Welcoming together

by Jonathan Pye.

Because September marks the beginning of the Connexional Year, it is often a month of welcome services for those starting new appointments in the life of the Church. Such ‘welcomes’ are times of both anticipation and greeting. Our modern English word ‘welcome’ derives from a combination of two Old English words – “wil-”, indicating desire or pleasure, and “cuman”, meaning come. So, “wilcuman’’ originally meant “it is good you have come,” and ‘welcome’ still retains this same basic meaning.

‘Welcome’ is, however, much more than simply a ‘social’ greeting. It is something deeply theological, rooted in the traditions of both Old and New Testaments, and often linked to ‘hospitality’ – open-ness to the stranger, the new-comer, those who come among us. In the Old Testament, we read of Abraham greeting three strangers as he sits under the oak trees at Mamre, setting before them a veritable feast, not just water and bread, but a calf and curds and milk. As Megan Warner in the recent book, Who is my Neighbour?, reminds us:  ‘Abraham…plays his role according to the hospitality code of his day, but he plays it lavishly.’[1] In response, Abraham’s guests also play their role lavishly, and in the exchange of gifts comes a response so extravagant that Sarah laughs at the audacity of it. That is the quality of welcome we are invited to make to others – one that is lavish in its generosity, that goes beyond formality to become open-handed and open-hearted, and invites open-handedness and open-heartedness in response.

In the New Testament, Abraham’s story is echoed in the Letter to the Hebrews, where the list of hospitable virtues in Chapter 13 begins with the words, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it…[2] Those virtues, with the ministry of hospitable welcome prominent among them, echo through the history of the Church. They over-rode, for example, the rigours that those early pioneers of monastic life, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, imposed on their own bodies, so that however frugal their own diet, there was always food to set before guests; however committed to silence and solitude, they remained open and welcoming to strangers and to engagement with them. This, in turn, influenced Western monasticism, and in St Benedict’s 6th century ‘rule’ for monastic life, hospitality, founded on the belief that in welcoming others we are welcoming Christ, lay at its heart. In his book, Colonies of Heaven[3] Ian Bradley helps us to listen to the distinct message of the early Celtic and Anglo-Saxon communities and to apply their ethos to contemporary Church life. In contrast to today’s individualism, Bradley points us to their communal life and how it produced a model of ministry that was collegiate and communitarian rather than individualistic, in which a radical hospitality and ministry of welcome became the under-pinning, distinctive feature of their life together.

In an age when we are often tempted to forget that, ‘the Church is an essentially provisional community[4] we too frequently turn our gaze inward to maintaining the institution rather than outward to welcoming the angels whom God sends among us, in whom we encounter the Christ who walks with us on our shared pilgrimage. The revival of pilgrimage, as Bradley notes, has been one of the striking movements of recent years. Whether physically journeying to places like Iona or Lindisfarne or, further afield, to the old pilgrim routes of medieval Europe, or much more locally where ‘pilgrimage’ may be expressed though ‘prayer walks’ around a local community or Circuit, or even walking quietly and devotionally around a labyrinth, however expressed pilgrimage is always essentially a communal venture carrying the connotation of walking with others. It is this commitment to ‘walk with others’ that lies at the heart of welcome, for genuine welcome consists not of words alone but in the commitment to companionship and to working out a more communal form of ministry.

At a time when the demands on the currently diminishing number of ordained ministers are all too clear and the risk of isolation, burnout, stress and sickness are ever present, and when many in secular employment are facing similar stresses, that sense of mutuality of ministry in which we walk alongside and minister to each other in the Body of Christ is perhaps more important than it has ever been. This time of year is therefore both an opportunity to say to others, ‘We are glad that you are here’ and to show the generous hospitality that expresses welcome as the sign of our commitment to journey together.

 

[1] Carter R, Wells, S (eds.) (2018) Who is my Neighbour? The Global and Personal Challenge. London: SPCK, p. 125.

[2] Hebrews 13:2

[3] Bradley, I. (2000) Colonies of Heaven: Celtic Models for Today’s Church. London: DLT.

[4] Ibid., p. 235

The Grace of God in the Community of the Church

by Tom Greggs.

I find myself this month at the very end of the first part of a fifteen year project; it has in fact taken me seven years to get this far. More accurately, I’ve been working actively on this part of the project for seven years, but thinking, preaching and writing about related issues for much longer. Seven years ago, I decided to embark on a three volume Ecclesiology (a theological account of the church). I am just putting the final editorial touches on the first of these three volumes which should be finally published in about a year’s time. Somewhat to my surprise (shock perhaps!), the volume is very long—280,000 words just for volume one!

But after all that repetitive strain injury from typing, I find that there is one thing above all else that time and time again I want still to say and it is this: the grace of God’s work of salvation involves not only putting humanity right with Godself but also (and equally through the grace of God) God’s work of salvation seeks to put us right with one another.

The origins of sin arise from the human breaking a relationship with God through disobedience: in the fall story, Adam and Eve disobey the one command God gives to them in the context of God’s superabundant grace in creation; they eat the forbidden fruit. But the immediate consequence and effect of this act, even before the description of the rupture in the relationship with God that follows, is a pronounced awareness of individualism as a primary identity. This individualism is accompanied by a sense of the strangeness of the other, a relationship of fear towards the other and actions of blame of the other in comparison to the self: sin causes the heart to turn in on itself, and this turning in on itself alters not only the relationship with God but also other humans.

Sin is the prioritisation of the self, one might say, over the divine and created others. Having eaten the fruit, the man and woman understand themselves to be naked in front of each other, and cover themselves, aware and ashamed of their alterity and difference (Gen. 3:7).  Furthermore, having hidden himself from God because of his nakedness when God walks in the garden, Adam immediately seeks to divert blame away from himself and toward Eve, and indeed through this to God: the fault (according to him) cannot be his, and self-preservation of his individual self over and against the other (even the most intimate other) transcends unity and co-humanity and relationship to God who gives all things. The woman then also redirects blame away from herself toward the serpent (Gen. 3:13). Sin alters the relationship that exists not only between the human and God, but also between human beings themselves. Because the human no longer seeks to be orientated on God and to share in the good gifts of God’s grace, the human shifts the focus of her orientation onto herself.

To overcome this situation of sin and its effects requires divine salvific grace. So often, we think God sets us right with Godself, and we are the ones in creation who work on the human level to sort things in our own human strength. But that is a form of ecclesial Pelagianism. Humans in our lapsed condition always tend, not towards the overflowing love of God towards all that which is not God, but towards the self-preservation of the individual in the heart turned in on itself. It is an act of the grace of God, indeed a participating in that grace for the human to be able to be orientated towards another—both God and other human beings.

Even in the church’s simul iustus et peccator (and often frustrating!) state, we need to remember that through God’s grace, we are given community in the church and given the other in creation. And we should seek to form community not based on utility or on attraction, but on the very givenness of the other person as a fellow member of the body of Christ. We should seek to form community because in that we share and move in the movements of God’s grace, being orientated towards the other in creation. In community, our hearts are turned outwards to the other who is also beloved of God, and we learn what the movements of grace that God has shown us are. And for this to take place, for us to become the church as an anticipation of the Kingdom, we must pray ever and again for the grace of God to set right our relations with one another.

Let us give thanks for God’s grace in giving us communion and ask and rely ever more on God to help us to move within the movements of God’s own grace in the life of the community of the church. Even after 280,000 words, this is still a wonderful thing to meditate upon: the other through grace becomes for me a locus of God’s salvation as God puts right my relationship with them alongside my relationship with God through the Holy Spirit’s work of incorporating me actively into Christ’s body.

Hope in God’s Future

by Michaela Youngson.

It’s overwhelming – the constant account of gloom and despair that is coming at us daily from the news, whether from traditional sources or social media. Famine, war, Brexit, Trump, earthquakes and the displacement of 68 million people worldwide. We find ourselves caught up in a litany of lament which leads easily to despair. This can induce a number of reactions – apathy, ‘What’s the point, it’s all too big and I can’t solve it all, so I won’t try.’ Anger, ‘Why should I bother, I didn’t make the mess, leave it to those who did!’ Despair can lead to depression and a burden of guilt at our own part in systems that oppress the vulnerable and continue to harm children, women and men.

Lament, as Jill Baker helped us to see last year, is an appropriate response to the complexity and grief within us and around us. It is a ‘from my lips to God’s ears’ response – a recognition of our own part in the chaos and a plea to God to hear our cry and to notice the cries of those who are suffering.

The Prophet Jeremiah had every right to lament, we read in Chapter 32 that he was hemmed in on all sides. He had made it clear to Zedekiah, the King of Judah, that his and his people’s days in the promised land of milk and honey were numbered. The Babylonian King was poised to invade, to trash the temple and all the wealth of Judah and would take the leaders and educated of the land into exile. This infuriated Zedekiah and the Prophet was thrown in prison in the palace guardroom. Jeremiah did not despair however, he demonstrated hope in a future for his people, even if it was not a future he would share in. He bought a piece of land and had the deeds placed in an earthenware jar, so that they would be safe for generations to come. This was an act of confidence to offer hope to the King and to the people, that in the end, they (or their descendants) would return to the land they had been granted by God.

In the midst of the inevitability of climate change and our increasing understanding of the effects that human beings are having on God’s creation, it is easy to remain in a posture of lament. True lament allows us time to grieve and to acknowledge just how grim things are but it is also a space to listen to God’s words – sometimes given clearly, as they were to Jeremiah, often whispered amidst the cacophony of a chaotic world. God continues to offer us hope and to counsel us against our own worst habits. If we see our world, or even the part of the world that we live in, as a land of milk and honey, then we need to look carefully. We have milked the cow dry and even the bees that make the honey are in trouble. We have filled the seas with plastics, mountains with nuclear waste, the air with pollutants and the fields with pesticides and landfill sites.

As we begin a new Methodist Year, it’s natural to wonder what lies in store for our Church and our world. Like Jeremiah, we might find ourselves on the wrong side of those in power for asking difficult questions and pointing out unpalatable truths. Methodists have an honourable tradition of raising our voices against injustice and in calling for good stewardship of God’s earth. The alternative is to stay silent in the face of the oppression of children, women and men in all sorts of desperate situations. The alternative is to turn our backs when the politics of hate is preached instead of the ethics of love. The alternative is to ignore the consequences of our own use of the world’s resources. We are called to respond to God’s message of hope and the demands of the Gospel, the challenge is to choose where to focus our prayers and our actions in a way that honours God and demonstrates love to our neighbours.

What would be an equivalent act to that of Jeremiah’s purchase of the land? What might we do to demonstrate our hope in God’s future? 1,000 churches have now signed up to be Eco-Churches, taking practical steps to reduce the harmful impact that our activities can have on creation. To choose to be good stewards is an act of hope – and we can do that in our personal lives as well. Despair says, “I’m too small to make a difference.” Hope says, “How can I play my part, along with others, to make a change?” I wonder too if there might be ways of ‘reclaiming the land’ – by working with agencies such as Christian Aid, working to lobby governments and to work with the United nations to prevent the forced removal of indigenous people from land that is stripped for palm oil, or is flooded because of dam construction. We might ‘reclaim the land’ by supporting All We Can in their work with refugees – those, like the people of Judah, no longer able to live in the land that was their home. What act of hope in God’s future might any of us take, moving us from lament, through confession, to an active confidence that God is with us in our efforts for a more just and sustainable world?

Resources:

‘Hope in God’s Future’ can be downloaded here:

https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/3201/higf-report-and-study-guide-0514.pdf

 

For details of how to sign up as an Eco Church:

https://ecochurch.arocha.org.uk

 

Christian Aid’s Campaign on Climate Change – The Big Shift Global:

https://www.christianaid.org.uk/campaigns/climate-change/the-big-shift-global

 

Christian Aid’s Work with Displaced People: – Uprooted – Overlooked

https://www.christianaid.org.uk/campaigns/uprooted-overlooked

 

All We Can’s Resources supporting their work with refugees:

https://allwecan.org.uk/resources/fundraising-packs/refugees-to-all-the-people-we-can/

 

The silk road to reconciliation

by Christopher Collins.

Take a fine Indian silk scarf in your hand. Feel its smooth texture and marvel at the skill of the weaver. Hold it and let me take you on a deepening journey of reconciliation through the Punjab. Travel with me and my fellow pilgrims on our peace pilgrimage.[i]

And let me tell you about our time in the Jallianwala Bagh memorial garden for the massacre of Sikh pro-independence protesters at the hands of the British Army in 1919. Imagine how awkward we felt when a Sikh man drew alongside and asked us where we were from. His response was only words of welcome.

Let me tell about a chance meeting with a Sikh couple in a hotel lift. We talked about being Christians on a pilgrimage and as they got out of the lift they cheerfully said, “well there’s one God after all”.

Let me tell about the meeting at the Golden Temple with Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Gurbachan Singh (the leader of the Sikhs at the Golden Temple). We asked him “what is one thing we should do to bring about peace”. After a moment of consideration, he replied, “in my view, we should recognise there is only one God”

These conversations were especially poignant in the year of the 70th anniversary of the partition of India when a relatively arbitrary line was drawn on a map to divide a people who didn’t realise they needed to be separated. Villages that once lived harmoniously, took against each other in acts of sectarianism.

This arbitrary line made me think about the borders we might draw in all sorts of contexts. The carefully guarded borders between religions where our different texts and experiences of the divine become our guarded borders. The lines between us and all who we dare call “other”.

What unites all such borders is our desire to dominate and to be better which is a trait we perpetuate with alarming frequency.

But, the three conversations pointed me beyond the signs of division to a deeper understanding by giving me a glimpse into what we can do to overcome division.

Firstly, there was forgiveness. In its truest sense, forgiveness is an act of our will that determines that a past wrong will not define and confine our future. It would have been easy for the gentleman in Jallianwala Bagh to see us as a threat – but instead there was a welcome. The past was not going to define our present or future relationship and a border was overcome.

Secondly, the call to see God as one across different faiths unites us beyond borders. It comes down to letting down our ego to honour divine truth in others and learning to live together without trying to outdo each other.

So back to the scarf. It’s made up of thousands of individual strands woven together. Each is unique and exists in its own right, but it only becomes a scarf when it is woven together with other individual strands. And then they become something much more useful. And each strand ceases to be one on its own. As we wrap the scarf around our neck, we can bend and mould the blanket and each fibre moves with the others to maintain the form of the scarf. No strand takes precedence. The boundary between each strand is blurred and it’s not important what each strand is on its own but what it becomes together.

The silk scarf is a metaphor for reconciliation. We find deep reconciliation when we blur our boundaries and discover that we are all made in the image of God and we can be a better people when we see God in the other: the familiar, the stranger, and the refugee.

The way to blur our boundaries is by following the way of Jesus – the sacrificial love that led him to the cross as the expression of God’s for the world. The love that people of faith are called to follow. For the gospel according to John tells us that Jesus is the way.

As Anna Briggs puts it in her hymn “You call us out to praise you”:

For changing hues and textures
new patterns, still you search
to weave your seamless garment
the fabric of your church
our tattered faith you cherish
reclaim from wear and moth
we praise your name who twine us
the weaver and the cloth.

Reconciliation is like being woven together to find new patterns hues and textures that allow life to come in all it’s glory and fullness.

 

[i] Christopher was travelling in an ecumenical group of sixteen pilgrims on a “Pilgrimage to India: Christian Witness as a Minority Witness” led by Rev’d Dr Inderjit Bhogal.

Theology Everywhere?

by James Morley.

Delegates at a Methodist gathering were asked to engage with the Biblical tradition of lament – an expression of “grief or mourning”.[i]  The invitation came as part of a response to the latest Statistics for Mission from the Methodist Church of Great Britain presented at the 2017 Conference which state that:

“Since the previous triennial report (2014), membership numbers have fallen annually by around 6,780, or 3.6 per cent year-on-year… This is high in historic terms”.[ii]

Leaving aside the question of membership figures being a meaningful measure for Methodism today, the numbers alone suggest that Methodism is in a different place now to where it has been in the past.  Whether this is necessarily a cause for lament and/or for sensing opportunity and possibility may well depend on individual and corporate discernment of God’s mission.

Watching coverage of Glastonbury in the summer those Statistics for Mission were published I felt that lament was also being voiced in the fields of Worthy Farm, Somerset.  For example, Stormzy paying tribute to, and demanding accountability for, the victims of Grenfell.[iii]  Then there were the chants of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”[iv] by thousands of the so-called “snowflake generation” who, rather than melting, expressed their grief at the current world situation by cheering their agreement with a call on President Donald Trump to “build bridges not walls”.[v]  There was also the prophetic (forth-telling/speaking out) poetry of Kate Tempest giving voice to the injustices, fears and hopes felt by her generation.  For me, Tempest’s prophetic lament is powerfully loud in her work Europe Is Lost. [vi]  For example:

“I am quiet, feeling the onset of riot
Riots are tiny though, systems are huge
Traffic keeps moving, proving there’s nothing to do
‘Cause it’s big business, baby, and its smile is hideous
Top down violence, a structural viciousness
Your kids are dosed up on medical sedatives
But don’t worry ‘bout that, man, worry ’bout terrorists
The water level’s rising! The water level’s rising!
The animals, the elephants, the polar bears are dying!
Stop crying, start buying, but what about the oil spill?
Shh, no one likes a party pooping spoil sport
Massacres, massacres, massacres/new shoes
Ghettoised children murdered in broad daylight
By those employed to protect them
Live porn streamed to your pre-teen’s bedrooms
Glass ceiling, no headroom
Half a generation live beneath the breadline
Oh, but it’s happy hour on the high street
Friday night at last lads, my treat!”[vii]

If Methodism is in a different place then it allows us to ask, with the lamenting Psalmist, “how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”[viii].  Perhaps it is lamenting prophets like Kate Tempest who allow us to step into, and have a map for, the terrain which is now a context for God’s mission.  If we respectfully engage with this new context we may find that, instead of the babble of Babel, the lament voiced by Tempest and her generation coming from a place of concern for people and planet is a common language shared with all God’s people who believe in a creation that carries the divine image and which has been seen to be good[ix].  Maybe then, the conversation in this contemporary context might synthesize[x] into something new as, together with Kate Tempest, we counter-culturally articulate the theology that is already everywhere and we all sing the Lord’s song in this strange land – a song of justice, peace and hope.

 

[i] Coogan, Michael D (ed) 2001.  The New Oxford Annotated Bible.  New York: Oxford University Press, p. 2278.

[ii] The Methodist Church 2017.  Statistics for Mission 2017 [Online].  Available at: https://www.methodist.org.uk/downloads/conf-2017-42-Statistics-for-Mission.pdf.  [Accessed on 10/08/2018]

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4ixU_UbCx0 [Accessed on 15/08/2018]

[iv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVO_pQIUER0 [Accessed on 15/08/2018]

[v] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6uzzZr_O8E [Accessed on 15/08/2018]

[vi] Tempest, Kate 2013.  Europe Is Lost [Online video].  Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YCcL0aj-9Y.  [Accessed on 23/02/2018]

[vii] Tempest, Kate (2015).  Let Them Eat Chaos [Kindle]London: Picador, pp. 13-23.

[viii] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ps 137:4). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[ix] Genesis 1:1-31

[x] Bevans, Stephen B 2002.  New Models of Contextual Theology.  Maryknoll: Orbis.

 

‘Darkness Fell Over the Whole Land’ (Mark 15.33)

by Neil Richardson.

What has Brexit got to do with the wrath of God – if anything? Whatever the answer, the UK is in the throes of the greatest crisis of my lifetime. Of course, we should normally avoid the expression ‘wrath of God’; it is easily misunderstood. But what the Bible means by it, and the effects of that wrath are urgently relevant in this crisis.

Let’s start with its effects – darkness. That is the biblical symbol for the effects of the divine wrath.  St Paul writes of ‘darkened hearts’ (Romans 1.21 – compare 11.10),  ‘Isaiah’ of the Lord hiding his face (64.7), the very opposite of the Aaronic blessing: ‘may the Lord make his face shine on you…’, (Numbers 6.25).  The Biblical sequence is clear: idolatry leads to our dehumanization, which, in turn, leads to  dysfunctional relationships and disintegrating communities, (Romans 1.18-32, Psalm 115 etc).

Unlike the Bible – especially the Psalms – we prefer not to speak of false gods.  Yet we create false gods when we give our hearts (thus Luther) to something or someone other than our Creator. (There is plenty of room for other affections and passions within the love of God). In the life of a nation, a false god can be identified as that which is above criticism and question (1). Half of America worships its gun laws, and the constitution which underwrites them. In Britain, money and property come close to divine status, as do ‘Efficiency’ and ‘Economy’ (2).

Psalm 82 has been described as the most important passage in the whole of Scripture. And this from a distinguished, if controversial New Testament scholar, (John Dominic Crossan)! The psalm doesn’t use the word ‘wrath’, but that’s what it’s talking about: both its meaning and its effects. False gods can be distinguished by their oppression of the weak and the needy (v.4); false gods ‘walk about in darkness’ ; ‘meanwhile earth’s foundations are all giving way’ (v.5).

Isn’t this a bit ‘over the top’ – theology in the service of melodrama? Well, consider the contemporary scene: the neglect of personal relationships, a national ‘epidemic of loneliness’ (thus a recent headline), a dysfunctional political system (national and local), and the erosion of the common welfare through savage cuts in public spending. (As usual, the poorest people bear the brunt).

To quote a famous hymn, ‘the darkness deepens’, even though, thank God,  there are countless people in whom the light of compassion and love still burns. But this is the effect of ‘wrath’ – the consequence of marginalizing our Creator and setting our hearts on other things. In the gathering gloom, we can no longer see what matters most, or clearly distinguish truth from falsehood and illusion. (A society which has set its heart on false gods will happily settle for ‘fake news’).

In this growing crisis, the outline of a Christian programme for action becomes clearer:

  • A silent waiting on God which alone can give us the poise, the discernment and the wisdom we need.
  • A commitment to truth – the Truth which alone sets human beings free.
  • A commitment to our Creator’s ‘kingdom’ of love, justice and peace.

And the meaning of the divine wrath? Love – that is its meaning. The hour of the crucifixion of the Son of God was the hour of judgement and of atonement. For the Creator of the Universe, the mysterious ‘I AM’, the Heart of our own hearts, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is love.

The meaning and the effects of the wrath of God are the ‘flip side’ of God’s non-coercive being – the very meaning of  our own creation. When the divine DNA is stamped all over us (Genesis 1.27), how can we humans and our communities thrive when we turn our backs on love, justice and compassion?

As for Brexit, it’s time to stop the shouting, the posturing, the soundbites, and listen to each other – within the Church, within the UK , and in Brussels, too.

And listen to God, ‘Heart of our own heart’. Where is God in Christ leading us? ‘The world has not left Jesus behind; it is getting to the point where it can just see him, far ahead, blazing the trail’(3).

 

  1. Richardson, Who on Earth is God? Making Sense of God in the Bible (Bloomsbury 2014), pp.223-5).
  2. John Austin Baker, The Foolishness of God, (DLT 1970), p.348.
  3. Baker, cit. p.331.

Jesus’ use of the Old Testament

by John Howard.

Working in the Holy Land the question of the biblical understanding of the “Land” is a very significant one. In Naim Ateek’s latest book “A Palestinian Theology of Liberation,”[i] he draws attention to the story of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28 10-17) and the use Jesus seems to make of it in John 1 verse 51.

In the dream the writers of Genesis describe a ladder stretching from heaven to earth with angels going up and down. The story leaves Jacob conscious of the holiness of the place. Of at least equal significance is the words God in the dream says to Jacob, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, your father, the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring….” It is a very familiar passage, a part of the Jewish identity with the land of the western Levant.

In John 1 verse 51 Jesus says to Nathanael “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God descending upon the Son of Man.” There does seem here to be a conscious echo of the Jacob’s ladder image but there is a very unexpected difference. Where as the ladder has its “top,” heaven and its “base,” the earth, in Jesus’ words the place of the “land,” so special and sacred to the people Jesus is speaking to, is taken by “The Son of Man.” The ladder to heaven, or rather the ladder between heaven and earth is now the ladder between heaven and Jesus – not the land.

I leave aside the question of whether the change above, and the one looked at below are those of the Gospel writers or of Jesus himself, I would accept the arguments that these are very likely passages that go back to Jesus – but don’t have the space to argue that here.

Another place where Jesus adapts the Old Testament is in the passage in Luke 4, 16-19. This is the passage sometimes referred to as Jesus’ manifesto. In it Jesus is fundamentally quoting Isaiah 61verses one and two. He makes some slight changes of emphasis towards the ending of verse one, very likely conflating Isaiah 58 verse 6 with the word from 61 1. The structure of the passage is however clear – as his direct quoting of the beginning of verse two “to proclaim the year of our Lord’s favour,” makes clear. What is remarkable here is where he stops. The flow of the verse in Isaiah continues with the words “and the day of vengeance of our God.” This is a very well known passage to Jesus’ listeners. They could have quoted it to Jesus, and no doubt were doing so in their minds as Jesus read it to them. They would have continued beyond where Jesus finished – and the absence of these words from what Jesus spoke, would have spoken much more clearly than the words said themselves. Jesus it surely seems – consciously missed off the words “and the day of vengeance of our God,” as it didn’t fit into his self understanding – it was not “a part of Jesus’ manifesto.”

The common ground in these two passages is the way that Jesus seems to use two passages, very well known by his audience but adapts them for the sake of communicating his own message. He clearly feels free to change quite fundamentally what these passages mean, in the first example by placing himself – or rather “the Son of Man,” in the place of the “Land,” and by omitting the ending of the passage from Isaiah reshaping the very nature of the God the people are dedicated to – not a God of vengeance (so often this seems to be the Old Testament character of God), but it seems Jesus is having no part of it. If we have any doubt about this then we have an echo again of this a few chapters later in Luke, when in chapter 7 verse 22 Jesus again goes back to Isaiah 61 (this time in response to the questions John’s disciples ask Jesus) and again he avoids the phrase “and the day of vengeance of our God.”

There is, of course, much more to study in Jesus’ use of the Old Testament, and such more extensive studies are available. My issue in this essay is the ability of Jesus to take well known passages, adapt them and as a result make very different theological points than the original passage indicated, while at the same time asserting an orthodoxy through associating with the passages at the heart of the orthodoxy of the faith. Is there here perhaps a lesson for us in the use of Scripture for issues such as same sex marriage – that seem to need a radical departure from the understandings of the past without a loss of the orthodoxy of the subject?

 

[i] Naim Stifan Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict (2017, New York: Orbis Books)