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 11th. June, Trinity Sunday: Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a; Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20.
I have been reading some essays by Rowan Williams, and one of them reminded me of a word I have not seen for some time: pneumatology: (The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: “2. Theol. The, or a, doctrine of the Holy Spirit 1881”).
One essay that I read set me off on a line of thought, so I will try to formulate it in the context of the readings. The two short readings both include the Three-in-One form: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and are effectively an invitation to attempt to find out more about the Three-in-One from the rest of the New Testament.
There appears to be more than one way that the work of the Spirit is described. Luke seems to describe the Spirit as a sort of conduit, bringing sporadic and powerful interventions. In Acts, he uses phrases like Paul, filled with the Spirit, … and, Peter, filled with the Spirit… almost as if this was an abnormal event. Of course, since Luke is such a good story-teller, and takes care that what he records is accurate, his presentation may represent what those witnessing the events could actually perceive. Sometimes the people of God pick up this view and regard one or two things as the primary, or possibly the only, evidence of the work of the Spirit.
Ideas like this led the Corinthian congregation to ask questions, and Paul could respond in more depth and detail than could be provided in a book like Acts. In his letter to the Corinthians he gives an extended view of the gifts, given by the Spirit, for the common good of the people of God, but he adds: I will show you a more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, and have not love, I am a noisy gong, or a clanging cymbal. This love enables the congregation to work together, and provides the framework in which the gifts can work for the common good.
In his letter to the Romans he writes: You did not receive a Spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if in fact we suffer with him so that we may be glorified with him.
Here Paul explains that we are being drawn by the Spirit into the family of the Three-in-One. Here is the work of the Spirit. The Spirit brings us to new birth in the everlasting family: she gives us new life, we are born in the Spirit. (She seems to me to be the appropriate pronoun.)
But the family into which we are born is not a risk-free environment: The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world, so we, as brothers and sisters also face risks. This is how the Three-in-One works as a unity.
Finally, John, in a letter sums things up for the redeemed part of the family: Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not been revealed. What we know is this: we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
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 20 March, 2016 (Passion Sunday/Palm Sunday): Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 19:28-40
The Palm Sunday reading describes how Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, receiving an exuberant welcome as the one who would redeem Israel. The Passion Sunday reading describes how, in a few days this all changed. From the point of view of some of the disciples, redemption changed to catastrophe.
Luke, of course, not as an eyewitness but as Christian and friend of the apostle Paul, would be looking back at the events with a knowledge of what happened a little later. He manages, however, to write in a way which gives a sense of darkness in the process: betrayal, denial, calls for crucifixion, a trial where a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict nevertheless carried a sentence of death, lamenting women and the crucifixion itself. There seems to be an inevitability in the course of the events, driven at least in part, by the fact that Jesus was accepting the will of the Father. Here the prayer in the garden is significant, in that Jesus was plainly not wishing to die by torture or to endure the separation which was part of the work he came to do.
Earlier, he had used the words which we often repeat: This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
And: This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood (Luke 22:19).
The epistle contains what appears to be a liturgical expression of an attempt to understand what Christ did. It follows an exhortation Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5). Given the reading for Passion Sunday, this is not something to be undertaken lightly.