Job: a tale for the pandemic, Part Two (Pentecost 19B to 22B)

The book of Job is a challenging and disturbing book. It takes us to a central dilemma that we all face in our lives. It provides us with a stimulus to undertake an exploration that is eminently suited to the time that we have been experiencing over the past few months in lockdown—indeed, since early in 2020. The book poses the question: why is this happening?

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/20/job-a-tale-for-the-pandemic-part-one-pentecost-19b-to-22b/

That’s a question many are asking about the pandemic. Why has it come upon us? Or, to be more theological about it: why are innocent people suffering? why are we caught in this current spiral? do those without a moral compass appear to prosper? why do those who seek to do good find themselves beset by problem after problem?

The question is acute for us each personally, during this time of restrictions because of a global pandemic. After all, we had nothing to do with the cause of the pandemic. Why should we suffer the frustrations of lockdowns, if we are innocent of causing the virus to spread? Why should we endure the hardships of reduced interpersonal interactions, if we have been behaving with due care? Why should we not be able to gather for worship, since we have not been in places where infections have been found?

The question is also pertinent and pressing in our current global context. For a start, the pandemic has inflicted suffering and death on millions of people around the world—suffering far more invasive than what we are experiencing in the current lockdown. How many millions of people have died? And how many millions of family members have suffered the grief and despair of not being able to say farewell to their loved ones as they die in hospital wards? And how many medical and nursing professionals have been stressed beyond limit by the incessant demands they have faced during the pandemic? And how fair is all of this?

The question also presses in terms of the climate. We have long known that the climate is changing, the high temperature averages are claiming, the arctic glaciers are melting, the sea levels are rising, the intensity and frequency of catastrophic weather events are climbing—and people around the globe are suffering. All of this presents a challenge to the way we live. We may even think that we are suffering unfairly in such a scenario.

It is clear that the science has come to a conclusive decision: we human beings have been contributing in a major way to the changes in the climate for over two centuries, now. We actually can’t lament that we are suffering unfairly, since our comfortable lifestyles in the well-to-do Western world undoubtedly mean that our carbon footprints are much larger than they should be. We are contributing to climate change, so can’t expect to be exempt from its ravages.

But what of those whose carbon footprint is minuscule, in comparison to our own? There are 16 African countries whose CO2 emissions per year are 0.15 tons per person or less. As you trace the names of countries as the figure rises, there are many more African and Asian countries, long before any European countries are noted.

By contrast, the figure is 17.10 tons per person for Australia, 15.52 for the USA, and 18.58 for Canada. That is a completely inequitable output. Should we not be suffering more deeply, in the western world, than people in Africa and Asia are? And yet the reality is that the comfortable, even extravagant, lifestyle of the western world is what is driving the incessant rate of increased CO2 in the atmosphere. And the whole world—humans, animals, fish and bird, and vegetation—suffers as a result. The questions raised by Job are acutely relevant to this issue.

(The figures come from https://www.worldometers.info/co2-emissions/co2-emissions-per-capita/)

And the question remains hanging as we reflect on levels of malnutrition and access to food in the current world. The World Food Programme of the United Nations estimates that one in three people around the world. Even before the current pandemic, each and every day of the year, 820 million people were seriously underfed and hungry.

Children bear the brunt of this inequity. 149 million children under 5 are estimated to be stunted (too short for age), 45 million are estimated to be wasted (too thin for height), and 38.9 million are overweight or obese. That is a situation that is utterly unjust. The questions press even harder on us.

(See https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malnutrition)

We have the means, we are told, to distribute food equitably around the world. And yet up to one third of food is dumped everyday in the USA—a shocking waste of resources and a completely inequitable state of affairs. So those who happen to have been born in certain areas of the world where circumstances beyond their control mean that they are suffering far more than is warranted. Injustice abounds. The questions from Job resonate—how is that fair?

And then, there are survivors of domestic violence, and—still—survivors of child sexual abuse, and those suddenly facing homelessness, and those in the long enduring grip of mental illness, and those fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, seeking refuge and asylum in a welcoming place … and many other situations where the innocent are suffering unjustly. The list could be very long, indeed, if we give careful thought to it.

So, reflecting on these matters, in the light of the discussions that are recorded in the story of Job, we have much pause for thought. How do we reconcile our faith in God—God who is loving, God who is just, God who is overseeing all that takes place—given these terrible realities? Is the image of God that we have accurate? If God can act to change any of these terrible situations that we are facing, why does God not so act? Is God uncaring? Is God unable to act? Is God not concerned with justice?

These are the questions that Job explores. It is a book which provides us with deep resources for thinking about such matters. It is a tale that resonates with so much in the experience of contemporary people. It is a take for our times.

Job: a tale for the pandemic, Part One (Pentecost 19B to 22B)

“Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures; who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad when they find the grave? Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in?” (Job 3:20–23). Why? is the question that Job asks incessantly, as he ruminates on what fate has befallen him.

Job, the righteous, upright person, struck with tragedy and blighted with grief, laments his situation. His story provides a good tale for us to consider during this time of global pandemic. It is a tale that explores the questions that we may be pondering.

As the story begins, we learn that Job had a good, prosperous life; but through no fault of his own, his life is turned upside down; he lost stock—500 oxen, 500 donkeys, 7,000 sheep, and 3,000 camels—and all of his children—seven sons and three daughters (1:13–19). His life, once blessed and enjoyable, was utterly destroyed.

Yet “in all this”, we are told, “Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing” (1:22). Indeed, after each round of festivities enjoyed by his children, his practice was to sanctify all his family. He would “rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all” (1:5). He was indeed “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1).

Job came under attack, he felt. Through no fault of his own, his life was turned upside down. He was deeply distressed. “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?”, he cried (3:11). “Why were there knees to receive me, or breasts for me to suck?” (3:12). “Why was I not buried like a stillborn child, like an infant that never sees the light?” (3:16). The joy at the prosperity which he had enjoyed had crumbled, his very being was pierced with deep grief and despair.

He turns, in his anguish, to God, whom he accuses of having brought this suffering upon him. “Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?” (7:20–21) “Why did you bring me forth from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me, and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave”, he laments (10:17–18).

Job berates God, whom he sees as being negligent in not intervening to save him from his fate. “Why do you hide your face, and count me as your enemy?” (13:24), he asks. Then, some time later, he presses the point: “Why should I not be impatient? Look at me, and be appalled, and lay your hand upon your mouth. When I think of it I am dismayed, and shuddering seizes my flesh.” (21:4–6). He lays the blame at God’s feet: “Why are times not kept by the Almighty, and why do those who know him never see his days?” (24:1)

Why? Why?? Why??? is Job’s constant question.

Job reflects on the quest for Wisdom, which is what is advocated in Proverbs (Prov 1:2–7; 2:1–5; 3:13–18; 4:5–9; 9:10; 15:32–33; 16:16; 17:24; 19:20; etc) and sought by The Teacher (Eccles 1:13; 7:25). Yet the search for Wisdom, who is more precious than jewels (Prov 3:15; 8:10–11), is much more difficult than mining for those precious jewels (Job 28:1–11).

Where shall Wisdom be found? Job asks (28:12). “Where does Wisdom come form?” (28:20). The answer is, “it is hidden from the eyes of all and concealed from the birds of the air” (28:21). Job despairs of ever finding Wisdom. God knows the way to Wisdom (28:23–27), but direct access to Wisdom remains elusive. All that is offered is “the fear of the Lord” (28:28–a verse attributed to Job, but which many scholars consider to be an authorial gloss on the whole speech).

Elihu rebukes Job, turning his incessant questioning back on him: “God is greater than any mortal. Why do you contend against him, saying, ‘He will answer none of my words’? For God speaks in one way, and in two, though people do not perceive it.” (33:12–14). “Far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong”, Elihu contends (34:10). “Surely God does not hear an empty cry, nor does the Almighty regard it”, he maintains (35:13).

The claim that God is not just is an outrage to Elihu. He turns to the inscrutable nature of God: “Surely God is great, and we do not know him; the number of his years is unsearchable” (36:26). “The Almighty—we cannot find him”, Elihu maintains; “he is great in power and justice, and abundant righteousness he will not violate” (37:23).

Yet Job will not budge. Finally, after a blistering speech from the Lord himself, out of the whirlwind (38:1–41:34), in which the deity makes it clear that Job cannot pretend to have any comprehension of the ways that God operates, Job backs down. He responds, sarcastically: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (42:2), and then delivers his coup-de-grace: “therefore I despise myself, and repent of dust and ashes” (42:6).

It should be noted that the common rendering of these final words of Job in so many translations have inevitably mistranslated a crucial word. The Hebrew here clearly states, “I repent OF dust and ashes”. The twist to repenting IN dust and ashes, found in most translations, portrays Job as meekly withdrawing his complaint and submitting to the inscrutable mysteries of God.

But he does not. In fact, his final word is another sarcastic barb, aimed directly at God: “I will give up on playing the meek-and-humble supplicant”. He has not had his questions of Why? Why?? Why???answered in any satisfactory way. So he remains defiant. He repents of repenting. He will not be sorry.

It should also be noted that the “happy ever after” ending we have in 42:7–17, in which Job is vindicated and his fortunes are restored twofold, is widely recognised as a later ending which was not part of the original saga. In the original story, Job’s probing questions remain relentlessly unresolved.

The book of Job is a challenging and disturbing book. It takes us to a central dilemma that we all face in our lives. It provides us with a stimulus to undertake an exploration that is eminently suited to the time that we have been experiencing over the past few months in lockdown—indeed, since early in 2020. The book poses the question: Why is this happening? That’s a question many are asking about the pandemic. Why has it come upon us?

Or, to be more theological about it: Why are innocent people suffering? why are we caught in this current spiral? Do those without a moral compass appear to prosper? Why do those who seek to do good find themselves beset by problem after problem?

I’ll explore these questions further in part II of this reflection in the next blogpost.

A priest forever, “after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5; Pentecost 21B)

“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:6 and 7:17, quoting Psalm 110:4). This is a distinctive teaching, found only here in the New Testament. What are we to make of it? Who is Melchizedek? How is he relevant to Jesus? Why is this relevant for us today?

The book we know as “the letter to the Hebrews” is a most distinctive work. It is regularly described as a letter, but it doesn’t follow many of the conventions of a Hellenistic letter. It claims to be a word of exhortation, but many long sections in the work are in fact didactic expositions, not pastoral encouragements.

Alone amongst the twenty one letters in the New Testament, this book makes no claim as to its author. It sits oddly amongst the thirteen letters of Paul, the three letters of John, the two letters of Peter, and the single letters of James and Jude. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/29/the-word-of-exhortation-that-exults-jesus-as-superior-hebrews-1-pentecost-19b/

Whilst Paul describes Jesus as a sacrifice, whose death offers us forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, only Hebrews portrays Jesus as the priest who makes the sacrifice, slaughtering the sacrificial beast (2:17; 3:1; 5:1–6; 6:20; 7:26–28; 8:3; 10:12) and simultaneously as the victim, lying on the altar as the one whose blood is being shed (9:11–14; 9:26; 10:19; 12:24; 13:20). And only Hebrews makes the declaration noted above, that the nature of the priesthood of Jesus is that he is priest “according to the order of Melchizedek”.

Melchizedek is a Semitic name which is comprised of two separate words: melek, meaning king, and zedek, from tsedeqa, the Hebrew word for righteousness. These terms bring together two key aspects of life and faith for the ancient Israelites. The king was the ruler and leader, through whom the people were in covenant with God (2 Sam 7). Righteousness was the central characteristic of God, which was to be the central commitment of the people of Israel (Gen 18:19). So the king was to rule by righteousness (Psalm 72:1-4).

We meet Melchizedek, the king of righteousness, early in Genesis, when Abram is making his way from Egypt, where he went during the famine (Gen 12:10), through the Negev (Gen 13:1). Abram meets Melchizedek in a place named as The King’s Valley (Gen 14:17). It occurs after God had called Abram and Sarai from their life in Ur of the Chaldees (Gen 11:31) and before God makes a covenant with Abram (Gen 15), which Abram (at the ripe old age of 99 years) seals through the rite of circumcision (Gen 17).

The encounter with Melchizedek is a short interlude in the saga, immediately after Abram has recused his son Lot from a coalition of kings in the Mesopotamian region (Gen 14). Salem, of which he is said to be king (Gen 13:18), is very probably Jerusalem—Psalm 76:2 places Salem in parallel with Zion, pointing to this identification. And Jerusalem was the seat for King David and his descendants, so it makes sense that The King’s Valley would be in this area.

Melchizedek offers Abram bread and wine, and prays over him, conferring a blessing on him (Gen 14:19–20). It is the blessing of “El ʿElyon,” which is a name of Canaanite origin, probably designating the high god of their pantheon. Abram responds by offering Melchizedek a tithe (Gen 14:21), and is insistent that Melchizedek accept all that is offered.

In Roman Catholic tradition, the offering of bread and wine by Melchizedek is regarded as a “pre-presentation of the Mass”—a prefiguring of the sacrifice of Jesus celebrated in their liturgy. He is mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, and is remembered as a martyr each year on 26 August. However, the offering of a meal to troops returning from battle was simply a common practice at the time; see, for instance, the lavish meal provided for the returning troops of David at 2 Sam 17:27–29.

The portrayal of Abram as the leader of an army (Gen 14:13–16) which was able to defeat the forces of a coalition of many kings (Gen 14:8–9) is recognised as an anomaly; elsewhere in the section of Genesis recounting the saga of Abraham (Gen 12–25), there is no indication at all that Abram had any any warmongering tendency or any capacity to fight battles.

Because of this, Old Testament scholar Joseph Blenkinsopp has suggested that the story of Melchizedek was inserted into the narrative about Abram to give validity to the priesthood and tithes connected with the Second Temple, after the Exile (which was the period when the book of Genesis was compiled). The links are made in that the King of Salem blesses and breaks bread with the ancestor of David, king in Jerusalem, and confers a priestly blessing from one of the gods of the land on the ancestor, Abram, from whom the Levites descended and amongst whom the sacrificial system and tithing requirements evolved.

The story has a clear validating purpose for the patterns that are being (re)established amongst the returned exiles in Jerusalem. It explains why David set up his headquarters in Jerusalem, and established a priesthood there which would receive offerings from all the people under his control. That validated the claims of the priests as the administered and oversaw the sacrificial system of the Temple cult, for they were seen to be adhering to the pattern established long ago under David—and, indeed, demonstrated long before that, by Abram.

There is nothing else known about Melchizedek, either in the Hebrew Bible, or in other ancient texts. We have no genealogy of Melchizedek; he simply appears, blesses Abram, and disappears from the story. He serves his single purpose, and then is heard of no more.

Certainly, the unique role and distinctive character of Melchizedek—and perhaps his mysterious origins—have made him a character of fascination. And that has been intensified within Christianity, because of the way that the book of Hebrews equates Jesus with Melchizedek and puts them into parallel with each other.

The word of exhortation encourages those who received this “letter” to “hold fast to [their] confession” that they have “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (Heb 4:14; see https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/05/a-great-high-priest-who-has-passed-through-the-heavens-hebrews-4-pentecost-20b/)

Thus, Jesus is decreed to be son of God (Psalm 2:7, cited at Heb 5:5) and then “a priest forever” (Psalm 110:4, cited at Heb 5:6). Both psalms which are cited are royal psalms, considered to provide messianic indicators, and thus are picked up within New Testament writings to claim the significance of Jesus, son of God, priest of the new covenant.

These psalms feed into the line of interpretation which sees Jesus in exalted terms—in this book, at least—as the great high priest, the superior high priest, the perfect high priest, the one who is pioneer and perfecter of our faith. And that line runs on beyond the New Testament, into other sects and cults that accord prominence to Melchizedek.

Viewed in this light, some interpreters press the point, making the analogy claim that, “just as Abraham, the ancestor of the Levites, paid a tithe to Melchizedek and was therefore his inferior, so the Melchizedek-like priesthood of Christ is superior to that of the Levites. Furthermore, just as the Old Testament assigns no birth or death date to Melchizedek, so is the priesthood of Christ eternal.” See https://www.britannica.com/biography/Melchizedek

But for myself, that is pressing the point too far, and wringing every tiny drop of significance out of something that I see more as an exotic reference to an ancient tale—a story that is not historical, but was crafted for its own apologetic purposes amongst the returned exiles in Jerusalem. It’s a little bit of New Testament exotica. Thanks, Hebrews!!

*****

See also ten facts about Melchizedek:

1. Only three books of the Bible mention Melchizedek

2. The New Testament says more about Melchizedek than the Old Testament

3. Melchizedek is a contemporary of Abraham’s

4. Melchizedek has no recorded family

5. Melchizedek was a priest of God Most High

6. Melchizedek gives blessings (or at least one)

7. Melchizedek is the king of Salem

8. Melchizedek’s name means “king of righteousness”

9. The order of Melchizedek is royal and everlasting

10. Melchizedek was greater than Abraham and Aaron

https://overviewbible.com/melchizedek-facts/

See

Mental Health Day, 10 October

Every year in Australia, the month of October is designated as Mental Health Month. It encompasses World Mental Health Day, which is 10 October. This year, Mental Health Foundation Australia is running an Awareness Campaign with the very relevant theme of “Mental Health: Post Pandemic Recovery Challenges and Resilience”.

The focus for this month provides an opportunity to bring mental health out in the open, to improve understanding of mental health issues, and to remove the stigma associated with mental health. The aim is to showcase mental illness as a source of strength for people.

Each year 1 in 5 Australians experience a mental health issue. Approximately half of all individuals (45%) will experience issues with mental health in their lifetime. This could be anyone we know: a loved one, a family member, a friend, a colleague, a neighbour. It could well be ourselves.

People struggling with mental health issues often find themselves isolated, lonely and left to cope on their own. This month reminds us how important it is to reach out and support those in the community who suffer in silence. Simple things, like paying attention, listening carefully, and offering support, can mean much to someone having a mental health episode.

The best guidance for attending to someone struggling in this way is not to judge, not to dismiss their concerns as trivial, and not to try to cheer them up. Deep listening, quietly empathising, compassionate support, are the best things to offer such a person.

Curiously, recent data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that suicide rates are the lowest they’ve been since 2016. This aligns with what is being observed in many countries around the world, reversing a climbing trend prior to COVID-19. It is thought that the pandemic has fostered a deeper sense of connectedness or shared societal worry about facing the pandemic together. Alongside that, the JobKeeper payment and other economic support measures provided by governments may well have had a protective effect.

A recent ABC report indicates that younger people have been disproportionately affected by many of the pandemic’s negative consequences, with declining mental health outcomes reported by an increasing number. They are more likely to be unemployed or in insecure work, given they account for a larger proportion of the casual or gig workforce. Younger people have also had to encounter mass upheavals to their education, social connection and future employment or study prospects. This trend was already evident before the pandemic. It has increased over the past 18 months.

The Black Dog Institute, in partnership with Mission Australia, reports that one in four young people reported experiencing psychological distress in 2020, with the prevalence of this twice as high for young women than young men.

We have known for a long time that more men take their life than women each year. However, the data indicates that women engage in self-harm at a higher rate and make more suicide attempts than men. While rates of suicide overall have declined in the 2020 data, sadly the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people dying by suicide has increased in the past year.

Within the Uniting Church, we have a long partnership with Lifeline, which provides Australians experiencing emotional distress with access to 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention services. In fact, Lifeline started as a ministry outreach from the Methodist Church, a precursor to the Uniting Church; it began in Sydney as an initiative of the late Alan Walker, superintendent minister of the then Central Methodist Mission. Lifeline (13 11 14) is always just a phone call away. See https://www.lifeline.org.au/

On their website, Lifeline states that when you ring them, you will talk with a person who will: “Listen without judgment — Provide a safe space to discuss your needs, worries or concerns — and Work with you to explore options for support”. That’s a model that we each can seek to implement in our own interactions with people we know who may be experience a mental health episode.

Miriam Parker-Lacey, Minister in placement at St Columba’s Braddon and Canberra City, and UCA Chaplain at ANU, is a Mental Health Matters trainer, and she has provided this training to people within the Presbytery in recent times. Being aware of how we can help friends or family who are facing the challenge of mental health is an important skill for us to learn.

The challenge of COVID-19 to Social Ethics as we know them

A guest blog by the Rev. Dr Geoff Dornan, minister with the Wesley Forrest Uniting Church Congregation in Canberra, ACT.

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. Its impact upon the way we reason ethically has been immeasurable. There were the portentous signs in the first wave of infection of 2019-2020, especially in Italy, as clinical practice was tested as never before. I recall the Italian peak body for anaesthetics and critical care issuing a divisive guideline about the allocation of intensive care resources, suggesting an upper age limit for ventilator eligibility, the implicit condoning of ventilator withdrawal if necessary, and a ‘pragmatic’ focus upon maximizing clinical outcomes.

It could be said that there was little new in this. After all, much of it had been anticipated in longstanding clinical policy about the allocation of scarce healthcare resources, in what was known as the “fair innings” argument. The point, however, was not the clinical theory per se, but rather the shock of having to actually put such theory into practice on a wide scale.

Another clinical issue, as the virus spread across the world, was the relationship between patients and healthcare providers. Hospitals cancelled elective surgery to save on PPE supplies, beds, and human resources. Access to ICU level care was restricted and strict infection prevention controls were also put into place. Many patients faced prolonged precautionary isolation without the reprieve of visits from friends or family.

As if these challenges to clinical ethical practice, were not enough, COVID has also tested public health policy. As governments implemented biosecurity powers to ensure compliance with business closures and social distancing measures, available technologies were deployed to ensure adherence to new laws and contact tracing of those who contracted COVID-19. The use of phone metadata to locate and track individuals, occurred even in liberal democracies, as the seriousness of the pandemic intensified.

Phone applications were also introduced by governments in several countries to communicate with surrounding phones through Bluetooth, so as to record those with whom a person had been in close contact. In some cases, GPS tracking was also utilized: something generally restricted to police functions.[i] The public health emergency powers enacted in liberal democracies during the COVID-19 crisis have permitted to some extent a power imbalance between governments and citizens. Moreover, and most importantly, the framing of public health as a security issue, continues to allow exceptional actions to be taken, beyond what would be normally politically acceptable.[ii]

The Church’s Conundrum: Inclusion and Safety

While COVID-19 has ‘set the cat among the pigeons’ in the ethics of clinical practice and public health policy, the impact continues, raising new issues and challenges for many institutions, not least the church. Most recently, as countries open-up, and governments set policies which distinguish between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, denominations have made their own responses. Roman Catholic and Anglican leaders of Sydney have been quite clear about their reservations in following public policy.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher OP, in his message of September 9th, declared, “I would insist that ‘Jesus is Lord of all, and his gospel is a gospel for all. A ‘No Entry’ sign at the door of the church is wholly inconsistent with the Gospel preached inside.’ Race, gender, ethnicity, age, education, wealth or health status (including vaccination) must not be points of division within the Christian community or barriers to communion with Christ Jesus.”

The motivation for this stance is the high view that Catholicism harbours of the Church and the centrality of the Mass as the fundamental liturgical expression of being church. Moreover, speaking broadly, as evidenced in recent statements of ‘push-back’ from the Polish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Catholic Church is wary of the extension of state powers as a weakening of democracy and a slide into authoritarianism. Something we have seen as not entirely without foundation.[iii]

There have also been evangelical responses, such as the “Ezekiel Declaration” recently published by three pastors from Queensland, directed to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, which states concern for those suffering mental and emotional stress from lockdowns, and which appeals to Morrison to resist the policy of vaccination passports on the basis that such a practice “risks creating an unethical two-tiered society”.

In spirit and mood, the declaration reflects not a high view of the Church in the Catholic sense, but a libertarian ethos with a strong inclination toward a priority for individual freedoms. More disturbingly, the document raises questions of soundness as it slides into a barely concealed ‘anti-vaxxer ethos’, and mistakenly implies that vaccination will be made mandatory. The declaration appears to be primarily ideological. [iv]

For the Uniting Church in Australia, thinking our way through the current challenge of the conundrum of the ‘vaccinated-unvaccinated’ as we prepare to ‘open up’ is confronting. Rather than seeing the issue in the singular terms of inclusion, for us, there is also the issue of safety.

Robert McFarlane has succinctly explained it, “The first principle of safety for the most vulnerable implies that people who are not fully vaccinated may need to be excluded for the safety of the vulnerable. The second principle of inclusion implies that we can’t turn anyone away”.[v] https://www.insights.uca.org.au/vaccination-inclusion-and-exclusion-the-ethics-of-regathering-for-worship-in-a-part-vaccinated-world/

John Squires, in an article ‘On Vaccinations, Restrictions and Fundamentalism”[vi] https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/20/on-vaccinations-restrictions-and-fundamentalism/, notes that there is a strong defence of the priority of vaccination, and by extension mandatory vaccination, plus the need for that priority to be exercised in deciding who attends worship and who does not. Of course, within the opinion piece, the author accepts that there may be good reasons for people not being vaccinated, especially underlying health issues.

He also argues for the continuation of on-line worship to serve the unvaccinated from the safety of their homes, so that the principle of inclusion can still be maintained in unison with that of safety. He concludes, “So, at the moment, I will advocate for complete adherence to government restrictions. My faith calls me to work for the common good, to care for the vulnerable, to love my neighbours, both near and far. Minimising risk of transmission as we gather is our first duty. Ministry takes place in many ways other than sitting in an enclosed space for an hour once a week!”

Considering the Problem through the Lens of our Ethical Traditions 

Given the various Christian responses, which range from a priority for unrestrained inclusion of all comers to a physical place of worship, to a priority for safety, limiting physical presence at worship to the vaccinated alone, at least until the danger of COVID subsides, I think we need some help. My suggestion is to appeal to and examine the three major ethical traditions which have shaped and continue to shape the way we moderns think about ethics. My question is simply this: what would each have to say to us about this problem?                                                                   

There are three traditions that I shall briefly examine: the Ethics of Duty, the Ethics of Consequence, and the Ethics of Virtue.

Ethics of Duty

The ethics of duty are not concerned with the consequences or results of actions, but rather their inherent rightness. The point is do the right thing, do it because it is the right thing to do, irrespective of the results; after all results or consequences cannot be entirely foreseen or controlled. The father of the ethics of duty was Immanuel Kant, whose august figure you can see below.

Within the ethics of duty there are what are called categorical imperatives, one of which you would already know: “act so as to treat people never only as a means, but always as an end”. There is another categorical imperative which you may not know. In it, Kant points out that you should not do something if it cannot be done by everybody. Put another way, “you ought not act according to any principle that cannot be universalized”.

A simple example has to do with cheating. What a cheat wants is not that everyone else should do what they do, but that an exception should be made in their case.

Turning to the issue of the vaccinated and unvaccinated, of course people have a right to remain unvaccinated as a question of individual conscience, but it does not end there. The question must be, what if everyone were to do the same, to remain unvaccinated? Clearly the results would be catastrophic, with immeasurably more sickness, substantially more deaths, the collapse of medical systems and glaring economic damage. Moreover, communities and organizations have the duty to protect people from such a scenario. Short of mandating vaccination, the ethics of duty would tell us that it is both reasonable and necessary that a community differentiate between the vaccinated and those who choose in conscience to remain unvaccinated; and this for reasons of the community’s wellbeing and safety. That said, such measures should always be taken treating people, all people – to quote Kant – as ends not just means.

Ethics of Consequence

The ethics of consequence think about ethical issues, as the name suggests, from the perspective of what results from an action. Utilitarianism, a school established and shaped by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the latter caricatured below, embrace this idea.  Central to its understanding is that good ethical policy should seek to maximize the good or utility in a society.

Bentham and Mill explained that good as “happiness”. In other words, the broader and greater the happiness, the better. This ethics that focuses upon results, correlates closely to the way Christianity thinks about ethical issues: for example, the Golden Rule – “do to others what you want them to do to you” (Matt 7:12, Luke 6:31).

As an ethics for maximizing happiness, the ethics of consequence is particularly important for thought and decision making about public welfare and social reform: pensions, benefits, health, education; fundamental dimensions of what we refer to as the common good. This idea of maximizing happiness through welfare, was significant in the post-World War II reconstruction of many societies, including the establishment of the welfare state.

In broad terms, the ethics of consequence which focus upon the welfare of a community, would support the comprehensive vaccination of a society as a means of protection for its members. On the other hand, it does not do especially well when considering the rights of minorities, simply because they are minorities. Because it focuses upon the bigger picture of collective gain, particular heed needs to be paid to what it is prone to ignore: as J.S. Mill put it, “the rights of freedom of expression”.

This deficit serves as a warning in our current circumstances, to understand that ethical policy and practice – to be ethical – requires a committed balancing of majority rights with those of a dissenting minority. In this sense, any church practice that brusquely favours safety over inclusion, meaning the ‘exclusion’ of the unvaccinated, needs to be rebalanced.                                        

Ethics of Virtue

Virtue ethics is quite different to the ethics of duty or consequence in that they focus upon the individual character with the question, “what and who ought I be?” Going back to even before Aristotle – the gentleman we see below – virtue ethics dominated ethical thought for centuries. Thomas Aquinas was particularly important in developing a Christian ethics of virtue, in the light of his theology built upon the shoulders of Aristotelian thought.

In recent times there has been a return to virtue ethics as a way of completing the more modern approaches of rules-based ethics of duty and situational ethics of consequence. In a sense virtue ethics offers depth in that ethics are understood as a way of life.

Virtue ethics address two very human issues: the first, the emotions and the second, wisdom. In developing the virtues, the emotions are trained to serve the virtues, not undermine them. Likewise, in developing the virtues, practical wisdom (phronēsis) is cultivated, meaning that it is not sufficient to only do what a just person does, but to do it in a way that a just person does it. In other words, the emphasis lies with the how as much as the what.

Moreover, the content of the virtues changes depending upon the purpose (telos) that a person lives for. For the Christian, the primary virtues have been considered to be charity, patience and humility as pathways to living out the kingdom of God. For Aquinas, charity reigned supreme: “Charity is the form of all virtues”.

Finally, conscience constitutes a significant aspect of virtue and the moral knowledge entailed in living virtuously. That said, the virtue tradition insists that conscience can never be lazy, for we are bound to subject our conscientiously held views to rigorous analysis.

As we consider the question of how to proceed with the challenge of giving expression to the values of inclusion and safety in our services and liturgies, the ethics of virtue would counsel us to do so aware of the priority of charity and the need for an informed conscience.

Conclusions

What is it that these ethical traditions offer to us as we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma, caught between two noble and necessary practices: inclusivity and safety?  All suggest, either explicitly or implicitly, that a good decision will likely need to include a balance of each.

Unconstrained inclusivity alone, will open congregations to the possibility of infection. Safety alone, will open congregations to excluding those for whom they love and care. After all what good is safety if it cuts us off from each other?  

Additionally, for those who refuse vaccination in conscience, the challenge is to ensure that their conscience is well informed, not determined by ideological bias or irrational partisanship.

Of course, there are multiple ways to balance these requirements. Each congregation, presbytery and synod will need to do just that, accessing and utilizing the knowledge of their specific contexts and the technologies to which they have access, keeping in mind that how we do things is every bit as critical as what we do.

Rev. Dr. Geoff Dornan, October 3rd, 2021

Geoff Dornan is minister in the Wesley Forrest Congregation in Canberra, ACT. He holds a PhD in Philosophy, Theology & Ethics from Boston University, USA.


[i] In March 2020, the government of Singapore, launched a smartphone application to assist in monitoring COVID-19 by enabling public health authorities to investigate infections and limit further transmission. In May 2020 the Australian government announced it would implement similar technology.

[ii] Kamradt-Scott, A., & McInnes C. (2012), The Securitization of Pandemic Influenza: Framing Security and Public Policy. Global Public Health, 7, 95-110, 106.

[iii] Jonathon Luxmoore, “Polish Archbishop criticizes anti-church Covid measures”, The Tablet, August 11th, 2021.

[iv] Timothy Grant, Matthew Littlefield, Warren McKenzie, The Ezekiel Declaration, https://caldronpool.com/ezekieldeclaration/

[v] McFarlane, R. “Vaccination, Inclusion and Exclusion: The Ethics of Regathering for Worship in a Part Vaccinated World”, Insights Magazine, September 17th, 2021.

[vi]  John T. Squires, “On Vaccinations, Restrictions and Fundamentalism”, blog at https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/20/on-vaccinations-restrictions-and-fundamentalism/

As an example, take the prophets (James 5; Pentecost 18B)

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” So we read in this week’s selection from the treatise of James which is offered by the lectionary (James 5:13–20). As a further encouragement, a few verses earlier, we are enjoined, “as an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (5:10).

In this rhetorical question and proverbial statement, we find that the author of this treatise does something that we have seen to be quite familiar from other sections of the book; he makes reference to Hebrew scripture. In doing this, James, the author, was doing what his more famous brother—Jesus—so regularly did. Referencing scriptural traditions was a family trait; indeed, it was what any faithful Jewish man would do, and provide scriptural resonances in what he was saying.

A number of statements in the treatise of James resonate with the teachings of Jesus that we know so well in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3–10). Most strikingly, the final beatitude spoken by Jesus, in which he exhorts joy in the face of persecution, in the manner of “the prophets who were before you”, is reflected in the opening exhortation of James, “whenever you face trials…consider it nothing but joy” (1:2), as well as the later reminder of James, “as an example of suffering and patience, take the prophets” (5:10). The two brothers are simply providing variations on a theme.

Other teachings in the book of James provide similarities to the teachings of Jesus spoken in the beatitudes, in the form found in Matt 5:3–12. The question posed by James, “has not God chosen the poor in the world…to be heirs of the kingdom?” (2:5) is similar to the first beatitude of Jesus, “blessed are the poor” (Matt 5:3).

The promise that James envisages, of “a harvest of righteousness…for those who sow peace” (3:18), is reminiscent of another beatitude of Jesus, “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt 5:9). The instruction to “purify your hearts” (4:8) echoes “blessed are the pure in heart” (Matt 5:8).

Perhaps we should not be surprised about these resonances between the teachings of Jesus and the treatise of James; if this work was indeed written by James, the brother of Jesus, a leader of the church in Jerusalem (Gal 1:19), would we not expect him to know what Jesus was teaching? The two brothers are singing from the same songsheet.

These similarities between the teachings of Jesus and the writings of James are significant. The fact that they are preserved in different documents, shaped and then preserved by the followers of Jesus, is suggestive of an awareness of a common tradition of these ethical guidelines amongst Jewish members of the growing messianic movement.

James quotes Hebrew Scripture directly in verse 4:6, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Prov 3:34). This is the basis for his instruction, “humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (4:10).

The same scripture undergirds the words of Jesus which declare the same thing: “whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23:12; see also Luke 14:11, 18:14). It is also informs the prophetic words sung by his mother before his birth, “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52). The two sons of Mary (Jesus and James) are singing from the same songsheet as their mother!

When James writes a warning about laying up treasure (5:3), we are reminded of Jesus’ parable about the same topic. (Luke 12:13-21). In these words, both Jesus and James are drawing from Hebrew scriptures. Speaking against the oppressive actions of the rich sounds very much like a number of oracles thundered by the ancient prophets (Amos 2, 4, Micah 6, Hosea 12, Ezekiel 7).

The details use snippets of pertinent prophetic denunciations. “The last days” evoke “the Day of the Lord” (Isa 34:7-8, Jer 25:33-34, Ezek 7:1-4, Joel 2:1-3, Amos 5:18-20). The withholding of the wages of the labourers (5:4) contradicts the Law (Lev 19:13, Deut 24:14-15) and echoes denunciations spoken by prophets (Jer 22:13, Mal 3:5).

The condemnation of “fattened hearts” (5:5) evokes Jer 5:27-28, Ezek 34:2-4. And murdering the righteous person reminds us, not only of the wrongheaded approach of wicked people (Wisdom 2:10-20) and the fate of the righteous servant (Isa 53:3-5, 7-9), but especially of the fate of Jesus, the Righteous One (John 15:20; Acts 3:14).

Then, the command of James, “be patient until the coming of the Lord” (5:7), sounds a note that we hear in the final teachings which Jesus gives to his disciples, not long before his arrest. The earlier version of these teachings infers that patience will be required as “the beginnings of the birth pains” are seen (Mark 13:5–8), before Jesus exhorts his disciples: “the one who endured to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13).

Interestingly, “be patient” in the midst of these tumultuous happenings is a refrain found elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul advises, “let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess 5:6); John encourages, “little children, abide in him” (1 John 2:28); and Jesus himself is quoted as saying, “I am coming soon” (Rev 22:7).

It was a widespread belief amongst the followers of Jesus in the first century, that Jesus would soon return, and that God would establish the kingdom of heaven on earth. (That is the final, climactic vision, offered in Revelation 21:1-22:6). “The coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:8) is a recurring New Testament motif (Rom 13:12; Phil 4:5; 1 Pet 4:7).

Over twenty centuries later, we know that this did not eventuate in the timeframe that was imagined, and hoped for, in the first century. Does that invalidate all that those earliest believers thought, wrote, and prayed for? Or is there another way that we are to take their words for our times?

Certainly, the direct ethical instructions found in this passage of the treatise of James sound like they are timeless: cultivate patience (5:7-8), avoid complaining (5:9), remain steadfast (5:11), be as good as your word in all you do (5:12), prayer and sing praise (5:13), seek healing and forgiveness (5:14–15) after confessing your sins (5:16). This is what we are called to do as we await the coming of God.

Remembering John Shelby Spong (1931–2021)

Bishop John Shelby Spong has died, at the end of his ninth decade of life. He has been an extraordinary figure in the life of the church in the 20th century. His legacy is large. Whilst a bishop in the Episcopalian Church in the USA, his influence has been across denominations and across continents, with countless thousands of thinking, exploring Christian believers, questioning received doctrines, exploring new ways of understanding what it means to be a person of faith, living out their discipleship in fresh and innovative ways.

Bishop Spong had his critics during his lifetime; every new book that he authored drew critical words from those who felt he had betrayed the Christian faith. He was regularly accused of hypocrisy, drawing a stipend from the Church yet speaking out against the beliefs of the Church. That kind of criticism is now being levelled once again against Bishop Spong, so soon after his death.

Critics of Spong should know that he advocated nothing that had not already been proposed and debated within biblical scholarship of the mid to later 20th century. Unlike many of the academics who in engaged in scholarly debate about details of exegesis and theology through articles and footnotes, Spong had the gift of speaking in ways that the headlines and opening paragraphs of newspaper articles could handle. He popularised a widespread and deeply debated series of discussions amongst academics.

Spong himself attributed great significance to the scholarly work of New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann and theologian Paul Tillich. We can’t avoid grappling with the important ideas that these scholars advocated and explained. Both demythologisation (Bultmann’s key idea) and existentialist theology (Tillich’s central contribution) need to be engaged with, explored, and critiqued—not just dismissively brushed aside with slogans and stereotypes.

Personally, I haven’t agreed with everything that Spong has published, either in written or spoken form. I have clearly benefitted from close reading and careful thinking about many of the issues that Spong himself has canvassed—both in terms of Spong’s publications and, more extensively, in the academic discussions about those issues in monographs and journal articles. His stimulus has been particularly important in the more popular arena.

Many people of faith who hold to what is called a “progressive theology” point to Spong as the person who first opened up their understanding about faith. He drew new visions, offered different understandings, provided viable options for people to hold to their faith in the increasingly complex and secularised world of the later 20th century. The miracles of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus (and of believers), the Virgin Birth, the inerrancy of scripture—these, and more, he explained in his books in ways that “the ordinary believer” could understand.

Many then went on to discover, and rejoice in, the work of Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, the Jesus Seminar (to which both of these scholars belonged)—and locally, Australian voices such as Val Webb, Rex Hunt, and Greg Jenks. Many across the church have been enriched by the articulate, faithful writings and speaking of such people. Spong opened the door for them to experience a wider audience.

Bishop Spong visited Australia with his wife, Christine, in 2007. He spoke at the inaugural Common Dreams conference in Sydney and visited churches in a number of other cities whist downunder. His influence on the Progressive Christianity movement in Australia has been very significant. A number of my colleagues have testified that “Spong and his ideas helped my find my place (or recover my place) in the church”. We can be grateful for these testimonies.

Not only people with progressive viewpoints are in the debt of Spong. There are many evangelical scholars who have benefitted from the spadework done by more progressive scholars—adopting historical criticism, using it to illuminate the biblical text, and eventually enhancing understandings of scripture amongst evangelicals, even conservatives, and not just more progressive folks.

I think of the work of Don Carson, I. Howard Marshall, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, and many more—conservative biblical scholars who have faithfully grappled with the challenges posed by more progressive points of view, who have utilised the methods developed within so-called “liberal” circles of scholarship. Our academic understanding, and from this our practice of discipleship across the church, has been enhanced by this conversation, taking place in ways that reach across the stereotypes of separated schools of thought.

Spong played some part in that. Not a huge amount in the academic discussions, per se; but a very large role in the public discussions about faith. It is the faithfully determined work of people such as Spong that has shaped the articulation of academic discussions in ways that are understandable to the public, that communicate to ordinary people of faith.

At the end of his life, let’s acknowledge the fine work that John Shelby Spong did in popularising and making widely known an extensive set of insights about what it means to have an informed faith that “makes sense” in the contemporary world; and let’s give thanks for his ministry of deepening and broadening the whole Christian exploration of scripture, faith, and discipleship.

A Pastoral Letter for the people of the Canberra Region Presbytery

Colleagues in ministry leadership, and people of the Congregations of the Canberra Region Presbytery,

The news, late last week, of the return of lockdowns to all locations within our Presbytery did not come as a surprise. The Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus appears to be a potent variant, and the wisdom of locking down while it is spreading cannot be doubted.

We encourage you to think of the restrictions that we are currently experiencing as our contribution to the common good. We are avoiding social contact in order to lessen the risk of transmitting the virus. We are accepting deprivations for ourselves in order to lessen the number of people who might become ill, hospitalised, or die. As we act in this way to contribute to the common good, we are demonstrating the priority of loving our neighbours. This is how Jesus called us to live.

The impact on each and every one of us will be to the fore of our thinking in the coming days. No doubt each one of us has our own personal ways of dealing with the lockdown period. Special routines are helpful for the duration of lockdown. Special treats at designated times can assist to encourage us. We are experienced in caring for ourselves; we have done this before, we can do it again.

We can spend time praying for others who have needs greater and deeper than ourselves. The events in Afghanistan, the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Japan and Turkey, the bushfires occurring in the northern hemisphere: these news items remind us that there are people in other places on the globe who are in terrible peril. We can pray for them. We should pray for them.

We can offer thankful gratitude for the blessings that we experience. We are able to connect with other people in so many ways other than in person—by phone, FaceTime, ZOOM, email, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter … the list seems endless. We can gather-apart for worship using one of the platforms available (YouTube, Facebook, ZOOM) to reconnect as a community of faith.

We can give thanks for the doctors, nurses, cleaners, security guards, police officers, contact tracers, and others who ensure that hospitals, vaccination centres, walk-in clinics and COVID testing centres continue to operate well, despite the pressures they are experiencing.

We can know that “we are in this together” is not just a slogan—it can be the way that we gain strength from our encouragement of one another. We have friends to connect with at our point of need. We can give thanks for the existence of LifeLine, Beyond Blue, Headspace, YarnSafe, MindSpot, ACON, and many other agencies dedicated to ensuring that we have a safe, caring listening ear available to us when we need it.

And in our praying and reflecting, let us hold one another, the people whom we serve, and those for whom they care, in the bonds of compassion and care.

Ross Kingham and Judy McKinlay, Presbytery Co-Chairpersons
Jared Mitchell, Presbytery Deputy Chairperson
Robbie Tulip, Presbytery Secretary
Elizabeth Raine, Pastoral Relations Committee Chairperson
Andrew Smith and John Squires, Presbytery Ministers

*****

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

Lynn Ungar, March 11, 2020

http://www.lynnungar.com/poems/

In order that all the peoples of earth may know your name (1 Kings 8; Pentecost 13B)

This week I am taking leave of my consideration of New Testament passages in the lectionary, to turn to the Hebrew Scripture passage offered by the Revised Common Lectionary: 1 Kings 8.

If you have been following the Old Testament readings offered by the lectionary since Pentecost, you will know we have encountered some fascinating characters. We started way back in May with Hannah, mother of Samuel, offering her prayer of thanks (1 Sam 2).

We saw the adult Samuel, arguing with the people of Israel about whether they should have a king (1 Sam 8). Not everyone was supportive of the idea.

The first king of Israel was Saul; the lectionary offered us the passage where David was chosen as the successor of Saul—the young shepherd who “was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome” (1 Sam 16). Then came the account of David’s encounter with the giant from Gath, the Philistine named Goliath (1 Sam 17), and the telling of David’s love for Jonathan (2 Sam 1). After the death of Saul, the tribes gathered at Hebron, to make a covenant together supporting David as the new king (2 Sam 5).

The following week we had the story of Michal, daughter of Saul, looking out of the window, watching King David leaping and dancing before the ark, dressed only, we are told, in a linen ephod (2 Sam 6).

The ephod is basically a very loose fitting outer garment; given that David was leaping and dancing, we can only surmise that it left little, if anything, to the imagination of onlookers, as it flapped and swirled.

And then, in a dramatic change of mood, we heard Nathan receiving the word of the Lord instructing David to build a house—a temple, no less (2 Sam 7).

The following Sunday provided another insight into the character of David—not only was he a scantily-clad dancer, but an adulterer and murderer as well, as we learn in the well-known story that involves Uriah, his wife Bathsheba, and the king’s officer Joab (2 Sam 11).

This was followed by the gory account of the death of Absalom, the third of David’s 21 children (yes, that’s correct: from his eight wives and ten concubines, David bore at least 21 children!)

Poor long-haired Absalom was murdered after his hair got caught in the branches of an oak tree, and he was left swinging, until ten of the king’s soldiers butchered him. And all of this took place after a battle which was marked by the slaughter of 20,000 Israelites (2 Sam 18).

David, we are told, was grief-stricken. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!”, we are told he lamented. “Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” That is a sardonic reflection, however, on the faux-love of David for his estranged son and his faux-grief on Absalom’s death.

All of these stories reveal to us the character of the leaders in Israel. All of these stories have featured in our lectionary over the last three months—have a look at what has been offered and read those stories, I encourage you. Leaders are human, after all, we find in these stories, and life in those days was tough, rugged, challenging.

The leaders whom we encounter in these stories are devious, unscrupulous, scheming, manipulative, emotional, hard-headed, self-serving, and deeply flawed. All of this. From these ancient texts—as if we didn’t already know this from our own observations of leaders in our own situation!

Which brings us, through these sagas of violence, conflict, betrayal, and drama, to Solomon, son of David, installed as king of Israel after the death of his father (1 Kings 2). God made a promise to Solomon: “I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you” (1 Kings 3:12).

*****

Then we come to the passage set for this coming Sunday, where all the stops are pulled out, as Solomon gathers people for the opening of the Temple (1 Kings 8).

This journey through the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures reaches it climactic point in this passage, where the greatest king of Israel, Solomon, prays to dedicate the grand religious building, the Temple, on the top of the highest hill in Jerusalem, the capital city of the kingdom at the point of its greatest influence and power. (The readings in following weeks will move into the literature attributed to and inspired by Solomon, the wisdom literature.)

So, we hear the account of this moment of dedication: “Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of the city of David, which is Zion. Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherub. And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD.” (1 Kings 8:1–10).

Man, this is serious stuff: heavy, important, serious. The king. All the elders. The heads of each of the 12 tribes. And the priests, with the ark of the covenant. All assembled at the place where Solomon, king in all his majesty and power, had arranged for a temple to be built. “Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven” (1 Kings 8:22), and prays a long prayer of blessing for the new edifice.

Now, Solomon, I am sure you are thinking, is remembered as the wise one. “The wisdom of Solomon”, we say. Jesus relates how “the Queen of the south [the Queen of Sheba] came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon” (Matt 12:42).

In 2 Chronicles 1, God says to Solomon, “because you have asked for wisdom and knowledge for yourself … wisdom and knowledge are granted to you. I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like” (2 Chron 1:11–12).

And later, King Solomon is said to have “excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. Every one of [those kings] brought his present, articles of silver and of gold, garments, myrrh, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year.” (2 Chron 9:22–24).

This wonderfully wise, insightful, discerning man, Solomon—bearing a name derived from the Hebrew for peace, “shalom”—became a powerhouse in the ancient world. But he did not always live as a man of peace. “Solomon”, the text continues, “had 4,000 stalls for horses and chariots, and 12,000 horsemen, whom he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem.” (2 Chron 9:25). Solomon had amassed a great army, exercising great power, imposing his rule across the region.

And Solomon, the tenth son of David, the second child of Bathsheba, came to the throne by devious means. It was Adonijah, son of David’s fifth wife Haggith, who sought to succeed his father on his death; Solomon, however, had Adonijah murdered, as well as dispatching the henchmen of Adonijah—Joab the general, who was executed, and Abiathar the priest, who was murdered. This paved the way for Solomon to succeed to the throne. He did not come with clean hands.

But he became a powerful ruler. More is said of Solomon: “he ruled over all the kings from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt.” (2 Chron 9:26). Solomon was remembered as king over the greatest expanse of land claimed by Israel in all of history. That’s a claim that is still held by the hardest of fundamentalist right-wing Israelis in the modern state of Israel today—claiming that God gave all this land to Israel under Solomon, and that is the extent of the land that should be under the control of the government of modern Israel. Which is not going to happen, given the realities of Middle Eastern politics on our times.

And we see the utilisation of this power by Solomon, the man of peace, in the Chronicler’s comment that “the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah; and horses were imported for Solomon from Egypt and from all lands.” (2 Chron 9:27–28).

So Solomon was a warrior. And warrior-kings were powerful, tyrannical in their exercise of power, ruthless in the way that they disposed of rivals for the throne and enemies on the battlefield alike. Think Alexander the Great. Think Charlemagne. Think Genghis Khan. Think William the Conqueror. Solomon reigned for 40 years—a long, wealthy successful time.

*****

Yet in the passage set for this Sunday, Solomon appears not as a powerful king. Rather, he is a humble person of faith. He stands before all the people, raises his arms, and prays to the God who is to be worshipped in the Temple that he had erected. He is a person of faith, in the presence of his God, expressing his faith, exuding his piety.

Now, the prayer of Solomon goes for thirty solid verses; there are eight different sections in this prayer. The lectionary has mercy on us this Sunday; we are offered just two of those sections, eleven of the thirty verses. We have heard the shortened version! In these two sections of this prayer, Solomon identifies two important features of the newly-erected Temple. The first is that the fundamental reason for erecting this building is to provide a focal point, where people of faith can gather to pray to God (1 Ki 8:23–30).

Perhaps we may be used to hearing about the Temple in Jerusalem in fairly negative terms. Jesus cleared the Temple of the money changers and dove sellers who were exploring the people. He predicted the destruction of the Temple during the cataclysmic last days. For centuries, people from all over Israel were required to bring their sacrifices to the priests in the Temple, to offer up the firstborn of their animals and the firstfruits of their harvest. The Temple cult was a harsh, primitive religious duty, imposing hardships on the people. The priests, the elites who ran the Temple, lived well off the benefits of all of these offerings.

I could offer you a counter argument to each of these criticisms; but today I simply want to note that Solomon, in his prayer of dedication, makes it clear that the fundamental purpose of the Temple was to provide a house of prayer, a place where the people of God could gather, knowing that they were in the presence of God, knowing that the prayers that they offer would be heard by God and would lead to God’s offering of grace, forgiving them for their inadequacies and failures.

The Temple was to be a place of piety for the people. It was to foster the sense of connection with God. It was to deepen the life of faith of the people. It was to strengthen their covenant relationship with the Lord God.

All of which can be said for us, today, about the building that we come to each Sunday, to worship. The church—this church—is a place of piety for us, the people of God. It is to foster the sense of connection with God. It is to deepen the life of faith of each of us, the people of God. It is to strengthen our covenant relationship with the Lord God through the new covenant offered in grace by Jesus. That’s what the church—this church, your church—is to be.

So we read in the first part of Solomon’s Temple prayer. For the people of ancient Israel, standing in the shadow of this wonderful new building, the prayer might encourage a strong sense of self identity, blessed to be part of the people of God. Of course, it could also develop narrow nationalism, a jingoistic praising of the greatness of Israel, extolling their identity as the chosen nation, the holy people, the elect of God.

The Temple invited the people of God to meet the God of the people, to pray, to sing, to offer signs of gratitude and bring pleas and petitions—in short, to keep the covenant, to show that they are keeping the covenant, to be satisfied that they are keeping the covenant, as they worship. It had a strong, positive purpose for the people.

But that is not where the prayer ends. The second key element of Solomon’s prayer that the lectionary offers us today (1 Ki 8:41–43) is striking. It also relates to prayer. But it is not the prayer of the people of God, covenant partners with the Lord God. It is about the prayer of “a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, [who] comes from a distant land because of your name”. This is a striking and dramatic element to include in this dedication prayer before all the people.

Solomon prays to God, imploring God to “hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.”

Now that is an incredible prayer for the King of Israel to pray! It reflects an openness to the world beyond the nation, an engagement with the wider geopolitical and social relatives of the world at that time. Solomon was not an isolationist. He was not inward focussed on his nation. He had an outwards orientation. He did not want the Temple to foster a holy huddle, shut off from the world. He had other intentions. He wanted the Temple to be a holy place, open to people from across the region, from far beyond the territory of Israel—a gathering place for all the peoples.

That was the vision that Solomon set forth for his people. That was not always the way that the Temple actually did function, we know. But that was the foundational vision—articulated by Solomon, remembered by the scribes, included in the narrative account of the kings, placed in a strategic position at the opening and dedication of the Temple. It is a vision which speaks, both to the people of Israel, but also to people of faith today, in the 21st century world.

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On the temple of Solomon, see https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/first-temple

Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.

“Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” So we read in scripture (Deut 16:20). And once they were in that land (even though they colonised it unjustly), the people of Israel were reminded of the centrality of justice. “What does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”, one prophet asked (Micah 6:8). “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”, another of the prophets declared (Amos 5:24).

Justice is an important and oft-recurring theme in scripture, in both Old and New Testaments. It is not an add-on, an optional extra. It sits at the centre of the scriptural witness

1 Jesus and Justice

When one of the evangelists told the story of Jesus, the person chosen by God for a special task, he related him to the words (from yet another prophet) in which God affirmed, “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles … a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory” (Matt 12:18–20, quoting Isaiah 42:1–4).

Jesus himself had made it clear that when his focus was on fulfilling all the Law (Matt 5:17–20), it was “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” that ought to be given priority (Matt 23:23). So when Jesus instructs his followers to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33), he is pointing to the centrality of justice in the ways of God. And when he affirms that “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” are blessed, “for they shall be satisfied” (Matt 5:6), he is placing justice at the centre of his message. (The Greek word translated here as “righteousness” can equally be translated as “justice”.)

2 The Justice [Righteousness] of God

The letters of Paul place this justice (“righteousness”) at the heart of the gospel which he proclaimed: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness [justice] of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous [the just] shall live by faith.’” (Rom 1:16–17).

Indeed, in his excellent analysis of Paul’s letter to the Romans, identifies this clearly in the title of his book: A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (Yale University Press, 1997).

Justice [righteousness] is the very essence of God, given as an act of grace to all who put trust in God. It is through this “righteousness [justice] of God, through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe”, that “all are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:21–26). Paul asserts that it is “one act of righteousness [justice] [which] leads to justification and life for all” so that “grace also might reign through righteousness [justice] leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5:18–21). Justice is the very essence of God, given to all through Jesus.

3 Justice and Grace

One way of expressing this quality of justice, or righteousness, in the life of faith, is to show grace, or compassion, to those who are in need. Jesus recognised this when affirmed “whoever gives a cup of water to drink” (Mark 9:41), and in his parable about the Samaritan who went out of his way to assist and care for an injured traveller (Luke 10:25–37).

Both the manifesto for mission that Luke highlights at the start of the public activity of Jesus (Luke 4:18–21) and the climactic parable of the sheep and the goats that Matthew places at the end of the public teaching of Jesus (Matt 25:31–46). Jesus declares his intention to enact justice by setting free the captives, giving sight to the blind, and liberating the oppressed (Luke 4:18). He tells his followers that whenever they sheltered the homeless, fed the hungry, or gave a drink to the thirsty, “you did it to me” (Matt 25:35–40). James, his brother, likewise asserted that to practice true religion was “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27).

So acts of kindness give expression to the very heart of who God is, by manifesting God’s justice, or righteousness. “Unless your righteousness [justice] exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”, he declares (Matt 5:20), and so “blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness [justice], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:10).

4 Advocating for Justice in Scripture

Taking care that justice is done also requires speaking out for those who are silenced, marginalised, oppressed, or persecuted. In Proverbs, the sage advises, “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Prov 31:8–9).

Likewise, the Psalmist affirms, “Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the LORD delivers him” Psalm 41:1).

Advocating for justice is thus seen as integral to faith in God.

One of the prophets delivered the word of the Lord: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, 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 7:9). Another prophet asserted, “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed.” (Isa 56:1).

Jesus is remembered in the preaching of his followers as The Righteous One—we might also say, The Just One. This is what he is called by Peter (Acts 3:14), Stephen (Acts 7:52), and Paul (Acts 22:14). The title recalls the centrality of justice in the ministry of Jesus.

And Jesus maintains the importance of advocating for justice in his teachings. We have already noted his teachings in which he advocates that we care for the little ones and those in need (Matt 25) and instructs his followers to work for liberty for the oppressed (Luke 4). He teaches the central significance of love for neighbour (Mark 12:31), which surely entails advocating for justice.

And he tells the parable of the widow calling persistently for justice (Luke 18:1-8), which concludes with the powerful rhetorical question, “will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7), followed I meant the striking affirmation, “tell you, he will give justice to them speedily” (Luke 18:8). A commitment to justice requires advocacy for justice.

5 Justice in the Basis of Union

The centrality of justice, so evident in the witness of scripture, is reiterated in the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church. If we are followers of Jesus, called to walk the way he sets out before us, then as faithful disciples, we are called to walk right into what the Basis of Union envisages as a “new order of righteousness and love” (para 3). The words in that phrase are drawn from the deep wells of tradition, especially in scripture, where both live and righteousness are frequently-occurring words. It is the kingdom of God which is the new order of righteousness (justice), manifested in love.

These words call us to care for one another but also to do what is right. They call us to live a live grounded in justice, in the same terms that Jesus and the prophets before him cried out, seeking justice for everyone—not just for ourselves or those close to us, but for the whole of society.

These words challenge us to live with the same self-giving, fully-emptying love, that we see in the cross at the centre of the story of Jesus. And they lead us to the conclusion that as we live in this way, we will advocate for justice.

6 Advocating for Justice in the Statement to the Nation

The Uniting Church inherited from its predecessor Churches this resolutely firm 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, which declared, “We pledge ourselves to seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur.”

That Statement then identified specific forms of injustice: “poverty, racism and discrimination, acquisitiveness and greed, and the daily widening gap between the rich and poor”. It identified a number of rights to be supported: “equal educational opportunities, adequate health care, freedom of speech, employment or dignity in unemployment if work is not available”.

It also noted some just actions that were to be followed, including “the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources”, as well as a concern for the welfare of the whole human race.

The Statement spoke out publicly about these matters. It models for future Uniting Church people the importance of advocating for justice.

7 Advocating for Justice in Action

This commitment to advocating for justice 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 standing in covenant solidarity with First Peoples; 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. A regular stream of policy documents and public resolutions point to a clear and unbroken commitment to seeking justice for all.

“Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.” The words of the ancient prophet sound clear, still, today. “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” has become a compelling guide for people of faith. And as we walk the way of The Just One, we do well to “seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice”.

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On justice in scripture, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/26/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-2-worship-and-justice/. For the Basis of Union, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/basis-of-union. For the Statement to the Nation, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/introduction/item/134-statement-to-the-nation-inaugural-assembly-june-1977. For policy documents and Assembly resolutions on matters of justice, see the many resources collected at https://unitingjustice.org.au

There are further articles about justice and advocacy in the Spring 2021 issue of Viewpoint, the magazine of the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia, at https://canberra.uca.org.au/media/10701/viewpoint-crp-advocacy-august-2021.pdf