Messages of Hope

Month: October 2019

Why it’s important to keep diversity in mind when reading the Bible

Published / by Greg Elsdon

Why it’s important to keep diversity in mind when reading the Bible

by Dr Gareth Wearne

We tend to assume the Bible has some place — for better or worse — in debates about morality and social values.

But why do we care about the opinions of writers who lived 2,000 years ago or more?

From its stances on slavery to sexual ethics and gender equality, the Bible contains much that could be considered problematic.

Yet as recent debates about freedom of religion or same-sex marriage show, the Bible is not going away any time soon.

At its heart, this is a question about what sort of society we want to be.

A 2018 survey of young Australians aged 13 to 18 found that while 91 per cent thought having people of different faiths made Australia a better place to live, 44 per cent thought religion caused more problems in society than it solved.

Fifty per cent thought people with very strong religious beliefs were often too intolerant of others.

In this climate, simplistic approaches that reduce Christian views to a single “biblical” position risk splitting Australia into two camps: those who accept the Bible’s authority, and those who see it as a problem for diversity and tolerance.

This division stems in part from a fundamental misunderstanding of the Bible’s nature, which views the text simply as a static object, waiting to be interpreted or applied in a range of situations.

It ignores the fact that the Bible is made of different parts, which came together over hundreds of years to meet the changing needs of multiple communities.

A diverse text for a diverse community

Few people realise that the Old Testament in most modern Christian Bibles is primarily based on a single, 1,000-year-old medieval Hebrew manuscript.

This manuscript is generally regarded to be a reliable witness to ancient forms of the text.

But it represents only one of the versions that existed in antiquity.

Two of these versions are especially important for shaping the Bible as we know it.

The version we know from modern Bibles is the so-called Masoretic text — named after the medieval Hebrew scribes who copied the manuscripts.

The other version is an ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint, which was produced by Greek-speaking Jewish communities living in Egypt around 2,200 years ago.

But understanding the diversity of the Bible is not as simple as asking which version to use, because the diversity of the Bible is also reflected within the text.

When it comes to the New Testament gospels, it can be tempting to assume we are reading the actual words of Jesus.

However, a simple comparison of parallel passages reveals that can’t be the case.

We can see this in one of the most well-known stories in the New Testament — the parable of the sower.

One story, multiple versions

In Mark 4:1-20 we find a story told by Jesus about a farmer scattering seed on different kinds of soil.

The story is a parable, or extended metaphor, about ways of responding to Jesus’s teachings.

Versions of the parable also appear in the books of Luke and Matthew, and similar stories are found in some early Jewish writings.

The story is unusual because it’s one of only two times Jesus explains a parable to his followers.

It also occupies pride of place at the beginning of a major block of teachings in all three gospels, suggesting it held special significance for the writers.

In Mark, when Jesus is asked what the story means, he quotes the Masoretic version of the prophet Isaiah, saying he teaches in parables so only a select few will understand his meaning.

In Isaiah, these words are intentionally divisive, forcing people to choose for themselves how they will respond to the prophet’s message.

Matthew’s Septuagint version of the story contains a crucial difference — Jesus says he uses parables to help his hearers understand and accept his message.

In other words, the parable in Mark serves the opposite purpose to that in Matthew.

Many readers notice this tension but don’t know what to make of it.

Though the versions differ, both forms of Isaiah exist side-by-side in the New Testament and, while they are used in different ways, both are recognised by the gospel writers as having equal authority.

The Bible and the future of diversity

The complexity reflected in the pages of the Bible means, when it comes to religious viewpoints, we must resist oversimplifications.

Far from being a timeless and unyielding text, the Bible we know today reflects the diverse and changing needs of the communities that shaped and interacted with it over time.

This can serve as a model for modern readers.

Before we attempt to relate any biblical passage to modern contexts, we must first try to identify the distinctive voices it contains and the purposes it was intended to serve.

We must also attempt to evaluate the complex factors that have influenced our perception of the text, while acknowledging that others may perceive it differently.

After all, no interpretation exists in a vacuum.

[Dr Gareth Wearne is a lecturer in biblical studies at the Australian Catholic University and an ABC Top 5 humanities scholar for 2019.]

For original article [posted 23 Oct 2019] see:

The parable of the widow and the judge

Published / by Sandy

We have all seen the TV footage of climate change rallies, and many have joined in climate strikes (another one planned for November) – activists, students, and ordinary people who have never done this kind of thing before. You may have seen Jane Fonda was arrested while participating in a climate change rally. Benedict Cumberbacht joined Extinction Rebellion protesters in London for a few hours. We’ve seen and heard plenty about Extinction Rebellion protests around the world, including cities in Australia. The Adelaide Extinction Rebellion actions have been less disruptive including dancing in the street (Nutbush City Limits on Flinders St outside Pilgrim Uniting Church), and a symbolic ‘die-in’ in Rundle Mall. 

We will all have different views on the tactics being used, and even the imperative for action. Young and old have shown stoic determination and resolve to bring about action on climate change and climate justice, shaped by a conviction that change needs to happen. 

With this in mind, I began to explore last Sunday’s Gospel reading (the persistent widow and the judge in Luke 18). Bill Loader comments that “It is missing the mark if we treat the passage as a general teaching about intercessory prayer. It is primarily about a yearning for change. The widow represents poverty and vulnerability, which is the point of the parable’s message. The story was shaped in the context of the Roman occupation, by the cruelty of exploitation, the arbitrary abuse of power and the wounds of the people. Luke’s Gospel reflects a yearning for the redemption of Israel. It is a political yearning, but much bigger than that. It is the cry for justice, for peace, for the establishment of God’s rule in the world. It is the cry: ‘Your kingdom come!’ 

Look at Mary’s Magnificat, look at Jesus’ mandate. The hope for transformation and liberation are right there, and permeate Luke’s Gospel. 

In our time and place, there are plenty of vulnerable people, and those living in poverty, who yearn for change. Maybe it’s time also to think of the earth as being vulnerable, impoverished by the way forests have been destroyed, rivers polluted and water diverted for mining, and rice and cotton crops, overfishing, squandering limited natural resources etc. The list could go on. 

Steve Koski reflects, Caring for God’s holy and sacred earth is a spiritual practice. The environmental crisis is a spiritual crisis. We will not cherish or protect what we take for granted. We will not restore and renew what we do not revere. We will not save what we do not savor and regard as sacred. The earth is not a commodity to be consumed by our greed and arrogance. The earth is a sacred community we share with all living things.

Can we plead for eco-justice, for change? Systems and structures that perpetuate harm to the environment need to change. Business models that depend on exploitation of natural resources need to change. Alarming effects of climate change are being felt all over the world, while many, including those in power, consider climate science conspiratorial fiction. Debra Dean Murphy writes, The terror humans have unleashed on mountains and oceans and vulnerable populations, whether through ignorance or greed, is a kind of unmaking of the world, an act of de-creation and a defacing of the imago Dei in us – our own capacity for world-making. 

Do we have the luxury of standing back, or – like the widow – to be among those demanding change be made by those who have the power to do so? Day after day after day, being prepared to call for eco-justice in our own sphere of influence.

Mikali Anagnostis, a university student and a member at Leichart Uniting Church says, ‘I see the Divine working in creative and hopeful young people, who refuse to let dark prognoses silence their passion for life. People who in bold and beautiful collective action proclaim that there is hope and that if we act in faith, that hope will become a reality’. 

Debie Thomas reflects: At the outset, the Gospel writer tells us that Jesus’s parable is about “the need to pray always and not lose heart.” Consider the story from the perspective of the widow. What does it look like to “lose heart”? The words that come to mind are weariness, resignation, numbness, and despair. To lose focus, clarity and direction. To be irritable and cynical very quickly. ‘Compassion fatigue’. In contrast, the widow in Jesus’ parable is the very picture of purposefulness,  precision, aliveness, and clarity.  She knows her need, she knows its urgency, and she knows exactly where to go and whom to ask in order to get her need met.  If anything, the daily business of getting up, getting dressed, heading over to the judge’s house or workplace, banging on his door, and talking his ear off until he listens fortifies her own sense of who she is and what she’s about. The widow’s predicament is not straightforward; she has to make a costly choice every single day.  Will I keep asking?  Dare I risk humiliation one more time?  Do I still believe that my request is worthy of articulation?  Can I be patient?  Am I still capable of trusting in the possibility of justice? The widow’s only power in this story is the power of showing up.  The power of sheer grit.

Day after day after day. 

Here’s another lens for the story. Consider the story from the perspective of the judge. What if I am the judge in the parable, and God (the pleading, persistent one) is the widow? What if my own complacent disposition and comfortable position makes me less willing to know the need for change? The widow knocking down my door in the hopes that I will soften my heart and attend to the pain, injustice, and sorrow wounding God’s very being, and the earth itself? It makes me recognise the times when I am tired, indifferent, irritable, closed off, or unsympathetic. Scripture attests to the fact that God not only hears the cries of the helpless; God is in the cries of the helpless. God dwells with the unseen, unheard, unloved, and unwanted.  God is the wronged widow crying for justice, pleading with me to listen, to care, and to keep my heart open on her behalf. 

Day after day after day. 


Published / by Sandy

I am not alone in my tiredness or sickness or fears, but at one with millions of others from many centuries, and it is all part of life. (Etty Hillesum)

At the end of August, my father died after living with cancer for 9 years. He was able to stay at home, with family support, as was his wish. He had shown tremendous strength, dignity and determination, especially in the challenges of his final weeks. His cat, that had faithfully kept him company through the journey, was stretched out alongside him when he died. It was remarkable watching the cat being so attentive over the final days – loyal to the end, sensing what was happening and offering comfort along the way.

I was struck by this reflection by Richard Rohr about his 15 year old black Labrador dog which was suffering from inoperable cancer. He faced the unenviable decision to have the dog put down. ‘Venus had been giving me a knowing and profoundly accepting look for weeks, but I did not know how to read it. Deep down, I did not want to know. After her diagnosis, every time I looked at her, she gazed up at me with those same soft and fully permissive eyes, as if to say, “It is okay. You can let me go. I know it is my time.” But she patiently waited until I, too, was ready.

In the weeks before she died, Venus somehow communicated to me that all sadness, whether cosmic, human, or canine, is one and the same. Somehow, her eyes were all eyes, even God’s eyes, and the sadness she expressed was a divine and universal sadness.

When we carry our small suffering in solidarity with humanity’s one universal longing for deep union, it helps keep us from self-pity or self-preoccupation. We know that we are all in this together. It is just as hard for everybody else, and our healing is bound up in each other’s. Almost all people are carrying a great and secret hurt, even when they don’t know it. This realization softens the space around our overly defended hearts. It makes it hard to be cruel to anyone. It somehow makes us one – in a way that easy comfort and entertainment never can.

Some mystics go so far as to say that individual suffering doesn’t exist at all and that there is only one suffering. It is all the same, and it is all the suffering of God. The image of Jesus on the cross somehow communicates that to the willing soul. A Crucified God is the dramatic symbol of the one suffering that God fully enters into with us – much more than just for us, as many Christians were trained to think.

If suffering, even unjust suffering (and all suffering is unjust), is part of one Great Mystery, then I am willing to carry my little portion. Etty Hillesum (1914–1943), a young, Dutch, Jewish woman who died in Auschwitz, truly believed her suffering was also the suffering of God. She even expressed a deep desire to help God carry some of it:

And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last“.

Richard Rohr responds: Such freedom and generosity of spirit are almost unimaginable to me. What creates such altruistic and loving people?

Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 157, 17

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), 160, 161-162.