The Apocrypha in Lent – 28 February

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

28 February. 2 Maccabees chapters 1-4

The books of Maccabees, set in the second century BCE, cover known historical events but from a biased pro-Jewish perspective. Whereas the first book follows a chronological sequence, the second one, as explained in the “editor’s preface” in chapter 2, seems more like an anthology of anecdotes.

Chapter 3 opens the book proper, with a tale of the appearance of three angelic figures, one of them on horseback, to smite Heliodorus, an envoy of the Greek king who had been sent to confiscate the contents of the treasury of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Confusingly the Simon referred to in this chapter is not the Simon Maccabee whose exploits ended the first book, but an earlier man of the same name.  Here we see quite clearly how corrupt Jewish society had become under Greek influence: although the Temple leaders and ordinary people are pictured praying to God for deliverance, what they are most concerned about is “calling on the Lord to preserve the deposits intact for the depositors in full security” (3:22).

Chapter 4 tells of how the high-priesthood also became increasingly corrupt in the time before the Maccabees came on the scene. Onias is presented in chapter 3 as a saintly high priest, but first his brother Jason, and them Menelaus, effectively buy the office from the absentee king Antiochus. Onias ends up being murdered in an act of treachery – effectively a hired killing set up by Menelaus – and Menelaus then buys his way out of court.  Such a corrupt use of wealth seems to have horrified even the leaders of what was clearly a wealth-obsessed society.

Although succeeding chapters relate how the Maccabees rose up against the Greek overlords, they were no better when it came to honest government.  In my comments on 1 Maccabees, I suggested that the Maccabees were trying to compare themselves to great kings of the past like David, but without the true faith in God that had inspired David, or like Victorian magnates who put on a show of piety while being more concerned about profits than natural justice.

No wonder Jesus, coming along a few generations later when the successors of the Maccabees, the Pharisees, were in power, warned so strongly that “one cannot serve both God and wealth” and of the “yeast of the Pharisees” that would corrupt the whole of society.


The Bible in a Year – 21 December

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21 December. John Chapters 9-10

It is clear from these chapters that Jesus was not worried about causing divisions. In fact he seems to have regarded it as inevitable that his ministry would cause division, attracting some people and making enemies of others.  Many (though not all) of the ordinary people believed in him, because they looked at his “works” (healing, teaching, feeding, showing love and compassion).  Many (though not all) of the religious and political leaders became his enemies because they looked at how his actions fitted into their “laws” – or rather, did not fit.  This is clear from the story of the blind man.  What mattered to him and his friends was that he had been healed, and not surprisingly, worshiped the man who had healed him.  What mattered to the Pharisees was that it had happened on a Sabbath. They would not have been surprised, for Jesus had healed on the Sabbath many times – they just could not get the point that healing should not be counted as “work”.

Laws, whether of religion or state (and in some societies, it amounts to the same thing), are a necessary construct for society to function.  We all need to know what is expected of us.  But no system of laws stays unchanged for ever – both religious and secular law changes in small ways all the time, and occasionally needs major reform.  Like an earthquake zone, frequent small movements cause less damage than rare large ones.  Jesus, when he was in Jerusalem, found himself in a fossilised religious environment that had not changed substantially for centuries – in fact, the layers of interpretation added to the original “laws of Moses” (intended originally for a desert people) had made them almost impossible to change.  Jesus was the earthquake that was about to hit the Jewish religion in a devastating way, and the warning tremors had been happening for some time.  Little wonder that on Good Friday, an earthquake was one of the signs that something very important was happening.

We see the same in the way people come to believe in Jesus today.  He turns no-one away, not even people whose lives are already generally well-adjusted and people-centred.  Such people may find faith in Jesus but their lives do not need to change very much.  On the other hand there are those whose lives are totally broken, whether by disease, stress, guilt,  addiction, or being victims of violence and persecution – or the cause of them.  Such people, if they find Jesus and his accepting love and transforming forgiveness, are (in a very positive way) the ones caught up in an earthquake, as the tension that has built up in their lives is suddenly released.  The metaphor of an earthquake may not be the best one – do tell me if you can think of a better one – but the point is, that whether your need is for another slight change in your life or a desperately overdue major one, Jesus will do it, if you let him.  If you only have eyes to see.

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 – 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.