The Bible in a Year – 4 November

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4 November. Matthew chapters 27-28

These last two chapters of the Gospel cover Matthew’s version of the most important events of the whole Bible – the death and resurrection of Jesus.  What can I add to the volumes that have been written about those world-changing three days?

Let’s consider the attitudes towards Jesus of the people who encountered him. Firstly those who responded negatively. Firstly, the “chief priests and elders” (27:20) who whipped up the emotions of the crowd to have Jesus crucified, even though Pilate was minded to release him.  Those same priests and elders panicked, if Matthew’s account is to be believed, on Easter day when the report of the resurrection reached them: like most politicians whose judgements have been proved wrong, rather than admitting  their mistake they turned to bribery and false reporting in order to suppress the truth (28:12-14).

Then there were the soldiers who mocked him, made him (and Simon) carry the cross, gambled for his clothing as he hung dying. And the two bandits hung alongside him who, along with the soldiers and passers-by, taunted him to perform one last miracle by coning down from the cross – just as he had been tempted by the Devil in the desert to perform miracles for the sake of his own health and popularity. And of course the crowd, who would go along with whatever the religious leaders said.

Two key players changed their mind in all the confusion of the proceedings of Holy Week: Pilate who seemed to believe Jesus was innocent, but was not prepared to risk his own reputation in Rome by letting a riot begin because of it; and Judas, who repented of his betrayal. But for him it was too late.

But among other observers were individuals who bucked the trend, who had the courage to ignore popular opinion and believe that Jesus was worth respect, who had at least the common humanity which cannot ignore another person in distress.  These few made all the difference.

There was Pilate’s wife, who because of a presumably God-given  dream (what was it, we wonder?) was convinced of Jesus’ innocence (27:19) – but her word was not enough to turn Pontius from his course. There were the unnamed bystanders who twice offered him wine (presumably as a feeble attempt at anaesthetising his pain – which he refused). There were his own mother, the mothers of some of his disciples and “many other women” who endured the mental torment of watching him and the two thieves die in agony, because they believed in Jesus to the end. Hats off to Joseph of Arimathea: he had the courage to believe in Jesus’ right to a respectful burial, to ask for his bloodied body, and to risk ritual uncleanness by handling it.  The two Marys (Magdalen, and the mother of James and Joseph) also were willing to start embalming the body, and to come back at first light after the Sabbath to continue despite knowing the sealed tombstone would be almost impossible to move.  If they had not done so, would they have witnessed the most incredible sight ever?

Maybe these people had been in the crowd when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and remembered that showing mercy to someone in great difficulty (irrespective of their gender, ethnicity, beliefs or what got them into difficulty) is a sign of love for God as well a neighbour.  Maybe they were also there when he said “blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy”.  For it is easy – I will admit to it myself – to walk past when someone is in trouble, especially if they are not like us.  It is not difficult to agree with the principle that we are all brothers and sisters in this life and we need to help each other.  But it is far more difficult to put it into practice.  Thank God for those who do, and especially for those who helped Jesus and showed him respect in both life and death.

The Bible in a Year – 3 November.

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3 November. Matthew chapters 25-26

Jesus continues his Holy Week teaching on the end times with a set of three parables – the ten virgins (or bridesmaids), the three servants entrusted with money (‘parable of the talents’) and the sheep and goats.  These all give some indication of the sort of lives that we should lead, knowing that Jesus will someday return in judgement: keeping alert, using wisely whatever possessions and talents (for this is where the English word comes from) we have, and treating everyone in need (but especially fellow believers) as if they were Christ himself.

Chapter 26 is Matthew’s account of Holy (or Maundy) Thursday, in which Jesus is betrayed by his disciple Judas, shares the Passover with his disciples for the last time with the words that are said over the bread and wine at every celebration of the Mass, prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, is arrested and denied by Peter.  In this one chapter we see his three years of ministry apparently coming to an end.  For those of us who know the rest story already it may not seem so bad, for we know what his death would achieve.  He had tried to prepare the disciples for this moment, telling the repeatedly that “the Son of Man must be killed and rise again on the third day”.  Yet it is understandable that when the time comes, all they can see are soldiers with swords and clubs, arresting an unarmed man who would not strike back, and were too afraid to follow.    They all run away (v.56).

All, that is, except Peter, who to his credit sits by the fire in the courtyard in the darkness, staying within sight or at least hearing of what is going on.  Jesus may be about to die, but he wants at least to observe it for himself (v.58), just as he was present at the Transfiguration. Maybe he thought that Moses and Elijah would appear again at the last minute to save Jesus.  But they did not – Jesus had already realised that calling on “legions of angels” (v.53) would not help, when what was required was his own free acceptance of ultimate suffering.

What Peter feared in that moment was presumably being arrested, tried and tortured like Jesus.  But those who accused him of being “one of them”, “being with Jesus” were not soldiers or Temple officials, they were mere servants. Would they have felt able to turn him to the priests? Would their testimony have been accepted anyway?  So was Peter, in denying Jesus, acting in self-preservation in order to save his life from real danger, or was he just too nervous to give his testimony?  It would all change at Pentecost.

Peter and Judas both knew they had betrayed Jesus, and both of them soon deeply regretted it.  The difference was that whereas Judas went and hanged himself, Peter stuck around to the end, and was rewarded by being pardoned by Jesus after the Resurrection.  If you can cling on to hope in God even in the worst of times, you will not be disappointed.

The Bible in a Year – 2 November

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2 November. Matthew chapters 23-24

Much of the teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom has, until this point, been positive: stories and examples of how living his way, loving one’s neighbour and being generous, will bring peace and joy.  But now it suddenly takes a much darker tone.

Following the conflict with the Pharisees and Sadducees in chapter 21 (yesterday’s reading) Jesus knows that his time is short and they are set against him.  So he drops all restraint and, in chapter 23, lets loose a series of devastating public criticisms, labelling them hypocrites, fools, blind guides and “whitewashed tombs” (clean looking on the outside but with untouchable death within). Their teaching was supposed to draw people into the covenant relationship with God, but instead only drew them into their own brand of legalism.

Following that confrontation, Jesus leaves the Temple – surely in a mood of anger, not peace – and starts telling his disciples just how bad the early years of the Church would be for them.  Not only would there be ongoing persecution right from the start, but wars, revolutions, famines and earthquakes – all the events that make societies unstable and life uncertain.  Before long these would usher in the “last day”. Jesus describes this in apocalyptic terms of darkness, fear, fleeing quickly with few possessions, when “the desolating sacrilege stands in the holy place” (24:15).  This latter reference is usually taken to refer to the destruction of the Temple in AD70, a generation after the Resurrection of Jesus, when the Jewish people would be forced out of the Promised Land for a second time, for what would turn out to be nearly two thousand years.  Christians, though, have always had a parallel understanding of an eventual “second coming”, or “rapture”, when the followers of Christ would be saved from the final destruction that will come upon humanity. This is too big a subject to explore in depth here.

The one glimmer of light in all this is that during this time of persecution and war, “this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations” (24:14).  So the purpose of the church is not to being about peace on earth, which we will never have more than fleetingly among what is generally a violent society and a dangerous world, but to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven as the good news that there is an alternative to earthly suffering and certain death, and Jesus is the key to it.  No wonder the refrain of Advent is “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”

The Bible in a Year – 1 November

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1 November. Matthew chapters 21-22

Today’s reading starts with the “triumphal entry”, as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, followed by overturning the tables of the moneychangers.  In the Christian calendar this is usually read at the start of Holy Week, leading up to Easter.  That last week or so of Jesus’ life was marked by increasing conflict with the Temple authorities. Many of the parables in these chapters were told in the Temple, making reference to its activities, and were (as Matthew explicitly says) told against the Pharisees and Sadducees.   He seems to have set these two rival groups against each other, as first one and then the other tests him to see if they can catch him out.

But they cannot.  Jesus’s wise answers leaves them dumbfounded.  You can’t say that the popular prophet John was sent from God without accepting that I am too, he tells them.  It’s OK to pay taxes to the Romans as long as you also honour God and give to the work of the Temple or church.  Heaven is a completely new kind of existence where concepts such as marriage and parenthood have no meaning. The most important thing to do is love God – but it’s equally important to love other people as much as yourself. And finally, Jesus himself was greater than David, the king who everyone remembered as being God’s favourite.    No-one could contradict him on those points, although his interpretation of the Jewish scriptures was radically different from accepted teachings.

All through this time, these Jewish leaders were criticising Jesus, not praising him.  But the ordinary people praised him, and most of all the children.  As we saw yesterday, the faith of children is something precious and special, to be protected.   Jesus saw in their enthusiastic response to his teaching and healing a fulfilment of a verse from the Psalms – “Out of the mouths of infants and babies you have prepared praise for yourself” (21:1, based on Psalm 8:2).  It was in those children that Jesus saw his Kingdom starting to grow.

The Bible in a Year – 31 October.

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31 October. Matthew chapters 18-20

The section headings in some modern Bibles are not part of the original text, but a good guide. In the NRSV chapter 18 is headed “True Greatness”.   That sounds like the title of a self-help book. What is the secret of being “truly great”?  Obviously we are not talking about “Making America great again” or similar political claims.  But what makes a great person?

As Shakespeare wrote, “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”  But his character was thinking in human terms – greatness as fame, or wealth, or power.  Some adults devote all their energies to achieving at least one of these, and few of us are completely immune to their temptations.

Jesus’ example of true greatness is that of young children. He does not immediately go on to explain that, but maybe he was contrasting children, presumably at an age (and in a culture without TV celebrities) when fame and wealth and power were of no concern to them, with the anxieties that drive adults to seek greatness in the wrong form.  But he does go to great lengths to stress the enormity of the sin of “causing [a child] who believes in me to stumble”.  That might include what we would now call child abuse, but Jesus was probably intending rather the sin of making a child aware too soon of the temptations of the world, including those of fame and power.

Further on in this reading (19:13-15) he repeats this in a different form: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs”.  That verse (with its older translation “Suffer the little children…”) is carved into many a Victorian church font.  But the Victorian clergy marshalled the little children into Sunday School classes, taught them the Bible by rote, and in many cases probably also taught them to seek wealth and status in society.  They may well have been just the stumbling blocks that Jesus warned about.

The following passage refers not to children but to young adults, in particular the young man who wanted to follow Jesus but felt unable to comply with Jesus’ instruction to “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (19:21).  In this respect, Jesus is not telling everyone they have to make themselves poor to be his followers.  He is acting more like a wise spiritual director who discerns what is really going on in someone’s life – in this instance, a love of money preventing him from really engaging with  Jesus’ teaching and ministry.  Someone had, at some stage in this young man’s upbringing, “caused him to stumble” by giving him the impression that maturity is about seeking wealth and fame, rather than about finding who you really are and seeking God’s will for your life.

So for those of us who minister in churches that include children in the congregation (and a church that has none is in real trouble!) our task is to draw them to “come to Jesus” without being “stumbling blocks”. That will involve helping each child to find his or her own identity as a person and guide them along their own path to maturity and spiritual awakening.  Along the way they will inevitably encounter the temptations to seek greatness in the world’s ways, but a Christian education is about equipping young people to seek a better path in life.   It’s a tall order, but as Jesus warned, if we fail, it is we who will bear the burden of guilt.

The Bible in a Year – 29 October

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29 October. Matthew chapters 13-14

In the first of these chapters, Jesus uses several stories (parables) to try and explain what he called the “kingdom of heaven” – the new way of life with God that he came to bring.  Even his closest disciples did not understand these stories at first telling, so he had to explain the meaning of them.  The parables are intended to be mulled over by the hearer until they make sense in their own situation.  We are expected to ask ourselves, for example, “am I like the seed that is growing among thorns, letting the cares of the world choke the growth of God’s life in me?” (13:22) or “when the time of judgement comes, will I look more like a useful stalk of wheat or a useless weed in God’s kingdom? (12:40-43).

Not all the parables were about farming: others would have made sense to housewives, merchants or fishermen.   Jesus used as many ways as he could to explain his teaching to people from all walks of life.  Yet, in the last section of chapter 13, the very people who knew him best – his immediate family and other families in his home village of Nazareth – rejected him, for they thought they knew him too well.  Instead of being the famous preacher who walked into town one day and started to work miracles, he was to them just Joseph and Mary’s son, who had walked out on his family and now returned.  Unlike the prodigal son of one of his own parables, he was not welcomed back with open arms but with suspicion.

On top of that, in chapter 14 Jesus hears that his relative, the prophet John (“the Baptist”), had been killed by King Herod who now feared that Jesus was the same prophet come back to life.  Clearly Herod had not been paying attention, for John had baptised Jesus, and their approaches to proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven were quite different.    So it is not surprising that Jesus went away by himself, badly in need of solitude to deal with this bereavement, the rejection by his own neighbours and the implied threat to his life.  Yet that is just when he found himself surrounded by crowds desperate for more of his teaching.  Their physical need for food prompted perhaps Jesus’ best known miracle, the feeding of five thousand men and their families with a small quantity of bread and fish.  Other people’s needs always came first for him, however great his own.  Only with that attitude, made possible by the Spirit of God within him, could he face the ultimate test of the Cross.

Going back to Jesus’ family, perhaps the experience of meeting the needs of the crowds with both words and food persuaded him that his ministry to others was more important than his family, for at the end of this chapter he declares in response to the statement that they are wanting to see him, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  From that declaration we get the idea that all of us who put our trust in Jesus can call ourselves sisters and brothers – not only of each other, but of Jesus the Son of God, thereby claiming the status of children of God for ourselves.  But it is only Jesus’ self-sacrifice that makes that possible.

The Bible in a Year – 28 October

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28 October. Matthew chapters 10-12

In these chapters, we see Jesus offering an intensive training course in evangelism to his disciples; then comparing himself with John the Baptist and with other figures in scripture such as the prophet Jonah (whose three days in a sea monster are seen as a prophecy of Jesus’ three nights in the tomb after Good Friday) and the “suffering servant” of the prophet Isaiah.

Given how much Jesus did and taught, and the relatively short length of each of the Gospels (restricted presumably by the length of the scrolls they were written on), the writers had to be economical with the material available.  So we rarely read of Jesus saying the same thing twice, though no doubt he did – any teaching is learnt best by being repeated several times.  But there is one phrase that occurs both in yesterday’s reading from chapter 9 when Jesus is criticised for eating in the house of a tax collector, and in 12:7 when he is criticised for letting his disciples pluck grain in a field on the Sabbath (and therefore “working” on the day when work was forbidden): “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”.   This is what seems to have angered him most: people who were more concerned with the detailed religious rules that had been developed over the generations, than with the broad sweeping principles on which they were based, of which God’s mercy is the greatest.   St James uses a similar phrase: “mercy triumphs over judgement”.

Just as in yesterday’s reading, we saw that Jesus brought hope to the hopeless as much as healing to the sick, so today the overall message is one of God’s mercy being behind his whole ministry of gathering and sending his disciples.   That may be another reason why he mentioned Jonah, who was angry with God when God was merciful to the people of Nineveh: Jonah would have preferred judgement over mercy, but “something greater than Jonah is here!” (12:41) – it was time for mercy to take its rightful place.

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 – 26 October

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26 October. Matthew chapters 5-7

These chapters comprise the “Sermon on the Mount”, the fullest account we have of the direct teaching of Jesus about how to live a holy and fulfilled life.  It is presented as a single set of teachings, although it may actually be a summary of his teachings on many occasions. Any one of the short passages among them would be the basis for a sermon.  Indeed, a couple of years ago I wrote a series of Lent reflections for my London parish just on the Beatitudes (the first eleven verses of chapter 5). So I will revisit the introduction I gave then.

The opening verse of the “sermon” tells us “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them.” That gives us the correct order of things.  First Jesus was present (and people knew it), secondly his disciples made time to come to him, and thirdly he spoke, and they learnt from him.   Learning from Jesus requires these three things us of us: to believe in him, to come to where he is (whether that is in a church meeting, or in our own quiet times at home) and to be ready to listen and learn.  And that means having the humility of the true scholar, of knowing that we have much to learn. In the words of an old hymn –

Come to my heart, O Thou wonderful love, come and abide,
Lifting my life, till it rises above envy and falsehood and pride,
Seeking to be: lowly and humble, a learner of Thee.
Robert Walmsley (1831-1905)

Before we go any further, we need to be clear what we mean by being “blessed”. The word “beatitude” comes from the Latin word for it (beatus).  The original Greek word is “makarios”.  Some modern versions of the Bible translate the word as “happy” but that can sound rather shallow – a feeling of happiness can be easily caused by all sorts of small things in life, and just as easily shattered when bad things happen.

The happiness that Jesus promises is something much more profound, and has little to do with the pleasures of life.  The sort of happiness we are looking at here is not the contentment of having all the material things we need, but the satisfaction of knowing that we are living God’s way and building right relationships with other people.  Turning away from the sort of behaviour that harms oneself or others, and living in a way that builds community.  Being at peace with God because we know we have put things right in some way.

The Bible in a Year – 25 October

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25 October. Matthew chapters 1-4

Well, there’s a surprise! As I have mentioned before, I am following an online Bible reading plan that’s supposed to be in the order the books of the Bible were written.  They don’t tell you in advance what the next day’s reading will be.  Suddenly we have moved from the letters to the Gospels.

But not for the first time, the good folks at Bible Gateway have got it wrong.  Every commentary I have seen or sermon heard that compares the gospels agrees that Mark was the first to be written, and that Matthew and Luke copied most of what Mark wrote, edited it a bit and added their own material.  So why we are getting Matthew first, I don’t know.  But here goes…

Matthew, it is widely believed, belonged to a community of Jewish Christians – those Jews who had accepted that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah or Christ.  Therefore in these opening chapters, and elsewhere in the book, Matthew appeals to the Jewish scriptures for evidence to support this.  To begin with, he produces a genealogy of Jesus that identifies him as the 42nd generation from Abraham in the male line, consisting of 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 generations of kings to Jeconiah, and another 14 after the Babylonian exile.  This is suspiciously neat and symbolic (3 x 2 x 7) and the last third seems to include names not known from other Bible books, but the point is made: Jesus (or rather his father Joseph, for it is Matthew who gives us the legend of the virgin birth) is a direct descendant in the royal line.

Matthew it is who also gives us the stories of the Magi, Flight to Egypt and Massacre of the Holy Innocents, the stories we hear at Christmas time. At the end of this, we find Joseph, Mary and Jesus settling as returning refugees in Nazareth in Galilee without any suggestion that they had originally come from there. They would have had to make a new home and establish a place in a community.  Maybe that is why it was another 30 years or so before Jesus felt called to start his ministry, as he had to be accepted among the people before he could bring God’s word and power to them.

What is the application of that?  When I felt called to be a Reader (lay minister) in a church in London, I was fairly new to that community.  The Rector (parish priest) warned me that it would take ten years before the congregation fully accepted me as one of their leaders.  As it was, I moved to Yorkshire five years later, and after two years getting to know the congregation in a church here, I was licensed by the Bishop of Leeds as a Reader here.  Not quite the same as seeing the heavens opened and hearing the voice of God, but then Jesus was unique.    Will it take ten years for people to accept me as a leader?  Hopefully not – I think the priest in London was exaggerating – but even in the three years of Jesus’ amazing ministry of preaching and healing, after nearly thirty years living in Galilee, he met with opposition as much as praise.  I am aware that not everything I say will please all the people all the time, but I do try to listen to what God is saying, and pass that on.