Monday, September 28, 2009

Esther, The Inglorious Basterds and the Hoard of Golden Treasure

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9.20-22
Psalm 124
James 5.13-20
Mark 9.49-50

In the film 'Inglorious Basterds' Quentin Tarantino plays with history. He imagines a situation where a group of Jewish American soldiers are parachuted into occupied France to get even with the Nazis and kick ass as a punishment for the way the occupiers are hunting down and exterminating French Jews. I mention this simply because the Book of Esther is the same kind of story. 'Inglorious Basterds' begins with some white words projected against a black background, 'Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France' and Esther is also make believe. It could easily begin with the words, 'Once upon a time in ancient Persia.' Not only that, but both narratives are equally bloodthirsty. The theme of both stories is that Jewish people - even when they are a beleaguered minority far from their Promised Land - cannot be knocked down and counted out. If the need arises, and they are threatened by great evil, they are capable of standing up for themselves and putting their enemies to the sword. And, strangely for a book of the Bible, the story of Esther never mentions God. This is a fairy tale about Jewish people doing it for themselves and not relying on God to rescue them or help them to get even.

If only life were really like that, and every oppressed minority could rise up and be revenged upon their ruthless persecutors. Instead, of course, millions perished in the Holocaust, unable to save themselves and without any miraculous intervention from God or from avenging bands of Jewish GIs. No doubt that experience of helplessness shaped the mindset of the modern state of Israel, with its mean military machine where Jewish people really do get to play with tanks and guns.

But sometimes even weakness can inspire a peculiar kind of strength. I remember an Austrian Jew recounting on the radio his experience of being rounded up with other Jewish young men and taken to a police station soon after the reunification, or Anschluss, with Nazi Germany. After being questioned they were allowed to leave, but only if they were prepared to make their way along a corridor lined with Storm Troopers armed with clubs. As they ran down the corridor towards the street, the hapless Jewish men were beaten. The man telling the story said that he ran as fast as he could and the storm troopers only caught him a couple of glancing blows. But, he said, the thing which made the deepest impression on him was a group of observant Jewish men who insisted on walking slowly down the corridor just to show that even Storm Troopers with cudgels could not intimidate them. They took a fearful beating yet obstinately refused to increase their pace. It was an example of faith and fortitude that he never forgot.

Psalm 124 exudes the same apparently easy confidence as the story of Esther. The theme of both passages seems to be that God will always come to the rescue of Israel, like the Seventh Cavalry riding to save the beleaguered settlers just in the nick of time. But, of course, Auschwitz reminded modern believers that this simply isn't true. The industrial scale of the Holocaust demonstrated that it is technically possible to swallow whole peoples up alive. And modern technology isn't essential to thwarting the will of God on this scale. In the Ukraine, in the 1930s, Stalin used famine to kill even more people, possibly as many as ten million, and in Rwanda government backed mobs used machetes to kill hundreds of thousands of their enemies.

On the face of it, the film Inglorious Basterds seems to be a "Boys' Own" adventure, glorifying war. However, some reviewers claim to detect a subtle tone of irony in the film that subverts the genre and pokes fun at it or critiques it even. And maybe that's what is going on in Psalm 124 and the Book of Esther, for even in Biblical times it was already clear that history isn't a simple tale of good triumphing over evil. Both the people who edited the Book of Psalms, and the writer of the Book of Esther, knew perfectly well that Jerusalem had fallen to her enemies and many of Israel's people had either been cut down or forced into exile. The flood had not swept the nation away, but there had still been a catastrophic deluge of enemy soldiers descending like locusts on the Promised Land and causing devastation. A faithful remnant of Israel might have escaped the teeth of the wolves that were trying to devour them, but the rest of the flock had been hunted and scattered. The remnant might have escaped the hunter's snare, like a bird escaping from a broken trap, but nonetheless the nation of Israel had been caught. And yet the writers still believed that our help is in the name of the Lord. That is the kind of faith which was displayed by those dogged young men in Austria when they were beaten in the police station.

The story of Esther ends with a celebratory feast, but it's not just a round of mutual back-slapping. The Jewish community celebrates its good fortune by giving presents to the poor and downtrodden. In escaping from oppression themselves, the people in the story do not forget to care for others who are oppressed.

Years ago, when I worked in Salford, someone in the church objected to giving money to help people in developing countries. 'My grandparents and great-grandparents were hard-up,' she said, 'Now it's the turn of someone else to put up with hard times.' Despite its main theme of vengeance against powerful wrongdoers like Harman, the Book of Esther does not share her ungracious attitude towards the needs of those at the bottom of the pile. It ends on a note of gratitude and generosity.

The writer of the Letter of James takes up where the writers of Psalm 124 and the Book of Esther leave off. He too recognises that believers are not immune from trouble or suffering. These things are an inevitable part of life. Sometimes we will be able to keep cheerful, and thank God for our good fortune, but sometimes we will be sick. Whatever happens to us, though, God is alongside us. In Jesus he shares our good times and our bad times.

That's not to say, however, that we must resign ourselves to suffering and simply endure it. The writer urges us to pray for healing, and to get the congregation praying for us too. Actually, 'healing' is not quite the right word, although it's the one chosen by The Revised English Bible to translate this idea, but it's perhaps more accurate to say that the writer says prayer will 'save' us or make us 'whole'. To be saved or made whole when we are sick or suffering can - of course - include being healed, but it can mean a range of other things too. It can - for instance - mean being saved from despair or being helped to find something positive in our suffering. It can mean learning that we are not alone, that we are cared for and loved. And it can mean being made whole in a spiritual rather than a physical sense. This broader understanding of what the word means also explains why the writer's thought process leads naturally from being saved from illness and suffering to being saved from sin. Either way, the prayers of the righteous - or of good people, as the Revised English Bible puts it - are powerful and effective. They are never ineffectual. Some good will always come of them.

The example that the writer uses to illustrate this point is not, perhaps, one that would immediately occur to us, because he describes a prayer which actually had a negative effect. Elijah prayed for a drought to afflict Israel because of the faithlessness and wickedness of King Ahab, who had allowed his wife Jezebel to massacre some of the Lord's Prophets, and as a result of that prayer not a drop of rain or dew fell on the land for three years. Then Elijah ended the drought, just as dramatically as it had begun, by challenging Jezebel's pagan prophets to make the rains fall again. They prayed all day long to Baal, the god of the thunder storm, dancing around their altar in a frenzy and slashing themselves with knives, but nothing happened. Then Elijah rebuilt the altar of the Lord God, prayed very simply for a sign that God was working through him and, suddenly, lightning devoured the offering on his altar and it began to rain. Then he told the people of Israel to massacre Jezebel's prophets in revenge for the earlier massacre of the prophets of the Lord.

So we are back to where we began, with yet another story of oppressed people avenging themselves on their oppressors by striking back, except that the Book of Esther and Inglorious Basterds are make-believe, whereas the story of Elijah is more or less for real. In Elijah's day people did massacre one another in the name of religion, just as they have done many times since.

Today's Gospel passage is a collection of disparate sayings, so I just want to draw your attention to one of them, from Mark Chapter 9 and verses 49 to 50: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Personally I like a lot of salt. My children keep warning me that I will die young, from high blood pressure or something, but I simply can't eat most savoury foods without it. And am I the only person who finds the mono-sodium glutamate in Pringles totally addictive? When they're not in the house I'm fine, but when we have any in the cupboard I soon succumb to temptation. I could cheerfully eat a whole tube of them at a time. Salt, for me, is one of the things that makes food interesting and gives it appeal.

Well Jesus clearly shared my taste for salt, because he several times used saltiness as a metaphor for being the kind of person he wants his followers to be. And here he explains one of the things that will help to make us salty - being salted with fire. It's a striking and unusual image, isn't it? Normally, we wouldn't associate the two things together. Burning something, for instance, doesn't make it taste saltier - or at least not in my experience. But Jesus suggests that an encounter with fire, with suffering or trouble of some kind, can actually make us better people, more complete, more rounded, more worth meeting and getting to know, more believable - perhaps -as followers of the Way of the Cross.

It's a disturbing idea, because it goes further than the Letter of James. There, the writer only dared to suggest that we might be saved, or reconnected to God in Jesus, through suffering. But here Jesus goes a little further, I think, and suggests that a certain amount of suffering might actually make us stronger and better disciples.

Personally, I think people can be given too much suffering to endure, way beyond the point where it adds anything to their life or builds their character. Even Jesus only suffered torment on the cross for a few hours, but some people endure torment for days, weeks, months, years even. I don't see how that can be particularly beneficial. And Jesus submitted himself to suffering knowing full well what he was doing, and that is very different from something like the suffering of a vulnerable child, or suffering that is inflicted on us at random, or out of the blue.

Nonetheless, there is a sort of comfort to be found in the idea that a certain amount of suffering might be good for the soul, and might help us to be more effective disciples, better able to get alongside others and help them through their own troubles. Might being touched by suffering, being salted by fire, be a necessary part of effective discipleship?

Perhaps the last word should go, this week, to the enormous find of Anglo-Saxon treasure trove in a field at the heart of what was once the ancient kingdom of Mercia. The Mercians, who lived in the modern day Midlands and East Anglia, were Pagans, whereas their neighbours to the north, in Yorkshire, and to the south also, were Christians. At various points in their history, the pagan Mercians fought pitched battles against the Christians, and in one of these battles someone came away with this enormous and valuable horde of loot, including gold crosses and gold and gems prised from broken swords and helmets. One of the most interesting finds is a curious lucky charm or talisman, a verse from Psalm 68 that had been engraved in Latin on a strip of gold. It reads: 'Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee before him.'

Sadly, as the soldiers who carried those crosses and that Bible inscription must have discovered, religion cannot be used as a lucky charm to ward off suffering and evil. The pagan enemies of God were not scattered. Those who hated Christianity did not flee before him. Instead. they got to claim all of these treasured possessions as trophies of war, and perhaps even gloated - as they took them - that they had proved the Christians wrong. Some time later, however, the tables must have turned. They buried their looted treasure in haste, and never returned to claim it. All they had really proved was that, whether we are believers or not, we must all be prepared to be salted by fire. The question is, when the fire burns will we know that Jesus is alongside us, enduring it with us and helping us to overcome it and be saved?

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Tongue

Isaiah 50.4-9, James 3.1-12, Mark 8.27-38

A few years ago I was sent to see a consultant at the Leeds General Infirmary because I had lost my voice. She was prodding inside my mouth with a thing like the back of a tablespoon, trying to see the inside of my throat. "Can't you stick your tongue out any further than that?" she asked. "No," I said, "That's as far as it will go." "Really?" She was a bit surprised, so she lifted up my tongue and then exclaimed, "Hey, look everyone! He's tongue-tied!" The students and junior doctors in the room crowded rounded to see. Someone opened a door and called out to the nurses, "Come and look at this!" And I thought, "Fantastic! I'm a freak show!"

Apparently, tongue-tied people are very rare nowadays because if a baby is tongue-tied the paediatricians cut the tie in the first few days of life to help them breastfeed better. But that never happened to me, and I had to make the best of it. I never was much good at breastfeeding, my mother says, and that's not the only thing I'm not very good at. Rolling my "Rs" isn't possible, for a start.

Tonight's Bible readings are all about the tongue. "The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher," says the Prophet in the New Revised Standard version of this passage, "So that I may... sustain the weary with a word." And the writer of the Letter of James is actually obsessed with tongues. First he describes how a bit is placed on top of a horse's tongue to control the way it moves - and then goes on to compare sailing ships to horses. The wind filling the sails drives a boat through the water, but it is the tiny rudder which - like a tongue - decides which course the ship will steer. And then, finally, he says that the tongue is a burning fire sent straight from hell, a world of iniquity staining or polluting the whole body.

That description of the tongue could sound a touch hysterical, were it not for the example of Peter, who just goes to prove why the tongue can be so dangerous. Peter tries to put his Master straight about some disturbing ideas that he has begun to share with the disciples, but Jesus rounds on him and says, "Get behind me Satan!" Here it seems is a tongue which really is 'a restless evil, full of deadly poison.'

We do have to be careful, don't we, what we say? Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words do also hurt and - for most people - it's easier to speak rashly and harshly than it is to inflict actual bodily harm. So a loose tongue can do a lot of damage. As the Chinese proverb puts it, words are like a kite whose string has been broken. Once they are gone, they cannot be recalled. We can apologise for their effect, but we can never undo what we have said.

A while ago someone was speaking to me in a stressful situation. They were feeling ill, I think, and their temper got the better of them. In no time at all they were calling other people - their colleagues - lazy, dishonest, deceptive, prejudiced and even unchristian. I advised them to consider their words because, as I pointed out, if later they felt differently they would have a lot of explaining to do.

'No one can tame the tongue,' says the writer of the epistle, 'With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. [But], my brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.'

Let's try to be positive about tongues, though. What about the words of the Prophet with which I began? 'The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher.' Is that actually a positive thing? I think back to some of my teachers, and their ability to use biting irony or even simple ridicule to belittle their pupils, and I'm not sure that it is. But the best teachers, of course, could maintain order without resort to shouting or unpleasantness. Their enthusiasm for their subject, and their ability to communicate, made us ready to listen to them and to learn.

That's the sort of teacher whom the Prophet has in mind when he talks about the tongue of a teacher sustaining the weary with a word. He is, in fact, thinking about God's own infinite ability to teach and guide us. 'Morning by morning God wakens the Prophet to listen, and he has not been rebellious, like a naughty child, instead God opened his ear to learn and he did not turn back from what God was calling him to do.

That's not because God's teaching was soothing or easy to follow. The Prophet found himself being called to give his back to those who were striking him - presumably that means allowing himself to be flogged or beaten instead of running away or turning to fight, and that's what the Revised English Bible assumes with its translation, 'I offered my back to the lash.' Worse still, the Prophet had to endure people pulling out strands - or even clumps - of his beard, as well as insulting him and spitting in his face.

Not that this is uncontrolled aggression from a bunch of bullies or psychopaths. The antagonists of the Prophet seem to have been softening him up, or trying to extract a confession, ready for a show trial at which they expect him to be disgraced or put to shame, so that his opinions will be neutralised and will count for nothing any more. But the Prophet was so sure that God was on his side that he resolved to set his face like flint and wait confidently for a not guilty verdict.

So here we have a poem about God's tongue, the tongue of the perfect teacher, preparing his weary servant for a harsh experience, but promising to exonerate him and clear his name before the court of public opinion.

Who were these opponents who were trying to destroy the Prophet's reputation? He was probably an exile from his homeland, living in modern day Iraq. Were these members of the Iraqi regime - then called the Babylonian Empire - trying to prevent him from raising false expectations among his fellow exiles? Were they members of the Jewish community in exile in Babylon, who didn't share his optimism that God was about to change the course of history and who wanted the exiles to keep a low profile? Or is he describing - in poetry - the collective experience which the whole exiled community had gone through when they were snatched from their homeland and marched into captivity?

Christians, of course, cannot fail to notice the striking parallel with the trial of Jesus. Had he read and been inspired by this poem when he began to prophesy to his friends that God's representative, The Son of Man, must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and only then - after three days - rise again?

James reminds us that only God can fairly be described as a perfect teacher, and he warns that teaching and preaching for that matter, is therefore a risky profession because those 'who teach will be judged with greater strictness' than those who do not presume to tell other people what to do or how to behave. But in the end, after his rant about the evils of an unguarded tongue, he comes around to much the same way of thinking as the Prophecy. What matters is that we are true to our calling. If we are meant to be a spring or a fountain, we should produce fresh water. If we are meant to be an olive tree, we should yield olives. If we are meant to be seawater we should taste salty.

If we came across a spring that produced brackish water, or olive trees that yielded figs, or saltwater that tasted sweet, something would clearly be very wrong and we should have to treat that situation with extreme caution and suspicion. It's the same alarming situation which we face, says James, when someone says one thing but does another, or says conflicting things. In those circumstances we have to ask ourselves what's really going on. Has the person who is doing this lost their direction, or have they been corrupted by false motives?

Jesus rebuked Peter for losing his way and then went on to explain to his startled disciples that being true to the inner teachings of God's Spirit is all about behaving like the Prophet in the poem. Just as the Prophet was not rebellious, and did not turn his back on suffering when this became part of his calling, so - as Christians - we are called to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus.

However, this call to suffering is not about becoming holy doormats, and refusing to resist any bully who happens to cross our path. It doesn't mean that we must accept pain or misfortune as an inevitable part of the Christian life. The call to deny ourselves, take up our cross and - if necessary - forfeit our lives is explicitly a call to do this only when it it is necessary for Jesus' sake and for the sake of the gospel. Which brings us full circle, back to the need to listen carefully - like the Prophet - for God's guidance and calling. Unlike Peter, we must set our minds resolutely on divine things, not human things.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Our instruction manual

Psalm 19.1-4
Proverbs 1.20-33

Someone claimed on the Radio the other day that the real difference between human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom is that only human beings can write - or read - an instruction manual. Instruction manuals combine language and tool making so that we can pass on really complicated designs to people who have never seen them before and enable them to make a copy of their own, or learn how to use a piece of technology that someone else has devised. No other animal can do that.

Mind you, before we congratulate ourselves too much for our superiority to the other animals, let's remember that it's not easy to write a good instruction manual. I saw one example posted on a blog which was intended for making a bike tower, to
hang up bicycles on the wall in a garage or shed and save space. It begins, 'Please read this instruction manual carefully before use.' But then it goes on, "If you lost this instructions, please call us written on the end of this instructions." Does that make any sense to you? What can it mean? If we've lost our instructions, how are we going to call a number - presumably, I think that's what they mean - that's actually written on the instructions?

And then it says, "Bike Tower 3100 is the display stand for ordinary two-wheel bicycles, only. Keep out small babies from Bike Tower 2." The mind boggles. Do the writers imagine that babies are going to be climbing up the wall to reach this thing?

After these important instructions, it goes on to say in smaller print, "In this instructions we explain some duties to you as below for keeping yours and your neighbourhood's safety from any troubles." And it prints three symbols,
two with exclamation marks in the middle of - respectively - a triangle and a circle, and one resembling a 'no entry' sign.

The first, the triangle,
"Means most dangerous things as death or serious injury, or damage to your possessions." The 'no entry' sign "means forbid things." And the final symbol, the circle, 'Means your duty as compulsion things."

Well I could go on. Suffice to say the instruction manual goes on to mention that, "It is your duty that you always adjust the degree of the Frame Hook Beam when you hang another bicycles." Of course, it's not clear what that means, which just goes to show that writing a good instruction manual is not easy. So perhaps we're not so very different from the other animals as we'd like to think!

Mind you, the Bible is an instruction manual, but not for hanging up our bicycles. It's an instruction manual for how to live our lives the way that God intended. And it tells us that there are other good instruction manuals which we can use, too. The beauty and grandeur of the earth and sky remind us, for example, how important it is for us to take care of the world around us. And they do this without speaking aloud, and there's no need for sky-writing to explain things to us, because it's all spelt out for us in pictures - the sunrise and the sunset, breathtaking cloud formations, twinkling stars, and so on. Who wouldn't want to look after a world as beautiful as ours?

And the Bible tells us that another instruction manual given to us by God is the gift of wisdom - the knowledge of what is true, or right, or just and the ability to recognise it when we see it.

The trouble is that a lot of us don't bother with instruction manuals. No one can blame us, of course, when they're not very good. But even when they are helpful, the rule of thumb that a lot of us choose to live by is, 'If all else fails, read the manual!' In our Bible reading Wisdom cries out to people in frustration, trying to tell us that it's foolish to do that, and especially to ignore God's instructions for living.

The way we sometimes choose to behave is a bit like building a city in a hurricane zone, and then neglecting to look after its flood defences. Or like making the climate hotter and hotter, by filling the atmosphere with pollution, and then wondering why the ice is melting and the sea level is rising. If we only listened to Wisdom, we would know how unwise these things are. The only way to be safe and secure is to listen to what God's Wisdom is telling us.

Jesus, of course, never wrote a book, or an instruction manual. Yet the Bible gives us a record not only of his teaching about how to live, but also something much better - a record of how he himself lived so that we can copy the master. That means our instruction manual isn't a lot of boring facts, or things that don't make sense, unless you puzzle out what the writer really intended to say. Our instruction manual is a person.


Sunday, September 06, 2009

Justice for the Lockerbie Bomber

Proverbs 22:8-9 & 22-23, Psalm 146, James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-30

Our reading from Proverbs says, 'Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.' The Psalm says, 'The Lord sets the prisoners free.' And the Letter of James says, 'So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.' Two of these passages date back about three thousand years, the other one about two thousand years, yet the issues they address - about justice and mercy - are still in the headlines today.

Although it's an Arabic news service, the Al Jazeera website reported the release of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi in very even-handed terms. On the one hand it reported the outrage of the victims' families in America, from where the vast majority of the 270 victims of the Lockerbie bombing came. Most of them still believe that al-Megrahi was responsible for the attack, which was the worst terrorist incident in UK history, and they felt that the welcome celebrations when he arrived home in Tripoli after his release from prison simply added further insult to their injury. On the other hand, Al Jazeera also reported the reaction of ordinary Libyans like Tarek Khalifah - a shopkeeper near Tripoli's fish market - who said, 'I believe he's an innocent man whom God wanted to set free so that he may live out his last days with his family. By his coming home, we think justice is now really served.' Libyans, you see, believe it was agents of another country - perhaps Iran or Syria - who bombed the airliner, in retaliation for the shooting down of an Iranian passenger jet by a US warship.

Let's set on one side the issue of whether or not Mr al-Megrahi is innocent, though as the mother of one of the victims said, that cannot help but colour our views about his release. But let's instead concentrate on the ethical and theological issues which the story raised and see what it might have to teach us about the nature of God's justice and mercy. For God was certainly part of the story. Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill explained his decision by saying, 'Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. Their pain runs deep and the wounds remain. However, Mr al Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.'

On Radio 4's Today Programme Kenny MacAskill was invited to unpack what he meant. I'd never heard of Mr MacAskill before this episode but The Glasgow Herald says that he's normally 'swift-talking, exuberant and quick-to-joke' but he doesn't normally 'do God', as Campbell once put it, or mention 'higher powers'. So you could almost hear the cogs whirring as Mr AlisdairMacAskill thought to himself, 'Now, how can I answer this question without upsetting people of faith, and people without faith, and pagans, and so on? He sounded increasingly uncomfortable as first he explained that people of faith would believe that al-Megrahi would have to answer to a higher power after his death, and then that al-Megrahi's imminent death from cancer was also a sort of natural justice verdict, whether you were a person of faith or not. 'Do you mean to say,' said John Humphreys, 'That his illness is a punishment inflicted on him by Nature for his crimes?'

I can't remember how Kenny MacAskill answered that question, but let's immediately lay to rest what is a totally daft idea. If everyone who gets terminal cancer is being punished by a 'higher power' there must be a lot of very guilty people out there in the world! And what about all the murderers and terrorists who don't suffer a premature death but enjoy a long and healthy life? We can't rely on Nature to impose justice, nor can we expect God to use Nature as part of a toolkit of suitable punishments. Jesus himself was asked to explain why some people had been killed in Jerusalem when a tower fell on them and crushed them, and he totally rejected the idea that they were being punished by God for some sin. If people get cancer, and it proves to be terminal, that is just because of environmental or genetic factors that have nothing to do with justice being meted out for individual actions.

What we can say, however, is that both Christians and Muslims believe that all human beings are answerable to standards of justice and mercy which are given to us by a higher power. We are supposed to try to live by those standards and, when we die, those values still continue to apply and have eternal significance.

But in his statements and interviews about the release of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi Mr said something else which was interesting to people of faith. He said that it was "intrinsic to the Scottish national identity to demonstrate values of forgiveness and compassion. 'We are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity,' he insisted. 'It is a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people. The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.'" Here I think Kenny MacAskillMacAskill was on solid Biblical ground, for isn't this exactly what the Letter of James has to say? 'Mercy triumphs over judgement.'

Justice has to be tempered by compassion, otherwise we become as bad as the people who convince themselves that they are somehow doing God's will when they blow airliners out of the sky, or blow themselves up on underground trains and buses. Their view is that, if a few hundred sinners have to die in order to advance their understanding of God's justice, so be it. No doubt we would want to reject their idea of what is just and right. But I think what ultimate proves they are in the wrong is that theirs is a form of justice without compassion. God's justice is not meted out with pure white hot anger, it is always meted out with an eye to compassion and mercy, because - whether or not these things are intrinsic to the nature of Scottishness - they certainly are intrinsic to the nature of God.

So let's take a closer look at today's lectionary readings and see what else they have to reveal about the nature of God's justice and mercy.

The passage from Proverbs is not really about forensic justice, the process of bringing offenders before a judge and deciding how to punish them, although '[crushing] the afflicted at the gate' does refer to the sort of civil law proceedings which - in ancient Israel - were dealt with by the elders of the community meeting to hear cases at the town gate. But really these proverbs are about a different kind of justice - the social and economic kind. They're about treating the poor with generosity and integrity. If the proverbs speak to today's headlines, they relate not to the continued fall-out from the Lockerbie Bombing but to the way we are handling the recession. Some of the people who helped to cause the credit crunch seem to have got off pretty lightly, whereas many innocent people working in industry and the service sector have been experiencing bankruptcy or unemployment. These verses are a warning to the regulators and the financiers: 'Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.' But is this because God will bring calamity down upon their heads? No, I think the context makes clear that they will bring calamity upon themselves.

'The rod of anger will fail' is an odd expression and perhaps not a very helpful translation. Apparently, it means that the power of the rich person's anger will no longer have any impact when they get their just desserts. Sir Fred The Shred Goodwin had a reputation for ruthlessness, but now executives who claim that they felt cowed into silence by his attitude have been coming out of the woodwork to cast aspersions on his management style. Whether or not that's fair, it seems 'the rod of his anger has failed'. He's no longer capable of shredding his competitors or opponents.

God may not bring punishment upon people directly when they're guilty of oppressing the poor, but he does 'plead the cause' of the oppressed, so in that sense the wealthy and the unjust will have to answer for their actions to a higher power.

Those who are disappointed with the way our economy has been handled, or with the decision to release Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, will concur with the Psalmists warning 'not to put [our] trust in princes' or politicians. But the Psalmist definitely believes in the 'higher power' which Kenny MacAskill alluded to in his news release. He tells us that God 'executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets the prisoners free, lifts up those who are bowed down, loves the righteous, upholds the orphan and the widow, and [brings] the way of the wicked to ruin.' The trouble is that these things don't always happen in the world as know it, so perhaps even the Psalmist is referring to the final and irrevocable verdict at the end of time, when God's will is at last going to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Not only that, but sometimes the act of setting the prisoner free can conflict with upholding the orphan and the widow, at least in the way they would expect to be upheld, so what seems at first like a very straightforward and idealistic picture of justice is actually much more complicated than we might imagine

The writer of the Letter of James talks about our willingness to make superficial judgements, like the young woman on a recent Channel 4 programme who set out to 'snare a millionaire' on the assumption that this would be the surest way of finding her very own Prince Charming. But the real Prince Charmings of this world are just as likely to be poor. In fact, the writer says that rich people are more likely than poor people to be good for nothing and that God has the opposite kind of bias - a bias in favour of the poor. We might feel, of course, that the writer's vision of the poor is just as romanticised as the vision of millionaires in the TV programme, and that it's wrong - as he himself concedes - to show partiality to anyone.

In the film 'Pretty Woman' Richard Gere - who is playing a business tycoon - gives the Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts, a couple of thousand dollars to buy herself a chic new outfit to wear. She goes into a shop wear they sell posh frocks, but because she's wearing some pretty cheap and nasty clothes they refuse to serve her. Instead, she has to get Richard Gere, in his sharp and expensive suit, to go shopping with her - and he takes her to a different shop where she's soon kitted out in all kind sof elegant clothes. Afterwards she goes back to the first shop, laden with carrier bags and wearing one of her new designer dresses. 'Do you remember me?' she asks. 'I'm the person you refused to serve. Big mistake. Huge!'

If we want to act justly we must try to love all of our neighbours, everyone we meet, rich and poor, as much as we love ourselves. We wouldn't expect to be judged on superficial appearances, like how we dress or how we speak. We would expect to be given the benefit of the doubt when we meet a stranger. and that is what everyone else deserves from us.

The writer also goes on to say that if we commit murder we are behaving just as badly as someone who commits adultery, which is rather an odd way of putting things, isn't it? Surely, if he wants to insist that all sins are equally wicked we'd expect him to put that comparison the other way round: if we commit adultery it's no better - in God's eyes - than committing murder! The point is, perhaps, that we shouldn't be too quick to condemn another person, even someone like Abdel Bassett al-Megrahi, unless we are sure that we have done nothing wrong ourselves. And, in case we are inclined to think that we lead pretty blameless lives, without much murder and mayhem, he reminds us that failing to help the victims of a natural disaster, or failing to make sure that people get a living wage for their work, can be just as deadly as committing actual murder. Even faith in God will not save us in these circumstances, because it clearly isn't sincere. If we've not shown mercy to the voiceless and the powerless, even when we only saw them fleetingly on our television screens, no mercy will be shown to us in that final reckoning which Kenny MacAskill described.

And so we come finally to the Gospel reading. Here we see Jesus being reminded by a foreign woman, from the Lebanon, that she too deserves to be treated justly, even though he seems to see his first priority as trying to persuade Jewish people to repent. Some people think that Jesus is actually quite rude and dismissive to the woman, he does after all imply that she is no better than a dog. According to this way of thinking, her persistence challenged his own ingrained prejudice and led him to change his mind and broaden his mission to include Gentiles. Against this interpretation, however, is the fact that Jesus has already praised the faith of gentile people who sought his help, and the fact that elsewhere he always shows compassion to those in need. It would actually be against the teaching of the Scriptures which he knew and loved to suggest that God does not care for and watch over strangers every bit as much as he cares for the Jewish people. We have seen that sentiment already in Psalm 146. So some scholars wonder if he was being ironic, and quoting the sort of Pharisaic attitude that - at heart - he condemned, in order to elicit a better understanding of what God is like.

Be that as it may, the story reinforces the message of the Letter of James. If we want to receive mercy and compassion for our own misdeeds, if we want our faith in the saving power of Jesus to be effective for us when - at last - we are judged by a higher power, we have to live a life that reflects the mercy and compassion that has been shown to us on the cross.

This summer the faith communities of our region published a report, 'Grace and Generosity', which shows that volunteers from the different faith communities in our region contribute help and support for people in need that's equivalent to hundreds of millions of pounds each year. The reason people do this is in response to the grace and generosity which they feel they receive from God, and because they feel God is challenging them to give their time generously to other. As Christians, We have to live as Jesus lived when he went about doing good and showing mercy and compassion to those he met who were in need, whether they were oppressed or hungry, blind or bowed down, strangers, widows, orphans - or even prisoners, like the man who died beside him on Golgotha. 'Today you will be with me in Paradise,' he told the penitent criminal. Will that, I wonder, be the final verdict of Jesus when he meets Abdel Bassett al-Megrahi? Will it be his verdict upon us?