Polly Toynbee is a journalist of decent convictions and sometimes poor judgement. Yesterday she published an article in the Guardian, in the wake of the Pope’s visit and the row over anti- Jewish sentiment in the Labour Party. Her main point was that we should, as wise human beings, do away with religion, because all round the world religion is the cause of prejudice and violence. Yes, it’s true that in situations of violence we often find religious people. But it’s also true that in places of violence we often find people who drink water, wear shoes, have sex. Should we therefore deduce that water, shoes and sex are causes of violence? When we know that 80% of human beings call themselves religious, the mere concurrence of religion and violence may not be as significant as Polly thinks.

Of course there are occasions when religious identity contributes to violence, as in Pakistan, or Northern Ireland, or Myanmar. But given that in the case of Ireland the two religions are both Christian, it’s reasonable to ask if the religion produces the violence or is used by violent people to gain support. Still, it’s hard to deny that fundamentalist people of all faiths, who are certain their own beliefs are the only right ones, contribute to prejudice, social tensions and violence, alongside other factors. At the same time, we should recognise the immense amount of good done by religious people. The destitute and hungry people of Dundee can find a free meal at least twice a day, seven days a week, in this city; and all of these meals are provided by religious people, including Sikhs and Muslems as well as Christians. Most successful youth organisations in Scotland are connected to churches. These facts do not excuse the blind prejudice of some religious people, but they are less frequently publicised than the prejudices.

Religions are causes of prejudice inasmuch as they offer a specific recipe for salvation or enlightenment: those committed to their way will be saved or enlightened, while others will be left in damnation or ignorance. In those religious communities there is something scarce (salvation, enlightenment) which only some can get, and the true religion tells you how to get it. Clearly that sort of religion provides a training in prejudice.

At this point, perhaps we can again reclaim Jesus, who saw the capacity of his own religion, as represented by its Pharisees, for  arrogance and prejudice, and denounced it savagely. His gospel, his good news, was that there was no right way of gaining God’s love, because God freely gave it to all. In a way this gospel is almost anti- religious in that at one stroke it abolishes the power of religion to control the supply of salvation, or enlightenment. St. Paul’s bitter arguments against Jewish legal customs show that he grasped the appalling nature of God’s love, as Jesus had taught and demonstrated it. My guess is that Jesus did not intend to found a religion, but hoped that his fellow Jews could recognise the free love to which their religion at its best, had pointed, trust in it, and share it practically with each other and their neighbouring gentiles. It was his religion’s response, the murderous rejection of him by those who knew they were right, that determined the emergence of separate communities of people who trusted in Jesus.

The history of Chritianity is the story of how the radical communities establshed by Paul and others in the name of Jesus became a religion with priests and temples. As soon as a community imagines itself to be the gate-keeper of God’s approval, it becomes a religion, with all the dangers of prejudice and violence towards those who are outside it – the kind of thing that gets a good scolding from Polly. But if we were to reclaim the scandalously open love of God announced by Jesus, along with the profound compassion taught by the  Buddha, the noble fellowship initiated by Guru Nanak, the justice of Allah written down by Mohammed (may all their names be blessed!) we might persuade Polly and other critics that faith communities need be neither religious nor violent, while contributing to the good of humanity.

Of course if we trust in the God of Jesus we have to admit that he will not intervene, except through his creatures, to protect us from suffering. But that’s the theme for another blog.


A penitent Pope is still a Pope. Pope Francis may want sincerely enough to model himself on the saint from Assisi, but he is still the head of the huge hierarchy of the Roman Church, still a man who takes hierarchical power for granted, rather than seeing it as a problem for disciples of Jesus. This has led to a peculiar blindness which allowed him to call sexual abuse “caca” meaning shit, or filth, as the decorous translators rendered it. That’s a dead give-away. He sees the abuse as some kind of disgusting sexual perversion, rather than what it is: an abuse of power. Why does a dog lick its testicles? Because it can. Why do clergy abuse children and vulnerable adults? Because they can. And they can, because of the power they possess. The actions of a pope after all are usually under continual scrutiny – the excesses of the Borgia popes are a thing of the past, or have been transferred to the White House-whereas the Parish Priest retains an unchallenged and often unsupervised power in his parish. Should he act in ways that cause offence he will be reported to a Bishop whose greater power may protect him from the criminal law. Of course, hierarchical power may sometimes be in the hands of saints, but it’s interesting to observe how often it’s in the hands of those who love it.

As the laws protecting children and vulnerable adults from abuse have been applied  in all institutions in Scotland, there has been a greater measure of scrutiny of those who hold executive power within them. Ministers of my church, for example, have to undergo the same police checks as the lay leaders of children’s clubs. And rightly so. A church member discovering abuse reports immediately to the safeguarding representative who reports directly to the police. There are serious doubts as to whether this basic limit on ecclesiastical power has been accepted in the Roman Church, whose hierarchy does not want its fundamental structure to be questioned. The Pope’s horror at abuse does him credit, but it does nothing at all to stop what is fundamentally an abuse of the same power that makes him what he is.

If we are looking for a way forward for the church, we could usefully reclaim the Jesus who especially welcomed children, spoke gravely about crimes against them, and used them as a model for the powerlessness on which his community should be built. When he knew his disciples were bickering about power he took a child, telling them that they had to change and become like little children, emphasising that those who did so were the greatest in God’s kingdom. He promised that whoever welcomed a child welcomed him. He threatened that anyone who harmed one of his little ones would be better drowned in the sea. This last saying opened the category of “little ones” to include any powerless person who believed in him.

The implications of this teaching for the leadership of Jesus’ community are evident when he used another category of powerlessness to instruct his disciples, that of the slave. The force of his language is often lost because the Greek word for slave is often translated as “servant” which makes it all English upper class domestic.

”You know that those who rule the gentile peoples dominate them, and their great men wield power over them. But it shall not be so amongst you…..whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”

If we look honestly at the structure of the Roman Church, is it more like the teaching of Jesus or the practice of the “gentile peoples”? I don’t think there can be much doubt about the answer. In spite of every person in the clergy saying that they are there to serve, there is no doubt that they can wield power if they choose to do so, and that the experience of that power opens them to corruption. I should add that although the structure of the Presbyterian church was devised to prevent that kind of power, by giving authority to elected elders, there is plenty evidence of both ministers and elders wielding arrogant power over the members of a congregation.

The leaders of Christian churches should share the powerlessness of Jesus. The apathy of church members often cited by clergy as a reason for the weakness of the church, is a powerlessness imposed by clergy who have taken all the power to themselves. Yes, there is a question about how there can be leadership without power over others, but there is an answer to that in the charismatic model proposed by St. Paul: God’s spirit provides people with the gifts needed to carry out particular functions in the “body of Messiah”, and such leaders have to persuade their fellow members to follow their lead, as Paul does all the time in his letters; he has to argue for the way of Jesus Messiah; authority is a matter of function rather than status.

Of course the church is an institution, as the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew. It exists in worldly space and time alongside other institutions. Its distinctiveness must be its absolute commitment to those who have no status in the eyes of the world, the child, the foreigner, the oppressed, and to the God who chooses to suffer with the little ones so that they may share his/her justice. In that church there can be no popery nor ministerial power, but only the community which “calls no man Father, for One is your Father, namely God.” The safety of children demands the reformation of the churches according to the teaching and example of Jesus.

None of what I have said here is original or profound but merely an exposition of what it means to be children of God, so how come I’m having to act as a teacher to the Pope?













I’ve been reading a biography of Tussy Marx, daughter of Karl, who spent her life working with people in Victorian England, both men and women, whose conditions of work and housing meant that scarcity was the constitutive experience of their lives. She could see that there were abundant resources for life on earth for everybody but that most of them had been appropriated by the possessors and managers of capital.  For Tussy as for her father, a shared abundance would only come at the end of revolutionary changes in the economy, but she laboured actively for small but vital improvements, such as the eight-hour working day.

Nothing seems further away from Tussy’s life of agitation than the teachings of Jesus about wealth. He told his disciples not to fret about food or clothing because God the Father had made a world of lavish abundance which could be seen in the feeding birds and the flowering plants. He spoke of the unrealibility of worldly wealth and advised them to work rather for God’s treasure, the sharing of justice, compassion and peace. At times indeed he recognised that His Way involved material and emotional sacrifice, but even then he promised rewards which would be humanly rich. He was very firm with people who wanted to hang on to their wealth, even to the point of mockery in his story of the rich farmer who is about to “grow” his enterprise when death takes him away.

So did Jesus live in a more prosperous society than Tussy Marx, or is his teaching unrealistic in simply not dealing with the struggle of many people for mere survival?

One might argue that Jesus’ society lacked the sheer oppression of the urban working class of Victorian England, but we need reminding how much work in Palestine was done by slaves, who had no rights at all. Jesus was aware of slavery and told many stories about slaves, and, as far as we know, he did not seek their emancipation. But he did want every person to share the abundant life, which, he taught, was available now.

One method for understanding Jesus’ improbable conviction of abundance is to look at his own ministry, especially his gathering of disciples, and to ask how it was funded. We know that St Paul funded his ministry at times by his own trade of leather-working, but the picture given in the Gospels is of a leader and disciples who had left their trades behind. This is asserted specifically of the disciples, but appears to be true of Jesus also.

There is no evidence however, that like early Francisans, Jesus and his disciples begged, nor that like certain other religious orders, they were funded by rich supporters. If we look at the communal life of the first believers as described in Acts 2 and 4, in which goods and possessions were shared for the benefit of all, we may suppose that they were continuing a life- style pioneered by Jesus’ disciples. Doubtless Jesus had been able, out of money saved from his business, to help fund his ministry. Perhaps some disciples were able to do the same. The women whom Luke describes as travelling with Jesus and his group as helpers, may also have made contributions. The gospel of John mentions a common purse, to which perhaps people who liked Jesus’ message could contribute: it will have been a hand-to- mouth existence.

But why did Jesus call this precarious existence, abundant?

He knew the distance between prophecy and fulfillment; he knew that he and his disciples were not living in the fulness of what he called God’s rule; the reality of suffering was all too evident. Recognition of that distance is the source of the sobriety of Jesus’ gospel. But he also knew that it was possible to live tomorrow’s life today; that in the midst of the present evil age committed men and women could establish bridgeheads of the age to come: outcasts could be welcomed into community; the sick could be healed; the powerful could be challenged; the sinners could be released from guilt; the poor could know the happiness of shared life.

Even now abundance is within reach for those who place their trust in the future rule of justice, freedom, peace, and goodness. Jesus never pretended that this was a substitute for the complete establishment of God’s rule; rather it was a foretaste, a pointer and a summons. Tussy Marx in the midst of so much busyness, so much endurance, so much achievement, so much responsibility, knew the fierce joy of living the future now, as well as the abiding pain of defeat and loss, as Jesus also did, believing that only those who share the scarcities of the poor, can share the abundance of God’s rule.





The evidence for Jesus’ trade is found in Mark chapter 6 verse 3, where the inhabitants of his own village, are startled by his new calling, and say, “Isn’t this the builder?” “Carpenter” is the more usual translation, but the word designated the local tradesman who worked in wood, metal, or stone, repairing and making articles necessary for fishing, agriculture, or animal husbandry, as well as houses and other buildings with their necessary furnishings, for human use.

How much reliance can we put on this one reference? Matthew 13: 53, which is based on this Markan passage, calls him, “The builder’s son” making his father the primary tradesman, which is likely to have been the case anyway. We must remember the lapse in time between Jesus and the Gospels, a minimum of 37 years in the case of Mark plus another 15-20 for Matthew. That, and the Gospel writers’ freedom with the information they received, should make us cautious in accepting this information about Jesus’ trade. Still, if we can trust the conservative nature of oral tradition about Jesus as it circulated in the first Christian communities; and if we can find no theological reason for Mark turning Jesus into a builder, there seems no reason to deny what he states.

Moreover, if the usual guesswork is correct, and Jesus did not begin his public ministry until he was around 30 years old, he would probably have been active in his trade for at least 15 years. This means that he would be a very experienced tradesman and local business man, with knowledge of technical and “financial”skills. In his day in Palestine money was replacing older forms of exchange and credit, so Jesus would have been familiar with the various forms of quid pro quo payment as well as currency payment. He would also have seen the gradual break-up of traditional the traditional rural economy with the advent of large estates owned by absentee landlords, run by slaves.

Is there any other material related to Jesus the builder which we can reclaim? I think there’s a great deal.

There is a range of material in the gospels connected with debt. Doubtless Jesus was used to being in temporary debt for say, supplies, and also to others being in debt to him for work done. The good management of debt-relationships is still necessary today for success as as a self- employed tradesman. Jesus’ teaching is uncompromising: securing the repayment of a debt should never be made more important than the relationship with the debtor. The person is more important than what they owe. He puts this understanding at the heart of his Prayer:

“forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”

Of course, this can be interpreted as “really” to do with the forgiveness of sins and wrongs, but it is also to do with breaking the punitive cycle of debt and impoverishment. Many in his day were made slaves because of their debts. Jesus was quite clear that people should cultivate the generosity of God, freeing debtors to make a new start. I’m sure that like any tradesman Jesus wanted his bills paid, but knew that his willingness to offer credit should not made into an instrument of destruction, just as God’s gift of freewill to his human children was not be a justification for destroying those who misused it. The generosity of spirit which does not take legal advantage is evident in Jesus and his stories of forgiveness, especially the one about the forgiven debtor who then shows no mercy to his debtor, Matthew 18: 21-35. Again here, there is of course a reference to those who wrong us, but the parable has economic implications also.

In Luke, chapter 4, Jesus speaks about the “ year of the Lord’s favour” by which scholars suppose he meant the Jubilee year, the forty ninth year (7×7 years), when the Jewish Law says that debts should be forgiven, slaves freed, and land restored to its original owner.(Leviticus 25) There is no evidence of how or whether this Law was ever obeyed, but Jesus’ reference may indicate that he saw it as fulfilled in his own ministry, that is, as a time when divine generosity would rule in Israel. The command in Matthew 5 not to turn away from the person who wants to borrow is further evidence for this.

I think that Jesus, who knew local commerce as well as anybody, refused to allow a predatory system of credit and debt to control personal and societal relationships, but rather pioneered a radical generosity which disrupted economic as well as moral oppression.

In today’s society, ruled by a capitalism more vicious than Jesus would have imagined, his utter refusal to bring economic sanctions on needy people, is a serious challenge to our system but even more to our own discipleship of Jesus.






Look at this:

Once again Jesus got into the boat and crossed Lake Galilee.[d] Then as he stood on the shore, a large crowd gathered around him. 22 The person in charge of the Jewish meeting place was also there. His name was Jairus, and when he saw Jesus, he went over to him. He knelt at Jesus’ feet 23 and started begging him for help. He said, “My daughter is about to die! Please come and touch her, so she will get well and live.” 24 Jesus went with Jairus. Many people followed along and kept crowding around.

25 In the crowd was a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had gone to many doctors, and they had not done anything except cause her a lot of pain. She had paid them all the money she had. But instead of getting better, she only got worse.

27 The woman had heard about Jesus, so she came up behind him in the crowd and barely touched his clothes. 28 She had said to herself, “If I can just touch his clothes, I will get well.” 29 As soon as she touched them, her bleeding stopped, and she knew she was well.

30 At that moment Jesus felt power go out from him. He turned to the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”

31 His disciples said to him, “Look at all these people crowding around you! How can you ask who touched you?” 32 But Jesus turned to see who had touched him.

33 The woman knew what had happened to her. She came shaking with fear and knelt down in front of Jesus. Then she told him the whole story.

34 Jesus said to the woman, “You are now well because of your faith. May God give you peace! You are healed, and you will no longer be in pain.”

35 While Jesus was still speaking, some men came from Jairus’ home and said, “Your daughter has died! Why bother the teacher anymore?”

36 Jesus heard[e] what they said, and he said to Jairus, “Don’t worry. Just have faith!”

37 Jesus did not let anyone go with him except Peter and the two brothers, James and John. 38 They went home with Jairus and saw the people crying and making a lot of noise.[f] 39 Then Jesus went inside and said to them, “Why are you crying and carrying on like this? The child isn’t dead. She is just asleep.” 40 But the people laughed at him.

After Jesus had sent them all out of the house, he took the girl’s father and mother and his three disciples and went to where she was. 41-42 He took the twelve-year-old girl by the hand and said, “Talitha, koum!”[g] which means, “Little girl, get up!” The girl got right up and started walking around.

Everyone was greatly surprised. 43 But Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone what had happened. Then he said, “Give her something to eat.”

Yes, it’s another story about Jesus, from the Gospel of Mark in this instance. We may feel it’s just another fairy tale about miracles. But perhaps we need to imagine the gospel writer and his original readers. We don’t know much more than that he/ she wrote in common Greek sometime around 70 CE, somewhere in the Roman Empire, for one or more communities of people who trusted in Jesus as a source of God’s goodness. In his story, Jesus appears from nowhere, is baptised by John, preaches the arrival of God’s rule in the world, calls disciples, heals the sick and eats with the outcast. He is presented as an explosion of life in a society and religion that has made an accomodation with death.

Here he deals with a woman who is an outcast because she is unclean due to her bleeding. Men have categorised menstrual blood as taboo/ unclean/ sacred, that is as anything except natural. Menstrual ailments therefore, were especially unclean. Now this woman who has heard about Jesus and trusts him, commits a double offence: as a woman she touches a man who is not her family and as an unclean person she touches another person, transmitting her uncleanness. The laws she breaks are ways of separating the woman from community and God, but her rash behaviour works: she knows she is cured. Jesus however will not let her remain anonymous and pushes her into a public acknowledgement of her daring. Then he acknowledges her and gives her dignity by publicly praising her faith. The taboos of society and religion should not stand between a person and new life.

Then Jesus is about to continue on his visit to a sick girl, but messengers tell the father that she has died. Jesus refuses to back off in the face of death, and asks for trust. The death is signalled by ritual wailing, which is part of the social/ religious separation of death and dead people from life and the living. No man should approach a woman who is not of his family, and no one but family should approach a dead body. Jesus deliberately breaks through these barriers insisting that the girl is not dead. With a few disciples and her parents he visits the girl, breaks the taboo and touches her hand, and says to her, “ Time to get up, little dove,” and she does. A girl on the threshold of womanhood has been rescued from death.

Notice what Mark has noticed: Jesus has dared to enter the place of death to rescue a living person, claiming that it’s time to get up. The incident is in itself a model of Jesus whole ministry, his fight against the powers of death, which include religious powers, to give life to people who are excluded, in this case women, locked out of life by social prejudice and religious taboo. Mark intends his readers to listen to Jesus saying to them that it’s time to get up, leaving behind everything that diminishes life. He means them to hear both the urgency and the tenderness of Jesus’ words and to apply them to their own lives, noting as Mark has noted, that Jesus paid a price for his disregard of religious rules, ultimately being consigned to the place of death.

The delicacy of this story doubtless owes something to a memory of Jesus’ dealings with women, but it it also owes its power to Mark’s perception of it, and of the contemporary needs of his community of faith. He enables them to know Jesus coming to find them in the place of death, and to hear him say to their souls, “Time to get up, little dove.”

This is what we reclaim when we reclaim Jesus. We are encouraged firstly to see all the ways in which we have compromised with or aided the powers that diminish life, as individuals, communities, societies and nations, and especially to see the victims of those powers.

Let’s  just take as an example from Scotland the appalling lack of care for mental illness. Firstly let’s see clearly how this puts people into the power of death. We have to get rid of the lazy thinking that sees the suicides of mentally ill people, and the deaths they cause, as simply terrible events: they are caused by our abandoning ill people to the power of death. Why do we do this? Because we refuse to pay for a proper heath service. But more than that, because we are content to compromse with the powers that diminish life. Surely we’ve done enough! That’s when we can hear Jesus telling us, “Time to get up!” We can hear this voice as members of a community that listens to this ancient story as if it were today’s news, because the Jesus who speaks in it speaks now as the living God. He has gone into the places of death to ask us to live in the power of resurrection. If we reclaim him and his way, we can live in the time of no compromise; we can become the ones who say to the victims of mental ilness, “time to get up, little dove.”








Enthusiastic believers are particularly enthusiastic about prayer. They are always wanting to pray with you or to enjoy “a time of prayer.” Special pieties auch as prayer in the spirit, prayer holding hands, prayer with hands laid on one, prayer across parishes or across continents, prayer breakfasts, lunches, dinners, not to mention speaking with tongues, are eagerly encouraged and practiced.

How does all this match up the Jesus we might reclaim from the Gospels? In particular, do we get a picture of Jesus as a “man of prayer”? Well not really. Matthew gives the instance of an agonised prayer in Gethsemane. Mark gives that also, along with an instance in which Jesus prays alone in the midst of a very active ministry.  Luke expands references to prayer, for example he adds prayer to Mark’s story of the transfiguration. He shows Jesus praying at cricial times, such as his baptism. We sense that he likes the idea of Jesus’ praying, but even so, limits it mainly to private prayer. John has Jesus pray lengthy theologically profound prayers, which are interesting examples of John’s own faith, but are not realistic examples of Jesus’ practice.

Matthew provides an explanation. He quotes Jesus’ teaching that genuine prayer should be private, brief and like the model Jesus gives. Anything public, anything that has one eye on being seen, is dismissed by Jesus, with the dry expression, “They have their reward.”

For Jesus, a relationship with the Father is the heart of faith, but as it is the human child talking to the one who is beyond all worlds, it must be secret, intimate, sober. As soon as it is made public its mystery is prostituted.

Jesus also shared happily in the prayers of the temple and synagogue, which were the common property of all believers, shared matter-of-factly or passionately as the occasion demanded. Such prayer was of its nature public and no one could pretend to do it better or more effectively than others.

On the whole, Jesus doesn’t come over as a very “religious” person. He spent most of his time, teaching, arguing and healing. He didn’t show or teach ways of drawing near to God, but rather announced the joyful news that God had drawn near to his people, and expected them to accept his way. Jesus seems not to brought a new way of being religious, but rather a new way of being human. His example, together with his teaching on prayer in Matthew chapter 6, is a sober challenge to all specious religiosity, and a call to something quiet, intimate and practical.


Two blogs ago I suggested that anyone interested in the idea of reclaiming Jesus should read through the Gospel of Mark, as a reminder of how the first Christians remembered Jesus. I’ve just obeyed my suggestion by reading the Contemporary English Version, which gives a very succinct translation. Here is a taste of it:

Jesus left and went to the region near the city of Tyre, where he stayed in someone’s home. He did not want people to know he was there, but they found out anyway. 25 A woman whose daughter had an evil spirit in her heard where Jesus was. And right away she came and knelt down at his feet. 26 The woman was Greek and had been born in the part of Syria known as Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to force the demon out of her daughter. 27 But Jesus said, “The children must first be fed! It isn’t right to take away their food and feed it to dogs.”

28 The woman replied, “Lord, even dogs eat the crumbs that children drop from the table.”

29 Jesus answered, “That’s true! You may go now. The demon has left your daughter.” 30 When the woman got back home, she found her child lying on the bed. The demon had gone.

Jesus Heals a Man Who Was Deaf and Could Hardly Talk

31 Jesus left the region around Tyre and went by way of Sidon toward Lake Galilee. He went through the land near the ten cities known as Decapolis. Some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk. They begged Jesus just to touch him.

33 After Jesus had taken him aside from the crowd, he stuck his fingers in the man’s ears. Then he spit and put it on the man’s tongue. 34 Jesus looked up toward heaven, and with a groan he said, “Effatha!”  which means “Open up!” 35 At once the man could hear, and he had no more trouble talking clearly.

36 Jesus told the people not to say anything about what he had done. But the more he told them, the more they talked about it. 37 They were completely amazed and said, “Everything he does is good! He even heals people who cannot hear or talk.”

One of the things we should see in this excerpt is that Mark is a genius at telling a story. He doesn’t give too many details, but those he does give are all lively: Jesus wants to get out of the firing line so he goes out of his own territory, but he is too well known, and gets caught by this desperate woman. Annoyed he insults her by emphasising her foreigness with the term “dog” but the woman, out of love for her daughter, accepts the insult with good humour. Jesus realises what he’s said, and responds to her need. The girl is healed.

Rembrandt imagines the foreign woman pretending to be a dog

Then he heads back home via another sort of foreign place, an area colonised by Greek conquerors, the ten towns. People bring him a man who is unable to hear or speak. They want to see some magic, but Jesus takes the poor man aside, touching his ears with his hands and his tongue with his spit, telling him to “Open up!” And the man is healed.

Why does Mark put these two stories together? ( He almost certainly had no information about the real succession of events in Jesus’ ministry). The answer is in the command to “Open up!”  Initially Jesus had been closed to the woman, but she had been open enough to jolt him into responding. Their mutual openness allowed God’s goodness to help the girl. So when Jesus meets another needy person, who is closed to others by his deafness, he knows already that God wants the man to open up. The Aramaic word which Jesus used is very expressive. If you say it aloud, you can hear it as a powerful command.

Mark presents Jesus as a person who is open to God and other people and wants everyone to be the same.

Does the above passage chime with your image of Jesus? Is it a bit disturbing to think that he might have had his off-days, and have had to learn from a foreign woman? Is Mark’s vivid picture of Jesus’ physical gestures of healing not a litttle bizarre? And isn’t it very strange to think of a physical disability as something closed that needs opening?

But isn’t wonderful to hear for ourselves, for our lives, Jesus’ command to “Open up!” for we know that what makes us and all human beings wrong is our closedness.

As a minister I have known people, often very good people, to whom I was closed.  My relationship with them was via a persona that I offered in place of myself, which could therefore not be a genuine engagement. The current news issue about Boris Johnson’s characterisation of burqa wearers is not about their closedness but his. In the twenty five years of my association with a congregation in Northern Ireland I have learned how communities may close themselves off from each other, as well as how, with great fear and courage, they may open themselves to each other.

Jesus, the One who commands openness for himself and his followers, is relevant to our most intimate, as well as our most public, relationships. For that reason alone, he’s worth reclaiming.

04FDE140-45C0-4F87-B65C-777EEBC462EAAs the controversy over Boris Johnson’s jokes about burqas continues, I would like readers to look at passage from Matthew’s Gospel chapter 23:

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:

The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. So obey everything they teach you, but don’t do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else.

They pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help. Everything they do is just to show off in front of others. They even make a big show of wearing Scripture verses on their foreheads and arms, and they wear big tassels[a] for everyone to see. They love the best seats at banquets and the front seats in the meeting places. And when they are in the market, they like to have people greet them as their teachers.”

Later in the same rant, he was even more abusive:

“You Pharisees and teachers are in for trouble! You’re nothing but show-offs. You’re like tombs that have been whitewashed. On the outside they are beautiful, but inside they are full of bones and filth. 28 That’s what you are like. Outside you look good, but inside you are evil and only pretend to be good.”

It’s clear that Jesus was giving a wholesale verdict on what he regarded as hypocrisy, but he begins with derisive remarks about their religious dress code. He certainly appears to think that daft religious clothing is fair game for mockery.

Am I making a comparison between Jesus and Boris Johnson? Heaven forbid! Boris is an upper class sneering bully who would have mocked Jesus for wearing sandals, and who, for the sake of public decency, should never be reported, whatever he says. His mocking dismissal of burqa – wearing Moslem women is intended to insult, but can safely be dismissed by them, coming as it does from a man whose chosen mode of sartorial elegance is floppy fatness.


And even though the burqa has been imposed on Moslem women by partiarchal prejudice, many of the women value it and other “modest” coverings as at any rate preferable to the appearance of western female celebs such as Britney Spears at a recent gig wearing the standard pop uniform of a boob-pube-tube. If we pause to reflect on the truly gross clothing imposed by our males on our obedient females, we may feel that Moslem women have the better of it.

To return, however,  not to Boris, but to the issue of so-called respect for religion and religious customs, I cannot agree with the current official government position, namely that while of course our secret services will spy on them and monitor their words and actions, in case these are contrary to “British values”, at the same time we must profess a pious respect for their religion and its practices. In this way systemic disrespect for a whole people is clothed in the decencies of public protection.

I have a profound interest in Islam and admiration for many of its representatives in my city. I have worked with the young Moslems of “Taught by Muhammed” their social care arm in Dundee, where the principles of their religion are shown in providing a food-bank delivery service to non- moslems who lack food. As far as I know myself, I am completely free of prejudice towards Islam or its adherents; yet I want to claim the freedom to make jokes about aspects of their faith and practice which I judge to be oppressive.


Who am I to make jokes about the excessive power of males in Islamic families? I am their friend and neighbour using a freedom which I am happy to grant them with regard to my faith and practice. A robust mutual respect can co-exist with robust mutual criticism. Jesus’ rough language about a respected sect of his own religion is an indication that he could use the broad humour of ordinary people to expose what he saw as play-acting. Some of his deunciation, if recorded live today, might see him facing a charge of “hate speech.” That should make us think: Is our concentration on what people may say about minorities a way of disguising what our society does to them?

Reclaiming the real Jesus means grappling with a person whose words were often more challenging than comfy, more spicy than bland.

Faced with Christian believers who claim to know Jesus intimately as their Saviour, I am often startled by how little they cherish his life, teaching, ministry, and human character. For them it seems enough that he was born, died on the cross, rose again, is alive and loves them. If, as John’s Gospel has it, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, then the classic Christian response has often been that it is too long and must be abbreviated, as if the essence of Jesus could be captured in the words of the creed, “born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. On the third day he rose again from the dead…he ascended into heaven…sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.” In churches where the memory of Jesus is celebrated and taught, the creed does no harm; but as soon as the memory of Jesus, including its incorporation in the Gospels, is neglected, the very substance of God’s word, that is, Jesus himself, is removed, allowing believers to invent a Jesus who offers no contradiction to their cherished moral and political convictions.

Christ tempted
Rembrandt shows Jesus calmly teaching the devil

Some of this derives from the misunderstanding of St. Paul by the great figures of the Protestant reformation, whose view of salvation by grace alone focused the believer’s attention on the saving death and resurrection of Jesus to the gradual exclusion of the gospel narrative. Protestant churches here in Scotland with their abhorrance of images, have left their buildings bare of any vibrant representation of the life and teaching of Jesus. A small advance was made in the Sunday School movement in Victorian cities, which taught children the life of Jesus, wrongly assuming that adult members were familiar with it. This has contributed to the sad fact that many members of my church today last studied Jesus’ life in Sunday School.

At best, this bias distorts the Church’s worship, message, and mission. At worst it permits a form of Christianity which is little more than an enthusiastic expression of  believers’ prejudice. An example of this worst are the Trump – supporting evangelical churches of the USA, who have lost all sense of Jesus other than as a presence who blesses their hatreds and will lift them up the air to meet him when the Rapture comes. Their claiming of Jesus as a Trump supporter has led, however, to a critical response in the from of the movement in the USA which has called itself RECLAIMING JESUS created by The Sojourners Community (worth googling) and its friends. There is happily nothing quite as alarming in Scotland as Trump- Jesus, but there are churches here claiming close adherence to Jesus Christ as God’s word, who have lost any sense of the human Jesus along with any desire to continue his ministry.

Rembrandt draws Jesus’ reaching out to a leper

There are also churches of all theological positions, who have quite recently developed ministries of social care and justice, and know that their work could be better resourced by reclaiming the life of Jesus as their dearest possession. They are rediscovering with delight and wonder the unique character of Jesus and his explosive commitment to abundant life for all people, and especially for the poor, the outcast, the oppressed and the sinners. They find that the stories of the gospels express the wisdom and excitement of Jesus’ ministry in ways which can enrich the minstry of their churches.


Rembrandt shows Jesus writing on the ground when a woman was accused of adultery

Yes, I would like to see a Reclaiming Jesus movement in Scotland, but there is a danger that it could get trapped in the very kind of religious emotionalism that Jesus detested. “Blessed are the breasts that suckled you” a woman shouted to Jesus, who replied soberly, “Blessed are those who know God’s will and do it.” Any true reclamation has to take into account that the deadly enemies of Jesus were religious people on the one hand, scandalised by his friendship with people who were not religious, and on the other, the power holders who reckoned that Jesus’ kingdom might be more popular than theirs. To reclaim Jesus and be reclaimed by him is likely to be dangerous, but unlikely to be dull.

Where do I want people to start?

1. Read the gospel of Mark through at one sitting, say two hours. If there is one small thing you might do as a result, do it.

2. Find a modern version of the Lord’s prayer ( Good News, Revised English, New International), write it or type it boldly on card, and say it daily.

3. If you are interested, comment on this blog.

I will provide more information for getting started in my next blog.

( Rembrandt in his art reclaimed Jesus for his time and place)

The current public debate about anti-semitism, whether in the Labour Party or elsewhere, is deaved (Scots= confused) by the vehement use of words whose meaning is insufficiently examined.

For example, “Semite”: this term may have some value as referring to a group of langauges with common elements ( including Hebrew and Arabic), but its use as referring to a race of people is due to the mainly German cultural historians of the 19th. century, who made it a racial designation of ancient near eastern civilisations, before it was twisted into a negative name for Jews, as seen in the founding of The League of Anti- Semitism in Germany in 1879, which was devoted to anti- Jewish action. This development was the precursor of the demented Nazi nonsense about Aryans and Semites, espoused by Hitler.

Fact: There is no Semitic race, but if the term is given its proper sense of referring to a family of languages, then it includes Hebrew and Arabic along with many others.

It is strange that Jewish people even now should continue to use a term developed by their enemies. It may be explained by their understanding of the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews, on racial grounds, from 1933- 1945. Ultimately, this Nazi racism was made possible by a) the historical self-understanding of the Jewish peoples of the diaspora, that they were a race rather than merely a religion, an understanding reinforced by their frequent persecution by Christians, who also saw them as a race.

Fact: The racial “purity”  of Jewish people may go as far back as Ezra who famously told male Jews to dismiss their foreign wives, but doubtless before his time and after, there has been more racial mingling than orthodox Judaism is prepared to admit. It might be better to think of Jewish people as a religious/ secular community that wants to be a race. Genetic testing finds little difference between Israelis and Palestinians.

The term “Jew”, albeit worn as badge of honour by those who remember the history of persecution, should be understood like the term “Scot”, to refer to those who live now in the home country or are part of a diaspora, but trace their family origins to that home country. Scots are not a “race” but a melange of incomers who themselves were racially mixed before they arrived.

Jewish people who insist on their racial identity may be part of the problem of anti-semitism rather than part of the solution. The new law passed this week by the Knesset limits the right of national self-determination to “Jewish people”. Obviously this is a racist law as both Jew and  Non-Jew are racially defined. Israel is declared as the nation state of the Jewish people. This move makes idiots of all of us who scrupulously try to distinguish between the actions of Israel and those of Jewish people.

Fact: The term “Holocaust” referring to the sacrifice of an animal to be completely consumed by fire, has been used from the 1950’s by Jewish and other historians to refer to the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews. Its users, along with those who use the Hebrew “sho’ah” = destruction, often forget the other ten million people wiped out by the Nazis, including Roma, Poles, Communists, Gays, and “useless” frail elderly people. Sometimes the langauge used suggests that this unbelievable horror justifies some subsequent actions by or on behalf of Jewish people. Clearly it does not.

The prefix “anti” requires definition. I for example am “anti- orange” meaning that I detest the Orange Lodge and all it stands for in  Northern Ireland and Scotland. I also am “anti -IRA” and detest their past and supposedly non-existent present. Here “anti” refers to moral judgements made on public behaviour and speech, together with the emotional accompaniments of those judgements. In some instances those judgements have influenced my behaviour. I do not think that being “anti” in these ways is either wrong or dangerous.

So when I recognise that I am to a lesser degree “anti- Israel” I mean that I have made value judgements about the way in which the State of Israel was founded- I know people whose homes were stolen by Israelis in 1948- and about the inhumane policies of its present government towards Palestinians. These negative judgements have in this case to live alongside my admiration for the principles on which the state was founded, and for their courage in the face of concerted attacks by their neighbours. However I weigh up these pro and anti attitudes, I cannot see that one is morally superior to the other, or that either of them should be considered illegal. Nor would I relish my political party telling me that one or the other was forbidden.

Without quibbling, I believe that dislike of any  group of people on the grounds of what they are, rather than what they do or stand for, is wrong and dangerous, as it may lead to pernicious actions, such as those done by the Nazis to the Jews of Europe, or by the Serbs to the Bosnian Moslems. It is also the case that propaganda may attribute crimes to groups of people, which they have not committed, as Stalin’s political machine did to any group that he wanted rid of. For that reason, although I permit myself negative judgements on certain groups, I must limit any action I may take towards them,  by Jesus’ command to “love my enemies.” But even Jesus assumed that I would have enemies, that is, groups or individuals towards whom I might be “anti”.

Fact: Simply being “anti” a group of people is not a crime.

I am saying that the entire construct of “anti- semitism” as a moral and political crime is inaccurate, prejudicial and should be abandoned.

On the other hand there are people who foster hatred towards Jewish people, or towards the state of Israel, and some towards both. In some people this hatred rests on simple prejudice, in others, on inaccurate versions of fact. Both are wrong, and should be prevented from causing harm, or from enshrining their prejudice in any law. Our existing laws provide penalties for various kinds of incitement and of course for violence, and our political process gives opportunities for public argument and protest. I do not think that we need to adopt special protocols outlawing anti- Jewish prejudice, any more than we need them for those who dislike The Inuit because they think they smell of blubber. But we need laws that punish any harm that is done to Jewish or Inuit people, and public debate that brings such prejudice into disrepute.

As well as Jesus’ command to love our enemies, there’s the fact that we have a story which shows him expressing Jewish prejudice against a Canaanite woman, who asked him to heal her daughter. He replied by asking if the children’s food (gifts for Jewish people) should be thrown to the dogs ( gentile people), which insulted her as a dog. The woman accepted the insult, pointing out that nevertheless, the dogs got the leftovers from the family table. Rembrandt marvellously depicts the woman on all fours miming a dog. Jesus, rebuked by this splendidly humorous human being, praised her and granted her request. The Christian tradition has interpreted this story as “Jesus testing the woman’s faith.” That’s mince: the woman’s faith is testing Jesus, and although he ultimately passes the test, he shows his frailty by prejudicial words.

We are all – even the son of God- liable to have prejudices and we all need a culture which challenges them; and we can all be harmed by prejudicial words or actions and we all need laws that punish them. But must make sure that our terminology is dealing with realities and not fictions.

With all the above in mind, I cannot see that the founding of the Israeli state should be excluded from rational debate, given its impact on many Palestinian people; nor that the Israeli government out of all governments in the world, ahould be spared comparison with the Nazis, if the cap fits. I do not think the cap fits Israel nor indeed that it fits even Syria, but I cannot see why any historical comparison should be outlawed. The Labour Party is quite right to resist those who want unique protections for the state of Israel, but it must also resist those whose hatred of Israel means they would welcome its destruction.