Rosh Hashanah: Jewish New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fulfilling the Law (James 2; Pentecost 15B)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wash your hands (Mark 7; Pentecost 14B)

Wash your hands. It’s a simple instruction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Jewish prayer of blessing for the washing of hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

The Tampa draws alongside the Palapa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A White Australia badge from the early 20th century

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skim read through Mark 6:45–9:1.

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

Locate each place on a map of ancient Israel.

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

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

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

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

Comment: The Pharisees and scribes were experts in interpreting Torah. Here, Jesus has a vigorous debate with them. They discuss the procedures which are necessary to ensure holiness. Jesus disagrees with their interpretations. He cites scripture to refute their views (Isa 29:13 at Mark 7:6–7; Exod 20:12 and Deut 5:16 at Mark 7:10) and argues that these texts must take priority over the oral traditions developed by the rabbis. This was exactly the way that the Pharisees argued themselves.

Jesus debates the Pharisees using their own methods, but he comes to a different result. In his concluding remarks (7:18–23) he sets out different criteria for true holiness.

C. Read Mark 7:19. What is the impact of this narrative comment? What does it say about the nature of the community that is formed by the followers of Jesus?

Now read Mark 7:21–22. Compare this list with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17) and notice the similarities.

Comment: Jesus does not the reject purity system of Judaism. The ethic he proposes remains faithful to his Jewish faith. Yet the criteria for “belonging” are made wider and less exclusive. Mark interprets Jesus as relaxing the food laws (7:19); this will allow for Jews and Gentiles to mix more freely. (Other Gospel writers had a different interpretation of this incident—Matthew omits this sentence and Luke deletes the whole scene from his Gospel.) Yet, for Jesus, the fundamentals (7:21–22) still apply. Mark presents him as redefining and radicalising his Jewish faith—not rejecting it.

D. Read Mark 7:24–37. What is the impact of these two healing stories?

How significant is the location of these healings?

How does Jesus relate to the main person in each story?

What message do these stories convey about who is included in the people of God?

Comment: Tyre (7:24) is just outside of Jewish territory. The Decapolis (7:31) is a predominantly Gentile region. In each story, Jesus encounters a person who is unclean: a Gentile woman who has been in contact with her daughter, who is possessed by a demon; and a Gentile man who is physically disabled in speech and hearing. Contact with such people would make a person unclean and thus alienated from the holy people of God.

Jesus ignores these taboos and extends the boundaries of the people of God. He does this reluctantly at 7:27, only after conceding that the woman has won her point in debate with him (7:29, “for saying that…”). He does it willingly at 7:33–34, but then urges the healed man to keep quiet (7:36)—although the man just cannot keep quiet! In each case, Jesus’ actions were provocative.

E. Where else on this journey does Jesus encounter such marginalised people?

(Note Mark 6:56 and 8:22–26.)

Where else in this Gospel does Jesus encounter such marginalised people?

(Start with Mark 1:21–26 and skim through until Mark 10:46–52.)

How does Jesus interact with such people?

(Note especially Mark 5:34 and 10:52.)

What is the effect of the inclusion of so many stories about Jesus encountering marginalised or unclean people? What message does it convey to the followers of Jesus who heard and retold these stories? What kind of community might they aim to create, as a result of these stories?

F. Finally, note the promise that Jesus makes to his disciples at Mark 14:28. It is repeated at Mark 16:7. What significance might there be in the fact that it is Galilee, not Jerusalem, where the risen Jesus will meet his disciples?

Comment: Galilee is where Jesus preached and healed. Jerusalem is where he was tried and killed. It is as if the new community of faith will thrive in precisely those areas outside of the control of the Jewish authorities. This community will not reject its Jewish origins and heritage; but it will interpret them in a more inclusive and yet more radical manner.

*****

This blog draws on material in MARKING THE GOSPEL: an exploration of the Gospel for Year B, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).

Declare boldly the gospel of peace, put on the armour of God (Ephesians 6; Pentecost 13B)

This morning, as the Canberra Region Presbytery gathered online to meet in council, the theme for consideration was Advocacy. At the start of the meeting, the Rev. Andrew Smith led the gathering in a time of reflection and preparation. Andrew read from the closing section of Ephesians 6 (the epistle that is offered in the revised common lectionary for the Sunday after the meeting).

Andrew invited members of the presbytery to listen, reflect, and then write in the chat what stands out for them, as we consider advocacy and hear these words about “the cosmic powers … the armour of God … the gospel of peace … the mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6:10—20).

Those present noted motifs such as “speaking boldly” … “boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” … “declare it boldly” … “speak directly and bluntly to power”. One person noted that perseverance is required, and there is no indication of victory only resources for the fray. One participant observed, “I saw a shimmering chainmail ‘armour’, more the quality of water that is soft, resists and extinguishes flaming arrows, and wears down hard places over time” and, a little later, “I also wondered about cloaks of feathers as ‘armour’ insisting on identity, diversity, justice for all – those cloaks we have seen in parliaments in recent times”.

Some people noted the imperative present in this passage: “I MUST speak” … “ the imperative is incontestable; we have the armour to take whatever gets thrown at us” … “we have no other option but to speak up for justice” … “we MUST stand strong against evil and pray continually,  we have the armour of God to give us strength and protection”. Another person observed the need for “thorough preparation and then to stand”. One noted, “I was struck by the phrase “fighting against the spiritual forces of evil”.  It brings out the spiritual nature of injustice and the need for faith and commitment to address this.”

Some participants related the biblical text to current circumstances: “In the electronic world in which we live, the actions of the principalities and powers for good and evil are more clearly revealed, so our enemies and allies are more clearly seen.”

One commented at length: “An Ambassador in chains to me shows three ideas. Firstly the idea of servant leadership the need to take actions in the service of others. Secondly, the idea that an advocate has no choice but to be a prisoner to their passion to help others an idea of a destiny to do good. Thirdly, the need to be empathetic with the suffering of others not from a vantage point outside their hardship but from a feeling of a common struggle and hardship.”

Another highlighted that “faith in Christ is the basis to understand and do good”; another said, “first we must read the Bible and understand God’s will, then proclaim it in the need for justice for others”. Others commented, “pray constantly, be bold, be well prepared, promote peace” … “every footfall can bring peace to our context” … “’Be Strong in God’ – struggle against evil, with Prayer, Preparation, God’s Protection, and then Action”. One noted “the promise of being able to ‘stand firm’”, another highlighted “feeling that you are armed with God’s love to speak up with no fear”, yet another, “constant prayer in the Spirit”.

One observed that the passage speaks of “the whole armour, not just feet, we have been given the armour to use”; another that “the whole armour of God evokes a gathering of so many things- love, peace and truth. These are in uneasy relationship. Here faith comes in that there is a way through.” That led another person to note “the irony of dressing like a Roman soldier”, and yet another to observe “the internal contradictions between putting on the armour and proclamation of peace”.

A good question posed was, “Where is the distinction between God’s justice and human justice? or are they the same?” That’s a question worth pondering beyond this particular reading, in each of our actions, day by day, week after week.

Collated from the chat at the August 2021 Presbytery meeting by John Squires

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/16/justice-and-only-justice-you-shall-follow/