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)
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 .
Signpost for Sunday 6th August 2017 (The Transfiguration): Dan 7:9-10, 13-14; Ps 97; 2 Pet 1:16-19; Luke 9:28b-36.
It does seem somewhat absurd to me that the Gospel read out in churches this week begins with the words, “Now about eight days after these sayings…” and yet we have not actually heard any of these sayings as part of the service. I don’t know about you but I certainly don’t know the Bible well enough to immediately recall what those sayings are. And let’s face it, how many people bother to go home and look them up? Which leaves most people listening to a story they struggle to believe in literally and can’t quite work out metaphorically.
So, as a special treat, here are three sayings from the ‘eight days before’:
Luke 9:7-9 Now Herod the ruler* heard about all that had taken place, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. 9Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’ And he tried to see him.
Luke 9:18-19 Once when Jesus* was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ 19They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’
Luke 9:20 He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’
Is it just me, or does this remind you of those endless trailers that appear on TV telling us what programme is coming up next, so stay tuned for a really exciting episode?
Well, it is an exciting episode in the story Luke is telling his largely gentile audience. Pardon? Yes, here we have an episode that Luke has taken from Mark and slightly altered. The main difference between the two versions being that Peter, James and John see Moses and Elijah actually talking with Jesus, says Luke. It’s all just a vision in Mark’s version.
Most commentators suggest that Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets. And their appearance has certainly been signposted in the previous ‘sayings’. But would a mainly gentile audience be quite so aware of the significance of Moses and Elijah, I wonder. Surely, they wouldn’t have been particularly familiar with the Torah.
The key for that audience must have been, as it probably is for us, that we hear God’s voice from heaven saying “Listen to Him!” and don’t worry too much about reading your Bible cover to cover.
Signpost for Sunday 2nd July 2017: Gen 22:1-14; Ps 13; Rom 6:12-23; Matt 10:40-42.
Three years ago I wrote a Signpost on these very same verses. I was perturbed then and all I could really do was recommend Leonard Cohen’s song The Story of Isaac to you.
This time round I remain perturbed, and I’m not the only one. John C. Holbert, the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas has this to say about Genesis 22: “Let me make something very clear from the outset of this piece: I deeply dislike and thoroughly distrust this morsel of the sacred text.”
It’s worth reading the rest of his thoughts especially as he now refuses to preach on this text ever again.
Fortunately, I don’t have to preach on anything but I do have to write this Signpost. Which is why I’m glad that I happen to be reading a book by Brian D. McLaren at the moment. The title hooked me straight away: ‘Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World.’ As a book that makes you think about things you may not have questioned, that many people just don’t question, I can thoroughly recommend it.
And what it has to do with the Abraham and Isaac story is that it suggests another way to look at the First and Second Testaments.
McLaren writes: ‘For most of us, I suspect, our concept of Christianity, follows a similar pattern to this: What is true of God is true of Jesus; Jesus is equal to God. Also, we would say that Jesus is the revelation of God to us, or that if we want to understand God, Jesus is the ‘human’ version of God.’
I think he’s right about that and it’s probably what I would have said before reading his book. But, he points out, there is another way of looking at things, one that McLaren suggests actually makes more sense of the notion of ‘New’ Testament and ‘Gospel’, and even the whole point of Jesus’ ministry on earth.
It’s not something new; the alternative concept of Christianity is in fact how Franciscans, the Celts and Quakers see things: First seek to understand or know Christ. Then apply this understanding to God. Enrich, challenge, adjust, affirm or correct all previous understandings of God in the light of Christ.
Personally, I’d never thought about Christianity in exactly those terms. And then I thought, if I take this approach, the story of Abraham and Isaac is less of a problem for me. Or to put it another way – this is not a story about the God I believe in, because Jesus shows me a different understanding of who God is.
Signpost for Sunday November 20, 2016: Jeremiah 23:1-6; For Psalm Luke 1:68-79; Colossians 1 11-20; Luke 23:33-43.
The image of sheep and shepherds is common throughout the Bible. Often the shepherds are to be identified as leaders of the flock, and singled out for judgement if they misuse their position of leadership. An image of this kind is presented by the prophet Jeremiah as a prefix to the promise of better shepherds, and of the righteous one who shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
Zechariah, in his prophecy in Luke 1, picks up this and similar statements of the prophets as he speaks of his son, John, as the one who will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. So the scene is set for the coming of the one who was promised. Our next image is of the apparent disaster of the death of the one who would reign as king and deal wisely is cruelly cut short. But, included in the description of the events is a record of a short conversation between three men, all of them being tortured to death. All of them can hear what is being said around the execution site. One is angry: hearing what is being said he demands to be set free from torture. The other, recognising that he was a criminal, and recognising the truth in the mockery of Jesus, asks for nothing more than to be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom, and he receives a dramatic and unexpected reply: Today you will be with me in paradise.
One of the things that stands out to me from this conversation is that Jesus, through his actions, was offering a choice to those around him; to believe or not to believe is a choice. His love for humanity is such that he is offering a choice which has real consequences. The apostle Paul grasps something of what has happened, both in the crucifixion and the resurrection which follows. He expresses himself in words that convey a sense of excitement and of wonder at what he sees in the person of Christ. Again, the element of choice appears through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things. Reconciliation is possible only through a choice by both sides of a separation. The statement He is the image of the invisible God can set us off thinking about what we mean by an image and how we relate it to the reality which gives rise to it. There are even choices in the way we develop our thoughts around the concept of an image. One of them arises from the writings of Rowan Williams: if Jesus the man is the image of the invisible God how then should we treat our fellow humans?
Signpost for Sunday30 October, 2016: Hab 1:1-4;2:1-4; Ps 119:137-144; 2 Thess 1:1-4,11-12; Luke 19:1-1.
If you’re anything like me, you probably think you know all about Zacchaeus. The tax man up a tree. The little man who repents big time. That guy who makes me feel guilty because I haven’t changed anything like as dramatically as he does on meeting Jesus.
But what if we are barking up the wrong tree with that way of looking at this passage? (Sorry I couldn’t resist that one.) And, what’s to suggest that we even might be missing the point being made here?
Luke is the only one who mentions this episode at all. So despite him reassuring his mate, Theophilus that he’s writing ‘an account of things that have been fulfilled’, maybe this passage is less about how it was and more about how it is.
I’ve been reading Robert Capon’s Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the parables of Jesus. First of all, he thinks that this tale falls into the category of parable not history. The way Capon sees it, Jesus doesn’t just tell parables, he acts parabolically (his word). So we can look for significance and meaning in the way Jesus does things in the New Testament as well as the way he tells things.
What Capons suggests is that Jesus picks out Zacchaeus to show the folks following him that he has come to save losers not winners (so far OK). But his big claim is that when Zacchaeus jumps up at dinner and promises to right all his wrongs many times over, Zacchaeus himself has got it all wrong – he has been chosen and forgiven by the grace of God, and no grand deeds or works he promises to do are of any significance at all. He may as well sit down, shut up and celebrate with everyone the gift of the grace of God in forgiveness.
But then I was reading a blog by Daniel B Clendenin, which pointed out that if you read different translations of this passage you get a different message. But we’re not talking special esoteric translations here. Have a look at this:
‘“And Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Luke 19:8 New Standard Version Revised.
And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold. Luke 19:8 King James Version.
It’s not the words ‘unto’ and ‘fourfold’ that are significant about the King James version. it’s the tense of the verbs. Zacchaeus is speaking in the present tense. Maybe he’s not saying “I will give half my possessions to the poor.” Maybe he is telling Jesus that he already gives half his possessions to the poor, etc.
If that is the case, then the point of this passage is not what I thought it was all these years. It’s that Zacchaeus looks nothing like a righteous guy to anyone around. But maybe the clue that he’s not what he appears to be is right there at the beginning of the story. Zacchaeus, who as a servant of Rome, ought to be stuffed with his own self-importance, demeans himself in front of everyone and climbs a tree to see Jesus! He doesn’t get his flunkies to clear a path through the crowd so he can get a good view, as might be expected of most corrupt and nasty tax men.
Maybe Zacchaeus then isn’t a nasty tax man. Maybe he’s what none of us actually believes exists even to this day – a good tax man. Maybe Jesus really is acting parabolically and he picks Zacchaeus out because he recognizes that goodness. Shock, horror again for the Pharisees in the crowd who really are stuffed with their own self-importance and false righteousness – and maybe that’s the real point Jesus is parabolically making: you can’t tell who the good guys are by the position they hold in society. You may well find them among society’s lost, shunned and despised.
Signpost for Sunday 16 October 2016: Jeremiah 31:27-34; 2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5; Luke 18:1-8.
In the last of the ten commandments we find the statement You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife… followed by a list of possessions, including slaves and animals. This tells us something about the status of wives: they were seen as possessions. A widow, without children, could be seen as a sort of possession without an owner.
It is no surprise that, since New Testament times, the commandment is abbreviated to You shall not covet. Of course the law provided protection for widows, but Jesus, later in Luke’s gospel, castigates the scribes; he says that they devour widow’s houses and, for the sake of appearance, make long prayers.
It would seem that the sort of scenario presented in the parable was familiar to the people who heard it. In the parable the persistence of the widow in asking for justice eventually works; the judge to whom she appeals eventually gives in and grants her request for justice. (There is also some hidden humour in the parable – I read that the phrase translated as wear me out is literally translatable as give me a black eye.)
One of the lessons to be drawn from this parable is the need for prayer and continuing persistence: we are informed at the beginning that was the basic purpose. A second is that, if an unjust judge will eventually do the proper thing, even for the wrong reasons, will not God, who is righteous, do right? In the words of Abraham, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
But as we seek justice, perhaps not so much for ourselves, but for those around us and for those in troubled parts of the world, we find ourselves immersed in a sea of complexity. Justice for some means injustice for others, and we cannot perceive a way forward. Perhaps we should take encouragement from the sorrowful prophet Jeremiah when he spoke the word of the Lord: I will put my law within them.
Is this not the way in which the justice of God will be enacted in the world? Should we not aspire to work towards this end? Is not this the purpose of our prayers? Should we not be giving thanks for the fact that the word of the Lord is I will put my law within them?