DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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SUNDAY NEXT BEFORE ADVENT

The Silence of the Lamb

Matthew 25.31  When the Son of Man comes as King and all the angels with him, he will sit on his royal throne, and the people of all the nations will be gathered before him.

The first sentence of today's Gospel reading betrays its origin. These words do not come from the lips of Jesus. They are the invention of the author of Matthew's Gospel.

A large majority of reputable Christian scholars will today agree that much of Matthew's Gospel is the author's interpretation of Jesus, rather than an account of the Jesus of history. Listening to many sermons even today, one might think this a well-kept secret. But there is little doubt that relatively little material in the Gospels provides good information about the real Jesus who lived and died in this real world of ours.

So what we have here is the early Church's version of the fate of anyone who didn't acknowledge Jesus as Messiah. However, many of us are so used to the so-called parable of the sheep and the goats that we don't recognise it for what it is - a striking departure from the essence of the real Jesus.

First, this is not a true parable but an extended allegory - a sermon in which events and characters are meant to convey a hidden meaning. Jesus didn't use allegories. His parables don't have a moral, don't aim to preach a single point about "the truth". 

There's a sense in which his parables have no meaning. We shouldn't be fooled by centuries of erudite but mistaken preaching into assuming that they do. Each parable is an account of some ordinary experience. The genius of Jesus is that we are left to draw our own conclusions about them. Jesus will not tell us. That's not how he does things.

When, for example, the local media tried to trap him in an interview about the hot issue of paying taxes to the Roman oppressors, his answer is anything but politic - "Pay the Emperor what's his, and pay God what belongs to God". Hardly a sound exposition of the economic realities of his day!

Second, the teaching of the "sheep and goats" sermon (I repeat, it is not a parable) is in stark contrast to how Jesus, as a matter of good history, related to the world. This man hobnobbed with outcasts, rejected the very core of all religions in all ages, set aside mechanisms of power by which people are enslaved. 

He could not have produced this horrible vision. It is about death. Jesus is all about life.

What we so often fail to recognise is how silent Jesus is about most things. Even his parables are, in a sense, silent. He doesn't lecture us (if he seems to, beware the pen of the evangelist!) He avoids "telling it like it is". He doesn't produce sermons, honest or otherwise. He trusts us to perceive how things really are, to choose what is right and loving, to go with the good.

Lest I seem to be exaggerating, consider what sort of person Jesus might have been if he had operated otherwise. He was no fool. He was able to sway a crowd. Everything we know about the Palestine of his day indicates that the region was ripe for subversion and holy war. Official religion of the day was hand-in-hand with the Roman oppressor in crushing ordinary people with taxes, stealing their land from them and imposing forced labour.

There is little doubt among those who regard Jesus with any sympathy that he could have been the giant leader of a great social movement.

And yet he did not even produce a doctrine of God. Any such apparent theology is the work if the Gospel authors, John in particular. His parables are not about God but about ordinary, humdrum things. He speaks little about God. About the burning issues of his time and place he remains steadfastly non-committal. He gave no answer to Pilate at his trial except (according to one version) to say, "That's what you say!"

Jesus does not claim that he's going to give himself for us all. That is the theology of those who came after. It is they, not he, who proclaim him the sacrificial Lamb of God, dying to pay for our sins. It is theologians and clerics who erect elaborate theological castles. Jesus is understated and indirect.

I for one cannot credit that the man who told us the story of the Forgiving Father (the Prodigal Son) - to name but one contradictory instance - could possibly have come up with the "sheep and the goats".

A clue to Matthew's false teaching is his portrayal of Jesus as king of heaven. This is totally incongruent with the Jesus of history. He did not claim to be God, or God's son, or the Jewish Messiah. The tragedy is that Matthew has given judgmental bigots ammunition with which to browbeat ordinary, trusting people.

In contrast, the loving silence of the Lamb speaks volumes.

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