bible blog 404

This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:

GAZA ROCKETS STRIKE DEEP IN ISRAEL

Gaza Rocket firing

Jeremiah 3:6-18

11 Then the Lord said to me: Faithless Israel has shown herself less guilty than false Judah. 12Go, and proclaim these words towards the north, and say:

Return, faithless Israel,

says the Lord.

I will not look on you in anger,

for I am merciful,

says the Lord;

I will not be angry for ever.

13 Only acknowledge your guilt,

that you have rebelled against the Lord your God,

and scattered your favours among strangers under every green tree,

and have not obeyed my voice,

says the Lord.

14 Return, O faithless children,

says the Lord,

for I am your master;

I will take you, one from a city and two from a family,

and I will bring you to Zion.

Jeremiah gives the Lord the character of a betrayed husband or lover whose beloved has behaved promiscuously with other men. In spite of the depth of anger at this betrayal the Lord as lover will forgive and welcome back the faithless woman if she acknowledges her sin. It’s important to set this picture of Israel’s behaviour against a neutral description of what actually occurred: the kings of Israel and sections of its people were easy-going enough in their religious observance to make sacrifices to the gods and goddesses of the land as well as to Jahweh the god of the prophets. In a secular context today we might view their pick-’n- mix attitude to religion as entirely normal. Probably most people in Jeremiah’s time thought so too.

Pick 'n Mix Religion

That analysis allows us to see the true pathos of the God of justice, mercy and peace. God’s love for the people is a weakness which makes him cling to those who have treated him like dirt and wilfully betrayed him. It’s important for us to see how easy it would have been for a sophisticated public to find the voice of Jeremiah’s God pathetic and ridiculous. If a God’s has nothing better to offer than forgiveness for failures of exclusive love that nobody had promised him in the first place, he’d better look for another client-group.

Yet the voice is there calling people away from easy-oasy living to something more truthful and rigorous, as it does still.

John 5:1-18

5After this there was a festival of the Judaists, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralysed. 5One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ 7The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ 8Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ 9At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

Now that day was a Sabbath. 10So the Judaists said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ 11But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.” ’ 12They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ 13Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. 14Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ 15The man went away and told the Judaists that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16Therefore the Judaists started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. 17But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ 18For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.

not a question to answer too readily

(I’ve changed this translation substituting “Judaist” for “Jew” wherever it occurs as we simply do not know whether John’s “Judaioi” refers to the whole people or a particular religious group.)

The Judaists are those who have inherited the victory of Jeremiah’s God: The God of the Covenant, the God of rigorous rules for worship and social justice, had become the national God of Jewish people. The religious leaders were appalled at Jesus’ apparent laxity, especially with regard to the Sabbath. The might well have seen him as a false teacher throwing away the hard-won gains which prophets and martyrs had fought for.

Jesus’ action in fact reveals the working of a rigorous and compassionate God. The sick man is bluntly asked, “Do you want to be well?” (or do you prefer the security of illness?)  Does the man want the rigorous compassion of God which can only be given to those who desire it? He decides for life and is healed.

When Jesus is attacked for breaking the Sabbath rules, that is, for carrying on his trade of healing on the Sabbath, he does not plead for a relaxation of Sabbath rules, but bluntly kicks the whole Sabbath theology out of play by claiming, in contradiction to Exodus 20, that God is still working. He’s not resting or taking a holiday on the Sabbath, he’s still working justice and compassion in the world, and Jesus, his Son, will do so as well.

It’s hard to imagine a more offensive or radical reply to his critics: God is so much the God of Life that he shows no respect even for the pious stories of him told by his devotees. “And on the seventh day he rested from all his labours. Therefore God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.” How can this wonderful story which incorporates the weekly freedom of working persons and animals into the story of Creation, be treated in such a cavalier manner by Jesus?

I think it’s good for an understanding of Jesus, Christianity, Judaism and justice that we don’t answer this question too readily. It’s a question which bears on the rockets fired by Islami Jihad from Gaza into Israel: may it be more fruitful to provide some kind of tit-for-tat justice (even if the retaliation is much heavier) than to give up armed opposition in the hope that something much better is possible?

2 comments

  1. Hi Mike,
    Good stuff in here, but I am a bit bemused by the last paragraph (I had a late night last night). Are you able to expand on your thoughts there?

  2. Sorry Jeff, it is a bit oblique. I’m saying that faith in God through Jesus is trust in a love beyond justice. The Torah provides a way of justice but Jesus’ teaching, for example about the Sabbath, goes beyond the rules of justice. But those who too readily accept that Jesus’ way is better sometimes mean that something less than justice will do both for God and ourselves. I don’t think so. I’m concerned that the love of God should always be seen as more than justice, not less.
    The Palestinians may be saying, “Any gesture towards justice however futile is better than none. If anyone truly knows of something better, tell us what it is.”

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