Sunday, 20 February 2011

Abraham through the eyes of Jesus

We are so used to seeing the world as a whole that we think nothing of a documentary maker who begins her film for out in space with our galaxy one among many, then we zoom in through the myriad of starts that make up that galaxy, those stars we glimpse in the Milky Way, and then the shot zooms by the outer planets of the Solar System, the gas giants until we see planet earth suspended as it were in space in all its beauty. And we home in through the thin blue line of the atmosphere down and down to a helicopter shot perhaps of Brian Cox perched on the unlikeliest of mountain tops somewhere in Scandinavia about to tells us of the wonders of the Universe. I am already on the edge of my seat!

The Bible begins in that kind of way, courtesy of ancient story tellers. We begin on a cosmic scale with the creation of the world and in Genesis 1-11 encounter larger than life stories that tell of the beginnings of things but speak to the world of today in every generation.

The scene is set in that world of God’s creation with all its many nations and languages for the story to home in on one individual, not on a mountain top in remotest Scandinavia, but in the heart of what has come to be known as the fertile crescent in Ur of the Chaldees. A remarkable ancient city in Mesopotamia, Iraq scarred and savage in the war of the last decade.

A story begins with Abram and Sara that is going now to be followed through as a family grows into the people of God and their story becomes the story of nothing less than God’s salvation.

There is a gear shift at Genesis 12 verse 1. That moment is marked throughout the rest of the Bible as this Abram and Sara become the father and mother of Isaac, as Isaac and Rebecca become the father and mother of Jacob who comes to be known as Israel, as Jacob and Rachel become the father and mother of the 12 sons whose families then become the 12 tribes who come to make up the nation of Israel, the people of God.

Now in Genesis 12-50 we are in the realm of true to life stories.

This ancient time perhaps three and half thousand years ago was a time of wandering peoples. It is possible to get a sense of the kind of wandering life those peoples had around that fertile crescent. This is the home of writing, of civilisation, and in these stories we can see the kind of life those peoples led.

Again we are in the world of story telling. For generations these stories were passed on as stories around the camp fires of a wandering people. Stories told vividly, bringing to life the roots of their people, capturing customs, practices lifestyles that can be explored in places like the British Museum. It is a world recognised by archaeologists.

The wandering of Abram and Sara is a wandering shared by many at that time. Settling to farm the land, to tend the sheep is all recognisable. When Jacob dreams and catches a glimpse of God and that ladder with angels ascending and descending he calls the place Beth El House of God and he erects a standing stone. Just as countless cultures are doing the world over three and a half thousand years ago.

The stories again are beautifully crafted. I grew up thinking of these as the stories of the Patriarchs overlooking the fact that the Matriarchs play an equally important role!

A couple of years ago we did a sequence of Bible studies on the stories of Genesis 1-50. What was fascinating was to see how those stories are beautifully crafted, often weaving together different strands. They seem to roll on, cycling through similar experiences each time taking us further forward in an unfolding story.

The stories of Abram and Sara, Isaac and Rebekkah, Jacob and Rachel roll forward and unfold as they tell of people whose lives are far from faultless. In different ways they make a mess of things and God is there always helping them to put things together again.

Corruption and the refusal to be welcoming in a world of wandering people gives rise to consequences that can be destructive and devastating as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah found out. Childlessness in a family is a major problem grappled with in all sorts of ways with multiple marriages, surrogate mothers. What’s fascinating is that those multiple marriages recur later in the Bible story and are not forbidden by specific law codes. Instead stories are told by people grappling with these circumstances … and it is in the telling of those stories and the observation of the intractable difficulties that come from multiple marriage, or from surrogacy in motherhood, that principles of faithfulness in marriage and of monogamy emerge through the Bible story.

What emerges from the outset is the way the God of the universe we have been introduced to in Genesis 1-11 is the God who relates to people individually in shaping a people who will live together in community. In the telling of their story, guidelines emerge that throw light on the way people are to live together in families and in relationship between families, in tribes and the relationship between tribes, and ultimately as a nation.

To make sense of all those things, and at the root of all these stories is an over-riding relationship between God and the people whose story is told. Abram and then Sara respond to the call God gives in faith. Then God enters into a relationship, a partnership, an agreement, a covenant with Abram and with Sara.

It is a relationship rooted in God and filled with promise. There’s a wonderful moment when Abram is brought outside by God and is invited to look up into the heavens, “Look towards heaven and count the stars if you are able to count them.” Then the voice of God says to Abram, “So shall your descendants be.”

Then comes that wonderful moment when Abram has faith, believes in God, puts his trust in him and that is ‘reckoned to him as righteousness’. It is as if he is set right with God.

So important is that sense of partnership, relationship, covenant between the God of grace and Abram and Sara in their faith that the story of that covenant is told all over again in chapter 17.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty;* walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ 3Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram,* but your name shall be Abraham;* for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring* after you. 8And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’

These stories in Genesis 12-50 are true to life stories that help us to understand who we are and how we relate to each other. This is a wonderful glimpse of what it is to be in that closest of relationships with God.

Notice different strands in this relationship. God is a god of grace – he takes the initiative. God expects great things of Abram. Abram’s response is the response of faith.

The covenant is particular but through Abraham and his descendants it is a promise that opens out to a whole multitude of nations – you shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. And then comes the promise of land that the wandering people will settle in and will become their own.

God’s relationship is so close that something of God now is added to Abram’s very name, the very personal thing that gives him identify. No longer will he be Abram or Sara be Sara without an ‘h’. Now one letter of the four-letter word for God, the letter ‘h’ from YHWH is added to Abram’s name and he becomes the person we know him as, and to the name of Sara who becomes the person we know her as, Abraham and Sarah with a letter’h’.

Abraham is seen as the father figure of the people of God.

Down through the centuries the people think of themselves as the people of Abraham, they look to the God of Abraham.

Down through the centuries they have to grapple with their identity. Who are they? What marks them out as the people of God? That has become a burning question with the brutality of the Roman occupation of their land. In an occupied land they cannot call their own, who are the children of Abraham?

That question is the one that is addressed at the very beginning of the New Testament in the opening words of Matthew’s Gospel. An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messsiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac and Isaac the father of Jacob and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers.

The New Testament opens with a reprise in the shaped of a genealogy that summarises the Old Testament story beginning with Abraham and culminating in Jesus. Jesus is one of the children of Abraham.

But already as Jesus comes on the scene it is a question that people are grappling with. There is one who has taken upon himself the mantle of the great prophets of old that hold the powers that be to account. His name is John the Baptist and before Matthew tells Jesus’s story he has to tell John’s story. Just being descended from Abraham is not enough for John the Baptist. Clearly some there are who want to emphasise descent from Abraham and ownership of the land. But John sees things differently. It is not the actual descent that counts but something deeper. In Matthew 3.9 John speaks out … Do not presume to say to yourselves, we have Abraham as our ancestor; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

There’s mystery here. It is as if John the Baptist is latching on to that promise that Abraham would be the ancestor not just of a single nation located in one land, but of a multitude of nations.

At the end of John 3 Jesus lines himself up with John the Baptist in his baptism, is driven into the wilderness and then in 4.12 he begins his ministry. What Matthew records is very telling. Just as John has taken up the mantle of the prophets, so too Jesus claims to stand in the line of the prophets.

It’s worth paying attention to the words.

Now when Jesus* heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’ 17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’*
Notice that Galilee is identified as Galilee of the Gentiles – the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven, God’s rule, has come near.

Then comes the sermon on the mount – on the mountain top Jesus declares a new law. Then in Matthew 8 Jesus breaks barriers down and stretches out beyond … as if he is being all inclusive. First a leper is cleansed, then in Capernaum he heals a Centurion’s servant.

It is the faith of the Centurion that prompts Jesus to marvel. But then he calls to mind the Abraham story. It is as if once again he is focusing on the covenant with Abraham that reaches out to that multitude of nations. Those who are children of Abrham are not just those of physical desent.

When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one* in Israel have I found such faith. 11I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 13

Many will come from east and west and eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.

For Jesus the all-important thing is not the physical descent from Abraham but walking in the way God calls Abraham to walk. And that is open not just to be people descended from Abraham but to all.

Turning from Matthew 8 to John 8 it is in the temple that Jesus is sharing his teaching. It is during a festival when light plays a great part. At that very moment when lanterns are lit from the great lamps in the temple courtyard, and then from lantern to lantern the light spreads through the Temple courtyards down the steps and out into Jerusalem and beyond, Jesus gets up and declares, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

Light of ‘the world. ‘Whoever’ follows me.

“Whoever is from God hears the words of God.” And the all important thing in hearing the words of God is to put them into practice, to live by them, to act on them.

It is as if all who hear Christ’s words become the descendants of Abraham as they hear those words and put them into action. Jesus is laying claim to that dimension of the covenant God makes with Abraham that sees Abraham as the father figure of a whole multitude of nations.

Those who hear Jesus say this find it offensive, how can this be. They want to latch on to another dimension of the covenant with Abraham that focuses on the land and limits the descendants of Abraham to those in direct descent. They feel as if Jesus is laying claim to precedence over Abraham. That’s not the point Jesus is making, however. Rather he bears the stamp of the very God whose identify is there in Abraham’s name.

Very truly, I tell you, says Jesus, before Abraham was, I am.

Jesus sees himself as fulfilling the very essence of the covenant with Abraham because he bears the very identify of God deep within himself.

Jesus reads Genesis and the story of Abraham and homes in on the way the covenant opens up to be all-inclusive of the whole multitude of nations. He is the one who is light of the world and has come for all.

Reading Genesis through the eyes of Jesus prompts us to see Jesus as the fulfilment of all the whole relationship God has with Abraham. In Jesus the covenant opens up to be inclusive of all. Jesus is offering a very Jewish interpretation of the Abraham story that is true to that story, but finds its focus in a different place from those contemporaries who were Pharisees and many others. For them physical descent and the actual land was all important. For him a relationship with God that hears God’s word and puts them into practice was all important.

To read Genesis and the stories of Abraham through the eyes of Jesus has massive practical and political implications today. It is what draws me to reject the view of those who maintain that the covenant with Abraham means that the whole land of Israel and Palestine must be for Jewish people alone. No, No, No. In Jesus that covenant finds its fulfilment and opens up to include all who hear God’s words and act on them – and it reaches out into the whole multitude of nations. That’s why it is important for us to take seriously the cries of the Christians of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Israel, Palestine in their appeal to us as Christians to work for a political solution that enables Jews and Palestinians to live together in that land and recognise each other as the children of Abraham.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Wonder and Tragedy in the Larger than Life Stoires of Genesis 1-11

I loved the TV series and the book was just as good. I am looking forward to the sequel … and I have my eye on the book too. Brian Cox is that telegenic quantum physicist who was voted by People Magazine the sexiest Astronomer. I think he is superb … a budding David Attenborough! Wonders of the Solar System is to be followed by what promises to be an equally breath-taking Wonders of the Universe. Showing what happened at the big bang13.7 billion years ago, how the elements that make up the whole universe came into being. It is, he says, in a trailer, nothing less than the story of each one of us.

On 22nd March 2009 Brian Cox found himself in the Norwegian city of Tromso, ‘known as the gateway to the Arctic. He had already written the script he was going to recite to camera to explain one of the most remarkable phenomena to be seen anywhere on the globe. The Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.

Brian Cox describes the way he had been assured that there was a good chance of at least glimpsing the Northern Lights.

“our guide told me of a Sami legend about the aurora. (The Sami are the people of the North, whose domain stretches from Tromso in the west, across northern Sweden and Finland and into Russia.) The legend has it that the aurorae are the spirits of women who died before they had children. Trapped between the froszen land and heaven, they are condemned to dance forever in the dark Arctic skies.

“As dusk fell, we rode snowmobiles out into the dense forests by the Fjord to get away from the city lights and settled down in the Ami camp with hot reindeer stew to wait.

“Just after midnight, the aurora came. I walked out into the frigid night air, enjoying the crunch of footsteps in fresh snow, and looked up. They came gently, a vague hint of green, but built quickly: sheets of colour driftetd slowly then suddenly broke off and danced impossibly fast, a three dimensional rain of light rising and falling between land and sky. They were mostly green, with hints of orange and red close to the horizon, They were like nothing I have ever seen, and as I turned to camera I realised that I didn’t care about the phyics of what I was seeing. My reaction, composed whilst sitting at my desk in Manchester, was worthless in the face of Nature at its most magnificent.

“The Sami had it right – an aurora isn’t the light shaken out of atoms of nitorogen and oxygen as they are bombarded by high-energy particles from Earth’s ionosphere accelerated down magnetic field lines towards the poles, it is made of majestic, mournful, dancing spirits, trapped in the Arctic night.”

That to my mind is one of the best commentaries on the opening chapters of Genesis.

It is only since the eighteenth century that the age of scientific discovery has given us wonderful explanations of the Wonders of the Solar System and the Universe. Prior to that time peoples the world over were filled with the wonder of the world they lived in. They described those wonders with wonderful stories. They were not telling lies, falsehoods, untruths about the world. They were telling stories to give an account of the world they knew so well.

Among those stories were ones told by the ancient Hebrews, passed on from one generation to the n ext. And then drawn into those books that the people regarded as the books that through story and law codes set out God’s way for his world.

The first 11 chapters of Genesis have woven together some of those stories. I am convinced they are larger than life stories that tell of the beginnings of things but speak to the world of today in every generation.

You do these pages of the Bible the greatest injustice if you regard them as on a par with the science of the last two hundred years. They are not doing the same thing at all. They are filled with insight into the wonder and the tragedy of the world as it is. They draw on astute observation of that world. And they speak to every generation.

Pay attention to the detail and there are all sorts of indications that these are larger than life stories. Adam and Eve have Cain and Abel, yet Cain is exiled to the Land of Nod where he marries. The ages reach to many hundreds of years. The sons of God, angelic figures come down and marry the daughters of men. There are giants of people. There are different stories told. Look carefully and some of them use one word for God, LORD, while others use another word for God – simply ‘God’ in our translations. The very word ‘adam’ is the word for humanity. The poetry of much of the story is so powerful.

Brian Cox will describe the fusion of hydrogen and helium in the big bang and the emergence of the elements and I am looking forward to the insights he will share – but for me Genesis 1 captures the wonder of it all!

Genesis 1 tells us this the world of God’s creation … and it is good and to be looked after.

Genesis 2 tells us that each one of us, each man, each woman is placed by God in his world … and we each have built into us a sense of right and wrong. Genesis 3 shows us that for all the goodness of God’s creation there is something that creeps in and is destructive – and everyman and every woman succumbs to it. We each find ourselves living not in an idyllic garden, but in a place overrun by weeds.

That inclination towards evil damages then in Genesis 4 the basic human unit of the family as Cain denies that he is his brother’s keeper and Abel is murdered by his brother.

As we reach the story of Noah and Genesis 5-8 we find the world is filled with violence. The consequence of that violence is devastating destruction.

And then the sequence of stories reaches its climax as people long to become like God and use their ingenuity to build a tower to reach God, only to find their efforts fruitless, the tower destroyed and they can no longer understand each other.

The stories come together to give a picture of a wonderful world of God’s creation, yet within it such destructive forces. There is a strand running through the stories that gives hope. As individuals, a family, the world, and then all the nations of the world turn to evil and face its destructive consequences God is still there. By his grace each time he gives a chance for a fresh start.

Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden but able to wander in the wider world.

Cain is not executed but exiled and spared.

Noah and his family are saved from the flood and receive the wonderful promise as the very weapon of violence, the battle bow, is placed into the sky painted all the colours of the world, as a sign of God’s everlasting promise.

And the people of the nations are scattered to shape their nations, one of which is to become the nation of Israel, God’s people and to live out God’s dealings with the world and his saving love for the world.

These stories have remarkable insights into the world of God’s creation, its tragedy, and the reality of the human condition. They get to the truth of the world and humanity’s place in it in more powerful ways than the cosmologists, the biologists, the physicists, and the like can … they get to the truth of the human condition more vividly than the historian or the social scientist can.

They stand as a magisterial introduction to the whole Bible.

And they come alive as we see them through the eyes of Jesus.

Let’s take one of those stories – the story of Cain and Abel, and see how we can see that story through Jesus’s eyes.

I want to make three observations. First, Jesus is a man of his own time, and we should not attribute to him the capacity to think in the way modern scientists think.

The whole point of our theology of incarnation is that Jesus is a man of his time. He ‘empties himself’ to become as one of us. (Philippians 2) Fully a man. He is born into the world of the Roman Empire as Israel is under a very oppressive regime of King Herod. He grows up as that oppression intensifies and the Jewish people struggle to respond. He sees the world through the eyes of his contemporaries.

And these are the stories of beginnings he has grown up with. He sees them as a man of his own time. He does not see them as a scientist in the 21st Century. They are the stories that give an account of God’s world and our place in it. To illustrate the closeness of a man and a woman in marriage he draws on the story of Adam and Eve. When he speaks in Matthew 23:35 of being the innocent victim of those who kill the innocent he uses Abel as the one who is the classic innocent victim.

For Jesus these stories have value not as scientific explanation of how things began – but as stories that show how the world of his day is.

That’s how we should treat these stories too. For the insight they give into the world around us and our place in the world.

Secondly, Jesus delights in these stories. As he tells his own stories they often have echoes of the stories from the Hebrew Bible he grew up with.

The story of Cain and Abel is a wonderful story, beautifully crafted.

It is a story of two brothers and of jealousy. One accepted, one not … and the destructive jealousy that ensues. It is a story of sin lurking at the door, a sin that is out to master an individual, a sin that must be mastered … but ultimately gets the better. It is a story of anger. It is a story of no going back. It is a story then of a hint of grace, but with the mark of Cain of exile, wandering, lostness. For this story-teller out of the jealousy, the anger, the giving in to sin, the lostness of Cain comes the beauty of craftsmanship, the wonder of bronze and iron tools, and the civilisation of the city. Much that is good can be brought out of even unimaginable evil. All sorts of insights here.

It is the story of two brothers. Look carefully and the elder brother, Cain is never referred to as Abel’s brother. Abel is referred to as Cain’s brother no fewer than seven times! And yet the tragedy of the story comes in the Lord’s question to Cain and in Cain’s response: “Then the Lord said to Cain, Where is your brother Abel? He said, I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

Through it all God has a curious role. He seems to favour Abel over Cain, yet actually that is the way of things, he maintains he regards both equally, he recognises the evil inclination in Cain and gives him the opportunity to master it. Cain leaves the presence of God and is left a fugitive to wander the earth, but does settle in the land of Nod.

When Jesus tells the story of the two brothers there are all sorts of echoes of the Cain and Abel story.

The father bestows the inheritance on the younger son. He returns from the far country to discover his father waiting for him – the lost one is found, the one that was dead is alive again.

Meanwhile the elder brother is filled with discontent and malice. We don’t know what happens to him in the end. But there is every opportunity for him to stay within the Father’s family – after all, all that the Father has is the son’s!

One thing is very apparent and that is the picture of God that emerges from Jesus. He has taken many of the elements of the Cain and Abel story and then he has developed them further. It is as if takes them to their ultimate conclusion. The focus of the story Jesus tells is on the waiting Father and his all embracing grace of forgiveness.

The grace and the forgiveness that is hinted at in the Cain and Abel story is there in all its fullness in the story Jesus tells.

Let the story Jesus told be at the forefront of the mind – the picture it fills out of the Grace of the loving, forgiving Father is the picture we must have of God.

And the third point to take from Jesus’ perspective on this story is that it will affect how our whole attitude on life..

One of Cain’s descendants is Lamech who again is guilty of killing a man. His lament also is the tragedy of the Genesis story, and the tragedy of the human condition … Genesis 4:24

If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.

The great thing about the stories of Genesis 1-11 is that they do capture the human condition and tell it as it is. Stay with the story of Cain and Abel and you are in the world of vengeance. And it is a world we know only too well.

Jesus does not want us to stay in the world of Cain and Abel. He invites us to re-fashion that world in a different way in the light of God’s love. We must not stay with the story of Cain and Abel. We must . live the Jesus story and then we so belong to the kingdom of forgiveness.

It is this saying that Jesus takes up with Peter. Peter is also steeped in the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. The story of Cain and Abel he knows well. There has to be a limit to the number of times you can forgive surely!

Then Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, Not seven times, but I tell you, seventyseven times.”

As we read through the eyes of Jesus, let’s wonder at the insights into the world of God’s creation and the ugly world of human failure that we see in Genesis 1-11.

Let’s then follow Jesus and re-shape that world looking to the God and Father of us all who is the God of Love.

Let’s turn our back on the vengeance of Cain and Lamech and embrace a forgiveness that is willing to forgive not sevenfold but seventy-seven fold!

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Jesus' Guide to Reading 'the Law'

As I was sitting down to prepare this evening’s sermon an email popped into my inbox.

Tackling bullying in schools – a governor’s guide. January 2011.

It ran to 20 pages. And made interesting reading. It would be easy to dismiss the production of such materials as wasteful bureaucracy. But actually it contains excellent guidance, good commonsense, and checklists that demonstrate Pittville School where I am a Governor is doing well in that area.

Much of what is included in the guide is covered in ‘the law’.

There’s legislation for most things in life.

And that’s nothing new.

From time immemorial as people have sought to live togehtrer they have recognised the need for legislation.

There’s plenty of it in the Bible.

The first five books of the Bible are known as the Books of ‘the Law’.

They contain law codes like the ten commandments. Laws about personal living, about living together in society. There are laws about the ritual and worship, about sacrifice, and the observation of religious festivals.

But the books of the Law don’t only include lists of laws. There are no such lists in the book of Genesis. There are stories of the beginnings of things, the beginnings of the world, the beginnings of the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There’s the story of Joseph. Exodus introduces us to the story of Moses … and as the title suggests the story of the Exodus from bondage in Egypt to freedom.

In some ways it is unfortunate that those five books have been given the name ‘the Law’ in English.

For they contain much more than a series of ‘laws’.

The Hebrew word for them is the word Torah.

That is a much richer word. Don’t think of it so much as a set of laws and regulations. Think of it as a set of books that through stories, law codes and much more open up for us an understanding of God’s way for God’s world.

The stories come from an ancient world, and we need to enter into that world if we are going to begin to understand what it is they are saying. The law codes come from an ancient world that is very different from our own. We need to enter into that world to begin to sense how God is speaking to us through those stories and all those laws.

You won’t get far before you find things that are not just alien from an ancient world, but things that we simply cannot follow in today’s world. All those instructions on what kind of food to eat. All the instructions on when and how to sacrifice animals. All those instructions on what kind of clothes to wear and what not to wear.

Read through the first five books of the law and you recognise that you have to deal with these books with care.

And as soon as you do that, someone will cry out, ‘You can’t do that.’ If it says it in the Bible, it must mean it for all time. You cannot change one word of the Bible. Change one thing and then you will have to change everything. As soon as you call something in question you have to abandon everything.

That’s where it is interesting to ask how Jesus read the law.

First, he valued it. He didn’t want to change what was in those five books at all. Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, not one jot or tittle of the law is to be removed … until all is accomplished. He honoured those books. And it is because of that that we keep those five books in their entirety in our Christian bible.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets, I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.

Jesus speaks of fulfilling the law. Of it being ‘accomplished’.

And he sees himself as ‘the fulfilment’ of the law and the prophets. On the cross he gets to the point at which he is able to say, ‘It is accomplished’

Jesus stands by the law, but he handles it with a remarkable wisdom. He does not take up a stone against a woman caught in adultery, but instead gives her the opportunity to start her life all over again. He does not condemn and reject Zacchaeus the thief, but goes to eat with him before he has changed. And it is that loving acceptance that prompts him to change.

He does not hold fast to the Sabbath laws on the grounds that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. His sacrifice is the sacrifice to end all animal sacrifice, now we look to him as the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, and the detail of the sacrificial laws is no longer applicable. He eats with sinners, and does not hold fast the laws regarding eating. And he is welcoming of gentiles and his followers realise that the food laws no longer apply as well.

These five books of Torah do give an insight into the way of God in the world, but Jesus invites us to read them through his eyes. Value them for the insights they give, honour them in our Bible, but read them carefully.

Nowhere is that approach more evident than in a passage that has to be one of the most familiar in all the gospels.

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.

Let’s stop there. A ‘lawyer’ in Jesus’ day was not the first century equivalent of a solicitor. He was an expert in ‘the Law’ in the ‘Torah’. We so easily read the Gospels in terms of Goodies and Baddies. And typecast the Lawyer as a baddy. Especially as he set out to ‘test’ Jesus. Let’s give him credit for a moment. Maybe as a teacher of the Law he was intrigued with the approach Jesus had to the law. Maybe he was offended by it. Maybe he thought Jesus was too selective, and so too risky, and so in danger of destroying the law. He wanted to test Jesus out.

* ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

Notice again, the question. We so often imagine the question to be ‘what must I do to get into heaven when I die?’ And then we see the following conversation as the entry qualifications for access to heaven.

But he doesn’t mention heaven at all. He asks, what must I do to inherit eternal life.

You inherit something from someone who has died. The life he speaks of is not just life after death. It is life in all its fullness, life that is not bounded by death, life that starts here and now, is not bounded by death, and links us to all the fullness of life in God.

He is asking, what must I do to inherit from all those have gone before, from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, from Joseph, from Moses, from David and Solomon, from all those prophets … that life that is lived in all its fullness is not bounded by God and is the life God wants for me and for everyone?

What a question!

26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law?

Let’s stop there again. What is written in the Law? What is written in the Torah. The answer to that is everything from the very start of Genesis to the very end of Deuteronomy.

But Jesus is not only concerned with all those words that are written in the law. He asks a second question.

What do you read there?’

Now that to my mind is a very interesting question. Never mind all those words, let’s get to the nub of the matter. What do you read there? How do you put into a few words the whole of the Torah?

27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’

That is a classic Jewish answer.

The point is that the whole of the law is capable of being summarised in two clauses. This is the nub of the matter.

Jesus sees it in exactly that way.

28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

Notice, Jesus does not say. Do this and you will get to heaven. Do this, he says and you will live, you will have life in all its fullness. Life not bounded by death, Life that is one with God.

What’s going on here is I think fascinating. It is something very Jewish. Jesus grew up steeped in the Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible from his mother’s knee. Remember when he was 12 how he got lost and was found in the temple. When he was found he was with the teachers – these very people who were themselves steeped in the law. And he was listening to them and asking them questions. From 12 to 30 he went week by week to the synagogue. That was where you didn’t just hear the Torah read, you heard teachers, rabbis, explaining it. You had the opportunity to listen and to ask questions – to talk through its meaning.

Jesus was more than this man’s equal in his deep and profound understanding of the Torah and more importantly of what is going on there.

What the nub of the matter is.

But this lawyer wants more.

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’

Jesus responds with the best known of all stories. What is not so often appreciated is that this is again a classic way of teaching. To get across the meaning of scripture you don’t just spell out the literal meaning. You tell a story.

The story Jesus tells reaches its climax when he turns to this expert in the law and asks another question.

36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’

Mercy is one of the watchwords of the Scriptures – it is in fact a favourite in the Prophets it crops up time and again in the writings, in the Psalms. The teacher has got the point of the story.

Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

This is not just a challenge to social care. This is not just the great principle of inclusive love that breaks all barriers down. What we have here is an insight into the way Jesus sets about the task of reading the books of the Law in what we regard as the Old Testament.

You cannot simply concentrate on what is written. You have to go to the heart of what you read there. And at the heart of the Torah is Love, Love for God, Love for Neighbour. And neighbour includes all. It is all about ‘doing’ mercy.

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I could tell you what’s written there. And you would find it interesting.

Perhaps more valuable is for me to tell you what I read there.

What I read there is simply this.

Do to others what you would have others do to you.

Come to think of it didn’t someone else suggests that that is nothing less than the law and the prophets!