OT Lectionary Aug 30th Trinity 13 Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

I wonder if you were a space alien from the planet Tharg and you landed by mistake in Britain, whether your first and instinctive reaction would be to exclaim ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ Our passage today, along with the Gospel from Mark 7, is about the Law, and I have already discussed elsewhere what place the Law has in the lives of Christians who have been saved by grace. We concluded that the Law is meant to be a delight to God’s people, not because it restricts them but because it points the way to life and wisdom, the kind of savoir faire which helps us to live effectively. But today’s passage reminds us that this is not just an individual characteristic but a corporate one as well.

There is a common motif in the OT about the surrounding nations observing Israel and seeing them as wise and effective, and acknowledging that their god is indeed a good one. This thought lies at the heart of this passage: in v 7-8 the repeated cry of ‘what other great nation?’ displays the awe with which those outside Israel regard their national life. Would that that were true of 21st century Britain!

The Law is hallmarked by wisdom and justice. It is not to be tampered with according to personal taste, it needs guarding jealously and living out zealously, and above all it needs passing on to generations yet to come. Proverbs 24:34 tells us that ‘righteousness exalts a nation’, and it is clearly meant to exalt the nation in the eyes of other nations, so that they may see both the presence of God among us, and the goodness of that God.

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But this is not just a nice idea. Our lectionary compilers have again filleted out the more awkward verses from v 3-5, but to reinsert them reminds us that actually this is a matter of life and death. We don’t just keep the Law so that we’ll look good, but that we may live. To ignore it is to dice with death – literally. Whether that is the quick death of idolators punished by God, or the long, slow death of a nation in moral decline, it is equally inevitable.

It is worth reminding ourselves, though, of the place of the whole book of Deuteronomy, which purports to be Moses’ final instructions as the nation enters a new phase, having left behind slavery and wandering. Now they are to become more of a settled nation, it is good to get the foundations in place as the new phase of life begins. In the final verse Moses urges the people to keep careful watch on themselves lest what he is telling them fades from memory. If you want to see what happens to nations which may be built on good foundations but which have lost the plot over the years, you have only to watch the news. This passage calls forth intercession from me, that God would have mercy on a nation well down the road of disobedience and decay.

Old Testament Lectionary 16th August Trinity 11 Proverbs 9:1-6

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

The parallels with today’s gospel reading are clear: Wisdom, so often personified as a socially intelligent woman, offers to all who are interested a feast of food and wine. A glance at two other passages will help us get the best from this one, though.

The first is in the previous chapter, a passage which is the classic text on the personification of wisdom. She (perhaps because the Hebrew for ‘wisdom’ hokmah is a feminine noun) is pictured as being present at the creation of the world. She was the very first thing to be created by God (8:22) and was at his side throughout the process of creation (8:30). Whether the wisdom tradition writers saw her as a distinct being, or an aspect of God’s creativity, or even as the Holy Spirit is unclear, but the point is that wisdom is an absolutely fundamental and foundational characteristic of God’s intentions for his world.

Then we have her in our passage, preparing a banquet, starting as far back as building her own banqueting hall. The reference to the seven pillars carved out and/or set up by her suggests both significant size, and therefore room for all, and the perfection which seven represents. There may also be a reference back to the seven days of creation. The ‘simple’ (pethi) are invited, but so is absolutely everyone else. The simple are both those who are naïve through lack of experience, but also those culpably lacking in savoir faire because they have turned down the invitations to the feast. This makes them both gullible and reckless. The food and wine are sumptuous, and provide food for ‘insight’. The mention of ‘walking’ suggests not just a one-off flash of inspiration, but rather a life lived in the right direction long-term.

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The concept of wisdom isn’t about what we might call intelligence or cleverness, but much more about knowing the prudent way to act in any situation, hence the French term above which best captures this meaning. But to understand it better we need to read the whole chapter, which the author surely intended us to. In the second part, from v13, we get Wisdom’s ugly sister ‘Folly’. She is simple, but in a way a bit more sinister than merely being naïve. She too sits in her doorway calling out to all comers. She purports to offer wisdom, but actually her house is full of deadness, and what she offers is dishonesty and cheap thrills.

Both Wisdom and Folly’s houses are at the highest point of the city, as the temple and royal palace would have been, and are therefore in a commanding and highly visible position. One can’t help but compare the messages sent out to us constantly through the media, TV adverts and so on, all claiming that in their products are to be found health, wealth and happiness. As with Folly’s wares, much of what we are sold turns out to be dead and empty, but the wise and experienced have learnt more discernment. I have often encouraged people in my congregations to ‘shout back at the Telly’: when someone says something crass, stupid or just plain wrong, just argue back with a wiser and more Christian perspective. I have a theory that the people on the telly can’t actually hear you, but your family can and it teaches us all not simply to absorb all that comes out at us, but to use the mind of Christ to see things from a different perspective. Whilst not brimming with Christian content the         TV show Gogglebox shows us different families interacting, often encouragingly, with the media.

In the gospel reading Jesus also offers food and drink, but not just for this life. Food and wine from Christ nourish us into eternity.

Image: Vassia Atanassova – Spiritia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Reflections on Discipleship – Live Life Better

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

If you’re one of those people who think the Sunday lectionary is a good idea, I wonder whether you were struck as I was by something from the gospel for last Sunday? In Mark 6:30 the disciples, returning from a mission trip, are invited to spend some time with Jesus to debrief and recharge their spiritual batteries. However, if spite of his efforts to get away the crowds find him, and his compassion for them takes over, because he sees them as like ‘sheep without a shepherd’.

Those of us in pastoral ministry know this scenario well. In spite of our best efforts at time management, prioritising and the rest, our hearts often take over and we can’t help but respond to real need. But what struck me was the nature of this response. Just what do these shepherdless sheep need? A visit from the vicar? A bunch of flowers and a cup of tea? A promise to pray for them? Or just money? Jesus saw things differently: seeing their lostness he began teaching them.

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It is a hobby horse of mine, but I never cease to be amazed at the poor state of the teaching ministry in today’s church. We believe that the Bible contains the wisdom of God, both the words of eternal life and common sense for good living now, but we seem to have lost our nerve in preaching and learning from it. In a sound-bite culture we have forgotten the art of listening deeply, studying, memorising and learning from Scripture, and teachers have been replaced by pastors or administrators as the default models for church leadership. I find it ironic that in many evangelical churches the Bible is never read publicly, but merely alluded to in sermons.

And yet there is a hunger among people. In one diocese in which I worked the Bishop cleared his diary one Lent, and travelled around the Diocese five nights a week for six weeks giving lectures on John’s gospel. It was standing room only, and people were deeply impacted by his teaching ministry, which of course used to be one of the main roles of bishops.

One church in which I used to minister developed as its strapline ‘Meet friends; meet God; live life better’ which pretty much sums up for me what church ought to be about. Archbishop Rowan Williams apparently said that the next stage on from discipleship isn’t leadership; it’s citizenship. Disciples are engaged in the process of becoming more Christ-like people, and this must show at every level. We need the Bible’s wisdom to grow and mature, and we need the ministry of teachers to help us do that.

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There is, I think, a cyclical thing going on here. People in our churches are seldom hungry for God’s word, until someone sets before them a feast, when they begin to realise just how starving they actually are. We need to pray, I believe, for those with teaching gifts to be raised up, and for God’s people to served up banquets of good things from his word.

Image:  “Eritrean platter at London restaurant” by Secretlondon – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Ecclesiastes

We have already noted that the three main OT books of ‘Wisdom Literature’ might be compared to the building of a house. Proverbs tells us how to build well, and Job explores how we react when that house is suddenly struck by lightning. As we come to our third book today we have a very different scenario: our house is old, decrepit and falling to bits. How do we cope with that?

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As with David and the Psalms Solomon is clearly the ‘patron saint’ of wisdom, although in what sense he was the ‘author’ of this book is much debated. We seem to have a narrator or editor, probably a fan or disciple of Solomon, who writes up his story and his musings in the third person in the name of ‘Qoheleth’. The Hebrew word means something like ‘one who gathers an assembly in order to address it’, and so is usually translated ‘the Teacher’ or ‘the Preacher’ in English Bibles. The story of Qoheleth is difficult not to identify with that of Solomon, but he is never named as such. It is virtually impossible to date the book, but it must be later than the time of Solomon.

 

It has been said that these words are those of a cynic. He has tried all that life has to offer, all its pleasures, excesses and delights, but found at the end of the day that they just do not satisfy. So the lasting message is that in returning to his childlike faith he finds wisdom, the best way to live. The book oscillates between misery and joy: having found pleasure and work useless, his advice is simply to enjoy food and work, which are a gift from God (1:24). This refrain recurs: in 5:18, having found wealth to be meaningless, we should simply enjoy food and get on with our work. Even wisdom itself comes under scrutiny, and in chapter 2 is declared a waste of time too, as both wise and foolish people come to the same end eventually. But wisdom is, we’re relieved to hear, all in all better than folly, even if only just.

 

The final verdict, and the great purple passage of the book, comes in chapter 12, where we are counselled to ‘remember our Creator’ while we can still enjoy life and have the faculties to do so. The symbolic description of the decrepitude of old age in 12:2-7 is devastatingly accurate. The bottom line, according to 12:13, is to fear God and keep his commandments, an instruction which reinforces the motto of all biblical wisdom literature, that ‘the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord’.

 

What does the book do for us today? It reminds us, first of all, that wisdom is not necessarily ‘nice’. It is not afraid to look at the realities of life head on, and to acknowledge that for much of the time it does all seem pointless. It never pretends that with God everything will be lovely, and it clearly comes out of a rich life experience which, although having left Qoheleth wiser, has also left him much sadder. Yet it is fundamentally a book of apologetics: it shows us life without God as fundamentally meaningless, and offers us an alternative which at least makes some sense, as it puts us in touch with a God who is repeatedly said to be generous. Qoheleth, during his lifetime, has tried pretty much everything, but returns to a relationship with God as the only thing which makes any real sense. This book, therefore preaches a significant message to our consumerist, cynical, experience-driven culture. God is the only one who can make any sense of all this, and who can make life in any way worth living.

 

 

Through the Bible in Just Over Year – Proverbs

When a few weeks ago we first encountered ‘Wisdom Literature’ I wrote of Proverbs as a book of practical wisdom for building a good life. One commentator on the book quotes the old children’s prayer ‘Make the bad people good, and the good people nice’, illustrating the fact that there are many decision we have to make about the way we live which may not be governed by law, but which nevertheless have the power to be ‘nice’ or not. This is the territory of Proverbs, a collection of short sayings or maxims which, if we take notice of them, will make life better for us and for all concerned.

Although the book has been traditionally associated with Solomon, like the Psalms with respect to David it is probably more complex than that. We talk about ‘The Psalms of David’ not in the sense that we believe all of them came from his pen, but in the sense that he is, as it were, the ‘patron saint’ of psalmody. In the same way Solomon is the patron saint of wisdom, but not all this material comes from him: indeed the text tells us that parts were written (or maybe complied) by Agur, Lemuel, and ‘the Wise Men’. The compilation of  these different collections of sayings must have happened at a stage much later than much of the original material, again like the Psalms.

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Proverbs does not make easy reading, and even harder preaching. It’s a bit like that old joke about someone who read the phone book: not a very good story, but a lot of characters. There are some longer sections which do hang together: instructions on how to use the material in chapter 1, the beautiful hymn in celebration of Wisdom in chapter 8, and the qualities of a good wife in chapter 31 are the most famous. But the bulk of the book is simply a collection of apparently unrelated sayings. Much scholarly ink has been used in trying to find some way of organising the text and making sense of it, but it is probably best not to try too hard.

It has been said that the specifically religious content of Proverbs is a bit thin. There is plenty of sound advice, but you don’t need to be in a special relationship with God in order to heed it and benefit from it. However the recurring assertion that ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ tells us that faith isn’t the icing on the cake of a good life, as many today believe, but that it is the foundation-stone. There is also a clear sense of sin which shines through: 20:9 asks ‘Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’? with the obvious implied answer ‘No-one!’ This isn’t just good morality: there is accountability built in. Practical repentance is necessary, and without this even good observances, such as hearing the Law (28:9) is worse than useless.

Whilst I’m all in favour of getting the big picture, and reading biblical books through in one sitting, maybe the best way to handle Proverbs is just one verse at a time, in a long-term project. Who knows – maybe I’ll write a blog called ‘Through Proverbs in just under a millennium’?

Old Testament Lectionary Feb 8th 2 before Lent Proverbs 8:1, 22-31

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

Elsewhere I have written a brief introduction to biblical Wisdom Literature: today we celebrate with God in this hymn of praise to Wisdom, who is here personified as a woman who, in the verses which have been filleted out for us, calls to people to come and learn from her. Wisdom in the biblical sense is best thought of using the French term savoir faire, or ‘knowing what to do’, and Wisdom sets out the justice and purity of her words, and calls those who would hear her to acquire that which is more precious than silver, gold or rubies. To know the wise and prudent way to behave in any situation is worth more than anything else: kings rule with her help, and where there is justice it is because wisdom has been heeded.

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But then things get more interesting, as we come to the part of the chapter which our lectionary compilers have graciously allowed us to read. The picture changes and we see wisdom less as a woman but as a figure involved at the creation of the world. The very first thing God did was to create Wisdom, before oceans, mountains, fields or even the heavens. Once brought into being, Wisdom stands beside God and watches him creating everything else, delighting more and more in what is appearing at his words. The climax is the delight of wisdom in the human race. Wisdom is either a ‘master builder’ or a ‘little child’ depending on how you translate the Hebrew of v 30. If you go for ‘master builder’ you see wisdom as the one whose very skill was used in the foundation of all things; if you prefer ‘little child’ you get the sense of sheer fun and delight which comes through in this and the following verse. Therefore, our passage continues, seek wisdom and you will find life and favour from the Lord.

Some have seen here a picture of Christ, present at creation, but this doesn’t quite work, most obviously because he was of course ‘begotten, not created’. It may be rather that we have a personification of God’s delight in his work. It is worth noting that Wisdom is definitely a Tigger and not an Eeyore: hers is not the voice of a prophet condemning the foolishness of the human race, nor calling them to account because of their injustice and cruelty. She has no hint of an apocalyptic voice either: she does not cry out ‘How long, O Lord?’ and call for his sorting out of the problems of the world. She simply celebrates.

I reckon it is pretty easy to divide Christians into two camps: those who believe that the world is essentially good, and therefore needs celebrating, even though it might have a few nasty bits in it for now, and on the other side those who see the world as fundamentally fallen and in need of rescue from itself, even though there might be a few positives round the edges. Churches tend to be either world-affirming or world-hating and –fearing, and this fundamental view colours everything they do. Of course both are true, but we do come at it from one end or the other most of the time. So it is refreshing to read a poem which wholeheartedly celebrates the goodness and creativity of God. Maybe to focus on this, in spite of the world’s problems, is a refreshing tonic as we prepare to enter the austerity of Lent.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Job

This week we come to our first book which comes under the category of ‘Wisdom Literature’, although we have already encountered some material which would fit in this genre. Wisdom in the Old Testament has nothing to do with being clever or intelligent: it might best be translated from the French savoir faire, or ‘knowing what to do’. We might also describe a wise person as someone who is ‘streetwise’, who knows the best way to handle any situation. There are three main Wisdom books in the Old Testament, and it is helpful to understand them in terms of building a house. Proverbs, which we’ll come to in a fortnight, is a book of instructions about the best way to build; Job is about what happens when that house gets struck by lightning or some other disaster; Ecclesiastes is about a house which has got old, tired and is falling down. But in addition there are other bits of wisdom literature scattered about the Bible: Many of the Psalms are ‘wisdom’ psalms, and there are some great wisdom stories, like that of Joseph in Genesis. Joseph is the ‘wise’ man who handles everything well, even though little goes right for him at the start, while his brothers play the part of the ‘fools’ who get everything wrong and are duped by him (although being a wise man he makes everything OK in the end).

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So what about poor old Job? The book begins with a string of disasters coming hot on the heels of one another. When he has lost pretty much everything he is met by a bunch of his friends who try to act as philosophers to comfort him by giving explanations as to why he is so deep in the muck. There are clues that the book was put together pretty late in the OT period: for example in 1:4 Job’s sons hold feasts ‘in their homes’: we know that this splitting up of an extended family’s home is a late development. We can also recognise in the words of his friends some current philosophical movements which would have come to the fore as Greek culture began to spread through the Near East. We can trace through the OT a development from, for example, Psalm 1 where the righteous get everything on a plate while the wicked suffer, to a much greater appreciation of the fact that real life is nowhere near as simple as that. It is generally thought that a common folk tale about a man who loses everything and then gets it back was extended with 38 chapters of philosophical and theological debate.

So how are we to read Job? With a damp towel around our heads, for a start. It is a horrific story, and anyone who has known suffering or watched as others have suffered will be able to recognise the agonised soul-searching of the victim. Pastorally it has much to say about our well-meaning but so often misguided attempts to help those going through the mill with platitudes which may be theologically correct but are no help at all. But it has another dimension which is fascinating: The Satan (or ‘The Accuser’) has access to God’s throneroom and is allowed to bring suffering to God’s people. While this exchange sounds, to be honest, a bit petty and nasty on God’s part, the deeper truth is that while Job is going through such agony he is completely unaware that in a parallel universe there are things going on which affect his little life down here. So much of what we don’t understand may well have an extra dimension of which we’re not aware.

But the other truth to shine through these pages is that God is God and ultimately he has the right to do what he likes. So often we hear people telling us that ‘I can’t believe in a God who …’ or ‘I don’t believe in Hell’ or whatever. In the final couple of chapters poor Job gets a right telling off for daring to question God. Who does he think he is? But at the end of the day he does question, and in doing so gives permission for all who suffer unjustly not just to submit quietly to it. Of course Job ends up with no answers, but it’s good that he has asked the questions.