Disturbance, disruption, and destabilising words (Mark 8; Lent 2)

The Gospel passage that is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Mark 8:31-38) is filled with elements that disturb, disrupt, and destabilise.

Disturbance. The disturbing element comes in the words that Jesus speaks, about a crisis that he sees ahead for himself and his disciples. Jesus declares that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).

The crisis will plunge Jesus and his followers into the depths of death: first, a trial and a verdict; then, a crucifixion and a burial. Although he warns them of this (here, and twice more on later occasions), they seem not to be prepared for this sequence of events when it eventually transpires.

There is a curious end to the words Jesus spoke: “after three days, rise again”. How did the disciples understand this? Why did they not show any understanding of this, when Jesus was crucified and buried?

In my reading, this prophecy placed on the lips of Jesus is the work of the author who crafted this Gospel narrative. The author knows the end of the story. He seeds these words into the narrative to give greater authority to Jesus, portraying him as a person in tune with the way of God, knowing in advance the fate in store for him.

But the fact that when these things happen, the disciples fail to remember, let alone comprehend, what Jesus had said, makes me suspicious. Death by crucifixion was a fate reserved by the Romans for political rebels and criminals. How could the disciples not remember that Jesus was identifying himself with this marginalised, despised group?

Immediately after this passage, Mark narrates the Transfiguration (which was offered by the lectionary two weeks ago, on the Sunday at the end of Epiphany, the season of light). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/02/08/transfigured-lives-in-the-here-and-now-mark-9-and-1-kings-2/

And after that revelatory mountaintop event, the same prophecy of Jesus that he uttered (according to Mark) prior to the Transfiguration, is repeated and expanded, on two further occasions, in the narrative that follows. Mark asserts that Jesus persists with his prophecy.

Soon after the transfiguration, after returning to the level plain, Jesus repeats his words, that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (9:31), and then offers a variant of his central claim on his followers: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).

And for a third time, some time later on, Jesus declares, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:34-35).

This is followed, once more, by clear instructions to his followers: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44).

These three predictions, followed immediately by challenging teachings, form a central pivot point in the overall storyline of this Gospel. They pivot from the activities of Jesus in Galilee (chapters 1-8) and the fateful events that take place in Jerusalem (chapters 11-16). The pivot is emphasised by the bracketing, around this whole section, that is provided by two accounts of Jesus healing blind men: first in Bethsaida (8:22-26), then later in Jericho (10:46-52). These bracketing scenes cry out: do the followers of Jesus not see what he is saying?

This is a literary device, intentionally planted here by the author, to sharpen the focus on to the central characteristic of following Jesus. And that is what Jesus then elucidates, with piercing insight, for the first time, after the prophetic words of 8:31.

Disruption. The teaching which Jesus provides is destabilising for his followers. Jesus leads into this destabilising teaching with a dialogue that creates a clear disruption for the disciples. This disruption comes in the interchange between Jesus and Peter (8:32-33).

Peter, acting and speaking on behalf of the disciples (and perhaps on behalf of us as well?) is affronted by talk of suffering, rejection, and death—to say nothing of resurrection! His rebuke of Jesus (8:32) is quite understandable; after all, he was the one chosen by God to bring renewal to Israel. How could he do this, if he is to die as a criminal, hanging on a cross?

However, Jesus appears quite clear about what his fate will be: it is as if he has entered into a covenant with God which involves suffering, and leads to death. At his baptism, he was declared to be the beloved son with whom God was well pleased (1:12); then, at his transfiguration, he was reaffirmed as beloved by God, the to whom people should listen (9:7).

Those passages sound like Jesus will be accorded a prominent position, well on the pathway to glory. Perhaps that is how the disciples understood those words.

Jesus, however (at least, the Jesus whom Mark portrays to us) appears to know the inner dynamic involved in this divine recognition. He knows of the necessity of suffering and death. (The Greek uses the tiny word dei, signalling the inevitable fate, the inescapable future: the Son of Man must suffer.

This pathway is set to follow the way of the Servant of Israel, set out in the series of great poems reflecting on the fate of the servant (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; 52:13-53:13). For in each of these songs, the servant faces opposition, harassment, violence–and then, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity”, he encounters his fate: “he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases … he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed … by a perversion of justice he was taken away … he was cut off from the land of the living” (Isa 52:3-5, 8).

That Jesus saw the relevance of these songs to his mission is signalled in various places in Mark’s narrative–see, for instance, his words at 10:43-45, on being a servant, and especially 10:45 (“giving his life as a random for many”).

The disciples are focussed on the promises and possibilities in following Jesus; they can see only a wonderful glory. Jesus himself is portrayed as being aware of the very different dynamics he will face as he walks the pathway to a new future.

Destabilising words. So Jesus articulates what this pathway entails. What he says to his followers is thoroughly destabilising (8:34-38). Because in what he says, he turns things right upside down. (This might be behind the accusation raised against followers of Jesus in Thessaloniki, where they were known as people who have been “turning the world upside down”, Acts 17:6).

Jesus begins by relating discipleship to the fate that he has predicted is in store for himself, personally: it is a pathway to the cross. As he will be crucified, so his followers must “take up their cross” (8:34). Not only he, but also they, will be identified with the fate of hardened criminals and treasonous rebels.

In the Roman world, crucifixion was variously identified as a punishment for slaves (Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.168), bandits (Josephus, War 5.449-451), prisoners of war (Josephus, War 5.451), and political rebels (Josephus, Antiquities 17.295).

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

This is the way of Jesus; and the way of his followers. Instead of saving their life, the followers of Jesus are instructed to lose their life.

Instead of aiming to “gain the whole world”, and thereby “forfeit their life”, a follower is, by implication, to let go of all hopes of “gaining the world” (8:35-37). To gain the world was presumably referring to occupying a position of power, prestige, and popularity–precisely the kind of issues that later writers, Matthew and Luke, reflected in their more detailed accounts of the testing of Jesus in the wilderness. (See https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/johntsquires.com/2019/03/05/a-testing-time-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-1/)

Jesus ends his words by referring to a central cultural element: that of shame. The ancient Mediterranean world was infused with a set of values and practices shaped by a clear and unambiguous honour—shame culture. Everyone had their place in that culture; to act inappropriately would mean that a person was seen to be out of their assigned place, disrespectful of the honour code, meriting the assessment of others, for them to be ashamed of that person.

The honour—shame culture 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). The same idea is expressed in the version of Isa 28:16 which is cited at 1 Pet 2:6, which modifies the ending to provide explicit reference to the claim that God will not shame believers.

God can thus honour human beings (Ps 8:5), even those regarded as shameful (Zeph 3:19)–and conversely, God could shame those accorded honour by humans (Isa 23:9). Paul later reflects this in one of his letters to Corinth (1 Cor 1:27).

Honour was likewise praised by Greek philosophers 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” (Life of Abraham 264).

Of course, identification with the cross, in Jesus’ earlier saying (8:34), would be a cause of shame, not of honour (Heb 12:2). It would be seen by other humans as being shameful.

However, that’s 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.

So the declaration of shame in this last verse (8:38) reflects the shame, in God’s eyes, of rejecting Jesus. This section ends with yet another paradox: to gain honour, a person must follow Jesus, take up the shameful instrument of punishment (the cross), lay aside all desire to gain prestigious and powerful positions of honour, give up any claim on life itself, and (as Jesus later asserts), live as a servant, being willing to be dishonoured for the sake of the shame of the Gospel.

And that’s the challenge that confronts us in this passage: disturbing, disrupting, destabilising as that may be.

Forty days, led by the Spirit: Jesus in the wilderness (Mark 1; Lent 1)

This week we once more read and hear from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one, which we attribute to the evangelist Mark. We hear specifically this Sunday from the very beginning of the story that Mark tells, about the very early stages of the public activity of Jesus.

We have already read about John the baptiser during Advent (Advent 2), and heard Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus (Epiphany 1). Now, in this week’s Gospel reading (Lent 1), Jesus is baptised, plunged deep into the water, from which he emerges changed (1:9-11).

This scene is sometimes regarded as Jesus attesting in public to a deeply personal religious experience that he had in his encounter with John, who had been preaching his message of repentance with some vigour (1:4-11). His encounter with John deepens his faith and sharpens his commitment.

The relationship between Jesus and John is interesting. In the orderly account of things being fulfilled, which we attribute to Luke, it is clear from the start that John is related to Jesus (Luke 1:36). By tradition, they are considered to be cousins–although the biblical text does not anywhere expressly state this.

It seems also that some of the early followers of Jesus had previously been followers of John himself. This is evidenced in the book of signs, which we attribute to the evangelist John. Andrew, later to be listed among the earliest group of followers of Jesus, appears initially as one of two followers of John (John 1:35-40). They express interest in what John is teaching (John 1:39).

Andrew is the brother of Simon Peter, later acknowledged as the leader of the disciples of Jesus. He tells his brother about Jesus. It is Peter who comes to a clear and definitive understanding of the significance of Jesus, even at this very early stage: “we have found the Messiah” (John 1:41). Andrew and John are thenceforth committed disciples of Jesus.

Was Jesus engaging in “sheep-stealing”? Certainly, the dynamic in the narrative is of a movement shifting away from John the baptiser towards Jesus the Messiah; the juxtaposition of these two religious figures can be seen at a number of points (John 1:20, 29-34, 35-36; see also 3:22-30).

See further thoughts on John the baptiser in John’s Gospel at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/07/the-witness-of-john/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/

None of this is in view in the account we read in this Sunday’s Gospel. The rapid-fire movement in this opening chapter simply takes us from John, baptising in the Jordan, to Jesus at the Jordan and then in the wilderness, and on into Galilee, beside the lake and in Capernaum (Mark 1:1-45).

See my comments on the character of Mark 1 at https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/18/lets-get-down-to-business-beginning-the-story-of-jesus-mark-1/

Mark has no concern with exploring the relationship between Jesus and John. He wishes only to indicate that, at the critical moment of the beginning of the public activity of Jesus, it was through contact with John, his message and his actions, that Jesus was impelled into his mission.

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The Gospel account moves quickly on from the baptism, to a very different scene, set in the wilderness, where Jesus is tested, challenged about his call (1:12-15). The wilderness was the location of testing for Israel (Exod 17:1-7; Num 11:1-15; Deut 8:2). By the same token, the wilderness was also the place where “Israel tested God” (Num 14:20-23), when Israel grumbled and complained to God (see Exod 14-17, Num 11 and 14). Wilderness and testing go hand-in-hand.

The reference to Jesus being forty days in the wilderness evokes both the “forty years” of wilderness wandering for the people of Israel (Exod 16:35; Deut 2:7, 8:2, 29:5; Neh 9:21; Amos 2:10, 5:25), as well as the “forty days” that Moses spent fasting on Mount Sinai (Exod 34:28; Deut 9:9-11,18,25; 10:10).

Forty, however, should be regarded not as a strict chronological accounting, but as an expression indicating “an extended period of time”, whether that be in days or in years. It points to the symbolic nature of the account.

We see this usage of forty, for instance, in the comment in Judges, that “the land had rest forty years” (Judges 5:31, 8:28)–a statement that really means “for quite a long time”. Likewise, Israel was “given into the hands of the Philistines forty years” (Judges 13:1) and Eli the priest served for 40 years (1 Sam 4:18).

David the king reigned for 40 years (2 Sam 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11; 1 Chron 29:27), his son Solomon then reigned for another 40 years (1 Kings 11:42; 2 Chron 9:30), as also did Jehoash (2 Kings 12:1) and his son Jeroboam (2 Kings 14:23). If we take these as precise chronological periods, it is all very neat and tidy and orderly–and rather unbelievable!

Other instances of forty point to the same generalised sense of an extended time. Elijah journeyed from Mount Carmel to Mount Horeb “forty days and forty nights” (1 Kings 19:8), whilst the prophet Ezekiel’s announcement of punishments lasting forty years (Ezekiel 29:10-13) is intended to indicate “for a long time”, not for a precise chronological period. Jonah’s prophecy that there will be forty days until Nineveh is overthrown (Jonah 3:4) has the same force.

So the story of the testing of Jesus for “forty days in the wilderness” is not a precise accounting of exact days, but draws on a scriptural symbol for an extended, challenging period of time.

Details about the conversation that took place whilst Jesus was being tested in the wilderness are provided in the accounts in the Gospels attributed to Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13). This is not the case in Mark, where the much shorter account (1:12-13) focusses attention on the key elements of this experience: the wilderness, testing, wild beasts, angels–and the activity of the Spirit.

For more on Jesus in the wilderness, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/08/sacred-place-and-sacred-scripture-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/05/a-testing-time-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-1/

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The Markan account of this period of testing is typically concise and focussed. The constituent elements in the story continue the symbolic character of the narrative.

The note that “he was with the wild beasts” sounds like the wilderness experience was a rugged time of conflict and tension for Jesus. However, commentators note that the particular Greek construction employed here is found elsewhere in this Gospel to describe companionship and friendly association: Jesus appointed twelve apostles “to be with him” (3:14); the disciples “took him [Jesus] with them onto the boat” (4:36); the man previously possessed by demons begged Jesus “that he might be with him” (5:14); and a servant girl declares to Peter that she saw “you also were with Jesus” (14:67).

If this Greek construction bears any weight, then it is pointing to the companionable, friendly association of the wild beasts with Jesus—a prefiguring of the eschatological harmony envisaged at the end of time, when animals and humans all live in harmony (Isaiah 11:6-9; Hosea 2:18). The wilderness scene has a symbolic resonance, then, with this vision.

Alongside the wild beasts, angels are present—and their function is quite specifically identified as “waiting on him” (1:13). The Greek word used here is most certainly significant. The word diakonein has the basic level of “waiting at table”, but in Markan usage it is connected with service, as we see in the descriptions of Peter’s healed mother-in-law (1:31), the women who followed Jesus as disciples from Galilee to the cross (15:41), and most clearly in the saying of Jesus that he came “not to be served, but to serve” (10:45). The service of the angels symbolises the ultimate role that Jesus will undertake.

Finally, we note that the whole scene of the testing of Jesus takes place under the impetus of the Spirit, which “drove him out into the wilderness” (1:12). This was the place that Jesus just had to be; the action of the Spirit, so soon after descending on him like a dove (1:11), reinforces the importance and essential nature of the testing that was to take place in the wilderness.

And the action of driving out is expressed in a single word which contains strong elements of force—the word is used to describe the confrontational moment of exorcism (1:34, 39; 3:15, 22-23; 6:13; 9:18, 28, 38) and is also used with great force at 11:15. The testing in the wilderness becomes a moment when Jesus comes face to face with his adversary, Satan—and casts his power aside. The more developed dialogues in Matthew and Luke expand on this understanding of the encounter.

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Both of the key elements in this reading (baptism and testing) serve a key theological purpose in Mark’s narrative. They shape Jesus for what lies ahead. They signal that Jesus was dramatically commissioned by God, then rigorously equipped for the task he was then to undertake amongst his people. The two elements open the door to the activities of Jesus that follow in the ensuing 13 chapters, right up to the time when the long-planned plot against Jesus, initiated at 3:6, is put into action (14:1-2).

Of course, this story is offered in the lectionary each year on the first Sunday in the season of Lent. It serves as an introduction to the whole season. Jesus being tested in the wilderness points forward, to the series of events taking place in Jerusalem, that culminate in his crucifixion, death, and burial.

The narrative arc of Mark’s Gospel runs from the baptism and wilderness testing, through to death at Golgotha and burial in a tomb. The weekly pattern of Gospel readings during Lent follows a parallel path, from the wilderness testing of Lent 1, to the entry into Jerusalem on Lent 6, the farewell meal on Maundy Thursday, and the death and burial on Good Friday.

That is the path that Jesus trod. That is the way that he calls us to walk.

Coping in the aftermath of COVID-19: a global perspective, a local response

Now that 2020 is behind us, and 2021 lies ahead of us, we are beginning to consider how we might deal with the aftermath of the pandemic. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has spread around the globe, bringing the COVID-19 disease to millions of people—including some that we may know personally.

We have been dealing for many months now, with the lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings, inability to travel, loss of worship and fellowship times, greater vigilance with hand washing and social distancing. Coping with all of these factors requires careful attention, and patience.

One thing is for certain: life is going to be different post-COVID. For my part, I reckon that we will be pushed back to living our lives much more locally. Whilst we see the pandemic still raging in so many countries around the world, in Australia we have been fortunate to have been spared the very worst of the situation. It has felt bad, but (excepting those grieving for the loss of a loved one from COVID-19), it has been nowhere as bad as it has been for many millions of people in other countries.

For us in Australia, I would think that there will at least be regional connections that will be possible in the good times, and hard lockdowns that may come in the difficult moments. There will be minimal international travel for many more months (even years) yet, and limited interstate travel, fluctuating from time to time between “open borders”, limited travel, and “hard borders”.

We know we won’t be controlling the spread of the virus and the rate of infection until vaccinations have been rolled out; indeed, that assumes that current vaccinations will be effective against the newly-emerging variants of the virus.

So what is clear, is that nothing will “stay the same” for any real length of time. We will be shifting and shuffling week after week, for at least another year. We will just have to adjust and accept this. We have these shifts and changes in recent ones, with the Avalon and Berala clusters in Sydney, and now the Holiday Inn cluster in Melbourne.

These changes and adaptations will apply to our daily lives in society, as much as to our church lives in congregations and faith communities.

As I was thinking about this a few days ago, I started reading a newsletter from one of the NGOs that Elizabeth and I support—an organisation that works in the poorest and most needy countries of the world. It does good work: bringing fresh water supplies and sustainable “climate-smart” farming methods to local communities, developing local industries that will provide support for families, providing medical and psychological support to strengthen the mental health of communities, responding to crisis situations in countries with poor infrastructure, and (for the past year) offering guidance in appropriate COVID-safe practices.

The pandemic has hit us—and it has hit others around the world. But as we reflect on how we have been impacted, let us remember that people who are poor and vulnerable have been hardest hit by the impacts of the pandemic. Here are some key examples.

Hand hygiene. In the poorest tier of nations, 3 out of 4 people do not have immediate access to clean water and soap. How do they do their “20-second hand wash singing Happy Birthday” multiple times each day? (See the discussion by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/hygiene/ldc/index.html)

Job insecurity. Half of the world’s workers (1.6 billion people) rely on jobs in the informal economy. They don’t have job security with equitable pay and conditions. When the pandemic hit, many of the people saw their jobs either disrupted for a time, or closed down. (The World Bank provides statistics on this and other aspects of the global economy at https://datatopics.worldbank.org/jobs/topic/employment)

Medical services. Over 40% of all countries have fewer than 1 medical doctors per 1,000 people and fewer than 4 nurses per 1,000 people. By comparison, the figure for Australia is just over 20 doctors and 12 nurses per 1,000 people. (The data is based on World Health Organisation statistics; see https://www.who.int/data/gho/data/themes/topics/health-workforce)

Ratio of doctors to population (per 1,000)

Gender-based violence. Calls to helplines have increased five-fold in some countries as rates of reported intimate partner violence increase because of the stresses introduced by the pandemic. Women are always the vast majority of victims in such situations. (See the discussion by UN Women at https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures)

Poverty. And, as a summary headline, this NGO estimates that the pandemic will mean that another 163 million people will be living in poverty by the end of this year. Add to that, the impact of the other huge and long-term crisis that we are facing—climate change—will push yet another 132 million people into poverty by the end of this decade. These are very sobering statistics.

If we really do “love our neighbour”, as Jesus commanded us to do, we will be concerned not only for the neighbour who usually sits beside us in church, and the neighbour we pass at the local shopping centre who is homeless and asking for money … but also the neighbours who are hit hard because they live in nations where poverty, violence, unemployment, and poor hygiene are rampant — neighbours for whom the past year has been even more difficult and challenging.

We can assist by supporting UnitingWorld, Act With Peace, UNICEF, UNHCR, Oxfam, TEAR Fund, Red Cross, Medicins Sans Frontièrs, or our choice of another reputable organisation that works on the ground in third world countries. It’s an integral part of being faithful followers of Jesus.

Transfigured lives—in the here and now (Mark 9 and 1 Kings 2)

Every year at this point of the year, the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we read the story of Jesus on the mountain, when “his clothes became dazzling white”, and—quite amazingly—Moses and Elijah appear alongside him (Mark 9:2-8). This is a story which pierces the constraints of history, which gathers three greats of the faith together.

Alongside this story, on each of the three years in the lectionary cycle, we read a companion story from Hebrew Scripture. This year, we read a story about Elijah—the moment when he passes the mantle of his prophetic leadership to Elisha, and “ascended in a whirlwind into heaven” (1 Kings 2:1-12). This story also breaks open the constraints of how we normally see life, as the whirlwind whisks Elijah into the heavens.

Both stories are pertinent for the times we are living; both stories are relevant to the context of a global pandemic, rolling lockdowns, restrictions on social gatherings, and constraints on “life as normal” (at least as we knew it up to this point in time).

Both stories invite us to look carefully for those moments when things suddenly look different from what we were expecting. We had become so accustomed to life with no limits on travel, no constraints on gathering, shaking hands and hugging, eating together without a second thought, visiting friends and family in other suburbs, other cities, whenever we wished. All of those things have changed over the last year. Life is different. Our patterns of behaviour are different. Life looks very different.

Both stories invite us to undertake a process of discernment; to perceive how the heavenly realm is breaking into the earthly realm; to sense how the barrier between heaven and earth is opened wide. That’s the special gift of these stories at this time of the year, as this season of Epiphany draws to a close. Where is God, in what is happening to us now?

In Celtic Christian spirituality, such moments when we perceive just how different things are, are called “thin places”. The thin place offers an opportunity to glimpse a different dimension, to review the regularity of our lives, to grasp a vision of the deeper things of faith, to sense a deeper reality in the midst of the mundane.

Now, describing the onset of a global pandemic as a “thin place” is a big call. We need to be careful about how we describe an event that has resulted in millions of deaths, caused deep grief to many millions of people, stretched already over-stretched medical resources to breaking point, ensured that hundreds of millions of people will have long term enduring medical conditions well into the coming decade (and beyond), and upturned the way of life of almost every human being on the planet.

But could it be, that in this moment of challenge, overturning established patterns, reshaping familiar practices, reimagining ways of living—could it be that this was in fact a “thin place”, a moment when a force from beyond breaks into the mundane, when heavenly realities reset earthly patterns?

The stories in our readings this week invite us to consider how this might be.

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The story of the Transfiguration tells of the moment that Peter, James, and John perceived Jesus in a new way. No longer did they see him as the man from Nazareth. In this moment, they see him as filled to overflowing with divine glory. He was not simply the son of Joseph; he was now the divinely-chosen, God-anointed, Beloved Son (Mark 9:7).

Jesus brings the heavenly realm right to the earthly disciples. They had the possibility, in that moment of time, to feel intensely close to the heavenly realm, to stand in the presence of God. They symbolise the desire of human beings, to reach out into the beyond, to grasp hold of what is transcendent—to get to heaven, as that is where God is (see Gen 28:10-12 and Deut 30:12; Pss 11:4, 14:2, 33:13, 53:2, 80:14, 102:19; although compare the sense of God being everywhere in Ps 139:8-12).

But how were they then to get to heaven, the perceived dwelling-place of God?

Elijah. The story of Elijah, known to these Jewish men from their religious upbringing, hearing the stories of scripture, offers one possibility. The account in 1 Kings 2 indicates that it might, indeed, be possible for a human being to go straight to heaven, to be with God. This was the experience of Elijah.

Elijah did not die; he was simply whisked up directly into heaven. He had a “get out of gaol free” card, as it were; go straight to heaven, do not pass the moment of death, go straight to heaven. If it was possible for him—could it not also be possible for us?

Elijah, on the mountain, standing beside the shining, dazzling figure of the transfigured Jesus, represents this possibility. Were the three followers of Jesus thinking about this possibility as they saw Jesus, transfigured, alongside Elijah?

Moses. Standing next to Elijah, however, was Moses. And Moses represents another, very different, way of gaining access to the presence of God. It was to Moses that the commandments of the Torah were given. It was to Moses that every tiny detail, every instruction and regulation and commandment of the Torah, was given, so that he might pass them on, in turn, to the people of Israel.

Following the way of holiness and obedience that was set forth in the Torah, was another way by which faithful people might gain access to heaven, the dwelling place of God. Obedience to the Law was the pathway, in this case.

Those who would diligently and scrupulously keep all the commandments which Moses had instructed, would find their pathway to heaven set forth with assurance. Such people would be finding heaven as their place of destiny, after they had achieved fulfilment of the laws. (Perhaps the claim of the rich man in Mark 10:17-20 reflects this kind of understanding.)

Were the three followers of Jesus thinking about this possibility as they saw Jesus, transfigured, alongside Moses? Did they envisage a pathway to heaven through their faithful obedience to all the prescriptions of Torah? After all, Jesus had explicitly affirmed those who keep the commandments as “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:28-34).

However, the larger story of Jesus, told in the various accounts created by the early evangelists, makes it clear that, for Jesus, and for those who follow him, neither of these pathways are, in fact, the way to gain access to the heavenly realm where God dwells.

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Jesus. For Jesus, in contrast to Elijah, ascending into heaven in order to be with God, and Moses, advocating adherence to Torah in order to be with God, the aim is to bring the kingdom of heaven, and all that entails, into life on earth in the here and now.

“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” ( Mart 6:10) is what Jesus is said to have instructed his followers to pray. His was a mission, not to enable his followers to ascend into heaven, but to bring down to earth, from the heavenly realm, the rule of God.

The moment of being transfigured, for Jesus, was a moment that signalled the gracious presence of God on earth, amongst the creatures of God’s creation. The transfigured Jesus, shining forth the glory of God on the mountaintop, symbolised the possibility, for his followers on the mountain, and for his followers in subsequent times and places, that they might have the glory of God shining from their lives in the here and now.

For us, today, as followers of Jesus in own time, that means that we are called into a commitment to serve others who are around us, to work for justice for those we encounter, to seek to do what is right here and now, to love our neighbours—immediate and far away—as we love ourselves and love God and God’s ways.

As we do this, we might realise that keeping the law offered in the covenant with God is integral to our discipleship; and whilst we fix our vision on the ultimate goal (heaven—the kingdom of God—the vision of God’s way—whatever we might call it), the work that we undertake in the here and now is actually the full realisation of that ultimate goal.

As the story of Jesus itself indicates, the way that Jesus took to realising the reality of heaven on earth is through submission and death. The Apostles Creed affirms that Jesus “descended to the dead; on the third day he rose again”. Jesus models the pathway of dying to self in order to rise as a new self. All of this takes place within this life, for the sake of this life.

Following Jesus. The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is surrounded by teachings which highlight this central element for his faithful followers. Immediately before ascending to the mountaintop, Jesus states that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).

He follows this with a clear word of commission to his followers: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:34-35).

Soon after the transfiguration, after returning to the level plain, Jesus repeats his words, that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (9:31), and then offers a variant of his central claim on his followers: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).

And for a third time, some time later on, Jesus declares, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:34-35), followed, once more, by clear instructions to his followers: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44).

This is what it means to perceive the glory of God in our midst in the transfigured Jesus, and to commit to follow him in all of life—here, now, in the present. And this story invites us to look at our present times with new eyes—to see the glory of God in our midst in unexpected and enlivening ways!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/02/26/bringing-his-exodos-to-fulfilment/

The whole city? (Mark 1) Let’s take that with a grain of salt

Should we take everything we read in the Bible as clear, unquestionable fact? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean that we toss everything out. We need to be critically discerning.

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is a case in point (Mark 1:29-38). There’s a brief reference to a crowd scene, outside the house of the mother-in-law of Simon Peter, in Capernaum. After the healing that took place inside, word spreads, and people begin to gather outside. That then provides the basis for the healing and exorcising activities of Jesus (1:29-34).

How big was the crowd that gathered outside the house? Mark makes the claim that “the whole city was gathered around the door” (1:33). Now that is some crowd: the whole population, outside one house in the town!

It is thought that the population of a town like Capernaum in the first century would have been about 1,500 people. So that’s quite a crowd squeezed into the street next to this little house!

For myself, I take such a claim with a pinch of salt. (That’s a saying that is thought to have originated with Pliny the Elder, who included a recipe for an antidote to poison, in his Natural History, that included “a grain of salt”.)

In other words, whilst there is some truth to what is said, let’s not take it uncritically, unthinkingly, literally. There were lots of people there; but not every one, not every single inhabitant of Capernaum. Mark most likely is here exaggerating.

He has already indicated that Jesus was with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” (1:5). After his teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum (1:21), he becomes renowned “throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (1:28), visited by “all who were sick or possessed with demons”, indeed by “the whole city” (1:32-33).

Then he is told that “everyone is searching for you” (1:37), and so he sets off, touring throughout Galilee (1:39), where “people came to him from every quarter” (1:45). Much later in the story, Mark declares that in Jerusalem, “the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (11:18).

Lots of exaggerations there!

We find the same in Luke’s writings. For instance, after they were arrested in Philippi and incarcerated in prison, Paul and Silas are praying. Suddenly, we read that “a great earthquake” shakes open the prison doors (16:26). The universal scope of the earthquake’s impact (“all the doors opened … everyone’s chains unfastened”) is striking, but perhaps a Lukan exaggeration. Everyone was set free? Really?

This is characteristic of the Lukan narrative—notice how many times “all” the people say, or do something (Luke 3:21, 4:14, 20, 22, 28, 36, 40, 5:26, 6:17, 19, 7:16, 17, 29, 8:37, 40, 52, 9:43, 13:17, 18:43, 19:7, 48, 21:38, 23:5, 48, 49; Acts 3:11, 4:16, 9:35, 17:21, 19:10, 19:17, 22:12, 26:4). That’s a lot of “all the people” doing things and saying things in complete unison! I take this as a sign of his literary licence. He’s a garrulous story-teller, not a clinical historian.

And Matthew is not immune from the same tendency. Some of the sayings of Jesus that are reported in this Gospel reveal the same tendency to extremism, hyperbole, exaggeration. For instance, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”. (Matt 5:29). Who obeys that command?

And similarly, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matt 7:3) Who has ever had a log of wood in their eye? A splinter, maybe— but not a log. And when Jesus condemned the Pharisees , he berated them as “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). Again: imagine swallowing a camel. Urgh. That has to be excessive exaggeration, told for dramatic impact, and not an actual documentary description.

So let’s not get hung up on rigid literalistic readings of scripture. Let’s allow for the artistic input of each evangelist—and, indeed, for the creative impact of Jesus himself, as he exaggerates and overdraws his words for the sake of making an impact. And let’s read with careful attention to the symbolic sense of the story, rather than focussing on the words as the literal truth.

And have that pinch of salt at the ready!!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/18/lets-get-down-to-business-beginning-the-story-of-jesus-mark-1/

and https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/21/textual-interplay-stories-of-jesus-in-mark-1-and-the-prophets-of-israel/

A vision, a Congress, and a struggle for justice

Charles Harris: A Struggle for Justice (William W. Emilsen, 2019, MediaCom)

In August 1983, a National Conference within the Uniting Church was held from 22-26 August at Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island, in the Northern Territory. The Conference inaugurated the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress within the UCA. It built on the work that had taken place in 1982, as a series of meetings brought together Aboriginal and Islander members of the Church and other interested people in a conference at Crystal Creek, near Townsville.

The UAICC, or “Congress”, as it is more commonly called, has remained a significant feature of the UCA nationally, as well as in a number of Synods. Two Synods have contained Presbyteries composed entirely of Congress Congregations.

The Northern Regional Council of Congress (NRCC) functions as one of two Presbyteries in the Northern Synod. Representatives of more than 28 Aboriginal congregations from East Arnhem Land, West Arnhem Land, the West Kimberley region of Western Australia, Alice Springs, Aputula and the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia, make up the Council.

For many decades, Calvary Presbytery served as the regional Queensland body of Congress, a Presbytery in the Synod of Queensland. It oversees Indigenous congregations in the Cape York and Gulf region (Mapoon, Napranum, Aurukun and Mornington Island), as well as Congress congregations at Gordonvale (south of Cairns), Townsville, and Zillmere (in northern Brisbane). Since 2016, Calvary Presbytery and North Queensland Presbytery have worked together as Carpentaria Presbytery, one of seven Presbyteries in the Queensland Synod.

This unique ecclesial arrangement, of a Congress body functioning within the denominational structures of the UCA, but having the authority to make decisions in all matters relating to ministry with Aboriginal and Islander peoples, had been the vision of the Rev. Charles Harris, an Aboriginal community worker and pastor who was ordained a UCA minister in November 1980.

Charles was the first President of the national body of Congress when it was formed in 1985. This was a role that, over the ensuing decades, has come to be seen as equal and complementary to the position of President of the national Assembly.

Charles Harris would later describe the 1983 conference as a time “of discovery, of one another, of culture, and of common faithfulness. It was a conference dedicated to searching for the will and purpose of God.”

The passion and vision birthed at these historic meetings for First Nations Peoples has not subsided in hearts and minds of members of the UAICC.

William Emilsen has written much on the work of Charles Harris; after a series of articles published over some decades, he has now published a book-length account of the whole of the life and work of Harris, entitled Charles Harris: A Struggle for Justice.

See https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3060-a-destiny-is-born-uaicc-beginnings. The book is available from MediaCom at https://www.mediacomeshop.org.au/test/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=426

At the end of his life, the activist and public servant Charles Perkins, a long-time friend, described Harris as one who helped set ‘the moral and ethical standards for relationships between Aboriginal, Islander and white Australians. A man of principle, whose impact will never be forgotten’ (Foster 1993, 5, quoted in https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-charles-enoch-18183)

The book by Emilsen provides multiple examples of how Harris lived and worked by his ethical principles, grounded in the understanding that God’s justice is the heart of the Gospel, and our discipleship is to be focussed on seeking that justice in all of life.

The vision of an Aboriginal Congress was central to Charles Harris’ church ministry and community leadership. He toured the country, encouraging, urging, negotiating, to bring this vision to reality. In 1985 the National Assembly welcomed the formation of Congress, and in 1994 the Uniting Church in Australia formally entered into a Covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, to work together for a more just church and nation.

See https://uniting.church/covenanting-resources/

That work arose out of his work with local Aboriginal communities in Queensland, where Charles offered an integrated ministry that attended to material and spiritual needs, whilst building networks and undertaking advocacy for his people.

And the creation of the Congress formed the springboard for the work that Charles Harris undertook among nest Aboriginal communities across Australia, preparing the converge on Sydney in January 1988 for the BiCentenary celebrations. Charles was the driving force behind the creation of the Day of Mourning, with a march through Sydney and a rally at Hyde Park, which attended by 40,000 people, on 26 January.

See https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/history/The_1988_Bicentenary_Protest

The Bicentenary protest was carried out in the spirit of the earlier Day of Mourning protest, also organised by indigenous leaders, led by William Cooper. This took place in 1938, on the 150th anniversary of the landing of the first fleet. See https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/history/Day_of_Mourning_protests_held_in_Sydney

It is a legacy continues in the current marches and protests organised each January to fight for rights and justice for Aboriginal and Islander peoples.

In telling the story of the role that Charles Harris played in 1988, and in other key events in his life and ministry, William Emilsen had access to the history that Harris himself had begun to sketch, before his health issues predominated, and which led to his early death in 1991.

However, Emilsen has gained access to a wide range of sources–not only published accounts and transcripts of speeches and meetings, but also letters and recollections of events by the colleagues and friends of Charles Harris. He has interviewed and corresponded with key people, including the late widow of Charles Harris, the much-respected Aunty Dorrie (see https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3221-pastoral-letter-rev-dorothy-harris-gordon-1941-2020)

This makes for a rich account, with a proliferation of material enabling the reader to enter into a deep appreciation of the values and commitments of Charles Harris: pastor, community worker, evangelist, student, orator, organiser, visionary, and prophet. It’s a work that is well worth reading.

This whispering in our hearts: potent stories from Henry Reynolds

I have recently finished reading This Whispering in our Hearts, by the doyen of living Australian historians, Henry Reynolds. (Thanks to Barbara Braybrook for loaning me her copy and suggesting I read it, because she thought I would appreciate it. I have, and I did!)

The whole career of Reynolds has been devoted to researching and writing about the Indigenous peoples of Australia—including his investigations of the stream of violent confrontation and massacre of indigenous peoples in what he has, memorably, called “The Frontier Wars”.

The book tells a story that all Australians need to know. It is an inspiring narrative with potent stories. We need to hear the words, sense the passion, know the sagas of our recent post-invasion history.

Time and time again, as I was reading the book, I found myself greatly appreciating its accounts of courageous, deeply-committed people in early Australian society. They saw and spoke out against the terrible racist attitudes towards Australian Aboriginal people, and especially the many massacres that have peppered our history since the late 18th century.

However, I found it equally a rather depressing account. I had to read it in “chunks” of a chapter or two at a time. I needed to let the information in each chapter settle in my mind, as the battle between passionate advocates and redneck racists was played out over decades.

The book is based on Reynolds’ research into debates, and actions, that took place in white Australian society throughout the 19th century, into the early 20th century. There are numerous quotations from all manner of primary sources—letters, speeches, sermons, pamphlets, newspaper articles, books, and more.

“All over Australia there were men and women who stood up and demanded justice for the aborigines”, writes Reynolds (p.xvi). The book tells the stories of nine such men and women—although, truth be told, only one, the 20th century activist Mary Bennett, is a woman.

Mary Bennett, pioneering feminist and advocate for Indigenous Australians

The others canvassed include Lancelot Threlkeld, George Augustus Robinson, Louis Giustiniani, and Robert Lyon (active in the 1830s and 1840s); John B. Gribble and David Carley (from the 1880s); and Ernest Gribble (from 1926 to 1934).

Pictured: Lancelot Threlkeld (top);
G. A. Robinson and Louis Giustiniani (middle);
Robert Lyon, John B. Gribble, and Ernest Gribble (bottom).

The regions of Australia under scrutiny include the colonies of New South Wales (Threlkeld and Robinson), the Swan River (Giustiniani and Carley), Queensland (with fascinating quotations from letters published in the press in the 1880s), and then Western Australia (both Gribbles, father John and then son Ernest).

The title comes from the closing line of a public lecture delivered by a Sydney barrister, Richard Windemyer, in 1842, a year before he was elected to the Legislative Council. Windemyer had set out to undermine the words and actions of humanitarians who had been advocating for the rights of Aborigines, but ended with the wistful observation, “how is it our minds are not satisfied? what means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?”

Richard Windeyer (1806-1847),
journalist, barrister and politician

That whispering is still with us, into the 21st century, as we have lived through the High Court judgements of Wik and Mabo, the Stolen Generations Report and the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, the Reconciliation March and the National Apology, and the Statement from the Heart at Uluru. And still, despite these and other important happenings, the life expectancy of indigenous Australians is lower and their incarceration rates are far higher than the Australian average; and awareness that white Australia is premised on living on stolen land is still low amongst the general population.

The most recent NAIDOC Week slogan–Always Was. Always Will Be.–has much distance to go to before it gains traction amongst the general Australian population. As Reynolds notes in the final paragraph of the book, “if true reconciliation is ever consummated in Australia and justice is not only done but seen to be done … after 200 years, the whisper in the heart will be heard no more” (p.251). What he wrote in 1998 remains still the case today. We wait in hope …

*****

From the earliest days, Reynolds reports, there was a clear awareness that the indigenous peoples had the right to possession and ownership of the land, and the British colonisers were there because of an act on invasion. Before Cook, Banks, and the crew of the endeavour had set sail, they were in receipt of instructions from James Douglas, President of the Royal Society until his death in 1768, which clearly stated, “they are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit”.

James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton
(portrait with his family by Jeremiah Davison, 1740)

Douglas continued, “no European nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent”, and asserted that “shedding the blood of these people is a crime of the highest nature”, and that “conquest over such people can never give just title … they may naturally and justly attempt to repel invaders who they may apprehend are come to disturb them in the quiet possession of their country” (quoted on p.xii).

The book recounts how all nine of these people, along with others, advocated for Aboriginal people, and how all nine of them encountered various pushbacks—arguments, rejections, persecutions or sackings. In the face of strong community resistance, biased legal judgements, and pure racist political leadership, these people continued their prophetic tasks of advocacy, social work, political strategising, and grassroots activism.

The courage, persistence, and zeal of these nine humanitarians, advocates and activists, and of the many others who worked with them, is offset, at times, by the character evaluation that Reynolds provides. Robinson was “thought to be a tiresome and discredited officer, a pompous, prickly upstart” (p.55). Ernest Gribble was “relentlessly self-centred, tactless, self-righteous, courageous” (p.181). Mary Bennett was “excessive in her righteous passion” (p.241).

Yet the dogged, even intransigent, nature of their various characters was probably what fitted them for the roles they undertook, in the face of massive public opinion oriented in the opposite direction. The closing chapter of the book documents the very significant shift that occurred in the aftermath of, first, the 1926 Forrest River Massacre, and then the 1928 Coniston Massacre.

Both of these massacres occurred in Western Australia, long the heart of racist repudiation of any rights for Aboriginal peoples. This shift in the 1930s was only possible because of the persistent and penetrating critique of the time, driven from the eastern states, with leadership from Elizabeth Bennett and active participation from Christian churches.

The commitment of Christian voices throughout the decades is one striking element in the story that Reynolds tells. He cites a number of early clergymen who argued that discrimination against “the Natives” was contrary to the clear teaching of scripture, by which all races are “of one blood” (drawing on the old translation in the King James Version of Acts 17:26).

Ministers of religion were frequently at the forefront of activism in colonial Australia. Their advocacy for the view that black-skinned people are humans with the same capacities and rights as white-skinned people was clear; but, sadly, not compelling enough. After a century and a half of British settlement, the federal parliament actually legislated for a racist policy, popularly known as the White Australia policy.

Before I read this book, I knew about some of these activist-advocates (for instance, I had blogged about Gribble senior in https://johntsquires.com/2019/08/18/dark-deeds-in-a-sunny-land-the-expose-offered-by-john-b-gribble/).

However, there was much that I did not know. This year, as we approach Invasion Day, January 26, commemorated officially as “Australia Day”, I think it is appropriate that we remember, and give thanks, for those who in years past have spoken and acted in support of the First Peoples of Australia and its surrounding islands, as Henry Reynolds reminds us.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/08/always-was-always-will-be-naidoc2020/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/

Honours. Honestly?

Every year, for as long as I can remember, around this time of the year, there are media stories that report the honours that are being bestowed upon citizens in our society.

Every Australia Day in January (as well as every Queen’s Birthday in June), a long list of names is published, honouring lots of people. The awards are categorised under various levels in the Order of Australia: Companions (AC), Officers (AO), Members (AM), as well as a list of people awarded a Medal (OAM). There are both Civil and Military sections in each of these levels.

The reasons identified for the various honours given are identified by various activities undertaken by the recipients. This can include “service to the community” in philanthropic and other worthwhile ventures, often in voluntary capacities with charities, religious groups, community organisations, and the like. These awards say something like “we appreciate that you gave your time, energy, expertise” to this good cause, usually over an extended period of many years, even decades.

I’ve got no complaint about such recognitions being made. Indeed, this seems to fit very well with the stated aim of the awards system, to honour “Australians who have demonstrated outstanding service or exceptional achievement” (see https://www.gg.gov.au/australian-honours-and-awards/order-australia)

There is also “service to the community” through the various professional sectors of society—basically, awards which say “you did a good job in the work that you were paid to do over these many years”. That’s a different kind of recognition. Surely, if a person is paid to do their job, and they do it well, even very well, then their employer should recognise and celebrate this—and perhaps even hold an event to make this acknowledgement more public than just within the in-house of employment?

It is instructive to read the reasons for the upper levels of awards given. Here’s a sampling from the AC and AO awards issued in June 2020. First, there is “For eminent service to the people and Parliament of Australia, particularly as Prime Minister, and through significant contributions to trade, border control, and to the Indigenous community” (yes, that was Tony Abbott); “For distinguished service to the people and Parliament of New South Wales, particularly as Premier, and to the community” (Mike Baird, in NSW); “For distinguished service to the Parliament of Australia, to the people of New South Wales, and to women in politics” (Bronwyn Bishop, NSW Senator); “For distinguished service to the Parliament of Australia, to the people of Queensland, and to fisheries research and development” (Ron Boswell, Qld Senator). Enough said.

After all these political personages, there follows awards for “distinguished service to business in the energy, gas and oil production and infrastructure sectors … to aerospace and mechanical engineering, to education and research … to business, particularly through a range of travel industries, to professional tourism organisations … to public administration, and to international legal practice, through senior counsel and advisory roles … to higher education, particularly in the field of economics and public policy, and to professional societies.”

So that’s one way to analyse the awards. The higher awards go to politicians and people at the peak of their respective professional fields. All for doing their jobs well. Occasionally the phrase “and for community service” sneaks in, but not often. So it’s really about awarding the privileged and powerful who have “made it”.

They have “made it” by the hard slog of winning lots of elections, or by the hard slog of doing their demanding job really well. We could well debate whether we need this whole complex system to pat on the back those who’ve already received accolades, the trappings of office, the height of their professional work, for this hard slog.

There’s another way to looks at all of this. That’s an analysis that our own Governor General, David Hurley (pictured below), has offered this year.

As the person responsible for overseeing this whole process, he has noted some very striking biases. Such as:

The higher awards – the Companion of the Order of Australia and the Officer of the Order of Australia – tend to go to the rich, male and powerful. About 130 directors of boards of ASX 300 companies are members of the Order of Australia, and the suburbs in which AC and AO members are most likely to live are Toorak in Melbourne and Mosman in Sydney, followed by Melbourne’s South Yarra and Kew, and Sydney’s exclusive Vaucluse.

No one in the “Multicultural” or “Disabled” fields of endeavour have been made members of the AC, but the “Parliament and Politics” category has 42 ACs, while “Business and Commerce” leaders have 48 of them.

And indigenous Australians are completely under-represented in the honours system. In fact, there has not even been an indigenous member of the Council for the Order of Australia for almost a decade, now.

That’s an extraordinary admission by the very person charged with overseeing the system—a clear, public recognition that (as he wrote recently to the various peak bodies who need to bring recommendations), “quite candidly, ‘I don’t think you’re doing well enough.’ ”

It’s a system for rich, white, privileged blokes — rich, white, privileged blokes, who reward other rich, white, privileged blokes — and who sometimes let others squeak in, just a little, but not at the upper level, no thank you, just at the lower levels of recognition.

It’s a system that is completely inappropriate for the current context. It’s a system that needs to end. And there is already one extremely high-profile award in this year’s Australia Day honours that has highlighted, once again, the embedded inequities, biases, and discrimination that is at the heart of a system that rewards a person for things that are so far removed from recognising “Australians who have demonstrated outstanding service or exceptional achievement”.

So here’s the deal: what if all those “little people” who are nominated for an award, actually say, “thank you, but no thanks”. What if all the folks who genuinely merit such recognition — women, Aborigines, faithful community group leaders, devoted church and charity people, and even philanthropists, and the like — what if they turn it down, and leave only those rich, white, privileged blokes as the recipients?

And wouldn’t it be great if this mass rejection movement was led by all those folks (good, honourable, decent devoted) who are people of faith? After all, the central ethos of following Jesus calls for a focus on servanthood, placing others before self, and not doing things for show.

So wouldn’t it be a wonderful testimony to our faith, if the move not to accept an honours nomination would be led by those who live by the guide, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44)?

Who adhere to the instruction, “whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others … when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret” (Matt 6:2-4)?

Who pattern their whole lives on the word that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24)?

Such a wholesale mass repudiation of the honours system would expose that system for what it is. And would hopefully drive us closer to closing down this biased, anachronistic, self-congratulatory system once and for all.

https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/order-of-australia-biased-against-women-admits-governor-general-20201222

*****

Update on 27 Jan 2021: see https://www.theage.com.au/national/faith-rattled-in-australia-day-honours-20210127-p56x9m.html?fbclid=IwAR30XdhVn9MeWGuj3eSxwZC1LcaZB2Uv7ooKFhjLc0e73XGVi1Mm_V3l2rs

Textual interplay: stories of Jesus in Mark 1 and the prophets of Israel

The Revised Common Lectionary is shaped with deliberate intention, offering a selection from Hebrew Scripture each week, alongside a portion of the designated a gospel for the year (this year, Year B, it is Mark). For about half the year, there is no specific intention to correlate the Hebrew Scripture passage with the Gospel passage. In some seasons, however, there is a careful selection of the Hebrew Scripture passage, so that it resonates with and complements or intensifies themes in the Gospel passage.

This appears to be the case in the season of Epiphany, during Year B. Whilst the Gospel sections largely trace the opening scenes of Mark (1:1-3:6), the Hebrew Scripture sections are drawn from a range of Hebrew prophets: Isaiah, 1 Samuel, Jonah, Deuteronomy, Malachi, Hosea, and stories about Elisha in 2 Kings. (Not all of these passages, nor all of Mark 1:1-3:6, appear in Epiphany in 2021; in other years, when Easter is later in the year, the season of Epiphany stretches over more weeks, as the image below indicates.)

The selection of a prophetic passage alongside, and directly oriented towards, a Gospel passage, invites readers and hearers of these scripture passages to explore in creative ways what themes are highlighted. Back in Advent 2, Isaiah 40:1-11 was offered alongside Mark 1:1-8, the account of the activities of John the baptiser in the wilderness. The logic of this is clear; the Gospel actually directly quotes Isa 40:3 in Mark 1:2b-3, depicting John as “crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’.”

On the feast of the Baptism of Jesus, Hebrew Scripture passages underline the breaking open of the heavens for the voice of the Lord to be heard (Ps 29:3-9 and Gen 1:3; see Mark 1:11). The words of that heavenly voice are drawn from Psalm 2:7 (“you are my Son”) and Isaiah 42:1 (“with you I am well-pleased”).

In following weeks, there are clear resonances of theme between the two selections. On Epiphany 3 (24 January), both Jonah 3:1-10 and Mark 1:14-20 recount call stories. We read the story of Jonah, called to proclaim God’s message to the city of Nineveh, alongside the story of Andrew and Simon Peter, John and James, called to become followers of Jesus.

Jonah is effective in his proclamation to Nineveh, which in turn provokes God to change his mind about the calamity that he had promised for them. That is power!! But this was the second call that Jonah had received (3:1); the first had ended in quite a catastrophe (Jonah was thrown overboard and swallowed whole, 1:15-17).

Andrew and Peter, John and James undergo a period of learning-on-the-road with Jesus, before they start to proclaim with power. Theirs was a slowly-evolving call, requiring diligent attention and persistence. And other calls following this pattern are narrated by Mark—Levi (2:15), a crowd following him (8:34-36), and women in Galilee (15:40-41).

On Epiphany 4 (31 January), words attributed to Moses in Deut 18:15-20 are placed alongside Mark 1:21-28. These passages address the question: once we are called by God—then what?? Deut 18 contains a story about the promise God made to Israel, to “raise up a prophet”, while Mark 1 tells the story of the man possessed in the synagogue in Capernaum, who was exorcised by Jesus.

Both stories focus on the distinctive nature of faith in the particular contexts of these stories. The prophet of Israel stands over against “other gods” (Isa 40:20). Jesus of Nazareth is recognised as one who speaks “a new teaching—with authority” (Mark 1:27).

Both stories indicate that being faithful to the call will place us in challenging, daunting, perhaps even threatening situations. Faith is a call to trust in God as we enter into those situations. How is your call being challenged? How are you responding?

On Epiphany 5 (7 February), Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39 offer stories at the start of a significant period of ministry; an unnamed prophet of Israel, speaking to the people as they prepare to step into the wilderness, journeying to the promised land; and Jesus, interacting with people soon after his own wilderness experience (Mark 1:12-13). Both passages are set at the start of a significant period of time; both stories reveal important things about the nature of God, and the ways that God engages with human beings in their lives.

God is portrayed as powerful and sovereign in Isaiah 40; that was comforting and reassuring for the journeying Israelites. God comes with power, also, in Jesus; yet in his humanity, Jesus needs time to replenish and rejuvenate (Mark 1:35).

His example tells us that we need to hold in balance the desire to do great things, with the need to care for ourselves and remain connected with God.

In other years, we would follow on to explore the interplay of passages in Mark 2 and 3 with excerpts from 2 Kings 5, Isaiah 43, Hosea 2, and Deuteronomy 5. But this year, Epiphany ends on 14 February, the last Sunday before Lent. On this day, the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, in the presence of Moses and Elijah (Mark 9:2-9) is linked, quite understandably, with the account of Elijah ascending into heaven, after his mantle is passed on to Elisha (2 Kings 2:1-12).

This account contains the second of three occasions in Mark’s Gospel where we encounter the voice of God, affirming his Son, in the words, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7; cf. Ps 2:7). The other instances are at the Baptism of Jesus (1:11) and at his Crucifixion (15:39, although this affirmation is placed on the lips of the centurion who was guarding him).

The three occurrences of this affirmation encompass the whole Markan narrative within this clear claim about Jesus—echoing the very title of this work: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God “ (1:1).

Readings for Epiphany 2021, from the website
of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library in the USA,
http://divinity.library.vanderbilt.edu/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/18/lets-get-down-to-business-beginning-the-story-of-jesus-mark-1/

and https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/24/the-kingdom-is-at-hand-so-follow-me-the-gospel-according-to-mark/

“Let’s get down to business”: beginning the story of Jesus (Mark 1)

“Before I begin, let me give you the genealogy of Jesus, so you know this is about a real person” (so says the author of the book of origins, whom we label as Matthew).

“Before *I* begin, let me tell you the backstory that led up to all of this” (so we read in the orderly account of the things fulfilled amongst us that we attribute to Luke).

“Well, before I begin, let me explain why it’s important to believe that Jesus is the Son of God” (in the book of signs, as the author we name as John launches into his Gospel).

By contrast: “Let’s get down to business”, says Mark. And so he does!

The first chapter of Mark’s Gospel rips right in to the story. No preface, no prologue, not set up; just straight down to business. The various scenes in this opening chapter are offered in the revised common lectionary in Year B, largely during the season of Epiphany.

First, the striking moment when Jesus of Nazareth was declared to be the beloved Son, anointed by the Spirit, equipped for his role of proclaiming the kingdom of God (Mark 1:1-13, offered in the lectionary back during Advent, and part-repeated two Sundays ago for the Baptism of Jesus). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/01/advent-two-the-more-powerful-one-who-is-coming-mark-1/

Then, the succinct summation of the message of Jesus; just four short, snappy phrases: “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, believe in the good news” (1:14-15). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/24/the-kingdom-is-at-hand-so-follow-me-the-gospel-according-to-mark/

This summary is followed by two compressed accounts, told in formulaic exactitude, in which Jesus calls four of his key followers, brothers Simon and Andrew (“follow me; they left their nets, and followed him”), and then brothers James and John (“he called them; they left their father, and followed him” (1:16-20). Mark 1:14-20 is the Gospel passage offered in the lectionary this coming Sunday (24 January).

These two call narratives establish the nature of the movement that Jesus was initiating. He sets out a call to all four brothers; an exclamation, to which they must respond: “follow me!” The call invites a specific, tangible, and radical response: “leave everything”. And both encounters result in a new, binding commitment to Jesus: they “followed him”. The same pattern repeats with Levi in 2:14, and then with others (2:15; 8:34-36; 15:41). A rich young man comes to the brink, but then pulls away at the last moment (10:21).

Ched Myers offers a good exploration of how this scene establishes the dynamic of radical discipleship which permeates Mark’s Gospel, at https://inquiries2015.files.wordpress.com/2002/08/02-1-pc-mark-invitation-to-discipleship-in-ringehoward-brook-discipleship-anthology.pdf

After these stories of announcement and call to follow, there comes a scene in a synagogue, revealing the authority that Jesus had, in calling people, to command “the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, [to] come out of him” (Mark 1:21-28—the lectionary Gospel for 31 January).

This scene defines the cosmic dimension in which the story of Jesus is set, as he grapples with unclean spirits (1:23-26; 3:11; 5:1-13; 6:7; 7:14-29), also identified as demons (7:24-30; 1:32-34, 39; 3:14-15, 22; 5:14-18; 6:13; 9:38). Jesus is a human being, situated in first century occupied Palestine—but he is engaged in a contest in a cosmic dimension.

Ched Myers offers a compelling interpretation of the scene in the synagogue: “The synagogue on the Sabbath is scribal turf, where they exercise the authority to teach Torah. This “spirit” personifies scribal power, which holds sway over the hearts and minds of the people. Only after breaking the influence of this spirit is Jesus free to begin his compassionate ministry to the masses (1:29ff).” See https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2015/01/29/lets-catch-some-big-fish-jesus-call-to-discipleship-in-a-world-of-injustice-2/, and the complete commentary on Mark by Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988).

This is followed by a number of scenes (Mark 1:29-39) which are offered in the lectionary for Sunday 7 February. We begin with a pair of complementary scenes—the first set in the hustle and bustle of the village, where Jesus heals the sick and casts out more demons (1:29-34); the second an early morning start, where Jesus prays “in a deserted place” (1:35-37). This contrast is deliberate, and instructive. Both settings are vital for his project of radical discipleship.

This latter scene evokes an earlier scene, immediately after the public dunking of Jesus in the Jordan river (1:9-11), when Jesus spends a highly symbolic forty days “in the wilderness” (1:12-13). Although it was the Spirit which drove him into wilderness (1:12), it was Satan who tested Jesus during this period (1:13). And that seminal encounter sits alongside the first public declaration of Jesus as “beloved Son”, made over the waters of the Jordan (1:11).

The author then provides a characteristic summation of the activity that Jesus was called to do: “he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (1:38-39). Subsequent summaries in this vein appear at Mark 3:7-8, 4:33-34, 6:12-13, 6:56, 10:1. The opening chapter sets the pattern of behaviour by Jesus.

A final, intensely emotional scene brings this substantial opening sequence to a close. Jesus is approached by a leper, seeking to be “made clean” (1:40-42). The way Jesus responds to this need is striking: what the NRSV translates as “moved with pity” is actually better rendered as “being totally consumed by deep-seated compassion” (1:41). An alternative textual variation renders the emotions of Jesus more sparsely: “and being indignant”.

The command to adhere to the law by bringing a sacrificial offering to the priests for his cleaning (as any teacher of Jewish Torah would advocate—Lev 14) is, strikingly, expressed in the typical manner of a wild magic healer; the NRSV translation, “sternly warning him”, is better expressed as “snorting like a horse”—the use of striking, dramatic language being a characteristic feature of ancient healers (1:43-44).

The final scene collects all the activity of the opening chapter into the bustling energy of the swarming public square. Jesus can no longer remain isolated or removed; “people came to him from every quarter” (1:45). This passage, along with other section of chapter 2, appears in the lectionary only in a year when Easter is later and thus the season of Epiphany is extended by further weeks.

*****

It is worth our while considering the flow of events and sequence of scenes that Mark provides, as he hurriedly “gets down to business” in his narrative of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one. Why has this author chosen these particular scenes? What insights into Jesus, and his followers, does he want to offer us, as his story gets underway?

One clue is in the way that he portrays Jesus: Jesus is intensely religious (1:9-11, 35), articulately focussed on his key message (1:14-15, 22, 39), building a movement of committed followers (1:16-20), regularly living out his faith in actions alongside his words (1:26, 31, 34, 39). Jesus was energised by personal contacts with individuals: the brothers whom he called (1:17, 20), the man in the synagogue (1:25), Simon’s mother-in-law (1:30-31), and a begging leper (1:40). In the midst of all of this, he makes sure that his central message (1:14-15) is conveyed with clarity and passion (1:27, 39, 45).

Jesus is nourished by quiet moments, in his wilderness testing (1:12-13) and in early morning prayer (1:35), and yet is consistently immersed in the public life of his community. Mark most likely exaggerates, but he does indicate that Jesus was with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” (1:5), teaching a crowd in the synagogue in Capernaum (1:21), renowned “throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (1:28), visited by “all who were sick or possessed with demons”, indeed by “the whole city” (1:32-33), told that “everyone is searching for you” (1:37), and touring throughout Galilee (1:39), where “people came to him from every quarter” (1:45).

It is an holistic portrayal of Jesus, setting the scene for the story that follows. Jesus is passionate and articulate, compassionate and caring, energised and engaged, focused on a strategy that will reap benefits as the story emerges. And yet, as we know, that passion and energy will also lead to conflict, suffering, and death; a conflict already depicted in some of these opening scenes, as the story commences, but soon to make its presence felt in full force as the narrative continues.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/21/textual-interplay-stories-of-jesus-in-mark-1-and-the-prophets-of-israel/