September 2 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 22
Texts: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Theme: The phrase that kept coming to me as I pondered these readings was "Willing Obedience", so I'm going with that. Note: we have been called by our Bishop to spend some time in prayer this weekend, not to tell God what our diocese needs, but to discern God's will for the diocese. Can these readings offer any guidance to us in this process?
Introduction. Today we return to Mark, and pick up the story where we left it six weeks ago. Opposition to Jesus is beginning to consolidate around the issues of tradition and innovation, the familiar pattern whenever any "reformer" dares to suggest that it's time for a change. Major change was facing the Israelites as they prepared for the death of their long-serving leader, Moses, and their entry into the Promised Land. But one thing that doesn't seemed to have changed much from that time to this is human nature. As we begin a series of teachings from the Epistle of James we will be constantly reminded of that!
Background. I must confess that turning to today's gospel passage after the last 5 weeks feeding on the Gospel of John is rather like finding we're out of bread and having to make do with a dry cracker biscuit! [And to be really honest, I am fighting the temptation to say that a Communion wafer is a poor symbol of the Living Bread!] But perhaps this is the whole point of returning to Mark with this most mundane of passages. It challenges us to ask ourselves, where do we as a Church put our time and commitment? Are we committed to the things of God or are we hung up on the things of purely human concern?
The matters that took up the time of our General Synod at its recent meeting in Fiji suggest that that is a very timely question. The heading to the article in Anglican Taonga on that meeting was "Landmark decision on assets": no, it had nothing to do with the partial sale of State-owned companies, but was all about our financial relationship with our tikanga partners. You may or may not be reassured to know "the fundamental issue at stake was not 'a grab for money' but tino rangatiratanga". Put it in whichever language you wish and the sad truth remains the same: twenty years after our brave new Constitution came into force we are still arguing over who owns what, and who exercises control over the till. Think about that for a moment in the light of today's readings (or, indeed any other passage of Scripture) and you will see why it's not only our diocese that needs to spend this weekend listening to God in prayer.
If the spiritual life means anything it is surely about opening ourselves to transcendence, recognising that there is something more to being human than our concerns as separate individuals. At one level we recognise that through our law, our shared interests as a nation, our traditions, culture, and history. We recognise that we have a shared story in New Zealand that is different from the story of other nations. There is much that is positive in all that, although taken to ex cess nationalism ends in the horrors of Nazism.
Spirituality is about all this taken to a supreme level. It's about transcending our individuality, our family commitments, our local communities, our national interests, and embracing the unity and wholeness of the entire creation. Transcending, not abolishing. That there is a vital distinction there has been brought home to me again as I have been reading the autobiography of Karen Armstrong, widely acclaimed today for her books on religious faith around the world and throughout history. [I warmly recommend her "History of God".] Her personal story is even more gripping. At 17 she entered a religious order and spent 7 years in a convent trying to meet God. This was in the late 1950's to early 1960's in Britain. In the book she describes her struggle to submit to the unquestionable authority of the Mother Superior. No doubt some of that clash was about personality and personal chemistry (not helped by the fact that at the time Karen was suffering from undiagnosed temporal lobe epilepsy).
But the real issue, it seems to me, was the fundamental approach of trying to "break the individual will". We shouldn't point the finger at this particular religious order or this Mother Superior. Throughout Christian history the idea of breaking the individual's will so that he or she can become completely surrendered to God was almost unchallenged orthodoxy. I still come across it in modern books on prayer. Yet I have never heard or seen the idea that Christ's human will had to be broken before he could become totally surrendered to the Father's will. [Have a look at Hebrews 5:7-10.] My understanding is that Jesus' human will was perfectly aligned with the Father's will, not displaced by it. At all times Jesus freely chose to obey his Father's will. Isn't that what we believe? And if it is, does it not follow that what we are called to do – as difficult as it is – is to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us into aligning our will with that of the Father?
The question of obedience – whether in a convent or outside – is, then, whether it is given willingly in response to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Are the rules in question rooted in God or purely human creations? Was the Mother Superior guiding Karen to hear and understand God's precepts, or was she demanding obedience to her own will because she was the Mother Superior and Karen wasn't? Was the object to help Karen grow in willing obedience to God, or to become a compliant nun ever willing to obey her superiors?
Whenever we are faced with Scriptures about the need for obedience we need to remind ourselves that the Jewish understanding of the Law is very different from the modern Western one. We are inclined to think of law as restrictive of our individual freedom, at best a necessary evil. The Jewish understanding of the Torah is that it is a wonderful gift from a wise, generous and loving God. It is no accident that by far the longest psalm in the Psalter is No.119, a profound and joyous meditation on the glories of the law. It embodies the will of God: obedience of it, therefore, is the way to bring our will into perfect alignment with God's. To obey the law is the fundamental spiritual practice of the Jewish faith.
Deuteronomy. This entire book is presented as the final teaching of Moses, and ends with his death. It is hard for us to realise how traumatic that must have been for the people whom he had led for so long. Perhaps Nelson Mandela would be the nearest modern equivalent to a leader who has led his people out of slavery into the Promised Land, and whose death will be a time of heartfelt loss and anxiety as to the future. The future for the Israelites was one of great excitement and great alarm. They were preparing for the final push, assured of victory, but anticipating opposition from the tangata whenua. They are still essentially a coalition of tribes, held together by common adversity and a tough leader. Will the coalition hold together when these are removed? The need, then, is for a foundational document, a charter or constitution, acceptable to all twelve tribes. In worldly terms that's what we have in these laws. They are together the instrument by which the tribes may hope to transcend their individual and tribal interests and enter into a new relationship with one another through their relationship with God. Obedience to these laws is the practical way by which they may achieve this transcendence.
Key terms abound in this reading, none more so than the opening phrase, "Hear now, O Israel". Others include "the God of your ancestors", and the idea of the land as given to them by God, not taken by them by force of arms. We find here the beginning of the idea that Israel is to be a light to the Gentiles: they are to live in obedience to these laws as an example to the nations. And they are to hand them on to future generations. Here is the idea of continuity, of history, and of story.
Taking It Personally.
· How do you react to this whole idea of obedience? Can an individual be free and obedient? Does the idea of willing obedience make sense?
· What role do "commandments" have in the Christian faith? Do they show us how to live, or do they impose restrictions on us? Can they help us to open ourselves to transcendence, to come closer to God?
· If the Church is the new Israel, should it be an example to the nations? Should our neighbours be able to looks at us and be impressed?
· Who told you the Christian story? How are you passing it on to succeeding generations?
James. This is a curious book, one of those that Martin Luther thought should never have been included in the Canon. Debate continues over which James actually wrote it. Some scholars argue that it has so little merit it could only have been included because it was written by James the Lord's brother. Others suggest that if he wrote it, he would have identified himself as the Lord's brother. Whoever wrote it, it seems a little strange to address a Christian text (in verse 1) to the "twelve tribes scattered among the nations". It also has a rather disjointed feel to it. I wonder if it is actually a collection of "sayings" (along the lines of the sayings of the Desert Fathers) rather than one coherent letter. It certainly lacks the depth of Paul's writings, being much more a sort of daily guide to dealing with particular problems. That's probably where its greatest value is to be found: all those of us who have trouble controlling our tongues can recognise in James a fellow-sufferer! Again, we are reminded to listen before we speak; and a typical element of James' teaching is to act on what we hear when we do listen. Perhaps verse 25 sums up his whole approach: in modern terms he advocates both contemplation (silent prayer) and action (ministry to others. This is spelled out in more detail in the succeeding verses, together with another exhortation to keep ourselves 'clean', not simply to be obedient, or even good, but to be spiritually healthy.
Taking It Personally.
· A good passage for a spiritual stock-take. Read through the passage slowly. What particularly challenges you? Are you more inclined to talk the talk without walking the walk? Do you tend to leap into action without spending time listening to God?
· Review the last week in terms of the things you have said to others. Have you kept control of your tongue, or has it slipped the leash on the odd occasion?
· Have you been angry recently? Justifiably?
Mark. Notice that the Pharisees and teachers of the Law do not accuse Jesus himself of any breach (only his disciples); and notice that they do not charge a breach of the Law. Their complaint is that they are not following the "tradition of the elders", giving Jesus an easy volley by playing Isaiah 29:13. However, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that in verse 15 Jesus is abrogating the dietary laws, some of which were most definitely part of the original Law. We should have some sympathy for his opponents here. Many of them would have sincerely believed that to follow the Law, and even the tradition of the elders, was the proper way to honour God and to open themselves to transcendence, to grow spiritually into a closer relationship with God. It's as if someone has just tried to tell us that the Eucharist has no importance in the spiritual life because nothing we take into our bodies has any effect on us. There is a real clash of understanding here and the stakes could not be higher. God is the one who makes all things new; but he is also the one who gave them the Law and told them not to add to or subtract from it.
Taking It Personally.
· Spend your time on this passage praying for the Diocese. Pray for the gift of discernment that we may know what is essential and what is only of human concern.
· One of the arguments for detailed laws is that they helped to remind the faithful constantly of the presence of God. This week try this 'Law': every time you turn on a tap, confess that you take water for granted, thank God for the gift of water, praise Christ as the living water, and ask the Holy Spirit to flow more freely into your life.