Week 2: Echoes of change (Luke 3-6)

This article was first published in 2009

I am neither black nor oppressed nor American. I have not known discrimination on the basis of colour, creed or class. I am the most median of middle class; the virtues (and vices) of my aspirational forefathers are visited on me. I am, despite my best efforts, educated. I read the Guardian and share many of its prejudices. The only badges currently missing are 1.4 children, a Volvo and a mortgage.

All of which made my reaction to Barack Obama’s election win and acceptance speech in Grant Park more than a little surprising to me. Having stayed up on election night with friends, wine and cheese (!), I found myself with tears in my eyes as Obama accepted America’s decision to elect him. I had very little personally invested in seeing Obama win, beyond an obligatory distain for George W. I shared none of the history but still felt an upsurge in hope, an optimism that for once a politician might be able to deliver change.

It was against this backdrop and with these feelings still fresh that I approached Luke 3-6. I think that recent events in America offer us a helpful window into what is happening in these chapters. Perhaps the most illuminating parallel is the way in which both Obama and Jesus were able to gather their nations stories around themselves but give them a new twist.

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Chapter #12 Num 9-26: No human rights

As we continue with Numbers, we, finally (after a whole month), get back to the narrative flow of the Israelite’s journey. Though as we will find, Numbers is a great example of a well redacted (edited) hotchpotch of JE and P material. This means that we’ll continually break from the story to learn numerous and varied details regarding census and regulatory data.

This week we’ll look specifically at Chapters 10 – 26. There’s a lot of very disparate material in these chapters so it’s hard to make out broad-brush themes. But I think we see more of what has been an increasingly emerging theme in the Old Testament: that the people of God must have no other gods but Yahweh.

What we have to try and get our head round is the incredibly polytheistic nature of all the cultures with which Israel was in contact at this time (polytheistic means belief in many gods rather than just one). Israel’s growing monotheism was so radical in its day that it was nothing short of crazy! Try telling people who’ve lived all their lives seeing a spectrum of colours that there is only one colour. Or try telling a food-lover that there are only carrots. People who had grown up assured that there were many gods would find this Yahweh really overbearing, exclusive and ‘by Molech, if this ‘God’ is so much better, he’d better prove it!’

Week 1: Radical Reversal (Luke 1-2)

‘ if speaking is silver, then listening is gold…’

The greatest compliment you can pay a person is to listen to them. To seek to put aside your own agenda, your own cherished opinions and be genuinely open to another person – these are the commitments on which healthy relationships are built.

And it is this challenge which faces us as we read Luke’s gospel. Having been immersed in Matthew and Mark for the past couple of months, the temptation when we reach Luke is to skim read, assuming that we have heard the stories before and that Luke is simply regurgitating old material. Our culture has taught us to reduce knowledge and truth to the bare minimum – get the facts and move on. So reaching another gospel with seemingly the same material packaged up again is a challenge to faithful reading.

However, an encouragement – Luke is well worth the effort of listening to! His Jesus story is carefully thought through, crafted, subtle and multi-layered. He drops hints and clues throughout his story like the best detective writer. Luke is also a profoundly challenging gospel, especially for us in the affluent West. So, over the next few weeks, let’s try to feel the texture of his Jesus story, get caught up his sights and sounds, his peculiar motifs and emphases.

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Chapter #11 Num 1-9: Twelve tangled tribes

Just when you thought we’d be out of tedious regulations and into some exciting storylines, we’ve got one more week engrossed in the various facts and figures of Numbers 1-9

But I want to look at this all from a completely different angle now and use this short passage as a springboard for exploring more generally how we should understand the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) and it’s various contributors.

It’s long been a tradition of the church that Moses himself wrote the Pentateuch, or at least the bulk of it (it includes the story of his death!). There are various references in both Old and New Testament to indicate that these writings are indeed his work. However, during the 20th Century, biblical scholars were wrestling with a theory put forward by a German bloke called Julius Wellhausen. Basically, Wellhausen argued that the Pentateuch was compiled from four primary sources. These he called J, E, D & P.

Now if you’re thinking that this is probably going to be the most irrelevant thing you’ve ever read, please bear with me, because I believe exploring this gives us a much richer understanding of the bible.

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Mark [Part II]: Mark’s secret apocalypse

Secrets are hard to keep.

It’s not that we aren’t trustworthy people. It’s just that when something’s hidden, we are just bursting to uncover it. It is such a relief to get a secret out into the open.

But secrets, because they are secret, aren’t well known. They get misunderstood. And they take on a life of their own.

When Mark wrote his gospel, he was doing something that by all accounts was altogether new. ‘Gospel’ as a genre of writing had never been done before. ‘Gospel’ as a word was well known – it accompanied the proclamation of Caesars’ victories; ‘good news’ to all, supposedly. But Mark’s way of writing was stirring something revolutionary. It was an act of defiance, a new gospel, a proclamation of the good news of Jesus the Christ.

I personally think that Mark’s Gospel is the most theologically revolutionary book of the whole Bible. Paul did some pretty incredible things with Jewish theology – we’ll read about those during the second half of the year. But in the wake of Paul’s death around 65 CE, this first gospel – with rumours of its origin in Peter – finds its way into Christian communities with a secret message. A secret bursting to be set free.

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Chapter #10 Lev 1-27 (Part II): Better think twice

Last week we looked at Leviticus from the perspective of Israel’s community life and their national development. This week I want to explore what some of these laws and rituals meant to the Israelites and how it expressed some of their beliefs about God and about their relationship to him.

One of the common misconceptions about the sacrifices described in Leviticus is that they were to do with the removal of moral guilt, i.e. sins, from the people. This is understandable as many of the laws are expressed in terms of what is right and what is wrong and much of the sacrificial system is construed in terms of ‘atonement’ for ‘sin’. The easy mistake, however, is to assume the meaning we give ‘atonement’ and ‘sin, in this context,’ is the same as the meaning the Israelites would have understood.

In actual fact, as we find in reading Leviticus carefully, the sacrifices prescribed there are for a whole raft of occasions. So there is a fellowship offering to consummate reconciliation between two parties. There are offerings for spontaneous thanks to God e.g. for the safe arrival of a child or a good harvest and there are offerings made in supplication for safe passage or physical healing. Then there are the sin and guilt offerings, which, we must note, are specifically for unintentional offences (the sin offering for the unintentional breaking of one of the Lord’s commands, 4:2, and the guilt offering for any unintentional offence in regard to any of the Lord’s holy things, 5:15). Indeed some of the offences requiring a sin or guilt offering are very clearly amoral (i.e. they have no particular morality one way or the other). For example, you must offer some lambs, flour and oil as a sacrifice once cleansed of an infectious skin disease; offer a lamb and a pigeon after childbirth; bring a couple of doves after each monthly period; offer a couple of pigeons for a bodily discharge.

The simple fact is that for intentional sins, there is no sacrifice! So we have to understand the ‘sin’ that the ‘sin offerings’ and ‘guilt offering’ dealt with as only part of the whole Israelite understanding of ‘sin’ and certainly as something very different from how we understand ‘sin’ today.

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Chapter #09 Lev 1-27 (Part I): A life worth saving

Leviticus is certainly one of the most laborious books in the Old Testament. Basically full of laws, the majority of which relate to ceremonial rites, it cuts off the narrative flow of Exodus to espouse further the commands given to Moses at Sinai and their subsequent additions. As there is no obvious break with which to split the two weeks-worth of readings, we’ll simply deal with the whole of Leviticus twice, from two different perspectives.

In many ways, Leviticus is also the most foreign of the Old Testament books. Its regulations about regular animal sacrifice, with blood sprinkled here and there and, even more pointedly, its God who appears inaccessible without them, seem alien to our ‘civilised’ modern world. And rightly so. Yet, without an understanding of the mindset behind these ancient rituals we can never fully appreciate the faith of Israel and the context into which Jesus would be born.

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Chapter #08 Prov 1-9: Not what you know...

Whenever I read Proverbs I remember one of my Old Testament lecturers, in his thick French accent, insisting, ‘ze fear of ze Lord, zis is ritual observance. You must chrémember zis!’ I have indeed ‘chrémembered’ and he’s right! It is impossible to understand Proverbs properly apart from the spiritual life of Israel: the Cultus (sacrificial system) and the Law

When we get further into the Israelite saga we’ll explore just how integrated the Israelite spirituality was with everyday life (at least in theory). Whatever the downsides of the Cultus, it kept them in mind of God and prompted their hearts to gratitude or contrition. And whatever the binds of the Law, constant obedience ensured that Israel wouldn’t forget her Saviour. This sort of whole-life faith kept God in the picture, and not as a bully, but as a friend.

Into this context, two attractive women make their claim on the impressionable mind (and heart) of the teacher’s ‘son’. Lady Wisdom, who calls from beside the city gates to instruct all who would listen to her words, and the Harlot, the adulteress, shameless in her lies to tempt away to destruction those who would be captivated by her charade.

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Mark [Part 1]: reading questions

With Mark, I shall be writing a different way. Rather than dividing the story into sections as we did with Matthew, we’ll be looking at it as a whole, over four weeks.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is that Mark is very similar to Matthew; it can look like a smaller version of the same story. So in order to unpack the differences (which I think are quite significant) it makes more sense to compare both gospels as a whole. The second reason is that I believe that Mark deliberately invites his readers to re-read. In fact, I think it is the failure to re-read Mark that has led to it being so monumentally misunderstood.

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Chapter #07 Exod 13-40: Running too fast

In Exodus 1-12 we have the remarkable story of the liberation of the people of Israel. In Exodus 13-40 we see this travelling people face the challenges and pain of their very long journey to the Promised Land. What is striking about this book in the context of the Israel story is that, despite the very clear intention to bring the Israelites into the land of Canaan (Exod 3:6-17; 6:2-5) Exodus is primarily a story about God’s intention to bring Israel to himself.

Once the Israelites have left the land of their oppression they face a very difficult journey to freedom. Faced with multiple opportunities to rebel and turn back, their journey so poignantly mirrors our everyday experience of trying to follow God. There is no linear path to faith; we do not ‘grow’ on some sanctification scale until, at last, we hit the ‘perfect’ plateau. We fly straight from triumph to trough, from mountain-top to mire without warning and find ourselves, once again, battling new fears and facing the choice to trust our liberator afresh.