Here it is:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

So, like many older people I’ve got some savings in the bank, which I won’t spend because they are to be kept to pay for any care which my wife and I may need before we get the last bus. There is no doubt that is this respect the state is finding it increasingly difficult to provide, even in this blessed land of Scotland where free personal care is promised to those who need it. It seems obvious to me therefore that those who are able to do so, should put as much of their own money as possible into making provision for themselves. I realise also that I wouldn’t have as much saved as I do, were it not for a legacy from my late uncle.

There it is, in the bank, earning hardly any interest, kept safe for a rainy day. I am in no way obsessed with it, but as a naturally anxious person, with a strong desire to look after my wife, it comforts me. Yes, I know this is a comfort that many people cannot enjoy, and I am committed politically to a more equal society, but I feel justified in holding on to this loot.

Now here comes Jesus talking about how God will give me his kingdom, whatever that is, and I’ll have treasure in heaven! I do wish he’d been more careful about promises which seem to have no factual basis! What about the genuinely poor Christian pensioners who have to choose between heating and food? Does treasure in heaven do them much good, as they starve and shiver?

A care home may cost £50,000 a year

But when I start protesting that my heart bleeds for these victims of our system, Jesus tells me that actually my heart is where my treasure is: heart and treasure, go together. He suggests that my “heartfelt” concern for the poor is hogwash, and that my commitment to God’s kingdom of justice, is vitiated by my commitment to comfort in old age. Of course I want to say that it all depends on my attitude to our savings. I am not a mean spirited person, but rather generous to people in need from the Big Issue seller outside the supermarket, to a slew of local and international charities. The things I love are not material, but social, like The Green Party, cultural, like poetry, natural, like mountains and spiritual, like the church. Jesus doesn’t argue with all that, but simply repeats that where my treasure is, there my heart will be also.

I protest that politics, art, and mountains, not to mention my church community, are my treasures. Jesus just asks, “And your savings, they’re not treasure and your heart is not with them?” Then I say he’s being unreasonable for I can truly say that I would much prefer to pay more tax so that the state could provide properly for all elderly people including us. “Ah yes, “ he says, ‘but we cannot wait until the state becomes just. We can build communities of heaven within the world as it is. That’s what I asked my disciples to do, and they did it. I don’t like telling you to read the Bible, but try Acts chapter 2, for a description of a church where nobody went without, because everybody shared. Whose fault is it that you cannot trust your church to do the same?”

I realise that Jesus was always more concerned with the possession of wealth, than with the attitudes people said they had towards it. This is so different from any other view of wealth, that I can be confident few of my fellow believers will condemn me for my old-age savings. Still, it niggles, as perhaps Jesus meant it to do:

Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.

Of course, when I’m being pious, I’ll say that I’m grateful for every precious word of Jesus recorded in the Bible; but when I’m my ordinary sinful self, there are a number of his sayings which really get up my nose.

For example, from Matthew Chapter 5, verse 5: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Now I guess friends and family might not find the word ‘meek’ jumping to their lips when they think of me. Words like arrogant, rough, hasty, blunt, disputatious, scatological, noisy, not to mention the Scots ‘raj’ might more readily suggest themselves.

And never mind me, what of the poor sods who are meek in this world? What about the meek in Syria or Brazil? What about the meek of the world in the face of global warming? How can Jesus’ promise come true for any of them? “Inherit the earth”?? Inherit the poisoned lands after the big battalions have departed, more like.

But I shouldn’t disparage this blessing before checking what the word may have meant to Jesus.

In the original Greek of Matthews gospel, the word is praüs, translated as, meek, mild, or gentle. It is not common, occurring only 4 times in the New Testament:

Matthew 11:29 Jesus said, Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek/gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

That is a beautiful utterance in which disciples are invited to pull the plough with Jesus, who does not chafe against the task, but does it peacefully. Except, in the face of its obvious meaning, we can for example remember Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes and pharisees, and his forcefulness in proclaiming God’s kingdom. So was he so meek? Only, I think, if we interpret it as a readiness to demand little for oneself, and to obey God’s commands. Indeed the one who said, “Behind me Satan,” was not even meek with his friends.

Matthew 21:5 (Quote of Zechariah 9:9) Behold your king is coming to you, gentle and mounted on a donkey….

This is Zechariah’s great surprise announcement: the messiah will not come as a conquering hero on a war horse but gently, mounted on a donkey. Jesus is depicted as deliberately fulfilling this prophecy in his entry into Jerusalem. Here again, the normal connotations of meekness are laid aside. Jesus is shown as peaceful, but hardly humble; he was after all claiming to be the prophesied King.

I Peter 3: In a similar way you wives, be obedient to your own husbands, so that if some of them are not persuaded by the Word, they may be won over without a word by the behaviour of their wives, when they note your modest and reverential behaviour. Your cosmetic should not be the external one of braiding hair or wearing gold jewellery or trying on cloaks, but rather of the hidden person of the heart, with the undying reality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious to God. In that way the holy women who placed their hope in God, used to beautify themselves in their obedience to their husbands – as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him her lord. You become her children if you do good and are not made fearful by any violent threat. (My translation)

I’ve given more of the passage here because the context is important. Wives are to be gentle, even with unbelieving and violent husbands as an expression of the “hidden person of the heart”, that is, of their strong and peaceful natures. Of course this advice is given in the context of a very patriarchal society, and is, I think, unacceptable now. The image, however, of a character capable of gentleness under bad treatment, should have an attraction to both men and women.

Then there’s the promise that the meek shall “inherit the earth.” The translation should almost certainly be, “inherit the land” a reference to the ancient promise of the land to the children of Israel. The contrary promise of the Jewish Jihadis of Jesus’ time was that the strong and heroic rebels against Rome would inherit the land. Jesus proclamation of the peaceable kingdom of God was opposed to violent nationalism. Given the disastrous history of successive Jewish rebellions and the Roman response, Jesus’ view might be seen as simply realistic. In modern terms perhaps only peaceful people who know what is good for the land will inherit it after the agents of violence have obliterated each other. Indeed gentleness may be a crucial virtue for those who want there to be an earth for them and their descendants to inherit.

So, if I can interpret Jesus’ blessing as permitting reasonably robust language and action – after his own example- while encouraging a strong gentleness in the the cause of peace, do I still wish he hadn’t said it?

Oh yes, for who can welcome the statement of a truth that is so contrary to our instincts and offers our egos so little scope.

Oscar Wilde was a great, if flawed man, and a very great writer. The Ballad of Reading Gaol, based on his own experience of imprisonment, is strangely neglected even by those who love Wilde; I consider it a masterpiece which should be popular, as it is written in a popular form, and in words which are familiar to everyone. It can easily be found online.

It tells of the last weeks in the life of a man found guilty of a “crime of passion”, while also describing the bleakness, cruelty and fear of life in the prison. In the jaunty rhythm of the ballad stanza, he focuses especially on the day of the hanging, sparing few details, and its effect on the other prisoners.

And thus we rust Life’s iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God’s eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.

And every human heart that breaks,
  In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
  Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper’s house
  With the scent of costliest nard.

Ah! happy they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?

And he of the swollen purple throat.
  And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
  The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
  The Lord will not despise.

The man in red who reads the Law
  Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
  His soul of his soul’s strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
  The hand that held the knife.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
  The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,
  And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain
  Became Christ’s snow-white seal.

I have been a part-time Prison chaplain in my time, and have wrestled with the task of communicating the challenging and consoling truth of Jesus to the men caught in that system. Of course there were men, and women, who saw the chaplain as a bad joke, but others looked for a saving truth so earnestly that I was almost scared to speak. The word had to be simple and come from the guts. Jesus, the criminal and friend of criminals made sense to them, when the bloodless theologies of liberalism did not.

A young woman in my present congregation who had heard my sermon, in which I denounced the theology that says Christ took on himself the divine punishment that we deserved, asked me in some bewilderment, if I didn’t believe in the blood of Christ?

Her earnestness got to me: how could I have given that impression? I, who know so well how my arrogance, greed, lust, anger, laziness, fear and selfishness have made others bleed? Who know how much forgiveness means and costs? Who hope that any service I’ve given to Jesus may have let me wash even a corner of my robe to make it white in the blood of the Lamb?

My biblical studies have made it clear to me that the picture of God punishing Jesus for our sins is unbiblical, and turns the loving God into a vengeful tyrant. I hope that I can persuade this good sister that the doctrine of “penal substitution” is mistaken.

The bible does however give us powerful images of the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice. For example it is called, “a ransom for many” – in this phrase many means all. The ransom, which is Jesus’ life poured out in pain, is paid, not to God but to the powers of evil who enslave human beings. It is like the payment made to the owner for the liberation of a slave. Yes, that makes profound sense to me. It is my heart, hardened by the powers of evil that enslave me, that keeps me from God’s love. Jesus bloody death breaks my heart, when I see what these powers are doing to him, and opens it to God.

Then there’s the picture of Jesus as a high priest who offers to God for the sins of the people, not animal blood, but his own blood. The idea of sacrifice is to offer something perfect to God as a way of renewing one’s relationship with him. In ourselves we are incapable of this true offering, because we are afraid of suffering. Jesus does it for us. The gift he gives to God is his lifeblood. If I trust in Jesus, and identify with him, I am accepted with him in God’s everlasting relationship of love.

These are, I must emphasise, pictures or metaphors, invented to help people understand the death of Jesus. There are many more of these in the Bible, each giving a different interpretation of the blood of Jesus. Their common basis is that the death of Jesus, like the life of Jesus, reveals a loving God.

In chapter 8 of his Gospel Mark records how Jesus’ lieutenant Simon Peter gains credit with his boss for blurting out his recognition of Jesus as Messiah; then almost immediately falls from grace by “rebuking” Jesus for his prophecy of his rejection and death. In turn he receives a pretty stern rebuke from Jesus, “Get behind me Satan.”

In fact Mark’s narrative shows again and again how the disciples misunderstand and disagree with Jesus, who nevertheless does not dismiss them as unworthy of his trust. From the start of his mission, Jesus knew that he needed help, and welcomed the growth, not just of the twelve, but of a larger community of men and women who gathered round him. The gospels tell us what they learned from him, but not what he learned from them, as he must have done. Perhaps their love of him was their greatest gift to him, but doubtless even their misunderstandings helped him to define his mission. The survival of his mission, indeed its transformation into a multinational community after his death is proof that his trust in his disciples was not misplaced.

Yesterday Boris Johnson sacked from his cabinet all who were not singing from the same hymnsheet as himself and his henchman Dominic Cummings. Most politicians who commented on this process accepted the conventional wisdom that it is the right way to build political strength. Nobody seemed to think that ridding your enterprise of possibly critical voices might be a catastrophic weakness. Dispensing with all possible criticism was increasingly the preferred management tactic of Adolf Hitler until he finally established his Reich in his bunker.

Jesus on the other hand found that his disciples were capable of communicating his story, while changing completely the outward forms of his community to meet the demands of new times and places. In my own ministry I started out with the conviction that my way, albeit often poorly researched and dubiously planned, was the best way for the church. Repeated evidence that my way had often been mistaken, led only to an increased insistence on its perfection. It took a long time before I was forced to admit the truth. Had I been more democratic and listened to critical colleagues, I could have spared myself and the church lots of grief.

The followers of Jesus ought to be able to offer to their societies, models of collaborative community and critical fellowship which they have learned from him, but in practice they have not always been able to do so, because of defects in the nature of their own organisation. The reformed churches have often made such a gap between the status of pastor/minister and members of the church that he/she has asserted authoritarian rule; while in the Roman and Orthodox churches powerful hierarchies have stolen authority from the people. Pope Francis, for example has tried to root out sexual abuse from his priesthood but has found his bishops to be the greatest barrier to his plans.

The hysterical teenager who is Johnson’s chief advisor and the Fat Controller himself, may put the UK through a lot of unnecessary suffering before they realise the benefits of greater modesty and collaboration. There is a tendency, obvious to those who read the news carefully, for entire societies to prefer what they call, “strong-man government”; bullies prefer to be governed by a bully, as is sadly evident in the USA, India, China, Russia, Hungary, Brazil, and perhaps the UK. Against this trend, wise citizens should argue strongly for the greater efficiency as well as the greater justice, of democratic practices at all levels of decision-making.

In Jesus’ group of disciples authority was exercised by service and persuasion, and even critical voices were cherished. I offer this model of leadership free of charge to the Prime Minister.

I see there is controversy about the evangelist Franklin Graham of the USA being denied public venues to hold religious rallies. Some local authorities, universities and other owners of large facilities justify their refusal of venues by pointing to Franklin’s views on abortion and same-sex relationships. Users of abortion, lesbians and gays must be protected from the offensive utterances of this Christian fundamentalist.

I totally reject the kind of Christianity peddled by Franklin, but I wonder at the readiness of people who have themselves been the beneficiaries of vigorous public campaigns to deny public utterance to views they detest. I suppose Franklin’s mixture of quotations from Leviticus with his own right-wing prejudices could be classified as hate-speech, but that would ignore the sweet gospel gravity with which he expresses them.

A better case against him might be made based on his view of Islam as inspired by the devil, but perhaps Islamists who have shouted against truthful relationship education in schools are not best placed to argue against free speech.

No, let Franklin promote his pernicious nonsense, but let him be subject to the same public scrutiny as any other snake-oil salesman. The media especially should not be fooled by his so-called Christian faith into treating him with reverence.

There are many ills in the world, but fundamentalism is a disease of religion, and therefore one that religious people like me must try to diagnose and cure. I’ve thought about this responsibility over many years, and beg my readers’ indulgence for quoting a previous blog:

It is an urgent task, I think, for all genuine belivers in all religions to call time on all fundamentalisms. Secular societies are responsible for many evils but this one is the responsibility of religion. But how should we tackle it?

The first necessity is to identify it, and for that purpose I would like to offer to the world a cultural product of my native Glasgow: the bampot test. I should explain that “bampot” is a Scots term for a “foolish, worthless fellow,” otherwise called an “eedjit” or “nutter”. The chief characteristic of a fundamentalist bampot is his hatred of facts, especially those that might get in the way of his convictions. So, if you are in the business of electing a Minister, Imam, Rabbi or Guru, the first question prescribed by the bampot test is:

Is every word in our sacred writing equally and literally the word of God which must be believed and obeyed?

If the person answers ,”yes” he or she is a bampot, because he refuses to recognise the fact that all writings are written by fallible human beings.

If you have any doubts about the person’s bampotism, a second question can be asked: How did the universe come into existence?

If the person tells a story of how it was raised from the deeps by the sacred turtle of the south seas, or fashioned from nothing by the Creator God in one week some four thousand years ago, he or she is a confirmed bampot, because he refuses to recognise the facts about the universe established by the sciences.

image
Tea house in Toronto

Once you have made a firm diagnosis of bampotism, you should refuse to allow the sick person to exercise any authority in your religious community, while gently offering him or her free access to the debampotification course which I have devised and can deliver, under the title:

THE FACTS ARE FRIENDLY; GOD IS IN THE FACTS.

Once fundamentalists are refused employment and deprived of influence over decent believers, that is, once this illness has ceased to confer power, prestige or wealth, it may cease to be endemic to religious communities.

Christian readers may have noticed that my definition of fundamentalism applies mainly to the Reformed Churches with their reverence for the scriptures, while Roman Catholic Churches and Orthodox Churches may seem to escape these strictures. Far from it. It’s just that in these cases the place of the Bible is taken by the Ruling Hierarchy of the churches. A Catholic who thinks that the Pope and the Bishops of his church are infallible is just as much a fundamentalist as any bible-basher from Bathgate. He or she is suffering from a bad case of Sancta Ecclesia Bampotissima and requires urgent treatment.

So, let good religion, allied with good common sense and good humour expose Franklin as a miserable bampot and laugh him back to the USA; but let’s keep a robust respect for free speech.

Mark 6: 30

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’ But he answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?’ And he said to them, ‘How many loaves have you? Go and see.’ When they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’ Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

The first century audience of Mark’s gospel were smarter than us in that they understood narrative techniques which are now considered the property of highly educated intellectuals, in this case the techniques of magical realism and inter- textuality. The first of these is common to the whole of Mark’s Gospel which narrates events which are improbable or impossible with the greatest realism. The purpose of this is to insist that some so-called ordinary events can change the world.

The second technique is seen in all the gospels when the writers note that something which is narrated of Jesus has links with passages in the Jewish Bible. Here Mark chooses to alert his readers by the use of two of the words I have shown in bold, shepherd and green grass. The great king David had been a shepherd and was known, as were his successors, as shepherd of his people. In the story immediately before this one, King Herod has been shown as unworthy of this title, as he has no care for his people and orders the killing of a prophet. The readers are meant to remember the story of Israel’s kings, and to agree with Jesus that the people are without a true shepherd and are looking for one anointed by God (messiah) to rule them.

But the words, “green grass”, tease the readers also to remember the green pastures of Psalm 23. The Greek word “chloros” is used both here and in the Greek translation of the Hebrew psalm, which would have been familiar to Mark, who wants his readers to have the whole psalm in mind as they read his story: The Lord is my shepherd….I shall lack nothing….(Jesus plays the role of shepherd) he leads me in the right paths (Jesus teaches the people) You have prepared a table before me….(Jesus feeds them) …my cup overflows…(There are 12 baskets of food left over). These similarities encourage the reader to trust that Jesus will also be with them when they walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Of course the Psalm is speaking of God, whereas Mark is speaking about a human being, Jesus, who is playing out on earth the role of God the Shepherd.

That’s why Mark describes a miracle; the presence of God in Jesus means that Israel has its true king, that the way of justice is taught, that the hungry are fed from what is already available. Mark doesn’t mean us to go behind the miracle in search of something more ordinary. He expected his first readers to know that these miracles had happened in their shared lives in the assemblies of believers. He wants them to realise that the source of these miracles is Jesus. How did Jesus bring them about?

Certainly not by any open display of divine power! But rather by the set of linked actions which I have shown in bold. First of all he “takes”. He does not despise what his disciples provide. More generally he does not reject worldly resources. Then he engages with the God who is beyond him and yet with him; he is not superman, he needs help. Out of this encounter he blesses the bread as a gift of God, our daily bread, which is sufficient for the needs of all. Then he breaks it, for it cannot remain whole; it must be shared out. Lastly he gives it through his disciples for the benefit of all, who are no longer a crowd, but little assemblies of people. The resemblance to the story of the last supper is obvious. The miracle is the life of Jesus Messiah, broken, given and shared in the community of brothers and sisters for the benefit of the world. Here the leftovers are enough to feed the 12 tribes of Israel; in the linked story of the feeding of 4000, the leftovers are enough for the 7(x10) nations of non-Jews.

Mark’s magic realism and his mixing his own text with the text of Psalm 23, allows him to communicate these truths so much more beautifully than I have.

This blog is a result of reading the unsettling replies of Zen Master Chao-Chou, while thinking about Jesus. Both of them were quick on their feet, and witty in their wisdom.

The Question about Paying Taxes

Here’s an episode from the Gospel of Mark chapter 12

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.

Roman Denarius of Jesus’ time

The questioners were sure they could trap Jesus into looking like a Rome-lover (making him unpopular with patriotic Jews) or a dangerous radical (making him a legitimate target for the Roman administration). At first Jesus’ solution looks simply like a bit of smart repartee that got him out of a tight corner. But if we give it a little more consideration, it looks more profound.

Firstly, we should note that questioners were pushing Jesus towards a refusal of tax payments. That’s certainly the drift of their preface – “you don’t kow-tow to people in power”- encouraging Jesus to oppose the Emperor. This is interesting because it shows that Jesus’ preaching about God’s kingdom had political overtones.

Then we can recognise that “true Jews” would see the Roman denarius as the kind of “graven image” forbidden in the 10 commandments, and therefore never use it. Here, Jesus casual request shows that his questioners are not “true Jews” as they readily provide the coin.

Next, we can see that Jesus’ question is carefully worded: whose image and title are on it? His questioners give him the answer, the Emperor’s, which allows Jesus to advise giving the Emperor what belongs to him, and to God what belongs to God. But what belongs to God? Jesus’ audience, prompted by his language would have remembered the creation story in Genesis which teaches that men and women were created in the “image and likeness of God.” Jesus was reminding his questioners that the image of God is stamped on every human being, who therefore “belong to God.”

This is a stunning reply from a citizen of a country under foreign rule. It suggests that rather than becoming too tied up in the details of oppression – the Romans were taxing them for the privilege of being ruled by them – people should turn towards the source of liberation: they belong to God whose kingdom is even more extensive that that of Rome, and they should behave as citizens of that kingdom. Sure, this might involve actions as dangerous as tax evasion, but these would flow from an active assertion of divine citizenship rather than from a reaction to Rome’s imperialism.

It is quite clear that Jesus’ reply is not, as the protestant reformers taught, proposing a neat division between secular and religious realms. If ultimately the person belongs to God then the Emperor ought to walk carefully: the lives of people do not belong to him. And of course, all human beings, conscious of the divine image stamped on their lives, should hold their heads high in the face of emperor and all oppressive rulers. Jesus’ teaching is not an evasion of concrete action against oppression, but rather the basis of it.

I want to dedicate this blog to the members of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, about which I wrote two blogs back, in recognition of their principled opposition to oppressive rule in their own country.