Posts Tagged ‘law’

Breaking the law/keeping the law

March 3, 2018

Lent 3 – 2018

Exodus 20, John 2:13-22, (Mark 11:15-18 )

Marian Free

In the name of God to whose greater wisdom, we must always defer. Amen.

Adrian Plass tells the story of a church that had decided to imitate the Salvation Army and go to the pub to meet local people. Hearing this Beth, an older member of the congregation, drew herself up in her chair and stated categorically: “I would never do that!” Plass looked at her at said: “Suppose that Jesus were to come through that door right now – today – and say: ‘Beth, I want you to come down to the King’s Head with me.’ would you go?” “I would not,” she responded. “But, Beth”, he persisted, “we’re talking about Jesus, the son of God, asking you personally if you would go with him. Would you not go?” “I have never set foot in a public house in my life, and I’m not about to start now,” she stated adamantly. “But if Jesus himself asked – “ “It’s a good witness,” interrupted Beth, “alcohol has never passed my lips and it never will.” “Okay”, Plass said, “Jesus doesn’t want you to actually drink anything intoxicating, he just wants you with him in the King’s Head and – “ Beth shook her head firmly: “No!” Plass continued, “Jesus, God himself, the creator of everything, the reason why we’re all here today – he comes in and he says, ‘Beth, I really need you to come to the pub with me today, so please, please make an exception, just for me.’ Would you go with him?” A tiny crack of uncertainty began to appear. “I suppose”, Beth said, “if he really did have a really, really good reason for asking, I might go.”[1]

Rules make everything clear do they not? They allow us to believe that there is right and there is wrong. As long as we do what is right we are OK. More than that, as long as we don’t break the rules we can feel safe. Beth thought she knew right from wrong, but the rules on which she based her life prevented her from seeing that there were other ways of viewing the world and her faith.

There are a number of problems with believing that rules are fixed and immutable for all time. One is the presumption that it is possible legislate for all the things that really make us better people, a better society. In the letter to the Galatians Paul reminds us that there are no laws that can compel us to love, to be gentle, patient and kind. Such things come from inside a person and cannot be enforced by regulation. A second problem is this – it is simply impossible to draw up legislation to cover every possible eventuality. A man may pride himself on not being a murderer but by his actions and words may behave in ways that are soul-destroying for those around him. A woman may feel self-satisfied because she has never committed adultery but at the same time her words and actions may indicate that she has withdrawn her love from her husband. A third issue, as our common law illustrates, is that there are sometimes mitigating circumstances that lead a person to break the law. So for example, our law distinguishes between murder and manslaughter and accepts that years of abuse may drive a woman to the brink.

The money changers and stall holders in the Temple were doing nothing wrong – just the opposite. The Temple, unlike the church, was not a place in which liturgy was celebrated. Rather, it was primarily the place to which people came to make their offerings (as required by the law) to God. Without money changers and traders it would have been impossible for the Temple to operate as it was intended[2].

If the practice of exchanging money and the selling animals was necessary to the functioning of the Temple, how can we explain Jesus’ actions? The Old Testament quotes suggest that Jesus was not concerned that people were breaking the law. His actions were intended to be symbolic and prophetic, he was not quibbling about details; he was demonstrating that the whole system needed to be replaced.

Today we have heard the account as told by John. Interestingly Mark (and therefore Matthew and Luke) tells the story very differently. According to Mark, Jesus’ actions in the Temple occur in the very last week of his life, at the end of his ministry. The controversy that has dogged Jesus throughout his ministry has come to a head when he enters Jerusalem. It is in the Temple that his final confrontations with the authorities occur and it is here that they determine to kill him. When Jesus drives the people out of the Temple he combines quotes from Isaiah (56:7) and Jeremiah (7:11): “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” Mark’s listeners would have heard behind these two quotes their original context. Isaiah is imagining the coming of the kingdom as a time when all peoples will flock to Jerusalem. Jeremiah is criticizing the people of Israel who had placed their trust in the superficial, outward signs of faith rather than in inward change and commitment to God. Marks’ readers would have recognised that Jesus was dramatically illustrating what he had been preaching from the beginning of his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Unlike Mark, John places the story at the very beginning of his gospel. Mark highlights Jesus’ preaching. John’s purpose is to illustrate the ways in which Jesus replaces the traditions and practices of Judaism. That is, ‘Jesus’ life, death and resurrection definitively fulfill the meanings of Temple, feasts and Torah’[3]. By driving the money changers and traders out of the Temple, Jesus is making the point that in him the sacrificial system has come to an end, there is no more need for the Temple and its practices because ‘his own self-offering will permanently fulfill the purpose of Temple sacrifice’[4]. In John, Jesus quotes from Zechariah (14:20-21). “Stop making my Father’s house a market place”. He is claiming an intimate relationship with God and, in effect, asserting that the Temple is his house, his body (a claim that is substantiated in the latter part of the reading). The Temple and its practices are no longer necessary, because it is in and through Jesus that the faith will move into the future.

After his death, Jesus’ disciples recall these words and connect them with Psalm 69:9 that also speaks of “my Father’s house”. “Zeal for my Father’s house will consume me.” Retrospectively they understand that this quote is prophetic in two ways – Jesus’ zeal for change led to his crucifixion and it was the authority’s zeal for the present practices and structures that led them to plot Jesus’ death.

Both Mark and John present a Jesus who recognises that the old ways have out-lived their usefulness and who, in the Temple dramatically illustrates the end of the old and the beginning of the new. We can be like Beth, firmly grounded in a rigid an unchanging law, or we can allow Jesus’ words and actions to continue to challenge our present circumstances. Jesus challenges us to see beyond the law to God who gave the law; to rely on God and God’s goodness rather than on a set of prescriptions; to grasp that it is impossible for any number of laws to make us perfect; and to place Jesus (not a set of regulations) between us and God because in Jesus all the barriers have been broken-down and we can relate to God as if face-to-face.



[1] Cabbages and Kings. Adrian Plass.

[2] The law stipulated that offerings had to be made for specific events and occasions such as when a male child was born or when the crops were harvested. Then there was the question of the Temple Tax. Roman coins carried the image of the Emperor with the designation ‘Son of God’. Even to carry such a coin was considered idolatrous, and using it to pay the Temple tax was impossible. In order for the Temple to function there needed to be people who could exchange Roman coins for Temple money and others to sell the pre-requisites for sacrificial practices.

[3] Denis Hamm word/hamm/html

[4] op cit


In God’s image

October 21, 2017


Pentecost 20 – 2017

Matthew 22:15-end

Marian Free

In the name of God who is and was and ever more shall be. Amen.

According to Cambridge University: “Competitive debating is a fun activity akin to a game in which we examine ideas and policies with the aim of persuading people within an organised structure. It allows us to consider the world around us by thinking about different arguments, engaging with opposing views and speaking strategically[1].” The same website states that judges measure a good debater according to three criteria:

Content: What a person says and the arguments and examples he or she uses.
Style: How the debate is presented – that is the language and voice that is used.
Strategy: How well someone engages with the topic, responds to other people’s arguments and structure what they say.

At its best good debate is like a piece of theatre – full of drama, repartee, humor and a clever turn of phrase. Good debaters know how to put their point convincingly and how to expose the weaknesses of their opponent’s arguments. If they are particularly clever and astute, they may be able to throw the other team off course and force them team to put a foot wrong and thereby lose the debate.

Jesus often engaged in debate with those who opposed him. These debates were not for fun, but were serious affairs in which one or more persons tried to bring Jesus into disrepute in order to enhance their own status and honour. In today’s gospel three groups of people try to discredit Jesus through questions about politics, faith and the Jewish law.

First the Pharisees, assisted by the Herodians, come up with a question that they think will force Jesus into a corner. If Jesus says that it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, he will alienate the majority of his audience who resent the taxes exacted by Rome. On the other hand, if he states that the taxes should not be paid his challengers will have grounds to report him for sedition. Jesus appears to be in a lose-lose situation. Not so. Jesus refuses to fall for their trap. His response not only fails to give them what they want, but it also exposes their hypocrisy and their faithlessness.

Jesus then asks for a coin and one is readily produced. In a sense, by being in possession of a coin, his adversaries have answered their own question. The coin signifies identification with the Empire. The Herodians had publicly aligned themselves with the Romans, but the Pharisees, who prided themselves on keeping the law, should have refused to carry a coin engraved with an image of “Tiberius Caesar, August, son of the divine Augustus, high priest” – a graven image forbidden by the 10 Commandments. (Even if the coin belonged to an Herodian, the Pharisees would tainted by association.)

Jesus goes further and asks them a question: “Whose image[2] is this, and whose title?” (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. )Too often, Jesus’ response here has been used to justify a separation of church and state which, at its extreme, allowed Christians to go along with or to ignore the policies of the Nazi state. What is at stake is more than an issue of earthly authority vs the authority of heaven[3].  The power of the Emperor is not a separate power from that of God. All heaven and earth are under God’s dominion; all powers and principalities are subordinate to the overarching authority and power that belongs to God. The image on the coin implies authority, power and divinity in this case for the Emperor. Paying taxes returns the coin to the Emperor whom it represents. If we give the coin to the Emperor, what do we give to God? What is it that bears God’s image. Humanity is made in the image of God and it is ourselves, our whole selves that we must return to God.

Jesus’ diversion with the coin was more than just a clever response to what was meant to be a difficult question. Jesus’ was confronting the Pharisees’ failure to live out their role as the image of God and to give to God what was God’s.

When the Sadducees saw that the Pharisees had failed to score a point against Jesus, they came up with a question of their own – one that related to a matter of belief. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They hoped to confuse Jesus with a complicated question about the resurrection. Jesus’ response showed that they were approaching the question from completely the wrong point of view. He reminded them that it was foolish to think of the resurrection in purely human terms.

In a final attempt to discredit Jesus, the Pharisees sent a lawyer with a question about a matter of the law. The Pharisees wanted to expose Jesus’ ignorance with regard to matters of the Jewish law. Which law was the greatest – that would be something only those who were students of the law might know. Jesus was not just some yokel from Galilee. He was politically astute; he knew the tenets of his faith and was well versed in the law. None of his opponents were able to trap or outsmart him.

Having proven himself Jesus turns the tables on his adversaries. He has a question. How can the Christ be both David’s son and David’s lord? They cannot of course and Jesus’ opponents slink away – defeated.

When we listen to accounts such as these that we allow ourselves a certain amount of smugness – the Pharisees and Sadducees were definitely in the wrong and on the wrong track, we think. We wouldn’t make that mistake. But I wonder about that: how often do we call God into question, try to pin God down or force God into a corner? How often do we pit our wills against God – seeking answers to questions that may be well beyond our ability to comprehend? How often do we enter into competition with God, trying to get God to prove Godself? In the final analysis perhaps that is the point of today’s gospel. It reminds us that contending with God is futile. The truth is that no matter how smart or how educated we are we simply cannot plumb the depths of God. There is so much that is beyond our comprehension. God is mysterious and complex and awe-inspiring. God cannot be contained or captured by slogans or simple formulas.

Jesus’ response to his challengers reveals two possible actions – we can accept and submit to God’s dominion and be a part of the kingdom or we can challenge or defy God’s sovereignty and thereby demonstrate that we want no part of the kingdom. We need to choose a side – do we stand with the Pharisees and with all who contest with God? or do we acknowledge God as our Lord and Jesus as our Saviour. There is always a choice let us be sure to make the right one.







[2] Note the Greek word “icon” is often translated as “head” which makes it more difficult to grasp Jesus’ meaning.

[3] Dennis Hamm and others

A Jewish Christian view

June 17, 2017

Pentecost 2 – 2017

Matthew 9:35-10:42[1]

Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals Godself to us in many and varied ways. Amen.

Thanks to the interruption of Lent and Easter, you may be forgiven if you had forgotten that this is the Year of Matthew. What that means is that just as we travelled through Luke last year, so this year we will make a journey through the gospel of Matthew. Matthew has many distinctive characteristics that will, I hope become obvious as we work our way through the passages set for the remainder of the year. Today I’d like to provide a broad bush stroke of some of the characteristics that set Matthew apart from Mark and Luke.

By way of reminder, it is believed that the first gospel to be written is the one that we know as the Gospel according to Mark. Within a decade, Luke and Matthew put quill to papyrus and composed their own accounts. To do this both Matthew and Luke used the gospel of Mark extensively. They have also used a common source that scholars have named Q. At the same time Luke and Matthew include material that is unique to them. In the first 12 chapters Matthew relies heavily on Q after which he follows Mark quite closely. Material that is unique to Matthew includes the parable of the 10 maidens and the parable of the sheep and the goats.

In trying to come to grips with Matthew’s gospel it is important to understand something of the background situation. The gospel is written, we think, for a Jewish Christian community in the 80’s of the first century. That is, it is written after the Jewish revolt that led the destruction of Jerusalem and, more importantly, the destruction of the Temple. The Temple was not only a symbol of unity and the liturgical centre of the Jewish faith; it was also the place where God met the people and the place in which reconciliation with God was possible. Without a Temple, the Jews had to rethink who they were and how they would continue as a people of faith.

Fortunately, the Pharisees, with their scepticism in regard to the Temple and their emphasis on the oral law, were well placed to step into the vacuum. In fact it can be argued that without them Judaism might have fallen into disarray and eventual decline. Instead their practice and teaching led to the development of rabbinic Judaism with its focus on the interpretation of the law. One consequence of this development was that there was less tolerance of difference and this included their fellow Jews who believed that Jesus was the one sent by God for their salvation.

Matthew’s community, that consisted of Jews who believed in Jesus also had to re-think who they were – in relation to the law and in relation to their ancestral religion that no longer held them to be members. Who were they in this vastly changed environment and how would they govern their life together? This search for identity and meaning explains what appears to be an over-emphasis on the law in Matthew’s gospel. While the Pharisees were building a new look for the Jewish people based on the law, the Jews who believed in Jesus had to determine what their relationship with that law would be. In the light of their relationship with Jesus, would they abandon the law altogether, would they transform the law or would they keep the law more rigidly even than the Pharisees?

In respect to the community’s relationship with Judaism, the author of Matthew’s gospel is determined to assert that faith in Jesus is not only consistent with Judaism but that Jesus is firmly rooted in Judaism. In the introduction, Matthew’s genealogy makes it clear that Jesus is descended from Abraham (the founder of the Judaism) and of David (from whom the Messiah was to come). What is more, over and over again (explicitly and implicitly) Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is not only the fulfilment of the Old Testament promises but he replaces the Temple as the way in which the people are reconciled to God.

Because the law and its interpretation take centre stage in this gospel; Jesus is presented as the new Moses – the one who gives the law and who interprets the law.

Just as significant as the setting of the gospel is the way in which Matthew has organised his account. Matthew takes the material that is available to him and arranges it in a way that sayings and stories that have a common theme are gathered together in the same place. It is possible to discern five distinct discourses or sermons each of which concludes: “when Jesus had finished saying these things”. The parables of growth are found in chapter 13, teaching about community life is located in chapter 18 and instructions for the disciples in chapter 10. Accounts of Jesus’ healing and casting out demons are concentrated in chapters 8 and 9.

Today’s reading bridges two sections of the gospel – it concludes the accounts of Jesus’ healing ministry and leads into Jesus’ instructions for the Twelve, the second of the five discourses. Interestingly, the setting for this sermon is very similar to that of the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus is going about Galilee proclaiming the kingdom the curing disease. On this occasion, instead of Jesus’ healing being followed by teaching, Jesus’ compassion for the crowds is followed by action, that extends his ability to respond. He summons the twelve and equips them to cast out unclean spirits and to cure every disease and sickness. In other words, they are authorised to all that Jesus does.

The discourse continues by telling the twelve how they are to go and what they can expect along the way, but the lectionary makes us wait till next week for that.

Matthew’s gospel is a rich treasure trove to be examined and explored. It reveals an aspect of early church development that we find nowhere else and it presents a view of Jesus that is both similar to and different from that of the other gospels. For the remainder of the year we will be working our way through Matthew’s Gospel. Can I encourage you to read the gospel for yourselves, to have the courage to question it and to tease out things that you do not understand? Let us take this journey together – tell me if my explanations are not clear and share with me the parts that you find difficult or incomprehensible. As we probe the text together we will discover more about what make Matthew’s gospel distinct and why.








[1] The reading for the day is much shorter, but the sermon gives an overview of the chapter.

When good is perceived as evil

June 6, 2015

Pentecost 2 -2015

Mark 3:20-35

Marian Free

 In the name of God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Amen.

If you have never read the Gospel of Mark from beginning to end, may I suggest that you take the time to do so. Mark’s account of Jesus is quite short and I think most of us could read it in one or two sittings. This is important, because, it is only by reading the gospel from start to finish that we can gain some idea of the plot development and of the themes that run through the gospel. For example, a prominent theme is Mark’s gospel is that of “conflict”, in particular a conflict regarding who has authority – Jesus or the religious leaders? The question can be narrowed down still further to “who has God’s authority – the authority to represent God before the people?” – Jesus or those who have been given, or who have assumed the authority to interpret scripture and to guard and to pass on the traditions of the faith. When the question is narrowed down still further, we begin to see that the conflict is a contest between good and evil, between the heavenly authorities and earthly authorities, between God and Satan.

The earthly authorities (whether the Pharisees, the scribes, the Sadducees, the priests or the Herodians) try over and over again to discredit Jesus, to demonstrate that he not only disregards the law and the traditions of the elders, but that he willfully breaks the law and ignores the traditions. The “authorities” are determined to assert their own authority to represent God, and to expose Jesus as a madman, a fraud, a blasphemer or worse, an agent of Satan. Instead of which they themselves are exposed as self-serving, misrepresenting God, misinterpreting scripture, enforcing a tradition that has reached its use-by date and worse, as blasphemers. Despite the best effort of “the authorities”, in every confrontation Jesus is able to turn the tables on his accusers and to reveal them to be guilty of the very things of which they accuse him.

Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath, but whereas his actions (of healing) lead to wholeness and life, the action of the authorities on that same day is to plot Jesus’ death. The authorities try to entrap him with questions about divorce and about the resurrection, but Jesus knows the scriptures so well that he is able to point out that they simply do not understand. They accuse Jesus of breaking the law only to have Jesus point out their hypocrisy and their propensity to twist the law to suit themselves. All their attempts to entangle Jesus or to cause him to lose face before the people have the opposite effect. A result of the conflict – which they have instigated – is that the so-called “authorities” are revealed as loveless, legalistic hypocrites.

Nowhere is the battle between good and evil so clear as in today’s gospel. This is the last of the first series of confrontations between Jesus and the authorities. So far Jesus has been accused of blasphemy, of breaking the laws of ritual purity, of failing to observe fast days and of breaking the Sabbath. At the same time the crowds have identified Jesus as “one having authority” and the evil spirits have recognised Jesus as the Holy One of God. The end result is a conspiracy to destroy him.

In today’s gospel, the scene is set when Jesus’ family, made anxious by reports that he is “out of his mind”, come to restrain him. The idea that Jesus himself might be possessed by an evil spirit is taken up by the scribes (who apparently have come all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee to attack him). The scribes accuse Jesus of having Beelzebul (Satan) claiming that only Beelzebul would have the power that Jesus has to cast out demons.

Such a claim is so ridiculous that it is easy for Jesus to demonstrate that it is utterly baseless. No one would possibly try to defeat an opponent by destroying members of their own team. Jesus points out that is only because he has already defeated Satan that he can now so easily dispense with Satan’s minions. Having dealt with the attack on him, Jesus turns the tables on his accusers. He suggests that by identifying him with Satan, the scribes have revealed their true nature and committed the most serious sin of all – that of the sin against the Holy Spirit which is the only sin for which there is no forgiveness. In Jesus, the scribes have seen evil and not good and in so doing they have confused God with Satan. Their attack on Jesus has exposed just how completely they have come to depend on themselves and on earthly authority and how, as a consequence, they have effectively shut God out of their lives. They cannot recognise in Jesus God’s beauty, love, wisdom and compassion. Instead they see in him only evil and threat.

Worse, what is good has become to them so threatening and so disturbing, that they believe that they have to destroy it. The scribes are so intent on preserving their position and their traditions that anything that shakes the status quo is, by their definition, evil. The goodness and life that Jesus represents is to them the source of evil and death.

This then, is the unforgivable sin, to mistake what is good for evil. The scribes have become so blind to goodness that they have closed their hearts to all that is good and true. Believing themselves to be arbiters of good and evil, the scribes simply cannot see that they are in need of forgiveness. They have so effectively locked God out of their hearts and lives that they have put themselves out of reach of God’s loving compassion. It is not so much that God won’t forgive, but that they will not allow God to forgive because instead of seeing in Jesus an example of God’s goodness, they can only see the destruction of everything that they have come to hold dear.

Seeing evil in what is good is not limited to Jesus’ first century opponents. A willingness to rely on human authority and a desire to maintain the status quo has led to acts of oppression and injustice and that have seen the imprisonment and torture of good and prophetic men and women. It is fear of change and distrust of the other that has allowed humanity to turn a blind eye to the abuse of power and the destruction of innocents discrimination against those who are different and rejection of those whom we imagine would threaten our lifestyles.

My our lives be so focused on God that we are not so afraid of change or so determined to hold on to what we have known and believed to be true that we fail to see goodness when it is right in front of us. May our lives be so driven by God’s love and wisdom and compassion that we do not hear the voice of change as the voice of evil when the change is for the greater good.

Open to God’s future

December 27, 2014

Christmas 1 – 2014

Luke 1:21-40

Marian Free

In the name of God who is beyond all we can conceive or imagine. Amen.

It is not unusual for parents to keep records of their children’s birth, growth and development. At the very least, many will keep the band that identified their child in the hospital, the records of immunisations and the growth chart from routine visits to child health centres. Others go further and record in a book designed for the purpose, the date of the baby’s first smile, first tooth, first step, first word. If the child is the first born, there will be ample photos to accompany the time-line. Over time stories will be told and re-told about events in the child’s life or signs that foretold the sort of person the child would grow to be.

No such records exist for Jesus. If his parents had stories to tell, they are lost to us and if the gospel writers knew any such stories they considered them irrelevant to the account of Jesus’ life and ministry. Mark and John are singularly uninterested in any aspect of Jesus’ life before his public ministry. Matthew and Luke do record Jesus’ birth, but they do so in ways that serve their particular purpose and that make it difficult to tell truth from fiction.

Of all the gospel writers, it is only the author of Luke’s gospel who shows any interest at all in the events of Jesus’ childhood and even then, his interest serves to make a theological point rather than to create an accurate record. In the gospel of Luke, accounts of Jesus’ childhood firmly embed and ground him in the traditions of his faith – circumcised on the eighth day and redeemed by an offering of two turtledoves in the Temple. In this way, Luke establishes Jesus’ credibility and makes it clear that he indeed is the one expected by Israel – despite the fact that he will turn out to be very different from what had been expected.

Jesus’ status both as the one who fulfils the promise to Israel and the one who confounds all expectation is established by two unlikely figures – Simeon and Anna. Both are old and wise and, by all accounts, model Jews. Simeon we are told is righteous and devout and Anna has spent the better part of her life in prayer and fasting. Their presence in the Temple links them to the past, to the traditions of their people and to what God has done. Their recognition of the child Jesus points to the future and to what God is about to do.

Past and future are juxtaposed throughout this narrative – life and death, youth and age, old and new, law and Spirit. We, the readers, get the sense that the world is on the brink of something new. The past and all the traditions represented by the Temple are about to give way to something radically different and unexpected. The exclusivity of Israel is about to be shattered by the inclusion of the Gentiles and the law and all that it represented is about to give way to the precedence of the Holy Spirit.

Simeon can see that the much-anticipated salvation of Israel will cause disquiet among the people and that not all will welcome the child with as much joy and excitement as does Anna. His hymn and the prophecy that follow exemplify just how divisive this child of Mary and Joseph will be. “he is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Jesus’ life and ministry will shatter all preconceptions about a Saviour for Israel and his very presence will demand a response and expose the nature of a person’s relationship to and understanding of God.

Those who accept Jesus will demonstrate their openness to God and those who do not will reveal their self-absorption, their narrowness of heart and mind. There will be many who think that they know the law yet their very adherence to the law will result in their inability to recognise the one sent to fulfil the law. Jesus’ failure to conform to their expectations and their subsequent rejection of him, will disclose their narrow and limited understanding of the law and of God’s promises. Conversely there will be many – especially those on the fringes of the faith – who will recognise Jesus’ divinity and embrace his presence despite or perhaps because he challenges the established view and refuses to be bound by a limited view of what the Christ should be.

Simeon understands that nothing is at it seems and that everything will be turned upside down and thrown into apparent disarray. Only those who are truly open to God and to the presence of God’s Spirit within them, will, with Simeon and Anna welcome the Christ among them.

We are all creatures of habit. We become comfortable with what we know and suspicious of what we do not. Change can be unsettling and disquieting and it is tempting to resist it believing that the ways things are is the way that they should always be. This is as true for our relationship with God as it is with other aspects of our lives. We are sometimes guilty of making God conform to our own image of God, of assuming that because we worship God in one particular way that that is the only way to worship because, that because our faith is expressed in certain words and forms, that that is the only way that it can be expressed. It is easy to make the mistake of believing that the past was right and the future must be wrong. In our desire to retain our comfort levels we struggle to maintain the status quo and we become closed and cautious, unwilling to accept that things could be any different or better.

What makes Anna and Simeon distinct from those around them is that they are actively waiting for God’s intervention in the world, and they have not predetermined how that intervention will occur. Because their eyes and minds are open, they see Israel’s Saviour where others see an ordinary child of an equally ordinary family. They are not at all perturbed that God has entered the world in such an extraordinary fashion – just the opposite – they are joyful and filled with praise for God.

God cannot and will not be bound by the limits of our imagination. It remains for us to develop an attitude of anticipation and expectation such that will we recognise God’s presence in the world in the ordinary and extraordinary, the expected and the unexpected and that our thoughts – when they are exposed for all to see – will not be found wanting.

A matter of perfection

February 21, 2014

Epiphany 7

Matthew 5:32-48

Marian Free

 In the name of Jesus our Saviour who calls us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. Amen.

The use of non-violent resistance is usually attributed to Gandhi, who as a young English-trained lawyer, was thrown off a train in South Africa because he refused to move to the third-class carriage when he had tickets for a first class seat. This experience led Gandhi to develop “satyagraha” – a deliberate and determined nonviolent resistance to injustice. Such resistance would mean not complying with an unjust law and not reacting to the consequences of non-compliance whether it be violence, confiscation of property, angry or an attempt to discredit the opposition. The goal, it was hoped would be not winners and losers but that all parties would come to see the injustice of a particular law and that those with the power to do so, would abolish it.

In South Africa, Gandhi organised opposition to the Asiatic Registration Law. Seven years of protests and strikes finally saw the law repealed. Returning to India, Gandhi observed the injustices perpetrated by the British against the Indian people and set about trying to change the situation without resorting to violence. As we often see, it can be very difficult to ensure that protests remain non-violent and in a country as vast and as populated as India it was, at the start, difficult to prevent rioting among the people. The famous Salt March is an example of a successful non-violent protest.

Salt was a seasoning that even the poorest of Indians used. However, the British had made it illegal for anyone other than themselves to make and sell salt. In order to expose this injustice and to subvert a law that caused so much heartache Gandhi set out with 78 people to walk 200 miles to the beach. Along the way he was joined by two to three thousand more. When the group reached the beach they spent the night in prayer. In the morning Gandhi picked up a grain of salt. An act considered to be illegal. His action began a tidal wave. All over India people began to collect, make and sell salt. The British reacted by arresting those taking part.

When Gandhi announced a march on the Dharasana Saltworks he was arrested and imprisoned, but the march continued all the same. When the marchers reached the saltworks, they approached the waiting policemen 25 at a time. Watched by media from all around the world, the marchers, who did not even raise their arms to protect themselves, were beaten to the ground with clubs. When they could no longer stand, the next 25 came forward and so on, until all 2500 protestors had been beaten to the ground. Not one had shown any resistance and not one had broken the law. The news of the British brutality towards non-resisting protestors quickly spread, forcing the Vice-Roy to release Gandhi and to begin discussions with him. It took much longer for India to be granted Independence, but Gandhi had demonstrated that force was not necessary to bring about change.  (details from

Two thousand years before another man had demonstrated peaceful resistance. In the face of charges that were false and unjust and with the prospect of a particularly nasty fate ahead, Jesus chose to remain silent. He offered no defense, he did not protest his innocence, he did not call on his disciples to fight and nor did he call on heaven to intervene.

Today’s gospel contains the second set of three anti-theses (the first of which we encountered last week). Again, Jesus is taking teaching with which his hearers would have been familiar and extending it to its logical conclusion. If love of neighbour is important, love of enemy fulfills or completes the commandment to love. Taken to its extreme love excludes no one. Just as the sun and rain do not discriminate between the good and the bad, so too authentic love does not choose who to include or exclude within its scope. After all, it is easy to love those who love us back – even the worst of sinners do that.

Inclusive “love” is expressed in a number of radical ways: by being authentic, by not returning violence with violence, by showing generosity rather than giving the bare minimum. It is this love, the going above and beyond the minimal requirements of the law that will make Jesus’ disciples more righteous than the Pharisees (5:20). Jesus’ followers will demonstrate their righteousness by fulfilling the intention rather than just the letter of the law.

Love of the kind described here is only possible if we have reached a stage in our own lives in which we no longer need the recognition and affirmation of others. It is only possible to love so carelessly and indiscriminately if our sense of self is complete and secure. We can only find the strength to be utterly selfless, if we have a true sense of who we are.

Jesus was able to speak with such authority because he was absolutely clear about who he was and what he was called to do. In our faith journey we are called to the same depth of relationship with him and with God, that we too are able to step beyond our fears and doubts, our anxieties to become perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (5:48).


Perfect has no part measures

February 15, 2014

Epiphany 6 – 2014

Matthew 5:21-32

Marian Free

In the name of God who loves us and expects us to share that love with others. Amen.

There used to be a playground chant used as a response to teasing or insult. I’m sure that most of you know it: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” I imagine it was a jingle that was taught to children by people who wanted to build their resilience and I suspect that it worked at least to some extent. That is, it taught children not to let negative comments get under their skin, but to treat them as something superficial, to have such a solid understanding of their worth as a person that the taunts could run off their back. If the child in question felt that they had been heard, the advice would have assured them that someone was on their team, recognising that the attacks were not warranted and giving them a strategy for coping[1].

The problem with the statement, “words will never hurt me” is, that in a great many cases, it is not true. Words can do as much, if not more, damage than physical attack and they leave wounds that are not immediately obvious to others – and sometimes not even to the victim.

Children who are constantly demeaned by the adults in their lives or taunted by their friends, can develop a sense of self-loathing that is difficult to turn around. Women and men who are constantly put down by their partners begin to believe that they are in fact worthless. In many cases, broken bodies heal with the proper attention, but broken minds and hearts can go unattended, often with disastrous consequences.  Thanks to social media we cannot ignore the devastating effects of on-line harassment which tragically has led young people to take their own lives. I can’t even imagine what the consequences of the current practice of “shaming” young people will have on their future lives and development.

Jesus, without the benefit of modern psychology seems to know intuitively the power of words to hurt. You have heard it said: “You shall not kill, but I say to you whoever calls their brother or sister “fool” will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.”

In this rather long selection from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is addressing the radical love that being his follower demands. In a series of anti-theses, “It was said – but I say,” Jesus takes the teaching of his day one step further. It is not sufficient, he suggests, to do the bare minimum. True love does not demean another person, real love is not limited to those who love us back, love that is real seeks reconciliation not conflict. Love is based on an authenticity that does not need to swear on anything, because it is always truthful.

When we think of the Sermon on the Mount, we tend to think only in terms of the beatitudes. However, the way in which Matthew has arranged his material extends the sermon from what we know as the beginning of chapter 5 to chapter 7:28. Within this section, verses 5:21-48 consist of a series of six anti-theses of which three are included in today’s gospel reading. These six anti-theses are divided into two groups of three 21-32 and 33-48. What links these six together – apart from their common structure – is the commandment to love which is implied throughout and stated explicitly in verse 43. In verse 48, Jesus’ hearers are exhorted to “be perfect as their Heavenly Father is perfect.” This conclusion makes clear that Jesus is demanding his followers to go above and beyond duty and law and to try to emulate the perfect love of God.

Throughout this section of the sermon, Jesus uses the formula: “you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times” – or an abbreviated form of the formula. It is difficult to say with certainty to which authority Jesus is referring. As there few are exact quotes Jesus could be referring to the Old Testament, to the oral tradition of the Jewish people or to the teaching of the Pharisees. One commentator, Luz, argues that on the basis of the content and the language of the sayings that the content refers to the Jewish scriptures. This, Luz argues, is consistent with Matthew’s overall view that Jesus fulfills or completes the scriptures. That does not mean that Jesus contradicts or rejects the Old Testament scriptures but rather that he expands and breathes new life into precepts that were always true. In other words Jesus rewrites what he has inherited in such a way as to bring to fulfillment or completion their true purpose.

Jesus begins with what is the only explicit quote from the Old Testament: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” He then goes on to list five antitheses to this statement. In other words, Jesus takes one of the commandments (slightly expanded) and demonstrates how different it looks with love at the centre – or when a lack of love is replaced with love.

Jesus follows the commandment with three negative examples of unloving behaviour, examples of not keeping the commandment. He points out that anger and name-calling are not expressions of love. They can be just as damaging and hurtful as physical violence. He continues with two positive examples of being loving (keeping the commandment) – making peace with a fellow believer who is angry at you and coming to an agreement with someone who is taking you to court. Jesus is insinuating that while not loving is as bad as murder, loving leads to reconciliation. In other words, nothing less than unconditional love and respect fulfills the sixth commandment.

In these anti-theses, Jesus takes the law to its ultimate goal. By making clear the intention of the commandment, he introduces a radical law that is free of compromise. One is either loving or one is not.

It is relatively easy to keep the letter of the law: do not kill. It is much harder to live in such a way that no one is ever hurt by a thoughtless word or a deliberate barb. Until we are perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect (5:48), we must accept that our behaviour falls far short of the law, that the standard set by Jesus is one that we may never reach and that we must never judge another or consider ourselves better than another.

Perfect has no part measures.

[1] A quick look at my Facebook account tonight had two posts that I was tempted to use as examples – one on the top twenty things to say and another about breastfeeding. The latter posted on upworthy reminded me of a great response to bullying by a American broadcaster who received a nasty emai about her weight.


March 2, 2013

Lent 3 – 2013

Luke 13:31-35 (Isaiah 55:1-9, 1 Cor 10:1-13)

Marian Free

In the name of God who turns our expectations upside down, who challenges and comforts us and who never, ever withdraws God’s love. Amen.

When you read the Bible, what are the passages that stand out for you? Are you more alert for the voice of judgement or the voice of love? Do you look out for the rules that you must not break and the specific directions that you must follow, or do you instead seek out the promises of growth and new creation? From start to finish, the Bible is full of contradiction.  In it we find both censure and approval, judgement and forgiveness, punishment and redemption, restraint and extravagance.

The Old Testament prophets threaten the Israelites with all kinds of penalties if they refuse to return to God then, almost without taking breath, they assure the people that God will never abandon them. Side by side in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea and elsewhere we have evidence of God’s frustration and confirmation of God’s faithfulness. The Gospels express similar contradictions. Calls to repent are balanced by stories of the lost being restored. Jesus’ attacks on the righteous throw into relief Jesus’ acceptance of those outside the law.

This morning’s readings are a case in point. The generosity and free-spirited invitation of Isaiah 55 stands in stark contrast with the harsh, judgmental and condemnatory sentiments of 1 Corinthians 10.

How are we to make sense of the paradox – judgement and repeal, condemnation and forgiveness, law and freedom? It is my belief that both sides of the coin are necessary to sustain healthy individuals, healthy societies and healthy religions. Freedom is essential for creative energy to thrive, for people to love and be loved, for compassion and generosity. None of these things can be forced or legislated. On the other hand, lawlessness leads to disintegration, violence and repression. Without some sort of law no one can achieve their full potential.

There needs to be some sort of balance between law and freedom.  It is not healthy to be completely unrestrained, but neither is it good to be so restrained that we forget how to live. If we fence ourselves in with rules, we reduce our ability to be spontaneous and carefree. Somewhere in the middle is an equilibrium, an ability to self-regulate, to use the rules and the threats of judgement to control our baser instincts and to trust in God’s goodness and mercy to liberate our finer, more selfless characteristics.

Interestingly, in the Bible, it is not disobedience or even the breaking of the Ten Commandments which is the source of God’s anger and the pre-condition for punishment. What causes the prophets to proclaim God’s judgement and Jesus to condemn the people of Israel is a breakdown in the relationship between the people and God.

God doesn’t expect perfection. That much is clear in God’s choice of Jacob the deceiver, God’s selection of Moses the murderer and God’s continued love for David the adulterer. That God is not looking for flawless followers is demonstrated by Jesus’ choice of disciples, Jesus’ readiness to forgive and Jesus’ easy acceptance of tax collectors and sinners.

It appears that the primary safeguard against condemnation is not so much to be law-abiding (though that is good), but to accept God’s invitation to be in relationship, to trust God’s offer of a covenant, to believe in God’s faithfulness to God’s promises.

Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, not because its citizens have failed to keep the law _ if nothing else, the Pharisees were assiduous keepers of the law.  Jesus weeps because the people of Jerusalem, the leaders of the Jews, have demonstrated their inability to put their trust in God. The Pharisees, Chief Priests and Scribes have put all their trust in the law and their ability to keep the law. They are so sure that they can achieve perfection by their own effort that they have effectively locked God out of their lives. They have so little confidence in God’s love and faithfulness that they are using the law to paper over their imperfections. They are so afraid that scrutiny will find them wanting that they kill the prophets who hold a mirror to them and to their lives. They cannot have a real relationship with God because they cannot have a real relationship with themselves.

No wonder Jesus weeps, he understands that the Jerusalemites are so sure that God cannot love them as they are, that they not only try to become what they are not, but worse, they shrink from God, they refuse God’s invitation and will not be drawn into God’s loving embrace.

How different they are from Zacchaeus who has the courage to respond to Jesus’ invitation and who finds that his life is transformed as a result. How different from the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, who could take such a risk because instinctively she knew that she was loved and accepted. “Law-breakers” and outsiders who already knew and accepted their imperfections welcomed Jesus’ love and invitation, entered into a relationship and allowed themselves to be gathered under his wings.

Law and freedom together create a necessary life-giving tension in our relationship with God. An over-reliance on law can have the effect of locking God out of our lives whereas an over-emphasis on freedom can lead us to believe that we don’t need God. It is important to relish our freedom, but to understand its bounds, to trust in God’s unconditional love, but not to use that love as an excuse to be unloveable, to recognise that law has its place, but not to use it as a replacement for relationship.

God invites us into a relationship that is based on mutual trust and respect. God offers us an unconditional love that sets us free to be ourselves. To say “yes” to God, is to say “yes” to ourselves and to know ourselves welcome in the shadow of God’s wings.






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