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 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 20th. October 2015: Isaiah 35:1-6; Acts 16:6-12a; 2 Timothy 4:5-17; Luke 10:1-9.
Luke alone records Jesus appointing and sending out of the seventy messengers. Both Matthew and Luke have Jesus sending out twelve on a similar mission. They were to be completely dependent on the people to whom they were sent: no money, no spare clothing, no food, no spare pair of sandals. Their message was so urgent that they were not to delay on the road from one village to another by spending time in (typically protracted) greetings when they met other travellers. They were to stay in one house in any village they visited, accepting hospitality, but not moving from house to house: in other words they were not to take more than they needed, they were not to engage in merely social activities and their work was urgent. Their message was that the kingdom of God was near. The process was risky: Jesus called them lambs among wolves, a phrase which suggests both danger and helplessness.
He sent them and they went. We do not know whether they were enthusiastic about their mission, but they were certainly enthusiastic when they came back. (Luke 10:17)
Luke also tells us, in Acts, about a journey which Paul and at least Timothy made. The passage begins with a rather understated phrase; they went through the regions of Phrygia and Galatia; this was a journey of some 300 kilometres, presumably made on foot. Luke himself appears to have joined them in Troas. Luke tells of the sea journey past Samothrace, an island with a mountain about 1000m. high, which was a well known nautical reference point, on to Nea Polis, and on to Philippi.
A business woman from Thyatira, who sold purple cloth, was one of the first converts. (Thyatira was a town in the region which had been part of the ancient kingdom of Lydia, and the dye used in the manufacture of the cloth made there was not the very expensive product of the murex shellfish but was produced from the madder root. Lydia may not have been her proper name but she was probably called a shortened form of The woman from Lydia.) She was obviously successful, since she had enough space in her house to invite Paul and his companions to stay there.
As I read these accounts of the memories from the early days of the Christian faith I wonder how the Church managed to become an institution which, though there are a few risk-takers, seems to be concentrated on buildings and organisation.
Jesus was taking time with his disciples to try to get them to understand what was to happen to him. The combination of betrayal, death and resurrection was a set of ideas which did not in any way match what they thought should happen. Jesus obviously regarded the combination as all of one piece, and as part of his mission as the anointed one, but the emphasis falls on the resurrection. The concept of a resurrection was not foreign to the disciples, but their idea was probably that there would be a resurrection of the righteous at the beginning of the age to come. The notion of an individual resurrection lay far outside their conceptual framework. Just like many of us, faced with an incomprehensible lesson the disciples avoided the problem by getting involved in something else, they began arguing about the position of each one of them in their group.
The status of an individual was a very important part of life, and a servant was very low in the pecking order, so the concept of the Messiah as servant was again incomprehensible. The idea of the greatest being the servant of all broke all the rules of status, rank and standing in society. Children were also of very low status, but Jesus took a child in the crook of his arm and described the child as one who represented himself. We could use this statement by Jesus to raise questions about refugee children.
Some years ago a group on Waiheke started an enterprise which they called The Village Project: it was aimed at providing fresh water for a village in Africa. One of the people involved built concrete water tanks on Waiheke and he took himself over there to built tanks for the village. The local Waiheke newspaper had a photograph of him with a small child sitting in the crook of his arm. The child was happy, confident and smiling. I wonder if the child Jesus held, in front of a group of uncomprehending disciples, felt like the child in the photograph.
Photo courtesy of Waiheke Gulf News
Signpost for 8th February 2015, 5th Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11, 20c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
The Year of Mark, the exciting, breath-taking race through the ministry of Jesus – full of “immediatelys” and “at onces”, incident upon incident, so vivid and believable, giving this Gospel even more than the others what JP Phillips calls “The Ring of Truth”.
What woman hasn’t at least once in her life rolled her eyes and wondered why Simon, or his wife maybe, couldn’t have made the tea? We know the answer only too well and are ashamed of even pretending this cynicism. My relatively new Bible brought this guilt close to home by telling me in its footnotes: In the phrase “she served them” the Greek word for “serve” is the same word used in 1:13 to describe the action of the angels. Hmmm.
Simon’s mother-in-law disappears from the story. Simon’s wife is not even mentioned in the Gospels, but there is a reference to her by Paul a few verses before today’s Epistle reading begins.
Jesus’ withdrawal to the wilderness in the very early hours of the morning is also compelling stuff. We know from the story of the woman with the flow of blood that his healing actions took strength from him, and last evening he had healed not only Simon’s mother-in-law but also whole “cities” of many illnesses. One would think that after such a physically and emotionally exhausting day Jesus deserved at least a lie-in, but no, echoing the Isaiah passage, the perfect man showed us the way to restore strength is time out with God. How we fail to measure up!
Simon and his companions “hunted for him”. It seems the Greek verb is very strong, even carrying a hostile intent, “hunted him down”. Mark doesn’t pull any punches.
The Epistle reading is also very real. When we put the few verses we are given into context we find a very angry Paul writing strong letters – not epistles, not scripture – castigating the Christians in Corinth who, as soon as he left them, set about outdoing the religious and social excesses of the religious communities around them, quarrelling amongst themselves and dividing into factions – “I belong to Paul, I belong to Apollos…” (1:12). Isn’t it delightfully real that he heard about it from “Chloe’s people” (1:11) – another woman, obviously one who can be trusted, who gets a mention, this time a name, and then disappears?
From real to the sublime – Isaiah – “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” (almost as good as the KJV). And, “those that wait for the Lord shall renew their strength…” (verse 31); I heard Brye’s wife Margaret sing that little song so often, so beautifully, back in the 80s at our EFM seminars. I haven’t heard it since. It’s a shame if it has dropped out of our repertoire.