Posts Tagged ‘Pharisees’

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.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] cus.org

[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

Locking God out, letting God in

October 25, 2014

Pentecost 20
Matthew 22:34-46
Marian Free

In the name of God whose foolishness is wiser than our wisdom. Amen.

When I was young I, like many of my contemporaries, had an autograph book. We’d take the book to social occasions and ask people to sign it. If we were lucky they would not only sign the book but write a short rhyme or a riddle. I had completely forgotten about riddles. These days I only seem to come across them in fairy tales. For example, a King offers his daughter’s hand to the first person to solve a riddle or a princess will only marry the Prince who asks her a riddle that she cannot answer and so on.

In my autograph book were such riddles as:
“If your B empty, put :
if your B full, stop putting : ”
It was a play on both punctuation signs and letters and if you don’t remember it, you will need to see it written. I found this one on the Internet, but I would have had to become a member of the site to find the answer – so I’m relying on you to help me out. It goes: “What is the beginning of eternity, the end of time and the beginning of every ending?”

In today’s gospel Jesus poses something like a riddle. When he asks the Pharisees whose son the Messiah is they reply (as expected) David’s son. Jesus then challenges them using part of Psalm 110: “If David thus calls him (the Messiah) Lord, how can he be his Son?” The Pharisees are stumped. How can the Messiah (whom they expect to be the son of David) also be the son of God? It does not seem possible.

With the advantage of distance (and with the knowledge that Jesus is both God and human), we might realise that the question is really a matter of semantics. Jesus is using a portion of Psalm 110 to insinuate that David is calling the Messiah “Lord” (or God) and questioning whether David would call his own son God. If he does, then the Messiah must be both human and divine – something the Pharisees would find impossible to comprehend. As a result, they are unable to respond to Jesus’ question.

Jesus is playing with words. The word lord in English as well as in Greek can refer both to God and to someone in authority. This is quite different from the Hebrew in which Yahweh is the word that we translate as Lord. In Hebrew then, the relevant part of Psalm 110 reads, “Yahweh said to my lord.” This makes it clear that the second “lord” is a human being and therefore could reasonably refer to David’s son. In both Greek and English, the sentence reads, “The Lord said to my lord”. Jesus implies that this means that God (“the Lord”) is speaking to another divine being (“my Lord”) who by definition cannot possibly be the human David’s son. It was expected that someone of David’s line would again sit on the throne of Israel. That person would be a human being, a true descendant of David – not God. Jesus is using the Psalm as if the word lord in Greek means God in both places and is challenging the Pharisees to explain how the Messiah can be both a son of David AND a Son of God, both human and divine. Such an idea is completely novel to them and they have no answer.

Over the last few weeks we have observed Jesus in debate with different groups of church leaders. In turn, they have attempted to discredit Jesus by asking him questions that they expect will either confound him or expose him to ridicule or even risk. They have asked him no less than four questions designed to show him up – two general and two about the correct interpretation of scripture – the question of John the Baptist’s authority, the question about paying taxes to Caesar, the question about the resurrection and the question about the greatest commandment. On each occasion Jesus has proven himself more than adequate to the task, answering both wisely and cautiously. The church leaders have not been able to embarrass him or to catch him out – just the opposite. Their failure has given Jesus an opportunity to demonstrate that not only is he a good debater, but that his knowledge and understanding of scripture is at least comparable to that of the church leaders.

Now Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees by asking a trick question of his own. The end result of this series of questions is that instead of Jesus’ being made to look foolish, it is the Pharisees’ inability to interpret scripture that exposes their lack of understanding. Jesus has proven himself more than their equal as an authoritative interpreter of scripture. They don’t dare continue their line of attack.

It is foolish to think that we can outsmart God, use scripture to our advantage, or twist the bible to make it say what we want it say. It is a waste of time to become obsessed with parts of scripture at the cost of the whole, to focus on individual details rather than seeing the full picture, to worry about little things rather than be captivated by complete message. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time had become fixated on one particular view of the world and of their faith and in so doing had closed themselves to other possibilities. They expected a Saviour, but they expected that Saviour to behave in a particular way and so were completely unprepared for a Saviour such as Jesus turned out to be. They thought that they were able to read and interpret scripture, but their reliance on their own interpretation meant that their minds were closed to God’s revelation in Jesus.

The Pharisees were not necessarily bad, but they were locked into a way of thinking that prevented them from seeing Jesus for who he was. Let us this not be our mistake. May we always remain open to God’s continuing revelation so that we can see and rejoice in the new things that God is doing in and around us. God forbid that we should ever believe that we know all that there is to know or worse still that we think we know just how and when God will act for that would be to close our minds to possibilities and to shut God out rather than to let God in.

“Get over it” It’s not that complicated

October 18, 2014

Pentecost 19
Matthew 22:15-33
Marian Free

In the name of God, in whom and of whom are all things. Amen.

Sometime ago, I was part of a Parish that took life and faith very seriously. I could tell a number of stories, but three in particular come to mind. One concerns a woman who was a member of a group that had convinced her that the Star of David was a source of evil. The poor woman was distraught not because she had such a star in her home, but because she was afraid that she might have one of which she was unaware. Her plan – until we had spoken at some length – was to go home and turn her house upside down until she was sure that it was safe. To this day I’m not sure what sort of theology promotes the idea that inanimate objects are evil and it frightens me that there is someone out there sowing seeds of fear in the name of Jesus who casts out fear.

Another story relates to an elderly couple. One of their pleasures in life was to create beautiful teddy bears. They poured everything they had into making these bears using exquisite and expensive materials. The bears were of such a high standard that they won prizes at a number of shows and cost more than I could afford to pay. One Sunday morning this pair stopped me after church. On the previous day they had attended a seminar and had been led to believe that they should give up their hobby because it was not holy or religious enough. Needless to say they were very distressed – not only because they might have to give up something that they loved, but also at the thought that for so long they had been doing something contrary to the will of God. Again, I was surprised that anyone could imagine that making teddy bears was in some way offensive to God. After some discussion, I managed to persuade the couple that in making such beautiful toys they were sharing with God in the work of creation and in case that was not convincing enough, I added that every time they completed a teddy that they should say a prayer for the person who would one day own it.

Perhaps the most shocking story of that part of my life was the day I entered the church to see a flyer headed: “Ten reasons why Santa should be shot”. Now I realise that most of us are distressed by the commercialisation of Christmas and that we might wish that Jesus received more credit and more attention than Santa Claus, but to promote that sort of violence in Jesus’ name was to my mind an extreme and unnecessary reaction.

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” The stories I have told suggest to me that the those who see evil in inanimate objects, who believe that only some activities are worthy of being called holy, or those who encourage violence have not only misinterpreted this passage, but have seriously misunderstood the gospel and the relationship between the holy and the mundane.

In order to understand the debate in today’s gospel, we need to understand the background. As we have seen, in these chapters of Matthew various church leaders engage Jesus in debate. Their intention is to expose him to ridicule and to re-establish their authority in the eyes of the people. In this instance it is the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians who try to trip Jesus up. (The Pharisees representing the religious establishment and the Herodians representing the Romans.) “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” There were many taxes in first century Palestine, but tax in question is one that Rome imposed on its subject peoples in order to support the occupation. That is the Romans expected those whom they had subjugated to pay a tax to support their presence. Needless to say, there was a great deal of resentment in relation to this tax – not least among the crowds – the followers of Jesus. The tax was a constant reminder of their status as a conquered people.

A special coin was used to pay this tax, a denarius or the Tribute penny. Like all Roman coins it had a picture of the Emperor on one side with the inscription Son of God. For the religious leaders paying the tax implied that they acknowledged Caesar as God and this was an affront to their piety.

No wonder the questioners thought that they had Jesus backed into a corner. If he said not to pay the tax, he would have the crowds and the Pharisees on his side, but would be risking his safety by committing treason against the Romans. On the other hand, if he said that the tax should be paid, the crowds might well have turned against him. It appears to be a no win situation. However, Jesus sees through the question and sidesteps the issue. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus’ response suggests that paying or not paying the tax is a trivial detail in the scheme of things. Ultimately all things are God’s – that includes the Emperor and the Emperor’s coin. The distinction between worldly and other-worldly is a false distinction. What is important is our attitude to the things of the world and the value that we give them. Essentially, the question about the taxes is a distraction. The more important question is the question about being true to God in a hostile and difficult environment.

Non-Christian symbols, teddy-bears, a secularised Santa – all of these things are irrelevant diversions. Worrying about such things takes our focus off God. We become so absorbed in fretting over whether or not something is holy or not, that we lose sight of the bigger picture – our relationship with God. Essentially Jesus is saying to his sparring partners and therefore to us: “Get over it. Concentrate on the things that really matter. Real evil is much more subtle than taxes, teddy bears or Santa. Believe that everything is God’s, place yourself and your life in God’s hands and let the rest look after itself.”

It is just not that complicated. If we put God first in our lives everything else will fall into place.

Not just sheep

May 10, 2014

(Please remember in prayer the 180 Nigerian girls who remain in captivity, their families and all women and girls who are trafficked or who are victims of violence.)

Easter 4 2014

John 10:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us by name and who trusts us to know the shepherd from the thief. Amen.

I wonder just how much you absorb when you hear the gospel read on a Sunday morning? How well do you think you would go if I threw a good old-fashioned comprehension test at you today? My suspicion is that none of us would achieve a particularly good result – myself included. Today’s gospel is full of confusing and inconsistent metaphors and allusions. There are gatekeepers, thieves, bandits shepherds and gates and the difficult question is – what represents whom? Presumably, the thieves and bandits are the Pharisees, but is Jesus the gate, the gatekeeper or the shepherd or all three? Who are the strangers – are they the same as the thieves and bandits or do they represent someone else? One problem is that the text seems to jump from one idea to another – gate keeping, following, listening, destroying, giving life. It is difficult to work out just what Jesus is trying to get across. No wonder even Jesus’ listeners were confused (10:6).

If you were in my New Testament class and we were examining today’s gospel, the first thing I would suggest is that you read and reread the text, preferably in Greek.

Once you were familiar with these ten verses, I would suggest that you read them in context, that you investigate what comes before and after the text and whether those passages shed light on what you have just read. In this instance it is obvious that what comes after is important for our understanding of the passage. The theme of shepherd continues in some way or another until the end of chapter 10. However the connection with Chapter 9 is less evident. Only if we take a closer look does it become clear that what we know as chapter 10 is in fact a continuation of Chapter 9. The first sentence of chapter ten continues Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees and the connection between the two chapters is strengthened when we see that 10:21 refers to the discussion about the healing of the blind man.

What all this means is that if we really want to understand the ten verses set down as the gospel for today, we have to read from the beginning of Chapter 9 to the end of Chapter 10 and to try to make sense of the relationship between an account of healing and a discussion about shepherding.

A number of things are going on here, but the key to the relationship between the two chapters is the controversy about Jesus’ identity and the argument between the man who was blind and the Pharisees. The blind man whose sight has been restored is convinced that Jesus is a prophet sent from God. He holds firm to this view in spite of the Pharisees trying to convince him otherwise. Not only that, he identifies Jesus as God – in response to Jesus’ question: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” he acknowledges Jesus as Lord and falls down and worships him. The Pharisees however, refuse to accept that Jesus can have been sent by God let alone be God. They prefer to believe that Jesus is a sinner (9:16, 24,31) or worse still that he is possessed by a demon (10:20,21). Jesus threatens their position and what they believe about God and God’s way of relating to the people.

At the heart of the discussion then, is an issue about leadership and authority. Who can be trusted to lead the people of God – the priests and the Pharisees or this itinerant teacher/healer – and who decides between the two? The eyes of the blind man have been opened. He can see that the true leader, the true shepherd is the one who is trusted by and who cares for and respects the people. The Pharisees demonstrate their blindness, because they cannot see Jesus for who he is.

Contrary to expectation it is not the Pharisees who have the authority to determine who is or is not from God – that authority belongs to the people. The fact that the man born blind identified Jesus has demonstrated that the “ordinary” people, those of no status in the Jewish worldview, are able to make up their own minds about God and about God’s representatives. No matter how hard the Pharisees try, the blind man refuses to be cowed, or to change his opinion about Jesus. He does not need to be told who to follow. Whatever arguments the Pharisees use, he knows that Jesus cannot be a sinner because God does not listen to sinners – only to those who know and obey him. He knows (despite the Pharisees’ statements to the contrary) that if Jesus was not from God he would not be able to do anything (9:33) let alone give sight to the blind.

The question of true authority, true leadership is decided by the people. They (the sheep) will not follow a stranger nor will they listen to thieves and bandits (the Pharisees). It is the people, the sheep, who recognise where true authority lies. They know instinctively who it is who will lead them “in right paths” and allow them “to go in and go out and find pasture”. Their eyes have been opened to the true nature of their religious leaders. They are thieves and bandits, strangers whom they will not follow.

Jesus (the good shepherd) is not a benign, harmless figure in the world of first century Palestine. Quite the contrary – he is a revolutionary who turns everything upside down. Not only does he undermine the authority of the Pharisees he also makes the radical claim that the sheep – the ordinary, uneducated people – are able to make up their own minds as to whom they should follow. It is they, not the religious leaders who are able to recognise the true nature of the Pharisees and of Jesus and to decide between them.

Jesus – the gate, the shepherd – has made it possible for us to have a relationship with God that is not mediated by Temple rituals, a priestly caste or by the observance of the law. It doesn’t matter whether we are ordained or lay, well-educated or poorly educated, professional or manual laborer each of us through Jesus can have direct access to God. The gate is open, the shepherd is calling us by name. All it takes is for us to respond.

Opening the eyes of the blind

March 29, 2014

Lent 4

John 9:1-41

Marian Free

In the name of God who causes the blind to see and the deaf to hear. Amen.

Some of you may have seen the movie A Time to Kill. It is based on a John Gresham novel and set in the Deep South of the United States. A black man (Carl) is on trial for attempting to kill the men who raped and tortured his ten-year-old daughter Tonya. The evidence is clear and the white jury have no sympathy for the grief and rage that led the man to take justice into his hand. It becomes clear that he will be condemned and that he will receive the death penalty. His lawyer (Jake) tries to persuade him to plead guilty but Carl says to him: “If you was on that jury. What would convince you to set me free?” What follows moves and challenges me every time I think about the movie.

In his summing up, Jake takes the jury on a journey in their imagination. He describes what happened to the child – how she was abducted, raped so viciously that she would never have children, used as target practice – full beer cans thrown so hard that they tear her flesh to the bone. He tells how she was urinated on, had a noose place around her neck and hung from a tree and how when her tiny body proved too heavy for the branch, she was tossed back into the truck, driven to a bridge and thrown thirty feet into a river. “Can you see her?” he says.” “I want you to picture that little girl. Now imagine she is white.” At that point the penny drops for the jurors. At that moment, the child is no longer a stranger, no longer a member of a race for whom they have no respect. She becomes their own child – their daughter, their niece, their granddaughter. The horror of the crime and the violent grief of the father become understandable. They would have felt the same.

Of course, powerful as that is, it is fiction and it is set against a particular background. That said, it is a reminder that many of us tend to see the world in a certain way. We tend to be blinded by our experiences, by our cultures and our religious ideals. Whether we like it or not, most of us make judgements about other people. We create stereotypes that are difficult to break and make assumptions based on false or limited information. Sometimes our ideas change gradually as we get to know the person or group we have demonised. At other times we need something to shock us out of our complacency so that we can see the other for whom they are, not who we believe them to be.

Jesus is an expert at shocking people into a new way of seeing. He wants us to see things in new ways, not in the conventional, centuries old way of seeing things. He astonishes us by appearing to disregard the law, by healing on the Sabbath and by eating with tax collectors. His parables explode existing religious truths and force his hearers to reconsider their ideas about God and about other people. His teaching and behaviour are sometimes contradictory. In Luke, the story of the rich young man is followed by the account of Zaccheus. Jesus urges the rich young man to give away all his possessions then he commends Zaccheus who only gives away half of his possessions. It begs the question: What are we to do with our possessions? Jesus is not being fickle or obtuse, the contradiction and confusion have a purpose – they are designed to destablise our preconceptions, to make us dependent on God and to prevent us from believing that we can have all knowledge and all truth. If Jesus does not conform to the party line, and if his teaching is apparently then inconsistent it is impossible for anyone to claim that they fully understand or that they have a monopoly on truth.

The account of the healing of the blind man is a lesson about seeing – seeing differently. The Pharisees, who believe that they can see clearly are exposed as those who are blind whereas the blind man gradually comes to see who Jesus really is. The Pharisees who believe that they have nothing to learn are shown to be misguided and ignorant whereas the blind man who is aware how little he knows is proven to be the one who recognises the truth. The Pharisees are so locked into what they think they know that they are unable to change their preconceptions and expectations, whereas the blind man who recognises that he knows little is open to new ideas. He is aware that he has room to learn.

Throughout the story the Pharisees dig themselves into a deeper and deeper hole – demonstrating how little they really know. The blind man not only receives his sight, but allows himself to be enlightened and his ideas to be challenged. The Pharisees who represent the religious leaders, judge Jesus on outdated credentials – he is a sinner, he does not observe the Sabbath, he does not observe the law (9:16), they do not know where he comes from. The blind man uses other – also legitimate – criterion to accept that Jesus comes from God. Just as his forebears believed Moses because of the signs he performed so the blind man sees and believes in the signs that Jesus does – making the blind to see (9:16). He understands intuitively that God listens to one who worships him and obeys his will (9:31). The Pharisees believe that they give glory to God by rejecting Jesus, yet it is the blind man who gives glory to God by worshiping Jesus.

John’s gospel is written for those who will come to faith – that is ourselves. As witnesses to the drama that is unfolding, we are challenged to think about ourselves and our ability to see; to ponder whether we identify with the blind man or the Pharisees and to consider how much we know about and whether we are willing to know more. We are challenged to remain open and expectant, to allow God to reveal God’s self in ways that are unanticipated and that break apart our previous ideas as to who and what God is. We are warned against holding rigidly to preconceptions and assumptions that lock us into only way of thinking and that therefore lock us out of the truth.

The problem with believing that we know it all is that it can blind us to what is actually in front of us. confidence in what we know means that we see things from one point of view – ours. If we believe that our perspective is the only one that has a claim to truth, we are forced to protect and defend it even when the facts contradict it. The Pharisees were unable recognise Jesus because they persisted in their way of seeing things, even when Jesus’ actions seemed to put the lie to it. The blind man was not bound to one interpretation, one view of the world. He was willing to learn and to use what he did know in a different way.

Let us not be so self-assured, so confident in our way of seeing that we are blind to the presence of God or that we fail to see Jesus even when he is right in front of us.

 

 

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 history1900s.about.com)

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).

 

Shepherds and sheep

September 7, 2013

Pentecost 16

Luke 15:1-15

Marian Free

 In the name of God who will not be bound by human convention or constrained by human wisdom, and whose love extends to all. Amen.   

When we were in Tanzania, we observed the local Masai herdsmen (often children) herding their sheep to pasture in what seemed to be a harsh and unforgiving land. Each person had somewhere between ten and twenty sheep and they were kept together with a switch. I don’t know, but I assume the loss of one sheep due to carelessness would have been a serious matter when the total number was so low.

How different from the Australian experience! When I was young I visited a sheep station that was 100 square miles in size. The boundaries were fenced as were the interior paddocks – no opportunity for sheep to wander off. Shepherding was required only when it was time to move the sheep from one pasture to another and then it was done from the back of a motorbike – no switch and no personal relationship between shepherd and sheep. I can no longer remember how many sheep the landowner stocked on the property, but I clearly remember a delivery of sheep. A double, two-layer sheep trailer disgorged its contents in front of us – probably in the vicinity of two hundred sheep. In the crush of the transport one had died. The farmer immediately took out his knife and skinned it in front of us. Before our holiday had ended, that sheep had contributed to at least one evening meal. When such large numbers of livestock are involved, there is no room for sentimentality. Pragmatism rules the day.

But back to our Tanzanian experience which is a much better illustration of today’s parable. Small herds are not only more precious, they are better able to be cared for in a more intimate way. There is no need for them to be herded on to freight trains or abandoned to their own devices far from the homestead. Small herds can be protected from wild animals which Australian fences do not deter and it is easy to recognise when one is missing. Every evening the animals are returned to the village where they are contained behind a fence in the centre of the huts so that they will be safe until morning. Every morning they are taken from the pen to once again find pasture.

From what we can gather, herding in Jesus’ day was similar to that of the East African experience. There were some notable differences. The Palestinian herdsmen didn’t necessarily return to a village in the evening (think of the shepherds to whom the angels relayed the news of Jesus’ birth). Instead, crude walls out of stones were made in the pastures to protect the livestock from predators. These sheepfolds seem to have been ad hoc structures – in any case, they were constructed without a gate. In the evening, the shepherd would herd the animals into the enclosure and then lie in front of the opening so as to be able to prevent wild enemies from entering. The shepherds may have built fires for warmth and added protection, but all that kept the animals safe from harm was their shepherd’s ability to aim a sling or to otherwise deter or frighten off an attacker.

Seen from the perspective of shepherding in Israel, Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep is far from a benign, feel good story. Jesus’ audience would have justifiably been shocked and outraged. What sort of shepherd abandons ninety-nine sheep to the wolves in order to go off and search for one that is missing? Wolves or hyenas could cause far greater loss to the shepherd among ninety-nine unprotected sheep, than to one isolated sheep. In other words, for the sake of the one, the shepherd is risking several, if not all, of the others.

You can almost hear the gasps of Jesus’ listeners – the Pharisees, the tax collectors and the sinners. They are not herdsmen, but they have some idea of animal husbandry – even the biggest cities of Palestine are not far from the countryside. Is this shepherd crazy they must be wondering? What is one sheep when you have ninety-nine safe and sound? It gets even worse.  Not only does the shepherd abandon those sheep which have kept close to him, but when the shepherd recovers the sheep which has strayed, he calls all his neighbours over to rejoice with him. Surely that is an over reaction. A party for a lost sheep?

Jesus has almost certainly caught the attention of his listeners. They are probably beginning to wonder what sort of meaning he can draw from the story. How can he use a story about a lost sheep to defend eating with tax collectors and sinners which, in the eyes of the Pharisees breaks the codes of purity and implies that he overlooks their obvious sinfulness. What they have not realised is that the story is a not so subtle attack on their own arrogance and self-satisfaction and a challenge for them to re-assess their understanding of God. Jesus piques their interest and then he goes in for the kill. This is what heaven is like he says. God (we are to suppose) seeks out not the upright, not the law-abiding, but those who have strayed. The people whom the Pharisees despise, exclude and denigrate are the very people whom heaven will seek out and rejoice to welcome home.

What a slap in the face that must have seemed to the Pharisees.  From what we can tell these righteousness and law-abiding people, believed that behaviour set them apart from those around them and assured them of a place in heaven before all others. Jesus’ story about the lost sheep is an affront to everything they had been led to believe and it was a direct attack on their attitude towards those who didn’t achieve their high standards of behaviour. They think that entrance into heaven is something that has to be earned by keeping the law, by prayer and by fasting, that God has particular standards that people have to reach before God will grant them salvation. At the same time they are so sure of that they are right that they have made themselves both judge and jury of the behaviour of others. Anyone who doesn’t conform to their standards is, they believe, automatically excluded from the heavenly realm.

Jesus puts the lie to that belief. Contrary to God’s abandoning and turning his back on sinners, God does what for the Pharisees is unthinkable – God seeks out those who are lost and takes more pleasure in the return of a sinner than in those whose very goodness leads them to forget how much they need God and who believe that their righteous behaviour sets them apart from and above everyone else.

There are times in our lives when we wander from the path, and when we do, God seeks us out and brings us home rejoicing. At other times we find ourselves safe and secure in the fold. At such times it is important that we remember the love sought us out and that we do not begrudge the fact that God extends that love to those who in the present are lost. Having been found, it is important that we do not allow ourselves to be smug or self-satisfied, that we do not think that we better or more worthy than others. We are all beneficiaries of God’s love and we are all dependent on God’s forgiveness. God’s loving forgiveness seeks us out, overlooks our faults, restores us to the fold and welcomes us with rejoicing into the realms of heaven.


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