Parables: the craft of storytelling in the book of origins (Matt 13)

This week, the Gospel passage comes from the book of origins, whose account of Jesus we have been following for much of this current year. The chapter we are reading contains the first of seven parables that Jesus tells. The parable of the seeds and the sower is told in Matt 13:3-9 and an interpretation is then offered at 13:18-23. This interpretation shapes and orients our understanding of what “the seed” means; it directs us to interpret “the seed” as “the word of the kingdom” (13:19).

This is the first of seven parables in this chapter, and one of twenty-four parables in the book of origins. Many of those parables are explicitly identified as parables of the kingdom. After all, the kingdom was the focus of the preaching of Jesus, as is signalled in his opening public proclamation earlier in the book (4:17). (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/23/repentance-for-the-kingdom-matt-4/)

The kingdom features in the Beatitudes (5:3, 10), the Sermon on the Mount (5:19-20, 6:10, 33, 7:21), and then in many of the teachings of Jesus (such as 8:11-12, 18:3-4, 19:14, 23-24).

Preaching the kingdom was central to the activities of Jesus (9:35) and his followers (10:7) and will remain a key focus until the time when “the end will come” (24:14). And parables formed an important contribution to the ways that Jesus spoke about the kingdom in his teachings.

In this chapter, after the parable of the seeds and the sower, we find another six parables: the weeds among the wheat (13:24-30), the mustard seed (13:31-32), the yeast in the flour (13:33), hidden treasure (13:44), a pearl of great value (13:45-46), and the net that caught fish (13:47-48). Interestingly, every key item in these seven parables is a small, even seemingly insignificant, item: seeds, seeds, yeast, a pearl, and fish.

Later in the Gospel, there are further parables of the kingdom: the labourers in the vineyard (20:1-16), the two sons (21:28-32), the wicked tenants (21:33-44), and the wedding banquet (22:2-14). In the final section of Jesus’s teaching the disciples, he tells three further parables of the kingdom: the ten bridesmaids (25:1-13), the talents (25:14-30), and the sheep and the goats (25:31-46).

1 Understanding Parables

What are we to make of these many parables? Parables were quite widespread in the society of Jesus’ day. They were evocative and effective means for telling stories. The most common means of entertainment in the ancient world was telling stories. This was done by word of mouth, from one person to another, or in small groups gathered in market places, courtyards or houses. Education also relied on the voice.

Written materials were costly and only a small percentage of the population was literate. The natural tendency to tell stories was widely accepted, so that the most familiar pattern was that learning took place through the passing on of stories. So oral story telling was commonplace in the synagogues where Jews gathered for worship and instruction.

We can see the dominance of the oral medium most clearly in the literature which tells about the rabbis of Judaism. The story was the foundational building block for all the rabbis’ teaching activities. Beyond Judaism, we see it in the popularity of written biographies, romances, histories and adventure stories, throughout the ancient world. Indeed, a second century Christian (Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis) is reported as having stated that stories spoken by teachers are to be preferred as more reliable than written works (such as the Gospels)—an attitude that sounds incredible to our modern ears!

A parable is an important type of story-telling. A parable is a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. Parables are found in Jewish literature; the most famous examples in the Hebrew Bible are Samuel’s parable comparing David with a callous rich herdsman in 2 Samuel 12 and the prophet’s parable comparing Israel with an unfruitful vineyard in Isaiah 5.

Rabbis at the time of Jesus, and later, have used parables to make their point in their teachings. The Hebrew word for this form was mashal, a word meaning “to be like” or “a comparison”. Parables were told to make a point about something that may not be easily understood, by drawing a comparison with something else that was well-known or easily understood.

The mashal also opens up the possibility of a more developed form of comparison, the similitude, of which the best example is Nathan’s parable to David concerning the stolen lamb (2 Sam 12:1–4). This form flourishes in later Judaism, both in rabbinic literature, and in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ parables (“the kingdom of heaven is like…”). In fact, the parables told by Jesus follow the patterns and customs of the rabbinic mashal.

2 Understanding the Parable of the Seeds and the Sower

The specific parable that we hear in worship this Sunday, the parable of the seeds and the sower, is a particularly provocative parable. It leaves us with various questions. Why was the sower so extravagant in broadcasting the seeds, casting them not only onto fertile ground but also onto rocky ground and into the midst of thorns? Why did the sower not adopt good agricultural practice, culling the thorny plants as they grew, to enable the seeds to grow into healthy plants?

Other questions arise, as well, if we read the parable (13:3-9) without including the interpretation that is offered (13:18-23). That interpretation guides us to see the seeds as representing “the word of the kingdom”, and that understanding seems reasonably evident from the parable in its own right. But what does the path represent? And what about the thorns? And the rocky ground? Or the sun—is it a symbol of something?

The interpretation included in Matthew 13 closes down these questions. Many scholars believe that the interpretation did not actually come from the lips of Jesus, but, rather, was added by the author of the Gospel, drawing on interpretations that had developed over the intervening decades after the lifetime of Jesus. (This assumes, quite reasonably, that the Gospel was written some 30-50 years after the death of Jesus; and also, more controversially, perhaps, that the author was somewhat creative in reporting the actions and words of Jesus.)

One of the reasons for this view is that the interpretation really treats the parable as an allegory, rather than as a mashal-like parable. In an allegory, each and every character and event in the story is regarded as being a symbol for something else beyond the story.

Allegory literally means, “to say something other”; it comes from two Greek words, the verb agoreuo (to speak in the assembly), and the prefix allos (other). Allegories are found in ancient literature; in Greek, from the earliest literature, that of Homer, through to Plato, and on into the writings of people centuries after the time of Jesus. They were commonplace across Greek and Latin literature.

But not so, in Hebrew Scriptures, the tradition from which Jesus regularly drew. Here, there are more often parables, only rarely any fully-developed allegory. And parables are not allegories. A parable is a mashal—a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. And the single point of a parable is given in its punchline: which, in this case, is the enigmatic, “let anyone with ears, hear!” (13:9). If the seed is the word, the demand of this parable is clear: listen!

And yet, as the verses that follow make clear (13:10-17), understanding a parable is a tricky business. Its meaning is not self-evident. As Jesus speaks in parables, “seeing, they do not perceive, and hearing, they do not listen” (13:13, quoting directly from Isaiah 6:9-10). Parables are conundrums. They contain unresolved tensions. They invite multiple understandings. They press for exploration and investigation.

The technique of a parable is not to lay everything out in plain form, in straight-forward propositions—but rather to weave a story, to draw the listeners into the story, to invite wondering, to foster creative thinking and thoughtful grappling within the story. Nothing is set in stone. All sorts of possibilities arise, from the narrative of a story that is well-crafted and persuasively-presented. As we imagine that Jesus did in creating and telling his stories in parable form.

3 The Parable of the Seeds and the Sower in the Revised Common Lectionary

So the offering of the interpretation (13:18-23) immediately after the telling of the parable (13:1-9) that the Revised Common Lectionary offers (and that the author of the book of origins includes in this chapter) skews our approach to the parable. It closes off the possibilities of understanding. It limits the range of options for clearly comprehending what Jesus was offering. In my mind, it’s something of a menace.

So here’s the challenge: this Sunday, why not simply read the parable (13:1-9)—and then, STOP. Don’t read the interpretation (13:18-23). Let the parable stand in its own right. Invite your audience to imagine, explore, interpret. Encourage them with the sense that there is “no right answer”, or “no one interpretation”. Invite people to engage in the process that the very first followers of Jesus took part in: “let anyone with ears, listen!” And then invite them to respond. And rejoice in the richness and diversity of understandings that arise!

******

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012).

For a gentle, poetic retelling of the parable from Sarah Agnew, see https://praythestory.blogspot.com/2020/07/falling-seeds.html?m=1

Come to me, take my yoke, I will give you rest (Matt 11)

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30)

The book of origins, the first of four accounts of Jesus in the New Testament (known to us as the Gospel according to Matthew), locates Jesus firmly within his historical context, as a teacher and prophet within Israel. He is the one who has come to renew the covenant, to restore Israel, to instruct them in the ways of righteous-justice. He is the one who brings the Law to fulfilment and establishes the way into the kingdom.

This book has a high view of Jesus within that Jewish context. It positions Jesus as the most authoritative teacher in his community, the one who guides, directs, and inspires those who listen to him.

It is to the words of Jesus that believers are to look for guidance in their lives (7:24–27). In this Gospel, Jesus is the one and only teacher (23:8), the one and only instructor (23:10). Whilst “heaven and earth will pass away”, the words spoken by Jesus will endure (24:35). The last words of Jesus reported in this book are the instructions from Jesus, to his disciples, to go to the nations, “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20). His teachings stand supreme.

In the lectionary for this coming Sunday, we find a striking passage from Matthew’s Gospel (11:25–30) which depends this understanding of Jesus the Teacher. In this passage, Jesus offers a prayer to God in which he lays claim to this distinct, even unique, place.

The first part of this passage (11:25-27) is often nicknamed “the Johannine Thunderbolt from a Synoptic Sky”, because it seems so out of place in this Gospel; the language used (“Father” and “Son”, amongst other things) invites comparison with the Fourth Gospel, as does the insistence on Jesus as the one who “knows the will of the Father” and thus reveals “the gracious will” of the Father (11:26-27). How these verses found there way into this particular Gospel is an intriguing question. (If you have a compelling answer to this question, I would love to hear it!)

As this prayer continues (11:28-30), Jesus is depicted as laying claim to be the authoritative teacher; his words claim an absolute authority to interpret the Law, which is here portrayed as “the yoke”, a term for the Law which is found in rabbinic writings (Mishnah, Aboth 3:5, Berakoth 2:5; see also 2 Enoch 34:1 and 2 Baruch 41:3).

Jesus here is portrayed as claiming this high authority for himself; his yoke provides a sure understanding of the Law. His language is filled with scriptural words; he speaks in a way that is strongly evocative of certain passages in Sirach concerning Wisdom (Sirach 6:18–33; 24:19–22; 51:23–28). In this book (dating from around 200-250 years before the time of Jesus), Wisdom commands attention (“draw near to me”, “come to me”), offers instruction, commands submission to the yoke of her teaching, and offers rest.

A hymn on the values of Wisdom concludes that book, with the invitation to “acquire wisdom for yourself … put your neck under her yoke and let your souls receive instruction” (Sir 51:25-26). Earlier in the book, this invitation to learn from Wisdom had been issued by Wisdom herself: “come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits” (Sir 24:19).

And in the opening chapters of this book, an extended poem in praise of wisdom includes the invitation to “come to her like one who plots and sows … put your feet into her fetter 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 … search out and seek … when you get hold of her, do not let her go, for at last you will find the rest she gives, and you will be changed into joy for you” (Sir 6:19, 24-28).

The poem continues, “then her fetters will become for you a strong defence and her collar a glorious robe; her yoke is a golden ornament, and her bonds a purple cord; you will wear her like a glorious robe and put her on like a splendid crown” (Sir 6:29-31).

So many of these phrases resonate in the words attributed to Jesus in the book of origins (Matt 11:28-30). As he speaks, he claims the authority of Wisdom. His words provide insight, guidance, direction, as do the words of Wisdom in earlier Jewish traditions. Indeed, just a few verses earlier, the voice of Wisdom has been invoked by Jesus as he reflects on the criticisms he has received, as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (11:19). The proof of the pudding is in the eating—“Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”, is what Jesus responds.

Wisdom appears in the book of Proverbs, where she is portrayed as a teacher of “good advice and sound wisdom” who offers insight and strength (Prov 8:14), leading people along “the way of righteousness, the paths of justice” (8:20). She is also portrayed as the one who worked beside God to bring the created world into being (8:22-31).

Wisdom then appears in later Jewish literature, including Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), always as the teacher, instructing people in God’s ways, instructing and guiding people of faith through their journeys in life.

We have noted in earlier blogs that this Gospel, the book of origins, came into being in a community which found itself in competition with regard to other streams of Judaism. (See the blog posts listed below.) This Gospel, it would seem, seeks to validate the interpretation of scripture promoted by the followers of Jesus over and above other understandings and interpretations of the Law.

Who better to call upon for such validating support than the master exegete, the authoritative teacher, Jesus, the one to whom “all things have been revealed by the heavenly Father”, the one who speaks with the voice of Wisdom herself?

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

Black Lives Matter. Now—and Then.

#BlackLivesMatter. The importance of this hashtag has been highlighted in recent weeks.

First, it gained attention in the USA, where yet another incident of the unwarranted treatment of a black man and the resulting unjust death of that man, George Floyd, led to widespread protests, resistance, and riots across the country.

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter originated in 2013, after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager, was killed in an argument in Florida. The man charged with his order was acquitted, resulting in the community response that saw #BlackLivesMatter gain traction.

See https://www.adl.org/education/educator-resources/lesson-plans/black-lives-matter-from-hashtag-to-movement

The hashtag has also had prominence in Australia, especially in recent weeks. After the death in America of George Floyd, a black man killed while in police custody in Minneapolis in early June, the BLM movement became active once again. The widespread unrest in the USA was clearly evident.

Around the same time, reports in Australia were indicating that there were 434 people—black men and women, indigenous Australians—who have died whilst in police custody, since 1991. (That was the year when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody ended.) And there had been no conviction of anyone responsible for any of those deaths over all that time.

See my blog on this at https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/09/racism-and-reconciliation/

So #BlackLivesMatter. We know this now, in our own time. This movement has generated widespread public support. The Pew Research Centre in the USA has reported their recent findings, noting that “two-thirds of U.S. adults say they support the movement, with 38% saying they strongly support it”.

See https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/06/12/amid-protests-majorities-across-racial-and-ethnic-groups-express-support-for-the-black-lives-matter-movement/

All of this points to the need for ongoing, continuing, relentless lobbying, advocating for First Peoples, protesting injustices and working towards a more just situation in our society, today. Without question, this is a critical priority.

Alongside that, let me suggest the importance of remembering that #BlackLivesMatter when we turn to scripture, when we listen to the Bible being read in church or in Bible study groups, or when we open its pages ourselves and read the stories it contains. Do we imagine the skin colour of the people who are in these stories? Do we remember that the vast majority of them are dark-skinned?

Some years back, an enterprising forensic artist, Richard Neave, created a model of a Galilean man for a BBC documentary, “Son of God”. Neave took an actual skull found in the region (not claiming that it was actually the face of Jesus) and built a model of what the person might have looked like.

The end result was not the blue-eyed, blonde-haired, “gentle Jesus meek and mild” of traditional Sunday School storytelling. The darker colouring of the skin (historically accurate) caused controversy at the time (and still does, whenever I use it with groups). The aim was to prompt people to consider how Jesus was a man of his time and place—a darker-skinned Middle Eastern man.

See https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-general/reconstructing-jesus-using-science-flesh-out-face-religion-004942

There’s a more detailed discussion of “what did Jesus look like?” by Dr Joan Taylor, of Kings College London, at https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35120965

Just this week I came across a fascinating art project, seeking to depict the well-known characters of the Bible as the black-skinned Middle Easterners that they were. You can see the full gallery of art created by photographer James C. Lewis in the “Icons of the Bible” gallery at

https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/2-cornelius-lewis

Take some time to explore these images. As you do, remember that just as we know that #BlackLivesMatter now, today, so as we travel back in time, in our imaginations, into the world of the Bible, #BlackLivesMatter in those stories. We learn from these tales about these ancient black people. We gain guidance for living as faithful disciples today from these dark-skinned people of these ancient stories.

#BlackLivesMatter. Now—and Then.

When you come together (3) … wait for one another (1 Cor 11)

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. 1 Cor 11:33-24

In these words, Paul instructs the Corinthians—that raggle taggle group of disordered participants in an unruly worship gathering—to wait for one another, to ensure that they are all on the same page, to be committed to constructive group gatherings. Every member is important. Every voice is valued. Every need must be understood and responded to.

In the Uniting Church, we have adopted a process known as the consensus model. In that model, according to the Manual for Meetings, we value

listening skills: help us understand what another person is saying and develop new ways of responding.

conflict-resolution skills: enable us to deal with the emotional turbulence that typically accompanies conflict … these skills are likely to foster closer relationships.

collaborative problem-solving skills: help to resolve conflicting needs in such a way that all parties are satisfied.

(Manual for Meetings 1.6)

In the overview guidelines provided to people who chair meetings of the councils of our church (Appendix B), the guidance is clear:

“Treat everyone’s contribution as valuable, and be expectant that the Spirit is guiding the Church”.

I have heard many complaints about the consensus model, which although we have used it for some decades now, is still seen in a negative light by some people. Elizabeth and I have spent much time talking about such complaints over the years, exploring why that may be so.

One of the factors that plays a role in feeding these complaints, we believe, is gender. Have we paused to reflect on the role that our gender plays in our meetings process? What unspoken, unexplored assumptions might we have, about the place we have, as a female, or as a male, in the dynamics of a meeting? What expectations do we have about how we contribute to those meetings in which we participate?

A recent study that Elizabeth found online has some potent messages for us.

https://magazine.byu.edu/article/when-women-dont-speak/

The study analysed “the female experience in a top-10, predominately male collegiate accounting program—a program where the women, overall, matriculated with higher Grade Point Averages and more leadership experience than their male peers. The students move through the program on teams, and administrators wanted to know how best to build them.”

The students were put into mixed gender groups. Some had equal numbers of men and women. Some had only one woman. Some had only one man. The researchers observed the dynamics in each of the groups. They found clear problems:

1. Unequal talking time. At best, outnumbered women in the study spoke three-quarters of the time a man spoke; on average, women spoke just two-thirds as much as a man.

2. Routine interruptions. Put a woman alone with four men, and 70 percent of the interruptions she receives from men are negative. Compare that with having four women in the room: here, just 20 percent of the interruptions women receive from men are negative.

3. Limited influence. The same conditions that create disproportionate silence by women also create disproportionate authority by men.

They then explored what took place when groups employed a consensus model that worked to build unanimous support of all participants for any decision made. They determined that this meant:

Female talking time increased for women in the minority—a lone woman participated nearly as much as a man.

Positive interruptions—interjections that affirm and validate, like “Yeah” and “I agree”—were significantly increased. Such positive interruptions tripled for women in the minority. If the group sends signals that build confidence, women tend to participate more.

The influence gap narrowed for a lone woman—she had almost as much of a shot as a man at being voted the most influential member by her group.

How do we hear these results? How do they inform our practices? What must we commit to doing as a result of exploring this research?

What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 1 Cor 14:26

Building up the body is the bottom line in what Paul instructs those raggle taggle Corinthians. Valuing what each individual contributes to the whole is important. Ensuring that we function as a cohesive groupis the clear focus—whether that be as Church Council, as Elders, as Pastoral Relations Committee, as Standing Committee, as Presbytery-in-Council, or as a Congregational meeting.

The bottom line that the study proposes, is that men need to listen more, women need to speak more, men need to practice positive support for women’s voices, groups need to work hard to operate by consensus, participants need to avoid stereotyping (“you’re a woman, what do you know about this?”), and group leaders need to focus on positive participation processes.

This is what it takes to develop a constructive, cohesive, respectful environment for decision-making.

May we work to ensure processes that honours the voice of every participant, that respects female contribution and participation, and that develops consensus outcomes.

*****

[Of course, the irony is that as I have juxtaposed this study on the importance of women’s voices with words from the latter part of 1 Corinthians, which is precisely where the text informs us that women are to “keep silent in church” (1 Cor 14:34-35). We always need to bring a critical perspective into that we approach texts in scripture. We always need to deconstruct the ideology and discover the fundamental values at work. As in scripture interpretation, so also in meeting dynamics.]

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A prayer

As we meet

Help us to listen with care and patience

Help me to remain quiet and attentive

Help us to speak in appropriate and helpful ways

Help me not to interrupt, but to wait

Help us not to feel intimidated, but rather valued

Help me to focus on discerning a common mind

Help us to participate in positive ways

Help us to be your people, O God.

Amen.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

In memory of James Dunn (1939–2020)

Elizabeth and I heard the sad news this morning, of the death of James Dunn, at the age of 80 years. To those who read the fruits of his professional work in biblical scholarship, he was the pre-eminent New Testament scholar, J.D.G. Dunn. To those who had the fortune to know him in person, he was the gregariously ever-cheerful Jimmy Dunn.

This sad news rekindled memories for us of some times in the past when we had encounters with Jimmy and his wife, Meta. Because he was willing to take on the daunting task of supervising Elizabeth as a doctoral student, we travelled across the globe to spend the calendar year 1997 in Durham, in the north of England. It was a wonderful year for us, in so many ways.

Meeting Jimmy in person and getting to know him and Meta was an enriching experience. Participating in the weekly New Testament seminar for postgraduate students and the biblical faculty of Durham University, under the genial chairing of Jimmy, with his distinctive Scots accent and his rapier-sharp mind, was an equally enriching experience.

Having his eagle eye scrutinise our work in biblical studies (both of us—Elizabeth in her regular supervisory sessions, myself on the few occasions when I presented in the seminar) was a wonderfully deepening and expanding experience.

The controversial nature of Elizabeth’s chosen thesis topic (on Matthew’s Gospel) could have led to difficult supervisory sessions, especially as the Dunn interpretation and the Raine interpretation were not at all the same! Instead, Elizabeth had enriching and stimulating sessions with him as supervisor—a great model of how to engage in discussion across differences.

Meta Dunn, Rev Dr Philip Luscombe, Rev Elizabeth Oliver,
and Professor Jimmy Dunn, Durham, 1997

It was because Elizabeth had worked intensively with him during that year in Durham, that Jimmy agreed to include Sydney on his trip to “the Far East”, as he called it, in 2003. He planned his tour, lasting a couple of months, so that he spent a week or so in various locations in this part of the world, visiting his “Far East” students. Sydney was his only Australian stop—and that was because his student, Elizabeth Raine, was there!

Jimmy and Elizabeth, sorting “questions from the floor”
during the UTC–SCE Seminar Week 2003

So United Theological College and the School of Continuing Education benefited from Elizabeth’s connection and thus Jimmy’s presence. He gave a series of lectures on the oral traditions about Jesus, during the annual Seminar Week of the college. Rob McFarlane, Elizabeth, Jione Havea and I worked to ensure that we had a creative and productive week. Other biblical and theological minds joined in the panel discussions. Elizabeth had scored a magnificent coup for the college!

That year, 2003, Seminar Week attracted the largest number of people for many years, and probably the attendance numbers have not been matched in subsequent years. People of cautiously conservative, liberally oriented, and thoroughgoing critical perspectives, gathered each day, to listen, discuss, debate, and learn, as Professor Dunn lectured, responded to questions, and engaged in banter with people during the breaks.

Elizabeth Raine, Jimmy Dunn, Jione Havea, Jungmin Soo,
Dean Drayton, and Rob McFarlane, panel discussion
at North Parramatta, Seminar Week 2003

My earliest awareness of J.D.G. Dunn the scholar was when I was a theological student, in the late 1970s, at UTC. The people in my cohort of students candidating for ministry were, with only one exception, much more conservative than me in their theology. The charismatic renewal movement had influenced quite a number of them. Their focus was on the work of the Holy Spirit—tongues and prophecies, choruses and exorcisms, joyful and exuberant freedom in worship—these were what my fellow students appreciated. And exposure to the rigours of critical theological and biblical scholarship was hard for a number of them.

I remember that, for a time, the name of James Dunn was to the fore in many student common room discussions at that time. His work on the Spirit was gaining much attention. Here was a rigorously critical biblical scholar who took seriously the experiences of charismatic renewal and highlighted the place of the Sprit, bringing giftings and enthusiasms, in the Christian life. He was able to bridge the gulf between charismatic experience and thoughtful scholarship. That was a fine gift to possess.

Jump forward around 15 years, and I was back at UTC, as a member of the faculty, with responsibility for teaching New Testament subjects. In the intervening years, I had studied in America, been exposed to Jewish thinking, started a local Jewish-Christian dialogue group, and gained a strong interest in interfaith relationships. From those experiences, I set out to develop a new subject, grounded in the study of biblical texts, exploring the origins of the movement we know as Christianity, and tracing the ways it became a discrete entity separate from Judaism.

I gave the subject the name “The Partings of the Ways”—a deliberate choice to include two plurals, for the ways by which the emerging movement diverged from the parent body were multiple, diverse, and complex. The book by J.D.G. Dunn (with the same title) proved to be the foundation for the whole subject. If I recommended to,students that they buy any book, this was the one. Jimmy Dunn had provided the detailed exegetical and theological foundation for a subject that I loved teaching for the next 15 years.

So it was an experience with multiple levels of delight when Elizabeth and I lived in Durham, spending each day in the Theology Department of Durham University, getting to know the wonderful biblical faculty with Jimmy Dunn, Stephen Barton and Loren Stuckenbruck as New Testament professors.

How glad I was that Jimmy Dunn took on Elizabeth as student—meaning that I could spend the year researching Luke-Acts as she worked on her thesis on Matthew under his guidance. And that led, in due course, to a later invitation to me—a surprise phone call from England, quite out of the blue!—to contribute the commentary on Acts to the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, for which Jimmy Dunn was co-editor.

And it was a double delight when Jimmy and Meta travelled down under six years later, spending the week at UTC and then seeing the sights of Sydney with Elizabeth and myself, before heading back home to the UK. Knowing him personally, and professionally, has enriched both of our lives. It is with great sadness that we heard the news of his death.

Meta and Jimmy at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, Sydney, in April 2003

Baptism in the Holy Spirit, 1970

Jesus and the Spirit, 1975

Christology in the making, 1980

Romans 1-8, 9-16, 1988

Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 1990

The Partings of the Ways between Christianity and Judaism, 1991

The Epistle to the Galatians, 1993

The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 1996

The Acts of the Apostles, 1996

The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 1998

The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul (ed.), 2003

Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, 2003

Christianity in the Making: Vol. 1, Jesus Remembered, 2003

A New Perspective On Jesus: What The Quest For The Historical Jesus Missed, 2005

The New Perspective On Paul, 2007

Christianity in the Making: Vol. 2, Beginning from Jerusalem, 2008

Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels, 2011

Christianity in the Making: Vol. 3, Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity, 2015

Paul’s vision of “One in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28) and the Uniting Church

A sermon on the anniversary of the Uniting Church (for the Project Reconnect resource)

Galatians 3:23–27

On 22 June every year, across this continent, people gather to celebrate the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia. Today, rather than address the passages set in the lectionary, I want to turn to a section of one of Paul’s letters, from our New Testament. It’s from the latter part of chapter 3 of his letter to the church in Galatia.

It is good to have this passage as our focus. It speaks to who we want to be, together, as the church. It is a word for our times. In fact, I think that this passage could well express the fundamental calling of the Uniting Church.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in the midst of an intense and ferocious debate within the early movement that had been started by Jesus. It was a time of great transition. Things were changing. Old practices were being challenged. New practices were being proposed.

In Galatians, those who advocated Circumcision came under criticism. In that place, as in many other places where the good news of the Jesus movement had been proclaimed, baptism was being proposed as a new ritual, to mark the new faith of the growing numbers of the followers of Jesus.

The argument about circumcision has behind it the issue as to how much, or how little, of the Jewish Law should apply to believers within that movement – those whom we now call the early Christians. This was an incredibly contentious issue at the time, which caused much dispute. Galatians is a letter that was created in the heat of this intense debate; so, at many points, it bears more evidence of rash fury than it does of considered reflection.

Paul’s language in Galatians is ferocious. He accuses the Galatian believers of being fools who have been bewitched by deceivers; he accuses them of biting and devouring one another; he criticises them for urging Gentile converts to be circumcised and to adopt full adherence to the Torah. This is no gentle, reflective spiritual meditation; this is full-on partisan polemics!

And yet, right within the midst of this turbulent flow of argument and disputation, we come across comments that provide cause for reflection; ideas that do invite deeper consideration; insights that do offer the opportunity for spiritual growth to those who would read, ponder, and reflect.

One of these passages is just two well-known verses from the third chapter of this letter: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

Here, Paul sets out a vision for people of faith; a vision for believers within community; we would say, a vision for the church. It could well be our central mission statement, as the Uniting Church in Australia, for we so much value grace-filled inclusiveness, we so strongly reject divisive and judgemental stances, we so yearn to live in accord with this grand vision, where all belong to a welcoming and loving community.

The vision of the church for Paul is one of harmony, concord, unity. Paul envisages great changes within the community of faith, because of Jesus. If the reality failed to achieve this change, nevertheless the vision stood firm; Paul envisaged a community that would bring together strikingly disparate opposites.

In this community, the religious differences of Jew and Gentile would matter no more; the different levels of social status, of people living in freedom and those serving as slaves, would become irrelevant; and the societal roles and expectations associated with the gender of a person —  male or female – would no longer function as dominant. These three conditions of difference would melt away, within the community of faith, into a cohesive unity of co-operation and interconnection. This was a huge change to took place all those centuries ago.

Indeed, as we ponder these three key instances of the way in which difference would disappear, we might even push it further: is this vision not simply one for the church, but even one for society as a whole? Might it be that the vision, the hope, which Paul set out in his letter to the Galatians, could be brought about within the patterns of living and relating right across his society? Was Paul passionate, not only about partisan points of religious practice, but also – and more significantly – about visionary ideals for human society as a whole?

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – this unity within the church might well become a model for harmony within society. Certainly, that is the way that the church has interpreted this statement in the centuries since Paul wrote it.

The church of the late first century continued the battle begun in the time of Paul; over time, Jews and gentiles were equally welcomed within most of the faith communities of the ancient world.

The church of the Enlightenment was at the forefront of the movement to end the slave trade, to enable black Africans to live unhindered by white masters seeking to profit from selling them as slaves.

And the western church from the later part of the 20th century has been active alongside many other community organisations to ensure that the opportunities available to women were not less than those available to men.

In each of these battles, the church at large has understood Paul’s words to the Galatians to be words for both the church, and for the society as a whole. It is a grand vision. May it be a reality for you, in your community of faith, and amongst the people of the place where you live, sleep, eat, work, and rest.

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

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Some questions to consider:

What did you find to be the most significant idea in this message?

Can you describe a time when you experienced the “unity in Christ” that Paul wrote about?

In what way does your congregation today model the vision of inclusive acceptance for all that Paul wrote about?

In what way might you be able to show that vision to the people where you live, sleep, eat, work, and rest?

To read more on the distinctive contributions of the Uniting Church to Australian society, you may wish to read my blogs at https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-i/ and https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-ii/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/ and https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/20/alongside-the-basis-of-union-there-was-the-statement-to-the-nation/

“We weigh’d and run into the Harbour”. Cook, the Endeavour, and the Guugu Yimithirr

On 11 June 1770, Lt James Cook and his ship, HMS Endeavour, ran afoul of the Great Barrier Reef and seriously damage was done to the ship’s hull. To avoid sinking, all the crew and stores had to be offloaded in order to free the Endeavour from the reef.

42 year old Cook held the rank of Lieutenant at the time; he was to be promoted to Commander on his return to England in 1771, and then promoted to Post-Captain in 1775. (See https://www.captaincooksociety.com/home/captain-cook-society/faq)

Cook provides a dramatic account in his journal for that day, writing “Upon my sounding the 2nd time round the Ship I found the most water a Stern, and therefore had this Anchor carried out upon the Starboard Quarter, and hove upon it a very great Strain; which was to no purpose, the Ship being quite fast, upon which we went to work to lighten her as fast as possible, which seem’d to be the only means we had left to get her off.

“As we went ashore about the Top of High Water we not only started water, but threw overboard our Guns, Iron and Stone Ballast, Casks, Hoop Staves, Oil Jarrs, decay’d Stores, etc.; many of these last Articles lay in the way at coming at Heavier. All this time the Ship made little or no Water.

“At 11 a.m., being high Water as we thought, we try’d to heave her off without Success, she not being afloat by a foot or more, notwithstanding by this time we had thrown overboard 40 or 50 Tuns weight. As this was not found sufficient we continued to Lighten her by every method we could think off; as the Tide fell the ship began to make Water as much as two pumps could free: at Noon she lay with 3 or 4 Streakes heel to Starboard.”

Cook needed to find safe waters for his ship, so he sailed his damaged 368 ton vessel towards the closest river he could find. After trying for some days, he was eventually able to bring the ship into safety.

He wrote in his journal, on 17 June 1770: “Most part strong Gales at South-East, with some heavy showers of rain in the P.M. At 6 a.m., being pretty moderate, we weigh’d and run into the Harbour, in doing of which we run the Ship ashore Twice.

“The first time she went off without much Trouble, but the Second time she Stuck fast; but this was of no consequence any farther than giving us a little trouble, and was no more than what I expected as we had the wind. While the Ship lay fast we got down the Foreyard, Foretopmast, booms, etc., overboard, and made a raft of them alongside.”

The crew set camp and prepared to repair the hull of the ship. Cook’s stay in that harbour was to be his longest onshore stay for his entire voyage. It would not be until early August that he was able to put out to sea once more.

He later named the river “Endeavour” after his ship. It was the only river in Australia that he would name (he named bays, harbours, headlands, mountains—but only one river!). The town which was later established near this site is named Cooktown, in honour of Cook. The mountain that rises behind the river, would become Mount Cook, and the mountain next to it, Mount Saunders. The visit of Cook and his ship would be impressed into white understandings of history. It stands as a seminal moment in white Australian consciousness.

However, the place already had a name, known and used by the Guugu Yimithirr people, who had lived there for millennia: it was Gangaar. The river was Waalumbaal Birri, the mountain was Gaya, the nearby mountain was known as Milngaar. These were the names given and used by the Guugu Yimithirr.

And they called Cook and his men the Wangaar: ancestors who had returned to their descendants, ghostly white as they came from another realm. They perceived their arrival as some form of spiritual encounter. They were, initially, reverent, apprehensive, and deferential. These weeks would be remembered within their stories, passed down over the generations, as well.

(Here I am drawing from the fascinating account of the encounter at Gangaar constructed by historian Mark McKenna, in his book, From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories. See https://www.mup.com.au/books/from-the-edge-paperback-softback and a brief review at https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/2016/10/31/the-edge/14764500003843)

This was the sixth place where members of the Endeavour’s crew had set foot on the land of Australia: first at Botany Bay on 29 April, and then at locations which Cook named in his journal: Bustard Bay, Thirsty Sound, Cleveland Bay, and Cape Grafton. The names he gave are retained in contemporary Australian society. The names by which these places had been known throughout millennia of inhabitation by the indigenous peoples, are largely lost to our knowing today.

(On the impact of Cook’s names and the search to find the indigenous names of places further south on his journey, see my posts at https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/23/they-appeard-to-be-of-a-very-dark-or-black-colour-cook-hms-endeavour-and-the-yuin-people-and-country/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/29/three-canoes-lay-upon-the-beach-the-worst-i-think-i-ever-saw-james-cook-at-botany-bay-29-april-1770/)

Today, 17 June, is when the Endeavour sailed into the safety of that river. It remained there for three weeks, as repairs were undertaken. During the time that the Endeavour was laid up, being repaired, Joseph Banks and others from the ship’s crew were diligently exploring the land, collecting botanical specimens. Banks recorded the sightings and the collections made in his journal.

Joseph Banks

A local tourist website portrays the significance of this time for tourists today, in this way:

“Banks and his team of botanists spent their whole time exploring and discovering many botanical and natural history wonders which were totally new to science at the time. Banks and Solander found a large portion of Endeavour’s East Coast botanical collection while here. They discovered many new species of insects, fish, bugs and butterflies.

Daniel Solander

“They saw, for the first time in this country, a crocodile, dingo, flying fox, and many species of lizards, snakes, fish and insects. The crew fished and collected giant clams and turtle for food. They found green vegetables and yams to supplement their diet.”

(http://www.cooktownandcapeyork.com/do/history/cookslanding)

One of Sydney Parkinson’s botanical drawings

Indeed, this period of time has imprinted itself into the Australian consciousness in another way. It was here, at Gangaar, that white men first saw a kangaroo. The unusual animal was duly shot and killed by the British, who then cooked and ate it. Sydney Parkinson, an artist working with Banks and Solander, drew a sketch of the animal.

Sydney Parkinson’s sketch of a ganguuru

Later, when contact with the Guugu Yimithirr people had progressed to a reasonable level of communication, the name of the animal was understood to be ganguuru—which has lived on in the Australian language as kangaroo. This was one of 130 words recorded by Parkinson, whose diligence has provided a documented collection of the basics of this language.

These three weeks thus have significance for the development of botanical understanding in the late 18th century, and for a unique contribution to the Australian language (and psyche).

But there was something else of great significance that took place during that period of three weeks, as the men of the Endeavour engaged in ongoing encounters with the Guugu Yimithirr people of that area.

And that’s another story for a later day ….

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/25/on-remembering-cook-and-flinders-and-trim-bungaree-and-yemmerrawanne/

Going “back” to church—what will our future look like? (4)

We got an email from the church office last week. It said that “worship services are resuming” in our church building. There was much excitement! It has been so many months since we have been able to be in our lovely church building, with all our wonderful friends, for times of worship.

It would be great to see our friends again in person—and to share in the prayers and the singing when we all gather together—and to hear our minister in the flesh once again. It seems like it has been such a long time since we have been able to do this.

Don’t get me wrong, it has been great to hear her speak each week online; but there is nothing quite like being there, in person, with all the others in the building, to soak up the atmosphere. It’s like a weekly “hit” that keeps me going for the next week. It’s not the same, online. Not quite the same vibe, the same buzz. Ah well …

Anyway, after cheering was heard throughout the household about this great news, we read on through the rest of the email. “Back to normal”, we had thought. “Back to what we used to do.” Hmmm. Maybe—maybe not.

It seems that worship will not be quite like it used to be. No single service, for a start. There are going to be three services each Sunday morning, staggered by 45 minutes. So we need to book in advance for the one we want. 8:30 for the early birds. 9:15 for those who want the regular time slot. And 10:00am for those willing to have a slow start. OK, not a bad idea. But we won’t all be together. That’s a bit sad.

And each service will be just 30 minutes long. That feels like a rip-off. What, not a full hour? This will take some adjusting to get used to, I reckon. Anyway, we registered for the 9:15 slot. Trying to get back, as much as possible, to “normal”. It will be great to be there, back in church!

Except then another email came back, saying that the 9:15 service was already full. How could that be? Our church easily seats over 200 people (well, if you make sure you fill up each pew and set out some extra seats down the aisles.)

Seems that we can’t have more than 30 people in the building at any one time. There’s talk about 4 square metres and 1.5 metres apart and social distancing and so on. You know, the stuff that the PM and his chief honcho medical advisor guy have been talking about. In church. In our church. Who would have thought it?

So we are now going to the 8:30am service. Harumph. But better than waiting until 10am, I guess.

And the email also said, please arrive 10 minutes before the scheduled time, and queue outside the east door. What is that? I have been going to this church for years now, and have always used the south door, the one that opens right onto the street. Something about not confusing those arriving with those leaving, making them use separate doors. Oh well, if that’s what it takes ….

And, then, the email said, when you get the the east door, you will be allocated seat numbers, and you will need to go directly to those seats—do not stop to talk to anyone else, do not mill about in the foyer. And that we will find that the seats are arranged in a different way inside, so we will not be able to sit in our usual spot. Wow! Now that will be quite different! Sitting in a different place! That will be hard. And I can’t imagine church without all the catching up with people beforehand. That’s a bit of a downer, really.

And the email also said, “no singing”. Seriously: “no singing”! How will church be church, if we can’t all sing together? It is going to be one weird experience, I reckon, in that building, all sitting apart from one another, not singing—not even hugging our friends when we see them, no chance to say hello. It will be weird.

And then, the last straw: “when the service ends, please remain in your seats until you are asked to leave, then move straight to the south door to exit the building”. To keep people entering separate from people departing. How anti-social is that!

And there is more: “Please do not congregate on the footpath, or in the car park, after the worship service. Please leave the site as quickly as possible.” No morning cuppa. No chat with friends in our small group. No hanging around in the kitchen to scab extra goodies for the week. No socialising. None at all!

It won’t be church, will it? Not really church. I fear that we are in for a rather sterile experience. And we will have to use the hand sanitisers when we come in, and when we go out. Aargh! I hate the smell of that stuff! But no hand sanitising, no entry permitted, we are told. So there’s no question about it. That’s just the way of things everywhere, these days.

So, off we go. In to church. Then back out again. Will it be worth it? We’ll give it one go. And then, if it is not any good—back to looking at services online, I guess. Ah well. Such is life.

(… the views expressed in this piece come from a fictional character, solely the product of my imagination …)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/03/greet-one-another-2-cor-13-but-no-holy-kissing-and-no-joyful-singing/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/29/worship-like-the-first-christians-what-will-our-future-look-like-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

“Even the hairs of your head are all counted.” (Matt 10:30)

Who goes around counting the hairs on the heads of people? I don’t, that’s for sure! Although it would be a lot easier for anyone wanting to count my particular head of hair (or not), than for other people.

But God does, according to this week’s Gospel passage. God counts the hairs on our heads. Or so we are told. It’s part of a speech by Jesus when he assures his followers that their lives are of value (Matt 10:28-31).

Now, I think the idea of God taking time to count the number of hairs on the heads of every single person alive today beggars belief. Think about it: 7.8 billion people (that’s 7,800,000,000 people—quite a lot!), each with one head, with approximately 100,000 hairs on each of those head—that’s 7,800,000,000,000,000 hairs to count.

At one hair per second, that’s 248,015,873 years. (Thank goodness for Google!!) 248 million years! And that’s just for the current population. It doesn’t count those who have already lived. Or those who might be alive when those 248 million years of counting have been completed.

Of course, we could reduce the number by arguing that there are some (like me) with much less than 100,000 hairs on their head. But that group is still a small minority amongst the 7.8 billion alive today.

And we could reduce it further by arguing that this speech of Jesus was addressed to believers who were following him—at that time, and then on across the ensuing years up to our time. That reduces the number of hairs to be counted quite a lot. But that is a problematic principle for interpretation: it means we take everything as applicable only to those who were part of the first audience, and not to anyone else later on.

All of which goes to the point I want to make about the words of Jesus in this passage: Exaggeration! Exaggeration is a common rhetorical technique employed by Jesus. Jesus exaggerates on a number of occasions in his teachings. Think about it:

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”. (Matt 5:29) Who obeys that command?

Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Matt 7:3) Who has ever had a log of wood in their eye? A speck, yes; a splinter, maybe— but not a log.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees as “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). Again: imagine swallowing a camel. Urgh.

For truly I say to you, if you have faith like a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20). Mountains moving? Perhaps possible in a massive seismic shift event, but not your normal run of the mill happening.

Or the Samaritan woman, who spoke of Jesus and said: “He told me all that I ever did” (John 4:39). Had Jesus really told that woman everything that she had ever done in her life? No, she was using hyperbole to make her point.

“John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:4-5). What, every single person?? Again, exaggeration, overreach, hyperbole. Typical of Jesus—and typical of the Gospel writers.

We do this in our everyday speech: “He’s got tons of money.” (have you weighed it?) “He is older than the hills.” ( were talking geological eras, here) “I’m so hungry I can eat a horse.” (OK, lets not go there.) “His brain is the size of a pea.” (Or there.) “My feet are killing me.” (Says the person who is still alive.)

Get the point? Exaggeration, hyperbole, is a common rhetorical technique. We use it. We find it in scripture. It’s a reminder not to take everything spoken, or written, absolutely literally. That’s a really important principle for interpretation. For this passage—and for everyone time we turn to scripture.