s187e01 Somerton Park 19/8/01 Sunday 20

"They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two ..." Hebrews 11:37

I confess I have difficulty picturing people being tortured by being sawn in two. It seems a quite bizarre procedure. Unhappily, visions of magicians and boxes and scantily clad female type persons in gaily painted boxes immediately spring to my mind. It seems ever so slightly surreal, so I turned to Montefiore's commentary, who refers to the passage where it says: "So David gathered all the people together and went to Rabbah, and fought against it and took it. He took the crown of Milcom from his head; the weight of it was a talent of gold, and in it was a precious stone; and it was placed on David's head. He also brought forth the spoil of the city, a very great amount. He brought out the people who were in it, and set them to work with saws and iron picks and iron axes, or sent them to the brickworks. Thus he did to all the cities of the Ammonites. (2 Samuel 12:29-31). This seemed an distinctly odd cross reference, and I thought that perhaps the real story is being hidden from our tender ears. Montefiore notes that tradition records that the prophet Isaiah suffered this fate at the hands of King Manasseh. (The Epistle to the Hebrews Black's New Testament Commentaries page 210).

I say that this is unhappy, because, what is being referred to here is no magicians trick. As anyone who has glanced in the pages of the Old Testament will easily find, it is "blood and guts" material.

So I looked at the King James Version which has the words: "And (David) brought forth the people that were therein, and put them under saws, and under harrows of iron, and under axes of iron, and made them pass through the brickkiln: and thus did he unto all the cities of the children of Ammon" and I thought - shades of the holocaust here? Montefiore may well be right, as he was brought up as a Jew. I glanced through the interview he gave to Mary Loudon ("The Clergy Questioned") and the questions he raises are remarkably similar to those which Bishop Spong asks. He was the Bishop of Birmingham before he retired.

The words of Jesus, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" (Luke 12:49) come as a rude shock to those of us (including myself) who want only the quiet life, minding our own business and trying to help others as Jesus would indeed have us do. Yet the reality of life is different, and I suspect there is nowhere where we can escape change and turmoil.

We might well pray to God: "that you will lead the nations of the world in the ways of righteousness and peace and guide their rulers in wisdom and justice for the tranquility and good of all." (APBA page 106) but I suspect that violence and intimidation continues in both the secular and sacred arena. I am reminded that the battles in the Book the Revelation to St John are as much "in the heavens" as anywhere else. We are told "war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world -- he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Revelation 12:7-9).

And it leads me to ask if, when we read the Bible, do we read it as if it is a manual of instruction for individuals to follow, or is it really about the true nature of God and our faith? So do we read "Love your enemies" and (very sincerely) wish we could? Or do we see it as an injunction to enlarge our boundaries beyond the "christian", beyond those "of faith", beyond those who are "socially acceptable" in the name of Christ. And this is not the easy question it might sound, for there are powerful forces who want to restrict the boundaries of "christianity" to those who ascribe to a particular creed and a particular acceptable lifestyle.

In the end it is why Jesus was killed, and why Jesus could pray those words: "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptised, and what stress I am under until it is completed! (Luke 12:49-50). It is not that Jesus was a masochist, but he yearns that all people might find themselves accepted in him.

This is again another powerful statement that the Cross was no accident. Jesus expected the antipathy of those who held the reigns of religious authority and he knew they would not let that authority slip from their hands without a fight. For let there be no mistake about it - the Cross means that no longer is the world divided into those whom God loves and those whom God considers expendable. The Cross means that no longer is there a possibility of a religious elite ruling over other people - the less religious, the less blessed, the misguided, the intransigent, ordinary sinners ...

And it is not therefore that Jesus intends to divide families, but he knows that the fatal lure of power over other people and the message of its inappropriateness - especially in the name of God - will divide people.

I was interested to read again the stories of the cleansing of the Temple, how Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. It was not against the people, but on the symbols of their authority and status over other people that he railed. Jesus indeed needed the whip of cords, as John remembers, but this is not used against people, but against the animals lined up to be sold for sacrifices. I am sure the RSPCA would have approved of the whip if the ultimate end was the saving of these animals from slaughter.

So Jesus approached the Cross with joy, as the words of the author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us: "for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross" (Hebrews 12:2). This joy was the joy that all people would find in him their right of entry into God's kingdom. The joy was the joy of the inclusion of others, previously excluded by the religious authorities. It was indeed how the religious authorities exercised their religion - the exclusion of others - and of course this has not stopped since.

So we too need to have this message clearly before us, for the same word is to us who will also need ever to look "to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith", and especially to Jesus on the cross and the real reason he was put there by the religious authorities.

And Jesus goes on to talk about going with your accuser before a magistrate.

As I type these words news, of the suicide bombing in Jerusalem is being broadcast. 15 killed, 6 infants. I have begun a course on "Victimology" and as I listen to the words of the lecturer and guest speakers, my mind goes often to Jerusalem - perhaps especially because I was thinking of doing a course at St George's College there this year, which didn't eventuate. In some ways I am pleased I didn't go - not because of the possible danger - I was assured that the College authorities would keep us in safe areas - and I am sure that would have been the case. No, my concern was that I would be forced into deciding who was to blame - or more to blame ...

In my mind I ask the question: Are the actions of the Israeli government a logical outcome of the holocaust? When I hear of the Palestinian settlements they look remarkably like the ghettos and concentration camps of old. It leads me to question: Can people who, undeniably, have suffered so much as victims in the past ever become perpetrators of virtually identical crimes? I cannot answer any of these questions, because I have not suffered like either the Israelis or the Palestinians. But I guess, with many, I wonder with sadness at the loss of life, and of course it is not just there but in many places around the world.

Whether there is an eternal magistrate in the heavens or not seems pretty immaterial to me in the face of such loss of life. We are all on our way together, and the words of Jesus seem to hold out some possibility of a different life here and now: "on the way make an effort to settle the case ..." If this were to happen, just possibly, there might in fact be no need to invoke a judgement, and the world might be a distinctly happier place.

 

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