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?
Signpost for Sunday October 2, 2016: Lam 1:1-6; Ps 137; 2 Tim 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10.
I’ve often thought that in Luke 17:6 as Jesus is telling off his disciples (and me) that they don’t have enough faith. After all, they’ve just asked him to increase their faith so it always seemed to me that that they had themselves felt that.
The second thing about this verse is that it always reminds me of that bit in Star Wars where Luke is trying to raise the stone or log or whatever and Yoda is saying, ‘Stop trying and just feel the Force,’ or something like that. So it’s as if the Luke doesn’t believe in the Force enough.
But this week I found a completely different way of looking at the verse that makes much more sense to me. In his book, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables the writer Robert Capon says this:
It is not as if we have a faith meter in our chests, and that our progress toward salvation consists in cranking it up over a lifetime from cold to lukewarm to toasty to red hot. We cannot be saved by our faith reading any more than by our morality reading or our spirituality reading. All of those recipes for self-improvement amount to nothing more than salvation by works…
Luke 17: 7-10 is something else that I’ve often got wrong. I’ve thought, well why wouldn’t you be kind to your slave and let him eat first after a long day’s work? But that’s because my 21st century sensibility finds any notion of slavery abhorrent. In 85BC when Luke is writing, slavery was often not the worst way of life in the world. It gave you a roof over your head and food in your stomach. And of course this is a kind of parable.
Which is why Robert Capon also writes: “With Jesus, the device of parabolic utterance is used not to explain things to people’s satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and understandings.”
I’ll try to remember that.
Signpost for Sunday 10th April 2016, Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 9:1-6(7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19.
Today’s readings are lengthy, full of action, full of meaning. But four small words jump out and won’t go away: “Do you love me?” I find myself singing them (not out loud, I promise) to the haunting melody in Fiddler on the Roof, where Tevye asks that question of Golde, his wife whom he met for the first time on their wedding day. Golde’s response is along the lines of, “Well considering all I’ve done for you for the past 25 years I guess I must do” – though much more musically expressed.
Is that my response as Jesus asks me that question? Quite apart from its outrageous presumption, it’s not good enough. Even switching it around to the more pertinent “Considering all you’ve done for me…” it’s not good enough. The Martha in me is ever more dominant than the Mary.
Peter protests three times, “You know that I love you.” Given his recent behaviour it is hard to credit that he has the effrontery to utter those words, yet his yearning and passion are patently obvious in the text. He is not saying “I suppose so”, he is vehemently expressing his emotions. Jesus’ tranquil response is, “Feed my sheep, feed my lambs – get on with the job at hand – and there’s more to come.”
Thank heavens he also said, “I am with you always.”
Signpost 13th March 2016, Fifth Sunday in Lent (Passion Sunday): Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8.
Today’s Gospel lends itself effortlessly to the style of Bible study in which we place ourselves at the scene, in our imagination experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of the story (the last-mentioned being particularly relevant).
With whom do we identify?
With Martha, hostess at a dinner party prepared for Jesus at a time when he was no longer walking freely amongst the Jews? A dinner party already filled with tension and made more so as she wondered what that sister of hers was up to this time.
With Lazarus? Who can imagine how Lazarus was feeling? Some of the guests were probably there out of curiosity to see this man so recently raised from the dead. His loyalties to his two so very different sisters may have been strained.
With Judas? Hitherto Judas has been the reliable, prudent disciple, looking after their small amount of money, aware (if not caring) of the needs of the very poor. He is by now bothered and bewildered by Jesus’ mission, his orderly mind shocked to witness the incomprehensible extravagance of Mary’s gift.
With the other guests, embarrassed at Mary’s actions, possibly titillated at the extraordinary sight of a woman letting down her hair in public?
We can empathise with all these people.
But Mary? Like the others at the dinner, like us maybe, a faithful disciple, but possessing that sublime quality which enables her to defy the conventions of her culture, and worship her Lord with heart, mind and soul; her actions foreshadowing his death which lies only a few days ahead. Who is so great as to identify with Mary?