Posts Tagged ‘sharing the gospel’

How well do we tell the story?

September 27, 2014

Pentecost 16

Matthew 21:23-32

Marian Free

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

Recently, our grandchild came to stay overnight. When his mother dropped him off he walked into the living room and waved his arm and said: “MaMa, can you move all this?” I’d have to say that when I surveyed the room and its furnishings I was more than a little dismayed. What on earth was wrong with my living room that a three-year old thought that I should completely rearrange it? Was he having a go at my housekeeping? Did he think that he would knock himself on the sharp corners of the furniture? I just couldn’t make sense of it. Thankfully my daughter came to the rescue. Apparently, before they came, she had been discussing with him the fact that there might be things at MaMa’s house that he wasn’t allowed to touch and he, all three years of him, had responded that that was OK he would just ask MaMa to move things. (And so he did). Without the explanation I would have been completely lost.

So often a failure to understand the context of what is said can lead to misunderstanding and even conflict. We can take offense when no offense was intended or misjudge a person’s intentions because we do not have the full story. Misunderstandings arise when we do not fully understand another person’s culture or background.

This is no less true when it comes to understanding the Bible. First century Palestine was vastly different from today’s Australia. If we are to properly understand the New Testament, it is important to have some knowledge of the historical, social and cultural situation in which the various books were written. It is also important to try to understand the particular agenda of the writer. Why do the gospel writers tell the gospel in their own particular ways? Why does Paul write to a community? What is the purpose behind the Book of Revelation?

Failure to take into account the context of the New Testament has had some disastrous consequences – not least of which was the Holocaust, the destruction of six million Jews. A failure to take into account the historical, social and cultural context of the New Testament has, among other things, led us to defend slavery, to turn a blind eye to domestic violence and to condemn and exclude those who don’t fit our idea of what it is to be “good”.

Context is particularly important when it comes to understanding Matthew’s gospel, a gospel that, to our shame and embarrassment, has been a source of anti-Semitism over the course of history.

Perhaps the first and most important thing to understand is that Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospels. It is for this reason that the battle is so fierce. The community behind the Gospel is struggling for ascendency over and against the Jews who do not believe in Jesus. It is like two siblings fighting for their parent’s affection or battling it out over the inheritance. An underlying question for the gospel writer is: “Who is the true Israel?” to which Matthew’s answer is: “We are.” What that means is that the gospel is very deliberately setting out to paint the continuing Jews in as bad a light as possible and to do this, he writes the contemporary conflict back into the gospel.

For this reason, we have to be very clear. Jesus was and remained a Jew and while he foresaw that the current trajectory of his people might have led to the destruction of Jerusalem, and though he came into conflict with the Jewish leaders, he did not for one minute imagine the replacement of, let alone the annihilation of his people.

This then is wider context of the today’s gospel. It’s immediate context is Jesus in the Temple as the first sentence makes clear. Jesus is no longer in Galilee, but in Jerusalem the heart of Judaism. It is here that he comes into conflict with the Jewish leaders because he threatens their authority; the people are looking to him not to them. If you remember, when he enters Jerusalem the crowds welcome him as their King. As if that were not enough to cause disquiet among the leaders of the community, his first act is to enter the Temple and overthrow the tables of the moneychangers. No wonder that, on this, his second day in Jerusalem, the legitimate leaders of the Jews want to know what authority he has to behave in the way that he does. No wonder that they want to try to discredit him and reassert their own authority. They ask four questions that they hope will trip him up: about the source of his authority, about paying taxes, about the resurrection and about the law. Jesus not only has an answer to each of these, but he answers in such a way that the leaders do not have a leg to stand on. Finally Jesus asks a question of his own, which convinces them that argument is fruitless. Their plan has backfired. It is not Jesus who has been made to look foolish, but themselves.

In the context of Matthew’s agenda as to who is the true Israel, this section firmly establishes Jesus – the leader of his community – as the legitimate leader (of Israel).

Also in this section are three parables – the parable of the two sons, the parable of the wicked tenants and the parable of the banquet. These are told in such a way that it is clear that just as Jesus is the true leader, so the Matthean community can lay claim to be the true Israel. (Those who were outsiders are the ones who prove worthy of the gospel whereas those who were insiders either reject the invitation or reject the message.) The section finishes with Jesus’ denunciation of the Jewish leaders (which is unique to Matthew) and finally Jesus’ sorrowful prediction of the destruction of the Temple.

Matthew is not alone in telling these conflict stories. All the gospel writers are clear that Jesus runs up against the Jewish leaders, but it is Matthew alone who drives a wedge between the emerging Christian community and its Jewish parent.

It is only when we understand the wider context of Matthew’s gospel that we are able to put his apparent anti-Semitism into context. It is only when we fully comprehend his agenda – to establish his community as the true Israel that we begin to understand why he tells the story of Jesus and Jesus’ stories in the way that he does.

Understanding the context of our biblical traditions ensures that we are less likely to be dogmatic, less likely to be prone to arrogant presumption, more open to the possibility that there is more than one way to understand a story, more willing to engage in discussion with those of different faiths and different points of view and better equipped to explain difficult passages to those who have questions.

If we wonder why our churches are emptying, perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether it has to do with how well we understand and how well we tell the story.

Sharing the Gospel

July 6, 2013

Pentecost 7 2013

Luke 10:1-12,17-24

Marian Free 

In the name of God who equips us and sends us into the world to proclaim the gospel. Amen.

Some time ago now, I read a book written by a Jesuit priest, Vincent Donovan. He tells of being sent to a mission in Kenya filled with enthusiasm to share the gospel. When he arrived he discovered that even though the Jesuits had been in the country for 100 years, they had not converted one single person to Christianity. That is not to say that they had had no impact at all. The local people, proud and independent Masai, were very happy to make use of the mission school and to bring the sick and injured to the hospital. It was some time however since any of the missionaries had left the mission station except to drive the ambulance to pick up or deliver a patient. The youthful and enthusiastic Vincent was dismayed. This was not why he had travelled so far. He had come to take Jesus to the people, not wait until they came to him. He asked for and gained permission to go out into the villages to share the gospel.

This was not easy. First, Vincent had to gain the trust of the chief of the village, then he had to arrange a suitable time for the teaching to occur. He discovered that the best time in the day was four in the morning. As the Masai are pastoralists any later would have found them scattered with their herds. Having gained a welcome and made a time to meet, Vincent’s approach was to share with the people the Gospel of Mark. This too was not without its difficulties. Many of the parables in the gospels relate to an agrarian culture – the mustard seed, the sower and the fig tree all relate to agricultural practices. To repeat these parables might well have led to confusion if not outright antagonism among his hearers. The Masai, being pastoralists, might not have understood the references to sowing. Worse, as those who needed pasture for their flocks, they were in conflict with neighbouring cultures who used the land to produce crops not pasture and may not have taken kindly to stories about growing crops.

Vincent navigated all these difficulties – teaching the gospel with sensitivity and respect for the culture of the people. At the end of the time he asked them if they would like to be baptised. If they said: “yes”, he proceeded with baptism. If they said: “no”, he respected their decision and did not press them to change their minds.

Having grown up in a barely post-colonial era, I found this a refreshing account of mission. Unlike many missionaries before him, Vincent demonstrated respect for the local culture and made no attempt to compel his hearers to abandon their culture or to convert. This is a vastly different approach from the missionaries of the 19th century who, sent out from their respective nations, undermined and denigrated local culture sometimes with devastating results. The problem seems to have been an inability to separate faith in Jesus Christ from the culture and mores of the nations from which they had come. Acceptance of the gospel in their minds equalled acceptance of Western culture. There were of course some wonderful missionaries who tried to learn local cultures and languages, who brought medicine and education that improved the lives of those whom they served. Others simply imposed their faith, their will and their culture on those whom they felt were inferior and lacking in morality. They had no regard for the people and no understanding of the cultures they were destroying.

For many then, the idea mission has left a bad taste. The arrogance and presumption of some that western society had reached some sort of pinnacle of moral goodness and knowledge that meant that it was the standard by which others had to be judge leaves those of us who know its weaknesses embarrassed and ashamed.

This creates a dilemma. In the multi-faith, multi-media world of the 21st century, how do we make sense of Jesus’ sending out first of twelve and then of seventy to proclaim the kingdom? What is our responsibility with regard to sharing the gospel today? Do we, you and I believe that it is our duty to ensure that as many people as possible are “saved”? Do we live in a state of terror that those who have not heard the gospel will be eternally damned? I suspect that the answer to both those questions is “no”. If anything, our behaviour tends to reflect a live and let live attitude a belief that while our faith is good enough for us, we do not need to inflict it on others.

Our response to the mistakes of the past should not be to do nothing. We believe, or at least claim to believe that Jesus’ life and teaching are transformative, that Jesus’ death and resurrection have reconciled us to God, that the Holy Spirit inspires and empowers us. This surely is something worth sharing.

In an increasingly secular world, many people are hungry for meaning, searching for something to nurture their soul. Our task is to get alongside people, to listen to the stories, to try to understand their dreams, to recognise their hurts, to help them deal with their modern day demons of loneliness, busyness, stress, to try to bring about healing of minds as well as bodies, to respond with integrity to their questions, to be open to their doubts and equipped to share with them our journey of faith.

“How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (Rom 10:14)

It is not our task to impose the gospel on those who do not want to hear or accept it, but unless we take the time to share something that is important to us, how will others know the difference it might make in their lives?

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