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What choice do we have?

Signpost 19th November, 2017: Judges 4:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30.

The parable of the talents, in Matthew, according to a commentary on my shelf, is one of three parables of judgement.  The message of the parable seems to be interpreted in the following way. Jesus was speaking to the people of his time, and letting them know that they had been given something valuable, but were keeping it hidden, and this was an unacceptable attitude, which led inexorably to punishment. Therefore, in a similar way we, who have the good news of Jesus Christ entrusted to us, must not keep it hidden.

The same sort of system of judgement and retribution seems to be working at the beginning of the passage from Judges, where the people again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord… so the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan.

But I wonder if there is something else which is implicit in both the parable and the story from Judges: choices have real consequences.

There is a covenant between Israel and God, and a choice to move away from it had real results, just as a choice to return to it had real results.

In the parable the servants were entrusted with something valuable, to use it for its owner. The choices they made had results, they were not protected from the consequences of their own decisions.

Archbishop Rowan Williams made the point that God loves us enough to allow our choices to have real results.

George

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It’s about time.

Signpost for Sunday 12 November, 2017: Josh 24:1-3a,14-25; Ps 78:1-7; 1 Thess 4:13-18; Matt 25:1-13.

I can’t say that Matthew 25: 1-13 is one of my favourite passages. The wise virgins seem like a bunch of meanies to me. Won’t share their oil, suggest the others go all the way to the market in the middle of the night to buy more. And then we have the lord of the wedding (Who he? Bride’s father? The groom?) saying. “Too late, you missed the bus and anyway I don’t think you’re on the guest list, actually.”

What a jolly tale. But that’s my problem of course it’s not a tale at all, it’s the last of a series of pictures that Mathew paints (these are a Matthew only verses) about people who arrive late.

In the two that precede this reading – the parable of the King’s Son’s wedding (22: 1-14), and the parable of the faithful servant and the unfaithful servant (24: 45-51) – it’s a similar situation; the King or lord is delayed somehow and that’s when things go wrong, people are tempted to behave badly.

But in our reading, the poor foolish virgins don’t behave badly at all, they just run out of oil. Then, what seems like a bunch of hoity-toity women get one over on them.

And I know that’s not what Matthew wants us to think at, it’s just me. So, I went in search of a better way of looking at it. Here’s what I found.

Apparently, if I could read first century Greek, I’d have spotted that the word translated as ‘delayed’ is the Greek word, chronizontos.  Which unsurprisingly has its roots in chronos, one of two Greek words for “time.” The other Greek word for time is kairos.  The difference is that Chronizontos means ordinary chronological time, and Kairos means special time or even “God’s time.”

So what, you might say. Well one way of looking at it is that the five foolish virgins’ big mistake that they live by the ways of this world, in chonological time. Like most us they can’t work out what’s happened to the groom. No doubt they thought. “What’s keeping him?”

But the five wise virgins, don’t ask themselves that, they don’t fall asleep because they trust that he will turn up as he said he would. They are wise because theirs is the wisdom of trusting in God’s timing and God’s way of doing things.

And that’s what so many of us find hard to do – trust in God in spite of God’s apparent absence from time to time.

Paul

Practice doesn’t make perfect.

Signpost for Sunday 5 November, 2017: Josh 3:7-17; Ps 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thess 2:9-13; Matt 23:1-12.

I plunged into Joshua this week much as the Jews plunged into the Jordan, with hope and anticipation. But all that resonated for me is that here we have a picture of the Jews entering the promised land the same way they left the land of their slavery – with the water being held back for them to cross over. Surely every Jew who heard the stories over the generations would see that connection too.

Then I came to this very well-known passage from Matthew. It all seems pretty straightforward. Some Bibles even title it as “A warning against hypocrisy.” What I did notice though is that in Matthew 23 Jesus moves from being tested by the Pharisees and the Sadducees to pointing out their failings in detail.

In fact, you could almost see Jesus’ words in Matthew 23 as the other side of the Beatitudes coin (Matthew 5:1-12). Doesn’t the behavior of the scribes and the Pharisees that Jesus describes give us a pretty good picture of what an anti-Beatitude lifestyle looks like?

Strange then maybe, that Jesus starts off by telling the people they must be careful to do everything the Pharisees tell them to do. But, of course, that is exactly the point – they do not practise what they preach (Matt 23:3).

Beyond that, I discovered this week that many scholars think that Jesus’ attack on the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 may well reflect a real conflict between Matthew and the rabbis of his own time (near the end of the first century) rather than an historical dispute between Jesus and the Jewish leaders 40 or 50 years earlier. After all, Matthew often writes “their scribes” and “their synagogues” (Matt 7:29, 9:35, 23:34) when he’s talking about the Jews. So, was the Gospel of Matthew written to a church that had once been a part of the synagogue but had then broken with that community? And the break would come about because the new Jewish Christian congregation had begun to include Gentile members.

Paul

 

A change of government.

Signpost for Sunday 29 October, 2017: Deut 34:1-12; Ps 90:1-6,13-17; 1 Thess 2:1-8; Matt 22:34-46.

Sometimes the Lectionary really does go hand in hand with real life. Three years ago almost to the day, Andrew wrote the Signpost for these same readings. At the time, he noted how the death and burial of Moses led to Joshua and his leadership. He also pointed out that the transition, the change of government, as it were, was very smooth. All of which he said was very interesting in the shadow of the 2014 New Zealand General Election.

Now, here we are in the shadow of another New Zealand General Election, and the transition, the change of government has been much more interesting than it was last time, and some would say far from very smooth.

So much so that it’s not the Deuteronomy verses that seem so appropriate this time, but it’s Matthew 22:34-46 which seem to echo our current circumstances.

Here’s Jesus at the end of a right old grilling by the Sadducees and now the Pharisees gang up on him. But Jesus handles himself brilliantly, turning the tables on them, and remaining quietly calm as he cleverly changes the conversation about the greatest commandment to a question about the superiority of the Messiah to David.

That question, “Whose son is the Messiah?” is the big one. If the Messiah was the son of David, then his job would be to restore the throne of David. Which is probably what lots of first century Jews were convinced it should be. Or as we say in New Zealand, same old, same old.

But as Jesus points out, if the Messiah is greater than David, as the scriptures indicate when David calls him “my lord” – then his job would be much more than to simply restore or prop up an old throne of David’s.

And that is the point surely. Jesus wasn’t at all interested in returning to some ancient status quo. No, it was well and truly time to move on. Time to abandon the laws that had come to favour some much more than others in society. Time to recognise that radical love for all, was the only way forward.

Verse 46 tells us that the Pharisees were gobsmacked by this. No doubt they hated Jesus’ every word and positive outlook.

So here we are three years after our last general election, and finally after nine long years we are not facing the same old, same old. We have a charismatic new Prime Minister with a relentlessly positive outlook. Many people here really do feel as if this is a new beginning for New Zealand. Let’s pray that every member of our new government will be guided by radical love for all.

Paul

 

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.

 

Andrew

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.

George

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.

Paul