Monday, 19 January 2015

When the Answer is 'Neither'

The story of the meeting of Jesus with a Samaritan woman is meaningful on many levels. One feature of it seems to me to suggest a model for inter-faith dialogue.
The Jews and Samaritans in Jesus' time were a bit like Christians and Muslims today – worshipping the same God, but deeply divided and disassociated from one another.

When the woman started feeling uncomfortable with what Jesus had to say about her personal life, she decided to change the subject. Religion was a safer topic! So she said, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is Jerusalem". This was a stock point of controversy between Jews and Samaritans.
The answer Jesus gave was to raise the whole question to a higher level: "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem ... the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth".
Jesus seems to be saying that what matters is not where people worship God but how.
Perhaps the equivalent controversial question Muslims raise with Christians is something like this: "We Muslims believe in Jesus as a great prophet,  but you Christians say he is the Son of God."
I wonder whether the best response would be that the real question is: how close are any of us to the spirit of Jesus? Are we in the end judged on what we believe about the nature and status of Jesus, or on whether we follow him? 

Friday, 9 January 2015

A Wake Up Call from a Little Known Prophet

Zephaniah is one of the least known books of the Bible. A fairly short book, it seems to consist mostly of "doom and gloom" - the sort of book we are inclined to ignore as "typically Old Testament". But it is well worth looking at.
Zephaniah preached in the reign of Josiah in Judah (639-609 BC). This was a heady time of promise and threat. Judah was experiencing a brief moment of relative freedom as the Assyrian Empire was in its final decline. In this situation, Josiah presided over a radical reform of religion. All artefacts associated with idolatry were removed from the Temple and destroyed, the offering of sacrifices in places other then the Jerusalem Temple was abolished, the shrines destroyed and the priests removed.  A ceremony was held in which Josiah led the people in a covenant to obey the laws of God, and a reformed Passover was celebrated. Josiah is recorded in the histories as an outstandingly godly king.
However, the sense of a new beginning was short-lived. By that time the days of Judah as a kingdom were numbered. About ten years after these reforms, Josiah was killed by the King of Egypt while trying to prevent him from going to the assistance of Assyria against Babylon. This attempt to help Babylon did Judah no good in the long run. Twelve years later the Babylonians took control of Judah and deposed Josiah’s son, and after another eleven years they destroyed Jerusalem and deported most of its leading citizens to Babylon.

As Zephaniah looks out over the devastations  being wrought by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians, his book begins:

“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the LORD.
I will sweep away humans and animals;
I will sweep away the birds of the air
and the fish of the sea…..”

However, this does  not apparently include the kingdom of Judah. God’s purpose there is to cut off all remnants of the worship of Baal and other gods, and to seek out and punish all those who have participated in these practices. Other nations, meanwhile – the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Assyrians and even the faraway Ethiopians – will be utterly destroyed.

Along with this will come a humbling and purification of the “remnant of Israel”. The proud leaders will be removed, leaving behind “a people humble and lowly” who will seek refuge in the true God of Israel and live in his ways.

Like most of the prophets, Zephaniah projects his fears and hopes for Israel and surrounding nations onto a cosmic screen. This is part of the style of prophetic hyperbole, a feature still found in poetry today. But looking from the point of view of our own time there is perhaps a new relevance in Zephaniah’s language. Today, with nuclear weapons and climate change, the inability of human beings to act justly, to curb their inordinate greed and ambition and to live together in peace is posing a threat to the whole global environment. There is now a real possibility that not only human life but even “the birds of the air and the fish of the sea” could be swept off the face of the earth. Or, if that does not happen, there could remain a depleted human race, “a people humble and lowly” to start the hard task of rebuilding civilisation on sounder principles. That rather obscure and grim prophet who lived 2,600 years ago is still able to furnish a “wake up” call to humanity in the twenty-first century.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Unanswered Questions

The Bible is often hard to understand. Maybe it is meant to be so – not to hide things from us or intimidate us into servile reverence, but rather to make us think. 

Take for instance the story of the Magi. What does it really mean? What is the point we are meant to take from it? Who were these “wise men”? 

The name magi already makes us think. Two other people in the New Testament share that label. One was Simon (Acts 8:9-24) who practise mageia and was converted to Christ, but temporarily fell back into his old ways and was sternly rebuked by Peter. The other was Elymas (Acts 13:6-12), a magos who opposed Paul when he was preaching to the governor of Cyprus and was struck blind.

The English word “magic” is derived from the same root: they were magicians, “wizards” rather than “wise men”. John Henson has a version of “We three kings” that is more realistic. It begins:

“We are freaks who follow the stars,
Pleiades, Neptune, Venus and Mars;
men and women, dressed in linen,
peddling our lucky charms”

They were also astrologers. The idea of their following a moving star is a bit of traditional embellishment. The story simply says that they saw a new star which, to them, meant that a king had been born among the Jews. They came to look for him in the obvious place, Jerusalem, and were redirected to Bethlehem. Then, to their great joy, they saw the same star again.

The Bible never has a good word to say about magicians or astrologers. In the Book of Isaiah the people are mocked for trusting in them:
“But evil will come upon you, which you cannot charm away…  Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries … perhaps you may be able to succeed … let those who study the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars and at each new moon predict what shall befall you.” (Isa 47:11-13).

Today we have our “stars” in the newspapers, but few take their predictions seriously, and orthodox Christians generally disapprove.

Unanswered question number one: what does this story imply about astrology?

It is also clear that they were not of the Jewish faith, nor did they share the Jewish expectation of the Messiah. They were probably Zoroastrians. Unanswered question number two: after this experience, did they “see the folly of their ways” and become believers in the God of the Bible?

Number three: did they, years later, hear the story of Jesus and become Christians?

And number four: if they did not, and if (as traditional evangelical doctrine asserts) only born again believers in Christ go to heaven, where are they now?

This apparently simple story leaves a lot of questions unanswered! But in this respect it is closer to our present-day experience of faith than we often realise. In today’s multi-cultural society the old “certainties” don’t hold any more. Life isn’t as simple as we used to think.

The story of the Magi is meant to tell us that Jesus came for the whole world. But how does this work out in practice? Can people be led to Christ through other faiths or by means we think are heretical or superstitious? And if so does this mean they are meant to become Christians? And if not, can we say that it really doesn’t matter what you believe? Yet more unanswered questions!

This is the nature, and the power, of the Bible. It  doesn’t give us answers: it gives us stories and leaves us to work out their meaning in the confusion and ambiguity of real life.