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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The parable of the lost feral – A sermon on Luke 15:1-32


Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. 
2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)

And so Jesus told them a joke …

Jesus told them a series of jokes actually, didn’t he – three jokes in succession in fact. It was something of a stand-up routine!

I don’t know how you envisage the scene that’s given to us in Luke chapter 15. It’s not exactly Jerry Seinfeld, is it – ‘did you hear the one about the shepherd who had a hundred sheep?’ I assume that it doesn’t take place in a club. I envisage this scene taking place in a tavern or something like that.

I suspect that most of us think of Jesus’ dialogues as taking place in remote rural locations, and that’s possible here. Certainly the one about the sheep has a rural theme, and it’s possible that there are sheep grazing within view of where Jesus was speaking. Even so, the only clues the passage gives us as to the location are, firstly, that “all the tax-collectors and sinners (read sex-workers, drug-dealers, traitors and criminals) were coming near to listen to Him” (Luke 15:1), which suggests to me that Jesus is somewhere near where they were working, and secondly, that the upright religious folk were grumbling because Jesus “welcomed sinners and ate with them” (Luke 15:2), which suggests that they were somewhere where food was being served. I’m guessing some first-century equivalent of a tavern.

Of course it’s possible that they are at a private house. We know that Jesus was regularly entertained by both prominent local identities and by the families of His disciples. Even so, if it were a private house, one might wonder who let all the tax-collectors and sinners in! No. I think we’re dealing with an establishment where whoever is working the door is not particularly discriminatory with regards to who they let in, and so we have sinners and tax-collectors, along with scribes and Pharisees, all sharing the same uncomfortable space, though I envisage the two groups sitting at opposite ends of the bar!

Did you hear the one about the shepherd who had a hundred sheep? Jesus begins.  This shepherd lost one of his one hundred sheep and then left the ninety-nine in the wilderness while he went after the one that was lost until he found it! (Luke 15:3-4)

Of course nobody has heard about this shepherd because this shepherd doesn’t exist, or, at least, if there were shepherds like this they wouldn’t be shepherds for very long. You don’t leave the ninety-nine ‘in the wilderness’ (Luke 15:4) where they are likely to be consumed as mutton by the next passing wolf while you search for the one that is lost. If you have any basic shepherding sense, your response to a situation like this is simply to deduct one from your inventory of sheep!

Of course it’s a joke, and we’re not expected to take the shepherd too seriously. And indeed, the character of the shepherd looks even more absurd when you put the joke in context, where the lost sheep Jesus is referring to are the social misfits hanging about at the wrong end of the bar!

We have a children’s book at home that has an illustrated version of the lost sheep parable, and it includes lovely drawings of a character dressed like a Bedouin, roaming the sunny slopes of Judea, calling out “Woolly”, until he eventually finds the cute little guy stuck in a thicket.

Putting the parable in context, let’s start by imagining an animal that is entirely feral! Perhaps it has a bad case of the mange? Perhaps that’s why it wandered off from the flock, as animals often instinctively wander off to die alone of their injuries and/or diseases. And let’s envisage the animal biting the shepherd when he tries to rescue it. That’s much closer to my experience when it comes to dealing with lost sheep!

I can’t tell you how many lost sheep I’ve dealt with here in Dulwich Hill in the last twenty-five years, but nearly all of them have turned on me and bitten me at some point. In truth, I find myself getting a bit hard and cynical as I get used to this pattern.

I think of one young man that we worked with for years. It wasn’t just us. There were a team of us working with this lad. We gave him accommodation for an extended period of time. He stayed with my family for a short time. We counselled him, worked with him, went to court with him and stood by him. Eventually he got ‘radicalised’ during one of his stints in prison and last year he was arrested for planning a jihad attack on a civilian population centre. His plan apparently included blowing up the house of one of the families who had been trying to help him!

I appreciate that lost sheep can look very warm and cuddly at a distance, but my experience is that they tend to be quite feral and mangy when you get up close!

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?(Luke 15:8)

I confess that I feel far more drawn to the woman in this second joke than to the sheep in the first, primarily because she reminds me of my dear friend, Ruth Paddle.

We lost Ruth many years ago, but I can see her turning her house upside-down, searching for some useless trinket that she’d misplaced somewhere. The problem with dear Ruth was that she was a hoarder. She hoarded so much stuff that she couldn’t sleep on her bed because it had too many boxes of stuff stacked on it, and she couldn’t cook in her kitchen as even her sink was stacked full of things for which there was no space anywhere else!

Ruth used to sleep on a corner of her couch and she’d eat what was delivered to her by ‘Meals on Wheels’. She never overcame her hoarding problem. Even so, she was a godly Christian soul and I loved her dearly.

The point, at any rate, is that this woman Jesus depicts is struggling with an obsessive compulsive disorder or something similar. No fully functional person behaves like this – sweeping house from top to bottom, searching for one stray coin!

Jesus adds that the woman holds a party when she finds her lost coin. I could see Ruth doing the same, though the party would have to be in the church hall as there wouldn’t be room in the house.

Now again, let’s keep in mind the context in which Jesus tells these jokes. Whether it be lost coins or lost sheep, the point of reference are the social misfits who are sharing a meal with Jesus. These are people that civilised societies can do without!

If I might extend the image of the obsessive woman, we might say that these people are the social refuse that we like to sweep under the rug. We generally manage that in our society by putting people in prison. Incarcerating someone is a very effective way of sweeping them out of sight, and out of sight is out of mind!

I don’t want to launch into a crusade against the prison system today, and I do appreciate that there is a lot of good work going on within Correctional Services. Even so, there are deep problems in our system, and the privatisation of our prison system is something I think we should all be concerned about.

From the latest statistics I could find, Australia has the largest percentage of its prisoner population in privately-run prisons of any country in the world! This should concern us.

Whatever else these prisons achieve, the private-prison system is a very efficient way of moving public money into private hands and, of course, the more people incarcerated, the more money made! I can think of any number of kids I’ve worked with over the years who aren’t contributing much to society and, of course, they are worth nothing to the big corporations. Even so, once you put them in prison, they can be generating $30,000 to $40,000 each for these companies that are running the prisons, and will continue to do so for as long as they are kept locked up!

It’s a win-win really. The GEO group and Serco Corp make a killing, and a stack of worthless coins get swept under the carpet and out of sight!

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.” (Luke 15:11-12)

Now this is where Jesus’ routine gets less funny. As I say, I envisage these jokes being told in some sort of tavern where food is being eaten and where you can hear a hum of activity in the background, with plates being stacked and glasses clinking, along with gentle chuckling as Jesus depicts His zany characters. Even so, at this point the jokes start to get a bit close to the bone, as no doubt many of Jesus’ listeners had had their own family dramas.

All of us who are parents experience dramas of one sort or another with our children, and I’m sure that some of those listening to Jesus –scribes and Pharisees and tax-collectors and sinners alike – had had their struggles with their sons and daughters.

We know how the story goes. The son takes his inheritance, runs off and wastes it all, thus bringing disgrace upon his father and his household, and yet the father never gives up on the son. He waits for him to return, and when he does return …

I don’t doubt that there were people listening to Jesus who were ribbing each other, saying ‘sound familiar, Abe?’, for it is a familiar story. Even if the details of the story don’t exactly fit our stories, the depiction of parental love is something with which we are all familiar, and while, at one level, the behaviour of the lovesick father is as irrational as that of the crazy shepherd and the mentally-ill woman, it’s an insanity that we understand, as we’re all a bit crazy when it comes to our own children!

And that brings us to the heart of the problem. In the end, the problem we have with Jesus, I’d suggest, is not so much why He ‘welcomed sinners and ate with them’. Our problem is with how He managed to think of these people as His sons and daughters! It all sounds very light-hearted and whimsical when it’s just a part of a joke, but if you’ve had your own prodigal son or daughter then you know that it is no laughing matter! And if it’s not your son or your daughter, why should you bother?

As I say, I’m getting a bit hard and cynical in my old age, I think, and I’ve found myself getting into arguments lately with my dear colleague, Terry, who manages our bush camp at Binacrombi. I’ve been very critical of Terry lately for the way, from my perspective, he’s let some people we work with walk all over him! People take his time and energy and money, and then they abuse and threaten him, and I’ve been lecturing this brother (who is old enough to be my father), telling him ‘you’re not doing them any favours by letting them walk all over you!

I’ve personally established quite explicit limits with the people I work with. If someone threatens me physically, or most especially if they threaten my family, I cut them off!  If they cross that line I refuse to have anything more to do with them, and I’ve been trying to encourage Terry to take a similar stance. The only problem I have with this is that the more I argue this line, the more I sound like the older brother in Jesus’ final joke, whereas Terry sounds more and more like the loving father!

I mentioned earlier that other young man we worked with who planned to blow up the home of one of the families that was trying to support him. That family hasn’t given up on him but still wants to work with him! Are they insane? Well … was the shepherd, was the woman, was the father?

“Then the father said to [the older brother], ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” (Luke 15:31-32)

Sermon first preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on September 11th, 2016


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Hate your Father! (a sermon on Luke 14:25-33)


Now large crowds were travelling with Jesus. He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, as well as his own life, he can’t be my disciple.”
(Luke 14:25-26)

… and a happy Fathers’ Day to all!

I’d really wanted to give a warm and fuzzy Father’s Day sermon today, but it wasn’t obvious how I could weave the warm and fuzzy bits into today’s Gospel!

I don’t think the fact that we get this reading scheduled for Fathers’ Day reflects the caustic wit of those who composed the lectionary as I believe the lectionary was put together a long time before Father’s Day (in its modern form) was ever celebrated, and it was put together in another part of the world where Fathers’ Day is not celebrated on the first Sunday in September.

For those who don’t know, the church has been celebrating fatherhood since the Middle Ages, but celebrations take place, predictably, on St Joseph’s Day, which is the 19th March. The modern, commercialized version of Fathers’ Day really originates in North America, where they celebrate Fathers’ Day in June.

Fathers’ Day has its own history in the U.S., going back to Sonora Dodd, who came up with the idea in 1909 as she sat listening to a Mother’s Day sermon. Dodd’s father had raised six children alone after his wife died giving birth so she figured that if mothers were to be recognised for their role in nurturing children, so should fathers! She chose June 5th because it was her father’s birthday!

In Australia we celebrate Fathers’ Day on the first Sunday in September. Why? I assume it’s because it’s the first Sunday in Spring. The other possibility is that some wag thought it would be clever to schedule it for the same Sunday when churches across the country would be hearing the exhortation of Jesus that we have to hate our fathers!

In truth, I’m not sure why we in Oz celebrate Fathers’ Day in September and, in truth, I am even less sure that I can do justice to this bizarre Scriptural command. The one thing I am sure about is that Jesus doesn’t actually want us to hate our fathers (or mothers, wife, children or anybody else in this list)!

That’s a statement not likely to inspire confidence in my preaching – that I’m not entirely sure what Jesus meant but I’m sure he didn’t mean it – but, in truth, this is where all of us who are students of the New Testament start when we read this passage. We know Jesus doesn’t want us to hate anybody, let alone those who are dearest to us, and yet we know for certain that He said this!

Modern academics often question the authenticity of some of the sayings attributed to Jesus. Nobody questions this one, and the reason is obvious enough. If Jesus hadn’t said this, there’s no way the early church would have made it up! Jesus said it – that’s a given. The question is why!

Perhaps Jesus was just trying to wake us up? That’s possible.

The passage begins by saying that ‘large crowds’ were travelling with Jesus (Luke 14;25), and Jesus did have a habit of trying to thin out the crowds in order to shed those who had just been swept up in the tide of His popularity.

It’s one of the odd characteristics of Jesus’ ministry that He often worked hard to weed out people who weren’t sure about why they were there. He did most of his teaching in parables, He said, in order to keep people guessing about His teaching (Mark 4:12). It seems that He wanted to keep His followers off-balance and constantly questioning why they were with Him and what they were doing. Is the ‘hate your father’ exhortation just another example of this – a provocative exhortation designed to get people thinking and talking and questioning amongst themselves as to what they were doing there?

When my brothers and I were little my dad used to read to us at night – epic stories such as “The Lord of the Rings” (long before the movies came out). And every now and then, after he’d been reading for a while, he’d thrown in a line like “and then they all went mad and shot each other” to see if we were still awake. And if we all just continued to smile with eyes glazed over, he knew he’d been reading for a bit too long! Was something like that going on in this case? Was Jesus just trying to keep His followers awake and on their toes?

In truth, I don’t doubt that this was a part of it. As I say, Jesus liked to keep his disciples off-balance. Even so, I don’t think we can really compare Jesus’ words to the type of ridiculous statements my dad used to come out with either. Even if Jesus didn’t mean that we have to ‘hate our fathers’ when he told us to ‘hate our fathers’, He didn’t mean nothing by it either. So what did He mean?

Perhaps He was talking about loyalty? That would certainly make sense.

There’s a passage in Matthew’s Gospel that is very similar to this one where Jesus is recorded as saying “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37)

That exhortation raises its own questions, of course, but at least the meaning is straightforward and nobody is being asked to hate anybody.

I don’t doubt that loyalty to Jesus is indeed a part of what is on view in this passage and indeed, as followers of Jesus, we are expected to place our loyalty to Him and to His commandments above all other loyalties.

This is very relevant in our day and context when it’s often stated quite explicitly that allegiance to country is expected to be our primary loyalty.

I’m sure we’ve all heard the polemics, generally directed against religious and ethnic minorities in this country, questioning whether someone can really be Australian and Muslim, for instance – the assumption always being that our common identity as Australians should be more important to us than any specific ethnic or religious identity that might divide us.

These identity issues make a lot of sense to me and, as you know, I’m personally committed to running programs amongst young people that affirm our common humanity while recognising ethnic and religious diversity. Even so, I recognise that these identity issues are complex!

I’m personally committed to helping people recognise their common identity, and when we take a camp for young people I love it when our kids recognise that they have a common identity as Australians that is above and beyond anything that might divide them into smaller groups of Christians or Muslims or Sunni or Shia or European or Arabic or Asian or Indigenous or anything else.

I love the idea, personally, of having common points of identity that unite us, above and beyond the things that divide us. Even so, if I’m going to be true to the teachings of the New Testament, I have to ask myself ‘did Jesus expect me to put my loyalty to Him above my loyalty to country and above all those things that I have in common with those around me?’ and the answer is clearly ‘yes’!

As I say, identity issues are complex, and I personally believe that my identity as a follower of Jesus should be something that actually brings me closer to people of other races and creeds, rather than divides me from them. Even so, these issues are complicated and, more to the point, these questions are not going to be resolved with reference to this passage from the Gospel of Luke, chapter fourteen, as I don’t believe loyalty to Jesus is the real issue in this passage – certainly not the key issue!

The Matthew passage is much more straightforward in that regard. Luke is distinctive, not only because of the introduction of the hate speak, but also because there’s an extra target introduced alongside father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – namely, the self!

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus goes on, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple”, and then Jesus spells it out still further:

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.” (Luke 14:28-32)

The point of these short parables is clear enough. They are all about counting the cost, and not getting into something if you’re not prepared to see it through! The fact that Jesus introduces these parables with an exhortation to carry the cross suggests that the focus of this cost will be personal suffering on the part of the disciple, and perhaps that’s the real focus of this passage – that we have to be willing to suffer for Jesus’ sake!

I suspect that the very mention of a parable about building projects is likely to produce pain and anguish amongst some members of the congregation of Holy Trinity – most obviously amongst those who labored over our last building project – the rebuilding of our church hall after the great fire of April 2013!

And now we are looking at another building project – the possibility of redeveloping the rectory site into low-cost housing! The question is, of course, whether we have the resources, lest we lay a foundation only to have people ridicule us, saying “those who began to build are not able to finish!”

Of course the beauty of the Anglican system is that the Diocesan Property Trust makes sure that we never get to that stage. Even so, the point of the parable is clear enough. We have to be willing to count the cost before we start, and the cost would appear to measured here in terms of human suffering.

“When Christ calls us, He bids us come and die!” So said Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his introduction to “The Cost of Discipleship”, and indeed there is no way of by-passing the hard path of suffering for those who would follow Jesus.

“We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19) and “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” (1 John 3:16)

To follow Jesus is to live in love, and to love is to suffer. There is no way of by-passing the way of suffering, and obviously this is part of the point of what Jesus is saying in this passage recorded in Luke, chapter 14. Even so, I would still suggest that it is not the key issue. Indeed, the key issue is spelt out quite straightforwardly at the end of the passage.

In Luke 14:33, in the final words of this exhortation, summing up all that’s gone before, Jesus says “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if …”

If you don’t know the verse you might want to guess how it finishes.

  • none of you can become my disciple if you haven’t counted the cost?
  • none of you can become my disciple if you aren’t willing to suffer?
  • none of you can become my disciple if you don’t love me more than father and mother and brother and sister and life itself?

No. Luke 1433 reads: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

And so it turns out that counting the cost is primarily about counting the cost! Yes, it’s a wake-up call and, yes, it’s about loyalty to Jesus and, yes, it’s about being willing to suffer for Christ and the Kingdom BUT, primarily, according to these words recorded in the Gospel of Luke, it’s fundamentally economic!

I don’t pretend to have unraveled everything this passage has to say but the key thrust is clear enough, I think.  You have to be ready to give it all away! How hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom (Matthew 19:23)! None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Sermon first preached at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on September 4th, 2016


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