gospel of luke

Fortieth Day of Lent

Luke 23:50-56
50 Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. 52 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. 54 It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.

55 The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. 56 Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.

And so we arrive at the close of our discipleship journey through Lent, which formally ends here on Holy Saturday. It’s a strange day, if we follow the liturgical pattern of Lent, because it’s a kind of interim day, a day when nothing happens, but everything seems to be over. It is most of all  day of waiting and a day of grief.

It’s the kind of day which is designed to drive the modern purveyors of hyper-Church Christianity absolutely mad with impatience. If our people aren’t doing anything, aren’t ‘growing’ in their faith, aren’t doing some good somewhere then we don’t really know what to do with waiting. It is utterly inappropriate to sing a praise song on this day.

These days I think I understand better the importance of Holy Saturday as a necessary in-between time if the celebration of Resurrection Sunday is to be appreciated in its fullness. It is a necessary change of pace to allow for the acceleration of Sunday. It was the vital prelude to the embrace of all that follows. Christian discipleship needs these intentional changes of pace, and the more I think about these things the more I notice that awkward in-between spaces are a common feature of Christian faith. Just as they are a common feature of the kinds of life we live every day.

They re-appear in the days after resurrection for instance. Jesus had forewarned the disciples that he was leaving and sending someone better equipped for the task of spreading good news. The prospect of this Greater One must have been tremendously sustaining for them, but the transition unfolds in an unusual way.

If I had been Christianity’s spin doctor back then I would have advised Jesus to manage the handover carefully. This potentially world-changing movement whose charismatic leader was departing in favour of his successor would need a strong start. All the more so since the earliest members were so…well…socially awkward, to be kind to them. I’d probably stage a spectacular handover, seamlessly moving from resurrection to ascension to descent of the Spirit all in a matter of moments.

Instead we get a bizarre inter-regnum where the date of handover is never confirmed (a bit like the situation our current Prime Minister finds herself in with her Tory party at the minute). Jesus hangs on for forty days, sometimes here, sometimes not, in these strange, intermittent visits.

Finally, we get this fantastic departure. Then, nothing. NOTHING. Ten days of absolutely nothing.

Did heaven get its scheduling wrong?

The disciples are faced with yet another strange interim period when there is nothing to do but wait. I’m tempted to imagine this as wasted opportunity. Unless the waiting was an essential part of their preparation.

These strange ‘in-between’ periods makes us uncomfortable. Especially so, because generally we are not accustomed to it. We want things to happen. We want to make sense of things, to make the best use of time. But the biblical account forces us to confront this period of inactivity. We want to get the show on the road but we have to wait. Here we endure a liturgical stopover on a journey to another place, an enforced period of inactivity between the death and the resurrection

.It seems to me now that there is a connection between this waiting and resurrection, between waiting and the coming of the Spirit. And that this interim period is more important than we know, possibly even essential, to the readiness for all that follows.

I think we need to learn the discipline of waiting during periods of apparent abandonment because this is the nature of God. With all the power at God’s disposal God takes seven days to make the world. Instead of righting the world after the Fall God takes generations to work out his play, so that Jesus comes ‘when the time had fully come’. If we want to become more like God we need periods of waiting.

We need waiting because we need to be reminded that only God is God and that we are not. God doesn’t do things our way. God is sovereign and works in God’s own time. We cannot manipulate the timetable by our activity, our techniques, not even by our strongest desires.

We need waiting because we need to be weaned  off of the need to walk by sight and not by faith. When we can hold fast, and pray hard when God appears to have left us, then we are ready for resurrection.

We need waiting because we need time to learn good habits. It is important for us to realise, and perhaps it is an act of faith, that there is as much spiritual formation going on in the interim days as when we rejoice at the news of resurrection. These empty days of relying on one another and praying together lays a strong foundation so that when the action happens we are not overwhelmed by the power and presence of God.

We need to be careful not to despise Interim Periods.

So hold your alleluias till tomorrow.

Lord Jesus,
From the cross you committed your body
To your Father.
And then rested in the tomb.
And trusted.

Lord I’m eager to get over this day,
To get on with celebration
To sing the Alleluias
We left behind
At the beginning of Lent.

Teach me though the importance of this day.
This day of grief.
Of emptiness.
Of lostness.
Of waiting
For whatever might be next.

Give me faith to believe
That you are forming me as a disciple
Even as I wait this day out,
As I have done with all the interim days
That have fallen to me.

Teach me that your work with me
And for me
Is not over
Though it might appear that way.

Give me patience
To wait for your glorious resurrection
In me.


Thirty-Ninth Day of Lent

Luke 23:32-49 
32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.’

36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’

38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’

42 Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

43 Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’

44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.

47 The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’ 48 When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. 49 But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

When I was a child Good Friday was such a sombre day and one which the whole of my community seemed to take part in. The biggest event of all was the Good Friday Stations of the Cross service in our local parish church. The place was packed full, with standing room only, for a church service that took hours.

The Stations is a fourteen step dramatisation of the final events of these final days of Holy Week. It begins at the trial of Jesus and progressively moves through each step like a mini-pilgrimage. Along the way there are readings and prayers and space for reflection. As you might imagine it is a deeply solemn event (and for a child like me, very boring too.) But everyone was there, everyone was wearing black, and all the statues in the church were covered as we all made an effort to enter into the suffering of Aoine na Chéasta, or Good Friday.

At the beginning of each station the priest would say a prayer to prepare us for the time at that part of the story, something like, “We adore you O Christ, and praise you” and we would reply “Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

Simon of Cyrene who was forced to carry the cross was recalled, as was Veronica who wiped Jesus face with a towel. Most poignant of all, and the thing I remember most clearly, is the painful recollection of the first, second and third fall as Jesus collapses under the weight of the wooden beams. He is then stripped and then nailed to that cross, where he dies. Each step recalled at length an all its detail.

As a child the drama of this Good Friday service was undeniable even though it was very long. There was also something significant about a community wide commemoration. The shops were closed, the bookies and the bars also. There was no cinema and no other form of the usual entertainment in a small town in Ireland in the 70s, for this day was marked seriously and with great solemnity. I can look back on it now with the benefit of years, and whilst yes I acknowledge all sorts of problems with the church and its exercise of power, there is still a part of me that longs for a serious, deep and considered reflection on the events of the cross with fellow believers.

So I’ve been re-reading this story again and again, and one thing that comes home to me this year is the exchange between Jesus and the robber hanging on the adjacent cross.

Wednesday of last week we considered the story of the healing of Legion, the man who was possibly a former soldier who hid out in the tombs. Jesus turned the usual practice of violence on its head by asking the man his name. It’s a beautiful and humanising thing Jesus does in the face of terrible pain and suffering.

In this reading I’m struck by v42 and the criminal who turns to Jesus and simply says, “Jesus.” There is no ascription of a divine name, not honorific, but here, at the very end of his life he is given the simple name his parents gave him at the beginning. Stripped naked, suffering at the hands of the violent authorities, here at his death he identifies fully with the lowest of society, but still he is concerned for others. His name also reminds us that the equivalent name in Hebrew is Joshua, and it means “the Lord saves,” and so he promises that this criminal will be blessed.

The Act of Contrition, said at the beginning of the Stations of the Cross

O my God, my Redeemer,
behold me here at Thy feet.

From the bottom of my heart
I am sorry for all my sins, 
because by them I have offended Thee, 
Who art infinitely good.
I will die rather than offend thee again.

Thirty-Eighth Day of Lent

Luke 22:66-23:25
66 At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and the teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them. 67 ‘If you are the Messiah,’ they said, ‘tell us.’
Jesus answered, ‘If I tell you, you will not believe me, 68 and if I asked you, you would not answer. 69 But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.’
70 They all asked, ‘Are you then the Son of God?’
He replied, ‘You say that I am.’
71 Then they said, ‘Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from his own lips.’

23:1 Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. 2 And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.’
3 So Pilate asked Jesus, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’
‘You have said so,’ Jesus replied.
4 Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, ‘I find no basis for a charge against this man.’

5 But they insisted, ‘He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.’

6 On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. 7 When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.

8 When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. 9 He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. 11 Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. 12 That day Herod and Pilate became friends – before this they had been enemies.

13 Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.’

18 But the whole crowd shouted, ‘Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!’ 19 (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)

20 Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. 21 But they kept shouting, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’

22 For the third time he spoke to them: ‘Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.’

23 But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I read this passage of Scripture and can’t help but think about Brexit (maybe everything comes back to Brexit these days!).

First of all, the incidents recorded here reveal the perils of weak and insecure leadership. Both Pilate and Herod have power to do what they want, but neither of them want to make a decision. Instead a profound injustice is worked as they callously pass Jesus from one place to the next and abuse him as they do. Remember, Jesus has been up all night with no sleep, and here we are at the beginning of a new day and he faces FOUR trials. First in front of the Sanhedrin, the Pilate, then Herod and then Pilate again. In each situation the loudest voices win, and the accusation of treachery and treason is the one that is heard most clearly.

But where is the treason? The Sanhedrin who deliver one of their own to the hated Roman powers, and change the charges as they go? The Roman ruler who is bored by the whole thing and passes on a decision of one accused of sedition? The cruelty of Herod towards one of his own? The cowardice of Pilate who gives in to the crowd?

It reminds me of Brexit also because all of these powerful bodies and individuals can make the right decision but every single one of them looks to their own advantage and they do this flying the the face of the cause of justice. It is stated repeatedly that Herod and Pilate can find no basis of a charge against Jesus. And the religious leaders hated Rome (another Brexit connection perhaps!) and detested paying taxes to the Empire, nevertheless they sided with the enemy to get rid of the upstart Jesus (Luke 22:1).

The wanton human cruelty here is awful. Look how Herod dresses Jesus up in robes and mock him as a ‘king,’ (Luke 22:11). And how Pilate repeatedly says there is no charge, but I’ll punish him anyway (Luke 22:15-16; 22).

Weak and insecure leadership permits all sorts of injustice and wrong-doing.

Second, sometimes the voice of the crowd needs to be ignored, and it shouldn’t matter how many are shouting. Sometimes people with nefarious purposes can manipulate a crowd to act against their best interests. The first ‘crowd’ is in v5 and consists of the seventy or so leaders of the Sanhedrin. Later this crowd has grown and we see its effect in v18,21,23.

Look at the words that straddle v23 and v24: “their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand.” Pilate knew better than this. Pilate knew there was no charge. Pilate knew that Barabbas was a dangerous, violent man. Yet he accedes to the shouts of the crowd.

This is the victimising of innocence for personal advantage. This is the vacillation of weak and insecure leaders. The surrender to the shouts of the loudest voices. The refusal to defy the crowd when one knows that what they want is not for their good.

Behind all the political chicanery we see in this story and in the EU these days I came across a blog post today from the Joint Public Issues Team, a partnership of churches in the UK. The report says:

1. Life expectancy has fallen for the poorest women in the UK. Dropping life expectancy in peacetime is extraordinary.
2. 4.1m UK children are trapped in poverty, 70% of them are in working families.
3. Meanwhile on 8 April £1.5bn was cut from or frozen in social security benefits which will hit 27m people, and the worst effects will be focussed on poorer parents and their children.

Weak and insecure leaders, focussed on narrow self interest, inclined to listen only to the loudest voices, permit all manner of injustice to thrive. The UN Special Rapporteur’s recent report made the startling accusation that the increasing poverty levels in the UK are the result of political choices made by those in power. It’s not a new thing. It happened then, it’s still happening. The violent and unjust treatment of Jesus reveals us for what we truly are.

You might find some time today to read the JPIT piece on this link http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/one-week-poverty-rises-the-next-we-cut-benefits/

You also find the UN Special Rapporteur’s Report on extreme poverty in the UK can be found here https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23881&LangID=E

Lord Jesus
I read these stories and I am angry
At the cruel and inhuman way you were treated
All that terrible day after a sleepless night.

And I am reminded of all those millions in our wealthy country
Who went sleepless last night
Because of worry and stress
Because of hunger and homelessness
Because of the malnutrition of their children
Because of the endless frustration
Of hard work leading to deeper poverty.

Give us wise and compassionate leaders
Give us kind and sensitive policy makers
Give us more and more loud voices
Prepared to stand up for the weakest among us

Lead us this Holy Week
Towards a more just and fair society

For Jesus sake,
Who suffered and lost his life
At the hands of a corrupt and unfair community


Thirty-Seventh Day of Lent

Luke 22:54-62
54 Then seizing him, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. 55 And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them.56 A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.”

57 But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said.

58 A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.”

“Man, I am not!” Peter replied.

59 About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.”

60 Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” 62 And he went outside and wept bitterly.

It’s one of the most tired of all sporting clichés, the description of the sportsperson who “puts their body on the line” for their team or their country. I understand what it means though and I recognise that whole-hearted commitment when I see it, the willingness to put aside your own welfare for the sake of a win. And I’m glad I don’t play competitive sport any more!

This passage is much more serious than sport, but the same single-minded commitment is called for, to put your body on the line.

There is a sense in which this section of Luke’s presentation is one of the climaxes of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, particularly on the issue of discipleship. Twice in the Gospel Luke makes a point about the single-mindedness required of someone who wants to follow Jesus, and he does it in the context of saving or losing one’s life.

In Luke 9:23-26 Jesus says a disciple must be prepared to pick up her cross and follow in the way of Jesus. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it,” (Luke 9:24). Then he says one of the most difficult and challenging things of all, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:25).

In Luke 17:32-33 Jesus says, “Remember Lot’s wife!” It’s a strange comment but it appears in the context of not looking back, but being single-minded about what is ahead. Once you embark on this journey there is no turnaround. And it’s difficult.

And so we have this sad, and unfortunate event round the fire in the courtyard. It is surely not a surprise that Peter follows at a distance, (Luke 22:54), this is most probably a description of circumstances and a symbol of where Peter’s heart was at this moment. He wanted to be there, beside Jesus. That was Peter in his very best desires for himself. But he was scared too, and so he was half in and half out.

Peter denies Jesus (Luke 22:57), he denies Jesus’ followers, his friends (Luke 22:58), and finally he even denies ethnic identification with this man Jesus (Luke 22:59-60).

Peter must have burned with shame. 

It may very well be that Jesus turned to look at him out of some divine knowledge, but actually it could also have been real intuition and insight into the human psyche, and Peter’s mind in particular. Jesus knows that we are all a real mixture of deep fear and astounding courage. But whatever the reason Jesus looked, when their eyes locked Peter’s heart broke.

For Jesus knows how hard it is to be single-minded, and to go right to the end, to put your body on the line.

A friend told me once of an archaeological dig she had observed at an old monastic site in Scotland. She said the archaeologists  were struggling with the dating of the dig and were confused because the bones of the monks from medieval times that they had uncovered all had shin splints consistent with over exercise. She was able to tell them that before a certain point in history monks were forbidden from travelling on mules or horses and that wherever they took the Gospel message they had to walk. The shin splints were the injuries of those who single-mindedly walked the Gospel message throughout Britain.

It makes me wonder how single-minded I am for Jesus and the Gospel? What indignity and discomfort am I willing to endure to follow close to Jesus, or whether the instinct for self-preservation is too strong and making me follow at a distance.

This Holy Week can be the proving of one or the other.

Lord Jesus
I confess I’m no super-Christian
Though I’d love to be.

I’d love to be undivided in my affections.
I’d love to be fearless in my commitment
And bold in my risk-taking
For the Gospel.

And at my best I’m all of these things

But then I scare easily.
I worry too much about the future, about family,
About money and relationships and reputation
And a whole host of other things
Which you call me to leave behind
For the sake of following hard after you.

So this week, as I contemplate your final days
Before the ultimate betrayal
I’ll try to be loyal and true.

Thank you that you’ll be gracious to me
And that should I fail and fall again,
I know you will  restore me
As you did poor Peter
At the end


Thirty-Sixth Day of Lent

Luke 22:14-23
14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God.’

17 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. 18 For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’

19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’

20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. 21 But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. 22 The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!’ 23 They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.

If you think about our practice of faith and how we live out the story of faith, there are ample opportunities for creating symbols or icons. There’s the crib every Christmas, which in Catholicism in particular is very important because of its focus on an incarnated faith. But it’s seasonal. There’s the cross obviously, whether it’s empty or with the victim on it, it’s an important symbol, but there’s not much we can do with it, other than have it around us. There’s the empty tomb, but again, I’m not sure how we can make use of it in church.

Possibly the most user-friendly, familiar and precious symbol of faith is communion, eucharist, the last supper, whatever name you chose to use. Christian churches everywhere enact it every single day. And look how simple it is. A table, some bread and wine (alcoholic or non) and the community gathered around. 

Someone told me recently of a communion service held in solidarity with Christians from countries in which Christianity is banned. It was held on a hill in the north-east of England. People gathered outdoors after nightfall and it was called a whispered worship, for those who were remembered must keep their allegiance and their discipleship secret. Bread and wine are too obvious as symbols of faith so the worshippers brought grapes. The biting of the grapes, the breaking of the skin, stood as symbols of a body broken and blood shed.

I’ve partaken of a communion service in which the wine was replaced by whiskey, with the deliberate intention of ensuring the liquid burns and stings as it is swallowed.

Sometimes we kneel and have bread placed on our palms and a cup handed to us. Sometimes we stand and the bread or host is placed on our tongue. Sometimes we sit around a table and serve one another. Sometimes it is a solitary experience. Sometimes it is a remembrance. Sometimes it is a partaking. Sometimes the bread and wine are only memorials. Sometimes the bread and wine is taken as the body and blood.

Whatever we name it and however we practice it, communion is precious to Christians the world over.


But look at it again. It’s just a meal. A table and a shared meal among friends. What could be simpler than this profound act of hospitality.

I love the famous icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev, painted in the fifteenth century. There is so much to notice in this delightful image. But for our sake today I want you to notice perspective.

Notice how the three characters, the three persons of the Trinity, are seated and the orientation of their heads. But notice one other thing, there is a space at the table.

This space is our place. It is intended that we are not simply observers of this encounter, but participants. And so at the Table we join with the Trinity in a shared meal. Hospitality is at the heart of the trinitarian God.

Google a copy of Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity for yourself and spend some time meditating on it. Look at how the characters are oriented towards one another. Look at hands and feet. The colours, the background etc. And take your place at the Table.

Almighty and everliving God,
we thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food
of the most precious Body and Blood
of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ;
and for assuring us in these holy mysteries
that we are living members of the Body of your Son,
and heirs of your eternal kingdom.

And now, Father, send us out
to do the work you have given us to do,
to love and serve you
as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.
To him, to you, and to the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

(From the Book of Common Prayer

Thirty-Fifth Day of Lent

Luke 22:1-6
22 Now the Festival of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching, 2 and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people. 3 Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. 4 And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. 5 They were delighted and agreed to give him money. 6 He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present.

There’s something deeply sacrilegious at the beginning of this passage.

At a time when one of the great Feasts of Jewish tradition was approaching the religious leaders of the community were not preparing for the feast, but for murder. And the chief motivation for this activity was that they were afraid of the crowd. Despite providing religious leadership for the people they were frightened of the opinion of the crowd.

The relationship between leaders and the crowd is always a complex one. We see it in Parliament in all the difficulty of Brexit. According to our Parliamentary system MPs are not our delegates, they are our representatives, and they are required to go to Parliament and vote according to their conscience as opposed to voting according to the wishes of their electorate. This requires a special kind of leadership ability, and often it requires people who are not afraid of the crowd.

During the Passover upwards of 100,000 people would pack into Jerusalem and many, many of them would be fascinated to see and hear this maverick preacher Jesus. How much they believed what he was saying is open to question but nobody could deny he was quite a spectacle. But he was a threat to the powers of the day and they were desperate for a way to get rid of him and so I’m sure that the crowds didn’t know that they were plotting. To preserve their status and their power though, they were willing to contemplate the unthinkable.

Did Judas see an opportunity in the crowds to advance his political ideology of rebellion against Rome? Get rid of Jesus and force an uprising? Once again the crowd was a central feature of the plotting that was going on but they were probably unaware.

And at the centre of the whole drama was the one man Jesus. He seems particularly isolated at this stage. He’s safe in the city during the day when he’s surrounded by the crowds who are whipped up to a religious frenzy anyway at this time. But every night he has to sneak out of the city when the crowds melt away, because he knows his life is in danger.

The leadership sees this one man as a threat to their power. The revolutionary sees him as the spark to ignite a revolution. Either way Jesus has been dehumanised by both parties and his death is a price worth paying to uphold complementary ideologies.

And so a plot is hatched in secret, to do something in secret when there are no crowds around.

Jesus is threat or spark, whose death will further the aspirations of others, and so he can be treated as a nothing.

Everybody is using everybody else in the story. The leaders are using Judas, Judas is using the leaders and everyone is keeping the crowd in the dark but preparing to use them for their own ends. Everybody is using everybody in the story….except for Jesus.

He is the centre of attention for everybody, but he has no say in what is happening.

This is such a toxic form of violence. People are reduced to tools or instruments or weapons without their consent. People are to be used or abused to advance my cause or to further my ambition. This kind of thing happens all around us in all sorts of ways. It’s what the so-called corporate ladder was invented for—I climb at the expense of colleagues. We do it every time we tell a lie or a half truth to protect ourselves at the cost of damaging someone else.

It also happens every time we put our institutions, like the church, above the needs of people. So when we lie or dissemble to protect the institution and someone else suffers, we are following in a long, dishonourable line of plotters who, when they should be getting ready for worship, are committing murder.

Here are all the bible verses which reference Judas Iscariot, Matthew 10:4, 13:55, 26:14, 16, 25, 47-49, 27:1-5; Mark 3:19, 6:3, 14:10, 43-45; Luke 6:16, 22:1-4, 47-48; John 6:71, 12:4, 13:2, 13:26-30; 14:22, 18:2-6; Acts 1:16-18, 25. Why not take time to read all of them and reflect on his life and actions.

When you read and reflect think about how the deeper aspects of his life and motivation might find some parallels in your own. Are there any ways in which you feel compassion for Judas?

So here I stand again Lord,
In the opening days of Holy Week,
Facing into the heart of faith.
And what I see is deception
And violence.

I see it in the religious leaders
I see it in Judas

And I am conscious of it in myself.

Thank you that even now
There is forgiveness.

Help me to walk in newness of life
Help me to walk in peace
Help me to walk in truth
This Holy Week
And forever more


Thirty-Fourth Day of Lent

Luke 20:20-26 
20 Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. 21 So the spies questioned him: ‘Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. 22 Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’

23 He saw through their duplicity and said to them, 24 ‘Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?’

‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.

25 He said to them, ‘Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’

26 They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.

In all my years reading these Gospel stories I have never noticed the last clause of the first sentence about the spies “who pretended to be sincere,” (Luke 20:20). It sheds a whole new light on what follows. When they say “we know that you speak and teach what is right” and “teach the way of God,” (Luke 20:21) did they really know it, or did they lie deliberately?

And then Jesus, who “saw through their duplicity,” (Luke 20:23), I wonder why he didn’t blow the lid off the whole thing and reveal the deceit. And I wonder about what it was like being civil to these people who fawned over him, ingratiating themselves into the inner circle in order to destroy him.

Some of us will know what that is like. What it is like to be in the company of those who fake sincerity, but who seek our downfall in small or large ways. We know the familiar knot in the chest, how the continual false civility of ordinary exchanges sticks in our throat because we know things have to be said for public consumption, but we also know the disloyalty. I feel for Jesus here, and I’m angry at those who could behave like this.

I’m writing this on 29 March. So much has happened in the days since then that I suspect you may have forgotten that this was the original Brexit Day, trumpeted by our Prime Minister (or maybe ex-PM by now) as an immoveable date, until she moved it. And I’m writing for the 13 April which is set to be the day after the extended Brexit date (or maybe it’s not). Who knows?

It all reminds me of the corrosiveness of lies and deceit and how it can blind us to the real issues of our lives, our communities or our nations. How easy it is to speak honeyed words designed to gull people into a false sense of hope or security. How easy it is to hide the truth in a blizzard of words and high flown rhetoric when what we really speak are empty, flaccid, meaningless phrases.

Whether it is Project Fear or “Take Back Control,” we have been lied to, often deliberately so, by politicians, media outlets and those with power and influence. They have pretended to care, but were frequently plotting their own advancement in position or wealth.

How Jesus kept his wits about him I don’t know.

How desperately we need penetrating, wise and insightful words to silence those who are deceitful (Luke 20:26).

How desperately we all need friends and family who will speak the truth consistently to us , and not use us for their own advancement.

How important it is that we ourselves are the kind of people who enter relationships with kindness and generosity, without any ulterior motive or false purposes.

Thankfully Jesus also had disciples of courage and commitment who loved him and stayed loyal. In the pressure cooker of his final days, it tended to be the women. But more of that next week.

I can marvel at your cleverness here Lord Jesus,
Your ability with words in the cut and thrust
Of politics and conflict.
And your seemingly endless patience
With those false friends who faked sincerity.

But mostly I’m angry at the people who lied.
Or maybe I’m angry at the people who have lied to me
And secretly I’m angry at the lies I have told.

I am sorry that after all these years of following you
I am still capable of duplicity
And false motives.

Strengthen me to be loyal and true.
Strengthen me to be a valued friend.
Give me courage to wear one face
And not two.


Thirty-Third Day of Lent

Luke 12:49-53
49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

O dear! This is not the Christian message as we have imagined it. What has happened to gentle Jesus meek and mild? I wonder have I misunderstood his message and impact? “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?” (Luke 12:51). Well…….yeah? The bible tells me so. You are the Prince of Peace. When you were born the angels sang “peace on earth and goodwill towards all.”

So who is this Jesus who says “No, I tell you, I am here to bring division,” (Luke 12:51). And then goes on to explain how he will cause splits within and between families…utterly and completely. This is not the kind of Jesus we’re used to.

Jesus certainly seems to be under some pressure here. The phrase “what constraint I am under” could be literally translated “I’m struggling to hold this together,” (Luke 12:50). Indeed it seems he wishes that it was all over (“I wish it were already kindled,” Luke 12:49). Undoubtedly this stress would add pepper to the tone of what he says.

I wonder is Jesus talking about primary loyalties here. The Gospel will demand of disciples that they make a choice about their primary loyalty either to the relationships of friendships and families or to the Gospel. The images of fire (12:49) and water (12:50) are both forms of cleansing and purifying. Motives and commitments will need to be purified and cleansed and this will cause division. And sometimes, in the process of purifying conflict is necessary. When we try to avoid the conflict then relationships can never be purified. When we set up our families, our churches and institutions with a view to avoiding conflict it’s a recipe for unhealthy division.

And here’s something else about division: human life would not be possible without it. It is the process of cell division that enables an organism to grow and mature. You would not be you without this developmental process of cell division.

If you can remember your teenage years, or you’ve parented teenagers, then you know about the conflict that often comes between teenagers and their parents. This is about identity development and what’s known as separation-individuation by which the teenager is gradually developing their own separate identity apart from their parents. This is also a process of division and can be creative if navigated well (though it may not feel like it at the time).

Not all conflict is to be avoided, and it’s possible that Luke was also addressing his contemporary audience here who were experiencing their own family divisions as the church expanded and came into conflict with the surrounding Roman culture.

Conflict is necessary for the growth and the maturing of any living organism; a person, a family, a community, even a congregation! But it should also be said that the presence of conflict is not a guarantee that growth is happening. Some conflict is unhealthy and works against the process of cleansing and purification. Often in families, the conflict styles learned in adolescence are repeated in their own families with their own children. If that conflict was characterised by raised voices, heightened emotions, lots of drama, hurtful name-calling and re-directing blame, and the process is repeated generationally, it is a recipe for broken relationships.

Unfortunately positive and negative conflict can look the same on the outside, so what do we look for and what do we avoid? 

If a person’s conflict style prevents people talking meaningfully about their disagreements, or if someone rapidly makes conflict personal, what we call ad hominem, thereby diverting a conversation from the matter in hand to the person, this will only cause people to get defensive and is an unhealthy form of conflict. Where people argue without rationale, seek to undermine others or constantly deflect from their own shortcomings this is unhealthy conflict.

Instead, healthy conflict should be about developing a shared understanding and is characterised by disputants who are able to separate people from the problem. The issue at stake is de-personalised and people can talk directly to one another because they understand that they are on the same team. In the give and take of discussion people are able to address the issue without having to bring up past hurts and recognise that the problem needs settled now and not later. And people avoid red lines but demonstrate a willingness to be flexible in the interest of cooperation and collaboration.

Think about the last argument you had with someone. How did it happen? How did you respond? What changes did you notice in your body and your emotions? Recognising your conflict style can be very helpful in navigating conflict in family or church. Google the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Modes to learn something about your own style.

God of our borders and our belongings,
In these days of incivility,
So much of our talk to one another is hard.
Talk of breaks and splits and broken relationships.
Of cliff edges, and disorderly withdrawals.
Even words which should be soft

Our union is disunited. Our Community is coarsened. 

I confess that it’s hard to rejoice in the richness of your blessing
If my enemy isn’t impoverished at the same time.
I confess it’s difficult to celebrate my freedoms won in Christ
If my opponent isn’t permanently disadvantaged.

So forgive me if my face is flushed with anger 
And the hand of my friendship
is twisted into a cold fist of opposition.

So I pray, 

Bring comfort to troubled spirits Whose futures are uncertain
Bring peace to conflicted hearts Whose loyalties are torn. 
Bring wisdom to confused minds Whose decisions are momentous 
Teach all of us grace and generosity
in this time of discourtesy

Guide us in how to enjoy the liberating work of Jesus
Without the need to see God’s vengeance worked on others. 
For the sake of our witness to You
For the sake of our neighbours.
For my sake. 


Thirty-Second Day of Lent

Luke 11:37-54
37 When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. 38 But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.

39 Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.

42 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

43 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.

44 “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

45 One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.”

46 Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.

47 “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. 48 So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. 49 Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ 50 Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.

52 “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

53 When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, 54 waiting to catch him in something he might say.

In recent years scholars have begun to re-evaluate the treatment of the Pharisees in Christian tradition. So much so that today scholars would describe Luke’s presentation of the Pharisees as puzzling, complex and often inconsistent. For instance, Luke doesn’t mention the Pharisees at all in connection with the narrative around the passion of Jesus, and mentions Pharisees as members of the early Christian community (Acts 15:5). Yet the first words attributed to them in the Gospel of Luke show them totally misunderstanding Jesus—at best (Luke 5:21).

They grumble at the disciples, accusing Jesus of inappropriate table fellowship (Luke 5:30 and 15:2) and question Jesus about his disciples’ failure to fast (Luke 5:33). On and on they argue about John’s baptism (Luke 7:29-30), about Sabbath obedience and even Sabbath violation (Luke 6:6-11).

And yet Pharisees regularly host Jesus at table (where they seem to be always arguing).

Yet in the culture of the day the Pharisees were often beloved by the ordinary people, particularly the poor. They were frequently poor themselves, and not many of them were wealthy. They were also intensely loyal to the nation and to their faith. Indeed, after one uprising the Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus ordered the crucifixion of 800 Pharisees and ordered the throats of their children and their wives to be cut before their eyes. This incident would conceivably be within the memory of some who were still alive in Jesus day.

Indeed some would even argue that Jesus was a member of the Pharisees.

But he departed from them in their interpretation of the Law. It seems to be that for the Pharisees the keeping of the Law was the way to assert identity and insider status. Indeed it got so complicated that keeping the Law was completely outside the capacity of most people. Jesus stood vehemently opposed to this notion and understanding of the Law.

We should not imagine however, that Jesus came to do away with the Jewish Law. Not at all. He came to fulfil it, and he says as much in Matt 5:17. By this I think he meant that he saw his role as restoring the proper place of the Law. Jesus objected to an attitude to the Law which permitted someone to be compliant in all their external behaviours an activities, yet have a hardened and unloving heart.

His very graphic illustration in this passage drives this point home. You can wash the outside of the cup until it is spotlessly clean, but inside be filthy and unhygienic (Luke 11:39). What is the value of such a cleaning regime?

But the evidence that a person has understood the true intent of the Law is that this person is generous towards the poor (Luke 11:41).

In our day things are slightly different in that we have different laws, but similar attitudes are still to be found. For instance, some would tell us that true Christianity is about professing certain beliefs and ideas about God and Jesus. That holding firm to certain doctrinal formulations of the Trinity or the Atonement marks us out as a proper orthodox Christian.

I suspect that Jesus might confront this approach to faith very vigorously. It’s the kind of faith which measures orthodoxy by right belief rather than right behaviour. We could perhaps update Jesus harangue of the Pharisees here to say “Woe to you because you profess the right doctrines, attend the right churches, are seen in the correct company but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.”

It might be that Jesus cares less about our profession than he does about our practice of faith.

And I, for one, wouldn’t want to argue with him about it!

This is a risky one, but think about the culture of belief you live in and about the rules for what’s right and what’s wrong. For instance, maybe you’ve been brought up to believe that Catholics aren’t real Christians (or vice versa). Why not try breaking the rules just for this occasion (blame me!). Buy a book, or hunt down youtube videos of Thomas Merton, Joan Chittister or Richard Rohr and seek to learn from a different tradition.

Draw near, draw near Lord Jesus
And examine me inside and out.
Preserve me from self-righteousness
Or petty outward rule keeping.

Remove from me any trace of judgmentalism
or any narrow-minded fundamentalism
That values the rules over behaviour and action
In the world.

Cultivate in me a heart change
that makes me generous and hospitable towards all
That makes me as clean on the inside as on the outside

That I may more fully follow
In your footsteps.


Thirty-First Day of Lent

Luke 8:26-39
26 They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!’ 29 For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.

30 Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’

‘Legion,’ he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31 And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.

32 A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. 33 When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35 and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. 37 Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.

38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 ‘Return home and tell how much God has done for you.’ So the man went away and told all over the town how much Jesus had done for him.

This is a story in which Jesus confronts violence head on.

The region of the Gerasenes was a border area, a fringe of the Roman Empire. It was a place where Rome granted land to retired legionnaires in the expectation that they would act as a buffer against the enemy. Some scholars make the case that this man was a former soldier, a man schooled in the work of death and violence. I wonder had this man seen war and its aftermath? Were the enduring scars of those experiences impossible to hide in peacetime, so much so that to calm his mind he had to live naked among the tombs. His is a profoundly disordered life, nobody can control him, even with chains, and In this sense he is possessed by the spirits of war and aggression and cruelty.

And it also helps makes sense of another element of the story. The man spies Jesus and runs towards him and throws himself at Jesus feet (Luke 6:28). We could be forgiven for imagining that this is an act of worship and honour, but I think it’s more likely an act born of terror (a common emotion in the story). Jesus makes a play to bind this strong spirit and heal the man, and the man reveals his understanding of the world he has been conditioned into. “Please don’t torture me!” he says. For this is how victories are won in his world, through the application of cruel and unusual treatment, more harsh and more violent.

Jesus is confronted by the terrible impact of violence. To see what torture and aggression and war had done to the spirit of this man; a man so traumatised by violence that he can only imagine that everyone uses the same weapons that he had once wielded…even Jesus. Weapons that depended, ultimately, on the ability to imagine that the person in your rifle sight, or the person lying on the ground in front of you is not a real person.

How appropriate then that instead of actions that rely on the ability to dehumanise the individual before him, to strip him of all personality before inflicting violence, Jesus does the most subversive thing and  asks him his name.

To Jesus he is not just a man who lives among the tombs, crying with rage and pain and confusion, chained until he can find the strength and determination to break them, inflicting damage on himself.

He has a name, albeit one that reflects his life choices and his previous role in the world, until his violence could not be controlled and directed, and his handlers had abandoned him to the tombs.

There was, perhaps, no more powerful statement than this, that Jesus was not here to torture. That his kingdom was to be won not by the traditional means of might and power but by something far more grace-full.

Some things to say.
1. Violence is never neutral in its effects, it is always negative. Nobody escapes unhurt, not the victim, not the perpetrator and not the community who witness it and live with it.
2. Violence is wholly inadequate to the maintaining of peace. It makes everyone afraid, both the rulers and the oppressed.
3. Violence changes us, and perhaps the infliction of violence changes us most, and not in a good way.
4. Violence though, is ill-prepared to confront non-violence. But that takes great faith and great courage to believe. We think violence is powerful but it’s not near as powerful in its effects as non-violence.
5. One of the most subversive things we can do is to put a name and a face to the individuals who suffer. We should not label people simply as victim or perpetrator. Jesus puts a name to it. What would that mean for us?

Today, I encourage you to pray for communities and nations who are under the power of oppressive regimes. Check out the Freedom in the World Report 2019 using this link, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2019

This report records that in 2018 a total of 68 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties with only 50 registering gains. Check out the map and pray for countries whose peoples are desperate for freedom.

Thirtieth Day of Lent

Luke 6:1-11
6 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields, and his disciples began to pick some ears of corn, rub them in their hands and eat the grain. 2 Some of the Pharisees asked, ‘Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’

3 Jesus answered them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.’ 5 Then Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.’

6 On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shrivelled. 7 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. 8 But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shrivelled hand, ‘Get up and stand in front of everyone.’ So he got up and stood there.

9 Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?’

10 He looked round at them all, and then said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He did so, and his hand was completely restored. 11 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.

Did you notice that the word ‘law’ or some version of it is mentioned five times in these verses. And the word Sabbath is used six times. It should alert us to the troubling connection between religion and power. 

There are those who would seek to control the lives of others through fear, and what greater fear could their be than the fear of exclusion, particularly if they claim a power of exclusion that stretches into the afterlife. If you don’t behave in a certain way, you will be excluded from heaven.

Every religion has those who want to define membership on the basis of adherence to some law. They are the ones who wish to enforce some standard of purity which the rest of us are required to meet, but really those standards are designed to reinforce their own authority.

And so here in these two stories about conflict over law and Sabbath. The gatekeepers of the faith have defined a required standard for behaviour on the Sabbath, parsing the Law down to minutiae in which plucking ears of corn amounts to harvesting. They watch in case Jesus engages in the work of healing. But Jesus cleverly doesn’t touch the man so couldn’t be accused of ‘working’ at the healing, nor could the man be accused of applying something to his body which would make his body ‘work’ at healing.

Their parsing of the Law meant that even simple acts of kindness couldn’t be done for fear of falling foul of the Law. More than that, their application of the Law mean someone could AVOID doing the compassionate thing because to do so would break the Law.

Jesus confronts these purists again and again. For Jesus, any rule which releases me from acts of kindness and generosity, or requires acts of unkindness in the face of obvious need is a rule that must be broken. Even if it attracts the anger of the rule-makers.

Now it should be said that Jesus was not an iconoclast, attacking traditions just for the sake of it. He was utterly committed to the Gospel message that he outlined in Luke 4:18-19; good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. His message was not a message that imposed a new form of law and rule keeping but which declared the year of the Lord’s favour.

Anything that was contrary to this vision was something that needed to be opposed, confronted and provoked. And he did so from within, from a deep knowledge of the history and tradition, so he could quote a contrary story about David (Luke 6:3-4), and also a deep familiarity about the minutiae, hence his instruction to stretch out a hand.

We should always be alert to those experts in religious law who want to impose order through its observation. It is worth thinking about who has a voice in the setting and the application of law, and whose voice is being silenced by the law. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that groups, communities and organisations defined and organised around the principle of purity are destined for conflict, because no-one will ever be pure enough, and destined for decline, as they splinter endlessly over ever-increasingly ridiculous parsing of the Law.

Jesus said it himself, the Law was made for us, to enable us to live free. We were not made to be subjects of the Law (Mark 2:27)

Beware of religious bullies who use Law to enforce their power. If the Law does not support the increase of compassion in the world it is a Law that needs to be broken.

You are the God of the Law
And the Breaker of the Law.

Give us wisdom to know
When Law is being used to oppress and to bully
And then the courage
To break that Law

For the sake of those who lack the power,
Or agency, or courage
To do so themselves


Twenty-Ninth Day of Lent

Luke 4:23-30
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

One of the fascinating things about Jesus in the Gospel of Luke is how much conflict surrounds him. In fact, there are occasions when he seems to provoke it. Today’s reading is startling in that Jesus’ life is threatened after he preaches his first recorded sermon.

Nowadays the idea that a sermon could provoke violence is bizarre. In popular culture the sermon can be the time for some to doze off, and rather than the sound of angry voices what the preacher hears is the not-so-quiet rustle that accompanies the opening of boiled sweets. But that was not always the case.

On August 28, 1748 John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, visited Bolton. He wrote about that visit: “At one (o’clock) I went to the cross in Bolton. There was a vast number of people, but many of them utterly wild. As soon as I began speaking, they began thrusting to and fro; endeavouring to throw me down from the steps on which I stood. They did so once or twice; but I went up again and continued my discourse. They then began to throw stones; at the same time some got upon the cross, behind me, to push me down; on which I could not but observe how God over-rules even the minutest circumstances. One man was bawling just at my ear, when a stone struck him on the cheek, and he was still. A second was forcing his way down to me, till another stone hit him on the forehead; it bounded back, the blood ran down, and he came no farther. “

He came again the following year and things hadn’t improved, "We came to Bolton about five in the evening. We had no sooner entered the main street, then we perceived the lions at Rochdale were lambs in comparison of those at Bolton. Such rage and bitterness I scarce ever saw before, in any creatures that bore the form of men."

We can hardly imagine a sermon so offensive that it would cause such violence and disruption, but such was the offence that Wesley and his message caused that this kind of violence was frequent. There were all sorts of reasons for it, not least was the fact that the Church of England, by whom he was ordained, considered his open air preaching to be offensive. And his ‘method’ of spirituality which was open and available to anyone, especially the poor, was considered to be a threat to the established order. Nevertheless he persisted.

Jesus, in his first recorded sermon in his home town takes a couple of illustrations designed to provoke a response. The listeners want some special treatment because they are his hometown crowd, but he refuses. He tells two biblical stories of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha when they refused to work miracles for their own and instead helped Gentiles. This stirred the sectarian and selfish rage of his neighbours.

Not only will he refuse to bless his own in a special way, he is suggesting a ministry to Gentiles. And so they drove him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. I wonder what it was like for Jesus to be driven out of his home town. Was it scary? Was he hurt? How did his parents feel afterwards, were they nervous to show their face about the streets?

It wouldn’t take much to imagine ways in which a sermon could stir real anger today. It might be a sermon on Brexit, that counters the majority view of a congregation, or on LGBT inclusion which in the PCI could see a minister lose their job. Thankfully it’s not so prevalent nowadays but in the not so distant past ministers were driven from their congregations over their views on ecumenism.

The important thing to discern is when an issue needs to be raised and a congregation provoked to consider ideas which makes them uncomfortable. Jesus obviously wanted to provoke his neighbours on the issue of the Gentile inclusion. It wasn’t that he was being belligerent, but that he knew this essential element of the prophetic message was being ignored or dispensed with in favour of a more localised and selfish understanding.

Knowing when and knowing how to provoke conflict requires great wisdom and great courage. Gentile inclusion went to the heart of a Gospel message that began with God assuming human form in a radical act of identification and embrace. Any faith that didn’t have that kind of welcome was a faith worth confronting.

What would have to be said from a pulpit today to get you angry? To what extent is that matter a core element of the Gospel?

Lord Jesus
You are provocative
And confrontative
In a way I’m not comfortable with.

I dare you now
To show me the ways
In which I have domesticated
The Gospel.

The ways in which I have played safe
In how I believe and how I act.
Show me what I have missed
Or what I am blind to
Or would prefer wasn’t part of the message.

I promise not to drive you away.


Twenty-Eighth Day of Lent

Luke 19:11-28
11 While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. 12 He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. 13 So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’

14 “But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’

15 “He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.

16 “The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.’

17 “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’

18 “The second came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned five more.’

19 “His master answered, ‘You take charge of five cities.’

20 “Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. 21 I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’

22 “His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’

24 “Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’

25 “‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’

26 “He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’”

28 After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

This is another parable about power, which follows yesterday’s in a startling way. I want to ask one question about this one, is there any evidence in the story to suggest that the third servant, who wrapped the money in a handkerchief, was wrong in his assessment of the character of the King? (Luk 19:20-21).

If we examine the evidence from the clues given in the story what picture emerges of this king.

  • He had sufficient power and authority to go to a different country to be made king (Luk 19:12). Incidentally, how did this happen? Was this through conquest and the forceful expansion of empire?

  • He was hated by his subjects who engaged in public protest against his kingship and he had sufficient power and was sufficiently secure that he could ignore them. (Luk 19:14-15)

  • He grew more wealthy off of the efforts of others (though if course he risked his own capital) (Luk 19:15-19).

  • The first law he passed as the new king was to enrich the wealthy and further impoverish the poor (Luk 19:26). This came even after some of his subjects advised him that the one who was getting the third servant’s money already had plenty (Luk 19:25).

  • He murdered his subjects and did it in such a way that he could watch (Luk 19:27).

Seems to me that the third servant’s assessment, in his fear, was absolutely accurate. This king was a hard man, taking whatever he wanted (like the kingship itself) and reaping personal benefit in places and in ways that he had never worked for. He was therefore a violent, greedy despot. And the political and social culture he promoted was one in which, if you bought in to it like the first two servants, you stood to gain more. But if you weren’t prepared to buy into it, or you resisted it, at best you were impoverished, at worst you were executed (Luke 19:26)

No wonder some of his subjects objected to this man becoming king. Who would want to live in such a kingdom? Who then is our example in the story? I would argue that it is certainly not the first nor the second servant who most closely model their behaviour on the attitude and behaviour of the king. So maybe it’s the third servant.

But what did he do that is worthy of emulation? His was behaviour motivated primarily by fear. And in his fear he did nothing and said nothing until confronted by the king.

I’m reminded of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Such was his power to make or break careers in the movie industry that no-one said anything against him even though people knew what he was doing, and so the women who suffered were forced to suffer in silence.

If the third servant’s assessment of the king is accurate then his silence is not to be admired or copied, rather his cowardliness is to be pitied or criticised. Or maybe he is as much a victim of bullying as others were in the country.

The third servant stayed quiet when he should have spoken out. He had first hand experience of the values of this powerful man, living with him as a valued servant (after all he was chosen as one of ten to be trusted with money). And I find myself wondering how many times I have stayed silent when I should have spoken. I find myself thinking of those who have suffered because I lacked the moral courage to speak out against wrong and injustice. I think about the Church in all its forms and how we have favoured being on the inside rather than standing with those on the outside and exposing oppressive behaviours. Or worse, where we have sided with the forces of injustice and oppression to preserve power and position.

The third servant is not one to be mimicked.

Scarily enough our example in the story may very well be the protestors. Yes. The ones who lost their lives. They knew the king and his value system but refused to live under such a regime (Luk 19:14). So they protested his coronation. Protested when he proposed taking wealth from one and giving it to another who already had plenty. They resisted his regime even to the point of being killed in a gratuitous way by that king for his entertainment. Whereas the third servant didn’t say anything but buried what he had, these people protested publicly at great personal cost.

These are the days of the overhaul of the benefits system in the UK when research consistently says that the impact of welfare reform hits hardest on the most vulnerable and that it doesn’t incentivise work.

These are the days of confused and confusing government regimes in the UK and in the US when those on the bottom rungs of the social ladder appear to be of least concern to government. Days of Brexit chaos. Days of wars and rumours of wars. Of the rise of the extreme right wing and renewed racism, anti-Islamism, anti-semitism and white supremacy.

Here in Northern Ireland the bar of orthodoxy is being set by those with power and those who fail to measure up are being excluded. Even theological issues which we believed had been settled long time ago, like the role of women in our churches, are being questioned, and dissent is growing, because the issue of the inclusion of women is a wedge issue for other inclusion debates like that for the LGBT members of our congregations.

Some of us don’t want that type of rule to be king over us. But nor do we want to slink away quietly and make no fuss, in these days when ministries and reputations are being killed stone dead.

This parable sounds frighteningly contemporary. Protesting the powers is a scary thing. This parable serves as a warning, that if you buy into this radical Jesus paradigm for the organising of the world, or the church, then be prepared for the fact that not everyone will be up for it. In fact the dominant powers may be set against it and you may have to bear a great cost. And of course, we know in the history of the church that many have suffered and died for kingdom values and still the Kingdom of God hasn’t come in its fullness.

After the recent killings at the Linwood and Al-Noor mosques in New Zealand many inspiring and moving stories emerged of communities, including Christian communities who acted in solidarity with their Muslim neighbours⁠.1 In Manchester, a photo of a local Christian man went viral as he stood outside a local mosque vowing to keep watch while they prayed.⁠2

Is there an injustice you need to speak out about, or a victim to whom you need to offer support. Why not make a call or write a card oR letter, or assure them personally of your solidarity?

God of gentleness and compassion
In Jesus you know of the violence
Of human injustice

Forgive us for failing to speak out
When we see a wrong being done
To a fellow human being.
Because of a concern for personal safety
Or reputational advantage
Or lack of concern

Give us the courage to speak out
When words are needed,
And courage to act
When righteous deeds are required.

May we be clearly seen and heard
As children of our good God


1 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-asia-47601844/christchurch-shootings-the-new-zealanders-rallying-to-help-victims

2 https://lovinmanchester.com/news/manchester/manchester-new-zealand-shooting

Twenty-Seventh Day of Lent

Luke 18:1-8
18 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

This is one of the few parables where an application of the story is supplied, possibly by Luke himself. In this case he describes it as a parable encouraging persistence in prayer. But this is not all there is to it I think.

Maybe you don’t remember the comic character Carol Beer, but you will remember her catchphrase which entered public consciousness during the early 2000s. Carol was played by David Walliams in the Little Britain comedy show. She worked variously in a bank, as a holiday rep and as a hospital receptionist, always face to face with customers. In response to even the most simple of requests she would type into her computer, slowly, deliberately and then read what was on the screen and say “Computer says no!”

It was funny because it was so frustratingly accurate. We’ve all experienced those occasions of being trapped in a “customer services” loop where no matter what we ask, an operative checks information stored on or generated by a computer and then makes decisions that defy common sense. Whether it’s the ads that pop up on our social media feeds or applications for credit we are all subject to anonymous algorithms and it’s hard to get to the human face of the big institutions. Government, health, education, financial, even church institutions can lose themselves behind an inhuman corporate wall against which a person can beat their fists and get nowhere.

So it’s significant here that the two characters are a widow, often poor, defenceless and powerless, and a judge, the symbol of the institutions of law and justice.The widow keeps on coming again and again looking for justice, but the judge is impervious. The widow has nothing by which she can move the institution to consider her plight and deliver a fair verdict. Again and again, justice is denied. Computer says no!

Yet even in our world, occasionally through sheer persistence like this widow, we can get through the bureaucracy and get to the human heart of an institution and find recourse to a good decision, someone who is willing to defy the algorithm or the say-so of the computer.

I wonder are there some important gospel values deep in this parable which are of relevance for us in our modern world. It might be in our banks which are closing down local branches in favour of online services. Or our broadband suppliers who offload customer services to a country where the labour is cheaper, or the EU which comes across as increasingly distant and bureaucratic. It might be the Brexit mess into which no-one seems to be able to insert any sense or wisdom. Or it might be our churches in which sometimes church polity and law takes priority over common sense or warm-heartedness.

The gospel value at stake here in this parable is the enduring importance of genuine human kindness and compassion. We should constantly be on the alert for those occasions when the institution denies justice to individuals; those times when the Law ignores the plight of a real, live, flesh and blood human being.

So that whenever Law results in unkindness to a human being, Christians must demand that the Law changes. Even if that Law suits us. Even if that Law is the Church’s Law. Whenever someone can hide behind an institution (or a helpline or a rule book or an algorithm) and fail to do the right thing because of it, we must protest it and resist it.

Whenever an institution demands the allegiance of someone to the extent that that someone must condone, defend or permit wrongdoing, that institution is a demonic power. Whenever the operative purpose and ethic of an institution is its own survival, such that it demands the ultimate loyalty of a person for that survival or will do whatever is necessary to ensure its survival, then beware, it is a fallen power. All institutions are subject to this, even local sports clubs and sewing bees. Even churches and denominations. When survival is all it will always be on the basis of human sacrifice. 

I love the writings of lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow who was active in the 1960s in the civil rights movement in the USA. He wrote extensively of principalities and powers and said, 

“transposed into contemporary language…the principalities become recognizable and all too familiar: they include all institutions, all ideologies, all images, all movements, all causes, all corporations, all bureaucracies, all traditions, all methods and routines, all conglomerates, all races, all nations, all idols. Thus, the Pentagon or the Ford Motor Company or Harvard University or the Hudson Institute or Consolidated Edison or the Diners Club or the Olympics or the Methodist Church or the Teamsters Union are principalities. So are capitalism, Maoism, humanism, Mormonism, astrology, the Puritan work ethic, science and scientism, white supremacy, patriotism, plus many, many more—sports, sex, any profession or discipline, technology, money, the family—beyond any prospect of full enumeration. The principalities and powers are legion.”

He says that the power behind every institution that demands our allegiance is Death. When an institution demands absolute allegiance, when it becomes an idol in our lives, we are serving Death, the power behind every principality. The challenge facing all of us in this world is to escape the power of Death. We think we can do it through our institutions, through establishing things in our name or whatever. We remain loyal even in the face of cruelty in the hope that the institution will remember us. But there is only one way of defeating Death.

As Christians we call it Resurrection. It is the power of God to listen to our pleas for justice and to respond with an immediate and effective remedy. And to the extent that we are responsive to the pleas of the powerless even, and perhaps especially, at the cost of our institutions we are living out of Resurrection power even while we live.

Stringfellow says,

“Resurrection…refers to the transcendence of the power of death and the fear or thrall of the power of death, here and now, in this life, in this world. Resurrection, thus, has to do with life and, indeed, the fulfilment of life before death... [Christ's] power over death is effective not just at the terminal point of a person's life but throughout one's life, during this life in this world, right now. This power is effective in the times and places in the daily lives of human beings when they are so gravely and relentlessly assailed by the claims of principalities for an idolatry that, in spite of all disguises, really surrenders to death as the reigning presence in the life of the world. His resurrection means the possibility of living in this life, in the very midst of death's works, safe and free from death.

Almighty, all-loving God
Author of life
Defeater of death
And upholder of the poor and defenceless

Grant to our Church
The power and authority
Of a human face.

Forgive us for our reliance
On rules and regulations
On impersonal interactions
And cold bureaucracy.
Forgive us especially
For the times we have 
Not done justice
For fear of damaging the reputation
Of the church

Give us the humility
To pray for the well-being of Your Church,
And to work peace, justice and equality
In the world
Even at the cost of the Institution.


Twenty-Sixth Day of Lent

Luke 16:19-31
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Luke’s Gospel is a difficult one for those of us living in the First World for so much of his account is a sustained challenge to those who, as this story puts it, “in their lifetime have received your good things,” (Luke 16:25). Luke aims so much of his Gospel at the economically wealthy and charges us with a responsibility for economic justice in our world.

As the late, lamented Clarence Jordan, farmer, theologian and one of the founders of Habitat for Humanity said it in his characteristic Southern American drawl, “[The bible] doesn’t say you shouldn’t serve God and Mammon; it says you cain’t.”

And so here we have yet another story which begins “There was a rich man who…” And this story gives a dramatic account of the negative impact of economic inequality on poor people, but also on the rich.

Just prior to the World economic Forum in Davos last January Oxfam published a report on world economic inequality.⁠1 In it they presented evidence which demonstrated that the world’s twenty-six richest people control more wealth that 3.8 billion of the world’s poorest people. Billionaires around the world saw their wealth grow by $2.5 billion A DAY in 2018, and that one per cent of the accumulated wealth of  the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos was equivalent to the entire health budget of Ethiopia, a country of 105 million people.

Theologian Ched Myers describes the story of Lazarus as a political cartoon. He says it opens with a portrait of decadent wealth (Luke 16:19) in which the anonymous rich man is clothed in extreme luxury (incidentally a form of luxury repeated in Revelation 18:12 as part of the doomed cargo mourned by profiteering merchants of burning Babylon). By contrast the poor man is named; he is Lazarus. He sits at the gate of the rich man, as a visible opposition to the conspicuous consumption of the rich man, longing to receive charity from the indulgent wastage of this man.

Both characters die. It’s a matter-of-fact statement, indicating perhaps that wealth is no insulation against the ultimate end. In this we should be reminded of the parable of the wealthy farmer for whom death came suddenly (see the reflection on Luke 12 from the 21st March). The spatial opposition is reversed here, the poor man goes to the bosom of Abraham and the rich man to Hades (Luke 16:22-23). Myers reminds us that this is not simply a crude reversal of fortunes in the next life. Instead, “it is a severe warning that we will all ultimately become victims of the social barriers we erect if we don’t deconstruct them in this life.”

There is something unsettling here about who really belongs to Abraham’s family. This has been a consistent theme of Luke’s Gospel (see Luke 3:8; 13:16; 13:28 and even 19:9). Many who presume entitlement to a relationship with Abraham will not sit with him in the heavenly banquet.

The rich man imagines that in this afterlife the old social order still holds and he requests Abraham to dispatch Lazarus to bring some water to ease his suffering. Later, when he requests help for his family Abraham refuses saying they have the witness of the Scriptures. But even at the end he defies the biblical witness and refuses. Abraham makes a startling comment in concluding the story to the effect that the danger of privilege and piety is that it could care less about the clear prophetic witness of justice. We claim commitment to biblical authority, but we chase the spectacular and prefer if someone comes to us “from the dead” (Luke 16:30).

This is such a complex and challenging story, that Myers believes is actually the key to understanding Luke’s message of discipleship. It challenges us, as Myers says “to either ‘live against’ or ‘die with’ the inhumane disparities that divide our social landscape.” It makes us think about the persistence of economic disparities, whose implications last beyond our life here; it challenges us about the place of biblical authority and prophetic witness; about how we crave the spectacular in our walk of discipleship at the expense of the hard work of doing prophetic justice.

It’s an obvious question really, but where and who are the rich man and Lazarus today? Where do you see a “great chasm” (Luke 16:26) between peoples and people groups? What does it require of us to act in prophetic witness against such a divide?

1 https://www.oxfam.org/en/tags/davos-2019

Twenty-Fifth Day of Lent

Luke 16:1-9
1 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ 3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ 5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 “ ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’ 7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “ ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’ 8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

There is a very clear connection here with the parable of the prodigal. In both settings someone is responsible for squandering the wealth of someone else. The Greek word used in both cases is exactly the same and it literally means “they scattered it in all directions” (Luke 15:13; 16:1).

But there's a reason why this parable is not often preached, and it comes in verse 9. Jesus appears to suggest that we should be shrewd in using our resources to gain friends. It sounds a bit disingenuous doesn't it? The complexity of the parable means that there is no real consensus on how to handle it, and I certainly don't propose to resolve the challenge here. And anyway, it is the beauty of stories that they allow us a whole variety of ways of understanding the truths they tell.

One way into this story is to consider the fact that the news comes to the rich man from outside his household, “What is this I hear about you?” he says (Luke 16:2). It may suggest that the ability of the rich man to control the actions of those in his household is being called into question, and, in an honour/shame culture, to have others talking about you negatively is a far worse thing than to be losing money. So it may be that the master is on trial in this parable and not the steward. If he is not able to control his household, his family members, his staff, clients or agents is to incur serious stigma in society that no amount of money can compensate for.

The central issue is therefore the recovery of honour which of necessity means the sacking of the steward, whether the charges laid against the steward are true or not. In this way he can recover some of the loss of face. This is why the steward had to act quickly (Luke 16:3) for he knows there is not going to be an investigation. In Jesus’ time the actions of the steward are perfectly understandable, everybody would know that this is how a man who is about to be sacked would react. And his actions serve to heighten the threat to the rich man’s honour, for in trying to recover his status the man’s shrewd manager ends up making it worse.

The parable then swerves in a  totally unexpected direction. What should happen now is that the Master act again, at the expense of the manager to recover honour, but instead it’s almost as if the Master laughs at the manager’s actions. Indeed he praises the manager for his shrewdness and by doing so he scandalises the listeners who were primed to expect harsh action. Instead the Master praises his social inferior for how he acts and shifts attention from his damaged honour to the apparent success of the manager. In this way the honour/shame code is fractured.

In this way the parable is a close relation of the parable of the banquet in Luke 14, which we considered on Monday. There too, the rich man steps outside the social codes of the day to do the unexpected.

Jesus’s parables do this all the time. A Samaritan acts in a caring way. A father acknowledges his failures and humbles himself before his sons. A wealthy man throwing a party by which he will ensure the indebtedness of his guests ends up inviting a whole host of people who could never repay him.

The Gospel consistently refuses to match our expectations of social and cultural norms, in fact Jesus keeps breaking the social taboos of his day, making space for those who are on the outside and unseating those in power.

His stories serve to unsettle us with their unpredictability and downright inappropriateness. It forces us to think of how often in the practice of our faith as disciples we conform to social norms because that’s what’s expected of us. How often do we refuse to create a fuss over an injustice because it is unseemly. Seamus Heaney said it best in his 1975 poem "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,", speaking of the Troubles,

"The famous
Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the "wee six" I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing."

We hover, and maneouvre and dance around the things that must be said but fail to say it because to do so would be to bring the whole edifice of respectability down. So whatever you say, say nothing for fear of bringing the kind of disruptive change the Gospel brings.

So whenever we face a religious pressure to keep a lid on things, it's likely that Jesus would blow the lid off. It was not his way to "say nothing" for the sake of a quiet life or some veneer of respectability. Jesus was a profound disrupter of "the way things are done around here."

It is often said of Jesus that he came to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. In the light of this parable are there aspects of your faith life which have become comfortable, predictable and safe? What if Jesus were to come as a disruptive presence and tell you a story that shocked you. How would that story begin?

Lord Jesus
You are the great storyteller
Of unexpected twists
And surprising endings.

Forgive me when I seek
To control the narrative
To order the characters
And keep drama from their lives.

Open my life to more unpredictable storylines
To more bewildering turns
To more exciting encounters
And more unforeseen outcomes.

And teach me to look there for you,
Popping up in unpredictable places
In dazzling dress
And with confounding figures


Twenty-Fourth Day of Lent

Luke 15:11-31
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

This is probably the most well-known parable of them all and challenging to make some comment on it that  hasn’t been made a thousand times before and better. But allow me a moment to offer some ideas on reading the parables. First, in reading and understanding the parables it helps to be a good story teller or reader of stories, so the more stories we read or movies we watch the better. Give it some thought and you can figure out what makes a good story for you. We’ll also see how good movies or novels move different people in different ways. The best stories are the ones that allow a multitude of ways in towards understanding.

No good story has only one meaning.

On the evidence of the parables Jesus was a master story-teller. And it seems reasonable to assume therefore  that there are multiple ways in to understanding a parable and not just one meaning. And often the routes to understanding shift as we get older or experience more of life, and this means we can return again and again to the parables and see new things in them. The new thing doesn’t undermine the truth of other perspectives we had in the past, it adds a layer to them.

A second thing to say is that very often Jesus leaves a parable unfinished (we saw that yesterday in the parable of the great Banquet). The unfinished element is where we can insert ourselves.

Today I want you to consider the possibility of a different way of reading this parable. It comes at the end of a set of three parables of lost things. In the first two the shepherd and the woman are responsible for losing something valuable which they shouldn’t have lost. They conduct a frantic search, find it and throw a party. It is reasonable to carry the same structure over into this parable.

If this is the case then we could consider the possibility that the father in the story is responsible for being careless by losing something valuable. In the first story the shepherd loses 1% of what was in his charge (one sheep out of one hundred). In the second story, the woman loses 10% of what was in her charge (one coin out of ten). In the third story the father loses 100% of what was under his own roof…his two sons.

Uniting a sheep with its flock is easy as is returning a coin to a purse. But with all the hurt and damage done in a dysfunctional household, the reconciliation is not as easy and demands a great deal of grace, forgiveness and patience on the part of those who are estranged.

And so to the unfinished part of this parable. The careless father meets his older son outside his house, he insists on relational language (compare verse 30 with verses 31-32), and assures him of his inheritance. The big issue for the parable is what happens next?

Take some time with this parable to imagine possible outcomes. What options are open to the older son? What about the younger son? Now imagine the story many years into the future, the morning after the father has died and the older boy inherits the land. What happens on that morning in large part depends on decisions made on the evening of the young boy’s return from his time away, many years previously.

Reconciling human beings is nowhere near as easy as reconciling sheep or coins. It takes courageous decisions which sometimes entail not getting what you’re entitled to in order to ensure better relationships. It often takes many, many years, indeed sometimes the best outcome for troubled relationships is a decision to set a trajectory rather than a destination or outcome.

Think of a troubled relationship in your life, one that has perhaps caused frustration or pain or one where you have difficulty reconciling yourself to its loss. If, today, you were released from the need to have a reconciliation, what would it look like to imagine setting a trajectory towards reconciliation?

Twenty-Third Day of Lent

Luke 14:16-24
16 Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. 17 At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 18 “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’

19 “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me. 20 “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’ 21 “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

22 “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’ 23 “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. 24 I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”

This is an elaborate parable with lots of fine detail which is told one Sabbath day while Jesus was eating at the home of a prominent Pharisee (Luke 14:1).  In our reflection from 23 March we looked at the first feasting parable he told on this occasion, this is the second, but it has a curious twist.

In the first parable, the guests hustle and bustle to get the very best places at the feast. In this one, the guests don’t even bother to turn up!

This is self-consciously a great banquet, being thrown by a wealthy individual who has invited many people. In a tradition which still persists in conservative areas of the Middle East a double invitation is sent. The first one is designed to find out how many people will come. Based on this information the host will decide what meat and on how much will be provided, which will involve the slaughter of a chicken (2-4 guests), a duck (5-8), a kid (10-15), a sheep (15-35) or a calf (35-75).

The appropriate animal is killed and then must be eaten entirely that same evening. So if you have responded positively to the first invitation you are duty-bound to turn up. Then, when the meat is cooked and all the arrangements are in place, a second invitation is extended to all those who said they would come to tell them that everything is ready for them.

Only this time, they don’t.

The excuses given are paper thin. Ken Bailey, a theologian who spent his career based in Lebanon describes just how thin the excuses are. Anyone having bought a field in that culture would know the entire history of the piece of land. To suggest they must go and inspect it having bought it is ludicrous (Luke 14:18). Likewise, no-one would buy a yoke of oxen without first having tested them. To do so after buying them is the height of foolishness (Luke 14:19).

The one who just got married doesn’t even offer an excuse, in effect he says, “I’ve just got married, so……I’m busy!” (Luke 14:20). To suggest he couldn’t even spend an hour or two away from his new bride is just rude. Bailey suggests it is clear that the wedding didn’t happen that day because there would not be two big social events in the village in competition. But he doesn’t even ask to be excused, he just says “I can’t come!”

And so, deeply angry and offended the host invites all those who didn’t in the first place respond positively or didn’t get an invitation. Remember the last time we talked about a banquet parable we mentioned that invitations were issued in confidence that they invite would be reciprocated. The poor didn’t accept the invitation because they knew they couldn’t reciprocate. So now the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame are invited in…with no expectation of reciprocation (Luke 14:21). Not only that, but since there is still room, the servant goes out to those who have been excluded from society entirely, those who live outside the village in the roads and country lanes round about.

This is a parable about the Kingdom. There is a sense that in Jesus the Kingdom has come near, but there are some who find excuses not to follow him. Manson writes, “God gives the Kingdom; but the accepting of God’s gift means the rejection of many other things. The Kingdom of God offers the greatest gifts; but it demands exclusive loyalty and whole-hearted devotion. The great feast is a feast and not a distribution of free rations. Those who wish to enjoy it must come in. They cannot have portions sent out to them while they busy themselves with other things.”

One final note, like many of the parables Jesus doesn’t finish the story. We leave it while the servant is heading outside the village to ‘compel’ others even more unworthy to come in (Luke 14:23). The invitation is so unbelievable that those outside must be strongly encouraged to accept. In our imagination therefore the invitation is still doing the rounds, the house is not full and there is still time to accept.

There are many ways of thinking about this parable but I think of it in the context of communion. The invitation to the table is extended to all, but some make excuses for non-attendance. And so the invitation goes to those who are considered unacceptable and they find a welcome that is scarcely believable to the table of the one hosting the banquet. None of those who considered themselves worthy get a morsel.

Hospitable God,
Who opens the door
And sets the table for
The ones who are considered unclean.

Forgive us when we are ungrateful
Or treat your invitation with disdain
Or consider ourselves worthy
While others aren’t.

Give us an understanding
Of the scandal of the Gospel.
The invitation that is extended to the unworthy
And the unclean
And the unacceptable

Of which I am the foremost


Twenty-Second Day of Lent

Luke 22:47-53
47 While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, 48 but Jesus asked him, ‘Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?’

49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

51 But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, ‘Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? 53 Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour – when darkness reigns.’

Most scholars treat yesterday’s miracle of the healing of the blind man as the closing miracle of Luke’s Gospel, but then this appears. It’s an odd one. But would you believe this story is related in all four Gospels, though only in John are the characters named (Simon Peter chops off Malchus’ ear). And only Luke relates the healing.

It is also a miracle that I remember from when I was a young child. I don’t know why it should have captured my attention, other than perhaps the prospect of Jesus searching the ground by torchlight looking for a stray ear.

But as I read it today, I am struck by crowds and violence. Jesus remarks that they have come with swords and clubs (Luke 22:52). When the disciples discern that Jesus is to be arrested their initial reaction is to draw swords and though they look to Jesus for advice, before Jesus says a word someone strikes and a man is wounded.

This whole journey through Lent with the book of Luke is a journey of discipleship. Along the way we are encountering the wonder and the strangeness of Jesus, we marvel at his power and compassion, particularly for those who are on the margins. Again and again we are confronted with the challenge of following him and with question of just what will I surrender to join him on the Way.

The pressure has been building on Jesus and his followers for some time now. Many thought going to Jerusalem was a foolish thing but he was insistent. And now, following a meal which was full of all manner of hints of endings, they are in this garden in the dead of night where he has spent a long time in intense prayer. Luke records that in his anguish his sweat was like drops of blood (Luke 22:44).

And now this. A big crowd with swords and clubs and a kiss of betrayal.

I understand the impulse of the disciple. Under the shock of betrayal this is a common form of response. Meet the violence of betrayal with another form of violence. Perhaps it is even more true if it is a loved one who is betrayed and I must stand by. I want to strike out on their behalf to find some answer to the anger and sense of helplessness I feel.

But there is a Gospel message here. Meeting violence with violence is not the way of Jesus. His urgent command “No more of this!” speaks to the moment, but also for all time. No more of this. Ever.

No more to seeking God’s imprimatur on our national adventures of war.

No more to matching an eye with an eye or a tooth with a tooth. Nor here, an ear for a kiss.

No more to blind rage and vengeful aggression. No more to hard words which injure and maim the spirit of a person.

I dare say this poor servant didn’t have much control over what he was doing that night. After all, he was a servant, and he did as he was commanded. And he lost an ear. There is something symbolic here in a member of the high priest’s household lacking an ear. He stood in for a religious institution that couldn’t hear the truth of what was being said in the ministry of this man from God.

So Jesus in his grace and humility refuses to be vengeful or to take comfort in the suffering of his accusers, and instead he heals. There is still time for healing even after striking out in anger, frustration and revenge.

And so I ask myself after having reflected on this story. Which is the worst betrayal here? The kiss or the sword?

As I write this March 29th remains the day we exit the EU. So today is the day when the nation might be taking stock. Whatever happens a sizeable proportion of the country is going to feel betrayed, the question is what will be done with that sense of betrayal? Will we strike out at our betrayers? Or will we seek advantage through a lying kiss? Take some time today to pray for our political leaders and for those who feel betrayed by recent events.

Twenty-First Day of Lent

Luke 18:35-43
35 As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”
38 He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
39 Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
40 Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Lord, I want to see,” he replied.
42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” 43 Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.

There were laws in Jesus’ day which laid responsibility on people to look after people who were blind. Unfortunately, perhaps because they have grown tired of the endless responsibility, this man is forced to beg. Not only that, he isn’t even begging in the city but outside it (Luke 18:35).

The persistence of the man perhaps gives a clue to his character. He will not be silenced, nor will he be put in his place and so he cries and cries until Jesus stops and pays attention.

Should it not have been obvious to Jesus what the man wanted Jesus to do? After all, at his very first sermon in Capernaum when he read from the scroll of Isaiah, he claims “recovery of sight to the blind” as one of the marks of his ministry (Luke 4:18). So I find this a curious question.

The emotional high point for me in the telling of this story is the man’s response to Jesus curious question, “Lord, I want to see,” (Luke 18:40). Who could fail to respond to that?

Whether the man meant it or not, I feel certain that Luke did mean us to take this both literally and metaphorically. The man wants to physically see, but there is also a need for him to perceive things in a new way. He is already partly along the way to seeing the world in a new way. He calls Jesus “Son of David,” and “Lord” (Luke 18:38-40). In fact he rejects the description given by the leaders of the procession who refer to Jesus as “Jesus of Nazareth,” in favour of “Jesus, Son of David’”(Luke 17:37, 38).

Does the blind man already see more than the people who are hanging around Jesus?

As we saw yesterday seeing is such a characteristic Lukan way of indicating that understanding has dawned. And which of us wouldn’t echo the man’s request, regardless of how long we have been on the road as disciples. There is always more to see and understand. Always new journeys of faith to take. And we can never get to the place where we have seen everything because Jesus keeps on doing new things that take us by surprise.

This story also reminds me of the difference between healing and cure. Jesus may be hinting at this in the story. His question, unusual as it is, may be designed to elicit from the man the nature of the miracle he wants. The ambiguity of the answer allows us to imagine both forms of seeing. And so Jesus’ response is twofold.

“Receive your sight,” is the cure. The man can now physically see.

“Your faith has healed you,” is the deeper healing, the deeper and more insightful seeing. And with this new insight the man follows Jesus and praises God.

It’s a challenging thing to imagine ourselves into the position of this man just after Jesus has asked the question. How would you answer the question “What do you want me to do for you?”

What cure would you seek?

What healing would you seek?

What is most necessary for you to follow Jesus closer and to praise God?

I want to see.