Monthly Archives: February 2015

Martyrdom

Deeply moved by some news here in the United Kingdom, I turn aside from my journey through Matthew’s Gospel. Last week three teenage Muslim girls slipped out of this country on a plane to Turkey. Their destination: ‘Islamic State’ in Syria/Iraq’. In 2013 another girl from the same school in east London had done the same telling her parents, “I will see you on the day of judgement. I will take you to heaven. I will hold your hand…..I want to become a martyr.” Such tender dedication moves me deeply. The media in this country see these connected events purely in terms of brainwashing but there is surely a more important underlying crisis here. It is the crisis of faith, vision and personal identity.

In the Greek scriptures of the Christian tradition the word martyr means simply ‘witness’, as in a court of law for example. Or when the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians says in chapter 4 verse 17, “Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord….” he is using the Greek word ‘martyr’. Some of those first Christians (like Stephen), killed because of their faith, were called ‘witnesses’ – martyrs. Later, during widespread persecution of Christians by Roman authorities, a problem arose. Some had begun to seek martyrdom actively because it had become a badge of honour. Some even claimed that it was the only way to get to heaven. They had to be reminded of the words of the apostle Paul in the famous chapter 13 of his letter to Christians in Corinth: “….if I give my body to be burned but do not have love, I gain nothing.” In those early centuries of Christianity martyrdom was never achieved by killing anybody, only by being killed because of one’s witness to one’s faith. Only later did Christians start killing one another because of profound disagreements about how to be a true believer. Then, of course, during the crusades to liberate the Holy Land it was Muslims who were being martyred. Today Christians are being martyred in the middle east, while Shia and Sunni Muslims martyr one another. One group’s heretic is the other’s martyr.

So to put it very mildly, ‘martyrdom’ is a tricky subject!! Personally, I sometimes feel insignificant. I feel I ought to be a better Christian, a better more loving person. I can find myself thinking, ‘you ought to sell all your possessions and go and help those in some poverty stricken country’. The voice in my head goes on, ‘Look at you! Call yourself a Christian?! It’s all very well for you in this safe, secure, well off country. If you really believed……’

‘If I really believed’; then what? Then perhaps I would recognize that the voice in my head may not be the call of God. It may be my sense of guilt, my feeling of being a powerless nobody in a very imperfect society. Perhaps the voice in my head wants me to do something dramatic to satisfy my personal sense of being inadequate. Perhaps the voice doesn’t want me to see the real failure, so beautifully expressed in that 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. ‘If I have not love, I am nothing.’

Here I am, a Christian in my 84th year and I think I have something in common with those teenage Muslim girls who find the idea of martyrdom attractive. We live in a broken society and we can feel powerless to make it a better place. The allure of martyrdom as an antidote to personal meaningless and powerlessness can be very strong for an idealistic young person. It takes a degree of wisdom that few teenagers can possibly have yet developed to discern the way forward. They need the prayerful support of older and wiser heads in their community who also recognize the impetus of the young to make a difference in a world that some of their elders have messed up.

 

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Abundance

Matthew 14: 13 – 21 Feeding five thousand people.

The recent death of Marcus Borg brings to an end the creative partnership of two wonderful Biblical scholars. With John Dominic Crossan, he wrote several books including ‘The Last Week’, about the final fateful week of Jesus’ life. I mention this to acknowledge my debt to them as I comment on Matthew’s account of the feeding of five thousand people.

Borg and Crossan point out that Jesus was often criticized for eating meals with the wrong sort of people and that food supplies and debt were frequent problems for many in those days. Faced with the problem of feeding a big crowd, the disciples want Jesus to send them away to fend for themselves but, no, he insists, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

The feeding stories are not about a miraculous multiplication of a few loaves and fish. Rather, they show how cooperation and fair distribution can bring abundance and harmony. There is enough for everyone if nobody grabs what they can without a thought for their neighbours. Jesus took the meager supply available and blessed, broke and distributed them. These three actions are at the heart of our Holy Communions, Masses, Eucharists – whatever we call them. The sad fact, reflected in these different titles, is that our attempts to follow the example and teaching of Jesus have resulted in division, disharmony and self-protective hoarding. The ego, the false self that Jesus tells us must be put to death, is always concerned about scarcity, always therefore seeks to hoard, is afraid of the generosity of God, assumes that more is necessary before anything can be achieved. When I discover the underlying truth about who I really am the abundance of the present moment opens up. There is no need to wait until one condition or another is fulfilled. If, in trust, I use what is available to me at this moment then I am blessing, breaking and giving.

A Thorny Problem

My aim throughout this blog is to try and recover the message of Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing comes closer to his authentic voice than the parables. Here, at the beginning of chapter 13 of Matthew’s gospel, is the well known parable of the sower.   Thorns are one of the reasons why the seeds don’t grow and I have to admit that, for me, there are several large thorns in the rest of the chapter. Look at the sequence of chapter 13.

  • Verses 1 – 9 the parable of the sower.
  • Verses 10 – 23. The disciples don’t get it so the parable is explained, but would Jesus himself have told parables deliberately to keep people out of the kingdom of God?
  • What’s more, in verses 24 to 30, the parable suggests that those who don’t get it are in for some gruesome punishment.
  • Verses 31 – 33 give us two simple parables, the mustard seed and the yeast, suggesting the way the kingdom of God opens up for us.
  • But then in verses 34 to 43 we’re back with explanations of the parables and more gruesome punishment for those who don’t get it.

It’s true, those early Christians had severe problems. They were confronted by their fellow Jews who not only didn’t get the message of new life offered by Jesus but actually persecuted those ‘heretical deserters’ from the ancient ways of Judaism. I can’t help feeling, though, that Matthew is putting words into the mouth of Jesus that he would not have spoken. In fact he tells us as much in verse 34: “Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing.” The contrast between the beatitudes of the sermon on the mount and these dire predictions of eternal punishment is too great for me. Fortunately, hidden in this chapter among these thorns, we catch glimpses of the open invitation to enter the kingdom offered by Jesus: the mustard seed, the yeast, the treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great price. R S Thomas expresses the truth of these parables in his poem The Bright Field:

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it. But that was the pearl

of great price, the one field that had

treasure in it. I realize now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it. Life is not hurrying

 

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Flames of hate and of love.

Matthew gospel chapter 12.

It’s been a terrible week for religion hasn’t it?! Here in the United Kingdom lots of us are hooked on a television dramatization of the Wolf Hall novels by Hilary Mantel about Tudor England when Thomas Cromwell was advising king Henry VIII. In those days we burnt alive those we called heretics: that is people who disagreed with us. Few people are more dangerous than those who think they know exactly what God wants and have the power to pursue their beliefs in God’s name. Of course ISIS is utterly unrepresentative of Islam today. Let’s be profoundly thankful for that. But they think they know what God wants and in God’s name they have burnt a man alive. In 16th century Tudor England religion and politics couldn’t be separated out. They burnt people alive because they were afraid of political upheaval if they allowed ‘heretical’ religious ideas to get a foothold. They could have taught ISIS a ghastly thing or two.

In chapter 12 of his gospel Matthew presents us with some stories about religious leaders who were sure they also knew what God wanted. Their certainty would lead rapidly to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

Look at verses 9 to 14 of chapter 12 – the story of a man with a withered hand. His condition was presumably seen as ‘just the way things are’. When Jesus appears in the synagogue the congregation gets nervous. Jesus already has a reputation for not accepting the way things are. What will he get up to here, today? What we are really nervous about, they must have been thinking, is the way he keeps breaking the rules that God has laid down.

In Mark’s version of this story Jesus asks the man to stand out. Jesus is asking him to take a personal risk, to take a step of faith, to use that part of his body that was not withered. So there they are, the two of them, Jesus and the man, standing there in full view of a crowd who are just waiting to see if Jesus will break the religious rules. They expect Jesus will and they are ready to pounce. They are so rule-bound they can’t see the love-in-action that knows when rules should be broken. They can’t deny the facts. People are being healed. But people who break the religious rules must be in the service of Satan mustn’t they? They can’t be one of us can they? Being rule bound can lead to cynicism and denial about love-in-action as we see in verses 22 to 30 of this chapter.

In his book, ‘The Crucified Is No Stranger’, Sebastian Moore says “We will murder to protect our mediocrity” – the mediocrity of keeping religious rules in the name of God, of accepting the way things are. Jesus is more concerned with the sheep that has fallen into a pit (verse 11). The needs of the sheep, or the man with the withered hand, overrule the religious demand to keep the Sabbath. Love overrules mediocrity; in this case the mediocrity of law-keeping. “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (verse 12) Sebastian Moore suggests there is an innocent child within each of us and we are afraid of our vulnerability. If we gave the child in us any chance who knows what might happen? Everything might go to pot. Us adults need order and stability. We cannot allow the reign of love to have any part in our safely ordered society. So, out of fear of that vulnerable part of us, Sebastian Moore suggests we will sometimes murder and lie, even crucify, just as Jesus was crucified, to protect our defences and preserve our mediocrity.

A truly religious community (no matter what its rules and beliefs) will be one in which people are being healed (in the broadest sense of that word) in ways that challenge the accepted limits of what is reasonable and what is ‘natural’. Such healing will cause wonder and sometimes persecution.