My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” So we read in this week’s selection from the treatise of James which is offered by the lectionary (James 5:13–20). As a further encouragement, a few verses earlier, we are enjoined, “as an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (5:10).
In this rhetorical question and proverbial statement, we find that the author of this treatise does something that we have seen to be quite familiar from other sections of the book; he makes reference to Hebrew scripture. In doing this, James, the author, was doing what his more famous brother—Jesus—so regularly did. Referencing scriptural traditions was a family trait; indeed, it was what any faithful Jewish man would do, and provide scriptural resonances in what he was saying.
A number of statements in the treatise of James resonate with the teachings of Jesus that we know so well in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3–10). Most strikingly, the final beatitude spoken by Jesus, in which he exhorts joy in the face of persecution, in the manner of “the prophets who were before you”, is reflected in the opening exhortation of James, “whenever you face trials…consider it nothing but joy” (1:2), as well as the later reminder of James, “as an example of suffering and patience, take the prophets” (5:10). The two brothers are simply providing variations on a theme.
Other teachings in the book of James provide similarities to the teachings of Jesus spoken in the beatitudes, in the form found in Matt 5:3–12. The question posed by James, “has not God chosen the poor in the world…to be heirs of the kingdom?” (2:5) is similar to the first beatitude of Jesus, “blessed are the poor” (Matt 5:3).
The promise that James envisages, of “a harvest of righteousness…for those who sow peace” (3:18), is reminiscent of another beatitude of Jesus, “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt 5:9). The instruction to “purify your hearts” (4:8) echoes “blessed are the pure in heart” (Matt 5:8).
Perhaps we should not be surprised about these resonances between the teachings of Jesus and the treatise of James; if this work was indeed written by James, the brother of Jesus, a leader of the church in Jerusalem (Gal 1:19), would we not expect him to know what Jesus was teaching? The two brothers are singing from the same songsheet.
These similarities between the teachings of Jesus and the writings of James are significant. The fact that they are preserved in different documents, shaped and then preserved by the followers of Jesus, is suggestive of an awareness of a common tradition of these ethical guidelines amongst Jewish members of the growing messianic movement.
James quotes Hebrew Scripture directly in verse 4:6, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Prov 3:34). This is the basis for his instruction, “humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (4:10).
The same scripture undergirds the words of Jesus which declare the same thing: “whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23:12; see also Luke 14:11, 18:14). It is also informs the prophetic words sung by his mother before his birth, “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52). The two sons of Mary (Jesus and James) are singing from the same songsheet as their mother!
When James writes a warning about laying up treasure (5:3), we are reminded of Jesus’ parable about the same topic. (Luke 12:13-21). In these words, both Jesus and James are drawing from Hebrew scriptures. Speaking against the oppressive actions of the rich sounds very much like a number of oracles thundered by the ancient prophets (Amos 2, 4, Micah 6, Hosea 12, Ezekiel 7).
The details use snippets of pertinent prophetic denunciations. “The last days” evoke “the Day of the Lord” (Isa 34:7-8, Jer 25:33-34, Ezek 7:1-4, Joel 2:1-3, Amos 5:18-20). The withholding of the wages of the labourers (5:4) contradicts the Law (Lev 19:13, Deut 24:14-15) and echoes denunciations spoken by prophets (Jer 22:13, Mal 3:5).
The condemnation of “fattened hearts” (5:5) evokes Jer 5:27-28, Ezek 34:2-4. And murdering the righteous person reminds us, not only of the wrongheaded approach of wicked people (Wisdom 2:10-20) and the fate of the righteous servant (Isa 53:3-5, 7-9), but especially of the fate of Jesus, the Righteous One (John 15:20; Acts 3:14).
Then, the command of James, “be patient until the coming of the Lord” (5:7), sounds a note that we hear in the final teachings which Jesus gives to his disciples, not long before his arrest. The earlier version of these teachings infers that patience will be required as “the beginnings of the birth pains” are seen (Mark 13:5–8), before Jesus exhorts his disciples: “the one who endured to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13).
Interestingly, “be patient” in the midst of these tumultuous happenings is a refrain found elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul advises, “let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess 5:6); John encourages, “little children, abide in him” (1 John 2:28); and Jesus himself is quoted as saying, “I am coming soon” (Rev 22:7).
It was a widespread belief amongst the followers of Jesus in the first century, that Jesus would soon return, and that God would establish the kingdom of heaven on earth. (That is the final, climactic vision, offered in Revelation 21:1-22:6). “The coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:8) is a recurring New Testament motif (Rom 13:12; Phil 4:5; 1 Pet 4:7).
Over twenty centuries later, we know that this did not eventuate in the timeframe that was imagined, and hoped for, in the first century. Does that invalidate all that those earliest believers thought, wrote, and prayed for? Or is there another way that we are to take their words for our times?
Certainly, the direct ethical instructions found in this passage of the treatise of James sound like they are timeless: cultivate patience (5:7-8), avoid complaining (5:9), remain steadfast (5:11), be as good as your word in all you do (5:12), prayer and sing praise (5:13), seek healing and forgiveness (5:14–15) after confessing your sins (5:16). This is what we are called to do as we await the coming of God.
Today is the International Day of Peace. That is an appropriate time to reflect on the fact that, as a country, we have just scrapped a $90 billion contract with Naval Group of France for a new fleet of submarines—in favour of a currently proposed (a d as yet uncosted) deal with our American and UK allies to purchase nuclear-powered submarines. At least, in nothing I have read is the actual cost of this awkward AUKUS deal specified–it seems that is still to be negotiated.
It seems to me that, whatever the actual dollar cost of this new deal, it is outrageously expensive, and will prove to be incredibly costly. I believe we are buying, not only more debt, but also pain and death, for future generations. I am happy to leave the debate about the precise financial cost to the politicians, journalists, and defence pundits in the months and years ahead. What is perfectly clear to me, however, is that the cost to our country will indeed be large and invasive, penetrating deeply and impacting widely.
Allocating money in the federal budget to defence matters is a highly contested matter. By making this a high priority, other matters are pushed down the priority list. We hear regular pronouncements about the need to tighten our belts and reduce the deficit in our federal budget. But we rarely if ever hear considered reflections
about the impact of this on essential elements of our federal spending which are essential to our lifestyle—social security, Medicare and health care, education and training, and veterans’ affairs.
What will it mean for future federal budgets, to have massive and increasing commitments to defence spending, such that these other areas will need to be limited or even reduced? Allocating a large amount of the limited funds available to the Federal Government to this deal will mean less money for other areas. That will impact on the everyday lives of all Australians.
But it is not the financial costs that concern me. Nuclear-powered submarines have the simple function of contributing to efforts to defend our coastline—something that has been a high priority for the current federal government. But they also have the capacity to go on the attack (and against China, of all countries—what are we thinking?). They are agents of warfare, dedicated to be at our disposal to wage war.
At the moment, there is no country in the world with a repository to dispose of high-level nuclear waste. There is only one repository in the world capable of disposing of intermediate-level nuclear waste, in New Mexico (USA), and it was shut for three years (2014–2017) because of a chemical explosion. How are we planning to dispose responsibly of our nuclear waste?
And further: do we really want nuclear-powered weapons to be involved in any future war? The environmental impact of a nuclear blast is serious. We have seen the scale of illness and death from nuclear explosions, in the 1945 bombings of Japan, the Chernobyl explosion in 1986, and the Fukushima accident in 2011.
Alongside these concerns, we know that there are costs associated with warfare other than the finance required to train troops and provide weapons for the battle—costs that go deep into people’s lives and spread wide across society. War means injury and death, to our own troops, and to the troops of those we are fighting against. Every death means a family and a local community that is grieving. There is great emotional cost just in one death, let alone the thousands and thousands that wars incur.
Every person injured in waging war experiences suffering, anxiety, and pain, with their loved ones looking on, suffering with them, and with the medical and hospital system having to devote resources to their healing.
I have a friend who has served with pride in the Australian Navy, in the troubled region of the Persian Gulf. He and his mates have returned home after their service, and they are living “regular” lives in society, with families, jobs, friends. Yet I know from my friend just how costly his service was. Psychological trauma and emotional scarring place heavy burdens on an apparently healthy man in his “regular” life. Those burdens ripple out in unhealthy ways to those around him–both family and friends. It is another cost of war, that is multiplied time and time again by the numbers of people who have served in the military.
But these are the expected, observable costs of war. War also brings “collateral damage”, in that terrible, dehumanising phrase first used by the US military during the Vietnam conflict. It is a euphemistic way of referring to “civilian casualties of a military operation”. But the reality is much starker than what this smooth phrase conveys. Countrysides are invaded, villages and towns are looted, women are raped, civilian women and men are injured or killed, buildings are destroyed, and people can be forced to seek refuge in another place.
We see these consequences of war again and again on our screens, in so many places around the world. Whilst we might enter into a war in order to resolve an immediate problem, the reality is that it is usually a short-term “fix”. War never fully resolves a conflict or solves a problem; war inevitably generates further conflict and raises more problems. The history of Afghanistan in the last 43 years testifies to this—the 1978 Saur Revolution, the 1979 Soviet Invasion, the guerilla war of the 1980s, the rise of the Mujaheedin, civil war from 1989, the rise of the Taliban, the American Invasion of 2001 and the war which has run on for two decades through into this current year. At every point, warfare has generated yet more conflict.
As people of the Uniting Church, we are committed to being a peacemaking people, firmly working for the cause of peace in our world. We are also a church which sees the problems inherent in the use of nuclear power—and especially, the use of nuclear power in waging war.
We should be totally opposed to this latest deal signalled by the Federal Government. It is not simply a matter of purchasing new nuclear-powered submarines. We are buying more debt, pain, and death, for future generations of Australians. We should be pressing our political representatives to urge the government to back away from this deal.
The Uniting Church has supported the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of non-governmental organisations in one hundred countries, promoting adherence to and implementation of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Canberra Region Presbytery signed a letter of support for this campaign in 2020, on the 75th anniversary year of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. See https://www.icanw.org/australia
Two weeks ago, we read and heard the passage where Jesus berated Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33). Jesus went on to teach about the need for those who follow him to take up their cross and lay down their lives (8:34–37). The hubris that Peter demonstrated, when he rebuked Jesus for what he was teaching, is met head-on by Jesus. He rebukes Peter for his focus on “human things”.
The nature of those “human things” is made clear in the passage that we read and heard last Sunday. “What were you arguing about on the way?”, Jesus asks his followers (9:33). No answer comes; those followers of Jesus were shamed into silence “for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest” (9:34). Arguing about who is the greatest is a clear manifestation of a focus on “human things”. It’s what human beings do, all too often–we see it demonstrated in our politics, in domestic violence, in sexual assaults, and in the constant stream of uprisings, civil wars, and international wars that are never-ending.
Jesus has been with his followers since the start of his public campaign in Galilee (1:14). By this point in his time with these followers, Jesus no time left for such matters. He teaches them here, as he has already done in the previous passage, about what lies in store for himself as he heads towards Jerusalem—betrayal, and death (9:31; see also 8:31). These are the heart of the “divine things” that he has encouraged his followers to set their minds on. Jesus is resolutely fixed on what is important to God, not what is the focus of humans.
The story we read and heard this coming Sunday (9:38–50) contains further insights into this distinction. The disciples want to exercise their authority by forbidding an unknown person from casting out demons from those possessed by them. “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us”, the disciples report (9:38), expecting to be congratulated by Jesus. (Did you notice the pronoun: following US!!)
But their expectations fall flat. Jesus, once again, rebukes his followers: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me” (9:39).
Such manifestation of authority will receive a further rebuke from Jesus yet again, at a later point in the story that is being told in this Gospel. Returning to the theme of authority, two of his followers petition Jesus: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). Jesus gives them short shrift: “You do not know what you are asking” (10:38). By this time, surely, he must have been seething with frustration—will they never understand? “Do you not understand?” Is a question that Jesus has already posed to his followers, no less than four times previously (4:13; 7:18; 8:17; 8:21).
Three times, in chapters 8–10, Jesus rebukes his followers. Three times, they have acted in ways that indicate their fixation is on authority, prestige, power. Three times, Jesus has responded with a clear explanation. Each time, as they journey southwards towards Jerusalem, he recounts what will take place to “the Son of Man”; a prophetic circumlocution for describing oneself (Ezek 2:1, 3, 6, 8, 3:1, 3, 4, 10, etc). Each time, the fundamental purpose of his mission is explained in short, staccato phrases.
That purpose, and the fate that lies in store for Jesus in Jerusalem, is that he will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected … and be killed” (8:31); there, he “is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him” (9:31); there, he will be “condemned to death; handed over to Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him” (10:33–34). The end in view is surely sobering, cautionary, worrying, for those who follow with him. Yet each time, they revert to a focus on authority—“human things”.
This threefold description of the imminent fate of Jesus, increasing in detail at each restatement, provides an intense focus on the journey ahead. Jesus will arrive in Jerusalem (11:11) with a cohort of followers who have repeatedly failed to understand that, instead of a focus on their own authority, leading to a seat in glory, they are in company with the one who will take up his cross (8:34), lose his life (8:35), “be last of all and servant of all” (9:35), and ultimately be the slave of all (10:44). “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45).
This final, definitive affirmation of his role comes after the three instances of the misguided orientation of his followers, and the three corrective teachings offered by Jesus (8:31; 9:31; 10:32–34). This sequence is surrounded by two stories of healing, symbolising the need for the followers of Jesus to open their eyes and see the reality of Jesus. In Bethsaida, a blind man seeks healing from Jesus (8:22–26). In Jericho, blind Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus for mercy (10: 46–52). The two healings clearly symbolise the need for the followers of Jesus themselves to open their eyes to see Jesus.
Despite their physical blindness, these two men have a deeper sense of the presence of Jesus as he passes by, and reach out in hope. Yet those travelling along with Jesus are impervious to what he offers, and blind to the fate that Jesus is walking towards. The irony, the penetrating incongruity, of these juxtapositions, is searing.
It is within this context that the story of the unidentified exorcist (9:38–41) is to be understood. Indeed, the sense of irony is clearly present in this story. The ministry of Jesus has incorporated the casting out of demons alongside his teaching, preaching, and healing. “Proclaiming the message and casting out demons” is how the activities of Jesus have been characterised from the start of his public activity (1:39).
In fact, the casting out of demons was integral to the charge that Jesus had given his followers earlier in their time with him: “he appointed twelve…to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message and to have authority to cast out demons” (3:14–15). And these very activities had formed the basis for the mission of the twelve as it is reported at 6:7–13. They model their words and deeds on Jesus: “they proclaimed that all should repent … they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:12–13).
So there may be some sense of self-assured certainty when they report to Jesus that “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (9:38). (Yes—notice the pronoun: following US! Not Jesus—but US.) But were they not aware that Jesus was not interested in this claim to authoritative ownership of the franchise of “casting out demons”? The irony, surely, is that Jesus is more interested in the wellbeing of the person possessed, than in the delegated authority of his followers as the ones who should rightly cast out the demon.
Those following Jesus have heard his teachings explaining that his focus is on the cross, losing your life, becoming a servant, drinking the cup of suffering, and being the servant of all who “gives his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). Yet they have not understood. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”, he has just informed them (9:35). Yet they act as if they can continue to be first, lord over all. So again he will need to underscore his views: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (10:43), “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:44).
The irony is intensified by the placement of this incident involving the unidentified exorcist immediately after the previous parable-in-action, in which Jesus took a child into his arms, and declared, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (9:37). A child was a person with no authority, no status, no prestige or power; yet the low-status, not-important child is the exemplar, not only of Jesus, but of God, “the one who sent me”.
So Jesus teaches that how “one of these little ones” is treated, is the benchmark of faithfully following in his way (9:42–48). Not the one with authority, power, glory. But the “little one”, the child. In his characteristic parabolic-hyperbolic style, Jesus instructs his followers to respect “one of these little ones” by cutting off their hands, cutting off their feet, tearing out their eyes, placing the millstone around their necks and drown in the sea of they cause “one of these little one” to stumble. These are hyperbolic exaggerations, of course, about the importance of respecting, caring for, and prioritising “ one of these little ones” (9:42–48)—not literal instructions!
(**Caution: Do not try this at home. Do not take these words literally. But learn the lesson that they teach.)
In this passage, as we hear it this Sunday, the irony is intense. It is the child, the little one, the unidentified exorcist, who has priority, in the eyes of Jesus, ahead of those who seek authority, status, power, glory. The challenge is clear. The word is proclaimed. The Gospel is enacted. The way of the cross awaits …
I have never before been tempted to be a fundamentalist. As a child, I had the good fortune to attend a Sunday School and then a worshipping Congregation where fundamentalism was given a wide berth. Thinking about our faith, learning the essentials of Christianity and pondering how they related to the world we live in, was my spiritual bread and butter.
As a teenager and young adult, I was encouraged to question and explore. As a theological student, I was expected to question and explore! As a minister, I regularly and consistently encouraged people not to be content with the status quo, but always to explore and investigate for themselves. Always for the sake of deepening their faith, gaining better insight into how we are to live as faithful disciples in this world.
But recently, I have begun to wonder. Am I turning into a fundamentalist? Have I succumbed to the lure of absolute certainty? Have I lost the nuances and shading that I have so enjoyed over the decades of exploration, research, discussion, and debate?
It’s that blessed pandemic that has done this to me. Before early 2020, I would never, ever have considered myself to be a fundamentalist. But now, eighteen months down the track, I feel myself sliding into the assured convictions, the absolute dogmatic certainty, and the hardline declarations of a fundamentalist.
Well, it’s not the pandemic as such. It’s the way that people are responding to the pandemic—or, more particularly, to the restrictions that have been put into place because of the pandemic that SARS-CoV-2 has brought to the world. Or, to be even more specific, it’s the matter of vaccinations and the role that they play in our response to the pandemic.
Yes, it is true: I am now a vaccination fundamentalist. Now, perhaps some people might have observed that over the period of my ministry, I have been something of an inclusivist fundamentalist. I have always believed that the church should be open, welcoming, inviting, incorporating diversity, valuing people no matter what they bring into the community of faith.
But that quasi-fundamentalist viewpoint has been shaken, and rather stirred up, by some of my experiences of the past few years—and particularly in very recent times. So much so, that it now allows me to claim my real fundamentalism: on vaccinations.
I believe, first and foremost, that everybody should get vaccinated. Well—everyone who can safely and legitimately get vaccinated, should. I’ve been vaccinated. I think everyone else who can, should be vaccinated.
Of course, there are exceptions. We know that some people are being advised not to get vaccinated, because they have an impaired immune system, or for other legitimate and serious medical reasons. And, in addition, we know that there is currently no vaccination that has been developed for children under the age of 12.
And more than this, we know that there are people in regional areas and in poorer communities who have not yet been able to access a vaccination centre. There are structural flaws in the way that the vaccine has been rolled out, meaning that there are inequities—not everyone has equal ease of access to being vaccinated, just yet.
So, with those caveats, I believe that everyone who can safely get vaccinated, should get vaccinated. Vaccines have a number of benefits. Being vaccinated lessens the time that a person who becomes infected, remains infected. Being vaccinated lessens the likelihood that an infected person would be hospitalised, or even die, if their situation became serious.
A person who is vaccinated carries the viral load for less days than an unvaccinated person. A person who is vaccinated does not get as unwell as an unvaccinated person. And it may well be (this is an assumption—it has not yet been rigorously tested) that a vaccinated person does not suffer as many of the problems that Long Covid brings, compared to an unvaccinated person. Let us hope that turns out to be a valid assumption.
As well as benefits for the individual who is vaccinated, there are benefits for the community as a whole. In general, being vaccinated reduces the likelihood that an infected person will infect other people with whom they come into contact. Being vaccinated lessens the rate of spread of the virus through the community. It’s a positive contribution, not just to an individual’s health, but to the health and wellbeing of the community of which that person is a part.
A really important reason for getting vaccinated is that this course of action lessens the likelihood that a variant strain will develop and spread through the community—and beyond. High rates of vaccination will reduce the pool of people amongst whom a new variant of the virus can develop, and then spread. It is a contribution to the common good.
Now, I am not so much of a fundamentalist, that I don’t recognise that there are limits on vaccination. I accept that being vaccinated doesn’t guarantee that I won’t get infected. I still could. And if I do get infected, I can still become symptomatic and infectious and spread the virus to others. Being vaccinated doesn’t guarantee that I am completely safe from all of that; it doesn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t be a spreader in the community. It just reduces this likelihood.
So being vaccinated doesn’t mean that a community can “get back to normal” without any restrictions. There are still all the usual precautions that need to be followed, even when vaccinated. We know them because they are regularly promoted: wear a mask, practise good hygiene, wash your hands, sanitise with alcohol-based hand rubs, maintain social distancing. (And we should continue to practise some of the less-publicised means: don’t touch your face; cover your mouth or nose with your arm, not your hand, when you cough or sneeze; close the toilet lid before flushing.) A person who is vaccinated, and infected, will still be infectious to others, whether they are symptomatic or asymptomatic. They will just pose a lower risk to other people.
So getting vaccinated isn’t a magical fix. It is a sensible, reasonable way to respond to the pandemic. Which is why, I believe, it is entirely reasonable for governments to require people to be vaccinated before they enter places of business, or hotels and clubs, or other places where people are gathering. Including churches. Especially, in my mind, churches. (At least, this requirement for churches is being mooted by the NSW Government for a few weeks’ time. Not yet in the ACT, where I live.)
What we do in church—in worship services, to be specific—is high risk behaviour. Perhaps the highest risk behaviour. We come into one building from all sorts of different locations. We sit close to each other. In “normal times”, people will hug one another or shake hands quite freely as they “pass the peace”, at least in many (if not all) churches. We used to be quite unaware of how readily we were passing “bugs” to each other week after week.
And most strikingly of all, we sit and listen to people talking towards us (praying, reading, preaching), projecting their breath towards us. And, of course, we sing together, indeed, we may sing heartily and joyfully—that is, we use the force of breath from our lungs to expel air, droplets carried through the air from the force of that breath. That expelled air mingles amongst us all. We all breathe it in.
We drink coffee and eat morning tea, sometimes after we have shared a plate of bread and some wine or grapejuice earlier in the gathering. (Lots more touching went on there, back in the “normal times”.) We do lots of things that are high risk for passing the virus from one person to the next.
So it makes sense for churches to adhere to the government directive that only people who are vaccinated can be permitted to enter and participate in worship. I agree with that. I agree absolutely. To be honest, this is actually my point of absolute fundamentalism.
We can only have vaccinated people in worship services because we are committed to making church a Safe Place for everyone who participates. We already require church leaders to have undertaken a compliance check (a Working With Children Check in NSW, or Working With Vulnerable People in the ACT). We already have a requirement that a Person of Concern can only attend worship services or other church activities if they have signed a Safety Agreement. We already adhere to the government requirement that everyone attending worship will first check in using a QR Code to register their presence.
We can only have vaccinated people in worship services because we are committed to prioritising the vulnerable, making sure that their needs are given clear attention and the highest priority in the way we operate. That’s why we have had check-in codes, hand sanitisers, socially distanced seating, and no “free-for-all” morning teas at worship services, when we are meeting in person, over the past year. And, of course, when we resume services in person, we will need to continue with wearing masks, not singing, not having a collection plate, not handing out hymn books or orders of service, and we will need to follow appropriate food handling protocols.
We can only have vaccinated people in worship services because this is one of a number of restrictions we operate by, that are designed to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus, should there be an infected person present amongst the worshippers. And if unvaccinated people do attend and participate in worship, then they are placing themselves at great potential risk, as well as possibly exposing others to greater risk, if there is anyone present who is infected.
So I can’t understand those church leaders who, even before we are able to gather in person, are already claiming that they will exercise civil disobedience, that they will not turn away anyone who has not been vaccinated. My newly-found inner fundamentalist says, “No: you must turn them away”—as much as that goes against the grain in a church that prides itself at being open, welcoming, inclusive. Because it is the loving thing to do. Because it is the responsible thing to do. Because it is the Christian thing to do.
And what we have learnt over the last 18 months, is that we can actually include people in community, even when they are not able (or now, not permitted) to participate in person. The various online options for communal worship—Facebook, YouTube, ZOOM—as well as the multiple means of one-on-one communications—telephone, email, FaceTime, GoogleDuo, and even AusPost—and group communications—WhatsApp, Facebook groups, Snapchat, and many more—have demonstrated that there are multiple means for maintaining (and even, I have learnt, expanding) community connections as the body of Christ.
So forbidding the physical presence of a person in worship (because they are not vaccinated) does not mean that we are giving up our connection with them, or that they are no longer a part of our faith community. Those connections, that sense of belonging, can be nurtured in many other ways. We can continue to be an open, welcoming, inclusive—and safe—community for everyone.
I recently came across this quote, which sums it up for me: “Given the nature of churches — places where children and adults closely intermingle, where seniors and the immunocompromised regularly gather, where diverse groups share food, sing together, and meet in often small, old, poorly ventilated buildings — wouldn’t a mandatory vaccination policy make sense? Wouldn’t it be the Christian thing to do?” ( John van Sloten, pastor at Marda Loop Christian Reformed Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada)
So at the moment, I will advocate for complete adherence to government restrictions. My faith calls me to work for the common good, to care for the vulnerable, to love my neighbours, both near and far. Minimising risk of transmission as we gather is our first duty. Ministry takes place in many ways other than sitting in an enclosed space for an hour once a week!
Appendix: in further conversation, I have clarified my thinking. I maintain my overarching commitment to be an inclusive church. I believe that we can do this by (a) ensuring that any in-person worship service is as safe as it can be for as many as are able safely to attend, and (b) ensuring that those who cannot gather in person—because they are vulnerable to infection or because their medical condition prohibits vaccination or because they have chosen not to be vaccinated—are welcomed and included and valued in the regular weekly online worship that is offered alongside of the in person worship.
A sermon peached by Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on 19 September 2021.
I suggested last week that the purpose of the book of Proverbs is to make suggestions as to how one might learn to live faithfully in everyday life. This passage (Proverbs 31:10–31) is no exception to this. Like other passages, it is meant to inspire moral ideals and guide people in living the best life possible.
If you are a woman and you know this passage, or were paying close attention to the reading, you might be thinking something like: is this even possible? how am supposed to live up to such an ideal? how is this meant to inspire wisdom in me?
And these are very good questions. The superwoman of Proverbs 31 has often been used to try and put women back into kitchens and keep them subservient to their husbands.
Today I am going to challenge this reading of Proverbs 31, and I am going to start by looking at how the first verse of this passage is translated. If you have a bible to hand feel free to look it up.
How do bible translations describe the woman of Proverbs 31? Generally, you will find that she is described as a noble, competent, capable, excellent, virtuous or good wife. Occasionally she is described as a woman, rather than a wife.
But is this actually what the Hebrew says? There are two primary issues in translation that shape how we interpret this text. The first is the status of the woman. Biblical Hebrew does not have separate words for “woman” and “wife”, so which is correct? The second issue is how the woman is described.
Let’s start at the beginning of the chapter. The claimed source for the words of this chapter is quite unique in the Old Testament. According to the text itself (31:1), a woman, the unnamed mother of the unknown King Lemuel, composed this poem describing a woman of worth and taught it to her son, who writes it down here. So it is a woman describing a woman. That might give us some clues. Secondly, the poem is an acrostic one, meaning the first word of each verse begins with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet in succession.
Like most of the wisdom literature, the purpose of this poem is to draw attention to the often-overlooked importance in one’s faith journey of doing everyday things. It is an acrostic so it is easier to remember, so obviously the ancient writers thought it was important enough to be memorised.
This poem is one of the most misunderstood passages in the bible, where it is seen as a list of virtues that form a job description for the ideal and faithful wife/woman. It has been trotted out on Mothers’ Days, weddings and in complementarian Christian circles where it stands as the pinnacle which woman should strive to emulate.
I am suggesting this is not the best way of understanding this passage, and that the purpose of Proverbs 31 purpose is to celebrate wisdom-in-action, not to instruct women everywhere to get married, have children, and take up weaving.
Let us go back to our translation issue. The Hebrew is eshet chayil, a ‘woman of valour or strength’ and this is how the opening verse should be translated. It has a male equivalent gibor chayil, or ‘man of valour’. It is a reminder to men (who are the intended audience of Proverbs) that as well as ‘men of valour’, there are also ‘women of valour’, the Hebrew emphasising the equality of the terms as applied to both genders.
The Hebrew word, chayil, has a primary meaning ranging from ‘military might/power’ and ‘(physical) strength.’ Its plural form designates warriors or an army. Translations that erase this woman’s physical strength and power create a construction of stereotypical “femininity” that is not present in the text. In verses3, 17 and 25 when chayil occurs translators nearly all translate it as strength. So why translate it as dutiful, capable, good noble or virtuous here?
Other language in the text points to the woman being strong, and we find a number of military terms to emphasise this. In verse 11, she provides ‘spoils’ (a term from war time plundering) for her Lord (no, it is not the word for husband (ish) as translations suggest).
In verse 17, she “girds her arms with strength and makes her arms strong”, again in military style. In verse 15 the Hebrew reads that she rises while it is still dark to provide “prey” for her household (this infers she is slaughtering the beasts, usually a man’s task). Verse 25 emphasises she is clothed in ‘strength and dignity’.
Professor Brent Strawn in an online article points out that the sentiments of verse 17 and verse 25 go far beyond both home and market: they are worthy of the mightiest of warriors (see Psalm 77:15; 83:8; Ezekiel 30:22; Nahum 2:1).
Like the feminine version, these gibor chayil, “men of valour”, have suggested military strength. We find the young David being described as a “gibor chayil ve-ish milchama,” a man of valor and a man of war (I Samuel 16:18). This is proved in his fight with Goliath, and becomes a central feature of David’s success as king. Later in 2 Samuel 23:8, David’s men are described as gibor chayil.
Gideon is described as a gibor chayil in the book of Judges (6:11), as is Joshua’s army as they prepare to take Jericho (Joshua 1:14). 1 Chronicles 5:18 identifies the sons of Reuben, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh as gibor chayil.
We have one other ‘woman of valour’ in the Hebrew bible, and she is found in the book of Ruth.
In this book, Ruth is presented as a destitute Moabite who followed her mother-in-law back to Jewish Bethlehem. Once there, her daily work involved gleaning for barley and wheat. For over three chapters, she is neither a wife nor a mother. Her life looked nothing like the life of the woman depicted in Proverbs 31.
Ruth didn’t spend her days exchanging fine linens with merchants, running a home full of servants or buying fields. Instead, she worked all day in the sun, gleaning leftovers from other people’s fields, which was a provision made for the poorest of the poor in Israel.
And yet Boaz says of Ruth in chapter 3:11: “all the assembly of my people know that you are an eshet chayil” (Ruth 3:11 NRSV).
Ruth is a woman of valour, not because she checked off the Proverbs 31 domestic goddess list, but because she lived her life with resourcefulness, compassion, courage, wisdom, and strength. In other words, she lived her life with valour.
In the book of Ruth, Boaz is identified as gibor chayil, a man of valour. So when Boaz uses eshet chayil of Ruth, he clearly sees her as his equal.
The Proverbs woman is not defined by her husband or her children, particularly sons, as many other women in the Hebrew bible are. Rather, this woman is someone who is motivated, and she is defined by a string of verbs such as “seeks,” “rises,” “buys,” “provides” and “makes.”
We are also not given much in the way of the woman’s appearance. Normally, unless they are judges or prophets, women are described in the Hebrew bible by their physical attributes such as beauty or gracefulness. Not here though – we have no clue as to her weight, height, shape, or clothes. Is she beautiful? Is she built like a tank? We will never know – and it doesn’t matter.
So how does this woman of valour have relevance for us today as both woman and as church people? What message does she bring to a world where women are bombarded with messages about aging, body shape and beauty? On Working Preacher, Professor Amy Oden suggests that
This passage offers a radical counter-cultural message in the profound silence about what she looks like. The closing verse reminds us that “beauty is vain,” not something women (or men) hear anywhere in the daily visual assault of airbrushed female bodies on billboards, magazine stands, and pop-up ads. The silence of Proverbs 31 on appearance is striking, and refreshing. She is praised for the content of her character and the excellence of her endeavors rather than the surface of her skin.
Oden also sees the subversive nature of the Proverbs woman as a “tangible expression“ of Lady Wisdom, who we met last week. Oden says the woman’s “virtue and worth are a result of her own agency, her actions and choices…she leads her own life rather than following someone else’s. She pursues her own ends rather than obeying orders. There is no hint that her industry is not her own, that she is demure or deferential, or that her pursuits are directed by others.”
In other words, the ‘woman of valour’ is as independent as Lady Wisdom, as clear on what her pursuits and her purposes are. Like Lady Wisdom, she is also operating in the male domain of buying and selling, and things occurring outside of the household.
When we see Proverbs 31 in the larger context of the book of Proverbs and the wisdom literature, and in the more immediate context of Lady Wisdom, the woman of Proverbs 31 could be understood not as an actual flesh and blood woman but as the ideal of Lady Wisdom herself.
Indeed, several verses pick up some of earlier depictions of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs – for example, she is far more precious than jewels (v10), opens her mouth with wisdom (1:20-21, 24; 31:26), both are strong (8:14 with 31:17, 25) and both “laugh at the time to come” (31:25; cf. 1:26).
The words eshet chayil, the ‘woman of valour’, is used by modern Jewish women as a way of cheering each other along. The say it to one another when they are celebrating things such as promotions, pregnancies, divorces, and battles with cancer. It is the Jewish equivalent of saying “you go girl” or acknowledging someone is wearing the ‘Wonder Woman tights’. In fact, Wonder Woman, on Israeli TV, is known as “Eshet Chayil.”
According to this Jewish practice, being a women of valour isn’t about what you do, but how you do it. Surely this is the message to us today, men and women. This isn’t about being a dutiful wife excelling in housewifery, though that is OK if you do it with valour. It isn’t about how we look, or about meeting the expectations of others on how we look. It is about how we do things, our motivations, our faith and our inner qualities.
If you if you are retired, do it with valour. If you are a nurse, be a nurse of valour. If you are a CEO, a pastor, a check out chick, mountain climber or a barista at Café Guru, if you are rich or poor, single or married—do it all with valour. And if you are a Christian, a person of faith, be counter-cultural, speak out about the superficiality of much of our society, show courage when facing injustice and support the equality of women.
For this is what makes us eshet chayil, ‘women of valour’.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him”. So we read at the start of the treatise of James (1:5). There is a strong wisdom flavour to this treatise. The word appears in just four verses (1:5; 3:13, 15, 17), but the nature of the book is quite akin to the most famous work of wisdom in scripture: the book of Proverbs.
The “letter” of James is, in reality, a moral treatise (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/25/on-care-for-orphans-and-widows-james-1-pentecost-14b/) Sometimes called “the Proverbs of the New Testament,” the book of James provides practical guidance on how to live. It canvasses matters such as perseverance, controlling one’s tongue when speaking, submitting to God’s will, responsibilities towards the poor, dealing with anger, and fostering patience.
In terms of its style, James reflects the wisdom tradition that is so evident in Hebrew Scripture and in continuing Jewish traditions. An important place was ascribed to Wisdom amongst Jews of the Dispersion; Wisdom became a key figure for such Jews, as is reflected in a number of writings.
Wisdom is highlighted in Proverbs, which affirms that Wisdom was present with God at creation (Prov 8:22–31). Wisdom was the key creative force at work beside God, in conjunction with God, in creation the world. Wisdom plays a key role in the book of Sirach, where she gives knowledge, makes demands of those seeking instruction from her, imposes her yoke and fetters on her students, and then offers rest (Sir 6:24–28; 51:23–26). Furthermore, Wisdom is portrayed as the intermediary assisting God at creation and throughout salvation history (Sir 24:1–8).
Another document which highlights the role of Wisdom, is the work known as the Wisdom of Solomon—a work which the anonymous author tells of his own search for Wisdom. But the description of Wisdom that is given in this book is more philosophical than biblical; it owes much to the developing middle platonic philosophy of the late Hellenistic period. Wisdom is described as “a breath of the power of God, a pure emanation of the Almighty” (Wis Sol 7:25) and reflects a most dazzling sequence of attributes (Wis Sol 7:22–24).
A comparison with Proverbs and Sirach can be drawn with Matthew, where it is said that Wisdom is at work in Jesus; when the Son of Man eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus declares that “Wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matt 11:19b). Soon after those words, the Matthean Jesus explicitly adopts the language of Wisdom in a well-known set of words. Like Wisdom, he is a teacher (Matt 11:27). Like Wisdom, he invites his followers to take on the yoke of learning, and through this, find true rest (Matt 11:28–30).
Jesus teaches extensively in the style of the wise teacher, employing strings of short, pithy epithets and succinct maxims (see, for example, the collation of such sayings at Matt 6:19–34; 7:1–27; 9:10–17; 10:24–42; 18:1–14).
The divine gift of wisdom occupies a central position in the treatise of James (1:5–8); this “wisdom from above” is to be contrasted with wisdom which is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” (3:13–18).
Numerous epithets typical of the wisdom style are included in the treatise; there are succinct sayings which provide a definitive conclusion to discussion of a topic; for example, “mercy triumphs over judgement” (2:13; compare Matt 9:13) or “who are you to judge your neighbour?” (4:12; compare Matt 7:1).
Practical guidance, which also features in wisdom literature, runs through the treatise of James: “do not be deceived” (1:16), “care for orphans and widows” (1:27), do not favour the rich over the poor (2:1–7), curb your tongues, like putting a bridle in a horse’s mouth (3:3), “do not be boastful” (3:14), “humble yourselves before the Lord” (4:10), “do not grumble against one another” (5:9), “do not swear…by any oath” (5:12), “pray for one another” (5:16).
The treatise of James includes a biting tirade against the oppressive actions of the rich (5:1–6). James quotes snippets of pertinent prophetic denunciations of the rich (Isa 5:9; Jer 12:3), yet the same perspective is evident in Wisdom Literature. We see this, for example, in: “riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death” (Prov 11:4); “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver or gold” (Prov 22:1); “whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty” (Prov 22:16).
In an extended diatribe against wealth and honour (Eccles 5:8–6:12), The Teacher notes, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.” (Eccles 5:10). In Job, Zophar the Naamathite speaks of the wicked: “He swallows down riches and vomits them up again; God casts them out of his belly” (Job 20:15). Antagonism to the rich accumulating more and more wealth is found in various Wisdom works.
A diatribe against engaging in various prohibited actions (arguing, coveting, murder, adultery and impurity, 4:1–10) includes the statement, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6), which is perhaps citing Prov 3:34, “toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favour”.
The treatise as a whole ends with another saying which includes words from Proverbs: “if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:20), citing the later part of Prov 10:12, “hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses”.
The numerous scriptural allusions peppered through the moral exhortations of each chapter certainly demonstrate that the influence of Hebrew scripture on this book, and particularly of the Wisdom literature, cannot be underplayed.
My ancestor Joseph Pritchard arrived in the colony of New South Wales on the ship Roslyn Castle 187 years ago on this day, 15 September 1834. Joseph was my great-great-great-grandfather on my father’s maternal line. He is the first reason that I was born in Sydney.
Joseph was born on 14 January 1817 at Macclesfield in Cheshire, England, the son of Joseph Pritchard and Hannah Ridgway, both born in Macclesfield, Cheshire (Joseph in 1791; Hannah in 1797). On the record of his baptism in the local church records (on 13 April 1817), his father’s occupation is listed as Silk Spinster. The minister performing the baptism was Jonathan Barker.
On 7 April 1834, at the age of 17, Joseph appeared at the Chester Quarter Sessions, charged with Larceny. We don’t have any more details than a note in the court records (in a very faint copy). His sentence, of transportation for a period of 7 years, can be found amongst a long list of men convicted of Larceny on the same day in that court.
Joseph was transported to NSW on the ship Roslyn Castle (pictured), which arrived at Port Jackson on 15 September 1834.
The Master of the ship was a Mr Richards. The ship records list amongst the convicts aboard, Joseph Pritchard, aged 17, from London, where he was a Shoemaker’s Boy. Joseph was recorded as able to read (but not write); his complexion was “Dark and Sallow”, his hair was Brown, and his eyes also were Brown.
Joseph was rather short, at 5’ 1 3/4”. Many of the others on the pages of the ship’s log are similarly short (from 5’5” down to 4’10”), suggesting that there was widespread malnutrition amongst the working class in Chester.
A commentary under each convict notes the tattoos on their skin; this writing is tiny and hard to decipher without seeing the original document. Fortunately, this document has been transcribed; the full description is as follows:
The crime for which Joseph was sentenced is clear: “Stealing [from] Master”, for which the sentence of 7 years was given.
On arrival in Sydney on 15 September 1834, Joseph was one of a number of convicts from the Roslyn Castle who were “disposed of”—in his instance, he was sent to a “W. J. Homan, Sydney”—most likely a misspelling of William Holman, who was a cabinetmaker in Sydney at that time.
A further document from the records of the ship Roslyn Castle indicates that Joseph Pritchard of Macclesfield, a Roman Catholic who was a Shoemaker, was then “disposed of” on 1 October, on Bond to a Mr Grey at Wooloomooloo.
Another record indicates that on 20 July 1835, Joseph Pritchard, a Shoemaker from Macclesfield, who had arrived on the Roslyn Castle, was sent to Parramatta.
Just over six years after Joseph Pritchard arrived in the colony of NSW, he applied for permission to marry—as was required of all convicts seeking to marry. The application was made on 8 August 1840, to the Rev. John Murphy, Roman Catholic, of Sydney. Joseph was 23 years of age; His wife-to-be, Mary Sullivan, was 19 years of age, and described as “Native of the Colony”.
A month later, on 7 September 1840, Joseph Pritchard married Mary Sullivan at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Sydney. The celebrant was Father H. G. Gregory; the witnesses were James White and Mary Ryan, both of Sydney. That year, there were just under 30,000 residents of Sydney—almost double the number of residents compared with the year, just six years earlier, when Joseph Pritchard had arrived in the colony.
Two years later, on 23 November 1842, Joseph was issued his Certificate of Freedom.
There are records of Joseph Pritchard living in a house in Phillip Street, Sydney, in 1842–1843, and in a “dwelling house” in Bridge Street in 1851–1852. It is fair to assume that his wife, Mary (née Sullivan), was living there with him; indeed, in the decade after their marriage, Mary gave birth to six children—and in the ensuing 15 years, another nine children arrived!
Mary Sullivan was born in the colony of New South Wales, probably near Appin, NSW, in about 1823. The baptismal register of one of the early Roman Catholic priests of the colony, Rev. J.J. Therry, confirms that he baptised Mary at Appin on 21 August 1823. The sponsors for young Mary were Denis O’Brien and Bridget Dwyer.
The parents of Mary are listed in the register as Daniel Sullivan and Margaret Gorman. Mary was probably one of three children, her siblings being Daniel (baptised on March 13, 1822) and Ellen (born in 1825 or 1826). Her parents had probably each come to New South Wales from Ireland. No record of a marriage between Daniel and Margaret appears to exist in the NSW records.
It is possible that Mary’s father was a convict. A convict, or child of a convict, marrying another convict, or child of a convict, was quite common—they were part of the same strata of society in terms of where they lived, what work they did, and so on. And whilst convicts were still arriving into the colony, a free person marrying a convict was indeed possible, but perhaps not common.
One possibility is Daniel Sullivan, Labourer, of Cork, who was transported in 1820. Another possibility is the Daniel Sullivan, a Sailor/Labourer, who was transported in 1818. A third option is Daniel Sullivan, tried in London in 1799 and transported in 1800 on board the Royal Admiral. There currently are no records which link Mary to any one particular Daniel Sullivan, unfortunately. If anyone can provide me with such a link, I would be most grateful!!
Mary and Joseph had fifteen children in total, between 1842 and 1865. The 1856 birth certificate of Ellen, the eighth child, provides clear information about the origins of Joseph and Mary.
In 1866, the year after the last of these children, Herbert, was born, Joseph died at Spring Creek, near Young, in western NSW. He had been suffering from hepatitis for five months. Mary was left with a large brood of children.
Mary died in 1904.
Joseph and Mary’s fourth child and second son, Joseph Sullivan Pritchard, was born in 1847. He was the third Joseph in a row (in the same way, I am the third John in a row of my direct paternal line.) Joseph carried his mother’s maiden name as his middle name, before his surname, his father’s surname. My parents named me and my two brothers in the same way.
This Joseph (1847–1924) married Maria Jane Jackson in December 1880. Six months before she married Joseph, she birth to a daughter, Margaret Jane. Sadly, Maria Jane lived only a short life (1862–1891). Her daughter lived a long life (1880–1963). I think I can remember her from an encoder when I was a small child.
Margaret JanePritchard, in turn, married Edward Thomas Mathias (1871–1941) in November 1899, and gave birth to six children. The eldest of these was my paternal grandmother, Edna Mathias (1905–1992). And so my line of descent from the convict Joseph Pritchard can be traced.
Bishop John Shelby Spong has died, at the end of his ninth decade of life. He has been an extraordinary figure in the life of the church in the 20th century. His legacy is large. Whilst a bishop in the Episcopalian Church in the USA, his influence has been across denominations and across continents, with countless thousands of thinking, exploring Christian believers, questioning received doctrines, exploring new ways of understanding what it means to be a person of faith, living out their discipleship in fresh and innovative ways.
Bishop Spong had his critics during his lifetime; every new book that he authored drew critical words from those who felt he had betrayed the Christian faith. He was regularly accused of hypocrisy, drawing a stipend from the Church yet speaking out against the beliefs of the Church. That kind of criticism is now being levelled once again against Bishop Spong, so soon after his death.
Critics of Spong should know that he advocated nothing that had not already been proposed and debated within biblical scholarship of the mid to later 20th century. Unlike many of the academics who in engaged in scholarly debate about details of exegesis and theology through articles and footnotes, Spong had the gift of speaking in ways that the headlines and opening paragraphs of newspaper articles could handle. He popularised a widespread and deeply debated series of discussions amongst academics.
Spong himself attributed great significance to the scholarly work of New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann and theologian Paul Tillich. We can’t avoid grappling with the important ideas that these scholars advocated and explained. Both demythologisation (Bultmann’s key idea) and existentialist theology (Tillich’s central contribution) need to be engaged with, explored, and critiqued—not just dismissively brushed aside with slogans and stereotypes.
Personally, I haven’t agreed with everything that Spong has published, either in written or spoken form. I have clearly benefitted from close reading and careful thinking about many of the issues that Spong himself has canvassed—both in terms of Spong’s publications and, more extensively, in the academic discussions about those issues in monographs and journal articles. His stimulus has been particularly important in the more popular arena.
Many people of faith who hold to what is called a “progressive theology” point to Spong as the person who first opened up their understanding about faith. He drew new visions, offered different understandings, provided viable options for people to hold to their faith in the increasingly complex and secularised world of the later 20th century. The miracles of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus (and of believers), the Virgin Birth, the inerrancy of scripture—these, and more, he explained in his books in ways that “the ordinary believer” could understand.
Many then went on to discover, and rejoice in, the work of Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, the Jesus Seminar (to which both of these scholars belonged)—and locally, Australian voices such as Val Webb, Rex Hunt, and Greg Jenks. Many across the church have been enriched by the articulate, faithful writings and speaking of such people. Spong opened the door for them to experience a wider audience.
Bishop Spong visited Australia with his wife, Christine, in 2007. He spoke at the inaugural Common Dreams conference in Sydney and visited churches in a number of other cities whist downunder. His influence on the Progressive Christianity movement in Australia has been very significant. A number of my colleagues have testified that “Spong and his ideas helped my find my place (or recover my place) in the church”. We can be grateful for these testimonies.
Not only people with progressive viewpoints are in the debt of Spong. There are many evangelical scholars who have benefitted from the spadework done by more progressive scholars—adopting historical criticism, using it to illuminate the biblical text, and eventually enhancing understandings of scripture amongst evangelicals, even conservatives, and not just more progressive folks.
I think of the work of Don Carson, I. Howard Marshall, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, and many more—conservative biblical scholars who have faithfully grappled with the challenges posed by more progressive points of view, who have utilised the methods developed within so-called “liberal” circles of scholarship. Our academic understanding, and from this our practice of discipleship across the church, has been enhanced by this conversation, taking place in ways that reach across the stereotypes of separated schools of thought.
Spong played some part in that. Not a huge amount in the academic discussions, per se; but a very large role in the public discussions about faith. It is the faithfully determined work of people such as Spong that has shaped the articulation of academic discussions in ways that are understandable to the public, that communicate to ordinary people of faith.
At the end of his life, let’s acknowledge the fine work that John Shelby Spong did in popularising and making widely known an extensive set of insights about what it means to have an informed faith that “makes sense” in the contemporary world; and let’s give thanks for his ministry of deepening and broadening the whole Christian exploration of scripture, faith, and discipleship.
A sermon by Elizabeth Raine, preached at Tuggeranong Uniting Church (in the ACT, Canberra) on 12 September 2021
The purpose of the book of Proverbs is to guide us in learning how cope with life (Prov 1.2-6). It places an emphasis on teachings gathered from tradition of the elders (e.g., 4.1-4) and from experience (e.g., 6.6-11). In contrast to many other books of the Hebrew Bible, major themes such as the Mosaic and Davidic covenants are absent; Temple worship and sacrifice are rarely mentioned.
Most of the sayings are meant to inspire moral ideals. Guided by the principle that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9.10; 1.7; 15.33), the authors emphasise values such as honesty, diligence, trustworthiness, self-restraint, and appropriate attitudes toward wealth and poverty.
This first chapter of Proverbs introduces us to Lady Wisdom, a mystical feminine aspect of God. She calls to us and invites us on an unexpected journey. She is a central character in many chapters in this book, and those who know her are seen as righteous people. She is offered as a role model for us, her teachings are a template for life, and she a pioneer who opens upa pathway to faith and obedience.
Lady Wisdom, as she is known, has fascinated ecclesiasts and scholars since the inception of the Christian church. She has been described in many ways—as an aspect of God, as a divine entity existing in her own right, even as something approaching a feminine deity, as Proverbs 8 states that Wisdom was present at the beginning of creation, and was a co-creator with God, who delighted in her presence.
This personification of wisdom as a female in Proverbs is one of the most extraordinary portrayals of femininity in the Hebrew Bible.
This very positive image of the feminine is a stark counterpoint to the very negative metaphorical depiction of women generally encountered in the Old Testament: for example, the whore with many lovers (Jer 3:1); the slaughterer of the Lord’s children (Ezek 16:21), and the adulterous woman in Proverbs itself (Prov 7).
Wisdom offers us a radical example of faithfulness yet she remains a disturbing presence. She transgresses boundaries by standing amidst the male elders at the city gates and presuming to teach them. She has a clear voice, a colourful personality, a dominant presence, and offers words of hope and the promise of life. She is a vehicle of God’s self-revelation, and grants knowledge of God to those who pursue her through scripture and learning.
Unlike most woman of her time, Wisdom occupies what was the domain of men, teachers and prophets. She stands on busy street corners, she is at the town gate; she sets her table at the crossroads where many pass by. Unlike her counterpart in Proverbs 31, there is nothing of the domestic goddess about her. She is counter cultural and subversive. She teaches knowledge and leads her people on their way through history. In a most unladylike way, she raises her voice in public places that are the domain of men and calls to everyone who would hear her.
The prominent biblical scholar, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, has written this about Wisdom:
“Divine Wisdom is a cosmic figure delighting in the dance of creation, a ‘master’ crafts wo/man and teacher of justice. She is a leader of Her people and accompanies them on their way through history. Very unladylike, she raises her voice in public places and calls everyone who would hear her. She transgresses boundaries, celebrates life, and nourishes those who will become her friends. Her cosmic house is without walls and her table is set for all.”
In short, the biblical figure of Wisdom represents a spirituality of roads and journeys, of public places and open borders, of nourishment and celebration, of justice and equality – rather than a spirituality of categories, doctrines, closed systems and ideologies.
Her dramatic modus operandi stands in striking contrast to the slow and methodical way of operating that we see in the classic formulations of Christendom, doctrines that have come to define the church in the eyes of those outside of it.
Wisdom calls us to work together, for the common good, with others in our society. She is not a figure bound to books and writing; she is out in the community seeking relationships with people, engaging wholeheartedly in public discourse, and living by example the key elements of a faith-filled life.
The church fathers, the male patriarchs of the church, loved making categories; they articulated their doctrines by amassing data, analysing the information, systematising the component parts and categorising the key dogmas. From this intensely rational approach to faith, we have inherited works such as the Congessions of Augustine, the SummaTheologiae of Thomas Aquinas, the institutes of the Christian Life by Jean Calvin, the string of creeds and confessions from the Westminster Confession onwards, and the massive Church Dogmatics of Karl Barth.
By contrast to these closed systems of knowledge, the biblical figure of Wisdom asks for a relational faith and invites us to develop a wide openness in the way we approach others and God. She requires of us that we really listen to others, including those we don’t agree with … she calls us to listen, to understand, to speak in ways that connect with others and ways that build productive and fruitful relationships across the differences that separate us.
I think that Wisdom is precisely the kind of person who would have relished the invitation, once offered to his disciples by Jesus, to push out to sea again and fish on the other side of the boat. She would value the opportunity to look in a different direction, to reconsider the task at hand and seek a new way of undertaking it. She would jump at the chance to explore a new arena, to pioneer a new task and to reshape her missional engagement so that it was fresh, invigorating, and creative. What a role model that is for us today!
So, the question that I invite you to ponder at this moment is: Where will we find Wisdom? Are we open to the exploration and discoveries that the biblical figure of Wisdom invites us to pursue?
Are we content with repeating our tried and true traditions from the past? Are we content with staying in our familiar comfort zone? Will our mission be simply no more than wishing people to walk through the door, as we remain in our comfortable, self-contained space?
Or will we choose the way of the rather unladylike Wisdom, the radical at the street corner, crying out to all who pass by? Can we understand Wisdom’s model as invitation to the church today? Should we be more concerned with ‘raising our voices’ in the public arena than confining ourselves to church buildings?
Hopefully we will choose to follow the path which offers us the potential to transform contemporary situations of injustice, brokenness and violence into communities that truly reflect the love of God, and we will take our stance in the marketplace in ways that show our deep and profound relationship with God. Hopefully we will follow Wisdom out of our enclosed gatherings to the space where social and spiritual change can take place.
The lectionary is currently providing selections of Hebrew Scripture texts which focus on Wisdom. This focus started some weeks back, with the account, in 1 Kings 3:9–12, of Solomon praying for wisdom and discernment, and God responding by promising to deliver this gift.
After then recounting the prayer of Solomon at the opening of the Temple (1 Kings 8:22–43), we were offered a small section (2:8–13) from the Song of Songs. This work is attributed to King Solomon 1:1), but most likely it was not actually written by him. (It is also known as the Song of Solomon).
The following three Sundays provide selections from Proverbs, another work attributed to Solomon (Prov 1:1; 10:1; 25:1)—although, once again, most likely not written or compiled by him. The book contains a series of short, pithy proverbs (thus, its name), an example of which is provided in the excerpts from chapter 22 (verses 1–2, 8–9, 22–23; a most curious collection of unrelated sayings!).
Wisdom accosts her audience as “simple ones” (1:22, 32) and accuses them of ignoring all that she offers (1:24–25, 30). Wisdom therefore mocks the panic-stricken and laughs at the calamities they experience (1:26), “because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord” (1:29). This is full-on rhetoric, uncompromising speech, from a very feisty female character.
The figure of Wisdom is described in some detail in the passage that is offered this Sunday, in which Wisdom is portrayed in dramatic fashion. She “cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice; at the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates, she speaks” (Prov 1:20–21). The city gates, of course, is the place where the (male) elders of the town would sit, to receive matters for judgement, to apply the details of the Law, day after day.
She accosts her audience as “simple ones” (1:22, 32) and accuses them of ignoring all that she offers (1:24–25, 30). Wisdom therefore mocks the panic-stricken and laughs at the calamities they experience (1:26), “because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord” (1:29). This is full-on rhetoric, uncompromising speech, from a very feisty female character.
The lectionary also provides the full section of text from the last chapter of Proverbs (31:10–(31), where the eshethayil (the woman of valour) is praised. While “her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land” (31:23)—to spend hours each day, no doubt, debating the finer points of the Law—this woman is energetically running her household, undertaking multiple daily tasks (spinning, making clothing, preparing meals), as well as overseeing the vineyard and the animals, assisting the poor and needy, running a successful merchandise business, undertaking commercial transactions—and, apparently, keeping her husband happy. “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all”, he says, admiringly (31:29).
There is more to her than is revealed in this initial portrayal, however. Wisdom is highlighted in Proverbs 8, which affirms that Wisdom was present with God at creation. In a clear retelling of the creation narrative of Genesis 1, Wisdom declares, “the Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago … when he established the heavens, I was there … when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Prov 8:22–31). Wisdom was the key creative force at work beside God, in conjunction with God, in creation the world.
The woman of valour is to be praised, for she is “a woman who fears the Lord” (31:30). And in the midst of all of this, “she opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (31:26).
“The fear of the Lord”, of course, is the central feature of the teachings of Wisdom, both in Proverbs (1:7, 29; 2:5; 9:10; 14:26–27; 15:33; 19:23; 23:17), and also in other works of wisdom literature (Eccles 5:7; 8:12–13; Job 28:28; 37:23–24; Sir 1:11–20, 27; 19:20; 21:11).
The lectionary continues on with further works drawn from the wisdom literature, part of the third main section of Hebrew Scripture (what the Jews call Kethuvim, or “the writings”). There are excerpts from Esther, Job, and Ruth over the ensuing seven Sundays.
Wisdom plays a key role in two further works, not included in the Protestant canon, but recognised as scripture within Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Wisdom appears in the book of Sirach, attributed to one Jesus, son of Eleanor, son of Sirach, of Jerusalem (50:27). In this book, Wisdom gives knowledge, makes demands of those seeking instruction from her, imposes her yoke and fetters on her students, and then offers rest.
Early in the book, the invitation is extended to engage with Wisdom. “Put your feet into her fetters, and your neck into her collar. Bend your shoulders and carry her, and do not fret under her bonds. Come to her with all your soul, and keep her ways with all your might. Search out and seek, and she will become known to you; and when you get hold of her, do not let her go. For at last you will find the rest she gives, and she will be changed into joy for you.” (Sir 6:24–28).
At the very end of the book, Wisdom extends her invitation: “Draw near to me, you who are uneducated, and lodge in the house of instruction. Why do you say you are lacking in these things, and why do you endure such great thirst? I opened my mouth and said, ‘Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money. Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by’.” (Sir 51:23–26).
In Sirach 24, Wisdom is portrayed as the intermediary assisting God at creation and throughout salvation history. “Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people. In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth, and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory: ‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in the highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. Alone I compassed the vault of heaven and traversed the depths of the abyss” (Sir 24:1–4). Wisdom played a crucial role in creation, surveying the whole scope of the created order for God.
She continues with a description of how she became connected specifically with Israel. “Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.’” (Sir 24:1–8). He link with the chosen people was secured.
Another document which highlights the role of Wisdom is the work known as the Wisdom of Solomon—a work which the anonymous author tells of his own search for Wisdom. “I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me”, the author declares (Wis Sol 7:7), a passage which echoes the plea of King Solomon, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great peoples” (1 Kings 3:9).
The description of Wisdom that is given in this book is more philosophical than biblical; it owes much to the developing middle platonic philosophy of the late Hellenistic period. Wisdom is described as being “more mobile than any motion, because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things” (7:24).
Furthermore, it is said that “she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty” (7:25). She reflects a most dazzling sequence of attributes: “there is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle” (Wis Sol 7:22–24). The work continues for chapter upon chapter, extolling the virtues of Wisdom, praising her glory and insight and knowledge.
The book ends with an extended recitation of the role that Wisdom played in the mighty acts of God, beginning with Adam (10:1-2), and moving through Noah (10:4), Moses and the Exodus (10:15), across the Red Sea. Through Wisdom, God has “exalted and glorified your people, and you have not neglected to help them at all times and in all places” (19:22).
And, of course, Wisdom, the teacher of understanding and the co-worker of God in creation, appears in another form in the New Testament: in the figure of Jesus, Teacher supreme, Word of God present and active from the very moment of creation. She is an important figure to understand.