The Apocrypha in Lent – 14 March

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

14 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 19-22

A lot of the proverbs in today’s passages concern speech – when to speak and when not, what sort of words to use, the use of different language in different situations.  To quote just a few of them (there are many more) –

“By hating gossip a man avoids evil. Never repeat what you are told, and you will come to no harm” (19:6-7)

“There is a rebuke that is untimely, and there is a man who keeps quiet, and he is the shrewd one” (20:1)

“A wise man will keep quiet till the right moment, but a garrulous fool will always misjudge it” (20:7)

“When a godless man curses his enemy, he is cursing himself; the scandal-monger sullies himself and earns the hatred of the neighbourhood” (21:27-28)

“Insult, arrogance, betrayal of secrets, and the stab in the back: in these cases any friend will run away” (22:22).

From these and many other sayings we can realise that what we say, and equally important the thoughts that we keep to ourselves, are what define our character, both among other people and in the eyes of God.  To think carefully before you speak, to say only words that build up other people and our relationships with them, and nothing negative except where it is really in their best interests: that is and always has been received wisdom.  But it is one of the hardest things to put into practice.  The New Testament realises this too:

For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (James 3:2-6).

But the strongest condemnation in this passage from Ecclesiasticus is reserved for liars: “Lying is an ugly blot on a man, and ever on the lips of the ignorant. A thief is preferable to an inveterate liar, but both are heading for ruin” (20:24-25).  Why? Because while we may disagree with someone’s opinion, think them mistaken in their facts, be insulted by their words, or consider them uncultured in their use of language, as long as we think they are telling true facts and expressing honest opinions we can still do business with them.  But as soon as someone is known as a liar, especially an “inveterate liar”, then we do not know what to make of what they say.

People have mixed motives for lying. Often it is for personal gain, or thinking to impress others. That is often seen in politics. Sometimes it is for a quick way out of a difficult situation, but that is often a case of digging oneself further into a hole – small lies have to be backed up by bigger ones. I think of someone I used to know,  who lost his job the third time he told his employer he could not work that day because his grandmother had died (think about it).

But sometimes motives are difficult to fathom – I think of someone else I knew, whose “true stories” often stretched credibility. But when she assured me that a certain mutual acquaintance was having an affair – an upright professional man recently married to his beautiful and devoted girlfriend – I stopped even trying to believe.  What was her motive in that?  Was she trying to break up my friendship with this other couple?  She only succeeded in persuading me to drop my friendship with her.

So try always to be truthful, honest, positive, and to refrain from gossip and unfounded criticism.  Avoid lies like the plague.  You will fail – I fail -we all do, sometimes.  But the closer we get to that ideal, the better our lives, and our friendships, will be.

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 27 December

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

27 December. 2 John (also see 3 John, same day)

If John’s first letter was focussed on the need for love, this much shorter second one is about truth.  He refers to his readers as those whom he and all who know the truth love in the truth, “because of the truth that abides in us” (1,2); likewise he professes himself delighted that some of his disciples “walk in the truth” (4).  He says much the same in his third letter, addressed to one Gaius.

Pontius Pilate famously responded to Jesus’ statement “I came into the world, to testify to the truth” with the question “what is truth?” (John 18:37,38).  But as soon as we get away from simple questions of scientific fact, truth becomes subjective.  Religions often revolve around questions about the existence and nature of God, appropriate ways to worship God, and appropriate ways to behave to each other. It is easy to claim to “know the truth” in these matters, to know objectively what is right and wrong, either by claiming direct revelation or quoting from accepted holy texts and revered holy people.  But the fact is that God is a mystery, bigger than all of us, and human life so complex that no one set of rules will ever suffice for all circumstances.  So what does John mean by the truth?

In the third letter, John contrasts two men in one church congregation: Diotrephes, who opposes John and certain other people and even expels his opponents from the church (10), and Demetrius, about whom he writes “Everyone has testified favourably about Demetrius, and so has the truth itself.”

Truth in this context seems to mean something like “an attitude of humility and love that welcomes honesty, openness and differences”.  Where Diotrephes wanders from the truth is in claiming to have the truth himself and opposing anyone who thinks differently.  So the truth is not something fixed, one incontrovertible set of doctrines or rules.  In fact, the more we think that we know the truth (and therefore someone else doesn’t), the further we are from this understanding of truth.  It is more fluid than knowledge and rules, something that “abides in us” (going back to the start of the second letter), an internal guide.  You may just call it conscience, but that is too impersonal.  The Christian understanding of truth is inseparably connected to Jesus Christ himself who called himself “the Way, the Truth and the Life”.  To have Jesus abiding in you is to have the truth within you – but so may someone else who disagrees with you on matters of religious belief, practice and morals.

John records something else important that Jesus said about truth: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).   Free, that is, from being too closely bound to rules and regulations.  Free to live a life of love for the sake of other people.  Free to make truth come true.

The Bible in a Year – 20 December

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

20 December. John chapters 7-8

Finally Jesus returns to Jerusalem where he knows that the authorities are looking for a reason to have him killed.   He does not hide from them but confronts them, and the crowds who are present for a religious festival (presumably the Passover). It seems that he wants to make the maximum impact in the short time left to him, in the hope that a few at least of those who hear his teaching will accept it and continue to spread it after his death and resurrection.

Jesus makes much of his relationship with God (whom he never refers to directly, because of the Jewish taboo against using the name of God) but calls him “the Father” (or “my Father”) or “the one who sent me”.  But he comes pretty close to identifying himself as divine in some of the exchanges in chapter 8: “If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (19), “I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” (23), “I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence” (38), and finally “before Abraham was, I am” (58).  This last statement angers them enough to threaten him with stoning, for it amounted to blasphemy: not only did Jesus imply that he existed before the start of the Jewish religion (indeed, before all time), but the very phrase “I am” in a religious context was considered to be one of the unutterable names of God.

The thrust of his argument though, is not to set himself up as Lord over the people, rather to urge everyone to regard themselves as children of God, and to be open to the possibility of eternal life.  But it does not work.  When they claim to be children of Abraham and following the law of Moses, Jesus points out that neither Moses nor Abraham would condone killing someone for their beliefs.  When they criticise Jesus healing someone on a Sabbath (yet again), he makes the reasonable point that they themselves consider it acceptable to perform circumcision on a Sabbath – so if that, why not healing? When he offers “the truth that sets people free” (8:32) they simply say that they are not slaves so what would they need to be freed from?  As they say here in Yorkshire, “There’s none so deaf as those who won’t hear”.

To be fair to the Jews of Jesus’ time, though, it has always been the case that when someone comes along as a prophet, revolutionary or radical, the majority of people do not want to believe their message.  We all prefer to stick to the understanding of the world that we have either been taught as children, or discovered for ourselves in youth, or which keeps us in a comfortable stability as adults.   To be challenged about your religious heritage, or set of moral values, or to be told that you are suffering from some deficiency or addiction that you need to be freed from, is uncomfortable at best, maybe even threatening.

The call of Jesus is always to something better, though it may not seem like it at the time.  And the more we understand of it, the more challenging it may be.  Few people in his own time stuck with him through the events of Easter, and few will follow now.  But the call, and the challenge, are always there. In the words of a seasonal carol, “Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in”.

The Bible in a Year – 9 November

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

9 November. Mark chapters 10-11

From the point yesterday where Jesus talks about ‘taking up the cross’ and ‘giving up one’s life’ to follow him, events move swiftly.  Within a couple of pages of Mark’s Gospel he teaches his disciples more about the servant nature of ministry, faith and forgiveness, during which time he also arrives in Jerusalem with them, then confronts the money-changers and traders in the Temple that was supposed to be a place of prayer.  Finally, he is challenged by the “priests, scribes and elders” about the source or authority of his teaching.  Authority was a big matter for them – Jewish rabbinical tradition is based on tradition, precedent and the moral authority of one rabbi over another.

Jesus once again answers their question with another: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” It was a trick question, and Mark explains their reason for being reluctant to answer it by saying it was of human origin, for “they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet” (11:31-32). I think they did really know it was from heaven, but were too embarrassed to say so.

There is an English saying that dates from the 16th century if not earlier, and particularly popular in Yorkshire: “There’s none so blind as those who won’t see”.  In other words, if we have a reason for finding a certain truth “inconvenient” (as Al Gore might say) then we will deny it, at least outwardly to other people; and if we deny it often enough to others we will convince ourselves that it is not true as well.  The priests and scribes would have found it very inconvenient at this point to acknowledge to others or even themselves that John’s baptism was from God, because in that case they would have had to accept that Jesus who did more miracles than John ever did, and whom John called the “[sacrificial] lamb of God” was also sent from God.  But they had spent the last couple of years publicly criticising Jesus’ teaching, doubting his miracles and denouncing his authority.

When someone is in this “denying something they know in their heart to be true” mode, there is no point trying to argue further, as the more you convince them of the rightness of the argument the more they will argue against it – just look at the climate change deniers today.  All you can do is leave them alone until they convince themselves inwardly and “eat humble pie”. If they eventually stop opposing the obvious truth, then they know they have lost the argument and there’s no point humiliating them further by saying “I told you so”.    Unfortunately Jesus didn’t have time on his side to wait for this to happen.

The Bible in a Year – 23 August

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

23 August. Ecclesiastes chapters 5-8

Chapter 5 starts with a warning that we should be careful in the words we use in prayer, for it is quite possible to speak foolishly to God or to make a promise (vow) to him that we cannot keep. After that the text returns to the theme of the opening chapters – that both the life of the rich and that of the poor is in vain.

 

Chapter 7 is a series of short proverbs of practical wisdom. Its conclusion is “I said, ‘I will be wise’, but it was far from me. That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?” (7:23) In other words, as Pontius Pilate famously asked, “what is truth?” – even the wisest person by human standards cannot comprehend ultimate reality.

 

It is not until near the end of chapter 8 that we begin to see an answer to the “problem of vanity” that has occupied the writer since the start of the work – why is it that even being healthy, wealthy, wise and happy is pointless since we all die?  There can only an answer to that if death is not, in fact, the end of life.  What does make sense is an understanding that the righteous life and wise behaviour will be rewarded by God in the life to come: “Though sinners do evil a hundred times and prolong their lives, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will they prolong their days like a shadow, because they do not stand in fear before God.” (4:12-13)