Featured

Compassionate carer, non-anxious presence, listening ear, relationship-building companion: the ministry of the Chaplain

The November 2021 meeting of the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia met on 20 November. We had identified that the focus for the meeting would be Chaplaincy. Across the Presbytery, there are nineteen people (stipended, salaried, or volunteers) in ministry in hospitals, prisons, universities, and aged care centres, as well as community chaplaincy, disaster chaplains (on standby), and defence force chaplains.

Jean Shannon, the minister in placement with the Sapphire Coast congregation, began the meeting with a very pertinent devotion. Jean has previously served as a chaplain to the Canberra Hospitals, and as an ordained Deacon, has a strong commitment to ministry beyond the gathered community of faith, in the wide community.

In opening the meeting with a devotional reflection, Jean offered some thoughts about her understanding and practice of chaplaincy. She noted that chaplains “hear the small voices and see the invisible ones”. She went on to claim that the fundamental element in the act of listening, for a chaplain, is not so much to hear the voice of the person speaking, but “to listen for God—to listen for your God”.

Andrew Mead is the chaplain to the Canberra Hospitals; he was invited to offer a keynote address on Chaplaincy to the meeting. Andrew made reference to the contributions on their particular form of chaplaincy that many of the chaplains in the Presbytery have made, in their articles that have been collected in the most recent issue of Viewpoint, the Presbytery magazine.

See https://canberra.uca.org.au/dates-events-and-publications/viewpoint-summer-2021/

In speaking about chaplaincy, Andrew identified that it has both a pioneering role, moving beyond the space occupied by the congregation; and a representative role, firmly connected to the life of the church, not independent of it.

Andrew noted that chaplaincy exists simply to offer an experience of the good news of Jesus Christ through relationships with people. It is a calling to be a sign and instrument of the reign of God instigated by Jesus, demonstrating a realm of love, reconciliation, and justice (drawing, here, on words from the UCA’s Basis of Union).

Chaplains, said Andrew, do not change the world; rather, they make an impact on people, one by one, through their caring, listening, and relationship building. The hope is that such relationships make a difference in ways that matter, as individual transformations build into communal change.

Andrew noted that organisations which have chaplains expect well trained, credentialed ministers, consistent with the expectations of other positions, who are also well-attuned to the spiritual dimensions of life. Thus, chaplains need to be both formed for ministry by the church and equipped for work within the formal structures of their employing organisation.

Andrew offered the picture of a chaplain as an icon: a visible representation of the spiritual dimension of human life, literally embodied in the being of the chaplain. When a chaplain is present with a person, there is the possibility that such a deeper insight might emerge for the people that are being engaged by the chaplain.

Within the Presbytery, work has been underway to provide a longer-term, substantial response to the impact of the bushfires of 2019–2020 in the south coast region that is served by the Presbytery. A position description has been approved for a South Coast Community Chaplaincy role, hopefully to commence in early 2022. Funding for this position has come from the Moderator’s Appeal fund, as well as the Mount Dromedary Parish, two other Congregations within the Presbytery, the Presbytery itself, and some individuals wishing to support this ministry.

Andrew noted that governments now recognise the value that is provided by “non-clinical mental health support”, and so this opens the way for such a form of community chaplaincy as is being proposed. It is a good recognition of the value of “religious services” or “spiritual resources” in a society that some say is becoming more secular and opposed to religion. In this instance, the opening for ministry is significant.

What does a chaplain offer? The art of being present, in peace and steadiness, is a gift to people in need; the chaplain offers an anchor in the midst of all that is going on. Calming the mind and spirit, fostering a quiet which can end the inner clamour, and offering a non-anxious presence in the midst of anxiety, are all deeper dimensions that chaplaincy can offer.

Chaplains seek to listen deeply, to hear the sources of resilience and wellbeing within the other person, accepting them just as they are, allowing these elements of the person’s inner strength to emerge in their own time. Chaplains seek to enliven the biblical stories as myth and symbol, to resonate with our spirituality. As relationships are built, a ripple effect can be seen from the work of the chaplain outwards to others.

During COVID, Andrew noted that some chaplains were refused entry to their institutions, and told to go home. For others, they were part of a small group of people permitted entry to offer care. In hospitals, the sense of suffering has been amplified and magnified for patients and their families. The impact on staff has been huge; there has been a slow erosion of the resilience of staff, eating away over 20 months of intense crisis. Andrew recounted a recent time which was, for him, the most critical experience of crisis that he has had in years of chaplaincy.

In such contexts, chaplains connect with human need in unexpected ways, maintaining the affirmation of the Gospel, as expressed in John 1: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”.

Presbytery Co-chairperson, Ross Kingham, then invited people in the session to a time of prayer, noting the intense cost of pain bearing, as carers carry much in them selves as they relate to those they encounter.

Members of the Presbytery were given time in small groups; each one was focussed on a different form of chaplaincy: hospital, prisons and indigenous, university, aged care, community and disaster response, and defence force chaplaincies. Reports back from these groups showed a strong commitment to ensuring the presence of the church, and of spirituality, in each of these contexts.

Chaplains engage with the emotional needs of hospital patients and visitors—and staff. They bear the pain of people and offer the hope of the Gospel. They relate to people undergoing major and significant life changes in aged care, and walk with them on that journey. They provide friendship to students in a new and unfamiliar university environment, as well as engaging with the intellectual curiosity of students as they explore religious issues.

Chaplains in defence settings encounter trauma and moral injury. Chaplains in prisons sit with people in major crisis moments, in what may be an alien environment, facing huge personal challenges. And as chaplains in community and disaster response settings enter into relationships, they both respond to immediate presenting needs, often in time-critical ways, as well as ensuring that they are attuned to deeper issues which may manifest as the relationship develops.

The connection (or sense of disconnection) that chaplains may feel in relation to the church as a whole, was one issue that was identified for careful attention.

For myself, as I listened to the devotions, the keynote address, and the reporting-back from the discussion groups, a question formed in my mind. What if all disciples,,whether ordained or lay, saw the importance of exercising a chaplaincy-like “ministry of presence” in their daily lives?

The Uniting Church has established two forms of ordained ministry: Ministers of the Word, called to minister with the gathered community (preaching the Word, presiding at sacraments, and offering pastoral care), and Deacons, called to minister with the scattered community (being the presence of Christ in the places of everyday life).

By analogy, we might press the challenge to those faithful people who “belong to church” and faithfully participate in worship on a regular basis. When they come into the gathered community (Sunday worship, Bible Study or fellowship groups), they participate in the ministry of the Word. But that is a relatively small percentage of time for their whole week. Perhaps one hour, perhaps four or five, maybe even ten or so hours—out of 168 hours in every week.

What of the other time during the week? All those people are “in the community”, amongst the scattered community, day by day, in their regular lives. What if each and every disciple of Jesus sought to be that compassionate carer, that non-anxious presence, that listening ear, that relationship-building companion, in ways that invited those people with whom they encounter to see them as “a sign and instrument of the reign of God instigated by Jesus, demonstrating a realm of love, reconciliation, and justice” in the ways that they speak, act, and relate to those people.

And—lo and behold—one comment towards the end of the report-back session made exactly that same point! As disciples, we are called to be chaplains—to live the love of God, to enact the justice of God, each and every day.

Featured

If the kingdom of God is ever going to happen on earth … (John 18; Christ the King Year B)

A dialogue sermon written by Elizabeth Raine and delivered online by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires at Tuggeranong Uniting Church and at Canberra Aboriginal Church on Sunday 21 November, the Festival of Christ the King.

*****

Today is known in the lectionary as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. It is a relative newcomer to the liturgical calendar, arriving only in the early twentieth century. Apparently this was because at that time, many Christians in Mexico were suffering religious persecution from their anti-religious government, and secularism was rapidly gaining the upper hand both there and in Europe.

In 1925, to counteract this, the Roman Catholic Church declared this day as a worldwide celebration of the kingship of Christ over every earthly power. Its timing at the conclusion of the Season after Pentecost was fixed both by Vatican II and the subsequent Protestant developments of the lectionary, including our own UC in Uniting in Worship.

With the rise of secular atheism, people are more likely nowadays to pledge allegiance to political and consumerist organisations than they do to kings or the politics of God as revealed in Scripture. These Scriptures make clear, as does the ministry of Jesus, that God’s politics are not identifiable with those of democracies or typical kings.

In this scene from John, we hear Pilate asking Jesus the question “So you are a king?” I wonder: what does this mean about Jesus? What sort of a king could he be?

A: I know what sort of king he is! Remember when we were children, we imagined whatkings would look like, from all the stories we heard as children. A king or queen sits on a throne, has very fine robes and a crown made of gold and precious jewels. People bow down before the feet of the king in these stories. And look at how people act around the Queen! In her presence, they bow and curtsey.

B: Well, I don’t think Jesus is that sort of king at all. Where in the bible does it talk about Jesus having a throne, or jewels, or fine robes, or a golden crown? Falling at the feet of Jesus is a very different encounter. His feet are dirty and bloody, his body broken and beaten, his head bowed beneath the a crown of thorns. Jesus was executed by crucifixion, which was saved for the worst criminals and political rebels. Jesus at the end looked broken and defeated, and is definitely not what we might imagine as a king.

I think this scene is deeper than that. Pilate wants to know if Jesus sees himself as king of the Jews. PiIate might be thinking of thrones and crowns, but Jesus isn’t. He is thinking of something quite different, I am sure. I can see it now: Pilate, the messenger of the earthly kingdom of Rome facing off with Jesus, the messenger of God’s unearthly kingdom.

A: I hear what you are saying, but are you sure about the unearthly bit? After all, Jesus was pretty intentional about challenging the earthly empire and the corruption in authority. Look at him when the widow gave everything, he was exposing systems that were oppressive; and what about when he turned over the tables at the temple? That would have infuriated the temple priests, men who were in the pay of, and appointed by Rome itself, at the time.

B: He did say his kingdom wasn’t an earthly one.

A: On thinking about it, maybe being king of an unearthly kingdom means you act differently when you ARE on earth. Look at Jesus when he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, allowing the crowd to shout out Hosanna (which means save us), and acclaim him as a king. His allowing the crowd to shout seditious things at him, would have made him a target not only of the temple priests, but of their Roman masters. Jesus must have known such actions would lead to him being arrested.

B: Hmmm, I see what you are saying. That is a very interesting idea. It is unfortunate that over the centuries, the subversive message of this unlikely king has been somewhat lost. So on the one hand, we have Jesus, the king who: * refused to allow fighting * would not grant prime posts to cronies * would not live in a fine house * refused to hate enemies or plot their downfall * mixed with the common crowds without any sense of royal dignity * refused to play political games to increase his power * did not dress in fine robes, or wear a jewelled crown.

A: But in reality, one the other hand, Jesus is pictured as a heavenly King with a worldly majesty: * who was painted in crowns and fine robes * who was given features similar to earthly monarchs * in whose church was created courtiers and princely representatives * in whose name people blessed their armies as they attacked the cities of their enemies * and of whom the church taught that the next time he came things would be very different as he would subdue the earth and put all opposition under his boot.

B: Well, that does raise some tricky issues. Today on the festival of Christ the King, I think it is important that we think about this. Which kind of King do we want to be worshipping? Will the real Jesus please stand up?

 A: I have been reading about this actually.

B: You? Reading?

A: Yes, me. Now stop with the smart answers. I have been reading Bruce Prewer, who suggests that we grow like the thing we worship. So who do we want to resemble? The king of power, commanding armies, destroying enemies, with fine robes as depicted by artists at the church’s instigation throughout the centuries? Or the king who mixes with common folk, who says put away your sword, who works to free the oppressed, who welcomes the stranger, who eats with sinners, who overturns the tables of the money changers, and who forgives the people responsible for his death?

B: Wow, that is a great way of looking at it. Do we want to be at the edge of our communities our in the middle of power? We don’t know what the future of our world will look like, but surely the kingdom of God shouldn’t have fear or hate or oppression in it.

A: That’s right. If the kingdom of God as Jesus saw it is ever going to happen on earth, then every interaction, every decision, every moment and every place we find ourselves in must be seen as an opportunity to experience God’s reign in our lives, and to share the blessing of God’s reign with others. We need to turn our faith into a life-transforming practice, rather than just an intellectual assent to some ideas about God.

B: For Christ to truly be King in our world, Christ must be King in every individual lives in such a way that God’s peace and justice, God’s love and grace, will constantly flow through us, God’s people, into the world – one moment, one interaction and one transformative step at a time.

A: Surely Christ is the King who turns all of our human notions and illusions of power squarely on their heads. What the world defines as weakness and failure, Jesus shows is the real power rooted in love, bathed in grace, and covered with mercy. He is the one who redeems that which seems unredeemable and the one who loves those who appear unlovable.

By his death, we are offered a way to wholeness and the kingdom of God, a kingdom where love is so powerful that forgiveness is offered to all; where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the poor and the sick are cared for. In standing with this kingly Jesus today, we can fight racism, classism, homophobia, poverty, discrimination, and homelessness.

B: Yes! We can start to work to make the systems of injustice just, and work to overturn the powers of corruption and darkness. We don’t know what the future of our world will look like, but the kingdom of God doesn’t include fear, hate, or shutting down.

We must answer the call of Jesus which hasn’t changed in 2000 years—“Follow me to a kingdom where domination and oppression have been overcome, where the basic human needs are met, where all dwell in harmony with God and each other.”

A: Now that sounds like a king and a kingdom worth working for.

B: Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”

A: Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)

*****

B: Loving God of power and justice and peace, in our broken world we seek a new order where there is courage to speak truth to power;

A: we seek a new order where there is mutual support in church and community;

B: we seek a new order where there is abundant time for healing;

A: we seek a new order where there is peace and freedom for all. Amen.

Featured

Renaming Ben Boyd National Park

The Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia covers country, capital, and coastal regions, as our logo tells. In the coastal area, it stretches southwards, right to the border of NSW and Victoria, where the congregations of Sapphire Coast (Merimbula) and St George’s (Eden) are serving the community of the far south coast. Stretching from Lake Pambula to Twofold Bay, and then onwards south from Boydtown to the state border, along about 50km of rocky coastline and sheltered inlets, is a wonderful natural area, designated as a national park. The area has been under the stewardship of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service since 1971.

The park is known as Ben Boyd National Park, remembering a Scottish entrepreneur of the middle decades of the 19th century, who squatted on quite a number of sites in the south east of the continent, obtaining four landholdings in the Port Phillip district and another fourteen in the Monaro plateau, south of Cooma.

Boyd was an extravagant entrepreneur. He floated a bank in 1839, raising an amount of £200,000; but then, quite unscrupulously, he used those funds to finance his pastoral, shipping and whaling activities. The bank was liquidated in 1846 with heavy losses. Georgina McCrae, who once entertained Boyd at dinner, wrote of him in her diary, “he had the sanguine temperament, exuberant vitality and daring enterprise of the typical adventurer; according to his friend Brierly, he was ‘always devising some plan of pleasure or business’.” (Quoted in the article on Boyd by G.P. Walsh in the Australian Dictionary of Biography; see https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/boyd-benjamin-ben-1815)

This portrait of Ben Boyd is held by the Mitchell Library,
State Library of New South Wales. The artist is unknown.

Boyd had squatted on land surrounding Nalluccer, the original Aboriginal name for Twofold Bay, at the southern end of the land cared for by the Yuin people. He invested heavily in the establishment of a port at the location we know as Boydtown, just south of Eden, to provide a base for the whaling industry that he established.

Over the course of seven months during 1847, Boyd brought three shiploads of Melanesian men (with 65, 70, and 57 men respectively on each ship) to provide him with labour for his extensive landholdings. Boyd’s care for those men was poor; alongside the fact that they were brought to the colony as slaves, a number of them escaped their properties and were found destitute, living in poverty on the streets of Sydney.

This was the first time that men from the Pacific Islands had been imported into Australia as labourers, although some individuals had earlier arrived in Sydney as crews for ships. So concerned was the New South Wales Legislative Council about what was taking place, that it amended the Masters and Servants Act to ban importation of “the Natives of any Savage or uncivilized tribe inhabiting any Island or Country in the Pacific”.

This drawing of Ben Boyd is held in the State Library of Victoria.
No artist is attributed.

Boyd himself left the colony in 1849, to search for gold in California, and then returned to the Solomon Islands, where he lobbied local leaders to form a “Papuan Confederation”. It is thought that Boyd was actually looking to get his hands on local resources to boost his finances. Relationships with indigenous locals were fraught.

In October 1851, whilst on a game shooting expedition on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islanders, Boyd went missing. A search party later found Boyd’s boat and belt, and an expended firearm cartridge. Some years later, a later British expedition found that Boyd’s head had been cut off and his skull kept in a ceremonial house. The skull was purchased and taken to Sydney. (The Sydney Morning Herald reported this on page 5 of its issue dated 4 December 1854; see https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/12963055)

Recent perspectives on Boyd have identified that his unethical practices involved “blackbirding”–that is, using coercion and deception to kidnap people known as “South Sea Islanders”, so that they could provide “cheap labour” for landowners in the colony. See https://www.sydneycriminallawyers.com.au/blog/sugar-slaves-australias-history-of-blackbirding/

A drawing of the practice of “blackbirding”

Recently, a decision has been made to rename Ben Boyd National Park, following requests from Aboriginal communities in the region. National Parks and Wildlife Service has advised that “the new name for the park will reflect traditional language and be decided through discussions with local Elders, Aboriginal community representatives, Australian South Sea Islander representatives and Bega Valley Shire Council”. See

This re-assessment of Boyd, and the decision to remove his name from the national park because of the unacceptable ethics of his business practices, resonates well with the Uniting Church’s commitment to justice. Continuing to commemorate a figure who appears to have been unscrupulous, self-serving, and thoroughly racist, is not a good thing to do. Out of respect to those men who were unjustly enslaved in the “blackbirding” process, the name needs to be changed.

Added to that, we have widespread recognition in Australian society that imposing the names of British colonisers on the natural features of this continent, is also disrespectful—in this instance, to the First Peoples of this land, who have cared for country since time immemorial. Adopting indigenous names from the traditions of the local people is an important element in how we give recognition to these First Peoples.

Referring to Gulaga rather than Mount Dromedary, for instance, or Jungagita in place of Little Dromedary, are examples from the south coast, in the land of the Yuin.

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

Or in Canberra, recognising that the name of the city derives from the Ngunnawal name for “meeting place”—for long before politicians flew in to gather at Parliament House, the peoples of Ngunnawal, Ngambri, Ngarigo, and Wiradjuri nations would gather each year, meeting to yarn, to eat, to celebrate, and to trade. Certainly, removing the names of foreign colonisers with unjust practices is another way we can acknowledge the longstanding custodianship of the First Peoples of our land.

A map showing core Ngambri (Kamberri) country with surrounding frontiers of the 1820s-1880s. Symbols show shared country. It was compiled by Ann Jackson-Nakano from contemporary historical resources and reproduced here from The Kamberri, by Ann Jackson-Nakano, 2001.
http://www.ngambri.org/about.html

*****

Clive Moore, of the University of Queensland, writes about the initial group of Islanders whom Boyd brought to the colony:

“Clearly they had no idea of what they were doing in Australia, and the local magistrate refused to counter-sign the documents. Regardless, some of Boyd’s employees began to take the party inland on foot. Some of them bolted and made their way back to Eden. The first one died on 2 May and as winter approached more became ill.

“Sixteen Lifu Islanders refused to work and began to try to walk back to Lifu along the coast. Some managed to reach Sydney and seven or eight entered a shop from the rear and began to help themselves to food. Those that remained at work were shepherds on far off Boyd stations on the Edward and Murray Rivers.”

Moore continues, “Boyd refused to admit that the trail shipment was a failure, sending for more Islanders. By this time colonial society was beginning to realise what he had done and was feeling uneasy. The Legislative Council amended the Masters and Servants Act to ban importation of “the Natives of any Savage or uncivilized tribe inhabiting any Island or Country in the Pacific”. When Boyd’s next group of 54 men and 3 women arrived in Sydney on 17 October, they could not be indentured and once Boyd found this out he refused to take any further responsibility.

“The same conditions also applied to Boyd’s Islander labourers from the first trip and they left the stations and set off to walk to Sydney to find alternative work and to find a way home to the islands. The foreman tried to stop them but the local magistrate ruled that no one had the right to detain them. Their progress from the Riverina was followed by the press as they began their long march to Sydney. The press described them as cannibals on their way to eat Boyd, and the issue as depicted in the media was extremely racist.

“The whole matter was raised again in the Legislative Council and Boyd showed no remorse or sense of responsibility. Boyd justified himself with reference to the African slave trade and there was much discussion in the colony about the issue to introducing slaves from the Pacific Islands. The recruiters were accused of kidnapping, a charge with they denied.”

See http://www.assipj.com.au/southsea/wp-content/uploads/docs/10_benjamin_boyd_importation_of_ssi_into_nsw.pdf

*****

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

Drawing on the voices of Indigenous Peoples, we have named the settlement of this continent as a colonising movement, generated by foreign imperialism, manifesting in violent invasion and genocidal massacres, spread from north to south, from east to west, of this continent. We must continue to prioritise this commitment to tell the truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

Faithfulness in the turmoil of the time: the historical context of Mark 13 (Pentecost 25B)

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:1–8) comprises the beginning of longer speech, a block of teaching which Jesus delivered to his disciples (13:3–37), some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem (11:1–11). It’s a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery, drawn from the increasingly apocalyptic fervour of prophetic oracles delivered through the history of Israel. The apocalyptic character of the speech means that it certainly makes a mark!

This final speech of Jesus confirms the thoroughly apocalyptic character of his teaching. The parables he tells about that kingdom are apocalyptic, presenting a vision of the promised future that is in view. The call to repent is apocalyptic, in the tradition of the prophets. The demand to live in a way that exemplifies righteous-justice stands firmly in the line of the prophetic call. Such repentance and righteous-just living is as demanding and difficult as giving birth can be.

For the way that this language developed over centuries in ancient Israel, and became a mainstay of prophetic language, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/09/the-beginnings-of-the-birth-pangs-mark-13-pentecost-25b/

Mark’s Gospel has drawn to a climax with the same focussed attention to the vision of God’s kingdom, as was expressed at the start. The beginnings of the birth pangs are pointers to the kingdom that Jesus has always had in view. Jesus was, indeed, a prophet of apocalyptic intensity. But how do we make sense of this dramatic language in the context of the post-Enlightenment scientifically-aware world of the 21st century? How do visions of turmoil and warfare, oracles about fiery destruction and fierce retribution, relate to our contemporary world?

One way of understanding this kind of language and these kinds of speeches, whether by Jesus or any number of the prophets, is to claim that these words were spirit-inspired predictions, from long ago, of the turmoil and conflict that was to take place in the future. Sometimes this is seen to relate to the times immediately in the future of the writer, in the late 1st century in the case of this Gospel passage. Other interpreters claim that such speeches are pointing forward in time, to events that will take place well beyond the time of the reader, even into our own times (that is, the 21st century).

Like the final book in the New Testament, Revelation, this speech of Jesus in Mark 13 has been interpreted of fervent believers throughout the centuries as evidence that the end of the world was at hand. Repentance, now, is the bottom line; repentance, before the end comes, and it is too late.

Another line of interpretation holds that this kind of language needs to be understood as inspired scripture, which provides us with clear doctrinal statements about what is called eschatology (the study of the end times, the last days). In which case, this book could be mined as a source for teachings about “the last days”, instructing us so that we are aware and informed, and thus able to undertake interpretation of events that are currently taking place.

It may not be that we are right in the midst of those “last days”, but we are equipped with the capacity to interpret and understand what is happening—to know exactly where we are, now, in the alleged timetable of events leading up to “the last days”.

However, there are difficulties with both lines of interpretation. Neither understanding actually reflects the nature of the literature, the purpose for which each of the apocalyptic oracles and speeches were given in their own time. It is important to understand the literary nature of apocalyptic writings, as well as the social-historical context in which such works came into being. The same applies for Mark 13.

(For some further consideration of ways of interpreting apocalyptic literature, in relation specifically to the book of Revelation, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/04/revelation-a-complex-and-intricate-world-of-heavenly-beings-and-exotic-creatures/)

But first, we need to be clear about the Historical Context within high this Gospel was written.

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

For Jews living in the Dispersion, the degree of compromise might vary—but compromise was inevitable. For those living within Israel, the need for compromise was a constant irritant. Some groups, like the Sadducees and the priests, accepted the compromises and did well out of them. Many common folk simply made the best of the situation. Others resented what was imposed on them. They looked back to an earlier time in the history of Israel, when the troops of another foreign force, the Seleucids, held power in Israel. An honoured group of Jews, the Maccabees, had led an armed insurgency which brought victory over the Seleucids in the years 167 to 164 BCE. For a time, Jews had ruled Israel once again.

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

In this setting, amidst the battles fought in Galilee, Samaria and Judaea, apocalyptic hopes were inflamed. Many of the Jews actively fighting the Romans believed that their actions would help to usher in the long-promised kingdom, in which God would reign over Israel and foreign troops would be banished. Perhaps a significant number of the followers of Jesus also believed that the kingdom of God was drawing near, as Jesus had proclaimed some decades earlier, in the events of their own day.

Should the followers of Jesus, then, join with the rebel groups in rising up against Rome? Was the way to the kingdom to be won through conflict, martyrdom, and military victory? Or was there another way? Remarkably, one writer chose to answer these questions by writing about the way which would have been chosen by Jesus.

The earliest written account that we have for the life of Jesus—the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one (which we know as the Gospel according to Mark)—appears to deal with precisely these issues as it assembles and reshapes many of the stories told about Jesus. It is strongly marked by apocalyptic overtones, from the urgent message which Jesus utters (1:14–15) to his parting description of apocalyptic terrors (13:3–37).

This work does not provide a clear declaration against military involvement; but this implication can be drawn from its pages. This Gospel was written for first century Jews who were who were caught up in a fervent hope that the kingdom of God was soon to be ushered in, but who were also struggling with what it meant to follow the way of Jesus.

Mark tells the story of Jesus—a person who submitted to his death, at the hands of the Romans, without raising any weapons in defence. The way of Jesus, according to Mark, was the way of suffering obedience and faithful discipleship. The answer to the questions posed lay in following the way of Jesus. That is the focus of the story that he tells—what does it mean for us to follow Jesus in our own context? The work does not set out to answer the question, “is the end at hand?”, and not even to set out a timetable of events leading to that end. It simply asks, how best do I follow Jesus?

The last set of instructions which Jesus leaves for his disciples, delivered as he sits opposite the magnificent Jerusalem Temple (13:1), sets out the task which lies ahead for the disciples. During this apocalyptic discourse, Jesus speaks explicitly about their future commission (13:9–13). The situation will be one of persecution: “you will be beaten” (13:9), and “they [will] bring you to trial” (13:11); there will be betrayal and death (13:12), and “you will be hated by all” (13:13). False preachers will arise (13:5–6) and fraudulent claims will be made (13:21– 22).

In this context, the fundamental act of discipleship will be to bear witness to the way of Jesus: “you will stand … as a testimony” (13:9), “the good news must first be proclaimed” (13:10), what you are to say will be given by the Holy Spirit (13:11). The role of the disciple will be to remain faithful throughout these trials: “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (13:13). The need for such faithfulness is underscored by the closing words of Jesus’ teachings: “beware, keep alert … keep awake … keep awake” (13:33, 35, 37).

Featured

The political function of the apocalyptic speech of Jesus in Mark 13 (Pentecost 25B)

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:1–8) comprises the beginning of longer speech, a block of teaching which Jesus delivered to his disciples (13:3–37), some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem (11:1–11). It’s a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery, drawn from the increasingly apocalyptic fervour of prophetic oracles delivered through the history of Israel. The apocalyptic character of the speech means that it certainly makes a mark!

There are some important questions to be asked about apocalyptic texts such as Mark 13. We need to locate such texts in their historical context—something I have done in https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/10/faithfulness-in-the-turmoil-of-the-time-the-historical-context-of-mark-13-pentecost-25b/

We also need to consider the nature of such literature, the purpose for which each of the apocalyptic oracles and speeches were given in their own time. It is important to understand the literary nature of apocalyptic writings, as well as the social-historical context in which such works came into being. The same applies for the apocalyptic speech of Jesus reported in Mark 13.

“Death on the Pale Horse” (1796)
by the American artist Benjamin West

The typical literary characteristics of apocalyptic texts are well-documented. There are a number of features which are found consistently throughout such texts, features which are striking in their impact and powerful in their capacity to invite attention. What is central to all apocalyptic writings is a clear portrayal of a stark conflict between good and evil, which often comes to a head in a grand cosmic battle. To put it in populist terms, apocalyptic texts “spin a good yarn”. They use the techniques of dramatic storytelling, or of good action films.

An apocalyptic text is typically composed in a narrative style, relaying a divine revelation which has been given to a human figure in a visionThat human figure is often someone from the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. The claim that this figure dictated the revelation is a literary device, designed to claim authority for the work; linguistic and historical analysis inevitably demonstrates that the figure claimed as author could not actually have written the work.

Often an angel will interpret the vision (or visionary journey) that has been revealed to this figure. We can see this, for instance, in Rev 1:1–2. In the case of Mark 13, however, such a revelation comes directly from Jesus, without any angelic mediation.

When relating the events of the end times, apocalyptic literature may include a chronology of events that are to occur; frequently these events are placed in the near future, giving sense of urgency to the message being proclaimed. So Jesus outlines a sequence of events that are yet to take place (13:8, 10, 14, 21).

The present time is painted in bleak tones in apocalyptic texts (13:11–13, 17–19, 24–25); by contrast, the visions of the future are bright, positive, and hopeful (13:26–31). God will ensure that the final conflict results in victory; the world as is currently known will be replaced by a glorious period. Often the visions of these end times mirror the language and ideas of creation stories, telling of how God triumphs over the primordial forces of chaos. The darkness that enshrouds the earth (13:24–25) will be replaced by glorious divine light (13:26).

In such revelations, some human beings belong to a group that will assuredly be saved—thus, Jesus refers to “the elect” (13:27); by contrast, the rest of humanity will face utter destruction. In the speech by Jesus, this fate can be inferred from the insistent repetition of “keep alert … keep awake … keep awake” in 13:33–37.

Many apocalyptic works will describe this fate in gruesome detail, often in surreal or fantastic terminology, through grand visionary accounts.

Whilst inferred in Mark’s account of the speech by Jesus, the gruesome details are added in Matthew’s version; the master will “cut the slave in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 24:51; this is repeated at 25:30, and reinforced at 25:46).

Alongside this, the fate of “ the elect” is celebrated: in the story of the bridesmaids, “those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut”, leaving the unprepared locked outside (25:10). In the parable of the talents, those affirmed are told, “I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master’” (25:21, 23). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the righteous are invited to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34) and “enter into eternal life” (25:46). The dichotomy is clear.

So Jesus is, by and large, adhering to the conventions of the genre, as he presents his graphic portrayal of what lies on store for his followers in this speech, delivered on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple (Mark 13:3). An in making use of this genre, Jesus demonstrates that speaking in apocalyptic terms is actually doing political theology within a specific socio-historical context.

Apocalyptic is doing theology, in a particular way. It can best be regarded as political theology—that is, it explores faith in the context of the realities of life in the polis, the city. It often provides a counter-narrative to the dominant story of the rulers and those in power, exposing the evil of their ways and proposing an alternative world in which righteous-justice will reign supreme.

Paul D. Hanson developed a strong case for understanding the apocalyptic literature of the second century BCE and the following centuries as being the result of “a long development reaching back to pre-exilic times and beyond, and not the new baby of second century foreign parents”, as some other scholars have maintained. See https://www.readings.com.au/products/6590310/the-dawn-of-apocalyptic-the-historical-and-sociological-roots-of-jewish-apocalyptic-eschatology

The people of Israel, even from the time before they were taken into exile, lived under the shadow of the dominant world power of the time—the Assyrians, who conquered the northern kingdom; then the Babylonians, who took the southern kingdom into exile; then, after a return under the Persians, an apparently more benign power, before the crushing power of the Macedonian empire under Alexander the Great and his successors.

Detail from a mosaic at Pompei,
showing Alexander the Great in battle

This pattern of an unbroken development from preexilic and exilic prophecy through to the inter testamental period and on into the time of Jesus and the early church, and the ensuing centuries. (We traced some dimensions of that in the earlier post exploring “ the end”, ***

John J. Collins writes that “Apocalyptic literature evokes an imaginative world that is set in deliberate counterpoint to the experiential world of the present. Apocalypticism thrives especially in times of crisis, and it functions by offering a resolution of the relevant crisis, not in practical terms but in terms of imagination and faith.” See https://readingreligion.org/books/apocalyptic-imagination

We might well say, from this, that the function of apocalyptic is like that if a fairy story, or a fable-or a longer book or play or film, in which the reader or viewer is invited to “willingly suspend disbelief” and enter into the story that is being offered.

Tellers of apocalyptic tales invite their listeners, living in times of crisis, to suspend disbelief, watch the vision unfolding, hear the angelic interpretation, even undertake the heavenly journey that the author retells; and to do this with expectation and hope.

Apocalyptic texts are written in the midst of despair fuelled by foreign invasion, murder and rape during the pillaging of that invasion, enforced slavery, religious repression, cultural imperialism, and societal oppression, with the loss of much-loved traditional practices and customs, disconnection from the homeland (the place where God resided), and a continuing sense of having been abandoned by God.

In the midst of all of this, readers and listeners of apocalyptic texts are invited to have hope: hope that God would act; hope that despair would be dispelled and life would flourish once now; hope that the familiarity of traditions would be reinstated; hope that the evils perpetrated by the invading oppressors would be rectified by acts of divine revenge; hope that life, even in their own time, would be transformed into a realm where righteous-justice was in force, where the evils of lawlessness were dispelled.

There are clear, sharp pointers to the political situation of the time in which works of apocalyptic are written–from the time of the Seleucid rulers (from the 180s BCE) through to the Roman conquest of Judaea (63 BCE) and on into the period we call the first century CE, when Jesus lived and then the Gospels were written. These works are political.

All of this, this, it should now be clear, is what Jesus was looking to in his parables of the kingdom, in his teachings about living with fidelity to the covenant with God, in his invitations to his followers to walk the way he walks, leading to the realm of God’s kingdom. His visions of cataclysmic times, in the apocalyptic speech of Mark 13, point to the reality that God is now acting to intervene in events, overturn evil, and institute the righteous-justice of God.

And all of this is intensely contextual, thoroughly political, firmly directed towards the injustices perpetrated under the religious and economic system of the Temple and the cultural and religious oppression of the Roman colonisers. The birth pangs that are just beginning (13:8) herald the coming good times when “the great power and glory” of the Lord is evident (13:26) as “the Son if Man … will gather his elect” (13:27), a time when “summer is near” (13:28). That is the kingdom of God, in which much fruit is borne (4:20, 28), much growth occurs (4:32), new life will emerge (8:31; 9:31; 10:34); 12:27), righteous-justice is enacted by God (12:9-11) and love of God and neighbour is practised by those in that kingdom (12:32-34). Indeed, Jesus says that “when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near”, in the parallel (and expanded) account in Luke (see Luke 21:31).

Out of the darkness and despair, the agony of the birthpangs point to the hope of abundance that has been persistently proclaimed by Jesus. And so, we might pray: may that time come, may that kingdom be a reality, even in our time, even in our place; or, as Jesus taught us to pray: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as in heaven”.

Featured

The beginnings of the birth pangs (Mark 13; Pentecost 25B)

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:1–8) offers an excerpt from longer speech, a block of teaching which Jesus delivered to his disciples (13:3–37), some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem (11:1–11). It’s a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery. As Jesus’ last long speech in this Gospel, it certainly makes a mark!

The speech is delivered beside the towering Temple, built under Solomon, rebuilt under Nehemiah (13:1, 3). That temple was a striking symbol for the people of Israel—it represented their heritage, their traditions, their culture. The Temple was the place where the Lord God dwelt, in the Holy of Holies; where priests received sacrifices, designed to enable God to atone for sins, and offerings, intended to express the people’s gratitude to God; where musicians led the people in singing of psalms and songs that exulted God, that petitioned God for help, that sought divine benevolence for the faithful covenant people

Or so the story goes; so the scriptures said; so the priests proclaimed. The holiest place in the land that was holy, set apart and dedicated to God. Yet what does Jesus say about this magnificent construction? “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (13:2). Jesus envisages the destruction of the Temple. Not only this; he locates that destruction within the context of widespread turmoil and disruption: “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines” (13:8). And then, to seal this all, Jesus refers directly to the fact that “the end is still to come” (13:7).

The End. Eight centuries before Jesus, the prophet Amos had declared, “the LORD said to me, ‘the end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by’” (Amos 8:2). Amos continues, declaring that God has decreed that “on that day … I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day” (Amos 8:9–10).

That image of The Day when the Lord enacts justice and brings punishment upon the earth, because of the evil being committed by people on the earth, enters into the vocabulary of prophet after prophet. Amos himself declares that it is “darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18–20).

Isaiah, just a few decades after Amos, joined his voice: “the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high … the haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day” (Isa 2:12, 17). He warns the people, “Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty!” (Isa 13:6).

Isaiah uses a potent image to describe this day: “pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labour” (Isa 13:7). He continues, “the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it” (Isa 13:8), and later he portrays that day as “a day of vengeance” (Isa 34:8).

Zephaniah, who was active at the time when Josiah was king (640–609 BCE) declares that “the day of the Lord is at hand; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice, he has consecrated his guests” (Zeph 1:7); “the great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there; that day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness ” (Zeph 1:14–15).

Habakkuk, active in the years just before the Babylonian invasion of 587 BCE, declares that “there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie” (Hab 2:3); it is a vision of “human bloodshed and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them” (Hab 2:17).

Later, during the Exile, Jeremiah foresees that “disaster is spreading from nation to nation, and a great tempest is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth!” (Jer 35:32); he can see only that “those slain by the Lord on that day shall extend from one end of the earth to the other. They shall not be lamented, or gathered, or buried; they shall become dung on the surface of the ground” (Jer 35:33). He also depicts this day as “the day of the Lord God of hosts, a day of retribution, to gain vindication from his foes” (Jer 46:10).

And still later (most likely after the Exile), the prophet Joel paints a grisly picture of that day: “the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains, a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.” (Joel 2:1-3).

Later in the same oracle, he describes the time when the Lord will “show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Joel 2:30–31). Joel also asserts that “the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision; the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (Joel 3:14–15).

*****

The language of The Day is translated, however, into references to The End, in some later prophetic works. In the sixth century BCE, the priest-prophet Ezekiel, writing in exile in Babylon, spoke about the end that was coming: “An end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end is upon you, I will let loose my anger upon you; I will judge you according to your ways, I will punish you for all your abominations.” (Ezek 7:2–3).

And again, Ezekiel declares, “Disaster after disaster! See, it comes. An end has come, the end has come. It has awakened against you; see, it comes! Your doom has come to you, O inhabitant of the land. The time has come, the day is near—of tumult, not of reveling on the mountains. Soon now I will pour out my wrath upon you; I will spend my anger against you. I will judge you according to your ways, and punish you for all your abominations.” (Ezek 7:5–8). This day, he insists, will be “a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (Ezek 30:3; the damage to be done to Egypt is described many details that follow in the remainder of this chapter).

Obadiah refers to “the day of the Lord” (Ob 1:15), while Malachi asserts that “the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (Mal 4:1).

Malachi ends his prophecy with God’s promise that “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes; he will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal 4:5–6). This particular word is the final verse in the Old Testament as it appears in the order of books in the Christian scriptures; it provides a natural hinge for turning, then, to the story of John the baptiser, reminiscent of Elijah, who prepares the way for the coming of Jesus, evocative of Moses.

Another prophet, Daniel, declares that “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days” (Dan 2:28), namely, that “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Dan 2:44).

Whilst the story of Daniel is set in the time of exile in Babylon—the same time as when Ezekiel was active—there is clear evidence that the story as we have it was shaped and written at a much later period, in the 2nd century BCE; the rhetoric of revenge is directed squarely at the actions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had invaded and taken control of Israel and begun to persecute the Jews from the year 175BCE onwards.

The angel Gabriel subsequently interprets another vision to Daniel, “what will take place later in the period of wrath; for it refers to the appointed time of the end” (Dan 8:19), when “at the end of their rule, when the transgressions have reached their full measure, a king of bold countenance shall arise, skilled in intrigue. He shall grow strong in power, shall cause fearful destruction, and shall succeed in what he does. He shall destroy the powerful and the people of the holy ones.” (Dan 8:23–24). This seems to be a clear reference to Antiochus IV.

An engraving by David Martin (1639-1721) which depicts
Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the king of the Seleucid Empire (r. 175-164 BCE),
desecrating the Temple in Jerusalem.

Still later in his book, Daniel sees a further vision, of seventy weeks (9:20–27), culminating in the time of “the end” (9:26). In turn, this vision is itself spelled out in great detail in yet another vision (11:1–39), with particular regard given to the catastrophes taking place at “the time of the end” (11:1–12:13; see especially 11:25, 40; 12:4, 6, 9, 13).

This final vision makes it clear that there will be “a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence” (12:1), when “evil shall increase” (12:3) and “the wicked shall continue to act wickedly” (12:10). The visions appear to lift beyond the immediate context of the Seleucid oppression, and paint a picture of an “end of times” still to come, after yet worse tribulations have occurred.

***

Could these visions of “the end” be what Jesus was referring to, as he sat with his followers on the Mount of Olives, opposite the towering Temple? Later in the same discussion with his disciples, he indicates that “in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24). This picks up the language we have noted consistently throughout the prophetic declarations, in Amos, Joel, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.

The judgement of God, says Jesus, with the “gathering up the elect from the four words, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (13:27), will be executed by “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (13:25)—language which draws directly from the vision of Daniel concerning “one like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven” (Dan 7:13).

So the resonances are strong, the allusions are clear. Jesus is invoking the prophetic visions of The Day, The End; the judgement of God, falling upon the wicked of the earth. And he deliberately applies these vivid and fearsome prophetic and apocalyptic traditions to what he says about the Temple. By linking his teaching directly to the question of four of his disciples, Peter, James, John, and Andrew (Mark 13:3), enquiring about the Temple, Jesus appears to be locating the end of the Temple—its sacrifices and offerings, its psalms and rituals, its wealth and glory … and perhaps also its priestly class—in the midst of the terrible, violent retributive judgements of the Lord God during the days of the end.

The language also resonates with the end section of 2 Esdras, in which God informs “my elect ones” that “the days of tribulation are at hand, but I will deliver you from them”. Those who fear God will prevail, whilst “those who are choked by their sins and overwhelmed by their iniquities” are compared with “a field choked with underbrush and its path overwhelmed with thorns” and condemned “to be consumed by fire” (2 Esdras 16:74–78). (This book claims to be words of Ezra, the scribe and priest who was prominent in the return to Jerusalem in the 5th century BCE, but scholarly opinion is that it was written after the Gospels, perhaps well into the 2nd century CE.)

All of the happenings that are described by Jesus in his teachings whilst seated with his followers outside the Temple (Mark 13:3) can be encapsulated in this potent image: “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (13:8). This is imagery which reaches right back to the foundational mythology of Israel, which tells of the pains of childbirth (Gen 3:16). It is language used by prophets (Jer 4:3; 22:23; 49:2; 49:24; Hos 13:13; Isa 21:3; 66:7–8; Micah 4:9; 5:3).

This chapter in Mark’s Gospel, along with the parallel accounts in Luke (chapter 21) and Matthew (chapter 24), are regarded as instances of apocalyptic material. The meaning of apocalyptic is straightforward: it refers to the “unveiling” or “revealing” of information about the end time, the heavenly realm, the actions of God.

Such a focus does not come as a surprise to the careful reader, or hearer, of this Gospel. This style of teaching is consistent with, and explanatory of, the message which the Gospels identify as being the centre of the message proclaimed by Jesus: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14); “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:17); “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). Each of these distillations of the message is apocalyptic—revealing the workings of God as the way is prepared for the coming of the sovereign rule of God.

Apocalyptic is the essential nature of Jesus’ teachings about “the kingdom of God”. This final speech confirms the thoroughly apocalyptic character of Jesus’ teaching. The parables he tells about that kingdom are apocalyptic, presenting a vision of the promised future that is in view. The call to repent is apocalyptic, in the tradition of the prophets. The demand to live in a way that exemplifies righteous-justice stands firmly in the line of the prophetic call. Such repentance and righteous-just living is as demanding and difficult as giving birth can be.

Mark’s Gospel has drawn to a climax with the same focussed attention to the vision of God’s kingdom, as was expressed at the start. The beginnings of the birth pangs are pointers to the kingdom that Jesus has always had in view. Jesus was, indeed, a prophet of apocalyptic intensity.

Of course, that still leaves the basic interpretive question: how do we make sense of this apocalyptic fervour in today’s world??? So to grapple with that, there’s more posts coming …..

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/10/faithfulness-in-the-turmoil-of-the-time-the-historical-context-of-mark-13-pentecost-25b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/10/the-political-function-of-the-apocalyptic-speech-of-jesus-in-mark-13-pentecost-25b/

*****

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

https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/04/discipleship-in-an-apocalyptic-framework-matt-23-25/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/16/a-final-parable-from-the-book-of-origins-on-sheep-and-goats-on-judgement-and-righteous-justice-matt-25/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/04/revelation-a-complex-and-intricate-world-of-heavenly-beings-and-exotic-creatures/

Featured

The assurance of hope in “the word of exhortation” (Hebrews 10: Pentecost 25B)

There is a strong sense of hope that permeates the word of exhortation that we know as the letter to the Hebrews. The section we are offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday focusses this theme: “let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful” (10:23).

There are earlier references to “the full assurance of hope” (6:11), the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain” (6:19)”. (There are further references to hope at 3:6; 6:18; 11:1.) It is the work of the high priest which brings believers “a better hope” (7:19) and assures them of their salvation—“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22).

This hope is the catalyst for the behaviour that is expected of believers: “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds”(10:24). Throughout the book, the author of of this word of exhortation presses his audience to live a moral life in response to this message. This is sounded in an opening exhortation, which warns of penalties if the message is not heeded (2:1– 4). This warning is intensified by references to God’s anger in response to “an evil, unbelieving heart” (3:7–12), leading to the directive to “exhort one another every day” (3:13).

In his capacity as high priest, Jesus has “passed through the heavens”, resulting in a further encouragement, “let us approach the throne of grace with boldness” (4:14–16). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/05/a-great-high-priest-who-has-passed-through-the-heavens-hebrews-4-pentecost-20b/

More practical guidance regarding the behaviour which is expected of believers is set out in succinct commands: “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another’ (10:24– 25); “pursue peace with everyone…see to it…that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble” (12:14–17).

A more extensive list of instructions appears in the final series of exhortations which close the sermon: “let mutual love continue…do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…remember those who are in prison…let marriage be held in honour by all…keep your lives free from the love of money… remember your leaders…do not neglect to do good and to share what you have… obey your leaders and submit to them” (13:1–19).

The staccato style of these exhortations is reminiscent of that found in sections of Paul’s letters (Rom 12:9–21; 13:8–14; Gal 5:16–6:10; Phil 4:4–9; 1 Thess 5:12–22). Some scholars have used this observation to argue that Paul wrote Hebrews, but this holds no water, since this style appears also in James, Proverbs, and a number of pagan writers as well.

By contrast, a distinctive and well-loved feature of Hebrews is the lengthy exordium in praise of “so great a cloud of witnesses” (11:1–12:1), in which each attest to a vibrant faith in God. (Why, oh why, is a passage from this wonderful section of the work not included in the lectionary?)

The author begins with a tightly-worded definition of faith, using complex technical terms (11:1– 3), language most unlike Paul’s usual terminology. Then follows a lyrical description of the faith of numerous scriptural figures—Abel, Enoch and Noah (11:4–7), Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (11:8–12, 17–21), Moses, the people at the Red Sea, and Rahab (11:22–31), and many others (11:32– 38). Each of these figures shared the same fate: “they were strangers and foreigners on the earth” who “desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one”, and yet they each “died in faith without having received the promises” (11:13–16; see also 11:39).

These witnesses occupy a strategic place in the rhetoric of this sermon, as precursors to the actions of Jesus, through whom “God provided something better” (11:40). By his entrance into the heavenly realm, Jesus has been proven “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2), an exalted status similar to earlier descriptions of him as “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (3:1), “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (4:14), “the mediator of a new covenant” which offers “the promised eternal inheritance” (9:15).

The hope of these witnesses points to the deeds of Jesus, which provide the motivation for the lyrical exhortation which draws this section to a close: “therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed” (12:12–13).

The deeds of Jesus also underlie the dramatic contrast which is drawn in the ensuing section; a contrast between the scene on Sinai, “something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet”, and the events on Mount Zion in “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem”, in the company of “innumerable angels in festal gathering…the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven…God the judge of all…the spirits of the righteous made perfect”, as Jesus sheds his blood as “the mediator of a new covenant” (12:18–24).

This event ensures that believers will receive “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (12:28), in fulfilment of all that the witnesses of chapter 11 had hoped for. It leads once again to a concluding exhortation: “therefore…let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship” (12:28).

The sermon addressed to the Hebrews is a distinctive voice within the New Testament. It attests to an ongoing Jewish presence within the Jesus movement, whilst at the same time providing some of the data for forcing a separation between differing groups within this movement.

Not far beyond this sermon lies the partings of the ways, as rabbinic Judaism and catholic Christianity set out on their own pathways, leaving behind their shared origins and common concerns for moral living based on the revelation of scripture. It is the figure of Jesus which plays a crucial role as the catalyst for these partings.

*****

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

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

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/12/a-priest-forever-after-the-order-of-melchizedek-hebrews-5-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/27/the-perfect-high-priest-who-mediates-a-better-covenant-hebrews-9-pentecost-23b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/02/the-superior-high-priest-who-provides-the-better-sacrifices-hebrews-9-pentecost-24b/

Featured

New outcomes, never imagined at the start (Ruth 3–4; Pentecost 24B)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 7 November 2021

*****

We rejoin Ruth and Naomi in chapter 3, where Naomi takes the initiative to securethe future for herself and Ruth, a future that centres around Boaz as a potential husband for Ruth. Naomi issues detailed instructions to Ruth in regard to staging an encounter with Boaz at the threshing floor, a place with a poor reputation in Hebrew scritpure, where Boaz is working late.

Ruth is instructed to bathe, put onher best clothes, and apply perfume, all which signifies romantic intent. Despite the risk, Ruth dutifully obeys, informing Boaz when she accosts him on the threshing floor that she is “Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” ‘Spread your cloak’ is a Hebrew euhphenism for sexual intercourse, and Ruth is not only signifying her availability for marriage but her desire that Boaz carry out his duty as next of kin according to the Levirite law.

This law required the next of kin of a deceased husband to father a child for the deadman so that his lineage could continue. Boaz takes the hint, and tells Ruth that though there is a nearer next of kin, he will sort this out tomorrow with that closer family member.

In chapter 2 we noted a number of contrasts: male and female, foreigner and Israelite rich and poor, etc. In this chapter we also find contrasts. Boaz and Ruth had met during the day, in a public place, where the social custom for such encounters were maintained. Here they meet in private under the cover of darkness, and unrestrained by custom, their interaction is quite different. We are now in the private domain of women, signified by the night. Boaz’s prominence, riches and public profile are not as important here. It is both a time of danger and a time of potential promise and blessing.

Despite Ruth’s bold initiative, she and Naomi still live in a world that does not value its widowed women, and their fate rests in the hands of a man with wealth and status. Boaz needs now to fulfill his part of the plan in the public, male sphere of lifein chapter 4.

We now return to daylight and the male) domain. The focus shifts from Ruth to Boaz, and from the private to public sphere. Boaz is here to wait for the nearer next of kin, or goel. It is Boaz’s interests that dictate how the exchange between the two men will go, and we can tell this because the Hebrew passage here begins and ends with Boaz’s name. Further, despite the bible translation of ‘friend’, the other goel is called peloni almoni, Hebrew rhyming slang that basically means “old what’s his name”, or “Mr such and such”. Again we see the sense of humour of the author of this book at work.

Boaz is shown to have authority in this society as “Mr what’s his name” and the ten elders do what he tells them to. None of the men he addresses challenges his authority or his right to order them around.

In the ancient Hebrew world, decisions about law, property and finances were made at the town gates, where the men and elders would gather to discuss aspects of law and to enact judgment.

Boaz constructs an elaborate legal argument around an alleged piece of land we haven’t heard of before that Naomi apparently wants to sell. Her nearest kinsman has first right of refusal under Hebrew law. This begs the question: why did Naomi need Ruth to glean if she had land to redeem? Is Boaz resorting to an imaginery piece of land to cover his real aim – which is to acquire Ruth as a wife? It would certainly give him the legal cover he needs for such a proceeding – for even in this rather enlightened book, for someone of Boaz’s social standing to enter into marriage with a Moabite, a foreigner, would be risky if no legal duty is involved.

So while Boaz is apparently concerned with the noble duty of redeeming his kinswoman Naomi’s land, he can just slip in that Ruth is part of the deal as well. Mr “what’s his name” decide that the risk of redeeming the alleged land is too great to him, as if Ruth were to have a child that child could legally claim the land in the future, even if he had paid for it now. So he refuses, and Boaz is free to marry Ruth.

The outcome of this chapter presents a very different family picture from that in the first chapter. Life has replaced death, abundance has replaced famine, fullness of life and fertility has replaced emptiness and barrenness. Amidst the rejoicing of the community, God finally appears as an active character, causing Ruth to conceive a son to Boaz.

Despite this intervention of God, the story is not about divine manipulation or a system where God directly rewards and punishes. The important thing in this story is the role of human action and intervention. God’s grace is bestowed only when such action is taken by the people concerned, and when it concerns all people.

Ruth’s story ultimately has a happy ending because the community decide to accept and welcome her despite being a foreigner.

The book of Ruth challenges us to look more closely at our own cultural context, and how the poor and the foreigner are welcomed and provided for in our community. Even in a world where prosperity has become available for some on a ridiculous scale, many still die of starvation. Many flee countries where food supplies are insufficient, and where opression is rife.

It is clear that true community in our world is broken. Gleaning has been replaced by our welfare system, which is often inadequate to address the real issues facing the poor. If nothing else, the story of Ruth here should challenge us to work for cultural change, to transform the brokeness into a society where all are equally valued.

The little genealogy at the end probably strikes the modern reader as a rather oddaddition, but it has a special function. If further proof is needed by the reader of Ruth that God favours the inclusion of the foreigner, this is it. The gift of children was regarded as a sure sign that God’s blessing was resting upon a person. Ruth is the great grandmother of King David, the most famous of Israel’s kings in the biblical record. The genealogy shows that by accepting the foreigner, Israel goes on to beextraordinarily blessed.

Many generations later, some people in Israel became followers of the one whom they believed had been chosen by God to be the Messiah. They claimed that this man from Nazareth was a descendant of the great King David; this claim would be crucial to establishing his credentials amongst his Jewish contemporaries. And since the man from Nazareth was descended from David, he was also descended from Ruth, the Moabite and foreigner. Without this story of the refugee and the foreigner, who married across ethnic boundaries and became part of a new family, there would be no David – and thus, no Jesus.

From the simple act of welcoming and giving hospitality to the stranger and foreigner, and building a new life with new relationships and new hopes, new outcomes and consequences can happen that were never imagined at the outset.

 

 

Lead us, O God, 
in the way of Christ, the servant,
who opened his arms to the poor and the foreigner.

Lead us, O God, in the way of welcoming the stranger
caring for the neglected, feeding the hungry,
housing the homeless, and challenging the powerful,

Lead us, O God, 
in the foolish way of the Gospel,
which turns the world upside down to bring salvation to all.

Amen.

Featured

The superior high priest who provides “the better sacrifices” (Hebrews 9; Pentecost 24B)

In explaining the importance of Jesus as priest and sacrifice, the section of Hebrews that is provided by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Heb 9:24–28) articulates an uncompromising criticism of the Jewish sacrificial system. There are four components to this criticism, drawn through a series of contrasts.

The first contrast drawn relates to the nature of the sanctuary in which the priest operates: “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf”.

The second contrast deals with matters of time and repetition: “Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world.”

The third point is made in a simple, direct affirmation: “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

And then, another contrast, relating to judgment: “And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”

The author considers that the law “has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities” and therefore cannot provide those who seek to approach God with “perfection” (10:1; the Greek is teleiōsai).

The technique of typology is used to interpret scripture throughout this sermon. In this technique, the words of the text are considered to provide a pattern for a greater truth or a spiritual meaning which is not immediately evident in the literal words. Heb 8:5 cites Exod 25:40, a passage including the Greek word typos (literally, the mark made by a hammer in a soft piece of wood) which the NRSV translates “pattern”. Finding a key to unlocking the interpretation of the text is thus essential.

For the author of this sermon, the key lies in the superiority of Jesus (1:4; 7:7). This is worked out in a series of passages which take a scriptural text as the basis for claims made about Jesus. The scripture passages point to various aspects of Jesus; but more than this, the belief in the superiority of Jesus is the key which unlocks the true meaning of the scripture passages which are cited. We can see this interlocking hermeneutic at work in a series of teaching sections in this sermon “to the Hebrews”.

❖ Heb 1:5–13 cites seven passages, mostly from the Psalms, to support the claim of the superiority of Jesus, for he is God’s son, worshipped by angels, place over all, seated at God’s right hand.

❖ Heb 2:5–18 reinforces this claim, drawing on further passages, of which Ps 8:5–7 is prominent, asking “what are human beings that you are mindful of them?” Jesus is pictured as “now crowned with honour and glory” over the angels, who themselves rule over humanity (2:9).

❖ A brief exegesis of Num 12:7 (Heb 3:1–6), concerning the faithfulness of Moses, leads into a forceful exhortation (Heb 3:7–4:13) which revolves around the key scriptural text of Ps 95:7–8 (quoted at Heb 3:7, 3:15 and 4:7), “today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts”. Obedience is crucial.

❖ Heb 4:14–5:10 combines two psalms (Ps 2:7 and 110:4) to identify Jesus as “designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (5:10). Jesus is of a different, higher order.

❖ After an excursus in which the hearers are reminded of the importance of seeking perfection (5:11–6:12), the sermon to the Hebrews turns its attention back to the mysterious scriptural figure of Melchizedek (6:13–7:28). Melchizedek was not a Levite, but he received tithes from Abraham (Gen 14:18–20), as Heb 7:1–2 reports; this priestly role may explain why he provides a model for interpreting Jesus (another non-Levite) as a priest. This extended discussion returns to Ps 110:4 (at Heb 7:17 and 7:21) as it is the key text undergirding this section.

❖ A lengthy discussion of the priestly role of Jesus follows (8:1–9:28). This section deals with the inadequacies of the first covenant, revolving around the prophetic text about the gift of a “new covenant” (Jer 31:31–34, cited in full at Heb 8:8–12). The author builds an aggressive case against the first covenant, in order to persuade the audience of the many virtues of Jesus, the new priest who is “mediator of a new covenant” (9:15).

Part of this discussion contrasts the ritual of the Day of Atonement (described in Lev 26) with the sacrifice offered by Jesus (9:1–14). The former took place in “an earthly sanctuary” (9:1), but the latter takes place in “the greater and perfect tent” (9:11). The argument continues (9:15–28) by claiming that the sacrifices of priests must be offered “again and again” (9:25), but Jesus “has appeared once for all” (9:26) and thereby “entered into heaven itself” (9:24).

❖ Yet another extended discussion (10:1–39) continues this polemic by arguing that the sacrifices of the first covenant fail to achieve their goal, as Ps 40:6–8 claims (cited at Heb 10:5–6). What Jesus has done, in offering a single sacrifice through his death (10:12), is to enact the new covenant (Jer 31:31, cited at Heb 10:16) and thus provide believers with confident access to God (10:19–23).

This claim is, in turn, reinforced by another series of scripture citations (10:26–39), culminating in a famous prophetic assertion, “my righteous one will live by faith” (Hab 2:3–4, cited at Heb 10:37–38; we find it also at Rom 1:17 and Gal 3:11).

❖ Such faith is then expounded in another long section of the sermon (11:1–12:2). This faith is introduced by a concise and complex definition of “faith” (“the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, 11:1–3) and concludes with an inspiring vision of Jesus as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:1–2). The bulk of this section of the sermon refers to numerous “witnesses” to this faith, drawn from a plethora of scriptural stories.

❖ Further exhortations in the sermon derive their motivation from scriptural texts. Prov 3:11–12 is the focal point for Heb 12:3–11; and a cluster of reassuring words from scripture, cited at 13:5–6, fuel the string of exhortations in Heb 13:1–17.

From this survey, we can see that the argument of the sermon, as a whole, is intricately bound up with “the word of God”, as given expression in the Hebrew Scriptures. Both teaching and exhortation gain momentum from scriptural citations and allusions.

As well, it is clear that the author of this sermon has a definite and unbending perspective on the relative value of old and new covenants. The author is in no doubt that Jesus is the one who shows the way to God, and must therefore be followed as the supreme example for people of faith. It’s a clear, direct, confronting message.

*****

This language in Hebrews can lead from a sense of superiority in Christianity, to an attitude of supersessionism with regard to Judaism—“Jesus came to replace the old covenant; all of that is now obsolete, superseded, irrelevant”. By such an attitude, the living faith of Judaism is summarily dismissed. Of course, this is not the only text that provides warrant for such an interpretation; other parts of the New Testament can be, and have been, read in this manner.

For myself, I don’t see this as a valid way of interpreting these passages—taking a strand of the argument, isolating it from the literary and historical context in which it was written, and using it for ideological purposes in today’s context.

In my own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia, we have adopted a statement concerning our relationships with Jewish people (see https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/resources/learn-more/item/2658-jews-and-judaism)

This statement affirms that “Judaism is a living faith today, and was at the time of Jesus, possessed of its own integrity and vitality within its own developing traditions” (2), and that “historically, understandings of Judaism have been imposed from without, and that Judaism should be understood on its own terms” (3).

It goes on to assert that “antisemitism in all its expressions is an affront to the gospel of Jesus Christ” (8) and that “the Uniting Church does not accept Christian teaching that is derogatory towards Jews and Judaism; that belief that God has abolished the covenant with the Jewish people; [and] supersessionism, the belief that Christians have replaced Jews in the love and purpose of God” (16–18).

So that invites us to read Hebrews carefully, in context, with sensitivity to Jewish brothers and sisters , within our current context.

*****

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

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

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/12/a-priest-forever-after-the-order-of-melchizedek-hebrews-5-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/27/the-perfect-high-priest-who-mediates-a-better-covenant-hebrews-9-pentecost-23b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/02/the-superior-high-priest-who-provides-the-better-sacrifices-hebrews-9-pentecost-24b/

Featured

Jesus, the widow, and the two small coins (Mark 12; Pentecost 24B)

This week, we draw near to the end of the stories told about Jesus which we have encountered most Sundays during the year past. Since early December last year, we have been in Year B, and the book we know as the Gospel according to Mark has provided the majority of the Gospel passages for reading and reflection each week.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one (which is how this work styles itself—see Mark 1:1) does not pull any punches. It begins with the rough and ready character of John, who was dunking people in the river to signify that they had repented of their sins (1:2–8). It ends with the sombre scene of two men laying the crucified body of their leader in a tomb (15:42–47), soon after he had cried in despair that his God had abandoned him (15:34).

In the intervening period of time (unspecified in this account—although by tradition we talk about “the three years of Jesus’s ministry”) we have seen Jesus encounter people in need and people who had a vendetta against him. We have heard him debating the details of Torah requirements with other scripture interpreters, and berating them for their hardness of heart and their wilful ignoring of the commands of God. We have heard him condemn his own followers as having little faith, of being incapable of understanding him, of not comprehending even when he performs miracles in front of them.

We have heard, perhaps with horror, his interaction with a foreign woman from Syrophoenicia, in which he called her a dog, and then listened on as he went for the jugular with one of his closet followers, Peter, calling him “Satan”. We have listened to harsh words of condemnation, when he told another follower, John, that it would be better if he were thrown into the ocean than get in the way of Jesus’ mission.

Jesus in Mark’s gospel does not suffer fools gladly—in fact, he does not suffer them at all! At so many points, it seems that he just doesn’t have time for people who don’t get what he is on about. It is a wonder, is it not, that he managed to maintain a loyal following for the amount of time that he did!

And yet, woven throughout those same stories in this very work, there are moments of tender compassion and unlimited grace, incidents which show that Jesus had deep insight into the situation of others and that he was willing to go the second mile—and more—in order to attend to people in need.

He confronted evil spirits and cast them out of people who were possessed. He healed multitudes of people who were ill. He taught, patiently, provocatively, with insight into the ways of God. He provided dramatic pictures in word-form (parables, he called them) which drew simple comparisons to demonstrate the nature of the realm of God. He provided for those who were hungering, both physically and spiritually. He spent himself in word and deed, sought his God in prayer, continued incessantly on his journeying, and in the end, set his face towards the fate that he somehow seemed to sense was sliding its tentacles around his very being.

It is this Jesus, complex and multi-faceted, whom we encounter in the reading from Mark’s account, this Sunday (12:38–44). Jesus is in Jerusalem, the place where fate awaits him. He has been debating one opponent after another in the outer courtyard of the Temple: chief priests, scribes and elders; Pharisees and Herodians; Sadducees; and then another group of scribes (11:27–12:34).

Jesus bests many of these opponents; he ends this sequence of encounters with a typically harsh denunciation of the last group he was debating. “Beware of the scribes”, he is reported as saying; their pretentiousness and pomposity is evident, their condemnation awaits (12:38–40). The vulnerability of widows in the face of the power exuded by the scribes is evident, and Jesus calls them out for this,.

We hear these striking words in the Gospel passage offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday. They come as a climactic concluding moment in the long stream of adversarial encounters, debates, disputes, and arguments that have taken place along the way, from his public announcement beside the Jordan, through the towns and villages of Galilee, on the road towards Jerusalem, in the city beside the Temple. A fitting finale, perhaps.

Yet this is not the final word. That final word, before we leave this Gospel for this year, belongs to another scene. A short, succinct, enigmatic scene. A scene in which Jesus utters no words of condemnation; by contrast, he offers affirmation, encouragement, and support for a poor widow (12:41–44).

It is a simple observation, a short reflection; not complex, not confronting, but a gently irenic end to a long sequence of interactions involving Jesus: healings and exorcisms, teaching by speaking sayings and telling stories in parables, engaging in public discussion and debate, as well as times of prayer and rest.

The widow was in the Temple; most likely in the Women’s Court of the Temple, just inside the structure, past the outdoors Court of the Gentiles. The widow was not in the Court of the Priests, where the actual liturgical processes of the Temple took place, for no females were allowed into that space. The “treasury” into which people were placing their money (12:41) refers most likely to the horn-shaped offering boxes in that courtyard.

By highlighting the widow, Jesus refers to the well-established strand within the legal and prophetic and strands of Hebrew Scriptures which underlined the importance of caring for widows, amongst others. According to Torah, the widow and the fatherless child were to included along with the sojourner in celebratory moments in Israel—when tithing (Deut 14:28–29), at the Feast of Weeks (16:9–12) and the Feast of Booths (16:13–15), when gleaning (24:19–22), and when tithing once more (26:12–13).

A widower’s brother was expected to marry a widow (Deut 25:5–10), for it was the duty of a widower’s kin to provide a widow with children if she didn’t have any. If it was not possible for a widow to remarry, it was the duty of the community to care for her (Exod 22:22–23; Deut 10:18; 24:17; Isa 1:17). The men harvesting fields were to leave a portion of the harvest behind to be gleaned and collected by the widows (Deut 24:18–21). Beyond the biblical period, in the Diaspora, a portion of the offering collected in the synagogues was be given to the widows and poor, on the analogy of the gleaning provision whilst living in the land.

The vulnerability of widows and the I,portable of providing for them is evident in many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. Among the prophets, Isaiah proclaims God’s judgement on those who “turn aside the needy from justice … and rob the poor of my people”, including the way that they exploit the fatherless and widows (Isa 10:1–2).

Likewise, Ezekiel includes those who “have made many widows” in Israel amongst those who will experience the full force of God’s vengeance (Ezek 22, see verse 25). He observes that “the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you” (Ezek 22:7).

Jeremiah assures the people of Edom, to the south of Israel, of God’s care for them: “leave your fatherless children; I will keep them alive; and let your widows trust in me” (Jer 49:11). He encourages the people of Jerusalem with a promise that God will allow them to continue to dwell in their land if they “do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place … or go after other gods” (Jer 7:5–7).

In a later chapter, Jeremiah is instructed to tell the King of Judah, “do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer 22:1–3). The prophet Zechariah speaks similarly: “do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zech 7:10).

Accordingly, the people of Israel would regularly have sung, in the words of the psalmist, “the Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps 146:9). Care for widows was central to the life of holiness required amongst the covenant people. Jesus knows this commitment amongst his people, and holds firm to it.

Here in the Temple, observing the action of the widow, Jesus reinforces this central aspect of covenant life. It has been a strong thread, running through the narrative from earlier chapters. Jesus is calling the people around him to care for the weak and vulnerable among them. He has told his disciples to give up their lives (Mark 8:35) and to welcome children (9:37; 10:14–15).

He instructs men that it is wrong to abandon their wives onto the community to care for (10:5–9) and informs those in power that they ought not to abdicate their responsibility to care for the powerless (10:42–45). He criticises those who distort the functions of the Temple (11:15–17) and advises continuing adherence to the two central commandments of Torah (12:28–31).

Immediately before affirming the action of the widow, he condemns the scribes who seek public honour and yet act to “devour widow’s houses” (12:38–40)—a clear demonstration of the kind of hypocrisy that he previously criticised so vehemently (7:6; 12:5; and see the succinct saying of Matt 7:5 and Luke 6:52, and the long diatribe of Matt 23:13-31). It is a potent counterpoint: glory-seeking scribes and humbly serving widows; the one falling from a great height, the other being raised up in the estimation of Jesus.

In this scene, Jesus condemns those who would tell the weak and vulnerable to pull themselves up by their own boot straps. His words remind those in authority that their power comes with an obligation to use it for good. He provides the widow as a clear example of the kind of care that is needed. It is a message that contemporary society would do well to heed.

Featured

An island of peace and goodwill in the middle of a sea of wars, treachery, unfaithfulness and violence (Ruth 1–2; Pentecost 23B)

A sermon by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, preached at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 31 October 2021.

*****

The book of Ruth stands as an island of peace and goodwill in the middle of a sea of wars, treachery, unfaithfulness and violence, as characterised by the preceeding book of Judges, and the following books of Kings and Samuel which follow.

The central characters appear to care for each other, the community generally acts well towards each other, and God’s providence is made available to the most vulnerable in society. It tells the story of a remarkable woman, a foreigner who gave up everything to devote herself to her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi.

The author also has a good sense of humour. The names of Mahlon and Chilion, the two sons that die, which in the Hebrew mean “sickness” and “consumption” respectively. Naomi’s home city, Bethlehem, literally means “house of bread”. So we find at the start that Bethlehem, the “house of bread” was in the grip of a famine, and that Naomi’s husband has to go to Moab, a land where the people are specifically excluded from the congregation of Israel because they refused to give bread to the Israelites fleeing Egpyt.

So Bethlehem, the house of bread, is starving its people, and the land of Moab where food was withheld from the Israelites, now has plenty to share with them. This reversal of the expected puts the reader on notice that this is no ordinary book and no straightforward story.

Although the story is set “in the days when the judges ruled” (ca. 1200-1025 BCE), the date of Ruth’s composition is probably much later. The story’s frequent reminders that its heroine is not an Israelite provides the best clue, and the storyteller is suggesting that Boaz’s gracious treatment of a Moabite woman in this way is unusual. This insistence on an inclusive attitude toward foreigners suggests a composition date in the fifth century BCE, when the issue of intermarriage between the Israelites and non-Israelites had become extremely controversial.

This short story therefore is composed to remind a nationalistic and post-exilic people who are keen on eliminating “foreigners” and people of mixed heritage that their most fondly remembered king, David, was the great-grandson of a Moabite woman.

Ruth 1

In the first speech of the book, Naomi counts herself as among the dead – her husband and sons are dead and she may as well be dead herself. She now sees her worth measured solely by the ability to produce sons. With some irony on the part of the author, Naomi recommends that her 2 daughters in law find security in a husband’s house, apparently forgetting that the house of a husband to date has provided neither safety or security for any of them.

Ruth counters with a speech that is brief and to the point, and pledges a commitment and loyalty far beyond what is required. Few of us today can really appreciate how great this commitment really is. To abandon one’s ancestral homeland, family and gods in favour of those of a foreigner was an enormous risk, and acceptance by the new community was by no means assured. It meant learning new customs, preparing new foods, a new language and a new folklore. That Ruth is constantly referred to as a ‘Moabite’ suggests that she (and the narrator)  are aware that her ethnicity is an immense barrier to her full inclusion in the new community.

When we read this story, we forget that racism and nationalism were as rampant in ancient times as they are now. We may unconsciously view Judaism as the ‘right’ religion, and thus a natural and desirable course of action for Ruth. The truth is that inter-ethnic relationships were complex and often viewed very unfavourably by the ruling elite of Israel, as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah make very clear. For example, in chapter 9 of Ezra, the officials refer to the “abomination” of inter marriage with Moabites and other races, and state that this “pollutes” the holy seed of Israel. Integration was not easy; acceptance not guaranteed.

Naomi does not seem convinced by Ruth’s speech, but allows her to continue with her whilst the more obedient Orpah returns to her homeland. For Naomi to be burdened with even one Moabite woman in her homeland of Israel may have lowered her status as a poor widow further and stretched her already meagre means. In other words, where we are easily impressed with Ruth’s speech of devotion, it is questionable if Naomi was. The narrator merely states that seeing “how determined” Ruth was, Naomi “stopped speaking to her”. The rest of the journey is not mentioned, and no further conversation recorded.

Naomi’s final lament that she wants to be known as “Mara”, meaning bitterness, rather than Naomi, meaning sweetness, suggests that she is not yet grateful for Ruth’s exceptional gesture of solidarity and loyalty with her. She laments that she returns empty, her daughter in law’s devotion is ignored. 

It is also worthy of note that while Naomi is recognised by the women of Bethlehem, Ruth has been rendered invisible. Neither the townsfolk nor Naomi refer to her presence. The narrator alone makes reference to her, reminding us that not only is she Ruth the Moabite, but also Naomi’s daughter in law. 

Ruth 2

The first chapter of Ruth was intended to challenge the reader’s or hearer’s stereotypes about women, loyalties, and national origin by the use of humour and irony. The relationship of Naomi and Ruth is meant confront hearers about what they thought they knew and invites them to ask new questions that help them begin to rethink their view of “the world as it should be.” 

By this strategy and others that keep the hearer/reader guessing throughout the chapter, the book of Ruth has begun by turning expectations upside down and subverting the dominant world vision. 

Chapter 2 picks up the story of Ruth and Naomi as they settle into life at Bethlehem. Though the famine which drove Naomi and her family from Israel has ended, action is required so that food might be put on the table. Ruth therefore proposes that she go and glean in the fields. As a poor foreign widow, this is Ruth’s only means of survival, as gleaning was the main means of support for the poor in Israelite law. Up to this point, the story has been about two widowed women supporting each other.

Ruth’s industrious activities draw the attention of Boaz, the owner of the field in which she gleans. Despite being poor, female and a Moabite, Ruth finds favour in the eyes of Boaz, rich, male and Jewish. By strange coincidence, Boaz is the kinsman of Naomi. A good translation of his Hebrew name is ‘pillar of the community’.

On Boaz’ appearance, the Hebrew reader is likely to be asking some serious questions. Why isn’t he helping Naomi as Israelite familial duty would dictatehe should – especially seeing he is so upright in the community and so obviously rich? Why has she been left to fend for herself, facing deprivation and possible starvation? Why does Boaz only take an interest in Naomi’s fate after he sightedRuth?

The chapter has a lot of complex interplays going on, between foreigner and Israelite, male and female; old and young; rich and poor; powerful and powerless. The author subverts most of the prevailing stereotypes as the story progresses.

Ruth stated at the beginning of the chapter to Naomi that she hoped to ‘find favour’in someone’s eyes. “Finding favour” in the Hebrew Bible generally means that a woman is desirable in the eyes of men. Coupled with the pervasive Israelite belief that Moabite women were sexually immoral (Gen 19 and Numbers 25 allude to this), the author is stressing both Ruth’s vulnerability – and her desirability.

We turn now to Boaz. His first question is “To whom does this young woman belong?”, a most irrelevant question as far as his interests as a landowner are concerned. The author is communicating Boaz’s very keen interest in Ruth.

The foreman identifies Ruth as the young Moabite woman who returned with Naomi. There is a conversation between Ruth, and Boaz. She has fallen prostrate at his feet. Such deference is usually reserved for God. Ruth twice uses the phrase “found favour in your sight”, the phrase that indicates a love interest. Boaz evokes the name of the Lord. Apart from her speech in chapter one, Ruth shows no interest in the Lord, the God of Israel. Instead she makes it clear her fate is going to lie with Boaz, not the God of Israel.

This is emphasised by her saying that Boaz has ‘spoken to her heart’ (mistranslated as ‘spoken kindly’ by the NRSV), another phrase frequently used in the Hebrew bible to indicate a love interest. Ruth is signalling her availability and interest in Boaz, but she has also shown she will not be bullied into an inequitable relationship.

Back at home, Naomi undergoes quite a transformation in relation to Ruth when she sees the amount of grain Ruth has gleaned. Naomi is no fool either, andknows by the cooked food Ruth has given her, and by the huge amount of barley, that something unusual is afoot and that there is a man involved. Hence her first questions “Where did you glean today?” Where did you work?” are quickly followed by “Blessed be the man who took notice of you”. One does not come across large portions of cooked food or ephahs of grain in the normal course of gleaning.

Naomi’s response is to initially call down a blessing on Boaz, in a reference to herself and her late husband. Again, the discerning Hebrew reader must be wondering here why Boaz has failed to act for Naomi before this time. For the first time Naomi reveals the familial connection to Boaz, and calls him goel, or redeemer. This term indicates a close family member with an assigned role in family legal matters, usually financial. To date Boaz has proved a rather unreliable goel, and Naomi is quick to capitalise on his apparent interest in Ruth by warning her against gleaning in another field “lest she be bothered”. 

Despite being poor, female and a Moabite, Ruth has reversed the normal social order to find favour in the eyes of Boaz, rich, male and Israelite. The harvest scenes evoke themes of life and fertility that point towards blessings to come. But for the moment, life is still difficult, and the women’s future needs to be secured.

Despite Ruth’s resourcefulness, she and Naomi are still in a category of people whose well-being depends on the actions of others. The shortcomings of Israelite society that the book highlights challenge us to look more closely at our own cultural context, and how the poor and the foreigner are welcomed and provided for in our community.

Even in a world where prosperity has become available for some on a ridiculous scale, many still die of starvation. Many flee countries where food supplies are insufficient, and where opression is rife. It is clear that true community in our world is broken. While gleaning may be unknown to us, it has been replaced by our welfare system, which is often inadequate to address the real issues facing the poor.

If nothing else, the story of Ruth here should challenge us to work for cultural change, to a society where all are equally valued.

The author of Ruth is a political commentator of the times. He or she disagrees with the extreme nationalistic sentiments of Ezra and Nehemiah, and wants to offer another point of view, a point of view where personal qualities of faith, love and loyalty are placed ahead of race and country of origin. So be with us next week, as we see how this unfolds in the remaining two chapters.

Featured

What does it mean to be Protestant in the Contemporary World?

A guest post from Geoff Dornan, for Reformation Sunday (31 October)

*****

I want to do three things in this article. I want to ask three questions. First, what is the essence of Protestantism? Second, what is the connection between Protestantism’s essence and what is often understood to be itsbedrock doctrine: justification by grace through faith? Third, what does it mean to be Protestant in our contemporary world, entrenched as it currently is, in arbitrary unreason?

The essence of Protestantism and the Protestant Principle

I would make a bet that most Protestant Christians when asked what being Protestant is about, would answer, “not Catholic”. That was my experience as a child, when I saw that being Protestant carried an essentially negative identity: something that you were not. Creatures of history, we Anglo-Celtic Australiansin particular, read Protestant identity through a sectarian lens, in large part because of the Anglo-Irish conflict of our ancestors. But we need to be able to understand Protestant identity positively, for what it offers in modern times.

And so, to the first question: what is the essence of Protestantism? The answer is both simple and complex.The simple answer is this: protest. That should be no surprise. The word protest sits within the very term Protestant. For those who have a smattering of knowledge about the Reformation of the 16th century, you would know that this ethos of protest was triggered by the practice of indulgences in the then sole western Church, the Catholic Church.

Indulgences were an expression of late medieval piety and ‘coincidentally’, a “nice little earner” for the Church, not to mention a few colourful personalities among the leadership. For example, in 1517, an indulgence to fund the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome – one that promised lavish spiritual benefits for the subscribers – was marketed especially successfully in Saxony by papal “pardoners”.

Not to be outdone, Archbishop Albert of Mainz also promoted the same indulgence and demonstrated his ample entrepreneurial skills, skimming off his own cut.

The mechanics of the indulgence were quite simple. In return for good works such as going on pilgrimage or making charitable donations, indulgences (from the Latin, indulgentia – permit) were believed to set asidethe “temporal punishment” that was due, because of God’s just character, after sin itself had been forgiven.

These transactions were also transferrable to the dead, shortening the suffering of souls in purgatory. It was like a metaphysical tax for sin, which released you from having to pay the consequences – time in purgatory – for that lover, addiction to alcohol, or dodgy financial transaction you may have had.

But there is more to it than this since the protest about indulgences was not just a one-off thing, but rather reflects the very soul of what Protestantism really represents; its DNA.

Paul Tillich
(1886–1965)

Paul Tillich, the German clergyman who fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and ended up in North America, becoming a leading theologian, wrote in 1931 an article called the “Protestant Principle and the Proletarian Situation” (Tillich, The Protestant Era; London, Nisbet & Co Ltd, 1951, pp.237–259). In that article, Tillich made the point that while institutional Protestantism may have a “use-by date”, the ethos that it represents, the ethos of protest, may outlast it.

Tillich proceeds to analyse what this ethos of protest is about. In a nutshell, he says, it includes two points: the first, the Protestant obligation to build justice and love in a resistant world, to build the kingdom of God in a world that denies it.

The second aspect is more subtle, and because of its subtlety, more difficult: the Protestant reservation. What he means by this, isscepticism or doubt about human beings and the cultural, political, and of course religious structures which we build around us.

And the reservation is this: that we claim too much for ourselves, that we over-reach ourselves, that we pretend to represent absolute truth in our world, whichcan always be only ambiguous, always be just relative, always be contingent. In Tillich’s thought, there is targeted in the crosshairs, fundamentalist and authoritarian movements – political and religious – that claim absolute mastery, unqualified power, because they and they alone, apparently ‘possess the truth’.

What is it about the human condition, Tillich asks, that predisposes us to need to claim a monopoly on the truth? Tillich understands that we humans long for the final word, from someone, from anyone; we long for the definitive truth. People hang, literally hang on the words of politicians, scientists, and pastors, slavishly repeating their latest thoughts.

Tillich tells us that the Protestant Principle, pushes back at that, the Protestant reservation asserts that the only absolute truth is this: human beings can never attain absolute truth, that “the final word” is always with God and only with God, and will only be revealed to us at what Catholic theology refers to as the “beatific vision”: when we directly see and relate to God after death or at the end of history.

Tillich argues that claims to understand, to represent the entirety of truth, are delusional and dangerous, that such claims are disastrously tied up with the will to power. And so, he writes, “The Protestant Principle is the prophetic judgement against religious pride, ecclesiastical arrogance and secular self-sufficiency”.

Justification by faith through grace

The second question I want to ask is how does this ethos of protest fit with what the apostle Paul’s idea concerning justification by grace through faith? (Romans 3:19-28)? The answer is not difficult. You may recall that Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, was an Augustinian friar. What marked his personal journey was a gnawing insecurity and anxiety about his unacceptability to God: a common question for philosophical and theological thought of the time.

Statue of Martin Luther (1483–1546)

Luther’s reading of the book of Romans fell like a thunderclap, awakening him to the realization that he was made acceptable to God by the work of Christ alone. In short, it dawned upon him, that he was already justified before God, by God.

This insight about our acceptability to God, because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, achieves two things. The first, is that it serves as the great leveller, it exposes, uncovers the bloated claims we make for ourselves, the intumescent platforms upon which we stand. Put another way, it goes to the very heart of the problem of the human condition.

Driven by anxiety – a universal human experience – the insight that we are acceptable to God and accepted by God, potentially does for people what it did for Luther: frees us from the pathological need to prove ourselves, the neurotic drive to dominate, the narcissistic behaviour that uses others for our purposes.

The teaching of justification by grace, assures us that “it is not all about us”, that we can get over ourselves and the anxieties that we carry. Justification by grace is the antidote to the human behaviour of over-reach. The second, is that we are not only freed from our individual and collective anxieties, but equally and most importantly, free to really live.

The eminent German theologian, Ernst Käsemann put it this way: “Where we no longer have to strive for our salvation, and no longer need to fear external powers, we become free for other people, for whom we otherwise at most, only find time and attention as allies or opponents.” He adds, “the one who is liberated from himself…perceives his neighbour”. (Käsemann, “On Paul’s Anthropology”, Perspectives on Paul; London, SCM Press, 1971, p.30)

What is then the connection between Tillich’s Protestant Principle and Paul’s idea of justification by grace through faith? They both encourage a genuine and realistic sense of ourselves, a deep humility about our identity. The Protestant Principle warns against the will to power and the doctrine of justification by grace, relieves us of the need to aspire to such power.

Rethinking Ourselves

And so, to the final issue: what does it mean to be Protestant in the contemporary world, a world marked by the peril of unreason?

In my lifetime, I have experienced what I refer to as the increasing dogmatization of Protestantism. This is due to at least two factors: the decreasing literacy of Protestant Christians about their own identity, but additionally in these dogmatic times, reason is failing across the board, and people submit to superficial, perfunctory explanations for complex changing realities.

During my 5 years in the United States (1999-2004), that which concerned me most was the distortion, subversion of evangelical Protestantism, as it rapidly became the religious tail of a conservative Republican Party worldview.

More recently, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has shown itself to be headed in the same direction for different reasons, truncating the breadth of Catholic Social Teachings to emotive narrow issues, in particular opposition to Roe v. Wade (1973), a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court regarding a woman’s right to abortion.

In Australia, organizations like the Australian Christian Lobby, an evangelical body whose very name misleadingly suggests it speaks for the broad church, pursues a not dissimilar but marginally more moderate agenda.

In this new disturbing situation, Luther’s insight into Paul’s justification by grace through faith, and Tillich’s Protestant Principle, ask us to be cautious about faith’s creeping dogmatization and predisposition to authoritarianism.

The danger is two-fold: first that we fail to acknowledge the limitedness of our faith interpretations, we claim too much for ourselves, we overreach ourselves. But secondly, we idolatrize Scripture and Doctrine with a quasi-sacramental weight, forgetting that truth transcends all human fixation, even the letters of a sacred book.

Protestantism then, is not just about “not being Roman Catholic”. It is, positively speaking, about challenging all fundamentalist claims to absoluteness, in a world where social, economic, political and religious power increasingly do just that. The deep, deep insight of Protestantism is as Martin Luther put it in one of his better moments: “Christian theology, like everything else, is only ever partial. Total faith and total theology are impossible because we are only human.”

*****

The Rev. Dr Geoff Dornan is minister in placement at Wesley Forrest Uniting Church in Canberra. This article was originally written in Spanish and published in Revista Latinoamericana de Teologia through the Central American University in El Salvador.

Featured

Pastoral Letter to Canberra Region Presbytery, October 2021

“Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb 10:25). That’s a verse that has often been quoted when discussing the importance of worship—and, in the past 20 months, when thinking about whether we can worship together in the church building.

As we consider a return to in-person worship and fellowship, let us hold the exhortation to “encourage one another” alongside of the importance of “meeting together”. There are a few guiding principles that would be good for us to hold in mind.

1. We have all experienced stress and anxiety for the past few months—indeed, for the past 20 months. Let us be gentle with each other. Let us remember, in each interaction that we have, that we are all bruised. Some might feel close to being broken. Some might feel traumatised by news from the past period of time. Some might feel that they have been very lonely for some time now. Some might have been ill, or known people that became very ill, during the lockdown. Some might be grieving or remembering past losses.

Let’s try to bear all of this in mind, with each conversation that we have with others, as we seek to encourage one another.

2. Each person returns to in-person worship and fellowship with different expectations. Some might be incredibly excited. Some might be cautious and hopeful. Some might be wary, very worried about being back in a larger group of people. Some might be resenting the decision to return while there is still significant community transmission of the virus. Some might be angry about not having been able to see their friends for the past few months.

Let’s try to bear all of this in mind, with each conversation we have, with each step that we take to ensure that we can worship together safely.

3. Not everybody will be returning to in-person worship and fellowship. Just as we have found ways to remain connected online while in lockdown, so we need to remember such people and continue practices that ensure that they know that they are still an integral part of the community of faith within your Congregation.

Let’s make sure that in leading worship, people online are acknowledged and encouraged as well as people gathering in the building.

4. If you have a Minister or a Pastor who leads your community, please remember that they have been working incredibly hard in the most recent lockdown, and indeed over the whole of the past 20 months. Holding a community together, providing clear-headed leadership, offering inspiration and encouragement in the regular weekly sermons, all in a different situation that none of us have experienced before—this is testing, draining, exhausting.

Let’s be patient with our ministry leaders, pray for them, care for them, and hold them in supportive ways.

5. For each person who serves on Church Council—and especially for the Chairperson and Secretary of your Church Council and the Chairperson, Secretary, and Treasurer of your Congregation—this has been an equally difficult and challenging period. Making decisions about when to regather in person, completing the COVID Safety Plans, explaining the decisions to members of the Congregation, all of this is difficult.

Let’s continue to hold our lay leaders and office bearers in prayer, and let’s remember to thank them for all the difficult discussions they have had and all the hard decisions that they have made during this pandemic. They, too, need encouragement.

6. Remember that your community of faith is more than just the people that you would see, most weeks, on a Sunday morning. There are people “on the fringes” and people “in the community” who look to your Congregation and identify that as the church for them. You may not have seen them for many months. They are most likely still around.

Let’s remember such people and work on rekindling contact with them, developing deeper relationships with them, showing them that the way that we “love each other” is exactly how we really do “love them” as well.

7. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, or saying, something like, “it’s great to be back to normal now”. For a start, we can never “go back”; we always are “moving on”. And then, we have adapted our routines and adopted new practices over the past 20 months, and we shouldn’t—and cannot—simply drop all of them, all of a sudden.

We have taken up some new things that will stand us in good stead into the future. We don’t yet know that the pandemic is over; we may well have more lockdowns, there may well be drastic rises in infections and hospitalisations, and even deaths. We all hope not. But we do not know.

So let us hold on to hope for the future, without throwing away the lessons and learnings of the recent past. That’s the encouragement we need to give each other.

Ross Kingham and Judy McKinlay, Presbytery Co-Chairs; Andrew Smith and John Squires, Presbytery Ministers

Featured

The perfect high priest who mediates “a better covenant” (Hebrews 9; Pentecost 23B)

We have seen in an earlier post that the letter to the Hebrews—the anonymous word of exhortation—has drawn on language and ideas that would have been very familiar to the Jewish people to whom the exhortation was addressed. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/29/the-word-of-exhortation-that-exults-jesus-as-superior-hebrews-1-pentecost-19b/

The notion of a high priest, offering sacrifices for the sake of the people, was central to the religious practices of the people of Israel for many centuries, as the collection of laws in much of the Torah (Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy) reflect.

This is clearly summarised in the section of the letter offered for consideration in worship this coming Sunday (Heb 9:11-14); Jesus “entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (9:12). This is fully consistent with the ancient Israelite understanding that “the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified” (9:13).

We have also noted that 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 is “the eternal redemption” (9:12) that is celebrated in the excerpt offered for this Sunday by the lectionary (9:11–14). See

Nevertheless, it is clear that the way this understanding is developed in this book is argumentative and tendentious. The analysis of Jewish concepts of sacrifice provided serves to render Judaism as a whole as obsolete. The earlier Jewish system of offering sacrifices is now exposed as flawed, insufficient, and rendered redundant, through the argument that is prosecuted relentlessly throughout this book. This is a disturbing rhetorical trajectory.

To discern what constructive relevance this may have for us today, we need to understand the standpoint of the author of this word of exhortation in his own context.

It is clear that this word of exhortation has an underlying polemic running throughout. This is signalled in the opening exhortation of the work, which urges the audience to “pay greater attention” to teachings already delivered (2:1); the closing section reminds them not to be carried away “by all kinds of strange teachings” (13:9). This is reinforced when the writer asserts that the audience still needs basic teaching: “you need milk, not solid food” (5:12). The polemic is clear.

The imagery associated with this saying links the audience with infants, in contrast to others who are “the mature” (5:13–14; the Greek is teleiōn). The most urgent task they face is to “go on towards perfection” (6:1; the Greek is teleiotēta) in advanced teachings. There is no need to replicate what has already been given in the “the basic teaching about Christ” (6:1), “the basic elements of the oracles of God” (5:12), which are summarised in three pairs: “repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms and laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment” (6:1–2). More is needed than this.

Underlying these teachings is a belief that God remains faithful to what has already been promised (10:23). The audience is reminded that these promises can be known from God’s “powerful word” (1:3), which is described as being “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (4:12), a “word of righteousness” (5:13) which contains an inherent goodness (6:5) and which has already been spoken to them by their leaders (13:7). The interpretation of scripture is thus of fundamental significance in this sermon. It is a right understanding of scripture that clarifies matters for the readers.

The central element in the teaching provided in this sermon is the establishment of a “new covenant” (8:8–13, citing Jer 31:31–34). Jesus is the mediator of this “new covenant” (12:24) who opens a “new and living way … through the curtain” (10:20) and offers an “eternal inheritance” (9:15). There is much of positive value in this teaching, particularly in its Christological aspects.

(And it is a puzzle to me to note that the main substantive sections of this argument about the new covenant are omitted from the selection of passages included in the Revised Common Lectionary!)

However, there are also highly problematic elements in the line of argument advanced in Hebrews. The teaching is developed by means of a comparison between the first and second covenants which degrades the former at the expense of the latter. Particularly difficult is the direct assertion that Jesus “has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear” (8:13).

Also problematic is the assertion that, as the “Son who has been made perfect forever” (7:28), Jesus has “has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises” (8:6).

This assertion appears to legitimise the view that Judaism has been superseded—a teaching which flourished in later Christian history and was used to validate numerous pogroms and persecutions against Jews. This must not, however, be taken as the definitive stance of all Christians towards Jewish believers. Whilst this is the view which is espoused in this particular New Testament book, for the people who first received it, it is not determinative for all time.

What do we make of the word of exhortation that we encounter in this sermon to the Hebrews? The book spends a lot of time on the process of sacrifice, presenting it as a transaction undertaken between God and humanity. We might ponder the relevance of the terminology of sacrifice in the contemporary world; is it still a valid way to conceive the way that humans can relate to God?

We might choose to think about the different elements of sacrifice seen in the ancient world, which we no longer practice today. We might also give some thought to the way we talk about deaths in war in the contemporary world, as sacrifices for the sake of the country. The imagery still has a potency.

The focus on death, the shedding of blood, and the sacrifice of a human life, also raises ethical questions. What is the value of focussing on the necessity of death as the centrepoint of the divine-human transaction? Is this a helpful thing to do? Does it place cold-blooded murder and innocent suffering at the heart of this important relationship? Is this how I want to portray my relationship with God?

It is clear that Hebrews has provided something of the basis for the development of the classical doctrine of atonement. The above concerns, however, raise questions as to its importance within the canon, and within Christian doctrine. Is it still a book to be valued as “scripture”?

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

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

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/12/a-priest-forever-after-the-order-of-melchizedek-hebrews-5-pentecost-21b/

The assurance of hope in “the word of exhortation” (Hebrews 10: Pentecost 25B)

Featured

Love with all that you are—heart and soul, completely and entirely (Deut 6 in Mark 12; Pentecost 23B)

In this week’s Gospel passage, Jesus engages with a teacher of the Law, discussing the priorities amongst the many laws that are to be found in the Torah scrolls (Mark 12:38–34). The discussion moves quickly to the words of the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4–5, as the first commandment to be identified as worthy of priority.

(There is a second commandment, from Leviticus 19, which isn’t in view in this post. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/26/love-god-love-neighbour-prioritising-the-law-mark-12-pentecost-23b/)

The exact wording used is interesting. The commandment is to love, with God as the one to be loved. In Deuteronomy, that love is to be manifest from the whole of the person. Most English translations render this commandment as “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:5).

The Hebrew word translated as heart is לֵבָב, lebab. It’s a common word in Hebrew Scripture, and is understood to refer to the mind, will, or heart of a person—words which seek to describe the essence of the person. It is sometimes described as referring to “the inner person”. The word appears 248 times in the scriptures, of which well over half (185) are translated as “heart”.

Many of those occurrences are in verses which contrast heart with flesh—that is, “the inner person” alongside “the outer person”. For example, the psalmists declare that “my flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps 73:26), and “my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps 84:2b), whilst the prophet Ezekiel refers to “foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and flesh” (Ezek 44:7,9). When used together, these two terms (heart and flesh) thus often refer to the whole person, the complete being.

The Hebrew word lebab, heart, is rendered by the Greek word, kardia, in Mark 12:30. That word can refer directly to the organ which circulates blood through the body; but it also has a sense of the central part of a being—which is variously rendered as will, character, understanding, mind, and even soul. These English translations are attempting to grasp the fundamental and all-encompassing. It seems that this correlates well with the Hebrew word lebab, which indicates the seat of all emotions for the person.

The second Hebrew word in the commandment articulated in Deut 6:4 is נֶפֶשׁ, nephesh. This is another common Hebrew word, appearing 688 times in Hebrew Scripture, of which the most common translation (238 times) is “soul”; the next most common translation is “life” (180 times). The word is thus a common descriptor for a human being, as a whole.

However, to use the English word “soul” to translate nephesh does it a disservice. We have become acclimatised to regarding the soul as but one part of the whole human being—that is the influence of dualistic Platonic thinking, where “body and soul” refer to the two complementary parts of a human being. In Hebrew, nephesh has a unified, whole-of-person reference, quite separate from the dualism that dominates a Greek way of thinking.

Nephesh appears a number of times in the first creation story in Hebrew scripture, where it refers to “living creatures” in the seas (Gen 1:20, 21), on the earth (Gen 1:24), and to “every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life (nephesh hayah)” (Gen 1:30). It is found also in the second creation story, where it likewise describes how God formed a man from the dust of the earth and breathed the breath of life into him, and “the man became a living being (nephesh hayah)” (Gen 2:7). The claim that each living creature is a nephesh is reiterated in the Holiness Code (Lev 11:10, 46; 17:11).

The two words, nephesh and lebab, appear linked together many times. One psalmist exults, “my ‘heart’ is glad, and my ‘soul’ rejoices” (Ps 16:9a), whilst another psalmist laments, “how long must I bear pain in my ‘soul’, and have sorrow in my ‘heart’ all day long?” (Ps 13:2). Proverbs places these words in parallel in sayings such as “wisdom will come into your ‘heart’, and knowledge will be pleasant to your ‘soul’” (Prov 2:10), and “does not he who weighs the ‘heart’ perceive it? does not he who keeps watch over your ‘soul’ know it?” (Prov 24:12). In Deuteronomy itself, the combination of “heart and soul” appears a number of times (Deut 4:29; 10:12; 11:13, 18; 13:3; 26:16; 30:2, 6, 10), where it references the whole human being.

In each of these instances, rather than taking a dualistic Greek approach (seeing “heart” and “soul” as two separate components of a human being), we should adopt the integrated Hebraic understanding. Both “heart” and “soul” refer to the totality of a human being. The repetition is a typical Hebraic style, using two different words to refer to the same entity (the whole human being). The repetition underlines and emphasises the sense of totality of being.

The third Hebrew word to note in Deut 6:5 is מְאֹד, meod, which is usually translated as “might” or “strength”. Its basic sense in Hebrew is abundance or magnitude; it is often rendered as an adverb, as “very”, “greatly”, “exceedingly”, or as an adjective, “great”, “more”, “much”. The function of this word, “might” or “strength”, in Deut 6:5 is to reinforce the totality of being that is required to love God.

In light of this, we could, perhaps, paraphrase the command of Deuteronomy as love God with all that you are—heart and soul, completely and entirely. Love God with “your everythingness” (to coin a word). There’s a cumulative sense that builds as the commandment unfurls—love God with all your emotions, all your being, all of this, your entire being.

We find the same threefold pattern in the description of King Josiah, who reigned in the eighth century (640–609 BCE): “before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25). Most often, however, it is used as an intensifier, attached directly to another term, providing what we today would do in our computer typing by underlining, italicising, and bolding a key word or phrase.

Rendering this Hebrew word in Greek—as the translators of the Septuagint did—means making a choice as to what Greek word best explicated the intensifying sense of the Hebrew word, meod. The LXX settled on the word δύναμις, usually translated as power (the word from which we get, in English, dynamic, and dynamite). Dynamis often has a sense of physical strength and capacity, and that resonates well with the sense of the Hebrew term as it is used in Deut 6:5. So the LXX has dynamis as the third element in the Shema commandment.

*****

What happens when we turn to the New Testament? Jesus refers to this commandment in his dialogue with the teacher of the Law. That conversation is reported in each of the three Synoptic Gospels. Comparing the wording of the commandment across those three synoptic accounts is illuminating.

Matthew seems to retain the greatest fidelity to the Jewish text, with a threefold formula, citing “heart, soul, and mind” (Matt 22:37). By contrast, Mark, the earlier Gospel, has chosen two words to render meod (dynamis), expanding the threefold formula to include a fourth element, “heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Mark 12:29). Luke, using Mark as one of his sources, reorders the final two elements to “heart, soul, strength, and mind” (Luke 10:27).

Curiously, none of the Gospels use the Septuagint’s choice (dynamis) for translating the Hebrew word meod into Greek. Perhaps this might be because, elsewhere in the texts of the New Testament, this word is reserved for describing a quality of God: “the power of the Most High” (Luke 1:35), “the power of the Lord” (Luke 5:17), “the great power of God” (Acts 8:10), the good news which is “the power of God” (Rom 1:16), the message of the cross which is “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18), that divine power which is extolled in heavenly hymns (Rev 7:12; 12:10; 19:1).

In place of dynamis, Mark’s version offers two different words, when compared with the Septuagint—ἰσχύος, and διανοίᾳ. The use of ischuos (usually translated as power or strength) seems closest to the intention of the LXX (dynamis), although the primary reference of ischuos is to brute physical strength. That relates to, but does not exactly correlate with, the sense of power in dynamis.

The second word chosen by Mark to render meod, the Greek term dianoia, appears also in Matthew’s account of the conversation. This is a word that refers to the mind. It is one of a number of Greek terms that refer to the rational element of the human being. Earlier dialects of Greek (prior to the Koine Greek of the first century CE) had two stem words to refer to mind: φρήν, plural φρένες, and νοῦς, from which the compound dianoia is formed.

According to Pythagoras, phrēn was a mental activity that he considered to be one of the intellectual capacities that constitute the soul (psychē), along with nous (mind) and thumos (passion). Nous was the overarching organising principle of the mind; it came to refer to the full range of rational functions—perceiving, understanding, feeling, judging, and determining. The addition of the prefix dia-, to form dianoia, intensifies the sense of understanding in an intellectual way.

So it is striking to note this Greek influence, focussing on the importance of the mind, the reasoning component of humanity—even at the very early stages of the formation of the traditions about Jesus, even prior to these two early written accounts. The author of the earliest Gospel (unknown to us; designated as Mark in the developing patristic traditions) writes an account about the Jewish man, Jesus, and his Jewish followers, that is already oriented towards Gentiles. His way of reporting the words of the man from Nazareth is already influenced by Greek notions (dianoia in place of dynamis).

But then, in Mark’s account—and only in Mark’s account—the scribe responds, affirming what Jesus has said (Mark 12:32) and paraphrasing him back (12:33)—although he reverts to a threefold formula, repeating kardia and ischuos, omitting psychē, and replacing dianoia with another Greek word for the activity of the mind, σύνεσιν (synesin). What is the force of this substitution? This would seem to underline the focus that is evident, already, in Mark’s use of the term dianoia. Both words (dianoia and synesin) emphasise the activity of the mind in the process of the loving that is commanded.

Mark’s decision to orient the commandment towards the actions of the mind (using synesin) is followed by Matthew, writing not much after Mark’s account had begun to be circulated. And Matthew’s reversion to three terms, instead of Mark’s expanded fourfold statement, reflects stronger awareness of the Deuteronomy text.

Paradoxically, Mark’s account of the response to Jesus offered by the thoroughly Jewish scribe, teacher of Torah, intensifies the Greek influence (synesin in place of psychē and dianoia). We have a pointer to the growing attraction towards the Jesus movement amongst Gentiles, even in this early, pre-written stage of the Gospel tradition. His Jewish words, and the Jewish words of his scribal conversation partner, are already being transferred into Greek conceptual terms by the time the earliest two Gospels are written.

By contrast, the later Jewish text, the Targum Jonathan on Deuteronomy (written in Aramaic) renders the command of Deut 6:5 as “Mosheh the prophet said to the people of the house of Israel, Follow after the true worship of your fathers, that you may love the Lord your God with each disposition of your hearts, and also that He may accept your souls, and the (dedicated) service of all your wealth”.

Wealth! That is a surprise! This version heads in yet another direction, taking meod as a reference to the capacity that a person has in life by virtue of the possessions and physical resources that they have at their disposal. An interesting direction to take!

*****

In preparing this blog, I have made use of a number of resources: the Greek New Testament UBS 4th edition; Rahlfs’ Septuaginta; Strong’s Concordance; the Hebrew Bible Interlinear; Aland’s Synopsis Quattro Evangeliorum; Targum Jonathan; and Brown, Driver, and Briggs’ Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Thanks also to Elizabeth, Elise, and Andrew, for a stimulating discussion on this topic.

Featured

Love God, love neighbour: prioritising the Law (Mark 12; Pentecost 23B)

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5). “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:8). These two commandments are cited in a story about Jesus engaging in a discussion with a scribe, a teacher of the Law, which ends with Jesus saying, “there is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31). We hear this story in our Gospel reading for worship this coming Sunday (12:28–34).

Of course, Jesus hasn’t answered the question precisely in the terms that it was asked; he doesn’t indicate what is “the first” commandment, but which two are “greatest”. It’s like a dead heat in an Olympic race: a race when even a finely-tuned system can’t differentiate between the two winners, even down to one thousandth of a second. Both love of God and love of neighbour are equally important. Joint winners!

Both commands are biblical commands, found within the foundational books of scripture within Judaism. They were texts that Jewish people, such as Jesus and his earliest followers would have known very well. Each command appears in a significant place within the books of Torah, the first five books of Hebrew Scriptures.

The command to “love God” sits at the head of a long section in Deuteronomy, which reports a speech by Moses allegedly given to the people of Israel (Deut 5:1–26:19). The speech rehearses many of the laws that are reported in Exodus and Leviticus, framing them in terms of the repeated phrases, “the statutes and ordinances for you to observe” (4:1,5,14; 5:1; 6:1; 12:1; 26:16–17), “the statutes and ordinances that the Lord your God has commanded you” (6:20; 7:11; 8:11).

After proclaiming the Ten Commandments which God gave to Israel through Moses (Deut 5:1–21; cf. Exod 20:1–17) and rehearsing the scene on Mount Sinai and amongst the people below (5:22–33; cf. Exod 19:1–25; 20:18–21). Moses then delivers the word which sits at the head of all that follows: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart” (Deut 6:4–6). This, it would seem, is the key commandment amongst all the statutes and ordinances.

These words are known in Jewish tradition as the Shema, a Hebrew word literally meaning “hear” or “listen”. It’s the first word in this key commandment; and more broadly than simply “hear” or “listen”, it caries a sense of “obey”. These words are important to Jews as the daily prayer, to be prayed twice a day—in keeping with the instruction to recite them “when you lie down and when you rise” (Deut 6:7). As these daily words, “love the Lord your God” with all of your being are said, they reinforce the centrality of God and the importance of commitment to God within the covenant people.

See further discussion of the way that this commandment appears in the Synoptic Gospels at https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/26/love-with-all-that-you-are-heart-and-soul-completely-and-entirely-deut-6-in-mark-12-pentecost-23b/

The command to “love your neighbour” in Leviticus 19 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 … you shall love your neighbour” (Lev 19:13–18).

These instructions sit within the section of the book which is often called The Holiness Code—a section which emphasises the word to Israel, that “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2; also 20:7, 26). Being holy means treating others with respect. Loving your neighbour is a clear manifestation of that ethos. Loving your neighbour exemplifies the way to be a faithful person in covenant relationship with God.

So it is for very good reasons that Jesus extracts these two particular commandments from amongst the 613 commandments that are to be found within the pages of the Torah. (The rabbis counted them all up—there are 248 “positive commandments”, giving instructions to perform a particular act, and 365 “negative commandments”, requiring people to abstain from certain acts.)

Jesus, of course, was a Jew, instructed in the way of Torah. He knew his scriptures—he argued intensely with the teachers of the Law over a number of different issues. He frequented the synagogue, read from the scroll, prayed to God, and went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and into the Temple—where, once again, he offered a critique of the practices that were taking place in the courtyard of the Temple (11:15–17).

Then he engaged in debate and disputation with scribes and priests (11:27), Pharisees and Herodians (12:13), and Sadducees (12:18). Each of those groups came to Jesus with a trick question, which they expected would trap Jesus (12:13). Jesus inevitably bests them with his responses (11:33; 12:12, 17, 27). It was at this point that the particular scribe in our passage approached Jesus, perhaps intending to set yet another trap for him (12:28).

So Jesus, good Jew that he was, is well able to reach into his knowledge of Torah in his answer to the scribe. The commandments that he selects have been chosen with a purpose. They contain the essence of the Torah. His answer draws forth the agreement of the scribe—there will be no robust debate now! In fact, in affirming Jesus, the scribe reflects the prophetic perspective, that keeping the covenant in daily life is more important that following the liturgical rituals of sacrifice in the Temple (see Amos 5:21–24; Micah 6:6–8; Isaiah 1:10–17).

The scene is similar to a Jewish tale that is reported in the Babylonian Talmud, a 6th century CE work. In Shabbat 31a, within a tractate on the sabbath, we read: “It happened that a certain non-Jew came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Make me a convert, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Thereupon he repulsed him with the builder’s cubit that was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, the rest is the commentary; go and learn it.’”

Carl Schleicher (1825–1903)
“A Discussion of the Talmud”

Hillel, of course, had provided the enquiring convert, not with one of the 613 commandments, but with one that summarised the intent of many of those commandments. We know it as the Golden Rule, and it appears in the Synoptic Gospels as a teaching of Jesus (Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31).

Some Jewish teachers claim that the full text of Lev 19:18 is actually an expression of this rule: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.” Later Jewish writings closer to the time of Jesus reflect the Golden Rule in its negative form: “do to no one what you yourself dislike” (Tobit 4:15), and “recognise that your neighbour feels as you do, and keep in mind your own dislikes” (Sirach 31:15).

Paul clearly knows the command to love neighbours, for he quotes it to the Galatians: “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal 5:14), and James also cites it: “you do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (James 2:8). Both writers reflect the fact that this was an instruction that stuck in people’s minds!

And I wonder … perhaps there’s a hint, in these two letters, that the greater of these two equally-important commandments is actually the instruction to “love your neighbour”?

Featured

Bearing the mark of the divine: remembering with Families and Friends of Drug Law Reform

Every year in late October, the Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform hold a ceremony to remember loved ones who have died because of drugs. Since the ceremony was first held in 1996, it is estimated that over 20,000 people have died because of drug overdoses.

The ceremony takes place in springtime in beautiful Weston Park in Canberra. The location, beside a memorial on a stone under a locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia), was chosen for the first ceremony in 1996, because of its particular associations for the family of one of the members of FFDLR, whose brother had died earlier that year.

The blossoming locus tree under which the memorial stone lies is a potent symbol for the event: an expression of hope in the midst of remembering and honouring those who have died.

Each spring, the locus tree is in blossom

Bill Bush, Chairperson of FFDLR, notes that “these avoidable deaths have ballooned out to at least 20,000 people since that first ceremony. Then, as now, opiate overdoses have been the main cause.”

“The make-up of those who have died”, Bill advises, “has changed from generally troubled young people trying to cope, pushing boundaries and risk-taking, as young people have always done, to include older Canberrans who, in desperate search for inadequately provided pain relief, have had recourse to illicit substances. There are those who in desperation to shed themselves from a dependency have taken their own life without the aid of any drugs.”

The ceremonies have brought out of the shadows the promise and worth of those who have died and enabled grieving families and friends to draw aside the curtain of shame and stigma with which an unfeeling society has shrouded their loved ones. You can read some of the addresses given over the years at https://www.ffdlr.org.au/remembrance/

Every year, a local politician speaks at the ceremony—this year it was Peter Cain, MLA for Ginnindera, who chairs the Select Committee considering the Decriminalisation Bill. In addition, a family member of someone who has died speaks—this year, Janine Haskins, whose 23 year old daughter, Brontë, was driven to believe that the only relief available to her was to take her own life. She bore witness to a tragic sequence of events leading to the death of Brontë.

This year, also, I was invited to preside over the roll call of names of people who are being remembered, and to speak as a representative of people of faith. Here’s the address that I gave.

*****

I thank you for the invitation to share some thoughts with you this day.

I acknowledge the Traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and I pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and to those emerging within community.

I also acknowledge those who have died and who we remember today and offer my condolences to those who loved them, particularly the newly bereaved.

(We then shared in a time of silent remembrance, as people recalled their loved one they were remembering.)

Today, as we remember, we recognise that we come to this ceremony from various walks of life, with various experiences, perspectives, and understandings. Our insights about life, our understandings of life in this realm and beyond, are varied. Some of us participate in rituals and in communities that help us to make sense of our lives, and of death, when it takes place. We recognise and value that diversity in our midst today. All are welcomed into this shared moment of remembering.

I join with you today as a representative of people of faith, for whom the loss of life of a loved one is a special moment. It stands as a moment for remembering, grieving, giving thanks for a life, mourning the loss of relationship and connection. No matter what faith tradition, each religion marks such a moment with a sensitive rite of passage, as the person deceased slips away from our reality, into another reality beyond. We gather to remember, grieve, recall with thanks, and comfort one another.

In this time of remembrance today, we mark again those moments of passage for our loved ones—those we have named, and countless others not here named—who have taken that pathway into the beyond. We bring out of the shadows the names and faces, the joys and griefs, the achievements and the unfulfilled hopes, of those who have gone from us.

I join with you as a Christian minister, from a faith community that holds firmly to the conviction that, whilst death is the end of mortal life, it marks a new beginning in our relationship with God. We do not know with clarity and assurance what form that new relationship takes; but we hold with hope to the belief that this life is not the totality of our human existence.

In this time of remembrance today, each of us, in terms of our own personal commitment of faith and hope, grieves the loss of a loved one, yet affirms our hope that their reality, now, has taken them away from the grip of whatever caught them, surrounded them, and led them to the point of death. Beyond those shadows, we hold to the belief that our loved ones live in the light.

And I join with you as a member of the Uniting Church, which has a commitment to stand in support of those who have been bereaved in this situation. In recent years, the Uniting Church has developed the Fair Treatment campaign, in which we join with over 60 partner organisations, and many concerned individuals, to affirm that our policies and our laws must not stigmatise and marginalise the most disadvantaged people in our community. This is a vitally important commitment. (See https://www.fairtreatment.org)

The man who shapes the perspective of the world that I adhere to and seek to follow in my life is the man from Nazareth who sat, befriended, listened, questioned, encouraged, challenged, enriched, expanded horizons. This man from Nazareth would not validate the harsh, uncaring, depersonalising course of action that many of your loved ones have experienced as they grappled with drug dependency, suicidal ideation, or the intensified pain that came with age and disability.

By trusting in the way of the man of Nazareth, I place my faith in the positive and hopeful dimension of humanity. That man, Jesus, affirmed what the sages of old had long declared: we human beings are made in the image of God. Our very beings “radiate the glory of God”, to use the ancient scriptural terminology.

At our own creation, the breath of God was breathed into us, infusing our being with all that God is, all that God offers. Our very beings contain within them the potential to be life-affirming, world-embracing, in hope-filled living, in loving relationships, in caring compassion. Each human being therefore needs to be accorded dignity and respect, as a person bearing the mark of the divine, with the breath of the divine inspiring and enabling our very being.

In my understanding, this high view of humanity undergirds the work of the Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform. A commitment to the value of each individual human life informs the advocacy, the research, the educational work, the relational support, and this annual remembering, of this so-important organisation. We are made in the image of God. We have within us the capacity to be our very best.

Let us continue to hope, to love, to work, to care; to advocate, to persuade, and to rejoice, in this work.

*****

*****

In 1999, the Rev. Gregor Henderson spoke at this event. He said then:

It is not right to treat drug users as criminals, as outcasts, as people who are beneath compassion and love.

It is not right that people die from drug dependency, in alleyways or parks, in living rooms or hospital casualty wards.

It is not right that people die from unintentional overdoses, from highly toxic mixtures of drugs, from shared needles.

It is not right that people die when new approaches and treatments are available but governments lack the courage to permit them.

It is not right that society has been unable to find better ways of caring for drug users and moving them towards rehabilitation.

It is not right that some, the real criminals, profit from the importation and sale of illicit drugs.

It is not right that people, especially young people, are exploited mercilessly by the Mr and Mrs Bigs of the drug trade.

It is not right that parents of young drug users have great difficulty in finding help for their sons and daughters who are using drugs and for themselves as they want desperately to help them.

It is not right that parents are forced to break the law by allowing their drug-using offspring to inject safely at home in preference to throwing them out on the streets.

Surely it is time for a much bigger dose of compassion in relation to illicit drugs.

Featured

Coping with chaos and death: the ‘wisdom’ of Job (Pentecost 22B)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 24 October 2021.

*****

Last time we were with Job, he and his three friends had reached an impasse. Job believed them to see blindly and listen deafly. They, on the other hand, cannot understand Job’s stubbornness. Enter the fourth friend, Elihu.

Elihu, whose name means ‘My God is He’, and whose nose is burning in anger in regard to the conversation to date, strongly condemns the approach taken by the three friends and argues that Job is misrepresenting God’s justice and discrediting God’s character. In his speech, Elihu describes God as mighty, yet just, and quick to warn but also quick to forgive. Elihu is almost cast into a prophetic role, and prepares the way for the appearance of God, who finally shows up.

God has arrived in a whirlwind, and to compensate for his long silence of 35 chapters he now responds to Job with a flood of rather sarcastic questions. There is a touch of irony here in God’s chosen vehicle – in 9:17 Job had said If I summoned him and he answered me, I do not believe he would listen to my voice, for he tramples me down with a whirlwind, enlarges my wounds for no reason and will not let me get my breath.

God appears to do just this, his intent apparently being to adjust Job’s attitude by telling him a few things, including some pretty prolonged boasting about his cosmic power, culminating in the description of the monstrous Leviathan and Behemoth. By this God therefore puts cosmic matters – including Job’s smallness and frailness when compared to these two monstrous creations – into their true perspective.

Twice he reminds Job to gird your loins like a real man. I will ask questions, and you instruct me (38:2; 40:7).

To “gird the loins” is usually used as a metaphor for preparing for battle. It is hard to conceive that the unfortunate Job, who has just been told he “darkens counsel” with “ignorant” words, who has a whirlwind of cosmic proportions roaring around him, is in any position to instruct the deity or do battle with him. The deck is stacked, and this is a contest that we know God must win.

The response God gives Job is not the expected one. God’s words are not what the friends have imagined that God would say, nor are they the vindication that Job had hoped for. God has reversed the scenario that Job had earlier envisaged. Instead of Job challenging God in court about the justice of God’s actions, God counters with his own case, asking Job to reveal his wisdom. Instead of the divine actions being interpreted by a powerless human, they are now presented from God’s point of view.

The speech of God to Job is the climax of the book but it offers no explanation for Job’s suffering. The question: where was Job when God created the world? is an unsatisfactory ‘answer’, and we are left with the uncomfortable possibility that God acts in capricious ways, an unsympathetic deity who would allow the life of a man, his family and his servants and animals to be tormented or cut short for no better reason than to prove a point to the Adversary.

The meaning and significance of this divine speech of God continues to be a widely debated issue. Some interpret God’s words as a negation of a human being’s right to question God. Others see them as a correction to Job’s limited understanding of good and evil. Still others believe this scene shows Job’s faith and humility. Yet others believe that the words of God avoid Job’s questions, suggesting that there is doubt cast over God’s justice and compassion.

To answer God’s somewhat sarcastic questions would require the knowledge of a god, not a human. Job’s limitations are exposed, and the workings of God are declared to be a mystery beyond Job’s understanding. Instead of being offered comfort, Job is reminded of his ignorance and frailty. What are we to make of this disconcerting picture of God, especially since the questions Job asks may also be our own?

The speeches of God to Job illustrate the world according to Hebrew cosmology. The world is seemingly ordered, and everything has its place. The sea has its limits, cosmic darkness is behind gates, the sky has statutes and the clouds are numbered. But there are disorderly elements as well. The wild beasts have both hunter and prey among their numbers, yet God provides for both, giving to one the freedom to eat and another to be eaten.

In his ignorance, Job has imagined a black and white world where evil and good, reward and punishment are clearly defined. Hence his insistence that he be shown justice. But here he is presented with a world of moral ambiguity, where the wild ass is just as likely or not to be eaten by the lion in search of food.

The world as God has created it is presented as full opposing forces such as life and death, chaos and order, freedom and control, wisdom and foolishness, ordinary and bizarre, evil and good, and Job’s assumption that in a just universe his piety should have been rewarded with prosperity, is rendered meaningless. The world is not ordered according to guilt or innocence so there is no easy answer to the problem of innocent suffering.

Creatures die so others may survive. Chaos and death are not eliminated by God but operate within the boundaries of his design and the world’s complexity means it is not possible for a simple and mechanical law of reward and punishment to operate. The various aspects of human morality that Job and his friends have discussed at length are not the way the universe works. God presents a universe which is independent of such human belief systems. As Job’s beliefs fall about him in ruins, he is faced with a deity whose ways are outside of human comprehension and wisdom.

The book of Job began with deprivation and tragedy. In the final verses though, we find abundant restoration, with Job receiving back his house and family and twice as much as he had lost. Job wisely acknowledges the supreme power of God, his own ignorance, and renounces his dust and ashes.

Note that Job does not repent in sackcloth and ashes but repents of them. This suggests that he is still a touch defiant, but he has learnt he is not the centre of the universe and it is now time to resume normal life again in the verses that follow. And with a final touch of irony, the friends who wanted Job to plead for God’s mercy for himself now find themselves in need of Job’s intercessions on their behalf.

It seems a happy ending, but despite its complex setting and arguments, the book of Job has presented us with more problems than solutions. Curiously, verse 42:10 states that restoration is made to Job because he prayed for his friends, not because he repents. Even more surprisingly, Job’s friends and relatives then console him about the evil that God had brought upon him, a statement that lays the blame for Job’s suffering directly with God, and not the Adversary. They offer gold and silver as a token of their goodwill. The implication is that God does cause innocent suffering, as part of the cosmic design.

So where do we go from here? Do we dwell on a dangerous universe where God doesn’t answer the questions of Job and where justice seems questionable? Or is there another way forward in this rather dark story?

Professor Kathryn Schifferdecker[1], in her commentary on Job on Working Preacher, notes the details of this restoration have some unusual features. She states that

Job’s three daughters are the most beautiful women in the land, and Job gives them an inheritance along with their brothers, an unheard-of act in the ancient Near East. He also gives them unusually sensual names: Dove (Jemimah), Cinnamon (Keziah) and Rouge-Pot (Keren-happuch).

Schifferdecker believes that Job has “learned to govern his world as God does.” What does she mean by that?

The cautious father of the prologue who offered sacrifices for his children in case they had sinned now has become a parent modelled on God’s own creation. By giving them their inheritance, he is giving his children the same freedom to live and grow and learn that God gives God’s creation, and, like God, he delights in their freedom and in their beauty.4

Ellen Davis, in her book Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament[2] writes, “The great question that God’s speech out of the whirlwind poses for Job and every other person of integrity is this: Can you love what you do not control?”

It is a question, says Schifferdecker, that is worth pondering. “Can you love what you do not control: this wild and beautiful creation, its wild and beautiful Creator, your own children?” she asks? [3]

Davis also puts forward the case that we should not be concentrating on why or how much it costs God to restore Job’s fortunes, as it obviously costs God nothing. “The real question is how much it costs Job to become a father again.”[4]

I really like this perspective. Job, says Schifferdecker, resembles a Holocaust survivor whose greatest act of courage may have been to start again and bear children. Yet despite the potential risks, Job chooses to enter life again. Job and his wife, despite their terrible experiences, choose to again “bring children into a world full of heart-rending beauty and heart-breaking pain. Job chooses to love again, even when he knows the cost of such love”. (Schifferdecker, 2012)[5].

Having cited so much of her, I am going to give the last words to Professor Schifferdecker, as I think she sums it up beautifully:

Living again after unspeakable pain is a kind of resurrection. The book of Job does not espouse an explicit belief in resurrection. Nevertheless, the trajectory of the whole book participates in that profound biblical movement from death to life. It is not surprising, therefore, that the translators of the Septuagint add this verse to the book of Job: “And Job died, old and full of days. And it is written that he will rise again with those whom the Lord raises up.”

And perhaps that is an appropriate place to leave this story of Job, waiting with God’s other servants for the world to come. This complex work, the book of Job, plumbs the depths of despair and comes out on the other side into life again. In this movement, it testifies not only to the reality of inexplicable suffering but also to the possibility of new life — life lived out in relationship with the God of Israel, the God of resurrection, who, as both synagogue and church proclaim, is faithful even until death, and beyond. [6]

****

See other sermons in the series at

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/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/17/celebrating-creation-job-38-and-psalm-104-pentecost-21b/

and also

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/20/job-a-tale-for-the-pandemic-part-one-pentecost-19b-to-22b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/20/job-a-tale-for-the-pandemic-part-two-pentecost-19b-to-22b/


[1] Schifferdecker, K. Commentary on Job 42:1-6, 10-17, Working Preacher, 2012 (Accessed 20/10/2021 https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-job-421-6-10-17 )

[2] Davis, E.F. “The Sufferer’s Wisdom,” Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 2001), 121-143.

[3] Schifferdecker, K. Commentary on Job 42:1-6, 10-17 ,Working Preacher, 2012

[4] Davis, E.F. (2001) 121-143

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

Featured

Job: a tale for the pandemic, Part Two (Pentecost 19B to 22B)

The book of Job is a challenging and disturbing book. It takes us to a central dilemma that we all face in our lives. It provides us with a stimulus to undertake an exploration that is eminently suited to the time that we have been experiencing over the past few months in lockdown—indeed, since early in 2020. The book poses the question: why is this happening?

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/20/job-a-tale-for-the-pandemic-part-one-pentecost-19b-to-22b/

That’s a question many are asking about the pandemic. Why has it come upon us? Or, to be more theological about it: why are innocent people suffering? why are we caught in this current spiral? do those without a moral compass appear to prosper? why do those who seek to do good find themselves beset by problem after problem?

The question is acute for us each personally, during this time of restrictions because of a global pandemic. After all, we had nothing to do with the cause of the pandemic. Why should we suffer the frustrations of lockdowns, if we are innocent of causing the virus to spread? Why should we endure the hardships of reduced interpersonal interactions, if we have been behaving with due care? Why should we not be able to gather for worship, since we have not been in places where infections have been found?

The question is also pertinent and pressing in our current global context. For a start, the pandemic has inflicted suffering and death on millions of people around the world—suffering far more invasive than what we are experiencing in the current lockdown. How many millions of people have died? And how many millions of family members have suffered the grief and despair of not being able to say farewell to their loved ones as they die in hospital wards? And how many medical and nursing professionals have been stressed beyond limit by the incessant demands they have faced during the pandemic? And how fair is all of this?

The question also presses in terms of the climate. We have long known that the climate is changing, the high temperature averages are claiming, the arctic glaciers are melting, the sea levels are rising, the intensity and frequency of catastrophic weather events are climbing—and people around the globe are suffering. All of this presents a challenge to the way we live. We may even think that we are suffering unfairly in such a scenario.

It is clear that the science has come to a conclusive decision: we human beings have been contributing in a major way to the changes in the climate for over two centuries, now. We actually can’t lament that we are suffering unfairly, since our comfortable lifestyles in the well-to-do Western world undoubtedly mean that our carbon footprints are much larger than they should be. We are contributing to climate change, so can’t expect to be exempt from its ravages.

But what of those whose carbon footprint is minuscule, in comparison to our own? There are 16 African countries whose CO2 emissions per year are 0.15 tons per person or less. As you trace the names of countries as the figure rises, there are many more African and Asian countries, long before any European countries are noted.

By contrast, the figure is 17.10 tons per person for Australia, 15.52 for the USA, and 18.58 for Canada. That is a completely inequitable output. Should we not be suffering more deeply, in the western world, than people in Africa and Asia are? And yet the reality is that the comfortable, even extravagant, lifestyle of the western world is what is driving the incessant rate of increased CO2 in the atmosphere. And the whole world—humans, animals, fish and bird, and vegetation—suffers as a result. The questions raised by Job are acutely relevant to this issue.

(The figures come from https://www.worldometers.info/co2-emissions/co2-emissions-per-capita/)

And the question remains hanging as we reflect on levels of malnutrition and access to food in the current world. The World Food Programme of the United Nations estimates that one in three people around the world. Even before the current pandemic, each and every day of the year, 820 million people were seriously underfed and hungry.

Children bear the brunt of this inequity. 149 million children under 5 are estimated to be stunted (too short for age), 45 million are estimated to be wasted (too thin for height), and 38.9 million are overweight or obese. That is a situation that is utterly unjust. The questions press even harder on us.

(See https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malnutrition)

We have the means, we are told, to distribute food equitably around the world. And yet up to one third of food is dumped everyday in the USA—a shocking waste of resources and a completely inequitable state of affairs. So those who happen to have been born in certain areas of the world where circumstances beyond their control mean that they are suffering far more than is warranted. Injustice abounds. The questions from Job resonate—how is that fair?

And then, there are survivors of domestic violence, and—still—survivors of child sexual abuse, and those suddenly facing homelessness, and those in the long enduring grip of mental illness, and those fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, seeking refuge and asylum in a welcoming place … and many other situations where the innocent are suffering unjustly. The list could be very long, indeed, if we give careful thought to it.

So, reflecting on these matters, in the light of the discussions that are recorded in the story of Job, we have much pause for thought. How do we reconcile our faith in God—God who is loving, God who is just, God who is overseeing all that takes place—given these terrible realities? Is the image of God that we have accurate? If God can act to change any of these terrible situations that we are facing, why does God not so act? Is God uncaring? Is God unable to act? Is God not concerned with justice?

These are the questions that Job explores. It is a book which provides us with deep resources for thinking about such matters. It is a tale that resonates with so much in the experience of contemporary people. It is a take for our times.

Featured

Job: a tale for the pandemic, Part One (Pentecost 19B to 22B)

“Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures; who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad when they find the grave? Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in?” (Job 3:20–23). Why? is the question that Job asks incessantly, as he ruminates on what fate has befallen him.

Job, the righteous, upright person, struck with tragedy and blighted with grief, laments his situation. His story provides a good tale for us to consider during this time of global pandemic. It is a tale that explores the questions that we may be pondering.

As the story begins, we learn that Job had a good, prosperous life; but through no fault of his own, his life is turned upside down; he lost stock—500 oxen, 500 donkeys, 7,000 sheep, and 3,000 camels—and all of his children—seven sons and three daughters (1:13–19). His life, once blessed and enjoyable, was utterly destroyed.

Yet “in all this”, we are told, “Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing” (1:22). Indeed, after each round of festivities enjoyed by his children, his practice was to sanctify all his family. He would “rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all” (1:5). He was indeed “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1).

Job came under attack, he felt. Through no fault of his own, his life was turned upside down. He was deeply distressed. “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?”, he cried (3:11). “Why were there knees to receive me, or breasts for me to suck?” (3:12). “Why was I not buried like a stillborn child, like an infant that never sees the light?” (3:16). The joy at the prosperity which he had enjoyed had crumbled, his very being was pierced with deep grief and despair.

He turns, in his anguish, to God, whom he accuses of having brought this suffering upon him. “Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?” (7:20–21) “Why did you bring me forth from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me, and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave”, he laments (10:17–18).

Job berates God, whom he sees as being negligent in not intervening to save him from his fate. “Why do you hide your face, and count me as your enemy?” (13:24), he asks. Then, some time later, he presses the point: “Why should I not be impatient? Look at me, and be appalled, and lay your hand upon your mouth. When I think of it I am dismayed, and shuddering seizes my flesh.” (21:4–6). He lays the blame at God’s feet: “Why are times not kept by the Almighty, and why do those who know him never see his days?” (24:1)

Why? Why?? Why??? is Job’s constant question.

Job reflects on the quest for Wisdom, which is what is advocated in Proverbs (Prov 1:2–7; 2:1–5; 3:13–18; 4:5–9; 9:10; 15:32–33; 16:16; 17:24; 19:20; etc) and sought by The Teacher (Eccles 1:13; 7:25). Yet the search for Wisdom, who is more precious than jewels (Prov 3:15; 8:10–11), is much more difficult than mining for those precious jewels (Job 28:1–11).

Where shall Wisdom be found? Job asks (28:12). “Where does Wisdom come form?” (28:20). The answer is, “it is hidden from the eyes of all and concealed from the birds of the air” (28:21). Job despairs of ever finding Wisdom. God knows the way to Wisdom (28:23–27), but direct access to Wisdom remains elusive. All that is offered is “the fear of the Lord” (28:28–a verse attributed to Job, but which many scholars consider to be an authorial gloss on the whole speech).

Elihu rebukes Job, turning his incessant questioning back on him: “God is greater than any mortal. Why do you contend against him, saying, ‘He will answer none of my words’? For God speaks in one way, and in two, though people do not perceive it.” (33:12–14). “Far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong”, Elihu contends (34:10). “Surely God does not hear an empty cry, nor does the Almighty regard it”, he maintains (35:13).

The claim that God is not just is an outrage to Elihu. He turns to the inscrutable nature of God: “Surely God is great, and we do not know him; the number of his years is unsearchable” (36:26). “The Almighty—we cannot find him”, Elihu maintains; “he is great in power and justice, and abundant righteousness he will not violate” (37:23).

Yet Job will not budge. Finally, after a blistering speech from the Lord himself, out of the whirlwind (38:1–41:34), in which the deity makes it clear that Job cannot pretend to have any comprehension of the ways that God operates, Job backs down. He responds, sarcastically: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (42:2), and then delivers his coup-de-grace: “therefore I despise myself, and repent of dust and ashes” (42:6).

It should be noted that the common rendering of these final words of Job in so many translations have inevitably mistranslated a crucial word. The Hebrew here clearly states, “I repent OF dust and ashes”. The twist to repenting IN dust and ashes, found in most translations, portrays Job as meekly withdrawing his complaint and submitting to the inscrutable mysteries of God.

But he does not. In fact, his final word is another sarcastic barb, aimed directly at God: “I will give up on playing the meek-and-humble supplicant”. He has not had his questions of Why? Why?? Why???answered in any satisfactory way. So he remains defiant. He repents of repenting. He will not be sorry.

It should also be noted that the “happy ever after” ending we have in 42:7–17, in which Job is vindicated and his fortunes are restored twofold, is widely recognised as a later ending which was not part of the original saga. In the original story, Job’s probing questions remain relentlessly unresolved.

The book of Job is a challenging and disturbing book. It takes us to a central dilemma that we all face in our lives. It provides us with a stimulus to undertake an exploration that is eminently suited to the time that we have been experiencing over the past few months in lockdown—indeed, since early in 2020. The book poses the question: Why is this happening? That’s a question many are asking about the pandemic. Why has it come upon us?

Or, to be more theological about it: Why are innocent people suffering? why are we caught in this current spiral? Do those without a moral compass appear to prosper? Why do those who seek to do good find themselves beset by problem after problem?

I’ll explore these questions further in part II of this reflection in the next blogpost.

******

See also this series of sermons on Job by Elizabeth:

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/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/17/celebrating-creation-job-38-and-psalm-104-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/24/coping-with-chaos-and-death-the-wisdom-of-job-pentecost-22b/

Featured

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.

Featured

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/

Featured

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
+

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/02/living-through-lifes-problems-job-1-pentecost-19b/

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

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/24/coping-with-chaos-and-death-the-wisdom-of-job-pentecost-22b/

Featured

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

Featured

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.

Featured

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

Featured

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.

Featured

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/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/17/celebrating-creation-job-38-and-psalm-104-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/24/coping-with-chaos-and-death-the-wisdom-of-job-pentecost-22b/

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

Featured

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.

Featured

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/

Featured

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/

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)

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/02/the-superior-high-priest-who-provides-the-better-sacrifices-hebrews-9-pentecost-24b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/08/the-assurance-of-hope-in-the-word-of-exhortation-hebrews-10-pentecost-25b/

Featured

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.

For other sermons in this series, see

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/10/hope-in-a-broken-world-job-23-pentecost-20b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/17/celebrating-creation-job-38-and-psalm-104-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/24/coping-with-chaos-and-death-the-wisdom-of-job-pentecost-22b/

Featured

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

Featured

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)

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/27/the-perfect-high-priest-who-mediates-a-better-covenant-hebrews-9-pentecost-23b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/02/the-superior-high-priest-who-provides-the-better-sacrifices-hebrews-9-pentecost-24b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/08/the-assurance-of-hope-in-the-word-of-exhortation-hebrews-10-pentecost-25b/

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

Clobbering the clobber passages

There are a number of passages in scripture which appear to address the matter of sexual relationships between people of the same gender. They have often been (mis)used to “clobber” LGBTIQA+ people by Christians.

This small handful of scripture passages have exercised an inordinately huge influence on the church—and, indeed, on society as a whole—in relation to various matters associated with same-gender relationships and the range of gender identities which exist amongst humanity.

Over the past 25 years, Elizabeth and I have regularly taught about these passages, providing a constructive way of understanding each of them. In keeping with the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia, the way we approach these biblical texts is to draw on the insights of critical scholarship in order to develop a clear understanding of what is, and what is not, referred to in these passages.

This is consistent with the commitment of the church to “sharpen its understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought”, through drawing on “the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries”, which leads to the articulation of “an informed faith” (para 15). There are many insights about gender identity and sexual relationships that have been gained over the past decades, from work undertaken in medical, psychological, sociological, and biological arenas.

In surveying these passages, it is to be noted that none of them must, by necessity, be seen as weapons to be used to “clobber” LGBTIQ people. Each passage needs to be understood within its context. Careful scholarly work has been undertaken to indicate just how this interpretative process illuminates these texts, and does not provide any warrant for their earlier negative, hurtful, and harmful use, by the church, against LGBIQ people.

Language. The first thing to note is that the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek languages, so there are questions about how particular words should be translated, whether there are exact equivalences in English, and so on. A key observation is that many translations use the word “homosexual” where the original language actually requires more nuance in translation.

Culture. A second factor is that we need to reflect on the cultural customs of the societies within which the Bible came to be written. It is important to consider how these cultural customs have shaped the way in which the words were written. “Homosexuality” is a modern concept, which was not known to the writers of the biblical texts in the way that we understand it. Scripture does not show awareness of the loving, committed, lifelong relationship of two people of the same gender. There is a clear cultural difference between the world of the texts of scripture, and the 21st century world.

Leviticus 18 and 20: Neither the oft-quoted verse about same-gender sex (Leviticus 18:22), nor a similar statement two chapters later (Leviticus 20:13), are dealing primarily with same gender relationships, but about cultural shaming practices, using power to create inequality in relationship. This text occurs in a section of Leviticus called “The Holiness Code” which has as its main purpose to set out laws to keep Israel different from the surrounding cultures.

The rules in this section of Leviticus were meant to set the Israelites apart from the Canaanites and Egyptians, who at that time participated in fertility rites in their temples that involved different forms of sex, including homosexual sex. Male-to-male sex was seen to mix the roles of man and woman and such “mixing of kinds” during ancient times was defined as an “abomination,” in the same way that mixing different kinds of seeds in a field was an abomination.

These verses critique the practice in which a stronger male seeks to subordinate and demean a weaker male, through sexual activity. This is what is declared to be an “abomination”. This abusive and shaming action is not what we are talking about when we refer to same gender relationships today: committed, loving, long-term relationships between two equal people.

Genesis 19:1–29: The same applies to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (told in Genesis 19). This story is an example of what happens when God’s people do not live up to God’s expectations. It provides a lesson about the importance of hospitality to the stranger—a key value in ancient Israelite society. The cruel men of the town were planning to rape the visitors and were definitely not homosexuals. The prophet Ezekiel, inspired by the spirit (Ezekiel 16:49-50), declares that this is not about sexual sin, but about the sin of not providing hospitality.

Judges 19:1–30: The terrible story of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19) also deals with hospitality. It is clear that hostile men used a breach of hospitality protocols as a weapon against other men, seeking to shame the strangers in this way. Like the story of Sodom (Gen 19), this account shows the extremely inhospitable behaviour of the town. Some mistakenly interpret the townsmen’s behaviour to be somehow related to homosexuality, but this was an example of the brutality of one group of men toward a group of visitors. This, again, is not about a same-gender relationship where equality and mutuality are paramount. It is about violating a cultural norm in an abusive and violent manner.

Genesis 1:1–2:4a: This passage is not part of the “clobber passages”, but is included because it provides a clear affirmation that God made a good creation, and encouraged human beings to enter into positive relationships with each other within that good creation (Genesis 1–2). Our human expression of sexuality is one way of expressing the goodness of that creation. We ought not to exclude people who are attracted to people of the same gender from this understanding.

Romans 1:18–27: The behaviour which Paul was addressing here is explicitly associated with idol worship (probably temple prostitution). It is directed towards heterosexual people who searched for pleasure and broke away from their natural sexual orientation or their natural ways of having sex (both male and female) and participated in promiscuous sex with anyone available or used methods not culturally accepted.

In the surrounding culture, it was common for men of a higher status to take sexual advantage of male slaves or male prostitutes. Here Paul is instructing his readers to keep pure and honour God. Paul is talking about the use and misuse of power and authority and how that impacts one’s relationship with God. Paul didn’t have in mind specifically prohibiting consensual same-sex relationships, because they were never considered in his cultural context.

1 Corinthians 6:9–10: In Paul’s vice-list he identifies a list of sinners whom he declares will not be granted entry into the kingdom of God. Amongst the thieves and robbers, drunkards and “revilers” we find a number of sexual transgressions mentioned. This includes two critical words: malakoi and arsenokoites.

The term malakoi means “soft” and is also interpreted as male prostitutes. The word arsenokoites is difficult to translate, but it probably refers to a male using his superiority to take sexual advantage of another male. Paul is right to condemn these sexual activities, but this has nothing to do with a consensual homosexual relationship.

References to sexual sins in Paul’s letters (in both Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6) sit alongside a range of other sins, which are equally condemned, and equally challenging to our discipleship. It is quite legitimate to ask, why single one particular sin out?

Paul related all of these sins to idolatry, which, for him, was the fundamental sin. A loving relationship between people of the same gender is not idolatrous, but rather it can strengthen a sense of the value of human life which God desires for us. Paul was writing about the abuse of relationships, which is quite different from the expression of a loving, faithful relationship.

1 Timothy 1:8–11: This passage is similar to 1 Cor 6, above. This time it is a list of sins (as opposed to sinners) and includes the words pornos, arsenokoites and andrapodistes. Each term needs to be clearly understood. The word pornos most likely refers to a male having sex outside of marriage, presumably with a female (but also, feasibly, with a male); the second term, arsenokoites (found also in 1 Cor 6) can probably be defined as male same-sex relationships that involved some level of exploitation, inequality or abuse. Finally, andrapodistes can be translated as “slave traders.”

Scholars believe that the three terms were used together in that slave dealers (andrapodistes) would be acting as pimps for captured boys (pornos) who would be taken advantage of by powerful men (arsenokoites). These are sins that certainly need to be addressed, but this particular passage does not relate to homosexuals in a committed relationship.

Jesus: In all four Gospels, Jesus rarely discusses sexuality; when he does, there is very little detail. This topic rates as of only tiny significance for him, alongside the greatest focus which Jesus had—on wealth and poverty, and the importance of serving those on the edge, those who are in need. There is no saying or parable of Jesus that directly addresses the situation of LGBTIQ people in particular—apart from the fact that such people are part of the whole of humanity who are addresses in the same way by Jesus in all of his teachings.

From this very brief survey of key passages, we are able to affirm that the most important conclusion to draw from the scholarly explorations of relevant biblical texts, is this: what God wants from human beings, is a commitment to loving, respectful relationships, a commitment to long-term, hopefully lifelong, relationships. In short, the specific genders of people in relationships is less important than the quality of relationship shown between individuals in relationship with each other.

In the Church, we affirm that God is faithful—that those who diligently seek to know the will of God, will be upheld and loved by God. God is not disturbed by differences of opinion; God made a diverse creation, and God honours our search for truth within that creation.

In Jesus, we see the key attributes of God, lived out in a human life. The Uniting Church’s Basis of Union declares that “in his life and in his death, he made a response of humility, obedience and trust” (para 3). These are the key qualities of a faithful life. These qualities are the controlling lenses through which we should read the biblical texts, and develop our understanding of sexuality and marriage.

A heterosexual relationship, at its best, will exhibit mutual respect, deep love, faithful commitment, and personal humility in placing the other as first. So too can a same genderrelationship. Medical, psychological, and social explorations show that a relationship between two people of the same gender, can itself exhibit the best of human qualities, and demonstrate the finest moral values in human relationship. It can certainly exhibit mutual respect, deep love, faithful commitment, and personal humility in placing the other as first. 

Reinterpretation for the present age. Throughout the New Testament, we can see places where NT writers offer radical reinterpretations of the norms of their cultural and religious practices. The accounts of the ministry of Jesus tell us of Jesus’ affirmation of women, his willingness to break religious law by healing on the Sabbath, and his redefining of aspects of Jewish law in the light of his message of the coming kingdom.

The accounts of the early Church include instances where redefinition and breakthrough took place: most strikingly, in Acts 10, as we have already noted. This chapter tells the story of Peter, who was a faithful adherent to a long-established pattern of eating in the manner that was set forth in the laws of Leviticus. He was told that what he did not eat—because it was “unclean”—he was now free to eat—because God had declared such food “clean”.

This opened the way, in the early church, to a new way of inclusive table fellowship where Jews and Gentiles are welcome to eat and share together. Who is to say that the spirit, which once moved in this way, is now not able to move in a similar way, and to declare what some consider “unclean” to be “clean”—and that we can rejoice in this!

In Ephesians, a standard Hellenistic pattern (a “household table”) is adapted to instruct husbands and wives. Eph 5:21–33, while appearing on the surface to reinforce patriarchal norms of wives submitting to husbands, actually instructs husbands to love their wives with self-sacrificing love (“as Christ gave himself for the Church”) and encompasses all marriage relationships under the heading, “submit yourselves to one another”. This was a radical reinterpretation of the marriage relationship itself, even within the first few decades of the life of the church.

The biblical account shows that the spirit comes to faithful people, offers a vision of a new way, and opens hearts and minds to a greater vision which broadens the impact of the good news and reinvigorates missional activity. In the Uniting Church, we seek to walk in that new way, faithful to the witness of scripture, and open to the guidance of the Spirit, accepting of new insights and welcoming to all.

*****

This post formed the basis for a presentation by Elizabeth and myself at the Rainbow Christian Alliance on 8 August 2021. A follow-up presentation on passages from scripture that support an inclusive and affirming attitude on 14 November 2021; see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/30/affirming-and-inclusive-passages-from-scripture/