Monthly Archives: August 2019

MtE Update – August 30 2019

  1. This Sunday September 1 we conclude our series on Hosea, with Hosea 14 being our final focus text. Over the last couple of months we’ve looked closely at aspects of Hosea 1, 2, 4, 6, 11, 13; consider reading the book through before we conclude this Sunday!
  2. The latest Presbytery eNews is here.
  3. Later in September we will begin a new sermon series on 1 Timothy; see here for more details.



September 1 – John Thomas

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

John Thomas, Christian pioneer

 The Rev. John Thomas (1797 – 1881) and his wife Sarah were sent by the Methodist Missionary Society in Great Britain to serve in Tonga.  They were there from 1826 until 1850 and from 1856 until 1859.  Even though John Thomas was not the first missionary to arrive in Tonga he is regarded by the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga as the Father of the Church.

John Thomas, the son of a blacksmith and a blacksmith himself, was very aware of his academic limitations.  He wrote of himself in his personal journal,

my own rough and knotty mind . . . what a raw, weak and uncultivated wretch was I when I left our England.

 This self-deprecation appears quite frequently in his personal writing.  Limited education he may have had, but he was an outstanding observer of life.  He may not have had a sparkling personality but he had great plodding persistence.  Those qualities enabled him to write an amazing chronicle of the history of Tonga which covers a period prior to the arrival of European influences.  He also records the establishment and growth of the Church.

He provides the genealogies of significant people, records the arrivals and departures of ships and geographical information about the Island group.  It is evident that John Thomas had the confidence of the people for they shared their stories and beliefs with him.

While John and Sarah Thomas were in Sydney preparing to go to Tonga there was a lot of pressure put on him to remain in Sydney, to serve in one of the circuits there.  He was, however, very clear in his own mind that the Mission Committee had appointed him to Tonga and to Tonga he would go. John and Sarah Thomas had tragedy in their lives when Mrs Thomas had a number of miscarriages.  At last a son was born and named John.  Nine years later tragedy struck again when the child died.  Later when they returned to England, Mrs Thomas also died.  When John remarried his new wife had a son but sadly that child too died when he was nine years of age.  John Thomas lamented there was no one to pass his written material to.  He thought he might destroy it.  Fortunately, he did not and his History of Tonga is a goldmine of information for Tongan people and for students of Tongan history.

John Thomas was a very spiritual man and a number of stories have grown up around his life.  A Tongan preacher told the story of John Thomas landing on an island to share the gospel of Jesus.  He knelt on the beach to pray.  Even though the water lapped around him his trousers were not wet.

Some people would be critical of John Thomas because he was pivotal in many people forsaking their traditional gods and becoming followers of Jesus Christ.  The value of that was indicated by a story written by John Thomas.  A King was gravely ill and one of his sons was strangled to appease the gods and to facilitate his father’s recovery.  Even though John Thomas worked relentlessly to bring change in Tonga and to have the people follow a new way, the way of Jesus, no one did more to record the beliefs and history and genealogy of the Tongan people.  He believed that there would come a time when people would want to know their history and about their culture.  When they did, John Thomas has recorded it for them.

He was truly the Father of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga.

Rev John Mavor

1 Timothy – Sermons in 2019

Our guide to Sunday morning readings and preaching, the Revised Common Lectionary, takes a sweep through the ‘pastoral epistles’ (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus) in September and October. Taking a lead from the RCL, we heard from an extended set of readings from 1 Timothy over late September to the end of November 2019.

These sermons can be found here:

Preparing for the series:

  • The best introduction to any scriptural book is to read the book itself! It’s not long — a half hour should get you through it quite comfortably. Plan to do this a few times through the series, and you should also have a look at 2 Timothy and Titus over this period.
  • A short animated video introduction (9 minutes) can be found here, which summarises the book rather simply but nevertheless tells the story pretty well. One caveat on this material is that many modern scholars wonder whether fact St Paul did write this letter but, this aside, the video summary is a useful intro.
  • A more sophisticated introduction can be found in this lecture. The first 20 minutes of this lecture treats the question of the authorship of 1 Timothy via the question of Paul’s attitude towards women (cf. 1 Timothy 2.9ff); the discussion of the letter more generally begins at about 21mins into the lecture.
  • So far as commentaries go, Tom Wright’s ‘For Everyone’ series is a good basic introduction to biblical texts. The volume including Timothy is available here (Koorong) and here (Amazon, including a Kindle version). The ‘Interpretation’ series provides reliable introductions to biblical books with a bit more detail than Wright’s (and more expensive!); The volume including 1 Timothy can be found here (Koorong) and here (Amazon, including Kindle).

25 August – God’s stillborn children

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Pentecost 11

Hosea 13:4-8, 13:12-14:1
Psalm 32
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 13:31-35

In a sentence:
We are called to ‘step up’ to be the children of God

Does God really send the cruel Assyrians as punishment for Israel’s sin, so that the people’s ‘little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open’?

The warning that God would do this appears often enough in the prophets, those champions of justice who fire our political imaginations and yet whom we would like to edit here, and more than just a little.

We hesitate at this point because this ancient terrorism continues as modern terrorists maim and kill for God’s sake. We hesitate because Hosea’s reading of history as a sign of God’s judgement also continues: AIDS or earthquakes or bushfires have been declared by some to be the response of God to this or that moral failure. We hesitate for our own sake: if something goes wrong in my life, did I deserve it? The plaintive cry, ‘Why has this happened to me?’, makes the connection Hosea seems to make: perhaps it happened because of sin.

And not least, we hesitate because we cannot reconcile the God of love with such brutality. Does God do such things? Does God pose to us this kind of threat?

The short answer is, No: AIDS, the earthquake, the bushfire and the Assyrians were coming anyway. And yet Hosea connects historical events and judgement; we cannot simply dismiss him and the other prophets here.

It helps to pose another question: Does God send Jesus to die on the cross? At first glance, this is not quite the same question, even if the idea is equally grating to modern sensibility. Yet we have already noticed the similarity between what happened to Jesus and what happened to Israel (Hosea 3.2). On this understanding, Jesus becomes the ‘little one’ dashed, the expectant mother under cruel steel.

But if there are similarities between the fates of Israel and Jesus, there is also an important difference: in Hosea, the oncoming storm is the terrifying Assyrian army; in the case of Jesus, the oncoming storm is Israel itself – Jerusalem, the only place where a prophet should be killed (Luke 13). The question about God being a threat to us in the form of an army or some other plague becomes one of whether we are a threat to God. These two scriptural threads portray, respectively, God and the people of God approaching each other with murderous intent.

And yet, there is an asymmetry here, and it is not that God always wins. The difference between these two conflicts becomes clearer through Hosea’s evocative mockery of Israel – in the guise of ‘Ephraim’ – in the middle of our reading this morning:

13 The pangs of childbirth come for [Israel],
   but he is an unwise son;
for at the proper time he does not present himself
   at the mouth of the womb. 

Hosea describes Israel as having refused to be born, and so as not being really alive. This makes no sense literally, of course. Clearly they were alive as most of us are. And this, to allow ourselves to be drawn into their story, was their problem: in their identity as the children of God (Hosea 11), they are not quite born. Israel is ‘unborn’ in the sense of Nicodemus, whom Jesus told, You must be born again (John 3).

God does not ‘send’ the Assyrians, in the sense of set the historical wheels in motion. Rather, their coming is cast as judgement, echoes the judgement. A child which will not be born is death to itself, and to its mother. Hosea proclaims the devastating effect of the Assyrians as proof of what is already the case: Israel is stillborn. God is the context of the Assyrian conquest, not its cause, and as the context God brings a particular reading of that disaster. The Assyrians are just doing what Assyrians do: conquest and pillage; Hosea overlays the disaster with meaning in order to reveal what is at stake between God and Israel.

And now we come to the asymmetry of what I called the murderous the approaches of God and Israel to each other. If Israel is a son who refuses to born, there was another son waiting to be born in our readings this morning, described by Paul:

But when the [proper time] had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman… (Galatians 4.4-7).

Jesus approaches Israel as one born ‘at the proper time’ (literally, ‘in the fullness of time’) and here is the contrast with Israel in Hosea. In Jesus is one born, in the fullness of that expression: he is one really alive. And so his death becomes a real death and different from that which Israel suffered at the hands of the Assyrians, or from what anyone else suffers. For, being truly born and truly alive, only Jesus really moves in the gospel story. Jerusalem is static, waiting for him. The same might be said of Israel and the Assyrians. Both these really only do what usually happens here: the weak is subject to the strong, and nothing new is seen, nothing really moves. It is only when God claims the Assyrians that movement happens, that meaning enters, that a new word is said and heard – even if it is a deathly word:

Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, [we heard last week]
   I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
   and my judgement goes forth as the light (6.5).

The crushing army becomes the occasion for the revealing of God’s justice and of the expectation that God’s justice shape the lives of God’s people.

The Assyrians, or the leaders in Jerusalem, or the earthquake, or the Russians, or the Chinese, or the Americans, or the ecological apocalypse are always coming. The world ticks over as Ecclesiastes describes: ‘for everything, a season’ (Ecclesiastes 3). But this is not truly an unfolding of history, not really a movement, not really the entry of a new thing under the sun; it is just the world turning, around and around, and our lives upon it a vain chasing of the wind.

Only God really moves, and God’s true children. The proof of this is that Jesus moves even when he is supposed to be dead. The question which Hosea puts – with the rest of the Scripture – is, When the time of the sword comes, which kind of children will we be?

God’s call, to shift to the similar metaphor in Paul, is to enter into our inheritance, to cease being ‘slaves’ buffeted by the whim of a master and to become true children – and so heirs – of God’s promise. To be less than this is really only to wait in fear and without understanding for whatever horror might be about to rise on our horizon, and to set ourselves for defence against it.

For if we are true children of this God, we know that God comes with every dawn, looking to see in our response to the joys and terror of the new day: whose children are we?

The children of God know that nothing can separate them from God in Christ Jesus the Son, our brother by adoption (Romans 8; Galatians 4).

Let us seek, then, to be children of the light (1 Thessalonians 5.5), that we might, in all things, see clearly our way in the ways of God, and that others might see with us.

18 August – God’s unrighteous mercy

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Pentecost 10

Hosea 6:4-6
Psalm 40
Colossians 2:6,7, 13-15
Matthew 9:9-13

In a sentence:
Mercy is unwarranted yet needed by us all

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.

Hosea seems to propose here a choice: fertile mercy or barren cult. Which would you choose?

And yet, at the same time, the whole sweep of Hosea’s preaching is directed at Israel’s violation of the divine covenant. He would not, then, contradict commandments regarding Temple worship. Rather, with the rhetorical overreach of the preacher, he shocks his listeners into awareness of what is going wrong.

Hosea’s point, then, is not that religious observances should cease but that we see mercy, kindness and steadfast love[1] to be what the sacrifices signify. The crucial thing is that – for Israel and for us – mercy breaks the mould so far as sacrifice is usually understood. It is this re-figuring – re-signification – of sacrifice which Hosea calls Israel to return to: understand what you are doing.

Typically understood, the possibility of a sacrifice means that we are in a system of exchange. Sacrifice offers this in response to that, this to effect that. These exchanges reflect that there is a need which must be met. The perceived need for sacrifice, then, casts our lives as a problem – an equation to be balanced – and the sacrifice brings balance.

The need might be that we will have to stop working someday, so we sacrifice some of today’s pay for tomorrow’s need. The need might be that we could get sick, crash the car or burn our home down, so we sacrifice in the form of insurance. Or we are lonely or sad, so we sacrifice vocation or responsibility for binge-watching on Netflix; or we feel poorly understood at home and so sacrifice fidelity for an affair. We are afraid, so we sacrifice the needs of refugees in order to remain safe and keep the economic system stable.

There is nothing especially ‘religious’ about sacrifice. It is a strategy for dealing with religious or secular powers according to the ordering of the powers: when here, do this.

Hosea’s challenge to Israel is that it acquiesced into this general understanding of sacrifice – something thought almost to ‘force’ God to act because the ritual is done properly. This is religion as calculation, as a way of manipulating the gods into giving us what we need. Prayer becomes magical incantation, as if God also has an equation to be balanced.

Yet what Israel received in its sacrificial rituals was a hijacking only of the form of contemporary religious practice. The substance – what the sacrifices signified – was completely re-ordered.

This is the point of Hosea’s reminder: sacrifice to this God has to do with mercy. But it is crucial that we see how this breaks the typical understanding of sacrifice, because mercy breaks systems of exchange. Mercy is the giving of something which is not warranted by the rules: it is a refusal to balance the equation. As much as anyone one of us might need mercy, none of us could ever ‘deserve’ it as a right or a thing earned. ‘Deserved’ mercy is not mercy; it is payment according to the rules.

When mercy does enter the equation, something very odd takes place. No longer is a sacrifice made in order to secure what we need – to secure ‘righteousness’. Rather, righteousness itself is sacrificed. The appeal for mercy – for God’s steadfast love in the face of our lack of love – is an appeal for the rules to be broken.

And now we come to the heart of the matter – God’s own heart. For the righteousness which is sacrificed in the death and life of Israel is God’s own righteousness, the demands of the law, set aside in the sign of the sacrifice or, as it was later put, nailed to the cross (Colossians 2.13f). Those reconciled with God here are unrighteously righteous.

We nail God’s righteousness to the cross, in the person of Jesus. Mercy – incomprehensibly – makes that sacrifice God’s very own. Our offering to God is made into the mercy of God, the casting aside of righteousness. In reconciliation, God meets our unrighteousness with his own; this is the meaning of mercy and so the substance of our lives before God and with each other.

And so Hosea calls for a people like this: a people among whom it is not known what will happen next, for they are incomprehensibly merciful and the rules of exchange do not apply. This would be a people among whom the strong don’t do with the weak what is usually done, the rich don’t do with the poor what is usually done, the old don’t do with the young and the young don’t do with the old what is usually done, the citizen does not do with the foreigner what is usually done with foreigners.

To be such a people is to sur‑prised – literally, over-taken – by mercy. When the rules are broken it cannot be known what happens next, and there finally enters the possibility of something new under the sun. The dead could even stop being dead. Imagine that, and you’re beginning to imagine the possibilities of mercy.

Mercy is not right and so make no sense, and so mercy is just what is needed in a world in which we are crushed by what is sensible, by what ‘has’ to be done.

Praise God, then for unrighteous mercy, and let us commit ourselves to become the mercy we seek.

[1] The translation of the Hebrew word under the NRSV’s ‘steadfast love’ varies considerably in the commentaries and versions: goodness, kindness, mercy, and steadfast love are all offered as translations.

MtE Update – August 15 2019

    1. THIS SUNDAY August 18 we will have another of our Sunday Conversations after morning tea, with speakers from Lentara on the Asylum Seekers Project: Asylum Seekers Project Program Manager, Andi Jones, accompanied by Lisa Stewart, the Uniting Mission and Ethos Partner.
    2. The most recent Synod eNews (August 9) is here.
    3. The latest social justice news from JIM
    4. This Sunday we return to Hosea, focussing on 6.4-6 

    Old News

    Advance Dates

    1. September 18 – After worship Conversation with Act for Peace [POSTPONED to a later date TBC]

August 18 – Helena, mother of Constantine

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.


Helena, mother of Constantine, faithful servant

Flavia Iulia Helena (c.248-c.328) was probably born in Drepanum in Bithynia – later renamed Helenopolis in her honor – in humble circumstances. She was of low social origin and worked as a maid in an inn when she met Constantius. Out of their concubinage the later emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) was born in Naissus (modern Niš) c. 272/3. Constantius left her when he became member of the tetrarchy in 293. Constantine’s rise to power in 306 brought Helena to the imperial court where she gradually gained a prominent position. Coins and inscriptions mention her as Nobilissima Femina and from 324 until her death she held the title of Augusta, indicating that she was considered an important member of the imperial family. She may have lived at Constantine’s court in Trier until 312. After Constantine had defeated Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (28 October 312), Helena probably came to live in Rome.

The fundus Laurentus in the south-east corner of Rome, which included the Palatium Sessorianum, a circus and public baths (later called Thermae Helenae), came into her possession. Several inscriptions (e.g. CIL, 6.1134, 1135, 1136) found in the area, are evidence for a close connection between Helena and the fundus Laurentus. So is her interest in the newly found basilica Ss. Marcellino e Pietro which was built in the area that belonged to the estate (Lib. Pont. I, 183); she was buried in a mausoleum attached to this basilica. Part of the Palatium Sessorianum was possibly shortly after her death transformed into a chapel, now known as the church of S. Croce in Gerusalemme.

Although it has been suggested that she was sympathetic towards the Christian faith from her childhood on, Helena most probably converted to Christianity following Constantine who after 312 began to protect and favour the Christian church.

At the end of her life she journeyed through the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. This journey, which took place ca. 326-327, is elaborately described by the church father Eusebius in his Life of Constantine (VC 3.41-47). Because of Eusebius’ description – he is mainly concerned with her visit to Palestine, he describes her religious enthusiasm, her desire to pray at places where Christ had been, her care for the poor and needy – her journey is generally considered a pilgrimage. However, it is more likely that she travelled through the East for political purposes having to do with problems within the Constantinian family. Eusebius ascribes the foundation of the Constantinian churches in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives to her. He also connects her with the construction of the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Shortly after her visit to the East she died at the age of about 80 in the presence of her son (Eus. VC 3.46) either late in 328 or the beginning of 329. Her porphyry sarcophagus is now in the Vatican Museums.

Her greatest fame Helena acquired by her alleged discovery of the True Cross. Her presence in Jerusalem and the description Eusebius presented of her stay in Palestine led ultimately to connecting Helena with the discovery of the Cross. The connection between the Cross, relics of which were present and venerated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre since at least the 340s, is only first attested in the sources at the end of the fourth century. The legend of Helena’s discovery of the Cross most probably originated in Jerusalem in the last quarter of the fourth century and rapidly spread over the whole Roman Empire. The story is told by prominent late antique Christian authors such as Ambrose, Paulinus of Nola, and the church historians Socrates, Sozomen and Theodoret. The legend is known in various versions of which the best known is the Judas Kyriakos legend. According to this version Helena found the Cross with the help of the Jew Judas who afterwards converted to Christianity and became bishop of Jerusalem. This version, known in particular from Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea (13th century), was wide-spread in the Middle Ages; it was translated into vernacular languages and a favorite subject for iconographic representation, of which Piero della Francesca’s frescoes in Arezzo are the most famous.

Apart from Rome, Trier and Hautvillers, which claims to possess her remains, have a lively Helena folklore. So does Britain: according to a medieval tradition she was a native of England; it gave rise to various British Helena legends. She is often venerated together with her son Constantine, in particular in the Eastern Church. Her feast day in the Eastern Church is 21 May and in the Roman Catholic Church 18 August.

Jan Willem Drijvers


11 August – The Eighth Commandment – ‘You shall not steal’

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Pentecost 9

1 Kings 21:1-19
Psalm 13
Acts 4:32-37
Matthew 21:12-13

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of slavery, (therefore)….
You shall not steal

What can one say about stealing except to offer moralistic commonplaces?

Perhaps just this, and it is really the only thing that we need to hear: what is new about the commandment is that it understands: “You shall not steal” – an injunction as old as civilisation itself – now to be heard as a requirement of divine justice, not of worldly expediency. We seldom, even as Christians, get much beyond worldly expediency when moral questions are at stake. So, it is a good thing to be reminded that the commandment is about something much more significant than “stealing is wrong” or that “crime doesn’t pay”. At a much more profound level, exodus from Egyptian slavery is not to be the occasion for assisting the deprivation of others. This why “not stealing” is about the justice of God.

No better illustration of such condemnation is to be heard, and no crime is more condemned, than the famous parable of Naboth’s vineyard in which Queen Jezebel both murdered Naboth, and then confiscated his vineyard. In similar fashion, this Hebrew teaching on the implications of theft reached its later culmination when Jesus overturned the money changers’ tables. Frequently invoked by anti-pacifists, this story is somewhat more complicated than is often supposed. These tax collectors were respectable travelling temple officials responsible for raising a tax for the upkeep of the temple. The tax consisted of a half shekel to be paid in a particular currency, hence the need for moneychangers. The tax, which Jesus himself happily paid, was levied on all Jews over twenty. But now these officials had become secular opportunists, setting up shop in the Court of the Gentiles to which access was free. Not only were they inflating the going rate, they were effectively requiring an admission charge to the very temple presence of God. Stealing indeed!

As we have worked through the commandments, we have found ourselves confronted by a series of claims upon different aspects of the common life of the covenant people. We have seen that all the commandments aim at protecting God’s image, either in its association with God himself, or in relation to its reflection for a sustainable human life. Each has claimed our obedience, service and witness in the midst of family life, through the intimate relationships of sexuality and marriage, and now the warning of the temptation of theft, primarily in the realm of economics, but suggestively open to wider extension. A moment’s thought reveals that in a complex society stealing encompasses much more than the economic. Theft in various guises is, it seems, the perennial potential human condition. At the personal level, think of the experienced power of theft when expressed by innuendo, or worse, impugning of others their reputation, their professional competence, or their social desirability. Or consider how the scope of modern electronic technology has given rise to what we call the theft of “intellectual capital”.  Theft’s territory is legion, for it is many.

But clearly theft is most apparent in the realm of economics. “It’s the economy, stupid”, a sentence now made immortal by a President of the United States. As if illustrations from history are not replete enough, closer to home the last election confirmed that within the human heart there is a deep sense of aggrandisement, constantly on guard against personal diminution of wealth. As we well know, anxiety about possible loss invariably accompanies wealth, whether that wealth be static or increasing. In this respect, sociologists have taught us the phrase “upward mobility”. That clearly will have diverse connotations. When applied to middle class aspirations it will mean something quite different from its desired anticipation by the permanently constrained economic poor – whether at home or abroad.

The cliché, “nothing succeeds like success”, is grotesquely true with regard to money. It may be the case that while water left to itself always flows downwards, despite the political claim to the contrary, it seems that money always flows upwards to those who have it. The science of economics, and the practice of politics, may dispute the morality of this situation, but it appears to be an intractable problem.

It was against precisely this situation that the claim of this commandment had to be re-asserted time and again in the history of Israel. Prophet after prophet reminded the nation that the fact that such things should happen in the life of Israel contradicted everything required of the people of God. This eighth commandment, therefore, is primarily directed against the robbery of the poor by the rich. For modern society, it is, ironically, the other way around. Convention understands stealing to mean the robbery of the rich by the poor.

It is a sobering thought that while robbery is never condoned in the Bible, on page after page judgement is called down on the rich, who in far more subtle ways than house-breaking, take away the rights of the poor. An important present-day Old Testament scholar makes this summary comment of the then social mandate: “The poor are to receive their rights not as a form of charitable hand-out, but as a fundamental means of preserving the life of the nation and most important for its safety. It is more important than large battalions and powerful allies that the nation should allow its weak and helpless members to share in the freedom and justice given them by the hand of God.” This is said of a community which lived 3000 years ago. It could well be the social welfare policy of a political party today without changing one word, especially if it is heard as the charter to remedy the scandalous situation endured by asylum seekers. But all the more, now, spurred on by global instability, it is not merely a matter of economic distribution, but more insidiously, that of the possession or absence of natural resources, most specifically, soon to emerge, that of water. Climate change will ensure that water theft will prove to become a matter of justice without parallel, witness on our small local scene, the Murray/Darling basin fiasco.

But the most compelling reason why the concept of stealing is enlarged in the Bible is that the commandment is addressed to a people who have all equally shared in the redeeming love and purpose of God. Covenantal brothers and sisters have not been liberated from Egyptian bondage in order to lie starving and exposed.

Mindful that it is easy to preach a shortcut to Utopia through someone else’s property, how far is it possible in the midst of modern society to bring to bear the economic challenge we find encapsulated in this commandment? It is obvious that with our modern economic structures we cannot go back to the ideal pattern of earlier days, not least to the remarkable situation which saw the cancellation of all debts every fifty years.  But what of the Pentecostal experience?: “All that believed were together and had all things in common and sold their possessions and goods and parted them to all as each had need”. Far from being some form of primitive communism, here there is no compulsive law or theory behind this sharing of possessions and wealth. It is an affair of the heart, a generous outpouring in conformity to the outflowing redemptive generosity of that community by which the acquisitive tendency of the human heart has been strangely, suddenly, and decisively reversed, producing dramatic economic results.

Is this word describing a Christian community any longer a word capable of being addressed to the culture? It is surely a real, if not an entirely promising question, given society’s increasing and absurd demand that religion be merely a private matter. But were this to happen, there would be the beginning of a life lived in the power and light of this new order of things.

Today we really haven’t all that much choice in the matter. Global crises will ensure that we will need to learn as a matter of supreme urgency to obey this eighth commandment “You shall not steal”. Otherwise, we may conceivably arrive at that extreme condition in which the poor – whether they be near or far – having seen the commandment rejected by the affluent West, may find obedience to the seventh commandment: “You shall not kill” difficult to achieve. Who would have thought that there might be such an alarming connection between these two commandments?

But such is the realism, the urgency, and the warning attached to the command of the God of the covenantal promise: “I have brought you out of the land of slavery, therefore…. You shall not steal”.

MtE Update – August 9 2019

  1. This Sunday we return to Bruce Barber’s Ten Commandments series – ‘You shall not steal’.  Our reading of this text will be supported by 1 Kings 21:1-19, Psalm 13, Acts 4: 32-37 and Matthew 21:12-13 
  2. SUNDAY WEEK August 18 we will have another of our Sunday Conversations after morning tea, with speakers from Lentara on the Asylum Seekers Project. 

4 August – Known by God

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Pentecost 8

Hosea 4:1-6, 12-14
Psalm 139
Galatians 4:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

In a sentence:
Knowing God is knowing that God knows us,
and loves us nevertheless

Hosea is not very strong on what some might characterise as the ‘classic’ prophetic theme of social justice. There are a couple of references in his preaching to moral breakdown – we’ve heard some of them today – but the emphasis on the poor, outcast and weak we hear in other prophetic voices is not so clearly to the fore in Hosea.

His interest is more in social failure as a sign of a deeper shortcoming in the life of Israel. What is going wrong in social relations is not merely a number of immoral choices instead of moral ones. As we have now noted a couple of times, sin – good quality sin – is always rational, always defensible, and so always arguably necessary. Unless we get to the heart of the problem, sin is just this or that particular thing we might have done wrong.

The deeper failing Hosea identifies is a lack of ‘knowledge’ of God: ‘There is no knowledge of God in the land…my people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge’ (4.1). Yet the knowledge which is lacking here is not knowledge ‘about’ God, or even the knowledge that God ‘exists’. The ‘knowledge’ which interests Hosea is that kind of knowing which involves an intimate integration with the thing known.

We get an insight into the extent of this integration in older translations like that of Genesis 4.1 in the King James Version: ‘And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain…’ The Old Testament uses widely ‘knowledge’ as what we might be tempted to call a ‘euphemism’ for sexual intercourse; to know someone ‘in the biblical sense’ is to have moved into knowledge of the MA15+ kind.. Yet ‘know’ here is really only a euphemism for sex from our perspective as those who consider knowledge to be principally a ‘head’ thing. What matters scripturally is not the means or subject of the knowing but the intimacy it entails. To know something in the fullest scriptural sense – another person (sexually or not), or one’s craft, or one’s place in the world – is to have an intimate integration with it, to the extent even that we can understand ourselves to be known by whatever it is we know. The mutuality of the sexual metaphor is almost indispensable here.[1]

To say, then, that there is no knowledge of God in the land is not to say that no one thinks any more about religion – there is plenty of religion going on. It is to say that where there was intimacy with this God there is now not, and that other intimacies are now in place.

If we are made for this kind of intimacy with God, then we will naturally seek it: we will seek to know and to be known, to possess and to be possessed. This is not only in human relationships but in the broadest sweep of our being: we are built to seek a sense of ‘belonging’, of being part of a whole, of ‘fitting’ into a bigger picture. We express this in the fact that we attach ourselves to things, whether people, objects, ideas, or gods.

But what is important here is that although we do attach ourselves to such things, they do not determine the attachment. We understand ourselves to be the bestowers of meaning and value: this is life-giving, that is not; this is good, that is not good. The modern social media ‘like’ is a stroke of religious genius: in this we are fulfilled as arbiters of good and evil (Genesis 3), even if we might yet change our minds and exercise the power to ‘unlike’. That we might unlike is to indicate that it’s our choice of what is good which matters, and not the thing we choose. 

In the face of this – several thousand years before ‘like’ symbols appeared web pages – Hosea proposes a different choosing, a different knowing. We have already noted how Hosea takes the sexual metaphor over from the local pagan fertility cults which were so tempting to many in Israel (sermon, July 21). Yet he presses the metaphor further by portraying God as an active and interested participant in this ‘knowing’ intercourse.

That is, God’s activity and interest is not in mere participation as one possible partner among many. God knows before being known. In a whole other conversation, St Paul uses exactly the same twist in what we heard from Galatians today. There he makes a self-correction which might almost go unnoticed. Paul recasts salvation not as the obvious coming to know God but unexpectedly as coming to be known by God.[2] This is unexpected because piety holds that God knows everything and so has always ‘known’ us. To counter this we must then modify Paul slightly: salvation is coming to know ourselves known by God.

The failure of Israel – which is the failure of any one of us – is not that the wrong option for god has been chosen among the many options available. This would be a mere moral failure – like sleeping with a person you should not have, or not declaring an income source you should have, or hoarding chocolate. Moral failure matters but it is not at the heart of Hosea’s preaching.

Hosea announces, rather: your true self exists in knowing yourself known. This is what our psalmist today (139) understands.

Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, the beautiful intimacy that psalm is a terrifying prospect:

1O Lord, you have searched me and known me….
3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
… 4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

Such intimate knowledge could only be terrifying in a world in which we cannot help but be broken – and so in which we fall desperately short of the glory of God. Yet Hosea declares more than this. For our true selves exist in knowing ourselves known, and knowing ourselves nevertheless still loved.

For all the rage in Hosea’s preaching, the love and desire remains. The confronting ‘whore’ chapter we considered last week ends like this:

14 Therefore, I will now persuade her,
   and bring her into the wilderness,
   and speak tenderly to her. 
15 …There she shall respond as in the days of her youth,
   as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. 

2.16On that day, says the Lord, you will call me, ‘My husband’, and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal’… 18I will make for you a covenant on that day…I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. 19And I will take you for my wife for ever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. 20I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord. 

Our Psalmist proposes, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’ (139.11)

But Hosea agrees with the poet’s self-reply: ‘even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.’

God’s knowledge of us is
as light to darkness
and life to the dead.

Let any who find themselves in darkness or death rejoice, then, for God knows you,
and this is light, and life.

[1] Yet it is not that sex tells us about deep knowing; deep knowing tells us about sex.

[2] ‘Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits…?’ (Galatians 4.9; 1 Corinthians 13.12).

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