I have channelled a poem from the Australian poet, Jim Pike. It is for those out there who believe in Telepathy…here goes….
Well, what do you think of it so far?? Thanks Jim.
I have channelled a poem from the Australian poet, Jim Pike. It is for those out there who believe in Telepathy…here goes….
Well, what do you think of it so far?? Thanks Jim.
I am sorry, regardless of the Trump supporters who wave their supplied placards and wear their coordinated T shirts ( both prepared by the Trump election machine), as far as I can see, there is good reason why outside the US the international polls have registered a massive drop in confidence in the US leadership.
While today’s jaw dropping Presidential speech about the wonders of the US economy may play well with ultra rich shareholders, it certainly doesn’t say much for the US education system. Doesn’t anybody in the Trump supporting camp have the wit to read the statistics for themselves?
Can I suggest that rather than allowing the President to portray the economy as successful, some elementary questions should be faced?
First there is the all important issue of US Debt. Remember the President said under his leadership the debt of what was then a bit over 19 trillion dollars was going to disappear. Well it has. Go to the US Debt Clock and look at the figures. It is now well and truly disappeared and been replaced by well over $23 trillion dollars.
If the tax intake is still sufficient now that the rich dudes have to pay less tax then how come there isn’t enough money for walls, for continuing the previous level of aid to poor nations, for environmental concerns etc – and more importantly, how come the overseas debt isn’t being paid off?
If there is indeed great press freedom in the US how come that international measures of Press freedom indicate freedom for the Press in the US has dropped greatly in relative position.
Then Mr Trump says he has created 6 million new jobs. Well stay on the same page of Debt Clock statistics and note that the number in employment today in 2019 is a shade over the number in employment in the year 2000. And here was me thinking the population had increased a tad since the year 2000. Surely those who say this is because some are now have to work several jobs may be correct. Then look at the figure for unemployed. Notice this is close to half the number actually out of work. Well that is an easy one. The rules for registering as unemployed have tightened. Check it out.
If people are actually pleased the way things are going, two small questions?
How come, while the rich have got richer, the poor have got poorer? How come the international measures of happiness have shown a drop in the relative place of the US? (Do you really think an increase in happiness is reflected in the increase of suicides?)
While the President might deplore gun violence in the US, don’t forget he said at his inauguration, “the violence in the streets stops here and now”
Well it increased, so who is a silly boy then?
Now he says “Trust me!” Rather you than me!!
Walls to Enclose, Walls to Exclude
I have sympathy with ancient tribes looking to walls to safeguard their safety, sometimes even sending the message to strangers on the outside of such walls that such constructions also imply a declaration of power and warning.
Yet not everyone welcomed the Berlin wall or now its modern equivalent, the wall with Mexico in the Southern US. We only need to reflect on some of the better known walls round historic cities or even kingdoms to realize that these hardly fit Jesus’ teaching of welcoming the stranger in our midst.
The Great Wall of China, the city walls of Europe and Britain that provided protected citadels and extended walls like Hadrian’s Wall successfully sent a clear message to potential enemies across national boundaries. But that message is not the Sermon on the Mount. Walls, even Church walls, raise an interesting question. What do they say about ourselves? – and our relationships?
To the Jews and also I guess for the early Christians, watching the Romans destroy the walls of the Jews’ precious Temple and exact terrible vengeance on the Jews for rising in revolt, must have seemed an unmitigated disaster.
There are numerous references to the Temple in Jewish history and religious writing. We might remember Jesus himself, (as for virtually all his first followers) was a Jew with feelings of identification with the Temple. Luke implies a greater respect for the Temple than the other New Testament writers and for example, unlike the other gospel writers, Luke places virtually all of Jesus’ final teaching in and around the precincts of the Temple.
In Acts Ch 6, Luke shows the Apostles were not criticising either the Temple or the Law and in the following chapter he is careful to tell the story of the stoning of Stephen in such a way that Stephen is not thought to be attacking the Temple, but rather drawing attention to the misuse and abuse of the temple.
Certainly the Temple building was a magnificent structure. The pillars of the porches were reportedly some 40 feet high columns of white marble, each allegedly made of a single block of stone. According to the contemporary historian Josephus, the front of the temple was encrusted with gold plate and from a distance the body of the temple appeared to onlookers as if covered in snow. One of the most significant of the offerings (which presumably were the ones talked of by Jesus in this passage) was a gold relief model of a grape vine described as having clusters of grapes, each cluster standing as tall as a man.
As the religious centre for the Jews, the Temple had additional significance and although a cynic would no doubt say that it had been rebuilt principally to glorify Herod, it was clear that as far as most early followers were concerned, they considered it first and foremost to be a Holy place. Jesus’ reported indignation in clearing the temple of the money lenders and his apparently single minded intention to return to the Temple to complete his mission were indicative of how Jesus viewed the Temple’s importance.
Luke tells us that Jesus had prophesied that the entire temple would shortly be pulled down with “Not one stone left upon another”. In fairness we should also acknowledge that Luke was recording prophecy in hindsight. By the time Luke recorded his gospel, the Temple was finished. Yet there is a strange anomaly. The destruction of the walls and the consequent dispersal of Jews and Christians from Jerusalem was in all likelihood a good part of the key to the spread of the gospel.
Although in one sense the Temple was a celebration of the way to approach God, the walls themselves had been designed to put visitors in their place. Certainly Gentiles were encouraged to visit the outside courtyard, but the archaeologists have discovered the sign on the gentiles’ wall which could hardly be more direct. The gist of the translation: “If you are a gentile, and if you go beyond this wall, it will be your own fault when we kill you!”
The next courtyard was as far as Jewish women were allowed to go, then it was the courtyard for the Jewish men, then an area for the Priests and finally that veiled place of mystery, the Holy of Holies, that only the High Priest was allowed to enter – and then only one day a year.
Walls to confine, to exclude and to obscure but ultimately walls that would not and perhaps should not last.
We humans do so love our significant structures. The immense effort which has gone into building great walls and huge buildings throughout the ancient world is an indicator and even a barometer of the fortunes of history. Think of the Great Wall of China which the contemporary historians of the day claimed cost more than a million lives, the great cathedrals of Europe –the great Cathedral at Cologne took 600 years to build – and some of the great mosques, palaces and lavish tombs of the mighty rulers of the past also required great effort. Yet for outsiders, and even for insiders, the walls and buildings also serve as symbols which may obscure true understanding of the spirit they are supposed to represent.
At its most basic the problem is if you can’t see in, by the same token you can’t see out. Here we might think of our modern Churches as well as the Temple. And if you listen to the language inside the Church services and the language used by the same people outside the Church you might be excused for thinking that there are two separate worlds and even separate existences…. I even sometimes wonder if we should think of ourselves as bipolar Christians!
Let me illustrate. Inside the walls of the Church we use our religious vocabulary to give thanks for salvation, seek forgiveness of sins and talk of meeting not for a mere cup of tea but for fellowship. In church you will hear those familiar phrases, the bread of life and the blood of the lamb …The fellowship of the Holy Spirit… and they all said AMEN. Comforting words no doubt to the initiated….
Outside much more commonly it is talk of what most would think as the real world. Not time for “fellowship” but meeting up for coffee at the town centre. Not time out there for prayers of confession. Rather: What have our politicians been up to behind our backs? Are the contractors offering a fair price? Did you watch the final? What’s for dinner?
This raises a question. If we can create this religious enclave in Church, having “done Church” on Sunday is there really any need to have anything to do with those awkward people we don’t really want to get to know outside the Church during the week? Or do you think what we should be asking about why we seem not to notice the difference? Having prayed for healing for Aunty Dolly on Sunday, we need to guard against thinking as if: having prayed, do we still need to visit Aunty Dolly in the hospital? Surely the more pertinent question is: if we prayed for Aunt Dolly in Church, what were we doing if we didn’t intend to follow it up with the hospital visit? Yet how different might it be if we return from Church to the world transformed, taking what we learn on one side of the wall to the other.
I don’t often get to see the Simpsons on TV these days but when I do I am intrigued how many of the apparently fatuous remarks of Homer Simpson seem a fair representation of what in our more honest moments we suspect many people think.
Let’s hear from Bart:
‘Dad, what religion are we?‘ —
Homer replies ‘You know… the one with all the well-meaning rules that don’t work out in real life… Christianity!‘ …….. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves if that is the way it is meant to be, and from there, how the myriad of modern versions of the Temple contribute to this Homer-type attitude.
True a building can increase the pride and feelings of security and place for those who are privileged to use the building, but there is always a cost. Because outsiders cannot see in they feel excluded and of course those inside, while they are there they cannot notice what goes on beyond the walls.
I am not against the idea of Churches. I have always been struck by the atmosphere inside, the architecture and furniture and wall hangings which help us centre our thoughts and provide a place of contemplation and even wonder. Yet surely we must remain keenly aware of what our building can do to the way we interact with those beyond the walls.
In Robert Frost’s work entitled “Walls” I was struck by a thought in the poem
“….Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was likely to give offence”.
As far as the religious community was concerned the destruction of the Temple was tragic and in all likelihood totally traumatic. The Jews who were not tortured or killed were driven out of Jerusalem and forced to interact with the world outside the city gates. And in truth it must have seemed to them like the end of the world. Yet like so many apocalyptic events through the centuries it was not the end of the world. The Christian missionaries, like so many since, were forced away from their protective Church enclaves into a world where they lived and shared their faith and actions as best they could, and we inherit their efforts.
In choosing which of Jesus’ words to recount, Luke is not pulling any punches. Not only will the Temple have to go but genuine problems and even anguish is ahead. And that is of course the nature of the real world. Some will have it worse than others. Some might be lucky enough to live tranquil lives and die peaceful deaths but when you are prepared to put faith and life on the line – in the real world, even life itself can be required. Luke finishes this section of his gospel with Jesus having just said some will be put to death, yet then Jesus comes out with this curious enigmatic statement. “But not one hair of your heads will perish. By your endurance you will win your souls”.
For the survival and spread of the faith, in the last analysis the temple is not needed. If anything, by its misuse, the temple once got in the way of the next step of faith, just as our Church will get in the way if we allow its walls to become part of the problem. Yet outside the security of those walls, even if the sacrifice of life itself is called for – that which Jesus calls the soul – or if you prefer – that which is most important because it is the very essence of life – is somehow won.
It is frankly beyond my knowledge and level of faith to talk confidently of exactly what it means to win our souls, yet it does seem to me that in restoring our priorities, we regain the dignity of the human condition, which at the very least is a prize worth winning.
The God of the Living
Have you ever noticed that the people who are most certain about what happens after death are still alive? I know the Bible makes thousands of statements but knowing which statements are intended as literal truth needs a bit of cautious humility.
I have encountered many people who have favourite Bible passages, yet because the Bible is from its title (from Koine Greek τὰ βιβλία, tà biblía, “the books”) and in reality, is a veritable library of books, the favourite texts chosen can vary widely and usually coincide with individual preferences of the believer. This is not a new phenomenon. For example the Sadducees in Jesus time only recognised the first five books of what we now call the Bible, and derived their teaching and justification from these books. In the same way we encounter Christians today so fixated on end times that they cannot seem to see past the Book of Revelation. This selectivity leaves tremendous blind spots from which no doubt we also are not immune.
I cannot say for example that I have ever encountered a married fundamentalist Church goer who would by preference be found quoting this morning’s text as their favourite – and in particular Luke Ch 20 verses 34 and 35 when Jesus – talking about resurrection for the dead says: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage”, Luke records Jesus as saying, “but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age, and in that resurrection, neither marry nor are given in marriage.” ( In other words to take Jesus literally, if you are married you might as well forget being resurrected!).
Although I am not a Bible literalist, I believe that the gospels are helpful, if we read them remembering the context of each section.
This particular passage of Luke was directed specifically at the Sadducees who were vehemently against any suggestion of resurrection since it was not mentioned in those first five books of scripture. Note then of the Sadducees’ own beliefs, that they were at loggerheads, first with the Pharisees and then with the emerging followers of Christ because according to the historian Josephus, the Sadducees’ beliefs included a total rejection of resurrection of the dead. On this occasion they were trying to trap Jesus into tangling himself with one of their standard arguments, in this case that serial marriages produces real complication for those believing that they are going to be reunited with loved ones after death.
To understand where they were coming from – and I guess to understand why the Sadducees are no longer significant to modern Judaism, you also need to know that the Sadducees were in effect the aristocratic keepers of the faith at the time of the Roman invasion. They safeguarded the Temple, administered the state and from their ranks came the Jewish diplomats. They collected taxes (including taxes from those Jews who were scattered outside Israel). They equipped and led the army, sorted out domestic disputes and regulated relations with the Romans. For what it is worth, I am guessing that their inability to safeguard the Temple and maintain a working relationship with the Romans was instrumental in their loss of authority and status when the Romans destroyed the Temple and drove the Jews from Jerusalem.
So we come to today’s story. As far as the Sadducees were concerned they were being very clever – and what is more by using scriptures in a way the Pharisees would have to accept, but which they thought had a consequence which was laughable, they assumed there was no reply Jesus would be able to find.
Certainly before we get too carried away, there is a problem to admit. The fine detail of this debate is not certain. Honesty should compel us to acknowledge that Luke’s version of the debate varies from that in the gospel of Mark (Ch 12:18-27), and the gospel of Matthew (Ch 22: 23 – 33) because in those two gospels Jesus had been more belligerent and had denounced the beliefs of the Sadducees and their ignorance of scripture. In Luke’s version there was no denunciation and instead Jesus chooses a more subtle approach where he found his argument in the very books the Sadducees accepted.
Unlike Mark, Luke has Jesus talking of a resurrection reserved only for the very few who are entirely faithful, and his rebuttal of the Sadducees is based not on their ignorance, but on stories from the scriptures about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that he would have known they held dear.
Luke’s retelling of Mark’s account certainly suggests a similar distaste for the Sadducees’ style of argument and in this he had a personal background that gave him good reason. For example in the book of Acts, also written by Luke, in Ch 23 of Acts he refers to the hearing for Paul’s trial after he had been arrested in the Temple for supposedly having insulted the High Priest.
In that instance Paul had started his defence by saying that he was really on trial for his belief in the resurrection of the dead. According to Acts Ch 23 this caused a great uproar since there were both Pharisees and Sadducees present and their personal divisions on the subject actually led to blows. Before we are too hasty to condemn the Pharisees and Sadducees remeber we do go too far back in our religious history to notice it is stained with confrontations between those who were prepared to kill those who differed on what in retrospect now seem small issues of obscure theology.
If we go back to Jesus’ confrontation with the Sadducees, at first glance it appears of little relevance to today’s world. You would be hard put to find Sadducees in our city today, but those who question resurrection for all generally do so nowdays, not because they think it contradicts some obscure point in Old Testament theology, but because modern science has given us new insights into the likely meaning of death.
However, what ultimately makes the argument relevant for us today is the reminder Jesus gives at the end. “(vs 38) Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
In fact it seems to me this implies the foolishness of the Sadducees was not so much that they were wrong to point out logical problems for those who held to a particular view of the afterlife. The foolishness is that focussing on what it means to be in relationship with God after we die is essentially speculation.
To pin too much on pretending the speculation is fact leads to problems. Certainly I have been present at funeral services where preachers or funeral attendees have made firm statements about what the dear departed is probably now enjoying in heaven, but like the myriad of statements about prospects in hell, this can only ever be speculation. Where it becomes something worse is where we use these speculations to separate us from our fellows. The Sadducees had arrived at a different conclusion from the Pharisees and both sides were using the difference to condemn one another. Why else would they have come to blows at Paul’s trial?
Our own speculations about the foolishness of others’ beliefs about the un-testable hereafter are similarly potentially dangerous.
If, on the other hand, we can bring ourselves to see that the God of Love can be at the centre of life (or as Jesus put it: the God of the living – not the dead) then the transformation which is probably at the heart of what Jesus called resurrection can start to awaken.
I am rather hoping the phrase God of the Living should also remind us that what happens in the rarefied (and I would like to suggest artificial) atmosphere of a Church service atmosphere is not all there is to life. As Colin Morris put it in his work, Things Shaken and Things Unshaken, “truth is the capacity to bring one’s thinking and feeling into agreement with the world outside; to value whatever comes our way at its proper worth”.
The alternative of talking of the spiritual world as if it is separate from the outside world is to consign faith to irrelevance. If our Christianity can’t persuade us to live according to values that count in day to day living like honesty, compassion, justice and truth then why would anyone care about what we choose to believe? For example many of those in our local community and certainly those in the unstable parts of the world daily face real life problems like the disparity between the rich and the poor, like decisions based on bioethics, like places where only fair trade and fair food distribution are going to make life worth living. If our beliefs don’t help, then why is our religion relevant?
Speculation about what happens after death takes our attention from the essence of what Jesus taught. Since Love is at the heart of proper relationships, it is in seeking ways to live this love right through our week, not just in the Church for the day of worship, but outside, in the daily choices in the real world, a world with all its everyday problems and possibilities. Surely that is the only way that might bring us into relationship with the God of the Living. If we cannot bring ourselves to face this truth, how then are we going to begin to find meaning in the term resurrection?
Jesus and the Wee Little Man
For many of us Zacchaeus brings back happy memories of a simple story showing that Jesus cares even for someone who is rejected, even one who doesn’t count. And yes, back as children we may well have found it easy to join in singing that particular Sunday Song. But what if we were meant to follow Jesus example?
So it is that today, the Lectionary brings us to one of the most well-known of all gospel stories. Simple yes, but if application is expected I want to suggest the story is potentially mind altering, perhaps even life-changing.
If Sunday school was part of your background, cast your mind back. . I don’t know about you, but one of the very few Sunday school songs I can remember goes something like:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.
And when Jesus passed that way
He looked up in the tree,
and said, “Zaccheus, you come down!
For I’m going to your house you see!”
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
Now a happy man was he,
For he had seen the Lord that day
And a very happy man was he.
That story of Jesus’ meeting with Zacchaeus is of course possibly even one of the best loved in the gospels.
I am assuming that most of us remember Zacchaeus as that “wee little man” who came to see Jesus pass by when he visited Jericho, yet the reject was the one singled out for attention . More to the point I guess the part of the story we prefer to ignore is NOT the question of how Jesus treated the social misfit – BUT rather the question of whether or not we as the followers of Jesus are inspired by this story to make our own connection with serious rejects from society.
So to the story. Here we presume that as a tax collector – well actually a Chief Tax Collector, would most definitely qualify as a social pariah, and as a consequence for him to be mingling with the crowd to get closer to Jesus might not even have been an option.
You probably already know the tax collectors at that time were seen as collaborators in that they served the Roman invaders, and as a good number were also known to skim something off the top for their own gain, it is very likely Zacchaeus would have been greatly distrusted. This distrust was probably all the greater because in a Jewish society one known to handle money on behalf of gentiles was technically unclean in a religious sense.
Another reason why the tax collectors were deemed unclean was that they were expected to base their assessment on people’s possessions and this involved handling goods that were not owned by them – again forbidden by Jewish law.
We might also note in passing that because Jericho was a prosperous centre of Balsam trade, it is also likely that Zacchaeus would have had ample opportunity to make himself very wealthy indeed from fleecing the rich merchants, which of course is not a good recipe for getting himself liked by those whose fortunes were thereby lessened.
According to the story Zaccheus was unable to see Jesus over the crowd and I guess the logical inference was that he was indeed a short man. We note in passing, that there is much evidence to show a good number of people from that time and region were often considerably shorter than they are today.
(Some commentators quite reasonably suggest that the same problem might have arisen if Jesus was the short person(!)) But even if his actual height wasn’t an issue, Zacchaeus was looked down upon in every other possible way. Perhaps this is what one commentator, tongue in cheek, called the “Stature of limitations” (!)
In any event Zacchaeus climbs the sycamore tree to see Jesus and no doubt to everyone’s surprise, Jesus not only takes notice of him up there, even addresses him by name and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ place for a meal. Zacchaeus, apparently overcome with Jesus’ accepting attitude, is sufficiently contrite to offer to reform and not only promises to repay those he had cheated, but to give back more than he had taken.
In terms of our modern understanding of what traditionally used to be termed sin, this repayment plays an important psychological role. Jesus in effect nudging Zacchaeus towards this opportunity for redemption should not be underestimated.
The famous Psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, in his book Whatever Became of Sin?(1973, New York: Hawthorn Books) suggests to us that feelings of past guilt can cripple unless an opportunity is given for some sort of act of restoration. He further suggests it is inappropriate to downplay the notion of sin or alternately try to pretend it doesn’t exist, because the individual needs to identify what it is that casts the shadows that distort the personality.
While it is true that Jesus does not appear to have done anything particularly dramatic to bring Zacchaeus to his moment of redemption, Zacchaeus nevertheless chooses his own form of restorative justice as a result of Jesus’ intervention.
Although the Gospel account leaves the story at that point, just for the record, some early Christian writing takes the story further. For example Clement of Alexandria in his book Stromata claims Zacchaeus was surnamed Matthias by the apostles and took the place of Jesus’ betrayer Judas Iscariot. The later writing called the Apostolic Constitutions identifies the first Bishop of Caesarea as “Zacchaeus the Publican”.
Although we can readily see the compassionate wisdom shown by Jesus in the story, less obvious is the contrast with what most of us might have done in the circumstances. Pariahs are typically shunned – after all that is what the term normally means. When we spot someone in the crowd who is normally rejected by decent society, by convention, we are not expected to show them recognition or acceptance. I would go so far as to suggest this would be more unlikely on an occasion when we ourselves are surrounded by friends and even in this case by admirers.
And did you notice?….. Jesus knew Zacchaeus by name. Again beggars and other forms of society rejects do not normally attract our personal consideration to the extent of discovering and using the names of the so-despised.
Furthermore it is one thing to show ourselves to be sufficiently generous to stop to talk to someone unworthy of our trust. It is quite a different matter to offer to dine with them.
Certainly we can see why this recognition and acceptance by Jesus may have been likely to have made such an impression on Zacchaeus – and with a little reflection we can also probably see that these actions were entirely consistent with the message Jesus represented.
The question then becomes: how may we represent this same message to others? It is reasonable to assume if we left it at following custom, we most certainly will not be conveying by our actions what we learn about Jesus in this story.
So simply re-telling the story is not enough. Talking about it or reading about it to others won’t help either, particularly if others see us, the self-appointed messengers of the one who reached out to pariahs, rather as the sort of people who themselves prefer to join the crowd and identify and shun pariahs. If pushed, we are probably only too aware that there is a technical term for the sort of people who claim to represent a message in words yet contradict the message with their own actions, but the question each of us must answer for ourselves – is do we really want that term …. of hypocrite…. applied to us?
This applies to our Church and even our nation. All around us we hear talk of pariah religions and pariah states. Islam, some say, encourages terrorism yet despite the talk of inter-faith dialogue we stand by passively when we notice actions that are anything but accepting of many, who despite being Muslim, are clearly innocent of terrorism. Similarly in our society and in our Church congregations we occasionally hear talk of reform of prisoners, yet from the limited action we typically offer in support of this policy, the net result is that reform effort offers minimal assistance to released prisoners.
By way of example, I remember when in a nearby suburb, five counsellors who had been running anti-violence courses in a combined Churches establishment called Friendship house had to be dismissed because the Government as a cost cutting move decided to discourage the Courts sending those identified as violent to such courses.
I must have missed the expected widespread Church protest, despite the frequent reminders from the pulpit that we Christians must be leaders when it comes to social action.
It is unrealistic to assume we might ever reach a degree of perfection in our attitudes to the less fortunate. Nevertheless if our sense of direction is so muddled that we are uncertain what values we are attempting to stand for then it might be time for some self appraisal. And if our faith has anything at all to do with the world in which we live, our attitudes to others, including to the often un-loveable might be as good a place as any to start.
Fortunately, although I can find many examples of instances where we are reluctant to call the pariahs down from their metaphorical sycamore trees, I can also think of those among us who do care enough to offer a degree of acceptance and friendship. There are some among us who are the epitome of acceptance and who win the right to be messengers of Jesus by their living of his message. We can be grateful that not all servants of the Church are focused on personal advancement and respectability.
As a non-Catholic looking at the present Pope, Pope Francis, what I believe I see is a humble man who truly attempts to live the gospel he has encountered. I cannot truthfully say that I see the same consistency in some other religious leaders, . More to the point, if I were backed into a corner, nor can I claim with any certainty that others would come close to seeing that I was living my faith. Would they with you?
Karl Menninger reminds us that the first step in redemption is in first acknowledging what some would call our sins. But that is not enough. Having acknowledged our weakness, just as Zacchaeus showed by his actions, next is to make the first tentative steps towards restorative justice.
If we can only step back a little to reflect on how successfully we individually reach out to whomever our church and society appear to treat as pariahs, perhaps we too may be in a better position to acknowledge we too may need some acts of redemption.
A Bit of the Pharisee in Me?
I guess the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a familiar story to many. Here is this self-obsessed Pharisee placing himself in a prominent position in front of the crowd and praying a self righteous prayer. This prayer in effect is gloating over that other player in Jesus’ story, the wretched tax collector.
True the tax collector is a miserable specimen, in all probability a man with a reputation for dishonesty. By virtue of his occupation, he is also identified as a collaborator with the hated Romans. In the eyes of the Pharisees, as a handler of money and an agent of a Gentile Empire, the tax collector was seen as ritually unclean. If you want to get a feel for the loathing he must have experienced, just look at the writings of Jews in the aftermath of the Second World War as they talked of those Jews who had joined the Jewish Nazis or turned against their fellows in the concentration camps.
The tax collector in the parable must have experienced a similar feeling of becoming a social pariah. As Luke reports the story, the tax collector is clearly only too aware of his own shortcomings and believes he can only pray for mercy.
And of course each time we encounter this story we all think we can relate to Jesus’ conclusion. Remember the tax collector was the one who finds justification before God with his act of humble and even desperate contrition, whereas, of course the Pharisee for all his pompous obedience to the customs of his religion is not the one Jesus praises.
We like to think we have a preference to associate with humility – Ummm … well at least in theory(!) – and if true, this certainly lines us up with one of the key features of Christ’s teaching. St. Augustine once wrote, “Should you ask me what is the first thing in religion, I would reply, “The first, the second, and third thing therein is humility.” “ He goes on to say that without humility, all the other virtues are mere pretence.
Yet I wonder if the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is always totally understood? Did we happen to notice in terms of standard theology, at least at first glance, surely the Pharisee has travelled a good way down the path of faith. He obviously believes in the law, and the customs of his contemporary Church. He follows the main injunctions to the letter, not only giving a tithe, but tithing all his possessions. Isn’t this going the second mile, which is the sort of thing for which Jesus would normally show approval? So what is amiss?
In an age where we are surrounded by those with different beliefs is it surprising we treat some as worse than ours. I heard one self claimed man of faith saying that while he supposed it was possible to be a good Muslim he thought that when they died they might be better not to pack sunglasses – but rather a fire-extinguisher. Yet faith is far more than being called Methodist, Presbyterian or whatever our Church membership certificate says. We might even need reminding faith is not so much about passive belief but about being faithful to the spirit of the belief, and more particularly to the extent we live the things we say we trust.
Greek word for faith (Pistis) comes from the Greek Goddess of the same name. Pistis (Πίστις) was the personification of good faith, trust and reliability. Claiming belief or making a deliberate outward show of faith is simply not enough to make one seem to have these characteristics. Perhaps before we take too much comfort in our status as Church members or Christians, we should remind ourselves that many convicted criminals including a good number at present on death row in US prisons classify themselves as Christian.
I guess most of us associate with the abject humility of the tax collector, I don’t know how many would go out of their way to get to know the modern equivalents of the tax collector. I am also not so sure how many would be prepared to claim that their daily behaviour and attitudes have nothing in common with the Pharisee.
I once heard the story of a preacher who preached a sermon on this passage and finished with this heartfelt prayer. “O God, we give thanks that you have given us grace so that we are not like this Pharisee”….Well hold on a minute. Is that so very different from being scornful of members of some denomination or religion where their background has caused them to express their faith in very different ways to ourselves? Our equivalent Christian today would show humility in the way they related to the streeties, Mormons and JW’s. That us?
Well Papakura is blessed with plenty that some are too proud to associate with – don’t forget that was what identified what was wrong with the Pharisee. He didn’t want to associate with the tax collector. Can you think of anyone you know who prefers not to associate themselves with those rejected by society? There are some who walk the streets of our town centre who don’t know the names of any of our regular beggars. There are some who sail past those thought of by many as religious nutters – the JWs, the Mormons, the Hare Krishnas. Is that perhaps like saying that Thank God we are not like them?
When we think of the number ( and I would have to admit sometimes that number includes me!) prepared to make disparaging comments about those with other beliefs and other lifestyles, we need to take a good hard look at ourselves to be certain there is not something of the Pharisee in most of us.
This attitude where we believe we are entitled to set ourselves above weaker members of the community, and that superiority often justified by the most dubious reasons, is at the heart of this parable.
Again the Greek is interesting. The Pharisee we should note stood …. what was it again…..Pros Heaton which superficially means “by himself”. However in that parable context I wonder if there is another possible translation – namely that he prayed not to God but to himself. I concede that he started his prayer with a term for God – so at one level it appears addressed to God, yet that doesn’t make the words mean it is a prayer genuinely addressed to God. Like some prayers we occasionally hear in public worship, there is always a suspicion that at least sometimes such prayer is a self serving performance for public effect, and here in terms of the Pharisee’s prayer, the words suggest that it is a product of total self-absorption.
That the tax collector stood at some distance is not just commentary on the tax collector’s frame of mind, but also a commentary on his awareness of the judgmental attitude of the others who were present. Before we decide we ourselves are not pharisaic in our attitudes perhaps we should reflect on whether or not all appear happy to share our company.
What signals do you think we might have been unconsciously sending to the so-called street people if they do not seek our company? I can indeed understand why most communities are not particularly welcoming to those who are different particularly when the new-comers’ religious or ethnic dress or habits seem foreign. We do so like a feeling of common and safe familiarity with our own surroundings and a community who relates to us as we relate to the community. On the other hand I am sure most have at least heard the expression: “that since they come to our country the newcomers have to learn to conform to our customs”.
I wonder if it ever occurs to us that this might be saying something about us as hosts rather than saying something about those who are new-comers? Do you think – even if the new-comers are maybe mistaken – do you think that just maybe our visitors are picking up the unspoken message – “ Thank God we are not like them”? Even something as commonplace as reflecting on those who stand apart during morning tea after church may tell just as much about ourselves as those who appear reluctant to join us.
William Barclay once told the story of a judge who was an active member of church. His church had started a mission church out in the country. It became their custom that once a year, around Christmas time, the whole congregation of this small mission church would come into the city and worship with the downtown church.
When it came time for communion, the judge found himself kneeling next to a man who was a new convert. The only problem was who in his previous life also happened to be a convicted robber sent to prison by that very same judge.
A friend of the judge was most impressed, “Isn’t it a miracle what God has done in that man’s life?” he said.
The judge replied, “That may be so, but it’s a greater miracle what God has done in my life.”
His friend was puzzled so the judge went on, “I was raised in a loving home. I never went without anything. I had the finest education that could be provided. I think it’s a greater miracle that God could get through to me and show me that I stood in need of a saviour as much as that robber.”
When Jesus is quoted as saying that the tax collector went home justified in the sight of God there is an underlying question which should prick our consciences. The question is do you think the tax collector also goes home justified in the sight of the onlookers? Well – does he? – for in one sense we are among the onlookers.
We are onlookers not only to this as a New Testament story, but to the repeated parable in all the forms it continues to take today. Just as St Augustine draws attention to the centrality of humility, we need to be alert to our own tendencies to parade our superiority to those whose past and present setting leaves them vulnerable to our judgment and derision.
We are in need of our saviour just as much as William Barclay’s humble judge or the parable’s penitent tax collector.
Pistis we are reminded was the Greek Goddess personifying all that was good and true, for that is what the Greeks understood faith to be. As our lives continue to take shape and form we too, individually, will no doubt continue to shape and personify what is most important to each one of us. We leave the last word to St Augustine. “Without humility, all the other virtues are mere pretence”.
REFLECTIONS ON ANNIVERSARY THINKING
Although much of our Church calendar and much of our local planning is based on a whole variety of anniversaries – whether they be anniversaries of Bible events or even individual anniversaries of past milestones specific to individual Church congregations, there is always one very important part of each occasion to remember. True we can bask in the knowledge that those who went before did some pretty impressive stuff. They introduced challenging ideas, confronted the people of their time with some implications of the gospel, identified problems that needed addressed and gave us great examples to follow.
But here is the catch. Future Church history depends on what we as a Church choose now to do. It is not sufficient to simply celebrate the choices and actions of what others before us chose to do for their time. I admit it is true that it is no accident that some Churches last a long time – some well past one hundred years….particularly when our predecessors showed wisdom in the actions and in their vision. But it is equally true that other Churches limp along for a good while just drifting and then quietly fizzle out. So which choices will this congregation be making at their next anniversary.
Can I suggest that it is surprisingly easy to miss the opportunities in front of us. I even wonder if this might be because we tend to be almost deliberately blind to what is happening around us because we might be disturbed.
In the gospel reading this morning, there is the story of the unjust judge. A curious story – particularly if we only see it talking to those in Jesus’ time. But like most parable stories it gets to have some bite if we were for example to see ourselves sharing the callous attitude of the unjust judge blind to those like the victim widow seeking justice. And there are many victims in a modern community.
In the Gospel introduction to the story of the persistent widow we learn that this story has a particular purpose, namely to meet the fears of Jesus’ followers as they face the up-coming struggle against the adversity that looms.
Although the story might appear to refer to a relatively minor issue of justice for a wronged widow of no consequence, in verse one we learn that the real issue for the widow is staying true to the principles of God’s justice in the face of despair.
I don’t agree with the common trivial interpretation namely to imply that any intercession will eventually be rewarded if whatever we mean by God is hassled enough by repeated requests, no matter what the requests might be. This takes us into very shaky territory.
It seems to me that there are several problems for the God bothering approach for trivial concerns. First, it paints a very unflattering and, dare I say, implausible picture of God, and in view of what little we know about the mysterious forces of the universe, also a curiously irrelevant image of whatever might be behind this creation.
What is more, it is one that does not seem to correlate with the world as we know it. Despite the needs of the Church picnic, what was it the prophet once put it, the rain still falls on the just and the unjust. Prayed for children still die when the earthquake flattens their house, or when terminal cancer defeats the efforts of the best nurses or skilled oncologists. Sailors can still be still lost at sea when the boat is leaky and the storm rages.
Second by taking the view that God behind our metaphors will eventually listen to persistent petitions about our wishes shifts the responsibility away from the people and divests it with God. We could only pray for the safety of a fisherman, or we can also buy him a life jacket and insist he wears it.
I believe there are much more constructive ways to learn from this particular parable.
In the first place I have no problem with the notion that we should follow Jesus in drawing attention to the plight of the humble widow. In our attitudes to those on the edge of society, we can learn from Jesus telling his stories about needs of those caught in such situations. If the poor man at the rich man’s gate, the blind beggar, the tax collector hiding up a tree, the leper who was a Samaritan, or here, the widow seeking justice, all have a place in Jesus’ scheme of things, we as his followers should share his concern for the marginalized.
Second, whatever our preferred metaphors for the God we follow might be, to assume that an unjust judge is an appropriate image to represent a God associated with creation and the forces of Love does not suggest a good match. If on the other hand we were to turn the image around so that we, as representatives of the God encountered in Love, begin to see that our past actions may have found us behaving like the unjust judge, then perhaps the parable reminds us that eventually our unjustified deafness to the petitions of those like the widow must change.
In a way our chosen interpretation of this parable depends on our theology of prayer. We can hardly claim Luke’s Jesus did not think prayer was important in that in several places Luke talks of Jesus going away to pray. Yet Jesus himself did not use these prayers to transfer responsibility to God. Rather, and in the face of plenty of potential discouragement, and that even from those who he was relying on to help with his mission, he is recorded as using the prayer for strength for getting on with the task. For Jesus, prayer seemed to be the means of clarifying thought and seeking strength so that he might continue with his concern for the powerless, as well as persisting with his concern that society start to develop attitudes of forgiveness, humility and a desire for justice for the downtrodden.
This is very different from the easy out, the persistent asking for favours and the desire that our God will become the one to enrich us and solve the problems that are rightfully ours to face. Bill Loader in his commentary on this passage suggests that the way we approach God in prayer, and indeed the way we live out our faith, reveals what our image of God has become. Talking to God as if in our mind’s eye “He” has become a haughty distant ruler takes us further away from a Jesus who taught that we must be the message. The God-likeness that Loader notices in Jesus’ teaching and not just in this passage, is fundamentally about self giving and responsiveness to the needs of those around us, and above all, about love and care.
Working for justice is indeed a genuine concern of legitimate religion. I am reminded of John Morley who once made the observation that “religion has many dialects, many diverse connections, but it has one true voice, the voice of human pity, of mercy, of patient justice…”
There is of course a puzzle, particularly if we see the coming of God’s kingdom as an event – and specifically one on the verge of happening. And it is an issue that must be squarely faced. Despite Jesus words, the kingdom did not seem to arrive for his listeners at the time, and most certainly not in the form of a Hollywood type Armageddon. And in every generation since there have been some convinced that it is now to their generation he was referring – and in every generation there is disappointment.
On the other hand it does seem to me that in another context, that of the Lord’s Prayer, the line about the kingdom ran something like: Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done –and then the bit we sometimes forget, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Well, I can’t exactly justify what I am going to say next by reference to scholars I have read, but since I happen to believe it – and that somewhat uncertainly – I am going to say it anyway. I think for the justice to be delivered on earth, first we have to realize that ultimately justice is something which depends on those of us on earth. My friend Rev Prince Devanadan pointed out to me that there are many prayers for peace and very few peacemakers. Jesus is said to have commented “Blessed are the Peacemakers ….” He didnt say “blessed are the peace pray-ers”
Perhaps then this justice of the coming Kingdom is not an event for all at one instance, but rather something that can only begin to arrive as each one of us listen to the pleas around us and start to deliver the justice, not only to the widows but to all who cry out.
For those of you who travel you will have encountered rich churches in lands where there are many poor. You would have seen the results of persecution based on faith disagreements. You may have encountered examples of death-camps, the consequences of religious conflict. In no way are those sad examples a steadfast seeking of justice, but rather an active denial of the very principles Jesus was seeking to instil. It is also equally unjust when Jews were sent to concentration camps and for our context when the Muslims at the mosque were attacked in Christchurch.
On the other hand we also came across those who had retained their focus on principles taught by Jesus. Those religious orders who maintained a mission to the poor throughout the centuries, humble servants of the Christ they understood and followed, and those who brought peace to warring peoples. We encountered Church members who might not have even thought themselves to be religious, but who showed the true voice of that religion in their actions of pity, and the listening ear they lent to all they encountered in trouble. In terms of the principles Jesus taught as the Justice of God, we don’t gain credence by announcing to others which denomination or Church has our nominal affiliation. Rather we demonstrate our willingness to give priority to God’s justice by a steadfast holding to the course.
We have a community where injustice persists. We accept an absolute minimum number of refugees. There are plenty living without homes or inadequate homes.
In New Zealand, a child is admitted to hospital every two days with injuries arising from assault, neglect, or maltreatment. Half of these children are under 5.
Anniversaries provide a great incentive to consider past progress and set future plans. If our future is partly ours to begin, perhaps our anniversary is as good as any place for a reset.