"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)
"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19
"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12
Friday, September 30, 2011
I had my nice Yr 11s this morning. They had come from P.E. and most of the boys were late - as in later than usual. To give them their due they settled well enough but there was some talk about some poor lad who had broken his ankle playing rugby.
"But what about the sniper?" asked Jade.
Sniper? I should know better than to ask.
Every hand is in the air and I see my carefully crafted lesson evaporating before my eyes.
"Yeah, Bethany was playing tennis, right, and she saw this man wearing comabts and camouflage and carrying a gun over his shoulder."
I look sceptical.
Are you sure it wasn't a guitar or golf clubs?
"No. She said it was a gun in some sort of case and when he saw her he started to open it and she legged it."
There is a general hubub.
Look guys, there's no point speculating and gossiping about it. We don't know the truth as none of us were there and its a waste of brainpower and emotional energy to discuss it. So, back to how Jesus dealt with foreigners.....
Twenty minutes later a Behaviour Support Worker comes in to the room and says in the loudest stage whisper imaginable:
"At break time they aren't to go outside. Make sure they use the internal routes to get to the dining room."
"Sir, is it a sniper? Is there a sniper on the roof?"
I know as much as you, which is next to nothing, so until someone tells us otherwise we'll carry on as normal.
"Someone's trying to kill us and you want us to talk about Jesus?"
Seems as good a time as any.
Things calm down and some work is produced.
I hear the dulcet tones of Miss Drummond outside the room.
"GET BACK INSIDE AT ONCE."
"I'd like to see her head splattered against the window."
Ryan: out. Into Mr McVeigh's room.
"I was only joking."
That's akin to telling the check-in attendant that you've got a bomb in your bag. As in NOT FUNNY.
A chastened Ryan slummocks into my colleagues room.
"We're all going to die."
Shut up. This isn't America.
The bell goes and they file out obediently through Mr. McVeigh's room. My colleagues and I sit in the workroom and have our break, discussing the turn of events.
"My lot couldn't use an internal route" laments Mrs. Singh. "It was chaos."
The bell goes again for the start of lessons.
"Sir, Sir. Did you hear about the boy who was shot playing rugby?"
"Sir, there are police all round the school grounds."
There aren't. The school is a secure site and we appear to be in lockdown. The police are, rather half-heartedly one feels, "scouring" the area beyond the school grounds.
The word now is that Bethany is having second thoughts about what she saw. Bethany is rumoured to be a bit of a drama queen.
Update: The police found no one matching the description of Bethany's gunman anywhere near the school. Things returned to relative normality. ("I'm not going out there with snipers on the roof." Shut up Callum or I'll shoot you myself..)
The lad with the broken ankle turned out to be a boy in my own form. It is a very bad break and he was in hospital today having a metal plate fitted. Spare a thought for Liam and his family.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Doesn't time fly when you're having a good time?
Yesterday I left the house at 7.00am and returned at 10.00pm. This was because of our annual open eveining where we put on a show for the kids who will be joining us next year and their parents.
It was an odd day because my new cohort of student teachers arrived and I was involved in inducting them rather than teaching my usual classes. While we were on the guided tour we popped in to my Yr 7 class and they announced that they much preffered it when Mrs. Yeates took the lesson and could she always teach them please?
At luch time we hosted a group of pensioners from the local community for lunch and our kitchen staff served a lovely roast with apple crumble to follow. I sat next to a lady called Beryl. She was very elegant and coiffed. Her clothes were very classy and age appropriate and she was wearing killer heels. She is 75.
"She shouldn't be wearing heels you know" her friend told us. "She's just had a hip replacement."
"I've not worn flats for nigh on forty years. I've no intention of starting now."
Beryl, it turns out, is a former Vogue model.
You don't get a lot of those in the general locale.
I set my class up for the baying hoards: plenty of current pupils' work and three little Buddhist shrines put together by my Yr 7s with flowers, candles, insense and food offerings etc. I logged on to Youtube to find some Buddhist chanting to play in the background for added mood and turned the lights down low.
Five minutes later my Sikh colleague popped in from the next classroom.
"Why are you playing Sikh music?"
So much for Youtube's categorising relaibility.
I decided to keep it on in the short term because it was rather lovely music. (Have a look at anything by Snatam Kaur on youtube.)
Two minutes later my other Sikh colleague popped in.
"You do know that's Punjabi?"
So, not a Buddhist then?
(These two ladies have been teaching me basic Punjabi phrases which I then go and try out on my pal Jagtar. I don't know why I bother. My Punjabi seems better than his.
"When I visit the Punjab my family and friend tease me because my Punjabi is so lamentable.")
I am pleased with the classroom and its displays and join my colleague for the meal laid on for those who have opted not to go home before the event. It is fish, chips and mushy peas, pure comfort food, and once again the kitchen staff have done us proud. It occurs to me that I've now had two quality main meals at my employer's expense and I consider myself well pleased.
Ben arrives. Ben is 12 and in Yr 8 and a nicer lad you couldn't wish to meet. He is my pupil assistant for the evening. I rather suspect he is here because he couldn't come up with an alternative engagement quickly enough. You know, watching paint dry, that sort of thing. His job is to reassure any children that transfer to high school is survivable. After all Ben doesn't look (too) traumatised.
Business is brisk and we have a fair few come in to the room. I have cleverly ensured maximum footfall by fixing it so that my classroom is on a through route to Geography and all points west. If you want to know about those subjects you have to come via me and I will engage you about Religious Studies and my lovely colleague Devinder will ... surruptitiously eat the sweets from the Yr7 Buddhist shrines! (You just can't get the staff.) I later discover that Ben has developed a taste for the sweet dates that have been put out. Good grief. Is nothing sacred?
I hear some folk talking outside the classroom.
"Its. R.E. I hated R.E...."
.... and your child will still have to study it so why don't you come in and see what its really all about.
A rather shamefaced couple slide in with their child in tow and we talk. After a period of ritual punishment (me talking about how R.S. is seriously misunderstood and how we rely on parents to be on-message about ALL curriculum subjects) I allow them to proceed to Geography.
I note too that it is the women who talk and engage. The men seem largely there to make the number up. Is there a league game on tonight? Some of these guys couldn't look less interested without the aid of mogadon.
"Pooh, it really smells in here." announces a child. My first instinct is to launch into a short but stirring lecture on the significance of first impressions but I transcend the moment and ask sweetly ...and why do you think that is?
She shrugs her shoulders and through the mouthfull of gum mumbles something unintelligable that my experience tells me is teenspeak for "I don't know."
Now we don't get any marks at GCSE for a shrug of the shoulders do we? Try again.
Her mother, sensing perhaps the way the wind was blowing, pointed her offspring to the insense stick. Out of the corner of my eye I notice that Ben is eating something.
The mother and child make a break for Geography.
Thanks for popping in. I look forward to teaching you next year.
I am feeling a bit peckish. I'm sure I put an apple on that shrine earlier.
Sunday, September 25, 2011
Some Context: You've no doubt heard the phrase it never rains but it pours? This morning was one of those occasions.
I went to bed last night reassured that I'd got everything ready for today: I'd printed off my sermon and done a couple of spare copies for those who can't really get a grip on the loop system and I'd read it over a few times.
I woke up this morning cursing myself because that little nagging doubt I'd sat on yesterday had become a full blown thought.
It was the wrong sermon.
Now one of the advantages of being a teacher is that the summer break affords me the opportunity to get ahead of myself and research and prepare sermons. I'd looked at the rota and got them all done well in advance. For some unaccountable reason I'd printed off the wrong one. I'd printed off Jesus and the Roman Coin rather than The Man with Two Sons.
Now that's hardly the end of the world and so I logged on, found the right one and pressed print.
The printer can not print. You are out of magenta ink the screen told me helpfully. Don't bother me with trivia: I want to print in black. Whoever prints a sermon in magenta?
Not having magenta, it seems, renders black inoperative.
What to do?
I ring my friend Steve, my Area Dean, and explain the situation. "If I pop round with my USB stick, would you mind printing it off for me?"
I arrive with said USB stick and Steve, having made me a cup of tea, logs on. I put my USB stick in his computer and a warning sign comes up. Removable Device Corrupt. Steve goes through the "fix" options and eventually we have access to my menu.
There is no sermon.
"Have you had breakfast?" Steve asks me.
I ring home and ask my beloved to send the sermon as an e-mail attachment. I sit and wait while she goes through the whole log-on routine and locates the sermon. It arrives. It is "Jesus and the Roman Coin." I ponder just turning up and reading and preaching from the wrong gospel in the hope that no one would notice, but that would still leave the problem that in a couple of weeks someone else would get to preach on Jesus and the Roman Coin. I speculate whether anyone would actually notice the same reading twice. I decide to ring home again. There is a sharp exchange and the correct sermon arrives on Steve's screen.
His printer takes three weeks to print it off.
"What's it about?" Steve asks.
"Obedience." I lie, saying the first thing that comes into my head. I wrote it weeks ago: I've no idea what It says.
It then occurs to me that my sermon was kept on an external hard drive and I could simply have unpugged that and taken it to Steve's.
And all this before 9.30. I still have to get home, shower, shave, put on my Sunday clothes and practice a sermon I can barely remember.
Still, who else can say they had breakfast with the Area Dean?
It was, therefore, with rather more conviction than normal that I prayed: "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord."
Matthew 21. 23-32
There was a father who had two daughters. The holiday period was coming to an end and although the topic of bedroom tidying had come up a number of times no noticeable progress had been made. Tiring of the mantra, “Daaaaad! It’ll be done, chill.” he decided to put his foot down. A deadline was set. “You have three days. I want it done by Sunday.” Time passed. More time passed. Saturday night arrived. “Chloe’s rung. I’m sleeping over at her house tonight.” And one daughter was off, leaving her bedroom looking as if she had been the victim of a particularly thorough burglary – except that’s how it usually looked.
The father turned to the other daughter and raised an eyebrow. “But it’s the X Factor tonight.” He raised the other eyebrow. “Dad, you look stupid. Stop doing that.” This daughter sighed as if she carried the weight of the word’s injustices on her shoulders and disappeared: for the next hour or so she passed through with bags destined for the bin. There was even some attempt to differentiate rubbish for black and green bins and the sound of both Hoover and washing machine could be heard. At eight o’clock she settled down to watch the televised ritual humiliation of self deluded pop wannabees.
Which of the two did the will of their father?
I’m guessing that we can all identify with today’s Gospel story even if we have to adapt it somewhat to fit our own circumstances – our own children, colleagues, friendship groups, anywhere in fact where there is an expectation of obligation and where promises are easily made …. and easily broken.
So today Matthew relates this incident from the life of Jesus: two sons are given a job, both promise to complete it but only one does.
It’s not actually a very interesting story as it stands is it? Of course what we have here is Matthew’s summary written some years later, so we miss the full impact of the original with its greater detail, wit and nuances; maybe even with some banter between Jesus and his listeners. Choosing an incident about family relationships, of course, ensures that Jesus’ audience will identify with the story. If football had been invented in the first century you can bet that Jesus would have used it as an analogy because his audience would have been drawn in. Remember, this is a consummate story teller. He once told the story of a man who set off on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho and was robbed on the way. I can imagine a modern day Jesus sitting in a motorway service station and relating an incident to a group of salesmen and truckers over a coffee about a man who set off from the Heartshead Moor service station on the M62 and had his car hijacked along the way. That’s how he worked: talk to people about what they know.
It may help, though, to be clear about who Jesus was talking to. There are two audiences here as there often were: Jesus is talking directly to his followers and the crowd in the temple. We are told that he was teaching, but Matthew isn’t more specific. Along come the Temple Authorities, clearly put out that Jesus was trespassing on their spiritual territory during a religious festival and the ongoing battle of wills between Jesus and the Pharisees continues to gather pace. It’s a well established pattern: the Pharisees seek to entrap Jesus into saying something they can use against him and Jesus responds in such a way as to make them look foolish and in a way that causes those who witnessed the exchange to question their authority.
It starts with the question “By whose authority are you teaching here?” The attempt is to undermine Jesus in the eyes of the crowd “Look, we’re the orthodox here. We’ve been to theological college; we’ve got certificates for goodness sake. And you; you’re just a carpenter. What do you know? Shut up.”
And in response Jesus, as he often does in true rabbinic style, answers a question with a question. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Of course John had been very popular with the people and he’d been executed. No wonder the Pharisees were careful about their answer; they recognised the pitfall in the question. “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why didn’t you believe him then?’ "But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we’re on dodgy ground with the crowd because they think John is a prophet.” So they said, “We do not know.”
“Then I’m not telling you about my source of authority.” Round one to Jesus. Instead he told the story of the father and his two sons. Now this was a story for everyone – then and now - because we can all take something from it, but it was particularly targeted at the Pharisees and given that he had already compared them to fig trees that looked good but had no fruit – all show and no substance - they must have realised that this would be another attack. And so it was and we are left with the Pharisees once again confounded and confused. Jesus compared them to the son who made promises but delivered nothing and most disturbing to them, compared the crowd, the sinners and the marginalised, to the obedient son. Round two to Jesus.
Can you imagine how they felt? They were the religious leaders and they took that role seriously. In many respects these were society’s good people; they were charged with the moral and spiritual welfare of the people and they did not take that responsibility lightly: and here was Jesus telling them they were disobedient to God. It would be akin to telling the House of Bishops that they'd got it wrong.
(No. Don't even think about going there.)
I think what we often forget is that these people should have been Jesus’ natural constituency and his natural allies. It would have made perfect sense if the Scribes and Pharisees, the moral and spiritual leaders of the day, had become Jesus’ disciples and turned to him in droves. We are terribly biased against them because we know how the full story resolves and we tend to think of them as bad people. They weren’t. But they didn’t get Jesus. They weren’t open to seeing an alternative perspective that while it was revolutionary, wouldn’t have required too big an adjustment to their theological worldview.
Jesus and the Pharisees working together – what a change in society that would have brought. And let’s not forget, some of them did buy into this alternative. Nicodemus, we are told, was a follower and of course later St. Paul would make a dramatic conversion.
The sad thing was that instead of seeing the possibilities, most Pharisees felt superior and therefore threatened by Jesus’ teaching and this blinded them both to Jesus’ message and consequently to their own inadequacies: theirs had become a religion of legality, of rules and regulations; a religion which understood all about God’s transcendence and judgement but little about his closeness and his love.
O.K. So what? Fair enough, it’s an interesting piece of religious history and it tells us once again about the stubbornness and self-interest of the religious elite and of Jesus’ superior debating skills.
Why should I care? This story has to have the power to touch me today or its retelling is meaningless. Remember the parable of the sower? The seed is the word of God and it lands in different places and grows, or not, depending on how hospitable the environment is. We could be those who put the full stop here and go away merely thinking “Nice story. Let’s have coffee” Or we could be those who realise that there is more to the story which needs acting upon.
This is a story about the inadequacy of religious insiders. Well we’re religious insiders aren’t we? We are members of the Church of England. It’s hard to imagine who else might be more on the inside in this country in religious terms, than those in the national church. If the vineyard in the story is the Kingdom of God and there is work to be done, which of the two sons are we?
This parable is an invitation from Christ to go and do God’s work in the vineyard, in the reality of the world in which we live. The vineyard, the world, is always in a mess. There are earthquakes, floods, volcanoes or tsunamis. We see them on the T.V. week in and week out. Hurricanes of the East coast of the USA, earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan. There are always wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq currently and there is political unrest throughout the Arab world. There are always families under stress. There are always poor families with not enough money and emotional resources to make it. There are always refugees and asylum seekers who have the most dreadful stories of loss and trauma to tell.
And what is the reaction of the church to this pain and devastation in the world around us, far and near? Too often, we merely hold our worship services in the middle of the vineyard.
In other words, this parable is an invitation for us not to be like the Pharisees. It is a challenge to go into God’s messed up world and do the necessary work.
Ah, good, some practical applications from the gospel. Well … yes and no. I can’t tell you what you should be doing in the vineyard. I’m very much with St. Paul here who tells us in Philippians to “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Beyond the general principles of Micah Ch 6: “What does the Lord require of you? Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God;" I’m afraid your on your own. We’re all on our own.
At Vicar School the very first module we studied was that of Mission. It is called the Missio Dei – the Mission of God, and the thing that really challenged me in the study of all these historical models of how the church had done mission down the ages was the simple idea that mission is God’s mission. In essence the Missio Dei is not about us deciding what needs doing; you know, “Let’s decide our mission initiative for this year, let’s have a meeting”, that sort of thing, it is about seeing where God is already at work and joining in. To me the challenge of this gospel story for us church insiders is for each of us to seek to discern where God is already at work in our society and to join him there, using the skills and talents that he has given us as appropriate. And it won’t necessarily be the same place for each of us.
It is a challenge, but I think this Gospel passage shows it’s also an imperative.
Monday, September 19, 2011
My timetable is generally a very good one. I have some lovely classes full of nice kids. My Yr. 7s, for example, are a delight and a joy. They are sweet and funny and unselfconscious and a little bit needy. Given the choice I'd have them all day every day.
In contrast is one of my year 9 groups. It has 29 pupils and I can just about fit them in my room. In and amongst is Ronnie, who I taught in a small, low ability group last year. Ronnie is a big lad for his age and has a foul mouth: "It's fucking shite this." He wants to be a doorman ("Like my Dad.") In addition to being disaffected, as we say in education (also known as being a bloody nuisance,) he can barely read and write. I have made myself very unpopular in certain quarters by questioning whether he can access the curriculm and whether it wouldn't be a better use of his time to be coached in additional literacy and numeracy under the auspices of the Special Needs Department rather than studying R.S. I am also wondering whether, on balance, we might not have been too indulgent of his behaviour in the past because he has never been taught before in a mainstream class of more than twelve pupils.
A quick look at his timetable shows that, like last year, he is mainly in small "nurture" groups where the lesson content can be easily targetted and differentiated, which is exactly as it should be. With me he is in a class of 29 in a mixed ability setting where some of these youngsters will have a target grade of A. The same is true for Drama, Music and Art and in all these subjects he is expected to cope in such a large group and without additional support. Perhaps more to the point is my fear that his behaviour will negatively impact on the others in the group, and damage to some extent their chances of achieving as they should.
I have tried to minimise his impact on the rest of the class by seating him at the back with a spare seat beside him. As I am letting them in on their first lesson, and telling them where to sit, I am pleasantly surprised by the arrival of a lady I've not met before, so I make the assumption that she is a new support assistant and I direct her to the empty seat beside Ronnie.
She declines in a slightly flustered way and tells me that she is here to support Ben.
There is no Ben on my register.
Ben is waiting in the doorway. He is not yet on the school roll although he looks very smart in his brand new uniform, eating a packet of crisps.
I am perplexed and a bit flustered myself. My colleague is very apologetic. Ben, it seems, has been outside mainstream schooling for eighteen nonths at a Pupil Referral Unit and is now being reintegrated. He has behavioural issues and suffers from Attention Defecit Disorder.
"We were told to follow Ronnie's timetable because they have similar problems and are of a similar level of ability. I have to say they discovered each other very quickly and I don't think they should be taught together in the same classes."
Neither do I.
I persevere with the lesson and there is a constant undercurrent - ("It's shite this.") - from Ronnie and a lot of leaning over in an attempt to distract and engage Ben whose minder is involved in a losing battle to keep him on task. I find this quite difficult and feel constantly distracted by what is going on at the back. It's the first lesson and everyone else is pretty well behaved but I can already sense that the group dynamic is under threat: there is a lot of looking around at Ronnie and it is clear that many of the kids are pretty astounded by his antics, not having had many dealings with him before in mainstream lessons.
I fear that some on the fringes will become emboldened to begin to ape his behaviour and I really don't need this.
I send an e-mail to our Head of Special Needs. I explain that this is a large mixed ability class and I don't believe these two should be taught together. Fortunately one is not yet formally on role so my expectation is that he will be allocated elsewhere when his timetable is finalised. She is initially sympathetic and says she will try to look at the timetable.
Ben is allocated to my class.
I complain again that these two should not be taught together and question again whether they can access the curriculum. I am told that this is largely down to me and that my differentiation of the work will make all things possible.
Deafened by the sound of bucks being passed I have the temerity to disagree: In all the sets I teach there is a broad abilty range so I am quite used to differentiating work for students but this is differentiation within the standard ability range for each set. What I am being asked to do is to differntiate work for pupils who are a) disaffected and b) well below the achievement levels for their age group.
"You do know I'm only here for a few more weeks?" Ben's support assistant asks.
I did not.
"We can't put Ben into another group. The ones he might have gone into are bigger groups than yours." A senior colleague tells me.
It strikes me that this is hardly thinking outside the box. I stress again my fear for the learning of the group as a whole, that neither boy can access the curriculum and that they should not be taught together in large mainstream groups.
I approach my Local Authority Subject Advisor about the procedure for disapplying someone from the requirement to be taught R.S.
"Ronnie has a right to be taught R.S." I am told by my Special Needs Colleague. "It is neither fair nor appropriate to take Ronnie out of R.S. at this stage. Ronnie will undoubtedly live in a multicultural community and needs to be equipped to deal with the beliefs of those around him. He will also have to deal with a range of the issues that get dealt with almost exclusively in RE: it is only fair and appropriate that he is equipped to understand what some of these issues entail"
"Not if he can not access the curriculum and not if his behaviour compromises the learning of others." It occurs to me at this point that no one is listening. No one wants to comment on the fact that these two should not be taught together nor that they can not cope with the level of work.
I suggest that one of them be swapped with a child from one of the other groups. At this stage in the school year this is quite common as things settle down and we try to ensure that individuals get the best provision.
Instead I am told that Ronnie will have a support assistant with him in the lessons and that senior members of staff will take it in turns to sit in on the lesson.
So, there will be four adults in the class and twenty nine children.
I don't have enough seats.
I'll take my nervous breakdown now please.
Friday, September 16, 2011
Well, here we are at the end of week two and I feel like I need a holiday. I'm clearly not up to this teaching lark at my age! (Poor old bugger!)
I have a Yr 10 form group to look after while their regular form tutor is on maternity leave and they are very nice (well, mainly). There is the child who has to have her bag searched every morning for knives and she shouldn't be left alone with a male teacher, but that said, she seems like a nice girl.
Every week we have a form quiz. My colleagues in the same house have taken me on one side and given me the hard word already about how rubbish my form are and how they let the side down with their lamentable knowledge. My friend Jodie is particularly scathing. "Get 'em sorted or else."
What to do?
Easy: I log on and look up all the answers so that I can perhaps drop subtle hints. After all how on earth am I expected to know such trivia as the real name of Captain America? (House points to anyone who leaves a correct answer).
O.K Folks. Which of the following is the birth year of Barak Obama: 1959, 1961 or 1963?
1961? Well done. See it's easy.
What is the only anagram of "English"?
Silence. (Now this is a hard one.) So I give them a clue.
Think stones on a beach.
"Mernerner." (This apparently means "I don't know." Go on, try the intonation.)
"Oh, oh, I know. Pebbles."
Has she had her baby yet?
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
I returned to the fray. I had my trousers pressed and my shirt ironed, my shoes cleaned and my pencil sharpened. (The pencil is to ram firmly up the nose of any senior manager who asks me why my GCSE grades weren't better.)
There were no kids in yesterday. What a wonderful working environment a school is without children. I recommend it.
They were back today. They do clutter the place up with their acne and their hormones and their uniform to grow into over the next five years.
The staff are knackered already.
Thursday, September 1, 2011
What a really odd Gospel passage. I can’t remember having read it in its wider context before, and having done so now I find it even more disturbing.
If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
I’ve always found this passage rather distasteful. There’s plenty of scope here for mischief making; there’s plenty of scope here for the misuse of power and authority; there’s plenty of scope here for the following of a personal agenda or vendetta against individuals or groups of people who aren’t perceived to be People Like Us; there’s plenty of scope here for the “in crowd” to marginalise others and there’s plenty of scope here for individuals to decide the boundaries of moral or spiritual authority on behalf of others. No. I don’t like this passage one bit because it opens the gates for abusive behaviour. Perhaps you need to have this used against you, or seen it used against others, to understand its devastating power.
One of the things that was drummed into me at Vicar School was the importance of recognising who Jesus’ audience was when analysing a particular text. There is always an immediate audience, usually the disciples, often the crowds, occasionally an individual. There is sometimes also an implied audience, perhaps the scribes and Pharisees standing on the fringes. Many Christians like to assume that you and I today are always the implied audience as if what Jesus had to say to his listeners on every occasion two thousand years ago is for us today. Of course, sometimes we are the implied audience and Jesus does speak to us down the generations but is this one of those passages?
I’m very conscious that if I were preaching this sermon in another church, say a certain large, city centre, Evangelical church not a million miles from here some people would be wriggling very uncomfortably at this point – the clergy certainly would be. For many Christians any discussion of the problems of scripture means a departure from the well rehearsed script of its inerrancy. So, one of my other concerns is that there are branches of Christianity which are anti-intellectual and which don’t want people to debate scripture – simply to obey it. I’m increasingly of the opinion that much of what we discuss and debate between ourselves goes to the heart of our understanding of scripture and the limits which can be put on its authority, or as William Blake noted: “Both read the Bible day and night; but you read black where I read white.” It often feels like that to me and those conversations are usually a dialogue of the deaf and believe me, I've had a fair few of those down the years.
That will be of no surprise to anyone here. “The wisdom of men is foolishness to God.” they’ll tell us, using scripture as a stick to beat us with. And in so doing they’ll give themselves permission to discount generations’ worth of scholarship and textual criticism.
I remember one friend relating his experiences. “At University”, he said “I used to argue and fight with fundamentalists. I remember once taking my Greek New Testament with me to show a sweating, shouting evangelist an aorist verb. He stared at the Bible for a moment, looked back at me and shouted, “Your pride will be your downfall, and you will burn forever in the LAKE OF FIIIIIRE!!!!!” How do you deal with such people?
Well, I’m not going along with inerrancy and so I’m not going along with a passage that seems to give carte-blanche to anyone to oppress someone else. I’m following the reasoning of the American theologian Robert Brinsmead when he said: “We must stop using the Bible as though it were a potpourri of inerrant proof-texts by which we can bring people into bondage to our religious traditions...We must no longer use the Bible as the Pharisees used the Torah when they gave it absolute and final status. Christian biblicism is no different from Jewish legalism. It is the old way of the letter, not the new way of the Spirit.”
I find it hard to believe Jesus could have uttered these words. The text concludes with the excommunication of an impenitent offender, urging the church to treat that one as a Gentile and a tax collector. Come on! In his ministry Jesus embraced such people and much to the consternation of the Scribes and Pharisees, even ate with them. This is the same Jesus who Matthew tells us several chapters earlier had said, “Judge not that you be not judged.” Isn't that inconsistent?
Also, the placement of this passage is jarring. It separates the account of the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 in the fold and begins his search for one who was lost and the story of Peter probing the limits of forgiveness with Jesus: “Lord, how many times should we forgive? Seven?” “No, Peter; 70 x 7” or to put it another way, as many times as you have to. There is no limit on forgiveness. This passage simply doesn’t fit here.
In addition, in Matthew this passage has a footnote: it tells me that there is a corresponding passage in Luke 17.
“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him.; and if he sins against you seven times and say “I repent”, you must forgive him.”
It’s not the same is it?. Only Matthew has his version. So why is that? And the answer to that might lie in why it would be wrong to assume that we are the implied audience of this passage.
Of course there is an alternative reading of this gospel segment which does fit where Matthew has it, but it isn't one I've heard espoused that often. When Matthew has Jesus saying "Let him (the impenitent sinner) be to you as a Gentile or a Tax collector." Jesus isn't suggesting excommunication but rather forgiveness on the basis that his attitude to Gentiles and Tax Collectors was one of inclusion and forgiveness and this is a pattern he is setting out for the church. That's quite revolutionary and perhaps is exactly the point of the passage but this is not how most expressions of the church down the ages, determined to be disciplinarian and punitive in their dealings with the "troublesome", seem to have interpreted it.
Matthew was most certainly talking to an audience of Jewish converts, a group of people for whom an adherence to the law was still very much part of their tradition. At this point it’s a community in transition from synagogue to church and, importantly, a community with no central authority and a community which had yet to become clear about its own understanding of sin. This is why I think the first interpretation of the passage is the most likely.
Have you ever wondered why Matthew’s is the first Gospel? Because it is recognised as the most ecclesiastical of the Gospels – the most church centred, if you like. And yet there was no church in Jesus day. Why then does Matthew have Jesus talking about church discipline? Jesus didn't foresee the Church. He prophesied the kingdom. It's not the same thing.
What is disturbing is Matthew’s implication that the understanding of acceptable moral and religious behaviour is left to the community and the community, therefore, acts with the authority of God. The problem is that, very often, our individual experiences have made us very wary of the weilding of authority in the name of God and we can look back and see what damage has been caused to individuals and groups by an application of this sort of approach to discipline.
And aren’t we selective about the exercise of discipline? I remember going to an event in another denomination where we sat down to a light lunch of prawn sandwiches after having tried - snd failed - to thrash out a protocol on issues of human sexuality without, it seems, anyone seeing any irony at all. (Leviticus appearing to have something very strong to say about both issues.) Let’s be clear- there were those in that group who would have relished the prospect of following Matthew’s advice to the letter: discipline in the church can very often be about the following of a hierarchy of what we perceive to be sinful behaviour, when to God all have sinned and fallen short. You build on that, very often, a wilful determination not to understand the context of some scriptural passages because an alternative perspective goes against the script and the whole issue of discipline becomes frought.
I’m sure most of you have read or heard the famous letter to Dr. Laura, the religious radio Agony Aunt. It’s been doing the rounds on the INTERNET for about a decade. Let me just quote you a short section:
“Dear Dr. Laura,
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other specific laws and how to best follow them:
My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev 24:10-16 Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? Lev. 20:14.
I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.”
To me, there are three questions there:
1) Who decides which Biblical strictures we can ditch and which we can’t?
2) What does it mean in that context to be a church in obedience to scripture?
3) Doesn’t that sort of extract, tongue in cheek as it is, drive a coach and horses through ideas of discipline in the church?
So, what’s he saying then? That there shouldn’t be discipline in the church?
No. What I’m saying is that for a variety of good reasons I don’t believe I am the implied audience for this passage. It speaks to Matthew’s age, his situation and his agenda, not mine. There’s nothing, of course, to stop you disagreeing with me and seeing this as a passage you can apply to your own lives. (I’ll just hang back at the end and see how many people approach Steve to set up a new rota.)
Of course we should be willing to challenge one another but this suggestion that the impenitent put themselves outside the church is preposterous. You and I wouldn’t be here today if people like Martin Luther and Richard Hooker hadn’t rocked the boat and remained impenitent: it’s often people who don’t toe the party line that have helped the church to grow, to develop and to flourish. I don’t doubt they were thorns in the sides of their church authorities and I don’t doubt that they were taken on one side for a few things to be spelt out to them on more than one occasion but they persevered and the rest is history.
So now I’m gently sliding into middle age. I’m tired of fighting over the Bible.
I have much simpler questions for people now.
Are you trying to follow Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, as a disciple, trying to understand what he said and trying to live the way he did, wherever possible? Yes?
Do you believe Jesus when in Ch 13 John records him as saying “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Yes?
Are you reading the New Testament? Yes?
Are you trying your best to understand it and it apply it to your life wherever possible? Yes?
Do you use your God given intellect as a channel for the Holy Spirit’s guidance? Yes?
Now there are plenty of inspirational Bible passages and I’m sure you might have special ones that inspire you that you could add to this list but these are mine. Do these passages inspire you?
* Micah Ch 6: “What does the Lord require of you? Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God;" Yes?
* Philippians Ch 2: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Yes?
* Matthew in Ch 7: “Judge not that you be not judged.” Yes?
* One from today’s Epistle; from Romans 13: “… love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law”. Yes?
* Do you subscribe to the spirit of St. Paul’s teaching “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free” etc in the sense of the equality of all people before God? Yes?
* And one little legacy from my days with the Lutherans: our salvation is unmerited and comes from God’s grace alone. Let’s not decide on God’s behalf who is outside his grace. Yes?