Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Useless Things

What are the things that you regularly devote time, energy or money to which serve no useful purpose to you or to the people around you? In 21st century urban life we have more spare time and money than almost any generation that has gone before us. We also have a wider range of choice of what to do with that time and money than any generation that has gone before us. Given such spare capacity and broad possibility, most of us engage in a remarkable amount of useless things.
Back in the days of the Old Testament the most popular form of social uselessness was religion. People collected hand crafted images of different deities. They saved up their money to take part in vibrant and colourful festivals. They travelled to distant cities to visit magnificent buildings and share exotic experiences. There was often food, music, dancing and sex involved. Religion was a booming industry which swallowed up people’s time, energy and money - even when they couldn’t afford it. The problem was that the gods which were being worshipped were useless. In fact, they were worse than useless; they didn’t exist.
The people of past millennia were not stupid. If you could sit most of them down for a straight conversation, they would admit that their supposed deities didn’t necessarily exist. What people bought into was the fun, the thrill, the fear and - more than all those - the tradition passed down through generations. They worshipped those gods because they had always worshipped those gods, and everyone around them worshipped those gods. It is the very same reasoning that leads us to engage in our portfolio of useless things.
In God’s top ten top tips for human society (traditionally known as the 10 commandments), he advises us not to devote our time, energy and money to useless things. We may like to commend yourself regarding the second commandment, claiming that we don’t prostrate ourselves before carved images of other gods. However, whenever we devote ourselves to useless things which serve no loving purpose to us or to the people around us, we make the very same mistake that our distant ancestors made when they worshipped idols.
Devote your time, effort and energy to useful things instead.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

10 Commandments - or not

There is a considerable difference between a command and some advice. In our system of road signs we have both categories. There are circular signs which establish specific rules that must be obeyed, and there are triangular signs which give warnings or advice. If you pass a circular sign saying “30”, it is informing you of a mandatory speed limit. If you exceed that speed limit you are liable to prosecution. A triangular sign saying “30” is advising you that you are coming up to a hazard that needs to be taken slowly. If you exceed the suggested speed, you are not liable to prosecution, but you are in danger of ending up in a ditch.
The '10 Commandments’ are one of the most recognised features of Jewish/Christian faith. Almost everyone knows that God gave ten fundamental commands to his people. Most people would agree that they are a good selection, and are worthy of respect. So you may be surprised to learn that the Bible text doesn’t actually refer to the “ten commandments” at any point. The idea that God gave 10 mandatory ‘commands' came into our religious tradition much later, some time after the Old Testament was completed (which happened 1000 years after Moses’ famous trip to Mount Sinai). According to the language of the Old Testament, God spoke ten “words”, not “commandments". There is a world of difference between a “word” and a “commandment”.
Despite it not being a Biblical term, the idea of there being 10 fundamental commandments has weighed heavily on both Jews and Christians for many centuries. This tragic mistranslation has led us to imagine God as a divine traffic cop, lurking round every corner of our lives armed with a speed radar in order to catch and punish anyone who doesn’t keep his law. That is not an image that God ever intended to burden us with.
God’s “Ten Words”, are intended as triangular signs, not round ones. God is not looking to catch us out and punish us; he is looking to give us essential advice to help us avoid spinning off life’s road and hurting someone.
I have just returned from a holiday in rural Wales where there are a lot of tight bends on single track roads. In that setting, advisory road signs are a great help. The gloomy reality of council expenditure leads me to assume that those corners which are adorned with a sign are the ones where serious accidents most often happen. A similar understanding can be applied to God’s “Ten Words”. They were not given to identify traps that God is expecting to catch us in, they are there to highlight the damaging errors that we are most likely to make.
It is worth looking afresh at God’s chosen “words" (Exodus 20). God is not setting himself as your judge, but as your friend.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Making 'The Cut'

In the sport of golf, at top level tournaments, the field of competing golfers is cut down at the end of the first two days’ play. Depending on the score of the leader, and the spread of scores below them, a golf score is declared to be ‘the cut’. Those who have that score or better will continue to compete in the second half of the competition. Those who cannot match the nominated score pack their bags and go home. If you are a golfer, you know exactly when this cut will be applied, and you can work out for yourself roughly what score will be needed to progress.
God’s dealings with humanity work nothing like that!
Jesus firmly believed that there will be a ‘cut’, that there will come a moment when God will separate humanity into two groups: those who make the cut (as they say in golf), and those who don’t. In Jesus’ stories, the contrast between the outcomes for these two groups is extreme. In one story, the neglected beggar, Lazarus is welcomed into Abraham’s bosom while the unnamed and uncaring rich man who never helped him is tormented by fire in Hades. In other parables the contrast is expressed within the terms of the narrative: for example, the good fish caught in the net are placed in baskets, but the useless by-catch is thrown away.
The expectation of this cut is unavoidable in Jesus’ teaching, and - unlike in golf - God is not going to give us advanced notice as to when it will take place. Jesus is quite clear on the fact that if you want to 'make the cut’ you have to be ready at any time and at every time.
This is serious business. And if we are to trust Jesus, we need to take it very seriously indeed.
The key question for all of us, then, is: what do we need to do to make this cut, to pass this test?
In many of Jesus’ parables on the subject, he is silent about such specifics. He leaves it to us to work that out. It isn’t rocket science, we should assume, and our culture and instincts should point us in the right direction.
However, Jesus did give an clue about what God is looking for in his story about the rich man and Lazarus. He follows that up more comprehensively in his parable about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. God’s ‘cut’, which will determine who is kept and who is discarded, boils down to how each of us care, or don’t care, for the vulnerable and needy people we encounter. There is no mention of belief, or worship, or spirituality; practical care for those in immediate need is the key.
If you want to make the cut, you know what is expected of you.