Monthly Archives: October 2020

1 November – On being humble enough

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Pentecost 22

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
Matthew 23:1-12

In a sentence
Humility is letting go of self-righteousness and allowing that, whatever good we might do, our place with God is already guaranteed

Given how the Pharisees are portrayed in the gospels (however fair that might have been) it is perhaps surprising that Jesus here commends to us their teaching: they are the contemporary mouthpiece of Moses and so, as the teachers of the law of God, they are to be heard and respected.

At the same time, Jesus charges that they don’t practice what they preach. This is not that simple hypocrisy that says one thing and does something else – teaching not to steal, but themselves stealing. Any particular Pharisee might have failed in this way but, as a group, they were upright and moral people and, for the most, beyond reproach when it came to doing the ‘right’ thing.

Jesus criticises them, rather, for their exaltation of themselves – their interest in being seen to have observed the law, and this in pursuit of the reward of high status in their community.

What is at stake here is the purpose of the law. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of acting as if the purpose of the law was to secure a strong standing before others and before God. Whereas it is usually the case in human society that those who achieve great things are honoured for their greatness, Jesus inverts the whole thing: ‘the greatest among you will be your servant’. The law is not set aside here but it teaches now a radical humility. What the properly righteous know in their observance of the law is not social exaltation but servanthood, a humbling of self before God and others.

And yet it is not as simple as the simple saying of it might suggest. Matthew finishes off this teaching from Jesus with a summary which indicates what can be expected: ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ In this seemingly straightforward statement is revealed the real difficulty of Jesus’ teaching here – the problem of humility being linked to an exaltation.

If, as the gospels presume, our basic human desire is for a share in the peace and freedom of the kingdom of God, then it is very difficult not hear Jesus advising us to seek to be humble in order that we may enter God’s kingdom.

To see the problem here we might ask ourselves the question, Am I humble enough? To answer the question ‘Yes’ is to make the Pharisees’ mistake, holding that I have achieved true or sufficient humility to have ‘earned’ God’s reward. That being the case, I know that I must answer this question, ‘No’, for surely to say No is more humble than to say Yes.

But this won’t help me either, for what I am now trying to do is manipulate the teaching of Jesus. Clearly, it is ‘more’ humble to deny my humility, and by this means I might imagine that I can fool God into exalting me. Just as there are many people who strive after great things in order to be noticed and exalted in the eyes of others or even of God, there are many who adopt the posture of a ‘servant’ because it can also be a very effective way of securing control over a certain part of the world, a way of proving to us, to others and to God our worthiness of God’s ‘gift’.

This dynamic leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that there is no standing before God on the basis of choosing to be great or choosing to be humble. Serving others in genuine humility is both absolutely required and quite impossible, once we’ve actually heard this teaching of Jesus and turned it into just another law – being humble gets us right with God.

The problem here is the temptation to self-righteousness. Whenever I ask the question of myself, Am I ‘good enough’, or whenever we defend someone else with the argument that they are ‘good enough’, we fall into the deep moralism which consistently confounds our ability to hear the gospel. The call to be good is, of course, loud and clear; there is no softening of the demands of the law. The Pharisees and the scribes sit in the place of Moses and the commands of God they teach are good and right. Do these things!

But the temptation to assess myself or others as ‘good enough’ is almost irresistible, and it is this which Jesus challenges here.

Even if we who believe can find a way to resist it on our part, many of us will baulk when it comes to those we love but who do not believe. We tell ourselves that surely they are good enough, humble enough. For all our talk about justification by grace through faith, and not by our good works, when push comes to shove we take moral offence and fall back on just these good works: surely they – and we also mean surely we – are good enough for God to accept us.

But now we see how talk of grace contradicts humility as a ‘method’; humility does not earn points with God but must be tied up with grace, with the gift of God.

Humility is not a moral method; it is an openness to God’s gift. While still striving to live rightly, humility releases us from anxiety about social conformity, from being seen to be right. Humility declares that God loves me apart from what I do, and it asks you to love me in the same way.

This is very hard. It is difficult to let go of what others think because what others think is a major engine to how communities operate. It is in our personal lives, in our news reports and in our politics.

The gospel, then, reveals what we do not want to hear: that we are all Pharisees, in the sense that Jesus criticises. We need to relax a bit in our critique of those upright and moral men who clashed with Jesus so long ago because the reason we still listen to those stories today is that they are our stories – it is Jesus’ criticism of us we have heard today.

The gospel concerns the judgement of God: guilty of self-righteousness, of self-satisfaction, seen from the perspective of grace already received. The gospel does not distinguish between good and bad, between Christians or Muslims or Buddhists or atheists. It distinguishes, on the one hand, the self-righteous – the children of Adam who presume to judge what is good and what is bad (themselves included) – from, on the other hand, those who receive their righteousness as a gift: those Jesus would make his sisters and brothers, the communion of saints.

Let us indeed seek to live upright, righteous, God-honouring lives, and call others to do the same: do justice, love mercy.

But let this be done in humility, and for humility’s sake: the humility which does not presume to know about our own righteousness but which reflects that God already loves and accepts us, and will love and accept those we live with and serve.

Then we will be living the law, serving our neighbour, and honouring the God who calls us to just such a life and makes that life possible: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly within the grace of God.

To this God be all glory and honour, now and forever. Amen.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 1 November 2020

The worship service for Sunday 1 November 2020 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

MtE Update – October 31 2020

  1. News from the Justice and International Mission Cluster  (Oct 26)
  2. This Sunday November 1 we continue with the set readings in the weekly lectionary. See here for more details (we’ll focus on the gospel reading again this week). 
  3. A brief account of ministry of the saint(s) commemorated this Sunday can be found here October 31 – Reformers, All Souls, All Saints

Old News

  1. A two-day (November 13,14) online seminar on the gospel of Mark might be of interest to some of you: detai

March 24 – Oscar Romero

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.

Oscar Romero, martyr

When Oscar Romero became Archbishop of San Salvador in February 1977, the priests who were socially involved were unenthusiastic. Born in 1917 in Ciudad Barrios he had five brothers and two sisters. He was ordained in Rome in 1942 and began doctoral studies in ascetical theology but was called home from Fascist Italy. On route he made stops with another priest in Spain and Cuba. In Cuba they were placed in an internment camp for a time. He worked as a parish priest for 20 years in San Miguel. Romero rose gradually from parish priest, to secretary to a bishop, to auxiliary bishop, to finally an archbishop.

He was said to be a man of prayer but conventional in his outlook. His very installation was used by the authorities to step up their reign of terror in El Salvador. However, when a massacre took place, Romero indicated that he agreed with the sentiment of a message, which had been distributed among the crowd, which said: “The church is where it always should have been; with the people, surrounded by wolves.”

The martyrdom of Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest who had been totally identified with the peasant poor of the countryside, along with two friends, moved Romero deeply when he went to the scene. He urged the government to investigate the deaths but they ignored his request. He began to come in conflict with the repressive government. He spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. On a visit to Europe he met Pope John Paul II and expressed his concerns at what was happening in his country. He criticised the US government for giving military aid to the El Salvadoran government. He encouraged the development of new liturgies and more meaningful modes of worship. Ministering in a revolutionary situation, he was criticised for his innovations and his call for the church to become the voice of those who had no voice. His broadcast sermon on a Sunday began to attract a large audience. Romero became known as a champion of the poor. He knew he was courting death. He hoped that through his death he would contribute to the transformation of El Salvador. In a sermon the day before his death he called on Salvadoran soldiers as Christians to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights.

On 24 March, 1980 this small gentle man was saying the Mass. As he reached the words of the consecration: “This is my body given for you …. this is my blood shed for you” a shot rang out and the archbishop fell to the ground, killed instantly by a bullet through the heart. A friend of the people, one who desired peace and justice, he had become an enemy of those in power. Oscar Romero is remembered as a champion of the poor, a person who lived and died for Christ, a martyr for God and the people. His voice and witness is heard today especially in contexts of oppression. He is an inspiration to all who would follow Christ and accept the cost of discipleship.

Contributed by Chris Walker

March 21 – Thomas Cranmer

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.

Thomas Cranmer, reformer of the Church

Thomas Cranmer, Martyred 21st March 1556

Thomas Cranmer is variously described in Anglican and Uniting Church calendars as “martyr” and “liturgist”; to many he is also known as “reformer”. Behind those words is a figure of some complexity. In 2006, on the 450th anniversary of Cranmer’s death, the Revd Ian Pearson kindly allowed me to mark the occasion with a Prayer Book Communion in Pitt Street Uniting Church, Sydney.

Henry Speagle gave the address which has just been published, “Thomas Cranmer and the Contest for Anglican Identity”. In it he spoke of Cranmer as one who found his identity only “after a tortuous and often tormented pilgrimage”.

From his birth and baptism in 1489, that pilgrimage included his studies at Jesus College, Cambridge, and ordination in 1523. Soon coming to the attention of Henry VIII and made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, Cranmer supported the King’s seeking of an annulment of Henry’s first marriage, the break with Rome, Henry’s claim to be “Supreme Head” of the Church of England, and the destruction of the monasteries — henceforth the foundation of stately homes and of riches for some, or else, in Shakespeare’s words, “bare ruin’d choirs”.

A convinced Protestant, seeking reformation, Cranmer welcomed the placing of an English Bible in churches in 1538 and in 1544 produced an English Litany for use in worship. However, it was only after the accession of Edward VI that he was able to replace the old Church of England Latin services with the 1549 Book of Common Prayer of which he was the chief author. Influenced by continental reformers, he soon replaced this by the more protestant Prayer Book of 1552. He was especially responsible also for “the stripping of the altars” — the abolition of many traditional ceremonies and the destruction of popular shrines.

In 1553, Mary Tudor became Queen, the links with Rome were restored, and the title of “Supreme Head” disappeared. (Elizabeth I was instead “Supreme Governor”.) Cranmer, “this mild man of God” as John Knox called him, was arrested, tried for heresy and sentenced to death by burning. He signed several recantations but on the day of his death, the 21st March, 1556, he finally renounced them all, and affirmed the beliefs he had long come to hold, especially with regard to the Holy Communion. It was ironic that the erastian who had seen the monarch as head of the Church was now one who came to repudiate what the monarch believed to be true of salvation and sacrament, and in the end returned to what he believed to be Scriptural and truly Catholic.

Some of the shrines and symbols and ceremonies Cranmer zealously abolished have long since been restored to his Church, but evangelical and liberal Christians would both still find wisdom in his understanding of the Eucharist and so many generally have benefited from an English Bible, a mainly married clergy, and from vernacular worship — in the 20th century restored even in Rome itself.

Cranmer’s greatest monument is the incomparable language of a Prayer Book, in its 1662 form still the official liturgy of the Church of England and of the Anglican Church of Australia. That Book of Common Prayer has been a major influence in many later liturgies, including Wesley’s Sunday Service, and some 20th century Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational and United forms of worship. John Wesley found in its liturgy “more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety” than in any other—although not perfect.

Through its services, many have come to faith, among them philosopher C.E.M. Joad and evangelist Bryan Green. And for some, like myself, who have known it from childhood, and for others as yet unfamiliar with it, it can still be, together with the Scriptures always underlying it, in George Herbert’s words, “a cupboard of food” and “cabinet of pleasure”.

We should remember the tragic aspects of the “Reformation” — mutual excommunications and persecution — but we can also thank God for blessings it has brought to the whole Church and pray in words largely those of Cranmer:

O Almighty God, who hast built thy Church upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the head corner-stone: grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their doctrine, that we may be made an holy temple acceptable unto thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Contributed by John Bunyan

March 20 – Alan Mungulu

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.

Alan Mungulu, faithful witness

Worrorra Elder and churchman
Alan Mungulu was born in 1925 in Worrorra country on the North West Coast of the Kimberley. His parents Nyimandum (Ernie) from Prince Regent River and Ruby Marrud from the Glenelg River regions encountered the tensions of two worlds: that of traditional life and life on a Presbyterian Mission. Alan’s father worked closely with the Rev J R B Love to build the first Aboriginal occupied house, collaborate in translation and help settle the inevitable disputes and conflict that arose from the interaction of two cultures. Alan and his sister Elkin, baptized with their parents on Easter Sunday 1929, inherited qualities of high intelligence and emotional stability. Alan attended the mission school and in addition to literacy, attained skills in woodwork and leatherwork.

Alan then worked as an engineer on the mission’s lugger, Watt Leggatt in the 1940s. On one of these journeys, Alan’s life was threatened by serious illness some three days sailing from a hospital. They were becalmed. Alan and the skipper, Ron Ross prayed, with the result that an unexpected breeze whipped up and filled the sails. Four days later, after a painful and life threatening journey, Alan arrived in Derby. Alan survived this onset of polio with the help of many people. His wife Gudu together with Ruby and Elkin were employed as hospital staff. The family stayed at the United Aboriginal Ministry (UAM) house during 1946/7. When Alan was released from hospital, he and his family joined their people at the mission station which had been moved to Wotjulum, near Cockatoo Island where he had to be carried everywhere by family and friends. Alan was eventually sent to Perth where the diagnosis of poliomyelitis was confirmed. He received crutches to aid his independence.

Despite this physical, mental and emotional challenge, Alan was able to lead his family and community through a difficult transition. He and Gudu parented six daughters and one son and helped raise other children also. All were nurtured in faith and educated in both cultural and Western ways. Alan taught in the mission school at Wotjulum, acknowledged by his peers as a wise teacher and elder. Alan helped his people understand the significance of yet another move in 1956 to Old Mowanjum, near Derby.

This move would have been spiritually and emotionally challenging as he and his people left the beauty of their blue water coast, to engage a male dominated rough white culture in a small frontier town with its alcohol and isolation. It would have been profoundly challenging for Alan and those who had a deep yearning for traditional lands and culture, so far from their own country.

Alan and Gudu were married by the Rev Hartshorne in Old Mowanjum soon after arrival. Alan preached frequently in the mission church, conducted classes at the Derby school and looked after the mission store, together with his wife Gudu. He was ordained as an Elder of the Presbyterian Church in 1958. Yet, as many of his contemporaries, he shared his culture, through stories and a creative practice of carving pearl shells and boab nuts.

When Mowanjum, as similar Aboriginal communities, underwent significant change in the 1970s, Alan was there for his people! He became chairperson of the new Mowanjum council in 1972, a position that he held to his death several years later. He assisted his community to move to self-determination as the church handed over responsibility of the mission and pastoral station to the Mowanjum incorporated body. He helped incorporate a strict no-alcohol policy in the community and involved the elders in night patrols and policing.

Alan was an exemplary elder both in the local and wider church community. He led in Morning Prayer and bible studies as well as preaching in Sunday worship. His sermons embraced compassion for his people suffering at the edge of Western society. In a sermon in 1977 he referred to broken objects and lives and wrote that ‘there is one thing that can’t be broken and that is the Word of God. God does not break His promises’. Alan travelled to Arnhem Land as the Aboriginal Congress of the Uniting Church was being formed. He travelled to the Philippines for a World Council of Churches meeting in Manilla and to Melbourne to take part in the Billy Graham crusade in 1969.

Alan’s funeral service on 27 February 1978 brought many government, civic, church and community representatives together to pay tribute to his contribution to church and community. Alan, like his father Nyimandum, was an Aboriginal leader of note, who enabled his people to integrate into a new way of life and spiritual understanding.

Rev Dr Robert Hoskin and the Mungulu family

March 20 – Cuthbert, Aidan & Bede

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.

Cuthbert, Aidan & Bede, Christian pioneers

These three men of God exercised their ministries in the north-east of England, an area known today as Northumberland but their impact has moved far beyond that area.

ST AIDEN, who died in 651AD, was the first of the three. Coming originally from Ireland, he was a monk in the community of Iona in Scotland. Oswald, King of Northumbria, had sent a request to Iona for someone to come and do missionary work in his Kingdom. When the first one sent failed because the people were so barbaric, Aiden was made a Bishop and sent to undertake the task.

Along with a group of a dozen Gaelic-speaking monks, Aidan installed himself on the windswept island of Lindisfarne, building a simple wooden church and outbuildings as a base for his mission in 635AD. This island is just off the coast of Northumberland but can be reached by foot when the tide is out. It was reasonably close to Bamburgh where the King had his castle.

Where another Bishop had sought to bully his targets back into church, Aidan became renowned for his tact and diplomacy, walking from one village to another to converse with villagers and slowly engage their interest in Christianity.

The feat was not achieved without difficulty. To assist his work Aidan insisted on learning the native tongue and set about recruiting a dozen Northumbrian youths to form the basis for new English Christian Church, and ensure tales of his holy acts lived on after him. As well as giving away the horse presented to him by King Oswald, his saintly deeds were said to include rendering a deer pursued by hunters invisible and putting out a fire through prayer. The Venerable Bede, the scholar and historian as well as another seventh-century Northumbrian monk, wrote of Aidan:

“He neither sought nor loved anything of this world, but delighted in distributing immediately to the poor whatever was given him by kings or rich men.

He traversed both town and country on foot, never on horseback, unless compelled by some urgent necessity.

“Wherever on his way he saw any, either rich or poor, he invited them, if pagans, to embrace the mystery of the faith; or if they were believers, he sought to strengthen them in their faith and stir them up by words and actions to alms and good works.”

Aiden’s missionary work was very effective. Many people turned from traditional religion to faith in Jesus Christ. Many missionaries came from Ireland to help in the work. Churches were built and Aiden travelled throughout his diocese usually on foot. He was known for his holy life, his passion to share the faith and his compassion for the poor.

While out visiting his diocese in August 651 he was taken ill and died. His body was taken back to Lindisfarne for burial. He had been the Bishop there for sixteen years.

ST CUTHBERT was born about 634AD somewhere near the River Tweed in the Border country between Scotland and England. As a child he loved games, was athletic and exuberant. As a man he loved hard physical work. One night in his teenage years he was out looking after a flock of sheep when he had a vision of Aiden of Lindisfarne, being transported to heaven. He found out later that on that night Aiden had died.  Cuthbert decided to become a monk and went to the monastery at Melrose, a sister monastery to Lindisfarne. Cuthbert was trained in the Christian disciplines of prayer, fasting and study of the Scriptures. He learnt how to read and write in both English and Latin, for Latin was the language of the Church and the Bible. Cuthbert was not only diligent in spiritual disciplines and labouring tasks of the monastery, he also gave himself most wholeheartedly to evangelistic work and acts of compassion in the wider community. He would go to far away places in the mountains and live with the people there, teaching them about Jesus, urging them to come to faith and living the faith in their midst.

Cuthbert was one of the monks selected to move from Melrose to establish a new monastery at Ripon where he became Guestmaster. Because of his holiness and his concern for the people, he returned to Melrose as Prior. This was a time of tension for the Church in England. Missionaries had come from Rome and begun work in Kent in the south of England. Their form of Christianity was Roman in origin. The north of England had been evangelised by Irish monks who lived out what is called Celtic Christianity. As the two groups spread throughout England tension became inevitable. The two groups had a different way of setting the date of Easter and disagreed about how much centralisation there should be in the Church and how much spontaneity. The wife of King Oswy of Northumbria came from Kent and so he was confronted by the two forms of Christianity in his own house. So he called a Synod at Whitby in 664 to decide whether Roman or Irish customs should be followed. The Roman forces prevailed and the Irish monks withdrew to Iona in Scotland.

To cope with the changes and the departure of the Irish monks Cuthbert was made Prior of Lindisfarne. He re-organised the monastery. He also became famous because of his gift of healing. Streams of people came to Lindisfarne to seek his help. Cuthbert also had a strong relationship with wild animals and birds. One time he rose in the middle of the night to pray. This he did by standing for hours in the sea. When he returned to the beach two otters came with him and played around him. After he blessed them they returned to the sea.

St Cuthbert now felt a further call from God to be a hermit. He made his home on one of the desolate Inner Farne Islands. A cell to live in and a place in which to worship were built. They were surrounded by high walls so Cuthbert could only see the sky. Occasionally the monks would come from Lindisfarne to visit him and still, though fewer, people came seeking counsel and healing.

In 684 he was elected Bishop of Lindisfarne a position which he did not want. The King and other Bishops prevailed upon him. After two years of faithful leadership he resigned his position and returned to his hermit cell on the Inner Farne. Cuthbert died a hermit on 20 March 687. His body was taken to Lindisfarne where he was buried on the right hand side of the altar.

After many raids by the Vikings the monks fled from Lindisfarne taking Cuthbert’s body with them. After many years of wandering, the body of Cuthbert was brought to Durham in 995 and the monks began building that immense Cathedral. St Cuthbert’s tomb is in Durham Cathedral behind the High Altar having been placed there in 1104.

The following prayer is used in the Cathedral each year on 20 March, St Cuthbert’s Day:

 Almighty God, who didst call thy servant Cuthbert from keeping sheep to follow thy Son and to be a shepherd of thy people, mercifully grant that we, following his example and caring for those who are lost, may bring them home to thy fold, through thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 BEDE, or THE VENERABLE BEDE, was a child of only seven years when in 680 he was taken to the monastery at Monkwearmouth for education. He was dedicated to the service of God. Two years later, a monk named Ceofrith established an outreach monastery at Jarrow. It was called St Pauls. Both Monkwearmouth and Jarrow are in Northumberland in the north-east of England. Ceofrith took Bede with him and he lived there from when he was nine until his death in 735.

Bede has been called the Father of English History. He wrote at least forty works, his most famous being Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. There is no doubt that Bede had a strong sense of the divine calling on his work. When he was still a child all the monks at Jarrow died of the plague except Ceofrith and Bede. Because of his great knowledge of Latin and Greek and some Hebrew, he set about translating the Scriptures so they were more accessible to other monks and to the people. Bede did not forsake his spiritual duties for his writing. He was always present at the worship the monks were required to attend. He was ordained a Deacon and at the age of thirty he was priested.

It is unknown how he became known as ‘The Venerable Bede’. One story is that a disciple wrote in Latin, ‘In this tomb are the bones of Bede’. When he woke in the morning the word ‘venerable’ had been added.

Bede died in 735. He was translating right up to the time of his death. He was buried at Jarrow but later his body was removed to Durham Cathedral. There he lies in the Galilee Chapel. Above his grave in Latin and in English is this prayer of The Bede:

Christ is the Morning Star
Who when the night
of this world is past
brings to his saints
the promise of
the light of life
and opens everlasting day.

by Rev John Mavor

March 18 – Joseph of Arimathea

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.

Joseph of Arimathea, witness to Jesus

Joseph of Arimathea makes a brief but significant appearance in all four Gospels as the person who saw to the burial of Jesus. Arimathea is probably to be identified with a Judean town northwest of Jerusalem known in Hebrew as Ramah and associated in biblical tradition with the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 1: 1:1, 19: 2:1; 7: 17; 8: 4). The designation ‘of Arimathea’ probably simply indicates Joseph’s place of origin; as a member of the Jewish council he is likely to have been a longterm resident of Jerusalem.

While agreeing in the essential point that Joseph was responsible for the burial of Jesus’ body, the four gospels vary considerably in their presentation of the scene and of Joseph himself (Matt 25 :57-60; Mark 15: 42-46; Luke 23: 50-54; John 19: 38-42), especially in regard to the motivation that led him to take the action that he did.

In what is generally agreed to be the earliest account, Mark presents Joseph “as a respected member of the Council (Sanhedrin), who was himself looking for the kingdom of God” (15: 43). This information does not necessarily imply that Joseph was already a disciple of Jesus (as in Matthew and John). Many Jews at the time of Jesus were “looking for the kingdom of God”; it was in the context of such widespread expectation that Jesus entered upon his proclamation of the onset of the kingdom (1: 14-15). Joseph, then, may have been led to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus and see to its burial simply because, as an observant Jew with a strong sense of social responsibility, he felt an obligation to see to the fulfilment of the prescription in Deut 21: 22-23 that the bodies of executed criminals should not be left unburied by nightfall. Nonetheless, as Mark indicates (15: 43), going to Pilate and requesting the body of Jesus involved courage; in so doing Joseph ran the risk of association with the person and cause of one whom the authorities had executed as a threat to the state.

If, then, Joseph was not a disciple at the time of his burial of Jesus (as also seems to emerge from the account of Luke), he was probably on the way to that allegiance. In presenting him unambiguously as a disciple, Matthew (27: 57) and John (‘a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews’ [19: 38]) would then be foreshadowing a commitment on his part that occurred later on but had its origins in an act of social responsibility towards an outcast that soon became enshrined in Christian memory and devotion. In the troubled history of relations between Christians and Jews, the courageous and generous action of this Jewish leader at the beginnings of that history deserves an honourable place.

Later Christian tradition, besides conferring sainthood on Joseph, had him journeying, as far as Britain, founding a church at Glastonbury and bringing the Holy Grail. At this point, however, we are in the realm of legend rather than reliable historical interpretation.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

Illuminating Faith – Lenten Studies on Isaiah’s Servant Songs

These studies focus on Isaiah’s ‘Servant cycle’ readings, within Isaiah 42-53.

The interpretation of the Servant cycle has been much contested through history and still is today. The studies do not do in-depth analysis of the set texts or to present a sure conclusion as to their meaning but are rather in the form of Christian ‘meditations’ or reflections on one aspect of the particular passage. These meditations were originally sermons, and were preached at the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic, Lent and Easter 2019. As such, this crisis is reflected in some of the studies.

These texts have been very important in the church as lenses through which to view Jesus but appear in the Revised Common Lectionary used by many churches in the Holy Week readings, meaning they do not get a lot of direct attention in Sunday preaching. These studies may help to address that deficit a little.

The topics of the five studies are:

  • On seeing what is there
  • The flickering Servant of God
  • Love’s new creation
  • Sin-Sick
  • The God of COVID-19

The studies are intended for use as a read-and-discuss study series but can, of course, be used by individuals. The questions for reflection at the end of each study are guides only; the discussion can follow the interests of the group; and a psalm and confessional prayer response is suggested at the end of each study.

llluminating Faith studies are occasionally edited for corrections and other minor adjustments. The version date is incorporated into the file name of the download – check that you’ve got the most recent version!

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