Sunday, June 22, 2008

Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Ishmael

Genesis 21.8-21
Something about this story doesn't quite add up. According to an earlier episode in the saga of Abraham and Sarah, Ishmael - Abraham's son by the slave woman Hagar - is already more than thirteen years-old and is therefore, in Jewish tradition, already a man when he and his mother are sent away. However, in this passage the story reads as though Ishmael were still only a little child, not old enough to understand what is happening. His mother is described as casting him under a bush when she sits down in the desert to die, and then - a little later - she lifts him up and holds him fast in her hand. It would seem, therefore, that he is really little more than a toddler in this particular version of the Abrahamic tradition.

The Hadith, a traditional collection of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, preserves a similar version of the story, in which Ishmael is not yet weaned. In both the Hadith and today's passage from the Bible account of Ishmael's life, the infant Ishmael and his mother are saved from death in the desert through God's gracious intervention.

From this point on, however, the two faiths diverge. The Qur'an tells how Ishmael, presumably now reconciled with his father, goes on to help Abraham found its greatest shrine in Mekkah, whereas in the Bible Ishmael drops out of the story. But the discrepancy in the Bible between the earlier account of Ishmael and Hagar living as part of Abraham's family when he was a teenager, and the alternative description of their estrangement when he was still a small child, led in turn to one of the biggest controversies between Jews and Muslims. Whereas the Bible sees Ishmael as the illegitimate son, cast off by his father and sent out into the desert to carve out a new life for himself apart from the chosen people, some Muslim scholars used this story to argue that he was in fact one of the rightful heirs of Abraham, especially when it comes to Abraham's spiritual legacy.

The Bible does acknowledge that Ishmael was blessed by God and that God heard his cry, and the Hadith says much the same thing, but some Muslim scholars go further and claim that - after an early reconcilation with his father - it was really the thirteen year-old Ishmael, and not Isaac, whom Abraham was asked to offer as a sacrifice, and therefore that it was Ishmael whom God saved from death a second time when he provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead. According to these scholars, then, the greatest test of Abraham's trust was not the call to sacrifice his wife's son, but the son of his slave. And so, in this version of the story, it is Ishmael who is more special than Isaac, both in God's eyes and in the eyes of Abraham. And because, in the Bible at least, the two stories about Ishmael do not quite add up, this allows Muslims to argue that - long ago - Jewish people deliberately obscured the truth in order to show their own spiritual inheritance in a better light than it deserved.

The difference between the two versions of Ishmael's story also allows Muslims to claim the moral high ground. Sarah, the ancestor of the whole nation of Israel, is depicted in the Bible, as capricious, callous and cruel. She doesn't know, and doesn't even care, that God is going to bless Ishmael. She only wants him sent away, so that he will not share - or take away - the precious family inheritance from her own son. And this is despite the fact that it was, in the first place, her own idea for Abraham to have an adoptive son with her slave woman, Hagar, because Sarah thought at the time that she couldn't have any children.

Not only does the Bible cast Sarah in the stereotypical role of the wicked stepmother, but Abraham too - in agreeing to expel his own son from the family - is also depicted as weak and vacillating, prepared to do something very wrong simply in order to appease his jealous wife, whereas, in the Qur'anic account of the story Abraham treats Ishmael throughout as his true heir, and the separation comes about purely as a test of his faith.

And then the Bible version of the story definitely identifies Ishmael as inferior to his brother simply because his mother was only a slave, and not his father's wife, whereas the Muslim version makes clear that every believer is equal before God no matter who their parents are. Unfortunately, no such moral can be drawn from the Biblical account.

Finally, in the Bible story, Hagar sits down in the desert and despairs whereas, in the Hadith, she sets a wonderful example of perseverance as she desperately searches for water to save Ishmael's life.

Of course, the most striking thing about the story is that it shows just how ancient is the antagonism between the Arab and Jewish nations. In Biblical times the Arab people were not that important. Occasionally they raided the land of Israel, but otherwise the two nations went separate ways. However, after the rise of Islam and until the Twentieth Century, the Arab nation had the upperhand over Israel. And then, since the re-establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, the tables have been turned. The bombings of July 7 and th airliner hijackings of 9/11 have both been blamed on the continuing oppression of Muslim and Arab people in Palestine today, making the conflict acutely relevant - even to us in the United Kingdom - and perhaps it's no coincidence therefore, that the Bible version of the story is about the oppression of Ishmael and Hagar by Sarah and Abraham, and about God's concern to rescue the oppressed. It's never right for one nation or faith to act unjustly towards another, even if the oppressors sincerely believe that God is on their side, for God never condones injustice and cruelty.

The story reminds us, then, of the need for compassion towards people who are different from ourselves, especially when they are in need. This could apply to any refugee or asylum seeker, but also to any minority group which finds itself under pressure from the majority. Today, as we read this story, we need to acknowledge that Muslims in our country sometimes find themselves in an uncomfortable place, vilified because they are considered guilty by association of terrorist outrages and hate-filled preaching. The story reminds us of the need not to over-react but to go on patiently loving our neighbours, whatever their creed.

Romans 6.1b-11
Paul had never been to Rome but his reputation had preceded him. Detractors were saying that he encouraged Christians to feel it was all right to go on sinning because it is God's grace which saves us from condemnation, not any actions of our own.

They had a point, of course. Some Muslim community workers were asked to design a poster for a cultural festival. The organiser wanted his country's national flag printed as the background to the poster itself. But the community workers identified a snag with this. The flag of his country includes the name of God, printed in bold Arabic letters. What if one of the posters dropped off a noticeboard onto the floor and someone accidentally trod on it? They would then be dishonouring the name of God, which is a mortal sin. My immediate reaction on hearing this story was that I was sure God can't be all that concerned about people treading on a poster, and that is essentially a Pauline response to the problem. That is to say, I chose to emphasise God's graciousness over and against the idea of his inflexible holiness and justice. According to Paul, God's default position is to show forgiveness and mercy, to be compassionate and gracious in the face of our weakness and disobedience. All God seeks from us in return is an honest acknowledgement of our sinfulness and of our need for grace.

Of course, it's possible to use this starting point to argue that, if God is always willing to forgive us, it doesn't really matter how we live or what we do. Some of the early Christians interpreted Paul's teaching in exactly this way and thought that he was giving them a licence to behave disreputably without losing favour with God. The Emperor Constantine certainly thought this was what Paul meant. He spent his years as emperor committing crimes which would make modern day politicians seem as white as snow by comparison. But then, on his death bed, he confessed his sins and received Christian baptism. From now on he resolved that he would be a good Christian. Too bad that he was about to die!

But this isn't what Paul means at all. In this passage from his letter to the church at Rome he painstakingly argues that, if we believe in Jesus and in the power of his death to put right our relationship with God, then that belief has to shape - and become the pattern for - the whole of our life. If we believe in the goodness of Jesus, we have to strive to live like him, and if we believe in the power of God's gracious love to free us from sin and disobedience, then we have to begin living in that freedom at once. Anything else would be totally hypocritical.

Because of our trust in God's graciousness, mercy and love we don't have to worry about accidentally dishonouring his name if we step on a poster that's fallen onto the floor. But we do have to respond to his love by treating others with the same graciousness, compassion and forgiveness that we ourselves would like to receive from him.

This is where Abraham and Sarah went wrong in their relationship with Hagar and Ishmael. They thought that they could love and honour God and yet still continue to act unjustly. And, in Sarah's case, she forgot that, if God cared about her and Isaac, he also cared just as much about Hagar and Ishmael. In other words, God has no favourites!

Matthew 10.24-39
This collection of disparate sayings reinforces some of the issues which we have already explored. The disciple has to behave like her master. We can't adopt a radically different lifestyle from Jesus and still claim to be part of his team, nor can we pretend that we are not his followers and expect him to acknowledge before God that we are his friends. But if we are loyal to Jesus we can be sure that, when the going gets tough, he and God will be on our side. Like Ishmael and Hagar in the desert we are never alone. God is with us and cares about us. In fact, as Abraham discovered, God cares about everyone. No one is ever insignificant or unimportant in God's eyes, not even tiny sparrows. And also, like Ishmael and Hagar, we shall find that or relationship with God goes deeper and is more enduring even than our relationship with our own parents or children. Finally, just as Hagar feared that she and her son were about to lose their lives, but then discovered that in God life is never lost, so we shall find that our relationship with God endures even beyond suffering and death.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Forgotten Part of Jesus' Ministry

Matthew 9.35-10.8

During his earthy life there were three aspects to the ministry of Jesus. He went around teaching, proclaiming good news and healing the sick. His teaching was not written down until long after his death, but much of it survives because it was treasured and carefully remembered by his followers until - eventually - it was committed to paper. The good news which he proclaimed was not just spoken, it was enacted. Jesus was not a First Century spin doctor dreaming up headline grabbing stories about God, or trying to put a positive spin on events. He lived the good news, proclaiming it in action as well as in words. Indeed, he would not have imagined that it was good news at all if people had not been able to see it unfolding before their very eyes.

Ultimately, of course, his proclamation of good news was to culminate in the tragic events of Good Friday, when he was put to death as a sign of God's self-giving love, and in the mysterious but powerful resurrection life which he continues to enjoy, for death could not hold hm in its power. But, before that, his proclamation of God's mercy and love was also declared in the healings which he performed and in his compassion for all who were harassed or helpless. It's remarkable how, while the teaching and proclamation of Jesus still receive much attention, even the Church - at least in secular countries like Britain - is strangely silent about this healing ministry.

Why are we so reticent about it? No doubt it's partly because Jesus not only healed others but also called upon his followers to do the same. He asked God to send out labourers into the fields to bring in the harvest and, in case we might think this is just a reference to persuading people to believe in him, Jesus is very explicit about what else is involved. He tells us that it includes casting out unclean spirits and curing every type of disease and sickness, cleansing people from leprosy and raising the dead. That's all right, then!

And, needless to say perhaps, there is no mention of taking pills and potions or medical textbooks along with us on the journey. His followers are commanded by Jesus to travel light, with no cash or bag for the journey, no change of clothes and no stick to fend of wild animals or thieves. They must expect the people they meet to feed and shelter them, and do their laundry. Jesus' instructions about participating in his ministry of healing are so uncompromising that it's no wonder we sometimes hesitate to follow in his footsteps.

But, of course, there are some other reasons, too. Until quite recently people in Europe had turned their backs on the value of spiritual healing, preferring to rely exclusively on medical science. However, as doctors get better and better at treating people for some of the more common causes of disease, so it becomes steadily clearer that there are still huge limitations to their knowledge. Doctors are not so easily baffled as they were in Jesus' time, but they are still baffled, nonetheless, by many of their modern patients. In addition, it has become clear that some therapies once scorned by modern medicine are actually strangely effective. In particular, people who believe in something - in the power of prayer, for example - get more out of life, and live for longer, on average, than those who don't. And that's just one of the reasons why the NHS continues to invest in hospital chaplains. They save money by helping people feel more well, more quickly.

We mustn't forget, mind you that I am talking about averages. Just because, on average, people feel better thanks to the power of prayer, that doesn't mean everyone who receives prayers for healing is going to make a miraculous recovery.

We are told that everyone who came to Jesus got well again, but he was someone very special. And he lived in a society - as some still do - where, in any case, no one ever got critically ill. If they got ill, and then got a bit worse, they simply died. He would have been amazed that we can keep people going, when they are very sick, by feeding them through tubes, taking over their heart and lung functions for them, giving them cocktails of drugs and operating on almost every part of their bodies.

Even when Jesus and his followers raised the dead, these were usually people who hadn't been dead - or didn't appear to have been dead - for very long, because in Palestinian culture it is normal to bury the dead within twenty-four hours. It is probable, therefore, that some of the people who were raised were deeply comatose rather than properly dead. Incidents where people are pronounced dead by mistake do still occur from time to time.

And finally, there is the issue of possession. There is little doubt that people are sometimes taken over by evil forces which impel them to act in wicked and wholly negative ways, harming themselves and others. But much so-called possession by evil has often been a misdiagnosis of mental illnesses like schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder, or of purely physical illnesses like epilepsy.

I guess these are the reasons why Christians have sometimes been hesitant about taking up the commission from Jesus to get involved in his healing ministry. The task has seemed too big and has overwhelmed us, as it sometimes threatened to overwhelm him. His achievements seem so much more emphatic even than the wonderful work done by hospital chaplains. And we wonder just how far the Bible's understanding of illness and death differs from our own, anyway.

But the challenge remains. It will not go away. Proclaiming the Gospel is not just about telling people nice things. It is about healing the sick. And we must begin - as Jesus' first followers did - with prayer, with the laying on of hands and by anointing people with oil. Then we must trust in God to work his healing in people's lives - perhaps not in the ways that we anticipate but in ways that continue to proclaim the good news of a God who has compassion on all who are sick and suffering, and who goes with us - hand-in-hand - even through the valley of the shadow of death.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

God's Righteous Anger

Hosea 5.15-6.6
Romans 4.13-25
Matt 9.9-13, 18-26

This passage is just one of a series of quite disturbing oracles in which we learn that Israel has incurred the wrath of God and he is going to tear and devour her much as a young lion might or, if she were already prostrate or dead, a swarm of maggots.

There is an uncomfortable ambiguity here, for the Prophet acknowledges that although God smites Israel he also loves and cares for. The oracle is not unlike the protestations of a partner who perpetrates cruel acts of domestic violence, only to shower the victim afterwards with love and attention. We are told that God will tear Israel, and then heal her; strike her down, and then bind up her wounds.

Of course, there are clearly differences here from genuine domestic violence. First, this is metaphorical language. God is not going to inflict actual bodily harm on Israel. Instead, she will be attacked by some of her human enemies. The Prophet's message is that God is so angry he will not protect her from harm, which begs the question just how far God intervenes in history to do his will through human events such as invasions and wars.

Second, Israel is not an innocent victim. The nation has been faithless - although isn't that the justification that's often used for domestic violence, too?

Third, the tone of the oracle changes completely if God himself is being wounded and torn by the suffering of his people, despite their guilt. There is nothing in the original oracle to suggest this, except the interesting parallels with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Hosea says that on the third day God will raise up his people, just as Jesus will one day be raised up from death on the third day after suffering for the sake of other people's guilt.

'On the third day' is a turn of phrase in Hebrew meaning 'very soon'. So God's rescue mission to Israel after she has been punished is as predictable, and as close by, as the new dawn or the next shower of rain. What a pity, then, that Israel's repeated faithlessness is also as predictable as the evaporation of dew or early morning mist when the sun rises.

Paul makes the point, in today's passage from his letter to the Romans, that trying to be obedient to rules and laws is not the way to avoid the wrath of God, because the task is impossible. Being put right with God, and avoiding his righteous indignation, is a matter of faith and relationship. It is about trusting God to save us from ourselves. It is about loving God, and relying on God's love for us. It is about depending on God to give us the capacity we need to be more truly human, and then relying on that God-given power to enable us to act as if God also depends upon us to be his servants and co-workers.

Abraham is the exemplar of this kind of relationship with God because he was trying to get close to God before the religious laws of Israel even began to be codified. That meant he had no alternative but to embark on a pilgrimage of faith.

The two short passages from Matthew's Gospel also give priority to faith over law and offer the antidote to Hosea's vision of an angry God, striking out at his people in spite of his love for them. In Jesus' understanding God is no less intolerant of sin, but he desires mercy rather than sacrifice and only wants to end suffering, not to cause it, and to give fresh heart and new life to those who are in despair.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Coping with Floods

Genesis 6.9-22, 7.24, 8.14-19
Romans 1.16-17, 3.22b-28
Matthew 7.21-29

One year on from the serious flooding in Yorkshire and the Humber, this week's readings are all about floods! The original 'Flood' was probably caused by the retreat of the ice sheet at the end of the last ice age, so to blame it on human sinfulness seems a bit unfair. But the next flood could indeed be the fault of humankind and some experts think significant climate change is now unavoidable. If so, what sort of ark are we going to build to protect the threatened flora and fauna of the world, not to mention the many millions of people living in low lying lands? There can be no doubt that God is calling us to radical action. Are we listening? One suspects that the current clamour for lower petrol and diesel prices tells us the answer.

Noah is a proverbial example of faithfulness, battling to save his family and, one presumes from the tiny dimensions of his frail three-decker craft, as many breeds of domesticated birds and animals as he could find, but acting on the strength of nothing more than personal conviction. It was Jesus who observed that his neighbours must have scoffed at Noah's endeavour right up until the moment when the storm broke.

But, of course, Jesus himself is the supreme example of faithfulness. The good news of his life, death and resurrection reveals God's righteousness 'through faith for faith'. This is because the Gospel shows us what 'righteousness' means by focusing on the life and witness of Jesus, a man who obeyed God's call to radical obedience even when it took him to a shameful and agonising death on a cross. So great was his faith that he believed God could transform failure into success and defeat into victory. So great was his faith that he believed he would be vindicated even if it only happened through his death. And so great was his faith that he was prepared to battle fearlessly against hatred, prejudice and privilege, armed only with the weapons of truth and love. And because he did this, his story can inspire the faith we need if we are to be put right with God ourselves.

Paul repeatedly emphasises that, without faith in the story of Jesus, our efforts to do what is right and live as God requires are doomed to fail. But Jesus' own message is slightly more subtle than that. He recognises that some people will declare allegiance to him without really listening to his true message of love and compassion. They will claim to be his followers, and even appear to have an effective ministry doing many deeds of power, but if their faith is not truly centred on his teaching and example it will be empty and they will prove - ultimately - to be false prophets and leaders. So faith by itself is not enough. It has to be the right kind of faith; a faith built on the kind of radical obedience to God's love which Jesus himself exemplifies; a faith which has the strength and quality to withstand whatever shocks life might throw at us.

We started by thinking about the very real threat of large scale flooding as a result of global warming. Jesus' teaching brings us back to the image of storms and floods, but this time as a a metaphor for everything which life might throw at us when things start to go wrong. He promises that, through faith in him, we can overcome.