Sunday, March 21, 2010

Gerry Adams, Sir Nicholas Winterton and God's Compassion

Psalm 119, Jonah 3.1-10, Luke 18.9-14

The Psalmist recognises that we are made in the image of God and prays also, therefore, for a mind modelled on God's way of thinking and being. That's a huge request, bigger and more profound perhaps than the Psalmist realises. But more of that later.

The fact is, however, that living in the image of God is the only sure way that other people will be able to recognise that we are also made in God's image. When they see him in us they will be able to rejoice at the hope we have put in God's wisdom or creative word.

Like the Psalmist, we can rely on God's righteousness and faithfulness, be comforted by God's unfailing love and promises, and delight in his compassion and his instructions. And yet the Psalmist recognises that the way of the believer is not without affliction.


The Revised English Bible talks about being chastened by God, like a parent teaching children the right way to behave by being firm with them and thereby keeping faith with them much better than the parent who takes the easy way out and always gives in to the child's latest whim. The principle which the translators seem to have in mind is, 'Spare the rod and spoil the child.' However, I am not sure that the Psalmist's meaning is quite as obvious as that. I think he may simply be saying that because good is God to us does not mean we shall be saved from affliction. Jesus reminded the Devil of this when he was tempted in the Wilderness.

Jesus almost fainted with hunger when he went without food in the desert for forty days. The Psalmist faints with longing of a different kind, for salvation. But as the Psalm continues a note of doubt creeps into his song. Words like arrogance, fear, persecution and shame start to crop up.

The Psalmist feels like a wineskin in the smoke. Now whatever does that mean? One commentator says that, when you hang a wineskin up indoors, as I am sure you do all the time, it is soon blackened and shrivelled by the smoke from the fire. But who would do such a thing to a perfectly good wineskin? Wouldn't you keep it somewhere cool, especially if it was full of wine? Perhaps it's a reference, therefore, to what happens to an old wineskin when it is thrown onto the fire. Does it perhaps take a long time to burn, just as the Psalmist refuses to give up God's way despite the pitfalls and unjustified persecution that he suffers. His persecutors have almost managed to wipe
him from the earth, but still the Psalmist looks to God for preservation.

In tonight's passage from Jonah we see a prophet who, like the Psalmist, trusts in God's commands and puts his hope in God's Word. That is an abrupt turnabout, because previously Jonah had shown a complete absence of trust and delight in God's way. He had tried to escape God's insistent call, only surrendering when a huge storm threatened to sink the ship he was sailing on. But, because God is faithful even in affliction, Jonah eventually found himself where he was meant to be - on his way to the great city of Nineveh, the capital of the evil empire of Assyria.

It was the Assyrians who finally snuffed out the Northern Kingdom of Israel based upon the City of Samaria. They then attacked the Judean city of Lacish. The Bible mentions this but glosses over what happened there. We know, however, that the Assyrian commanders laid siege to the City, broke down its wall with battering rams, deported all its inhabitants and tortured its leaders to death. They were a ruthless and terrifying bunch, and they would have gone on to capture Jerusalem as well if a sudden outbreak of plague, or cholera, or typhoid, or dysentery hadn't caused them to abandon the siege.

If there was one place which the people of Israel, North and South, had good cause to hate it was the City of Nineveh. Hence Jonah's reluctance to go there. But when he finally did arrive he got the satisfaction of proclaiming that the City was doomed. Once the people of Nineveh had terrorised the cities of Samaria, Lacish and Jerusalem. Now it would be their turn. After dominating the Middle East for a little over one hundred years the Assyrians would soon be overthrown by their cousins, the Babylonians, and Jonah predicted that the end was very nigh indeed, just forty days away.

Imagine, his dismay, therefore, when the Assyrians suddenly got old time religion and repented of all their sins. They began a strict fast and appealed to Israel's God for mercy. The Revised English Bible says that they abandoned their wicked ways and their injustice. The New Revised Standard Version says - more colourfully and perhaps more accurately - that they turned from their evil ways and violence. And, according to the story, God changed his mind and spared them for a little longer.

The Book of Jonah seems to have been written to encourage a more open attitude to other nations, and to help the people of Israel see that God's mind is bigger than our preconceptions might lead us to believe. He cares about other people - including our enemies - just as much as he cares for us, and he will even show compassion to the most wicked and violent oppressors of their fellow human. The Assyrians had once claimed to be mightier than Israel's God, but even they spared so long as they were prepared to show a change of heart. To model our minds on God's way of thinking and being is to take on board this same attitude of openness and mercy.

Jonah was left baffled by God's mercy and echoed the words of the Psalmist, '
How long must your servant wait? When will you punish my persecutors?' But the Assyrians had now put their hope in God's Word and Jonah should have rejoiced.

Like the story of Jonah, the parable of the tax collector and the pharisee is aimed at those who are sure of their own goodness and look down on everyone else.

The pharisee is, I suppose, a bit like Sir Nicholas Winterton, the outgoing MP for Macclesfield, who told Radio 5 Live that standard class rail passengers 'are a totally different type of people' from MPs. 'They have a different outlook on life,' he said. '[If I travelled in standard class' I would not [be able to] do work because people would be looking over [my] shoulder all of the time; there would be noise, there would be distraction.' Conceding that even standard class passengers may want to find less intrusive ways of passing their time on the journey, if they can find a seat, he went on to say, 'They may be reading a book, but I doubt whether they're undertaking serious work or study, reading or amending [the sort of] reports that MPs do when they travel.'

Sir Nicholas, who apparently has been a very good constituency MP, assiduously replying to letters and attending special events - including church services - in his constituency, didn't exactly covering himself in glory with these remarks. A Tory spokesman said, 'These comments are the out-of-touch views of a soon-to-retire backbench MP.' These are brave new times. In future MPs will only get a refund for standard class rail fares.

But Sir Nicholas does at least give us an insight into the thinking of the pharisee who went up to the Temple to pray. He too felt that he was not like other people, whom he characterised as greedy, dishonest and adulterous rather than noisy, distracting and nosey.

The pharisee could easily have been thinking of the tax collector, who would have bought the right to collect taxes in return for the chance to keep a proportion of all the money he scooped. This method of collecting taxes, which is called 'tax farming', was unpopular because it incentivised tax collectors to find extra taxes to collect, giving them a fiercesome reputation for poking and prying into other people's affairs.

'Well, how's that different from H M Revenue & Customs, or any other modern government department for that matter?' you might ask, and the answer, of course, is 'It's no different at all!' except that these were the days before big government, when people were not used to government interference of any kind. And, because tax collectors in ancient times were private sector contractors, not civil servants or bureaucrats, there was always a feeling that they must be trying to maximise profits without caring too much about the rights of the individual or the need to act responsibly.

Worse still, of course, the system was wide open to bribery and corruption. So long as the tax collector got more from the tax payer than he would otherwise have received anyway in commission, there was nothing to stop him writing in his records that a person had no more taxes to declare. So there was always a feeling that rich people could evade some of the taxes they ought to be paying, while the tax collector still got to line his pockets. Hence the pharisee's sneering prayer about greed and dishonesty. In his opinion, God should answer the prayers only of the righteous, not of the unrighteous.

But like Jonah, the pharisee was due for a shock. God welcomes all who repent and who are prepared to humble themselves, and is offended by those who take Sir Nicholas's attitude towards their neighbours, and treat them as a different kind of person. By implication, the Book of Jonah says that even murderers can find acceptance with God, as well as scoundrels and love cheats.

What then of the decision by Channel 4 to allow the ex-IRA leader Jerry Adams to narrate a programme about Jesus and pose on mainstream TV as a good Catholic? Is this something which would be acceptable to God, even if it's not acceptable to the Daily Mail? The answer, of course, depends entirely on his attitude. Is he, like the people of Nineveh, sorry for the suffering that he caused?

The Psalmist was right to highlight God's faithfulness, compassion, comfort and love. What he perhaps forgot was that these were available even to his persecutors and to the arrogant, yes even to the pharisees and retiring MPs of this world, so long as all of us - the cruel, the feckless, the selfish, the unkind and the uncaring - are prepared to turn to God and say humbly with the King of Assyria, 'I will abandon my wicked ways and the injustice I have practised. May it be that God will relent and turn from his fierce anger: and so I shall not perish.'

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