Sunday, October 30, 2016

Zacchaeus, an old friend and Psalm 60

Zacchaeus' sycamore fig in Jericho,
Courtesy Wikipedia
The sermon today was on Zacchaeus which follows on from mine last week - though my friend Stephan who preached has a much more practical approach than I do.

It is however fascinating that there is a tree in Jericho which is thought to be the very one that Zacchaeus climbed.

I don't quite see how Zacchaeus could have been Matthias the (replacement) Apostle since St Luke says in Acts that the two candidates had been with the Apostles "all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto the day that he was received up from us" and Zacchaeus evidently wasn't. But Clement of Alexandria would have known Acts so presumably this objection didn't carry weight with him.

This prompts me to look at the original source and in fact the only mention of Zacchaeus is in Book 4 Ch 6 of Sromata which says (in the New Advent Translation) "It is said, therefore, that Zaccheus, or, according to some, Matthew, the chief of the publicans, on hearing that the Lord had deigned to come to him, said, Lord, and if I have taken anything by false accusation, I restore him fourfold; on which the Saviour said, The Son of man, on coming today, has found that which was lost." so I think Wikipedia may be wrong on this point. (The Greek is Ζακχαῖον τοίνυν, οἳ δὲ Ματθίαν φασίν, ἀρχιτελώνην, ἀκηκοότα τοῦ κυρίου καταξιώσαντος πρὸς αὐτὸν γενέσθαι, ἰδοὺ τὰ ἡμίση τῶν ὑπαρχόντων μου δίδωμι ἐλεημοσύνην φάναι, κύριε, καὶ εἴ τινός τι ἐσυκοφάντησα, τετραπλοῦν ἀποδίδωμι. ἐφ' οὗ καὶ ὁ σωτὴρ εἶπεν·)

Went today to the 60th birthday celebration of a very old friend who taught me (a bit of) Hebrew when we were at school together. I gave him Psalm 60 as a birthday present, which I share with you:

Psalm 60
O God You've cast us off and scattered us
For You were angry, turn to us again!
You caused the land to tremble and to break
O heal her fragments, for she's faltering!
You've shown Your people hardship, and you've made
Us drink a wine that leaves us staggering.
To those who fear You, You have given a flag
That shall be raised up in the cause of truth. $
So that Your loved one yet shall be released
O help with Your right hand and answer me!
Now God has spoken in His holiness:
"I will rejoice and will divide Shekhem
And measure out the valley of Succoth.
For Gilead is mine, Mannessah’s mine
Ephraim's my crown, Judah my sceptre too.
Moab's my wash pot and I'll cast my shoe
On Edom; on Philistia I will shout."
Who will bring me in the fortress town
And who is it will lead me into Edom?
Is it not You, O God, who's cast us off
And do no longer go out with our troops?
O give us succour from the enemy
For vain is any hope of human help.
In God we will achieve success I know
And He will trample on our every foe.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Brian Tovey Memorial Service

To Brian Tovey's Memorial Service at St James' Spanish Place - a church I hadn't been to before.

Brian was Director of GCHQ and had a distinguished career there, but I knew him afterwards when he had retired since he was a neighbour of some close friends.  A charming and intelligent man, he also very kindly took my Daughter and her close friend his god-daughter to Florence and gave her some amazing insights into Renaissance Art

Hearing tributes from colleagues and friends from various walks of life was delightful - each of them giving insights into a facet of his life.

His final project was to write a book on Filippo Baldinucci (1624-97) a late-renaissance art historian and artist, which he completed before he died at the end of last year.

May he rest in peace and rise in GLORY!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Pillar of the Community and the Profiteer - Sermon 23 Oct 2016

Parable of Pharisee and Publican
Studio of Rembrandt van Rijn. Courtesy NGA.
Luke 18.9-14
To some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised othersa, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a deeply religious pillar of the community and the other a profiteering collaborator with the Roman occupiers. The Pillar of the Community stood and prayed in this way to himself a: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people — rapacious, unrighteous, adulterers—or even like this profiteer. I fast twice a week and give tithes of all things that I get.’
 “But the profiteer stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Lord, I pray that you will guard these words of mine, bless what is right, and correct any errors in my words in the minds of these kind hearers. Amen.

The story goes that John Major, when he was Prime Minister, met Boris Yeltsin at the time President of Russia, and asked Yeltin: “how are things in Russia”. Yeltisn replied “in a word: Good”.  Ah excellent, said Major, and what about in more words?  “In two words” replied Yeltsin, “not good”.

Jesus’s parables overturn expectations. Our problem, hearing them, is that we often know the parable but not the expectations.   What’s the one word you associate with Samaritan?   (Good) Precisely. But the whole point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that the Samaritans were the despised heretics, with whom, as St John tells us, the Jews had no dealings (if they could help it).

So who is this “deeply religious pillar of the community”? Well the Greek is Pharisaios which comes from the Aramaicb Pərīšā which means “set apart or separated” and of course the English word is Pharisee.  But the very word now means a religious hypocrite, and if we read it that way we miss the point of the parable completely.

The Pharisees were in many ways among the best of the religious Jews at the time.   The Sadducees had basically sold out and collaborated with the occupying powers in exchange for control of the Temple and earthly power. They also denied the doctrine that God would raise people from the dead at the end of time - which is why “they were sad, you see”. The Zealots were actively resisting occupation, from time to time fighting against the Romans and supporting little bands of brigands in the wilderness.

But the Pharisees devoted themselves to careful study of the scriptures, and scrupulous observation of the Law. They believed in an Oral Torah which (it seems from the Talmudc) was both revealed to Moses at Sinai, and the product of debates among rabbis, in an ongoing process of analysis and argument in which God is actively involved. They produced great religious teachers – Gamaliel taught Paul. Gamaliel’s grandfather, Hillel the Elder, was probably one of the sages Jesus listened to as a child in the Temple.  Hillel was approached by a heathen who asked him “teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot” and Hillel replied 'What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour:  that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary on it; go and learn it.”. Hillel was “not far from the kingdom of God.”  When we hear this parable we must not imagine it only applies to other people– we must not think “I thank you that I am not as other men are – like that Pharisee.”

And what about the profiteering collaborator with the Roman occupiers? The Greek is telwnEs which means what the Romans called a publicanus. A publicanus was literally a public contractor but their main role was collecting taxes for the Romans. It worked like this. The right to collect taxes for a particular region would be auctioned every few years for a value that (in theory) approximated the tax available for collection in that region. Any tax collected that was in excess of their bid would be pure profit for the publicanusd. He would then generally sell the right to collect the taxes in a particular sub-region to the highest bidder, who could then pocket the difference between what he collected and what he had to pay.  These people got very rich. In Luke 19 we meet a chief-tax collector called Zacchaeus who can afford to give away half his wealth to the poor and restore anything that he defrauded fourfold e.

The annual tax revenue of Judea was about 300 talentsf and a talent is 10,000 days wages - about £1M in today’s money.  So these were really rich profiteers collaborating with the heathen occupying power.  Nobody respectable would associate with them and their sins cried out to heaven.  Quite right, everyone hearing Jesus would think, that this disgraceful profiteer would not even lift up his eyes to heaven.  The Pharisees particularly disliked the tax-collectors, and a tax-collector who wanted to join a Pharisee guild had to give up his profession and pay just compensation to all those he had cheated.g

As for the pillar of the community – he goes beyond the letter of the Law. The Law requires you to fast once in the week – he fasts twice. The Law requires you to give tithes of the crops and animals that you owned, but there was no requirement to tithe the whole of your income – but this is what the pillar of the community does.  His prayer sounds strange to us, but it was the practice (recorded in the Talmud h) for a pious Jewish man to bless God every day for not having created him a Gentile, a slave or a woman. Indeed it’s something we are often called to reflect on that if we had been born in different circumstances we would have found it much harder to come to faith.  What he is saying is not that dis-similar from the most famous remark of the English reformer and martyr John Bradford, “there but for the grace of God go I” – brilliantly subverted by Churchill of observed of the austere intellectual Sir Stafford Cripps “there but for the grace of God, goes God”.

But it’s the profiteer who goes home justified before God, and the other does not i. This is not because the accusations were false. The profiteer was surely rapacious and unrighteous, and even if he hadn’t committed adultery in a physical sense, the very coins in which the profiteer dealt had a graven image of Caesar making an explicit claim to divinity – and the Old Testament considered any mixing with foreign so-called “gods” as adultery. What Jesus says is meant to be shocking to his hearers when he says it and is meant to be shocking to us now.  What is wrong with the pillar of the community, what is right about the profiteer, and what does it mean for us, today?

We have a clue in Luke’s introduction: this is told to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others (the Greek is literally “relying on themselves that they are righteous/justified”). The problem is not that the pillar of the community does the tithing and fasting, but that he “trusts in himself that he is righteous” and not in God.  And Jesus describes his prayer as being said, “to himself” – that’s what the Greek says j . Of course the pillar of the community would indignantly deny it – it’s clear from his words that he is addressing God. But God sees the heart, and Jesus is suggesting that this man is not really addressing God at all. Because if he were connecting with God at all he would know two things. One: that he was unworthy and Two: that he must be compassionate. Here, beside him (though afar off) is a profiteer who is evidently humbled before God and penitent. But what does the pillar of the community do? He despises him.

What’s right about the profiteer? Does Jesus approve of his collaboration, his rapaciousness? Surely not. But what he does approve of is that he recognises his own unworthiness. Despite his great riches he humbles himself.  He beats his breast and prays “God, have mercyk on me a sinner”. He is “not far from the kingdom of God”. And when someone who could have been his boss, Zacchaeus, really repents and turns to Jesus, Jesus says “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19.9)

So what does this mean for us, today?  May I explore three suggestions?
  1. We must not trust in ourselves, but in God. This applies at the personal level, and also at the political. Much of the awful mess that some (but by no means all) US Evangelical leaders have got themselves into supporting Trump seems to be because they have made political calculations rather than trusting in God l. As Psalm 65, which we read, says
    “God silences the roaring of the sea.
    Their roaring waves, and tumult of the nations”

    But of course we must be careful not to “thank God that we are not as other men are” in this.
  2. We must not despise others. Jesus is very stern about those who call a brother “fool” (Mat 5.22).  There are of course many situations where we have to exercise judgement about our own courses of action. But God is the one true judge and we are not to place ourselves in God’s judgement seat.  We are called to love our neighbour, not to judge him or her.
  3. We should walk humbly with our God. There is a wonderful prayer called the Jesus Prayer which is based on this passage. It goes: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have pity on me, a sinner.” It can be helpful to repeat it 12 times, pausing to mediate on each of the 12 words. But whether we pray in these exact words or not, we should pray in this spirit.  Jesus is clear: all who exalt themselves will be abased, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
May we trust in God, walk in love and humility, and share the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. Amen.

  1.  NIV’s “were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” is wrong. The Greek is specific pepoithotas eph heutois hoti eisin dikaioi. The NIV also leaves out "with himself " (pros heauton) and gives “robbers, evildoers” for harpages, adikoi  harpax means literally ravenous though harpazw means to steal or take away forcefully. RSV and KJV has "extortioners" which isn’t bad.
  2. Interestingly not directly from the Hebrew, where the related word is pārûš. The earliest historical sources about them are the gospels and Acts, but they are extensively discussed by Josephus.
  3. The sages of the Talmud are not quite the same as the Pharisees, but we don’t have any first hand accounts of the Pharisees’ teachings.
  4. Or indeed the leasing company he represented. Special leasing companies (societas publicanorum) were formed to bid for the contracts in large provinces.
  5. According to Clement of Alexandria, Zaccheaus was surnamed Matthias and became the replacement apostle for Judas, and the Apostolic Constitutions (c380AD) say that Zaccheaus the tax collector was the first Bishop of Caeseria.
  6. First Century Galilee: A Fresh Examination of the Sources by Bradley W. Root says Archelaus collected 600 talents from Judea, Samaria, Idumea and a number of semi-independent cities under his control, and this grew quite a lot during the 1st Century. -   a talent was 10,000 Tyrian (or 6,000 Attic) drachmae and a drachma was a day’s wage.
  7. EDNT Vol 3 p 349 citing Herrenbruck.
  8. Menachoth 43b-44a.
  9. And when Jesus says “will be humbled” and “will be exalted” he means humbled and exalted by God.
  10. The RSV has ”prayed thus with himself“ following the KJV (though the Greek is to and not with), the NJB “said this prayer to himself”, Tom Wright has “prayed in this way to himself” which is of course spot-on. I often marvel at the NIV’s mistranslations – I wonder if US evangelicals have a problem with this passage?
  11. The word used hilasthEti comes from hilaskomai which means “be reconciled” but I think it’s a distraction.
  12. Some of them are rowing back – see the coruscating editorial in Christianity Today. But immense damage has been done.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Catherine Wyn-Rogers in a wonderful Das Lied von der Erde

Robert Dean Smith, Josep Pons, Catherine
To the Festival Hall last night since my beloved sister had told me that wonderful Catherine Wyn-Rogers had stepped in at the last minute to sing Das Lied von der Erde in place of Matthias Goerne who was indisposed.

This is another masterpiece that I had never heard, and Catherine is one of the world's great Mezzos especially in a concert setting where the words matter. She was indeed amazing!

The first half consisted of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. The orchestra was the Philharmonia under the baton of Josep Pons - who I hadn't heard before and who imparts a very Spanish flair to his conducting. He brought out a great many tones and features I had not previously noticed, but then I was only 4 rows from the front and I'm not conscious of having heard this piece so up close and personal before.

Then the amazing Mahler. The first song (Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde) was from the tenor, a fine Wagnerian tenor called Robert Dean Smith born in Kansas who has sung title roles in Bayreuth. The famous refrain Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod very much sets the tone.  Then Catherine came on with her wonderful blend of vocal beauty and really entering into the words. Der Einsame im Herbst captured perfectly the loneliness of Autumn.  The tenor gave us Von der Jugend which is a song about a porcelain scene - relating I think to the willow pattern. And then Catherine the somewhat ethereal ballad Von der Schönheit of young girls picking flowers who are disturbed by passing horsemen.

The tenor returns for another drinking song Der Trunkene im Frühling ("The Drunkard in Spring") which is based on Li Bai's famous poem Waking from drunkenness on a Spring Day. (I'm fairly sure I've translated some Li Bai but I'll have to go back and look to see what).  Then Catherine had the haunting final song "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell") where the singer is both narrator, waiting for her friend who finally comes to part forever and "wander homeward, to my abode!" concluding in the plaintive "Ewig .. Ewig." As Julian Johnson says in the programme notes this song "is obviously a meditation on death, but it is less an enactment of dying than a rethinking of how to live". At the end "Still moving, and utterly still, the music does indeed resound forever".

Mahler died shortly before the first performance. Webern wrote to his friend Berg, urging him to attend, that  it was going to be "Something so heavenly, the like of which has never been heard of."

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Cornwall, Conference and Boston

Very busy few days. First to Cornwall to celebrate Mother's 85th birthday - then to Conservative Conference, then to Warwick University to give a seminar, and finally to Boston to meet some clients - with the very pleasant side-effect of seeing Elder Daughter and her family. Mother was in good form and Cornwall was amazingly beautiful - as it almost always is when not raining!

The Conference (only the second I've attended) was notable for me because of the very grown-up and long-term approach the May government is taking to policy-making. No-one thinks for one moment that Labour can win under Corbyn. So the only election where there is an appreciable chance of the Conservatives losing power is in 2025 (or 2023 if May is forced to call an early GE next year which is unlikely but not completely impossible) and realistically the first seriously competitive GE is in 2030. This means that, for the first time ever, we have a government in the UK that is focused on a 7-12 year timeframe and that is surely a good thing. They are adopting sensible long-term approaches to policy-making, with Green Papers and White Papers before legislation so that there can be proper consultation on ideas. 
The other big advantage the May government has is that there is a clear national consensus that Things Have Got to Change. This is enormously powerful: people like innovation but they don't really like to change the way they operate.

Finally to Boston to meet some clients and also a Chinese colleague who is at the Kennedy School. Alas no time to catch up with my Harvard or MIT friends since I had a very early flight on Saturday. Next time...