The Bible in a Year – 16 November

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16 November. Luke chapters 6-7

This section of the Gospel begins and ends with Jesus challenging the Pharisees, in different ways.  The Pharisees seem to get a bad press in all the versions of the Gospel, because after all they were observant Jews who thought they were doing their best for God by following all the rituals and laws of the religion.  Sometimes Jesus confronts them angrily, but in these exchanges we see him taking a gentler line, just trying to get them to understand faith his way.

In chapter 6, the issue is, not for the first time, what constitutes “Sabbath work”.  To the Pharisees, it seems that any preparation of food, even the simple act of picking grains and removing the husks, and any form of healing, counted as “work” and therefore sinful if undertaken on the “day of rest”.  Jesus contests that preparing a small amount of food because you are hungry is not “work”, and neither is helping someone in need as an act of charity. “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”, he says, in other words, “I can determine what the Sabbath regulations mean in practice”.  He had a right to say that, if we accept his divinity; but even if not, the point is more generally valid that religious rules are intended to be interpreted according to the situation at hand – that was how the rabbis understood the Law.

In chapter 7, the Pharisee in question is one Simon who thinks Jesus is sinning by letting himself be touched by a “sinner” without looking into the details of her circumstances. Jesus’ understanding is quite different – he looks not at the fact of what she is doing, but why; and not at what she had done in the past but what she is doing now.  Her weeping shows that she has repented of whatever her sin may have been (possibly prostitution, although we don’t know – the woman’s “sin” may have been something else.)   Washing and anointing his feet with ointment is a sign of tribute to him, where the Pharisee refused Jesus even the expected courtesies of a social kiss and a bowl of water to wash his dusty feet.

When Jesus talks about faith, whether it is the faith of the woman who is brave (or desperate) enough to enter a rich man’s house weeping and interrupt the dinner party with her acts of love and kindness, or the centurion in chapter 6 who accepts Jesus’ authority over sickness as equivalent to his own military authority over his cohort, he means the sort of trust in God that breaks down social barriers and expects unusual things to happen for the common good. That is very different from the Pharisaic “faith” that is based on creeds and regulations.   The second type is easier to fall into than the first, but far less effective in encountering the living God.

 

The Bible in a Year – 15 November

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15 November. Luke chapters 4-5

Each of the Gospel writers has different emphases.  Luke was a physician and so it is not surprising that he focuses on the healing miracles of Jesus. But he focuses on other things too.  Unlike Matthew and Mark who suggest that Jesus went straight into a preaching ministry after his baptism, Luke shows Jesus preaching in the synagogues after his baptism (and after the desert temptations).  Only when he is asked to preach on the text from Isaiah about the good news being shown by good deeds does he begin to heal (4:14-19). Even then, “making the blind see” is one of only three signs of the Gospel in that passage, the other being releasing captives and freeing the oppressed.  So for Luke, physical healing from illness or disability was only one aspect of the wholeness that Jesus brought: a right understanding of God and his laws, and freedom from being put down in any way by other people, were at least as important.

Another difference is that Luke has a particular interest in demons and devils.  This is shown in chapter 4 not only in his own desert temptations, but in the demon at Capernaum (34), and the many in Nazareth (41), that recognised him as the “Holy one of God”.  It seems that Jesus knew he had to fight the devil, but wanted to put off that moment as long as necessary.  By resisting the three temptations of working miracles, seeking earthly power and putting God to the test, he made the devil go away “until an opportune time” – which might be seen as the attempt by the men of Nazareth to kill him not long afterwards (29), or as the plots of the Pharisees and the betrayal of Judas that led to his crucifixion three years later.  In between those times, Jesus seems to have been untroubled by demonic activity himself.  Apart from the very few people who genuinely suffer demon possession, for most of us the devil tempts us from time to time, but he does not stick around for long if we don’t take his bait. “Resist the devil and he will flee” (James 4:7).

Finally, I would just like to share an unrelated thought that just came to me as I read about the calling of Levi (5:27-28): “After this he went out and saw a tax-collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up, left everything, and followed him.”

What happened to Levi’s money?  This money-obsessed man had been sitting at his booth all day raking in the taxes (some of which he would have kept for himself) then accepted Jesus’ call to follow him, and without further ado walked away.  The people around must have wondered when he was going back, but when they realised he was not returning, surely they would have rejoiced and reclaimed the piles of cash for themselves?  When Jesus calls someone to follow him, it is others who benefit.

The Bible in a Year – 7 November

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7 November. Mark chapters 6-7

In these chapters we see Jesus giving his closest disciples – “the Twelve” – an intensive training course.  For some time (months? Possibly a year or two?) they have been following him and watching him preach and heal. Now it is their turn.  They are sent out in pairs (still good practice, both for ‘safeguarding’ and as an encouragement to each other, but for Jesus it may have had more to do with the Jewish rule about the testimony of two witnesses being required to be valid).  They are told to take no food or money, and minimal clothing (6:7-11).  I have come across one missionary organisation working within Britain that applies this rule literally to their own volunteers – they must not use any of their own money, and must stay with host families and accept hospitality from them.  It’s not necessary, of course – St Paul took completely the opposite view and insisted on working for a living alongside preaching and pastoring, so as not to be a burden on his hosts.  But for these disciples, it was right, as they had to learn to live by faith.  The test of whether a village or household was willing to bear the cost of feeding and clothing these travelling preachers was a good indicator of whether they would accept their teaching too.

When they returned, tired from their ministry, Jesus took them away for a ‘debriefing’ and also rest and relaxation (6:30-32).  But it was just at that point that they found themselves followed by the great crowd of 5000 men (and women and children).  In feeding them miraculously, Jesus again gets the disciples to work – “no, I won’t feed them – you will”. By this, and the healings they had performed in the villages,  he shows them that his power can be at work in them even though he was not physically with them.  But it was not an easy lesson to learn – that same night when they were in difficulty in stormy weather on the lake, it was only when Jesus appeared that the storm was calmed – although he had probably knowingly sent them out on a stormy night as a test of their faith, and they failed.

When it comes to healing, though, faith is required in both the healer and the recipient, as Jesus found when he could perform few miracles in his own town where people did not believe that someone they had known well as a boy could be so extraordinary as an adult.

The power of Jesus is still available to those who believe – and yet the vast majority of his followers today, most of the time, do not use it.  I include myself there.  I, and most other Christians, are reluctant to try praying for people to be healed because I doubt that it will “work”. I think those who do exercise this gift must know in some intuitive way that God’s power is within them, and so must those who are healed.

The Bible in a Year – 6 November

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6 November. Mark chapters 4-5

What strikes me from today’s reading in that great crowds gather round Jesus.  As I remarked yesterday, from time to time there are great preachers (though obviously none to equal Jesus himself), who draw similarly large crowds. Some of them also have the gift of healing, but not all – Billy Graham, for example, attracted many converts just with words and music, and made no claim to be a spiritual healer.  What all churches do have, though, is the Bible, and particularly the record of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels.  Why is it then that so many churches find it difficult even to get their regular members enthusiastic about Jesus’ radical teaching, let alone draw people in from outside?  Whole books have been written on the subject, but “culture” often seems to be presented as a reason – “you can’t make this ancient religion relevant to modern people”.

All Anglican clergy, and Readers such as I, are charged by the Bishop at our licensing with “Proclaiming the Gospel afresh to each generation”.  The idea is that the message never changes but the best way to present it, and the practical implications of it, do change from one place to another across cultures and down the generations.  The fact that within forty years after Jesus’ resurrection (and crucially the gift of the Holy Spirit) the Church had spread across the widely varied cultures from the Near East to India in one direction, North Africa in another, and to the pagan city of Rome, shows that culture should not be a barrier to spreading the Christian faith.  Nor is the lack of education –  many of Jesus’ hearers in Galilee would have been illiterate, which is why he spoke in the picture-language of parables, and the Church is growing today more in poorly-developed countries than in sophisticated Western or Asian ones.

One clue can be found in the story of the Gerasene man in chapter 5. Sometimes I am sceptical about the idea of “demonic possession” whether in the Bible or today – I think it has often been misused to describe people with a range of psychiatric illnesses.  But there are some cases such as this one where there is no other explanation – if he was merely mentally ill, why would he have shown superhuman strength, or why when he was healed would the pigs have rushed lemming-like into the lake?

Most of the people Jesus healed were told not to spread the word about him, but simply follow the Jewish ritual for being officially cleansed. But this man across the other side of the lake was not a Jew, as can be seen from the fact that his people kept pigs.  And Jesus actively told him to spread the word.  Why?  I think it was because Jesus knew that he himself would not be accepted by people whose whole culture and history made them opposed to the Jews. So he had to raise up witnesses – apostles – from within those Gentile cultures to be credible speakers to their own people.  We see this happening in the book of Acts, but perhaps it is this unnamed former ‘demoniac’, rather than St Paul (a Jew) or St Thomas, who truly deserves the title of “first apostle to the Gentiles”.  And whom will God raise up within your own local community, or mine, to preach the word to their neighbours, if we ask him?

The Bible in a Year – 5 November

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5 November. Mark chapters 1-3

As I mentioned at the start of Matthew’s gospel, Mark is widely believed to have been written first, and although he covers much the same ground as Matthew he tells the story in a more compact way, with more of a sense of movement and excitement.

Mark is uninterested in Jesus’ birth and childhood, only the stories from his adult life. These first few chapters show Jesus appearing first as one of John the Baptist’s disciples, but being marked out by the appearance of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God as having a unique relationship to God.  Mark has no time for plot development – he reveals immediately who Jesus is, and then goes on to the miracle stories.

The idea of an itinerant religious teacher drawing crowds by his captivating way of speaking, the power of his message and the healing miracles he performed was not new.  Some of the old Jewish prophets such as Elisha and Jeremiah were similar, and right down to our own day the same can be seen with ministries such as that of John Wimber.  But most such people are forgotten soon after their lifetimes – who talks of Smith Wigglesworth today, for example?

Mark wants us to know from the outset that Jesus was not just another rabbi or faith-healer.  His opening line is “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Gospel means “good news”, Christ (or Messiah) means “anointed one” and Jesus’ name – a common one for Jewish  men – means something like “God saves”.  So, “The beginning of the good news of the God who saves, the anointed one, the Son of God.”

Not everyone believed in him, of course.  Towards the end of chapter 3 we read of those who thought that Jesus himself was possessed by the Devil or some other evil spirit.  In explaining why that could not be so, Jesus adds that while all ordinary sins can be forgiven, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (3:29-30).  This “Unforgivable sin”, then, seems to mean doubting that a work of God really is from God, or not being able to distinguish between the Holy Spirit and evil spirits.  If you cannot see God at work, you are not in a position to receive the healing and wholeness that he offers.

The Bible in a Year – 27 October

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27 October. Matthew chapters 8-9

In these two chapters we see Jesus doing what he was, in his lifetime, best known for – healing people.  In the course of what might have been only a few days, he heals eleven specific people from a range of conditions – leprosy, paralysis, fever, haemorrhage, blindness, dumbness, demon possession and even death (or a death-like trance).  It is clear that there were many more such miracles, too many to be recounted individually.  The impact he had on the towns and villages around the lake of Galilee/Capharnaum must have been tremendous.    These stories of healing also provide the setting for other developments in the story of Jesus told in between them – the calling of disciples (including Matthew himself), stilling the storm on the lake with a spoken word, and at the end of chapter 9, the command to “send labourers into the harvest”, that is to share in his work of bringing good news.

What was the good news, and how did it relate to these physical and spiritual healings?  I have just been reading a newsletter from one of the charities we support – CAP, Christians Against Poverty.  Their work is primarily helping people trapped in unsustainable debt to get out of the hole that they have dug themselves into. Or, in many cases, which has been dug for them – domestic abuse, unemployment, mental health problems or physical handicap is frequently the trigger for a downward spiral that leaves people with not only no money and no means of paying off what they borrow, but also no hope.  So CAP see their ministry as also one of bringing hope.  By acting as agents to negotiating settlements with creditors on their behalf, by challenging unfair benefit decisions by government agencies, by helping people to budget what money they do have, and overall by befriending them and introducing them to the fellowship of the local church. In all these ways, they show people who have lost hope that it is possible to regain it.

Jesus also seems to have been a bringer of hope.  That is why he rarely simply healed a physical illness and moved on, but engaged with people’s deeper need.   The leper and the bleeding woman, outcast from Jewish society, were cleansed and reintroduced to their religious community; the centurion (Roman soldier) was told that he was ahead of the Jews in the queue to meet God; a paralysed man was assured of forgiveness for sin, before being made able to walk again.

When Jesus is criticised for eating and drinking while John the Baptist and the Pharisees were telling their followers to fast, his reply is in the form of a short parable about clothing and wineskins.   He explains, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” (9:15).  His ministry was one characterised by activity, joy and hope, and it rubbed off on most of those whom he met.  To those in the darkness of depression, debt or anything else that robs people of hope, Jesus comes to restore it.  The call to labour in his harvest field is also a call to share in this life-changing gift of hope.

The Bible in a Year – 14 June

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14 June. Ezekiel chapter 46-48

Much of these last chapters of Ezekiel is the same sort of material found in the book of Leviticus, suggesting that they were written at the same time (although some people, including whoever produced the Bible reading plan that I am following, insist that all the “books of Moses” were written in his day).

 

I have little interest in the regulations concerning sacrifices of animals (chapter 46). But the first part of chapter 47 is more interesting as Ezekiel has a vision of water flowing to from the Temple towards the East (i.e. perhaps towards Babylon – remember all these last chapters are said to be a vision he had while still living there).  The water gets deeper as it flows along, and nourishes trees “whose leaves are for healing”. This is very similar to the vision of the New Jerusalem that St John saw in his Revelation. Perhaps what is meant is that the presence of God in the holy city will bring healing to the rest of the world – an idea which makes sense in later Christian understanding of the Church taking the place of Jerusalem, and Christ’s presence being made known throughout the world through the Church.

 

The reallocation of land to the tribes in chapters 47/48 is strictly equal – inequalities had arisen over the centuries but the return from exile would be a chance to start again with a fair allocation.  No longer is the land east of the Jordan counted as part of Israel, so the tribes that had lived there would now have an equal width strip between the Mediterranean and the Jordan Valley along with the rest.  But Judah and Benjamin would have land closest to Jerusalem, as before.

Thus ends the book of Ezekiel. Tomorrow, Hosea.

 

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 20 February

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20 February, Numbers 21-22

There are two miracles presented here, one in each of these chapters.  In the first, people who were bitten by venomous snakes could be healed by looking at a bronze serpent on a pole.  Apparently this imagery was known throughout the ancient near east, and the Canaanites had serpent idols of similar form.  So why does God invite Moses to make what could so easily be taken as an idol, in order to bring genuine healing?  Jesus famously made a comparison between “the serpent lifted up in the wilderness” and his own crucifixion, by which he became the saviour of the world.  Perhaps the point is that the healing miracle would be dependent on the sufferer’s faith in God, rather than in the image itself, just as salvation through Jesus is always to be through faith and not “magic”.

 

The other miracle is Balaam’s ass (donkey), which sees the angel that was invisible to its rider, and turned aside three times, being beaten for what Balaam presumed was stubbornness. The donkey then speaks to its rider who does not seem at all astonished by this, and the angel (who had come to warn Balaam not to curse God’s chosen people) is then revealed.  What are we to make of all this?  It is true that some animals can detect things that humans cannot – there are many stories of dogs or cats apparently seeing ghosts, for example. Some Christians would add that animals can actually have faith in God – after all, Jesus did speak of the “birds of the air” who do not worry because they know that God will feed them. But a talking donkey?  That really is a miracle!