I see that Pope Francis has come up against Jesus’ annoying habit of being definite. I refer of course to the Synod of bishops in which Francis urged compassion in dealing with remarried divorcees but found himself on the wrong end of quotations from the teaching of Jesus. For it is notorious that Jesus did not advocate something vague like compassion on divorced people but said that they were committing adultery if they remarried. It seemed to some bishops that approving adultery could hardly be viewed as compassion. It could never be compassionate to lead a person into something wrong or to excuse something wrong that they had done. The problem is that compassion requires us to help a person towards what is right, which means we have to have a clear view of right and wrong.

In this case, Christian believers should have a good look at Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce.

The fullest version of this teaching is found in Mark 10 verses 1-12; although briefer versions are found in Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18. Here’s the Mark:

10 He left that place and went to the region of Judea and[a] beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.

2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3 He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ 4 They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ 5 But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,[b] 8 and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

It really does sound extreme, doesn’t it?image

Of course we know that the whole story of Jesus was handed on by the first Christian communities and their teachers, not to mention the gospel writers themselves who used what they were given with some freedom. We cannot be sure in any instance that we have got the exact words of Jesus, but we can be reasonably sure that we are given the message of Jesus as understood by the writer. One device of the writers is to give the core of Jesus’ teaching in the context of an incident and to add their interpretation of it it as “Jesus’ explanation to his disciples.” This device allowed for changes and additions to what was the agreed “word of the Lord.” In this case the words about a woman divorcing her husband have been added, to meet the needs of people living under Roman Civil Law, which unlike Jewish law allowed women to divorce husbands. There is a sense here that the teaching is being used as community law and therefore has to be expanded to apply to gentile society.

The core of the teaching however is pretty plain. Moses in Jesus’ view, had moved away from the real intention of God in allowing men to divorce their wives with a writ of divorce, because otherwise they would simply have thrown them out. The existence of divorce customs according to Jesus is a sop to the hard – heartedness of men, in a  society where women were materially dependent on their husbands.

Jesus in this instance acts like a radical rabbi, quoting one piece of scripture against another and indicating that only one represents the original intention of the creator God. For Jesus the Genesis scripture that makes men and women the equal creation of God and the equal bearers of his likeness also shows the sexual partnership of male and female as a fundamental unity in the eyes of God. According to Jesus, this unity should not be torn apart in divorce. Indeed, in God’s eyes the unity still exists after divorce making any new sexual partnership into adultery. The intention of God according to Jesus is that the sexual relationship of man and woman should be exclusive and lifelong.

This teaching is so bold, fresh and awkward that it’s very likely to have come from Jesus. But as it became the basis of community law in the developing churches, other elements were added. In Matthew’s version, there is an exception made in the case of a wife’s infidelity. Paul has to deal with cases where believers wanted to divorce their unbelieving spouses. Eventually the church developed disciplines which included excommunicating those who ignored the church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage.

We should try to distinguish the teaching of Jesus from the practice of the church.

He teaches that as against all the hard- heartedness of men in a patriarchal society. God intends that the sexual partnership of men and women should be exclusive and lifelong. We do not know what Jesus thought about homosexual relationships if he knew of any, or indeed about the sexual behaviour of young unmarried men and women. We do know that he saw a purpose of the creator fulfilled in marriage – “be fruitful and multiply”- and the unity of husband and wife as an image of the “oneness” of God. The mutual faithfulness of husband and wife mirrors the faithfulness of God to his/her own nature and to the creation. It is one of things God saw as ‘good’ that is, good for his creatures.image

I realise that non-believers will find all this peculiar and irrelevant. Surely we don’t need to go to some obscure Jewish text for an understanding of marriage, or even to Jesus, a man who lived in a very different sort of  society from ours, a long time ago. My own view is that even agnostics and atheists can benefit from Jesus’ teaching, but certainly those who have chosen to follow Jesus, should take his teaching very seriously indeed.

My own Church of Scotland has taken the view that although we should uphold lifelong faithful marriage as the intention of God, and the intention of couples when they marry, we should recognise that people make mistakes, that one or both partners may cruel and damaging to the other, or they may separate completely, and that therefore divorce happens. The church’s pastoral task is to support those marriages which can be rebuilt, and to support the separated partners if the marriage has broken down completely. The church also recognises and supports the new marriages of people who have been divorced, as well the loneliness of those who believe they should not marry again. Above all, however the church celebrates faithful sexual partnerships as a a profound joy and fulfilment of human potential.

In other words my church affirms an intention of God but accepts that even God can’t always get what he wants. When people fail to live up to God’s intention, we should help them cope with that failure without condemnation, and encourage them to try again if they want to do so. But we should not abandon the teaching of Jesus with its blunt assertion that sexual faithfulness is what we are made for. Compassion should require us to apply that teaching in our own relationships, and to help others to do so.

No one is forced to follow the way of Jesus, but those who so choose should be aware that by the standards of liberal democracy, they’re dealing with an extremist.

It’s characteristic of modern and post- modern societies to have sympathy for the Devil. There’s no evidence for such a thing in medieval society, where the power and destructiveness of the Prince of evil is off-limits, except to the damned. In the early modern era Christopher Marlowe created a sympathetic but terrible Mephistopheles in his Faustus, as Goethe also did,albeit in a different way, in his  Faust 200 years later. In my own time sympathy for the Devil and for his followers is common. Although the span of my life has contained numerous appalling examples of the power of evil, from Hitler to ISIL, our culture has moved away from any serious philosophy of good and evil towards a view that these absolute categories are not very helpful in preventing evil actions. Something less ambitious, capable of seeing some wrongness in even the best people and some good even in the worst, with a corresponding lack of conviction about the value of punishment, has been more common

Mephistopheles by Mark Antokolski
Mephistopheles by Mark Antokolski

In this culture the idea of a punishing God makes no sense. If there is a God, which many doubt, then surely he/she is responsible for everything including the evil and has no right to punish. God’s love is emphasised by theologians at the expense of his judgement. Punishment of evil however was one of the ways in which people imagined God taking responsibility for his flawed creation. Modern theologies often seem to present a well-meaning God who wrings his ineffectual hands while evil continues.

Jesus was quite aware that human beings create their Gods; he himself imagined a Heavenly Father who loved his creation, yet punished those who worked against his wish to perfect it. Jesus’ teaching about punishment is probably the most direct and extreme in the bible. Again and again he sets out his view of God’s rescuing justice, and goes on to imagine his punishment of those who oppose it. God’s commandment is clear and strict; those who have disobeyed it can find forgiveness and turn their lives around but those who never turn are warned they are heading  for hell. Fire, darkness and separation from all good are included in Jesus’ imagining of God’s judgement. Death is the cut-off point. The rich man who ignores the poor man at his gate gets off with it in life but in death he is punished apparently without mercy. Those who have done nothing for the least important of their brothers and sisters, are permitted not to do so in this present age, but in the time of the great judgement they are cast into outer darkness, apparently without promise of parole.

Jesus never luxuriates in this sort of scenario, but simply mentions it as if were a thing that all should know. Of course he is talking in picture language about God, but the picture itself is clear: believing in the God of Jesus means believing in clear commandments, with rewards for obedience and penalties for disobedience. This may seem extreme to people who want to be more forgiving towards human evil than Jesus was.

The rich man in hell, Lazarus with Abraham
The rich man in hell, Lazarus with Abraham

I happen to imagine, that the purpose of God’s punishments is restoration. They are designed to burn out the evil from human souls, as they are in Dante’s Purgatory. Like Dante however I also believe that there are those who will continue to refuse all goodness and may be headed for what the book of Revelation calls the second death, that is utter extinction.

But about Jesus saving us? I’m sure he wants to rescue us from evil and that God’s love in him can enable us to turn our lives around. But I don’t think he rescues us from the consequences of our wrongness, either in this world or the next, and there’s no evidence that Jesus thought differently.

I see our beloved PM has been preaching again about opposing extremism and strengthening British values. In particular he seems agitated about “extremist narratives” by which he means any historical narrative about the UK which doesn’t sound like one of Uncle David’s bedtime stories, in which the UK is always Mr. Wonderful, bringing peace and sanity to a troubled world.

Pontius Pilatus
Pontius Pilatus

My guess is that almost all imperial powers have told this story about themselves, including the Romans, which has led me to the discovery of an alternative  and more accurate account of Jesus’ conversation with Pilate.

Pilate: You can leave us, soldier, I don’t think the Son of God will attack me.

Soldier: Sir!

Pilate: You may be seated.

Jesus: Thank you.

Pilate. Of course we know a deal about you from our spies, but Jesus of…Nazareth? Where is it exactly? I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of passing through it

J: It’s in Galilee, near the Lake, not far from Capernaum. My family has a builder’s business there. For most of my life I worked in it.

P: Before your eh, radicalisation?

J: I learned a great deal from the Prophet John, called the Dipper.

P: A good and harmless man put to death by your corrupt King.

J: Just so.

P: Perhaps your dislike of Herod sparked your ambition to be a king?

J: I’ve been advocating God’s Rule which doesn’t depend on worldly power.

P: The sort of power on which Rome depends, you mean?

J: Yes.

P: And that’s what leads you to hold secret gatherings of vast crowds in desert places, many of whom think you are the anointed one, the true king of Israel as opposed to filthy Gentiles like us?

J: I have never encouraged that sort of talk…

P: But clearly you haven’t discouraged it much, as we got it from several of your followers…one of whom,a certain Shimon, we know as a member of the so-called Zealots….

J: Ex- member.

P: Of course you would say that. We don’t object to religion however daft it may be, but when religion gets mixed up with anti- Roman propaganda and a doubtful narrative which depicts the Jews as victims and the Romans as oppressors, we know we’re half – way to another Messianic rebellion!

J: Violent words and actions are foreign to God’s way.,

David Cameron
David Cameron

P : Yet one of our men heard you say that you had not come to bring peace, but a sword!

J: I was using a metaphor to  describe the effect of God’s rule on family life.

P: But you did say it knowing that your words would be reported….and how people might understand them. Come on Jesus, you have become a powerful man, with influence over the lives of many people. And you have no respect for Roman values.

Jesus: I haven’t come across any Roman values, but I’m sure if I did I would give them the respect they’re due…

P: It’s that kind of disrespect which has landed you here in my power.

J: I recognise your office, Pontius, but I am not in your power. Do tell me about these Roman values.

P: Your use of my name is impertinent. I am due your respect as the representative of the Roman values of order, law, peace, communication, commerce, art  and philosophy. In our short rule of your country we have improved the whole level of civilisation, especially the infrastructure, like roads. Many of them are now safe for all travellers. We have helped people live a more rational life.

J: As long as they agree that you should be in charge. Don’t you see how this contributes to the common story in these parts that you are a young arrogant power incapable of recognising any civilisation except your own?

P: That’s just the sort of extreme narrative we have to defeat, because angry young men are radicalised by it and turned into the sort of extremist thugs that have made suicidal attacks on our off- duty soldiers. I’m sure you don’t approve of that any more than I do, and I hope that you’ll denounce it along with me.

J: You denounce the petty violence of local people, while you ignore the seven hills of violence on which Rome is built. I, on the other hand have denounced all forms of violence…..

P: How I wish I was back home on one of these hills rather than stuck here dealing with irrational assasins and sons of God!

J: This son of God wishes you well, Pontius, but can’t you see that every time you execute a Zealot or even a son of God, you add another chapter to the story of Rome as an empire of blood?

P: But will you still wish me well, Jesus of Nazareth, when I put you on one of our stakes,as you know I must, for the price of order is unflinching severity.

J: Yes, even then, for the price of justice is unflinching love.

P: Maybe you are more dangerous to Rome than the most violent assasins. I can imagine how your followers will tell your story…..and mine.

J: It’s not fixed in advance, Pontius, you get to write your own part.

P: But I must hold to my duty and my Roman values. Farewell, son of God. Guards!

I’ m sure readers will have views on the question above, but I want to start with another question:

Why did Jesus give so much of his reaching in the form of commands? Of course people who grew up with Bible stories are used to the idea of commandments, but most people associate commands with being children who need told what to do because they can’t yet be trusted to know what is best. In adult day to day life, most people  are rarely issued with a command, unless they are in the armed forces or some other work where lives may be at risk.

Jesus seems to have been in favour of lifting people up rather than bringing them down, so why did he give so many commands. Certainly he grew up in a religious culture which gave a prominent place to the “commands of God” which had been entrusted by God to Moses and the prophets. But lawgivers and prophets always prefaced commandments with ‘This is God’s word’ whereas Jesus simply gave commands on his own authority – ” in the old times they said …..but now I tell you.” His attention was more on the content of the command that on its supposed origin. “This way is good …..follow it!”

SNP CONFERENCE THIS WEEK
SNP CONFERENCE THIS WEEK

This means that when Jesus commands “Love your enemies” he is not giving wise advice about the best life – style. He is speaking as the channel of a long tradition, allowing its collective insight to speak through him, so that he puts his whole being behind its truth and expresses its urgent relevance to his own time. Although he loves his disciples he believes they need the creative pressure of his commandment to keep them on the right track. Jesus knew the capacity of human beings for good and evil. We are not naturally good and therefore need a degree of discipline to keep us decent far less good. Commandments are an instrument of beneficial discipline. We are not to question, but to obey, which of course we will only do if we trust the one who is issuing the command.

I listened to the only question to the triumphant SNP worth asking this week. “When as promised you get responsibility for benefits and income tax in Scotland, will you reverse the Government’s benefit cuts which you are presently denouncing?” Answer? “Well no, not really, because we won’t have control of the whole economy.” Mmmnnn…. …I think I just heard the sound of hypocrisy. Because of course, increasing income tax to increase benefits would be very unpopular even with the SNP’s own supporters. That’s because years of undisputed capitalist propaganda have dinned it into people that they as individuals should be the sole arbiters of what is done with “their own money.” If we as individuals want to help the poor, we can do so, but no government should make us do it by increasing our taxes.

Well I can remember when conservative philosophers accused socialism of believing in the perfectibility of human beings! Now conservatives believe so much in the goodness of human beings that they will leave whole areas of social justice to the whim of individuals. In this matter, I think, knowing myself, that Jesus was right. Left to myself, I may feel I want to increase social justice by my own charitable actions, but probably, because I am a sinful, selfish person I will not do so with sufficient regularity to make any difference to the lives of the poor. I need discipline, and I can find it by voting for a party that will, if elected give me no choice. it will tax me justly to create more justice in society. In matters of social,justice, taxation can take the place of a commandment.

Sure, this would only be acceptable if a) I supported the social programme of that party and b) trusted it to use taxes honestly and effectively. But if I trusted the SNP in those respects, I would vote for a programme that increased my taxes. I am not a rich person, My annual income is not more than £30,000 all told, although I have full ownership,of my own house and car. I am semi- retired and lucky enough to need no medical or social care. There are many people in my position. £5 buys a cheap bottle of wine. Would it really give me pain to miss one bottle of wine a week, if I could be sure that the extra £5 of tax would allow the poorest of my fellow citizens some dignity?

One less cow pie per week?
One less cow pie per week?

So, here is my xtremejesus challenge to the SNP or any political party. “Tell me what you could do with that extra £5 per week tax, and I might well campaign for that increase. Jesus has commanded me to give to the needy without expecting a return, and to worship God not Wealth. You could help me obey.”

It’s time we were adult about this issue rather than resting on the childish and destructive nonsense peddled by selfish people who cannot see that all wealth is communally earned. Who builds their roads, their houses, their cars, their airports? Who maintains emergency services and the rule of law? Who cleans their houses? Who looks after their frail elderly? The Thatcher doctrine that there’s no such thing as society is just an excuse for beggaring your neighbour. We are inevitably dependant on others. We can choose to make this relationship fruitful for all rather than some. And what’s more, as I probably drink too much wine, this tax would also be good for my health and save the NHS the expense of my liver transplant.

I’m just gearing myself up to deal with this question when my Aunt Ethel interrupts. She’s a staunch member of a  Baptist church in Wolverhampton.

Aunt Ethel: Now just hang on a minute before you start! Be careful what you’re saying. Your church and churches like it may be empty, but our church and churches like ours are well – attended and full of young people too.

Me:  Maybe so, Aunt Ethel,  but they are still a minority……

Sunday school Jesus
Sunday school Jesus

Aunt Ethel: Don’t patronise me with statistics young man! I’ll tell you why ours is full and yours is empty. It’s because you have abandoned the gospel! It’s because you have dishonoured the Word of God in the Bible by preaching all kinds of new- fangled things like being nice to Muslims and homosexuals. That’s why your church is empty……

Me: But these are important issues that have to be faced….

Aunt Ethel: Yes, but they have to be faced with the truth of God’s Word. People are not looking for some wispy-washy liberal stuff when they come to church. They want certainty.  A clear-cut Gospel with clear-cut standards. A teaching that leads society instead of following it. And I not just talking about older people, it’s young people too. They want certainty as well.

Me: You mean the sort of certainty the Muslims have?

Aunt Ethel: Exactly! You don’t find them apologising for Allah…….. Eh, well, of course I don’t mean what they believe of course, that’s all lies, but their assurance, their certainty….

Me: I don’t see how you can call it lies, Aunty-after all it’s all written down in a holy book that contains God’s truth. As you say, it gives them complete certainty – apart from the way one lot of them disagrees with the other. But yes, they all are certain. How can you say they are wrong?

Aunt Ethel: Because the Bible is God’s Word while their Qur’an is the words of human beings.

Me: While they would say that the Qur’an is God’s Word while the bible is the word of human beings. And they’re so certain that if you insult their holy book, they’ll stone you to death. All of that admirable certainty leads to killing.

Aunt Ethel: I’ve got confused in here. In the end of the day my church is not preaching the Bible it is preaching Jesus Christ as our saviour, who died for our sins and gains us salvation and a place in heaven! That’s the real certainty. The rest is important, but that’s the message. A lot of your churches don’t preach salvation any more.

Me: I grew up in a gospel church so there’s something there I agree with. But you know all I ever heard about Jesus as child and a young man was how he died on the cross for my salvation. He was supposed to be important but his life didn’t seem to matter. Yes, he was born of a virgin, did  some miracles, died and rose again…..

Jesus saviour of the world
Jesus saviour of the world

Aunt Ethel: What could be more important than Jesus being my saviour?

Me: I don’t doubt your salvation Auntie, but I want to ask you a question: do you like Jesus ?

Aunt Ethel: What in earth do you mean? I love Jesus as my saviour!

Me: But do you like him? I mean, for example, he associated with tax collectors and prostitutes.

Aunt Ethel: I don’t think the better of him for it, but I suppose he had to save them.

Me: And he attacked people who were sure of their salvation  and looked down on others…

Aunt Ethel: But it was just a Jewish salvation….

Me: And he criticised the holy scriptures….

Aunt Ethel: No he did not!

Me: He did you know. He said, the Law says this but I say that. He challenged the Scripture in God’s name.

Aunt Ethel: You’re right. I’m not sure if I like him. I prefer to love him as my saviour!

Me: My saviour too I hope. The saviour of the world. I like your enthusiasm for Jesus. I like your church’s determination to reach out with the gospel. We’ve a lot to learn from you. But we also have to know our saviour as a troubling difficult man who hated religious certainties but loved sinners and poor people. We have to reckon with the fact that maybe the clearer we are about his message, the less popular it will be.

Aunt Ethel: ( starts humming “O Happy Day”)

Me: (joins in)

Aunt Ethel: See, that’s the Gospel !

Me: But only if we remember the real Jesus. We’ll talk again Aunty.

A storm on the Mediterranean. An overcrowded motorboat is wallowing in the waves while another vessel pulls away.image

Voice 1: Hey, you can’t leave us here with no petrol……

Voice 2: Come back, there are kids here and a baby, come back, you promised to get us to Greece!!

Voice 3: We paid you well, a thousand a family, and now you ditched us. Bastards!

Voice 1: Well, they’re gone and won’t be back. We better do what we can.

Voice 3: Don’t be a fool! There’s nothing we can do. No gas, no engine, no oars, in the midst of a storm. We’re dead pal.

Voice 2: Don’t say that. We’ve got our kids here. We need to fight for them.

Voice 1: I’ve got an idea! Listen everybody!

Voice 3: Quit wailing would you and listen to the man. Quiet!

Voice 1: If we can’t keep the boat moving the storm will sink us. So, check your belongings for anything , shirts, dresses, coats, we could use as storm sails. And don’t hide anything in your bags. Better to reach land naked than die at sea! So now, look, everybody!

Voice 2: Well done, that’s got them.

Voice 3 : They’re all looking …

Voice 2: Except that man at the back there, he’s doing nothing at all….

Voice 1: It’s almost like he was sleeping…..Good God……or …maybe dead?

Voice 3: Hey at the back there! Yes, there. Check the bloke behind you. He’s not moving…..

Voice 4: Here’s a sheet, will that do?

Voice 5: I’ve got a linen cloak, how about that?

Voice 6: Hey! Up front! This guy is OK he was sleeping, but he’s a troublemaker!

http://www.pitts.emory.edu/dia/detail.cfm?ID=11426 Author: Herberger, Valerius, 1562-1627. Image Title: Jesus Sleeps in Boat Scripture Reference: Matthew 8 Description: Jesus sleeps in the boat during a storm. Click here for additional images available from this book.
http://www.pitts.emory.edu/dia/detail.cfm?ID=11426
Author: Herberger, Valerius, 1562-1627.
Image Title: Jesus Sleeps in Boat
Scripture Reference: Matthew 8

Voice 2: Just ignore him…… Look for sails…..

Voice 1: What sort of trouble?

Voice 6: Says he’s Jesus!

Voice 5: Leave him to me. He’s taking the piss because he knows we’re Christians.

Voice 4: Yeah, that’s what got us into this boat, he’s having a laugh….

Voice 5: Listen you, yeah you at the back, shut your face and look for sails like the rest of us. And no more about being Jesus or we’ll beat the shit outa you….

Jesus: But I am Jesus, I’m sorry I was sleeping while everyone was helping…..

Voice 6: Isn’t there a Bible story………….?

Voice 1: Never mind all that. give me a hand to fix this sheet to the mast to give the boat some movement…

Voice7: Yeah but wait a minute, maybe he is Jesus, and maybe he can save us just like on the Sea of Galilee,

Voice 5: He was sleeping on the boat and his disciples woke him up and he told the wind and the waves to cease and there was a great calm.

Several Voices: Jesus! Lord Jesus! Have mercy upon us. We’re all sinners, except these little children. Have mercy upon them. Speak to the wind and tell the waves to be still. Save us, Lord before we all die!

Jesus: I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do more than you’re doing already.

Voice 6: Don’t give us that stuff. You’re the Son of God, of course you can do anything!

Jesus: That would be nice, but truly I can do no more than you…

Voice 1: Listen! Ignore him.He’s some kind of nutter. Leave him be. Concentrate on keeping calm, looking after the kids and helping me. She’s beginning to pull through the waves.

Voice 3: Yeah, listen to him. He’s more use than Jesus, poor daft bugger…..

Yesterday my wife have me the gift of a book by my favourite poet, Don Paterson, “40 Sonnets” published by Faber and Faber. He is a marvellous writer, strangely described on the book’s blurb by fellow poet Paul Muldoon as the ” most interesting mid-career poet working in the UK.” Wow! If my pitch to be the next Pope  ever gets off the ground, I’ll probably not ask Mr Muldoon to be my publicity manager.

In fact, that little story chimes with my theme in this blog which is the importance of words. I recognise that with the world-wide use of social media, there must be a greater volume of public words than ever before. Sure, most of them are very ephemeral, which is just as well seeing how ill-considered many of them are. But that raises the question of the place of well- considered words in such a world. In the welter of communications daily flooding the media, is there any longer a place for poetry, or good prose, or significant speech? Judge for yourself from this sonnet by Don Paterson on the mercy – killing of his dog.image

MERCY

She might have had months left of  her dog – years

but to be who? She’d grown light as a nest

and spent the whole day under her long ears

listening to the bad radio in her breast.

On a steel bench, knowing what was taking shape

she tried and tried to stand, as if to sign

that she was still of use, and should escape

our selection. So I turned her face to mine,

and seeing only love there – which, for all

the wolf in her, she knew as well as we did –

she lay back down and let the needle enter.

And love was surely what her eyes conceded

as her stare grew hard, and one bright aerial

quit making its report back to the centre.

The words are simple and none is out of place, but the poem is not simple as anyone who has tried to speak of their feelings at such a death will know; in fact, all of us who have had this experience will feel on reading the poem, that somehow Don Paterson has managed to speak from our hearts as well as his own, not because of the authenticity of his emotion, although I do not doubt it, but because of his disciplined skill with words. Just look at that last phrase, the one bright aerial that “quit making its report to the centre” is of course the dog’s eye in death that ceases to communicate with the brain, but it’s also somehow the whole living creature ceasing to communicate with the centre of life. What centre of life? Do I know, my words are merely floundering but there is a power in Paterson’s words, that links the death with something even more fundamental, probably love.

Good words open up a community in which even those whose words are clumsy can share a truth, that is, an understanding that is adequate to their experience, and cherish it, knowing that it enriches their lives.

This is also true of the stories of Jesus. We often forget that the words of these stories come from a communal experience of Jesus, told and re- told until the words are pruned of everything unnecessary, and then written down by masters of narrative. Even meretricious modern translations cannot wholly spoil them, but reasonably literal translations are to be preferred. Here for example is one story in the translation by John Darby, from Luke chapter 7, vv 36ff:

36 But one of the Pharisees begged him that he would eat with him. And entering into the house of the Pharisee he took his place at table; 37 and behold, a woman in the city, who was a sinner, and knew that he was sitting at meat in the house of the Pharisee, having taken an alabaster box of myrrh,
38 and standing at his feet behind him weeping, began to wash his feet with tears; and she wiped them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the myrrh.

Poussin
Poussin

39 And the Pharisee who had invited him, seeing it, spoke with himself saying, This person if he were a prophet would have known who and what the woman is who touches him, for she is a sinner.
40 And Jesus answering said to him, Simon, I have somewhat to say to you. And he says, Teacher, say.
41 There were two debtors of a certain creditor: one owed five hundred denarii and the other fifty;
42 but as they had nothing to pay, he forgave both of them their debt: say,which of them therefore will love him most?
43 And Simon answering said, I suppose he to whom he forgave the most. And he said to him, You have rightly judged.
44 And turning to the woman he said to Simon, Do you see this woman? I entered into your house; you gave me  me no water on my feet, but she has washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with her hair.
45 You gave me no kiss, but she from the time I came in has not ceased kissing my feet.
46 My head with oil you did not anoint, but she has anointed my feet with myrrh.
47 For which cause I say to you, Her many sins are forgiven; for she loved much; but he to whom little is forgiven loves little.
48 And he said to her, Your sins are forgiven.
49 And they that were with them at table began to say within themselves, Who is this who forgives also sins?
50 And he said to the woman, Your faith has saved you; go in peace.

If I were a Muslim or a Jew I would have been encouraged to memorise this story, so that it formed part of my store of wisdom. As it is, I have more or less done so after a lifetime of reading it. The words are precious, not just the incident they recount, for my retelling of the incident might be no more adequate than my retelling of Don Paterson’s poem.

Notice the storyteller’s skill:

The situation is briefly introduced, Jesus is eating with a Pharisee. Almost immediately the woman appears from nowhere and is described expressing her passionate thanks to Jesus. Here the details matter, she stands behind the reclining Jesus, she weeps, washes his feet with tears, dries them with her hair, kisses them and anoints them with myrrh. Even if we do not know Jewish table customs, we know all this is an embarrassing intrusion. The Pharisee thinks critically about Jesus and is caught doing so and made to answer a swift and brutal parable about debtors. Just how brutal is revealed when Jesus takes each courtesy lacking in the Pharisee’s welcome to dignify the loving courtesy of the woman he despises as sinful. The details of the Pharisee’s coldness have been held back from the reader until this moment so that we can experience the brutality of Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisee and the delicacy of his honour to the woman, in a single moment of understanding. The woman is depicted as already trusting in Jesus’ forgiveness before he utters it, showing her gratitude in advance of his gift.

The story is a perfect representation of Jesus’ character: his brusque dismissal of religious status, self- righteous judgementalism and protocols, and his delight in those who have made their bare humanity into a gift. His counter- cultural conviction that men and women can inhabit a climate of generosity, shines from the narrative and makes a community of all who welcome its truth.

Did it happen exactly like this? We cannot know but we do know that small groups of Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, told it and re- told it, because it made a link between their mortal lives and something even more fundamental, probably love, which they could cherish and by which they were enriched.

Words can do this.