The passage in view in the lectionary epistle reading for this coming Sunday (James 2:1-17) places this characteristic right to the fore, when it declares that “you do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (2:8).
The recipients of the treatise of James are identified in the opening verse as “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1). This is a generic description giving no specific clues as to their identity. This does, however, provide a testimony to the continuing presence of Jewish believers within the Jesus movement.
The readers of this work would well have recognised the reference to Leviticus 19:18, which clearly states: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. They would also have known very easily that the laws cited in James 2:11 are drawn directly from The Ten Words which God gave to Moses to give to Israel (Exodus 20).
This Jewish element can be seen in much of the treatise, particularly in the way that God is portrayed. God is the Father (1:17, 27; 3:9), the One God (2:19), both “lawgiver and judge” (4:12), who is acknowledged as being “compassionate and merciful” (5:11). God has created the world (1:17) and made humans in image of God (3:9). God acts as the champion of the poor (1:27), and requires human beings to act with justice for the poor (5:1–6). All of these claims about God can be seen to have been drawn from the testimony of the people of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The treatise of James thus draws on the prophetic tradition of Israel for its view of God. It shares this viewpoint with Matthew’s Gospel, where God is acknowledged as Creator, judge, lawgiver, showing mercy yet demanding righteousness. These two books of the New Testament testify to the ongoing vitality of “Jewish Christianity” in the middle and latter decades of the first century.
Also similar to Matthew’s Gospel is the way that this treatise includes numerous explicit references to Hebrew scripture. In the Gospels, we see that Jesus quoted often from his scripture and drew on biblical imagery as the basis for his teachings. This characteristic is heightened both by the Matthean narrative’s emphasis on fulfilment of scripture (Matt 1–4; 8:17; 12:17–21; 21:4–5; 27:9–10) and the words attributed to Jesus concerning the fulfilment of the law (5:17–20) and of the prophets (13:14–15, 35; 26:52–56).
In the treatise of James, there are two significant passages which contain direct citations of the Law. First, the Levitical command to love the neighbour (Lev 19:18) introduces a discussion of the need to fulfil the Law (2:8). There is reference to two of the Ten Commandments (2:11) before a succinct moral conclusion is drawn: “so speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (2:12). These verses appear in this Sunday’s epistle reading.
Second, in his consideration of faith and works (2:18–26), the author engages in a midrash on the Genesis account of Abraham being reckoned as righteousness (Gen 15:6); once again, a concise conclusion is drawn, that “faith without works is dead” (2:26).
Ever since Martin Luther dismissed James as a “right strawy epistle”, interpreters have tended to assume that James 2 stands in direct contrast to Paul’s argument in Gal 3:6–18; more recent interpretation has questioned this assumption. James here defines “faith” as mere verbal assent, with no practical outworking (2:18–19)—a sense which it does not have for Paul, who links faith and love by referring to “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).
In fact, it is claimed, both authors regard authentic faith as inextricably linked with “works”. But the sense remains that this treatise reflects a strand of the Jesus movement which differed from Paul’s views—and was perhaps more in tune with the opponents with whom Paul often argued. The polemic against a Pauline understanding certainly underlies the argument of James 2:14–26; the twice-stated conclusion (2:17, 26) is pointed in rebutting the Pauline criticism of relying on “the works of the Law” (Gal 2:16; 3:2, 10–12). It’s a matter of priority: faith comes first, the “works of the Law” come as a consequence of that first priority. Trusting first in works has the order the wrong way around.
But simply relying on faith with no regard for the Law is not good enough for James. In affirming that “faith apart from works is dead” (2:26), the treatise of James affirms the ongoing validity and central importance of “the royal law”, continuing the ancient Israelite commitment to living a life consistent with the intentions of God that they be a holy people.
The ethic imbued by keeping the Law is fundamental to the life of faith. In this way, for followers of Jesus, the model of Abraham continues to inform their discipleship; “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (2:22).
In this regard, viewing Abraham as a model of faith, this letter is consistent with what Paul writes, in Romans: Abraham “did not weaken in faith … no unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom 4:18-21).
And Paul, like James, also affirms the ongoing validity of the ethic that is taught in the Law, asserting that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12) and “neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor 7:19).
Indeed, Paul affirms that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law”, citing some of the Ten Commandments in support (Rom 13:8-10). So whilst there are some points of disagreement between James and Paul, as to how the Law is used in specific ways, there is a fundamental commitment to keeping the ethic, the way of life, that is taught by the Law. James can’t simply dismissed as being as unsubstantial as straw–sorry, Luther!!
Wash your hands! It’s guidance that has been particularly pertinent over the past 18 months, as we have grappled with the dangers of transmitting a novel coronavirus which has been responsible for a global pandemic. Wash your hands—carefully, thoroughly, singing “Happy birthday to you” through twice.
So the opening verses of the Gospel passage offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday sounds quite relevant: “when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them” (Mark 7:1–2). Eating without washing hands, to us, is not a wise thing. Surely, the same applies to the disciples of Jesus, back 2,000 years ago?
Well, it’s not that simple. It’s not just a matter of washing your hands, using soap and warm water, for 30 seconds—not in the biblical text. It’s a more complex and nuanced matter, in this biblical story. The author of this Gospel makes it quite clear that it’s not just a matter of “wash your hands”.
The opening phrase identifies that it was the Pharisees and some scribes who noticed what the disciples were (or rather, weren’t) doing.
That’s significant, because they were the people amongst the Jews who attends carefully to all the details of what the Law required the people of Israel to do. The scribes and the Pharisees devoted their lives to teaching and explaining each of the 613 commandments and ordinances that were included within the books of Torah (the books of the Law—the first five books of Hebrew Scriptures).
So they knew that washing hands before eating was a part of life that included many details. There were quite a number of factors involved in preparing to eat. It was a complex matter—as, indeed, was attending to each of those 613 laws.
This complexity is signalled in a significant aside as the story is told (marked by parentheses in our Bibles), as we read that “the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles” (Mark 7:3–4).
In terms of the “many traditions” that the Pharisees valued, the washing of hands included a number of factors. How much water would be sufficient to cleanse the hands? From what vessel can the water be poured onto the hands? How much of each hand should be washed when performing this action? What water is acceptable, and what will not be acceptable? Who is required to perform this action? Is everyone required to do this? What might make the handwashing ineffective?
Now, before we come down heavily on the scribes and the Pharisees, and accuse them of legalism and of being fixated on details and of placing heavy burdens on the people, let’s remember the ways that our own court system operates today. We have laws, covering all manner of situations, addressing many different actions. Each law has a number of sections and subsections in the relevant legislation.
Then each magistrate or judge applies that law to the specific situation before the court. Case law develops, providing precedents for this situation of that situation. Before you know it, you are looking at a whole bookcase full of documentation that is required to be known, before actions can be assessed under the law.
The Pharisees and the scribes were doing the same. They were exploring all the options, all the possibilities, in applying the law. And they were teaching the people, instructing them in how to attend to the commandments and ordinances that were given by God to the people through Moses—and through the line of interpreters which followed on over the ensuing centuries.
Eventually, the accumulation of explorations and considerations about these commandments and ordinances were written down—some centuries after the time of Jesus—in a document which we know as the Mishnah, a Hebrew word which comes from a root word meaning “repetition”. The Mishnah contains the teachings of rabbis from centuries past, which were learnt by male Jewish students by study and repetition.
One of the tractates in the Mishnah is entitled Yadaim, which means “hands”. It is the eleventh of twelve tractates in the sixth order of the Mishnah, which is entitled Tohoroth, meaning “purities”. The whole section deals with the distinctions between clean and unclean, and provides guidance on how to maintain the state of purity, or being clean.
Yadaim provides a detailed discussion of washing hands prior to eating, and canvasses precisely those questions that I posed above. It is important to note, however, that the matter of washing hands before eating is not simply (as we would understand it) a ritual which is designed to remove germs and ensure that no infections occur. It is not about physiological cleanliness and medical health. Rather, it is about holiness, about being clean before God, about being in a right state when sharing in a meal.
The commandment to wash hands does not actually appear in the Hebrew Scriptures. There are instructions to wash hands prior to various actions, involving a person with a discharge (Lev 15:11) and in sacrificing a heifer in relation to an unsolved murder (Deut 21:6). There is also an instruction for the priests to wash their hands and their feet with water from the bronze basin before they approach the altar of sacrifice (Exod 30:17–21).
However, the practice of washing hands before praying is attested in a document some two hundred years before the time of Jesus. The Letter of Aristeas (written around 150 BCE) reports that the 72 translators of the Septuagint, “following the custom of all the Jews, washed their hands in the sea in the course of their prayer to God” (Aristeas 305). Some decades later, one of the Sibylline Oracles states that “at dawn, they [the Jews] lift up their holy arms toward heaven, from their beds, always sanctifying their flesh with water” (Sib. Or. 3.591–93).
The argument, then, for the development of the practice that the scribes and Pharisees advocated, is that a faithful Jew would pray before eating—a prayer of blessing, in gratitude for the food—and thus would wash their hands before praying. Thus, always washing hands before eating would have been commonplace by the time of Jesus.
It is often argued that what the Pharisees and scribes have done, is to extrapolate from the requirement placed upon the priests before they enter the presence of God (Exodus 30) to apply the principle to all faithful Jews as they approach the meal, a time of fellowship with God (Mishnah tractate Yadaim).
This is not an unreasonable line of argument. The Pharisees and the scribes did precisely this over and over again, with regard to all manner of actions prescribed for the priests. The enterprise of the Pharisees was to take the instructions placed upon the priests in Jerusalem as they conducted their daily rituals in the Temple, as guidelines for the way that faithful Jewish people in towns and villages were to act as they went about their daily business. The Law, in their view, was not simply for the elites in one place; the Law was God’s instruction to all the people, on how to be faithful to God, reverent and devout, in every aspect of their lives.
The Law was a gift that was provided by God, to ensure that the people of Israel maintained their state of being as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession” (1 Peter 2:9), in obedience to God’s declaration, “you shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44, cited at 1 Peter 1:16).
To be consistently and thoroughly holy—set apart, consecrated, dedicated to God—means that each mundane action in daily life is to be carried out in ways which reflect the faith of the people, their ongoing commitment to the covenant relationship with God. They were to live in a way that invited God into every aspect of life—including, in this instance, preparations for eating at table. Washing hands before praying before eating ensured that each meal was seen as a holy action performed by a holy people.
However: Jesus appears to be arguing against this, when he declares, “you leave the commandment of God and hold to human traditions” (Mark 7:8). What do we make of this direct and clear negation of the Pharisees’ position?
The first factor to note is that whenever Jesus engages in debate and discussion with the scribes and the Pharisees, he is actually engaging them on their home ground, undertaking the very activity that they took part in each and every day. Debating the details of Torah, exploring alternate interpretations, posing options for application, was the very essence of the work of the Pharisees. Quoting one passage of scripture as counterpoint to another passage already cited (as Jesus does in Mark 7:6–13) was a standard element in such debates.
Exaggeration and over-statement was also integral to these debates, as the participants pushed and probed the case put forward by their opponents, contesting the claims made and advancing counter-claims with gusto. Jesus is doing precisely this in his interactions with the scribes and Pharisees. He most likely was quite assertive—it was the style of such debates—and could well have been aggressive and controversial in such debates.
However, a second factor is that this narrative is not an eye-witness report, direct from the time precisely when the encounter occurred. Rather, it is a narrative created in the oral traditions of the early church, not written down into the form we have it until some decades after the event. This context is important.
The way that the canonical Gospels portray disputes between Jesus and other Jewish teachers of the Law reflects the context in which tensions between Jews in the synagogues and Messianic Jews (followers of Jesus) had become heightened. Portraying the interaction as an aggressive, polemical encounter reflects the life setting within which the narrative is written. The encounter has most likely been exaggerated and intensified because of the context in which the written narrative was shaped.
After all, once the early followers of Jesus (who were overwhelmingly Jews) had made the decision that Jesus was in fact their long-awaited Messiah, and then articulated this decision within their local communities of faith (the Jewish synagogues where they participated in faith-based activities), they were criticised, corrected, disputed, denounced, and eventually, so it seems, expelled from all synagogue involvement. It was an increasingly unhappy environment. So, portraying the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark 7 as an aggressive, polemical encounter reflects the life setting within which the narrative is written. The encounter has most likely been exaggerated and intensified.
The conclusion that Jesus reaches, “what comes out of a person is what defiles him” (7:20; see also verses 15 and 23) does not overturn the laws of purity, taught and advocated by the scribes and the Pharisees. Rather, it is the distinctive contribution to the debate about purity that Jesus makes; that our morality is shaped and influenced by what we have internalised, by the very ways that we live each and every day, by the principles that guide and even determine our actions. And that, after all, is what the scribes and the Pharisees were seeking to inculcate amongst the people of the covenant. How we live influences what we believe, and what we believe shapes how we act.
So: wash your hands! And make sure that all that you do reflects all that you believe and hold dear.
It was 20 years ago today that the “Tampa incident” occurred. That began a series of actions that has left a permanent stain of shame on the national identity of Australia.
The “Tampa incident” involved the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter which was sailing in the Indian Ocean, and a small Indonesian fishing boat, the KM Palapa 1. The Indonesian fishing boat had left from Indonesia a few days earlier with 438 asylum seekers aboard. The boat was heading to Christmas Island, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. As that island was part of Australia, the asylum seekers were aiming to land there so that they could make new lives in Australia, eventually on the mainland.
On 26 August 2001, the engines of the fishing boat stalled in international waters between Indonesia and Australia. The Palapa lay stranded for three days. The Australian Coast Guard put out a call for boats in the area to rescue the people on the boat. The MV Tampa was plying its commercial route in the Indian Ocean, so it headed for the Palapa and rescued 433 of the 438 people who were aboard the stranded boat.
On board the Tampa, the Norwegian crew set up makeshift accommodation and bathrooms on the deck, out in the open air. Indonesia have permission for the Tampa to return passengers to the Indonesian port of Merak. Those on board became distressed at this news. The captain of the ship, Arne Rhinnan, met with a delegation from the asylum seekers, who asked to be taken to Christmas Island (four hours away) rather than being returned to Indonesia (11 hours away).
Rhinnan told the coast guard he planned to take the rescuees to Christmas Island. Most of the refugees were Hazaras from Afghanistan. To be returned to their country would mean certain death for those fleeing the political situation of their homeland. To be allowed to land in Australia would mean life—a new life, in a new land, a new start. It would mean everything.
It’s a wonderful story. It’s the Gospel in action. It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, acted out in a different setting and a different time—our time. It’s reaching out in love and concern to people whose lives were in imminent danger. It’s embracing the stranger, the homeless, and taking them in.
I love the welcoming actions of Arne Rhinnan and his sailors, in taking the asylum seekers on board, feeding them, giving them water and shelter, advocating for them. It’s exactly what Jesus advocated in his command to “love your neighbour” (Mark 12) and his story about “whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me” (Matt 25).
Except that’s not the end of the story. The intransigence of the Australian Government soon became evident. Within hours, the Tampa was told it was prohibited from entering Australian waters. The penalty for doing so would be the imprisonment of Rhinnan and fines of up to A$110,000. A stalemate ensued. The captain of the Tamp had to decide what to do with the asylum seekers now on board that ship.
Australia’s policy to this point had been to rescue asylum seekers at sea and detain them in Australia while their claims for protection were processed. Success in this process would mean release into the community on permanent protection visas. Failure would mean being returned to their country of origin.
But the Federal Government changed their practices. Enter the practice of “boat turnbacks”. Boats carrying asylum seekers were called Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels, or SIEVs. No SIEVs were to be allowed to enter Australian waters. No asylum seekers on boats were to land on Australian shores. The Government had set the course for the next two decades of rejection and stereotyping of asylum seekers as “illegal” (which they weren’t, and aren’t, under international law).
And boat turnbacks morphed into border control. And Immigration, a federal department, transformed into Border Protection. And Labor governments (2007–2013) followed the practice of conservative governments (2001–2007, continued from 2013 onwards) in refusing entry to “boat arrivals”—even though there were thousands of “plane arrivals” each year, and they all managed to enter Australia. And the success of a certain Minister for Immigration and Border Protection would catapult him into the leadership of the nation.
It’s the exact flip side of the parable of Jesus—those who fail to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, those who fail to give shelter to the homeless—these are the ones who fail to recognise Jesus in “the least of these my brothers and sisters” (Matt 25:45). These are the one to who Jesus declares that their fate is, “these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”. That’s in the story that Jesus told.
But in the story of the Palapa and the Tampa, the Norwegian sailors and the Afghani asylum seekers, a very different fate lay in store.
The shameful saga of the claims about “children overboard” took hold in the public narrative. The claims were later proven to be entirely confected. But the stigma attached to the asylum seekers took hold. It exacerbated the racist denigration and discrimination that had been fostered already in Australia by Pauline Hanson in 1997–98, and which Prime Minister Howard refused to condemn or even to address.
None of the asylum seekers came to Australia. An Australian naval vessel collected them and took them to Nauru. Some were then taken to Aotearoa New Zealand. A small number were eventually given entry to Australia, some years later, under very limited restrictions.
Of course, the history of Australia over the past 250 years has been one in which racist discrimination has occurred again and again. The people who travelled on the First Fleet and set about making their new life beside Sydney Cove were not benign colonial settlers; they were the violent imperial invaders.
The “settlement” of the “colony” in 1788, bringing the overflow British population of petty criminals, was an illegal invasion by imperial forces. They established a society that took land, raised lynch mobs, murdered Aboriginal people, executed massacres, built mission ghettos, and managed to all but eliminate the indigenous peoples who had lived on the continent and its islands for millennia.
However, in the outback of Australia, Afghan camel handlers had long plied their trade. In the mid century gold rushes, Chinese prospectors worked alongside English and Scottish men. Indeed, on the First Fleet, there had been eight Jewish convicts as well as eleven convicts of Afro-American heritage. Australia had been “a multicultural society” since the very beginning of the British imperial invasion and settlement, to establish their colony.
When Australia became a nation in 1901, one of the earliest legislative acts was to establish “the White Australia Policy”, which lasted into the 1970s. Blacks and Asians were under no illusion that they were not welcome. The dictation test was set up to ensure that non-English speakers would fail and thus not be granted entry.
Yet tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders were taken to Australia to work on plantations in Queensland, often by force or trickery, in the mid to late 19th century. They existed in slavery in this country; it was not the land of “the young and free”. Right up to 2020 there had been thousands of Pacific Islander seasonal workers, caught into slave-labour conditions, picking fruit on Australian farms.
And the Chinese who had worked in the goldfields and across the country in countless towns had suffered under the press of stereotyping and vilification throughout the 19th century; this surfaced in a new form with the claims of the “yellow peril” threat in the 20th century.
And throughout all of this, the First Peoples of this continent and its hundreds of associated islands were marginalised, mistreated, and massacred; their children were stolen, their jobs were unpaid, their health suffered, their reputation was disfigured.
The incident involving the Palapa and the Tampa was not a one-off, unusual occurrence. It actually taps deep into the Australian psyche that has been fostered in various ways since 1788. It is a continuing shame that stains our conscience and disfigures our society. It provides a warning, a rebuke, a challenge. Is this really who we are? who we want to be? who we should be?
Twenty years years on from the Palapa and the Tampa, and the dishonesty of “children overboard”, it is time to reconsider—to leave behind the racist discrimination and vilification that has too often been evident in Australian society. It is time we became something different.
For more discussion of the Tampa incident and its consequences, see:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). So affirms the brother of Jesus, James, in the letter attributed to him; so we hear in this week’s lectionary. And passages from this letter will appear as the epistle offering for the next month.
So what is the nature of this letter? It begins with the standard opening address expected in a letter: “James … to the twelve tribes … greetings” (1:1). However, it lacks every other common feature of a letter written during the hellenistic period: there is no thanksgiving, no sharing of news, no travel plans, no emissaries, no closing greetings or benediction.
Instead, the work plunges immediately into a series of general exhortations: “consider it all joy … if any of you lack wisdom, ask God … ask in faith … let the lowly one boast in being raised up … blessed is the person who endures temptation … do not be deceived … be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger … rid yourselves of all sordidness … welcome the implanted word … be doers of the word” (excerpts from 1:2–22).
Moral instruction—known as “paraenesis”—is the major thrust throughout the work; it ends in a loosely-connected string of commands and instructions (5:7–20) with no concluding summation. This is not so much a letter, as a moral treatise designed to provide instruction and training in religious and ethical matters. So I prefer to refer to this book as the treatise of James.
In this regard, this work is like other New Testament books that we describe as letters which don’t, in fact, exhibit many characteristics of a letter. 1 John lacks both the address and the conclusion of a letter. Hebrews likewise lacks a letter opening, and it describes itself as “a word of exhortation” (Heb 13:22). Some of the letters appear to be very situation-specific, as regularly letters usually are; others, by contrast, are generic and seem not to be grounded in any particular life setting.
The structure of the treatise of James appears relatively unsystematic, with a string of exhortations, dealing with somewhat related matters, yet without an integrated arrangement. The central concern is to persuade the audience that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (4:4) and thus “to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27).
Accordingly, a number of moral qualities are urged on the readers, and pointers for practical action are given in many of the sections of the treatise. The treatise thus stands in the tradition of generalised moral exhortation, as practised throughout the Hellenistic world.
There is nothing that provides any clue as to the specific situation that might be addressed by the author of the treatise; it is, rather, a general work for a widespread audience. In this regard, it may be compared with sections of some New Testament letters (Rom 12:9–21; 13:8–14; Gal 5:13–6:10; Phil 4:4–9; 1 Thess 5:12–22; Col 3:5–17; Eph 4:17–5:20; 1 Pet 2:11–3:12; 4:7–11; and parts of Hebrews) as well as the book of Proverbs. This technique was also employed by numerous pagan teachers in the Hellenistic world (for instance, Plutarch).
The description of the author of this treatise is short and to the point: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). James was a well-known figure; he is named amongst the brothers of Jesus (Mark 6:3; Matt 13:55; Gal 1:19) and seems to have been the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:20; 21:20).
Was the treatise written before James was put to death in 62CE? (Josephus reports his death in book 20 of his Jewish Antiquities—not to be confused with James, the son of Zebedee, whose death in the year 44CE is noted at Acts 12:2.) The knowledge of Jewish scripture and traditions shown in this work, as well as its extensive set of allusions to the teachings of Jesus, support the possibility that James himself wrote it —or, more likely, preached it, with someone else writing it down.
There are many features to support the view that this treatise originated within the early Palestinian (even Jerusalem) part of the Jesus movement. For instance, the way that religion is defined, as we noted above, as being “the care of orphans and widows” (1:27), draws on a central motif in Hebrew scripture. Care for the vulnerable, such as widows and orphans, was a central element in ancient Israelite society.
In the Hebrew scriptures, God is described as “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows” (Ps 68:5), who “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow” (Deut 10:18).
As a result, the Law is clear about what this means for Israel, directing that “you shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child” (Exod 22:22), and instructing that the widow and the fatherless child are 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).
The curses of Deuteronomy 27 include the declaration, “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut 27:19). 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).
The book of Psalms includes a prayer for God to rise up against the wicked, who “kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless” (Ps 94:6). That psalm ends with an assurance that “the Lord … wipe them out for their wickedness; the Lord our God will wipe them out” (Ps 94:23). The prophet Malachi includes this in his vision of the coming day of the Lord: “I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness … against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me” (Mal 3:4).
What is wished for the wicked who persecute the faithful is expressed with vitriol in Psalm 109: “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow” (Ps 109:9). Another psalm expresses similar hopes, but in a less aggressive manner: “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).
So in this key phrase, referring to children with no parents and women with no husband, which the treatise includes in the definition of “true religion”, the Jewish origins and ethos of the document is clearly signalled. It clearly reflects the motif of “the fatherless and the widow” that we have seen throughout Hebrew scripture. It also resonates strongly with the emphasis that Jesus offers in his care and concern for “the little ones” (Mark 9:42; Matt 10:52; Luke 17:2; Matt 18:6, 10, 14), “the least of these” (Matt 25:40, 45) who are those most disadvantaged in society (Matt 25:35– 36). Whoever “is least among you all is the one who is great”, he teaches (Luke 9:48).
So true religion is “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27)”. The second aspect of this definition, to remain “in stained by the world”, relates to the sense of purity that was central to the priestly conception of Israelite society (Lev 10:3, 8–11; 11:44–45; 19:1–2; 20:26; 22:31–33). The people of Israel were to be holy, set apart, pure.
This purity was integral to the teachings of Jesus (Matt 5:8; 8:1–4; 10:1, 8; 11:4–5; 12:22–45; 15:1–2, 10–20; 23:25–26). This purity is the nature of true wisdom (James 3:7) and is what believers should strive for (4:8).
Nevertheless, the refined style and extensive vocabulary of the Greek employed throughout the treatise of James suggest it may have been written by one schooled in Greek rhetoric and literature. It is unlikely to have been a Jewish person like the brother of Jesus, largely unschooled in the ways of hellenistic rhetoric. So, could it be that the book might have been written in the form we have it after the death of James? If so, perhaps it functioned as a statement of the authority of James and a compilation of his teaching within the Jerusalem church, written in order to encourage other congregations with Jewish members.
One verse describes these congregations as “your synagogues” (2:2), suggesting an origin in the time when Jewish synagogues were still permitted and active in Israel, before the war of 66–74 CE and the consequent dispersion of Jews from the land of Israel by the Romans. Some scholars have claimed that it must have been written much later, even in the second century, by a person writing in the name of James, as a way of claiming his authority for the teachings proposed in this letter. This view seems less persuasive these days. Its origins and dominant ethos are clearly Jewish.
And the key definition of religion, in its best form, as being “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world”, is thoroughly Jewish.
Here’s a Bible Study that I wrote a few years ago, which canvasses some of the key issues that we will encounter in the Gospel readings for the next two Sundays, drawn from Mark 7 (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 and Mark 7:24-37).
The hearers and readers of this earliest Gospel, the beginning of the good news about Jesus, Messiah, struggled to live out their faith in a vibrant but challenging situation. As they did so, they remembered and treasured stories about Jesus’ travels to Gentile lands (4:35–5:21; 6:45–8:13) and his encounters with a range of people who were regarded as being either “on the fringes” of Judaism or beyond the limits of God’s people.
They treasured these stories because they showed that, as Jesus traveled outside the Jewish homeland and encountered marginal people, he indicated that the kingdom would include Gentiles and people who were regarded by many Jews as being “on the outer”: people disabled by physical ailments, and mentally ill people (that is, demon-possessed)—and even, in the patriarchal society of the ancient world, women, who occupied places “on the edge”.
People who were considered unclean by the priests were considered to be beyond the realm of God’s chosen people. Jesus’ interactions with these people reflect his belief that they ought to be considered as able to belong to God’s people. The stories of such encounters also indicated that Jesus came into conflict with the dominant authorities of the day—the scribes and Pharisees, as well as the priests and Sadducees—as he engaged with these people, and debated the issues with his contemporaries.
These stories mark out the territory, as it were, for the renewed people of God, as Jesus understood them. A sociological understanding of these passages points to the role that they play in defining the boundaries of the group of “Jesus-followers”, and in providing identity markers for members of this group.
Skim read through Mark 6:45–9:1.
A. Notice the geographical markers (6:45; 6:53; 7:1; 7:24; 7:31; 8:10; 8:13; 8:22; 8:27).
Locate each place on a map of ancient Israel.
What characterises the area that Jesus travelled to in 6:53–8:13?
What races might be represented in the crowd that follows Jesus during this visit?
Comment: Mark refers to “the other side” (4:53 and 5:1; 6:45)—that is, across on the Gentile side of the Sea of Galilee. He is making the point that Jesus twice intentionally left Israel—a region considered holy by all Jews—and travelled into Gentile territory. One rabbi is recorded in the Mishnah as commenting, “the lands of the Gentiles are unclean”. Jesus’ visit makes a clear statement that stepping on Gentile land does not automatically render a person unclean.
B. Read Mark 7:1. Who comes to hear Jesus at this point in the story? Where do they come from? What do they debate in the following verses?
Comment: The Pharisees and scribes were experts in interpreting Torah. Here, Jesus has a vigorous debate with them. They discuss the procedures which are necessary to ensure holiness. Jesus disagrees with their interpretations. He cites scripture to refute their views (Isa 29:13 at Mark 7:6–7; Exod 20:12 and Deut 5:16 at Mark 7:10) and argues that these texts must take priority over the oral traditions developed by the rabbis. This was exactly the way that the Pharisees argued themselves.
Jesus debates the Pharisees using their own methods, but he comes to a different result. In his concluding remarks (7:18–23) he sets out different criteria for true holiness.
C. Read Mark 7:19. What is the impact of this narrative comment? What does it say about the nature of the community that is formed by the followers of Jesus?
Now read Mark 7:21–22. Compare this list with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17) and notice the similarities.
Comment: Jesus does not the reject purity system of Judaism. The ethic he proposes remains faithful to his Jewish faith. Yet the criteria for “belonging” are made wider and less exclusive. Mark interprets Jesus as relaxing the food laws (7:19); this will allow for Jews and Gentiles to mix more freely. (Other Gospel writers had a different interpretation of this incident—Matthew omits this sentence and Luke deletes the whole scene from his Gospel.) Yet, for Jesus, the fundamentals (7:21–22) still apply. Mark presents him as redefining and radicalising his Jewish faith—not rejecting it.
D. Read Mark 7:24–37. What is the impact of these two healing stories?
How significant is the location of these healings?
How does Jesus relate to the main person in each story?
What message do these stories convey about who is included in the people of God?
Comment: Tyre (7:24) is just outside of Jewish territory. The Decapolis (7:31) is a predominantly Gentile region. In each story, Jesus encounters a person who is unclean: a Gentile woman who has been in contact with her daughter, who is possessed by a demon; and a Gentile man who is physically disabled in speech and hearing. Contact with such people would make a person unclean and thus alienated from the holy people of God.
Jesus ignores these taboos and extends the boundaries of the people of God. He does this reluctantly at 7:27, only after conceding that the woman has won her point in debate with him (7:29, “for saying that…”). He does it willingly at 7:33–34, but then urges the healed man to keep quiet (7:36)—although the man just cannot keep quiet! In each case, Jesus’ actions were provocative.
E. Where else on this journey does Jesus encounter such marginalised people?
(Note Mark 6:56 and 8:22–26.)
Where else in this Gospel does Jesus encounter such marginalised people?
(Start with Mark 1:21–26 and skim through until Mark 10:46–52.)
How does Jesus interact with such people?
(Note especially Mark 5:34 and 10:52.)
What is the effect of the inclusion of so many stories about Jesus encountering marginalised or unclean people? What message does it convey to the followers of Jesus who heard and retold these stories? What kind of community might they aim to create, as a result of these stories?
F. Finally, note the promise that Jesus makes to his disciples at Mark 14:28. It is repeated at Mark 16:7. What significance might there be in the fact that it is Galilee, not Jerusalem, where the risen Jesus will meet his disciples?
Comment: Galilee is where Jesus preached and healed. Jerusalem is where he was tried and killed. It is as if the new community of faith will thrive in precisely those areas outside of the control of the Jewish authorities. This community will not reject its Jewish origins and heritage; but it will interpret them in a more inclusive and yet more radical manner.
This blog draws on material in MARKING THE GOSPEL: an exploration of the Gospel for Year B, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).
This morning, as the Canberra Region Presbytery gathered online to meet in council, the theme for consideration was Advocacy. At the start of the meeting, the Rev. Andrew Smith led the gathering in a time of reflection and preparation. Andrew read from the closing section of Ephesians 6 (the epistle that is offered in the revised common lectionary for the Sunday after the meeting).
Andrew invited members of the presbytery to listen, reflect, and then write in the chat what stands out for them, as we consider advocacy and hear these words about “the cosmic powers … the armour of God … the gospel of peace … the mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6:10—20).
Those present noted motifs such as “speaking boldly” … “boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” … “declare it boldly” … “speak directly and bluntly to power”. One person noted that perseverance is required, and there is no indication of victory only resources for the fray. One participant observed, “I saw a shimmering chainmail ‘armour’, more the quality of water that is soft, resists and extinguishes flaming arrows, and wears down hard places over time” and, a little later, “I also wondered about cloaks of feathers as ‘armour’ insisting on identity, diversity, justice for all – those cloaks we have seen in parliaments in recent times”.
Some people noted the imperative present in this passage: “I MUST speak” … “ the imperative is incontestable; we have the armour to take whatever gets thrown at us” … “we have no other option but to speak up for justice” … “we MUST stand strong against evil and pray continually, we have the armour of God to give us strength and protection”. Another person observed the need for “thorough preparation and then to stand”. One noted, “I was struck by the phrase “fighting against the spiritual forces of evil”. It brings out the spiritual nature of injustice and the need for faith and commitment to address this.”
Some participants related the biblical text to current circumstances: “In the electronic world in which we live, the actions of the principalities and powers for good and evil are more clearly revealed, so our enemies and allies are more clearly seen.”
One commented at length: “An Ambassador in chains to me shows three ideas. Firstly the idea of servant leadership the need to take actions in the service of others. Secondly, the idea that an advocate has no choice but to be a prisoner to their passion to help others an idea of a destiny to do good. Thirdly, the need to be empathetic with the suffering of others not from a vantage point outside their hardship but from a feeling of a common struggle and hardship.”
Another highlighted that “faith in Christ is the basis to understand and do good”; another said, “first we must read the Bible and understand God’s will, then proclaim it in the need for justice for others”. Others commented, “pray constantly, be bold, be well prepared, promote peace” … “every footfall can bring peace to our context” … “’Be Strong in God’ – struggle against evil, with Prayer, Preparation, God’s Protection, and then Action”. One noted “the promise of being able to ‘stand firm’”, another highlighted “feeling that you are armed with God’s love to speak up with no fear”, yet another, “constant prayer in the Spirit”.
One observed that the passage speaks of “the whole armour, not just feet, we have been given the armour to use”; another that “the whole armour of God evokes a gathering of so many things- love, peace and truth. These are in uneasy relationship. Here faith comes in that there is a way through.” That led another person to note “the irony of dressing like a Roman soldier”, and yet another to observe “the internal contradictions between putting on the armour and proclamation of peace”.
A good question posed was, “Where is the distinction between God’s justice and human justice? or are they the same?” That’s a question worth pondering beyond this particular reading, in each of our actions, day by day, week after week.
Collated from the chat at the August 2021 Presbytery meeting by John Squires
Colleagues in ministry leadership, and people of the Congregations of the Canberra Region Presbytery,
The news, late last week, of the return of lockdowns to all locations within our Presbytery did not come as a surprise. The Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus appears to be a potent variant, and the wisdom of locking down while it is spreading cannot be doubted.
We encourage you to think of the restrictions that we are currently experiencing as our contribution to the common good. We are avoiding social contact in order to lessen the risk of transmitting the virus. We are accepting deprivations for ourselves in order to lessen the number of people who might become ill, hospitalised, or die. As we act in this way to contribute to the common good, we are demonstrating the priority of loving our neighbours. This is how Jesus called us to live.
The impact on each and every one of us will be to the fore of our thinking in the coming days. No doubt each one of us has our own personal ways of dealing with the lockdown period. Special routines are helpful for the duration of lockdown. Special treats at designated times can assist to encourage us. We are experienced in caring for ourselves; we have done this before, we can do it again.
We can spend time praying for others who have needs greater and deeper than ourselves. The events in Afghanistan, the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Japan and Turkey, the bushfires occurring in the northern hemisphere: these news items remind us that there are people in other places on the globe who are in terrible peril. We can pray for them. We should pray for them.
We can offer thankful gratitude for the blessings that we experience. We are able to connect with other people in so many ways other than in person—by phone, FaceTime, ZOOM, email, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter … the list seems endless. We can gather-apart for worship using one of the platforms available (YouTube, Facebook, ZOOM) to reconnect as a community of faith.
We can give thanks for the doctors, nurses, cleaners, security guards, police officers, contact tracers, and others who ensure that hospitals, vaccination centres, walk-in clinics and COVID testing centres continue to operate well, despite the pressures they are experiencing.
We can know that “we are in this together” is not just a slogan—it can be the way that we gain strength from our encouragement of one another. We have friends to connect with at our point of need. We can give thanks for the existence of LifeLine, Beyond Blue, Headspace, YarnSafe, MindSpot, ACON, and many other agencies dedicated to ensuring that we have a safe, caring listening ear available to us when we need it.
And in our praying and reflecting, let us hold one another, the people whom we serve, and those for whom they care, in the bonds of compassion and care.
Ross Kingham and Judy McKinlay, Presbytery Co-Chairpersons Jared Mitchell, Presbytery Deputy Chairperson Robbie Tulip, Presbytery Secretary Elizabeth Raine, Pastoral Relations Committee Chairperson Andrew Smith and John Squires, Presbytery Ministers
What if you thought of it as the Jews consider the Sabbath— the most sacred of times? Cease from travel. Cease from buying and selling. Give up, just for now, on trying to make the world different than it is. Sing. Pray. Touch only those to whom you commit your life. Center down.
And when your body has become still, reach out with your heart. Know that we are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful. (You could hardly deny it now.) Know that our lives are in one another’s hands. (Surely, that has come clear.) Do not reach out your hands. Reach out your heart. Reach out your words. Reach out all the tendrils of compassion that move, invisibly, where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love– for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, so long as we all shall live.
This week I am taking leave of my consideration of New Testament passages in the lectionary, to turn to the Hebrew Scripture passage offered by the Revised Common Lectionary: 1 Kings 8.
If you have been following the Old Testament readings offered by the lectionary since Pentecost, you will know we have encountered some fascinating characters. We started way back in May with Hannah, mother of Samuel, offering her prayer of thanks (1 Sam 2).
We saw the adult Samuel, arguing with the people of Israel about whether they should have a king (1 Sam 8). Not everyone was supportive of the idea.
The first king of Israel was Saul; the lectionary offered us the passage where David was chosen as the successor of Saul—the young shepherd who “was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome” (1 Sam 16). Then came the account of David’s encounter with the giant from Gath, the Philistine named Goliath (1 Sam 17), and the telling of David’s love for Jonathan (2 Sam 1). After the death of Saul, the tribes gathered at Hebron, to make a covenant together supporting David as the new king (2 Sam 5).
The following week we had the story of Michal, daughter of Saul, looking out of the window, watching King David leaping and dancing before the ark, dressed only, we are told, in a linen ephod (2 Sam 6).
The ephod is basically a very loose fitting outer garment; given that David was leaping and dancing, we can only surmise that it left little, if anything, to the imagination of onlookers, as it flapped and swirled.
And then, in a dramatic change of mood, we heard Nathan receiving the word of the Lord instructing David to build a house—a temple, no less (2 Sam 7).
The following Sunday provided another insight into the character of David—not only was he a scantily-clad dancer, but an adulterer and murderer as well, as we learn in the well-known story that involves Uriah, his wife Bathsheba, and the king’s officer Joab (2 Sam 11).
This was followed by the gory account of the death of Absalom, the third of David’s 21 children (yes, that’s correct: from his eight wives and ten concubines, David bore at least 21 children!)
Poor long-haired Absalom was murdered after his hair got caught in the branches of an oak tree, and he was left swinging, until ten of the king’s soldiers butchered him. And all of this took place after a battle which was marked by the slaughter of 20,000 Israelites (2 Sam 18).
David, we are told, was grief-stricken. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!”, we are told he lamented. “Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” That is a sardonic reflection, however, on the faux-love of David for his estranged son and his faux-grief on Absalom’s death.
All of these stories reveal to us the character of the leaders in Israel. All of these stories have featured in our lectionary over the last three months—have a look at what has been offered and read those stories, I encourage you. Leaders are human, after all, we find in these stories, and life in those days was tough, rugged, challenging.
The leaders whom we encounter in these stories are devious, unscrupulous, scheming, manipulative, emotional, hard-headed, self-serving, and deeply flawed. All of this. From these ancient texts—as if we didn’t already know this from our own observations of leaders in our own situation!
Which brings us, through these sagas of violence, conflict, betrayal, and drama, to Solomon, son of David, installed as king of Israel after the death of his father (1 Kings 2). God made a promise to Solomon: “I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you” (1 Kings 3:12).
Then we come to the passage set for this coming Sunday, where all the stops are pulled out, as Solomon gathers people for the opening of the Temple (1 Kings 8).
This journey through the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures reaches it climactic point in this passage, where the greatest king of Israel, Solomon, prays to dedicate the grand religious building, the Temple, on the top of the highest hill in Jerusalem, the capital city of the kingdom at the point of its greatest influence and power. (The readings in following weeks will move into the literature attributed to and inspired by Solomon, the wisdom literature.)
So, we hear the account of this moment of dedication: “Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of the city of David, which is Zion. Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherub. And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD.” (1 Kings 8:1–10).
Man, this is serious stuff: heavy, important, serious. The king. All the elders. The heads of each of the 12 tribes. And the priests, with the ark of the covenant. All assembled at the place where Solomon, king in all his majesty and power, had arranged for a temple to be built. “Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven” (1 Kings 8:22), and prays a long prayer of blessing for the new edifice.
Now, Solomon, I am sure you are thinking, is remembered as the wise one. “The wisdom of Solomon”, we say. Jesus relates how “the Queen of the south [the Queen of Sheba] came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon” (Matt 12:42).
In 2 Chronicles 1, God says to Solomon, “because you have asked for wisdom and knowledge for yourself … wisdom and knowledge are granted to you. I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like” (2 Chron 1:11–12).
And later, King Solomon is said to have “excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. Every one of [those kings] brought his present, articles of silver and of gold, garments, myrrh, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year.” (2 Chron 9:22–24).
This wonderfully wise, insightful, discerning man, Solomon—bearing a name derived from the Hebrew for peace, “shalom”—became a powerhouse in the ancient world. But he did not always live as a man of peace. “Solomon”, the text continues, “had 4,000 stalls for horses and chariots, and 12,000 horsemen, whom he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem.” (2 Chron 9:25). Solomon had amassed a great army, exercising great power, imposing his rule across the region.
And Solomon, the tenth son of David, the second child of Bathsheba, came to the throne by devious means. It was Adonijah, son of David’s fifth wife Haggith, who sought to succeed his father on his death; Solomon, however, had Adonijah murdered, as well as dispatching the henchmen of Adonijah—Joab the general, who was executed, and Abiathar the priest, who was murdered. This paved the way for Solomon to succeed to the throne. He did not come with clean hands.
But he became a powerful ruler. More is said of Solomon: “he ruled over all the kings from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt.” (2 Chron 9:26). Solomon was remembered as king over the greatest expanse of land claimed by Israel in all of history. That’s a claim that is still held by the hardest of fundamentalist right-wing Israelis in the modern state of Israel today—claiming that God gave all this land to Israel under Solomon, and that is the extent of the land that should be under the control of the government of modern Israel. Which is not going to happen, given the realities of Middle Eastern politics on our times.
And we see the utilisation of this power by Solomon, the man of peace, in the Chronicler’s comment that “the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah; and horses were imported for Solomon from Egypt and from all lands.” (2 Chron 9:27–28).
So Solomon was a warrior. And warrior-kings were powerful, tyrannical in their exercise of power, ruthless in the way that they disposed of rivals for the throne and enemies on the battlefield alike. Think Alexander the Great. Think Charlemagne. Think Genghis Khan. Think William the Conqueror. Solomon reigned for 40 years—a long, wealthy successful time.
Yet in the passage set for this Sunday, Solomon appears not as a powerful king. Rather, he is a humble person of faith. He stands before all the people, raises his arms, and prays to the God who is to be worshipped in the Temple that he had erected. He is a person of faith, in the presence of his God, expressing his faith, exuding his piety.
Now, the prayer of Solomon goes for thirty solid verses; there are eight different sections in this prayer. The lectionary has mercy on us this Sunday; we are offered just two of those sections, eleven of the thirty verses. We have heard the shortened version! In these two sections of this prayer, Solomon identifies two important features of the newly-erected Temple. The first is that the fundamental reason for erecting this building is to provide a focal point, where people of faith can gather to pray to God (1 Ki 8:23–30).
Perhaps we may be used to hearing about the Temple in Jerusalem in fairly negative terms. Jesus cleared the Temple of the money changers and dove sellers who were exploring the people. He predicted the destruction of the Temple during the cataclysmic last days. For centuries, people from all over Israel were required to bring their sacrifices to the priests in the Temple, to offer up the firstborn of their animals and the firstfruits of their harvest. The Temple cult was a harsh, primitive religious duty, imposing hardships on the people. The priests, the elites who ran the Temple, lived well off the benefits of all of these offerings.
I could offer you a counter argument to each of these criticisms; but today I simply want to note that Solomon, in his prayer of dedication, makes it clear that the fundamental purpose of the Temple was to provide a house of prayer, a place where the people of God could gather, knowing that they were in the presence of God, knowing that the prayers that they offer would be heard by God and would lead to God’s offering of grace, forgiving them for their inadequacies and failures.
The Temple was to be a place of piety for the people. It was to foster the sense of connection with God. It was to deepen the life of faith of the people. It was to strengthen their covenant relationship with the Lord God.
All of which can be said for us, today, about the building that we come to each Sunday, to worship. The church—this church—is a place of piety for us, the people of God. It is to foster the sense of connection with God. It is to deepen the life of faith of each of us, the people of God. It is to strengthen our covenant relationship with the Lord God through the new covenant offered in grace by Jesus. That’s what the church—this church, your church—is to be.
So we read in the first part of Solomon’s Temple prayer. For the people of ancient Israel, standing in the shadow of this wonderful new building, the prayer might encourage a strong sense of self identity, blessed to be part of the people of God. Of course, it could also develop narrow nationalism, a jingoistic praising of the greatness of Israel, extolling their identity as the chosen nation, the holy people, the elect of God.
The Temple invited the people of God to meet the God of the people, to pray, to sing, to offer signs of gratitude and bring pleas and petitions—in short, to keep the covenant, to show that they are keeping the covenant, to be satisfied that they are keeping the covenant, as they worship. It had a strong, positive purpose for the people.
But that is not where the prayer ends. The second key element of Solomon’s prayer that the lectionary offers us today (1 Ki 8:41–43) is striking. It also relates to prayer. But it is not the prayer of the people of God, covenant partners with the Lord God. It is about the prayer of “a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, [who] comes from a distant land because of your name”. This is a striking and dramatic element to include in this dedication prayer before all the people.
Solomon prays to God, imploring God to “hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.”
Now that is an incredible prayer for the King of Israel to pray! It reflects an openness to the world beyond the nation, an engagement with the wider geopolitical and social relatives of the world at that time. Solomon was not an isolationist. He was not inward focussed on his nation. He had an outwards orientation. He did not want the Temple to foster a holy huddle, shut off from the world. He had other intentions. He wanted the Temple to be a holy place, open to people from across the region, from far beyond the territory of Israel—a gathering place for all the peoples.
That was the vision that Solomon set forth for his people. That was not always the way that the Temple actually did function, we know. But that was the foundational vision—articulated by Solomon, remembered by the scribes, included in the narrative account of the kings, placed in a strategic position at the opening and dedication of the Temple. It is a vision which speaks, both to the people of Israel, but also to people of faith today, in the 21st century world.
“Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” So we read in scripture (Deut 16:20). And once they were in that land (even though they colonised it unjustly), the people of Israel were reminded of the centrality of justice. “What does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”, one prophet asked (Micah 6:8). “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”, another of the prophets declared (Amos 5:24).
Justice is an important and oft-recurring theme in scripture, in both Old and New Testaments. It is not an add-on, an optional extra. It sits at the centre of the scriptural witness
1 Jesus and Justice
When one of the evangelists told the story of Jesus, the person chosen by God for a special task, he related him to the words (from yet another prophet) in which God affirmed, “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles … a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory” (Matt 12:18–20, quoting Isaiah 42:1–4).
Jesus himself had made it clear that when his focus was on fulfilling all the Law (Matt 5:17–20), it was “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” that ought to be given priority (Matt 23:23). So when Jesus instructs his followers to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33), he is pointing to the centrality of justice in the ways of God. And when he affirms that “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” are blessed, “for they shall be satisfied” (Matt 5:6), he is placing justice at the centre of his message. (The Greek word translated here as “righteousness” can equally be translated as “justice”.)
2 The Justice [Righteousness] of God
The letters of Paul place this justice (“righteousness”) at the heart of the gospel which he proclaimed: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness [justice] of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous [the just] shall live by faith.’” (Rom 1:16–17).
Indeed, in his excellent analysis of Paul’s letter to the Romans, identifies this clearly in the title of his book: A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (Yale University Press, 1997).
Justice [righteousness] is the very essence of God, given as an act of grace to all who put trust in God. It is through this “righteousness [justice] of God, through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe”, that “all are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:21–26). Paul asserts that it is “one act of righteousness [justice] [which] leads to justification and life for all” so that “grace also might reign through righteousness [justice] leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5:18–21). Justice is the very essence of God, given to all through Jesus.
3 Justice and Grace
One way of expressing this quality of justice, or righteousness, in the life of faith, is to show grace, or compassion, to those who are in need. Jesus recognised this when affirmed “whoever gives a cup of water to drink” (Mark 9:41), and in his parable about the Samaritan who went out of his way to assist and care for an injured traveller (Luke 10:25–37).
Both the manifesto for mission that Luke highlights at the start of the public activity of Jesus (Luke 4:18–21) and the climactic parable of the sheep and the goats that Matthew places at the end of the public teaching of Jesus (Matt 25:31–46). Jesus declares his intention to enact justice by setting free the captives, giving sight to the blind, and liberating the oppressed (Luke 4:18). He tells his followers that whenever they sheltered the homeless, fed the hungry, or gave a drink to the thirsty, “you did it to me” (Matt 25:35–40). James, his brother, likewise asserted that to practice true religion was “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27).
So acts of kindness give expression to the very heart of who God is, by manifesting God’s justice, or righteousness. “Unless your righteousness [justice] exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”, he declares (Matt 5:20), and so “blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness [justice], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:10).
4 Advocating for Justice in Scripture
Taking care that justice is done also requires speaking out for those who are silenced, marginalised, oppressed, or persecuted. In Proverbs, the sage advises, “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Prov 31:8–9).
Likewise, the Psalmist affirms, “Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the LORD delivers him” Psalm 41:1).
Advocating for justice is thus seen as integral to faith in God.
One of the prophets delivered the word of the Lord: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, 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 7:9). Another prophet asserted, “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed.” (Isa 56:1).
Jesus is remembered in the preaching of his followers as The Righteous One—we might also say, The Just One. This is what he is called by Peter (Acts 3:14), Stephen (Acts 7:52), and Paul (Acts 22:14). The title recalls the centrality of justice in the ministry of Jesus.
And Jesus maintains the importance of advocating for justice in his teachings. We have already noted his teachings in which he advocates that we care for the little ones and those in need (Matt 25) and instructs his followers to work for liberty for the oppressed (Luke 4). He teaches the central significance of love for neighbour (Mark 12:31), which surely entails advocating for justice.
And he tells the parable of the widow calling persistently for justice (Luke 18:1-8), which concludes with the powerful rhetorical question, “will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7), followed I meant the striking affirmation, “tell you, he will give justice to them speedily” (Luke 18:8). A commitment to justice requires advocacy for justice.
5 Justice in the Basis of Union
The centrality of justice, so evident in the witness of scripture, is reiterated in the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church. If we are followers of Jesus, called to walk the way he sets out before us, then as faithful disciples, we are called to walk right into what the Basis of Union envisages as a “new order of righteousness and love” (para 3). The words in that phrase are drawn from the deep wells of tradition, especially in scripture, where both live and righteousness are frequently-occurring words. It is the kingdom of God which is the new order of righteousness (justice), manifested in love.
These words call us to care for one another but also to do what is right. They call us to live a live grounded in justice, in the same terms that Jesus and the prophets before him cried out, seeking justice for everyone—not just for ourselves or those close to us, but for the whole of society.
These words challenge us to live with the same self-giving, fully-emptying love, that we see in the cross at the centre of the story of Jesus. And they lead us to the conclusion that as we live in this way, we will advocate for justice.
6 Advocating for Justice in theStatement to the Nation
The Uniting Church inherited from its predecessor Churches this resolutely firm commitment to advocating for justice for all. Many Uniting Church congregations and members are actively committed to serving those people who find themselves on the margins of society. This commitment was clearly articulated in the 1977 Statement to the Nation, which declared, “We pledge ourselves to seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur.”
That Statement then identified specific forms of injustice: “poverty, racism and discrimination, acquisitiveness and greed, and the daily widening gap between the rich and poor”. It identified a number of rights to be supported: “equal educational opportunities, adequate health care, freedom of speech, employment or dignity in unemployment if work is not available”.
It also noted some just actions that were to be followed, including “the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources”, as well as a concern for the welfare of the whole human race.
The Statement spoke out publicly about these matters. It models for future Uniting Church people the importance of advocating for justice.
7 Advocating for Justice in Action
This commitment to advocating for justice has been evident in many actions undertaken by Uniting Church members over the decades. The Uniting Church has joined in common cause with other groups and organisations in society, in standing in covenant solidarity with First Peoples; in advocating for a welcoming attitude towards refugees; in lobbying for a fair and just system of caring for people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness; in seeking equity for workers in their workplace; and in many other issues. A regular stream of policy documents and public resolutions point to a clear and unbroken commitment to seeking justice for all.
“Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.” The words of the ancient prophet sound clear, still, today. “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” has become a compelling guide for people of faith. And as we walk the way of The Just One, we do well to “seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice”.
For some years now, Elizabeth and I have been supporting the Climate Council. It used to be an independent Commission which was funded by the federal government—set up to study the impacts of climate change, and to give expert advice to the Australian public on climate change.
But then, Tony Abbott happened. One of its first orders of business by the incoming Abbott government was to abolish the country’s Climate Commission. Soon after that, the body was independently relaunched as the Climate Council, with the same commissioners that the Commission had, with the head of the Council being Tim Flannery.
So the Climate Council has continued, operating on the basis of financial support from sympathetic individuals and organisations. And they have produced regular reports on a range of climate-related issues. You can see the most recent reports at https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/news/
In its most recent email, the Climate Council has written: “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has now released the first instalment of its landmark Sixth Assessment Report. This is the most comprehensive and authoritative overview of the physical science of climate change to date.”
They go on to note that “the threat now facing all of humanity due to inaction on climate change is more serious than ever, and every day of further delay puts us more at risk”. They note that the findings of this report will be confronting for many people. They also press the point that “strong action today will make a profound difference to communities and ecosystems worldwide, both in our lifetimes and well into the future”.
The Climate Council summarises the four key findings of the IPCC report under four headings:
The scale and pace at which humans are altering the climate system has almost no precedent. Human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last two thousand years.
Climate change and its impacts are accelerating, and more impacts are on the way. Lack of action, despite decades of warnings, means we are now seeing these alarming changes unfold at a faster and faster rate. In other words, our climate is not merely changing, the rate of change is now accelerating.
Every fraction of a degree matters. Every additional increment of warming means more extreme weather, including increases in the intensity and frequency of heatwaves, damaging rainfall, and droughts.
Responding to climate change means doing everything possible to reduce emissions, while also adapting to the impacts that can no longer be avoided. Past inaction means that more impacts from climate change are on the way but the right choices made today will be measured in lives, livelihoods, species and ecosystems saved.
The need for action is clear: advocacy of government, lobbying of companies, protests in public, letter writing by individuals—as well as reviewing our own lifestyles, encouraging friends and family to adjust their lifestyles, and pressing the companies from whom we buy products to ensure that they are operating in sustainable ways.
In Australia, since the commencement of a federal government comprising members of the Liberal and National parties, our environmental policies have been hamstrung by the grip of reactionary conservatives renegades within these parties. Our commitment to environmental responsibility has gone backwards. Our situation is shameful. The need for action cannot be any clearer.
In this context, the Climate Council has joined with 55 organisations across the Australian climate movement, representing millions of Australians, in calling on the Federal Government to cut emissions by 75% by 2030, and reach net zero by 2035. “Now, more than ever, we need to demonstrate the sheer number of Australians that want to see strengthened emissions reduction targets”, they say.