Alright then, how has Jesus set us free, and what does it say to us 21st century Christians?
FREEDOM FROM RELIGIOUS RULES & CUSTOMS
From the moment He began His public ministry at about the age of 30, Jesus embarked on a conflict with accepted religious rules of the day.
Almost immediately, (Read the first chapters of St. Mark’s Gospel) He had broken the rules regarding “uncleanness”, by touching and healing a Leper; but what was unforgivable was the healing of the paralysed man by pronouncing forgiveness of his sins.
“Forgiveness” was something only God could give and for a carpenter’s son to act as if He was God was blasphemy, for which death could be the only suitable punishment.
To add insult to injury, we find Jesus sat in a sinner’s (Matthew’s) house eating and drinking with outcasts of Society, after He had called His host (a hated tax collector) to be a disciple.
That was only the start, for on another occasion He had invited Himself for a meal to a tax collector’s house, showing everyone that He made no distinctions of class, race or status.
We also find Him, restating the way in which we should share the good things of life, rather than restrict them to groups or races, setting people free from any concept of apartheid.
He failed to comply with the complicated scheme of hand-washing and fasting that Judaism demanded and healed and spoke to Gentiles (non-Jews).
St. Augustine wrote “Love God and do what you will” as a dictum for behaviour that sounds an excuse for anarchy, but we may forget that if we really love God, our actions will be such as will please Him.
The only rule that matters declared by Jesus is “Love God and love your neighbour as yourself” a dictum that was expanded by Paul in his letters.
But the greatest freedom is “freedom from guilt”: It is not always realised, that one of the most destructive influences on people’s well-being today is a feeling of guilt, which produces more unhappiness than anything else. It can be the cause of mental and psychological conditions that no medicines or treatment can cure.
An American Doctor Iken who specialised in mental problems wrote in her book “New concepts of healing” that “If patients in American mental hospitals could be convinced that their sins could be forgiven, 60% could go home immediately”.
The greatest freedom that Jesus offers to humanity, is “peace”; peace with God and peace with our neighbours. That can only be received if we accept that in Jesus and the Cross are the roads to an inner peace.
Depression and damaged mental health are great problems of modern life and we have as The Church, inherited Jesus’ command to “heal the sick” and we can provide help in dealing with the spiritual vacuum in most people’s lives, even by only offering a listening ear.
We, The Church and the medical profession need to accept that many conditions are due to our mental and spiritual state for which there is no cure, but acceptance of the forgiveness that flows because of The Cross and the Love that it demonstrates.
As a priest, over many years, I have listened to confessions and can testify from the result of hearing failures confessed and absolution given and received, that Jesus can set people free both physically and mentally.
Christmas Carols are rightly, very popular and we are getting used to “Christmas Songs”, with “Little Drummer Boys” especially if you listen to Classic FM.
However, they differ even from the spate of Christmas Carols that were spawned in the Victorian years that were predominantly “Bible Based” and Oh, how they differ from medieval carols which realistically include direct references to the ultimate fate of this pretty baby boy, that is, “The Cross”.
Yet, within a few weeks of the baby’s birth, a wise old man, Simeon is warning His mother Mary that “A sword will pierce thine own heart also” that will be a consequence of His part in the “fall and rising of many in Israel”.
Not the best thing you want to hear on what should have been a joyful occasion in Joseph and Mary’s lives.
Clearly, in some way this innocent child is going to be more of a worry than a blessing in later years, as indeed, He proved to be.
Within a short time after the beginning of Jesus’ Ministry, we find Him in conflict with the civil and religious hierarchy in the matter of Sabbath observance when He heals a man on that holy day breaking the Laws that Moses (Mark 2, vv18-28) had .laid down so many years previously and was meticulously observed by the Jews.
Jesus had contravened two basic rules both over Sabbath observance and His dismissal of the need for fasting which obviously wasn’t welcomed.
It is clear from the opening tone of Mark’s Gospel that almost from the beginning so much that was precious to the Jews was being challenged by this fiery young man from Nazareth who, eventually will need to be dealt with.
Incidentally, it’s worth noting that John and Mark both omit any account of His birth; for them it’s the public ministry that is of concern and the shadow of the cross hangs over Mark’s account almost from the beginning.
“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” is certainly not the description of Mary’s Son once He embarks on His Father-given mission; He seems ready to defy the authorities whenever He feels that it is contrary to the true Spirit.
Indeed, one might describe His mission to be that of a “Freedom Fighter”, clearing away all the accretions that had been added to the Law, instead proclaiming basic teaching that indicated the true nature of the Godhead and the Father’s priorities.
Whilst He observed the Mosaic Law, He did not hesitate to refute the Pharisees’ complaints by saying “But I say unto you” as if He was superior to what was sacred to His hearers.
Religious observance, particularly in the matter of worship can easily become divorced from the true spirit, where it becomes a system in itself and elements grow up from what was basically a simple endeavour.
Study the pernickety rules described in Leviticus and compare that with what Isaiah (Chapter 1) has to say on more than one occasion, through whom God says that He doesn’t require animal sacrifices, but rather obedience in service to the less fortunate, the sick, the poor, the homeless, even to “strangers” (immigrants) who were detested by the Jews.
Christianity is essentially a “Social” religion, in that it is concerned with how it affects our relationship with God and with one another.
Jesus sought to clarify that relationship and despite the extreme opposition He encountered, pursued that goal to the very end, The Cross.
I expect you’re getting a bit tired of reading these characters like the prophets who flit through the Bible; they seem to spend most of their time attacking the constant “back-sliding” of the Jewish people that infuriated God. They had enough sense from time to time to heed the leading of these prophets, who were as individuals, “nobodies” but because they were privy to God’s thoughts, influential.
Running through their teaching, their main targets were:
The disloyalty of the people whom God had chosen, and for whom He had done such wonders. The event that loomed large in their memories, was the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea; that enabled the Israelites to escape the bondage of Egypt and is the major theme that runs through the Old Testament. They also remembered the great deliverance of the “Passover” (when the angel of death “passed over” the houses of the Israelites whilst the same angel killed all the first-born of the Egyptians) which runs in the whole tradition.
The prophets were constantly warning the people of the terrible consequences of their behaviour which was angering the Lord.
The failure of the people to conform to the social teaching of the Lord, was a factor that runs like a thread from the very beginning in Genesis to the teaching of Our Lord Himself.
Worship of the One, true God was not to be solely in sacrifices and religious ceremonial, vital these might well be, but in the way in which people treated each other; in “loving their neighbours”.
This “Social” contract is a vital part of the prophetic Ministry and studying the writings of these men (and women sometimes) the physical welfare of God’s People is fundamental. At the heart of all this is the Lord, who through the Temple as His dwelling-place is present among them.
The Prayer Book General Thanksgiving prayer sums it up with “That we show for thy praise, not only with our lips but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to thy service, by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness”.
Not all of the Minor Prophets have anything to say that is immediately new or helpful. But they are speaking to the Society of their day, amid the confusion that had arisen from so many military invasions of the Middle Eastern countries during this period.
The prophets Haggai and Zechariah were spokesmen for those who wished to see the ruined temple at Jerusalem restored. Work on it had been halted at the end of a forty year period of Exile because of Samaritan opposition, but it represented the heart of Judaism.
The sight of God’s House being ignored, whilst the people around had built themselves fine houses was an indication of the spiritual and moral decline that had brought them poor harvests and defeat in battle.
This must make us stop and ponder, as more and more churches are ceasing to be centres of worship and are closing, giving a witness to the World that God is being ignored as we turn away to false values.
King Josiah who was only a boy when he became King of Judea, in order to be able to control the worship of the true God was opposed to pagan worship and removed all the local shines, so that sacrifice to the Lord could only be offered at the Temple.
It’s not surprising that we have a group of Major and Minor Prophets all crammed into a period when both Israel and Judah were under threats from the growing powers of the Assyrian and Babylonian forces.
Samaria was the capital city of the Northern Kingdom of Judah and this fell (after a 3 year siege) to the power of Assyria in 721BC and the invading powers turned on Judah (the Southern Kingdom) leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and a 40-year Exile when the leaders of Judah (including the King) were taken into captivity leaving behind the ordinary people living in the ruins (that included the Temple).
The Minor Prophets flourished and their messages were a mixture of condemnation of the worship of pagan gods, forsaking the Lord who had brought them safely out of the bondage in Egypt, to bring them victory over enemy forces for many years.
The condemnation of the pagan worship and the severe failure to follow the commands of the Lord in the social care of the poor, which runs like a thread from Genesis onwards. This theme of the need for Social reform appears, reappearing in Jesus’ teaching and example.
Hence the Minor Prophets’ message swung between the Jew’s behaviour in defiance of the laws (contained in Deuteronomy).
This shows in the divisions of Micah’s messages, which alternated between condemnation of the Jews’ failings that had brought down disaster on the nation mingled with Hope of a brighter future.
Micah’s message can be summed up as follows, each beginning with the word “Hear”: Chapters 1 & 2 (including a lament over the disaster of Jerusalem), 3-5, and 6-7.
The Prophet condemns unjust leaders, defends the rights of the poor against the rich and powerful, but holds to a promise of peace and stability.
Micah’s short, but valid guidance in chapter 6, ends with: “He has showed you, O man what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God”?
Wise words; but only that kind of behaviour can bring peace, justice and security for all people.
Was it a whale or a big fish? It doesn’t really matter if you realise that the big fish never existed!
Jonah was supposedly born in the 9th century BC, but the actual story appeared much later, probably in the 6th or 7th BC.
Now, why should anyone produce such a story, unless there was a good reason to do so?
Jonah seems a straightforward story, but it was published when there was a great change in thinking about the nature and character of God, striking a different path from the earlier writings where He is seen as a dominant ruthless Being, delighting in massacres of the Israelite enemies.
This (6th or 7th BC) was a period of great revisions of thought of the nature of God, seeing that Isaiah, Hosea and their contemporaries were discovering aspects of His dealings with the Israelites, particularly His concern for the poor, despised people around them.
Very earlier in Genesis we find Him (Genesis 4, vv8-7) protecting the murderer Cain from a lynching which sounds extraordinary against all the blood-shed being recorded in these early five books of the Old Testament.
In Deuteronomy amid all the laws described for the smooth working of Society, we find several places where the plight of the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and even immigrants and refugees, are to be cared for by the Chosen People of God.
So what is the purpose of this strange book, if it is an extraordinary fiction?
Modern Biblical scholars, after perusing the whole history of Jonah have concluded that it is a “missionary” pamphlet, urging the Israelites to reach out to neighbouring nations, spreading the message of reconciliation with God.
Let’s take the story to pieces in more detail.
Jonah, a devout Jew is commanded by God to preach repentance for their sins to the people of the capital city of Nineveh which was corrupt and immoral, which if they did, they would be forgiven.
Jonah is shocked that God should even consider such a generous act, as he didn’t want the people of Nineveh to share in the mercy of God.
So off Jonah goes West in the opposite direction to Spain rather than East.
God frustrates him, by causing the ship to endure a violent storm, and Jonah offers himself as a sacrifice to appease God’s anger and as a result is swallowed by this great fish (there is no mention of a whale) and this fish brings the prophet to the shore, whence he is forced to obey God’s command and so off he goes to Niniveh.
As a result of his preaching, the people from the King downwards (including the animals) repent, wearing sackcloth as a symbol.
So God generously absolves them and they are delighted, but Jonah isn’t. This was what he had feared, that God is a generous, forgiving Being and the people of Nineveh were experiencing God’s loving forgiving nature.
Jonah was very cross and sat down in the heat watching to see if anything would happen, but Nineveh basks in its salvation and the prophet complains to God who rebukes him and explains his actions.
God causes a tree to grow up instantly, but then strikes it so that Jonah is deprived of the cooling shade. He again complains to God about this, the Divine response is: “You pity the plant for which you did not labour, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity that great city in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle”. The animals share in God’s generosity likewise!