Tuesday 27 October 2015


Jesus famously said that he came to call sinners, not the righteous, but who did he mean by that?

To 20th-Century churchgoers the answer would have been obvious: sinners are the bad and the wicked, especially those whose wrong-doing has something to do with sex or the ten commandments. To early 21st-Century non-churchgoers sin is more of a marketing term, implying luxury and indulgence, with a hint of defiance against overweening authority.

In Biblical times the meaning was quite different. In contrast to the righteous, the δικαίους, who followed the rules and fitted into the framework of their society, sinners, the ἁμαρτωλούς, were those who had missed the mark, not kept to their society's rules. In the case of the Jews this was all about the covenant on Mount Sinai, and being God's people.

The book of Exodus tells of that covenant: God told the Israelites that if they followed his commands he would be their God and they would be his people. It was a contract, with definite terms and conditions.

A large part of the rest of the Old Testament tells of how the Israelites failed, again and again, to keep their side of the bargain. Eventually God withdrew his protection and the nation of Israel was driven out by the Assyrians; later Judea was taken into exile by the Babylonians. The Jews (aka Judeans) eventually returned to their lands, the inhabitants of the northern kingdom, Israel, never really did (there is some confusion about the status of the Samaritans, who claimed to be descendants of these Israelites although the Jews denied this).

Although the Jews (many of them) returned to their lands, they never really had control over them: Persians, Greeks and then Romans claimed authority instead. So, we can tell from documents from Jesus' time and earlier found over the past few decades, they decided that the exile was, in a sense, still ongoing. That God and his chosen king would eventually come and truly establish God's Kingdom of justice and freedom and peace ... at least for the Jews.

Part of this development was the idea that it wasn't enough to be a Jew to be one of God's people - you had to be a righteous Jew: one who truly follows all the conditions of that Sinai covenant. If you kept all the rules of the Law you were included in that promised Kingdom; if you missed the mark, failed to keep the terms of the contract, then you were a sinner, outside the Kingdom.

Of course, those of us who are Gentiles, non-Jews, are automatically outside the Kingdom, automatically sinners.

The trouble was that the religious authorities, who determined how those terms and conditions should be applied, interpreted them on their own terms. So, oddly enough, those who behaved religiously would be declared righteous, those who had to get on with normal life would find themselves being declared sinners, missing the mark and falling outside the covenant.

For example, their interpretation of the food laws effectively meant that Jews were not allowed to eat at the homes of Gentiles. At a time when Gentiles are in charge, that means that anyone working with the Romans or Greeks would soon be either out of a job - as eating together was an important part of the way that these relationships worked - or would be declared a sinner.

Similarly, anyone caring for the sick on a regular basis would soon find themselves doing or touching something they shouldn't, just as part of living. And anyone who actually was chronically sick - for instance the woman in the story who suffered from a long term haemorrhage - was excluded almost by definition.

People were excluded from God's Kingdom effectively because they were not rich and privileged enough to follow the lifestyle set as the target by the privileged religious leaders.

You begin to see why Jesus got so angry, perhaps?

There is an enormous amount of good in the Old Testament, including much that was amazingly progressive for its day. But the people in leadership, the ones who were supposed to make it work, instead abused and exploited their people in the name of God and of His covenant. A new approach was needed.

Jesus died on a cross, and rose again, in order that all those who could not qualify for membership of God's Kingdom under the old contract could take out a new one instead. A new contract which doesn't depend on following rules, but on following Jesus, and which focuses on including all who are willing to turn to God in order to be made new, and on welcoming the previously excluded into the family of God's people.

I just wish that today's religious leaders would properly come to terms with this.

Sunday 25 October 2015

On Wings Like Eagles

The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Something of a follow-on to my earlier post, The Years The Locusts Have Eaten, although rather different in style.

Every year when I do my tax return I have to deal with 'dead weeks' - weeks when the chronic fatigue has been bad enough that admin just doesn't happen, there's nothing left. I have learnt to deal with this by ensuring that there is always enough other information available to recreate what I need, but it is a reminder that energy is a scarce resource and sometimes I run out.

The above quote, from Isaiah, has always seemed to me to be tailor-made for CFS sufferers. The promise is that one day, whether in this world or in the renewed world of the resurrection, we will once again "run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint". Roll on that day!

But it's not just CFS which wears people out. Depression is well-known - I hope - to be not just about sadness, but about debilitating weariness, hopelessness, loss of motivation and interest, amongst many other symptoms.

Other chronic diseases also often include overwhelming tiredness, weariness, stumbling and falling amongst their symptoms ... including that most chronic of all: old age.

One of my symptoms is a fuzzy memory, and as I look back over the past 19 years I sometimes wonder whether the CFS is improving or not (actually, only over the past 17 or so years, the first couple were grim and I've definitely improved on that), and how far current symptoms are exacerbated by the fact that I'm getting older.

The reality is that all of us, at some point over our lives, go through times when just the next step is difficult, and imagining a better future feels like fantasy. At those times we all need a little hope to cling to. Maybe a picture of ourselves flying on powerful, secure wings, and imaging how that will feel, seems a strange promise and an odd thing to cling to, But I find it helps.

As a kind of a postscript, if you click on the picture above you will see that it is not just the weary who find hope in this image. God's promises are for all, whatever their need, just as his love is for all of us.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Dead End Justice (Seek Ye First)

Justice, justice
Don't want your law and order
Justice, justice
Or world wide disorder
The Runaways
I don't imagine it's what The Runaways intended, but that isn't a bad summary of what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God. If the Kingdom isn't about restoring lost souls, at least as much as saving the respectable, then it doesn't have much meaning at all.

It was Harvest Service at St John's last Sunday, for which this year's lectionary readings were ... interesting. Joel's prophecy of hope, where God promises to "repay you for the years the locusts have eaten". and Jesus' sermon on the mount, where he tells us to "seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you," where 'all these things' are food and clothes and all the practical stuff. 

The word translated 'righteousness' here also means 'justice'. And 'justice', for Jesus, was very definitely not the same thing as the Law. Following the law means being respectable: obeying the rules, where the rules have been carefully tweaked and tailored to favour the rich and powerful. Justice involves turning things upside-down: shaking things up so that those who have fallen to the bottom of the pile, in this fallen world, get their chance to find the top.

What sort of people can be expected to do best in a world of wrong? And who is likely to hit the bottom in such a world? 

Jesus taught of an upside-down Kingdom where all that we thought we knew from living in this one is turned backwards. A world where the contributions of the poor are valued more than the crumbs of the rich, where importance depends on service and humility, and where peace can trigger division. In particular this is a Kingdom where justice, peace and reconciliation matter vastly more than wealth and status - the latter just get in the way.

One oddity of all Jesus' talking about 'The Kingdom' in the Gospels is that he never defines what he means by it. It looks as though everybody knew what the Kingdom of God/Heaven was, so Jesus was simply building on that common knowledge foundation. For many centuries that 'common knowledge' was lost so theology on the Kingdom has always been a bit like an upside-down pyramid - lots of ideas based on a very slim foundation. Thankfully over the past half-century or so a lot of documents have been recovered from the Eastern Mediterranean, dating to a little before Jesus' time, which gives us a better idea.

In essence those waiting for 'The Kingdom' were waiting for a true end to exile, for God to found a nation of true justice and peace. By and large the Jews expected this to be a Jewish kingdom, although some noted that parts of the Law and the Prophets referred to Gentiles being included as well. This Kingdom would be ruled either by God Himself, or by a king from David's line chosen by God, reigning as a good and faithful shepherd. By Jesus' time these expectations of a just kingdom were linked with expectations that the remaining unjust kingdoms, ie the rest of the world, would either come to an end or they would become subservient to God's Kingdom.

A lot of Jesus' teaching was about who would qualify to be citizens of this Kingdom - including many people who respectable Jews would not expect to see there - and about the Kingdom breaking through ahead of time, so to speak. Thus Jesus' healings and teaching are signs of the Kingdom, as are those who are lost but become found, and those who seem dead being restored to life.

At the end, the New Testament gathers these Kingdom ideas together in a vision of a new world, where God Himself comes down to live amongst his people, and where citizens of the Kingdom, even the seemingly unworthy, are raised back to life, if they have died, or been transformed to new life, if they are still living at Jesus' return.
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Monday 12 October 2015

Thirty Years

Long ago but not so far away
It's our thirtieth wedding anniversary today - a fact which is simultaneously rather wonderful and decidedly scary.

A comment on my recent post about divorce reminded me that the key part of the Bible's teaching on marriage is that it is a commitment for life, that it needs to be worked at, and it must not given up on too easily. Sometimes it's easy to get bogged down in the more difficult area of divorce and so fail to see the wood for the trees.

My take on the 'one flesh' picture used for marriage in the Bible is that a marriage is a living thing. It has its own life and growth; it is greater than the individuals involved; and it helps their lives to be more than they would otherwise be. To kill a marriage is a terrible thing.

Divorce, as Jesus tells it, does not kill a marriage. The marriage may be killed by something else beforehand, so the divorce is more like a death certificate recognising what has already happened. Or the divorce route may be taken too quickly, whilst the marriage is still alive; then a second marriage is what kills the first, which is deeply saddening and not a propitious way to make a fresh start.

We live in a fallen world: marriages do die.

A couple of real life (and therefore necessarily vague) examples: I once knew a woman whose husband had run off with his secretary (yes, clichés do happen), moved several hundred miles away, and started a new family, leaving her on her own to cope with their young children. That's about as dead as a marriage can get, yet fellow churchgoers (some of them) were openly critical when she divorced him.

I also knew a slender, petite woman who married in her teens. Her husband turned out to be a violent and abusive drunk. She had the strength of mind to divorce him, but surely he was the one who killed the marriage not her.

On a more positive note, I know many people whose first marriages failed, but whose second marriages are still going strong decades later (or whose long second marriages really were 'till death do us part'). Second chances work out well sometimes.

If there's one thing thirty years of marriage has taught me it's to be thankful, not judgemental. Marriage is a long and difficult journey, and I am a very fallible person: "There but for the grace of God ...".

PS: One thing I should note is that the New Testament is very positive about singleness - not being married. This is because the way the local church is supposed to work is that it too has its own life and growth, is greater than the individuals involved, and helps their lives to be more than they would otherwise be. Not my path, but an extremely honourable one.

Sunday 11 October 2015

The Years The Locusts Have Eaten

‘I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten –
    the great locust and the young locust,
    the other locusts and the locust swarm –
my great army that I sent among you.
You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
    and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.'
Bad choices: drink, drugs, men, women, crime and punishment, drop out from school, it seemed so cool. Family, relationships, children, where are they now, nobody told me the price was so high; so now I lie on the bed I made; hope is long gone - I'm not so strong.

No choices: hurt and pain, abuse and shame, no use, no trust, betrayal and loss. You left, I'm left all alone, home alone or no home at all. Injury, perjury, bullies and liars, thugs for hire, retreat inside, it's safer to hide away from it all, to stay so small, let the world pass on - all trust is gone.

You say God will restore the years the locust has eaten? Yeah, sure!

"How long, O Lord?"

Sunday 4 October 2015

Divorce: Jesus And Religion

The Roman Catholic Church starts its three week synod on the family today, which is expected to look at, among other things, the way their church treats remarried divorcees.

Possibly coincidentally, today's Gospel reading in CofE churches was the divorce passage from Mark's Gospel:
Then some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”  They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”  But Jesus said to them, “He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts.  But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female.  For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
In the house once again, the disciples asked him about this. So he told them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
It looks such a simple passage, yet beneath the surface so much is going on.

The story represents three different viewpoints; the three key concepts have very different meanings today from 2,000 years ago; few people today are familiar enough with the Old Testament to get the underlying issue; and religious institutions persistently reverse the approach taken by Jesus.

I had a stab at this passage a few months ago, Are Wives Like Cars, so I'll try to avoid repeating too much from that, and start with the underlying issue. Jesus tried to point the Pharisees back to this when he asked what Moses had commanded, but they miss the point ... as do we, probably. I'll quote the full passage from Deuteronomy, rather than the Pharisees' gloss on it:
If a man marries a woman and she does not please him because he has found something offensive in her, then he may draw up a divorce document, give it to her, and evict her from his house. When she has left him she may go and become someone else’s wife. If the second husband rejects her and then divorces her, gives her the papers, and evicts her from his house, or if the second husband who married her dies, her first husband who divorced her is not permitted to remarry her after she has become ritually impure, for that is offensive to the Lord.
Turn the first sentence around and the point becomes more obvious: before a man can throw his wife out of his house he must give her a certificate saying she is free to remarry. At that time a lone woman, by and large, had no access to any means of making a living other than begging or prostitution. So a wife thrown out by her husband would be destitute. This law is about compassion in the face of hard-heartedness: the woman needed to have a husband in those days, so if her first husband throws her out she must be allowed to become someone else's wife; even if she ends up a low-status second or third wife that is still better than destitution.

Note also the point that once she has remarried, the first marriage is over: she may not go back to her first husband. So religious people who suggest that even after a second marriage is completed the first marriage is still the 'real' one are simply wrong, at least in God's eyes.

Marriage in those days was pretty much a contract of ownership: a wife belonged to her husband (see the tenth commandment). That's why a man could have multiple wives but a woman belonged to just one husband.

So the Pharisees see this passage as allowing a man to get rid of his wife, at least under certain circumstances. Their 'test' question is really about what those circumstances are, and what we now call 'churchmanship': where does Jesus lie on the liberal/conservative spectrum - the sort of thing that seems to matter so much to religious people. 'Liberals' reckoned that a husband could get rid of his wife for any reason he liked, such as overcooking his dinner, whereas 'conservatives' were more inclined to focus on the production of legitimate children, so the wife could only be put away for adultery or, probably, infertility. Either way treats women as 'things', as possessions, and Jesus is having none of it.

When the Pharisees don't get his point about certificates of divorce and compassion, he takes them back to first principles. Marriage was not designed to be about ownership, with the wife as a disposable possession, but about lifelong partnership: two people working together in the world God made. Divorce was allowed not to encourage hardness of heart, but to give a compassionate response to the fallenness of this world.

Mark appears to gloss what Jesus said later to his disciples - to make it more relevant in Rome - by talking about women divorcing men, which couldn't happen in Judaism (it still can't in Orthodox Judaism). But his basic point is clear: marriage is meant to be lifelong, and both parties have their part to play in making that work. Marriage is a lifelong contract and remarriage therefore breaks that contract: the essential meaning of 'adultery' in this context is 'contract-breaking'. Once the remarriage is complete, though, that first contract is over and a second lifelong contract takes its place. The remarriage is real and must be honoured.

So we come to religious institutions. Jesus is teaching about compassion and justice, religious people respond with judgement and exclusion. Church of England treatment of divorcees who want to remarry is pretty shabby, to be blunt; but the current Roman Catholic approach to remarried divorcees is simply unChristian. I hope over the next few weeks the Church of Rome's approach will become more humane; the CofE is already changing ... although ever so slowly.

Bottom line: to break up a marriage is wrong (but note that this may happen long before the actual divorce) but we live in a fallen world. When someone remarries after a divorce that new relationship is now a valid marriage and should be respected and supported by all ... especially by the couple's local church.