The Apocrypha in Lent – 11 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

11 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 8-11

The “wisdom” of these chapters is nothing that humanists could disagree with.  Let’s look at just a couple of examples. Of course, you might say, it is foolish to try and seek justice against a rich or powerful man (8:1-3) because in every society there is corruption.   And given the attitudes and actions of certain “world leaders” at the present day, some of the verses about good government ring very true: “A leader of the people must be shrewd of speech; a phrase-maker is a terror to his town. … An uneducated king will be the ruin of his people; a city owes its prosperity to the intelligence of its leading men.” (9:17, 10:3)

But this book is written very much from the perspective of faith, and there is an underlying assumption that there are moral standards to be upheld.  Religious people are sometimes criticised for making too much of morality; and indeed it is true that Christianity has no “rules” other than those of loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself, from which all other ethical principles can be derived (Mark 12:29-30). Yet there is general agreement between civilised people of all faiths and none that there are essential basic standards in areas such as justice, honesty and fidelity.  For example, given agreement that adultery and promiscuity are generally a “bad thing” and that there should be an “age of consent”, then  we can all agree with the advice here that men’s desire for women makes it risky to go drinking with a married woman, make friends with a sex worker or “stare at a virgin” (9:5-9).

The difference that faith makes, as we read in chapter 11, is that rather than being frustrated and angered at the way some people get away with crime, sin or just being generally nasty – an attitude that tempts us to retaliation – the person who trusts in the God of eternity can take the longer view.  That has two implications. Firstly we can look death in the face and acknowledge our own mortality, something that humans tend to avoid if they have no hope beyond death.  “A man grows rich … and says ‘I have found rest, now I can enjoy my goods’. But he does not know how long this will last; he will have to leave his goods for others and die” – a couplet that may have inspired Jesus’ parable of the wealthy farmer (Luke 12:16-21).

The second is that we can trust in a God whose justice is made complete beyond the grave – “call no man fortunate before his death; it is by his end that a man will be known” (11:28).  So the purpose of all these proverbs is to encourage us to live lives without greed or envy, so that at the last day we, and not the arrogant rich, will find favour with God.  But if you don’t believe in God or the last judgement, then just read them as sensible advice for a stress-free life.



The Bible in a Year – 13 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

13 October. 1 Corinthians chapters 5-8

Paul is sometimes thought of as primarily a moralist, particularly on matters of sexual relationships. Most of his teaching on the subject is found in chapters 5 to 7 of this letter.  Why is it that the apostle who is also known for his preaching of the grace of God, of salvation by faith irrespective of good works, of the detailed Jewish law no longer applying to Christians, why is he also the one who “lays down the law” when it comes to relationships?

Some of what he writes is only expressed as guidance – while expressing a wish that more people would be celibate as he was (7:7) he is prepared to accept that for most people, to be married is generally better.  Likewise he encourages those who are already married not to divorce just because they have different religious beliefs, and to enjoy regular intercourse. So he is no prude.

What Paul does condemn, though, in chapter 6, is a list of sins including various forms of sexual activity. This list famously includes homosexual acts, but also prostitution, fornication (i.e. casual sex outside marriage), and adultery.  But it also includes idolatry, theft, drunkenness, greed, and Christians suing each other in court (thereby acting contrary to the ideals of forgiving each other and having all things in common).  What these have in common is that they show Christianity in a bad light.  Whether a person chooses for religious reasons to be single or married is a matter of conscience.  But sins such as those listed, if they are known to people outside the church, show that the Christian’s claim to have been freed from the power of sin and be living a life of love and compassion is a hollow one.

Perhaps the key verse in the passage is this: “For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside.” (5:12-13).   In other words, Paul is not saying that he expects non-Christians to follow these rules. Nor does he expect Christians to avoid non-Christians just because of their immoral behaviour by our standards, for that would mean we would lose out opportunity to be witnesses to them. No, Paul’s concern is just that when it comes to relationships within the church (including sexual ones), his converts use their freedom from Jewish ritual law wisely, and do not engage in behaviour that brings themselves and the Church into disrepute.