Uniting Church in Australia Lay Preachers' Conference, Melbourne, 1997
Read Psalm 137 - a very human psalm expressing human pain and human violence.
Let it be, it is part of the richness of Scripture. It is better to be open about the light and shade. This one is relatively easy to identify. The problem is much bigger and relates to both Old and New Testaments.
Read Mark 10:41-44. Here Jesus identifies the dominant value systems of power in government, wealth and family. He questions their status. Models of what human beings have considered great have influenced people's thinking about God. What is great about God? God's power? How should we respond to God? The way we do (or did) to powerful people in government or family, kings and fathers?
When we see (and preach about) God like this, we subtly reinforce the dominant value systems. God is, after all, the ultimate model for us all. If we picture God with the trappings of human power (even if the trappings belong to a past age, such as in the language and behaviour of royal courts), we are giving the message that these represent the ultimate values.
Jesus teaches us that what makes a person great is not power, but compassion and service. His disciples failed to grasp this. Each time Jesus announced he was embarking on a path of suffering and rejection, the disciples are heading in the opposite direction (read what follows Mark 8:27-29; 9:31; 10:33-34). Each time Jesus offers an alternative model of being human, losing oneself, being like a child, being a servant.
Jesus does not give this teaching so that we can respond appropriately to him and to God as power persons. He gives this teaching as one who himself is living out these values. He is the servant. None of this denies his power, but serving and compassion matter most. Jesus wants us to be the way he is. He is also wanting us to know that this is the way God is.
Jesus does speak of God as king and as father, but we should notice that the qualities he gives these images is opposite to the popular images. Picture the father of the prodigal son, running down the road in compassion, not waiting in dignity to hear whether the son has changed his ways! God is like that. The kingdom of God is not about a selfish ambition to dominate everything and everyone, but a compassion to set people free to be what they were made to be.
When the gospel speaks of Jesus as a king, it is strongly ironical. He wears a crown of thorns and hangs in brokenness in the cross. Easter did not mean that God and Jesus stopped being like this! Jesus and his ministry is not an exception in the life of God, but the way God was and always will be. We are not to make God a proxy for our own conceit.
It is so easy to let the power based thinking push the good news aside. When people picture God as one day ceasing to love and therefore make his compassion temporary, they make the ultimate value something other than compassion. Then they will justify making something other than compassion the ultimate value for their own behaviour as well. Love becomes a temporary thing. That then changes everything. Violence is justified if I am right. It is only a matter of timing, because God will right people off in the end.
The Scriptures themselves are full of the struggle of light and darkness and the writers are not always in tune with the gospel of compassion. This is why people have been inspired by Scripture to both compassion and violence; church history is littered with examples. Today, too, we can see the same effects in compassion-oriented and rule or power-oriented interpretation of Scripture. Jesus had his fair share of the same conflict over use of Scripture in his day. It contributed to his crucifixion.
The interpreter today needs to be aware of the subtle influences which flow from Scripture and the Church's tradition, including its worship. They can be negative as well as positive. We need to ensure that what we say and what we do is reinforcing not the darkness but the light. The way of power is the dominant model and the ruling model for many Christians. It rules our world. Unless we are alert it will also rule and so subvert our preaching of the gospel.
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