Monday, 31 March 2014

Understanding and Compassion:
three Bible studies for Lent

Patrick Comerford

Whitechurch Parish,

Rathfarnham, Dublin,

31 March 2014


This evening in Whitechurch Parish, we are continuing the series of themed Bible studies suggested by BACI (the Biblical Association for the Church of Ireland).

The overarching themes are: Church and Culture, Church in Culture, Church through Culture, Church against Culture, Church beyond Culture.

This evening we are looking at Study 3: Understanding and Compassion, through the lens of three Bible studies: Ezekiel 34; Matthew 9:35-10:7; Luke 15:11-32.

Introduction

The introductory notes to this evening’s study and these passages say:

It is one thing to bemoan/demonise/write off the culture that surrounds and presses in upon us. If, for example, we think in terms of a consumer culture, it would be very easy to explain exactly what it is that we are “against”.

Matthew’s comment on Jesus’ compassion for the crowd invites us to view it in a different way: Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:35 ff.)

Here it is not the culture that is in view so much as people.

Now think about viewing our culture and its practitioners with compassion. Assuming, for example, that we are thinking about a consumer culture, or simply our 21st century “western” culture as we understand it, what characterises it? Ruth Valerio, at a Christians in Science seminar in Belfast in July 2013, suggested the following hallmarks (amongst others):

● lack of time
● illusory happiness
● transience of relationships e.g. marriage

Another feature of the culture that surrounds us is the sense that we have been let down by so many institutions and their leaders: banks and other financial institutions, newspapers (hence the revelations of the Leveson Inquiry), the BBC, churches, politicians and the political process. There is also increasing scepticism that science and scientists are not altogether to be trusted, particularly if they tell us what we do not wish to accept. Hence the widespread suspicion that those who talk about man-made global warming are engaged in a conspiracy. Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann links compassion to a ‘radical form of criticism’ of the way modern governments and institutions work.

(Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 1978, p. 85 f.)

Who, then, is to be trusted? How is this uncertainty expressed in modern culture?

As we consider the culture of which we are a part, it is important that our reaction should not be one of censure, but should be people-oriented and one of Christ-like compassion. How is this to be expressed?

The Good Shepherd ... a stained glass window in Saint Mark’s Church, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ezekiel 34: 1-16

1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them – to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord:
8 As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep;
9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord:
10 Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.
11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.
12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.
13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land.
14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.
15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.
16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Matthew 9: 35 to 10: 1, 5-7

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.
36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
37 Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’

1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,
6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
7 As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Luke 15: 11-32

11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons.
12 The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them.
13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.
16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
17 But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!
18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;
19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands’.”
20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
22 But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;
24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.
26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.
27 He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.”
28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.
29 But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.
30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
31 Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Notes:

The BACI study provides the following Notes on the readings for ‘Understanding and Compassion’:

Old Testament reading (Ezekiel 34):

Matthew’s memorable phrase sheep without a shepherd comes from the Old Testament, where it refers especially to lack of political leadership (Numbers 27: 17; 1 Kings 22: 17; Ezekiel 34: 5), but also encompasses a lack of spiritual care and guidance as well (cf. Zechariah 10: 2–3).

Harassed and helpless is literally “torn and thrown down,” continuing the metaphor of sheep unprotected from predators, or even suffering from unscrupulous shepherds (cf. Zechariah 11:16). The ordinary people of Israel are “lost sheep” (10:6; 15: 24) awaiting the Messianic shepherd (Ezekiel 34: 23; Micah 5: 4; Zechariah 11: 4 ff.; etc.). So God undertakes that he himself will be their shepherd.

New Testament readings

Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός

1, Matthew 9: 35-10-7:

The cause of Jesus’ ceaseless activity is traced to his compassion for the crowds. The vivid verb “have compassion” (literally referring to a “gut reaction”!) is always in the New Testament used of Jesus himself (except in three parables: 18: 27; Luke 10: 33; 15: 20); like his “mercy” (see 9: 27) it regularly issues in action to meet the need which evokes it. Similar sentiments will well up in Jesus again at the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6: 34).

Jesus himself is the shepherd of his people according to many New Testament references (cf. Matthew 25: 32; 26: 31; John 10: 11–16; Hebrews 13: 20; 1 Peter 2: 25).

His compassion increases because Israel lacks adequate leadership, despite the many who would claim to guide it. The Twelve begin to fill that vacuum, foreshadowing the institution of the church. As in the days of the prophets, the rightful leadership of Israel had abdicated its responsibility, as demonstrated by its inability or unwillingness to recognize God’s true spokesmen.

Thus Michael Green writes: “Jesus saw the situation: people were tormented, exhausted and led astray. Jesus perceived their need, as Ezekiel had done before him. This is the supreme motivation for mission, to see the need of those who are perishing outside the kingdom. Motivation comes when you see people harassed by pressures, exhausted by the pace of life, going nowhere, and being led astray by many false ideologies.”

(Michael Green, The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven. The Bible Speaks Today. Leicester: IVP 2000: 133–134.)

New Testament 2. Luke 15: 11-32

This is another key passage emphasising the unconditional compassion of God. This Parable of the Prodigal Son, or the Forgiving Father, introduces another element of cultural awareness – in that it would have spoken more strongly to Jesus’ original audience than it does today. Modern western Christians read this passage as heart-warming; Jesus’ original audience would have received it as scandalous. Let Philip Yancey explain:

‘A missionary in Lebanon once read this parable to a group of villagers who lived in a culture very similar to the one Jesus described and who had never heard the story. “What do you notice?” he asked. Two details of the story stood out to the villagers. First, by claiming his inheritance early, the son was saying to his father, “I wish you were dead!” The villagers could not imagine a patriarch taking such an insult or agreeing to the son’s demand. Second, they noticed that the father ran to greet his long-lost son. In the Middle East, a man of stature walks with slow and stately dignity; never does he run. In Jesus’ story the father runs, and Jesus’ audience no doubt gasped at this detail.”

(Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1997, p.80.)

Thus the parable offers a radical portrait of a forgiving and loving God, whose love is absolutely unconditional. We do nothing to deserve it. This may be very different to a view, common both within and beyond Church boundaries, of ‘justification by works’ in which God’s love is seem to be restricted to those who are thought to deserve it.

This then raises at least three immediate questions for us to ponder through all our considerations of Church and culture:

1, we think we know how a passage of scripture ought to be read. But might it mean something very different to someone from a different culture – an “outsider”?

2, Might an “outsider” teach us to look at it in a new, more incisive way?

3, We may be comfortable enough with what happens in church on a Sunday morning. But might it look very different to an “outsider”? How is that gap to be bridged?

BACI also provides some questions and discussion starters on understanding and compassion, which are also asking ourselves this evening:

1, What does God’s call to compassion, as seen in these readings, mean to you personally? How might it change your attitude to “outsiders”?

2, What should we do, as Christians, to encourage leaders in government and industry to understanding and compassion? Does power inevitably corrupt? What sorts of people do we trust?

3, Why do you think Jesus sends his disciples only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (see Matthew 10: 6; 15: 24)? What would (or would not) have happened if this had become a lasting ordinance?

4, Many Christians tend to identify more with the older son in Luke 15 parable that with either the father or the prodigal. Why is this? Is this the reaction the one God wants from us?

5, A recent television programme (and also a Mothers’ Union report) detailed the deliberate process of the sexualisation and commercialisation of children. How far do we understand the pressures that modern children and young people are under? How can we respond compassionately?

6, Influential atheists Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins and other influential atheists have written about what they see as the ultimate meaninglessness of life: “We know from the Second Law of Thermodynamics that all complexity, all life, all laughter, all sorrow, is hell-bent on levelling itself out into cold nothingness in the end. (Richard Dawkins, 1996 article in The Humanist magazine) How do people cope with this? How deeply does this logical outcome of atheism affect our culture and our behaviour? How do we engage? Can we show there is another world view without reducing it to “going to heaven when you die”?

7, And our closing question as before: Where do we go from here?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College, Dublin. These notes, drawing extensively on material prepared by BACI, were used in a Lenten Bible study in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, on Monday 31 March 2014.

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