What are we prepared to give, to give up?

August 17, 2019

Pentecost 10 – 2019

Luke 12:49-59

Marian Free

May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, God our strength and redeemer. Amen.

In Apartheid South Africa it was illegal for a white person to marry a black person or a coloured person or an Indian person or for a colored person to marry a black person or a white person, or an Indian person. If one was unlucky enough to fall in love with someone outside the prescribed parameters the consequences were serious – disgrace, arrest, followed by a jail sentence. Those who formed such relationships were usually isolated from their families and ostracized by their social circle. A white South African sex worker named Ethal, reported that she felt more accepted by her peers when she was a sex worker than when she married a black African man. For many in this situation, the threat of jail or of social censure led to self-imposed exile. In order to be with the one that they loved, they gave up home, family, friends and occupation.

As I have said many times, the first century Mediterranean culture was very different from our own. Greeks and Romans comfortably worshipped a number of gods. Their gods did not command the absolute loyalty of individuals but were variously responsible for the weather, the harvest and so on. It was no hardship for a Gentile to include Emperor worship to this diverse practice. On the other hand the one Jewish God demanded absolute loyalty and was worshipped only in the Temple in Jerusalem. Gentile gods could be worshipped wherever a Temple was to be found.

From a religious point of view, whether one’s starting point was as a Jew or a gentile, becoming a Christ-believer involved a radical realignment of one’s social, economic, religious and even political loyalties. Urban life was closely associated with both the local gods and with the imperial cult. It was essential for the well-being and protection of the city that all citizens fulfill their obligations to Rome and to the gods. Gentiles who came to believe in Christ could no longer associate with the gentile temples. When they stopped participating in sacrifices to the Emperor or to the local gods, they would be seen as putting the whole city in danger of losing the favour of the gods or the privileges extended by Rome.

If this were not enough to create tension, Engagement with the gods and their temples not only provided protection for the city, it was also central to the social life and cohesion of the community. Sacrifices of both meat and wine were part of the practice of worship. Temples were therefore not only gathering places for worship, but also marketplaces and venues in which people met to eat. Further, different gods were associated with different trades and the various guilds would hold their meetings in the relevant temple. A person who believed in Jesus was no longer able to visit the temple and so not only became isolated from his or her family and peers, but they were also excluded from membership in the guilds. This latter meant that they were not able to earn an income – at least not in the way that they had been used to. Christ-believers were regarded as dangerous because they placed their fellow citizens in jeopardy. They were isolated from their families and friends and unable to work.

The situation was not much better for Jews. Those who lived beyond Judea enjoyed many privileges that their fellow citizens did not. They were exempt from the Emperor cult and were free to send money to the Temple in Jerusalem. If some of their number chose to believe in Jesus, the whole Jewish community would be affected. Technically, Christ-believers were no longer Jews which meant that they were no longer under the protection of Rome. The problem for continuing Jews was that outsiders might not be able to distinguish the Christ-believers from the real thing. Jews were worried that they would be tainted by association and that they would be accused of sedition and lose their privileges. For this reason, among others, Jews too kept their distance from those who had come to believe in Jesus.

Whether Jew or Gentile, a person who chose to believe in Jesus was effectively cut off from all their previous relationships – family, friends and work. Faith in Jesus was divisive, potentially pitting “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother,

mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” Jesus’ words introducing this passage are perhaps the most passionate and, dare I say, violent that Jesus utters. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

This is not the first time that Jesus tells us that faith in him redefines what it means to be family, but this is the only time that he is explicit about the effect that coming to faith will have on relationships. In a culture in which family formed the basis for social relationships and for social cohesion, Jesus’ words will have been shocking, even frightening, but Jesus is describing the world as it will be for those who follow him. As he does on other occasions, Jesus is warning would-be disciples that following him means not only commitment but a willingness to leave everything behind to face a hostile and even dangerous world.

How reassuring these words must have been to those who found themselves ostracised and financially strapped as a consequence of faith? After all, isn’t this what Jesus said lay ahead? How difficult these words are for us in a world in which once again family is the bedrock of our society and, though the world is changing, a world in which having faith in Jesus puts us within, not outside the status quo? For most of us faith comes at no cost, only with benefits. The danger is that we will become complacent, that we will relegate Jesus’ uncomfortable words to irrelevancy instead of seeing them for what they are – a challenge to our complacency, a prick to our easy conscience, a call to action. Would our faith stand the test if it meant losing everything that is meaningful to us? Would we hold fast if we lost our work, our family and our friends? Would we stand our ground if society turned against us, harassed us, persecuted us or threatened to kill us?

The question is: What does our faith mean to us, and what are we prepared to give up for it?

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Why resist

August 10, 2019

Pentecost 9 – 2019

Luke 12:32-40

Marian Free

In the name of God whose generosity and love know no bounds. Amen.

In the mini series, North and South, there are a number of poignant scenes as the story takes us into the ‘dark Satanic mills’ of the newly industrialised England. Families crowded into single room dwellings struggle to make ends meet on the pittance that the recently rich industrialists pay them. Children are put to work as soon as they are able and those who are not at work stay at home to look after those too young to earn a living. Life expectancy is low, not least because the cotton fibers fill the lungs of the workers. The poverty is heart-breaking. At one point, the heroine, Margaret Hale, ventures into the slums to visit a friend. Margaret, the daughter of a former country vicar, is used to accompanying her father on his visits and taking with her baskets of food to alleviate the suffering of the poor. As she is making her way, Margaret passes a woman who is trying to pacify a crying child. In response to Margaret’s look of sympathy, the woman tries to reassure her: “Don’t worry,” she says, “the child is only hungry.” Without hesitation Margaret takes out her purse intending to give the family a coin with which to buy food. However, rather than expressing relief and gratitude, the woman turns away – offended by the proffered gift.

There are all kinds of reasons why a person might refuse or resist a gift – embarrassment, pride, a sense of unworthiness, a fear of ensuing indebtedness or obligations, or a desire for independence among others. In the the story, it seems as if the woman’s refusal relates to more than one of these possibilities. To her the offer of help is both patronizing and humiliating. She does not need to have her poverty so rudely exposed and Margaret’s pity is unintentionally demeaning. It reveals the great divide between the rich and the poor and, rather than bridge that divide, Margaret’s charity only exaggerates it.

Today’s gospel includes a number of unrelated sayings and a parable. It occurs in the midst of a long teaching section which Luke places in the context of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. The sayings express Jesus’ frustration and grief, his confidence in God’s benevolence, his anger at the Pharisaic view of the world and more general teaching about discipleship. Included in the teaching are many warnings: ‘Be on your guard against greed’, ‘you must be ready’, ‘unless you repent, you will all perish’, and ‘from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.’.

In the midst of such disparate sayings and dire predictions we come across two extraordinary revelations about the nature of God. The first is one that is easily overlooked. It does not seem to fit the context and is often passed over so quickly that it is missed and yet it tells a great deal about God and God’s relationship with us. ‘Do not be afraid, little flock,’ Jesus says, ‘for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’ This one sentence is filled with affection, warmth and reassurance – ‘Little flock’ – Jesus recognizes our vulnerability and wants to take away our fear. ‘Good pleasure’ – God’s deepest desire is to give us the kingdom expecting nothing in return.

Jesus follows up this saying with a parable. ‘Do not be afraid.’ God is not an overbearing slave master who makes unreasonable demands – just the opposite. The conclusion of the parable both reverses the normal image and expectation of God and completely upsets the social norms of his time, (and to some extent of ours). The parable imagines servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet. Imagine their surprise when, instead of demanding that they prepare his supper or his bed, the master tightens his belt and proceeds to serve them at table. The story abounds with love and generosity – God’s free gift of Godself to all who are open, willing and ready to accept it!

Hidden in the midst of Jesus’ other sayings we find these two expressions of God’s tenderness and selflessness. From this perspective, much of the remainder of Jesus’ teaching in these chapters appears as an expression of Jesus’ exasperation at our stubborn refusal to accept God’s gracious gift of the Kingdom, indeed of Godself. We refuse because we cannot believe that the kingdom is offered at no cost to ourselves; because we are afraid of losing our independence; because we are too dependent on our possessions and cannot see that true wealth comes from dependence on God. We resist because we are uncomfortable about being served (and the implication that somehow we are somehow incompetent or immature).

Jesus is clear: it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. If the kingdom is not yet a reality, perhaps it is because we are not yet ready, because despite the promise we still struggle, choosing things as they are (however imperfect) rather than things as they could be.

Wealth’s capacity to destroy relationships

August 3, 2019

Pentecost 8 – 2019
Luke 12:13-21
Marian Free

In the name of God, who pours out love and mercy in abundance and who, in the end is the final arbiter. Amen.

Some of you may know the author and illustrator Pamela Allen. She has authored a number of children’s books including Who sank the boat?One of my favourites is Herbert and Harry[1]. Herbert and Harry are two brothers who get along famously until one day, when they are fishing together, they haul up a treasure chest. In the ensuing battle over the chest, Harry is pushed into the sea and Herbert rows the boat and the treasure to a lonely stretch. Fortunately, Harry is a strong swimmer and manages to swim home. Herbert, having wrested the chest from his brother, feels desperately anxious that Harry might find him and steal the treasure.  He hauls the chest into the forest, but still does not feel safe. He hides the treasure among some tree roots, but still he cannot rest. He takes the treasure further and further from Harry, the land gets emptier and emptier and the hills higher and higher.

At last he reaches the highest mountain in the land, but still he cannot sleep for fear that someone has followed him. So Herbert digs a tunnel deep into the mountain, pushes the chest in and covers the entry with a huge boulder, but even that is not enough. He decides that he needs guns, lots of them. Guns are not enough; Herbert builds a fort.

In the end, Herbert has gained no pleasure at all from the treasure. His life has been consumed by keeping it to himself and protecting it from anyone who might wish to steal it. In the process, he has cut himself off – not only from Harry, but from all possible human contact and perhaps from his own humanity. The final illustration shows him completely isolated atop his mountain holding a gun, surrounded by walls from which protrude multiple cannons. Harry, on the other hand is pictured surrounded by grandchildren. Allen concludes: “Today, Herbert and Harry are very old men. Herbert still guards the treasure in his fort on top of the highest mountain in the land. But still, he cannot sleep. While Harry, who had no treasure, has always been able to sleep soundly.

In today’s gospel, someone from the crowd approaches Jesus and says: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” In response Jesus warns that: “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” and he tells the parable about the rich man, who, instead of sharing his good fortune, plans to store it all up for himself. On a superficial level the meaning of the parable is quite clear: “it doesn’t matter how much you have; you can’t take it with you”. At a deeper level much more is going on here.

As Dennis Hamm (SJ) points out today’s brief parable is “a brilliant cartoon illustrating how greed destroys all the covenant relationships”[2]“with the earth, with the community, with one’s self and with God.

In order to see how Hamm comes to this conclusion, we have to examine the parable bit by bit. The parable begins: “The landof a rich man produced abundantly.” It is the land, not the rich man that has produced the abundance. This is consistent with the Jewish perspective that the earthis the source of food and that a successful harvest, like the land itself, is a gift from God. The rich man has lost touch with his relationship with the land and with his dependence on the Creator.

We read on: “And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” I have no place to store my crops. Not only has our farmer lost sight of the fact that the land and the harvest are gifts from God, but he has forgotten the wisdom that flows from this understanding – that divine gifts are not intended for one individual but that the produce of the land is intended to meet the needs of all. He has forgotten, or is choosing to ignore, his responsibility to the wider community. From his perspective the abundance is for him alone.

The farmer’s self-centredness is even more obvious in his interior monologue: “Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul [psyche], ‘Soul [psyche], you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” There is no mention of ‘we’ or ‘our’ here. It is all about me “my grain and my goods.” The comedic element of this section is heightened when we understand that “psyche” or “soul” is just as easily translated as “self”. In which case we read: “I will say to myself, ‘Self, you have ample goods – etc”.

Then God interrupts the selfish man’s thoughts. “But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life [psyche- self] is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”In the final analysis, the farmer is not the arbiter of his destiny, God is. Life itself is a gift from the Creator.

Like Hebert, the rich man gains no benefit from his wealth. In holding his harvest to himself, he cuts himself off from the land, the community, his own humanity and eventually from God.

Jesus’ point is that while wealth in itself may not be the problem, what we do with our wealth, or perhaps more importantly, what we let our wealth do to us can be problematic. In the worst-case scenario, Jesus’ implies, if we allow our possessions to control us they will separate us from the earth, from our family and our community, from our sense of self and even from God.

[1]Allen, Pamela. Herbert and Harry. Australia: Puffin Books, 1986.
[2]http://liturgy.slu.edu/18OrdC080419/theword_hamm.html

Ask and you will receive?

July 27, 2019

Pentecost 7 – 2019
    Luke 11:1-13
Marian Free

In the name of God Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Amen.

Some time ago I met a very angry woman. She had prayed and prayed that her mother would recover from cancer and still her mother had died. She felt utterly betrayed by a God whom she had been led to believe would answer her prayers. Her anger and hatred were all-consuming – in part, because despite her deep disappointment, she still believed that there was a God. It was just that God had turned out to be very different from the picture of God that she had in her head and God had let her down at the very time when she needed God most. The death of her mother convinced her that God was indifferent to human suffering, and that God had no personal interest in the affairs of individual people. This woman could not give up her faith, but the faith in which she had trusted had failed to give her comfort when comfort was required, and she could not forgive God for that betrayal.

She is not alone in feeling let down by a God who does not seem to answer prayers. There are many good people who feel disappointed and abandoned when their prayers go unanswered.

What is it about our teaching on prayer that leads believers to have such high expectations of results and which as a consequence lets them down so badly?

There are, no doubt, a variety of answers, depending on one’s background and experience of Sunday School and church, but a great deal of the problem stems, I believe, from today’s gospel which implies first of all, that if we pray with enough persistence God will give in to our request and secondly, and perhaps more dangerously that God will give us whatever we ask for in prayer. After all Luke 11:9 says clearly and unequivocally: “Ask and you will receive.” Can we then ask for anything no matter how selfish or punitive?  I suspect not.

To understand Jesus’ teaching on prayer, we must look at Luke 11:1-13 as a whole and not take one or two phrases out of context.

In the first instance is important to note that Jesus is speaking to the community as a whole and not to individuals. Jesus is responding to the disciples’ request: “Teach us how to pray as John taught his disciples.” In other words, how do we pray together?

Jesus begins his response with the words of a prayer – the only prayer that Jesus teaches. [We could, of course spend an entire sermon on the Lord’s prayer alone, but my intention is to show that the parable of the neighbour at midnight and the command to ask are framed in such a way that it is clear what it is that we are to ask for and what it is that God will give.]

The prayer starts by asking that God’s name be sanctified by the behaviour of the community – “hallowed be your name” and continues with a desire that God’s kingdom come, that the reign of God may become a reality for the whole world. In other words, Jesus’ suggests that prayer is about giving priority to God and to the kingdom of God. When we use this prayer, we are called to recognise that how we behave reflects on God – in other words if we behave badly, we bring God into disrepute and God’s name is cheapened, not sanctified. “Your kingdom come.” Together we express a desire that the world as a whole might come under the rule of God and that therefore that all the peoples of the world might live as God intended. These are not sentiments that relate to the wants and needs of ourselves as individuals, they are words that have a universal application.

Jesus’ teaching on prayer concludes by telling us what it is that we are to ask for. “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spiritto those who ask him!” We ask and receive, we seek and we find, we knock and the door is opened to us. It is clear that it is the Holy Spirit that we are to seek and for which we are to ask and who will open the door. God will unstintingly give the Holy Spirit to all who ask for it and in turn, empowered by the Holy Spirit, our prayers will, in effect be the longings of God uttered by ourselves.

Like all things spiritual though, most of us grow into prayer. We begin with “prayers of request (what we want) and move to prayers of gratitude (thanksgiving and praise) and graduate to prayers of empowerment (participation and collaboration with God)[1]”.

As our relationship with God deepens and matures, we become less focussed on ourselves and on our own needs, and more concerned with the kingdom’s becoming a reality. As we learn to listen to and to lean on God, we become attuned to what it is that God wants and what it is that God wants to us to pray for. The more practiced we are in prayer the more likely it is that our prayers will be aligned with the will of God and the more closely our prayers are aligned with the will of God, the more likely it is that they are to be answered.  When, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are able to sincerely pray: “Your kingdom come”, our prayers will be God’s prayers and we will ask for what is truly best for ourselves, for our neighbours and for the world.

 

From being unknown to being knownm

July 20, 2019

The Feast of Mary Magdalene – 2019
John 20:1:18
Marian Free

God of boundless love whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Amen.

In the 7th century, Pope Gregory the First made the assertion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. He came to this conclusion by conflating Magdalene with Mary of Bethany who anointed Jesus’ feet before his death. In turn, Mary of Bethany was confused with the unnamed ‘sinful’ woman of Luke who interrupted a dinner party in order to anoint Jesus’ head. The problem (apart from the fact that there is no reason to think that these three women are one and the same) is, that even if Magdalene could be proven to be the ‘sinful’ woman who anointed Jesus, we are not provided with a single clue that would allow us to draw a conclusion about the nature of that woman’s sin. There is nothing in our gospels, except perhaps the suggestion that Mary was a woman of independent means, to suggest that she was a prostitute. Yet, despite the lack of evidence, it has been almost impossible for Magdalene to shake that image and for centuries Mary has been depicted as a prostitute in art and in commentaries.

Indeed, our biblical evidence for Mary Magdalene is scarce. That said, she is mentioned by name on twelve occasions which is more times than any of the apostles are mentioned! She presumably came from Magdala and, according to Luke, she was one of the three women who provided for Jesus out of their own resources (8:2-3) and one from whom seven demons had gone out (cf Mark16:9). All four gospels agree that Magdalene was one of the women who went to the tomb on the first Easter Day and that with them she was commissioned to tell the disciples (who were men) that Jesus had risen. In John’s gospel, Mary’s role is even more significant. She goes to the tomb alone, and it is to Mary, and only Mary, that Jesus speaks and commissions. Mary’s place in the gospels then, and especially her position in the Gospel of John, implies that (whatever her demons may have been) she had a leadership role in the early community.

This view is supported by the position that Mary is given in the non-canonical writings – the most tantalising of which is the Gospel of Philip. In these books Mary’s closeness to Jesus is a cause of tension with other disciples – in particular with Peter. We read: “For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in one another.

There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.

And the companion of the [Lord was?] Mary Magdalene. [He?] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her [mouth?]. The rest of the disciples said to him “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”

Here and elsewhere we are told that Mary is not only given information that is given to no other disciple, but that she is particularly intimate with Jesus. The closeness of the relationship between Mary and Jesus (both in the non-canonical writings and in today’s gospel reading) has led some scholars to speculate that Mary and Jesus were married. They suggest that the wedding at Cana was in fact the celebration of the marriage between Jesus and Mary. Why else, they ask, would Mary the mother of Jesus, take such an interest in the catering and presume to have authority to instruct the servants? (No one – even today – would presume to give orders to another person’s staff and a woman in the first century had no authority, let alone in the home of someone else.)

Magdalen’s role as the apostle to the apostles in John’s gospel and her significant place in the synoptic gospels, along with the references to Magdalene in the Gospel of Philip and elsewhere combine to suggest that Mary had a significant leadership role in the early community and a closeness to Jesus not extended to anyone else. It would have been easy for the gospel writers to exclude her from the story or to downplay her part in the resurrection appearances. By the time the gospels were being written the place of women in the Christian community was being substantially diminished (but that is a story for another day). The gospel writers could have easily named members of the twelve disciples as the first to see Jesus and as those who were commissioned to tell the others of the resurrection. That Mary retains this role in the gospels suggests that her position within the community and her contribution to the life of the community was such that the memory of her was still strong and that any attempt to write her out of the story would have been met with resistance.

Of course, we will never be able to properly separate fact from fiction or speculation from evidence, but there are some things that we can say with some certainty. Mary, who was possessed by seven demons, was set free. Having been set free, she not only followed Jesus, but she supported him financially. Alone, or in the company of others, Mary went to the tomb on Easter Day, and alone, or as one of three, she was instructed to proclaim the resurrection to the disciples. She journeyed from darkness to light, from exclusion to inclusion, from being unknown to being fully known, from being held captive to demons to being captivated by Jesus’ love and from being no one, to being the bearer of the good news.

Being in relationship with Jesus is life-changing. We too are brought from darkness to light, from the outside to the inside, from isolation to relationship, from captivity to freedom and ignorance to proclaimers of the gospel.

Faith is both a privilege and a responsibility. We are called into a relationship and sent out to share the good news.

No wriggle room

July 13, 2019

Pentecost 5 – 2019

Luke 10:25-37 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who asks that we be bound by the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law. Amen.

When it comes to paying taxes there are both individuals and corporations who will do everything possible to minimize the amount that they pay. We are informed that billion dollar companies and the extremely wealthy find so many loop holes in the tax laws that they are able to avoid paying the amount of tax that their incomes would seem to suggest. Both individuals and companies are able find ways to reduce their incomes (at least on paper) or to funnel their income into off-shore accounts making it possible to be taxed on figure much lower than their actual incomes. While the very rich pay very little tax, few people on low incomes have the resources to recoup any of their expenditure. It is not that those on high incomes are breaking the law, it is that they know how to use the law to their advantage. By keeping within the limits of the law they ensure that their vast incomes benefit only themselves and they deny the community at large the infrastructure, welfare and other programmes that taxes are levied to support.

There are all kinds of examples of people who use the law to their own advantage or who interpret the ‘letter of the law’ in such a way that they go so far and no further. For example an employer who scrupulously pays award wages but who subtly makes unreasonable demands of his or her employees that are difficult to quantify and harder to challenge. Or the politician who makes extravagant use of their parliaments allowances but always ensures that such use fits (if only narrowly) within the criterion laid down for such claims. Such persons often allow themselves to feel a certain smugness and self righteousness, after all they are doing nothing more or nothing less than the law allows.

I wonder about the lawyer in today’s gospel. It is clear that he knows the law, but he seems to want to know if there is any wriggle room, any way he can limit the effect of the law on his life. Surely, he seems to be thinking, there must be boundaries on neighborliness, definitions that restrict the people whom one is required to love, or criteria for determining who must be loved and who can be refused that love. Just as the modern day tax laws spell out the exact conditions under which a person must pay tax and the specific consequences of failing to observe the tax law, so the lawyer is hoping that Jesus can provide him with the legislative detail that will enable him to find the loopholes that will narrow down the number of people whom he must love ‘as he loves himself’. He seems to be looking for a way in which he can observe the minimum requirements of the law, a way which will cause him the least inconvenience and yet guarantee him the same return – eternal life.

Jesus’ response is to challenge the lawyer’s view of the law. The parable of the Good Samaritan does not answer the lawyer’s question. It does not tell the lawyer what he wants to know, nor does it refine the definition of neighbour (except indirectly). Instead, it tells the lawyer how a good neighbour should behave and it confronts stereotypes relating to goodness (‘Jews are good and Samaritans are bad’). The parable does not provide a direct answer to the lawyer’s question, but it does expose the limitations of the law, the law’s inability to cover every circumstance relating to neighbourliness and the dangers of trying to protect oneself by observing the letter of the law rather than trying to come to grips with the spirit of the law.

As Paul points out in the letter to the Galatians (5:23) it is impossible to create laws to govern love, joy, peace, patience and so on.

In the end our relationship with God informs and directs our relationships with one another. Our love for God and our understanding of God’s love for us gives us the tools to determine how to interpret the law (secular and religious). Guided by God’s expansiveness and generosity of spirit, God’s compassion and tolerance and God’s inclusive and all-embracing love we come to understand that keeping the letter of the law might be to our benefit but that it will not benefit anyone else, it might protect us from harm, but it will limit and stunt our growth and that it will keep us inward-looking rather than outward looking. Love of God and love of neighbor cannot be nearly categorized and defined, but must be informed by God’s intention that lies behind the law.

The lawyer’s question does not evidence a desire to know, but a desire to justify his own selfishness and an unwillingness to be put out. Jesus will not indulge him by giving him the easy way out. Neither will Jesus indulge us. There are no simple solutions, no quick fixes and certainly no wriggle room. If we are to inherit eternal life, we must give our all and cede our all so that the law of God (whatever that may be) may be worked out in our lives and in our actions.

Satan falling from heaven

July 6, 2019

Pentecost 4 – 2019
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Marian Free

In the name of God who has power over life and death, good and evil. Amen.

“I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Jesus’ response to the mission of the seventy is quite incredible. What was it about their actions that led Jesus to make such a pronouncement? No other gospel records the sending out of seventy disciples and no other gospel records Jesus’ dramatic, visionary exclamation. It is only in Luke that the seventy (some versions say 72) are, like John the Baptist sent out before Jesus to prepare the way for him. Interestingly, the commissioning of the seventy follows Jesus’ severe words about discipleship – “let the dead bury their own dead.” That means that those who remain understand the consequences of following Jesus. They must leave everything behind and there is no safety net.

When Jesus appoints the seventy, he gives them strict instructions as to where to go, what to pack and how to respond to rejection. The disciples are directed to take nothing except their faith to support them – no purse, no bag, no sandals. Unarmed, they are sent out as “lambs in the midst of wolves”. Now they have come back to Jesus. Not only have they have survived, they have also learnt that God is to be trusted! No wonder that they have returned with joy – amazed and elated by what they have achieved in Jesus’ name: “in your name even the demons submit to us!” The disciples are like a bunch of school children, bursting to share their adventures and successes with Jesus.

Underlying the Gospel of Luke is a cosmic battle between good and evil, between Jesus and Satan. The battle begins at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness. Here Jesus has an apparently decisive victory over Satan. To Satan’s disappointment (and surprise), Jesus is not seduced by easy solutions, marvelous feats or by the promise of power. Jesus’ responses to Satan make it quite clear that he will serve God, and God alone, no matter what the cost.  Apparently, Satan is not convinced that the battle has been won, he still believes he has a chance to gain the ascendancy. He does not slink away with his tail between his legs (as he appears to do in the gospels of Mark and Matthew). Instead, we are told that he “departs from Jesus until an opportune time”. From Satan’s point of view, it is not over till it is over. As we will see, Satan appears again at the end of the story when he enters into Judas Iscariot who, spurred on by him, will betray Jesus to the chief priests and the offices of the Temple police. (Having failed to influence Jesus, Satan finds a weak link in Judas and possibly in the other disciples whom “he will sift like wheat”.)

Jesus proves more than a match for his adversary – he knows that the stakes are high, but nothing will prevent him from focusing on the task ahead. His exclamation in response to the disciple’s report on their mission may reflect Jesus’ confidence that, whatever happens to him, his mission will not fail. It is clear to him that the disciples have discovered their own role in the defeat of evil. Like Jesus, they have not succumbed to the temptation to rely entirely on themselves. From the way in which they report their experience it is obvious that the disciples understand that it is not by their own power or ability that the demons are cast out, rather is the power of Jesus’ name that causes the demons to submit. The disciples’ self-awareness and humility, their willingness to give credit where credit is due may give Jesus an assurance that his mission is in the right hands. Jesus can be sure that Satan will not regain his place in the world – even after Jesus’ death.

No wonder Jesus exclaims: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” It is a prophetic statement based on his new found evidence that the disciples are to be trusted, that they understand that God alone can defeat evil and that ministry in the service of God is not about self-aggrandisement, but about trusting in God and giving credit where credit is due.

In today’s world, in which the balance of power is shifting and in which self-centredness and greed appear to be gaining an upper hand, can we still be confident that the powers of evil have been defeated? Was Jesus prophetic statement misguided? Was his trust in we, his modern disciples, misguided? Are we tempted to rely on our own strengths to combat the power of evil or are we, like Jesus and the seventy, ready and willing to ignore our need for recognition and success so that we might truly submit to God and allow God to work through us so that evil does not and cannot get the upper hand?

May Jesus’ prophetic vision be as true now as it was when he proclaimed: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” and affirmed all that the disciples had done.

“Let the dead bury the dead”

June 29, 2019

Pentecost 3 – 2019

Luke 9:51-62

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us to give our all, hearts, minds, souls and bodies. Amen.

The story of Father Rob Galea referred to in today’s Pew Bulletin is just one example of a convert who has carefully weighed up the consequences of becoming a Christian before taking the final step of faith.1 There are many well-known Christian thinkers and leaders who report that their coming to faith was costly or was met with a degree of resistance on their part. They have understood that giving one’s life to God is, as Father Rob recognized, a matter of complete surrender, a willingness to give up absolutely everything in order to place God at the center of one’s existence. Accepting Jesus is not a decision to be taken lightly – it could mean a complete change of direction, the relinquishing of wealth, relationships or intellectual objections to faith or, particularly in nations in which conversion is illegal, it could mean accepting martyrdom as the likely consequence of coming to Jesus.

I wonder how many of us have had this experience or whether, as those who have never known a time when we did not believe, really understand the cost of discipleship.

“Let the dead bury the dead.” Verse 51 begins a new section in Luke’s gospel. These apparently harsh words reflect Jesus’ awareness of what lay ahead of him. Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem”. Luke is making it clear to us that this is no ordinary trip, it requires both determination and resolution. Jesus is not going to Jerusalem because he wants to, but because he must. He knows that what lies ahead of him is not recognition and acclamation, but rejection, suffering and death and he is anxious that those who want to follow him understand the dangers that they will face and be prepared to take the risks that discipleship him will entail. If Jesus’ would-be followers are not fully committed, they will be disappointed. Worse, they will be wasting their time. They might just as well stay at home because if they do not understand the costs now, they will be completely at a loss when things turn bad. Jesus knows that those who will last the distance will be the people who really grasp the world-shattering nature of his mission and his message. They are the ones who will be ready to sacrifice everything, even their lives, to be a part of Jesus’ project to change the religious and social culture of which they are a part.

After Jesus’ death the lives of his disciples will be radically changed – in ways that at this point they cannot even begin to imagine. “Let the dead bury the dead.” Jesus is saying: “do not come with me if you do not think that you will make the distance.”

Jesus’ words, harsh as they sound to us, should not be unexpected. Earlier Jesus had warned the disciples of his impeding suffering and death. He has informed them: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.  What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” Those who follow Jesus must understand the consequences of discipleship – there is no glory to be had, only acceptance of the call and a willingness to do or to endure whatever lies ahead.

Those who are willing to give up everything and follow Jesus are not abandoned or left to their own devices. According to Luke, Jesus uses the journey to Jerusalem to teach the disciples, to prepare them to continue his mission after he has gone. For the next ten chapters – up until his arrival in Jerusalem – Jesus will share with the disciples his radical understanding of God and of the relationship between God and God’s people.

Jesus’ will undermine their traditional views of God with parables like the forgiving Father; he will expose the rigidity and hypocrisy of the Pharisees; he will remind them that earthly possessions are temporary; he will challenge them to remain focused and to expect his return at any given moment; he will demonstrate in word and action that it is the intention of the law, not the letter of the law that is important; he will overturn concepts of honour and shame; he will shock them with positive stories about the Samaritans and negative stories about the rich; he will confront their narrow views as to who is and who is not included in God’s kingdom; and he will dare them to use their gifts to the very best of their abilities. In other words, he will open their eyes to a new way of seeing and equip the disciples to teach the good news as he understands it.

At the same time, Jesus will give the disciples confidence to carry on his mission. He will empower them to do all that he can do and declare that even the demons will submit to them. Jesus will give the disciples courage to endure whatever difficulties they might face – reassuring them that even the hairs on their head are counted and letting them know that if they are brought before the courts the Holy Spirit will give them the words to say.

From now until the end of November, we will travel with Jesus and the disciples towards Jerusalem. We, with the disciples will be challenged to see the world as Jesus sees it, we will be formed for ministry and prepared to face whatever difficulties may lie before us.

Today we have a moment to stop and think: “Do we really understand the cost of God’s call on our lives?” “Have we really committed ourselves to follow where ever it is that God will lead us?” and, if push comes to shove; “Will we put our hand to the plough and not look back, no matter what temptations lie behind and no matter what difficulties lie ahead?”

Father Rob Galea stands out because he is Maltese, a singer, and he lifts weights. He explained to Meredith Lake on the ABC that his decision to be a Christian was not one that he took lightly. He had to ask himself whether he was able to surrender everything – his music (which to that point had been his means of earning an income and which had given him a degree of renown across the world), marriage and family (which included breaking up with his girlfriend of 4 years whom he had hoped to marry) and anything else that God might be asking him to give up as part of this vocation. In the end, Rob felt that in order to have the relationship with God that he desired, he was willing to give up anything and everything.

 

 

 

 

Double meanings

June 22, 2019

Pentecost 2 – 2019

Gerasene Demoniac Luke 8:26-39

Marian Free

In the name of God, who through Jesus, sets us from from doubt and fear. Amen.

“Goosey, goosey, gander

Where shall I wander,

Upstairs and downstairs

and in my lady’s chamber.

There I found an old man

Who would not say his prayers,

I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.”

This and many other well known nursery rhymes had a hidden (often political) meaning in their time. Goosey, goosey gander for example references the religious persecution that occurred during the English Reformation when Catholic priests were hunted down and killed. In a similar vein, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary” refers, not to gardening, but to Queen Mary 1 who, during her short reign, condemned to death hundreds of Protestants (silver bells and cockle shells were not flowers but instruments of torture). “Ring a ring of rosies” apparently refers to the Plague of 1665. The “rosie” was the rash that signified the onset of the disease and the posies were an attempt to cover up the foul smell that resulted from the plague and from the bodies of the dead.

Of course, apparently innocent nursery rhymes are not the only form of literature to have hidden or double meanings, or that can be interpreted in a number of different ways. People under oppressive regimes often use coded, seemingly innocuous, messages to avoid detection or to ensure that their plans do not fall into enemy hands. Early Christians are said to have used the symbol of a fish or of the Chi Rho to signal to others that they were believers. These signs meant nothing to unbelievers but to those who did believe, mutual understanding of the symbols allowed them to speak freely to one another.

There are instances of coded language in scriptures – notably in the apocalyptic literature that includes the Book of Revelation. Judith Jones, an Episcopal priest in Oregon, suggests that today’s account of the Gerasene demoniac is an example of a coded, subversive message written for an oppressed people.

She points out that, at the time that Luke was writing his version of the gospel, the Jewish uprising had been quelled, Jerusalem destroyed and the Roman legions had swept through Gerasa. According to Josephus during the campaign one thousand young men were killed, their families imprisoned and their city burned. As if this were not enough the soldiers then attacked the surrounding villages (The Jewish War IV, ix, 1). Those buried in the tombs of Gerasene would have been those slaughtered by the Roman legions. In such circumstances it is not impossible to imagine that Luke would frame his account of Jesus in such a way as to suggest that Jesus had power, not only over evil spirits, but also over the evil that was the Roman Empire. Nor should we be surprised that Luke would try to tell his story in such a way that it would have meaning for those who were living in the aftermath of such brutal repression.

Jones suggests that words that we take at face value could have been heard entirely differently by those to whom Luke addressed his gospel. The word ‘Legion’ for example, had only one literal meaning. It was a unit in the Roman army that consisted of 6,000 soldiers. The demons were code for Rome. Other words used in the miracle story are translated differently in other New Testament contexts – suggesting that those meanings could be applied here. For example, the word translated here as ‘met’ is used for a king going out to battle against another king in Luke 14:31. The demons are said to ‘seize’ the man in the same way that the disciples are ‘seized’ by the authorities in the Book of Acts, and the chains of the demoniac might well have reminded Luke’s readers of the chains in which the first Christians were bound when they were arrested and imprisoned. Even the pigs may have had a double meaning for Luke’s audience. The legion that led the attack on Palestine and that remained behind in Jerusalem after the war was the Legio 10th Fretensis whose symbol was the pig. The image of a pig featured not only on their flags but also on ordinary objects such as coins and bricks. Pigs therefore might have seemed to be an appropriate home for Legion, though as Jones points out: “Here the story takes a darkly humorous turn, for Legion, thinking that it has avoided the abyss, promptly charges into the deep and drowns.”

Read in this light, Luke appears to be using the story of the demoniac to reassure his readers that ultimately Rome has no power over them.

From this subversive, political standpoint, the exorcism becomes not a quaint miracle story but a story for our own time: a time in which men, women and children are enslaved and brutalized for selfish gain, in which oppressive governments repress dissent and and torture and imprison those who dare to challenge them, in which minorities (including Christians) are persecuted and in which some families are so impoverished that parents are forced to leave their children in the care of others while they travel to far away lands to work (sometimes in dangerous and exploitative situations) so that the children have a chance at a reasonable life.

Even without the political overtones, the story still speaks today to all those who are tortured by addiction or mental illness, to those who are imprisoned by doubt and fear, to those who are enslaved by poverty and disadvantage and to those who are rejected and cast out by society because they do not conform to our definition of normal.

Jesus’ healing of the demoniac reminds us that Jesus has the power to heal and to set free, that Jesus is sovereign over the powers that we can see and the powers that we can’t see and that Jesus love brings us in from the margins to where we truly belong.

Energy, love, relationship – the Triune God’

June 15, 2019

Trinity – 2019 (some thoughts)

John 16:12-15

Marian Free

In the name of God, lover, beloved and source of love. Amen.

“For Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), a French Jesuit priest who trained as a paleontologist and geologist, love is “the very physical structure of the Universe.” That is a very daring statement, especially for a scientist to make. Yet for Teilhard, gravity, atomic bonding, orbits, cycles, photosynthesis, ecosystems, force fields, electromagnetic fields, sexuality, human friendship, animal instinct, and evolution all reveal an energy that is attracting all things and beings to one another, in a movement toward ever greater complexity and diversity—and yet ironically also toward unification at ever deeper levels. This energy is quite simply love under many different forms.”

The energy, love and relationship that are at the heart of the Triune God are the source both of unity and diversity, similarity and distinction, community and individuality. As much as they are unified in the oneness of God, the three persons of the Trinity are also separate and distinct, bound together in a relationship of love whose energy reaches out to embrace and include all creation. We need not be afraid to be gathered in, caught up by the energy that exists within and that streams forth from the heart of God. For just as the three persons of the Trinity do not sacrifice their distinctiveness in order to be one, neither do we give up that which makes us ourselves when we allow ourselves to be drawn into the oneness of God.The energy that holds the Trinity together is the energy that energizes the world, drawing into God’s orbit all who allow themselves to be captured and captivated by God’s love and in so doing increasing the presence of God in the world.

The unity and diversity embraced by the threefold God demonstrate that unity is not the same as uniformity and that it is often our differences (not the things we have in common) that enrich and enhance our relationships with each other and with the world around us. Contrary to what we might expect those things that set us apart from each other, and from the universe that we inhabit, are ultimately those things that draw us together. Our survival as a species depends both on our interconnectedness with all living (and non-living) things as much as it thrives on those things which make us distinct from the world around us. If we were all the same as one another there would be no need for relationship, nothing to attract us to the other and no energy to engage us in exploring what it is that unites (and what it is that divides) us. Just as opposites attract, and just as iron alloyed with carbon produces steel, so we are made stronger and our lives more interesting by diffence.

The relationship, energy and love at the heart of the Triune God create a model for the ordering of our relationships with one another. Being in relationship does not diminish any one person of the Trinity. Each member retains their distinctiveness while at the same time ceding any claim to superiority or dominance. If each member of the human race was secure in themselves, they would understand that they lose nothing by giving everything for the other. The Trinity that models perfect loving and perfect giving, demonstrates that wholeness in relationship reflects wholeness in personhood and that perfect relationships are partnerships between equals.

As our relationships with one another are built on the mutual respect modeled by the three-fold God, so too our relationships with the natural environment should reflect the Trinitarian nature of God. If our relationship with the universe reflected the love, energy and relationship revealed by the Triune God, it would not be destructive or exploitative but would be one of respect for creation and gratitude for all that creation provides for our sustenance and well-being.

A threefold God is not alone. A threefold God is not liable to dualism. A threefold God is relationship – a loving, dynamic, energizing relationship between three equals, each willing to sacrifice their individuality in order to be part of the whole and yet able to retain a sense of identify and wholeness.

In God who is three and yet also one, we find perfect love and the model for perfect existence.


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