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)

A different kettle of icthus.

Signpost for Sunday Sept 3, 2017: Exodus 3:1-15; Ps 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Rom 12:9-21; Matt 16:21-28.

Funny way to behave. First Jesus tells Simon that he is his rock on which he will build his Church. Then ‘straight after’ he’s saying, “Get behind me, Satan. You are on the side of men, not on the side of God.”

Of course, Jesus isn’t saying any of this, Matthew is, and he hasn’t yet grasped the concept of character. He knows the plot backwards, though. Which is why the other troublesome verse in this passage occurs.

That verse is 28: “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until before they see the Son of man coming into his kingdom.”

What on earth did he mean? We know that didn’t turn out to be the case? Or did it? Matthew, writing in about 80 CE, might have Jesus say these words for a plot reason, not a prophetic one. Read on to Matthew 17: 1-9 and there we have Jesus being transfigured. And before whose very eyes? Peter, James and John – they were among those standing there in verse 28.

What if Matthew had Jesus say these words because he’s telling them something amazing is about to happen, and it’s not resurrection in this case?

After all, the disciples don’t want to believe all that stuff, do they. Surely that’s why Matthew says in verse 21, “…. Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go up to Jerusalem…” It’s going to take while before they can accept the idea of Jesus dying.

But it’s not just because the disciples are a bit thick or that they love Jesus so much they can’t stand the thought of him being killed. That second bit would obviously be true enough. But again, Matthew is writing at least 50 years after the crucifixion and he’s writing for an audience who were still having trouble coming to terms with the notion of a messiah who wasn’t just murdered but actually crucified.

Matthew might well have Jesus talk about his followers taking up their individual crosses to follow him, and to us it all alludes to the cross of crucifixion. But Church historians tell us that the cross did not become a universal symbol for Christians until the 5th century. It was so hated and feared that early Christians didn’t adopt it. Instead, the second-century Christian, teacher Clement of Alexandria, mentions a dove, a fish, a ship, a lyre, and an anchor as suitable images to be engraved on Christians’ signet-rings or seals.

I wonder if fact that the cross wasn’t the symbol of early Christianity goes some way to explaining why Constantine could so pragmatically later declare the whole Roman Empire Christian. Would Constantine so readily have co-opted a religion whose badge reminded everyone how cruel Romans could be? Dove, ship, lyre, now that might be a different kettle of icthus* altogether.


* It’s Greek for fish and it’s what we call one of these .

The butler did it.

Signpost for Sunday 27 August 2017 (21st Sunday in Ordinary Time): Exodus 1.8 – 2.10; Psalm 124; Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20.

I have been trying to imagine the conditions under which the Gospel of Matthew was written. It is part of a tradition, relying greatly on the Gospel of Mark. This dependence suggests it was not written by a disciple who was remembering, but compiled in honour of Matthew.

Secondly, it was most likely written after the fall of Jerusalem, and therefore in another place.  One writer suggests the Roman army discharge settlement of Antioch, and there is something to commend it. This timing also explains the need for Peter to call Jesus the Son of God.

Next, if it follows the destruction of the Temple, it also follows the scattering of the church in Jerusalem. Whereas Paul could go there and submit (in part) to its authority, by this time there was perhaps a vacuum at the top, so to speak.   We hear nothing more of James the brother of Jesus, so can assume his authority is lost.   There is nothing to suggest that Paul ever became an authority figure. So the appeal is to the authority of one of the remaining apostles (or to the memory of such).

The other change at this time is in the relationship with the Synagogue. There is plenty in the Gospels to suggest that relations with those authorities were worsening.  There was a need to counter the exclusion of Christians from the Synagogues, and the language of our reading may reflect that. This may explain the binding and loosening language. To call Jesus Messiah and Son of God certainly throws down the gauntlet in that respect.

We do not have to connect exclusion with the keys. “The famous keys are unlikely to be the keys of the Kingdom’s front door. Rather the picture is of the trusted manager or butler, who has the keys to the master’s store rooms and cupboards – symbols of the responsibilities of faithful disciples within the household of God.” * It is the grounding of the life of the Christian in the intimate relationship with Jesus through the Spirit that gives the ability of share the abundant loving gifts of God with all who need them.

The life we have as Christians (being the Church!) is founded on the rock of faith that is here typified by Peter. Peter is not a gatekeeper grudgingly admitting those he chooses, but a butler generously sharing the goodies that his generous loving master has given to him.


* From With Love to the World, 1990 issue 4.