Thursday, July 16, 2015


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 this 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 relinquishes his desire to retreat from the constant pressures of the crowds who seek his help, because he suddenly sees them as ‘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.

Paul Preaching at Ephesus Eustace Le Seur (1649)
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’. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians underlines the profound significance of this shift. Whereas the religion of the book formerly constituted a dividing line between Jew and non-Jew, the possibility of a relationship with Christ overcomes any such division, so that Gentiles (foreigners) are
'no longer strangers and aliens', but equally 'members of the household of God'.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Salome with the Head of John the Baptist -- Andrea Solario (c 1500)
The Gospel passage for this Sunday records a remarkably gruesome episode – the decapitation of John the Baptist, and, to make it even more grotesque, the presentation of his severed head on a platter in the middle of a party! In just a few verses Mark manages to convey a compelling image of the ways in which different forms of human wickedness – the brutality of absolute power, the consequences of adolescent vanity, the viciousness of revenge -- can combine to create and sustain a world in which the friends and followers of its victims can only  accept such horrors quietly as inescapable realities.

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.

Christ on the Cross - Viktor Vasnetsov (1896)
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, but it did transform 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. Initially, the death of Jesus looks pretty much the same -- the outcome of political power, popular sentiment and sectarian jealousy. But God's ways are not our ways, and strangely, the mystery of the Resurrection shows Christ on the Cross to be God's saving will.