Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: prophet

20th November 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / 1 Comment on 20th November 2016

jaremiah-23-bJeremiah 23:1-6

1Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. 2Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. 3Then I, myself, will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing,” says the Lord.

5 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up, for David, a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6In his days, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety, and this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

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


As with the vast majority of the writings of the prophets, the environment in which Jeremiah finds himself is one of corruption in the religious establishment. Like the other prophets, Jeremiah spent much of his time speaking God’s word to an unreceptive audience, just as 21st century prophets find themselves doing; and when an oracle, such as this, starts with “woe” it’s more than just bad news for those in the sights of the prophet. Given that attendances in “mainstream” churches – Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Uniting in particular – have been declining for many years I would not like to be a bishop, or equivalent, in any of them, and have to read this passage from Jeremiah. It’s the responsibility of clergy, at all levels, to guide the faithful flock and to build up that flock by welcoming new people and helping to convert non-believers into believers. Though the number of clergy involved in child sexual abuse in Australian institutions is small, and the proportion of errant clergy is no larger than the proportion in the wider community, the churches’ response to the issue is one which continues to drive people from our churches. Jeremiah doesn’t mince matters. ‘Woe to those shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep’ is bad enough for the perpetrators of abuse, but the passage goes further. Those who have not attended to the problem are also in the firing line, and God is not happy! ‘I will attend to you for your evil doings.’ I’m reminded about a public meeting with one of the bishops, in which we were told 10% of people in the suburb we were in considered themselves Anglican, only 2% attended church at least twice a year making a parish unviable, and the solution was to make the parish bigger to have more people contributing to the cost of running it. Where is the Good Shepherd, bringing the lost sheep back to church? This scream from Jeremiah is all about divine judgement. We’ve been hit in the face with the reality of declining attendances, and then we’ve been hit with a warning of judgement to come because we either haven’t attended to the problem, or we’ve exacerbated it. There is no forgiveness in this passage, though we, as Christians, would expect, and hope, to find it.

On first reading I missed a challenging word, but then thought “hang on a minute”! God says that He will gather the flock from the lands where HE has driven them. Wasn’t it the unfaithful shepherds who had driven them away and not attended to them? I looked at several commentaries to check what renowned scholars were saying about that, and there were very few who said anything. A scholarly answer suggests that the shepherds were driving them out of their own land, and God was driving them to foreign lands, for their own safety, before being rescued and returned to Israel.

Jeremiah continues issuing the word of the Lord against a people who will not listen. God will take over feeding the sheep, and looking after them. He will be like The Good Shepherd and go looking for those who have been lost, bringing them back to the fold himself, because those who have had responsibility for that task have been like the hireling. When the lost have been returned to the fold, God will select a new breed of shepherds, one which will look after the flock faithfully. Ouch!! Are we listening, or are we just hearing?

Thankfully, there is hope of redemption and reconciliation for the flock which has been scattered and decimated. We can look forward to God bringing in a new era where we can live in safety, where the religious community will be well supported, where people are brought to Christ on a daily basis, and where the Good News will be celebrated.

When our Jewish friends celebrate the Passover, it is not a memorial of an event well in the past, but a real-live moment in their own lives, such is the connection with scripture. If we took the same approach with the birth of Christ then how would that affect our lives? Is that how God will bring back to the fold the lost sheep who don’t know they are lost?

 

 

23rd October 2016 Joel

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
Pieter Bruegel "Harvest"
Pieter Bruegel, “Harvest” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Joel 2:23-32

23O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. 24The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 25I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. 26You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. My people shall never again be put to shame. 27You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other, and my people shall never again be put to shame.

28Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. 30I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 32Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.

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


I was intending completing the reflection on Joel when I was asked to focus on the gospel passage from Luke, so here’s a bonus.

Joel? Who’s Joel? How many of us can pick up a Bible and quickly find Joel without referring to the index?

The book of Joel is divided differently in the Hebrew from how it is done in English, so who decided that we English speakers are better at organising scripture than the original owners of that scripture? This segment opens with abundance in the wake of desolation. You might think “bad year, good year”, but that’s not the case. One verse about the locusts eating all the crops – and everything else – does not do justice, if that’s a fair word to use in the circumstances, to the years of famine brought about, according to scripture, because of the Hebrew people not paying attention to God. I can imagine God thinking “why do you humans go off on your own ways so often and so far that I have to send you plagues, famines, sheer desolation, and more to get you even to the starting point of looking to me for your blessings?” I don’t want to count the number of times that God’s chosen people went off the rails and had to be brought back by some horrors being inflicted on them. It would be depressing! How many times should I forgive my brother: seventy times seven? If that were God’s limit then we’d be in strife very soon.

God, of course, is willing to forgive us for our blatant transgressions, far more than we are willing to forgive others for their transgressions against us. As a consequence, God is now willing to provide food in abundance, joy for all, and a wonderfully new experience in that close relationship we have with our maker. Never again will the Hebrew people be put to shame; until, or course, they forget that God is in the midst of Israel, or that He is the one and only God. That’s a different story, which we know in the 21st century AD but they didn’t in the early 5th century BC.

The declaration that God will pour out His spirit on all flesh is familiar to those of us who have read or heard the Pentecost passage from Acts [Acts 2:14-21] where this excerpt from Joel is quoted as near to verbatim as we can get with one passage in Hebrew and the other in Greek. In Joel, there is no indication of when this will occur other than “afterwards”; in Acts, Peter adds “in the last days”. What we see in the declaration is that God will pour His spirit on all humans – the text says all flesh, but the list is only of various groups of people – with no boundaries. That is, there will be no discrimination on the grounds of gender, age or social status. The spirit will be poured on sons, daughters, old men, young men, slaves, let me add wives and mothers, and all shall, not will, prophesy. It’s amazing that this list was written more than 400 years before Paul’s famous “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” if we take the King James rendition, though the Greek actually says “neither is there male and female”. [Galations 3:28]. It was clearly understood, even in the time of Joel, that God’s will was for equality, not segregation or subversion. If that concept was understood 2500 years ago, why do we still have opposition to women taking leadership roles in the churches?

In days when there was no understanding of the physical process of eclipses, the idea of the sun being turned to darkness, and the moon being turned to blood would have elicited fear of the end time whenever there was one – and we now know that they occur several times every year. Have we become complacent because we have a scientific understanding of eclipses? Quite likely.

If we are approaching the end time, and nobody really knows, have we done enough to reach out to those people who have little or no contact with God, remembering that “all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved”? Some would answer that it is up to God to extend His grace to those who have had no contact with, or knowledge of the existence of God, and that we cannot reach out to everyone in every country because we don’t have the resources. That might be true, but does it exonerate us if we leave those who live close to us, and those with whom we work, ignorant of the loving grace of God?

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?