Sunday, July 27, 2008

Discerning Good and Evil

1 Kings 3.5-12
Romans 8.26-39
Matthew 13.31-3, 44-52


The wisdom of Solomon is proverbial. But he did not ask God for wisdom. He asked only for "an understanding mind able to discern between good and evil." God was so impressed by Solomon's selflessness and maturity that he gave him the gift of wisdom too.

It would be nice to be guided by wise leaders, wouldn't it? One of Gordon Brown's difficulties is that on television he appears less wise than he apparently is in person. Someone commented that, at an award ceremony this week for former members of the Women's Land Army, he was dignified, relaxed and good humoured. He gave a short speech, without any notes, in which he said just the right things to impress everyone there and he captured precisely the mood of the occasion.

But, unlike Tony Blair, he cannot do this in front of the cameras. Tony Blair always looked assured and at ease on television. Love him or hate him, he often found just the right thing to say, whereas Gordon Brown looks wooden and uncomfortable, both on television and at Prime Minister's Question Time in Parliament.

Yet, who is the wiser of the two? The man whose hubris convinced him that he could pull off the invasion of Iraq, or the iron chancellor who presided over so many years of economic prosperity and - at the same time - managed to ease the burden of debt for poor people in Africa? It is Gordon Brown who often seemed better able to discern the difference between good and evil, which is why - in the end - he was able to ease his rival out of the way. How odd then that he now seems unable to govern people in the assured way that Solomon did.

I mustn't be partisan, so it's only fair to say that David Cameron and George Osbourne have their own approach to wise leadership. Barak Obama is interested in it, too. It's called 'libertarian paternalism', but that's just a complicated way of saying that they hope to nudge or influence people into making wiser choices. For instance, one way of nudging us towards better behaviour would be to give us a discount off our council tax if we agree to have our bins emptied less often. Another idea is to give us a cooling off period before we are allowed to borrow money. They also want our electric and gas bills to tell us how much the average customer pays, and to go back to the old system of giving tax incentives to couples who get married. All of these ideas do seem sensible, especially from a Christian point of view, but they're not exactly earth shattering. They won't deal with anti-social behaviour, knife crime or binge drinking. They don't really compare with the wisdom of Solomon.

But then perhaps we expect to much from our politicians. Some people have had to put up with leaders who were not only unwise but who could not discern the difference between good and evil at all, and who plunged their countries into turmoil as a result. Examples which come to mind are President Mugabe in Zimbabwe and President al-Bashir of the Sudan. And then there is Radovan Karadzic, a man so obsessed with ancient myths - about the little Serbian nation being threatened by the peril of Islam - that he was prepared to sanction mass murder, rape and ethnic cleansing in order to create a pure Serbian state. Shamefully, Western diplomats parleyed with him - trying to work out a peaceful way of meeting his absurd demands. They included top-ranking politicians like Lord Carrington, Lord Owen, Lord Hurd and Sir Malcolm Rifkind. And equally shamefully, Christian monks have been some of the people who helped him to evade capture, which just goes to prove that it isn't only leaders who need to pray for wisdom and discernment.

One of the hallmarks of democracy is that we all have a part to play in making decisions, so we all need to able to discern between good and evil. And, in the life of the Christian community, we also need to be able to make wise choices that will help to build up the church, sustain its mission and proclaim the gospel. The problem, as always, is knowing the right thing to do. The Bible points us to the need to rely on prayer - in other words, to immerse ourselves in a relationship with God so intimate and strong that God's discernment of right and wrong will soak into our perception too.

Romans 8.26-39 is a beautiful summary of the unbreakable power of God's love, from which nothing can ever separate us. But this protection does not seem to be available to everyone. The passage begins by narrowing its focus down to those who have been called by God and who have received the gift of his Spirit, which overcomes our own weakness and gives us the discernment to know what God wants us to do. However, Paul seems to be saying that only the elect - chosen by God before the beginning of time - can enjoy this gift and experience this indestructible love.

At first sight, this would seem to be completely contrary to the teaching of the Methodist Church but, in his Notes on the New Testament, John Wesley argues that Paul is only describing here the step by step process by which God calls all human beings to follow him, because he has always intended the whole human race to be in the same kind of perfect relationship with him as Jesus, so that Jesus might be the firstborn Son of a very large family. Therefore, says Wesley in his commentary on this passage, all human beings have been justified by Jesus' death and the possibility of completely discerning God's mind, or being glorified, is also open to absolutely everyone.

When Paul talks about people being 'elect', Wesley says that the 'elect' doesn't mean an exclusive club of pre-determined lucky winners. It means everyone who has identified themselves with his chosen people - that is to say, everyone who has freely chosen to put their faith in Jesus. And Wesley justifies this claim by pointing out that, just as in the old covenant with Israel the Chosen People included everyone - good and bad alike, so God clearly chooses to include everyone in the new covenant, just so long as they are prepared to put their trust in Jesus.

You may think that Wesley is forcing Paul's words to fit his argument here, and that Paul actually did believe God has chosen some people to receive the Spirit, through faith in Jesus, and so to be able to discern the difference between good and evil and enter into a loving relationship with him, while others will never have that gift or enjoy that love and were never even intended to be part of God's People. Paul was certainly disappointed that so few Jewish people had adopted the Christian faith, and his talk of people needing to be chosen or elected by God in order to be put right with him, might be part of his explanation for why Jesus was so unpopular with his own countrymen and women.

But perhaps the difference between Paul and Wesley is not so great as it seems. Predestination - the idea that some people are destined before their birth to be in relationship with God while others are already destined to reject him - is not really about our freedom to choose. It's about God's ability to know, before they happen, what choices we will make.

The famous theologian Jurgen Moltmann has said that God is the Future, the destination to which everything in the universe is travelling, and he has argued that God has not yet made up his mind about that future. It's still wide open to change and development, and God still wills all things to opt into it and share the future with him. That's pretty much what John Wesley was arguing nearly three hundred years ago. But perhaps that's not incompatible with arguing that some people will still decide not to be part of the future and sometimes even we can glimpse who they might be.

Last week I heard a detective talking about cold cases on the radio. Cold cases are unresolved ones where the trail for evidence seems to have gone cold but, of course, new DNA evidence is allowing some of those cases to be reopened. He talked about the people who committed these crimes and he said that, broadly speaking, they fall into two groups. There are the people who feel guilty and troubled about what they have done, and who are always looking over their shoulder expecting to be caught. They are, perhaps, the sort of people who - no matter what they might have done in the past - are capable of changing and seeking redemption. But then, he said, there is another group who feel no remorse at all, because they convince themselves either that they never even committed the crime in the first place or that it wasn't their fault. 'If you really believe that you never did anything wrong, then you never have to worry about it,' he said. Perhaps that's how one murderer managed to be so surprised when he was finally arrested. 'You must be joking!' he told the arresting officers, even though the DNA evidence was stacked against him.

One suspects that Radovan Karadzic had convinced himself that he was innocent too, even while he was authorising his generals to shell civilians or carry out massacres. Despite all the reports to the contrary, he denied that he was doing anything wrong and portrayed himself as a man of culture, a poet and a healer who cared about the well being of other people.

Is that the kind of person who might be predestined to remain outside God's wonderful love? According to Wesley and Moltmann, even when people have convinced themselves that they are innocent of terrible crimes we can't say for certain what the future holds for them. Having to face a war crimes tribunal in the Hague is unlikely to bring Karadzic to his senses, but who can say what encountering the love of God might do?

The Kingdom parables in today's passage from Matthew's gospel do give us a hint as to what to expect from an encounter with God's way of doing things. The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast have the same message as the parable of the sower. They remind us how much can be achieved, even by a very small nucleus of people, if they are inspired and guided by God's Spirit and act in God's power. We don't need the majesty of Solomon, or even the influence and status of a councillor or MP in order to influence the community in which we live. We can all subtlely act for good in the choices that we make and the causes we support and, in so doing, we can make a difference out of all proportion to our size as a Christian community - like a tiny lump of yeast mixed into three measures of flour or a tiny mustard seed growing into a huge bush where birds can hide and build their nests.

But then the next set of parables makes a different point. Is the person who finds the buried treasure, or the merchant who finds the pearl, meant to represent the ideal disciple, someone who hears the message of God's amazing love and devotes their whole life to following him? Or are the treasure and the pearl meant to represent you and I, diamonds in the rough whose true worth will only be recognised when we are discovered by someone who has as much discernment and love in their heart as God? Like the merchant or the treasure seeker, is God prepared to give up everything he has in order to save us from getting lost, because - being a true expert in human nature - he recognises our ultimate value? Or are the pearl and the treasure meant to represent things like the ability to discern good and evil? It's something that might not be immediately obvious to everyone, but it really is one of the most precious gifts we could ask for or hope to possess.

And, then, there's the story of the net full of fish - a story that is acted out in some of the traditions about Jesus. Is this another reminder of the openness of God's future. The fisherman in the story hasn't gone out looking for just one special kind of catch. He isn't using a pot or a line, with a particular kind of lure or bait to attract a particular species. Instead he's trawling for fish or reeling in an enormously long drift net, and as a result he scoops everything out of the water indiscriminately. We would now say, perhaps, that it's not a very environmentally friendly way of fishing. In fact, there is no attempt here to discern good from bad, edible from inedible, valuable from worthless. The fisherman simply winches in the lot, sails back to shore, and then gets his staff to sort the catch on the beach. The good fish are kept and the useless ones are thrown away.

This story is not unlike the story of the wheat and the tares. It could be seen as a warning that if we are worthless God's love will be withheld from us, but I think it's a story which bears out Wesley and Moltmann's understanding of God's grace. God has limitless ambition. He has chosen to save everything, if he possibly can. So he has set out to catch us all in his net, in the hope that - as the future unfolds - we will all discern where truth, goodness and value lie and commit ourselves to live for him. Then, all being well, none of us will need to be thrown away.

God is like an antique's dealer who has gradually amassed treasures old and new - things which other people might have felt were past their best, or out-of-date, or unlikely to catch-on, but which the dealer saw would be of lasting value. Like the fisherman, the antique dealer's motto is to hang onto things to see how they turn out over time.

But, of course there are bound to be some failures - some fish that simply never grow to the right size or some antique things that never become marketable. So we are reminded to make sure that we have understood all this, and that we really can discern the mind of God, and the difference between good and evil.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

When a Little Produces a Lot

Isaiah 55.10-13
Romans 8.1-11
Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23


We haven't seen much snow for a long time but we do get plenty of rain, don't we? It might not be as much fun as the sunshine, but it does help the plants to grow. Most vegetables, for instance, need plenty of water in order to grow big and strong. God's word has the same effect. It stimulates spiritual growth making us more rounded people, closer to the image of God.

Of course, the rain which stimulates the growth of vegetables and garden flowers also helps the weeds to grow, which is not a good thing. Fortunately, the word of God is not like this. It doesn't cause the indiscriminate growth of good and bad things. Instead, it tends to suppress what is bad and promote what is good.

The Prophet Isaiah gives too examples of bad plants and two examples of good ones. The cypress tree was valued because its timber was highly valued in the ancient world. It was used, for instance, to make the coffins of the pharaohs. The myrtle was sometimes waved by worshippers during Jewish festivals. It was prized because it made a sweet smelling oil used in medicine and in perfumes, and also a drink. What, though, was so wrong with thorns? The Bible gives them a very bad press and yet their wood was often burnt during sacrifices because of its sweet smell, and honey from the nectar collected by bees feeding on the blossom of thorn or acacia trees is highly prized for its flavour. Perhaps the problem with thorns is simply that they are prickly. Or, more likely, Isaiah is using the word thorn as a synonym for briers or brambles - which also have sharp prickles or thorns, and which grow like weeds, choking out other plants. Wild brambles often have very small fruit, unlike cultivated blackberries. Either way, what God wants is to encourage in us those things which will bring a rich and fruitful harvest, making us better and more user-friendly people.

Romans 8.1-11 uses the image of dying to our old life, and rising to a new and fuller life in Christ, to express the same idea. With God's help we can root out those parts of our nature which would otherwise choke out the more selfless, gentle and loving side of our personality and help us to flourish and become more rounded and complete.

Jesus' parable of the sower, in Matthew 13, is a story which vividly illustrates the tremendous effectiveness of God's message. No matter how much of the work is wasted - because the message falls on deaf ears or on barren hearts and minds - there will always be a good harvest because, when it does take root, it has a tremendous impact on the life of the responsive hearer. It leads them to do different things from what they might otherwise have done, and to influence countless other people by their words and actions.

On the face of it, today, religion - and Christianity in particular - doesn't have much influence on the life of our nation and our city. But, actually, that's not the case. Because religious people make up the majority of those who volunteer for charitable or community work, and who join in any efforts to make the world - and their neighbourhood - a better place. That means our influence is out of all proportion to our numbers, and the harvest of goodness that results is still something to be amazed at and to celebrate.

For Matthew this message is simply too obvious. He looks, like Mark, for a hidden meaning. Each element of the story takes on a special significance for him, because it represents one of several different responses to God's message - ranging from indifference, through an initial enthusiasm that doesn't last, to a response that is deep-rooted and enduring.

We all know that Matthew is right when he identifies these different ways that people respond to the message. But it isn't quite so obvious that the number of people in whom the message takes root is necessarily always going to be so large. Matthew was living in a situation where the Church was rapidly expanding. While that is still true in many places around the world it doesn't reflect our experience.

It's easy to get dispirited when our efforts seem to reap so small a harvest. That's why Jesus' original point - about the huge impact that a few dedicated people can have - is so important for us today. Like us, he was living in circumstances where the number of faithful followers of God's word was quite small. Unlike us, he knew that - nevertheless - they could change the world.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

True Religion

Zechariah 9.9-12
This passage is part of the answer to those critics who claim that religion causes hostility and aggression. While it is true that religion is often used as an excuse for aggressive behaviour, the Prophet Zechariah makes clear that the true mark of religious leadership is a resolute determination to see peace prevail. Not only does the true leader choose to ride on a humble beast of burden, but he also cuts off the chariot and the bow, and positively commands peace. He may choose humble symbols like the donkey, but his aim is a worldwide dominion of peace. In other words, true religion is - by definition - almost aggressively peaceful.

Romans 7.15-25a

The great difference between Christianity and its sister religions, Judaism and Islam, is that while Christianity recognises that holy laws are good in principle, it also recognises that human beings cannot rise to the challenge of being holy - at least not without divine help. There is something about human nature which makes us incapable of doing good even when we know what is right and we want to do it. And, of course, sometimes we don't know what is right anyway, or we believe we are doing right when we are actually doing wrong. It's also possible to have the best of motives and the worst of outcomes.

It is Jesus who rescues us from this predicament. His death shows us that God loves us and is ready to forgive us despite our weakness. But Jesus' death is more significant even than that. Paul explains in his letter to the Church at Rome how we can identify ourselves completely with Jesus' death by crucifying our self-centered self with him and making ourselves his slaves, instead of slaves of human nature, rising to new life in him.

Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30
Religious people may not be responsible for all the hostility in the world, but they can be contrary and hard to please. One vicar, or minister, is criticised for preaching badly even though he's a tireless visitor, with an exemplary pastoral ministry. The next vicar or minister is criticised for spending too little time visiting even though she spends many hours crafting wonderful sermons. Even Jesus encountered exactly the same problem.

If only religious people would relax into the sort of childlike attitude that Jesus describes in his prayer. If we adopted his gentleness and humility we could find rest in him and let go of our constant striving to outdo other people and our critical and fault finding attitudes.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Good News for Pessimists?

Jeremiah 28.5-9
It's easy to see how Jeremiah's name became a byword for pessimism. The Prophet Hananiah had prophesied that everything would turn out for the best; the exiles and the booty taken away to Babylon would be returned. It was the message that everyone wanted to hear, but Jeremiah would have none of it.

In his opinion a true prophet is like Private Fraser from the old TV sitcom "Dad's Army". He - or she - only speaks words of doom about war, famine, and pestilence. If a prophet speaks words of peace we should be on our guard and believe them only then those words come true.

We might feel that Jeremiah is exaggerating a bit. He leaves no room for prophets who speak words of inspiration and encouragement, who dream of a better world or of new possibilities. Martin Luther King was this kind of prophet, and there were prophets like this in the Isaiah tradition.

As someone said recently on Radio 4's "Start The Week" programme, pessimists like Jeremiah are never disappointed. If things turn out as badly as they expected, then they get to say, 'We told you so!' If things turn out better than expected, they are pleasantly surprised!

But I'm sure this wasn't the motivation for Jeremiah's harsh view of prophecy. To his mind prophecy is really about judgement, about warning people when they are taking unnecessary and foolish risks or behaving in an immoral way. To this way of thinking, you don't need a prophet to announce good news.

This is why it's always dangerous when Christian commentators tells us not to worry too much about global warming or injustice. It's true that the Christian message is supposed to be good news for humankind, but that doesn't mean Christians can safely become carefree optimists. We have a duty of care for the earth and our neighbours which means that we are always under judgement when things start to go wrong. Those who too quickly tell us that we need not worry after all, and everything is putting itself to rights, are just as dangerous as the little boy who cried "Wolf!" They can lull us into a sense of false security.

Romans 6.12-23
Paul reminds us here that we can never plead human frailty as an excuse for doing things which we know are actually wrong and contrary to God's will. Because we have the free gift of God's grace working in us, we do receive pardon for the wrong things we do, but we are also expected to strive to meet God's standards of behaviour. The more time we spend thinking about God's goodness, identifying ourselves with God's will and seeking to be in relationship with God's Spirit, the harder it will become to do wrong. In fact, we should allow ourselves to become just as much enslaved to God's nature as we were once enslaved to human nature. It may never happen, but that should always be our aim!

Matthew 10.40-42
Are these gnomic sayings telling disciples that practical deeds of goodness, and a readiness to identify ourselves with the truth - wherever it comes from - is more important than party allegiances or the labels we attach to one another?