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On reading the scriptures

Ordinary Sunday 17, 24 July, 2011
Nicholas Browne, Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

One of the positive things about having a lectionary of readings from across the Bible is that it enables us to see how different parts of scripture look at similar issues and questions in our relationship with each other and with God.

One of the potentially negative things about having such a lectionary is that it puts together writings from different times and contexts and, if we're not careful, suggests to us that scripture says straightforwardly similar things about an issue or question — that the 'plain meaning' of scripture is always consistent.

Take our two New Testament readings today. A simplistic synthesis of them might lead us to a position like this:

God predestines some people to be righteous and justifies them, and some to be unrighteous and evil and unjustified; and the end of the age the unrighteous will be separated out and thrown into the lake of fire, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. (A phrase which I always find sounds better in a mock Ulster accent.)

There are a significant number of Christians around the world, particularly in the Western Protestant tradition, who would assent to this summary as being what scripture teaches. And it is a conception of God's relationship with humanity which forms the basis of the rejection of God by people such as the author Philip Pullman.

But I'm with Canon Giles Fraser of St Paul's London on this one. Faced with the 'New Atheist' denunciation of this concept of God's dealing with humanity, Fraser accuses them of ethical failure — on the grounds that the atheists would be prepared to worship such a deity if its existence could be scientifically proven. If such a God existed, Fraser asserts, a God who arbitrarily condems some people to burn eternally in Hell, he would refuse to worship it.

But if we approach the Bible with the conception that it will be saying exactly the same thing throughout — what we might call a hermeneutic of consistency — then presumably this is the sort of God to which scripture attests.

At this point it will probably come as no surprise to you to discover that I want to suggest a different way of looking at these two readings. Because I think they are saying two very different things for two very different contexts. To begin with, note that Paul talks about being chosen and justified — he doesn't mention evil and he doesn't mention anything about the 'un-chosen'. Matthew talks about the righteous and unrighteous — he doesn't say anything about God choosing or predestining. We're dealing here with two very different conceptual frameworks.

In Romans, Paul is writing to reassure and instruct a small group of believers. Marginalised and alienated from the mainstream culture, the community knows it is in danger of persecution. But they are trying to be faithful, and they believe that they have been chosen by God. Paul is not being hypothetical here — the ones who are predestined, called, justified and glorified are his readers. It is a message of joy and hope, but also one of challenge — the consequence of being called is the need, as he says later in the epistle, to 'present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.' So Paul's emphasis here is on the hope and challenge that the Roman believers should find in being called by God.

Now I don't want to pretend that Paul is some sort of liberal universalist. Inherent in the theology of this epistle is the idea that God has mercy on whom he chooses, and he 'hardens the heart of whomever he chooses'. But part of this is him trying to come to terms with, and explain, the fact that most of Israel have not accepted Jesus as Son of God. More significantly, though, he barely considers the fate of those who have not been chosen. The point is that his readers have been saved. What how? How should they understand this? How should they respond? How should they behave towards God and each other? These are the crucial questions — not the fate of anyone else, which is basically up to God.

Matthew, I suggest, has vastly different concerns. And I further suggest that Western Protestantism has significantly under-estimated the tension between Paul's understanding of justification and that present in Matthew and the other synoptic gospels. To begin with, the language is totally different. Paul talks of people being chosen, called and justified. Matthew, in his arresting image of the furnace of fire, talks of the evil and the righteous. And elsewhere in his gospel he makes it clear that these categories are not about God's predestination, but about human behaviour. He comes back repeatedly to this image of God's separation of the righteous and unrighteous at the end of the age. Three chapters after today's passage, Jesus says more specifically how this will happen. Those who have fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, taken care of the sick, and visited the imprisoned will inherit the kingdom. To those who have not, he will say:

'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' The they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

I think it's only a slight exaggeration to say that these two passages, rather than seeing things consistently, address the question of justification and choice from exactly opposite perspectives. Paul says to the Roman believers: "God has chosen you — now here is how you need to behave in response." For Paul, the choice is not ours but God's. Matthew, on the other hand, emphasises how God will respond to our choices. This emphasis is reinforced by the imagery of his parables. The man who buys the field with the buried treasure and the merchant who buys the pearl of great price do not come upon their treasures by accident. In the first case, the man appears to have hidden the treasure himself (a practice that archaeologists tell us was not unusual in troubled times in the ancient world). In the second, the merchant is on the lookout for fine pearls. In both cases they recognise what they have found and are prepared to sacrifice everything else to get it.

It's worth noting that what Paul and Matthew do have in common, though, is the ethical imperative. Later in this epistle, Paul echoes Matthew's admonition to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. And it's worth keeping this in mind — even where their understandings of God's actions are so different, their understandings of the implications for our own behaviour are startlingly similar.

God is beyond human comprehension. This is a fairly uncontroversial statement in Christian circles, yet I think we often fail to think through its implications. If He is beyond our understanding, beyond our capacity to capture and define in language, why should we expect scripture to present a clear, consistent and unambiguous definition of God and His actions? If we believe that the Holy Spirit has led the church to create a definitive canon of teachings in scripture, then we need to ensure that we base our theology on what is included therein. But I believe it is possible to do so without assuming that this will always be an obvious and straightforward task.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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