholic sense, but a libertarian ethos with a strong inclination toward a priority for individual freedoms. More disturbingly, the document raises questions of soundness as it slides into a barely concealed ‘anti-vaxxer ethos’, and mistakenly implies that vaccination will be made mandatory. The declaration appears to be primarily ideological. [iv]

For the Uniting Church in Australia, thinking our way through the current challenge of the conundrum of the ‘vaccinated-unvaccinated’ as we prepare to ‘open up’ is confronting. Rather than seeing the issue in the singular terms of inclusion, for us, there is also the issue of safety.

Robert McFarlane has succinctly explained it, “The first principle of safety for the most vulnerable implies that people who are not fully vaccinated may need to be excluded for the safety of the vulnerable. The second principle of inclusion implies that we can’t turn anyone away”.[v] https://www.insights.uca.org.au/vaccination-inclusion-and-exclusion-the-ethics-of-regathering-for-worship-in-a-part-vaccinated-world/

John Squires, in an article ‘On Vaccinations, Restrictions and Fundamentalism”[vi] https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/20/on-vaccinations-restrictions-and-fundamentalism/, notes that there is a strong defence of the priority of vaccination, and by extension mandatory vaccination, plus the need for that priority to be exercised in deciding who attends worship and who does not. Of course, within the opinion piece, the author accepts that there may be good reasons for people not being vaccinated, especially underlying health issues.

He also argues for the continuation of on-line worship to serve the unvaccinated from the safety of their homes, so that the principle of inclusion can still be maintained in unison with that of safety. He concludes, “So, at the moment, I will advocate for complete adherence to government restrictions. My faith calls me to work for the common good, to care for the vulnerable, to love my neighbours, both near and far. Minimising risk of transmission as we gather is our first duty. Ministry takes place in many ways other than sitting in an enclosed space for an hour once a week!”

Considering the Problem through the Lens of our Ethical Traditions 

Given the various Christian responses, which range from a priority for unrestrained inclusion of all comers to a physical place of worship, to a priority for safety, limiting physical presence at worship to the vaccinated alone, at least until the danger of COVID subsides, I think we need some help. My suggestion is to appeal to and examine the three major ethical traditions which have shaped and continue to shape the way we moderns think about ethics. My question is simply this: what would each have to say to us about this problem?                                                                   

There are three traditions that I shall briefly examine: the Ethics of Duty, the Ethics of Consequence, and the Ethics of Virtue.

Ethics of Duty

The ethics of duty are not concerned with the consequences or results of actions, but rather their inherent rightness. The point is do the right thing, do it because it is the right thing to do, irrespective of the results; after all results or consequences cannot be entirely foreseen or controlled. The father of the ethics of duty was Immanuel Kant, whose august figure you can see below.

Within the ethics of duty there are what are called categorical imperatives, one of which you would already know: “act so as to treat people never only as a means, but always as an end”. There is another categorical imperative which you may not know. In it, Kant points out that you should not do something if it cannot be done by everybody. Put another way, “you ought not act according to any principle that cannot be universalized”.

A simple example has to do with cheating. What a cheat wants is not that everyone else should do what they do, but that an exception should be made in their case.

Turning to the issue of the vaccinated and unvaccinated, of course people have a right to remain unvaccinated as a question of individual conscience, but it does not end there. The question must be, what if everyone were to do the same, to remain unvaccinated? Clearly the results would be catastrophic, with immeasurably more sickness, substantially more deaths, the collapse of medical systems and glaring economic damage. Moreover, communities and organizations have the duty to protect people from such a scenario. Short of mandating vaccination, the ethics of duty would tell us that it is both reasonable and necessary that a community differentiate between the vaccinated and those who choose in conscience to remain unvaccinated; and this for reasons of the community’s wellbeing and safety. That said, such measures should always be taken treating people, all people – to quote Kant – as ends not just means.

Ethics of Consequence

The ethics of consequence think about ethical issues, as the name suggests, from the perspective of what results from an action. Utilitarianism, a school established and shaped by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the latter caricatured below, embrace this idea.  Central to its understanding is that good ethical policy should seek to maximize the good or utility in a society.

Bentham and Mill explained that good as “happiness”. In other words, the broader and greater the happiness, the better. This ethics that focuses upon results, correlates closely to the way Christianity thinks about ethical issues: for example, the Golden Rule – “do to others what you want them to do to you” (Matt 7:12, Luke 6:31).

As an ethics for maximizing happiness, the ethics of consequence is particularly important for thought and decision making about public welfare and social reform: pensions, benefits, health, education; fundamental dimensions of what we refer to as the common good. This idea of maximizing happiness through welfare, was significant in the post-World War II reconstruction of many societies, including the establishment of the welfare state.

In broad terms, the ethics of consequence which focus upon the welfare of a community, would support the comprehensive vaccination of a society as a means of protection for its members. On the other hand, it does not do especially well when considering the rights of minorities, simply because they are minorities. Because it focuses upon the bigger picture of collective gain, particular heed needs to be paid to what it is prone to ignore: as J.S. Mill put it, “the rights of freedom of expression”.

This deficit serves as a warning in our current circumstances, to understand that ethical policy and practice – to be ethical – requires a committed balancing of majority rights with those of a dissenting minority. In this sense, any church practice that brusquely favours safety over inclusion, meaning the ‘exclusion’ of the unvaccinated, needs to be rebalanced.                                        

Ethics of Virtue

Virtue ethics is quite different to the ethics of duty or consequence in that they focus upon the individual character with the question, “what and who ought I be?” Going back to even before Aristotle – the gentleman we see below – virtue ethics dominated ethical thought for centuries. Thomas Aquinas was particularly important in developing a Christian ethics of virtue, in the light of his theology built upon the shoulders of Aristotelian thought.

In recent times there has been a return to virtue ethics as a way of completing the more modern approaches of rules-based ethics of duty and situational ethics of consequence. In a sense virtue ethics offers depth in that ethics are understood as a way of life.

Virtue ethics address two very human issues: the first, the emotions and the second, wisdom. In developing the virtues, the emotions are trained to serve the virtues, not undermine them. Likewise, in developing the virtues, practical wisdom (phronēsis) is cultivated, meaning that it is not sufficient to only do what a just person does, but to do it in a way that a just person does it. In other words, the emphasis lies with the how as much as the what.

Moreover, the content of the virtues changes depending upon the purpose (telos) that a person lives for. For the Christian, the primary virtues have been considered to be charity, patience and humility as pathways to living out the kingdom of God. For Aquinas, charity reigned supreme: “Charity is the form of all virtues”.

Finally, conscience constitutes a significant aspect of virtue and the moral knowledge entailed in living virtuously. That said, the virtue tradition insists that conscience can never be lazy, for we are bound to subject our conscientiously held views to rigorous analysis.

As we consider the question of how to proceed with the challenge of giving expression to the values of inclusion and safety in our services and liturgies, the ethics of virtue would counsel us to do so aware of the priority of charity and the need for an informed conscience.

Conclusions

What is it that these ethical traditions offer to us as we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma, caught between two noble and necessary practices: inclusivity and safety?  All suggest, either explicitly or implicitly, that a good decision will likely need to include a balance of each.

Unconstrained inclusivity alone, will open congregations to the possibility of infection. Safety alone, will open congregations to excluding those for whom they love and care. After all what good is safety if it cuts us off from each other?  

Additionally, for those who refuse vaccination in conscience, the challenge is to ensure that their conscience is well informed, not determined by ideological bias or irrational partisanship.

Of course, there are multiple ways to balance these requirements. Each congregation, presbytery and synod will need to do just that, accessing and utilizing the knowledge of their specific contexts and the technologies to which they have access, keeping in mind that how we do things is every bit as critical as what we do.

Rev. Dr. Geoff Dornan, October 3rd, 2021

Geoff Dornan is minister in the Wesley Forrest Congregation in Canberra, ACT. He holds a PhD in Philosophy, Theology & Ethics from Boston University, USA.


[i] In March 2020, the government of Singapore, launched a smartphone application to assist in monitoring COVID-19 by enabling public health authorities to investigate infections and limit further transmission. In May 2020 the Australian government announced it would implement similar technology.

[ii] Kamradt-Scott, A., & McInnes C. (2012), The Securitization of Pandemic Influenza: Framing Security and Public Policy. Global Public Health, 7, 95-110, 106.

[iii] Jonathon Luxmoore, “Polish Archbishop criticizes anti-church Covid measures”, The Tablet, August 11th, 2021.

[iv] Timothy Grant, Matthew Littlefield, Warren McKenzie, The Ezekiel Declaration, https://caldronpool.com/ezekieldeclaration/

[v] McFarlane, R. “Vaccination, Inclusion and Exclusion: The Ethics of Regathering for Worship in a Part Vaccinated World”, Insights Magazine, September 17th, 2021.

[vi]  John T. Squires, “On Vaccinations, Restrictions and Fundamentalism”, blog at https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/20/on-vaccinations-restrictions-and-fundamentalism/

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A great high priest who “has passed through the heavens” (Hebrews 4; Pentecost 20B)

“We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, so let us hold fast to our confession; for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:14–15).

In this way, the anonymous author of the word of encouragement written to the Hebrews highlights what will be come the overriding image, the dominating theme, of the whole book. (On the nature of this book, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/29/the-word-of-exhortation-that-exults-jesus-as-superior-hebrews-1-pentecost-19b/)

The author has already identified Jesus as “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (2:17), the “apostle and high priest of our confession” (3:1). The claim that Jesus was a sinless high priest (4:15) is striking. He is being placed at a level above and beyond the already high level of the Jewish high priest. This is the foundation for the argument that is proposed and developed in subsequent chapters

When Jesus is designated high priest according to “the order of Melchizedek” (5:10; 6:20), he 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). We will come back to the mysterious Melchizedek next week.

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). The comparison is made using the long-existing system of offerings and sacrifices which were integral to the Israelite practice of religion.

The Temple was the central point of faith for the people; it was the focus of pilgrimage at festival times, the place where priests mediated between the people and God through the offerings and sacrifices, the place where the rich liturgical life of ancient Israel was developed (as we see in the psalms).

The comparison that is made is stark: the earlier Jewish system of offering sacrifices is exposed as flawed, insufficient, and now rendered redundant. We will return to this element of the comparison in a later post, when we consider again the picture of Jesus as priest in this word of exhortation (the letter to the Hebrews).

The purpose of using the imagery of sacrifice and priesthood in this book is not intentionally negative towards the Jewish sacrificial system. The constructive purpose of this language is to demonstrate that Jesus 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 [God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:19–22).

This work is not unique in drawing on the language of the sacrificial cult. The death of Jesus is interpreted in language drawn from the sacrificial practices of Israel. He is the one “who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Gal 1:4), who “loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2), who “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14).

Paul draws on the sacrificial system of the Temple when he encourages the followers of Jesus “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1-2). He points to his own life as an example, saying that “I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith” (Phil 2:17), and then encouraging the Philippians that, “in the same way, you also must be glad and rejoice with me” (Phil 2:18).

In another letter attributed to him, but more likely written at a later time by one of his followers, invoking his name to claim his authority, this line of instruction recurs. The saints addressed in the letter allegedly written to the Ephesians directs that they are to “live in love, as Christ loved us”, following the author’s example of living as “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2).

The Gospel writers use language drawn from the sacrificial cult describe Jesus; most obviously, in the description of Jesus as “the lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36)—there was an unblemished lamb offered daily at the Temple in sacrifice (Exod 29:38–46). The saying that the Son of Man came “to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) uses the language of the cult (Exod 21:30); that language is used to describe the effect of the death of Jesus in later letters (Eph 1:17; 1 Tim 2:6; 1 Pet 1:18–19).

The language of covenant, used in the accounts of the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers (Mark 14:24; Matt 26:28; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25) itself draws from the foundational understanding of the people of Israel. This covenant was the very heart of their relationship with God that undergirded the sacrificial system of the people of Israel (Exod 24:1–8; Lev 26, see verses 9, 15, 25, 40–45). At its heart, the remembrance of the body broken and the blood shed at the final meal of Jesus—the central enduring ritual within the Christian church—continues to evoke the sacrificial practices of ancient Israel.

The way that the idea is developed in Hebrews, however, is curious. 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).

The use of this idea throughout the book is a piece of contextual theology. It makes use of ideas and practices well-known in the world of the time, to explain the significance of Jesus and to interpret the meaning of his death.

Portraying Jesus as priest is intended to provide comfort to the readers. As the great High Priest, Jesus is now able to broker the relationship between believers and God, in the way that the High Priest did for centuries. That Jesus is the high priest who has “passed through the heavens” (Heb 4:14) provides strong assurance.

Portraying him as victim, however, seeks to make sense of the brutal death of Jesus, suffocating to death of the cross, his dead body laid in a tomb. This death was not in vain; it is effective in securing God’s forgiveness and grace, just as the victims sacrificed in the temple cult removed the sins and provided forgiveness to those who brought those sacrifices. The sacrifice of Jesus “makes perfect those who approach” (Heb 10:1). And because the one who is sacrificed is the same one as the perfect priest making the sacrifice, “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb 10:14).

The logic is strange, to us; to the author of Hebrews, it obviously made perfect sense.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/29/the-word-of-exhortation-that-exults-jesus-as-superior-hebrews-1-pentecost-19b/

A priest forever, “after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5; Pentecost 21B)

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Living through life’s problems (Job 1; Pentecost 19B)

A sermon by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, on the Book of Job (Part 1),
preached at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on 3 October 2021.

The book of Job has always been famous for two things – the patience of Job, and the introduction to the alleged malicious machinations of Satan. When we read the text closely though, we may be surprised, as both these ‘truths’ are actually found to be wanting.

Job is not patient, nor is the satan the personified force of evil found in later biblical literature. Whilst afflicted, Job spends all of his time challenging the injustice that has reduced him to these straits, and shows little patience in regards to his unfortunate situation. For example, in chapter 3 he cries:

Why is light given to one in misery,
and life to the bitter in soul,
who long for death…
and … are glad when they find the grave?
For my …groanings are poured out like water.
I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
I have no rest; but trouble comes. (Job 3:20–26)

Despite the dramatic capital “S” translation in our bibles of the Hebrew word sātān, the word should be translated rather as ‘adversary’, or ‘prosecutor’. The adversary is the servant of God, his role to investigate the goings on of humanity and report on them. This adverserial role requires him to present the case to the contrary at the heavenly court. We also find him in this role in the prophet Zechariah 3:1, where he stands ready to accuse Joshua in the setting of the heavenly court.

So what is the book of Job about then? One of its functions was to challenge the theology of Deuteronomy, which claimed that righteousness was always rewarded, and evil always punished. The author of Job disagrees, as his experience has shown him good people suffer and evil goes unpunished in an imperfect world. The author also wants to explore the notion of whether God is good and just. So in the literary setting of the heavenly court, the author constructs a debate between God and the adversary, around these questions.

The book of Job was probably written sometime after the Babylonian exile, in the 6th century BCE. It deliberately avoids mentioning any identifying historical features and is written not as an historical account but as a fable or folktale encounter between a human being and God. The book’s action does not take place in Israel. Its characters are from Edom, to the southwest of Israel, which perhaps allows for a freer discussion of the issues the story raises.

The seeming puzzle of the suffering of the righteous, and the apparent blessing of good fortune to the wicked was a problem addressed by various books in Hebrew scripture, but none of them exhibit the radical protests and questions that we find in the book of Job. The book of Job lists a large number of injustices that regularly happen to the righteous poor, at the hands of the unscrupulous wealthy. 

We frequently find verses such as “Therefore I say, he destroys both the blameless and the wicked, when disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent. The earth is given into the hand of the wicked, he covers the eyes of its judges – if it is not he, who then is it?” (Job 9).

So the author of Job has set himself an enormous task – he will explore the truth that the innocent, not just the wicked, do suffer, and attempt to explain the rationale for God’s actions in regard to such suffering.

In the scene before us, the adversary makes the point that Job has never suffered from poverty or adversity in his life. Why shouldn’t he be righteous? Surely, he argues, if Job’s wealth and family were struck down,then his faith would be tested to the point where he would curse God. God, intrigued by this notion, agrees to the adversary’s suggestions. Job is to be tested rigorously in regard to his faith.

This is not the picture of the loving, merciful Christian God that we have come to know and love. Here is a God who knows that his human servant is righteous, yet is quite happy to gamble with his feelings, faith andthe life of his family in order to test the adversary’s claim. Is this a fair representation of God? Do we really think that God tests the faith of humanity?

This idea that God tests us is one that has taken hold in western societies. There is a belief that God never sends us any more than we can bear, and that testing can be good for us and aids the development of our faith. This concept therefore understands the loss of family and friendsthrough accident or cancer, for example, are to test us. This is surely a terrible idea.

And if God really does test the faith of humanity through harsh adversity and poverty, then one must wonder why poor dark-skinnedchildren under the age of ten seem to be the ones most in need of such testing. After all, they and their families are the ones most often the victims of war, disease and starvation. While there is no doubt that certain forms ofsuffering can bring us closer to God, much of the suffering that is experienced by humanity does not have such an outcome.

Perhaps one of the greatest differences between us and the author of Job is the belief that God is responsible for such suffering. We tend to let God off the hook by the use of doctrines such as freewill, despite the imbalance of power that suggests our freewill is a large cause of the extraordinary death toll from war, disease and poverty in the developingworld. Not so Job – he is determined to hold God accountable for what he sees as unjust suffering.

The great misfortune which has stuck Job, which include the stealing of his animals, the killing of his servants and destruction of his children are not initially blamed on an unjust God. At first Job can still bless the name of God. So the scenario in the heavenly counsel repeats itself. God again boasts of Job’s righteousness, the adversary again seeks to test Job’s faith by an attack on his actual person. Again God agrees, and Job is afflicted with terrible sores. Ignoring the counsel of his wife (curse God and die), Job still persists in his faith.

While this may seem a commendable attitude, Job’s question in 2:10 (“Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”) raises some difficult issues: Does God send both good and bad upon humanity?  Do both good and evil emanate from God?

This might seem like a ridiculous question. But consider Isaiah 45:7, in which God states, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil; I the LORD do all these things”. And Deuteronomy 32:39, where God declares, “See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand”.

In the Hebrew world view, such an idea was not unknown, though it may seem anathema to us. Evil had to be explained somehow, and it seemed reasonable in a monotheistic religion that God both blessed and cursed, gave and took away.

Despite’s Job’s protestations of innocence, Job’s three friends, who arrive to console with him, do not waver from their belief that God is right, and that Job is undoubtedly being punished for some secret sin, although they themselves are at a loss as to know exactly what this sin might be. Theypersist in believing that Job must deserve all of the punishments.

The author of the book uses the friends of Job to expose the inadequacies of the tradition, and Job counters their arguments by some pretty stark statements about the injustice of God. Job confidently believes that God is omnipotent. The question is therefore, why doesn’t he use this power to right wrongs, punish the wicked and ensure that justice is done?

Consider the end of chapter 12, for example: “The Lord makes nations great, then destroys them … He strips understanding from the leaders of the earth and makes them wander in a pathless waste. They grope in the dark without light, he makes them stagger like drunkards.”

Job, whether he realises it or not, has engaged himself in the study of theodicy, the theological examination of how a loving, just and all-powerful God can allow suffering and evil to exist. Job appears to be the first theologian that we know of to begin to ask some of the pertinent questions of theodicy. David Hume summed up these questions nicely:

Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both willing and able? Whence then is evil? David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (New York: Social Science Publishers, 1948) p. 198.

Job represents an age-old problem of power and justice. Those who have not been the victim of unjust power, whether divine or human-made, can not really appreciate the insecurity that capricious power and the denial of human rights generates.

This aspect of the story of Job is particularly disturbing for us. There is no doubt that what has happened thus far to Job is absolutely unfair. Why should “a blameless and upright man who feared God” be made to suffer so?The only ‘freewill’ that can be blamed here is God’s – the decision to test Job was God’s alone.

For us, the question is, how can we believe in a God that apparently has such a dark side? A God who willingly strikes dead the family of a person who has God’s goodness at heart, who has done no wrong? Who afflicts him with a dreadful disease and deprives him of his farm and means to make a living?How can we hold to the idea of an all-loving God when these kinds of things not only happened to Job, but do happen routinely in today’s world? 

Christianity has always taught of a loving, caring, forgiving God, one who is there to heal and to comfort. Yet here a swift and harsh punishment is placed on Job as the result of a wager between God and the adversary. 

Despite its antiquity, this story of Job confronts us with many unanswered questions. Do we accept the thought that all things, good and evil, are sent from the one true all-powerful God? Perhaps we need to further question our ideas of God. Is God truly all-loving and all-powerful? Or can God be only one, or the other, of these?

The bible consistently makes it clear that God – and our own fears and frailties – are encountered in wild, dangerous places. In the New Testament, the letter to the Hebrews clearly states that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”. Faith is not a journey that is safe or straightforward. There will always be darkness and perplexities to be confronted.

We can use our faith to avoid the harsh facts and unpleasantness of the real world that surrounds us, and cocoon ourselves into a warm and fuzzy kind of spirituality. Or we can use our faith as a way of living through life’s problems and injustices with a small flame of hope, to live a God centred-life with all the uncertainty that such a faith brings with it. This is the ultimate challenge that this passage presents to us.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/02/living-through-lifes-problems-job-1-pentecost-19b/, https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/10/hope-in-a-broken-world-job-23-pentecost-20b/

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Affirming and inclusive passages from scripture

Tuggeranong Uniting Church, a Congregation within the Canberra Region Presbytery (and the Congregation where my membership is held) has a series of banners inside the building which signify and celebrate the commitments of the Congregation in ministry: acknowledging the First Peoples, committing to sustainable living through care for the environment, and ministry to rainbow people.

Outside the building, for some years now, a banner proclaiming that refugees are welcome has hung in public. This week, the Congregation has erected a larger banner declaring that they are an open and affirming church. It sits at the front entrance opposite the local regional shopping centre, where all who pass by can clearly see it.

This commitment to an inclusive ministry which welcomes, values, and includes rainbow people (those who identify with one of the letters in LGBTIQA+) has been manifest in the Rainbow Christian Alliance, which was commenced six years ago by the minister and two members of the Congregation. (See https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/04/a-safe-place-for-rainbow-christians/)

That initiative in Tuggeranong, in the south of Canberra, has seeded another rainbow church in Goulburn: DARE Cage Church. It is a ministry that the Uniting Church has supported and fostered, both locally in these two faith communities, but more widely, in similar initiatives in cities and towns right across Australia. It is a ministry that is undergirded by strong and clear theological principles grounded in an informed understanding of scripture.

Scripture includes numerous passages that undergird an attitude of welcome, inclusion, and valuing of LGBTIQA+ people. None of the passage that follow address directly and unequivocally this issue; rather, they establish important and foundational claims about God and humanity, that enables us then to extrapolate and apply those claims to the situation of LGBTIQA+ people.

1) Genesis 1:26: “Let us create humankind in our image.”

In the Bible’s creation story, God makes clear that, out of all of creation, human beings are created in God’s image. That God is referred to in the plural in this passage could even suggest the idea of God containing a diversity of identities within God’s own mysterious and infinite self.

The assurance that all human beings are created in God’s image reminds us from the get-go that everyone is a sacred creation, and that God’s image is broader than our own experience and understanding. Someone may look — or love — differently than you do, and still, simply by being a human, reflect the image of God.

2) Acts 10:15: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

In Acts 10, Peter has a dream in which he is commanded by God to consume food that is deemed “unclean” according to Jewish law. When Peter protests, God reminds him that God’s declaration of what is clean is above — and may even contradict — any command of the law.

This dream serves as a crucial instructive for Peter later in the passage, when he encounters Gentiles, which Jewish law would normally reject. This passage reminds us that God’s promise and beloved community are not defined by our own rules or boundaries, or even our own understanding of God’s law.

3) Mark 2:22: “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

This passage recalls a time when Jesus is questioned as to why his disciples don’t rigidly obey the laws of their faith tradition. Jesus’ reply is very illuminating: “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.”

Jesus reminds us that religion, tradition and belief are evolving concepts, and may require us to re-evaluate and reconsider our traditions and push at the boundaries.

4) Acts 8:26-40: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

This passage recounts Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch, and is probably the most-cited biblical story by those seeking to affirm queer identity within Christian faith. Eunuchs in biblical times were othered and ostracized because of their failure to adhere to sexual norms.

Common cultural understanding of the time would have held that their status as eunuchs barred them from inclusion in God’s community. And yet, this eunuch seeks to follow the path of Christ even as he continues to live out his sexual otherness. And he is welcomed and joyfully baptized into Christ’s community. The eunuch’s question to Philip — “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” — underscores that his sexual status is not a barrier to inclusion in the eyes of God.

5) Isaiah 56:3-5: “For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

This text from Isaiah establishes that God’s love for those deemed “sexually other” — re-emphasized generations later in Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch — in fact predates Jesus’ radical message of inclusion and love. God promises everlasting recognition and inclusion for all who honour God, regardless of whether they have been deemed outsiders.

6) Isaiah 43:1: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

This message from the prophet Isaiah emphasizes God’s steadfast love and protection for God’s people. This verse in particular reminds believers that we are loved and claimed by a God who redeems us and will always be with us — not out of our own achievement or deserving but out of God’s devotion.

For many who are queer and/or transgender, this passage can serve as a reminder that we, too, are called by name and do not need to be afraid.

7) Galatians 3:23-29: “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 well-known passage from Galatians is used in many contexts to sound the Christian call of unity in the face of division and difference. In fact, most of Galatians is an instruction to early Christians to embrace Gentile Christ-followers, even though they did not share in other early believers’ Jewish history, tradition, or laws.

Paul makes clear in these verses and elsewhere that Christ’s promise is abundant and available to all people, and that those divisions and prejudices that have historically kept groups of people apart or given some power to some over others have no place in Christ’s community. The particular phrase “there is no longer male and female” offers a challenge to traditional binary understandings of gender roles.

8) Matthew 22:37-40: “Love God … love your neighbour … On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the great number of Jewish laws and prophetic teachings — including those that many consider to condemn homosexuality — by making clear that the overarching command of a faithful life is love: love of God, and love of neighbor.

This command to love underpins any and all other commands. And so, pursuit of law-abiding faithfulness that does not first root itself in love fails to understand the true purpose of the law and the true call of faith.

9) Psalm 139: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

This beautiful, famous psalm sings of God’s intimate and intentional knowledge of each person. It suggests that every crucial part of our identity was known to God, crafted by God before we were born — and that, as beings made in such love, we are created good. This psalm also suggests that there is nowhere we can go that will remove us from God’s steadfast love and presence.

10) Matthew 15:21-28: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables.”

This story details Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman. Her nationality makes her an outsider, and on this basis even Jesus rejects her when she comes seeking his help for her daughter. But the Canaanite woman challenges Jesus on his refusal, and Jesus praises her faith and heals her daughter after all.

This story demonstrates that God’s love is so expansive, it can surprise and stretch even Jesus Christ himself. It encourages Christians to be mindful of our own prejudices and understand that God’s love isn’t as restrictive as our own.

11) Romans 15:7: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

This is not just a nice-sounding phrase that churches like to put on their walls. Paul is telling believers to fully accept and include other Christians in community with themselves, including those who disagree strongly about what is and is not permitted.

12) 1 John 4:7-8: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”

This passage from 1 John emphasizes the centrality of love. It suggests that love is always from God, and a reflection of God. Thus any genuine love, no matter what form it takes, comes from God and glorifies God. Anyone seeking to follow God must also seek to love others. We must trust that anyone who loves is also born of God.

Based on a study by Layton E. Williams (accessed 06/03/2019)
https://sojo.net/articles/10-bible-passages-teach-christian-perspective-homosexuality

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The ‘word of exhortation’ that exults Jesus as superior (Hebrews 1; Pentecost 19B)

This week, the lectionary takes us into the book of Hebrews—by tradition, considered to be a letter to Jewish believers. Yet this book does not show any clear formal signs of being a letter until right at the very end. There is no opening address; throughout the work, neither author nor recipients are ever identified. The “letter” contains no thanksgiving, no sharing of news at its start, as letters normally did at that time.

Instead, this book begins with a poetic preface, elegantly balancing a series of affirmations; first, about God (long ago God spoke … in these last days God has spoken), and then, about God’s Son (appointed heir … the reflection of God’s glory … the exact imprint of God’s very being). Each of these sections ends with a further affirmation about this Son (he is the agent of God’s creation … he sustains all things). The final section offers more about the Son (he made purification … he sat down at the right hand of the Most High … he became superior to the angels).

This poetic preface (1:1–4) provides a compact statement of the significance of Jesus. This is part of this Sunday’s lectionary passage (1:1–4, 2:5–12). It sets out the position of the author of this book quite clearly: the Son—soon to be identified with Jesus (2:9)—is superior to the angels, with a name more excellent than theirs (1:4). The motif of superiority and greater excellence permeates this work.

After this poetic opening, the work plunges into a didactic string of scripture citations (1:5–14), supporting the claim of the superiority of the Son. This is followed by the first of many direct exhortations (2:1–4), encouraging the readers to “pay greater attention to what we have heard” (2:1). The pattern of alternating teaching and exhortation continues for thirteen chapters, until the final appeal brings the work to an end with a benediction (13:20–21) and a rapid sequence of news, greetings and a final blessing (13:22–25). Finally, right at the very end, the work looks like a letter!

Like the “letter” of Jude, the “letter” to the Hebrews is actually much closer in form and function to a sermon; but it does not share the sectarian aggression of Jude. Like the “letter” of James, the “letter” to the Hebrews provides numerous exhortations and encouragements; indeed, at its end, its author identifies it simply as “a word of exhortation” (13:22).

The author is most certainly not Paul, as some ancient church writers maintained. Despite claims that the work was written by various individuals mentioned in other New Testament books (Apollos? Priscilla? Silvanus?), it is not possible to be absolutely certain about the identity of the author. The single reference to a known individual, Timothy, in the closing greetings (13:23), does not guarantee that the work came from Paul, an associate of Paul, or even a Pauline circle.

Three suggestions for the author of the word of exhortation to the Hebrews: Apollos, Priscilla, and Silvanus. But none of them can be proven
to have been the author.

The use of a refined Greek style, the intense engagement with Hebrew scripture, and the use of typological interpretation (for instance, 8:1–7, 13; 10:1, 11–13) together suggest an educated Hellenistic Jew who had come to faith in Jesus as Messiah and was a powerful preacher of the Gospel.

Somebody like Apollos would be quite apposite to be named as author—he was “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures … he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:24–25). Indeed, we learn further that “he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus” (Acts 18:28).

I would love for Apollos to be proven as the author of this word of exhortation. However, apart from the similarity of rhetorical style and interpretive method in Hebrews, there is nothing explicit that will allow us to pin the authorship on the powerful rhetorician, Apollos of Alexandria.

The writer of Hebrews, whoever they are, notes that the message of salvation was “declared at first through the Lord, [then] attested by those who heard him” (2:3), thus acknowledging a chain of tradition lying behind the work. This indicates that it was probably written towards the end of the first century (and thus, a few decades later than when Apollos was active). But by whom, exactly, remains speculation.

Likewise, the precise identity of the recipients cannot be known, although some things can be said about them in rather general terms. The reference to “city” (13:14) might suggest an urban context, whilst notes of the good works carried out by the recipients (10:34; 13:16) and a warning to avoid “the love of money” (13:5) might point to a group with a degree of wealth. But these are fragile links, which can’t be definitive in identifying the audience.

The author indicates that the recipients had experienced “a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution” (10:32–33)—although not to the point of sacrificing their lives (12:4). As a result of this, some may have “drifted away” (2:1) or “fallen away” (6:4–6) from their faith.

There are occasional flashes of scathing rhetoric in referring to these people: they are in danger of having an “evil, unbelieving heart” and “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (3:12–13), or they are “crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt” (6:6), or they have “spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace” (10:29). This is powerful rhetoric.

Elsewhere, however, the author describes such people in more subdued tones, as being “dull in understanding” (5:11) and needing someone to teach them (5:12). This is the task that is undertaken in this word of exhortation.

So this anonymous work to the Hebrews, as we have noted, opens with a soaring poetic description which sets out the hermeneutical stance of the author, as well as the centrality of Jesus in the schema which is to be expounded (1:1–4). Images in these verses are drawn consistently from Hebrew Scripture.

The verses portray a continuing relationship between God and humanity, which has come to a point of fulfilment in “a Son”. What is claimed of this Son has an all-encompassing scope. A number of images are used, pointing to other sections of New Testament texts where traditional Jewish ideas are pressed into the service of proclaiming Jesus.

The imagery of word is central in 1:1–4; this image derives from the prophetic figure of Israel and from the seminal text of Gen 1, and is also prominent at John 1:1–18. Jesus is claimed to be God’s word “in these last days” who “sustains all things” (1:3). As God’s word, Jesus is the one who “created the worlds”, in the same way that Wisdom is the co-worker with God in the process of creation in Proverbs 8, the Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach 24.

A second image depicts the Son as reflecting the divine glory, the physical manifestation of God’s presence. This image hearkens back to wilderness stories in Exodus and Numbers and receives its clearest New Testament expression at Col 1:15–20. More than this, it is claimed that the Son is “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (1:3), terminology similar to that used in Jewish wisdom literature such as the Wisdom of Solomon 7.

A third term uses cultic imagery to assert that the Son has “made purification for sins” (1:3); the need for purity is familiar from Leviticus and Deuteronomy and runs through the ethical exhortations of Paul. The cultic dimension of understanding the role of Jesus will assume huge proportions as the word of exhortation develops. The image of Jesus as the great high priest will provide the dominant framework for understanding the person and work of Jesus.

A fourth image refers to the Son as having been “appointed heir of all things” (1:2). The language of inheritance reflects a concern of the patriarchal narratives of Genesis—where expected and surprising lines of inheritance are narrated—as well as language picked up by Paul at Rom 8:12–17.

Finally, the superiority of this Son is explicitly asserted, insofar as he has inherited a name “more excellent” than the names of the angels (1:4). He now rests at the right hand of God, a location recognised as a position of power in Exodus 15 and the Psalms, as well as in sayings of Jesus. This motif of superiority—indeed, even supercession—runs throughout the book, and provides both a central element of its theology, and a disturbing dimension of its rhetoric.

This collection of imagery strongly suggests that the author of this book was located within a strongly Jewish sector of the ongoing movement of the followers of Jesus. The arguments advanced in this book reflect the growing tensions and disagreements within the Jewish arena, as the followers of Jesus clash with the teachers of Judaism. We’ll explore those arguments in posts in subsequent weeks.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/05/a-great-high-priest-who-has-passed-through-the-heavens-hebrews-4-pentecost-20b/

A priest forever, “after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5; Pentecost 21B)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Convicted (2): Bridget Ormsby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On vaccinations, restrictions, and fundamentalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

*****

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

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The woman of valour (Proverbs 31; Pentecost 17B)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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Convicted (1): Joseph Pritchard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary died in 1904.

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

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

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

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Remembering John Shelby Spong (1931–2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lady Wisdom, by Sara Beth Baca,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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Rosh Hashanah: Jewish New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fulfilling the Law (James 2; Pentecost 15B)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wash your hands (Mark 7; Pentecost 14B)

Wash your hands. It’s a simple instruction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Jewish prayer of blessing for the washing of hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

The Tampa draws alongside the Palapa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A White Australia badge from the early 20th century

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skim read through Mark 6:45–9:1.

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

Locate each place on a map of ancient Israel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How significant is the location of these healings?

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

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

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

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

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

(Note Mark 6:56 and 8:22–26.)

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

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

How does Jesus interact with such people?

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Pastoral Letter for the people of the Canberra Region Presbytery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

Lynn Ungar, March 11, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does the IPCC’s latest report mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Jewish opposition to Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 The role of Jewish leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 “The Jews” in John 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rustic bread

4 Questioning Jesus about “bread from heaven”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 The response of the disciples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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International Day of Indigenous Peoples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respect the right of self-determination of Aboriginal Peoples

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

Join rallies and marches to show solidarity with First Peoples

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

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

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

Help with fundraising to support Aboriginal community initiatives

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

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

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

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A Safe Place for Rainbow Christians

A post from guest blogger Delia Quigley

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

See the source image

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

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

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

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

See the source image

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

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

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

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

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

6th Birthday gluten-free chocolate mud cake 

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

Working with First Peoples and advocating for them

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

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

What do we know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can be done?

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

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

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

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

Respect the right of self-determination of Aboriginal Peoples

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

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

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

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

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

Help with fundraising to support Aboriginal community initiatives

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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