Embracing scandal

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings:- In this week when we celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, we tend to dwell on his successes, and it’s rather the same with the Old Testament prophets. When we look back at their lives we think how imposing and significant they have all been. Yet the reality for them was very different. Rare indeed was the prophet who lived to see his life’s work even affirmed let alone taken up by the establishment. Far from it, they saw themselves and were often seen as alien voices, renegades. Just think for a moment of Samuel, forced to anoint a king against his conscience, and who was told by the Lord of the failure and impending deaths of his two sons in an age when offspring meant posterity. Look at the difficulties Moses encountered with Israel, or of Elijah who had to go on the run from Ahab and Jezebel, and even Elisha was forced to go and preach his message to pagan Sidonians rather than experiencing success at home. One could go on and on, but the fact remains; they were not acclaimed in their own lifetimes.

When 1st Isaiah wrote in the 8th century BC it was to criticise and reform a nation which had deserted God and he knew would be punished in consequence. (Isa 35:1-6, 10). It is highly significant that both his damming indictment of his people and our passage, of God’s forgiveness, are couched in agricultural terms: the curse of the vineyard, (Israel), and this passage of the blooming of the desert. One might have expected him to write in Jerusalem, at the court of the king or at the temple, and take images of rebuke and forgiveness from there, but he did not, and deliberately so. God, he sees, does not concern himself with the high and mighty, but with full bellies, natural beauty and good health in a land blighted by want and misrule.

In a similar mode, our gospel, (Matthew 11:2-11), reflects this passage of Isaiah in Jesus’ reply to the imprisoned and doomed John the Baptist, though significantly excluding the promise of vengeance upon enemies. Jesus encourages John and his followers with the phrase ”And happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.” Unfortunately this comment has lost an enormous amount in translation, for it insists, in Greek, that the follower is ‘blessed’ and not happy – a portent perhaps of persecution to come, and uses a phrase so redolent with meaning for Jesus, and frequently used by Matthew; speaking of people who are not scandalised by him, which is not about having or losing faith at all. All Israel’s great prophets were precisely a source of scandal to the elite, and paid the price for their adherence to the truth and it is significant that Jesus saw himself in these terms too; as someone from and with God who would rock the boat and pay the price like those earlier witnesses to the truth.

Jesus goes on in our gospel to criticise precisely those at the top of the political and religious tree, rejecting those who wear fine clothes and inhabit palaces. He insists that John is the greatest human born whilst at the same time also becoming the very least of humanity. John would die at the hands of Herod at a drunken orgy, but he would be remembered as the one who looked for the Lord and saw him coming, and was prepared to do his job for Christ, come what may.

Our reading from James, (5:7-10), again uses the agricultural imagery of the seasons as it advocates patience for those who await the Lord. Prophets would indeed only view from heaven the significance of their message to subsequent generations, just as the slow rise of Christianity would have staggered those who played their small part in its foundation. I am sure that Mandela, for all the adulation he received in his lifetime, would recognise that there is still a very long way for South Africa to go before they establish the promised land.

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