On the face of it.

Signpost for Sunday 22 October, 2017: Exodus 33.12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thess 1.1-10; Matt 22.15-22.

The face of God is a very difficult proposition. The Roman Emperors claimed some sort of divinity, and their images were on the coins they issued. There were other symbols on them that point in that direction.

But strict Jews hated images. They were not allowed by the commandments. And the face of God was so terrifying that even Moses shrank from the possibility of looking on it. So the images of Caesar were hated on religious grounds. And that made paying tax difficult.   There were some coins that did not bear such images, and which were acceptable for tax-paying as well as for contributions to the Temple. So you could exchange your common coins for these – at a premium for the money-changers, of course.

The Romans understood some of these things, and they did not insist on the Jews worshipping Caesar as a God, as long as they paid their taxes. They liked peaceful client states!

The Pharisees kept the Law. They rejoiced to do so. They did it as both duty and delight.   They interpreted the Law to fit every new situation. A rabbi is, and was, more a Law-applier than a preacher as the Church understands it. Applying the Law so strictly cut them off from a lot of other aspects of life, as today’s Exclusive Brethren are cut off.

The Herodians were less religious and more political. They sought what was practical in society. They supported the Herodian Family of rulers, and tended to copy Roman and Greek ways, even to becoming athletes at times. For some of them, Herod was the Messiah.

Pharisees and Herodians gang up on Jesus with this question. If he goes one way, with the Pharisees, the Romans will regard him with great suspicion. On the other hand, the Herodian answer will turn the crowds against him.

There is a third party in the background, the Zealots. They do not enter into this conversation. They were more terrorists than teachers. For the Herodians, violence would be biting the hand that feeds them; for the Pharisees, it would be a lack of faith in the God who alone could deliver Israel.

The central problem is one of images. We think in images. We see God in terms of a (super-) human being. The long white beard has not yet disappeared from our minds and our traditional art. Why do Western Missions in India portray Jesus as a blond? At least we can see a Maori Jesus “walking on the water” in the window of St Faith’s Ohinemutu! But perhaps we are happier thinking about the parables because they do not force us to image God.

What accommodations do we make to the political life? Do we curse our opponents, or hate those who vote differently? Do we object to paying taxes – or rates? These readings speak to today.




Guess who’s coming to dinner.

Signpost for Sunday 15th October, 2017: Exodus 32:1-14; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14.

The parable of the wedding banquet is often assumed to be another version of a similar parable in Luke, often called the parable of the great dinner. This assumption seems to me to be based on the idea that we have, in the gospels, a significant proportion of what Jesus taught, and also incorporates the thought that Jesus would never have repeated a good story in a modified form.

Matthew presents the parable as part of a series of interactions with the leaders of the people which are, effectively, discussions of the meaning of the action which Jesus took in moving the traders out of the temple. Matthew’s story seems to have had an insertion made into it (v. 7), perhaps from a comment written in the margin referring to the destruction of Jerusalem. Leaving this verse out allows the view that, by bringing in the people from the streets, the king was letting his originally chosen guests know that they had been displaced by people who they would have regarded as their inferiors. In the context of the parable, physical destruction is not necessary, loss of status is sufficient. The last two verses of the passage seem to be the end of another parable, and are consequently rather difficult to put into context.

If we read this parable in the way that is presupposed by its introduction, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…’ then I suppose we can see ourselves as guests who are invited off the street, and having accepted the invitation, find ourselves given a commission to find more guests. Having become guests and servants, we can rejoice in our new-found status and responsibilities. In the word of the apostle: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.


The rule book.

Signpost for Sunday Oct 8, 2017: Exod 20:1-4,7-9,12-20; Ps 19; Phil 3:4b-14; Matt 21:33-46.

Last century, when I was at grammar school, our religious instruction lessons were called Divinity. Our Divinity teacher was a strange man who seemed to have two main interests in life: small boys and cakes. Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those stories, and though he talked a lot about cakes, he never brought us any.

What he did do was make us learn chunks of the Bible for homework and then recite the set piece in class. Hence there was a time, I think it was a Tuesday in 1964, when I knew the Ten Commandments off by heart.

These days very few people, even if they are regular church goers, can get much further than: ‘You shall not kill.’ ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ ‘You shall not steal.’ After that they start to lose the plot.

How on earth, then, were the Israelites ever supposed to remember the Ten Commandments and all the laws that follow? Our reading this week stops at verse 20, but YHWH hasn’t finished at verse 20. In verses 21-26 he gives Moses the Law of the Altar. He carries straight on with the Law Concerning Servants (Exod 21:1-11), the Law Concerning Violence (Exod 21:12-26), the Laws of Animal Control (Exod 21:28-36), rules about property (Exod 22:1-15), moral and ceremonial rules (Exod 22:16-31), rules to ensure justice (Exod 23:1-9), the Laws of the Sabbath (Exod 23:10-13), and a list of compulsory annual feasts (Exod 23:14-19).

But wait, there’s more. Moses comes down and tells everyone the rules, which he has thankfully written down. Moses then pops back up the mountain and receives even more instructions – they go on till Exodus 32.

All of which makes me think, is it really any wonder that people were inclined to think the rules that the Sadducees and later the Pharisees insisted they should live by were the rules they needed to follow?

Jesus’s public summary of the Law, though, is a heck of lot simpler (Mark 12:30-31; Matt 22:37-39). No wonder he was popular. Equally, when Jesus tells his third story in this section of Matthew, about the vineyard owner and the murderous servants, the chief priests and the Pharisees realize that he is talking about them. No wonder they sought to lay hands on him. No wonder the crowd regarded him as a prophet. No wonder the chief priests and the Pharisees were afraid of the crowd.

No wonder, as I said last week, a popular uprising looks imminent.


Scam city.

Signpost for Sunday Oct 1, 2017: Exod 17:1-7; Ps 78:1-4, 12-16; Phil 2:1-13; Matt 21:23-32.

It’s funny that when I read stories in the Bible I often forget the timescales involved. Take Exodus. I know that the Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness, but when I’m reading this I just think, ‘Oh come on guys, you just got the manna, the quails, and now you’re moaning because you need a drink of water.’ They really get on my nerves, and I think for a chosen people, Yahweh should maybe have chosen someone else. Then again, maybe they’d been living on quail and manna for yonks before they got desperately thirsty.

Then we come to the passage from Matthew and it’s interesting that Jesus is surrounded not just by the chief priests but also the elders of the people, as well as the people themselves who had seen what Jesus did in the Temple.

Why are the chief priests and the elders of the people so annoyed with Jesus? We’ve heard this story so often we probably just think it’s because Jesus is seriously challenging their authority, overturning tables and all the rest of it. All that is true. But it’s not just authority the chief priests and elders stand to lose, it’s the money, lots of money.

Historians tell us that the money-changers’ business was based on exchanging Roman money for Temple money. It was a great scam that seemed reasonable enough to any Jew at first. After all, Roman coins were not allowed inside the temple because they were stamped with the image of the Emperor, who called himself a god. But here comes the scam: the money-changers were charging the small exchange fee of roughly 50%!

It wasn’t just a coin exchange scam either. Most people couldn’t possible afford to sacrifice a sheep, so they opted for a dove instead. Again, history gives us the details of the scam. There is evidence that a certain Rabbi Gamaliel, later in the first century, led a protest because of the outrageous mark-up on sacrificial doves.  The protesters won and the price was lowered 99%.  Which apparently still left the dove sellers with a very tidy profit!

And, of course, all those tidy profits had to be shared with the chief priests and the elders of the people who gave out the licenses to trade to the money changers and the dove sellers.

No wonder the chief priests and the elders of the people were cheesed off with Jesus. No wonder also that the people themselves were delighted with the story the man who had two sons, which follows. Jesus completely debunks any power those who have colluded in ripping off the people for years might lay claim to.

A popular uprising looks imminent.


God has more imagination than to subject my wife, loving as she is, to an eternity of me.

Signpost for Sunday 24th September 2017: Exod 16:2-15; Ps 105:1-6, 37-45; Phil 1:21-30; Matt 20: 1-16.

I have all sorts of difficulties with one thread of today’s readings. There is an assumption that God looks after (physically and materially) his chosen elite. There is a sense that prayer reinforces that. Yet we all know, for example, that in voting we are asked as Christians to consider what was good for the nation and especially the poorer among us rather that what was in it for us.

Even the Pauline consideration of the uncertainty of life has this feeling to it. I have a friend who is disillusioned with the church (I totally sympathise with the particular reasons) and is rather put off by church-going friends who urge, “Have hope!” and who either seem to be echoing Paul, or perhaps looking for a miracle cure.

Other Church-goers speak of a loved one being re-united with a life-partner. I am sure that God has more imagination than to subject my wife, loving as she is, to an eternity of me. All I know about what lies beyond this life is that God loves us all. Anything more is speculative and can be fun, as can any speculative theology. But it is fun on the level of Fantasy Fiction, not authoritative theology.

And if we live a life worthy of the Gospel of Christ, then we too will be loving, and even, perhaps, a little fanciful.

I am also realising that I am having more to do with dying people than I used to.   In Ministry I dealt much more often with the bereaved. I became adept at listening to them talk of the deceased, and (before the all-in modern funeral) projecting their love to the rest of the congregation.

Three years ago, in my notes for this week I wrote of the goodness of God; now I speak of the love of God. Paul does this from prison, not from a comfortable house.   As the second hurricane inside a month bears down on Puerto Rico, we cannot speak of a God who makes all this safe, but only of a loving God who hurts with us.

We are to be like the vineyard owner, generous. We are to be like the late arrivals, grateful. We have the love of God; everything else is an extra.


Sorry, Janice Joplin. Freedom is not just another word for having nothing left to lose.

Signpost for Sunday September 17th September, 2017: Exodus 14:19-31; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35.

The crossing of the Red Sea (the Sea of Reeds) marks the final exodus from Egypt, and the removal of the people from the power of the Pharaoh. The site of this event seems to be in the Bitter Lakes region, just north of Suez. It would appear that strong, dry winds from the deserts in the east can cause both a movement of the water towards the west, and dry the exposed surface. Such an event would allow the people on foot to cross the marshland, while the chariots of the Egyptians would break through the dried surface and literally bog down. Deeper water on either side of the relatively dry path would act as a protection from encirclement, a wall on the right hand and the on left. For my own interest, I tried to find graphical representations of the event. My search was not exhaustive, but I found only modern versions, which depicted the path through the waters as a valley with deep water piled up on either side.

The exodus marks the beginning of a new way of life: no longer in bondage, having a new covenant with God, and learning to live together without masters giving orders. The book of Exodus contains many instructions on how to make this new relationship work properly. In the New Testament, the break with Egypt by this crossing forms one of the images associated with baptism. Living in a family relationship with God and other members of the family is the subject of the parable in Matthew. Sum it up as, If you are given freedom then give it to others.

The passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans gives much the same message. There are a number of parallels we might find between the question which Paul addresses about food offered to idols and modern activities. In all of them I have to remember that, through God’s grace, I have been given freedom, and I cannot deny that same gift to those around me. After all, Christ gave his life to give us life.


Conflict – not something to passed over lightly.

Signpost for Sunday 10 September 2017: Exod 12:1-14; Ps 149; Rom 13:8-14; Matt 18:15-20.

I couldn’t see the link between the first two readings this week. Exodus tells its audience that the Jews are the chosen ones who were rescued from Egypt, and we have here the Passover meal’s origin. All part of the foundation story the Jews passed down the generations.

Then Matthew appears to be telling us how to behave, but actually Matthew puts these words into the mouth of Jesus; yet he mentions in verse 17, members of the Church. There was no Church as far as Jesus is concerned. Matthew has switched to addressing his audience not Jesus’s. Jesus’s audience is clearly stated to be the disciples (Matt 18:1). I don’t know if early Christians all saw themselves as disciples, or is that a more modern view? I suppose we can at least assume that Matthew hoped his 80 AD Jewish Christian audience would spot the reference.

Matthew’s audience would almost certainly have recognised his version of the Hebrew tradition – Deuteronomy 19, Leviticus 19 – as guidelines on how to deal with trouble at t’mill.

The first thing to do is to go and speak to the person directly.  How many times do people not do that when they have a problem with someone? And how many times when people do follow this advice does the problem begin to go away? The answer to both questions is, most of the time.

Interestingly, the process Jesus describes here resembles, and has been a foundation for, our modern practice of “restorative justice,” which focuses less on punishment and more on the restoration of dignity for all concerned.

The New Zealand Justice website, in fact, virtually mirrors Matthew’s version of how to tackle things: “A restorative justice conference is an informal, facilitated meeting between a victim, offender, support people and any other approved people, such as community representatives or interpreters.”

Of course, verse 17 is rather strange. Matthew has Jesus tell us that if the problem can’t be solved then the person who has offended should be treated like a tax collector or a gentile. Tradition has it the Matthew was a tax collector. Maybe tradition is wrong.

Anyway, if we all just did as Paul suggests in Romans verse 8, we obviously wouldn’t have so much trouble at t’mill.

Paul (not the saintly one)