Monday, 21 February 2011

Mary, Martha and touch

A partial explanation for my choices of pictures in six pictures of Mary and Martha.

Andrew, when I gave this ‘sermon’ yesterday at St Luke’s you said that the picture of Jesus and Mary of Bethany in the stained glass window was disturbing because it takes us close to Da Vinci Code territory and another friend of mine, Liz, has said the same when she ‘read’ my blog. I thought I’d better explain this choice of picture. I couldn’t at the time because someone changed the subject of ‘touch’ and ‘intimacy’ in the pictures so abruptly. I think because it made them feel uncomfortable.

I chose the picture of Jesus holding Mary of Bethany because it is rare example of a picture of Jesus touching a woman in a way that speaks of intimacy with them. There are others I have found e.g. there is an interesting modern picture of Jesus with the Samaritan woman which some people find shocking because Jesus and the woman’s legs are touching (I’ll blog it some time soon). Pictures of Jesus touching men except to heal them or rescue them from drowning (Peter) are even rarer!

There are some pictures of people (mostly women again) touching Jesus and pictures of the story of the woman (sometimes Mary of Bethany, sometimes Mary Magdalene and sometimes difficult to say) anointing the feet of Jesus with perfume are the most common. But it should be noted that in many of the foot-anointing pictures the woman is not shown actually touching Jesus. The picture by Stephen St Claire makes the point that she could not have put the perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiped it away with her hair if she did not touch them. It is perhaps why some find it such a disturbing image.

Why do we find pictures of Jesus touching people or people touching Jesus so disturbing? It is of course because all four gospel writers are clear that Jesus was unmarried and didn’t appear to have a wife/partner. He did though have friends – some of whom like Mary and Martha of Bethany and Mary Magdalene were women. It seems to me highly likely that Jesus touched his friends and his friends touched him. This is what friends do. When people love one another they touch one another because touch is a form of deep communication.

Of course people touch one another when they have sex and this is surely what has made artists avoid showing Jesus touching people and people touching Jesus. But of course touch is not just for sex, it’s also for reassurance e.g. when holding the hand of a child to lead them somewhere or in other (non-western) cultures when holding hands with a friend when walking together. Touch also brings comfort. A person will put their arm around a friend – or even someone they don’t know very well - who is going through a difficult time to comfort them. And finally touch can be healing as when the woman with a haemorrhage touches Jesus (Luke 8: 40-56, etc) and as when Jesus touches people when he heals them. (Interestingly artists are reasonably happy to portray Jesus touching people when he’s healing them.)

This brings me back to the picture of Jesus and Mary of Bethany in the stained glass window. This picture is all the more ‘disturbing’ because Mary is clearly pregnant. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is based on the pretence that Jesus had a sexual relationship with Mary Magadalene and there is not a shred of evidence for this. It has never been suggested that Jesus was any more than friends with Mary of Bethany. Why then does the artist portray Mary of Bethany as pregnant? Who knows? But why should she not have been? Women do get pregnant. Is the artist implying that the father of the baby is Jesus? Would it be that shocking if he was?

Why are we so afraid to see Mary of Bethany or Mary Magdalene’s anointing of Jesus’ feet for what it clearly was – an act of great love and tenderness - and so ready to turn it into something else? John (and Matthew and Mark) but not Luke clearly sees the anointing as foreshadowing Jesus’ anointing after his death (but surely again this is an act of particular intimacy). There is no suggestion that kings’ feet were ever anointed but some have been ready to see the anointing as something to do with Jesus’ kingship. And if its ‘just’ an anointing why the business with the hair?

As I said yesterday there seems to be some confusion amongst the gospel writers about who it was exactly that anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped the perfume away with their hair. John has Mary of Bethany anointing the feet of Jesus. Luke has it that it is Mary Magdalene who does so – or rather in his account it is ‘a woman of the city who was a sinner’ and a few verses later introduces Mary Magdalene to his readers. In Luke’s gospel Mary of Bethany just sits at his feet rather than anointing them. (Matthew and Mark do not name the woman and she pours the perfume over Jesus’ head). So in theory it could be both Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene/someone else entirely. Artists are similarly confused as reflected by the picture in my blog by Vergilius Master and often conflate the stories from Luke and John as in the picture by Blake. (Is that a perfume jar or a cushion? If a jar is Martha criticising Mary for pouring the perfume on Jesus’ feet but if so shouldn’t that then be Judas?)

One of the reasons why I think the confusion between Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany is interesting is that the first (traditionally) represents sex and the second friendship/intimacy. In Luke’s gospel the first is a risky prostitute in need of forgiveness (c.f. Luke’s story of ‘Mary Magdalene’ anointing Jesus’ feet (Luke 7: 36-50)), the second commendable (c.f. Luke’s story of Mary of Bethany sitting at Jesus’ feet like an attentive friend (Luke 10 38-42)). Whilst in John’s gospel it is Mary of Bethany who does the anointing and Mary Magdalene is the friend who meets Jesus in the garden after his resurrection and (significantly?) isn’t allowed to touch him.

Who then was it that anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped the perfume away with their hair? The prostitute or the intimate friend?

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Punting and the eternal now

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 9:24 - end; Matthew 20: 1-16.

In today’s sermon I want to focus on Paul’s idea that the Christian life is like a race. This is a metaphor that is fraught with problems to my mind. Though Paul being Paul I must admit it has its merits. And of course Paul’s letter to the Church at Corinth is in the bible whereas my sermon in the Church of St Matthew’s is not.

The race metaphor has it merits and its problems for me personally but I will argue that it also has its merits and problems irrespective of my reaction to it.

I react badly to Paul’s race metaphor because I dislike competitive sport. We talk a lot about sport at lunchtime where we work. In answer to the question, ‘What sport do you enjoy then, Mike?’ I usually say punting [boating with a pole rather than say an oar]. Punting for me is the sport par excellence. It involves physical activity and that is good for you. I spend a lot of my working life trying to work out how we can get peopled to do more physical activity (as some you may know). Punting also involves a fair amount of skill and therefore when you get it right you feel good – akin I imagine to what footballers feel when they score a goal or tennis players feel when they deliver an ace.

But - and more importantly – like a few other sports – jogging, gardening, cooking –punting is not competitive. (Although I must confess I do enjoy steaming past American tourists going round in circles under Magdalen Bridge or from bank to bank a little way further up the Cherwell.) Furthermore with punting there is no goal – or if there is it is to return to where you have started from – and there is no prize for achieving any goal.

Although not competitive punting is also a sport best enjoyed with other people. There really is not much fun in punting a punt by yourself. It’s quite nice if the others in the punt can punt as well but it actually doesn’t matter if they can’t or if they do so badly. It’s a co-operative rather than competitive sport in other words, and as such is hardly likely to become recognised as an Olympic sport.

Running races, in contrast, are the epitome of competitive individual sport. The winning of them depends entirely on the strength and skill of the individual. ‘Team GB’ is surely a complete fiction. Athletes are not part of a team: they are individuals competing against one another. In contrast the winning of team sports – like football or even doubles at tennis – depends not just on the skill of the individuals in the team but the way those individuals work together.

But note rather paradoxically that running races need other people by definition. You cannot have a race, let alone win one, without at least one other person. Unless you imagine you are running against yourself: yourself as another person as it were.

Another thing I really dislike about competitive sport is the discipline. In today’s passage Paul talks about the discipline that is necessary if you are going to win the race that is the Christian life. Now I am not a very disciplined person at the best of times. I have confessed to some of you before that I am not even disciplined enough to clean my teeth everyday let alone read the Bible every day. As of course all good Christians – let alone priests - are supposed to (both clean their teeth and read Bible that is). I am just about disciplined enough to get to work, most days, before 10.30 and come to Church on most Sundays. But I sorely lack discipline in my life.

So Paul’s race metaphor irritates me. But as I said at the start, Paul’s letter to the Church at Corinth is in the Bible so it needs to be taken seriously and I have to admit the race metaphor does have some merits. It reminds us that whatever we might like to think, life – by its nature – is somewhat competitive. Even if we don’t want to see ourselves as competing against other people there are trials and tribulations that need to be overcome with God’s help. ‘Lead us not into temptation’ in the Lord’s prayer, reminds us, if we ever need reminding, that life is not a bed of roses, or a bowl of cherries or some other metaphor.

There is – also whether we like it or not – an end point – death. We might not wish to see this as a goal but we do need to prepare for it otherwise it might steel upon us unawares like a thief in the night. This preparation for death involves discipline.

Increasingly I have come to realise that time runs out. When we are young we think we have all the time in the world. As we get older we realise that there are important things to be done for the future. They may not be particularly pleasant to do. No one surely likes brushing their teeth and reading the Bible is not particularly enjoyable most of the time but these things are necessary for our oral and spiritual health respectively. Paul is surely right to remind us that ‘Every athlete exercises self control in all things’ and to suggest that we should be like athletes in this regard in all aspects of our lives.

It might be more pleasant to see life as more like a punting trip than a running race. Surely Paul could have at least mentioned relay races! But we have in the end to cross that finishing line by ourselves.

All this being said I still think Paul’s race metaphor leaves much to be desired because it is only half the story. A friend of mine used to accuse me of never living in the present – always only ever doing things for the future. And it was (is?) true. As just one illustration of this: I used to read classic novels at best to improve my mind at worst to be able to say that I had read them. I would never stop reading a book even if I weren’t enjoying it or leaning anything from it because the important thing was to get to the end.

It is possible to see life as a continual preparation for something later. But what is this ‘later’: our death, our funeral, the after-life? If we see the Kingdom of God as something solely in the future then we may see getting there as more important than how we get there. Or even that how you get there doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Paul gets close to this I think when he says that ‘I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified’ presumably from the race. Or in other words training may be painful but that doesn’t really matter it’s the winning that is important.

Jesus in his teaching talks paradoxically about the Kingdom of God being both here and not yet. He thus subverts people’s notion of time. If we think of time in the conventional sense then today’s parable of the labourers in the vineyard makes Jesus unfair. If the labourers who turn up at the eleventh hour get as much for their labour as the labourers who start work in the morning then the householder is surely being unjust to those who work for 12 hours not just “generous” to those who work for one . Though “generous” may not be the right word as one denarius a day was only just a living wage.

Time in the Kingdom of God, however, is not time as we understand it. The parable teaches us – amongst other things – that the reward for our work in this life- the prize for winning the race - is a gift not something that depends on how much time we have spent in working in the vineyard or time spent training for the final race of our life. And this prize, this gift, can in fact be claimed now.

Or in other words heaven is now as much as it is in the future. It is difficult to keep hold of this idea and yet – as I said just now – Jesus talks as much about the Kingdom of God as here and now as he does about it coming in the future. Some of Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom do, as this does, take place over the course of a period of time – a day or from planting to harvest, etc - with the denouement at the end. But many speak of the Kingdom as happening now – the parables about banquets, yeast, salt, etc.

And Jesus tells his disciples that they are to look for signs of the Kingdom now, prisoners being released, people healed, wine produced in abundance. If we look around at our damaged world it is difficult to see heaven as now and yet all true followers of Jesus do I think grasp – if only faintly – what Jesus was saying.

Yes life is a race or at least a journey with a start and an end. There is a prize to be won – the ‘incorruptible crown’ as Paul puts it. But the coming of Jesus means that we are in touch with the eternal and the eternal is no respecter of time. ‘Let us not only live FOR the ultimate, but let us also live IN the ultimate. Then life's purpose is not a goal set before us in the future. It is a present, living reality in which we participate now, even as God does.’

This quote is from De Vern Fromke, See:

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Six pictures of Mary and Martha

In order these are by: 1) Velasquez, 1618 2) Anon (from Kilmore Church on the Isle of Mull) 3) Stephen St. Claire, contemporary 4) Ain Vares, contemporary 5) Vergilius Master, 1410 6) William Blake, ~1800.

Six questions about each in turn:
1) Who is the old woman behind Martha?
2) Is Mary really pregnant? (the caption reads: Mary hath chosen that good part which shall not be taken away from her)
3) Is this Mary of Bethany or Mary Magdalene and were they the same person?
4) Is that a washing machine?
5) Who (again) is the woman on the left?
6) Why are most of the guests women?

Sources: Luke 10: 38-42; Luke 7: 36- 8: 3; John 12: 1-8; Mark 14: 3-9.
And a really interesting blog post by James Tabor at

Sunday, 6 February 2011

The parable of the wheat and weeds: insiders and outsiders

Sermon on Matthew 13: 24-30, Colossians 3.12-17, St Matthew's, Oxford, 6th February 2011.

The first verse of our Epistle reading: ‘Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long suffering; forbearing one another and forgiving one another’ is such a great verse - particularly in this translation. And there is, of course, a connection between this verse and our Gospel reading – the parable of the wheat and the tares or wheat and weeds. In the Epistle Paul is urging the Colossians to forgiveness and forbearance of those amongst them who seem to be straying. This surely connects with the parable: a parable, Jesus says, about the Kingdom of God. In the parable the sower – the owner of the field – says, ‘Let both wheat and weeds grow together until the harvest’. And I assume this is the connection between the two passages Cranmer had in mind when he put them together as today’s two readings.

So let’s look a bit more at the parable with this connection in mind.

In Matthew’s gospel the parable of the wheat and the weeds comes immediately after the parable of the sower and immediately before the parable of the grain of mustard seed. But Matthew is the only one of the gospel writers to report it – whereas Mark and Luke both have the parable of the sower and the parable of the grain of mustard seed. All three parables are about seeds growing which surely means that Matthew sees a connection between them.

Both the parable of the sower and today’s parable feature weeds as well as wheat. The weeds in both parables grow amongst the wheat. In the parable of the sower they are thorns/thistles which choke the wheat but in the parable of the wheat and weeds the weeds are probably what has become known as darnel – a plant that looks a bit like wheat. It does not harm the wheat, just does not produce anything that can be eaten.

In the parable of the sower the weeds are seemingly more successful in their rate of growth but in the end clearly aren’t going to produce any grain. We aren’t told what happens to them as they are only marginally important to the story. In the parable of the wheat and weeds the servants of the sower ask whether they should be weeding out the weeds with the implication that they think they should, but the sower tells them to be patient and wait until the harvest when they will be burnt.

The parable surely invites us to see ourselves as the wheat and the weeds as other people: other people who in some ways resemble us but who are fundamentally different from us: non-believers if we are believers, but perhaps also believers if we are non-believers, gay if we are heterosexual, men if we are women, etc. But does it suggest that we should treat these other people differently – even reject them - as a consequence?

Well yes it probably has been taken to suggest this over the years – not exactly helped by Matthew’s account of Jesus’ explanation of the parable. This comes a few verses later after the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast (another sort of seed?). Here Matthew has Jesus say explicitly that the ‘Weeds are the sons of the evil one’ and that ‘Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age’. This is all rather difficult to swallow. These weeds might be our friends even if they aren’t exactly like us.

No wonder then that many theologians argue that the interpretation did not belong to the parable from the outset. They even suggest that the explanation was largely composed by Matthew and badly reports what Jesus actually said. They note that the explanation focuses on the weeds and what happens to them whereas the parable itself is clearly as much about the wheat as the weeds and, in particular, the need to be tolerant of the weeds until the harvest.

There is likely some truth in this. Jesus rarely offers interpretations to his parables. And when he does, he does so only to his disciples. Jesus is generally reluctant to discuss his parables. Just a few verses before the parable of the wheat and weeds Jesus is being questioned by his disciples about why he tells parables. He says, rather opaquely ‘This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.’ This, amongst other things, surely means that there is no one simple explanation of a parable.

And in this regard it is interesting, I think, that Matthew does not put the interpretation immediately after the parable – possibly because he wants to set the parable in the context of these other parables about seeds. And it is not to say that Jesus never gave an explanation of a parable or the particular interpretation of this one. It is to say that there may be more than one interpretation of the parable and to suggest that there are lots to this parable besides the rather simple explanation Matthew has Jesus give.

Moreover Jesus’ parables are clearly not just stories told to instruct. They are – as I have said before - designed to change peoples’ way of thinking. They always contain something shocking or even confusing designed to make those who hear them, and are prepared to try and understand them, consider things differently. So what is shocking about the parable of the wheat and weeds? Would people be more shocked about the ultimate burning of the weeds or the sower allowing the weeds to grow amongst his crop until the harvest?

Setting the parable of the wheat and weeds in a group of parables about seeds invites the reader to compare and contrast the parable with the other parables but also to think what it also has to say which is distinctive.

In all three parables the seeds represent something different but note that in all three parables the good seed: the seeds which fall on the fertile ground, the wheat seeds and the mustard seed and the wheat seeds all grow into something much greater than previously: they bear fruit in other words. The Kingdom of God is where things grow!

But the parable of the wheat and weeds is distinctive – presumably deliberately distinctive - in that when the goods seeds grow the plants cannot, initially at least, be distinguished from the weeds and when they do their roots are intertwined so that the owner of the field tells his servants not to try and separate them ‘lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them’.

A very surprising and confusing thing here –designed to shock its listeners into thinking about things differently - is why the growth of the wheat and the weeds should be virtually indistinguishable from one another and all growing together in one place until the harvest. It’s probably only we who are shocked by the subsequent burning of the weeds.

Or in other words Jesus is surprising his listeners (and surely us) when he is suggests that it difficult to say who is a member of the Kingdom of God and who is not. And indeed like the servants of the sower, anxious to uproot the weeds even if that would damage the wheat – we are urged not to try. We know from our own experience that we are always tempted to divide people into people like us and people who are not, those who we like and those who we don’t, goodies and badies. Christians seem peculiarly tempted in this regard. Witness the furore about homosexuality within the church and before that….

But Jesus tells us that it is sometimes the least obvious person who turns up trumps in a difficult situation. Who would have thought it was going to be the Samaritan who helped the traveller who got mugged on the journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. Furthermore Jesus –by associating with prostitutes, tax collectors, etc. turned upside down peoples’ perceptions of the rightful members of the Kingdom of God.

Instead of trying to distinguish and root out the weeds amongst we ‘should put on bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long suffering; forbearing one another and forgiving one another’ And we should leave judgement to God.