Black and White
Context changes things. Our readings this morning offer us a vision of two types of religion – and religious people. I’d characterise the issue as being about whether we think things are black and white, absolute or whether things are grey, less absolute, more contextual. It’s a dilemma for every religion – but Christianity seems to have particularly suffered with folk knowing they’re right and of course, that others are wrong.
Samuel’s Call and Growth
In our first reading from the First Book of Samuel we hear the lovely story of Samuel’s call to ministry. It’s a striking story for a number of reasons:
- Samuel is still a child and knows little of God – the text tells us that.
- Eli is old and a bit confused – don’t blame him, he was asleep and kept being woken up by this daft child!
- God’s call was immediate and insistent – we’re in on this from the start of course as the writer tells us but we’re waiting for Samuel to get it.
- Samuel has to be told how to respond but when he does he is called to a hugely difficult task – to tell Eli his ministry had been eclipsed by Samuel’s own. Telling truth to power is always hard.
As we read on in the story we discover that Samuel becomes the main prophet in Israel – the one people listen to. It’s like he’s the Moderator of the Church of Scotland and he gets a seat at the table of the powerful. His term of office is rather longer than the Moderator’s though – it lasts for his entire life. Samuel is the maker and breaker of monarchs. He legitimises the people’s cry for a king, anoints, first, Saul as king but, later rejects Saul and anoints David – whilst Saul is still king. Samuel, therefore, encourages, David to rebel against Saul. He was the real power behind the throne.
At this point in the story Samuel doesn’t know what he’s in for – but he does repeat back to Eli God’s judgement on him – we don’t know if Samuel really understood this but what a call to ministry! I’m not sure if that job description was on the URC list of vacant charges it would get many ministers being interested!
The story is interesting too for the light it gives into religious experience and interpretation. Eli who knows his stuff takes a bit of time to cotton on to what is happening. Samuel, who knows nothing, is given a terrifying mission and has a powerful ministry which doesn’t really make him popular.
Maybe as a child everything is black and white for Samuel – God tells him to tell of Eli and he does. Maybe, as an adult, he might have been a bit more nuanced. Later on he tells the people that their desire for a King isn’t good – Samuel isn’t impressed by kings. The people cried out to be like the other nations around them and have a king – before then they relied on judges raised up by God to defeat Israel’s enemies. The people were mainly tribal and agricultural – bound together by faith and history but not with any institutions beyond the Ark of the Covenant. A king would centralise things, would tax people, would have building projects and wars but, despite these warnings the people demand a king and Samuel gives into them – showing flexibility. He anoints Saul but, later, when Saul’s mental instability and policies prove dangerous he anoints David as king. David had no claim to the throne directly. He defeated Goliath so was popular, he’d married one of Saul’s daughters and he seems to have inveigled his way into Jonathan’s heart – Jonathan being the heir to the throne and Saul’s son.
So Samuel helps engineer, if not a coup, but a transfer of power. Samuel learns to bend with the wind, to see God at work in nuance and difficult situations; he leaves behind the absolutism of his childhood and understands that context changes things.
Jesus – Lawbreaker?
We see that context changes things in our Gospel reading. As we know the Jewish Law forbids work on the Sabbath. in the Genesis story we read that God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh and commands us to rest too. Observant Jewish people still take this command very seriously and much discussion has taken place in Jewish life about what constitutes work – many Jewish people won’t cook on the sabbath – that’s work, they won’t drive as that’s work, they won’t answer the phone – to keep the day special for family and rest. Lest we feel smug there are many Christians now who take Sabbath observance very seriously with no work being done not, however, on the Sabbath but on Sunday. The context of Christianity made our more absolute fellow Christians make a wee change so that Saturday was changed to Sunday – context changes things!
The religious puritans in our Gospel story are annoyed with Jesus as he seems to have broken the Law. The picking of corn on the Sabbath would be seen as work – though plucking a few heads of grain isn’t really work and Jesus counters that with a reference to King David who, with his troops, ate bread reserved only for the priests – a bigger transgression if you have a black and white view of the Law. His healing miracle on the Sabbath was also a source of controversy – his critics, of course, don’t answer his question about whether it’s Lawful to heal on the Sabbath – it was a huge area of discussion and debate.
Before Jesus when the Jewish people revolted under the Greek occupation of Israel some 1,000 Jews refused to fight on the Sabbath when they were attacked. Not surprisingly they were all slaughtered. The leaders of the people decided that it was perfectly permissible to fight on the Sabbath as if they didn’t then the enemies of the people would just simply wait til Saturday to attack and the Jewish people would be annihilated. Context changes things.
By the time of Jesus the argument had extended to whether it was permissible to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus’ arguments weren’t new but were part of a trend of Jewish teaching where the Pharisees were on the other side of the debate – a hundred or so years after Jesus the argument was settled and Jewish doctors and nurses are permitted to work on the Sabbath if they have to save lives.
Jesus reminded his hearers that God gave the day of rest, the sabbath for our good we were not created for the good of the Sabbath. This, I think, shows a flexibility with regard to religious observance, a willingness to explore grey areas whereas the Pharisees wanted to stay with absolutes – a perennial problem for religious folk
Now all this is lovely and we’re learning a bit about Sabbath rules, context and political expediency but what’s it got to do with us? I’d say quite a lot.
The Church always has to struggle with its fundamentalists who find it difficult to see grey areas preferring the easier answers of absolute truth. Let’s thing of some examples.
Jesus’ teaching on divorce is difficult. In St Mark’s Gospel he says it’s always wrong, in St Matthew’s he says it’s wrong unless adultery has been committed. This sounds, to modern ears, very difficult and is the source of the Roman Catholic view that divorce is always wrong. However, Jesus’ words need to be put in context. In his age women had no rights. If a woman was divorced she had to go back to her family – if they were still alive and if they would take her in. If not she’d be on the streets having to sell herself because the man fancied a new wife. In that context harsh words on divorce make sense – to protect not oppress women but those harsh words became a tool of oppression which wasn’t the original idea. Context changes things.
You may know that Muslims don’t approve of the lending of money with interest – banks offer Islamic mortgages which charge an administration fee rather than interest. You may not know that until the Middle Ages Christians agreed with this prohibition because of some verses in the Old Testament – indeed the Church believed that the lending of money with interest was sinful – Jewish teaching seems to have been that the lending of money with interest was permissible to non-Jews. Given the higher rate of literacy within Judaism in the middle ages they became the merchants and financiers. The teaching, in the Church, however, changed when various popes ran out of money! Context changes things.
Until the 12th Century clergy could marry; bishops tended to be chosen from monastic or single clergy but parish priests married. This wasn’t a problem – after all if, as the Gospels state, Peter had a mother-in-law he must have had a wife. However, the Church became worried about who would support a wife or children of the priest if he died – who would house and look after them? Instead of thinking this through the Church decided that its clergy should be single. Cynics suggested that this didn’t really change anything until the reforms after the Reformation when, in response to a Protestant married clergy the Catholics got better at enforcing celibacy. But context changes things.
So context changes things. What works and holds true, often for very good reasons, doesn’t work or is dangerous in another – whether that’s sabbath observance, divorce, mortgages or a married clergy. That doesn’t mean, however, that we reject all of what’s gone before.
It is important in a society that is ever more busy and distracted to rest, to turn off, to slow down, dare I say it to turn the phone off! In a society where divorce is easy we need to help people not confuse feelings of being “in love” with the gritty, determined love that lasts for decades. In a society where people are ever more in debt, where credit is easy and where loan sharks abound taking a fresh look at those Biblical prohibitions of usury is a good idea. In a society where people seem to get confused about changing moral standards it’s good to be reminded it’s always been like this.
Context changes things – it always has. The Sabbath, the rules by which we seek to live are made for us – to enrich our lives, to help us live better, more abundant, lives they are not meant to bind or restrict us but to find our freedom.
Will you pray with me?
O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you,
accept our prayers and,
because through the weakness of our nature
we can do no good thing without you,
grant us the help of your grace,
that in the keeping of your commandments
we may please you both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who broke the rules,
upset the religious
and teaches us that context changes things. Amen.