Sunday, 25 January 2015

Wellwoman Part 3

Okay, He was losing her again. All this religious talk was exhausting. Her reply was simple: 'I know that when God's Promised One comes he'll reveal everything'. She had learned that much on her mother's knee.

'Oh, well, here goes then', He said to Himself, 'after all, I'm here to tell her the truth'

'I'm speaking to you now and I am Him'. Well, this was a change. From all out of luck and love, to first in line to greet God's great Teacher promised through His prophets. He ...knew her many mistakes and romantic failures and that hadn't even fazed Him. All He had given was honesty and reassurance. She asked herself: 'If that's what God's really like, then maybe...'

The disciples felt they had arrived back not a moment too soon. They were horrified that He had struck up a conversation with a Samaritan and, worse still, a woman without a chaperone. Surely, it was a formula for unnecessary scandal.

By this time, though, she had just about balanced the water vessels for carrying back to her home. And this day would not end with another round of the town's stinging rejection and public contempt. This was a new day for her and she was the herald of that town's very special visitor with a story about her encounter with God's message.

She went back to her town and didn't hold back. They could think of her what they liked, but what she now knew would make their hair stand on end. She had made a real friend who was far more important than she or they ever would be. And yet, He was probably her only real friend in the world, despite already knowing all of her shortcomings. A Voice in her thoughts began to encourage her. She exclaimed again and again: 'Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did (thinking 'and He never ran away') Couldn't this be the Promised One?'

The crowds ran out and gathered to meet Jesus. Some of the these townsfolk mingled with the disciples and took it upon themselves to get them up to speed on just what kind of woman Jesus had been talking to.

A few of the disciples took Jesus aside and asked how He could ever fix the level of shame and guilt that she could bring upon them: that she had actually brought upon herself.

Jesus smiled at first and then gazed with sadness into the distance towards Jerusalem before turning away. He sighed deeply, shuddered and then whispered: 'Don't worry. I have this completely covered'.

Tired, they thought: 'Another riddle for another's day'.

Perhaps, He'd explain tomorrow just what 'completely covered' really meant.


Wellwoman Part 2

He looked on her and thought that people rarely fail because they want to fail. They so often fail because they simply don't know how to succeed.

Here he was: a Jew talking to a Samaritan. The Jews had such a long-standing animosity towards Samaritans treating them as ethnic mongrels. 'A bunch of racists!' He thought: remembering the way that most of His countrymen considered all Samaritans to be morally tainted half-breeds.

The mutual contempt was exacerbated by the ugly 'religious' rivalry over whether Mount Gerazim or Jerusalem was designated by God's holy writings to be the centre for Temple worship.

His critics would have had a field day if they saw Him talking to her...and all because of her race. So sad!

'Not just that!' A voice shouted inside His head. He gazed into her eyes that peeped through a mask of resignation. After quenching his thirst with water from the ladle, He asked her to imagine what it would be like to discover water that contained the power to provide a new lease on life itself. An unending source of hope and second-chances.

'A life without thirst?, she laughed, 'Not a bad idea!' She thought that if it meant not having the daily ordeal of drawing this water, avoiding the scandalmongers and carting it home by the bucketload, she'd be first in line.

She really didn't understand His word-picture. 'A bit too clever', he thought, 'it's time to get practical'. He closed His eyes and wondered about the hidden shadow of sorrow cast across her face and sought insight.

'Ask her to...' the Voice said. He had hardly formed the mental reply: 'Ask her to what?', when the words tumbled from His lips: 'Go and call your husband!'

The woman rolled her eyes in near exasperation, issued her stock reply: 'I have no husband' and then looked away pretending to be busy with her chore. Jesus seized the moment to combine His hallmark of generosity with honesty: 'Well that's true. You've had five husbands and the man you're living with isn't your husband'

'Oh, okay. Different!', she thought and then quizzed herself: 'but how did He know 'five'? And I've never met this man before'

Yes, five marriages and now shacked up with her last resort 'boyfriend': someone she 'helped' and who 'helped' her. Women marked her with indelible suspicion, abandoning even social niceties. 'An insatiable predator' most thought, 'Guard your husbands!' And even though most men might publicly avoid her, she tired of those 'happily' married ones who always quietly asked whether they could meet her, um, discreetly.

So I guess you're a prophet then?' she replied. Cornered by his candour, she threw in a diversion about the on-going dispute between Jews and Samaritans fighting over the rightful location of the Temple.

He explained to her that where people worshipped was not nearly as important as wholehearted honesty in worship. He called it: 'in spirit and in truth'.


Wellwoman Part 1

It was a long journey from Judaea through Samaria and back to the start of His ministry in Galilee. Jesus knew that His teaching mission was destined for a final and decisive show-down in Jerusalem, but He had to choose His battles wisely. It was sensible to return to his sea-side home district and consolidate the root-and-branch reform of what the synagogue leaders had misunderstood: rousing slumbering consciences where He could, healing the sick and fixing whatever seemed broken.

He had sought to peel away the crumbling accumulation of so many man-made Jewish traditions: rituals and regulations that clung on like barnacles to Moses' Law. The well-heeled religious elite had done everything to selfishly overcomplicate it in their favour.

Yet, wipe away all of that dross and only two things really mattered to God: loving loyalty to Him and a commitment of practical love towards others without self-seeking and regardless of their status.

'Easier said than done', He thought, rolling his eyes. Yet, if He could only expose the harsh 'one-size-fits-all' reasoning of the legal scholars who opposed Him, He'd be able to reveal the Law's ultimate purpose. It could engender humility and not their vile outward display of rituals. If they understood that, then maybe He could really help them: 'They didn't have to be religious. They could just be assured that God forgave them and then receive what was promised by the ancient holy men: a conscience free from fear of constant offence and empowered to do good, full of renewed sensitivity to God's telepathic Voice, the Holy Spirit.'

Despite all that those earlier prophets had foretold, his opponents seemed more interested in defaming Him with nit-picking remarks about healing and picking a few ears of corn on the Sabbath. Of course, that didn't stop them rescuing the odd farm animal or performing a circumcision on the same Holy day of the week. It was another exasperating double-standard.

His disciples had run ahead to another town to buy food. Strange that they were always short of money, despite receiving so many generous donations. He'd have to have a chat about that with their treasurer, Judas. He really hoped to God he wasn't skimming, although little else seemed plausible.

Not far ahead, there was a sight for His sore eyes...and throat. Water. The well seemed like déjà-vu. As He approached it, the name, Jacob, somehow stuck in His mind. Everything looked so familiar, He was sure He must have been there before, but He just couldn't think when.

'Give me a drink?', He asked with a cheeky smile. The woman drawing water recoiled at His dialect: 'How is that you a Jew ask me a Samaritan for water?'

He just loved the reaction when He challenged the status quo. As a rebel for good-will, He knew that no-one normally saw it coming. They were always taken aback by His generosity bombs. He thought back to the kind of change that they could effect in so many lives.

For a moment, He remembered His new friend, Zacchaeus. From a life so focused on extorting every penny he could for himself and the Roman bullies for whom he worked, he had finally understood the beauty of God's generosity and had thought about how He could start to reflect it: 'I'm giving half of my possessions to the poor and I'll make restitution at four times whatever I've extorted' His neighbours were flabbergasted, but it was music to Jesus' ears. Another selfish life turned around.

Nevertheless, this woman seemed very different. Yet, He was sure He could somehow move the conversation easily and nonchalantly from talk about short-lived thirst for water to the unending turmoil of those thirsting for hope in the middle of their hopelessness; the thirst for 'living' water: God's reassurance and empowerment to escape lives of disappointment, unending betrayals, and the exhaustion of constant self-justification and rejection.


Saturday, 18 May 2013


And He could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.’ (Mark 6:5)
This verse highlights a stark contrast to Christ’s missionary endeavours elsewhere in Galilee. To set the scene, Jesus had returned fully empowered by the Holy Spirit to overturn every imaginable kind of harm to mankind. Each Sabbath, He set about to teach of God’s impending judgment and the final chance to find mercy and lasting change for the better.

What is critical is that we understand the purpose of these works. Yes, they are compassionate divine interventions, but they also mark out Christ as unique. The word, Christ, means to mark out for a role of supreme authority.

The mighty works of healing and demon expulsion revealed Jesus to be a uniquely supreme. As the promised Messiah of the Jews and the Saviour of all mankind, His words carry more weight than any others spoken throughout human history. Matthew mentions that Jesus was marked out by his power to reverse every imaginable illness. The word of this had spread far and wide: ‘News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.’ (Matt. 4:24,25) That same power heals and delivers today.

Luke also remarked: ‘Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him' (Luke 4:14,15)

In spite of this, the momentum of His healing ministry ground to a near halt when He reached His home-town of Nazareth. As He taught in the synagogue, doubts about His credentials eventually surfaced:

‘Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:2,3)

Quite simply, His fame elsewhere had aroused the opposite reaction in His own neighbours. The barely concealed contempt for Him was itself based on that most contemptible of human emotions: sullen jealousy. They had a hard time accepting that an otherwise average member of a very ordinary neighbour’s family had risen to such heights. Of course, they would have been happy to plunder as much of the miraculous ministry of Jesus for their own advancement in status as the young rabbi was prepared to share.

It was Jesus who recited the following passage of scripture in the synagogue of His home-town.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18)

After reading the messianic proclamation from the scroll of Isaiah, He claimed it to be fulfilled then and there by saying: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 20:21)

How many countless healing services have begun with this reading from Isaiah 61:1,2? The reaction to it is much the same as it was then. Preachers proclaim that God wants to heal and undo every imaginable kind of harm. Preachers of so many denominations declare that healing (and I mean even physical healing) has always been a fundamental part of the gospel. Biblically, we are also exhorted to pray for healing. Yet, it is as clear today as it would have been to those in Nazareth that the healing power of the Holy Spirit was in that town restricted to a few sick folk. We may hear of minor illnesses being cured by prayer, but what of major illnesses. We might well ask (as they appeared to question): ‘Why won’t God heal us as well?’

On an individual basis, there is no simple answer. God will heal, if we behave and act in a manner that demonstrates that our purpose is driven by an expectation of healing. Yet, the woman with the constant period flow had spent every penny she had on various unsuccessful treatments by the time that she reached out to Christ. The consistent hallmark of each answered plea for healing was complete and utter desperation for God to intervene, not a mere 'I hope he might'. In contrast to this desperation that will not be denied, we see far too many who, at the outset of trouble, resort to the prayer of pious resignation. They almost feel obliged to protect themselves from the threat of expected disappointment by saying: ‘Give me the grace to accept this as my lasting fate, O Lord’.

Christ declares that we must insistently ask, then wholeheartedly seek and then repeatedly knock until we have our miracle from God. God will intervene when that approach pervades our life-purpose (rather than resigning ourselves to overwhelming odds). In my life, on numerous occasions of actual and potential harm to body, soul and mind, God has intervened miraculously.

The unfolding events on Jesus’ return to Nazareth were interpreted by Luke with a bit more detail than Mark. The initial reaction is positive one: All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. (Luke 4:22) Yet, all of the four evangelists report Christ as saying: ‘A prophet is not without honour except in his own town and in his own home’. It’s clear that while his neighbours recognised Him as gifted rabbi and healer, they had no intention of recognising one of their own as the bearer of God’s final message of mercy and warning to mankind. While there were a few instances of compassionate healing, the ethos of the town echoed a much earlier era of Israel’s contempt for God.

Here’s Christ’s own explanation of why healing grinds to a near halt:

‘“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:24 – 26)

Elijah had invoked the chastening hardship of drought on his own knowingly rebellious and idolatrous society. Yet, he took the opportunity to extend divine healing and miracles towards rank outsiders who were eager to discover the difference that God could make in their ordinary oft-blighted lives, but had no religious pedigree.

In short, Christ’s parallel exposed the Jews of His era to be no less dismissive of God’s intervention than the Jews of Elijah’s day. They lacked that indispensable catalyst for lasting change and redemption: DESPERATION. To re-phrase Christ’s first beatitude: ‘Favoured are the desperate, for to them will belong the authority and riches of heaven’ (Matt. 5:3) The Greek word for poor: ptochoi is derived from a word meaning ‘to crouch or cringe’. It is the posture of a beggar: one who can no longer conceal the reality of being overwhelmed by hardship and driven to unabashed dependence on hand-outs. The underlying idea is that of desperation that abandons all pride and will not be denied.

It was at this point that the mood in the synagogue changed to anger. The comparison of the town’s behaviour to Israel’s earlier rejection of God and opposition to Elijah was an insult: ‘All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.’ (Luke 4:28 – 30)

I would expect no less rejection today. Tell those proud of our country's Christian heritage that their own churches will languish in the depths of relative decline and powerlessness, while God will prosper heathen nations with numerous conversions through the outpouring of God’s mighty healing power and you will reap resentment. Despite that reaction, be assured that God will shower restoration, forgiveness and blessing upon foreign nations that have had far less opportunity than our own to learn of God’s final message to mankind in the gospel of God’s gift of His Son: a gift that assures His followers of eternal life with a loving all-powerful Father.

God will continue to heal ‘a few sick folk’ in those societies that have heard the gospel, but continue to be characterised by the idolatry of affluence, self-glorifying mainstream cultural values and vain humanist ideals at the expense of God’s moral compass.

In those countries that have largely rejected Christ, be also assured that those precious souls, desperate for God's cure for their ills will still find His healing touch, if they approach prayer with an insistent whole-hearted desire for God to reveal His greatness in their lives.

In contrast with the faithful, just tell the half-hearted and rebellious: ‘don’t expect miracles’!

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

‘The name is Christian: Evangelical Christian’

It’s something that we all do. We read a story and try to project ourselves into the character of the hero. For instance, most young men (and quite a few older ones) will watch a Bond movie and in the foyer afterwards, assimilate the testosterone-fuelled thought-life of its hero. Perhaps, they’ll recite the memorable words: ‘Bond, James Bond’ to themselves with hands clasped together to mimic a gun and feel a surge of the character’s charm and confidence.
Okay. Maybe that last bit’s just me.  The point is that the first-century religious establishment of Judaea did exactly the same with the writings of the prophets. In reflecting on a history that recorded their ancestors as straying away from God and on the presumption that they had virtue on their side, they romanticised that they would have made better choices than the nation’s previous leaders. The hindsight of history exposed the mistakes of the past. Yet, it did not inform their present priorities. Their behaviour towards Christ proved a complete contradiction to the noble intentions they claimed to embrace.
Just like Bond moviegoers, they were just trying to own a complete moral fantasy.  This is why Christ said to them: ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ You testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!’ (Matt. 23: 29 – 32)  ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors..!’ As a well-known adage states: ‘if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride’. 
The scribes fancifully supposed that they would have not nearly been as ready to harass the prophets as their predecessors were. Just like today, they held the vindicated early reformers in high esteem, remembering their great sacrifices with deep ceremonial reverence. They marked out their tombs as holy places. They asserted that they would never have gone as far as to authorise execution: they would have found a compromise. The problem that they would face is that true prophets don’t compromise. God’s message is insistent and uncompromising towards those who reject His call for change.
It’s almost a paradox that they considered those who executed the prophets to be their predecessors. It demonstrated a partial tacit collusion. Even in an era of mass defection from God, they could not abandon their love of prominence, they just thought they could do a better job in that role. The defecting nation was happy to leave them in charge. The majority were happy for leaders who would say one thing and yet live by a different code, who were more interested in themselves than those they claimed to serve. This made such leaders culpable for doing nothing to oppose the on-going rebellion. If they were more challenging of defiance, their authority would have roused slumbering consciences. 
Taking the analogy further, it’s like hearing a member of the audience claim on leaving the cinema (with not a single mention of Bond himself) that he (or she) could dream up a better Bond villain than the latest film delivered. This person blatantly resonates more with the villain, than with Bond. Of course, that’s fine when it comes to artistic fantasy. We can glorify the cinematic anti-hero. However, when it comes to real-life villains, the idea that their behaviour is either a wonderful, but poorly executed idea, or that we can learn something from them in terms of leadership techniques (Hitler), or single-mindedness (Josef Stalin) is an idle, harmful reverie.  In like manner and just as unwittingly, the scribes’ protestations of outrage showed no identification with the persecuted prophets, those who were ostracised and killed by the Jewish religious elite of that earlier era. Instead, they identified themselves as a more rational evolution of the same religious establishment that despised the prophets. They just thought that they were capable of opting out of the extremes of persecution imposed by their predecessors. 
The scribal role was intended to be beneficial. It was ordained as part of the effort approved by Artaxerxes, in the seventh year of his reign, to support the re-settlement of exiles in Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. Ezra the scribe, the descendant of a priestly family, was living in Babylon when the king sent him to Jerusalem to teach the laws of God to any who did not know them. In time, after involvement in review and hand-written publication of the Law and Prophets according to very exacting standards, the more gifted learners became capable of expounding on the Torah.
They also established schools for instructing the populace, especially as part of the process of re-educating the nation in the behaviour required of their covenant with God.  500-odd years later, the scribes of Jesus’ day were more interested in distinguishing themselves as part of a divinely chosen elite, hence their identification with former rulers of Israel (even those who defected from God), rather than the outcast prophetic movements. They had built a code of judicial decisions and underpinning philosophical explanations. Many of these decisions, such as Corban, were clearly slanted to favour the richer citizens who could afford a legal means of evading parental welfare and other liabilities.

Here was a class of people who, by their education and effort in studying the scriptures, could point the way for ordinary Jewish people to attain a beneficial, meaningful and practical relationship with God and each other. However, instead of making the underlying message accessible, they made themselves into the new non-hereditary elite. In one way or another, they simply reinforced the idea that God only wanted those who were prepared to follow their every prescription and prejudice without question. They became self-serving. They believed in their time-served sense of greater ENTITLEMENT to decide that what was best for themselves was best for everyone else. This goes on today.  They still took issue with John the Baptist, calling him demented because he never drank, fasted most of the time and lived as a hermit, yet they criticized Christ for drinking and eating too much and being a bit too convivial towards lapsed members of the Jewish nation. Surprise, surprise: no-one, apart from them, had got the balance between restraint and liberty exactly right. Of course, they were politically astute enough to refrain from a complete castigation of either the prophet or His Messiah.

That would incite a revolt among the masses who revered John as a martyr and Christ’s miracles as proof of His heavenly calling. No, they preferred to drip feed dismissive contempt, hostility and ostracism in small doses, using any chance they could to undermine their ministries. We see their efforts backfiring over and over again throughout the gospels. They were simply dismissive of anyone who stole the limelight and thwarted their own starring role in God’s redemptive work. This also goes on today.  ‘But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.” (Matt. 9:34) - while never casting such aspersions upon the exorcisms conducted by their own followers. They also wanted Him to prove his authority to challenge their teachings by causing a conclusive portent to appear in the heavens (which He claimed as His rightful abode). ‘Give us a sign’, they exclaimed.  They insisted to a Christ-sympathiser of their number, Nicodemus ‘Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee." (John 7:52) and taunted Christ by saying ‘"Aren't we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?" (John 8:48)  All this means that the love of their prominent career trajectory, competitive jealousy and character assassination will always precede, but won’t preclude physical hostility.
Ministry of any kind will always hold this threat of forming an exclusive elite unless it is constantly democratised. Without the empowerment of those we claim to have a desire to help, they will remain dependent and fawningly obedient. It’s just a few short steps from an unyielding code of conformity on externalisms to the tyrannical obsession with style over substance to the hostile despotic contempt for all non-conformists as treacherous. Open contradiction is not treachery. Abandoning the central cause of Christ to focus on bureaucracy, elitism, political manoeuvring and pet causes is the real treachery. 
Tilda Swinton, in Oscar-winning form, delivered a fantastic portrayal of this sort of lethal ambition in the film, ‘Michael Clayton’. She has nothing against anyone personally. In fact, she is a model corporate climber. Nevertheless, she does want to advance her credentials by proving that no business dilemma is too big for her to solve. She hires an ex-military surveillance team to protect her law firm from the financial impact of one of their lawyers involved in a multi-billion dollar class action law-suit. He’s had a breakdown caused by the guilt of defending an agricultural chemicals conglomerate that has produced a weed-killer that they knew to be carcinogenic. She fears an exposé that would end all hope of an out-of-court settlement, all public confidence and wipe billions off their stock price.  It was only after her character understands that his plan to salve his conscience involves publishing the secret memo authorising production in spite of test results showing the blatant threat to human life, that she quietly orders those bugging his office, to have him ‘permanently incapacitated’. They make it look like a suicide. 
For John the Baptist, this ultimate sanction was precipitated by a direct criticism of Herodias’ unlawful marriage. For Jesus, it was prompted by his exposure of the focus on empty ritual and the selective self-promoting ‘servanthood’ of the Pharisees and Chief Priests as fake. This falsehood was at the expense of unassuming compassion. For Paul, it was ending the business opportunity established by slave-owners in Philippi derived by public interest in the mysterious rants of their fortune-teller slave-girl. He also attracted a larger audience than his Jewish rivals who imposed a raft of rituals before a convert could experience the assurance of forgiveness from God. Try exposing a corrupt business, unnecessary prohibitions, trickery or the misappropriation of funds with the very real threat of a fall from public favour and see if they don’t try to get rid of you. 
So, what will it be today, that propels ambitious pillars of the community to impose life-threatening sanctions on today’s prophets? No-one can know exactly. In fact, as long as apathy continues, the new religious elite can remain inflexibly driven by their love of outward ritual, ceremonial visibility, pet causes, public status and the inevitable pecking order dictating who will do anything from coffee rotas to running the church meeting protocol. True Christians will instead wash and clean the suppurating abscesses of those wounded by church indifference to their real-world problems. 
Start challenging the priorities that a church is prepared to fund and those causes it ignores and you will become a marked man. You will become someone to be silenced, rather than simply ignored. Meanwhile, the challenge to those holding high religious office will continue unabated: that their carefully constructed hierarchies of admirers are meaningless, that their lack of lasting personal empathy towards ex-members betrays a moral vacuum. It will continue until the fakery is exposed as no less fraudulent than that of those who ‘permanently incapacitated’ the prophets. It will continue until those moved towards the truth pay the ultimate price for their loyalty to Christ: ‘Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.’ (Luke 11:49 – 51)
We may reassure our consciences by claiming that our more rational and caring world and first-century Judaea are poles apart, but God does promise to turn the heat up on complacency among our religious elite. Let’s see how they react.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Good seed cannot thrive in poor soil

‘A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.’ (Luke 8:5 – 8)

Jesus had begun a more concerted preaching tour of Galilee. In every town, disfiguring harm and suffering (even those beyond any human remedy) was alleviated. Consciences, hitherto indifferent to shallow-buried guilt, were roused from apathy to recognise the wretched depraving power of sin’s unyielding vice-like grip. Yet, even as the storm-clouds of divine judgment were summoned by His voice threatening a sudden outbreak of retribution for concealed past wrongs, light-shafts of divine mercy shone through to reassure the genuinely penitent of eternal forgiveness and God’s empowerment to change.

Critical onlookers wondered how even the most notorious offenders could find amnesty without incurring so much as the cost of a journey to Jerusalem’s temple. Yet, the gifted young Rabbi assured His hearers that He had the cost of forgiveness covered. They could only wonder at what He meant.

His following comprised the Twelve with many ordinary folk joining the throng. Yet, as the vast crowds awaited another miracle, it was to His disciples that the parable’s significance was explained. The explanation was an unveiling of the subtle out-working of God’s final judgement and redemption in the choice of our daily lives. In each environment other than the good soil (the path, the rocky ground, and the thorns), the productive impact of God’s message is eventually thwarted.

The path in the parable is unyielding prejudice. The counter-arguments against the authenticity and validity of Christ's words are rehearsed by opponents of conversion until considered self-satisfyingly 'water-tight'. The heart is the overarching purpose that informs our decision-making. If that purpose is bent on worldly priorities without regard restrictions imposed by God, we are incapable of giving a fair hearing to His insight for us. Such a mind can trample on the seed before it can germinate into behavioural change.

Instead, we can barricade our minds in; the counter-arguments all sharing one ulterior motive: to thwart and diminish any sense of accountability to the Supreme Being. The aim is not just to demolish the so-called ‘holy roller’ with a clever retort. It is to walk away feeling comprehensively absolved with no need for penitent accountability for recurring moral failures.

The rocky ground represents the superficially receptive hearer. We can actually embrace the promise of eternal reward in Christ for a while with thoughtless abandon, all the while oblivious to sheer single-minded all-consuming passion needed to sustain us in our race towards heaven. The sort of moral determination that was exhibited by the apostles can only be sustained by facing up to the need (and asking) for daily empowerment to make that stark choice of love for God over the peer pressure and social contempt that seek to undermine His priorities and prohibitions for us.

The thorny ground represents a hearer with competing worldly priorities. The impetus for change is thwarted by a mindset already committed to earthly self-preservation, comfort and advancement. As scripture puts it, ‘An indecisive man is unstable in all his ways’ (James 1:8)
Finally, the good soil is a mindset that embeds and applies God’s message with a wholehearted life-long progression to ever-greater commitment to God. This is what Paul means when he insists: 'Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.' (Col. 3:16)
This goes beyond the superficial happiness gained from outward prosperity. Even while shackled in a Philippian jail (Acts 16:25), Paul and Silas joyfully sang with the anticipation of Christ's everlasting victory expressed in the Psalms. In like manner, we should extol God’s great work of our eternal after-life security 'above all else' and in every trial.

The reality is that all Christian hearts require major cultivation, if they are to become good soil. Though our affections are divided, we are constantly challenged to uproot our worldly concerns, priorities and the fear that the godless might retaliate by depriving us of physical and emotional comfort. We are constantly challenged to abandon self-promoting charity displays and religious rituals for a daily unassuming commitment to advance the betterment of others and God's authority over human consciences.

The only way for God to cultivate good soil from a heart that lacks motivation for major change (and full of distracting excuses) is to take a hard spade to it. However much easier it is to remain untilled ground, I trust the Lord to accomplish it in me as promised, whatever the cost. He says, 'I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh' (Ezekiel 11:19)

After all, God, in spite of A FAILING ‘me’, is still at work IN SAVING me. As with the Jewish exiles, humbled by deportation to Babylon, yet returning to Jerusalem, that pretty much sums up our salvation!

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

A Pharisee's letter of grave concern

From Rabbi Onkelos to my brethren of the Great Diaspora in the month of Tammuz; 18th year of the Common Era:

'Fellow rabbis of the avowed pact of Separation to God from all that is ungodly: 'As many of you are aware, the young Nazarene rabbi, Yeshu has completely lost his way. His insight, once a pleasure to behold, has become marred by His shameless self-promotion throughout Judaea. As if the Desert Baptiser's madness was not enough, this latest insanity has reached new heights. Our spies report that his itinerant rabble-rousing has won him a large following of the basest in society, all claiming the experience of his 'miracle' of instant forgiveness. He acts with little concern for rites of penitence and sacrifice, nor does he recognise our structures and processes since the 'Isaiah' incident at his local synagogue precipitated his expulsion from regular worship, study and discussion.

His unflattering comparisons of our present troubles with that tragic era of past errors were, to say the least, unhelpful: but to say further that somehow God would favour these benighted heathens over we who are Abraham's offspring was unforgivable. Yet, this was just one of so many wild and preposterous assertions.'

'He has taken it upon himself to conduct his 'mission' outside of the normative structures of our faith, even flouting the Sabbath rest that is enjoined upon all our people. Indeed, his actions are so contrary to the oral traditions passed from generation to generation from Moses himself that he even gorges food after a quick blessing, paying no attention to sacramental cleansing.

We must report our fears that he must harness the power to whip the crowds up into mindless frenzy from the Evil One. Could this not explain the strange charisma that he exerts upon the simple-minded and upon notorious reprobates alike? His effort to mix with those who have strayed away from God unforgivably (including those who have sold their birthrights to exact Rome's taxes) must be treated with extreme suspicion.'
'There are rumours that he claims that the Temple of Jerusalem will soon be no more . So, what next? Will he incite his followers to attack God's house as he did the Temple treasury exchange?

The discerning will recognise this as another attempt to seduce our nation into that pernicious blasphemy that is Mount Gerazim. This is what happens when our people hopelessly interbreed with Samaritans. He is one of them, for he even vaunted one as humane in his parables.

Our options for dealing with this crisis are severely limited. Israel may not survive divine judgement, if we connive any further at this insult. Perhaps, it is time to discuss our common concerns with the Sadducees. For all of their pomp and pretence, they are still our brothers.

Rabbi Onkelos