by John M. G. Barclay
If you think you know what ‘grace’ means you probably need to read this book. Top New Testament scholars are raving about it. It opens up a whole new approach to the language of gift in Paul and in the literature of First Temple Judaism. It also provides a powerful tool to analyse the tradition of theological interpretation of Paul down the ages.
My own summary of John Barclay’s conclusions will probably fall far short of the beautiful precision and clarity with which Barclay himself summarises his arguments as he goes along. This clarity means that, although the book draws on an immense depth of scholarship, it will also be very accessible to a lay audience.
New Testament scholars will no doubt argue over particular points, but I suspect that the framework Barclay offers will provide the terminology for debate for some time to come.
Some of the key conclusions are as follows.
The idea of grace finds expression in Paul and in First Temple Judaism in range of terms associated with gift giving. One key aspect of this language is that it arises within a culture in which gift giving is normally and normatively reciprocal. A return is expected and this does not undermine the fact that it is a gift. Hence the cultural world of gift giving is very different from the modern notion of a ‘pure gift’ untainted with expectations of reciprocity.
There is no uniform notion of ‘grace’. Barclay’s close analysis of the literature shows a family resemblance between the various ways the terms are used but also clear differences. He distinguishes six ‘perfections’ of grace. By this he means six ways in which the notion of grace is stretched towards an idealised notion of perfect grace. Many writers use several of these ‘perfections’ in their understanding of grace, but there is interesting diversity which means that debates between different writers which do not pay attention to these differences end up falling into considerable confusion.
Barclay’s six perfections are: maximizing the abundance of grace; absolutizing the priority of grace; emphasising the efficacy of grace; stressing the incongruity of grace with the worth or character of the recipient; emphasising the singularity of grace as the unique characteristic of the giver, and finally defining grace as unconditional or non-reciprocal with ‘no strings attached. This last perfection, Barclay argues, is a peculiarly modern perfection.
It strikes me that singularity is a little of an oddball in the list as it is a descriptor of the giver rather than the mode of giving. Moreover Barclay spends little time discussing this perfection with its suggestion that God only gives and does not take.
The perfection of priority provides a backdrop to Barclay’s devastating engagement with E P Sanders ‘new perspective’. For Sanders grace, understood almost exclusively in terms of the notion of priority, does not distinguish Paul from his Jewish counterparts. Barclay shows that Paul’s account of the gift is highly distinctive once you pay attention to the many different ways First Temple writers perfect the understanding of grace.
To show this Barclay offers comparative readings of The Wisdom of Solomon, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, The Hoyadot (Thanksgiving Hymns) from the sectarian Qumran community, Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Bibicarum and 4 Ezra. As a newcomer to these writings I found this section particularly fascinating.
From here Barclay offers his own readings of Galatian and Romans (in turn) as representative of Paul’s distinctive use of the language of gift. Although there are interesting differences between Galatians and Romans – the latter offering a fuller account and developed account of the relationship between this history of Israel and the gift that is the event of Jesus Christ – both letters demonstrate how Paul emphasised the perfection of the incongruity of grace (to the undeserving) because of his focus on the Christ-event as divine gift and because of his concern for and experience of Gentile mission. It is not that Paul does not perfect the idea of grace in other ways (he does) but it is the radical incongruity of the gift of grace in the Christ event which reshapes the life of the communities Paul writes to, most importantly in relativizing the authority of the Torah in a novel and revolutionary manner. Significantly, Paul does not perfect the non-reciprocity of God. Grace to the undeserving does indeed have strings attached. For Paul incongruous grace is unconditioned (by the recipient) but not unconditional. This incongruous Grace is, however, also efficacious and in Paul eschatological framework is effective to render some kind of final congruity.
Another interesting aspect of this book is Barclay’s comparative readings of significant interpreters of Paul. He uses his ‘six perfections’ as a grid to look at the assumptions about grace present a long line of thinkers. The following summary hardly does justice to the distinctive takes that each of the thinkers has on the various ways of perfecting grace, however, this chapter is well worth the price of the book. Barclay discusses, in order: Marcion (emphasising singularity and incongruity), Augustine (priority, incongruity, efficacy), Luther (superabundance, tendency to singularity, priority, permanent incongruity, non-reciprocity), Calvin (priority, incongruity, efficacy), Barth (strong emphasis on incongruity, grappling with efficacy), Bultmann (incongruity, priority, reticent about efficacy), Kasemann (incongruity, not inclined to perfect efficacy, opposed to non-reciprocal ‘cheap’ grace), Martyn (incongruity, priority, efficacy) and more (including a range of ‘new perspective’ and ‘post new perspective scholars’)
I struggle to recommend this book highly enough. It is must read, especially for students of the New Testament and for preachers and teachers in the church.
Today is the Feast of Christ the King. Today the lectionary sends us to the gospel of John to a very important passage.
To understand the story of Jesus you have to understand that first century Judaea was a hot bed of revolution. The Jewish people had been nurturing hopes of divine justice and revenge for many years. Revolutionaries had come and gone and still the people were kept under brutal military rule. The Romans did their best to keep onside with the locals where they could and Pilate is the Roman ruler on the scene. He has the power to kill any suspected terrorist and there are many potential suspects. The whole population really. No point in getting them to wear Star of David badges, or the kind of badges Donald Trump wants Muslims to wear. There’s just too many of them. Pilate also has a finely tuned politicians instinct to what is least likely to provoke Jewish rebellion. He will avoid it if he can.
So his opening question is straight to the point. Are you the King of the Jews? Are you the leader of the rebellion? It’s an interesting dialogue between Jesus and Pilate. Each time someone asks a question the other person doesn’t quite answer the question. They just seem to avoid it. It feels very much like real life. But the common themes come back.
So rather than saying yes or no to “king of the Jews”, Jesus asks a question back. “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate in turn doesn’t answer this question directly. “I am not a Jew” he replies. “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me, what have you done?” Pilate plays ignorant. Clearly he has heard something from the Jewish leaders who brought Jesus in, hence his opening question. Again Jesus doesn’t answer the question ‘What have you done?’ Instead he circles back to the original question about being a king. But his answer is one of the most interesting and important statements he makes. It’s where he begins to nail his colours to the mast (so to speak).
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here’.
Some of you might have translations which say “My kingdom is not of this world” but this is not an accurate translation. The more accurate translations say ‘My kingdom is not from this world’. That’s what the Greek says (ek = from). And its different.
There’s no suggestion in Jesus’ life and teaching that is kingdom is not about this world or for this world, that its all about an afterlife. Throughout Jesus teaching the kingdom of God is invading this world. But it comes from elsewhere. It has everything to do with this world. It just has a source from beyond this world. It is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. Both terms are about where the kingdom is from. Jesus announces the arrival of God’s kingdom in this world.
And how can you tell it is not from here?
“If it were my followers would fight to defend me from being taken…”
Because it comes from God, its members are learning not to participate in the violence of the world and the modes of kingdom-building that happen in this world. Jesus disciples do not fight back in defence… even in defence of their greatest treasure, their beloved teacher, Jesus. Their instinct was to fight and to defend with violence. Peter pulls his sword and cuts off the ear of the soldier. Jesus tells him to put his sword away. “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword”. Believe it or not, says Jesus, the world will not be redeemed by violence.
I say ‘believe it or not’ because our lives are surrounded by the idea that the solution to violence must be violent. Almost all our movies and books seem to be build around this idea that some call ‘the myth of redemptive violence’. In the end the hero will have to use violence and that will solve the problem.
Into this world comes a man who comes from ‘somewhere else’. His whole heart and being has been formed elsewhere. He totally believes and commits himself to the kingdom of God from elsewhere.
And Pilate says, aha, so you are a King. You’re admitting it. His political mind is on one track. It’s as if that idea of a leader with followers who didn’t fight back was so crazy that it just flew past without him noticing.
Jesus says, ‘You say that I am a King’. A philosopher might say, ‘it depends what you mean by King.’ If the kingdom looks nothing like anything anyone would call a kingdom, is the leader really a king?
All Jesus can do is stretch their imagination. And when we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King we come to have our imaginations stretched. The politician works to get things done. Jesus is more interested in stretching imaginations about what can and should be done.
“For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” There is a truth from outside the world. Jesus is living that truth.
Pilate is living a different kind of truth… it might not even be about truth… What Pilate the politician is all about is power and control. All that matters is that Rome remains in control. You stay in power so that you can stay in power. You say what you need to say in order to stay in power. Life is a battle. The meaning of life is ‘winning’.
All Pilate can do is dismiss this talk of truth. His last word is ‘What is truth?’ In his world that means ‘what good is truth?’, ‘who needs truth?’ In the world of cultural diversity, Jewish Roman, Greek, whatever … everyone has their own truth. There are truths but not truth. What matters for Pilate then is power.
In Jesus world God’s truth comes from elsewhere. Because, of course, truth is inseparable from love. In Jesus world, truth lies in the call to submit his own power to the good of his neighbour. To love God with all his power and being, and to love his neighbour as himself. To do so is to testify to the truth, to do so is to live in a defenceless kingdom, a kingdom whose only hope lies not in borders or armies but in a love that comes from elsewhere.
Such talk can be easily dismissed. Such a life can be easily dismissed… by crucifixion. But God does not dismiss it. God restores it through resurrection. God still restores it.
Let me finish with a quote (its becoming a habit of mine). This one is from Stanley Hauerwas:
Christians are called to live nonviolently not because we believe nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, but in a world of war, as faithful followers of Christ, we cannot imagine being anything other than nonviolent
This changes everything! It’s the title of an amazing book by Naomi Klein (which I will say more about in a minute). Jesus didn’t exactly say ‘This Changes Everything’. It was more like ‘Everything will change’ … He looks around: “Do you see these great buildings… not one stone will be left on another. All will be thrown down.” he is talking about the temple, which for a Jew in 30 ad was the centre of the universe, the centre of the economy, the centre of their identity as a people. Everything will change… but also there’s more than a hint of ‘everything must change’. This is a time to speak out! This is a prophetic moment!
So the first thing I want to say is: This is not just a prediction this is a judgement on the temple. In the immediate prior story in Mark’s gospel Jesus is sitting in the temple, watching a poor widow give all she has to the coffers… and denouncing the religious leaders who keep the place running on hypocrisy. That’s the context in Mark. What’s more Jesus not only talked about the temple falling down. He acted. He protested. He went into the temple and performed public protests and dramas. He tipped over the tables of the money-changers. He took a stock whip and chased the animals for the sacrificial system out of the temple. He put his body where his mouth was. Jesus is a critic of the temple. The temple is failing. The temple is perverted from its purpose.
Secondly, Jesus is not talking about the distant future this is about to happen. He is not talking of the end of the physical universe, let alone the end of life on the planet. He is talking about something much closer to hand and yet for his audience, something just as devastating. How do I know he’s not talking about some future event we are still waiting for? Because he says so (later in Mark 13…v 30). “Truly I tell you this generation shall not pass away until these things have taken place.” … until the temple is destroyed. Modern readers are fooled into thinking that Jesus is talking about the end of the world by the fact that Jesus speaks like an apocalyptic prophet. He quotes images from apocalyptic literature. Images of cosmic disaster, stars falling from the heaven, the sun darkening. And modern readers who don’t know this kind of literature, and don’t “get it”, think he is literally describing the end of the world. In fact, as I have explained from this pulpit before, the most straightforward reading is that he is dramatising, in a poetic way, the disaster that he clearly sees coming.
In 70 ad Jerusalem and its temple were sacked and destroyed by Rome. Not one stone was left on another. Jesus was right. ‘This generation’ didn’t pass away. Messiahs came and went. Plenty of people stood up to fight Rome in the name of the God of Israel. Followers of Jesus were persecuted. All of this Jesus could see coming. Everything was going to change. And it did… in 70 ad.
But 70 ad was a long time ago. Ancient history for us. What does this event from the distant past, say to us today? Is there a temple that Jesus would look at today and say. Everything. Must. Change. Not one stone will be left upon another. If you were Jesus, what would you predict was about to collapse? What would you say must change?
In her book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein wrote:
‘…our economic and planetary systems are now at war. Or more accurately, our economy is at war with the many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.’
Implication: the economic model must change. The basic way we organise our society must change.
Jesus went to the centre of faith in his day. What does that mean? What is faith? Let me suggest a definition of faith. Faith is a fundamental commitment which shapes the way we live our life. If I have faith in human nature… I will go around trusting people. If I have faith in education… I will believe that educating people will make them better people. If I have faith in the Key government… I will vote for them (or take an interest in flags ;-). If I have faith in money… I will evaluate the progress of our society in terms of GDP.
So we can talk about my faith. But we can also talk about our faith. Naomi Klein says that our society has been built around faith in free markets… The powerful in our world now operate on the faith that if you free up the markets, there will be economic growth, this will result in financial prosperity for all, and the world will be a better place. And so governments have structured our society accordingly. We have learnt to become good citizens by consuming more and more in order to grow the economy.
I want to suggest that this is our faith. This is the common faith of our society
And now says Klein, our faith is approaching a head-on collision with the basic structures of our planet. Not only will greed not save us. It will destroy us. Suddenly our warming globe is going to force us to face up to our neighbours again (loving our neighbours as ourselves, that little detail that gets sidelined in the economic culture we live in) … we are forced to face up to our neighbours again, including the non-human neighbours and the natural world beloved of God. If Jesus were here he would say again. Everything must change.
Our reading concludes “This is but the beginning of birthpangs”
Anyone here given birth? Pleasant experience?
Facing change is not easy… there are always ‘birth pangs’… especially if its your whole world that is changing. Especially if it is your most basic commitments that shape your everyday life. Especially if the large stones of the temple represent your memories and childhood. The trouble coming is like the pain of childbirth.
There is a peculiar quality to the pains of birth because the future is so much better, if only we can go through the transition. If only we can live into this future. Alert not to the way things have been, but alert to the coming of Christ. Christ who comes to us in the disguise of the poor. Christ who comes to us in our neighbour. Christ who ultimately comes to us in a new and renewed world…
We are at a tipping point. We live in dangerous times, but in all of this we live in hopeful times.
I always thought of Wendell Berry as an environmentalist and a poet. But I didn’t think of him as a Christian until I read this quote from him:
“I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love”
So we enter the gospel in the middle of a big debate. This is the inquisition section of Mark’s gospel. The religious leaders have been asking Jesus tricky questions for a while now. They have been asking him about taxes. They have been asking him about the resurrection. Now a scribe comes in with the big one: What is the greatest commandment? It is the Jewish equivalent of the Christian question: what is the heart of the gospel? When all is said and done what is at the core of your faith? … that kind of thing.
This reminds me of an interesting contrast between Judaism and Christianity. Because they are quite different questions (the greatest commandment and the core of the gospel). When a Jew looks back at the ancient writings that we call ‘the Old Testament’ he or she thinks of them as ‘The Law’ (and calls them ‘The Law’) . It’s all about commandments. The stories fit around the commands. When a Christian looks back at these same writings. He or she sees firstly the story. It’s the story of the covenant love of God. So we call it the Old Covenant or Old Testament. The commands fit within the story rather than the other way round.
So when Judaism split in two later in the first century between those Jews who believed Jesus was Messiah and those Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus, the Christians (the ones who did believe in Jesus) gathered together their writings as New Testament. And the other Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus gathered writings together as Mishnah – the writings of the rabbis about how to order their lives.
So here’s the point. Both groups look back at the same books from their past. They each have a right to those books as their common past. But both have different ways of looking at the same books. For Jews the Commands or the Law is at the centre and the story fits around it – so they call them ‘the Law’. For Christians the story and the covenant is at the centre – so the call them the ‘Old Testament/Covenant’ (or at least that’s what Robert Jenson argues)
So what is the greatest commandment? Jesus answers the question. And he answers it in a way that is completely acceptable to the Scribe. He gives a standard Jewish answer. Love God (with all your heart and soul and mind) and love your neighbour. Both are there as individual commandments in their own right. You can look up Deuteronomy and read about loving God and Leviticus has a commands love of neighbour as the alternative to vengeance (that’s an important context) [“You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” Lev 19:18]
They exist as individual commandments. Jesus puts them together in one commandment. And that one command is not just the greatest command. It is also a summary of all the 10 commandments. Its a summary of this vision of a life with two dimensions which can never be separated. Love God (verticle) and love your neighbour (horizontal).
Jesus says together these make up the single ‘greatest command’ and yet within the greatest commandment there are two parts. Love for God comes first. And neighbour love follows.
The greatest commandment turns out to be a big call, a kind of perfection. We could very easily dismiss it… as beyond us… impossible even, and move on. That’s one response. It’s just depressingly aspirational.
Another response: We might also be concerned about the emphasis on first loving God. If you love God too much you’ll end up with not enough love for your neighbour. Like the suicide bomber who loves God so much that he kills his neighbour. … But Jesus says love is not a finite quantity like water. If you use too much of it you run out. For Jesus it works the other way. The more you love God, the more you love your neighbour. We are changed. We lose any exclusiveness that might be associated with our love of our self. We lose any selfishness about our love for our self … and we love our neighbour with the same love that we have for our self. Love of God encompasses and shapes everything else we do. It has everything to do with the nature and reality of the God we love.
That’s nice, you might say … in theory… So the conversation ends in agreement. They all agree. All you need is love. Great! All religions are the same. They all believe in love (in some sense)… we’re happily ever after.
But Jesus has the last word. He saw that the scribe had answered thoughtfully, and he says to him. “You are not far from the kingdom of God”. Close… but no cigar. What did he get wrong?
He is thoughtful. Jesus and he both agree on the commandments. But the commandments are not enough. The kingdom of God does not come to us as a commandment. We do not enter the kingdom of God by commandments. If you have lived all your life trying to follow the principles and commandments that your parents and the church has taught you, with all the best intentions in the world, it is quite possible that Jesus will look at you and say ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’. Close … but no cigar.
To put it another way. You cannot love God because God commands you to love God. Even the greatest commandment is not enough. You will love God because: God. is. lovely! It is because all the loveliness of God, the kingdom of God comes to you that you will enter the kingdom of God. And if that is not your experience, you will probably not love God, even if you try to love God.
Jesus comes bringing the kingdom, announcing the kingdom, demonstrating all the loveliness of God’s life… and the man standing in front of him… doesn’t enter the kingdom. Because ultimately it’s not about commands, it’s about something that happens to us. God’s story… the Old Testament… is still happening as New Testament. The two tablets of the law – total love for God (vertical) and love for neighbour (horizontal) are being lived out in the shape of a cross, a cross shaped life of the loveliness of God. God is loving us. God is drawing us in. ….
In the end its not a matter of commands or principles or ideas (common to all religions). It’s a matter of receiving that story and that life and participating in that life and being changed.
The gospel is not a command. It is something that happens to you. It’s the thing that causes you to love God with all your being and your neighbour as yourself.
It’s when I survey the wondrous cross… the cross-shaped life of Jesus and of his Abba … that love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all. Let’s sing that hymn together…
Today I want to tell you about a guy who became a follower of Jesus. That’s what really moves me about this story. Not so much that he regained his sight. Everybody has their own abilities and disabilities. There are different ways to live. Bartimaeus moved from the blind world to the seeing world… you might say… its certainly a very contemporary way of thinking about it…. But the thing that’s really exciting here is not that he left his blind world, but that he left all kinds of possible-Jericho-worlds in order to take to the road. In order to live again as a follower of Jesus. That… is very cool.
Let’s look more closely at the story. It’s a famous location… Jericho. The last time someone shouted in Jericho the walls fell down. They entered the town and were on their way out the other side when they met Bartimaeus. And he starts shouting. He starts shouting until someone notices him.
He has heard the news. People around are saying that “Jesus of Nazareth” is coming through. He knows that Nazareth is the kind of place you don’t want to come from. So instead he calls out “Son of David, have mercy on me. Son of David, have mercy on me”. David is a name associated with destiny and hope. It kinda means ‘Messiah’. Bartimaeus is raising the stakes here.
It’s not clear whether people are annoyed because he is making too much noise, or because of the name he is using…. Stirring up trouble with talk of ‘Son of David’ can be dangerous when people from Nazareth and passing by.
Names are interesting in this story. Mark reminds us that Bartimaeus literally means Son of Timaeus. Timaeus is ambiguous. It might come from a word that means ‘the honoured one’ or it could come from a word that means ‘the impure one’. So he is either son of fame… or he’s son of shame.
Bartimaeus is a beggar. The response of the gathered crowd and the disciples is to shut him up to ‘sternly order him’ to be quiet. At least at this point in the story he is a Son of Shame.
This week I was listening to a radio programme about the homeless and beggars in Auckland. There are increasing numbers of folk sleeping rough in NZ and the radio man was interviewing a guy who had mastered the art of begging. He had a history of family tragedy and mental health problems and now he couldn’t work and was falling through gaps in the social welfare. I’m not sure whether he was sleeping rough at the time and was about to get accommodation or had accommodation and was struggling with Auckland rent (sometimes its hard to get details when your listening to the radio in the car). Whatever the case he was very conscious that all it needed was a series of unfortunate incidents and a lack of social-capital and any of us could be on the street too. He had developed a technique that worked for him. He wrote a sign, which he would rewrite each month explaining his situation. He stood silently. Didn’t shake a cup. Didn’t call out. Just waited for people to come to him. He was quite deliberate about the marketing of his way of living.
I wonder what it feels like in our world, to beg on the street. I think there are still sons and daughters of shame out there. One comment that the beggar on the radio made was that they like to call it ‘busking’ rather than ‘begging’.
Bartimaeus was a stroppy beggar. The more they told him to shut up the louder he shouted. The walls of Jericho didn’t literally fall down. But Jesus heard the guy who needed a ‘Son of David’.
So he tells the people who are shutting him down to call him up instead. He calls his disciples to pay attention to the voice of the Son of Shame.
Remember these disciples include James and John, the two in our last Sunday reading, one preacher (Kim Fabricius) likes to call them “Dumb and Dumber”. These are the ones who want to be at Jesus left-hand and right-hand. They want to steal a march on positions of power come the revolution. They get all the other disciples annoyed. Because, just like Dumb and Dumber, the rest of the disciples also have an eye for power.
Little quiz aside about Mark’s Gospel: Who does Jesus end up having on his left-hand and right-hand in his moment of glory? Two thieves.
Of course Dumb and Dumber, like the rest of the disciples, have no idea that the way to the kingdom is through suffering and death… even though Jesus tells them this repeatedly. Jesus tells them they must be the servant of all. They want to be the bosses of all.
Notice Bartimaeus’s response this call up: He throws off his cloak – the key tool of his trade, the cloak he puts out in front of himself everyday for folks to throw coins or food in, the protection from the cold at night. He abandons his protection. He abandons his livelihood to go to the Son of David.
Notice Jesus question. He asks him the same question he asked Dumb and Dumber when they wanted their favour at his left and right hand. He asks him ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ Bartimaeus’s response is immediate and simple. ‘I want to see, again.’ It’s a simple response which contrasts sharply with Dumb and Dumber’s request. He wants his life back again. He wants to participate with everyone else. He doesn’t want power over others, but then neither does he want to sit on the sidelines. He wants to contribute. And of course, for Mark’s gospel and John’s gospel, blindness and sight are metaphors for spiritual realities. At the same time Bartimaeus is saying ‘I want to see, spiritually… I want to see the truth about myself and God’s coming kingdom.’
How badly do you want to see?
Do you feel that in our society you are left on the sidelines?
Are you prepared to throw off you coat, your security and break out of your routine?
Notice that Bartimaeus doesn’t abandon his place on the sidelines to become a productive member of the same society that had sidelined him. He doesn’t run off to get a job and buy an apartment and settle down. His first response, his really inspiring moment… is really a continuation of his bold move to throw off his cloak… his response is to find a place in the new movement of those who are following Jesus. He is more interested in the kingdom of God and the destiny associated with this strange ‘Son of David’ than he is in settling down.
He regains his physical sight… and it serves his spiritual sight. His life has a direction. He hits the road with Jesus.
The good news is you don’t have to settle down… and neither do you have to sit passively and powerlessly on the sidelines without hope and feeling like shouting all the time.
Do you ever feel like shouting?
Do you want to see… enough to participate in the kingdom of God?
Have you prayed for sight? Now is a good time. Now is a good time to lose some old habits and join in the living witness, the embodiment of the kingdom in this community. This is today’s invitation.
Mark 10:17-31 Hebrews 4:12-16
“The Word of God is living and active… sharper than a two-edge sword”. How seriously do we take the speech of God, this Word that’s alive, that judges our innermost being? How seriously do we take the fact that when we go to church, the main thing at the very centre of what we do is listen to the bible? (it’s not the same question… the Bible and the Word… but its related) It’s actually a particularly Presbyterian thing… to take scripture seriously… its our tradition.
For some, the Bible is like a kind of supermarket where we go down the aisle and find the things we want, that suit our purposes (oh, I like that verse, I don’t like that one, I’ll ignore that one). Maybe all of us do that some of the time. But its not really good enough is it? What if the Word of God is living and active, not some passive supermarket shelf?
What if, rather than reading the bible in church we find ourselves ‘read by the bible’. Our hope when we gather for worship (can you feel the fragility, the openness, the vulnerability of that word “worship”?)… our hope is that the speech of God, God’s word will read us. We are not here to judge God, we are here to be judged by God.
Does that sound like fundamentalism to you? The thing is, in the letter to the Hebrews the Word of God is not a book but a person, Jesus, who knows our weaknesses and brings God’s mercy to us. This is how Hebrews begins
‘Long ago God spoke through our ancestors in many and various ways through the prophets [the Hebrew Bible] but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being and sustains all things by his powerful word.’
Jesus the living and active Word which cuts our world down to the bone and shows us the tough truth about ourselves and our world. Jesus is the judge who knows our weakness, who sympathizes with us, who acts in mercy and so gives us the courage to boldly approach the throne of grace.
Learning to ‘be read’ by the bible means learning to see Jesus in it.
Today’s gospel reading is a great test of this whole business… because it is basically ‘Jesus on money’... Jesus who knows our weaknesses addresses the question of money. Money’s not a simple matter (it’s not just the physical stuff in our pockets, we hardly carry any of that around any more anyway). But its also difficult to talk about. It’s a sensitive topic best avoided in polite company.
Knowing our weaknesses – (turning back to our gospel reading) It tells us that a rich man came to Jesus seeking the life of the kingdom (eternal life). “What can I do to inherit eternal life”. Some background might be helpful here (H/T Ched Myers). In Jesus time wealth was not so much about ‘money in the bank’ as it was about land. And how did people usually get land? (answer = inherit it). So here is a wealthy landowner with all the sense of entitlement that comes with his class asking: “How can I INHERIT the life of the age to come?’ So land is passed on by inheritance but land is also accumulated as the poor subsistence farmers come upon hard times, get into debt, take out loans from the landowners to survive and when they fail in repayments, lose their lands. So the more things are different, the more they remain the same. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This is the economic system of wealth which Jesus is addressing.
“Jesus looked at him (it says) and loved him”…. the kindest thing Jesus could say to this man, it turns out though, was the last thing he wanted to hear. “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor”.
We know its the last thing he wanted to hear, partly because of his reaction… but probably more likely because of our own reaction. Like Jesus we know his weakness, because it is our weakness also. This is the last thing we would want to hear from Jesus. None of us thinks Jesus would say this to us. Every interpreter I have ever heard has emphasised that this saying is specifically for this man. This is what Jesus would say to Donald Trump, not to us… We desperately hope…
And yet context is everything. Jesus has some general things to say about money – that go beyond his word to this particular man. Jesus has a theology of money, a view of how money relates to the kingdom of God. Money fights against the kingdom of God. Money makes the kingdom of God harder to participate him. These are Jesus words. ‘How hard it is for the rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ This is perplexing for the disciples. And if it is perplexing for them, how much more for us, whose world is so much more deeply shaped by money than their world? It makes the kingdom of God seem so otherworldly. How can God’s kingdom be about a struggle with money?
At this point we are tempted to say that money is just a thing… a coin, a number… it does nothing. The issues here is our attitude to it and we can choose to do what we want with it.
That would be the encouraging. We could go away feeling optimistic about our ability to do good in the world. But I don’t think the two-edged sword lets us get away with such an easy response.
For Jesus there is a difference between the rich person and the poor person. Money exerts a pressure, it is a culture, a system, a power. It takes our time and attention… ‘where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’. To be rich, according to Jesus puts you at a disadvantage in relation to the kingdom of God.
And also the last thing Jesus is saying is that it is straightforwardly within our capacity to turn our attitude around and do the right thing with money. In fact Jesus is pushing in the opposite direction… For us it is impossible. Thanks goodness it is possible for God.
God alone can set us free from our wealth to share in God’s kingdom.
So today I am hoping we can talk together about this topic… but of course its a very difficult topic to talk about. It’s hard to talk about it without feeling at some level the challenge of Jesus words and without getting defensive. If you look at the text, Peter does that straight after Jesus’ teaching. He says: “We have left everything and followed you…” (as if to say why are you telling us this? … we’ve donated to the church and to charities for years…). And Jesus says, sure… there will be kingdom benefits for all of that stuff, but, be aware the kingdom might not be as you think ‘many who are first will be last and last will be first’.
It would be very easy to start to talk about our own situation in a way which reflects our envy of those who have more… or which tries to claim a moral high ground by emphasising our poverty and so on.
I am a wealthy person. In relation to the average New Zealand income, Jan and I are rich. The stipend contributes to making it hard for me to enter the kingdom of God.
But in relation to global income levels all of us are wealthy people, although in terms of NZ lifestyles some of us may clearly be poor.
Whatever our situation… and without making comparisons… my prayer is that we can think together about this, because, at some level we are in this together….
· What does money do to us? What is the way it shapes our lives?
· What is it about the kingdom of God that is different from a world dominated by money?
· What are the resources that our faith gives us to deal with money and its impact?
It has been a season of warnings. Warnings are acts of kindness. Today we have another warning.
Jesus has had people coming with their desperate needs, some are hungry and thirsty, some are not themselves (possessed) and they come to him for healing. And they also came to people who were not part of the close group of disciples. And Jesus had such a reputation that these people were also healing others in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. It seems they believed in the power of that name. He was the one to be associated with. And the inner circle of disciples didn’t like that. But Jesus says, whatever you do, don’t put a stumbling block in front of ‘these little ones who believe in me’. Whatever you do you need to be ready to help the ‘little ones’ who come in desperation and in need.
Or perhaps he meant those who reach out to the needy especially in Christ’s name should be encouraged, not discouraged. Whatever you do don’t discourage the ministry of newcomers, of beginners. Some people talk about the importance of being a ‘permission-giving’ church. A church that is not so much about controlling everything and making sure only what we, the leaders, approve of happens, as it is about encouraging people to get involved in the mission of Jesus and make their own mistakes along the way.
If that’s what its about Jesus has some serious warning for those who hinder the ministry of others… If you do it you’d be better dead, better if a millstone was tied around your neck and you were thrown into the sea – quite a gruesome image really.
But Jesus doesn’t stop with that gruesome image, he gets gruesomer. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off”. In the context he is still talking about things that undermine the ministry of the kingdom of God… things need to be eliminated at all costs. Things that stop the community of Christ focus on its true calling and mission…: Get rid of them! And if you don’t act quickly, if you don’t cut the hand off early on, or gouge out your eye… or whatever… you’ll go to hell.
That’s what Jesus says… simple as that… except of course what we mean by hell might be quite different from what Jesus does.
Perhaps I should have warned you… today is my sermon on hell. The door is that way.
Let me throw some Bible verses at you that you may not have thought about, to start us thinking about hell. Before we come back to this text and look at it again, hopefully with fresh eyes.
Romans 5:18-19 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
How many people does Paul believe will go to heaven?
Romans 11:32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
How many people is God wanting to be merciful to?
1 Corinthians 15:22for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
Who will be made alive in Christ?
1 Corinthians 15:28When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.
What is the final state of creation?
1 Timothy 2:3-4This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
What does God want?
1 Timothy 4:10For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.
Who is God the saviour of?
1 Corinthians 3:15If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
How are we who build in the kingdom of God to be saved?
Let’s hold onto that thought that we will be saved ‘through fire’ for a moment.
It’s not actually a good idea to take bible texts like I just have… out of context… to prove a point. I haven’t looked at all the bible verses I haven’t at all attempted to look at the whole story, at the big picture and give a theology of hell. I’ll try and do a little bit of that in a minute. But it’s important to know that this view of “salvation for all” is actually is controversial stuff. In spite of in spite of what the apostle Paul believed, or at least hoped for, a lot of people still believe differently. They imagine, like St Augustine did, that in the end the world will be divided between two cities sealed against one another, heaven and hell. There have been many down the centuries, especially in Western Christianity who have grimly held onto the belief that hell is a place where God will continue to inflict conscious torture on the large mass of humanity forever. On the other hand there are fewer but still many, including famous Church Father’s like Gregory of Nyssa from the early few centuries of the church whose vision of the future is one of a movement of all creation into the glorious life of God. Not two cities but one. But for now let’s go back to our gospel reading.
In verse 45 Jesus says
“it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire”
Literally what he says is ‘it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna’. Gehenna is the name of the rubbish dump outside Jerusalem that was constantly burning. The translators know that Jesus is not simply talking about people being thrown into that particular rubbish dump. They know that the dump has become a metaphor/symbol for something else, so they use a different word. The word is hell. But what does it mean? What is Gehenna (the dump) a metaphor for? Is Jesus warning them about eternal conscious torment after they die? Or is he talking about something else?
I think the most important clue is quite simple. In other places in the bible ‘fire’ (like the fire of the Gehenna rubbish dump) is a metaphor for purification, transformation, healing even. It is surely possible that Jesus is warning his disciples about the pain and difficulty of healing and purification that will result if we fail to take good care of the least among us. Our welfare hinges on how we treat the least.
Perhaps the bad thing (fire) is actually, in the end, a good thing… In the end it is redemption because it changes us. These are tough and scarey warnings… but if we a right about this, and if Paul is right about God’s commitment to redeeming the whole world… we need to ask ourselves one more question
So does Jesus actually believe in hell?… as we have come to think of it in the west? Does Jesus think like Augustine of two cities sealed off from one another, where some live in eternal torment and some eternal bliss?
Now let’s took at the next verse (Mk 9:49)
For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good
Everyone! Not some in hell and some not. Everyone will need some of the salty fire, or fiery salt… He’s mixing up his metaphors now. I guess he is warning his disciples because some actions require more fire than others. But in the end of the day, Jesus says ‘salt is good’. Just like the fire is good. Salt brings out the flavour, the goodness of the meat. Salt preserves the meat. Salt cleanses. From time immemorial they have put salt on wounds. It’s an antibacterial agent. It brings healing. There’s a sting in the healing. But in the end the salty fire is not hell – as we have learnt to imagine it.
Notice that the rubbish dump, Gehenna, is said to be unquenchable. What does that mean? I think it means that God’s desire to heal and transform his people is unquenchable. God will not give up on each of us or on this community until all people are saved and all creation is at one with God – whether that be in this life or the next.
Let’s look at the next for a minute then. I want to finish by turning you to the end of the Bible the last two chapters of revelation have fire too …. In the end, says John, God is calling and gathering all peoples.
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth… and I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying:
“See the home of God is among mortals. He will live with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away”
Then as the vision goes on it talks about a lake of fire…
The cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.
That’s a mysterious phrase – second death – maybe in the light of the purifying fire, it reminds us of what Paul talks about in Romans… the dying with Christ of the old self and the new life that follows. Maybe the lake of fire is a kind of baptismal death? Maybe?
But listen to the final image of the heavenly city with its gates open and a welcome call to those outside who are free to enter:
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Blessed are those who wash their robes so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood
It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star. The Spirit and the Bride say “Come.” And let everyone who hears say “Come”. And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. Rev 22:13-17
At the very end then… the vision is one not of two separated cities – heaven and hell. It is the vision of one city of God, gates open and an invitation to sinners of all kinds to come, to wash, perhaps even to be washed in the fire. It is a vision of movement and welcome, and finally (if Paul has understood this correctly) of complete redemption, where God is all and in all.