Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Landscape with Shepherd and Sheep   Anton Mauve, (1838-1888)
Once again the agricultural world in which Jesus lived and taught provides a central image for the Sunday readings – sheep and shepherds. In the thematic Old Testament lessons, the passage from Jeremiah (reinforced by Psalm 23) uses the image to lament the extent to which the leaders of the Israelites have abandoned their God-given role to be ‘shepherds’ of the people. In the Gospel, Jesus abandons his desire to retreat from the constant pressures of the crowds who seek his help, because he suddenly sees them ‘sheep without a shepherd’.

In the interpretation of this image and its applications in Scripture, we must not suppose that sheep are useless without a shepherd. On the contrary, they know how to cope with basic survival and everyday life. They can secure grass to graze on and water to drink; they can breed successfully and succor their young. It is vital needs beyond the everyday that surpass their natural abilities -- distant sources of ‘living’ (i.e. fresh) water, and protection against climatic hazards and natural predators. These are the deficiencies that the good shepherd supplies.

By analogy, then, we should not think of the crowd upon which Jesus has compassion as a bunch of helpless children. These are adults with homes, families, skills and occupations. Yet they crowd around Jesus because the larger context within which this everyday life is set leaves them at a loss. They know how to cope with ‘things temporal’, but flounder when it comes to ‘things eternal’ – the kind of life in which ultimately ‘true’ joys are to be found.

In short, they (like us) need ‘revealed’ as well as ‘discovered’ truth. It is a contention that the ‘religions of the book’ – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – hold in common. For Christians, though, the essential revelation comes not only through the Word of God, but through the Person of Christ – ‘the Word made Flesh’.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Salome and the Beheading of John the Baptist -- Caravaggio

The Gospel passage for this Sunday records a grotesque and remarkably gruesome episode – the decapitation of John the Baptist, and the appearance of his severed head on a platter in the middle of a party! Mark manages to convey some compelling images in just a few verses – the brutality of absolute power, the terrible consequences of adolescent vanity, the viciousness of revenge, and the necessary acceptance of these realities by simple followers.

The episode is recounted in a context that characterizes the whole of Mark’s Gospel – the question of Jesus’ identity. What are we to make of him? Is he the Messiah? Is he another prophet like John? The fate of the Baptist is a ghastly catastrophe, yet even those who first read this passage, and wrestled with this question, could not have failed to know that Jesus himself had died a death scarcely less brutal. The difference, of course, is to be found in the Resurrection.

The disciples of Jesus, just like the disciples of John, ‘came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb’. What happened thereafter, however, changed everything. It did not undo the fact of his execution on a cross, of course, but nevertheless transformed its significance. It is precisely this transformation that the reading from Ephesians means to explicate. In the death of Jesus, God ‘has made known to us the mystery of his will . . . a plan for the fullness of time’. ‘In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance’ we have ‘heard the word of truth, the gospel of salvation’.

The death of John is a display of human will at its worst. On the surface, the death of Jesus looks pretty much the same. But the Resurrection shows it to be the mysterious, and saving, will of God.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Christ in the Synagogue N N Ge (1831-94)

  • 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 and Psalm 48  • 
  • Ezekiel 2:1-5 and Psalm 123  • 
  • 2 Corinthians 12:2-10  • 
    The short Epistle for this Sunday is hard to understand, because it appears out of context. It is an excerpt from Paul’s second Letter to the Corinthians, and part of a longer passage in which he is arguing against making personal experience of religious ecstasy the basis of spiritual authority. By speaking of himself in the third person, he writes dismissively of his own such experience, despite ‘the exceptional character of the revelation’ that was given to him on the road to Damascus.

    This is because he does not want ‘boasting’ about it to make anyone ‘think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me’. It is not his one-off experience, but his life as a living instance of the grace of God, that must prove his faith in Jesus. Indeed, to keep him from ‘being too elated’ he draws explicit attention to ‘a thorn in the flesh’ that constantly reminds him of his real life.

    We do not know what this ‘thorn’ was, but its role was to keep Paul mindful of this fact: the discipleship to which he was called was not a matter of elevated mystical elation, but ‘weaknesses, insults, hardships’ borne for the sake of Christ. Paradoxically, it is only when we fully acknowledge our own weakness that we are properly aware of the strength of God’s grace within us.

    The Gospel passage from Mark resonates with this important truth. Even Jesus, in whom the grace of God is brought to perfection, must confront ‘insults’ in his ‘own country’. Those who knew him as a boy dismissively discount his message in the synagogue. They cannot see beyond their assumption, to the prophetic voice he has become. This rejection is a prelude to instructions about discipleship. At their heart, we might say, is a balancing act. True Christian discipleship must avoid the temptation to seek self-affirmation in either persecution or popularity, since both turn the spotlight unto ourselves, and away from Christ.