Sunday, 16 September 2018

When We Judge Others We Condemn Ourselves

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

There are a number of places in the Gospels which tell of Jesus healing someone in desperate need, only for those in positions of religious authority to condemn him for it. One example is told by Matthew:
Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to Jesus, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw.  And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?”  But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.”
Jesus responds that "the mouth speaks what the heart is full of." People whose hearts are full of evil will see evil, even in what is good.

Which brings us to our next Beatitude: blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. It is only as our hearts are purified from the filth which enshrouds them that we begin to see the pure wholesome light of God.

Jesus tells us not to judge others; doing so is a sign that our hearts are not pure. There is a passage in St Paul's letter to the church in Rome which begins by talking about people who are far from God whose lifestyles end up in a mess. That bit is often quoted by religious types, but they somehow forget about the punchline:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.
Those self-appointed judges struggle with this: how can they be accused of "degrading passions" and a "debased mind"? The truth is that in passing judgement on others they show themselves to have impure and degraded hearts, fully deserving of all the rigours of God's judgement.

If they had pure hearts they would see God present and at work wherever they looked, for God is everywhere. They would see children of God, who he loves and longs to save, and would do everything they could to show these children God's loving grace, not heartless judgement.

If only we had pure hearts, what difference could we make with Jesus?

But how can our hearts be purified? By us praying lots and reading the Bible? Well, it can't hurt ... but remember that the Pharisees did a lot of that. By asking God to change our hearts through his Holy Spirit within us? Probably better, and it does fit in with the words of the ancient prophet Ezekiel:
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
But we are called to more than that. God will do the bulk of the work, of course, but we must do our part as well: we need to actively look for Jesus in the people and situations around us, and join in with whatever he is doing. We must freely share God's grace and God's love.

We must let people know the good news that God wants to include everyone in his family, however unlikely that may seem in human terms. It is as we see Jesus in those who our neighbours scorn, especially those despised by our religious neighbours, that we know we are making progress.

Everybody has a choice, of course, and can turn away from God as easily as they can turn to him. May your choices in the coming weeks always turn you toward the light of God  and may you and yours know the blessings of his wonderful grace.



Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Justice & Mercy: Back To Back

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Justice and mercy, for Jesus, are like two sides of a single coin. Those who hunger and thirst after justice want the rules to be followed, especially those that protect the poor. Those who are merciful want them relaxed, particularly as they apply to those in desperate need.

If you view Jesus’ words as about rules rather than people this beatitude seems to be a contradiction of the previous one. But if you understand Jesus as speaking hope to people whose hope is lost, it becomes clear that these beatitudes are to be seen as standing back-to-back supporting one another, together revealing good news for the poor.

Like many of the terms used in these beatitudes, ‘mercy’ is a complex concept. It is about compassion and it is about letting people off who have broken an agreement and it is about not demanding that someone repays a debt if they cannot afford it and it is about forgiving someone who has wronged you.

Most fundamentally, mercy it is about giving someone a break with whom you are in some sort of relationship. It is about not holding things against people who matter to us, but instead showing the sort of love Paul speaks about in his letter to the Corinthian church:
Love is patient, love is kind;
Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
It is not irritable or resentful;
It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
That’s the basic idea of ‘mercy’, but Luke's Gospel tells us that Jesus ramps this up to also apply to enemies: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." Consider also the ‘Who is my neighbour?’ question answered in the Parable of the Good Samaritan as “The one who shows mercy”. For mercy triumphs over judgement, as James puts it!

Mercy is about attitude, especially our attitude toward people who are different. If someone is in need, it should be irrelevant what their colour, creed, or culture is like: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” We are to be merciful as our Father is merciful; helping according to need not according to status, enmity, ingratitude or inability to repay.

As James, a leader of the early church, puts it in his letter, this really matters: “For judgement will be shown without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy.” We have been warned.

But remember that "mercy triumphs over judgement". May you know and show God's mercy this week.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Justice, Righteousness & Law

A small diversion into the problems which can arise when trying to understand Biblical language in a very different culture.

The fourth beatitude says (in the usual English translation) "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness ...", so why does my previous post talk about justice?

On a simplistic level it is because the underlying Greek word used by Matthew, dikaiosynēn, literally means 'impartial justice'. 

The problem is that 'justice' in Biblical context is not the same as in the western-European (and ex-colonies) context we tend to assume. Indeed, this is true of legal language in general, which is why many traditional approaches to St Paul's letter to the Romans often miss its point.

We tend to think of law and justice in the sense of criminal law and criminal justice: some sort of abstract and unchanging right and wrong. In the Bible things are much more concrete: law and justice are about contract law - keeping or breaking a solemn and binding agreement. A lot of Biblical language, not least 'Testament' and 'Covenant', reflects this.

In the Old Testament the central contract is that made between God and the Israelites on Mt Sinai: the Torah, or Jewish Law, a contract with ten key clauses and several hundred sub-clauses and applications. 

So ‘righteousness’, in Jesus' context, means justice, but a particular idea of justice which is about conformity to God’s Law – more precisely, conformity to the terms and conditions of the covenant which God and the Israelites entered into on Mt Sinai. God is righteous because he keeps his side of that contract; the Israelites, again and again, are unrighteous because they persistently and deliberately fail to keep theirs.

In the third beatitude, those of the poor who lost their land were supposed to have had it returned at the following Jubilee. This hasn’t happened – there is a great injustice – but justice will come, “rolling on like river,” as Amos puts it (Amos 5:24), and “righteousness like a never-failing stream.

One difference between law as a contract and law as an abstract idea is that a contract can be bought out - redeemed for a price agreed by both sides. Which still leaves the problems that the original Sinai contract was made to address, so you need a new contract: foreshadowed in the prophet Ezekiel's "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."

Which leads us into the great mysteries of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and the role of the Holy Spirit in changing us so that we might become "perfect as our heavenly father is perfect."

Grace and peace to you and to all who love you.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Give Us Hope (Joanna)!

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Sl o o o o wly continuing a series on The Beatitudes, we reach a change of perspective: from the early beatitudes' hope and comfort to those in desperate straits (rejected, devastated, oppressed) to hope and encouragement for those who want to make a difference, to make the world a better place.

If you have been following along this year's Beatitudes posts, and have heard about the people to whom Jesus’ early beatitudes are meant to bring hope and security, how have you felt? How do you feel about religious authorities who try to exclude people from the hope of God’s kingdom; about those who have suffered devastating loss and need comfort; about the desperately poor, oppressed and crushed by injustice?

Do you look at those first three beatitudes and ache, feeling the pain of a world where these things happen? Do you share the frustration of the ancient prophet Habakkuk?
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you "Violence!"

Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.

So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.
Is the injustice filling the world, two thousand years after Jesus spoke out about these things, all too much for you? Then this fourth beatitude is for you.

It contains the hope and the promise that, in Caversham, Britain and throughout the world, God really is at work: that his Kingdom will come and his will be done in Caversham as in heaven. The challenge, especially for any church interesting in “Becoming a Christlike community”, is whether we can see God at work and come together as Jesus’ followers to join in. Whether we care enough to speak out against injustice and work with those who suffer, to challenge the powerful vested interests and to make ‘the system’ work for people instead of against them.

In Jesus we have a covenant of Grace, but it is no less a promise of Justice. There will be an accounting, there will be restoration of all that is stolen, and there will be truth. Then there will be renewal and new life, providing there is mercy – see the forthcoming post on the next beatitude (hopefully a bit sooner than I've been achieving so far).

In the meantime, a poem from the First World War, written by Robert Palmer, who died in 1916, aged just 27:
How Long, O Lord? 
How long, O Lord, how long, before the flood
Of crimson-welling carnage shall abate?
From sodden plains in West and East, the blood
Of kindly men steams up in mists of hate,
Polluting Thy clean air; and nations great
In reputation of the arts that bind
The world with hopes of heaven, sink to the state
Of brute barbarians, whose ferocious mind
Gloats o'er the bloody havoc of their kind,
Not knowing love or mercy. Lord, how long
Shall Satan in high places lead the blind
To battle for the passions of the strong?
Oh, touch Thy children's hearts, that they may know
Hate their most hateful, pride their deadliest foe.
A final note about the great Eddy Grant's protest song referenced in this post's title. Grant was singing about a great injustice of his time: apartheid in South Africa. He released the song in 1988; by 1991 apartheid was formally over, and in 1994 there was the first democratic election, leading to Nelson Mandela becoming president. To date, whilst a painful and damaging legacy of apartheid remains in South Africa, there has been no bloodbath and no economic collapse.

There remains hope, Jo'anna, so let us all do our parts in promoting justice wherever we are.

May Grace, peace and the hope of real change fill your week ahead.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

When Will There Be Justice For The Landless Poor?

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth"

Something like that, anyway. Jesus told a story about workers in a vineyard: casual labourers who worked for a daily rate which was just, and only just, enough to live on. So if you were only hired for part of the day then normally your family went hungry.

Land was important in Biblical times: if you had your own piece of land you hand a chance to grow food for your family. Otherwise, if you were part of the 'landless poor' - a group most English translations unhelpfully render as 'the meek' - then you were destitute, dependent on rich landowners offering work, at the lowest pay possible, or on begging. Even if you had land and were poor, the rich landowners would try to unjustly pressure you until you were forced to sell the land. That's the way the world seems to work; but it wasn't meant to be the way God's people do things.

The idea that everyone had their own little piece of land was fundamental to the way that Jewish society worked – it was their living and their security. That is why the Jewish Law specified that no family could lose their land permanently – every fifty years there was to be a Jubilee when the land was returned.

Of course, this was never followed: throughout Israel’s history the rich acquired the land of the poor and exploited those who were now landless. In Jesus’ day land injustice was a major social issue, as it is today in much of the world (see the picture above for just one example).

Psalm 37 counsels patient trust in God:
Be still before the Lord
   and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
    when they carry out their wicked schemes.

Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
    do not fret — it leads only to evil.
For those who are evil will be destroyed,
    but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look for them, they will not be found.
But the meek will inherit the land
    and enjoy peace and prosperity.
Both the opening beatitude and Psalm 37 tell us that those who are currently oppressed and landless are to wait patiently, trusting that the Lord will provide the inheritance of the land which they need. Their security lies in their faith as they wait for God’s Kingdom to come down to earth and for God’s will to be done here as in heaven.

“The landless poor are secure in God because they shall inherit the land,” is one translation of today's beatitude. But, more generally, it is about those whose relationship with their neighbours, with their society, and with the world around them has been broken by injustice and oppression.

Like the first two beatitudes this is about people who are desperate and without hope in the world being given good news by Jesus: that God keeps his promises and that he will have the last word.

The trouble is that Jesus said this two thousand years ago. Two thousand years! Where is the hope of justice from a God who leaves injustice to thrive for two thousand years after the price has been paid to end it? One theory is that Jesus wants to work through his church, but it has spent much of the time refusing to cooperate – something to ponder, perhaps, as we seek to genuinely follow Jesus today.

Singer/songwriter Harvey Andrews wrote a song some years back, called Requiem, about the loss of hope that comes with growing older. It included the lyric (about Jesus): “For two thousand years he’s brought nothing but tears, and the crosses to plant on the graves.”

If you have the song (or can play it from Spotify), try playing Requiem, and as you listen consider the lost hopes of your neighbours, whether in Caversham or elsewhere, and how we can restore people’s hope in God.

"Faith, hope and love remain, and the greatest of these is love". May your life be filled with all three in the weeks ahead.