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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruth 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruth 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

The essence of Protestantism and the Protestant Principle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Tillich
(1886–1965)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justification by faith through grace

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

Statue of Martin Luther (1483–1546)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rethinking Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Pastoral Letter to Canberra Region Presbytery, October 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have also noted that constructive purpose of this language is to demonstrate that Jesus brings the process of sanctification to a head (13:12; see also 2:11; 9:13–14; 10:10, 14, 29) and enables believers to “approach [God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:19–22). This is “the eternal redemption” (9:12) that is celebrated in the excerpt offered for this Sunday by the lectionary (9:11–14). See

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The command to “love your neighbour” in Leviticus 19 culminates a series of instructions regarding the way a person is to relate to their neighbours: “you shall not defraud your neighbour … with justice you shall judge your neighbour … you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour … you shall not reprove your neighbour … you shall love your neighbour” (Lev 19:13–18).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Each spring, the locus tree is in blossom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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