Posts Tagged ‘fear’

What does it take to be number among the disciples?

June 24, 2017

 

 

Pentecost 3 – 2017

Matthew 10

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who notices a sparrow fall and who has numbered the hairs on our head. Amen.

You no doubt know that there are tricks to public speaking that are used to gain and to keep the attention of the audience. In the first century only about 1% of the population was able to read, so the gospels were not written to be read, but to be heard – (often in just one sitting). The gospel writers did not simply pull together a life of Jesus. The gospels and their component parts are very carefully structured in such a way as to ensure that their listeners would be gripped by the story and continue to focus on what they were hearing. Because few people could write, it was equally important that the stories about Jesus’ life and teaching were told in such a way that they would be remembered.

We heard last week that the author of Matthew’s gospel carefully structured Jesus’ teaching into five sermons or discourses each of which contained material that had a similar theme. Within at least two of these discourses is an internal structure that aims to unify and emphasise a central theme.

The technical term for this structure is a chiasm. In simple terms a chiasm is the repetition of ideas in reverse around a central theme. A chiasm is used for emphasis and for clarification. It serves to draw attention to the central point that is the focus of the passage and which gives meaning to the whole. One way to think of it is an arched bridge. The footings on either side are the same and the spans on either side mirror each other and hold up the central arch. A simple example of a chiasm is found in Luke chapter 4 – Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth. Jesus stands up, receives the scroll, unrolls the scroll, reads the scroll, rolls up the scroll, hands back the scroll and sits down[1]. The reading of the scroll and its content is the central point surrounded by actions in reverse order.

Matthew 10 is an example of a much longer chiasm. The chapter is complex and repetitive, but it begins to make sense when we see that Matthew draws his material together around a central point. The use of a chiasm bolsters and supports this key point in the same way as the footings and spans support the arch of a bridge.

The best way to understand what I am saying is to see what it looks like in practice.

After Jesus calls and names the disciples, the following structure unfolds

A. vv 5-15: The sending out of the disciples: how they should travel and find hospitality; how to respond to acceptance/non-acceptance

B. vv 16-23: Prediction of persecution; being brought before the courts, inner-family betrayal and encouragement in the face of these.

C. vv 24-25: This is because they can expect to be treated in the same way as Jesus.

 D. vv 26-31: Exhortation: “Have no fear.” They are worth so much to God that they can depend on God. (In this        section the disciples are told 4 times that they need not be afraid.)

         C’. vv 32-33: If they confess Jesus on earth, he will confess them.

     B’. vv 34-39 Division in families is to be expected; family loyalties must take  second place to the following of Jesus.

A’. vv 40-42 Those who welcome them will be richly rewarded because they are actually welcoming the risen Lord who is sending them, and ultimately the one – God – who send him[2].

Seen in this light, it is relatively easy to see that the central point around which the remainder circles is the exhortation not to be afraid. At the extremes we have comments about the disciples being accepted or not. The second and second last point warn of divisions (even within families) and the third and third last point stress a believers relationship with God to whom, the centre assures them they are of such value that God knows even the hairs on their head.

It is important to remember that this gospel is, as I mentioned last week, being written after the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple. It is a time of change and trauma, a time in which both Jew and Christ-believing Jews are trying to work out and to establish their identity in a new and vastly different environment. For those who believe in Jesus there is the added confusion and pain associated with the increasing intolerance of difference and exclusion that is directed towards them from their fellow Jews. This may well have extended to their expulsion from the synagogue. What this means is that those who consider themselves to be the disciples of Jesus are being increasingly isolated from their ancestral faith, from their fellow Jews and ultimately from their families and their friends. Ideas of acceptance and rejection and division even among families would have been extremely pertinent.

These words, addressed to the Twelve in the gospel, must have brought great reassurance and comfort to those who were experiencing the very things that Jesus predicted. To understand that they were just as likely to be rejected as to be accepted, to know that they their experiences united them to the one whom they followed, that their loyalty to him would be repaid by his to them and above all to be reassured that they had no need to fear because they were so valuable to God would have helped them not only make sense of their experiences, but would have given them the courage to stand firm in their faith and to continue to proclaim the gospel in the face of any and all difficulties.

The sort of fear that must have gripped these first Christians, may be matched by those in places such as Egypt and Nigeria today in which simply holding the faith is enough to place one in mortal danger. To know that their persecution is part and parcel of being a disciple must surely give them strength. To know how precious they are to God must help them to understand that there are worse things than death.

We who have no knowledge of such terror and who practice our faith in security and comfort must ask ourselves why it is that we do not draw attention to ourselves, why it is that we do not illicit a negative reaction from those around us. Is it because we have accommodated ourselves so well to our surrounding culture that we no longer stand out as being different? Have we watered down our faith to the point where it is no longer offensive to non-believers? Or is it just that we avoid conversations in which awkward questions might be asked or in which we might be asked to defend our point of view?

Whatever the reason, it is important to consider (20th century disciples of Christ) whether we are so far removed from the situation of the first disciples that Jesus’ instructions and words of encouragement mean nothing to us, or whether we have removed ourselves so far from the risks and dangers of discipleship that we can no longer really call ourselves disciples.

What does discipleship really mean and what will it take for us to be numbered as one?

 

 

[1] The longest and most complex chiasm is the entire book of Revelation.

[2] Adapted from Byrne, Brendan, Lifting the Burden – Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church today. NSW, Australia: St Paul’s Press, 2004, 87.

There are none so blind as those who will not see

March 25, 2017

Lent 4 – 2017

John 9:1-41

Marian Free

In the name of God who opens our eyes so we might know God. Amen.

By and large people believe what they want to believe – often despite evidence to the contrary. At least 10 years ago, Andrew Denton produced a documentary called: “God is on our side”. It was a report of a conference that is held annually in the Southern States of the USA. I found it all rather disconcerting. A major part of the gathering was the marketing of Christian artifacts books, pictures and movies a central theme of which was the “rapture” the belief that when Christ returns the dead who are to be raised, will join the living in a rapturous ascent to heaven, while everyone else is thrown into hell. Most frightening however, was the preacher who was addressing an auditorium filled with at something like 5-10,000 people and who proclaimed Cold War style that Russia intended to invade Israel. Those who attended were lapping up this out-dated and fear-inspiring version of the state of the world as if it were real. Books that supported the preacher’s argument were available for sale, reinforcing the “truth” of the matter. For those who accepted his authority, his reality became their reality.

Social media promised to make the facts more readily available to more people. It is increasingly evident that social media can be employed equally effectively to promote “fake” news. Many people who have no other source of information will believe what they are told, or what they read – especially if it is on the news, in the newspapers or spoken by someone in a position of authority.

As the old proverb goes: “There are none so blind as those that will not see.”

There are several layers of blindness in today’s gospel – the physical blindness of the man who is healed and the metaphorical blindness of almost every one else in the story. The disciples are blinded by tradition or folklore – physical deformity is evidence of sin. The man’s neighbours are blinded by the information that they currently have – the man whom they knew was blind – the man in front of them is not – he cannot be the same person. The Pharisees are blinded by their fear of change, and their desire for power. If people are allowed to believe that Jesus comes from God, their influence will be severely diminished. Finally, the parent’s of the once-blind man are blinded by the anxiety that if they claim to understand their son’s healing, they will be thrown out of the synagogue. Even the man born blind takes some time to fully comprehend the implications of receiving his sight.

The story of the man born blind takes a long circuitous route. He does not come to Jesus seeking to be healed. In fact it is only because the disciples ask Jesus about him that Jesus restores his sight. There is no suggestion that the man had faith, nor that his cure led to faith or caused others to believe. Not is there any suggestion that the man is surprised. He appears to take his newfound sight for granted. Those who knew him are surprised, so surprised in fact that they refuse to believe that it is the same man whom they knew as a beggar. The Pharisees on the other hand are threatened by Jesus’ power. They try to persuade the man that Jesus cannot possibly be from God implying that his power comes from elsewhere. Their antagonism has the opposite effect from that which they intended. Their assault on the once blind man and their disapproval of Jesus pushes the blind man to think about what has happened and to come to his own conclusion about Jesus – surely he is a prophet. In the face of such negativity, the man begins to understand the implications of his healing. It was not a random event but had a purpose and a meaning. Not only has the man received his physical sight, he is gaining insight and coming to faith.

When the Pharisees fail to intimidate the man, they take on his parents. Unlike the neighbours they recognise and own the man as their son, but they refuse to enter into any debate as to the person who healed him. To suggest that Jesus is from God would lead to their being thrown out of the synagogue. Finally the Pharisees attack the blind man one more time and when he refuses to give up what he has learned they throw him out of the synagogue. It is only then that Jesus seeks him out and reveals himself to him.

Over the course of the story, the man’s sight and his insight have been gradually sharpened. Despite opposition, he has held on to his sense of self, discerned the self-interest that led to the false teaching and the blindness of the Pharisees and has gradually discovered that Jesus the healer, is Jesus the prophet, is Jesus the Son of Man. He has learned the truth about Jesus because he was not bound by tradition, limited by what he thought he knew, not determined to maintain his place in the world and not imprisoned by the fear of what others might do to him. His openness to the truth gave him courage to hold his ground in the face of opposition and his willingness to learn brought him to faith. He has gained his sight in more ways than one.

As today’s gospel illustrates, God is patient. God will reveal the truth at a pace at which we are able to grasp it. God will give us courage to stand against those who would mislead and confuse us and will in time bring us to fullness of faith.

Lent is love. God’s story includes the timid, the questioning and those who come to believe one step at a time. No matter what holds us back – “fear or doubt or habit”[1] God will open our eyes and give us time and space to find our way to the truth and to take our place in the story that is without beginning or end.

 

 

[1] To quote hymn writer Elizabeth Smith.

Wadi Qelt – a certain man (Luke 10:30)

July 4, 2015

I confess that this week Saturday has crept up on me so that with or without Internet, I have not thought of this reflective piece. The dig at Bethsaida was so all-consuming and tiring that time has simply sped past. It has been amazing to be by the Sea of Galilee for two weeks and to try to get some sense of the history, to wonder about what it was all like some two thousand years ago. The Lake has many moods changing with the light and the breeze. A particular treat was to see a boat from the first century which had been hidden in the mud and which has now been restored.

Today we have driven to Jerusalem through the Negev – a barren, uninviting desert. Along the way we stopped at Wadi Qelt, the ancient route from Jerusalem to Jericho. You can see from the photo how inhospitable it is and you can imagine that Jesus got the attention of his listeners as soon as he mentioned that a man was taking that route and doing so alone. Not only was the area full of brigands, but the very nature of the land is forbidding. To take the journey without the protection of a caravan would have been to be taking his life into his hands.

Jesus is a consummate story-teller. First he grabs the attention of his audience, in this case by choosing a character who is doing something outrageous, then he uses the classic technique of using three characters. (This is well known to many of us in the way that jokes are told – there were three priests, a Catholic, an Anglican and a Lutheran and so on.) Once he has established the scene Jesus doesn’t need to explain why the other travelers are on the road. The audience know that it is a story.

Of course we know the story so well that we are no longer surprised that the man takes the route alone, nor are we surprised that the Samaritan stops to help. In fact the expression “the Good Samaritan” has passed inot common usage and many people today would not know the origin of the expression. What is lost on many of today’s readers is how shocking it would have been for a Samariton to stop and offer assistance to a Jew and that the Jew may not have been particularly grateful for that help. Such was the enmity between the two groups that Jews would walk the long way to Jerusalem so as to avoid going through the region of Samaria. Both groups claimed to be the true faith and Jews considered Samaritans to be ritualy unclean, presumably because they did not observe the same purity laws.

As I said, Jesus crafts a great story. By using the same language for both the priest and the Levite, he creates a certain expectation in the minds of the listeners. The priest/Levite is “going down”, “he saw him”, “he passed by on the other side”. Jesus’ audience are expecting the pattern to continue, but they have gone ahead believing that they know how the story will end. They imagine that Jesus will continue: “a Jew (ie someone like themselves), was going down, he saw him and he stopped to help.” In their imagination, it is they who will be the hero of the story. After all the priest and Levite have simply behaved in a way that could have been expected of them, but they, the people would surely show compassion.

Jesus takes the ground from under their feet. The hero is not one of their own, but a despised Samaritan. Now they are really listening. There is, in their mind, no such thing as a “good” Samaritan. But this of course, is exactly Jesus’ point. By categorizing and judging others, by expecting them to behave in a particular way we are limiting ourselves and determining who is and who is not our neighbour.

The question of the lawyer is not really answered. What Jesus does though is to expose the prejudices that most of us hold. So long as we fail to see and recognise the good in those whom we fear or distrust, we are unable to love our neighbour as ourself. It is not a problem to care for those in need, but that is not the meaning of the parable. The shocking reality that Jesus exposes here is that a Samaritan can be good and that our values no preconceptions mean that we fail to see the goodness in others.

Whom do we despise or fear. Can we allow this parable to challenge our preconceptions and open us to the challenging idea that those who cause us anxiety may in fact be those who are most willing to show us love and compassion?

Embracing the present

November 15, 2014

Pentecost 23
Matthew 25:14-30
Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us out of fear and timidity into a life that is full, fulfilling and rich. Amen.

During the week Gail Kelly resigned from her position as CEO of the Westpac Bank. This event not only made the newspapers, but was a matter of some discussion in the wider community. Kelly’s career has been of interest since she was appointed to the position in 2008. She broke the glass ceiling in the corporate world, but more than that, during her time with the bank, she achieved what many of her peers had not. That is, she successfully steered the bank through the global financial crisis and, in what was a critical time for many financial institutions, she significantly strengthened the bank’s position.

In August, at the launch of the St George Foundation, Kelly outlined seven lessons that she had learned along the way. I think that they are worth sharing. In brief, she said: “Choose to be positive; do what you love, love what you do; be bold, dig deep; right people on the bus, wrong people off; have a vision of what you’d like to achieve; practice generosity of spirit (desire to see others flourish) and live a full (whole) life.” Two things caught my attention. First of all, Kelly’s words were not those of a cut-throat, aggressive power-hungry person, but of a pragmatic, sensible, balanced person who has taken risks. Secondly, I was intrigued by Kelly’s advice to be bold and courageous. It is easy for us to imagine that successful people are confident and self-assured at all times. Kelly says that for all her life she has had a sense of: “Gosh, I’m not good enough, I’m not adequate, I’m not going to do this well. I might fail, what happens if I fail?”

A great many of us would relate to these feelings of self-doubt and of the anxiety that doing something new and challenging can cause. Kelly suggests that in such cases we should: “pause, dig deep, take our courage into our hands and actively say: ‘I’m going to back myself.'” Self doubt hasn’t prevented Kelly from taking risks. At such times she has actively said: “there are others out there who are going to support me, there are others out there who want me to win.”

As I reflected on these words, it seemed to me that they helped to make sense of today’s parable about the talents.

It has been usual to confuse the expression ‘talenta’ which refers to a sum of money, with a person’s ability. More often than not, the parable is interpreted as meaning that we have to make the best use of our talents (abilities/gifts). However, if we understand that a “talent” represents something like fifteen years wages of an ordinary worker, we begin to see the huge responsibility that has been given even to the slave who receives only one talent. It is a responsibility that the master expects will be taken seriously. That is he believes that the money will be put to good use.

According to the parable, the first two slaves invest the money. When the man returns, they are able to return to him double what he gave them. The third slave however does not have any confidence in himself. He is afraid of his master and doesn’t fully grasp the master’s confidence in him. (He might only have been given one talent compared to the other’s five and two), but even one talent (fifteen year’s wages) is indicative of the master’s confidence in his ability to manage a huge sum of money. The responsibility paralyses the third slave such that he is too afraid to do anything. He is so fearful of taking a risk that he doesn’t even give the money to the money-lenders which would ensure some form of return. Burying money was regarded as the best form of security against theft. What is more, according to the customs of the time, it was also a way of ensuring that the slave would not be held liable if the money was stolen. The slave presumably believes that he has done what is necessary to protect himself – the money will be safe until the master’s return and even if it is not, he cannot be held responsible for its disappearance.

Unfortunately, he has misread his master’s intention in entrusting him with the money. The master was expecting boldness not timidity. By giving the slave the money, he had demonstrated his trust and his belief in each of the slaves by only giving them only what he believed they could manage. Only one slave has not lived up to that trust. It is his failure to recognise and respond to that trust that earns him the master’s wrath.

The parable of the talents confronts those who, in the present are lazy or fearful who do not understand God’s confidence in them and who do not embrace life to the full, use every opportunity that is put before them and take risks. God does not want us to live in fear of the future, but to live in and be fully engaged in the present.

God has placed His trust in us. Do we honour that trust by being fearful or by stepping out in faith confident in God’s confidence in us?

Embracing the present

November 15, 2014

strong>Pentecost 23
Matthew 25:14-30
Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us out of fear and timidity into a life that is full, fulfilling and rich. Amen.

During the week Gail Kelly resigned from her position as CEO of the Westpac Bank. This event not only made the newspapers, but was a matter of some discussion in the wider community. Kelly’s career has been of interest since she was appointed to the position in 2008. She broke the glass ceiling in the corporate world, but more than that, during her time with the bank, she achieved what many of her peers had not. That is, she successfully steered the bank through the global financial crisis and, in what was a critical time for many financial institutions, she significantly strengthened the bank’s position.

In August, at the launch of the St George Foundation, Kelly outlined seven lessons that she had learned along the way. I think that they are worth sharing. In brief, she said: “Choose to be positive; do what you love, love what you do; be bold, dig deep; right people on the bus, wrong people off; have a vision of what you’d like to achieve; practice generosity of spirit (desire to see others flourish) and live a full (whole) life.” Two things caught my attention. First of all, Kelly’s words were not those of a cut-throat, aggressive power-hungry person, but of a pragmatic, sensible, balanced person who has taken risks. Secondly, I was intrigued by Kelly’s advice to be bold and courageous. It is easy for us to imagine that successful people are confident and self-assured at all times. Kelly says that for all her life she has had a sense of: “Gosh, I’m not good enough, I’m not adequate, I’m not going to do this well. I might fail, what happens if I fail?”

A great many of us would relate to these feelings of self-doubt and of the anxiety that doing something new and challenging can cause. Kelly suggests that in such cases we should: “pause, dig deep, take our courage into our hands and actively say: ‘I’m going to back myself.'” Self doubt hasn’t prevented Kelly from taking risks. At such times she has actively said: “there are others out there who are going to support me, there are others out there who want me to win.”

As I reflected on these words, it seemed to me that they helped to make sense of today’s parable about the talents.

It has been usual to confuse the expression ‘talenta’ which refers to a sum of money, with a person’s ability. More often than not, the parable is interpreted as meaning that we have to make the best use of our talents (abilities/gifts). However, if we understand that a “talent” represents something like fifteen years wages of an ordinary worker, we begin to see the huge responsibility that has been given even to the slave who receives only one talent. It is a responsibility that the master expects will be taken seriously. That is he believes that the money will be put to good use.

According to the parable, the first two slaves invest the money. When the man returns, they are able to return to him double what he gave them. The third slave however does not have any confidence in himself. He is afraid of his master and doesn’t fully grasp the master’s confidence in him. (He might only have been given one talent compared to the other’s five and two), but even one talent (fifteen year’s wages) is indicative of the master’s confidence in his ability to manage a huge sum of money. The responsibility paralyses the third slave such that he is too afraid to do anything. He is so fearful of taking a risk that he doesn’t even give the money to the money-lenders which would ensure some form of return. Burying money was regarded as the best form of security against theft. What is more, according to the customs of the time, it was also a way of ensuring that the slave would not be held liable if the money was stolen. The slave presumably believes that he has done what is necessary to protect himself – the money will be safe until the master’s return and even if it is not, he cannot be held responsible for its disappearance.

Unfortunately, he has misread his master’s intention in entrusting him with the money. The master was expecting boldness not timidity. By giving the slave the money, he had demonstrated his trust and his belief in each of the slaves by only giving them only what he believed they could manage. Only one slave has not lived up to that trust. It is his failure to recognise and respond to that trust that earns him the master’s wrath.

The parable of the talents confronts those who, in the present are lazy or fearful who do not understand God’s confidence in them and who do not embrace life to the full, use every opportunity that is put before them and take risks. God does not want us to live in fear of the future, but to live in and be fully engaged in the present.

God has placed His trust in us. Do we honour that trust by being fearful or by stepping out in faith confident in God’s confidence in us?

Accepting Difference

June 22, 2013

Pentecost 5 – 2013

Luke 8:26-29

Marian Free 

In the name of God whose love embraces all God’s creation. Amen.

There is an extraordinary story of a boy (now a young man) who lives in Fiji. His name is Sujit and his story is difficult to piece together. It appears that he may have been born with slight cerebral palsy and epilepsy. His father was murdered and his mother committed suicide. When Sujit was given to the care of his grandfather at two years old he was locked in a chicken coop (possibly because he was thought to be demon-possessed). Not surprisingly, the child developed behaviours not unlike those of the chickens with whom he spent so much time. At age eight, having been found on a road, he was consigned to an aged care home, where his behaviour was so disturbing and difficult to manage that for the next twenty-two years he was tied to a bed. No attempt was made to change his behaviour or to offer any kind of nurture. He was left to his own devices and his chicken like behaviour was allowed to continue without any intervention.

Elizabeth Clayton, an Australian living in Fiji came across Surit when she visited the care facility to deliver some plastic dining tables. He was filthy and covered in sores. Elizabeth felt she had no choice but to get him out of there and to provide the care that was so badly lacking. Even then at around age 26, the young man still clucked like a chicken, clawed at his food and didn’t know how to walk, let alone speak. His fingers still turn inward like claws, he understands only a minimum of speech and is not toilet trained.

As awful as this story sounds it is not unique. Out of ignorance or despair, many parents and institutions resort to what appear to be harsh and unnecessary forms of control for children whose behaviour they do not understand or cannot manage. In China today for example, there is no support for parents of children who are autistic. When such children exhibit violent or self-harming behaviour, parents feel that they have no option but to restrain the child – for the child’s safety as well as their own. With little knowledge and no help, these parents can only do their best to keep their children safe. Even if they want to, without support, they are unable to help the child to develop and to live a relatively normal life.

Our failure to understand difference has meant that even until quite recent times those with mental illness or disability were shut up or isolated from the mainstream of society. In many cases those who suffered from mental illness were feared and misunderstood. Not many people knew how to interact with them or considered that they might possibly have something to contribute to society. As a society we are still unable or unwilling to provide the support to families or individuals who do not fit the so-called norm.

In the first century the situation was no better and probably worse. Medical knowledge was extremely basic and demon possession was seen as the cause of many medical conditions which are understood quite differently today. From the New Testament accounts we surmise that conditions attributed to evil spirits or demon possession would have include mental illness and epilepsy to mention. Depending on the nature of the condition, family and friends would have resorted to a variety of treatments and forms of care – exorcism was a popular treatment.

In today’s gospel, we meet a man who is bound by chains among the tombs. In this case there are no clues to help us to understand what his condition might be in today’s terms. We simply know that according to those who knew him, the condition was so severe that he was believed to be possessed by a multitude of demons (Legion). Whatever is troubling the man it gave him such strength that he could not be managed. His behaviour was so intolerable and frightening to those around him that not only was he bound, but he was confined in a place as far away as possible from everyone.

It is shocking to think that people who through no fault of their own are violent and distressed are not only excluded from our presence but bound both by their condition and by the ties that others impose on them. Thankfully research and public education has reduced our fear of those with mental illness and of those who are differently abled. Our education system no longer excludes those who require additional support and we are challenged by the brilliance of such people as Stephen Hawking to reconsider our stereotyping and prejudices. Psychology and Psychiatry have made great strides in understanding not only what goes on in the mind, but how to treat mental illness and to enable sufferers to hold down jobs and to contribute to society in a wide variety of ways. Technology has made it possible for mute to communicate, the deaf to hear and the paralysed to contribute to society.

Jesus is not afraid of the man with the demons, nor does he see any reason not to intervene (despite the reluctance of the demons). He restores the man to his right mind and to his rightful place in the community. More than that, Jesus gives the man a responsibility – he is to be the bearer of the gospel to those among whom he lives. The outsider becomes the insider, the rejected becomes the accepted and the one who was excluded becomes the one chosen and commissioned by Jesus to share the gospel.

In a world that is uncomfortable with difference and which seeks the comfort of conformity, Jesus teaches us that love, compassion and understanding can transform the lives of those who were previously misunderstood, mistreated and excluded. We are challenged by Jesus’ example to create a society that is welcoming, empowering and inclusive of all God’s creation – no matter their race, their gender, their faith, their sexuality or their ability.

 


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