8th Sunday after Pentecost
July 30 2017
Genesis 29.15-28; Romans 8.26-39; Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
“Let’s start at the very beginning,” sings Julie Andrews. It is, she suggests, “a very good place to start”.
But this morning I want to begin at the end, with the last verse of our Gospel reading. “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven,” says Matthew, “is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
This is a very Jewish thing to say.
There is a long Jewish tradition of arguing with scripture or – if that seems too strong – of correcting scripture by commenting on it.
Take, for example, the story of the Exodus.
The Egyptians in their chariots are in hot pursuit, and the Israelites have their back to the sea. But then God parts the sea to allow the Israelites to cross on dry land and closes it up behind them, allowing the Egyptians and their chariots to drown. The Israelites are saved. Understandably relieved, they sing a song of praise:
The Lord is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation …
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea;
his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them;
they went down into the depths like a stone.(Exodus 15.2, 4f.)
These days, to read of the Israelites singing for joy at the death of their foes may leave us a little uneasy. Back in the sixth century of our common era, the Babylonian Talmud already offered a corrective addition. When the Israelites begin to sing, the angels want to join in their song. But God silences them: “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?”
There is also a biblical tradition of arguing with itself.
For example, are the sins of the fathers visited on their children, or do we pay for our own sins only? Both views can be found in scripture. We may think that, in fact, both are true.
William Shakespeare wrote, “The evil that men do lives after them.” We pay a price for the sins of previous generations: in a sinful world, it is hard to be human. But we also pay a price for our own sins: they make us less than human.
We are not supposed, then, simply to take scripture at face value. We are called to think about it, to reflect on it – as the strapline of this church suggests – to wrestle with it – as Jacob wrestles with God at the ford of the Jabbok – and sometimes politely to disagree.
This morning I want politely to disagree with Matthew.
For the most part, I don’t disagree with him. In many respects, the first Gospel is my favourite. I read the Sermon on the Mount whenever I need to remember what God wants me to be and to recognize how far I fall short of that.
Most of the time, Matthew gets the gospel right. He is as clear as the other gospel writers about the indiscriminate goodness of a God who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5.45)
But sometimes Matthew switches into a different key. Six times in his Gospel, as in our reading this morning, he offers us the picture of a God who at the end of time will throw the unrighteous into outer darkness, into a furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matthew speaks in this way, as he does this morning, when he is commenting on the parables of Jesus. If we compare the different versions of the parables in Matthew, Mark and Luke, it is clear that these are Matthew’s comments – or in one case a comment he has inherited from the tradition, along with Luke.
But the comments distort the parables – most incongruously in Matthew 18, where Jesus tells a parable about forgiveness and Matthew adds a comment about a God who subjects the unforgiving to eternal torture. “Do as I say, not as I do!”
This way of speaking springs from what we call apocalyptic. In Deuteronomy, Moses puts before the people a choice between life and death and says “Choose life that you may live”. The choice is about what kind of people we are to be and how we are to live here and now. Likewise in the prophets, there is a false path that is self-destructive and a true path that is the way to life.
Later apocalyptic writing, of which the major example in the Old Testament is the Book of Daniel, recasts this way of speaking. It looks to a divine judgment at the end of time, when the just will be rewarded with eternal life and the unjust will be consigned to eternal damnation.
The apocalyptic writers are led to speak in this heightened way by the sheer difficulty of the times in which they live. But it distorts the picture of God that is fundamental to both Old and New Testaments, the picture of a God who does not desire the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live. (Ezekiel 33.11)
Think for a moment, then, about the parable of the fish caught in the net. Matthew interprets this as saying that there are two kinds of people: those who are like good fish, and those who – to borrow a phrase from Anthony Scaramucci – stink from the head down.
This is unhelpful in two ways. It can encourage us to think of others as the stinky fish. We give you thanks, O Lord, that we are not like them. Or it can lead us to fear that we are the fish that stink.
It may be more helpful to think of all of us as being not like the fish but like the net. In all our lives, there are things of which we can be proud but also things that stink to high heaven. Our calling is to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. It is a lifelong challenge and one we can hope to meet only by the grace of God.
On July 14, two Arab-Israelis came out of the Haram al-Sharif with guns that had been smuggled into the compound by a third. They shot two Druze policemen who were on duty near what Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews, the Temple Mount. They were in turn themselves shot.
Two days later, the Israeli government installed metal detectors at the entrances. The Waqf that runs the Haram saw this as a change in the status quo and told Muslims not to pray there until the detectors were removed. On July 23, Israel added security cameras. The Waqf demanded that these also be removed.
Mass Palestinian protests persuaded Israel to back down before the whole Middle East went on fire. By Thursday, the metal detectors and cameras were gone. By Friday evening, all restrictions on Muslim prayer on the Haram had been removed. It was a victory for common sense, but common sense in this land is still in short supply.
Naftali Bennett, the Israeli minister of education, complained that Israel came out of the crisis weakened. “Instead of sending a message about Israel’s sovereignty on the Temple Mount, it sent a message that Israel’s sovereignty can be questioned.”
On Thursday, Kamel, a Palestinian teenager from Ramallah, was in the Old City celebrating victory but tried hard to snatch defeat from its jaws. “All of Palestine is ours,” he said. “The Jews have no rights here. They should go back to Europe and the United States” – a proposal that would go down particularly well with Mizrahi Jews.
To complete the hat-trick, religious nationalist rabbis issued a statement encouraging Jews to visit the Temple Mount, declaring that such visits bolster the Jewish claim to it. They wrote: “It is a great merit to go up, and to be raised up, to the holy mountain in order to seek guidance for Zion and to strengthen our hold on this holy place.”
Welcome to the Holy Land. This is how things are here. Too many people insist on viewing the conflict as a zero-sum game. If the Haram is ours, then it’s not yours. If the land is ours, then it’s not yours. If we are sovereign, you are not. If I win, you lose.
Almost seven decades after what Palestinians call the Nakba and Jewish Israelis call the War of Independence, it should be perfectly obvious that this is a strategy of self-defeat. There will be peace in this land only when we are willing to put aside zero-sum thinking and share the land fairly and equitably, without the trickery of Jacob or the deceit of Laban.
The God who makes the sun to rise on Arab and Jew and sends rain on Palestinian and Israeli – although not, alas, in this season – tells us to love our enemies, indeed, not to have enemies and not to be enemies. The God who makes the sun to rise on Arab and Jew tells us that life is not about violence or vengeance but about justice and reconciliation.
But we are slow to hear.
Sometimes we need to go back to basics. The Johannine tradition reminds us that God is light and God is love. Paul this morning assures us that nothing in all creation can separate us from this love.
In that faith and with that assurance, we can wrestle with our own sins, be reconciled with our enemies, and together confront the sin of the world.
Sing for God’s glory that colours the dawn of creation (CH4 172)
Give praise and thanks unto the Lord (CH4 70 – Psalm 106.1-5)
Eternal ruler of the ceaseless round (CH4 269)
The Saviour died, but rose again triumphant from the grave (CH4 425 – Romans 8.34-39)
Be thou my vision (CH4 465)
Yotam Berger, “Inside the Temple Mount: A week with Palestinian protesters in Al-Aqsa”, July 28 2017
Gil Hoffman, “Bennett: Government’s Temple Mount decisions weakened Israel”, July 27 2017
Jeremy Sharon, “Rabbis call on Jews to visit Temple Mount ‘to strengthen our claim to this holy place’”, July 27 2017
EM Sidebottom, Good News of God: The Teaching of the Gospel Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982)
“Temple Mount crisis: A timeline of Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s latest chapter”, July 24 2017