Posts Tagged ‘oppression’

Scripture in service of abuse

August 24, 2019

Pentecost 11 – 2019
Luke 13:10-17
Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver. Amen.

Here’s a question: “Did you know that there are two versions of the Ten Commandments and, if you did, did you realise that they differ in regard to keeping the sabbath?”

As you know, the Ten Commandments are given to Moses when the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness. When at last they are about to enter the promised land, Moses reminds the people of all that has happened since God led them out of Egypt. In this second version, Moses changes the fourth commandment and provides a different reason for “observing the sabbath and keeping it holy”. Unless it is pointed out to us, we might not notice the difference because, apart from a slight rearrangement of words the two versions are the same apart from the justification. So, when Moses receives the commandments the creation story is given as the basis for sabbath keeping. “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20:8) Moses’ farewell speech as recorded in Deuteronomy emphasises the liberation of Israel from Egypt: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” (Deut 5:15)

The two explanations complement rather than contradict each other. Genesis tells us that on the seventh day of creation God blessed and hallowed the day. We are not to understand that God was exhausted, but rather that God was taking the time to revel in all that God had made. The sabbath was intended to be a day of delight, a time to appreciate God’s gifts and to allow oneself to be held in and by the presence of God.

Deuteronomy recounts the tale of liberation– from Egypt, through the wilderness to the present – and God’s role in bringing the people from slavery to freedom in the promised land. Not surprisingly, the sabbath is associated with redemption. It is set aside as a constant reminder that God has set the people from free from slavery – from everything that limits or prevents human flourishing.

The sabbath is God’s gift to God’s people – a day in which to delight in God’s blessings or to remember with gratitude the freedom God has won for them. “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy”.

So far so good, but around 613 BCE it seems that people began to worry about what it meant to keep the sabbath holy, in particular what did it mean to “do no work”. The attempt to define “work” produced rules and regulations that were so detailed and unwieldy with the result that, rather than being a day of rest (of delight or redemption), the sabbath became a day of anxious concern that one or other rule might inadvertently be broken.

It is in this context that we have to read this morning’s gospel. What appears at first glance as a healing story is in reality a story that primarily serves to illustrate the disagreement between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue with regard to the observation of the sabbath. (A debate that is very much in the public domain as we can see through the reaction of the observers). It appears that the synagogue leader views the sabbath commandment through a very narrow and literal lens. He believes (as Jesus points out) that an ox or a donkey can be unloosed and led to water on the sabbath, but because the law has nothing to say on the matter, he refuses to accept that a woman who is bound can similarly be set free on the sabbath in order to be able to make the most of her life.

Jesus has no such difficulty. Informed by both versions of the fourth commandment and by using the refinements that have been added to it, Jesus looses the woman from that which binds her. He liberates her from her ailment, from the ungodly power that has her in its thrall and he sets her free to stand tall and to live life to the full. Surely on this day of redemption, this is the way in which to understand the commandment. The woman is freed to delight in creation – which she does by immediately standing and praising God. The sabbath is the perfect day on which to set someone free!

It is no longer the sabbath law that is misinterpreted and misused. During the course of my own lifetime the church has been forced to acknowledge that our inherited laws had become laws that had power to oppress and even to destroy the lives of many. Battered women were sent home to abusive husbands because of Jesus’ injunction against divorce. Children have been subject to abuse because they were taught not “to talk back” to adults or worse that they had to “honour their father and their mother”. Gay men and women continue to be denigrated and excluded and denied the comfort and joy of being in relationship with one another because the bible says one thing or another.

We must always be on our guard against rigid interpretations of our faith that limit rather than encourage others. It is my belief that scripture should be read through the lens of God’s love and compassion, God’s inclusion of the marginalised and God’s desire for all people to be made whole. The lesson to be learned from today’s and other controversy stories in the New Testament is that scripture can be used as much to bind as to liberate and that the bible can be used as a tool of abuse as readily as it can be used as an instrument of compassion and respect.

Scripture is a tool for liberation and not for oppression. Let us pray that we will never find ourselves guilty of using scripture to limit, to bind or to repress, but only to encourage, to set free and to enliven.

Breaking the code

April 9, 2016

Easter 2 – 2016


Marian Free


In the name of God, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, who was and who is and who is to come. Amen.

Images such as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” and “the mark of the beast” have become part of our cultural heritage. Even the word apocalypse is widely understood to mean the violent end of the world. I wonder if people who use such terminology understand that the images come from the book of Revelation or the Apocalypse. This is such a complex and controversial book of the bible, that it was not formally included in the canon of the New Testament until the fourth century. Even now, it is often regarded as too difficult and unorthodox to be included regularly in our diet of Sunday readings.

Of all the books of the Bible, Revelation is the one most open to misunderstanding and abuse. It is difficult to read and its meaning is so obscure that it is often avoided. This is unfortunate for two reasons: one is that it means that we fail to appreciate it and the second is that it leaves us unprepared to challenge the dangerous results of misinterpretation[1].

As the introduction suggests, Revelation is written (as a letter?) to seven churches in Asia Minor. The context suggests that church members are feeling under threat. As there was no official persecution at that time we can only guess that their conversion to Christianity had led to social exclusion and financial hardship. Being a Christian meant that they could no longer associate with the local Temples. This meant a form of voluntary social ostracism. Temples were places for meeting and eating and what is more they were closely associated with the various trade guilds. Not being able to visit the Temple mean isolation from the community at large and it also made it almost impossible to ply one’s trade.

When a community feels under threat, it is not unusual for those people to envision a future in which everything will be put to right – the righteous rewarded and the wicked punished. It is in this context that we need to read the book of Revelation. The colourful, and in places lurid imagery is intended to give hope and encouragement to those who (at some considerable cost to themselves are refusing to conform to the society around them.

Understanding Revelation requires making sense of the symbolism, breaking the code as it were. For example, numbers and colours take on specific meanings. Seven is the number for perfection, which means that 3½ or 1,260 days is the number for imperfection. We see that the work is written to seven churches, there are four sets of seven – seven seals, seven trumpets, seven visions and seven bowls. There are also seven churches, seven unnumbered visions and seven beatitudes Twelve is another significant number – 12 tribes of Israel and 12 disciples. 666 (of 616, “the mark of the beast”) may have no more significance than that it refers to Nero the letters of whose name add up to that number. The use of colour is also of significance. The four horses are white, red, black and pale (or green). It is believe that these symbolize conquest, war, famine and death.

The author is heavily reliant on the OT and it is easy for example to find images from Isaiah – the angels before the throne saying “holy, holy, holy” and the idea that God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Imagery of the Son of Man coming on the clouds is straight out of the book of Daniel and so on. At the same time, the book is not written in isolation, but is a product of the times. Nero was a particularly erratic and violent Emperor who was condemned to death. Before the execution could take place, Nero disappeared – this lead to a rumour that he would return one day. When Revelation refers to an army gathered in the east, it is possible that it refers to the return of Nero.

Not only is the book filled with symbolism, it is made up of repeated patterns. For example, each of the letters to the churches follows the same pattern and each of the seven plagues follows a pattern of persecution (of the righteousness), punishment (of the nations) and the triumph of God. Another aspect to note is that the writing is concentric or cyclic rather than linear, that is the events repeat themselves, each time becoming a little more dramatic or more destructive. It is impossible for the earth and all who live on it to be destroyed over and over again. Rather the pattern is repeated for emphasis, describing the wrath of God on three levels – the individual, humanity as a whole and the cosmos. The violence and the heavenly portents are not intended to be descriptions of what is to happen, they are pictorial images presented with a degree of exaggeration to make a point. Each builds on the last, but that does not mean that the events as described are meant to occur sequentially. A world without God is destined to self-destruct, but in the final analysis, God will make all things right.

The writer obviously had a sense of drama. Michael Fallon believes that the book can be divided as if into scenes in a play, with moments of high drama[2] – such as the dramatic pause before the opening of the seventh seal. The first five scenes are followed by glimpses of heaven – a vision of what life will be for those who hold on to the end.

The book of Revelation does not describe actual events, nor does it provide as some sort of road map for the present and future. It is an imaginative picture of a time of future judgement when the righteous will be rewarded and the unrighteous punished. It is written to give the recipients a cause for hope and the courage to hold on – even in the most difficult circumstances. When this life has done its worst, “those who conquer will inherit a new heaven and a new earth”[3] and having faith in the face of great opposition will be seen to have been worth it.

For all its difficulties, it is worth breaking the code and trying to understand the book of Revelation. It is a book of hope for the hopeless, a reassurance that all things are in God’s hands and at the end God will be seen to be the victor.







[1] Think Jonestown and other millennial movements that have convinced people that the world is so corrupt that the only solution is withdrawal and even suicide.

[2] a. Introduction                                                                         1:1-3

  1. Opening liturgical dialogue                                1:4-8
  2. Prophetic commission                                         1:9-11


Scene 1 Letters to the 7 churches                                    2:1-3:22

Heaven                                                               4:1-5:14

Scene 2 Six seals are broken                                            6:1-7:9

Heaven                                                               7:9-8:6

Scene 3 The sounding of six  trumpets                          8:7-11:14

Heaven                                                             11:15-12:12

Scene 4 Forces for good and for evil                            12:13-14:20

Heaven                                                             15:1-8

Scene 5 The seven bowls                                                 16:1-18:24

Heaven                                                              19:1-10

Scene 6 The final struggle, victory                                19:11-20:15

and judgement

Scene 7 The Church of God on earth                            21:1-22:5

  1. Guarantee of prophecy                                         22:6-7
  2. Concluding liturgical dialogue                            22:8-17
  3. Conclusion                                                              22:18-21


[3] 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them as their God;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

4                   he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

5   And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.


Defeating evil, by submitting to evil

April 4, 2015

Easter – 2015

Marian Free

In the name of God who turns darkness into light, despair into hope and tragedy into victory. Amen.

I don’t think that anyone would dispute that we live in a world that is full of inequity, injustice, oppression and cruelty. By accident of birth, most of us have escaped the horrors that abound in nations too many to name. In this country we have a democratically elected government and sufficient wealth that our children do not die of hunger or of preventable disease. Few of us have had to flee our homes because we are terrified by relentless bombing or the approach of an enemy that is known for its cruelty. Our children are not at risk of being killed or kidnapped simply because we choose to educate them. It is very unlikely that we will be sent to prison (or worse, ‘disappeared’) because we challenge government policies or laws or expose corruption or injustice. Our labour laws ensure that the vulnerable cannot be exploited and our poor are not so desperate that they risk life and limb eking out a living from rubbish dumps nor would they sell their daughters into prostitution or their children into slavery.

The awful reality now, as in every previous generation, is that all over the world innocent people suffer and die in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine. Impossible as it is for most of us to imagine, an over-riding desire for wealth, status and power drives some people (even groups of people) to exploit, oppress or silence others.

These are not easy issues to contend with. When we think about the unspeakable suffering that is inflicted on some people in order to gratify the needs of others, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation. We can’t even begin to grasp the horror that is the daily existence of millions of people throughout the world and we feel both impotent and ill-equipped to do anything to change things. We are frozen by indecision and do little or nothing.

One of the things that is different about Jesus is that he faced evil head on, he determined that evil would not have the final word, that violence, injustice and oppression could be both confronted and defeated. Jesus refused to play by the rules of his enemies. He understood that it is impossible to defeat evil with evil and that violence only leads to violence. By refusing to resist arrest, by accepting the false accusations, by submitting to the taunting, by enduring the flogging and by accepting the cross, Jesus proved that in the final analysis, violence and evil are powerless to destroy goodness and life. For good triumphs over evil not through violence or war, not through oppression or force, not by resistance or compulsion.

Jesus defeats evil by submitting to the power of evil. By freely accepting his fate, Jesus made it clear that the powers of this world in fact had no power over him. By choosing to relinquish his right to defend himself, Jesus demonstrated how ineffectual his opponents really were. By refusing to fight for his life, Jesus made it clear that those who sought his death had not power over him. Throughout his trial and even on the cross, Jesus remains in control – his enemies might take his life, but they cannot destroy him.

The resurrection is proof positive that by submitting to death, Jesus has frustrated the powers of this world and shown how impotent they are. Injustice and cruelty do not have the final word, their victory is limited, temporary. Jesus refused to be bound by worldly values that give success, influence and possessions priority. He was prepared to lose everything, even life itself rather than lose his integrity and play the game the way his enemies played.

It is all too obvious, that Jesus’ victory over evil and death was not the final solution. As we have seen for millions of innocent people the world continues to be a place of horror and suffering. That said the resurrection is a powerful demonstration that while evil might persist in the world, it does not ultimately have the power to enslave us.

We have a choice. We can choose to resist evil. We can make the decision not to be governed by the forces that control this world. We can resolve to live by kingdom values – seeking above all the well-being of others and our own self-aggrandisement. We can play by different rules and in so doing expose the failings and the evils of the rules that govern behaviours that result in exploitation, injustice and oppression. We can cling on to power, possessions and status, or we can give it all away for the ultimate goal of life for all in the present, and life eternal in the future. Jesus’ victory is our victory, if only we chose to share it.

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