Eternal life? No thanks.

Then the LORD God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’ — therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:22-24)

I’ve always found this a problematic story. Indeed I find the whole story of what has come to be known as ‘the Fall’ problematic. Why would God want to keep humankind in ignorance? Surely more knowledge can only be a good thing? I have solved this in my own mind by thinking (and by writing a poem stating) that the serpent, who is if we see him as Satan is ‘the father of lies’, is lying to Eve when he tempts her. He offers her the opportunity to ‘be like God’ – but we know already from chapter 1:26 that she and Adam are made in God’s image, as like God as it is possible for a limited human being to be. So is the serpent trading on the time-honoured female tendency to think of ourselves as lesser, as needing something extra to be fully human? Essentially he is telling her she is not yet like God – which lie she falls for, and ironically becomes less Godlike in the outcome.

I don’t of course think of this as a historical story, though I have been roundly castigated over the years by those who do. I find the theory of evolution offers me a much bigger God, one who is prepared to let creation find its own way of development, yet always with a loving eye on its path preventing it from self-destruction, and leading it by however winding a way to its fulfilment. The destination is fixed, I would say, but the route is variable. But for the sake of argument let’s treat this myth in its own terms. What does the ‘tree of good and evil’ mean? Humankind has been made, in God’s opinion, ‘very good’, and without this crown of creation, nature is merely ‘good’. Human beings already know what is good, and what their role in caring for and managing creation is to be. Why would they also want to know evil? What could possibly be gained? Perhaps only God is actually great enough, and pure enough, to contemplate evil and not be corrupted or destroyed by it. Perhaps God’s plan was originally to introduce humankind to the ambivalence of reality once they were mature enough to cope with it – but they jumped the gun, and lost the childhood purity and goodwill we were all born with. For I don’t believe the insidious and defeatist doctrine of ‘original sin’ and indeed the Bible offers little evidence for this doctrine, nor for the schema of Creation/Fall/Redemption/Consummation which I was taught but which actually fits the biblical record only very loosely. The Hebrew Bible says very little about the idea of ‘the Fall’ after the first three chapters, and neither, actually, does Jesus. I believe we learn sin and selfishness as we grow in human society, not that we are born infused with them. Only celibate monks could think up the idea that a baby’s cries are evidence for its sinfulness – every mother knows that crying is the baby’s only form of communcation, and that a baby who didn’t cry for food or love would very soon be dead.

So to our passage for this post. For decades I could only see it as God fearing ‘his’ power would be threatened if these now compromised but knowledgeable humans could become immortal by eating from the tree of life. That is a rather small and negative view of God as an insecure tyrant! (and there is no actual evidence for this view in the passage). Only very recently did I have a different insight, born of the recurrent depression I have been struggling with lately. What would it be like, in this present world of loss, bereavement, disappointment, misunderstanding and conflict, to live for ever? Some seem to think it desirable, and have themselves cryogenically preserved after death in the hope of a future cure for whatever they died of. I personally think of it as a horrific nightmare. To go on for ever, getting presumably older and older and losing more and more capacity, or even if not that, enduring more and more challenges and deprivations and boredom and repetition? I can’t think of anything worse. In fact, at the moment, if it weren’t for some writing projects I want to finish and the need to sort my papers, and the desire to see my son settled in a steady job and with a nice young woman, I would be rather happy to die. I don’t mean I intend to do anything about it, and I’m sure I will soon stop feeling like this, but right now a good long unconscious rest of a few centuries before the Resurrection would be quite welcome.

What, then, if God’s expulsion of the ur-couple from the Garden of Eden, and barring their re-entrance, is not a defensive action but an act of mercy? What if their subsequent mortality is not a curse but a blessing? After all, as I often say when someone dies at an appropriate age (not, like my long-dead brother, at 27), ‘the old ones have to go to make room for the new ones’. If no one ever died, how would we welcome more babies? The Kingdom of God, the new heavens and new earth, are of course a different matter – there, there is room for all.

So now I think of ‘lest [they]… live forever’ as not a punishment or a limitation imposed by a fearful God, but a mercy by a God who knows that to live forever in this now spoiled world (probably not by the consumption of a forbidden fruit, powerful image though that be) would not be a gift but a poisoned chalice. No one who really thought about it would want to live for ever in this cauldron of greed and violence, whatever its compensating beauties and joys. And now I find this ancient myth even more profound, and ‘true’ in a far more than literal way, than I did before.

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Who is weak? Who is strong?

As to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as in fact there are many gods and many lords – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. ‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall (1 Corinthians 8:4-13).

Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves (Romans 14:13-15:1).

These two parallel passages from Paul’s epistles have become known as the ‘weaker brethren’ argument. Put simply, they argue that Christians, unlike practising Jews, are free to eat whatever they want, even if it is sold in the marketplace where all the food has been dedicated to false gods. However, since not every Christian knows this yet, those whose conscience still baulks at eating something ‘unclean’, may be upset and offended by seeing their fellow Christians do so. If that is the case, the Christians who do know this, should refrain from eating ‘unclean’ food in front of their ‘weaker’ brothers and sisters.

Behind all decisions about food rules (as in the minimal requirements the Council of Jerusalem made for Gentile believers – Acts 15:19-21), is the idea that ‘food = fellowship’, a very Jewish, and indeed generally Middle Eastern, idea. In an inhospitable land with much desert, and among nomadic peoples, hospitality is a prime obligation, and what we serve up should not offend the feelings of those we host. But equally, if someone hosts us, we should not insult their hospitality by being picky about what we will eat: ‘If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience‘ (1 Corinthians 10:27). Only if we are specifically told by another guest that the food has been offered to idols, says Paul, and that this offends the other guest, should we abstain. In other words, act for the moral and emotional welfare of the other person: ‘Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God’ (v.32)

I am mostly vegetarian (though my son’s food preferences have eaten away at this commitment over the last 20+ years). Some years ago we were in the US, ‘Mennoniting our way’, and were taken to eat with an Amish family who host tourists for extra income and to make their way of life better understood. I saw immediately that the main dish on offer was a meat loaf. I could have just eaten the vegetables and explained. But I didn’t want to give offence or trouble, so I ate the meat loaf. I still think I did the right thing.

There are two things I particularly notice in this teaching. One is that those who need to conform to rules about behaviour, who need to know ‘the Christian way’ to do everything in their lives, are described as weaker. It is those who feel free to, in the words of St. Augustine, ‘love God and do as you like’ who are the stronger. How have we, historically, entirely reversed this order in the church? We regard those who keep all the ‘Christian rules’ as strong Christians, while those who take a more relaxed attitude are somehow weaker. The Bible says the exact opposite! I once heard a sermon that divided people, and Christians in particular, into ‘the let-ters’ and ‘the ought-ers’. And it is very clear here in Paul’s epistles that the ‘let-ters’ are those who have deeper knowledge of the Christian way. They live by the Spirit, not by the book – for unlike our fellow monotheists, the Jews and the Muslims, we are not in fact people of the book, but people of the Spirit.

The second thing is that those with a ‘weaker’ conscience, more afraid of moral harm, are to be deferred to and cared for, but by no means allowed to dominate the debate. ‘For why’, adds Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:29-30, ‘should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks?’. In other words, if the ‘weaker brethren’ insist that everyone should bow to their ethical sensitivities, they are hardly the weaker brethren any more, but have become the stronger. And this potentially cripples the whole people of God. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery‘ (Galatians 5:1).

Food offered to idols is hardly an issue for today’s church. But I am sure you can, without my help, immediately think of a number of other equivalent issues today, where some consider a certain practice, place or person ‘unclean’, and you do not. I think these passages say to us, stand firm in your freedom in Christ. But make sure you are not treading on someone else’s toes by doing so.

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Not our job

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (Matthew 18:15-20)

My Mennonite community, and other Anabaptist traditions, historically practised ‘the ban’, shunning any member who offended and refused to listen to correction. As in other denominations with an emphasis on church discipline (the Exclusive Brethren, for instance), a shunned member would be barred from communion, possibly from worship, and might not even be allowed to eat with their own family. The ban has not always been practised well or for good reasons — it can be judgmental, can arise out of an abuse of power, and I doubt it regularly leads to the shunned member returning to the fold. However in historic perspective, it was at least a non-violent alternative to the established churches’ ‘discipline’ of burning or beheading errant believers! (I gather Protestants generally beheaded, while Catholics burned).

This passage is often regarded by scholars as an insertion into Matthew’s Gospel by the later church which was seeking to preserve order in its ranks. Whether or not it is an authentic teaching of Jesus, my feeling is that it has been highly misinterpreted, by a failure to relate it to Jesus’ actual practice. The passage itself says nothing about banning or shunning: instead it instructs the church to regard an unrepentant sinner ‘as a Gentile and a tax collector’. How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors (the latter being essentially collaborators with the occupying Roman state)? Well he certainly didn’t shun them. In fact he ate with them, witnessed to them, healed them and generally sought to recruit them to his Kingdom. In other words, I see this passage as essentially saying ‘If one of your number is not behaving in a Christian way, then they are clearly not really a Christian, and your task is to evangelize them, not to avoid them.

However this is not the main focus I want to emphasise here. Rather, I want to point out a way in which this teaching has been not only misinterpreted, but actually misread. We all read the Bible selectively, noticing what we want to notice or what we have been schooled to notice — for instance, in Ephesians 5:21ff, men have generally been very happy to read the part addressed to their wives (and it is very impolite to read a letter addressed to someone else!) and not so keen to read the section addressed to them, even though the latter is eight verses compared to the mere three addressed to wives.

And in today’s passage, it seems these instructions have mostly been read missing out two vital words at the beginning: ‘If another member of the church sins against you‘ (my italics). We do not have licence to go round pointing out the sins, or what we perceive to be the sins, of our fellow Christians. Indeed, we are instructed quite clearly, earlier in the same Gospel ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged’ (Matthew 7:1). Rather, this procedure outlined in Matthew 18 is specifically designed for dealing with someone you feel to have sinned against you. Not against God, not against the congregation or its rules, but against you yourself. How have we extended it into a right to point out the failings of all and sundry, never mind their impact on ourselves? It is not our job as Christians to police the lives of others, even if they are our fellow Christians.

What is Jesus’ primary teaching on dealing with someone who has sinned against you? Well we don’t have to look far for it. It is reiterated in the very next few verses, from 21-34, first in Jesus’ command to Peter to forgive 77 times, and then in the parable of the unforgiving servant (or slave). So Matthew 18 cannot be a process for exacting justice; rather, it is guidance for winning back to the Christian community someone who has alienated themselves from it by harming a member of it — a member who should, before this process even begins, already have forgiven them. Forgiveness is, after all, not a way of disregarding the offence, but a way of managing to continue one’s relationship with the offender — and it some cases, perhaps all, this will necessitate helping the offender understand the impact of their offence.

Forget shunning, then, and forget thinking you are the moral thought police; rather, this is a teaching about restoring the relationship between a sinner and God, and between yourself and the sinner. And that designation of ‘sinner’ will probably apply to all of us at times, however faithful we consider ourselves to be.

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The wrong good news?

 ‘You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power’ (Acts 2:22-24)

The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses (Acts 3:13-15).

‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it(Acts 7:51-53)

‘My brothers, you descendants of Abraham’s family, and others who fear God, to us the message of this salvation has been sent. Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him. Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus’ (Acts 13:26-33)

I’m still working my way through the book of Acts, and I notice as I go that it contains a number of sermons. The extracts above are from some of them: two by Peter, one by Stephen, one by Paul. And the thing that strikes me about all these sermons is how little they mention the Cross. True, they all relate the fact that Jesus was killed, at the instigation of his own people. Which reminds me of what I call the saddest verse in the whole of the Bible, John 1:11:

‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.’

As a Jesus follower of Jewish origin, I find this incredibly poignant (though I need to point out that there is no justification, either in John’s prologue or in any of the sermons in Acts, for the historic persecution of Jews as ‘Christ-killers’).

Yet while all these sermons allude to the crucifixion, not one of them has any sort of developed theology of the Atonement. They don’t even mention that Jesus died ‘for our sins’, though they do go on to declare that repenting and following him gains us forgiveness. You may argue that at the historic point in the life of the church that Acts recounts, Paul had not written his many letters, especially Romans, exploring the implications of the Cross. But that argument doesn’t really hold water; we know that Paul’s letters mostly pre-date the Gospels and Acts, and though Luke is relating events prior to Paul’s teaching, this cannot really be a verbatim account of Peter’s, Stephen’s and Paul’s sermons, but an interpretation based on witness memory — so Luke could easily have added to them some exposition of the Atonement. But he doesn’t. Why doesn’t he? Could it be because it wasn’t there? that the earliest preaching of the apostles and their associates actually didn’t emphasise Jesus’ death at all, except as evidence of rejection by his own people?

Instead, these sermons seem to have a quite different version of what the ‘good news’ is — and it is the Resurrection. Look at that last sentence of the Acts 13 extract: ‘..we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us… by raising Jesus’. For the preachers and evangelists of Acts, it is not the Cross of Jesus that is the good news, but his resurrection, which demonstrates both that he is truly the Son of God, and that the love and righteousness he taught and showed cannot be defeated by death.

In certain church traditions, when we say ‘the gospel’ what we actually mean is a particular formulation of what was happening through Jesus’ death, and how it changed the relationship between God and humankind. When I have heard ‘the gospel’ preached with this emphasis, often the Resurrection becomes little more than a divine ‘I told you so’; or at best, a harbinger of our own resurrection to some disembodied heaven far away from earth.

But that formulation of the gospel is prominent in these early Christian sermons only by its absence. Have we got it all wrong? Is the good news in fact less about ‘Jesus died for our sins’ (though that emphasis is certainly there, and significant, in the teachings of Paul), and more about ‘God’s love as embodied in Jesus is so great that it cannot be destroyed by death’? Or even, from my perspective as an Anabaptist, ‘the non-violence of Jesus’ death is stronger than the violence of the powers-that-be’?

I don’t deny that the death of Jesus is in some way, which we can only define by a number of different images (and Paul himself uses a wide range of them, not just drawn from the law courts), salvific. But what these sermons from Acts suggest is that it is not Jesus’ death alone that is salvific, but the whole package of his ‘life-death-resurrection’. In fact, almost all of these sermons also dwell on the life of Jesus as a demonstration of his messiahship. He didn’t just come to die for us, he came to live for us, to fulfil in his life the true goodness, the just and compassionate human life, that we are all called to live by his Spirit.

I have a Christian jewellery idea — don’t laugh. We wear crosses round our necks, even as earrings, which has always struck me as an odd thing to do — would we wear a tiny gallows or electric chair as jewellery? But my idea is for a pendant made of two overlapping circles, one solid, the other just a ring with a hollow centre. This is to represent the stone rolled away from the empty tomb. That seems to me far more appropriate for Christians to wear as adornment or indeed as witness: because the good news is not just the Cross, it is the Resurrection too — in fact, as these sermons suggest, it may be mainly the Resurrection.

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This life

Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him (that is, the sect of the Sadducees), being filled with jealousy, arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, ‘Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.’ When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching (Acts 5:17-21)

Having finished reading through Luke without Bible reading notes, I thought I might as well go on to Luke’s second book — after all, if you enjoy an author’s first offering, why not try the sequel? Now I have always had a problem with Acts; I never found it a congenial book, and was puzzled at how I could like his Gospel so much, and yet dislike his history of the early church.

Part of the explanation came to me years ago when I had to write my own Bible notes on some of Acts. The way I have heard this book preached on and taught, at least in an evangelical context (and other church contexts don’t seem to preach on it much) was something like this: ‘Look what a great evangelist Paul was; why aren’t you more like Paul?’ Which is bound to make anyone feel negative about the book; especially if you are a woman and in many parts of the church, being more like Paul is actively barred to you. Besides, I don’t believe everyone is called to be an evangelist, though we are all called to be witnesses when the chance arises — if you want to know the difference, I think it’s a bit like being a professional chef versus doing home cooking for your family.

Read as narrative, Acts is full of fabulous and engaging, sometimes amusing stories (I love the one about Eutychus falling out of the window because Paul’s preaching has sent him to sleep — Acts 20:9). It also reflects many of the interests Luke has shown in his Gospel: the Holy Spirit, the outsider, the ministry of women (I defy anyone to read Acts 2:14-21, where Peter quotes the wonderfully inclusive prophecy of Joel, and still maintain that women can’t preach). And here, in chapter 5, is a little sentence I have never noticed before, the angel’s instruction to the apostles: ‘Go, stand in the Temple and tell the people the whole message about this life‘ [italics mine]. Not, ‘Go and tell them about Penal Substitutionary Atonement’, not ‘Go and tell them their sin separates them from God’, not ‘Go and tell them they can have Jesus as their personal Saviour’, but ‘tell them about this life’.

Before it was a set of doctrinal statements, before it was a sinner’s prayer at the end of a tract, Christianity was a life; a life the earliest disciples called ‘The Way’. How, as an Anabaptist who believes how Jesus lived is as significant for us as how he died, did I miss this? You might say I am sidelining the Cross here, but in fact I am extending its reach: the life Jesus calls us to is a cross-shaped, a cruciform life — we are meant to be living in such a way that we are at real risk of the powers-that-be seeking a way to dispose of us. And around the world, many Christians are still living with that real risk — not necessarily because their Christianity is a persecuted faith (and it is, in many places) but because the stands they take, the truths they proclaim, are directly in opposition to those who wield power for their own ends.

Besides, if I am sidelining the Cross, you could make the same accusation of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. He barely mentions the Cross except as the socially shameful way in which Jesus died. His sermon is all about Jesus’ life, about who Jesus was, and how this was a life that not even death could destroy. The first formulation of the gospel was not so much about Jesus’ death, but about his resurrection (which is precisely why the Sadducees, here in this story from Acts 5, objected to the apostles, since the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection).

What difference would it make if our preaching, our evangelism, our witness took this slant? For a start, it would make the Christian faith less transactional (to caricature, but not much: our sin prevented God from being able to relate to us so he did a deal through Jesus) and more covenantal: God wants a relationship with us, and in Jesus, who has identified with us in every way including identifying with our sin, God is offering that relationship.

It might also restore the truth that though we are not saved by works of righteousness, we are most certainly saved for them. When I was living in a theological college over 40 years ago, the students there had to write an essay on ‘What are we saved from?’. I thought at the time, and continue to think, that ‘What are we saved for?’ would be a better question. Our English language has at least two meanings for the word saved, illustrated in these two sentences: ‘Dirk Willems saved his persecutor from falling through the ice’ and ‘I’m sorry, this seat is saved for my husband’. And I suspect salvation in the theological sense contains both of those meanings.

So this little sentence has, if you like, saved the book of Acts for me. I now see it as a book that illustrates a particular life — perhaps an exceptional, rudimentary, experimental form of it (for all budding social or religious movements have that element of the excitement of the new, blended with a certain provisionality) but a life which is nevertheless available to all of us, even in our more staid and perhaps over respectable lives. And it is above all a communitarian life (see Acts 2:43-47 and 4:32-35), because it’s much too hard to live it alone.

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Do I know you?

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

Now here’s a thing. We talk a great deal about knowing God, and indeed knowing Jesus — a great deal too much, if you ask me: such talk can be dispiriting for those of us like myself who rarely have any sense of the presence of God or of God speaking to them, and who sometimes wonder if we actually know God at all.

But here is Jesus questioning, not whether we know him, but whether he knows us. This is in some ways a terrifying passage. Jesus envisages people turning up, as it were, at his door, on the Day of Judgment, and claiming to have done lots of spectacular things in his name. Their supposed accomplishments are all at the more glamorous end of faith: prophecy, exorcism, miracles. These are the things that Christian magazines like to write about, that sell Christian biographies and memoirs, that are touted as evidence of the reality of God. Yet Jesus responds that these ‘super-disciples’ were not, in fact, doing the will of his Father. Worse than that, he actually calls them ‘evildoers’. What a shock for those who thought they were well in!

So what, in Jesus’ estimation, is the will of his Father? It is easy enough to find. He has set it out in the preceding chapters: to love God, to love one’s neighbour and one’s enemy, to live humbly and generously, to seek first the kingdom of God. He sets it out again in Matthew 25: to care for the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner. It is simple enough, though by no means easy.

What, then about the declaration that Jesus is Lord? What about our profession of faith? About acting in Jesus’ name? Surely these ‘evildoers’ qualify on all these counts? Apparently calling Jesus Lord is simply an empty statement, unless our lives demonstrate that we are his disciples. And that is why I find this passage scary. Does Jesus know me? Has he noticed me following his path, showing compassion to the needy, forgiving those who have hurt me, making sacrifices for the good of others? Or am I invisible to him, just one of those who call him Lord but am mainly interested in my own self-promotion?

As an Anabaptist, I inevitably read this as an endorsement of the idea that orthopraxis is just as important as, if not more so than, orthodoxy. It sends me back to the epistle of James, an ‘epistle of straw’ to Luther who majored on justification by faith, but to my mind the most Jesus-like epistle of them all (which is why I am happy to believe it was written by Jesus’ brother). Here’s a typical excerpt:

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. (James 1:22-25)

Have I just demolished salvation by grace through faith, and set up an alternative salvation by works? If I have, I have at least based it in Jesus’ own teaching. But I don’t think that’s what I, James or Jesus himself is doing. Rather, it is a question of evidence. Salvation is by grace, because none of us can live up fully to the high calling of doing God’s will. But the evidence of salvation is not prophetic words, casting out demons, performing flashy miracles. It is the quiet, often hidden, life of faithfulness to love of God, neighbour and enemy. To quote James again:

Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. (James 2:18b)

I love the ironic, very Jewish humour of this. The implication, of course, is that faith without works is no faith at all. And the works James indicates are non-showy, everyday things like not showing more honour to rich than poor, like caring for the destitute and showing mercy to the distressed.

So rather than asking ‘Do you know Jesus?’ perhaps we should be asking ourselves (not each other, for that would be a guilt trip), ‘Does Jesus know me? Has he spotted me going to the places others avoid, honouring the people whom others shun or condemn?’. For the best way to be spotted by Jesus is to go where he goes; and as during his life in first century Palestine, where he goes is to the outsider, the ‘unclean’, the places and the people who need him most.

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A man silenced, women heard

Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.(Luke 1:18-20)

And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name’.
(Luke 1:41b-49)

What you find in the Bible utterly depends on what lens you read it through. At the beginning of this year, I resolved that I would read just the Bible itself, not filtered through anyone else’s view distilled in Bible reading notes. I decided to start with Luke, my favourite Gospel, a chapter at a time, which means that after Christmas I re-read the so familiar Christmas, or rather pre-Christmas, stories.

Now when I read the Bible I often do so with my feminist spectacles on, and it’s sometimes surprising what I find. Reading these narratives whole, rather than in short extracts, made me notice something I’m quite embarrassed not to have noticed before. This is a story in which the voice of the male religious leader, Zechariah the priest, is silenced; while the voices of the women, unheard in the official space of the Temple, are released into prophecy. And what prophecy! If Mary’s speech were a political manifesto (and essentially, it is) she would almost certainly be accused of Marxist idealism. If John the Baptist is in some ways the last Old Testament prophet, then Mary is perhaps the first New Testament one. And when in chapter 4 we hear Jesus’ ‘Nazareth manifesto’, there is no need to guess where he learned his radicalism. His mother was his first teacher.

Link this up with the little-noticed fact that Anna, in the following chapter, is called a prophet, while Simeon is not (perhaps because we have a record of his prophetic words, so there is no need to point it out), and we have a major theme of Luke’s story. Throughout his Gospel, almost every parable focused on a man, often representing God, is paired with one focused on a woman (see for instance the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast in chapter 13, or the lost sheep and the lost coin in chapter 15). Even when Jesus speaks of ‘the sign of Jonah’ (11:29ff) Luke pairs this with a reference to ‘the Queen of the South’ coming from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon (I’m indebted to Trisha Dale for this insight on the pairing of parables in Luke.)

Surely this is a foretaste of the new age proclaimed by Peter in Luke’s second book, Acts, when he quotes Joel in declaring that:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.’ (Joel 2:28-9
)

I have a little test I apply to historic and current ‘renewal’ or ‘revival’ movements in the church. If the movement enhances the status of women and makes them equal to men in ministry and authority, it is probably a genuine move of God’s Spirit. If it doesn’t, it probably isn’t. It’s not infallible, but I do think it is biblical, based on Joel’s prophecy and what we see here in Luke. And there is a warning here as well as a promise: if we are to hear the voices of women telling God’s truth, if we are to hear the voice of God mediated through women, the men, however official and authoritative their position, however much status we have given them, may indeed need to be silenced for a while.

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The invisible woman

The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.’ When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it… Shaphan the secretary informed the king, ‘The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.’ Shaphan then read it aloud to the king.

When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. Then the king commanded the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary, and the king’s servant Asaiah, saying, ‘Go, inquire of the Lord for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.’

So the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to the prophet Shallum son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe; he resided in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter, where they consulted him. He declared to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the Lord, I will indeed bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants — all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the Lord. Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.’ They took the message back to the king (2 Kings 22:8-20, abridged).

If you know this passage (and it seems that few do, although the story occurs in both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles), you may have noticed that I made a small but significant change to the first two sentences of the last paragraph (verses 14-15). Here’s the original:  So the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to the prophetess Huldah the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe; she resided in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter, where they consulted her. She declared to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel

I promised when I began this blog six years ago, or rather when I set out my guiding hermeneutic in November 2014, that one of my aims in this blog would be ‘making the female characters of the Bible, and a woman-centred understanding of key passages, more visible’. I called this a ‘her’meneutic. I think in pursuing particular interests, I have rather let this goal slip. So perhaps now is the time to take it up again.

Ask anyone who claims to know the Bible well (your church’s minister perhaps), who Huldah was, and you may be shocked how few people have actually heard of her. Yet she is key to the history of the Bible itself; she is, in fact, the first biblical interpreter recorded in its pages. And what is more remarkable is that the narrative expresses no surprise at all that she is the one consulted about the book the Temple restoration workers have found, and no questioning of her status as a prophet (the NRSV’s ‘prophetess’ appears in all versions, and may make modern feminists uncomfortable, but elsewhere in the Bible other women are described as ‘prophet’, for instance in Luke 2:36 Anna is described as a prophet, although we have none of her words, while Simeon, interestingly, is not).

Scholars believe that the book found in the restoration work was part or all of Deuteronomy, that recap of the law, and a book Jesus would later quote from frequently. Huldah’s prophetic statement basically confirms what the king has already intuited: that this is a book to be obeyed, not to be theorized about or dissected; and that the nation of Judah is under judgement for its failure to obey its commands or even to keep a copy of it. What is striking is that though the king immediately sees this, he still instructs his officials to ‘Go, inquire of the Lord for me… concerning the words of this book’; and that the first person that occurs to them to speak for God is a woman. Perhaps also notable is the fact that she adds to the king’s premonition of doom, the consoling thought that the king himself will not live to see ‘the disaster that I will bring on this place’ (‘this place’ being Jerusalem). Was it because she was a woman that she perceived and communicated this promise of mercy?

Those who forbid women to speak for God, on the basis of a single verse in 1 Timothy (and moreover one which by its grammar is clearly a temporary provision, and which is preceded by the command ‘Let a woman learn’), would do well to read this story. Sadly, Huldah seems to be invisible to most male biblical scholars. If we made her visible, would that also make visible the women in our congregations and our academies who have the gifts, scholarship and insight to speak for God, and indeed to speak for all the invisible women of God?

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It’s not about the money

Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘”How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.”He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.”And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Luke 16:1-9).

Every time I’ve heard this parable preached on, or seen it written on, it has been interpreted as being about money, and about managing money wisely. And on the literal surface, that is what it is about. But we don’t generally interpret parables just by their surface meaning. And just because this one has got attached (which I think is what has happened) to a saying about using ‘dishonest’ wealth (and Jesus seems to think all wealth is dishonest) to make friends in the Kingdom, doesn’t actually mean this parable is all about how we spend our money (any more than the parable of the talents is about judicious investment).

In every other parable that talks about debt, the debt referred to is either our debt to God, or our debt of love and generosity to our neighbour (see for example Matthew 18:23ff, the parable of the unforgiving debtor). And in every other parable in which a manager or steward is managing land or money for an employer, the manager stands for the nation of Israel, chosen by God to demonstrate righteousness to the world (see Matthew 20:1ff, the parable of the labourers in the vineyard). So why should this story be any different?

If we start to read it this way, it yields a very different, and I think much more Jesus-style, meaning. If the manager is Israel, managing the debts of righteousness/holiness that the nation owes to God, then this becomes a parable about law versus grace, in which the unpayable debts we owe to God are written off, or at the very least scaled down. Israel, or its religious leaders of the time, thus make friends for themselves among those it has previously regarded as enemies, the ‘sinners’ amongst whom Jesus spent most of his time. So the story now fits in with others about undeserved grace, which we are to show to others because God has first shown it to us. It also fits better in its context, which is immediately after the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost or prodigal son; and it makes sense of Jesus’ following comment that ‘The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed’.

It becomes, too, a story about the role of religious leaders, who are now not there to remind us of how much we fall short of the glory of God, how much we owe to a demanding, holy and jealous God, but rather to dispense to us sinners who would be saints, the lavish, unmerited, unearned grace that God offers in Christ. To do this, of course, those leaders have first to know that grace for themselves. Which also means acknowledging that while they might be placed in a position of authority, they are just as much sinners/would-be saints as the rest of us (incidentally, this reading also has Jesus pretty much directly accusing the religious leaders of the time of using their position to line their own nests — as their immediate negative reaction, described in verse 14 demonstrates) Let the reader, and especially the leader, understand. It might just make you some friends.

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Better than the Pharisees?

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).

I’ve always struggled with this statement of Jesus. Schooled in the evangelical view of salvation by faith (which is actually quite unbiblical — the Bible tells us we are saved by grace through faith, not by faith which can so easily lead to us thinking we are saved by right doctrine), I found this verse smacked too much of what some would call ‘works righteousness’. Becoming an Anabaptist (or rather realizing that I had been one all along) helped me here, since I realized that in James’ words, ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’ (James 2:17). But the idea that disciples of Jesus should be more righteous than the Pharisees was still problematic.

We are used to thinking of the Pharisees as hypocrites who did not practise what they preached. But that is to read our own prejudices into the text. In Jesus’ context, the Pharisees were, and saw themselves as, the most faithful believers. They took care to obey every single one of the 613 commandments of the Old Testament. There was even reportedly a sect known as ‘The Bleeding Pharisees’, who walked about with eyes lowered lest they accidentally look at a woman and fall into lust, and who therefore frequently bumped into things, hence the bleeding. And Jesus makes this statement immediately after saying that ‘until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.’ Is Jesus, then, advocating an even stricter adherence to the Jewish law, in all its detail, than that of the Pharisees? Surely such a thing isn’t humanly possible?

A quick glance, both at what Jesus actually did, and at the verses that follow this statement, would disabuse us of this notion. Jesus’ repeated breaking of the Sabbath for the purpose of healing (or even of feeding his followers, see Mark 2:23-8), and his ignoring of the purity laws to touch a haemorrhaging woman or a dead girl (Mark 5:22ff), demonstrates that his attitude to the Jewish law was, to say the least, flexible, if not cavalier. And his statement is embedded in the context of saying that he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17) and followed immediately by the series of sayings beginning ‘You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…’, in which he moves from the letter of the law — the prohibitions on murder, adultery, unlimited vengeance — to its spirit in our inner attitudes towards others. This is what it means to fulfil the law: to take its intention and bring it to its logical conclusion, to write the law in our hearts and not just on our stone tablets or in our churches (many of which still have the Ten Commandments posted prominently on a wooden board by the altar).

This leads us to a conclusion that I have only recently come to explicitly, though I think I have probably held it unconsciously for a long time. The righteousness of his disciples, the righteousness which is to exceed that of the Pharisees, does not differ from that of the Pharisees in degree, but in kind. The Pharisees and scribes sought a righteousness of purity, a holiness defined in terms of avoiding contamination. What Jesus seeks, by contrast, is a righteousness of compassion, which is greater than the righteousness of purity, and indeed at times will appear to contradict it, as it did in Jesus’ actions. And this is confirmed in the same Gospel, in Matthew 23:23, where Jesus exclaims ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others’. It is a matter of priority: we are to prioritize the welfare of others over our own fear of taint. God, to my knowledge, has never condemned anyone for showing too much compassion.

I fear this message has not yet reached a vast number of Christians and churches. If I were to choose one verse of Scripture that is most ignored in modern conservative Christianity, it would be this: ‘The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6). Too often we are the modern Galatians, who having started with the Spirit, are ending with the flesh (Galatians 3:3). We believe we are saved by grace, but we understand sanctification as learning to obey a set of rules, seeking ‘the Christian answer’ on every complex issue of our time, as though the only way we can make sure we stay saved is to find an algorithm for every moral question and stick to it like glue.

Our righteousness can indeed exceed that of the Pharisees, but only if we have a different focus from theirs. Their hypocrisy consisted not in failing to practise what they preached, but in failing to grasp the inner meaning of what they practised. Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8); let’s be less afraid of sinning, and more motivated to love.

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