Posts Tagged ‘Arrogance’

Holding Fast

April 7, 2018

Easter 2 – 2018

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

In the name of God who sets us free and holds us fast. Amen.

On at least three occasions when I have celebrated a Eucharist I have managed to omit the Confession. While that tells me that on those days I must have been I was distracted I am not particularly worried about the omission. Confession is a relatively late-comer to the Christian liturgical tradition. In the first centuries after Jesus those who had sinned made a public admission of their fault before the community. If they were seen to have committed a particularly heinous sin they were excommunicated – that is they were excluded (not from the community) but from communion. At that time, those whose were not baptised were dismissed before the Eucharist and those who had been excommunicated were dismissed at the same time. They were then publicly restored to the community at Easter at the same time as those who were baptised were admitted to it. This practice made the inclusion of Confession in the liturgy unnecessary.

While penitence, often in the form of sack-cloth and ashes, is a part of the Old Testament tradition and practice, we hear very little of it in the New Testament except in relation to Baptism. In the Middle Ages the practice of Confession became a private and secret thing. At that time There was a strong emphasis on sin and unworthiness and an increasing belief that our relationship with God was sufficiently tenuous that it had to be continually restored. In the late medieval times confession was made mandatory before communion.

The Anglican Reformers missed an opportunity to reconsider the place of confession. While many of the Protestant traditions abandoned the practice altogether, Cranmer retained a general confession as a part of all our services. Cranmer in fact added lengthy exhortations to be read the Sundays before Communion was to be offered – urging people to consider their lives and to repent of their sins so that they might be in a fit state to receive the sacrament.

I suspect that in part the emphasis on sin and the need for confession of same is based in part on a belief that Jesus gave the church the power to determine what was and was not able to be forgiven. There are two verses in our scriptures that have created this impression. The first is Jesus’ commission to Peter (which is also given to the disciples) in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus says: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The second occurs in today’s gospel: “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any they are retained.”

While those texts have been taken to understand that we, in the form of the church, can determine whether or not a person is forgiven, it seems to me that it takes a certain amount of arrogance to assume that Jesus gave to human beings – even human beings who believe in him, a privilege that the New Testament itself tells us belongs only to God (Mark 2:7) and which is an indication that Jesus is God. If we take it upon ourselves to decide who can, and cannot be forgiven we are, in essence, claiming that we, like Jesus are God.

So how are we to understand these two scriptures that have for centuries been understood to mean that we, mere human beings, have the wisdom to determine what can and cannot be forgiven?

In regard to the quote from Matthew the answer lies in the cultural context of Jesus’ words. When Jesus gives Peter the keys of the kingdom and later empowers the disciples to bind and loose he was not giving them the authority to determine who would or would not be excluded from heaven. In the first century context he is simply giving to them the authority to decide which laws (not which sins) were binding for all time, and which laws (not which sins) could be dispensed with because they had reached their use-by date. The only relation between Jesus’ commission and sin, was that the disciples were empowered to decide that breaking a particular law was not a sin!

In John’s gospel, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit”. Most English translations continue: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” However, the Greek reads quite differently. In the second clause the word ‘sin’ is absent. Translators have simply assumed that sin as the subject of the first clause can be read into the second. Sandra Schneiders points out that a better translation of the sentence would be: “Of whomever you forgive the sins, they (the sins) are forgiven them; whomever you hold fast (or embrace) they are held fast”. She points out that “in the context of John’s Gospel it is hardly conceivable that Jesus, sent to take away the sin of the world, commissioned his disciples to perpetuate sin by the refusal of forgiveness or that the retention of sins in some people could reflect the universal reconciliation effected by Jesus. ”

Jesus does not empower us to determine what is unforgivable or suggest that we represent the mind of God on earth. Jesus is commissioning us to hold one another fast through thick and thin, to embrace one another with the sort of compassionate, understanding love that Jesus extends to us through all our doubts, our wilfulness and our failure to understand. Thomas’ questioning mind was not a cause for Jesus’ rejection, but an opportunity, an excuse for Jesus to reach out in love and to hold him fast. Jesus breathes the Spirit and commissions us – not to judge and exclude but to love and embrace.

Cutting off our hands?

September 29, 2012

Pentecost 18

Mark 9:37-50

Marian Free

 In the name of God who urges us to be set free from those things which inflict hurt on others or which bind ourselves to this world. Amen.

If I were to watch the musical Godspel today, I’m sure that I would find it very dated. The great Jesus musicals – Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspel came out of the sixties and Godspel in particular captured the spirit of the age – flower power, peace and love. I first watched Godspel as a film and was especially moved by the way in which the relationships between Jesus and the disciples were played out. Because I had enjoyed it so much I leapt at the chance to take our children when the Arts Theatre produced Godspel. A group of families from our church booked tickets and off we went. All was well until the actors burst into a song about cutting off hands and feet and tearing out eyes. Not only was it incongruous to hear such gruesome things being sung in what was a light hearted sort if way, but I was conscious that collectively we, the parents, were exposing our children to something that really didn’t seem to fit with the gospel of God’s love that we were trying to share with them!

Fortunately, none of them seem to have been scarred by the experience, but it is a memory that has stayed with me and has served as a reminder that our scriptures are not always immediately transparent and open to understanding but can sometimes cause confusion or offense.

The reading from Mark’s gospel today contains at least one incident, a response to that incident and several sets of Jesus’ saying. Last week we saw that Jesus caught the disciples discussing who was the greatest. This week’s reading begins with a continuation of that theme. John informs Jesus that someone is casting out demons in Jesus’ name apparently expecting Jesus to be affronted. Given that the disciples have only recently failed to perform an exorcism, John’s comment reveals a certain smugness about being part of Jesus’ inner circle and a determination to protect the exclusiveness of that relationship.

John’s arrogance is quickly confronted by Jesus who makes the powerful and inclusive statement that: “anyone who is not against us is for us.” Discipleship is not exclusive or hierarchical but is available to anyone who chooses not to opt out. This inclusiveness is illustrated by the comment that anyone who gives a cup of water to the disciples because they are disciples will be rewarded. Being included does not require grand gestures or even heroic self-sacrifice. Even such an apparently small act of giving water demonstrates an allegiance toJesus which will not go unnoticed. So far so good, but suddenly we are confronted by a number of apparently unrelated sayings about millstones, self-mutilation, Gehenna and salt.

We make a mistake if we try to read such groupings as following what we consider to be a logical progression. The various gospel authors placed their material together in ways that made sense to their hearers. In this instance, certain sayings or events or simply catchwords, have led the author to think of others which seem to fit the context. For example, Jesus’ use of a child to confront the arrogance of the disciples follows naturally into another account of the disciples’ arrogance which in turn is illustrated by the damage that such arrogance could do to a child in faith “a little one”. In turn the illustration of the millstone – an extreme form of punishment in that time because the weight of the stone ensures that the guilty person drowns – leads into another set of sayings which are linked to the first by the word “σκανδαλιζω” – to scandalise or to cause to stumble. Not only are the disciples not to claim an exclusive relationship with Jesus, neither are they to do anything that would cause harm to the faith of someone else. In fact their own behaviour should be flawless. They should not behave in ways that would jeopardise their salvation. In fact, to be safe, to be certain of eternal life, they should remove off the offending body part.

It was these words that caused my distress during Godspel. However, I now know that Jesus doesn’t intend us to take these violent instructions literally. Here as elsewhere he uses hyperbole to get our attention and to make a point. Language that is particularly gruesome in the twentieth century would not have been so confronting to Jesus’ audience. They lived in harsher, more violent times. For Jesus to suggest that the community formed in his name should be legless and armless, or that they should all practice self-mutilation would have been understood as ludicrous.

The use of exaggeration by Jesus is not limited to this set of sayings. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has said that anyone who calls their brother “a fool” is guilty of murder and that anyone who looks at a woman with lust in his heart is an adulterer. It is not that Jesus wants to have us drowning in a sea of guilt, feeling that we will never achieve the impossible standard that he sets or that we will never be worthy of the kingdom. He uses these dramatic statements to help us to recognize and to confront the sort of arrogance that allows us to believe that we are superior to any one else. The arresting sayings are to make us aware of our own short comings and to help us to see that our arrogance is generally ill-founded, to understand that most, if not all of us, have some sort of flaws and that, as a result none of us can lord it over others or congratulate ourselves on how good we are in comparison to them. By our very arrogance or simply through our complacency, Jesus suggests, our words or actions may bring the gospel into disrepute or cause others to misunderstand or to reject the gospel. We might just as we’ll drown ourselves.

While it is a relief to know that we can keep all our appendages, we are not, as a result, let off the hook. Jesus is indeed setting the bar high and encouraging us to rise to the challenge. Arrogance, lust, greed, self-centredness, jealousy, hatred and so on have no place in the life hereafter. That being the case, we would do well to rid ourselves of all such negative qualities now, because they will be of no use and will not be welcome in the Kingdom of God.


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