This blog provides a meditation on the episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Twycross Zoo staff accused of beating elephant
9And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit;2he opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft.3Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given authority like the authority of scorpions of the earth.4They were told not to damage the grass of the earth or any green growth or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.5They were allowed to torture them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torture was like the torture of a scorpion when it stings someone.6And in those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.
7 In appearance the locusts were like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces,8their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth;9they had scales like iron breastplates, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle.10They have tails like scorpions, with stings, and in their tails is their power to harm people for five months.11They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon,* and in Greek he is called Apollyon.*
12 The first woe has passed. There are still two woes to come.
My newspaper (The Guardian) today describes a video used in evidence in court of the murder of a young man in a gang battle in a tube station in London. It gives details of the pitiless and ferocious destruction of a human life by people who outwardly resembled human beings but who behaved like the demonic scorpions of the above passage. Yesterday I listened on Radio 4 to an interview with a former member of the RAF whose job had been to insert the guidance co-ordinates into the old Thor nuclear missiles then stationed in England.He was asked if he ever thought of the people he was going to fry. He said carefully that he’d never had the slightest doubt that what he was doing was right. There was a world of difference between his life-style and that of the feral youths described above, but no difference in their inhumanity: he would sting till he died. These are dramatic examples. The current commitment of most UK citizens to the economic system that nearly beggared them all, is a less gory example of scorpionitis.
These examples are given to show that the imagery of the Revelation is acute and reasonable rather than excessive: when the pit of evil is opened all manner of deformed creatures emerge and torture each other.
Only each other? Yes, this section of the Revelation gives a vision of what those who have espoused evil do to each other. Of course, in ordinary history these evil forces are opposed by the sacrificial suffering of God’s servants, which may turn some of them from evil towards salvation. But here, the author removes God’s witnesses from the scene, to show the work of evil in its pure state.
The difficulty of the passage for this reader anyway is that while I see its purpose, and relish the manga-style presentation of its nightmare, I can’t help a touch of amusement at the beasties. There’s something self-defeating in the characterisation of evil people as animals, as in truth animals are never as frightening as evil men and women. Perhaps the author admits this when he gives his creatures human faces. In any case the readiness of this book to grapple with the mystery of evil people is helpful in a culture which in uncomfortable with it and reserves the word evil for obvious monsters like murderers and predatory paedophiles.
Luke 10:25-37 Parable of the Good Samaritan
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.* ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.35The next day he took out two denarii,* gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
The world of Jesus’ parables is realistic: here also we see the work of human scorpions but always as accompanied by the work of divine or human goodness.
This is one of the best known and least appreciated of the parables. We must note the cunning by which Jesus converts a question “Who is my neighbour” = “Whom am I obliged to help” into “Who neighboured the man who fell amongst thieves”= “Whom would I recognise as a neighbour if I was a victim?” The lawyer’s question sees the issue from the point of view of safety and power: what are the limits of my (disagreeable) obligation to help my neighbour?-whereas the answer sees it from the point of view of the one who needs help: what kind of person will respond to my human need? Jesus’ point is clear: those who pass you by are not your neighbours, even if they are Christians; while the one who tends to you is your neighbour, even if he’s a Moslem. A neighbour is someone who acts like a neighbour so get on with it and stop playing verbal games with the commandments.
Jesus’ robust sanity in the face of daft religious pomposity is one of his most endearing qualities. Oops! Am I allowed to say “endearing qualities” of Jesus? Maybe I should just say “one of the reasons I love him.”?