Archive for October, 2022

Faith and Belief in Translation

Posted: October 27, 2022 in Uncategorized

Faith and Belief in Translation

Many of us hold to the belief that we can name a sacred power within and around us. That this power is a divine spirit that we call by many names and experience in many ways. It is a power that empowers and heals, that calls us forth. Many of us hold to the belief that we can claim a creativity, a making and transforming of beauty out of words and notes, images and colours, lines and pictures and silence. Many of us hold to a belief that it is justice that compels and empowers us to risk whatever we must risk to create a climate in which all people can be who they are.

Many of us hold to a belief that our imagination and our dreams are the way we experience the world as it is, in both its ugliness and its beauty, and we see what it can become. A peace that is based on openness, honesty and compassion. Many of us hold to a belief that we can expect change to continue to occur in our world. This is our hope that we rely on to inspire our courage to continue to bring about these changes. Many of us hold to a belief in the power of love. Some see this as a weak power that overcomes might, a passionate love within and around us that laughs and cries, challenges and comforts, a healing love that perseveres.

Many of us know who we are and our potential, painful as that can be at times, yet we continue to call each other to become more of who we are. We celebrate, we remember and we commemorate. We create rituals. We play and dance, and sing and love well. Many of us value our diversity and we affirm our many shapes and sizes, colours and traditions,
emotions and thoughts, differences and similarities, recognizing this as life that wells up within
and flows out of us like a streaming fountain as the good and the holy. Many of us hold to the belief that we are good and holy as a sacred part of all creation. (Inspired by Susan Kramer)

Bernard Brandon Scott reminds us that ‘Faith” is a problematic word, so problematic that at times I think we should abandon its use. It’s a weasel word he says, with so many and varied meanings that what it means often is difficult to know. Given the importance of faith in religious discourse, the varied meanings have significant implications and ramifications. Scott posits that we are trapped between the use of “faith” in English and “faith” as a translation for the Greek word pistis in the New Testament. They are different and so make understanding both the New Testament and our own usage difficult.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives as its first definition (1a) “allegiance to duty or a person” with the gloss “Loyalty.” Then follows an example usage: “lost faith in the company’s president.” Within this first definition there is a second sense (1b) with two subsenses. “(1) fidelity to one’s promises” and then “(2) sincerity of intentions • acted in good faith.

This first definition of faith, secular in character, understands faith as loyalty or allegiance and lays stress on relationship, “allegiance to duty or a person”. Except for 1b(2) this understanding of faith would work well for the New Testament. Here are three different examples.

Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matt 6:30 KJV)

This “how much more” argument, common in Rabbinic literature, contends, “if God cares for this little thing, how much more in your case.” So, God’s great care is contrasted with little allegiance or faith to God. The author of Matthew’s gospel is chiding the readers about their little loyalty to God.

Mark 5 relates a story of woman from the crowd who reaches out and touches Jesus. When he asks who touched him, she comes forward in fear and trembling. Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:34 NRSV)

Her persistence or bravery in coming forward signals her “faith.” It’s her allegiance to Jesus that has healed her.

A final example is from Paul who uses “faith” extensively. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”). (Rom 4:16–17 NRSV)

“Faith” in this passage refers to Abraham’s loyalty to God’s promise that he would be the father of many nations. “The faith of Abraham” takes us to Merriam-Webster’s second definition which is religious in nature. 2a (1) defines faith as “belief and trust in and loyalty to God” which would seem to perfectly fit “faith of Abraham.” So why give the faith of Abraham as an example of 1b, the secular usage? First the distinction between the first definition and the second is not a matter of meaning but of usage, which is what a dictionary definition is supposed to do. So, this second definition is really an elaboration of the first. The meaning does not change, but the usage does.

A second subsense (2) pushes the definition even further in a religious vein: “belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion.” The fact that this is a subsense of 2a indicates that Merriam-Webster’s editors see these two as very close in English usage. But pistis (faith) in this sense is not used in the New Testament.

There are two notable items in the subsense.

  • Belief
  • Doctrines

“Belief” and “faith” are often interchangeable in English and “beliefs” and “doctrines” are likewise synonymous. The first definition of belief in Merriam-Webster indicates a shift. “state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing.” “Mind” is the important word, because belief introduces an aspect of mental activity which was absent in our examination of faith. “Faith” involves a relationship.

The belief/faith correlation is an English issue, not Greek. Greek does not make this distinction. The problem arises because the Greek root pist- can be formed into a noun, a verb, and an adjective. English has a noun, “faith,” and an adjective, “faithful,” but no verb. “He faiths God” is impossible in English; instead, one must say, “she believes in God” or “he has faith in God.” “Has faith” makes “faith” a noun object, not an action. “She trusts God” is different from “he believes in God.”

The belief/faith dynamic is further complicated by the Council of Nicaea (325). One of Constantine’s objectives was to unify Christianity, which was divided and diverse. The Nicene Creed aimed to solve this problem. This shifted Christianity from a religion of praxis, in which it’s what you do that counts, to a religion of belief or faith, in which it’s what you believe that counts. Notice what is missing from the Creed—the life of Jesus. There are no ethics in the Creed. Faith now has an intellectual content, a set of beliefs. The meaning of faith has moved very far indeed from the New Testament.

The ‘b’ part of the second definition offers another feature: “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Paul’s use of the faith of Abraham falls into this category. Abraham has faith, allegiance or trust, that God will be faithful to the promise to make Abraham the father of many nations. That fact that Sarah is barren mocks this promise. Paul plays up this aspect of faith in Romans 4.It is important to notice that Paul’s use of this argument is not anti-reason, but rather that faith is loyalty or allegiance to God’s promise in spite of the fact that it has not yet come true. (See my The Real Paul, chapter 9)The North African Tertullian in On the Flesh of Christ (about 203–206) pushed this argument in a slightly different direction.

The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died: it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.

Tertullian was a strong backer of reason and his argument that “it is certain, because impossible” is following Aristotle’s objection that the apparent unbelievability of a report can be an argument for its truth. If the witness was making it up, why would the witness not make up something more credible? It is a version of the criterion of dissimilarity.

After languishing for centuries, Tertullian’s statement came alive in the seventeenth century, when the English polymath Thomas Browne gave Tertullian’s statement a new twist. “Methinks there be not impossibilities enough in Religion for an active faith.” He argued that the more impossible something was to believe, the more it strengthened one’s faith. Voltaire defined faith as “believing things because they are impossible,” a riff on Tertullian, and later he referred to Augustine as saying “I believe because it is absurd, I believe because it is impossible.” Augustine, of course, never said any such thing.

Subsequently the phrase was translated back into Latin, Credo quia absurdum, giving it the authenticity and gravitas of an ancient language, and was applied to all religious belief and has become part of the standard argument against religious belief. “I believe because it is absurd” goes back to neither Tertullian nor Augustine and is a creation of the eighteenth century. (See Peter Harrison’s ”’I believe because it is absurd’: Christianity’s first meme” for an excellent tracing of the history of this quote.)This checkered history does not absolve faith of the charge but should serve as a warning. The situation of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had drastically changed from the middle ages. Religion was the science of the Middle Ages, but the Enlightenment and rise of science challenged that dominance by demonstrating that Genesis as science had failed. Religious faith resisted science. Philip Kitcher, Living with Darwin, chapter 2, is especially good on this aspect. The spoof in Alice in Wonderland is well placed.

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Merriam-Webster spins out a third sense of faith: “3: something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs • the Protestant faith”.

This third sense identifies “faith” with a particular set of religious beliefs. This is a Western and Christian understanding of religion. Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism are not beliefs or faiths, but practices, as Christianity was before Constantine and the Nicene Creed. These religions often accommodate to our understanding and refer to themselves as faiths, but that is only a form of cultural colonialism masquerading in English usage.

This understanding of “faith” is absent from the New Testament.

Those using “faith” in speech and writing frequently do not make the careful distinctions of the editors of Merriam-Webster. The distinctions are jumbled together and not carefully parsed. This causes a problem in reading the New Testament because the range of meaning of the English word “faith” exceeds the Greek word pistis, traditionally translated “faith.”

Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matt 6:30 KJV)

In this saying “little faith” fits definitions 1a and 2a(1). But if an English reader should slot in sense 3, that Jesus was chiding them for not adhering to Christian faith as a system, or sense 2a(2), the traditional doctrines, then the saying would go awry. In this way it could be understood as not having enough faith in Jesus.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:34 NRSV)

Again 1a and 2a(1) work, but this one can easily in English be understood as 2a(2), “belief in the traditional doctrines of religion.” Thus, it could be and frequently has been understood as her faith in Jesus healed her.

Because the English word “faith” is so liable to mislead a reader of the New Testament, the translators of The Complete Gospels and The Authentic Letters of Paul opted to translate pistis and its cognates as “trust” (Complete Gospels) or “confidence” (Authentic Letters) to enable a reader to more fully understand what the New Testament authors were trying to convey. Our three example texts make this shift evident.

He said to her, “Daughter, your trust has cured you. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.” (Mark 5:34)

If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and is thrown into an oven tomorrow, won’t you even more, you with your meager trust? (Matt 6:30)

That’s why becoming heirs results from putting confidence in and relying upon God, so that the promise is entirely a matter of free gift and is guaranteed to all of Abraham’s descendants, not only to those who claim to be heirs by virtue of covenant law, but to those who share Abraham’s confidence and reliance upon God. (Roms 4:16)

To attempt to banish the use of the word “faith” is tilting at windmills. Religious folk seem attached to the word, view it as essential. But we do need at least to be clear about what we mean when we use the word and not use is as Scott suggests; ‘a weasel word’ to avoid knowing what we mean? So, maybe we can try using “trust” or “confidence” in the New Testament, and in the other meaning be precise.

And just in case you think I have wandered too far from our text, Barry Robinson in his eMail sermon The gospel in sycamore, puts it this way: “What bothered the good people of Jericho was not so much what Jesus had to say… but the way he said it. “It is one thing to believe in loving your neighbour, to believe in welcoming the lost, to believe in forgiving the guilty; but it is quite another thing to practice what you preach, to actually practice doing it. That’s what bothered people about Jesus. “He not only said that we should love God and one another.  He actually went out and did it.  He didn’t just say God’s embrace was wide enough to welcome everyone, he actually went out and embraced people no one else would. “It upset the balance.  It was too unsettling to the way things were”. Maybe we have lost the meaning of faith in translation away from praxis in favour of the supernatural intellectual definition?

For more, check out:

‘I believe because it is absurd’: Christianity’s first meme,” by Peter Harrison

Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faithby Philip Kitcher

The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challengeby Bernard Brandon Scott

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionariesby Kory Stamper

Progressive Christianity

Posted: October 21, 2022 in Uncategorized

Challenging the Status Quo and Ugly Inhumanities

Progressive Christianity

Challenging the Status Quo and Ugly Inhumanities

Jesus of Nazareth was a Palestinian (Galilean) Jew. He was not a Christian. He never rejected his Jewish ‘family tree’ roots. His spoken language was a Galilean dialect of Aramaic, an identifiable accent and manner of speech disdained by the religious elite and urban dwellers. Indeed, more than that. One only needed to come from Galilee or be in a group of Galileans to arouse suspicion and cause trouble!  The dialect could prove to be deadly. (Horsfield 2015:14)

There is growing evidence that the society he and his family were born into was diverse and highly stratified socially, economically, and religiously. Boundaries and differences were all the go. And they all lived under the broken bodies and crushed spirits of compulsory offerings to the Jerusalem Temple, taxes to Herodian landlords, and tribute to their Roman conquerors. The sum total of taxes levied upon the people, including religious obligations, was nothing short of enormous. A tiny percentage of wealthy and powerful families lived comfortably in the cities from the tithes, taxes, tribute, and interest they extracted from the vast majority of people, who lived in villages and worked the land.

As several scholars have recorded the purpose of taxation was not social well-being but enhancement of the position of elites. Period. Leadership was concerned with plundering rather than with developing! (Herzog 1994:180) Named among those who were despised and hated because of their abusive behaviour against the poor, were representatives of the Temple as well as toll collectors. Jews regarded toll collectors as collaborators who profited
by preying on the countrymen on behalf of the Roman Empire.

The storyteller we call Luke even has a story about them. Actually there are two stories about them.

(a) The Jesus story. Short. Sharp. Leaving little other than questions.

(b) The Luke adaptation of that Jesus story some 50 years after the original.

And his conclusion: Pharisees are smug, self-seeking, judgmental.

We heard the latter (this morning) as the Gospel reading.

(i) that story has been called the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, due to an incorrect translation of the word ‘telones’.

It should be Toll Collector… “normally Jews who had become tax-farmers for the Romans – or in Galilee for Herod Antipas”. (Funk 2002:50)

(ii) that story has been read as a contrast between two types of oppositional piety: the arrogant and the humble…

(iii) that story has been interpreted by some as a story about prayer: being persistent and humble…

It is now suggested that all these traditional readings of the parable are unfortunate misnomers. That all these traditional readings ‘spiritualise’ the story, or make it an allegory or example story, rather than hearing the raw, blunt edge of the original. That all these traditional readings are full of literary traps for unwary readers and listeners!

There is something both sad and radical about this particular Lucian Jesus story. The first sad bit being the Pharisee, a member from the faction of moral entrepreneurs and rule-creation, stood apart. He did not want to risk contacting uncleanness from brushing the garment of an ‘earth-worker’ (we might read here: ’sinner’) – those who failed to observe the rules of purity laws. His ‘standing apart’ it seems, was to emphasize his self-importance, his prominence, and his power over others. The Toll Collector’s ‘standing apart’ from the congregation was because “he was a deviant shunned by the faithful”. (Herzog 1994:185) He was hated. He didn’t belong. And he knew it! He sought to be inconspicuous.

And the radical bits…  A Toll Collector (hear again ‘sinner’). A Toll collector in the Temple grounds was unheard of!  And the hearers of this story – so-called fellow sinners – would have drawn that conclusion before the story’s end. Both he and they were excluded, despised, ruled and taxed over.

So what have we… The actions of the Toll Collector were outside the negative prescribed script. He refused to accept the limitations imposed on him by the religious pure.
He never rebuts the Pharisee’s shaming nor his efforts to reinforce the status quo,
“but [he] speaks directly to God, seeking mercy. He breaks through the intimidation and fear that the Pharisee’s words have created, and by his actions, challenges the Pharisee’s reading of God’s judgments… He claims God’s ear for himself”. (Herzog 1994:192)

God listening speaking outside official channels! A ‘sinner’ at the Temple praying: Include me in! Make an atonement for me! How radical can you get? This radical!  This radical Jesus had a positive regard for toll collectors and all who were outside the social and religious boundaries of others. Not only that, all brokered religion in other words the need for priestly mediators as the necessary link between God and the individual; is at an end. God’s domain has no brokers. Everyone has direct access to the Holy One. Petitioners are their own brokers.

One progressive scholar takes all this to its logical end: “A brokered religion produces a cyclical understanding of the faithful life: sin, guilt, forgiveness – the latter at the hands of the church and priest… In addition, it tends to produce a passive relation to the Christian life… A passivity carried over into the social, economic, and political realms as well”. (Funk 2002:131) It is no wonder that Jesus’ Galilean family and friends, are always under suspicion because they were Galilean, they and he were thought of as threats to others welfare. Sometimes even mentally unstable! (Brueggemann 1989:51) Jesus’ voice shattered settled reality and opened up questions and new possibilities! And, when the muted ones began to speak, as shown so often in the Book of Psalms, their speech was funded by “the burdens of rage, alienation, resentment, and guilt. These burdens had been reduced to silence over the years of a settled captivity to Rome, but now they are mobilized in their full power and energy”.  It is no wonder that Jesus’ hearers who consider brokered Christianity (and we hear: ‘orthodoxy’) were considered simply incredible, and were shunned and considered heretics! And just in case you missed that: a non-brokered Christianity goes against nearly everything Christianity has structured and theologically claimed, since the early fourth century! And Some might say began as early as the second century. As the key focus became the worship of Jesus as the sole divine bearer of salvation. The mythical, traditional cross cultural change agent of society had begin to become the exclusive structured absolutist faith that people no longer believe.

Someone is also said to have been more pointed in his comments about the fourth century church: “It is as if Jesus was the subject of a corporate takeover, where the new company retained his name and reputation but the values and aspirations of what he started were replaced by a totally different corporate ethos and agenda that have nothing identifiable to do with him”. (Horsfield 2015:290)

It is increasingly clear that the early followers of Jesus did not make claims about him because they sensed in him a different essence, not a divinity like that claimed of Roman Ceasar’s, not that claimed of traditional Messiahs but a promised humanity beyond that status, a halo circling his head suggests that What Jesus brought was something more than the divine role they had come to understand! They made claims about him because they had heard him say 
and seen him do certain things that seemed like beyond the natural they knew. They experienced him acting in their lives in unknowable ways. And what they experienced in the company of this person, a sense of empowerment that moved them deeply. The life to which he called his followers involved a reversalof ordinary social and political, cultural – and too often – religious standards.

The words of Canadian Bruce Sanguin suggest this when he said : “Jesus was proclaiming the end of one era for humanity and the dawning of a new one – one person at a time… [His] very being was a proclamation of what the new human looked like… In his teachings he conveyed new spiritual wisdom, which if adhered to, effectively overturned the world of conventional wisdom”. (Sanguin 2015)

If Jesus is continued to be remembered, it will no longer be because people give him divine titles… Words are not enough unless they evolve and express this that is not super natural, not super anything but rather poetic, and musical and mindful beyond and including reason.

He will be remembered as long as his words offer an abiding challenge, Dewey says. The radical challenge of distributive justice that Dominic Crossan speaks of. The empowering challenge to move forward from the ugly inhumanities “in which we seem to be trapped toward reconciliation of contending peoples, nations, cultures, [and] religions”. (Kaufman 2006:113)

Luke’s Jesus misses all this. So too does the spiritualized Jesus of traditional or ‘orthodox’ interpretation. But we can “rescue Jesus from the cloying baggage of Christological beliefs unnecessarily added by the church”. (Wink 2000:177)

Progressive thought invites us to accept the challenge to ponder some more creditable alternatives. Both about the human sage called Jesus. And about those we or our church or government exclude for political reasons. As the former outspoken advocate for the environment, Thomas Berry, has lamented: “To learn how to live graciously together would make us worthy of this unique beautiful blue planet that was prepared for us over some billions of years, a planet that we should give over to our children with the assurance that this great community of the living will nourish them, guide them, heal them and rejoice in them as it has nourished, guided, healed, and rejoiced in ourselves”. (Berry 2014: 190) Amen.

Berry, T. “Spirituality and Ecology: A Sermon” in M. E Tucker & J. Grim (ed) Thomas Berry: Selected Writings on the Earth Community. New York. Orbis Books, 2014

Brueggemann, W. Finally Comes the Poet. Daring Speech for Proclamation.. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 1989.

Dewey, A. “Editorial: Testing the Atmosphere of God” in The Fourth R 28 A, 1, 4. 2015.

Funk, R. W. Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

Herzog 11, W. R. Parables as Subversive Speech. Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. Louisville. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

Horsfield, P. From Jesus to the Internet. A History of Christianity and Media. New York. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2006.

Patterson, S. The God of Jesus. The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1998. 
Sanguin, B. The Way of the Wind: The Path and Practice of Evolutionary Christian Mysticism. Kelowna. CopperHouse/Wood Lake Publishing, 2015.
Wink, W.  “The Son of Man the Stone that Builders Rejected” in The Jesus Seminar. The Once and Future Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2000.

The Fragility of Heart and the Weakness of God

It is true that millions of people around the world grow flowers in their gardens. We give flowers as gifts on special occasions, whether as a simple thank you for an invitation to dinner,
or as a sign of congratulations, or as an acknowledgement of bereavement. We associate flowers with love, with joy, with sympathy, with sorrow, with death. I can remember my Father in Law who brought a bunch of flowers to his wife every Friday evening for every year of their marriage, Flowers and their symbolic power in our lives is immense…

The important thing about flowers that affect us deeply, is that they are given to us by nature. They are the products of evolution and play their own role in the great web of life. This role is independent of human feelings. Flowers are what they are. Humanity breeds many varieties of flowers to make them yet more affecting to us, but they are nature’s creation, not our own. Another significant factor is that most flowers are at the most vulnerable end of the natural spectrum. They are mostly fragile and susceptible to damage and destruction. There is a fragility about them that suggests that beauty is like things of the heart, they are fragile and susceptible to damage. They are of the most vulnerable and not unlike the crucified God, or the God that is at the whim of human need vulnerable to human use. They are at the whim of acceptance, and ultimately love.

Many decades ago, in the spring of 1936, while waiting for his beloved to arrive from London for their wedding, “and germinating the ideas that would bloom into Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four”, George Orwell (1903-1950) planted some roses in the garden of the small sixteenth-century cottage that his suffragist, socialist, bohemian aunt had secured for him in the village of Wallington.

Three and a half years after he planted them, and after thirteen seasons of tending to them, Orwell’s roses were struggling to bloom for the first time. World War II had just begun. Orwell recorded in his diary: “Cut down the remaining phloxes, tied up some of the chrysanthemums which had been blown over. Difficult to do much these afternoons now it is winter-time. The ‘chrysanths’ now in full flower, mostly dark reddy-brown, & a few ugly purple & white ones which I shan’t keep. Roses still attempting to flower, otherwise no flowers in the garden now…”

This man. most famous for his scrutiny of totalitarianism and propaganda, and an unyielding political vision, had planted roses!  “That a socialist or a utilitarian or any pragmatist or practical person might plant fruit trees is not surprising,” wrote author Rebecca Solnit. “They have tangible economic value and produce the necessary good that is food even if they produce more than that. But to plant a rose — or in the case of this garden he resuscitated in 1936, seven roses early on and more later — can mean so many things…”

If war and injustice and power and destruction have an opposite, gardens might sometimes be it, and people have found a particular kind of peace in forests, meadows, parks, and gardens.”

Yesterday a woman was planting flowers in her garden. Her activity was more than a hobby, even more than a pleasure. She was digging, dirtying, straining, mulching and lugging,
under the power of plants which do not yet even exist, but whose images have taken up residence in the atoms and cells within her imagination.

Weeks or months will elapse before her labour is fulfilled. Patience and faith will sustain her until, under the majesty of Earth’s dominion, the unprepossessing little bulbs and seeds will explode into daffodils, tulips, irises, freesias, geraniums, pansies, daises, and sunflowers.

A warlike pathway will have been won by soft and coloured things. The yellow eyes of asters, the purple tongues of irises, and the crayola pansies have raised their banners above the turrets of Earth’s soil to defy the dark cold space that pervades almost all of everything else. (Fleischman 2013)

It is Spring. Hosanna! Not in the highest, but right here. Right now. This. (Goodenough 1998) Today, in the spirit of persistent women as presented in the biblical ‘justice’ scenario we read of and patience and faith experiences captured through beauty and nature, independent of the gospel story, yet somehow embodied in the metaphor we honour the spirit of flowers, of wonder, and of beauty. “Beauty… transforms like no other encounter and sets us squarely in the realm of the sacred…. Justice in the face of absurdity, beauty enlarges, transforms, and embraces the whole complexity that is life.  Beauty prefers to feel all and feel deeply, thereby participating in the divine act of creative transformation.” The challenge of flowers featuring in church Harvest Festivals, is always that it is not enough to express fully our gratitude for the beauty we encounter in the visions, smells and placements of those flowers. Nor in the beauty of the transformation that justice reveals.

Our story today is generally known as the parable of the importunate widow, or the parable of the unjust judge.  The text is unique to Luke.  Jesus is speaking to the disciples, though throughout this section, the pharisees are still within earshot. 

The passage follows immediately upon 17: 22-37, a major theme of which is the suffering and rejection of Jesus, which provokes an eschatological crisis, out of which comes the New Day of the Lord–“the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Humanity be in his day” (17:24). 

The judge did not fear God (phobos) or have respect (entrepomenos) for people.  Entrepomenos is an unusual word.  It can mean “to shame” or, in the passive, “to be ashamed.”  It can also mean “reverence,” though this is the third meaning. The judge not only felt no “reverence” for people, but also had no sense of “shame” in how he treated them– a typical Roman judge it is easily said, in other words.  Roman judges had vast power within their jurisdiction.  If they wanted to, they could decide cases based on personal whim alone.  The judge in this story is just such a judge–one with no concern for justice.

But there was an importunate widow in that city, and she was coming to him, saying, ‘Avenge me from my opponent,’ and he was not willing for a time. The stage of the parable is set by the contrast between, on the one hand, a powerful magistrate who can do whatever he feels like doing, and, on the other, a poor widow who must take what she can get. That the woman appears by herself in court means that she has no male relative to speak for her.  She is indeed powerless and poor.  On the “power scale,” the judge is at one end and the widow at the other.

We remember here that the Hebrew scriptures are replete with injunctions to consider the needs of widows, orphans, and strangers.  Perhaps these injunctions are so frequent because the people of Israel needed continual reminding and, as it could be construed, to little effect! 

By the time of Jesus, the powerful and unscrupulous were still preying on widows.  Jesus will later say that the Temple elite “devour widows’ houses” (20:47), such as when the Temple bureaucrats swooped in upon the death of the husband and “managed” the estate, taking a sizable cut for themselves.  It should not be surprising that a judge who does not fear God would likewise not care about God’s demonstrated concern for the weak and vulnerable.  If he does not fear God, why would he respect people?

The widow says, literally:  “Avenge me from my opponent (antidikos).”  The widow, normally a sympathetic figure in Jesus’ stories, seems to expect that she may actually get justice in this kangaroo court.  She thinks she might yet come out a winner.  For all its well-known corruption, she still believes in the system! This certainty for the widow could be her belief that she has faith in it being in Gods tine that she would receive justice….

“For a while he refused” literally, but it seems that the woman’s faith was in Gods “inbreaking time”, if you will.  According to “regular time,” the judge has no use for the widow but in God’s time she would. In God’s time will come justice (though justice will be defined in a surprising and unusual way, as we shall see).  “God’s time” is not something that happens after chronological time ends.  “God’s time” is any time in which the reign of God breaks in.  It can be right now. It might be a stretch but for me here is the place of the vulnerable beauty of the fragile flower the fragility of the heart in the face of might, the fragile beauty of the flower in the  face of wind and rain and storms of all kinds.

In his speech to himself, the judge openly acknowledges what had originally been said about him, i.e., that he doesn’t fear God or respect people.  This tells us that he has had no internal change.  He remains the same person he was when first identified. Nevertheless, he decides to change his approach regarding the widow:  “Though I am not fearing God nor respecting human beings, yet because this widow gives me trouble, I will avenge her, so that she might not come (and) give me a black eye unto the end.” 

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates hupopiaze as “wear me out.”  This seems weak.  The word comes from the world of boxing and refers to striking someone under the eye.  “Give me a black eye” is not only faithful to the Greek, but paints a rather startling and humorous picture of the poor widow battering the powerful judge.

Such is the power of beauty and the fragile and the heart in the face of rules and regulations, and expectations. The weak goodness or love is akin to the fragility and vulnerability of the beauty of nature. What’s more, she will “give me a black eye unto the end (telos).”  The word telos is a special word in the scriptures.  It means the goal, the consummation, the gathering of all into all.  If the widow keeps battering him with her appeals, her desire for justice just may make the judge look bad through all eternity.  To avoid this fate, the judge rules in the widow’s favour.

Their vindication will be soon–en taxei–but not, however, by making the poor widow come out a winner through the judicial process.  Quite the contrary.  The vindication that is approaching “soon” is the death of Jesus.  The woman’s “justice,” and all true justice, will come when the beauty of the flower consumes everything. Amen. 

What is a Good Life?

Posted: October 5, 2022 in Uncategorized

What is a Good Life?

Rex Hunt the Australian cleric I often quote from tells a story in a sermon on our topic a few years back. The story goes like this and you will no doubt have heard such stories often;

A man in his early 30s was diagnosed with brain cancer. He had a wife and young children and a promising career. Suddenly all of that was swept away from him. He could barely talk or walk. He was in constant agony. His friends and his family, except for his wife and mother, avoided him. The doctors shook their head. It was too bad. He was a nice bloke and deserved a longer life. But there was nothing they could. Finally, he went to a famous surgeon who offered to operate on him, even though everyone else said the tumour was inoperable. The surgeon warned the patient could very well die during the operation, though he (the surgeon) was pretty sure he would survive and return to health. They decided to take the risk. After nine hours of surgery, the surgeon came into the waiting room, grinned at the man’s wife and said, “Got it!” The man recovered and went on to a happy and successful life. Twenty years later the surgeon died. “We should go to the funeral,” the man’s wife said. “I’d like to,” her husband replied. “But it’s on the weekend and I have an important golf tournament.”  (Adapted/Andrew Greeley.web site, 2004)

Traditionally the story by Luke of the Ten healed lepers/outcasts, is used as an object lesson for ‘thankfulness’. Very much like the story of the man with a brain tumour. But what if it wasn’t about thankfulness? What if it was about the new Jerusalem or the new Kingdom of God or the realm of God that Jesus was keen to challenge people with its concept. What if the tenth Leper is a symbol of this new realm this new way of being that Jesus was on about? Maybe this story has some hidden codes within it and we need to break them. Perhaps. Allowing for some general problems with Luke’s lack of geographic knowledge, ten ‘lepers’ spotted Jesus from the distance they were forced to keep between themselves and other people. They called out to him, presumably in desperation, for there was little to no hope for lepers, for the unclean, in those days. Jesus also kept his distance and did nothing. But Luke says he told them to go and show themselves to the priests. And as they rushed off, they were made whole. At that point one of them, a Samaritan, a foreigner, stopped in his tracks. Instead of going to the priests and giving thanks in the ‘traditional’ way, as set down in the rules and regulations, turned back.

He (we presume it was a ‘he’) didn’t do what was expected. He didn’t do what Jesus asked him to do. He didn’t follow the others, with whom he had probably lived for years. Instead, he stood alone ‘against the stream’ and followed his heart And in search of this code we note the words Luke’s Jesus says: your faith has made you whole. Not my faith has made you whole! Nor is it God has made you whole! The healing presumedly emanated from within the power of the outcast. All the other nine (and we read: Judeans) wanted, was to be made well. To go back home and start all over again, doing what everybody else was doing. To lead a normal life… driving to work on Mondays, doing the shopping on Thursdays, attending synagogue on Friday night if nothing more interesting was on, dining on the occasional kosher Big Mac,
meeting someone and maybe starting a family of nice, normal, ordinary kids? And who would blame them?

But one, a Samaritan (read: unclean? heretic? Northern Jew or even Muslim perhaps for a conservative exclusive Christian?) rather than a Judean (and here we read: clean? holy? And even Christian perhaps?) comes back. And Luke’s Jesus gently lifts the man to his feet and affirms him. It’s all right. Remember this moment of faithing.

No brokers were needed. Not even for those whom others considered outside the paddock of God’s love and acceptance. Luke’s Jesus had a lot of time for those who dared to risk being themselves… we recall the likes of the unjust steward or the devious manager we remember the prodigal son, to name just a few. Likewise, many of those whom Luke’s Jesus singled out for special attention, where others considered them unacceptable, unclean, beyond consideration. Yet they were the ones who risked themselves in more ways than those who were the so-called ‘averagely good’.

The ‘averagely good’ are safe, because they don’t take too many risks.  They always keep the right side of any rules. And they don’t step out of line in case that’s a bad thing to do. The ‘averagely good’ people mostly remain just that. ‘Averagely good’ for the rest of their lives. But those who follow their heart and continue to work at being themselves, know that sometimes risks must be taken. Those that know reality is not what it seems, that loving is more powerful than fear, that the weak power of goodness is more transformative than the strong power of rule and dominance and control. Their faithing is making them whole. And we remember another Lukan story – the so-called Good Samaritan, where the question was changed from ‘who is my neighbour?’  to ‘whom will I allow to be my neighbour?’… (Robert Funk)

Maybe the question from this story is not ‘where are the other nine?’  but ‘where is the tenth?’… Where is the one who follows the heart instead of the instructions as Barbara Brown Taylor asks?

Maybe faith is not about how to live a ‘normal’ or ‘averagely good’ life. Nor is it slavishly doing as Jesus says, down to the last biblical letter. But maybe it’s to go on the journey that Jesus chartered. And to have faith with Jesus in the re-imagined world of the story/parable. To transcend the boundaries we erect around ourselves, and as I suggested a few weeks ago maybe its about joining Jesus in the reimagination of the opportunities in the face of the plight of being a leper facing exclusion or an averagely good person facing irrelevance. Maybe its time to realise how much we, and all on this fragile earth, are accepted, and affirmed by a right relationship with our planet. Being Christian today is not about being right or being better than or even being average, it is about joining the Jesus model of breaking through the systemic and the assumed boundaries that are supported by fear and control and the norm and having faith in the transforming power of weakness, of exclusion, of forgiving, of turning the other cheek, of giving up one’s comfort whatever that is in terms of complacency, fitting in, empire building, financial elitism, all for the sake of the other. The power of the cross is after all about being finished, being eliminated by the power of might. Even if one still believes in the traditional Supernatural nature of Jesus or God it is the weak power that works. The Romans and the empire hade the might power but it crumbles in the face of the weak power of the crucified one. Remember we are talking metaphor. Just as the tenth leper is the one who gets it right by not doing what Jesus says might be that the outcast of today gets it better. And in the political climate of Jesus’ time, as in our own, such a claim surely is something to think about? Is the challenge to re-imagine and thus recreate? Is it time to admit that doing theology is not about claiming that it is dealing with hard conceptual knowledge but rather interpreting imaginative and poetic figures. Is it not time to demystify, pare away supernaturalism and thus render meaning to people who do not think that religion means crucifying our intelligence after all are not the traditions bound up by their culture, language and historical time and place in which they grow and as we are experiencing today wither away or lose their symbolic power. Is it not time for the tenth leper to shake up the world. Amen.