What kind of crazy story is this – a sermon on the virgin birth (Matthew 1:18-25)?!


Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 

Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’

All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ 

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no sexual relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:18-25)

Why did the Gospel writer have to include that last line? I don’t mean the “he named him Jesus” bit, but the bit just before that – that Joseph “had no sexual relations with Mary” until the child had been born? He “knew her not” says the old King James version. Either way, that’s too much information so far as I’m concerned!

I don’t want to know about the sex life of Mary and Joseph. Isn’t that the sort of thing that the couple should keep to themselves? Of course, if this were an episode of Neighbors or an installment on some reality TV show, this might be the very first thing we’d expect to be privy to regarding the lead characters, but it’s not that kind of show, is it?

That’s actually the key question I want to focus on today – ‘what kind of show’, or, more precisely, ‘what kind of story is this?’, for it’s not an episode from an early sitcom or some saucy first century yarn. It’s a Bible story. And it’s not just any Bible story either. It’s one of those core narratives that is not only central to the greater New Testament but which is also a defining story for us as a community!

Academics refer to these types of stories as myths, but I don’t like that term as it seems to imply that the story is make-believe, so I’ll stick to story or narrative. The point, at any rate, is that certain stories are central to the life of a people. They define who we are and what we believe, and so we tell and retell these stories, passing them on through the generations, from father to son and from mother to daughter, and this story of the birth of Jesus is most certainly one of these core narratives!

This isn’t just any story. This is our Christmas story. As a Christian community, we structure our year around this story. Look around the church building and you’ll see signs and symbols everywhere, echoing this story – the angels, the shepherds, the sheep and the manger – and at the centre of it all is this couple, Mary and Joseph, who are spiritual mother and father to us all in a sense. I don’t want to know about their sex life any more than I want to know about the sex life of my earthly parents!

What sort of story is this? What sort of couple is this? What sort of child is this?

‘What sort of engagement was this?’ – perhaps that’s an accessible point at which to start, for it’s clear from the story that Mary and Joseph’s engagement was something a bit more serious than the sorts of betrothals we are familiar with nowadays.

Mary finds that she is pregnant and Joseph knows that he is not the father and so “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly”. The crisis itself is not uncommon nowadays any more than it was back then – an unexpected pregnancy with doubts being raised as to who the father is, though these things aren’t normally resolved quietly in my experience, but neither is the woman ‘exposed to public disgrace’ if the relationship falls apart.

Engagements in first century Judea were evidently a more serious family affair than they are nowadays, and probably something more akin to the way ‘trial marriages’ work in Iran. For those who aren’t familiar with the practice, couples in Iran often enter into a trial marriage after consultation with their families. They live together for a fixed period – perhaps six months or a year – after which, if things are going smoothly, they are formally married.

It’s similar to what happens in our culture when a couple shacks up together, except that it’s all done with family support. I remember asking my friend, Sheikh Mansour, ‘but what do you do if the girl gets pregnant?’, to which he replied ‘what do you do?’

The question in our story, of course, is ‘what is Joseph going to do?’, and Joseph, like Mary, is called to walk a path of blind obedience – ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife’. He must maintain the relationship with Mary and father the mysterious child, whose origins and whose future are so obscure!

And so we are told that Joseph “took her as his wife”, which means what? Did they go down to the registry office and organise a quick ceremony, or did they gather together with whatever members of the family that they could find and organise some communal celebration? In the context of first century Judea, “he took her as his wife” could just mean that Joseph consummated the relationship (sexually), which is what we know it doesn’t mean, of course, because he ‘knew her not’!

And maybe that’s the whole point of that detail – that this vulnerable couple were left in a sort of limbo situation – being married but not fully married (as traditionally understood) – as they headed off on their painful pilgrimage to Bethlehem, with their lives and their future and their relationship with each other already being totally determined by this mysterious child who had not yet been born!

Perhaps that’s all the detail about the celibacy of Joseph is meant to convey to us, though, as we might expect, commentators over the centuries have found the story of the virgin birth to be fruitful ground for more detailed speculation.

Certainly, it doesn’t require too much imagination to suggest that there might be an ‘anti sex’ agenda in the birth narrative, reflecting the negative attitude towards human sexuality that became increasingly prevalent in the church as it evolved.

This anti-sex attitude has indeed been reflected in the writings pious souls over the centuries who have felt that it would not have been possible for the Son of God to have been born as a result of sex – a conviction that (to my understanding) did lead to the theory of the ‘immaculate conception’, which refers not to the miraculous conception of Jesus but to the miraculous conception of Mary, his mother, for if she were to be the pure vessel through whom the Son of God was to be born, she too would have to be conceived in a way that didn’t involve any human sexual activity!

Some of you may have read Shelby Spong’s book, “Born of a Woman” (published in 1994) in which he goes further and suggests that the virgin birth story not only reflects negative attitudes towards sex but more specifically, negative attitudes towards women and female sexuality in particular!

A number of scholars have likewise seen in the Gospels’ birth stories the influence of the Gnostics (who were most prevalent in the 2nd and 3rd centuries). Gnostics had very negative attitudes towards all things physical, and greatly influenced the early church, perhaps even the writings of the New Testament!

I’m personally not at all convinced that the Gnostics were active so early such that they could have influenced the construction of the Gospels, and I note too that where they were influential in later church history, it wasn’t always an influence favoring men over women!

I have actually been studying some of the second and third century Gnostic literature recently, and I believe that the formulation of the aforementioned theory of the immaculate conception of Mary was specifically tied to the Gnostic belief that sin of Adam is passed down through the human species explicitly through the male seed! That is why Mary, who had to be sinless, had to have been conceived without the involvement of any male in particular! Whatever you think of that theory, it doesn’t seem to me to be one that elevates men above women.

I mean no offense to any of my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who might take the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary very seriously. I think though that we can all agree that it is not taught in the New Testament, and neither was it a belief that was circulating at the time the New Testament was written. Indeed, it was only formally adopted as a doctrine of the church by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

I’d like to suggest at this point that we may better grasp the full impact of the birth story in the Gospels, not through thinking about how it might have contributed to later problems in the church, let alone by thinking about how those problems might have influenced its construction, but by comparing the Gospel narrative with other great narratives that were circulating at the time that it was written.

Within the Bible itself there are a number of mysterious birth narratives, each auspicious in its own way. We might think of the story of the miraculous birth of Samuel to Hannah, as retold in the first book of Samuel, or even of the story of the birth of John the Baptist.

Further, it occurs to me that within the non-Jewish religious world of the first century there were countless stories circulating of auspicious characters who had mysterious births! And I don’t know if any serious study has ever been done comparing the blessed virgin Mary with the blessed virgin Athena – the only woman in the Greek pantheon who never had a male escort!

Those who are familiar with New Testament Greek know that ‘parthenos’ is the Greek word meaning ‘virgin’ or ‘young girl’. The word is used  with reference to Mary in the New Testament. Those who haven’t studied New Testament Greek will nonetheless recognise the word ‘Parthenon’ as referring to that amazing temple on the Acropolis in Athens, dedicated not to Mary, of course, but to Athena!

I mentioned that I’ve been doing some study of early Christian Gnostic documents of late. I’ve also been listening to a series of lectures on the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and they are fascinating indeed!

I am conscious too that a number of feminist scholars of the 1970’s took up fresh studies in the female goddesses of Greece in particular, hoping to find in them some more positive role models of feminine strength and independence, particularly in comparison with the negative stereotypes that have been propagated by the church.

The lecturer I’ve been listening to, Professor Kathryn McClymond, suggested though that looking for positive female role models in the Greek pantheon is a doomed quest as these women, while they often exhibit strength and independence, also embody all of the worst female stereotypes.

A story that well illustrates this regards a wedding banquet put on by the great god, Zeus, who forgot to invite along Eris, the goddess of discord. Eris turns up uninvited and tosses into the party a golden apple with the words “for the fairest” written on it. This then leads to a battle royal between goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite over who is deserving of the apple! They ask Zeus to adjudicate but he (wisely) gives the job to Paris, prince of Troy. The goddesses then try to influence Paris, firstly by stripping naked and then by bribing him! Hera offers him power, Athena offers him wisdom, but it’s Aphrodite who wins by offering him the most beautiful woman in the world – Helen of Sparta. And that’s how the Trojan war really began!

I won’t continue with the epic characters of Greek mythology, and there’s not enough time to go into the specifics of Roman mythology, which gave us the other great narratives that would have been circulating at the time of Jesus.

Roman mythology was, or course, largely a retranslation of Greek mythology. The names were changed – Zeus becoming Jupiter and Heracles becoming Hercules – but the stories remained largely the same. Indeed, in my reading of the ancient myths of Greece and Rome, the only clear difference I can see between the two is that the Roman stories were even more violent than those of the Greeks!

Most have probably heard of the legend of Romulus and Remus – the founders of Rome. If you have heard of them, you may remember that they were apparently suckled by a she-wolf as infants, later to grow up and found the great city!

What you may not remember about Romulus and Remus is that the reason they were raised by wolves is because their mother, who was the daughter of a murdered king, was raped by Mars, the god of war. The twin boys that were subsequently born to her were therefore seen as threats to the throne, and so while their mother was buried alive, the boys were left to die of exposure by the river Tiber, only to be rescued by the wolves. The boys grow up and kill the king who killed their mother, after which Romulus murders Remus!

You’ll forgive me for indulging in such a bloody tale, but this is the sort of stuff that Roman legend is made of, and, as I say, these ancient myths are the stories that are passed down from father to son and from mother to daughter, and they are the stories that define a people.

What do the great stories of Rome tell us about the Roman people? They tell us that violence, rape, pain and struggle have always defined them as a people! Romans were descended from boys who had been left for dead but who fought back and vanquished their enemies through cunning, strength of arms and raw courage!

A community is defined by its stories – that’s the point.

The stories of the Romans tell us who the Roman people were, just as the great myths of ancient Greece tell us who they were as a people.

If we want to understand how the Indigenous people of this land understand themselves, we need to listen to the stories of the dreamtime, whereas we white Australians prefer to define ourselves through the story of the ANZACS.

The question then is, what do these stories in the Bible tell us about ourselves as a spiritual people, and what does the Christmas story in particular tell us about who we are as a Christian community and about who our God is?

I think the comparison with the great Greek and Roman myths is instructive in this regard, for one thing that both Greek and Roman mythology shared in common was that their great stories consistently said nothing about ordinary people!

The characters that fill out those great ancient myths are all titans or gods or demi-gods of some sort. They are larger than life characters who perform miraculous deeds, vanquish great monsters, build great cities and win great battles! When these tales speak of mortal men and woman at all, they are inevitably mighty warriors who drench themselves in both glory and blood. These are the stories that define the people of the first century, but not the Christian community!

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18)

This is our story! It’s the story of an ordinary young girl, engaged to an apparently unexceptional young man, who turns out to be unexpectedly pregnant. Of course she goes on from there to become the most powerful woman in the known world … No. She goes on from there to give birth in squalid circumstances and she lays the baby in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).

This is the Christmas story. It’s a story about a God works through ordinary people in the most ordinary of circumstances – a God who ‘brings down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly’ (Luke 1:52)

It’s an offensive story in many ways – this Christmas story – offensive in its simplicity! It’s a story that is more concerned with the personal lives of two Palestinian peasants than it is with telling us how to vanquish monsters or build great cities! Love it or hate it though, this is our story!

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Christ is King! (a sermon on Luke 23:33-43)

We have reached the end of another ecclesiastical year. The church year differs from the calendar year, of course, because it is structured around the life of Jesus rather than around the movement of the stars. It begins with the lead-up to Jesus’ birth (Advent) and concludes today with celebration of the rule of Jesus over all the earth – the ‘Feast of Christ, the King’!

I appreciate, of course, that most of us tend to save our celebratory vigour for the end of the calendar year on December 31st but I’m not entirely sure as to why that is the case. Surely the kingship of Jesus over the earth is far more worthy of celebration than anything we might have achieved in the last twelve months, and even if the goal of New Year celebrations is more to drown our sorrows over 12 months of catastrophic failure rather than to celebrate victories, it would surely still make sense to do this at the time when we remember that it is Christ who ultimately calls the shots!

My guess is that the reason we don’t break out the bubbly and let off fireworks on this special day – the Feast of Christ the King – is because we don’t really believe that Christ is king, or, at least, we don’t believe it in any literal (meaningful) sense. If Christ is king, He must be king of some other world a long way away (Heaven perhaps) which has very limited connection with the world in which we live, and hence His kingship really has very little to do with the lives we live!

Is that it, or is the proclamation that ‘Christ is King’ our way of expressing unwavering optimism about the future – a bit like when I proclaim that the Newtown Jets are the greatest Rugby League team in the history of football?

Now, I do sincerely believe that the Jets are the greatest footy team in Rugby League history, but I appreciate that this is more from the standpoint of a fan than as a statistician. From a logical/statistical point of view, the Newtown Jets have not shown themselves to be unbeatable by any means. On the contrary, they were relegated from the first grade of the competition some years ago, and haven’t exactly dominated the pool of teams they currently compete with.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that they are not better men with a more noble cause than any of those they compete with, and hence they may certainly be judged to be the greatest in that sense. It’s just harder to maintain that they are the greatest in the sense in which those words are normally used in a sporting context, where it normally means that you win a lot.

Is this much like what we mean when we say that Christ is King? Are we just being fans? Is it our way of saying that we love Him, and that we consider His teaching to be profound and beautiful, and that we wished He were in charge? For let’s be honest, brothers and sisters, He doesn’t seem to be in charge!

Even if you, like me, saw the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency last week as a good thing (or, at least, as the better of the two alternatives) he’s not exactly the Messiah, is he? God doesn’t appear to be running the show at the moment. On the contrary, the world appears to be very firmly under the control of the people with the most money and the largest armies.

In the waning days of World War II, during a discussion of the future of Eastern Europe, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill cautioned Joseph Stalin to consider the views of the Vatican. To this the Soviet leader apparently responded “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?”

Nothing seems to have much changed since then. The world still operates according to the golden rule: those who own the gold make the rules!

Every day I’m reminded of this when I read what’s happening in Syria. I’m privileged to have access to multiple sources of information when it comes to Syria, but I always look at what the mainline media are saying before I turn to the alternative media and then to the emails that come to me from my friends in Syria and from journalists I know who are on the ground there.

The experience is always the same. The reality depicted by big-money media bears almost no resemblance to that depicted by those living the reality! Those who have the gold make the rules! Those with money and battalions decide what is right and what is wrong and who will live and who will die, and what sense does it make for us to assert ‘No! It’s Jesus who rules the world!’? Is this naivety or wishful thinking, or have we missed something?

Well, if we have missed something, the answer will almost surely be in today’s reading that speaks of the crucifixion of Jesus, for it is the crucifixion of Jesus that is, according to all four of our Gospels, Jesus’ crowning moment, literally!  It is on the cross that Christ becomes king, and this is testified to explicitly by the words attached to the cross – “This is the King of the Jews.” (Luke 23:38)

As far as we know, these were the only words ever written about Jesus during his lifetime, and the inscription is testified to in all four Gospels. He was the Messiah – the Christ, the son of God, the King of the Jews. It is on the cross that Jesus is ‘lifted up from the earth’, just as he had prophesied, with a crown upon his head (John 12:32) while onlookers hail Him as king – the only problem being that it’s all done in derision!

When St Paul says that the cross of Christ was offensive to his Jewish contemporaries and nonsense to the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:23) he wasn’t kidding, and indeed this whole depiction of the crowning of Jesus in the Gospels reads like some grotesque parody!

One of the great privileges for me of having a lot of regular contact with people of other religious traditions (most obviously, my many Muslim friends) is that it keeps me honest in this regard when it comes to Christian dogma.

Like many in our congregation, I grew up in a church-going family, listening to the stories of Jesus from my earliest years, and after you’ve heard the words ‘cross’ and ‘crucifixion’ and ‘suffering’ and ‘death’ associated so regularly with words like ‘king’ and ‘rule’ and ‘sacrifice’ and ‘forgiveness’, they seem to go together as naturally as peas and carrots! We no longer see the irony, the offensiveness and the incongruity of it all!

Let’s be clear – the irony was not lost on the first readers of the Gospels!  The irony was not lost on the disciples either! They themselves felt the incongruity of it all more than anyone! They didn’t understand what was going on to begin with. The whole coronation of Jesus (if you can call it that) initially appeared to them as an unmitigated disaster!

I think we often assume too that when St Paul arrived in a town like Corinth to share his Gospel message that he’d go to the local synagogue and say “this Jesus, who the authorities in Jerusalem had crucified, was actually our long-awaited Messiah!”, and people said ‘Of course! Why didn’t we think of that?’

Paul would then wander into the streets and tell anyone who cared to listen – Roman or Greek or anybody else – about how this Jewish man who had been killed had come back to life and was now the king of the world, and everybody would say ‘that makes sense! Why not?’

I personally think that nothing testifies to the presence of the spirit of God in the ministry of St Paul more powerfully than does the fact that so many people bought the message – indeed, that his message quickly captured the imagination of the whole world, for as St Paul himself said, while his gospel message did indeed contain the wisdom of God, it initially appeared to most people to be either offensive or absurd, or both (1 Corinthians 1:23).

What was the nature of the penny that dropped, such that those who initially laughed at the absurdity of the crucified Messiah somehow came to proclaim Him as the king of the world? Can we make sense of it? Do the Scriptures themselves make sense of it? The difficulty we have here is that Jesus didn’t give us any straightforward theory through which we could interpret the cross. He gave us a meal!When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

“[Jesus] said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:15-20)

This story of the last supper comes from the chapter immediately preceding the depiction of the crucifixion in Luke’s gospel, and it does, I think, interpret the crucifixion for us in terms of self-sacrifice, forgiveness and love.

To understand this meal properly, of course, we need to understand the back-story behind it – most especially the fact that it was a ‘Passover’ meal that celebrated the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

The crucifixion of Jesus is thus to be understood as another Exodus of sorts – another act through which people will be freed from bondage, with Jesus, in this case, playing the role of both liberator and sacrificial Passover lamb.

Of course, to understand the significance of the Exodus and Passover in this context requires familiarity with the larger back-story that takes us from the garden of Eden, where things first fall apart between God and humanity, through to Abraham, whose people are commissioned to bring God and humanity back together, through to the exile, where the people of God (the children of Abraham) seem to have failed in their commission, and it is in this context that Jesus comes as the representative of Israel, suffers for the sins of Israel that had taken her into exile (Isaiah 40:2) and so gets His people back on track towards the ‘promised land’.

Now I’m going to stop working on the big picture back-story right there as I suspect that even if you’ve been studying the Bible all your life, it is difficult to hold all that in your head at the same time. Let me focus instead on question we started with today – namely, in what sense does this make Jesus king?

The answer, I believe, is that Jesus becomes king on the cross because it is on the cross that Jesus confronts all the evil of this world and defeats it!

This evil is the power of the empire (Rome) and of the religious authorities and of all the false gods that the people of Israel had given themselves over to that led them into exile. Jesus overcomes them all on the cross. He doesn’t beat them down with His battalions, of course. He defeats them by suffering and absorbing all the violence they can throw at Him and then by rising!

When I agreed to be the subject of the mural that was painted in Martin Place (in the centre of Sydney) I was interviewed by a documentary team that asked me “what has been the secret of your success?” I laughed, as I’d never thought of myself as a success story.

I then asked them what they meant by ‘success’. If you judge success in monetary terms, I am by no means a success. Likewise, if you judge success in terms of power, I think I’m an abject failure! I did concede though that I had been successful in the way in which boxers are successful, in that after 26 years of being pummelled, round after round, I’m somehow still on my feet!

I think the victory of Jesus needs to be understood along these lines. Jesus doesn’t defeat the world’s enemies by annihilating them. Instead, He absorbs all the punishment they can throw at him and outlasts them!

Jesus – Israel’s representative and our representative – is no Mike Tyson, smashing his way to victory with a few powerful and well-chosen punches, and coming through virtually unscathed! On the contrary, Jesus is very much scathed! He is pummelled mercilessly, round after round, and eventually killed, and yet, when the bell sounds again, He is back on His feet!

He takes every blow, to the point where the enemy no longer has anything left to throw at Him, and yet He won’t stay down, and that’s how He shows Himself to be the king of the ring!

Maybe this isn’t the sort of king we were looking for? Perhaps we would prefer the kind with gold and battalions and political power and worldly might? Sorry! His kingdom is not of this world and His rule is not imposed through violence! And yet I am confident that in the end all the world will ultimately acknowledge Jesus as king, for there is simply no way of stopping someone who keeps coming back to you and forgiving you every time you hurt them!

In closing, let me say that I am confident that the Newtown Jets will one day prove themselves to be the greatest Rugby League team in the history of football! Well … I’m optimistic anyway. I am, in truth, far more confident that sacrificial love will prove to be more powerful than any act of violence the powers of this world can come up with, and so I proclaim today with confidence that Jesus, who became king on the cross, is still king of the world today, and He will reign for ever and ever. Hallelujah!

preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, November 20th 2016

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Talking about Mordechai Vanunu on the set of Hamghesse

In August 2016 I had the privilege to travelling to Iran to be featured in an episode of ‘Hamghesse’ (which means ‘stories’ in Farsi).

You can read my reflections on the trip as a whole in my blog (here). What appears here is a snippet from the larger interview, focusing on my friendship with nuclear whistle-blower, Mordechai Vanunu

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Some questions about Zacchaeus! (a sermon on Luke 19:1-10)

 

I read what I felt was an excellent article by John Pilger yesterday, entitled “Inside the Invisible Government: War, Propaganda, Clinton & Trump” where he gave a very good analysis of the way media propaganda works:

“Imagine two cities. Both are under siege by the forces of the government of that country. Both cities are occupied by fanatics, who commit terrible atrocities, such as beheading people. But there is a vital difference. In one siege, the government soldiers are described as liberators by Western reporters embedded with them, who enthusiastically report their battles and air strikes … [and] There is scant mention of civilian casualties. In the second city – in another country nearby – almost exactly the same is happening. Government forces are laying siege to a city controlled by the same breed of fanatics. The difference is that these fanatics are supported, supplied and armed by “us” … [and hence] the government soldiers laying siege to this city are the bad guys, condemned for assaulting and bombing the city – which is exactly what the good soldiers do in the first city.”

Pilger is talking, of course, of the cities of Mosul and Aleppo, repectively. “Confusing?”, he asks. It shouldn’t be This is the way propaganda always works, but I appreciate that it must sound confusing to anyone who has never been taught to question what they are told.

Today is Reformation Sunday (tomorrow being Reformation Day). Why October 31st? It has nothing to do with it also being Halloween. It’s because it was on October 3st, 1517 (499 year ago, tomorrow) that Martin Luther published his “Ninety-Five Theses against the contemporary practice of the church” – later nailed to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg.

We don’t normally celebrate Reformation Sunday with any particular vigor here at Holy Trinity Church in Dulwich Hill, and I’m not intending to give a lecture on the insights of Martin Luther and his fellow reformers here today because I think that really misses the point.

Luther’s tirade against the corrupt theology and practice of the church in the early 16th century was, I believe, both courageous and highly relevant in the early 16th century, but the corrupt practice of ecclesiastical indulgences, for instance, is not really an issue for us in 21st century Australia, and much of what Luther railed against back then is no more than an object lesson in history for us now. What is relevant today, I believe, and what is the great legacy left to us by the Reformers, is the example of men and women who questioned everything they were told!

Luther asked questions! He questioned whether the beliefs and practices of his church were in alignment with the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. He (and those who followed him) questioned everything that was passed down to them by the institutions of power! This is the great legacy of the Reformation, and this is the spirit that I think we should take with us into our reflections on the Scriptures – such as today’s Gospel reading on the story of Zacchaeus.

If you, like me, have been brought up in the church then you know this story from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 19. You know who Zacchaeus is, and you probably think you know everything there is to know about this man! At the very least, you know that he was a short man.

That was, in fact, the only thing I remember about Zacchaeus from my youth. That’s because we used to sing a song about him in Sunday School:

Zacchaeus was a very little man. Zacchaeus was a very little man. Zacchaeus was a very little man. …

The problem was that I grew up not remembering any more of the song, and so couldn’t actually remember Zacchaeus doing anything that was worth remembering, but I remembered that he was little!

I suspect that most others who also had a Sunday School background would remember that this very little man also had a penchant for climbing trees – a partiality probably not unrelated to his condition of being vertically challenged.

I suspect that most of us who remember Zacchaeus from our youth also remember him with some fondness, as he was one of the good guys! Unlike the Scribes and the Pharisees and the Romans the government forces besieging Aleppo, Zacchaeus is one of the good guys in the New Testament. He was enthusiastic to meet Jesus, he offered hospitality to Jesus and His disciples, and he shared all his wealth with the poor!

Let’s stop there, as just about everything I just said then is open to question.

Firstly, we aren’t told exactly why Zacchaeus was so keen to get a glimpse of Jesus. It could have been simple curiosity or rampant superstition. It could’ve had something to do with a bet between him and his fellow tax-collectors.

Secondly, Zacchaeus doesn’t offer hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. Jesus invites Himself (though, admittedly, Zacchaeus doesn’t turn him away).

Finally, however generous and caring Zacchaeus seems to be by the end of the account in Luke’s Gospel, we have to keep in mind that we are dealing with a tax-collector, and tax-collectors in first century Palestinian society were never the good guys.

We talked a little bit about tax-collectors last week when Jesus told the story about the Pharisee and the tax-collector who turn up at the synagogue at the same time to pray. Let’s talk a bit more about them now.

Tax-collectors in first century Palestinian society would have been amongst the most moneyed and the least popular members of Jewish society, and this wasn’t because first century Jews struggled with tall-poppy syndrome in the way we 21st century Australians do. It was because they were collaborators. Tax-collectors were Jews who were profiting from the Roman occupation. They’d become a part of the system of oppression and were making money out of the misery of their people!

Every foreign occupation spawns profiteers like this. The Vichy-French were the French nationals who, during World War II, made the most of the situation and collaborated with the Nazi’s during their occupation of France. When the Allies kicked the Nazis out of France, the Vichy-French reaped their fate!

In Gaza and the West Bank today, Palestinian collaborators and informants, working with the Israeli occupying forces, are also discovered from time to time and, when discovered, they too meet their fates! And if the first century Jews had been successful in kicking their Roman occupiers out of Judea in the first century, tax-collectors like Zacchaeus would have been amongst the first who would have been lined up against the wall to meet their fates!

And we shouldn’t feel sorry for people like this, as if, like sex-workers, they fell into their disreputable profession because they didn’t have any other options. People had to pay the Romans a lot of money for the privilege of collecting taxes! When the Romans took over a country, they auctioned off the collection rights on a district by district basis. Wealthy men would thus buy the rights to a district and would then themselves auction out the rights to specific gates.

Levi, son of Alphaeus, who we read of in Mark chapter 2, was a man who had purchased rights to one of these gates – to the lakeside gate at Galilee in his case. Zacchaeus, we are told, was chief tax-collector for the entire district of Jericho! This position would have cost Zacchaeus a lot of money, but with the Roman tax rate set at 2.5%, and the tax-collector able to set his own commission on top of that at whatever rate he pleased, there was a lot of money to be made through the Roman taxation system!

It was other people’s money of course, and in their estimation, you were stealing it, but what do you care about that they think of you? They can’t hurt you or slow you down because you are working for the Roman government, and because you therefore have the most powerful army in the world at your disposal if you need it. People will grumble but nobody will stand up to you!

Zacchaeus was a district level taxation agent for the Roman Government. That means he was not one of the good guys, or at least certainly not in the estimation of his peers, and this also explains why he had to climb a tree if he was going to see Jesus as He passed through town, and it wasn’t because he was short (or, at least, wasn’t only because he was short).

Some of you may remember year 2000 when we had the Sydney Olympics and when the Olympic torch was carried through Dulwich Hill. One of our parishioners carried the torch for a section of that run, and everybody turned out to watch our boy carry the torch down Canterbury road. Some of those who lined the streets were shorter than others, yet everybody got to see the torch go by and nobody had to climb a tree! How? We put the little ones on our shoulders and we let the other shorter people stand in front.

Zacchaeus didn’t climb a tree because he was short. He climbed a tree because he knew that, unlike children and other shorter people, nobody was going to offer to put him on their shoulders or even allow him to the front of the crowd because they all hated him (and not without reason).

In the spirit of questioning everything, we should question too whether Zacchaeus was actually short. I know it does say in the Gospel that “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature” (Luke 19:3), but the wording is ambiguous.

While the obvious meaning is that Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus because he (Zacchaeus) was shorter than those in front of him, the text could be taken as meaning that Jesus was short in stature and hence Zacchaeus, though himself being of normal height, couldn’t see Jesus because he was stuck at the back of the crowd while Jesus was submerged somewhere in the middle!

This is a disturbing possibility for those of us who think of Jesus as an archetype of robust masculinity. Textually it is possible.

The more important questions though must regard what we can learn from Zacchaeus, and for this I suppose we do best to focus on the final scene:

“Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:8-10)

This is a jarring conclusion. Just when we thought we’d overcome our misplaced fondness towards the man had him all worked out as somebody short and nasty … now we don’t know what to think of him!

He seems to have turned over a new leaf. He’s not saying that he’s going to stop working for the Romans but he is saying that he’s going to share his wealth, and he is saying that he’s going to do his horrible job with a degree of integrity and honesty (whatever that means in that context).

Jesus has a very clear idea of what it means – namely, that this man has found salvation and has rejoined the spiritual community of his people. “He too is a son of Abraham”.

Evangelical scholars tend to rush in at this point to make clear that while Jesus declares Zacchaeus to be saved after he makes his commitment to share his wealth with the poor, this does not mean that Zacchaeus received his salvation because he shared his money. I question that too.

I’m not suggesting that sharing 50% of your wealth is the price of a ticket to Heaven, but I wonder whether the miracle of Zacchaeus’ salvation can really be that easily separated from questions surrounding his money and wealth!

For whatever else this passage is, from a Biblical point of view, it is a story about money – the fact that Zacchaeus had lots of it and the fact that he was willing to share it – and the money focus of this passage becomes particularly obvious when we realise that the figure of Zacchaeus is being deliberately held up alongside the figure of the ‘rich young ruler’ who appears in the previous chapter (Luke 18:18-30).

I won’t go through that story in detail again here, but you will remember, I suspect, the story of that rich young man who comes to Jesus wanting to be a disciple, and Jesus says to him, “one thing you lack. Go, sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, …  and come, follow me” (18:22). That’s in the previous chapter, and it ends with the rich young ruler failing exactly where Zacchaeus succeeds!

We don’t really know if these two encounters took place closely together in time, but I assume Luke put the stories side-by-side because he wants us to see these two as archetypal figures, depicting the challenge of discipleship.  Both men are rich in monetary terms when they come to Jesus. Both are forced to make a choice between building the Kingdom of God or continuing to build their own empires. One makes the right choice, one the wrong choice.

Does that sound like a fair summation of the passage to you – that it’s all about money (again)? Don’t take my word for it. In the spirit of the reformers, question everything and think it through for yourself! But make sure at some point that you question yourself too, for Jesus’ constant harping on about money is something that we tend to find both discomforting and distasteful, and it’s all too easy for us to spiritualize passages like this so that we can domesticate them.

Personally, what I see at the heart of this story and at the heart of the money issue is the challenge of the first commandment – “you shall have no other Gods but me!” (Exodus 20:3) Jesus told us that we couldn’t serve both masters – God and mammon (Matthew 6:24) – even though vast amounts of advertising and propaganda tell us that we can!

I hear the same challenge of that first commandment when I look at the violence in Mosul and Aleppo. I know that some poor souls there are fighting only for their lives and for the lives of their families but the big players that drive the violence are motivated by these same lusts for money and power.

I know it’s confusing. It’s hard to know what to think and what to believe, and it’s hard to know when what we’re giving is giving enough! Today’s Gospel gives us no simple formula to resolve this dilemma. What we are given is the example of one man who makes a clear choice as to which God he will serve:

“Half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

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If there’s no hell, what’s the point in being good? (a sermon on Luke 17:1-10)

 

Here we are on the most depressing Sunday of the year. It’s a long weekend, which is one reason why I anticipated a drop in attendance today. Any number of our flock have taken off for the weekend with their families and are probably sunning themselves on a beach at this very moment in some far-flung corner of our state!

The chief reason why I anticipated the low numbers today, of course, is because it’s Daylight Savings Sunday – that dreaded day when the clocks go forward and we all lose an hour’s sleep!

I wouldn’t dare suggest that this Daylight Savings caper was deliberately designed to decimate church attendance. Even so, if there has to be this dreaded adjustment of the clocks, why couldn’t it happen mid-week, or on a Friday night where it might have the blessed effect of seeing the night-clubs do an hour’s less trade? No … let the church-goers pay the price for our seasonal chronological shift!

And we have a Parish Council meeting today, which means that your only chance of catching up on that missed hour’s sleep is to doze off during the sermon, which is why I’ve instructed the Church Wardens to patrol the congregation today, each with a stick in hand, ready to prod or whack anybody that they see drifting off!

OK … I haven’t done that, but you might have thought that I’d chose today to preach on some bouncy and energetic text that might pump us up and make us glad that we made the effort to be here. No. I’ve decided to stick with the mood of the day and preach on Jesus’ least popular parable – the parable of the unworthy servants.

“Suppose one of you has a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (Luke 17:7-10)

As I say, this must surely be the least popular of Jesus’ parables, and that’s not because it’s shocking or obscure or impossible to reconcile with the rest of Jesus’ teachings, but simply because it’s distasteful!

We feel comfortable enough with stories that begin “suppose one of you has one hundred sheep” but not with “suppose one of you has one hundred slaves”, and the thing just degenerates from there, such that by the end of the story it’s clear that we are the slaves and that the work we are engaged in is entirely thankless!

This may be the first sermon you’ve heard on this text, and I wouldn’t have chosen to speak on it myself today except that our other scheduled lectionary texts (such as the Lamentations of Jeremiah) seemed even more depressing! I can understand why preachers choose to skip this parable in Luke’s Gospel. What I find harder to understand is why Luke chose to include it in his Gospel in the first place, for this parable is one of the ‘cutting-room-floor texts’ of the New Testament.

I think all of us are familiar with the way they make movies and TV documentaries. The filmmaker shoots LOTS of footage but only uses a small percentage of it. In the days when filming was done on actual physical celluloid, the editing process would involve physically cutting out frames of the movie that weren’t needed. Those extraneous scenes that didn’t make the cut would end up on the cutting-room floor.

I’m not suggesting that the Gospels were put together in exactly the same way, and yet there was an editing process. As the authors of John’s Gospel tell us, if everything Jesus had said or done was included “I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)

In other words, things were left out of the Gospel accounts, and if you compare our four Gospel accounts, side by side, you can see how some stories or teachings were considered so central that they were included by all the Gospel writers, whereas others made the final cut in some Gospel compilations but not in others.

And while it’s impossible to reconstruct the editorial process with any precision, you can see indications of how it worked within the Gospels themselves.  Some stories and teachings connect together seamlessly with the central narrative of Jesus story, whereas with some of the other stories, nobody was sure exactly where they fitted, and so most of those disconnected clips would end up on the cutting-room floor (so to speak).

But just as we’re used to seeing a polished movie production followed by a ‘Director’s Cut’ version that appears on DVD, where a lot of the cutting-room floor scenes find their way back into the movie, so with the director’s cut of the Gospels.  Of course, I don’t know if there was an early (shorter) version of Luke’s Gospel that was circulated, but the version we have seems to have a collection of disconnected teachings bundled together at the beginning of chapter 17!

The chapter begins abruptly with “Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.’” (Luke 17:1-3a)

This teaching bears no obvious relation to what immediately preceded it (namely, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) and it seems unrelated to what follows! If you think you’ve heard this teaching before, you’re right. It turns up in both Matthew and Mark’s Gospels as well, and is elaborated upon in Matthew, where the ‘little ones’ (normally spiritually weak members of the community) are a recurring focus.

“But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world for the causes of sin. These stumbling blocks must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to fall into sin, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.” (Matthew 18:6-8)

Evidently this was a well-known teaching of Jesus, and protecting the weak was indeed one of Jesus’ central themes, and so we can understand why three out of four Gospel writers chose to include this, and it would appear that Matthew had the best idea of how this exhortation was connected to Jesus’ broader teaching.

Luke’s Gospel says no more about ‘little ones’ or millstones but rather continues with a second cutting-room floor teaching about forgiveness.

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (Luke 17:3b-4)

Again, this seems to have been a well-known teaching of Jesus. The best-known variation on this teaching is once again the one preserved by Matthew:

“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!” (Matthew 18:21-22)

In Matthew’s Gospel this teaching is then followed by a parable about a forgiving king that reinforces same point. Luke’s clip is relatively short and to the point, but we can understand why the Gospel writer felt that this teaching simply had to be included in the final cut of his account of the life and teachings of Jesus. Even if Luke didn’t know the context in which Jesus gave this teaching, and even if he didn’t know the parable about the king, how could he not include something as central to the teachings of Jesus as this exhortation to forgive and to forgive again!

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” (Luke 17:5-6)

This is the third clip of the four. It seems to be unrelated to the previous two and to that which follows but, again, we can understand why Luke felt that he simply had to include this teaching in his Gospel.

All of us wish we had greater faith at times. In Mathews better-known variation on this teaching (Matthew 17:20), it’s a faith that moves mountains, rather than mulberry trees, and the teaching is given in the context of the failure of the disciples to be able to perform an exorcism. The disciples ask for more faith!

We all wish we had more faith, and so we again can understand why Luke felt that his account of the life and teaching of Jesus would not be complete without this snippet.

And then we come to clip number four – the parable of the unworthy servants.

“Suppose one of you has a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (Luke 17:7-10)

No other Gospel writer bothered to record this, and I can appreciate why Matthew might have decided that he didn’t really have room for this one alongside the ‘parable of the talents’ (Matthew 25:14-30) where those servants that served their master well are rewarded lavishly.

As I say, there’s something deeply distasteful about this parable, and it’s not only because He who said “I no longer call you servants … I have called you friends” (John 15:15) is now calling us servants again, but it’s the fact that there are zero rewards envisaged for faithful servants. Indeed, it’s all stated quite explicitly, that we shouldn’t even expect a word of thanks, and that seems simply irreligious!

I appreciate that it’s not as explicit in the Christian Scriptures as it is in the Qur’an, which concludes ever chapter with vivid descriptions of the rewards of the faithful and the torments of the wicked, but the idea that evil will be punished and good rewarded is something that is at the heart of every religion, isn’t it?

In truth, if there’s one religious argument that I find I still get into, regularly, it is this one. When I say to people that I believe there are no limits to the love of God, and that I believe there is sufficient power in the cross of Christ for forgiveness to extend to everybody, the common response I get is ‘then what’s the point of being religious if it’s not to avoid punishment and reap a heavenly reward?’

My response to that question is generally that I’m not convinced that the reason we’re supposed to love God and others is because we’ll be punished if we don’t, and that seems to be consistent with the parable that doesn’t talk about rewards or punishments but invokes instead that uncomfortable little D-word – ‘duty’!

Duty, to say the very least, is not a popular concept in 21st century Australian culture. We tend to associate it with other dirty D-words such as discipline and determination and drudgery. Our culture values spontaneity and sensitivity leading to self-fulfilment, and we’d consider someone who said ‘I thought it was my duty to marry my girlfriend after I got her pregnant’ as rather quaint!

It was not always this way. If you’ll forgive my penchant for American Civil War history, it was Confederate General Robert E. Lee who said that duty was “the most sublime word in the English language”!

From the same period, I remember the diary entry of one of the officers who made the charge at Gettysburg. He recorded that when he surveyed the field that he was about to charge and realised that there was a good chance he would not survive, he found himself saying out loud “are you going to do your duty today, June Kimball?”

These were men who chose to do things that they did not feel like doing, and presumably not for the sake of any great reward or punishment that awaited them. They did what they did because they thought it was the right thing to do!

I’m going back more than one hundred and fifty years here, of course, and to a continent on the other side of the globe, but I suspect that the names of those Australians that are featured on the ‘honour boards’ at the back of our church building were likewise persons who, for the most part, did what they did, not because they felt like going to war but because they believed it was their duty.

Again, that was a generation and more ago, and times have changed, and yet I personally feel a real connection to these people, and perhaps especially today!

For here we are on Daylight Savings Sunday. We are short on sleep and we would probably rather be holidaying somewhere on the Gold Coast, but we are here! And I appreciate that being here in church today doesn’t require the same level of commitment as it does to make the charge at Gettysburg or to fight at Gallipoli, and yet these commitments are not entirely disconnected either, for in each case they reflect a willingness to be part of something that is bigger than us!

Some people believe that real love always feels good. Others of us believe that real love generally begins when you’re required to do things that you don’t feel like doing:

  • When you need to change your baby’s nappy even though you’d much prefer to pass the child to somebody else and have them do it.
  • When you stay home to look after your aging mother, even though this means not going out with your friends for the evening.
  • When you do put your life at risk, fighting for some cause on behalf of people who are never likely to thank you or even know what you did.

“We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty” (Luke 17:10).

In the end, the servants obey the master, not because they are expecting to be rewarded or punished. They do what they are asked to do because they love the master and because they believe in the work that the master has them doing, and if you can’t understand that then you’ve probably never been in love!

As lovers we do crazy things, and we do them for no other reason than that we know it’s what our beloved wants us to do. Of course this isn’t to say that love isn’t rewarding, and my point as a whole is not that we don’t get rewarded (in one way or another) for doing the right thing (and indeed, I am sure that there is a special reward awaiting all good Christian souls who make it to church on time on Daylight Savings Sunday). Rather, my point is that being rewarded is not the point.

John Calvin says in his commentary on these verses “there is no man that would not willingly call God to account, hence the notion of merits has prevailed in every age.”

In truth, life is not about merits, it’s not about rewards, and it’s not about punishment. This is the rather irreligious and uncomfortable truth embedded in the parable – a parable that Luke, the Gospel writer, considered to be so significant that he felt that his presentation of the life and teachings of Jesus would not be complete without it!

For following Jesus is not about merits, it’s not about rewards, it’s not about punishment. It’s about duty, it’s about service, and, in the end, it’s all about love.

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Power, wealth and self-deception (a sermon on Luke 16:19-31)


I’ve read two books recently by Nabeel Qureshi, who is an Islamic-Christian convert – that is, he was a Muslim who has converted to Christianity – and I’ve gained some real insight from his work. One area though where I find that I don’t agree with him is with regards to his fear for the future of Islam.

In the last book of his that I read – “Answering Jihad” – Qureshi distances himself from the popular belief that Islam is in need of a reformation on the basis that a reformation, by definition, involves going back to your roots, and the roots of Islam (namely, the Qur’an and the Hadith), he believes, are consistently violent.

Qureshi is concerned that, due to the Internet, more and more Muslims now have their own direct access to these violent texts and hence he fears that, over time, sincere believers will be rationally compelled to either renounce their faith or incorporate greater violence into their religious practice.

As I say, I disagree with Qureshi, not because I pretend to have a greater knowledge than he does when it comes to the sacred texts of Islam, but rather because I question the extent to which rationality is ever likely to be the key factor determining someone’s religious belief!

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.”  (Luke 16:19-21)

This is one of Jesus’ parables, I assume. I say ‘I assume’ because Luke’s Gospel gives this story no introductions such as ‘Jesus told them another parable’, let alone that ‘He told this parable to … (a particular group of people)’ or anything like that. We don’t know when this parable was given or who the audience was.

This has never been one of Jesus’ most popular parables, though it is a very straightforward one, opening with a confronting scene where we meet two figures – a poor man named Lazarus and a nameless businessman who might have been his benefactor except that always he had more important things to attend to

These two figures are representatives of the extreme ends of the polarized society that Jesus lived in, where a privileged minority enjoyed a life of luxury while countless others struggled to survive. We would be foolish to compare 21st century Sydney with the subsistence society that Jesus was familiar with. Even so, the enormous gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is still with us.

I am probably not the only person in our congregation to have read Thomas Picketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty First Century’ but I may be the only one to have read it, cover to cover, twice (and I still struggled to grasp it)! Picketty’s basic thesis though is straightforward enough – that we live in a world where, broadly speaking, the wealthiest 10% of the world’s citizens own about 85% of the world’s wealth, and the top 1% own close to 50%, and, according to Picketty, this gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing!

I struggle to make complete sense of all the figures, but what I do know is that there are an increasing number of food-insecure people in our streets in Dulwich Hill! How do I know that? Because we’ve been doing a food distribution here for more years than I can remember, and the number of persons who line up for food here has increased three-fold in the last twelve months!

A gulf between rich and poor has always been with us, and it is still with us, and the figure of Lazarus is someone who is on the wrong side of that gulf.

“The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abrahams side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’” (Luke 16: 22-24)

The abruptness of this second scene comes as a shock. We might have expected, if there was going to be some mention of the fate of these guys after their final judgement, that it might have taken into account something of the characters of these two persons?

Are we meant to assume, by virtue of the rewards and punishments meted out, that poor Lazarus was, despite his horrible appearance, really a very saintly man who would have been spending his days making strawberry jam for orphans had it not been for his unfortunate struggle with the bottle? And are we likewise to assume that the rich man was rich because he had spent his life treading on his colleagues and grinding his competitors into the dirt?

No, there is no mention of the moral character of either of these two players in the drama, and this second scene is introduced without explanation or apology. What we see take place here is though entirely consistent with the coming of the Kingdom of God as Jesus has been describing it in Luke’s Gospel.

You’ll remember Mary at the beginning of this Gospel, prophesying of a God who ‘brings down the mighty from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly’ (Luke 1:52). Jesus subsequently inaugurates His ministry by saying that He has come to bring “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18), and He goes on to say ‘Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.’ (Luke 6:24) “The first shall be last and the last shall be first!” (Luke 13:30), and this story is consistent with this great reversal.

And so the rich man pleads with Abraham, to warn his family as to where things are heading. He says, ‘Father, I beg you to send [Lazurus] to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replies “‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He says, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ [Abraham says] ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:28-31)

Here endeth the reading! The story finishes as abruptly as it starts and we’re not told how Jesus’ audience reacted to it.

I would love to know how this story affected the group that first heard it. If Jesus was directing this parable at a group of rich people, the message would be clear– ‘You’re all going to hell unless you start sharing what you have with the poor!’

Is that the message? It’s a straightforward and rational way of understanding the text. Interestingly, not many Christians interpret this parable as being about caring for the poor at all!

There have been some. The blessed St Anthony of the Desert, for instance (251–356). I think it was this text or the one where Jesus said “Go and sell your possessions and give your money to the poor” (Luke 18:22). Anthony heard this read in church one day, went home, gathered up all his possessions, sold them, gave the money to the poor, and went and lived in the desert as a monk, (much to the shock of his sisters who were suddenly put into the care of a monastery)!

St Anthony wasn’t the only one to take texts of Scripture like this literally. St Francis was another, and St Benedict. Oddly, they all had the same first name – ‘Saint’. What I think is ironic, though, is that amongst those I know who pride themselves on taking every word of the Bible literally, these sorts of passages never seem to lead to these sorts of dramatic changes in behavior!

People say to me “it says in the Scriptures that ‘I allow no woman to teach’ (1 Timothy 2:12). How to you get around the word of Scripture?” My comeback is generally “it says in the Scripture that you go to hell if you don’t share all you have with the poor! How do you get around that?”

Most commentators who reflect on this story focus on the final verse – “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). That makes sense, as it is the punch-line of the story, and we predictably associate this statement about ‘someone’ rising from the dead with the resurrection of Jesus, even if the original audience would not have made that association as Jesus’ resurrection hadn’t happened.

It is one of the extraordinary things about our species, at any rate, that we have developed the extraordinary ability to avoid the truth by lying to ourselves! The very concept of lying to yourself is problematic, for in order to tell a lie you need to know the truth, but if you’re lying to yourself and believing the lie, this means that you both know the truth and don’t know the truth at the same time!

Freud came to our aide in this regard by giving us the model of the different layers of the mind – conscious, pre-conscious and unconscious – and by suggesting that one layer could lie to another. The unconscious mind believes one thing but it lies to the conscious mind so that we hold one view on the surface and another one deeper down.

Of course it’s worth noting that Soren Kierkegaard wrote extensively about the practice of self-deception a generation before Freud was even born!

“All obscurity is a dialectical interplay of knowledge and will”, says Kierkegaard (in “The Sickness Unto Death”). In other words, when we don’t know something, it’s partly because we don’t know it and partly because we don’t want to know it.

The struggle for truth is a ‘dialectical interplay’ – it’s a ‘back and forth’, it’s an internal wrestle between knowledge and will. However we conceptualise self-deception, it’s something we are all practised at in daily life!

I notice pieces of jewellery and clothing turning up in the bedroom of my teenage daughter that she couldn’t possibly afford with her pocket-money. Of course this couldn’t possibly mean that she’s stolen these things because she’s daddy’s little girl and she would never do anything like that, and she’s of an age now where I really shouldn’t be going into her room now without her permission anyway!

Then I hear that one of her friends has been arrested for shoplifting, but that only shows that she makes friends with everybody, even those who are wayward and struggling. Indeed, she probably made a special effort to befriend that girl because she was wayward and struggling.

And then I hear that she’s been arrested, but of course I know that it has to be a case of mistaken identity, etc. … All obscurity is a dialectical interplay of knowledge and will, and if we really don’t want to believe something, we’ll find ways to avoid facing the truth, no matter how obvious the truth may seem to be.

I said at the beginning that this has never been one of Jesus’ most popular parables, and there’s no prizes for guessing why. This is not a story oozing with good news.

This parable can impact you in different ways. You may take it as a sobering reminder of the way we deceive ourselves into believing what we want to believe, or you may take it as a very specific sobering reminder, that you’ve been fooling yourself if you think you’ve really been sharing with the poor! Either way, this is not a piece of Scripture that’s going to leave us with a spring in our step and a song in our heart! It’s just not that kind of parable!

So where’s the good news? There is good news, of course, and the good news is that what’s presented in the parable is not the whole story!

What we get in the parable is a painful story of neglect and suffering and rough justice, and of the battle between knowledge and will. And yet the truth is that the Lord God does not simply leave us to our own devices when it comes to the quest for truth. He gives us His spirit.

Personally, I think that if the world depended on us being honest with ourselves, the future would be bleak. We simply don’t have the courage to face the truth a lot of the time, but God gives us His spirit, and that Spirit, Jesus promises, will lead us into all truth (John 16:13).

That’s why I have hope, and that’s why I disagree with Nabeel Qureshi about the inevitable growth of violence in Islam. I think he only looks at it at a human level and fails to take the Spirit of God into account!

For God is moving in our world, helping us to interpret Scripture in a way that brings light and life to the world, giving us the strength to be able to let go of our worldly wealth so that we can truly share with those who are poor, and giving us the courage to move beyond rationality and to face the truth!

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Jesus told them another joke (a sermon on Luke 18:9-14)


Luke chapter 18: “Jesus told them another joke”, we are told, “and He told this one to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and looked down on others.”  Did you hear the one about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who wandered into the Temple at the same time to pray?

This is a classic opening for a good joke, of course – depicting a scene where two natural antagonists find themselves in uncomfortably close proximity.

ŸDid you hear the one about the frog and the scorpion who were trying to cross a river at the same time?

ŸDid you hear the one about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton finding themselves stuck in the same elevator together?

ŸDid you hear the one about Dr Keith Mascord walking into the Cathedral at the same time as … (actually, … no … let’s not go there, as there are no real antagonists in that saga).

What we have here in Luke chapter 18, at any rate, is a classic comedic situation where two natural antagonists find themselves, accidentally, in uncomfortably close proximity.

Did you hear the one about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton finding themselves stuck in an elevator together? The elevator not only jammed but then the cable broke and the elevator crashed after plummeting 13 floors!

Q: Who survived?
A: America (and the rest of humanity)

You’ll have to forgive me if that joke seems a little cruel for the pulpit but, in truth, Jesus’ jokes often had quite hard-hitting punchlines too, and this parable is no exception.

A Pharisee and a tax collector turn up at the temple at the same time to pray.  There is no sarcastic exchange at the door, but the Pharisee can’t resist making a back-handed reference to the tax-collector in his prayer. He prays out loud: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get. I am one of the good guys!’

OK, I added that last bit, but it is what he meant and, in truth, what he said and what he meant were essentially correct. He was one of the good guys!

To understand a joke you do need to understand the characters, and what you need to understand about the Pharisee (and about the Pharisees as a group) is that they were an exceptional group of human beings!  Sure, they could be a bit stuffy and moralistic, but these guys were the honest upright citizens that the rest of the community depended on for moral leadership!

We get a skewed image of the Pharisees, I think, when we read about them only in the New Testament, as Jesus always seems to be arguing with them, but the other side of that coin is that they were the only religious persons who were actually there on the scene to be argued with!

To grasp fully what I’m saying here we need to understand something of the way Jews had been dealing with the Roman occupation of Judea. For the people of Israel at the time of Jesus were a conquered people. They’d been a conquered people for generations – first conquered by the Babylonians some 600 years earlier, then by the Greeks and then by the Romans.

The Jews were a proud people with their own distinctive culture and faith, and yet they lived under Roman rule, and so the key religious question of the day was ‘how should the people of God respond to their occupation by pagans?’ And you can distinguish the different religious groups of that time by the way they responded to that question, and, at the risk of being simplistic, let me suggest to you that there were four basic responses, corresponding roughly to four different religious groups in the Jewish society of the time.

The most popular response to Roman rule, both politically and religiously, was to fight back in a ‘jihad’ against the Romans!  The group generally referred to as the ‘Zealots’ were the freedom fighters of the first century – resisting the Roman occupation, staging guerrilla attacks, and trying to resist and destroy all things Roman. These people were yearning for independence and the chance to run their own theocratic nation-state once again. They were patriots, expressing their spiritual fervour in a way that we are sadly all too familiar with – through the waging of a holy war against their heathen oppressors.

A second and far less popular response to the occupation was to compromise and we might associate this response with the Sadducees – that Jewish religious group more associated with the administration of the Temple.

The Sadducees were aristocrats, and they did pretty well under the Roman occupation, so they weren’t going to make too much of a fuss about Roman culture or Roman political interference, or Greek philosophy for that matter, which quickly became integrated into their own religious thinking.

The Sadducees pop up occasionally in the New Testament but for the most part they are not on the scene because they are not hanging around with the type of everyday people that Jesus hung around with.

The other major Jewish religious group, that is even less obvious in the New Testament, is the monks.  These were the group whose response to the Roman occupation was to run away!

Running away and hiding in the desert has always been a time-honoured religious response to dealing with the evils of the world, and it was a popular one back then too.  The Essenes and those we associate with the Qumran community (of ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ fame) were the best known of those who made this response to the Roman occupation.

Some suggest that John the Baptist emerged from one of these monastic communities? If so, he’s the only desert-dwelling monk we meet in the Gospels, and this for the most obvious of reasons – the rest were in hiding

Now, as I say, I’m painting the first century religious scene with very broad brush-strokes but if we can envisage these different responses to the Romans occupation – fighting back, compromising, and running away – none of them are really going to be of much help to the average family that is trying to get on with the business of life and bring up their children in a godly way, in accordance with the religion of their forefathers.

The Zealots were busy planning an attack, the Sadducees were locked away safely in their lovely homes, and the Essenes were nowhere to be found.  Who then was left to look after ordinary, struggling Jewish families? Who was going to pass on the traditions of the fathers and mothers of Israel to those who didn’t have the means or the wherewithal to run away and join a monastery?

Who was going to educate the children, provide religious teaching to ordinary farmers and labourers, and who was going to try to model a godly, restrained, and sober lifestyle in middle of an increasingly wild and hedonistic culture? Was anybody in first century Palestine willing to take up such a challenge? The answer that comes to us, loud and clear through the pages of the New Testament is that there was only one group of men who were willing to dedicate themselves to such a noble calling, and they were the Pharisees!’

The Pharisee was a man who stood for something. He believed in God and he believed in the unique calling of his people.  He hated the pagan rule of the Romans just as much as everyone else, and yet he didn’t run away but stayed in there alongside his people. He was in it for the long haul!

Pharisees stood for purity. They stood for faithfulness. They stood for strong churches and strong families, and they were people who were willing to do whatever was necessary to see that their community held together! And so they built their synagogues, they taught the Scriptures, and helped to maintain a distinctive spiritual identity amongst their people, so as to resist the inroads of Babylonian and Greek and Roman culture into their established way of life.

The Pharisees, consequently, were respected by everybody! If I might quote from the first century Jewish writer, Josephus:

“The Pharisees live thriftily, giving in to no luxury. For they follow what the Word in its authority determines and transmits as good. They believe that to keep what God wished to counsel is worth fighting for … those who live in the cities have witnessed to their virtue in devoting themselves to all the best in their words and way of life.” (Antiquities 18.12,15)

And again:

“The Sadducees persuade only the well-to-do and have no popular following. But the Pharisees have the masses as allies.” (Antiquities 13.298)

These were the people, humanly speaking, who ensured that the Jewish faith did not disappear when its temple had been destroyed generations earlier!  Because they didn’t run away or resort to mindless violence, and because they didn’t compromise and sell out their faith, these people were the pillars upon which the faith and culture of Israel rested, and so when the Pharisee stands up to pray, “I thank thee God that I am not like other men” he is only telling the truth and most obviously when he compares himself to the wretched tax-collector.

I’m not going to give an equally long spiel about the tax-collector but I will say simply that he was someone who traded off other people’s misery!

To be a tax-collector in the first Century you needed to be greedy, first and foremost, and unpatriotic too because it involved working as an agent for the foreign occupying power. Being power-hungry and manipulative, while not absolutely essential to the role, would have also been advantageous.

And so when the Pharisee stands up and prays, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11) he is simply telling the truth. He was not like other men, and he was certainly not like that man!

It is good that the Gospel writer begins by assuring us that Jesus “told this joke to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on others” or we might fear that it was being angled towards us!

Of course we don’t look down on tax-collectors or their twenty-first century equivalents. We don’t look down on anybody, do we?

We socially-progressive, liberally-minded, open and inclusive religious folk – we certainly don’t despise tax-collectors or drug-addicts or even pedophiles (providing they keep a good distance away from us, and so long as we don’t stray too far from Dulwich Hill we’re not likely to bump into too many of those really horrible sorts of people anyway …)

The point, at any rate, is that we don’t look down on anyone, with the possible exception of climate-change deniers … and those who oppose gay marriage, and those blinkered sectarian religious fundamentalists who deny the equality of women and gay people – ‘OH! I thank you God that I am not like one of them!’

Sorry … where was I? We haven’t finished the joke yet!

“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’” (Luke 18:11-13)

What other prayer, we might ask, did the tax-collector have?

Biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias suggests that the key to getting Jesus’ joke in this case is to recognise that by this stage of the story, most of those listening to Jesus have already guessed the punch line.

Jesus has told a story about two natural antagonists – a Pharisee and a tax-collector who both go to pray at the same time – and knowing Jesus’ soft heart, Jesus’ hearers had by now anticipated His punch line: ‘I tell you the truth, not only the Pharisee had his prayers heard that day, but the tax-collector also!’  Not only the Pharisee, but also the tax collector.’

These guys know what Jesus was like. They know he made room for tax-collectors and prostitutes and all sorts of unsavoury people, and so they’ve guessed the punch line – ‘not only the Pharisee, but also the tax collector.’

And yet there’s a sting in the tail of this joke, for the punch line is not the one that they expected. Jesus rather concludes His story by saying that ‘the tax collector went to his home justified and not the Pharisee!’  The tax collector and NOT the Pharisee!

The tax collector went home ‘justified’! It’s worth noting here that this is the only time in the Gospels that the Greek, dikiosuner (justified) is ever used.

We know this word from elsewhere in the New Testament.  It is the word that is used so frequently by St Paul – being justified by faith, justified before God, etc.

It’s a very significant word in the New Testament that speaks of God’s grace towards the undeserving sinner, but it is only used once in the gospels, and it is here – referring to this tax collector in the temple.  He went home justified – a complete man, whole before God, heard and loved and accepted and forgiven. The Pharisee, on the other hand, ironically, goes home still carrying the same problems that he started out with that day. His prayer has not registered with God! Like some email that gets caught in the Divine Spam filter, his prayer does not get through!

I heard of a preacher who ended his sermon on this parable with a prayer that began “I thank thee God that we are not like the Pharisee in this parable”. 

If only! There is a Pharisee in all of us, and the only hope for us Pharisees is to recognise that the prayer of the tax collector – ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner’ – is the only prayer we have too.

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Fighting Father Dave on Outlook (BBC World Service)

I had hoped that when a larger-than-life portrait of myself in my boxing gear appeared in the middle of the Sydney CBD (see my mural story) that it might lead to me getting a high-profile boxing match. Well … nothing so far. 🙁

On the other hand, the mural did generate plenty of media interest, including an interview done by The Guardian, where the journalist said “let’s make your story international!” Surely, I thought, this will get me the fight! It didn’t.

The Guardian article did though did lead to an unexpected phone call from the BBC! ‘We’d like to interview you for BBC radio’, they said!

I went into ABC studios in Sydney to do the interview, to a recording studio known as ‘The Tardis’ (with a life-size picture of a dalek at the entrance)! I really enjoyed doing the interview. I hope it reached lots of boxers and promoters across the UK. I haven’t had any offers yet though. 🙁

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The Guardian meets the Fighting Father

I confess that I was a little ambivalent when I was first approached by a journalist from The Guardian, asking whether he could write a story about me. I said “does it matter that I’m a friend of Julian’s?” I was referring to Julian Assange, who I knew was not on good terms with The Guardian, but the journo didn’t pick up the reference and I didn’t push the point.

In truth, Johnny Drennan (the journo) turned out to be a terrific bloke! We spent some excellent time chatting and I even took him for a round on the pads. He obviously enjoyed that and made various promises about getting fit and joining our boxing club. I haven’t seen him since.

The only other regret I have from that meeting is that the bulk of what I said didn’t make it into the article. That’s par for the course, of course, except that I’d really hoped that this article would help spread the truth about Syria!

As I remember it, I talked a lot more about Syria and the work of Boxers for Peace than I did about myself. Even so, the article is a tribute to me and does little for the greater cause. I shouldn’t be ungrateful, of course, and I’m not. And this article did lead to an interview on BBC radio where I was able to talk about Syria. I’m still hoping that it might help land me a fight in the USA or UK too.

The Guardian – Thursday, August 25th, 2016 guardian

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