As we draw near to the annual celebration of Easter, we find that we have a story that is driven by antagonism and conflict, with scenes of aggression and violence. We need to think carefully about how we tell the story found in the Gospels, and reflect prayerfully about how we preach the good news from these narratives.
We know the main characters in the story: Jesus and his followers, and the key authority figures of his day, lined up against him: the Jewish Sanhedrin; Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea; and Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea.
The way that the story unfolds, invites those who hear it—and those who preach on it—to make one party into “the villain”, even as others in the story receive (implicit) excusing. We side with Jesus, and that makes us view the other characters as “the baddies”.
So the danger sits before us, at Easter most especially: we might be tempted to target “the Jews”, to make negative or derogatory comments about Judaism and Jewish people, even (although I would hope not) to blame “the Jews” for the death of the Messiah. How close does this come to anti-Judaism, or even antisemitism?
We can be helped in our task by careful reflection on the nature of the texts, which we read, hear, explain, and reflect on, as we approach Easter, and especially as we move through Holy Week, from Passion Sunday to Good Friday.
Of the three key characters—the Jewish Sanhedrin, the Governor Pilate, and the tetrarch Herod Antipas—Herod has a somewhat tangential role: he appears only in Luke’s story (Luke 23:6-12) and simply rubber-stamps the decision of Pilate. Despite what Luke claims, there is no historical evidence that provides any reason why Jesus had to be presented to Herod, so the historicity of this scene is highly dubious.
The Roman Governor, Pontus Pilate, is given a very big “exemption pass” in the Gospel narratives. In the earliest account, he questions the crowd as to whether he should sentence Jesus (Mark 15:5, 14). The same question is noted in Matt 27:23. By the time of Luke’s Gospel, there is a clear threefold affirmation of the innocence of Jesus (Luke 23:4, 13-16, 22).
By the fourth Gospel, the scene where Jesus is brought to Pilate is changed from a trial to a philosophical discussion (John 18:29-31, 38). In Mark’s account, Pilate (quite uncharacteristically) backs down in the face of a baying crowd (Mark 15:6-15, and parallels). In Matthew’s account, Pilate enacts the potent symbol of washing his hands of the whole affair (Matt 27:24).
The Jewish Sanhedrin, by contrast, is placed firmly in the firing line. All four Gospels tell the story in the same way: the central factor that leads to Jesus being condemned to death is the decision of the Jewish Sanhedrin (Mark 14:63-64, and parallels), and their agitation amongst the crowd (Mark 15:11; Matt 27:20; Luke 23:13-16; John 18:38b-40).
Matthew intensifies this by reporting that “the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’“ (Matt 27:25). John’s Gospel reports that “the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’” (John 19:12), reinforced by the later statement by the chief priests, “we have no king but the emperor” (John 19:15).
This telling of the story is, in my view, a rhetorical strategy which is employed by all four evangelists. It may well have been a common stance across the early church. The central problematic for the earliest followers of Jesus must have been that their leader, Jesus of Nazareth, was crucified by the Romans, who held great power at the time.
Crucifixion was a Roman punishment, and Jesus was crucified as a political rebel, on the basis of the notion that he was claiming to be “King of the Jews”. The phrase recurs as a regular refrain throughout all four accounts of the crucifixion (Mark 15:2,9,12,18,26; Matt 27:11,28–29,37,42; Luke 23:2–3,37-38; John 18:33,37,39; 19:3,12,14,15,19–22).
To identify as a follower of Jesus would be to stand in solidarity with him as a rebel, an unwanted criminal who was rightly (in Roman eyes) punished with death. That would be a very dangerous (and foolish!) place to want to stand. So a different strategy was required.
At the same time as the early church was considering how to continue living without being seen as a rebellious movement in the Roman Empire, a slow and growing struggle for this movement was taking place—initially, in just a few places, then spreading to many other places. The struggle was with the leadership of the local synagogue.
The Pharisees, in the decades after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, had been gaining a dominant position amongst Jews of the time. The tensions between the followers of Jesus and the Pharisees grew and developed over time. The way the Gospels report on the interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees reflects the intensification of this relationship.
So, the Pharisees placed demands on the followers of Jesus, especially when made claims that Jesus was the Messiah. The earliest followers were all Jews, and they remained the dominant group in the movement for some decades. The followers of Jesus became increasingly discontented with their lives in the Jewish community, under the rule of the Pharisees. Accusations grew; tensions increased; conflict burst out into the open.
So, in retelling the story of how Jesus met his end, the followers of Jesus began, not only to downplay the role played by the Roman Governor (a very practical strategy, to be sure!), but also to increase the culpability of the Jewish authorities. And so grew the narrative of the last days, the arrest, trial, and sentencing of Jesus, that we are familiar with from the Gospels in the Bible.
The trap we must avoid, then, is this: do not read the Gospel narratives as straightforward, unadorned historical narratives. Do not accept “at face value” all that is recorded in those chapters. Apply careful, reasoned criticism as you approach the text. Consider the narrative of the passion, not only in its literary context, but in the context of the religious, social and political streams that were swirling in the later first century.
And invite those who reflect with you, or listen to your words, or read the stories in the text, to do the same—not to blame “the Jews” for what happened to Jesus; but rather, to consider how the story may well have been shaped, over the decades, in the face of the pressures and stresses of life for the early followers of Jesus, in the Roman Empire, with growing antagonism from (and towards) the Jewish authorities.
This is certainly quite consistent with the policy adopted by the Uniting Church National Assembly in 2009, which declares that “The Uniting Church acknowledges with repentance a history of interpretation of New Testament texts which has often failed to appreciate the context from which these texts emerged, viz. the growing separation of Christianity and Judaism with attendant bitterness and antagonism, resulting in deeply rooted anti-Jewish misunderstandings” (para. 9).
The Statement on Jews and Judaism also affirms that “The Uniting Church does not accept Christian teaching that is derogatory towards Jews and Judaism” (para. 16). We need to hold to this in what we preach at Easter.
Bill Loader is widely-known, much-consulted, and greatly loved across the Uniting Church. He has had a fine career as a leading biblical scholar, teaching for decades at Murdoch University and publishing prolifically with prestigious international publishers.
This academic career has sat alongside an active involvement in the Uniting Church, preaching in local Congregations, teaching regular sessions with lay leaders, and forming ministers and deacons for their ministries. His website with its scholarly yet accessible discussions of lectionary texts (http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/home.html) attracts regular readership, not only from Uniting Church people, but from preachers right around the world
Out of this wealth of experience comes this slim but rich offering: ten succinct chapters (most only ten to twelve pages long) on topics of key theological import: the significance of Jesus, the good news for the poor, how to understand the cross, the place of other faiths, God’s wrath and God’s justice, the place of the Law, miracles and faith, God and love–and, of course, marriage and sexuality. All in 110 pages.
Each chapter ends with a focused “question for reflection”, to encourage ongoing consideration of the topic at hand. The book itself ends with a bonus afterword, setting out Bill’s personal journey “from fundamentalism to fundamentals”. The afterword concludes, “we all walk with some grit in our shoes in religious and cultural contexts where its awareness is possible even if, by and large, its removal is not” (p.130).
Loader seeks to work with the irritants provided by this “grit” in a constructive and hope-filled way, to indicate how, in the midst of contentious discussions, people of faith are able to discern “what brings life and health”. In Chapter 5, whose title also provides the title of the book, he concludes that we ought “to be a just and caring society that is inclusive and to care for the world and its future inhabitants” (p.46).
It’s no surprise that the enduringly contentious issue of marriage and sexuality is addressed (in chapter 10, the longest chapter). Bill Loader has made many contributions to the long-running discussions of these matters–leading workshops and producing resources pitched at a popular level, undergirded especially by the academic research and writing undertaken during his five years as a professorial fellow with Australian Research Council funding.
This chapter makes clear the two key pillars of his well-considered views: one, that Paul reflects the common first century belief that “all people are heterosexual”, so anyone identifying as homosexual is “in an unnatural state of being as a result of sin” (p.111); and two, that in some circumstances “it is not appropriate, indeed it is irresponsible, to apply what Paul says” to contemporary situations (also p.111).
Thus, Loader affirms that “the Bible does not tell it all on these matters any more than it did on matters of women and divorce” (p.112). Such honesty about matters hermeneutical is to be commended. As is the case in each chapter, the reader is invited to give serious personal consideration to how biblical passages are to be brought into engagement with contemporary situations and considerations.
But the book is not just about marriage and sexuality. There is much more that is explored in its pages.
Chapter 5 (whose title, as we have noted, provides the title for the whole book) begins with a further observation about the process of interpretation: “There is a 2,000-year gap between believers in today’s twenty-first-century world and those of the first century”, such that “to engage the writings of the New Testament is to engage in a cross-cultural encounter with all the respect and opportunity for learning and enrichment which that entails” (p.35).
Starting with the fact that New Testament texts expect a return of Jesus within the lifetime of those then alive, the chapter canvasses the eschatological vision of the kingdom, various parables of Jesus, the function of the risen Jesus, and the resurrection body, leading to the conclusion that we, today, are to “reconfigure our approach to hope, retaining the central [first century] substance, but not their notions of timing and manner of its achievement” (p.45).
In this way, Loader models the task of the interpreter, be they preacher, Bible study leader, scholar, or individual disciple. Immersion into the culture, customs, languages, perspectives of the ancient texts is as important as thoughtful, reflective consideration of what is heard and seen in the text, in the light of contemporary understandings, insights, and perspectives. (Somewhat like what paragraphs 5 and 11 of the UCA Basis of Union affirms.)
There is much more to be said about this delightful book; but only one comment needs to be made here. This is a book worth buying, reading, studying (alone or with others), and engaging with wholeheartedly.
The Uniting Church is part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church – we see ourselves as just one part of a much larger whole. We do the things that other denominations within the church do: we gather for worship, preach the Gospel, care for the needy, witness to our faith, and connect with communities.
We have many organisations that cater specifically for pre-schoolers, school students, people with disabilities, theological students, adult learners, Indigenous people and aged and infirm people. We have chaplains in hospitals, schools, industry, and the defence forces. And we have congregations in many places across the continent.
When we worship, we feel connected with the people of God of all denominations across the globe. When we witness, we bear testimony to the faith shared by Christians of many varieties. When we reach out in service, we act in solidarity with people of Christian faith, people of other faiths, and people of goodwill of any stripe, in our communities and across the globe.
We share in the call to be missional, universal, set apart, and unified, as God’s people together. Or in more traditional theological language, we are part of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’ church.
But we believe that we have some distinctive elements to contribute to that larger whole. Our identity as the Uniting Church in Australia is marked by ten distinctive features.
I In Ecumenical Relationship
When the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches joined together in 1977 to form the Uniting Church in Australia, they declared that this union was both in accord with the will of God, and that it was a gift of God to the people of God in Australia.
Since then, the Uniting Church has been a church which is committed to working ecumenically with other Christian denominations. That commitment is one very important aspect of our identity as a Uniting Church. We belong to the National Council of Churches in Australia and the World Council of Churches, where we co-operate with many denominations.
Nationally, we have participated in ongoing conversations with other denominations (Anglican, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic). At the grassroots level, our ministers participate in local ministers’ associations in hundreds of towns and cities across the nation. Some Congregations share buildings with other denominations; some worship and serve together, especially in rural towns.
We are an ecumenical church.
II In Covenant with First Peoples
A very important dimension to being the church in this country is that we are a church in Covenant with the First Peoples of Australia. From its earliest years, the Uniting Church has been involved in actions which express our solidarity with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Older members will recall events at Noonkanbah Station in the Kimberley in 1980, when Uniting Church members stood in solidarity with the traditional owners, the Yungngora people, against the mining of their land.
The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) was established in 1985, and a Covenant between the UAICC and the UCA was implemented in 1994. This Covenant recognises that working for reconciliation amongst people is central to the Gospel. This gives expression to our commitment to shape a destiny together.
In 2009, the Preamble to the UCA Constitution was revised to recognise the difficult history of relationships between the First Peoples and the later arrivals, as Second Peoples. In 2018, we agreed to support a Makarrata process to give a clear national voice to First Peoples, and to support a national Treaty. Our present relationship is one which seeks to ensure that we commit to the destiny together which we share as Australians. The Assembly fosters ongoing work in this area through the Walking Together as First and Second Peoples Circle.
We stand in covenant relationship with the First Peoples.
III A Multicultural Church
In the same year that the Congress was formed, the Uniting Church declared that it is a multicultural church, which rejoices in the diversity of cultures and languages which are found across Australia. The Basis of Union recognises that we share much, as Australians, with people of Asia and the Pacific. The Uniting Church has maintained strong relationships with churches from these regions, as well forging new links with churches in Africa and the Middle East.
The Statement to the Nation, issued in 1977, acknowledged that the Uniting Church seeks a unity that transcends cultural, economic and racial distinctions. Within Australia, there are at least 12 national conferences based on regional groupings and people from 193 language groups who belong to the Uniting Church.
Each Sunday, worship takes place in Uniting Churches in 26 languages from cultures beyond Australia, as well as many indigenous languages used in worship by first peoples across our church. We have learnt the importance of moving from “enjoying each other’s foods”, to conversing at a deep level about the hopes and expectations we bring from different cultural experiences. We have learnt that we need to be intercultural in our relationships.
Through UnitingWorld, we maintain partnerships with churches in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East. We are truly a multicultural church. Through the Relations with Other Faiths Working Group and the Seeking Common Ground Circle, the Uniting Church has been active in developing relationships with other faith communities. We have had a long and fruitful Dialogue with the Jewish Community, and participate in a number of other interfaith Dialogue conversations. We are firmly committed to constructive interfaith relations.
We continue to develop as a church in deepening relationships with many cultures and faiths.
IV All the people of God
The Uniting Church is a church which values the ministry of all the people of God and seeks to order itself in accordance with the will of God. Our Basis of Union affirms that every member of the church is engaged to confess Christ crucified, and every person is gifted by the Spirit to engage in ministry in their own particular way. We are a church that values the ministry of each and every person.
Throughout the life of the Uniting Church, we have held our structures and forms of ministry accountable to ongoing scrutiny. Alongside the Ministry of the Word, to nurture and guide Congregations, we have introduced the Ministry of Deacon, to focus attention on people living on the margins. We have introduced the Ministry of Pastor to recognise the giftedness of lay people, and that sits alongside the Ministry of Lay Preacher (which we have had since 1977), and the more recent accreditation of Lay Presiders in many locations.
We have also undertaken important conversations about membership and the relationship of Baptism to Holy Communion. We now have a clear commitment to an open table when we gather for The Lord’s Supper: all who are baptised (whether adult or child, whether confirmed or not) are welcome to share at this table.
We are a church which values the ministry of all the people of God.
V Women and Men
The Basis of Union makes it very clear that we are a church which is committed to equality and mutuality of women and men in ministry. Even before 1977, the three previous denominations had ordained women to ministry. This is a very strong distinctive, especially in the Australian scene.
Since 1977, many women have stood on an equal basis alongside men, as Ministers of the Word, Deacons, Elders, Church Councillors, Lay Preachers, Lay Presiders, Chaplains, and Pastoral Carers. We value the insights and experience of women in each and every way that we seek to “be church”—as we gather to worship, as we witness to our faith, as we serve the wider community.
Both lay and ordained women have served in leadership positions across all councils of the Uniting Church, from Church Council Chairpersons to Presbytery Chairpersons, to Synod Moderators and Secretaries, to the Assembly General Secretary and President. Many couples minister together as husband and wife. Gender equality is most certainly part of our identity.
We are committed to mutuality and gender equality in every part of the church.
Another contribution that the UCA has made has been to highlight the importance, when we gather in council, of being open to the Spirit, and seeking to discern the will of God. We live this out in our councils by practising a process of consensus decision-making. The Manual for Meetings sets out the various elements that are involved in making decisions by discernment: a time of information, a time of deliberation, and a time of decision-making.
The infamous “coloured cards” are only one small part of the whole. The focus is on listening to the Spirit before we speak, and striving to find a way forward that most, if not all, people can see as the will of God for the church. This way of decision-making, which originated in the UCA, has now been adopted by the World Council of Churches and a number of its member Churches.
We are a church which deliberately seeks to discern the movement of the Spirit in our midst.
VII Professional Standards
Over the last 20 years, the Uniting Church has developed a firm commitment to strong professional standards, for Ministers as well as for lay people who exercise leadership in the church. Our commitment to professional standards emerged initially in response to the problems of sexual misconduct within the church. A whole section of the Regulations is now devoted to this.
Since 1999, all Ministers have been expected to adhere to a Code of Ethics, and this has most recently been revised to provide a Code of Ethics Ministry Practice for Ministers and a Code of Conduct for Lay Leaders. Ministers and Pastors undertake regular training in aspects of this code, in ethical ministry workshops.
Since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, we have intensified our efforts to ensure that our churches are Safe Places, valuing everybody, honouring integrity, avoiding negative and hurtful behaviours.
We are a church which values integrity and clarity about our ethical standards.
VIII Open to explore difficult issues
Over 40 years, the Uniting Church has shown that it is a church which is prepared to engage in difficult discussions about contentious issues. Our Basis of Union commits us to learn from the insights of contemporary scientific and historical studies, and affirms that we remain open to correction by God in the way we order our life together.
In the early years of the Uniting Church, debates about Baptism were the focus of great controversy. Infant baptism had been an integral part of the worship practices of each denomination which joined the Uniting Church, but Ministers and Elders Councils were receiving regular requests for baptism by adults who had been baptised as infants but had come to a personal faith later in their lives. After debates stretching through the 1980s and 1990s, the Uniting Church has developed a clear set of protocols to cover such requests.
Another area of enduring controversy has been that of human sexuality. There is a wide diversity of opinion within society relating to such matters, and this diversity is present within the Uniting Church. Once again, from the 1980s though into the present era, lively debates regarding human sexuality have taken place in the various councils of the church. We have worked through difficult decisions about sexuality and leadership, and then about sexuality, gender, and marriage. We continue to learn, explore, and adapt.
In dealing with such issues, we have learned how to debate with respect and integrity with ongoing conversations looking to employ a “Space for Grace” process to encourage respectful, empowering, and inclusive decision-making.
We seek to be a church that engages in the difficult discussions with honesty, transparency, and hopefulness.
IX Advocating for Justice
The Uniting Church inherited from its predecessor Churches a strong commitment to advocating for justice for all. Many Uniting Church congregations and members are actively committed to serving those people who find themselves on the margins of society. This commitment was clearly articulated in the 1977 Statement to the Nation and it has been evident in many actions undertaken by Uniting Church members over the decades.
The Uniting Church has joined in common cause with other groups and organisations in society, in advocating for a welcoming attitude towards refugees; in lobbying for a fair and just system of caring for people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness; in seeking equity for workers in their workplace; and in many other issues. The Assembly Working for JusticeCircle, brings together people who are strongly committed to this avenue of ministry.
A regular stream of policy documents and public resolutions point to a clear and unbroken commitment to seeking justice for all. Each federal election, we are provided with resources that encourage us, as people of faith, to consider the implications of our votes in the life of the nation.
We are a church which is strongly committed to justice for all.
X Environmental Sustainability
In like manner, the Uniting Church has always been a church which honours the environment and supports a sustainable lifestyle. Although such matters are firmly on the radar of the public now, they have long been integral to the identity of the UCA. Once again, the 1977 Statement to the Nation flagged such commitment. A series of subsequent documents attest to the ongoing determination of the church to live responsibly, in such a way that we minimise the damage we cause to the environment in which we live.
Our partnerships with Churches in the Pacific have intensified our awareness of the negative impacts that are resulting from climate change. We know that we need to act now, to reduce the threat. Each year, we experience catastrophic consequences from more regular and more intensified “natural disasters”—fires, floods, drought, cyclones. Just as we provide pastoral support in these situations through Disaster Response Chaplains, so too we maintain advocacy with governments, urging them to set policies which will turn us away from the trajectory of yet more environmental disasters.
Locally, many Congregations and individual members of the UCA are seeking to implement practices that will reduce their carbon footprint on the planet. We know that we owe it to future generations, to live responsibly in the present.
We are a church that lives, acts, and advocates for a sustainable environmental future.
You may have some thoughts about what I have articulated above. You may have thought, “what about …?” – something that I have overlooked, that you see as important. You may have some questions about how I have described some of these elements. I encourage you to talk with others about how you respond. Together, we are the Uniting Church!
“Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith … endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Heb 12:2).
As we draw near to the annual recollection of the death of Jesus on the cross, in our worship on Passion Sunday and Good Friday, and in our devotional attention to that story at this time, we would do well to pay attention to what the anonymous author of this lengthy “word of exhortation” says, about the cross. It was a moment of shame.
The notion of shame is integral to the honour–shame culture which runs through the Hebrew Scriptures. The ancient Hebrews affirmed that honour belongs primarily to God (1 Chron 16:27), so that God could bestow honour on those who were faithful to his ways (Ps 92:14-15).
Just as God can honour human beings (Ps 8:5), even those regarded as shameful (Zeph 3:19), so, conversely, God can shame those accorded honour by humans (Isa 23:9). Paul later reflects this in one of his letters to Corinth, writing that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor 1:27).
However, honour was spread across other cultures. It was praised by the Greek philosopher Aristotle as “the greatest of all external goods” (Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 1), whilst Xenophon considered that honour was what differentiated humans from animals (Hiero 7.3). Philo of Alexandria, bridging both Jewish and Hellenistic worlds, affirmed that “fame and honour are a most precarious possession, tossed about on the reckless tempers and flighty words of careless men” (Abraham 264).
Honour was acquired and increased through the public actions undertaken in interactions between two parties—two male individuals, or two all-male groups. Actions that occurred would signal that honour was upheld by one party; the other party lost honour, and was thus shamed. Words especially were the mechanism by which honour was redistributed. The victor in a verbal interchange had his honour restored, or increased. The loser experienced public 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. We see many of these elements reflected in the narratives that recount the crucifixion of Jesus in the four canonical Gospels.
First of all, we should note that in the Roman world, crucifixion was variously identified as a punishment for slaves (Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.168), bandits (Josephus, Jewish War 5.449-451), prisoners of war (Josephus, Jewish War 5.451), and political rebels (Josephus, Jewish 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).
In their Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh describe the passion narratives as reporting a “status degradation ritual”. By the sequence of events that are reported, “Jesus’ lofty status in the eyes of the people begins to crumble … these events [are] a public ritual of humiliation aimed at destroying the status that until now had given Jesus credibility in the eyes of the public” (p.160).
As well as the actual crucifixion itself, many of the key practices typically involved in crucifixions inflicted shame on the criminals: flogging, torture, the blinding of eyes, the scourging of the body, and the shedding of blood. We can find these practices reported by numerous writers, such as the Jewish historian Josephus, the politician and philosopher Seneca, the Roman historian Livy, the Jewish philosopher and exegete Philo of Alexandria, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, and even the venerable Greek philosopher Plato.
(These references, and many of the other references to ancient authors below, have been drawn from the detailed work of Jeyrome Neyrey, in “‘Despising the Shame of the Cross’: Honor and Shame in the Johannine Passion Narrative”, https://www3.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/shame.html, accessed on 15 March 2021.)
One section of the Jewish writings, the Mishnah (Makkot 3.12) reports how a public scourging should take place: “How do they flog him? He ties the two hands of the person being flogged on this side and that side of a post, and the attendant of the congregation takes hold of his garments to remove them.”
The Mishnah continues, “The attendant of the congregation stands on it [a raised stone] with a strap in his hand. It is a strap of calf hide, and is doubled, one into two, and two into four, and two straps of donkey hide go up and down the doubled strap of calf hide.” There is further discussion of the dimensions of the instrument used in this scourging and the scripture verses to be recited as the scourging takes place.
One rabbi explicitly relates this activity to the honour-shame code: “If the one being flogged involuntarily sullies himself, due to fear or pain, whether with excrement or with urine, he is exempt from further lashes. Rabbi Yehuda says that the threshold of shame for men and women is different: The man is exempted if he sullies himself with excrement, and the woman is exempted even with urine.”
The scourging of Jesus is noted in three of the four Gospel accounts (Mark 15:15; Matt 27:26; John 19:1).
Historian Didorus Siculus reported that the clothing and property of victims was confiscated in crucifixion (Universal History 33.15.1), an action that we see inflicted on Jesus as reported by the fourth evangelist (John 19:23). Without clothing, the victim is nude—another shaming element in the process.
The second century biographer Plutarch notes that the victim was required to carry the cross beam (Delay 554B). We see this shaming action varied in the account of the crucifixion of Jesus; as Jesus is unable to carry his cross beam, Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service (Mark 15:21; Matt 27:32; Luke 23:26). Luke adds a note about the mourners following the crucifixion procession at this point, adding to the sense of shame and impending doom (Luke 23:27-31).
Crucifixions served as a form of entertainment for the masses, with the public spectacle heightened by some victims being fixed to the cross in odd ways, including impalement. The process of dying as a crucified person was a slow process; it could take days before a victim was deceased. In the process, the bodies of victims could distort and control z as over bodily functions could be lost. These elements also added to the shame of the event.
Death itself was caused by suffocation, as the person nailed to the cross was not able to raise himself to inhale air. The loss of agency, by having hands and feet nailed to the cross, symbolised the loss of power and thus of honour, as Philo notes, describing “those who are fixed to a cross [as] nailed as it were to the tree of hopeless and helpless ignorance” (On Dreams 2.213; and see also On the Posterity of Cain 61).
Crucifixion was a graphic public demonstration of the loss of honour, an intensified shaming of the person being crucified. Many of the typical actions in crucifixion carried, as we have seen, a sense of public shaming. This shaming could also be expressed through verbal means, such as mocking and taunting. The passion narrative includes this element at many places.
The Roman soldiers taunt and mock Jesus (Mark 15:16-20; Matt 27:27-31; Luke 23:36-37), as do Herod with his soldiers (Luke 23:11). The chief priests and scribes also mock Jesus (Mark 15:31-32; Matt 27:41-43; Luke 23:35), as does a police officer, earlier, at the trial before the Sanhedrin (John 18:22). Those crucified with him also taunt him (Mark 15:32; Matt 27:44).
Herod and his soldiers treat Jesus with contempt (Luke 23:11), although a more accurate translation of this phrase would be, “treated as though he were nothing”.
As the Roman soldiers mock Jesus, they strike his face (Mark 14:65, 15:9; John 19:2-3) or his body (Luke 22:63-65). People passing by shake their heads at him as they deride him, intensifying the element of shaming (Mark 15:29-30; Matt 27:29-30). The verbal and physical indications of shaming are many.
In the third of the three passion predictions reported in the middle section of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 8-10), Jesus says that the Gentiles “will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him” (Mark 10:34). That is duly reported in Mark’s later narrative, at the end of the scene where Jesus stands before the Sanhedrin. “Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’” (Mark 14:65).
In the ancient Near East, spitting was one of the most humiliating of disgraces, long considered a suitable response to reprehensible behavior. We see this in the scene when Aaron and Miriam speak against Moses, and Miriam is made leprous (Num 12:1-16). In the course of this scene, God declares to Moses, “If her father had but spit in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? (Num 12:14).
The action of spitting on Jesus is thus yet another act of public shaming. (See also Deut 25:5-10; Job 17:6, 30:10). The link between insulting and spitting, and being put to shame, is made clear in the third Servant Song (Isa 50:6-8a).
Finally, the bodies of crucified victims were most often not accorded an honourable burial. Corpses were regularly left hanging, whilst carrion birds and scavenger animals devoured the body, as Pliny describes in his Natural History (36.107-108).
The remains of these bodies were then thrown unceremoniously—shamefully—into a common grave, although in the case of Jesus, we are told by all four evangelists that his body was retrieved and placed in the grave of a wealthy supporter (Mark 15:42-46; Matt 27:57-60; Luke 23:50-53; John 19:38-42).
Thus, we can conclude that, 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, striped naked, physically struck on the face and the head, verbally ridiculed and insulted, and treated contemptuously; then as he hung dying, he was wracked with pain before he eventually succumbed to death. This was a shameful spectacle by any reckoning.
Jerome Neyrey, however, offers the suggestion that, “despite all the shameful treatment of Jesus, he is portrayed, not only as maintaining his honor, but even gaining glory and prestige. Far from being a status degradation ritual, his passion is seen as a status elevation ritual.” (https://www3.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/shame.html)
This is certainly consistent with the way that Jesus spoke earlier in his ministry of the inversion of shame and honour through the cross. When he makes his own identification with the cross (Mark 8:34), he does not consider this to be a cause of shame, but rather a sign of honour.
It would be seen by other humans as being shameful. However, that is not the case in God’s eyes, as Jesus articulates it; the cross would become the badge of honour for the followers of Jesus, not the mark of shame.
The movement that is articulated by Paul, in his citation of am early hymn in his letter to Philippi, marks out the progression from shaming by human beings (“emptied himself … humbled himself … to death on a cross”, Phil 2:7–8) to being honoured by God (“highly exalted him … bestowed on him the name above all names … so that every knee should bow”, Phil 2:9-11). The progression takes Jesus, once equal with God (Phil 2:6), to the shame of the cross, and then to the glory of universal recognition “to the glory of God” (Phil 2:11).
So the declaration of shame that Jesus makes in his teaching to his disciples (Mark 8:38) 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.
As we approach Easter, we note it is also the time of Passover for Jews. This year, the final few days of the eight days of the Jewish Passover (27 March to 4 April) overlap with the Christian Easter Triduum (the three days of Easter, 2 to 4 April). There is a handy reckoner of how the dates of Passover and Easter intersect or overlap at http://jewishaustralia.com/JWL/easter-dates.asp
Integral to the way that Jews today (and indeed through much of history) celebrate the Passover, is that they hold a Seder meal to mark the beginning of the Passover festival season. The Passover commemorates the time when Israel escaped from Egypt, when God “passed over” the houses whose doors had been marked with blood to signal that they were Hebrew houses (Exodus 14).
The word Seder simply means “order” or “arrangement”. It signals the fact that there is a well-established order of events that are to take place within the Seder meal—an order that evolved and developed over time (over many centuries, in fact!). The modern Seder contains fifteen distinct elements, which take the participants right through the whole story of Passover.
A Seder begins with the Kadesh (the blessing over the first cup of wine), and moves through the various symbolic actions, the retelling of the story through the asking of four questions, blessings over a further three cups of wine and the food, the eating of the meal, and then the concluding recitation of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) with the final traditional saying, “next year in Jerusalem!”
It is important for Christians that we respect the integrity of the Jewish faith, and do not engage in “Passover Seder” meals on our Maundy Thursday. This is simply another form of Christian supersessionism.
Supersessionism is a term used to describe the way that the Church, through the centuries, has simply taken over Jewish elements (such as scripture, the covenant, the Ten Commandments, Pentecost, and the Passover Seder). We have “baptised” them so that believers have the view that these are Christian elements, without any sense of their Jewish origins—and their continuing place in contemporary Jewish life.
The Assembly of the Uniting Church issued a statement in 2009 regarding our relationship with Jews and Judaism. It affirmed the integrity of Judaism as a living faith, and made a commitment to engage in constructive relationships with Jews.
In particular, the Assembly Statement affirmed that “the Uniting Church Encourages its Members and Councils to respect the integrity of Jewish festivals, e.g. refraining from use of a Passover Seder in Holy Week worship” (para. 22).
We should not therefore be offering or promoting such opportunities. They are disrespectful to Jewish practice and beliefs, and in contravention of our strong commitment as a church to work constructively with our Jewish sisters and brothers.
The Working Group on Jewish-Christian Relations in the VicTas Synod has been clear about this, stating that:
1. The Passover Seder meal is not scriptural in itself. It was developed as a universal means whereby the Jewish people could celebrate God’s rescue of the Israelites from Egypt. In the absence of the Temple and its sacrificial system, the Passover Seder could be celebrated in Jewish homes anywhere in the world.
2. This development took place long after the death of Jesus, who lived during the time of the Temple. Jesus never celebrated a Passover Seder. He and his disciples celebrated the Passover meal – with a lamb sacrificed in the Temple.
This last point is a very important point. When Christians enact a Seder meal and represent as “what happened when Jesus had his last meal with his disciples at Passover”, they actually take a large collection of later medieval elements and read them back into the first century meal. That’s not taking seriously the actual story of the meal that Jesus shared with his followers. And, of course, it is completely disrespectful to Jews today, asserting that their rituals have a place in Christian worship.
The parable of Jesus which is set in this Sunday’s lectionary appears to offer an invitation to adopt a negative approach towards Jews and Judaism. The author of the book of origins (by tradition, the evangelist Matthew) interpreted this story as a polemic against the Jewish authorities (Matt 21:33-46).
The parable is set in a vineyard. That’s an age-old symbol for the people of Israel—indeed, this week the lectionary offers us two supplementary passages from Hebrew Scripture (Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:7-15) which show how old and enduring this imagery was.
The parable that Jesus tells recounts the hard-hearted way in which the tenants in the vineyard (a traditional symbol for the people of Israel) reject the messengers sent to them by the landowner (seen as a symbol for God), culminating in the atrocious treatment meted out to the landowner’s son (whom we are meant to identify as Jesus, son of God).
The son is put to death. The punchline that Jesus crafts for this parable is potent: those who do not produce the fruits of the kingdom will not inherit the kingdom (21:43). That’s a consistent motif in the teaching of Jesus in this Gospel. But the author of the Gospel reshapes the conclusion so that it seems to apply solely to “the chief priests and the Pharisees” (21:45).
The parable of the vineyard is one of the passages that has been difficult for us to understand accurately. When taken at a literal level, it has led to modern interpretations that are as damaging as they are unfair.
The assumption is that the Pharisees and scribes are the ‘bad guys’, and this has led to the belief that Pharisee equals hypocrite. It is disturbing that such a stereotype has found its way into the language of our modern church.
The context of the parable suggests that although its message was aimed at the chief priests and the Pharisees, it does not exclude other Jewish people. The parable immediately before it refers to the importance of doing the will of God (21:28-31), and concludes that “tax-collectors and prostitutes going into the kingdom of God ahead of you [i.e. the Pharisees and chief priests]” (21:31). The kingdom will certainly provide an interesting gathering of all manner of people! So the parable is a warning about obedience, not a denunciation of the leaders.
Equally disturbing is the notion that Jesus here seems to contradict his own teaching about loving one’s enemy and turning the other cheek. He depicts God as the avenging Lord. So what is really happening here?
I don’t think the parable of Jesus is intended to be simply an anti-Jewish polemic, an invitation to deride or dismiss Judaism and Jews.
It is true that, in the Gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus making some strident accusations and engaging in some vigorous debate with the Jewish authorities. But does he really believe that no faithful Jew will ever again enter the kingdom of heaven?
We need to read in context the rhetoric that Matthew places on the lips of Jesus in this Gospel. Judaism was in a state of flux as people lived under the continuing oppression of Roman rule. The destruction of the Temple in 70 CE was a pivotal moment. Evidence indicates that, during this time, there were various sectarian groups within Judaism who were contesting with each other for recognition and influence. Instead of making common cause against Rome, they continued to fight each other. Vigorous polemic and robust debate amongst Jews were not uncommon.
During this period, the Pharisees were becoming increasingly important as an alternative to the Temple cult, and emerging as the dominant Jewish religious movement. Their power base was moved from Jerusalem and spread throughout the area. When the Temple was destroyed, they moved into the vacuum that was created, and became even more dominant.
(From this time on, Pharisees evolved into the “Rabbis”, and they developed the kind of Judaism that became dominant through to the present time. We need to be sensitized to the fact that, for many modern Jews, when we make damning criticisms of the Pharisees, they hear that as a criticism of their Rabbis, and, by extension, of the faith that they practise today.)
The kind of debates that we see in the Gospels—debates where Jesus goes head-on with the Pharisees—need to be understood in this context. Jesus was not “cutting the cord” of his connection with Judaism. He was not rejecting his faith as irrelevant or obsolete.
He was advocating, vigorously and persistently, for the kind of faith that he firmly believed in—and criticisng the Pharisees for their failure, in his eyes, to adhere to all that they taught. He wanted to renew Israel, to refresh the covenant, as the prophets before him had done.
And let’s remember that the accounts that we have of these debates come from years later than when they actually occurred; years that had been strongly shaped by the polemic and antagonism of the intervening decades.
Older academic Christian scholarship and popular evangelical Christian tradition perpetuate the stereotype that the Judaism of the time of Jesus was a harsh, legalistic, rigid religion—a stereotype heightened by an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament caricature of the Pharisees as hypocritical legalists who made heavy demands but had no soul commitment to their faith. It was claimed that they were the leaders of a static, dying religion.
This stereotype has been completely demolished in recent decades—both through the growing interaction between Christian and Jewish scholarship, and also through a more critical reading of the relevant primary texts. I am very pleased that the church to which I belong, the Uniting Church in Australia, has made it very clear that we do not adhere to these inaccurate and hurtful stereotypes.
In 2009, the UCA national Assembly adopted a Statement which says, amongst other things:
The Uniting Church does not accept Christian teaching that is derogatory towards Jews and Judaism; a belief that God has abolished the covenant with the Jewish people; supersessionism, the belief that Christians have replaced Jews in the love and purpose of God; and forms of relationships with Jews that require them to become Christian, including coercion and manipulation, that violate their humanity, dignity and freedom.
Indeed, when we look at the whole of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does nothing to overturn the Law or to encourage his followers to disregard the Law; he is portrayed as a Jew who keeps Torah to the full. “I have come, not to destroy, but to fulfil the Law”, he says (5:17).
Virtually all of his criticisms of the Pharisees can be understood within the framework of first century debates over the meaning and application of Law. The memory of Jesus in this Gospel is as a Torah-abiding Jew, who nevertheless stakes out a distinctive position within the context of those contemporary debates.
We should not interpret the parable of Jesus in Matt 21 as an outright condemnation of Judaism as a whole. As he debates the Jewish leadership of his day, he makes strong statements. But let’s not claim that Jesus validates any sense of anti-Jewish or antisemitic attitude.
Unfortunately, these words of Jesus and other parts of the New Testament story have been used throughout the centuries to validate anti-Jewish attitudes, to foster antisemitic hatred of the Jews. It is important for us to remember the real sense of the words of Jesus, and not follow the pathway to bigotry, hatred, persecution, and tragic attempts to annihilate the Jews.
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. (Romans 10:12)
These words are found in the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans that is offered by the Revised Common Lectionary, for reading in worship this coming Sunday. They were written long ago, in a different language, to people of a different culture, in a location quite different from where you and I are currently located. How do they speak to us today?
Readers and listeners in the contemporary world have often assumed that in writing chapters 9-11 of Romans, Paul is addressing the issue of Israel and the Church. Jews and Christians. Those of the circumcision, raised on the Law; and those of the uncircumcision, unaware of the Law.
We assume that this dynamic, familiar to us from the times in which we live, was precisely the dynamic that motivated Paul as he wrote to the Romans, as he instructed them in his beliefs, as he interpreted to them the scriptural proofs, and as he exhorted them in the way to live in response to these beliefs.
But was it? Paul writes in the early days of the church; when charisma, not institution, predominates. He writes when tensions and struggles within the early missionary movement still mitigate against a commonly-held, universally-accepted, consensus of opinion.
Paul writes as the matter of what to do about Gentile believers is still largely unresolved. Some said accept them; others wanted to circumcise them, to judaise them. He writes this letter into that unresolved debate. He writes when some—his opponents, we call them—became vigorous—perhaps violent?—in asserting their viewpoint.
Paul writes well before Gentiles have outnumbered Jews within the growing movement of Jesus’ followers; before the Temple is destroyed; before the city of Jerusalem is declared a Gentile preserve only; before John Chrysostom explodes with vituperative venom against Christians in synagogues; before the Emperor Constantine endorses a thoroughly hellenised, philosophically mature version of faith in God through Jesus Christ. So many changes; so many new layers of meaning from church developments, laid over the earlier texted Paul.
Is this text, then, beyond our reach? Is it impossible to grasp it, to seize it as our own? Is it too alien, too far removed from us? Can it ever be for us the word of God to guide and instruct us? Or despite these difficulties, can we not enter into the dynamic, attempt to reconstruct the reality, and thus appreciate the dynamic of Paul’s ancient words, as they speak to us today?
The issue, I believe, which vexed Paul in these chapters, was that different people made claim that they could access God in strikingly different ways. The Jews had Torah; the commandments of the Law, handed down by Yahweh to Moses on Sinai. The Gentiles had the natural world; the revelation of the deity in creation. The followers of Jesus had a new model of faith; the faithfulness of the Messiah, no less, as the crucial instance of how all human beings might relate to God.
Paul agonises with what this might mean for his understanding of faith. He grew up on the Jewish understanding that access to God was through adherence to Torah, the living of a life in complete harmony with requirements of God’s Law.
Then came a dramatic, unexpected experience. He entered into a new way of relating to God. His “Damascus road experience”, as Luke vividly portrays it, opened up this new vista. To tradition, is added experience. The experience helps Paul to reinterpret his tradition; to shape a new understanding of faith.
But then, a third factor intrudes; Paul is called, and sent, to Gentiles. He preaches the Gospel, and people respond. He establishes new communities of faith—some, provocatively, right next door to synagogues; others, comprising Gentiles who meet in homes. These people, he nurtures. They have access to God; the same God Paul has known as faithful Jew, and as convinced Christian convert. The Gentiles can come to God, without the Law, in a different way from Jews.
Does this mean that the old way is now obsolete? Paul cannot stomach the thought. Indeed, he knows, from the events of his own life, that personal experience can reshape, reconfigure the traditional, “old” way, so that it is not rendered irrelevant, but is infused with new vigour and vitality.
That’s how I understand the controversial statement that Paul makes, in the verse just before our lectionary passage—when he declares to the Romans that Christ is “the end of the Law” (Rom 10:4). The word he chose, translated as “end”, has the sense of “end” as completion, perfection, bringing to fruition, reaching to maturity, arriving at the point of complete fulfilment. That, in Paul’s understanding, is how Christ stands in relation to the Law—not in opposition, but as the pinnacle of fulfilment.
So he cannot give up on the challenge that his success amongst the Gentiles has laid before him: God is working in this way!! But nor does he want to give up on the Jews; for they are chosen of God, and God does not abandon his promise, nor does God jettison his beloved people. So, Paul concludes, both “old” and “new” must cohere together. They each have a part in the overall scheme.
The issue that Paul grapples with, is so very close to the issue that confronts us in our place and time. Australia of the 21st century is a multicutural country. In the last 75 years, 10 million people have migrated to Australia from over 150 different countries. Almost half of the Australian population has at least one parent who was born overseas, and almost one quarter of Australian residents were themselves born overseas.
We are undoubtedly multi-cultural, even if we do not yet realise the full implications of this new reality. As well as this, however, we are also multi-faith. Each country and culture represented in Australia now brings with it its own distinctive expression of its faith. So many people, making so many claims about how they know God, how contact God, how they commune with God.
How do we deal with this new reality? When “the heathens” lived in far distant countries, across deep, raging seas, then the way of stereotype and caricature went unchallenged. But now that they are here, the others in our midst, we cannot dismiss them so easily.
Other people have other ideas about God, other connections with the divine, other ways of relating to the deity. Do we dismiss them all, in a blanket fashion, as ignorant, wrongheaded, blighted by evil? Do we attempt to convince them that what they know is but a shadow of what we know? Do we shrug our shoulders, and say “whatever will be, that’s cool”?
My preferred option is one which I find emerging from texts such as Romans 9-11. Instead of staking out the ground to be defended, another option is to acknowledge that there is a greater reality, beyond our present knowing, transcending human capacity to articulate and systematise. Paul grapples with the issue, and concludes that the answer is, simply, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”
The unifying factor of God extends beyond the precise doctrines and dogmas of each partisan point of view; the greater reality of God holds in creative tension each of the variant ways of seeking God’s presence. Jew and Greek are united, not by common beliefs, but by the God who shows mercy to each of them alike.
Paul has argued this theme from early in Romans: “all have sinned, yet all are justified by God’s grace as a gift” (3:23-24), “is not God the God of Jews, and the God of Gentiles also?” (3:29), the promise is “not only to the aherents of the law, but also to those who share the faith of Abraham” (4:16), “God has called us, not only from the Jews, but also from the Gentiles” (9:24).
He will go on to push the point in subsequent chapters: “salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make Israel jealous” (11:11), and so, “all Israel will be saved” (11:26); “just as you [Gentiles] have received mercy, so they [the Jews] might receive mercy” (11:30-31); “God has mercy on all” (11:32). Paul’s “God-talk” sounds this consistent theme throughout Romans: God is for all, God has mercy on all, both Jew and Gentile may participate in the full knowledge of God.
Out of the struggle about the particularities of different ways of relating to God, comes the unequivocal assertion that all might be intimately bound with God. The preferred option which Paul adopts is not the rigorous exclusivism of a sectarian antagonist, not the woolly-headed universalism of an unreconstructed liberal, but the engaged and intense dialogue of one who believes both that his won way is right, but that it does not exclude other ways.
Paul offers the pattern of faith in which tradition, experience, and an openness to the insights of the other might come together and shape a new, vibrant understanding of God’s availability to all, of God’s open-armed yearning for each and everyone, of God’s willingness to encompass people of different upbringings, experiences, and creeds, into the one warm embrace.
To conclude, I offer a reflective meditation. You may wish to use this meditation as a prayer; to join your spirit with the words of the prayer, and lift them to God. Or you may wish to use the meditation as a point of reflection, for yourself, so that you might ponder, without affirming or denying, the sentiments it contains. I invite you, then, you join in meditation; perhaps, in prayer, or perhaps, in reflection.
God has created us all,
and called us together from all the nations of the world,
to be one people—the people of God’s earth.
As Christian people, we regularly offer our prayers
for one another, as we seek to serve God
in obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In this time of reflection, we remember now
people who call on God
in ways which are different from the ways we know:
those who call on God through self-enlightenment;
those who seek to be raised to a higher plane of consciousness;
those who study the Torah or adhere to the Koran;
those who seek to walk a way revealed to them
by teachers and leaders of faiths other than Christianity.
What would it mean for us
to cultivate tolerance and acceptance of such people?
If we were to gain a deeper understanding
of the ways they call on God,
might it not enrich our own way of relating to God?
What would it mean for us
to enter into dialogue with people of other faiths?
We could not relate to them as proponents of a narrow doctrine;
we would need to meet as servants of one another,
together seeking the truth of deep faith.
As we speak with one another, and work side by side,
Continuing my reflections on the first national conference in Canberra of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) …
Dr James Whelan, lecturer, researcher and longterm environmental activist, spoke about creating a faith network to tackle the climate emergency, advocating that we need to play to our strengths, ask the clarifying questions, “What are our strengths?”, “What are we lacking?”—and advocate that we need to be strategic!
He argued that we can learn from social movements that have come before—in areas as diverse as anti-apartheid, land rights, whaling, smoking, AIDS/HIV, breast cancer, anti-uranium, public transport, urban sanitation, workers’ rights, or domestic violence.
He then invited the participants to identify the strengths of ARRCC and its people; participants identified creativity, courage, a moral voice, the use of positional authority to persuade, energy from young people, shared values across a wide diversity, existing networks that can be engaged, a clarity of commitment to change, a commitment to respectful conversations as the basis for enabling change, a thoughtful, broad-based progressive religious voice in the public arena, and the fact that ARRCC is an intergenerational and transcontinental movement.
The afternoon was spent in small group workshops ranging across a range of issues exploring how people of faith might respond to the climate emergency. One group heard strategies used to convince religious groups to divest from companies that support fossil fuels; another explored a case study in “switching to sunshine” by installing solar panels.
In one group there was a focus on strategies for developing a climate-conserving lifestyle, noting both the opportunities and the challenges involved. A fourth group heard stories of nonviolent resistance “from the frontline”, whilst another group heard stories of developing local networks across religious faiths (and beyond), sharing the triumphs and the struggles of such work.
The afternoon continued with feedback of learnings and a consideration of how these learnings might best inform the ongoing work of ARRCC, as they focus on four areas: preventing the extraction of fossil fuels (no new coal mines)—transitioning to sustainable regional economies (retraining the labour force)—increasing clean energy uptake by local faith communities—and encouraging responsible lifestyle changes (through programs such as Living the Change, Switch to Sunshine, Eat Less Meat, and Climate Action Kits).
ARRCC President, Thea Ormerod, reminded us of the practical steps that people of faith (and others, too) can take: flying less and driving more; cycling more and taking public transport; eating less meat, shopping locally, and growing your vegetables; all of these (and more) contribute to a more sustainable lifestyle.
The scourge of our society is that we think that increased comfort and convenience, and abundant choice as consumers, makes us appreciate life more and feel happier and more contented. Not so, the research shows; more is not better, comfort does not always generate happiness, convenience does not help us flourish as human beings.
Quoting Prof. Mark Howden of the ANU, Thea noted that “each choice matters, each year matters, each half a degree matters”. Living the Change is a project that ARRCC now offers to educate and encourage such transitions in people’s lives. This project upholds two deep theological convictions: the Earth is a sacred gift, and each person has the responsibility to live in a way that supports and sustains our common home. You can read about this project at https://www.arrcc.org.au/living_the_change and download a climate action kit with practical strategies at https://www.arrcc.org.au/climate-action-kits
The conference continues on Sunday with further workshops on moving to a pant-based diet, making the most of one-on-one conversations, and building the climate movement in a local faith community—but I won’t be there as I will be leading worship in my local faith community and speaking about the importance of caring for creation and living sustainability.
It’s certainly been a most intense but very useful experience to have been involved in this conference.
(The photo montage shows key ARRCC people, Dr Miriam Pepper at top left, Thea Ormerod and Tejopala Rawls at bottom right, along with the large cross and the meeting place of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in Barton.)
Today I am with people from a wide range of faith traditions from across the Australian continent and Aotearoa New Zealand, at the first national conference in Canberra of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC).
During the morning, a series of keynote speakers addressed the Conference: a scientist, followed by a Muslim scholar and a Christian researcher and activist.
Prof. Lesley Hughes of the Climate Council and Macquarie University (top right in the photo montage) gave an overview of the impacts that are being felt right around the world in this climate emergency. Significant changes in the climate are clearly documented; the rate of change is alarming and disturbing in so many areas: temperatures are rising, heatwaves are growing, snow coverage is declining, water levels are rising.
Emissions in 18 countries have been declining in recent years; Australia is not one of those countries. Globally, there is less use of coal and more dependence on renewable sources of energy. However, Australia remains the largest exporter of coal in the world, and we have the 12th highest emissions per capita. Figures demonstrate that the introduction of a Carbon Price under Gillard had a clear impact, but there has been a strong reversal since the time of Abbott.
Prof. Hughes concluded by quoting the inspiring slogan, We are the ones we have been waiting for!
Prof. Mehmet Ozalp, of Charles Sturt University (bottom right in the photo montage) spoke about an Islamic response to the climate emergency, arguing that within Islamic theology there is a clear ethical obligation to respond in practical ways. On the scale of assessment regarding ethical matters (allowed, recommended, neutral, not recommended, prohibited), this clearly sits within the realm of allowed (halal). He bases this on the premise that, where harm and benefit co-exist, alleviation of harm is the priority.
What motivates change? Prof. Ozalp outlined four factors: awareness through education, activism and media reports; relationships with friends, acquaintances and organisations; religious teachings in worship; and individual consciences which generate a concern for the earth and its creatures.
Prof. Ozalp referred to a range of initiatives: questions relating to the hajj and the use of plastic bottles for water; green makeovers of 600 mosques in Morocco and 2000 mosques in Jordan; the Greening the Desert project in Jordan is one of many projects in the Middle East; and the partnership of Greenpeace and the Indonesian Government to avoid plastic during Ramadan.
Trees for Change in Tanzania is one of a number of African tree planting projects; a proposed gold mine in the Kaz Mountains near Gallipoli in Turkey has been stopped by mass protest; an Eco Mosque is being built in Cambridge, UK; and a strong Green Muslim movement has emerged in the USA.
In Australia, Monash University held a Greener Iftar whilst a recently-opened Eco Mosque in Punchbowl has won an architectural award. Australian Muslim leaders have supported the Stop Adani campaign and signed the letter prepared by ARRCC. ISRA has been active in holding public education events in the Muslim community, including the 2019 Living the Change Workshop.
Dr Miriam Pepper, from the Uniting Church (bottom left in the photo montage), then spoke about Engagement and mobilisation on climate change in Christian churches, both to outline the responses and help participants to discern opportunities for future mobilisation.
In Australia, 1.6 million people attend Christian worship on any given Sunday, providing a significant opportunity for networking, influencing, and acting. However, church participants are generally socially and politically conservative, and takeup of climate activism, despite the clear evidence about the climate emergency, has been low and slow across all Christian denominations. (Some have been more active than others.)
Attitudes towards the climate emergency and activities taken in response to it can be schematised as citizen, reformer, rebel, or change agent. Each has a place in the overall movement. Dr Pepper spoke of a range of actions undertaken in Australian Christian churches. Community gardens, solar panels and climate signs outside churches are increasingly found associated with churches. Christian participation in marches, rallies and strikes remains consistent—especially from Uniting Church members, but spread across many denominations.
Divestment from companies supporting fossil fuels is a strategy employed by a growing number of religious organisations. Some Christians have participated in nonviolent direct actions—following the example of Jesus himself! Organisationally, churches work through Congregations and Parishes, denominational agencies focussed on environmental issues, influential positional leaders (most notably, Pope Francis), national and regional church bodies, church schools, university student groups, theological and bible colleges, religious orders, as well as in partnership with parachurch organisations and ecumenical networks.
Drawing on data from the NCLS, Dr Pepper reported that the majority of church people do accept that climate change is happening, but taking action on environmental issues does not rate high on the list of social and religious issues that churchgoers believe should be prioritised by their churches. That places a challenge before all ministers and leaders in the churches to press the point concerning this vital set of issues. See a series of NCLS papers on the environment at http://www.ncls.org.au/topic/environment
In summary, she noted that congregational engagement remains low; however, a sign of hope is provided through an increasing Roman Catholic commitment to caring for the earth, which has grown since the release of the encyclical Laudato si’.
The three presentations we followed by a lively panel discussion, responding to a range of questions and comments form conference participants. A clear role was seen for church communities to press for changes in lifestyle as well as the policy framework of society—through individual and communal actions, through public education and activism, and through political lobbying.
The importance of naming environmental issues in worship, inviting lament and grieving in prayers, offering practical strategies in sermons and study groups, and pointing to a hope for the future through specific actions, was also noted. The scientist on the panel, Prof. Hughes, made a strong statement about the importance of hope amongst everyone involved in responding to the climate emergency—both people of faith and people of no faith working together to a shared and hoped-for outcome.
Prof. Hughes also spoke about the interrelationship between environment, society, lifestyle and civilisation itself. We need to stop talking about “the environment” as an isolated entity, and frame it, rather, in terms of what impact the changes in climate will have on our way of living and our very existence as the human race. That is the extent of the challenge we face!
The Gospel parable set for this coming Sunday is a parable which Jesus told about a Pharisee and a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). This is one of the texts that is regularly used, in a most negative way, to berate the Pharisees for their self-righteousness and legalism. This feeds into an understanding of Jesus as a hardline critic of the Pharisees, regularly berating them for these deficiencies. That is a most unfortunate line of interpretation to take.
First, it is noteworthy that the Pharisees in Luke’s Gospel are regularly portrayed in ways that demonstrate a positive relationship with Jesus. Most strikingly, Jesus is found at table with Pharisees on a number of occasions: in the house of Simon, a Pharisee (7:36–50); by invitation of another Pharisee, in his house along with a lawyer, and scribes (11:37–54); again, in the house of a prominent Pharisee, with lawyers also present (14:1–24).
There is another occasion, when Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners (15:1–32), where the opening verses (15:1–2) infer the additional presence of Pharisees and scribes at the meal. Eating a meal together was a clear sign that positive and mutually respectful relationships existed between Jesus and some Pharisees, at least.
Pharisees also acts in friendly ways to Jesus when they come to him to warn him about Herod (13:31) or ask him to explain his understanding of the kingdom of God (14:20-21) or seek to quell the uproar being caused by the disciples of Jesus (19:39-40). Not all of the encounters that Jesus had with Pharisees were negative or confrontational.
The early movement of followers of Jesus included Pharisees (Acts 15:5 — and even, quite strikingly, some priests, in 6:7 !). Paul was one such Pharisee, as he declares that he had been raised as a Pharisee (Acts 23:6), and there is an interesting scene later in Acts where some Pharisees (in dispute with some Sadducees) actually stand in support of Paul (Acts 23:7-9).
So the relationship is not thoroughly antagonistic. Both Jesus and, later, Paul, did have robust discussions and disagreements with Pharisees, but neither of them wrote the Pharisees off as lost causes or doomed to perdition. We should not use Pharisee as a cipher for a self-righteous or hypocritical person who has no humility — accusations that could well have been made in the heat of an argument.
Second, this unfortunate negative line of interpretation concerning Pharisees is based on a gross misunderstanding of the Pharisees, their faith, and their activities. All too often, Pharisees are misrepresented and scapegoated by Christians (especially since the rise of anti Semitic theologies in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), using them as a foil for their own views of a more positive Christian faith.
So: what do we really know about the Pharisees?
The scribal Pharisees specialised in the interpretation of Torah and in the application of Torah to ensure that holiness was observed in daily living. In contrast to the Sadducees, the Pharisees were very popular amongst the ordinary Jewish folk. This may well have been because they undertook the highly significant task of showing how the Torah was relevant to the daily life of Jewish people.
The story of Ezra, told in Nehemiah 8, gives an example of this in practice, referring especially those who “helped the people to understand the law” (Neh 8:7). Whilst the priests upheld the Torah as the ultimate set of rules for operating the Temple, the Pharisees showed how the Torah could be applied to every aspect of daily life as a Jew.
Most Jews went to the Temple only rarely—and found it to be an expensive enterprise when they got there! But in seeking guidance for daily life, the people were greatly helped by those skilled interpreters of Torah, the scribes and the Pharisees. Josephus comments that the Pharisees were usually held in high regard by the ordinary people of the day.
Since nine out of every ten persons could not read, the importance of scribes—literate, educated, and sympathetic—could not be underestimated. Whilst the Pharisees clustered around towns in Judea, the scribes were to be found in the synagogues of villages throughout greater Israel, and indeed in any place where Jews were settled. Their task was to educate the people as to the ways of holiness that were commanded in the Torah. It was possible, they argued, to live as God’s holy people at every point of one’s life, quite apart from any pilgrimages made to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Over time, the Pharisees and scribes developed particular methods for interpreting the Torah; many of these methods are reflected within the New Testament, as it seems that Paul, each of the Gospel writers, and even Jesus himself, were familiar with such methods of interpretation. They were certainly people of faith, devoted to serving God in humility, and focussed on fostering a sense of righteousness (obedience to the way that God had instructed them) amongst their people.
Associated with this, the Pharisees and scribes devoted much time to verbal discussion of the written texts of Torah, probing the meaning of every law that was recorded in their scripture. These debates were remembered and passed on by word of mouth. Over time, the accumulated body of these oral discussions and debates was accorded a certain authority in its own right. Eventually, the claim was made that the oral teachings were of similar importance to the written text; the Pharisees were said to have had an “oral Torah” alongside the written Torah. Debate over this matter is reflected in texts such as Mark 7 and Matt 15.
So, just as Pharisees debated amongst themselves about how best to interpret the laws given in scripture, so too Jesus engaged in such debates and disputations with them as to how the laws should be interpreted and applied. He used precisely the methods and techniques that the Pharisees themselves employed, with questions, counter-argument, scripture citations, and analogies, for instance.
This form of engagement wasn’t an antagonistic dispute; it was just the vigorous style of such debates. Jesus wasn’t looking to dismiss the Pharisees, but to reach into the heart of each law that they were debating together. The debate was taking place to clarify how people were to be faithful to God, living according to the righteousness (or holiness) that God required.
Later, accounts of these oral debates between Jesus and Pharisees were written down in the Gospels that we have in Christian scripture. However, these debates were remembered and recorded in ways that seem to reflect the intensity of fervent debate that was apparently taking place, at that later time, between followers of Jesus, and authorities in the synagogues. They retained the vigorous manner of debates about Jewish Torah, but were set into a polemical context that highlighted the differences and sharpened the sense of argumentative antagonism.
Accordingly, it is reasonable to regard many of the accounts of Jesus in debate with the scribes and Pharisees (such as Luke 11:37-54 and Matt 23:1-36) as more reflective of the antagonism, conflict, and even hatred that had grown between these two groups.
That wasn’t the historical reality. But it came to be the way that the followers of Jesus after his lifetime (and after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE) most often remembered the Pharisees. And so the trajectory of the stereotype of the Pharisee began.
Both older academic Christian scholarship and popular Christian tradition today perpetuate the stereotype that the Judaism of the time of Jesus was a harsh, legalistic, rigid religion—precisely because of the claimed “hardness of heart” of the Pharisees in their debates with Jesus.
This stereotype was heightened by an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament caricature of the Pharisees as hypocritical legalists who made heavy demands but had no soul commitment to their faith. It was claimed that they were the leaders of a static, dying religion.
This stereotype has been completely demolished in recent decades—both through the growing interaction between Christian and Jewish scholarship, and also through a more critical reading of the relevant primary texts. It has no place in our contemporary preaching.
In 2009, the Twelfth Assembly of my church (the Uniting Church in Australia) adopted a Statement on Jews and Judaism in which we resolved to:
acknowledge that many of the early Christian writings collected in the New Testament were written in a context of controversy and polemic between the Church and Synagogue;
not accept Christian teaching that is derogatory towards Jews and Judaism;
and encourage its members and councils to be vigilant in resisting antisemitism and anti-Judaism in church and society.
I hope that those who are preaching on the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18, bear in mind these things as they prepare and deliver sermons this coming Sunday. Yes, Jesus criticises the particular Pharisee in this parable. No, this was not how Jesus viewed each and every Pharisee that he knew. Yes, Jesus was a friend of Pharisees and entered enthusiastically into robust debate with them. No, he was not intending to write off all Pharisees as pious, hypocritical, self-righteous legalists.