Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: Luke

25th December 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

luke-2-we-are-all-innkeepersLuke 2:1-20

1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged, and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified, 10but the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, 19but Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English Edition) alt, used with permission.


In most cases the passages of scripture selected for reading as part of a church service are extracts from a much larger whole. When an extract starts with “In those days”, “In that region”, or any of the multitude of beginnings which depend on previous text for their sense, I wonder why an effort is rarely made to provide us with the setting, so we know the context for the story. Some years ago I was training people to read set passages, and gave them a challenge. With just one name changed to a pronoun I read the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus and asked them to listen as one who had never heard the story before, and to raise a hand when they could identify the main character. No-one raised a hand. If that happened with people who are already connected with a church how can we expect newcomers to church to understand what we’re talking about without the context being set?

Luke claims that the emperor Caesar (in classical Latin pronounced Kaiser, not seizer) Augustus initiated the first registration of everyone in the Roman world at a time when Quirinius was governor of Syria, and that was the reason for Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem. Given that the wise men, in Matthew’s rendition of the birth story, asked Herod for guidance to get to see the new-born King of the Jews, there is a significant problem with Luke’s information. Of course, a thorough investigation of Luke’s attempt to date-stamp the birth of Jesus, written well over half a century after the event, only goes to show that scripture is theological ahead of being historical in our sense of accuracy of details such as dates. We miss the point of the birth and its significance for the world if we try to confirm or contradict details of timing in Luke’s narrative.

It’s easy for us, in the 21st century and where it’s not unusual for a woman to be pregnant before being married, to overlook the importance of Joseph’s support for Mary. Matthew 1:19 tells us that Joseph was planning on “dismissing” Mary because he was unwilling to expose her, not him, to public disgrace – as if the developing pregnancy would not be noticed – but his intention was changed after a visit from an angel. In those days a pregnancy before marriage would have brought disgrace for both parties, but if the man disappeared from the relationship early enough he might escape because she had been unfaithful – isn’t “she” always the sinful one? What’s that lump in your throat called, Adam? Joseph showed strength of both character and faith by sticking with Mary in the lead up to Jesus’ birth.

If we think that “cleanliness is next to Godliness” what might we think of the location of Christ’s birth? All the good places in Bethlehem were occupied by the time Mary and Joseph arrived, so they had to occupy a stable, with the animals around them and the smell of their feed and their urine and faeces. This was no place of cleanliness in terms we humans think of it, especially these days. It was no royal palace, fit for a king on our human scales, but an indication of Christ’s connection with the poor and with every living thing.

‘There were shepherds, abiding in the fields, watching over their flocks by night’ – sorry, I’ve sung Messiah so many times that quotes are inevitable. Our Christmas celebrations are centred on a date close to the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice, which is a time of intense cold, snow, and plenty of cloud cover. That’s certainly not a time when shepherds would be out in the fields at night, tending to their sheep: it’s a time when the sheep would be in barns or stables, protected as much as possible from the freezing conditions – and yes, it does get that cold in Israel! Even the Sahara desert got some snow recently. We don’t know the exact date of Christ’s birth; we don’t even know the actual year because when “Dionysius the Little” tried to calculate it, way back in the 6th century, he didn’t have the accurate information we have now. What we do know is that Jesus was born into a Jewish community and, later, showed his divinity as well as his humanity. As with many Christian festivals, the date was chosen to re-badge a pagan festival.

Angels come in various forms. Sometimes we don’t recognise them when they are vitally present for us, because we see just another human being. The film The Staircase tells the story of a real-life example of an angel providing a community of nuns in New Mexico with a staircase many believed was impossible, and disappearing without trace or payment as soon as it was complete. Have we been visited by angels in our lives, or, more particularly, have we been angels in the lives of others? The angels who visited the shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem were no humans who walked into the shepherds’ lives and walked out again. In this case the appearance created fear and awe, and the experience was enough to stir the shepherds into action. Can we experience the birth of Christ in such as way that we are stirred into action to spread the Good News? Can we be so stirred by our encounter with the living Lord Jesus that we spend our lives rejoicing, and glorifying and praising God for what we have heard and seen. I hope so.

23rd October 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

jesus_w_children_600 Luke 18:15-30

15People were bringing even infants to Jesus that He might touch them. When the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it, 16but Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 17Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

18A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 20You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother.’” 21He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” 22When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 23But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. 24Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27He replied, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” 28Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” 29Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30who will not get back very much more in this age, and, in the age to come, eternal life.”

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.


The poor disciples had some difficulty getting things right, even in the presence of Christ. This, of course, isn’t the only time that they were getting in the way of people being close to Christ: there was also the time when the disciples were stopping people from healing others because they weren’t part of the disciples’ group. I’m not sure whether that’s a case of big-noting themselves – we’re the ones with Christ’s authority to do those things, so stop doing them – or just a misunderstanding of the impact that Jesus was having on people’s lives. I cry every time I hear the second verse of this extract from Luke, because Jesus said to the disciples, the ones whom He was training to carry on after He left His earthly ministry, to let the children come to Him. Many pictures have been painted over the centuries of Jesus welcoming young children, wrapping His arms around them, and having them sit on His knees, yet that is precisely what the church of today is chastising its clergy and trainees for doing. We have let the misdemeanours of a small few clergy and lay leaders stop us from following in Christ’s footsteps, and welcoming children with open arms and a Christian love which they will not find anywhere else. Are our church leaders today behaving like the disciples in this story, and trying to prevent children from getting to the church, even if their motives are well-intended for the protection of children? I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

When Jesus said “whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” He was not suggesting that we should be childish in our approach to God. Just as a little child, growing up in a loving household, will have childish moments, it is not those to which Jesus was referring, but the child-like simplicity of the relationship with the earthly, and ultimately the heavenly, father. Young children trust their parents without judging them. Underlying the childish “I don’t love you because you won’t give me what I want” is the child-like trust which says “I do really love you, but right now you’re annoying me.” There is nothing wrong with having that same experience in our relationship with God. Given God’s sense of humour and brinksmanship it’s highly likely that we’ve all had times when we could tell God we don’t love Him, even though the bond is too tight to break. We clutter our lives with too much which doesn’t matter, and fail to be like Mary in the Mary and Martha story, taking time to be with God, to listen, and to be refreshed.

That clutter is, of course, very much behind the problem of the rich man in the second part of this passage. Did you pick up on that link before I mentioned it?

The passage refers to “a certain ruler” who remains unnamed and without any official title. It could be someone with land over which he had authority; it could have been a temple ruler; it could have been a Roman soldier; it could have been many different people. The fact that we aren’t told how this person ruled allows us to apply the approach to anyone. For the Pharisees, keeping to the letter of the law was of the utmost importance: if you kept the commandments you would be blessed by God, so knowing, and applying, those commitments (a better translation of the Hebrew) was all some people thought was necessary. Once again, Paul’s favourite response fits: “God forbid!” What the man with many possessions (in today’s world think iPhones and iPads for everyone, house with seven bathrooms, several luxury cars) hadn’t addressed was sharing his wealth with others who are less fortunate than himself. Though Jesus told him to go and sell everything it’s reasonable to assume that He meant everything that the man didn’t NEED. Does that include my professional equipment that has sat idle for several years in the hope that it might be used again? Probably, but technology has advanced so much that what I have a personal attachment to is likely to be worth very little other than as collector’s items.

The concept of a camel going through the eye of a needle is, of course, hyperbole. Jesus wasn’t suggesting that a large desert-based animal could pass through the eye of something which could be lost in its own hair. He was, naturally, emphasising that someone attached to his or her riches and unwilling to share resources for the benefit of others, would find it impossible, from a human approach, to be allowed into the Kingdom of God. I note that Jesus then tells us that everything is possible for God. One priest I knew a few years back said that once someone is a paedophile, that person will always be a paedophile, yet I know of one man whose life was transformed when he encountered God while in prison, and who was so appalled by what he had done that he was a shining example of what God can make possible. In the paedophile world he was like the reformed drug addict or alcoholic.

Leaving friends and family for the sake of something you cannot physically see is a challenge for many of us, but if those friends and family members are also on the journey to the Kingdom then we really haven’t left them at all. It’s the people who refuse to take the first steps on the journey who are the ones we have left behind, and that can still be hard. God still loves them, and we’re challenged to do the same, because He separates the sin from the sinner, loving the sinner, but not the sin.

Here’s another twist: we who have faith are already rich, though not necessarily in monetary terms. Christ’s message to us then, is to give away our riches, knowing that God’s love for us is like The Magic Pudding: it never gets smaller and will never run out.

9th October 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
The Healing of the Ten Lepers - Luke 17:11-19
JESUS MAFA, ‘Healing of the Ten Lepers’ from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Luke 17:11-19

11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As He entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When He saw them, He said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” As they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked Him. He was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? but the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then He said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.


In biblical times lepers were far more shunned than they are now, and were forced to live outside the towns for fear that they would infect everyone else, so Jesus meeting a group of lepers on the outskirts of a village should be no surprise, but their reaction to His presence raises questions. How did these people, who could not associate with the rest of the community, find out about Jesus and His healing ministry? Some people will explain that by claiming that they must have had some contact with people, or they had heard others talking about Him, but why couldn’t the Holy Spirit let them know so that this story could be told, to show how far from God the Jewish leaders of the day, and ultimately that includes us, had strayed? Jesus claimed that He came not to those who were well, but to the sick, and He showed His compassion for these ten outcasts. However, for them to be integrated back into the community they had to show themselves to the local priest for confirmation of their healing. All ten had enough faith in Jesus for them to head to the priest as if they were already healed, but only one, realising that he had been healed by Jesus, came back to give thanks. I thought the almost total disappearance of “please” and “thank you” in today’s world was bad, but this is the same story two thousand years ago, and Jesus was not happy! As a Jew, Jesus was reminded, by the Canaanite woman who said “even the dogs eat the scraps from the Master’s table” [Matt. 15:27] that His ministry was not limited to people of His own faith. Here, again, it is the foreigner, the highly despised Samaritan – remember the story of the “Good Samaritan” – who is so moved that he wanted to thank both the source and the means of delivery for the healing he had received. Such was his gratefulness that he prostrated himself. How many times have we done that when we give thanks to anyone for something they’ve done for us? I certainly didn’t when I saw my surgeon last week. We aren’t told if this man returned immediately or after being seen by the priest, but the important point isn’t whether it was before or after; the important bit is that he sought out Jesus to give Him thanks.

I’m also struck by the immediacy of this healing. Like Jairus’ daughter, and Peter’s mother-in-law, and many others, a prayer for instant healing was answered with instant healing. I’ve long held the belief that if we ask for what God wants to give us then our prayers will be answered in the way we want them to be – just like these lepers; but if we ask for something which God is not prepared to give us just yet, or in the form we ask for, then we risk being disillusioned about our prayers. That, however, shouldn’t stop us from asking for instant healing and being prepared to accept what is offered by the one who knows what is in our best interest, even if we don’t. Are we stopping ourselves, or do we need some more mustard seeds? [Matt. 17:20]

The last verse is interesting, and the interest relates to translation of the text. What we see as “get up” comes from a Greek word used in the early church in relation to resurrection, not just physically getting off the ground, and the word which most English translations render as “made … well”, or something similar, is actually the verb “to save”, also as in the sense of resurrection. Hence it would be better to finish this passage with “your faith has saved you.” Of all the different translations of the Bible in my collection, only the Jerusalem Bible renders it closely to the meaning of the Greek verb. My Jewish New Testament Commentary – yes, there is such a thing – also highlights that this has to do with salvation, not just healing in the here and now. The Samaritan has not only been healed, as were the other nine, but has been given a new life as well.

What does that revelation mean for us? This Samaritan had the faith not only to realise that God had healed him, but also to want to give thanks to God, through Jesus, for that healing. In exchange, though not as a bait for his actions, he knew he would be in the community of the resurrected people. Do we give thanks when God does something for us? When I’m running a little late and approaching a set of traffic lights which could turn red at any moment I often give thanks if the lights don’t change before I get through; but are those thanks really genuine, or have they become so frequent as to render them somewhat automatic?

25th September 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Luke 16:19-31
19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house — 28for I have five brothers — that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.


The “villain” in this story which is familiar to any regular church-goer is described as a rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen, and who feeds sumptuously every day. These days we have a wide range of colours available, and the price varies little, but in biblical times purple was an expensive colour which was generally restricted, partly because of the cost, to royalty and people in places of great responsibility. This description, then, is a very thinly veiled reference to the Pharisees and, particularly, to the Temple hierarchy, who loved to dress in expensive outfits, and who expected those beneath them to provide more than ample food, often at great expense. The poor man, not to be confused with the Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead, represents the starving millions who would have enough food if our rich character would only share some of his edible wealth. Translations from the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic of our scriptures all too often misses the sense in the text. Here, Lazarus didn’t just decide to lie down at the rich man’s gate: the Greek suggests that he was dumped there, inviting our rich man to show some compassion. Instead, it is the dogs who tend to Lazarus’ sores. We might cringe at the thought of dogs licking our wounds, but in doing so they were providing first aid to someone in need.

If we wonder what was the cause of the death of our two characters then we miss the most important points of the story. Despite finding himself being tormented the rich man doesn’t appear to have learned how to approach others. He speaks to Abraham as an equal, rather than as God’s chosen one to lead his people, somewhat like a young footballer with little talent talking to the Queen in the same way as he would to his team-mates. Our rich man also treats Lazarus as if he were a slave, not talking directly to him, but asking Abraham to send him to cool his tongue in his hour of need. He truly hasn’t got the message that he’s being tormented because of what he has done, or not done, during his earthly life.

There is a modern-day story about a priest who was warned to leave his home because a dam wall had burst and the town was about to be flooded, but refused help three times, only to drown. When the rich man in this parable wants Lazarus to warn his brothers about his fate Abraham reminds him that the prophets have already been warning people for a long time, and they have chosen not to listen. Then, in a precursor to Christ’s own resurrection, Abraham points out that even if someone returned from the dead that person’s warning wouldn’t be heeded. Christ Himself returned from the dead, but few people accepted that it was Him, and fewer still heeded His advice. These days, with our scientific expertise, people try to find alternative explanations to events which don’t fit our normal experience, missing the message which they should hear. It was no different then.

How close are we to either of the characters in this parable? Do we take advantage of the riches we can accumulate in our lifetime, and ignore the needs of others who are less fortunate than us? Do we treat others as if they were slaves to make us more comfortable, or to get us more possessions which we leave behind when we die? Do we even think about others in the world around us? Even worse, do we see the people in need around us, or are we too focussed on what we want to notice their existence.

It’s good to have a stable home in which to live, and enough money to provide for our basic needs, but it’s far too easy to want bigger or better things, or more possessions that we think will make us happier, and it’s far too easy to lose sight of those who are in need. As to the target of this parable, the old favourite “the Pharisees” it’s no surprise that they didn’t understand, or didn’t act on, the message Christ was giving them. What about today’s church leaders – and that includes me?