Saturday, October 06, 2007

Reflecting on Next Week's Bible Passages

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Jeremiah is writing to people who find themselves living as exiles in an alien land. They are not to give up hope. They are to assume that there is still a future both for them and for their faith. And they are no to try to attack or sabotage the society in which they now live, even though its values and culture are alien to them. Instead, they are to work for its welfare, because if it is a flourishing and successful society they will flourish and be successful too.

Many theologians and religious leaders have understood this to mean that Christians, and Jewish people, should not get involved in politics or in trying to challenge or change the society around them. Instead, they have concentrated on trying to build up and encourage the faithful. At best, they have seen the Church - or their faith community - as leaven in the lump, influencing what happens around them quietly and in almost imperceptible ways. At worst, they have left the rest of society to its own devices and have encouraged believers to draw their wagons into a tight circle in order to keep hostile people, or people who thought and behaved differently from them, safely on the outside.

But I don't think this is what Jeremiah means. He had, after all, been very involved in trying to change the hostile society around him when he was prophesying in Jerusalem, and even went to prison for his pains.

If we believe that God has shown us the right way to live, then seeking the welfare of the society around us means trying to change it for the better and influence the way people think and behave. This can happen on two levels - as we try to communicate what we believe and as we try to put our faith into action in daily life.

While, in normal circumstances, we should be law-abiding and not try to sabotage the way society is run, Jeremiah does not mean us to imagine that it is wrong to subvert and undermine any alien values - such as materialism and secularism - which shape our society at the present time. On the contrary, if we are really seeking the welfare of our society, what choice do we have but to seek to change and challenge everything that is wrong with it? And if we want the Church to flourish, how can this happen unless other people come to believe in the Gospel we proclaim and share its values with us?

Christians today often feel like a tiny beleaguered minority in an alien land or city. Jeremiah speaks to us in a way that perhaps he did not speak to earlier generations, giving us fresh reason to hope and keep steadfast.

How should we be seeking the welfare of our city, and our community, today?

2 Timothy 2:3-15
The passage from 2 Timothy begins with a series of rather gnomic observations taken from ordinary life - describing the outlook of a soldier, an athlete and a farmer. Greek-speaking people loved terse sayings like this and used them all the time as a way of helping them to remember important lessons from life. But the writer, perhaps Paul or a follower of his teaching, acknowledges that the meaning he wants the reader to extract from these sayings will only come to those who are prepared to reflect carefully and prayerfully about them.

That said, the saying about the soldier's life seems relatively straightforward. Christians mustn't be distracted by other agendas. Their job is to accept the suffering and self-denial which is an inevitable part of carrying your cross and following Jesus. Soldiers, too, accept that suffering and danger may be part of their lot, and in return the nation makes a covenant with them to take care of them, and their families, if they are hurt or killed. In the same way, God makes a covenant to keep faith with us if we are faithful to Jesus.

The saying about the athlete also seems reasonably easy to interpret. People who try to win by cheating are likely to be found out, just like the athletes who have been brought down - and have lost their medals, fame and sponsorship - by taking performance enhancing drugs. There is no shortcut to discipleship, no easy route that bypasses the way of the Cross. To imagine that there might be is to delude ourselves.

The last saying, about the farmer, is a little more tricky to understand. After all, Jesus said that the workers in the vineyard who had toiled all day, and done the lion's share of the work, wouldn't get a larger share of the proceeds just because some of their colleagues had come to the job late in the day and only put in a small amount of effort. He also said that the first would be last, and the last would be first.

So what does it mean, in the context of the Christian Gospel, to say that the farmer who does the work ought to have the first share of the crops? Only, I think, that while we can never earn God's grace, and while it is also true that grace is freely given to all who ask for it, something is expected of us in return for what we have received. It is those who, in response to his love for them, are prepared to die for Christ who will live with him. It is those who are willing to endure hardship for his sake who will share his glory. It is those who keep faith with Jesus who will find that he keeps faith with them.

This is somewhat controversial, not least because it seems to be at odds with Paul's earlier teaching, in his letter to the Romans, where he says that we are justified by faith alone and not by anything we do ourselves. Is the writer of the letters to Timothy a follower of Paul who wants to modify that teaching, or is it Paul himself who is modifying it because some people have taken it to extremes?

This is what he had to do elsewhere in his letters when he was responding to Christians who mistakenly thought he had been teaching that we can go on doing wrong, even after we become followers of Jesus. These misguided interpreters of his teaching thought he was saying that God's love revealed in Jesus means we will always be forgiven, no matter how badly we behave. 'God forbid!' was Paul's horrified reply.

Whoever wrote 2 Timothy, the author is in no doubt that we do need to be approved by God. We cannot make ourselves holy or righteous. But, at the same time, only those who were prepared to work for the Gospel, and who need not be ashamed that they let Jesus down, can expect to be approved. To argue for any other interpretation of the Christian faith is just playing with words, in the writer's opinion, and leads to spiritual ruin.

This is a very rigorous understanding of what it means to be a Christian - the sort that often becomes popular during times of persecution or when Christians find themselves in a tiny minority? Is it something we feel comfortable with, or do we find it easier to believe that faith is the only thing necessary for Christians to be put right with God?

Is there any overlap here with what Jeremiah was saying in his letter to the exiles in Babylon, who also needed to remain steadfast in hard times, but who were encouraged to continue trusting in God?

Luke 17:11-19
This isn't a story about the importance of good manners. The grateful man with leprosy didn't just return to say 'thank you', he came back to praise God and because he had faith in Jesus.

The others took their healing for granted, but perhaps they still praised God in their own way. The difference is that they didn't see Jesus' intervention as decisive. Their healing was a life changing event, because it meant they no longer needed to live as outcasts from society, but it didn't change the way they looked at life.

This bring us to the meaning of the phrase, 'Your faith has made you well.' It's not just about physical healing. The word used by Luke to translate what Jesus said means 'to be made whole' or even 'to be saved'. The man's faith changed his life around completely, whereas the other nine lepers were only healed of one disease.

No comments: