This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)
The prophesied “Elijah”: John the Baptist
3 1-2 In due course John the Baptist arrived, preaching in the Judean desert: “You must change your hearts—for the kingdom of Heaven has arrived!”
3 This was the man whom the prophet Isaiah spoke about in the words: ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’.
4-6 John wore clothes of camel-hair with a leather belt round his waist, and lived on locusts and wild honey. The people of Jerusalem and of all Judea and the Jordan district flocked to him, and were baptised by him in the river Jordan, publicly confessing their sins.
7-9 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism he said: “Who warned you, you serpent’s brood, to escape from the wrath to come? Go and do something to show that your hearts are really changed. Don’t suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We are Abraham’s children’, for I tell you that God could produce children of Abraham out of these stones!
10-12 “The axe already lies at the root of the tree, and the tree that fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. It is true that I baptise you with water as a sign of your repentance, but the one who follows me is far stronger than I am—indeed I am not fit to carry his shoes. He will baptise you with the fire of the Holy Spirit. He comes all ready to separate the wheat from the chaff and very thoroughly will he clear his threshing-floor—the wheat he will collect into the granary and the chaff he will burn with a fire that can never be put out.”
The question the reader asks about this character sketch of John is: did he mean the ministry of Jesus to be a contrast to the Baptist’s prediction of fiery judgement; or are we to see Jesus’ ministry as a fulfilment of these words, and therefore as more of a judgement than we are accustomed to think? I think the latter: Jesus in all his compassion and forgiveness is nevertheless the axe laid to the root of the tree. Indeed, it is precisely these qualities that get to the root of evil that makes life fruitless. In Jesus there is endless mercy for those who turn towards goodness, seeking forgiveness and new life; but there is destruction for those who oppose the love that would forgive them. Experience suggests that there are such people ( I think of Gen Pinochet and other great killers); much more common however, are those who turn towards goodness but not wholeheartedly because some aspects of their character stubbornly hold on to wrongness. They will find that these are rooted out by Jesus and destroyed, however painful that process may be. I speak from experience.
J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)
3 In conclusion, my brothers, delight yourselves in the Lord! It doesn’t bore me to repeat a piece of advice like this, and if you follow it you will find it a great safeguard to your souls.
The “circumcision” party are the enemies of your faith and freedom
2-3 Be on your guard against these curs, these wicked workmen, these would-be mutilators of your bodies! We are, remember, truly circumcised when we worship God by the Spirit, when we find our joy in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in what we are in the flesh.
I was even more of a Jew than these Jews, yet knowing Christ has changed my whole life
4-6 If it were right to have such confidence, I could certainly have it, and if any of these men thinks he has grounds for such confidence I can assure him I have more. I was born a true Jew, I was circumcised on the eighth day, I was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, I was in fact a full-blooded Jew. As far as keeping the Law is concerned I was a Pharisee, and you can judge my enthusiasm for the Jewish faith by my active persecution of the Church. As far as the Law’s righteousness is concerned, I don’t think anyone could have found fault with me.
7-11 Yet every advantage that I had gained I considered lost for Christ’s sake. Yes, and I look upon everything as loss compared with the overwhelming gain of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. For his sake I did in actual fact suffer the loss of everything, but I considered it useless rubbish compared with being able to win Christ. For now my place is in him, and I am not dependent upon any of the self-achieved righteousness of the Law. God has given me that genuine righteousness which comes from faith in Christ. How changed are my ambitions! Now I long to know Christ and the power shown by his resurrection: now I long to share his sufferings, even to die as he died, so that I may perhaps attain as he did, the resurrection from the dead.
12-14 Yet, my brothers, I do not consider myself to have “arrived”, spiritually, nor do I consider myself already perfect. But I keep going on, grasping ever more firmly that purpose for which Christ grasped me. My brothers, I do not consider myself to have fully grasped it even now. But I do concentrate on this: I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead I go straight for the goal—my reward the honour of being called by God in Christ.
My ambition is the true goal of the spiritually adult: make it yours
15-16 All of us who are spiritually adult should set ourselves this sort of ambition, and if at present you cannot see this, yet you will find that this is the attitude which God is leading you to adopt. It is important that we go forward in the light of such truth as we have ourselves attained to.
Those who have gone through the painful destruction of their former selves, as Paul had done, are not always attractive. Because they have left their old selves behind, everyone else is expected to follow suit. Paul may consider his “pharisee life” as rubbish, but what about the people he injured, tortured or killed, in his persecuting days? Paul never mentions them or expresses any sorrow for what he did to them. They are for him, buried with his old life from which he has turned, or been turned, by his trust in Jesus. He is committed to the pattern of Christ’s life and no longer concerned with “legal righteousness”. He leaves the past and looks to the future God holds out to him. Yes, but perhaps a greater degree of humility would have led him to see that the Son of God was revealed to him precisely through his persecuted followers. The face of Jesus must have appeared to him in the faces of the Reubens and Salomes he arrested.
He says here that he has not arrived, he has not yet grasped the fullness of new life in Christ. Perhaps his occasional descriptions of himself as the greatest of sinners is a sign that he remembered more humbly what he’d done out of arrogance and hatred. Perhaps indeed the memory of his victims’ faith strengthened his own desire to “share the sufferings of Christ.”
I come second to nobody in my admiration for the great apostle but it’s important to ask the obvious questions in the face of his own persuasive rhetoric.