Wednesday, 24 December 2008

angels and archangels Luke 1 & 2 1-20

Luke's story begins not in the deserts of Trans-Jordan, nor in the hill towns of Galilee, not even in Bethlehem, but in the courts of the temple in Jerusalem. The contrast with Mark, whose gospel remains the core of Luke's narrative, could hardly be greater. Whereas Mark plunges us straight into the rough, breathless conflicts of Jesus=s ministry, Luke opens with a leisurely, luminous prelude, soaked in the language, style and culture of the Greek version of Hebrew scripture, punctuated with praise and prayer: a story of priests, prophets and angels, miraculous births and heavenly visitations all interwoven into a narrative, at once elegant and artful.

At the outset of Luke's gospel Israel is represented by the old, tired, disappointed but obedient and faithful, priestly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth. They echo the grieving faithfulness of Hannah whose son Samuel was to be the fore-runner of the great king David, they appear as a living embodiment of the childless Zion of Isaiah=s prophecy, indeed Zechariah receives his calling from an angel in the holy of holies, not altogether unlike the epiphany granted to Isaiah himself. Their son, miraculously conceived, was like the mighty Samson to be brought up a prophet from his mother's womb, kept holy for the Lord. Like Elijah he would go forth with spirit and power, preparing his people to meet their Lord.

However, though he is faithful and good, Zechariah, like Israel, is unbelieving. The bitter way in which Mark, Matthew and indeed John deal with the refusal of the religious authorities to accept Jesus as Messiah gives way in Luke to a poignant acceptance: the elder brother in the story of the loving father breaks his father's heart by his refusal to come into the party, but all that the father has is his: the priest and Levite miss the point of their calling and pass by on the other side, leaving a Samaritan to show what it is to love your neighbour, but they receive no judgment from Jesus; Jesus stands and weeps over Jerusalem: how many times he would have loved to gather it up like chicks under a mother hen's wing, but they would not be gathered. Jesus's problem with Israel is not cast in the language of a struggle with Satan, so much as in that of exasperation with a goodness and faithfulness that had become so defensive that it could not open itself to the wonder of salvation.

The man of prayer Zechariah had become so used to praying to what seemed an empty heaven that he could not believe it when his prayer was answered. In that he was not unlike those who met for prayer in John Mark's mother's house who could not believe Rhoda, the servant, who told them that the imprisoned Peter had escaped and was knocking on their door. The priest who did not believe in prayer was thus unable to bless the people. Right at the end of the gospel, Jesus, the man of prayer stood and blessed his disciples before going to glory. They then returned to the temple where Luke's story had begun and were there within its courts continually praising God.

As often in Luke it is the women who teach the men a lesson. The old man Zechariah, the temple priest whose job it was to recognise the voice of God and interpret it to the people is contrasted sharply with Mary, the young virgin in the Galilee town of Nazareth. They both were visited by the angel Gabriel. On the face of it we would expect the priest to know how to react: he was the professional go-between with God: he witnessed the visit in the temple, the purpose-built place for encounters with God. The news he had received was that for which he had been praying: therefore he should have believed it. By contrast Mary was not expecting any encounter with God or an angel: the news which she received was not something for which she had been hoping. Indeed if we are right in assuming that Mary was engaged to Joseph because she was not yet ready for marriage then the news would have been devastating for such a young girl. As we saw when looking at Matthew's account it was not unusual for girls to be promised to men in marriage at the age of 12 and for the marriage to become effective at puberty. When Mary says that she has not had no knowledge of a man, the simple meaning is that she had not had sexual intercourse with a man, but it could well mean that she was not yet ready for such a relationship and was not yet ready to bear a child, therefore it would be impossible. The angel's reply, drawing attention to her cousin Elizabeth's surprising pregnancy makes more sense if this is the context: especially the words "nothing is impossible with God". The angel's message also gave a good deal of information about the baby to be born: his name, Jesus was a popular name of the time - the Greek for Joshua. That much is unremarkable. But then the angel spelt out a number of details that might have made Mary shudder. She lived in Galilee, a hotbed of zealot revolt against the Romans. The angel's pronouncement dripped with the promise of Messiah. To a young girl in Galilee that could only mean one thing, rebellion and therefore trouble. Yet Mary unlike Zechariah, accepts her calling. For many it would have been one favour from God too many, but Mary humbly and graciously accepts her gift. On Mary's acceptance the angel immediately left her. Few words are more devastating in the gospel than these. At the moment when she most needed support she is left alone.

But the angel had left a clue as to where she might find it. So Mary goes south to the hill country above Jerusalem to meet her cousin Elizabeth. As soon as Elizabeth greets her the baby in Elizabeth=s womb leaps for joy, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. Yet another woman responds appropriately to the latent salvation of God.

Luke's gospel is the first part of a two volume work. And in some ways the structures of the two parts are similar. The Acts of the Apostles and the gospel both celebrate the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit: Now Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. This enables her to be the first person to recognise Mary's unborn child as her Lord. Truly it had been the embryonic John, filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb who had first recognised his Lord: Elizabeth caught the recognition and the joy from him, and Mary caught it from her. That joy is to be the next theme of the gospel. It bubbles up immediately in the first of a whole series of songs.

Mary's song is loosely based on that of Hannah, but bristles with quotations and allusions to other Old Testament songs. The essential theme is the transforming power of God to shake and change society: the hungry are fed, the rich are stripped of their wealth, the poor are raised, the powerful laid low and the weak empowered, the arrogant are humiliated and the humble given responsibility and status: in short, God's purposes revealed to Abraham in his covenant are about to be made good: the day of salvation has arrived. This song sets the tone of the gospel. Jesus reiterates many of its sentiments in his manifesto sermon in which he announced the year of jubilee at Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry. At key moments in stories unique to Luke's account we see these prophecies coming to life before our eyes: a prostitute praised and a pharisee humbled at a dinner party, the tax collector Zacchaeus receiving Jesus into his house and making restoration to the poor, a thief being awarded paradise.

Elizabeth's baby is born. The neighbours begin to catch the joy. Zechariah names the baby, John, meaning the Lord is gracious, (as commanded by the angel). He is then liberated to praise and spread the news of the gracious, unlimited love of God. And so he sings his song.

In some ways this song takes Mary's a stage further: the transforming power of God is not only there to change the order in society, but to be totally liberating in a spiritual sense too. It is a song of freedom: freedom from oppression, freedom from fear, freedom from guilt, and freedom from darkness. It is a song not just of thanksgiving but of prophetic vision. Like Mary's it also echoes Old Testament songs but reaches out beyond them in faith. It is rich in allusion: for example, the horn of salvation and the rising day-star (or shooting stem). The notion of the horn of salvation became ultimately linked to the myth of the unicorn through Psalm 92. 10 and the vision of Daniel in Daniel 8. 5-7. Hence all those magnificent medieval tapestries which adorn the Cluny museum in Paris and the Cloisters in New York. Whether the horn is meant to signify the powerful, piercing, battle hardened triumph of God's intervening power in the conflict against evil like a mighty, mythical, horned creature winning the day, or whether it refers to the use of a horn for anointing with the oil of saving power, we can take our pick. Most commentators go for the former. The second allusion of the rising sun (or day-star) is also ambiguous, but the ambiguity is more easily resolved. The words could mean either rising star or sprouting shoot. The words are used in both senses in Messianic passages in the Greek Old Testament. However there is such a strong sense of light in the rest of the song that the former must hold here - though it may well be that the author would like us to hold the other reference in our minds, too. In particular, the prophecy of Malachi seems to have a powerful influence, mentioning not just day-star, but also the root and branch. He has already drawn attention to "the messenger to clear the way", so that the "Lord will suddenly come to his Temple". Soon "the calves will come leaping out of the stalls", which at once links to the image of John leaping within his mother=s womb and the birth of Jesus who was laid in a manger. The presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple and his tarrying in the temple at the significant age of twelve, both only mentioned in Luke, where he is recognised by prophets, priests and doctors of the law alike with astonishment, are clearly Luke's way of pointing to the fulfilment of Malachi's prophecy. Then in masterly way as Jesus's body is taken down from the cross in darkness and is laid in the tomb in royal splendour by Joseph of Arimathaea the day-star appears again to herald a new day, although it was approaching evening. For in the blooded victory of the cross, through the anticipated dawn of resurrection, the Day of the Lord was shown to be a day of Light and Salvation to end the gloom of death and despair. The tomb has become a place of healing and forgiveness, a place of peace from which the Sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his rays.

So in his song with its subtle evocation of the prophecies of Malachi, Zechariah prepares us for Luke's version of salvation history. At its core is the forgiveness of sins. That is the key to peace. It is another fundamental theme of Luke's gospel and again it drives us forward to Jesus's sublime forgiveness of his killers as he hangs upon the cross: a word once again unique to this gospel.

After the sublime beauty of Zechariah's prophetic song, the account of the birth of Jesus seems both brief and prosaic. The emperor issues an order in the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria that all the world should be registered for taxation purposes. Luke might simply be putting down a datemark on the event to remind all his readers that despite the luminous glow of all that has gone before and the intervention of angels and the opening of heavens and the mystery of miracle births we are dealing not with myth or fanciful tales of the gods, but with real people part of a real world, subject to politics and tax. He might also have been drawing attention to the fact that God uses even heathen emperors like the divine Augustus within his plans for salvation, just as he had used Cyrus. Unfortunately the reference to the census has obscured rather than cast light on the date of Jesus's birth. The first census known to have been held by Augustus during the governorship of Quirinius was in 6CE (according to Josephus): it is probably the one Luke alludes to himself in Acts which caused a rebellion, led by Judas the Galilean. However, Luke has already told us that these things happened when Herod was king of Judaea, which, of course agrees with Matthew. Herod died in 4BCE. The easiest explanation for this disparity is that the census was held in stages over a period of time or that the tax based on the census was introduced in 6CE and that caused the rebellion. But Josephus seems quite explicit that this census did not take place until after Herod's death when Judaea was added to the province of Syria. Alternatively there may have been an earlier census which failed because of unrest or administrative chaos following Herod=s death and it had to be done again by Quirinius later. But that is to enter the field of speculation.

The story that follows has been so embellished by legend and art that it comes as a bit of shock to read it as it is: there is no donkey, no ox, not even a stable. There is certainly no inn-keeper and probably not even an inn. The word usually translated "inn" is by no means the usual one, and not the one used for the inn in the story of the good Samaritan. The best translation is probably "billets", but it is the same as the word used for the "upper room" where the last supper was held. It would seem highly unlikely that Joseph had to stay in an inn since the reason for him having to go to Bethlehem was that this was where he was born. More likely he and Mary were accommodated within the family home but pressure of space forced them to use part of the house normally used by the animals. The animals' food box, probably attached to a wall would have made an acceptable make-shift crib. Nor is it mentioned in the text that Mary arrived only just in time to give birth: it simply says that while they were there Jesus was born. All babies, well-cared for and loved, would have been wrapped in strips of cloth just as Jesus was. The birth scene in this drama is unremarkable and plain.

Nothing in these simple verses prepares us for what happens next. Shepherds are watching their flocks by night. Of course there had once been a Bethlehem shepherd who had been visited by Samuel and crowned king. But now shepherds were generally poorly regarded. Their work tended to make them unclean. They wandered from place to place and like all itinerants were traditionally distrusted. There were suggestions that some were terrorists. Their presence in the fields stands in sharp contrast to the law abiding Joseph who has gone to Bethlehem on the emperor's orders to be taxed. Yet it is not to Mary or even Joseph that the angelic host appears with all the glory of God. It is to shepherds. When it comes to understanding the nature of her child's mission it is going to be in the testimony of these unreliable shepherds that Mary is going to have to put her trust. This introduces another theme of the two volume work: the importance of witnesses. As Jesus says to his disciples referring to the unbelief of Capernaum, "Anyone who rejects you, rejects me, and anyone who rejects me rejects the one who sent me."

The angel reintroduces the theme of joy that has shone through the whole story so far. A joy not just for them nor the people immediately involved in the story nor even just for Israel: this joy was to be for the whole world. The angel's message bristles with some of Luke's favourite words: I bring good news, joy, today, Saviour, Lord. The Day has come. In the deep darkness of night the day-star announced by Zechariah has been born; in the city of David, a Saviour has come to be Christ (Messiah) and Lord. But the signs are small: already it is made clear that this Lord is not framed in the usual trappings of power. The sign of power of God is not be found in a palace nor yet even in the angelic skies: the sign of the most extraordinary is to be discovered by disreputable shepherds in the ordinary simplicity of a baby in a nappy lying in a makeshift cot. The skies open to reveal a celestial party; the heavenly party-song is taken up by the triumphant crowds on earth when Jesus enters Jerusalem, a climactic point of his pilgrimage of salvation. The earth is to be a place of peace; it is mysteriously both a prerequisite and a consequence of the revealing of the glory of God. The absence of peace on earth confounds even the peace of heaven. Jesus's mission is to bring peace on earth that alone can restore full glory to God in heaven. Yet in the coming of Christ already that glory is being revealed and perfected.

The angels leave the scene. The shepherds discuss what they have seen: but not for long. With haste they go to Bethlehem and witness what the angel told them. And they were welcomed. They told their story and all were astonished. But Mary went further than all the others. She treasured their witness and pondered it in her heart. Many will respond with amazement to the spectacular signs of God's salvation, but the requirement is to go beyond astonishment, accept it and embrace it: to stay with it long term. That is a weighty matter - a thing to be valued and pondered. The shepherds return, their work of evangelism done: they are merely the first of many in the gospel to return from an encounter with Jesus glorifying and praising God. Glory to God in the highest had become a catchy tune.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Mark 1 1-13 the man in the wilderness

We first meet Jesus in the wilderness. It is in the wilderness that all routes to God begin. Some will have stumbled into the wilderness by mistake, others will have always been there but many will have had to make a conscious effort to leave the walled, secure, cultivated, self-made order of home with its tidiness or its weeds, its hard toil or its reclined elegance. They will have ventured in faith beyond the familiar into the unknown. Some may have gone out beyond protected ground into a place of risk for adventure. Others may be motivated by boredom or a feeling of imprisonment within a culture, or a sense that the self-made and self limiting enclosure of the garden can never bring life in all its fulness. Out there in the trackless wilderness where signposts are simply hints in the sand, and doubts the likely mirages of faith, there is no choice but to follow where Jesus leads. The spiritual food and drink needed to keep alive will be different from that on which we have become dependent. Living outside the camp will be challenging to traditional thought processes. Living there calls for a radical change of direction, an abandonment of past life-style, and a pilgrimage of uncertain direction, for God tends to be an elusive destination.

At first encounter it hardly seems to be good news at all. But the Bible assures us that it is indeed gospel that we hear in that wilderness. It was beyond the civilised city of Ur that Abraham encountered promise. It was in the fugitive’s wilderness of remorse, family breakdown, and shattered trust that Jacob saw heaven opened. It was in the wilderness of Sinai, far from the fleshpots of the Pharaoh’s palace of his upbringing, that Moses met his God and knew him by name for the first time. It was again in that same wilderness that he was caught up in Yahweh’s supreme revelation to his own people; the word of law and covenant that still holds Israel. The clinching indication that this people was to going to move from wilderness to a land was revealed when the mighty walls came tumbling down at Jericho: a sign that however high and strong man builds, wilderness is always ready to break in on his protected plot. It was in the wilderness of captivity that the children of Israel had to learn new songs, not fixed in the foursquare harmonies of Zion, but psalms of a pilgrim people whose temples, carved out of the hardness of their hearts, would never replace lives of integrity beaten out in the blood-pumping rhythms of the flesh-soft heart of love. For they would always be a people whose identity had been formed in the wilderness: living in tents, feeding on manna from day to day, drinking from fountains opened out of rocks along the way; a people whose God was always on the move, the signs of his presence carried in a box, a day’s journey ahead of them, and even when resting with them kept in a tent as s sign of their readiness to move.

But the people to whom Jesus came had forgotten all that. They lived at a time when nations were identified not by wilderness pilgrimage but by their buildings. Forums and temples, palaces, aqueducts, walls and theatres were named for Emperors and kings. Herod the Great, Augustus’ vassal king in Jerusalem, had learnt the lessons of his times. His eternal life would be bought at the price of projects: a signature palace at Massada, an aqueduct, towers and harbours, but above all a massive temple to his God in Jerusalem. Jesus had lived and worked as a builder. Just a few miles from his home in Nazareth a new city was rising in the hills with theatres, baths and temples. Surely this was good news to Galileans, especially contract builders like Jesus. Yet this new city, Sephoris, with all its sophistication and state of the art urban living is the one major place in Israel we never encounter in the books of good news. And Herod’s mightiest and most prestigious project, the new temple in Jerusalem is treated with disdain by the man we first encounter in the wilderness.

In practice, the temple discriminated against the poor and the alien: the oppressive tax regime to pay for it imposed on poor, already oppressed, people, financial burdens they could not bear and seemed to imply that forgiveness depended on an ability to pay. The clear implication was that God could be impressed by prestige projects, that national identity was located less in the covenant written upon the heart, than in stones piled up in specious splendour. The planning, building and administration of such an ornate temple created a privileged class in Jerusalem totally out of touch not only with ordinary people, but with the simple faith God required of them; a self-serving ruling class with delusions of grandeur but no less Pilate’s puppets, who hypocritically had copied Roman temple culture while parading their exclusive Jewish identity.

Jesus came to bring freedom from that kind of bondage. A lame man is lowered through the roof into his presence. Jesus forgives him his sins: no temple sacrifice is required. Only faith. It is out in an open desert place that Jesus feeds 5000 men with two fish and five loaves. He walks across the wilderness of a stormy sea, and out among the tombs of Gentile badlands, on the wrong side of the lake, he brings sanity and peace to a man whose mind is a wilderness more tangled even than the wildness of the sea in a terrifying storm. A woman with a haemorrhage, banished from polite society, banned from synagogue let alone temple, driven into a wilderness of fear and despair for 12 years, touches him and is welcomed as his daughter, and is then sent on in peace. People isolated in deafness or in blindness, a leper, those who were branded as outcasts, tax collectors and sinners, found Jesus in the wilderness of their rejection, and were liberated by him from all that bound them, not least the temple culture superimposed upon them that could offer them no release but instead enslaved them within systems in which they could only be exploited and never receive healing.

So the people of Jerusalem went out: leaving the temple, going out beyond the authority of the priests, crossing even the boundaries of the promised land, to encounter John, a wild, untamed man of the wilderness on a Ray Mears diet: to be washed by him, not in the blessed and holy water of the temple courts, but in the historic waters of the Jordan, whose stream their forefathers had mysteriously and miraculously crossed in the dry; and there renounced the city and all its ways. Turning to new wilderness ways of finding God, they are pointed to one on whom the favour of God ostensibly falls. And Jesus, the righteous one, filled with the Spirit of God himself, rising out of the waters turns not to the city crowned with its magnificent House of God but to the wilderness peopled only by beasts and angels where the pure in heart can see God, and recognise Satan for who he is and there to find the authentic voice of God within his heart.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Matthew 22. 1 – 23, 18. 23 – 35 Kings, citizens and slaves

The story of the marriage feast exists in three different versions. Most comparisons between them come to the conclusion that Luke’s version is most likely to be nearest to that which Jesus told, and Matthew’s the furthest removed. Certainly Luke’s version fits more easily into salvation history: the excuses offered by the guests make their failure to attend more culpable: the host’s behaviour in inviting the outcasts is more generous and less compulsive, and there is no weeping and gnashing of teeth at the end.

However, even for Matthew’s version, the standard interpretation goes something like this: God, the king, invites people to the wedding of his Son, but the honoured guests (the scribes and Pharisees and temple leaders and presidents of the synagogue) refuse the invitation. In fact, not only do they refuse the invitation but they murder his servants, (the prophets). Consequently the temple in Jerusalem is razed to the ground as God’s punishment on them. When those who do turn up come into the feast the king notices one of the guests improperly dressed. This is interpreted as insubordination and he is cast out into weeping and gnashing of teeth. The story goes that Revd Ian Paisley was thundering forth on this text until a little old lady near the pulpit interrupted and says to him, "That's all very well, Reverend, but what about those of us who don't have any teeth left to gnash?!" Without pausing in his stride Paisley comes back with, "Mother, have no fear! Teeth will be provided!" (Brian McGowan).

Thus as Marianne Blickenstaff shows Matthew transforms a wedding reception into a frightening hall of judgment: “While Luke's version of the parable ends with the replacement of the unworthy guests, Matthew's redaction continues his focus on judgment to include even the newly invited company. When the king discovers a guest not wearing a wedding garment, he commands that the unfortunate man be bound hand and foot and expelled "into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth" (22:13). The king's abrupt action shocks the reader into realizing that those who manage to gain entrance to the feast are not guaranteed a place at the table, and that the Bridegroom's fictive family is perhaps not as all-inclusive as it seemed. Though one can never cease to be a biological relation, even if disinherited, one can be expelled from this new adoptive family and be forced to remain in the "outer darkness," the opposite of the joyful wedding banquet, a place where the Bridegroom is never present.
That a joyful wedding feast can turn to sorrow in the rhetoric of apocalyptic judgment is a theme also voiced by the prophets: "I will bring an end to the sound of mirth and gladness; the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah…" (Jer. 7:34; cf. 16:9; 25:10); and "Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her canopy" (Joel 2:16). Like the prophets, Matthew warns that there is a nebulous boundary between joy and sorrow in the liminal stage between waiting for the eschatological banquet and its fulfillment, between promise and final consummation, between being "out" and being "in." In this liminal stage, the members of the fictive family come to understand that their place at the banquet is not guaranteed, and that even their adoption into the Bridegroom's family does not assure an escape from violence in the final judgment.

But what if the Greek at the beginning of the parable is read in a totally different way: it literally reads “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man, the king……” Let us look at the story without the preconception that the king stands for God. A king sends out a summons to those who had been invited informing them that everything is now ready and he expects them to be there at the wedding of his son. For some reason they seem reluctant to come. Who would turn down and invitation to a royal wedding? He sends out more slaves instructing them to summon the guests to the wedding. Most of them just ignored the slaves and went about their ordinary business trying to pretend they had not been invited. Others beat up the slaves and some of the slaves were killed. Why should the invited ones behave in this way? The king was enraged and sent out troops with instructions to kill the murderers and burn down their city. The slaves are then commanded to go into the streets and make sure that there are guests for the wedding to prevent the king losing face. So they gathered in good and bad alike – anyone would do – to make sure that the king was not embarrassed by having no guests for the marriage of his son. But when the king came in he saw one guest improperly dressed. He interrogates him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” The man is speechless. The slaves throw him out of the party into the bitterness of the night.

Perhaps that last action explains why people did not want to come to the wedding in the first place. Does this king remind us of God or Caesar? Jesus or Herod? We have already heard an account of Herod’s birthday party which ends up with the head of a man who dressed in camel’s skin presented on a platter to the queen. Ancient literature is bulging with stories of dinner parties that were the sort of events from which sensible people tried to excuse themselves.

The sequence of emperors from the death of Augustine until the death of Nero was marked by a decadence that was, even its own time, regarded as deeply shocking Already Matthew has given us a shocking portrait of a king: a king with colossal resources who apparently governed not only through violent force but with a shocking disregard for budgetary control presumably keeping the goodwill of his civil servants by allowing them to cream off millions from the exchequer. We are introduced to one of them: this man owes 10,000 talents: the talent was worth 10,000 denarii. A denarius was a day’s pay. So the poor man owed 10,000 x 10,000 days’ pay: or 10 million days’ pay. Now if we say that the average working life is 50 years that adds up to 15.000 days. In modern money, the debt is about £4 billion. It beggars belief how any king could be so incompetent as to have one of his managers owing quite so much, or on what the manager could have spent so much money.

Of course the figure 10,000 x 10,000 was just the Jewish way of saying the largest number you could think of. Even so, on the day of reckoning, the poor debtor had no hope: it was all very well the king saying I’ll sell you, your wife, your children and all your possessions: the average selling price for a slave was about 100 denarii: sometimes a slave could just fetch 200: so allowing 100denarii for him and his wife and his children he would only be able to pay off 0.0001% of the debt! Even if he had eight children.

Even more implausible is the manager’s promise to work off the debt! Thus the king might as well let the man off: in terms of the debt any other action would amount to punishment for the sake of it. So filled with compassion for a man in such a state he did so.

On the way home from his encounter with the king the manager met a client who owed him 100 denarii -100 days’ pay - or – the price of his own head as a slave. This was a sum that could realistically be raised. When the client said “Be patient and I will repay you” he meant it. The action of the manager was gratuitous and stupid: he clamped his client in prison thus depriving the him not only of the means of work to pay back the debt but also of feeding his family. Putting him in prison until he should pay was sheer vindictiveness.

Now colleagues of both men enter into the story: they are outraged with the manager who has slung their workmate into prison: they report the matter to the king who calls in the manager and reinstates the debt he had cancelled. The man is to be tortured until he should pay up: which of course meant for eternity since there was no means of him ever paying.

Since it was illegal under Jewish law for a man to sell his wife into slavery, and there was no institution of slavery for debt in Israel, and torture was illegal under Jewish Iaw this story would ring true in Jewish ears primarily in a Roman context. Such behaviour towards those sub-governors behind with the tax was common in the Roman Empire: the sub-governor was therefore likely to take a harsh line towards those behind with their tax since he would be held responsible by the king for it personally. “There was a liquidity crisis in 33CE in which interest rates rose, loans were called in and land prices collapsed. Tiberius loaned a substantial sum of money to landowners without interest for three years to restore liquidity.”

The parable, then, at its face value is all about accounts, ledgers, debts and credit. It is also about tax, duties, relationships between governor and governed. The parable ends with the manager languishing under the eternal torture of his king. This proud, hard hearted manager discovers his master to be the sort of king who reinstates debts that once have been wiped off the slate. This is a king who gives way to popular pressure in his treatment of an unpopular manager. He is untrustworthy. Obviously this king is no more meant to be like God than the unrighteous judge in Luke 18.

The point is that even tyrannical and venal Roman kings expected to find some compassion in their managers and could sometimes rise to the occasion and show mercy themselves. How much more will a merciful God who has released human beings of such colossal debts expect those made in his image to be forgiving in the way he is. But such forgiveness requires a total change of heart. That change of heart can only be effected when a love relationship takes over from a contractual relationship in our attitudes not only to God but our fellow human beings. Since God breaks the contract by giving his forgiveness that contractual way of looking at the world is no longer valid. Law is trumped by grace. Thus forgiveness is dependent of the one forgiven as well as on the one who forgives. Like love it is a two way process. Forgiveness has to be fully accepted to be effective, it is possible to remain unforgiven irrespective of the attitude of the wronged person. The manager in the story never knew himself to be relieved of debt – never experienced the release of his burden and so continued to behave in a mean-minded way. Far from liberating him to be a different person - he felt humiliated and thus determined to exercise the shreds of power he had left over the other poor unfortunate. Sometimes forgiveness only doubles the debt. It humiliates the debtor even more. He still wanted to pay the debt off. If we are unable to be forgiving ourselves then we are likely to be those who will never in the bottom of our heart be able to believe that we are forgiven: we therefore will live with our debts - tortured by them - unable to pay them off - burdened by the guilt for eternity. Only those who have had their heart of stone replaced by a heart of flesh can know what it is to be loved and forgiven.

So we return to the other royal parable. If the king in the story of the debtors can easily be equated with Tiberius, so can the king in this parable. How did the listeners interpret this? They discovered that Jesus “did not regard people with partiality”. In other words they interpreted his parable as being subversive to the Romans. Of course at no point had Jesus made it clear enough that he was talking about Caesar ‘s corrupt banquets and political wedding feasts for him to be indicted. So they sought to trap him with questions about Roman taxation, and force his him to come out openly as a dissident.

The quotation that Matthew appends to the parable simply thickens the fog. Who were called and who chosen? The chosen were surely those sent the named invitations – they after all were those whose names were on the guest list. They were chosen. Nothing in the text suggests that they were many. The many would appear to be those who were dragooned into coming. The other person to be chosen was the man thrown out into weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Assume for one moment you were sitting next to him and witnessed his embarrassment at the hands of the king and then saw the slaves bodily throw him out into the abyss. What if he were your friend, your father, your son, your husband? Would you be able to eat your canapés with joy after that? John the Baptist had been beheaded for refusing to refrain from criticizing Herod’s marriage to Herodias. At a banquet of sycophants he remained obstinately non-conformist. He had refused to dance to the music of the pipes. But then so had Jesus.
Dramatically Marianne Blickenstaff has suggested that the silent one who is cast out represented Jesus himself. Jesus, enigmatically taking upon himself the title of Son of Man, resolutely refused to wear a garment thrust upon him by either his opponents or his supporters. The cardboard cut-out of Messiah was spurned whether it was placed on him by Peter or Caiaphas. He was the one thrown out into darkness and the gnashing of teeth, silently bearing the wrath of the regime because he alone would not conform to a code of ostentatious righteousness that was at odds with his humanity and fellowship with the poor and sinful. Many (which usually means all) indeed were called: few (in fact only he) was chosen.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

nuremberg chronicle

I managed to acquire something of a minor treasure during the summer: a leaf from the first edition (in Latin) of the Nuremberg Chronicles printed in 1493. This book purports to tell the story of the history of the world from the creation right up to the present day. It was immensely popular in its own day: 2500 copies were printed, many in German, and was possibly the first ever book to be pirated: a cheaper version was published in Augsburg in 1497.

The glory of this book lies not so much in the text as in the illustrations. It contains 1804 pictures, mostly of people, towns, genealogies and Bible stories. My leaf as you can see from the top left illustration is quite modest, but very typical.
However the 1804 illustrations are created from only 652 woodblocks, meaning that many images were used more than once. Thus an image depicting a Biblical king was used again for a contemporary king. And a prophet could quite easily reappear as a pope. In the same way the picture shown below which purports to be of Alexandria is also used in other parts of the book to represent Athens, Pavia, Austria, Carinthia, Prussia and Amazonia. The repetition of woodcuts was a common practice during this time, both in order to save money and because many readers of the Chronicle accepted these as idealized renderings of distant locales. However, there are 32 authentic city views in the Chronicle, based on both contemporary illustrations and models already existing in the printer's archives.
Of course the world whose history the chronicle purported to describe was narrow and flat. Columbus had only just sailed the ocean blue in1493 and his conclusions remained to be formulated let alone believed.

The best notion of the world’s shape was taken from Ptolemy’s Geographia, published in 150, rediscovered in 1300 and reprinted in the 1480s. Thus the world view that appears in the Nuremberg Chronicles was that formed 1350 years earlier. Within less than 50 years that view was itself history.

The credit for compiling these chronicles is usually given to a Nuremberg doctor, Schedel. And here another issue arises: just as the printers were quite happy to use any old picture in their stock of woodblocks so Schedel did little more than copy chunks of narrative from other sources and link them with the occasional conjunction or linking phrase. Over 90% of the text was lifted straight out of other histories. There is nothing new in plagiarism. Of course not all of these were in print so he made more widely accessible documents that existed in manuscript only.

So why the fuss about the Nuremberg Chronicles? It is not rare: a modest original double sided leaf of an early German edition with some illustration is available on the internet for around £50. The whole book can be bought in a fine facsimile for around £200. Many international libraries will carry an original copy and pages can easily be seen on the internet.

Some of the pictures are original and show interesting views of the places as they were in 1490. Some of the pictures were carved into the wood by significant artists such as the young Durer, who was born in Nuremberg and whose godfather Koberger oversaw the book production.

But perhaps what is most fascinating is the fact that these chronicles were produced right on the cusp of a significant change in human attitude to events and to mankind itself. In 1490 Germany it was quite acceptable to portray an obscure Judean king with the same features as a remote medieval one. It was their kingliness that was important not their appearance. Similarly a legendary , even make-believe, place like Amazonia (the Amazon itself was not yet discovered and was named after the myth—not the other way round) could be portrayed with the same features as Athens since both were reckoned to be places of significance: what was portrayed was aura not architecture. And yet in the same book there are magnificent realistic depictions of contemporary cities like Bamberg: we visited Bamberg this summer. It is still recognizable from this picture. Already people and places were being depicted with astonishing verisimilitude. When Cromwell, 150 years later, was painted warts and all he was by no means the first.

There is, though a further interesting side to the Nuremberg Chronicles. They do not end in 1493 when the book was printed. There is one further chapter in which the future is predicted. It was widely believed that the end of the world would come in 1500. This belief was based on an interpretation of the prophecies of Daniel that the time and a half of time referred to a period of 1000 and 500 years respectively. Since it was believed that Jesus had been born in the year 0 the year 1500 took on a huge significance.

So the book of the Chronicles has a purpose beyond that of simply providing Germany with a luxury picture book. It was produced to prepare a people for judgment. Durer’s first published book in his own name followed but 5 years later. It was a full, dazzling and terrifying illustrated edition of the Apocalypse. This end to the book was not speculative it was as certain as the stories of the past.
What was so amazing was that far from 1500 bringing the end of the world in the terms they envisaged it only brought the end of the world as they knew it. Far from closing down the world the demi millennium opened it up. For 500 years every year brought new discoveries, new continents, new rivers, new species of animals, new civilisations, new myths and new perspectives. By 1830 geologist Archibald Lyell was stating about the earth that there was no vestige of a beginning and no prospect of an end. And no longer could two people be given the same face for the very variety of the world and its peoples rather than its homogeneity is its glory. Our young people trek the frontiers of heaven from monastery to monastery in the mystic heights of the Himalayas, our old people traverse the oceans on cruise ships to the frightening ends of the earth at Terra del Fuego, in the Magellan Straits named after the man whose crew first circumnavigated the world less than 30 years after the Chronicles were printed. Now round the world racing is an annual and almost unremarkable event.

Above all the Nuremberg Chronicles were a triumph for the recently invented printing press. They showed the glory of what could be produced. And in what numbers. It was the printing press that facilitated the Lutheran Reformation. It was the printing press that revolutionised the sharing of knowledge. In many ways it was the very medium of which the Chronicles were one of the finest examples that brought about the end of its world. That ultimately is what fascinates in this extraordinary work. Not only does it stand on the cusp of two ages, it is in itself that cusp.

But in the same way we live on the cusp of a new age. Computers and the world wide web are to our age a not dissimilar revolution to that of printing in the 15th century. The exploration of the universe, the discovery of DNA, the ability to create life, all these are about to change our world as dramatically as did the discoveries of the sixteenth century.
To some extent we have learnt our lesson: not even many theologically anchored history books are bold enough to end with the last judgment as if it were an historical event. The church may laugh at the naivety of the soviet astronaut who returned to earth saying he had been out there an found no trace of heaven or God. And yet I received a book this week from an American publisher purporting to prove modern science wrong and the Bible right about the creation of the world. This book is wondrously illustrated, weighs about 8 kilos and is but the second volume in a total work of 7. It concentrates all this page power on Darwin, who lived and died an honest Christian struggling to discover a little more about God’s world than was revealed in the closed minds within which the church had imprisoned it.

Brothers and sisters once it was a best seller but now the Nuremberg Chronicles are no longer read. No one is going to take a world view for our age even from such an impressive tome. It belongs in museums and glass cases. Its pages are just a curiosity for collectors: one of the last great works o the middle ages, one of the first great printed books. What message is the church proclaiming for this new world in which we live? Fifty years ago the gospel was still being delivered in virtually Victorian ways. In the last 50 years things have changed a little. But sadly much that the church says today is as irrelevant as the maps of the Nuremberg Chronicle were to Magellan and Drake.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

treasure and trash Matthew 13 24-53

Throughout Matthew’s gospel it has been made clear that good and bad live cheek by jowl in God’s world. Sometimes it is by no means obvious which is which. Those who think that they can see are often those whose eyes are blinded by planks. Those who say Lord, Lord are those who are not recognized by the Lord they affirm. There will come a day when all will be revealed but at the present moment, Jesus seems to imply, it is guesswork. That is why it is unwise to judge. Even his own authority has not been revealed to anyone except the Father. In the meantime, while the ignorant think he is the Son of David, the knowledgeable think he is Beelzebub. Those who claim to preach “good things” are hypocrites, they try to sound good but they speak from an evil heart. On the day of judgment their words will be judged.

It is in this context that Jesus tells a story about a farmer’s field. The farmer sows good seed. But in the night an enemy comes and deliberately sows weeds in the same field. By the time anyone notices what has happened the grain has already begun to form in the good plants. But to try to remove the weeds will probably result in pulling up the good with the bad because they have become so entangled. The harvesters will have to reap the good with the bad and then sort out the mess afterwards; that way the bad can be destroyed and the good will be saved.

The essence of the passage seems to be an attack on the separatist cults of the time, the Pharisees who tried to separate themselves from other people to keep their holiness intact and in particular the even more elite Qumran communities. The world is as mixed as when a woman mixes yeast with flour. Sometimes it seems like a stony field – yet hidden within it is a treasure of untold price; a sea containing fish edible and bad. We spend our life searching for treasure, dragging our faith through the sea looking for fish, examining through prayer the haul of every day seeking to discriminate between the good and the bad. There will come a time when the difference will be obvious and the judgment made. And when that day comes not all the new will be good – nor all the antiques bad. It is not as simple as that. In vain we look for a hallmark to ascertain that which is treasure: there are no signs.

Jonah was thought by his fellow travelers to be the cause of their troubles – they threw him overboard, but in fact he was a prophet of God. The big fish was thought to be Leviathan – the enemy of God and the mischievous and wicked ruler of the wild and uncontrollable sea. But it turned out to be Jonah’s saviour. Nineveh was being prepared for destruction but ended up being saved. The plant under which Jonah was sheltering in the sweltering heat was destroyed by a worm. The whole point of the book of Jonah is that nothing is quite as it seems. The sign of Jonah is no sign at all. That, after all is the topsy-turvy world of the gospel, where the meek inherit the earth, the poor are richly blessed, and burial in a tomb marks not an ending but a beginning.

But Satan is a clever counterfeiter: he copies God, except that that which God does openly by day, the devil does surreptitiously by night. And that which God sows is good – since the seed is his, so that which Satan sows is evil because he is evil. Only when the plant bears fruit can it be known for sure to be good or evil. In that sense the parable is also a comment on the judgment passages of chapter 12. But it is also a comment on how the disciples will be treated. Just as the religious leaders failed to recognize Jesus as being of God so his followers also will be mistaken for those who are evil and will be persecuted. Equally there will be those who point to the weaknesses within the church and see that as an excuse to excommunicate and root people out. The parables would seem to suggest that however good it would be to be able to do that, it is not a practical option. The result will simply be to ruin the good with the bad. Indeed the implication is that by doing that weeding the apparently holy ones will be carrying out precisely what Satan hoped would happen when he planted his seeds. They will indeed be doing his work rather than the work of the God they think they are serving.

So we take the world as we find it: and perhaps discover that even the church will be no better. Later in the gospel it will all be made even clearer in the parable of the sheep and goats. The treasure that we find is found in a field. It comes with mud attached. In order to acquire it we have to be committed to that which we do not treasure if we are to find and have that which we do. To love God means even loving enemies and those whom we normally would not respect because we cannot be sure that they are not the field in which the treasure of God’s kingdom is to be found. In our work as “fishers of men” we trawl the whole sea: we do not farm prime salmon.

Monday, 30 June 2008

pipes and yokes Matthew 11 16-30

One thing that must have baffled both followers and opponents was the contrast between Jesus and John the Baptist. Even the imprisoned John himself was surprised by the direction in which Jesus’s ministry was going. He sent out spies to try and ascertain if Jesus was the genuine article. The reply Jesus gives is not dissimilar to the keynote sermon he preached in Nazareth quoted in Luke. His ministry is one of transformation, and therefore good news for the poor. But that did not really seem to address the issue. If that was his ministry what was John’s status? Jesus tried to show that the gulf between them was nothing like so great as it seemed. John had gone to wilderness to show solidarity with the poor. He had dressed in poor clothes. He had rejected the carpeted civilized life of the Jerusalem smart set to preach an uncompromising need for repentance. In so doing he had been preparing the way for the coming of the kingdom in which the lives of the poor would be transformed. Admittedly John was not just a quivering reed: he was more akin to the fiery prophet Elijah: the seizing of him and imprisoning of him was in itself a sign of a violent reaction against the kingdom and a sign of the authenticity of John’s preaching to which Jesus paid ample tribute.

There were huge differences between John and himself: the one dour and ascetic, the other celebratory and generous but because they were both radical and threatened the status quo both would set off alarm bells in the corridors of power. Jesus then tells a story about a bunch of kids playing the pipes in the market place.

These pipes were reed instruments, loud, piercing, of rather unrefined tone. In former times they were the folk instruments of village dance ‑ ear‑splittingly loud. They were also traditionally the instruments of lament: like the Scottish bag‑pipes, they were capable of stirring emotion with their plaintiff tone.

Once upon a time the pipe had been an instrument of the prophets, too. In one of the earliest references to prophets in the Bible Saul sees a group of prophets coming down from the holy hill playing the pipes: this was not surprising since part of being a prophet was the cultic dance. Indeed these cultic prophets worked themselves up into a frenzy under the influence of the spirit of the Lord! We get some idea of what might have happened as we read about Saul stripping naked and freaking out.

By the time the temple had been built, perhaps as a result of their association with this rather ill‑disciplined worship, pipes were out. They were the instruments of the brothel and the disreputable party: the accompaniment to erotic dance. Now since the rival fertility religions involved cultic prostitution this avoidance of the pipe was quite understandable; I suppose these days the equivalent would be those who refuse to countenance guitars in church because of the association of rock bands with drugs!

By the time of Jesus, the pipes had ceased to be associated with formal Jewish religion at all: when we see them on Greek pots they are often accompanying some scene of drinking and debauchery or with times of death. All that then is the background to the text

"We piped for you and you would not dance"

Some would say that the children represent the prophets; they play the pipes but the people won't respond: it makes no difference whether it is a dance or a dirge ‑ this generation is "stiff-necked". They just can't bend to the rhythm of the song. That certainly is a strong message. But Matthew seems to have other ideas for the words that come afterwards don't follow from such an interpretation at all.

Pipe players are sitting down in the market playing for the other children and getting totally exasperated that the other children won't join in with the tunes they are playing. Not surprisingly the two activities specifically mentioned here are dancing and mourning ‑ the very two activities associated with the pipes. Apparently it was customary for boys to dance at weddings and girls at funerals: hence this may just have been a reference to the games of weddings and funerals. It should also be mentioned that the words used for dancing and mourning rhyme in Aramaic ‑ therefore Jesus may have been quoting a popular proverb.

In Matthew’s setting the pipers are the Pharisees: with all their sanctimoniousness: they sit in the market piping but they can't get the occasion right: they play nightclub music at funerals and dirges at parties ‑ then they complain that the people don't keep in step with their perverse rhythms. When John comes preaching repentance they say ‑ we're holy we don't need it. When Jesus comes with the joyful celebration of the kingdom of God they say he's dissipated and needs a touch of John's asceticism. However out of touch they may be with the mood of the times, they go on playing their contrary tune trying to change the mood and remain in charge.

Ultimately both Jesus and John died to the sound of the pipes. Ironically, John whose lifelong music was the dirge (according to this text), died to the raucous vulgar measure of Salome's sensual dance: Jesus whose lifelong music was celebration, died to the wail of the lament, and the crowd went home beating their breasts (the very words Matthew uses here for mourning).

And then as if to prove the difference between himself and John had been exaggerated he launches off into a prophetic assault reminiscent of John himself on the Galilean cities of Choroazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. John tells us a little about Bethsaida, at least 2 disciples came from there, and Capernaum was the town in which Jesus had made his home, but of Choroazin we know almost nothing. A site which we believe to have been Choroazin has been excavated but though a substantial town, including a well preserved synagogue, from the 2nd century has been found, no remains of the 1st century have as yet been uncovered. Yet Jesus surprisingly compares Bethsaida and Choroazin unfavourably with the large and significant sea ports of Tyre and Sidon, so proverbially associated with wickedness that their destruction was a cliché of Hebrew prophecy. Capernaum is even less favourably compared with Sodom and he literally sends his own home town to hell. These words are so vehement that Bultmann thought that Jesus could never have said them but it is a general rule of attribution that the more difficult the saying the less likely it would have been to have been interpolated at a later date.

It would seem that the fact that even John the Baptist was having doubts about the authenticity of Jesus’s ministry had pushed Jesus over the edge into exasperation. Presumably he had hoped for the kingdom to come with less resistance when he had set out from the Jordan. But with the constant criticism and downright opposition he was experiencing from the faith leaders in the synagogues, the slowness of his chosen disciples to understand his message and the willingness for people to accept healing and other works of power without it significantly affecting their life style or state of faith, the gospel was making little progress. There may not be quite sufficient grounds here to suggest that this passage constitutes a mid-ministry crisis but it is surely encouraging to all engaged in ministry that even Jesus found it hard-going. Indeed, it appeared at that point that such was their unbelief that even his prodigious, spirit filled work was not going to be sufficient to bring them sufficiently to their knees in repentance to stave off the destruction that was surely coming.

How did Jesus respond to this sense of exasperation? Matthew tells us that it was precisely then when he felt so negative about his ministry and untypically blamed the community to which he had come (perhaps not unlike the pipers he had lambasted earlier in the passage) that he turned to God in prayer to thank him for his mission. In his prayer he sees that it is not the experts who know best but the children and the poor, that he is not mistaken that God is his Father and that the fact that that is not universally recognized is of no consequence. Since no-one can know the Father except through Jesus’s own revelation means that his calling is not necessarily to success but to faithfulness to the will of God. His anger at being misunderstood and rejected melts to thanksgiving when committed to the Father in prayer. The prayer leads him to a profound self-knowledge of both his status and ministry which in turn leads to the most sublime invitation to come to him recorded in the gospel.

A light burden

Moses had tried to lead his people to “rest”. Their disbelief and rebellion prevented them from entering into it. Joshua took on the mission with similar results. Jesus, the greater Moses, had now been entrusted with this mission. The Lord of the Sabbath became, as St Augustine described him, the “true Sabbath”. Jesus has already enjoined his followers to be perfect as his Father is perfect. The Sabbath was that state of rest God entered into when all his work was ended. There is certainly a meaning in which that rest can be said to be the eternal rest in God of one who has been completed in his humanity by the vicissitudes of life; indeed of one whose work is ended because God’s work in her is complete. However, such a rest is probably not the comfort that most people who hear the “comfortable” words want to hear in them. Heaven is not a resort that readily springs to mind when rest-cures and spring breaks are suggested. It could, of course, be the peace of mind that confidence in that ultimate Sabbath brings: certainly in the early church that must have been a powerful support particularly in times of persecution. But the Sabbath was intended to be experienced not only as a final rest but as a strengthening and sustaining rest along the pilgrimage. Here the notion of the seventh day as complete number (the sum of odd and even) may give us a clue to the meaning of the saying.

We are to be yoked together with Christ: the odd with the even. In so doing, that which seemed to be toil, that which was arrhythmic, now becomes by contrast rest. The heavy loads which destabilized us and we were unable to bear, yoked together with Christ seem balanced and light. He brings an equilibrium and a rhythm to life that enables it to be lived in harmony with ourselves and God. Worship and prayer provide a breathing out and a breathing in that is even and stressless. Jesus has already talked about living without anxiety because of Christ-like priorities. He has also talked about ultimate security in the way we build our lives if they are Christ-shaped. In our daily toil we learn from him – the Lord of the Sabbath.

If we take as broad a view of “rest” as this then we will not wish to be too restricted as to who the “weary and heavy laden” are. In the days of the early church Fathers it was usual to see them as those carrying burdens of guilt from sin. Recently the emphasis has been on those who were oppressed by the agrarian crisis we noted in our look at Mark: high rents, tithes, high taxation, the burden of cleanliness laws as well as the problems with living under the yoke of a foreign invader. The word yoke was used as a description of the law in the sense of “law as all that God has made known of his nature, character and purpose and what he would have man be and do So those who were weary and heavy laden were likely to have been those who found the burden of religion oppressive: this may have been caused by a weight of unforgiven (or as they believed unforgivable) sin, or indeed an inability to meet all the regulations that had been imposed to enforce the Sabbath and the cleanliness laws, resulting in economic hardship; it may even have been the sense of failure of a people who regarded Roman occupation as a sign of God’s displeasure with them as a people and his apparent refusal to bring the deliverance they craved. In some cases it may have been illness (like leprosy) that was regarded by some as a punishment from God. But Jesus says to all who found their relationship with God oppressive "come to me ‑ I shall not place the burdens of failure on your shoulders; I shan't always be making you feel that you are doing wrong: I shall affirm you for who you are." I shall not be for ever placing unbearable obligations on your shoulders. Indeed, like the suffering servant, I shall be one who carries your sorrows. The essence of his yoke is forgiveness and his affirmation of the humanity of those who come to him.

Of course such a claim was a bold one. It is placed by Matthew immediately after the great self revelation of Jesus as the one to whom all authority has been granted. He speaks as Wisdom who was there at the founding of the world. He speaks as the suffering servant who has borne our grief; he speaks not only as Moses – who until the arrival of Jesus was the meekest man in all the earth– and who gave the law, but as the Torah itself. He talks not about the yoke – but his yoke.

There seems to be, of course, an inconsistency that we cannot run away from at this point. The Jesus who invites us to take his yoke on our shoulders is the same Jesus who urges us to take up our cross and follow him. The “easiness” of the yoke is not to be confused with the easiness of life. A good carpenter shaped the yoke to fit the animal: a bad one forced the animal to develop calluses to protect it from the harshness of the yoke. Religion can, by being authoritarian and fundamentalist, make people callused and insensitive. God complained that Israel had developed a heart of stone. The yoke of Jesus is engineered to prevent us from becoming stiff-necked and thick skinned. The crosses we carry such as sitting by the bedside of one who suffers, sharing the grief of the bereaved, are carried with greater integrity by those who have not become embittered with their God. The yoke should not be a burden in itself – it is a device to help us carry the burden by sharing it with another rather than carrying it alone. Even in those instances when it seems (like the milkman carrying his churns) that we have a yoke all to ourselves, the device balances the load and makes it easier not more difficult to handle. Indeed only those who have taken his yoke upon them can even contemplate carrying the cross.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Word and sacrament Luke 24 36-49

The risen Jesus had appeared to the Emmaus disciples on the first day of the week in the exegesis of scripture and the breaking of bread. From that small beginning developed the tradition of making live the risen presence of Jesus in what became the two core elements of Sunday worship, word and sacrament. When they arrived at Jerusalem Jesus appeared again, this time to the eleven. Despite the testimony of the Emmaus pilgrims, and Simon Peter, to whom Jesus had also appeared, his arrival was still greeted with incredulity. They continued to react in the same way to the women at the appearance of dazzling young men at the tomb: with disbelief and fear. This was an encounter with the spirit world they would rather not make. The notion of a bodily resurrection was obviously totally alien to them. Whatever they believed about life after death, and at the time of Jesus it was still a doctrine that divided Jews, despite having witnessed at least a couple of raisings from the dead in the ministry of Jesus, the presence of Jesus in the room with them was a supremely uncomfortable experience.

Jesus’s attempts to reassure them can only have made their discomfort worse. He invites them to reach out and touch him; to put their hands in his crucifixion wounds. It is surely significant that the risen Jesus carries with him the scars of sacrifice. However he lives and reigns, Luke makes clear that he forever remains the crucified. Thus death and resurrection are made inseparable from each other. It is when the death of Jesus is celebrated (in the breaking of bread and pouring out of wine) that his risen presence is encountered. The place of the skull was transformed into paradise, and the wounds that speak of death become the signs, the evidence, of resurrection.

Then he called for food. For those who remembered his last meal with them this was surely deeply significant. Not only was it a device to show he was alive and bodily present in their midst it also announced the arrival of the kingdom. The eleven were now treated to a detailed exegesis of scripture to show how the suffering of the Messiah and his resurrection lay at the heart of God’s salvation from the beginning of time. And they were made witnesses to the gospel. That gospel was forgiveness and repentance. And it was for all nations. Whether Jesus’s word of forgiveness from the cross is in the best attested manuscripts or not its authenticity in terms of mission cannot be doubted. The significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus is that it opens up to all humanity the gracious mercy of God.

By sending his Son God makes himself vulnerable to our hate. But the willingness of Jesus to absorb our violence and not allow his love to be destroyed by it demonstrates the indestructibility of the love of God. This is of course affirmed by the resurrection. Thus the broken body of Jesus reveals the ever beating heart of God’s love. Jesus commands us to carry our cross daily. The kingdom does not come by crucifying – or by any other violent means – or by playing power games; it comes through cross bearing, absorbing suffering into love. It is in this sense that Jesus “bore our griefs and carried our sorrows.” He bore the squalour of death with the nobility of God. Paul tells us that the mind that was in Jesus should be ours too. This mindset did not seek equality with God but accepted slavery, and ultimately death on a cross. The way of the cross is the authentic route by which we all travel. This we embrace willingly through faith, as Christ did.

the walk to Emmaus Luke 24. 13-34

For fourteen chapters all the traffic has been inexorably heading for Jerusalem. Now it is flowing in the opposite direction. If at times that pilgrimage was made with faces set like flint, this return home is nothing other than a humiliating retreat. Hopes have been shattered. The one in whom they were grounded is dead and buried. A life they believed had been transformed has been sent back to square one, only this time to be lives with disillusion and zero energy. Their return is not purposeful; there are times when they simply stand still, and times when their walk slows, clearly reluctant to be admitting defeat. But a retreat it is.

It is Cleopas and presumably his wife. A stranger joins them in their walk. This story is apart from anything else a sublime piece of teaching on bereavement counselling: about getting alongside, going at the pace of those suffering, stopping where they stop, and moving on when they resume their journey, listening to their stories, before intervening with interpretation. Theirs is not only a story of disappointed hopes but of disorientation. The testimony of the women that the tomb was empty and that they had seen a vision of angels assuring them that Jesus was alive had made that disorientation. The death of Jesus, though deeply disturbing and a loss of all in which they had placed their hopes, had a finality to it that they might come to live with. This new development was not believable so was not a ground for hope, yet it was tantalisingly suggestive, enough so to undermine the certainty with which they had begun the day. If the testimony of the women were true, and they were fairly sure it was not, that would place demands upon them that would be even greater than when they had decided to put their faith in him in the first place. To follow in faith one you had seen and eaten with, conversed with and witnessed doing remarkable things had been demanding. But to follow one whom you had seen buried but were told was now alive required a different order of faith altogether, a faith beyond your Richter scale when it came to moving mountains.

The stranger began to unpick scripture. He talked about the Messiah. There was something about his teaching that made them want more. They reached Emmaus, their home village. He went on ahead but they called him back and invited him in. When supper was served the stranger took bread, blessed it and broke it. Suddenly they knew who he was. The painting in the National Gallery by Caravaggio says it all. The table is laid with chicken bread wine and fruit. The fruit is as fruit always is: it has its blemishes and its bloom, its wormholes as well as its refreshing ripeness. But it is placed at the very edge of the picture. The disciple flings his arms wide in a vibrant sign of the cross. The disciple on the left is caught in the act of leaping out of his seat. The fruit is about to come tumbling off the front of the table. The revelation of the crucified Jesus as risen Lord overturns all our tables.

The two disciples set out with the setting sun behind their backs and heads east to benighted Jerusalem. Their whole life has been turned back round into the right direction and a walk that was laden with sorrow becomes light footed with meaning and purpose. The story they had to tell had been transformed. This was no longer a story that everyone knew – now their testimony was exciting enough to tell the world. The fruit was out of the bowl.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Matthew 28 Women witnesses to the resurrection

All four gospels are agreed that women went first to the tomb of the first day of the week and discovered the tomb to be empty. The plausibility of Mark’s account that they went to complete the embalmment of the body has long been questioned. Indeed Mark himself has the women question the viability of it. Matthew suggests that the women simply came to visit the tomb. The desire to visit the last resting place of a friend is a powerful motive in almost any culture. No other motive need be postulated. However, there developed a tradition in Judaism whereby the tomb was watched for three days to stay with the dead person until the soul left the body. When this became a traditional and habitual practice is disputed. But recent evidence seems to suggest that the practice went back to the 1st century CE and continued up to the Byzantine era. The women, then, go to watch over the tomb. Matthew’s account seems to suggest, also, that they went as soon as the Sabbath was over: that is at the first opportunity. They therefore form the counter witness to the false witness of the guards who had specifically been placed to watch over the tomb – not in mourning or in fulfilment of traditional burial procedure, but for reasons of security. It seems that may have even witnessed the earthquake and the descent of the angel and his rolling away the stone.
The main difference in Matthew’s account from that of Mark is that just as the women were leaving the tomb, in a mixture of fear and joy, to go and tell the disciples the great news Jesus himself appears to them. In marked contrast to other resurrection stories they instantly recognize him and throw themselves at his feet grabbing him round the legs in worship and love. Jesus tells them not to fear but to go and tell. Jesus gives them the same message that the young man gives to the women in Mark’s gospel.
When they do go back to Galilee Jesus meets them on the top of a mountain: Some of the 11 are still in doubt; they wait to hear his teaching. But it is not teaching they receive: Jesus asserts his authority as Lord. What they receive is an ordination: the mission field has no boundaries; their task is to baptize; those baptized are to be taught to obey every command of Jesus. They are to build houses on the rock. It is a renewed warning to all readers of the gospel. Jesus’s teaching as reported in this gospel is not for approval or analysis. It is not directed at the mind but at the will. It is passed on to us as an imperative not an option. And the risen Jesus in not limited in his presence to Galilee or even Palestine. He remains Emmanuel until the end of time.
If Mark leaves us bewildered and fearful of how the resurrection is going to impact upon us a disciples, sending us back to first principles and urging us to revisit old haunts with faith instead of fear, Matthew announces the triumph of Jesus with a fanfare of trumpets and a ring of assurance: in the words of Edmond Budry’s great hymn:

Craindrais-je encore? Il vit à jamais,
Celui que j’adore, le Prince de paix;
Il est ma victoire, mon puissant soutien,
Ma vie et ma gloire : non, je ne crains rien!
À toi la gloire, O Ressuscité!
À toi la victoire pour l’éternité!

He lives for ever, what is there to fear?
Prince of peace triumphant, him whom I adore
My supporting conqueror, hero ever near
He my life my glory, no I shall not fear!
To you all glory, risen Lord for aye
Yours the saving victory through eternity.

Matthew 27. 24 – 26, 35 - 36, 50 – 54. Earthquakes

The main effect of Matthew’s sympathetic treatment of Judas is to shift the blame for Jesus’s crucifixion further over on to the priests and Pilate. But the other changes he makes to Mark’s account of the trial before Pilate also serve to make Pilate less active in the process. Pilate emerges in Matthew’s account as a weak vacillating governor who tries to wash his hands of blame. The intervention of his wife sending word that she has had a dream and encouraging him to have nothing to do with the conviction of an innocent man, his questioning of the crowd, “What then am I to do?” and finally his own public washing of hands claiming innocence show a governor who simply had virtually abdicated decision making finally allowing the mob to make the decision. The people as whole take the unconditional blame: ”His blood be on us and on our children.” These words became the major excuse for anti-semitism which has vitiated the Christian community to some extent ever since. Matthew may well have seen them as an explanation for the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of the temple.
The crucifixion of Jesus was routine; Matthew mentions it in a subordinate clause; it took place where probably hundreds were crucified at some time or other: The place of the skull. And in the place of skull the soldiers diced for his clothes. Strangely Matthew makes that the main verb in the sentence! This has been beautifully picked up by William Blake in a magnificent picture of the crucifixion; he has set in the foreground the gamblers rolling a dice for the modest prize of Jesus clothing. In the background are the three crosses: the central one of Jesus dominating the picture. But the soldiers are so engrossed in their game that they are totally oblivious of the suffering on the crosses behind them. One man has the smile of triumph from ear to ear: he’s thrown the six that earns him Jesus’s tunic! These soldiers have come to take crucifying slaves, robbers and rebels as routine business in a day’s work: business that has the added bonus of perks like games to divide the victim’s clothes. For the winner the crucifixion in the background is a sideshow to his victory in the game.
We are outraged: crucifixions should never be allowed to become routine: yet the place of the skull was the place where probably hundreds were crucified at some time or other: crosses and the mutilated bodies hanging on them were as much a part of the Roman world as starving Africans is part of ours. Like those Roman soldiers we too live out our petty victories against the background of appalling suffering: we in the Northern world gamble over the clothes of the poorer Southern hemisphere and celebrate our economic success oblivous of the context. Perhaps 2000 years from now people will marvel at the inhumanity of a time like ours when half the world could eat themselves to death while the other half starved: to them perhaps it will rank in obscenity as high as crucifixion does to us today.
Whatever might be let this simply be said: they led Jesus to the place of the skull, and when they had finished crucifying him they divided his clothing. Jesus joined the anonymous victims - those who were considered so low in the ranks of humanity that their bodies could be sported with, they could be nailed up on a cross naked - exposed to a hostile world - in the place of the skull. And he is with the anonymous victims still: for the place of the skull still exists in our world.
With only minor changes Matthew follows Mark’s account of the death of Jesus right up until the moment when the veil of the temple is torn in two. At that point he heightens the drama. A massive earthquake tears open the city, tombs are opened, the dead walk the streets. It is in response to this sign of elemental power let loose at them moment of Jesus’s death that the centurion and the other soldiers cried out in terror, “Surely this was God’s Son.” This is of course a most significant change, not only in the story but in the theology. In Mark the centurion seems to react to the splendour of God revealed in the broken body of Jesus. These soldiers react to a more orthodox and less unusual revelation of divine power. Matthew has already reported when Jesus entered Jerusalem the previous Sunday that the whole city was shaken. And as that happened Jesus took the disabled into the temple with him thus opening it up to those ritually unclean. Now as the city is shaken for the second time the veil of the temple is torn from top to bottom opening up the very heart of the presence of God to all comers. There was to be a third shaking when Jesus is raised: this time the very door of heaven is opened wide.
Josephus tells us that the temple veil had an embroidery upon it that represented the heavens. Just as the high priest tore his clothes when Jesus said that he would see the Son of Man seated on the right hand of God, so now as Jesus dies the temple veil is torn in testimony against priests and temple. This is getting as near as possible to the notion of God himself rending his garments in disgust at what the religious leaders have perpetrated on his Son. And it is a preparation for that much greater rending of veils when the heavens open and Jesus is revealed indeed in all his glory at the end of the gospel.


Matthew follows Mark’s account of the passion story quite closely but there are some significant changes of emphasis. In particular Judas is given much greater prominence in the narrative. John tells us that Judas kept the money bag, indeed he tells us that Judas stole from it. Matthew tells us that when Judas went to the authorities to betray Jesus at least part of his motive was financial. This interest in financial reward goes strongly against the teaching of Jesus, irrespective of the betrayal: here is a case of mammon seeming to loom too large in a disciple’s affections. The story also shows that the contract he had made with the authorities was stronger than his love for his friend. Having received the money he was duty bound to deliver. With the 30 pieces of silver in the bag he looked for the best opportunity to hand Jesus over to them. When Jesus says at table says “Woe to him by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” it is Judas who is reported as saying “Surely not I Rabbi,” Jesus knowingly replies, “You have said so”.
In Mark’s account once the arrest has been made in Gethsemane we never hear anything of Judas again. He disappears into the night as do all the others. But Matthew gives us a sequel. In this story Judas suffers remorse, and confessing his sin, seeks restitution by handing back the blood money which he throws down on the floor of the treasury in the temple when the priests refuse to take it back. They will not put it to the temple fund since they recognise it to be blood money – so they use it to buy a field from a potter to use as a burial ground for foreigners. In the meantime Judas hanged himself.
Matthew’s account is easily the most sympathetic to Judas. Many commentators have suggested that suicide was a heinous sin in 1st century Judaism quoting Josephus. His story also is a little reminiscent of that of Ahithophel who went home and hanged himself. But there was also a tradition of noble suicide. In some ways the judgment he placed on himself – since the authorities refused to judge him – certainly arouses more sympathy than the stories in Acts and Papias where God seems to smite Judas down peremptorily. But the main ground for sympathy arises out of Judas’s repentance. Again some have objected that it was only remorse: that he went to the priests rather than to Jesus – but Jesus was now before Pilate and hardly available – and the words he uttered were what amounts to a public confession. Besides the word for repent is straightforwardly the word the New Testament routinely uses for a saving change of heart. It would seem that the Christian community never had any real clue as to what had motivated Judas: other than the financial motive – scarcely convincing – offered by Matthew there is not attempt to explain his actions. His reaction on seeing Jesus handed over to Pilate at least suggests that that was not the outcome for which he had been working. Perhaps he had been hoping for a set battle on the Mount of Olives, a popular insurrection and a Messianic war to remove the Romans: that he was in fact leading the authorities into a trap. Jesus was clearly aware of what was going on and would have had time to prepare an ambush. Whatever his intentions Judas, as portrayed by Matthew, hardly deserves the unforgiving infamy that he has received in the literature and art of the Christian community. As far as they were concerned, it would seem that Judas Iscariot had discovered and committed the unforgivable sin. Matthew offers at worst the repentant tragedy of a man who got it wrong.