This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Muslim Brotherhood (why no sisters?) wins power in Egypt
The Power of the Gospel
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’*<!– 18 –>
The Guilt of Humankind
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse;21for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.22Claiming to be wise, they became fools;23and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves,25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
Paul’s argument is very clear.
1. Tbe invisible God can be known from the existence of the visible cosmos, the orderly universe.
2. All people have known this but many have chosen to worship images of created things, idols representing worldly powers, rather than the creator.
3. God has punished such idolatry by permitting the distortions of human life which result from it: impurtity and immorality of all kinds.
A modern religious educator looking at this argument may want to reply:
1. There are many people who study the cosmos but reject the idea of a creator.
2. There is no evidence that any of these people are any more idolatrous than the average Christian.
3. There’s no evidence that those who use images (idols) in worship are more given to immorality than other religious people.
Some might wish to defend Paul by saying that his argument might have been true in his time, if not in ours. It is certainly the case that most Jews of his time saw the life of “Greeks” (Gentile citizens of the Roman Empire) as immoral, especially as regards sexual behaviour, but even that would not justify Paul’s link between idolatry and evil….so is Paul simply wrong?
There’s a very strong conviction expressed throughout the literature of the Jewish bible and the New Testament that human beings define themselves by what they worship; and that in particular, those who worship images of earthly powers, such as gods and goddesses representing the sexual and generative powers of nature, or on the other hand, the divine qualities of kings and emperors, are apt to become slaves of these powers. Those who bow down to forces which are inferior to their own humanity become less than they should be, sometimes in degrading ways.
Some have analysed the philosophy and morality of Nazism from this point of view, arguing that the rejection of the creator God and the allegiance to idols of blood and soil helped form a culture of irrational hatred and violence. The great writer Thomas Mann in his novella “The Tablets of Stone” uses the biblical narrative of Moses, with the rise of Nazism in mind, to show the propensity of human beings for idolatry and the need to prevent it by true worship and rigorous discipline.
There’s enough in these arguments to make one look again at Paul’s position.
Still it’s evident that in spite of his own admitted violence to Christians, Paul never asks whether worshippers of the one God may not become dangerously intolerant. This is an aspect of religious certainty with which we have become all too aware in our own time.
I’ve teased out this matter a little because there is a danger in simply accepting Paul’s arguments, because they’re “in the Bible”: no, they’re in the Bible because the church once thought they were right, or at least that the letters were “inspired.” I’m happy to thnk of them as inspired but fallible and therefore as deserving our best, critical attention.
Jesus Again Foretells His Death and Resurrection
22 As they were gathering* in Galilee, Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands,23and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.’ And they were greatly distressed.
24 When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax* came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?’*25He said, ‘Yes, he does.’ And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?’26When Peter* said, ‘From others’, Jesus said to him, ‘Then the children are free.27However, so that we do not give offence to them, go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin;* take that and give it to them for you and me.’
It’s nice to know that a slogan much used today by bars and restaurants was in fact coined by Jesus: the children go free. Jesus points out that in relation to the temple, his disciples, who are God’s children and have God’s household to look after, need not pay the tax for the so-called “house of God”. Neverthless, he adds, there’s no need to cause a scandal over such a matter. Every time God gives Peter a fish, after all, he provides him with money to pay the tax. At least, that’s my reading of this story. We might use it to ask whether it’s right that so much of the money given to the church today in developed countries should be used for the upkeep of buildings which may or may not be useful for the work of God’s children.