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Labourers in the vineyard -the Sovereignty of God -  and a comment from Paul on living

Philippians 1:21-30

 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.  If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer.  I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.  Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel,  and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing.  For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well—  since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

 

 

Matthew 20. 1-16

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.  When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.  When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.  And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’  They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’  When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’  When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,  saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

 


 Paul, the labourer in a Phillipian field

In these 2 readings we are presented with some pretty hefty principles and a very high bar to reach.  Paul says that for him to die is gain because he will be with Christ. This is no idle phrase as Paul knew too well the sort of death that might be coming his way. But, says Paul, if I have to live, at least let you, the Philippians, be faithful to the Gospel. Further to which, he says, ‘you Philippians and I have in common that we have been allowed to take part in the suffering of Christ, a high honour and act of grace’. Martyrdom is not everyone’s first idea of an act of grace but if it’s going to happen, you might as well at least try and  see it as a good thing.


Jesus, Marxist, capitalist or simply the Son of Almighty God? 

Jesus, though, has even harder things to think on as they concern living not dying and life goes on and on and on whereas death, pardon the obvious, is a once only event although it can take a while in the doing. I do not make light of the heavy, I do make the point that life is a long ongoing matter in which many things change and come into play, go out of reach and cause distress as well as pleasure. Death, as my philosophy tutor used to tell me, is not an event of life.

So is Jesus teaching us right wing economic fundamentals here? – the boss has the last say and the workers must simply put up with it. The coin of sin has two sides and pride is the one we think of first. This is the side that says ‘I can do without God’. It’s obverse side is passivity, less preached on but there nevertheless.  To be passive is to say that we have no role to play in what comes our way and we must just accept whatever the Great God gives us. This attitude, as sinful as pride, leads to us accepting injustice and rottenness in the roots of our own behaviour and that of society around us. Why protest against anything when it is simply God’s will and we must endure patiently? This is a charter for bully and weak alike, the bully will say you must do this, it’s God’s will. The weak  will meekly accept and hope to inherit the earth – one day, if that’s alright with the rest of us, please…On such a premise has the Church often held its congregations under the thumb of a dominating hierarchy of priesthood.

The injustice the first workers feel is palpable and we can sympathize with them  - but  they did agree to the wage in the first place so they really have no recourse. But, to counter  such apparently unjust behaviour, trade unionists  and philanthropists fought to establish what we now take for granted – or did until the gig economy reared its head. An hourly rate and a minimum wage not one or the other as the  parable here is suggesting. The  first workers got the daily rate, the last an hourly one and the disparity between the 2 is what upset the first workers even though they had no one to blame for their perceived injustice  except themselves –but they trusted the employer. More fool them? Western society, since the Second War, has been more or less based on the idea of a fair wage for a fair job done – so long as we turn blind eyes to discrimination against women and the unskilled, illiterate or illegal. Economic history  is too long for such short generalisations to cover them fairly, read the gist.

So if Jesus is not saying that the workers should have been more canny in negotiating a day’s work look at the phrase He uses about generosity.

I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

At first glance we’re still in the territory of the employer. the employer can choose, it’s their money they are giving away. So what’s the stuff about envious and generous?  The late workers, arguably the shirkers, lay abouts and  otherwise variously useless (why else would they not have found work before 5 in the afternoon?) got a crackingly generous deal. The respectable workers, those up and shaved and dressed, booted and suited for work early, got the rough end of the deal  -except they agreed to the deal. The late folk were hardly going to turn round and say  no to the employer, nor ‘take half of mine you deserve it’ to the first workers in the vineyard. Traditionally this parable is seen as saying that the Jews came first but they will only get the same rewards in heaven as the late-comer-Christians or that the early  1st Century  Christians will get the same reward as those of the 21st Century – after all, if the 1stC. folk are  in Eternity, what difference there does any concept of  Time or Reward make?

For me the clue  to the meaning of this parable is in the attribution of envious and generous. The workers are envious, the employer is generous.

 

Take nothing at face value 

When I worked as a hospice chaplain a middle aged couple were admitted, she to die, he to watch and wait and mourn. One day he exploded as she lay ill and weak. ‘We have been Christians all our lives, we have given time and money to the Church and worked for God and this is the reward we get?! What have we done to deserve this?’ His anger was even  more understandable than that of the first labourers, but it missed a point.

On ordination retreat we were given a ‘charge’ by the ordaining bishop -  a traditional end of retreat and pre-ordination pep-talk. We were told that God does not give brownie points or have a loyalty card system for working in the Church for the Kingdom. Expect bad things to happen and you won’t be disappointed for clergy and Christians alike have stuff happen to them.

We all of us have an innate sense of justice, we are made in the image of God and God rages against the injustices of the world that we perpetrate. –So why is God seemingly so unjust to us when dealing out tragedy and relief?

We have no choice so much of the time. We do not choose the moment of our conception nor the type of parents to which we are born. We do not choose the gifts and talents we have  - yet we can choose to cultivate, enhance or ignore them. We cannot always choose which job we do, someone else may be better qualified or fit the profile better. The house in which we live is determined by having the money, the buyer, the seller, the landlord and such like. We cannot choose if we lose our hair or have a big bum –though there are some things we can do about these things! As I say to myself as I eat the  butter-laden bread, no one is making you do this… And by and large we have no say in how we will die - of which illness or which circumstance or simply old age.  Whether you think these things are God determined, genetic or choice, the degree of autonomy is mythical in that we think it greater than it is. Our lifestyle may bring us to an early grave by our choice but some smoke for years and die of old age not lung cancer. Tragedy comes unbidden but sometimes we urge it on.

One thing is certain and that is that  we will die and return to God from whom we have been given our being. This sounds like a theology of gloom! Consider this: ‘ It is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot buy.’ I cannot keep my life on this earth for ever, physical life is finite. So to give my life in the cause of justice, loving my neighbour or something of which God approves and is pleased, is all, literally, to the good. But there is more to life than just being socially equitable and ‘nice’. By giving my life to Christ in gratitude for His having giving His life first for me, in gratitude for His taking my due deserts for wrongful, sin-ridden behaviour, is to gain something that wealth cannot buy -  for God is not impressed or bought by wealth, only by sincerity of heart and love of the Son -  ‘for God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life’. How simple can it be?

We are envious, we look on others and think – why not me? Peter, at the very end of John’s Gospel does the very same – he looks at John and says to Jesus – ‘What about him?’ (John 21,20) to which Jesus replies pretty much as the employer in the parable does: ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ We work so often in economic terms of transaction and worth, thinking in terms of  deserving  reward or punishment, but this is not the way of God who gives without reserve and is generous beyond grace. Our life in all its being is a gift to which we have no right and  which we have done nothing to bring about. God may do as God chooses or life may be curtailed as others impose. God does not always decide our deaths (when idiots kill with guns or cars or chose not to take precautions against illness or accident) but God can and does cope with our life and our death. How will we choose to react, what will our attitude to life and to God be? Gratitude or  self-righteous indignation? Do not be passive but neither be you proud.  Give that which belongs to God, to God - and thereby gain that to which you have no right, only an invitation. 

 

 

Peter the Sulker-in-Chief

Matthew 18.21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if one of my brothers sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;[j] and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

 

How to read…

To understand the Bible sometimes it helps to try and visualise what’s going on in the text in front of you and treat it like a description of an event instead of always looking for the deep and holy message.  This is particularly so with  the Gospels when Jesus is often taken very seriously when actually He could well be teasing. It also helps to remember the context of the small piece appointed as the day’s reading. In the section above, set for last week’s reading, we have a good example of all of these words of warning.

 

The context of this small sequence is set into a long teaching session on sin and the relationship we have with our fellows in our community. Jesus has spent quite some time explaining and teaching the consequences and best practice for living with others (Mt. 18, 15-20). Then along comes Peter and sets himself up as an example of how not to do things. How so? Look and think harder!

The disciples are gathered and Jesus is teaching.  Who was in this merry band? (Name the disciples…) PICTURE in your mind’s eye who were gathered together. Think too of what we know about Peter. He was a fisherman, as much brawn as brains perhaps (or, as Shakespeare said, less brains than ear wax). He was noted for his ability to get the wrong end of the stick, had a habit of telling Jesus what to do and of changing his mind, of being impetuous and then, like a cartoon character who finds himself out of cliff to run on (or waves to walk on) he falls flat on his face or sinks. He also had a capacity to sulk. Look especially at John’s Gospel at the end and judge his reaction to Jesus’ 3-times-given invitation to apologize. Peter didn’t take the chance Jesus gave him, even after his 3 times denial of Christ. Peter seems to have thought Jesus was just getting at him, and, like all who feel accused he tries to deflect attention on to another ( see John 21. 15-21). Notice Peter’s absence from the dialogues at the post resurrection scenes.

 

 

He’s behind you…

So now look at the scene above and start to put this scene onto a stage in your mind. Gather the disciples and put Peter among them. Imagine what could prompt him to ask Jesus the question ‘How many times…’ What has happened that Peter should ask this?

There are at least 2 possibilities. 1.Peter has been annoyed/hurt by someone and is trying to get Jesus to play judge. Imagine, in a group together, something happens and a dispute breaks out so Peter says ’Right, I’ll get Jesus to settle this’. Off he goes marching to Christ whilst the other disciples groan, try to get him back or just watch on in bemused’ here we go again’ mode.  2. Peter has done the annoying and has told the disciple (who has perhaps just followed Jesus most recent instruction to talk to that brother and if they won’t listen go with 2 or 3 others -Mt. 18.15ff) that he, Peter thinks he should be forgiven. The other thinks, perhaps, that Peter has been forgiven enough and should now be looking at the suggestion Jesus makes in verse 17! The knub of either situation is that this isn’t the first time something has happened (my money is on Peter being the annoying one) and that forgiveness for the umpteenth time is required. Patience is running out so Peter goes off to Jesus. And this is where mischief and teasing come in.

Peter, not, perhaps, the brightest tool in the box. Remember the bit in John where the exact number of fish is given? Did Peter have a wee bit of trouble with numbers? We know how the caricature of fishermen presents them as prone to exaggeration and maybe John was also teasing Peter by recording the exact number? Anyway, Peter asks Jesus how many times should I forgive as many as seven. You can do all the academic stuff about 7 being a special number that represents something other than 6+1 but maybe, just maybe, Peter couldn’t get past 7. I know this feeling, I get to 7 in German or Norwegian and then my brain starts to melt and I mix up åtte with acht and huit. So, as many  as 7 was a long way for this chap.

Jesus says, depending on which edition of Matthew you’re reading  seventy times or seventy times seven. This is a lot of sevens for a bear of little brain. The other disciples, watching on, might now start to giggle. Among their number would be several who could count, not least Matthew and Judas. Matthew the tax collector who knew his sums and Judas who kept the company purse (John 12.6). Peter, running out of both fingers and number-words now must have looked flummoxed and maybe at this point the company break into laughter and Peter has his hair ruffled by a loving Christ and his shoulder gently thumped by the person he’s upset.

These people are humans, they live and love and fall out and reconcile. Imagine these things and see yourself in their humanity.

So Jesus goes on to tell another story, warning them all of the need to forgive, lest worst befall and God judges their shortcomings. How would we fare if we were judged by the same stricture as we judge others let alone if we were judged by the standard set by Christ?

 

Take Two

But look once more at who was there watching and listening to Jesus explain the nature  and quantity of forgiveness. Peter needed forgiveness after the Resurrection and he couldn’t quite get his head round how willing and ready Christ was to forgive him. Instead he sulked his way about until the power of the Holy Spirit transformed him (see Acts 2). But  remember Judas was there and heard the words too. John found Judas difficult to forgive and his gospel is laced with anti-Judas sentiment but Matthew saw Judas differently. In Matthew 27.3 we read that Judas repented. There is a Jewish tradition that the willing death of a man repays the death of another and the suicide of Judas may have been something to do with this piece of maths –who knows the minds of those who take their own lives? But there is another tradition of the Church that talks of the Harrowing of Hell and is based on 1 Peter 3 19 and Acts 2.27. In this all but lost theology (which we also find in the Apostles’ Creed) we find that Christ descended into hell to bring out those who were there waiting for Christ to take them from there to heaven. If Judas was one of the last in, maybe he was also one of the first out?

 

The nature and property of God

In the communion service we say almost without thinking ‘on the night He was betrayed…’ It is easy to think of Judas yet we must also think of all those who ran, Peter not least among them. But also in the communion service we hear the description of God as one ‘whose nature is always to have mercy’, or, as the old Book of Common Prayer has it, ‘whose property is always to have mercy’. A property is something which defines a thing. Remember science lessons and the property of oxygen? The way we tell that oxygen is oxygen is that it relights a glowing splint. So with God, a (not the) defining characteristic of God is always to have mercy.

So seven or seventy or seventy times seven, forgiveness is essential (i.e., of essence, of vital importance) to the life of the Christian. It restores us to God and to our fellows. It is difficult to give it  sometimes and difficult to receive it sometimes –but that’s  the sermon below!!

 

 

 

Three branches of Government, sermon on a piece of string!

Matthew 18. 15-20

15 ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

This is not the way we do things as a rule. Standard human behaviour is to talk behind people’s backs and expect our confidante to be mutually appalled at whatever  behaviour we have found offensive. The idea of going to someone direct and ‘reproving’ as the Greek word translated ‘point out’ here is given, is something  most of us shy away from.  Confrontation and challenge are not part of our way of doing things, it seems aggressive and impolite. But ‘challenge’ is not the same as ‘confront’ and to go to someone in an attitude of ‘what did you mean really by what you said/did as I may have got the wrong end of the stick here’ is quite different from ‘Excuse me, but you really annoyed/upset me by what you said’. Attitude is everything and asking a genuine question of seeking to understand is much more reconciliatory than ‘oi, you!’.

Notice the language in this passage. There are words here which are simply not in the Greek text. The word ‘church’ of the opening sentence, the word ‘offender’, the phrase ‘point out’ and the word ‘loose’ are all interpretations on the part of the English editor. If you look it up in the NRSV you’ll see that there are footnotes which say that the word ‘church’ is an editorial choice for ‘brother’ in verse 15 but is  properly translated as ‘church’ in verse 17. Nit picking? No, because translation and thereby understanding words is what underpins this passage; how we understand a different point of view. When we complain to our friend about what so and so has done we usually exaggerate or add to the story rather than quote word for word. Why would the editor of this passage use ‘church’ not ‘brother’? Perhaps to make it inclusive of all genders or to make it solely an in-house problem, i.e., relating only to the way we deal with our own religious community in the same way that the 10 commandments relate only to the Jewish dealings with other Jew -killing your non-Jewish neighbour is the bulk of the history chapters of the Old Testament!

So Jesus recommends a way of dealing with people in your community that seems quite bold but when done in curious love (i.e. in a way that seeks explanation and clarification) a new understanding between 2 people may come about and so the community grows.

So what of this business about bind and loose? Take a piece of string and put a knot in it and as you do think of someone you have offended recently. Then tie another knot for someone that has offended you. To bind means to tie in, to hold fast something that is otherwise free, like a horse to a fence or a man to a cross.

The string is made up of many threads and its strength lies in the complexity of the many threads adding strength to itself. The knot represents a complexity of ways in which we are made and by which we interact with other people. We are many layers of emotions and some things hold us down that we don’t even see are there.

When we hold something against someone we are tying them to us, binding them to be held responsible for hurting us. But there are 2 knots for we offend even as we are offended – ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ and ’all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. We hold and we are held.

This applies to individuals and to communities for Jesus talks about 2 or 3 gathered together. When these 2 or 3 agree  they confirm the attitude if there is no reconciliation to be found and Jesus says we should throw them out – but is this right? Is this how Jesus works or is His assumption/hope rather that in discussion, temperance will be achieved and with it  understanding? The counsel of others begets a sense of ‘hang on, let’s think and pray and see what’s really going on here, what underlying issues  there are that may be making an unsought and unintended reaction’. Communities hold grudges and refuse to seek understanding. It’s part of the history of individuals and groups that a narrative builds up in which the Other is demonised or made into an enemy. Equally the history of a group becomes something which binds them to a way of doing things –‘we’ve always done it this way’ whether or not there is value or grace in such things, whether or not such ways are valid any more.

This idea of narrative and history is worth looking at. The word ‘text’ has its origins in the concept of weaving. We spin a yarn, we weave a story, we treat somethings as sacred texts that cannot be altered -yet we’ve already seen that words can be interpreted and this is exactly what communities and individuals  do when they bind to themselves interpretations of events that hold them to a story-line. Think of the caricature of any group and see how the narrative has become a prejudice or a definition that forbids redefining. Our stories are sometimes many yarns tied into knots of unforgiveness, accumulated to make a carpet covering our faults and woven from the perceived faults of others.

But the word ‘loose’ means to untie. It was used at the beginning of a horse race to set free the lined-up horses so that they might run the race set before them. When we forgive, we undo the knot that binds another to us and we are free then as they are freed -forgive us our trespasses as we forgive… When another person forgives us we are set loose to be a better friend the next time. But this complex because all the threads need to be severed and sometimes the small threads that cling are hard to be rid of, like small splinters in the finger -or specks in our eyes.

Again, what is true for the individual is true for the community. Long histories, bitterly told, bind countries and people to each other even though they/we think we are separate and apart.

 

This is why what we decide between us is held by God to be the case in heaven. Unless and until we forgive and set free, the will of our hearts is honoured by God but we do God honour by forgiving as we have been forgiven and God forgives all who truly repent, whether we like or deserve it or not (how often do we refuse apologies, preferring the self righteous feeling of having been offended?!)

In civil governance there are 3 branches of government, the legislative which makes the law, the executive which enforces and prosecutes the law and the judiciary which decides and judges. If I hit you and you make a complaint to the police, they arrest me, take evidence, take me to court and a judge decides if and to what degree a law has been broken. The 3 branches are separate to avoid collusion or corruption. No one is above the law which means that anyone involved in any of the 3 branches, can be offender or offended against and brought to book. If I hit you it is not you that prosecutes but the police, you then simply become a witness to the offence because my offence is not just against you the individual but against the State that sets the laws.

In terms of our faith we are all offenders, God is our judge but God is also the maker of the law. The brilliant good news is that God is also our advocate pleading our case and Jesus is the one who will take our punishment for us if our sins require such. Forgive me’ means ‘take my punishment  for me’. God’s way is to prefer reconciliation between God and human kind -hence John 3.16 and17. When we forgive we are doing a Godly thing but in order to forgive we need to understand what we are reacting to and how that forgiveness operates on many different levels, embedded sometimes in our story, our narrative and what binds us, what holds us back.

The Christian church insists on acknowledging that we have sinned but has always followed it through with the giving of forgiveness on God’s behalf. The words are ‘Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent…’ because it is God that is hurt by our sinning as well as those that are on the receiving end of our behaviour. This is an intricate and profound structure which affects human behaviour deeply. Forgiveness and grace are not cheap, undoing the knots that bind us is the work of the Son, a craftsman of the heart.

 

 

No  fools in April

 

 

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Rose Theatre Kingston

One of the earliest images (from around 225 CE) we have of Christ being worshipped is of a man in front of a crucified figure. The caption reads ‘Alexamenos worships his god’ . This is thought to be an anti Christian piece of work – or certainly an anti-Alexamenos one! But the representation of Christ is the real curiosity for it shows Jesus as having a donkey’s head. Donkeys were thought of as foolish creatures, something we see in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream where a village workman is made to have an ass’s head and falls in love with a fairy queen.

In the first chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about foolishness and how, on the one hand we are called to be fools for Christ, proclaiming a gospel that makes us look stupid and naïve, to have faith in a man that was crucified was considered exceedingly stupid and it was, as Paul says, a stumbling block to faith in Jesus for many people then and now.

 On the other hand, Paul talks about the foolishness of God being wiser than the wisdom of man. I Corinthians 1, 23 -25;

…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

But those of you who read carefully will have noticed a sleight of hand here in my writing. I have made it look as if foolishness and stupidity are one and the same – which they are not. ‘Stupid’ is not using the brains you were born with to think something through. We may think of it as dull-witted but stupidity is not so much about mental ability as mental willingness. A fool though, is someone  like a jester, far from dull-witted but agile of thought and sharp as a pin and, in kingly courts of old, expected to speak truth to power where others would simply fawn and flatter. How many of our current day ‘kings’ could do with someone to speak truth in their ears! Again, to quote the Bard, ‘jesters do oft prove prophets’  as Shakespeare says in King Lear,  a play which examines foolishness in all its guises from stupid folk to professional wit via old age folly, and malice which gets its come-uppance.   Jesters use humour to teach deep truths, sugaring the pill. It’s why Jesus used parables and why so much of His words are full of humour – if only we could take off the ‘must-be-serious specs’ and perceive them.

 

How does this affect the Christian? How are we to be fools for Christ and speak truth to our hearts and those around us?

Text Box: I’m not a complete idiot, some parts are missing Not by being daft about life and doing reckless things that threaten our health and that of those around us. Not by behaving as if forgiveness is a gift to be taken for granted as we habitually do those things which, by omission or commission hurt others deeply (‘we have not done those things which we ought to have done and have  done those things which we ought not to have done’ as the old prayer book puts it). Not by pretending that all will be well and just let things go by without taking action against climate change, poverty, waste or other things which engage us and challenge our sense of justice. Not by failing to think about our faith and doing what Jesus tells us when He says ‘You  shall worship the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your mind …’) Too many Christians want a ‘simple faith’ which is fine if you are ‘simple’ but many of us are far from this. ‘Engage brain before putting mouth in gear’   as the fridge magnet philosopher has it.  I think that those of us capable of tertiary level education owe it to God to do this with our faith and explore the wonderful intellectual integrity it has.

So what to do then to be good fools for Christ? To follow where we believe He is leading which  may indeed make us look foolish in the eyes of those lead by seemingly brighter lights. To give from the depth of our pockets and the depths of our hearts. To go beyond reason and act from love. ‘God so loved the world…’ says John, not  ‘God so thought the world’. It was not as an act of capricious amusement that God called the world into being but as an action of love, God sharing the joy of being alive with us hence we are made in God’s image, capable of great creativity and great compassion.

 At the point of decision reason fails us and we go with our hearts be it the colour of the car (‘resale value’ or ‘the kids/wife/granny….  like it’) the location of the house (Cotswolds or Trondheim?!) or following Christ when there is nothing to commend Him other than that He seems to make just about more sense than the others who attract us, as Peter says in John 6.6. As Easter draws on, the common sense (intelligence) of the common good will keep us separate yet a while but the common sense (feeling) of us as a community of praying, worshipping and joyful Christians will hold to eternity. ‘Speak the truth in love’ as Paul says (Ephesians 4. 15) not out of malice, but do speak the truth that Christ teaches us which is no folly nor ignorance but grace personified (John 1.14).

 

And the Word became flesh

and dwelt among us,

and we have seen his glory,

the glory as of a father’s only son, 

full of grace and truth.


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Matthew 15 A Hand-Washing Tale

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ 3He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said, “Honour your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” 5But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God”, then that person need not honour the father. 6So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. 7You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
8 “This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.” 

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ 13He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’

 

Well, they wouldn’t get away with it today!! Not washing hands is now as unthinkable as not taking off your shoes when you go into a Norwegian’s house. Of course this was long, long, long before the trials of today and global infectious diseases. It’s a bit of fun to hear of the disciples not washing their hands against the context of our present and necessary preoccupation with making our mitts clean and healthy but as an example of how to make a big story out of a little one it has a lot going for it.

The Pharisees come out all the way  from Jerusalem just to pick a fight.  This was no casual encounter but a ‘let’s go and find the troublesome rabbi’ expedition. They went mob-handed.  They went out fighting and prepared. They may even have thought that this argument was more water tight than their last one (Matthew 12, ‘why do your disciples eat on the Sabbath?’ – presumably it took them a week to fathom out the next bit, eating on the Sabbath then  not washing hands before they eat, thinking backwards they were good at, well, better than thinking forwards at least).

Jesus comes out fighting too, ‘OK, if you want to talk about breaking commandments, let’s have a look at some of the ones you Pharisees break…’ And here is a lesson for us today in our c-virus ridden time. Caring for those who have cared for us, our parents, our elders, our weak and frail and vulnerable. These are the commandments of God we should be keeping. Don’t look at the petty stuff, look at the big stuff. C-virus is not about washing hands but about caring for the community at large to stop infection spreading –  look at the bigger picture.

Hierarchical institutions, such as the Pharisees belonged to, are often concerned with upholding their man-made laws to maintain the position of those in charge in the institution. Power is a heady drug and the Pharisees were trying to enforce their power on Jesus. But Jesus is no fool and no mean power either. They were trounced, as so often they are in the Gospels and small wonder they wanted Christ dead. Our own Church history sometimes reads like a power-grab story with the Church making rules where God’s grace would be.

In a complete upending of the dynamics of this story, where the Pharisees had sought to get the crowd on their side (how daft could they be? They’d only manage that at the rabble-rousing crowd scene with Jesus and Barabbas) Jesus turns directly to the crowd and, in the sight and hearing of the self-righteous Pharisees, tells the crowd that what the Pharisees teach is Wrong, capital W. ‘Red faced’ doesn’t begin to describe how the Pharisees must have looked, puce with rage, white with anger, black with loathing, green with envy,  a whole rainbow of colourful language is available here!

It’s what comes out of the mouth  that defiles, makes dirty, impure, unacceptable. When we speak ill of the living, when we fail to help those threatened and weakened by circumstance, that is when  we break the 2 salient commandments of God – Love the Lord your God, and then, love your neighbour as yourself.  

 

The disciples were worried about the reaction of the Pharisees to the way that  Jesus humiliated them. ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ they say to Jesus, as if He didn’t realize He’d only gone and upset The Pharisees, like, the powerful people, the top set, the ruling clerics, the men who knew where they lived and had boys to send round??? Jesus’ reaction is amazing when you hear it for what it is. ‘So what? They are blind people leading blind people. If they all fall into the pit, it will be no loss.’ This isn’t the stereotypical Jesus of compassion and gentleness fame but a Jesus who is sharp to the point of caustic and damning almost with judgment of the Pharisees behaviour. Some scholars would argue that this is evidence of Matthew’s anti-Pharisee attitude. If it makes you feel more comfortable to attribute Jesus’ attitude to Matthew, think  why that should be.  How would our behaviour stand up to such scrutiny? To what are we blind? About what are we sure to the point where we challenge even God who tells us different? Let’s start with ‘love your enemy’ and see how far we get. We have examples enough of this not happening in our midst without need to go outside the Body of Christ.

‘Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desire known and from whom no secrets are hidden’ has to be one of the scariest opening sentences in the  whole of the liturgy. Thank God for the grace of the Holy Spirit to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts.

 Vocation Sunday / what is it  and what it is to be called.

 

 

‘I have called you by name’, says God in the book of Isaiah,’ you are mine’. God was speaking to a whole nation, the errant, badly behaved and wilfully, perpetually disobedient Israel - the very name means ’one who contends with God’ With a name like that to start with you’re almost on a loser to start with, or at very least in for a rough relationship. Israel was the name God gave to Jacob after Jacob had fought with God as we read in Genesis 32. It’s perhaps not such a bad name after all as at least it suggests an engaging with God that has real strength and consequence to it. Not some weak and feeble acquiescent assent but a struggling to fathom who God is and what God wants of us. There are worse names to be called after all. Peter was called the rock – which of course is why he sank when he tried to walk on water. Others have said that if Peter was a rock it was limestone -the stuff chalk is made of! Peter is famous in equal part  for his betrayal of Jesus  and his being the first head of the church after Jesus. And there’s the 2 sons of thunder, James and John, roaring fishermen with  load voices and loud characters to go with it. All of us have names, some given to us by our parents, some taken from our marriage, some given to us by friends and some chosen by ourselves to be known as. Secret names, nick-names, birth names and more besides. The names we call other people -kind or vicious, caring or  dismissive.

 

There are other examples of calling that we might look at. God calls Adam and Eve to walk in the garden, and when God cannot find them, God calls out to them – and then there’s trouble. God calls us to reason together at the very beginning of Isaiah and goes on to tell us that ’my ways are not your ways but as far as the east is from the west I will put your sins from you.’ God calls us to look at ourselves in the context and presence of God, creator, judge, forgiver, lover. These are more names that we can give, names that describe a characteristic or a function.

When Jesus called the disciples he called fishermen but told them that that description wasn’t going to be their defining title any more. When we are called by God our self-description changes and continues to change throughout our days.

 

So, let’s put this together. In order to be called, we have to a) have a name and b) recognise that that name is ours and c) have someone call us. You cannot call someone by name if you don’t have  these 3 things in place – as you will know if you’ve tried to skype and haven’t got the right address -an address is a place where a named person lives so my addressing you now is a calling to you. At the beginning of this service I asked you to name someone as you lit the candle and in doing so you called them to mind. You remembered them – that is you brought them back in your mind to be part of , a member of, your thinking, your company. When we call out to each other we are doing something which is actually quite a complex sequence of organization.

When God calls to us, what name, what description does God use of us? How do you think of yourself in relation to God? What do you think God thinks of you?

When we call on others we present to them different things at different times. We appropriately have different ways of reacting to different people and our understanding of that relationship is based on who and what we understand those people to be. It is readily understood that a mother can also be a daughter, a granny, a sister an aunt but also other things too, a refugee, an official, a old or young person and so on. Names can define and can limit us but when God calls us, the name God uses sets us free for in relationship with God we are known, understood and loved, forgiven, and blessed, assured of grace and made new.  

 

It’s easy to think that vocation Sunday is about calling people to become ordained. The word vocation comes from a Latin word meaning to call. Churchy things are called ecclesiastical and ecclesiastics, clerics or priest or ministers, are people who have been ‘called out’  from the congregation, it’s a Greek word. These days to be ‘called out’ has a different meaning but with equal relevance – God calls us out if you like, because God knows us for who we really are. Scary stuff this God relationship. But  vocation is not about ordination, it’s about where we start with God, knowing in the secret places of our hearts that God is calling us, haunting us, following our moves and waiting for us to catch up with God. God is not lost that we should find God, it is God who seeks out us, calls to us by whatever name we know ourselves.

We begin our life with God when we recognise that God is looking for us, but it’s not only for  then. At every turn of life we are being sought by God to walk the day together, to change direction and keep to the same path, to wrestle and struggle or to stay peacefully, hopefully pressing on or resting a while to regather our strength.

We are called the children of God, the body of Christ but a far more wonderful name is  friend. To not only have Jesus as our friend but to think of ourselves as His friend, someone who walks and talks and shares conversation and silences with Him and others in the company. Some friends we share our lives with, others we meet only every so often. True friends are those we pick up the relationship with as soon as we meet as if there has been no time between. If this is a definition of a relationship how would you describe – what would you call – your relationship with God?

 

 

 

All the reflections on this page are the intellectual property and copyright of the author, Sheila Rosenthal 

Ascension Day

Do you think Jesus wore socks? It’s far from unusual for the Israel to have snow on the mountains and the Ascension Day events are recorded as having taken place near Bethany, just east of Jerusalem, or Galilee, depending on whether you’re reading from Luke-Acts or Matthew. Snow is not unknown so I wonder, in my absent-minded, cold-footed way, if, when they went up the mountain it was cold enough to want to wear socks.

Ascension Day is celebrated on a Thursday which is a great relief to most clergy as it means only the very faithful will turn up for the services. This further means that the awkwardness of explaining the events of suddenly being taken up into the clouds is more likely to go unchallenged. Crucifixion is a matter of record as is the Resurrection ( we have more first hand documentary evidence for the existence of Jesus than for Shakespeare)  but the Ascension is, speaking personally, the most mind-stretching, faith testing moment of the whole life of Christ. For me the credibility is restored by the events taking place on a mountain. Luke compiled recollections from eye-witnesses he tells us while Matthew’s gospel is traditionally attributed to the apostle. Luke is later than Matthew – possibly – so I’m taking Galilee as the place where these things happened and Matthew definitely mentions a mountain.

Having spent most of my life until my early 50s living in valleys or southern England, the nature of mountain weather was something that didn’t really impinge on me. Since then I have lived in Scotland and now Norway. Where I live can properly  be described as mountainous so the weather here informs and censures all activities. A dry sunny day can turn to snow in seconds –  and frequently does! You need to go out prepared or at very least alert to the weather and you do not go high up without checking weather reports even if the walk is only the 3 mile regular dog walk. Mists and low cloud can scupper the best of days with invisibility. The dogs are always on leads and they have GPS trackers on them – in case we get lost, let alone the dogs! It’s much easier to imagine a day out with Jesus turning into a ‘where d’e go?’ moment. I’m not suggesting that Jesus spent the last years of His life wandering around the hills of Judea looking for the footpath but I do wonder if He deliberately used the mountain  weather to take His leave of the disciples and then make His way home up the mountain. I can imagine the disciples getting lost and shouting for Jesus and Him telling them, through the mists, not to worry, to go back and continue what He had started. The two men in white that Luke speaks of tell them to go back, just as they told Mary not to be afraid.

You have to be honest and say the events here are a nightmare of inconsistency and certainly do not smack of a conspiracy or collusion to get the story straight and singular. It may add to the authenticity that there are ‘variations on a theme’ but it does bend the mind a bit. Of all the miracles this is, for me, the most eye-screwing one of all and any of them. Resurrection, no problem, Ascension -  give me a moment.

So up on the mountain side together and the mist comes down disturbing and disrupting the group, lost on the mountain they hear but do not see as Jesus the Son of God goes back to the Father. ‘Go back, get on with it. Wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit and it will all begin to fall into place. I’ll be with You, trust me.’

And that’s the knub of it, knowing and trusting. I know Christ is a reality as have many thousands of thousands before me. He is not a figment of an over-heated, delusional brain but a filament of light in my heart that engages my brain with challenge and integrity of purpose. I know Christ so what I do not understand I can take on trust, but, I can also use my intelligence to try and understand how it might have come about. For me the misty mountain works because I like to visualise events by pulling together the information available. When I ask ‘how does this scene work?’ the answer I get makes me look at mountains and what I know them to be like. Norway is not Judea but they both have ‘weather’ that challenges, as they are fond of saying here, ‘no such thing as bad weather, only bad kit’.  So I wonder, did Jesus wear socks under his sandals? Did His mum knit them for Him? Did the disciples pull their cloaks round them and pull up their hoods and then wonder ‘where’s He gone this time?’ You can imagine what Peter might have said had Jesus come straight out and said ‘I’m off now then’, another row, another rebuke and another mega-sulk (‘you know I love you…’). Too much wrangling  now at the end of it all, best just get off and let the Holy Spirit take it from here.

‘Go into all the world and make disciples of all peoples, and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ 

Whose head is on the coin?

Matthew 22.15-22 15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21 They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

 

This little exchange has more to the it than meets the eye but to unpack it and make it come alive, we need to know a few things first. English is a rich language and some  theology works and plays with  words.

 

The scene

Think of a time when you’ve been caught doing something you know you shouldn’t be doing. Remember how you felt, guilt, embarrassment, resentment maybe or trying to deflect the blame. Maybe if it was a teacher who challenged you and made you stand at the front of the class, you shuffled from foot to foot wishing the ground would open up and put you out of your misery.

For a sincere Jew, as the Pharisees thought themselves to be, to be in possession of Roman money was something they should not have been caught with. To have something that had a graven image on it of someone who claimed to be a god (Caesar) , was something they knew was against the first commandment. When Jesus asks ‘ Show me a coin’ there would have been a lot of red faces and shuffling of feet. If they had a coin their credentials as full-on respectable Jews were questionable and they knew it. But, for the discussion with Jesus to carry on, a coin had to be produced. So what do you do? Did they ask someone to lend them and hold the coin for them (they were not permitted to touch it) or did Jesus put them out of their misery and discomfort by asking Judas, the keeper of the disciples’ money, to bring a coin out of the purse? So imagine the scene, a group of angry self righteous men, trying to be clever, approach Jesus and He floors them with a simple request which is not simple at all. There must have been several awkward moments while the coin didn’t materialise and then did from whomsoever it was that finally came up with the necessary denarius. Imagine –  First Big Pharisee ‘I haven’t got a coin’ said with  haughty disdain. ‘Neither have I says Big Pharisee 2. They look about, find a newbie Pharisee and ask him ‘do you have a coin?’ ‘Might have, let me look…’ Or the other scenario is that they squabble and eventually Jesus says to Judas ‘Bring a coin here Judas, you’ll get it back’.

 

So they look at the coin from a safe distance, maybe Jesus walks round them, showing it them as they recoil from such a profane thing. What real Rabbi would hold a graven image? Who indeed? Jesus asks knowing that they know the answer because no one can escape the need for money. ‘Whose  head is on the coin?’ The quicker Pharisees might have got where they argument was going because in the question is a load of theology that they could not have been unaware of. Because,  for a Jew the mark of to whom they belonged was literally a part of them. Every male Jew was circumcised so every time he stood naked whether to go the toilet or to bathe or to have sex he saw to whom he belonged, circumcision was the mark of his Jewishness, telling him and anyone else able to see, that this man was of the tribe of Abraham, the nation called by God to be God’s people. When Jesus asks ‘Whose head…’ He’s implicitly making reference to who created what.  ‘Whose image in on the coin? asks Jesus and then he tells all who are listening to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.  The Jews are trapped by their own question, a tax is due to Caesar but a greater tax is due to God and they are doing their best to get out of paying God God’s due by wriggling and wrangling with the Law. And they know it, more shuffling of feet – and resentment and a growing  thirst for revenge.

 

The imagery

A coin is minted by the person who has the power to do so. Counterfeiting coins and forgery are counted as very serious crimes because they undermine the authority of the State and devalue the currency – making commerce and other financial transactions (e.g., saving or loans – and yes, Jews did do loans by finding loop holes in the Law, another parable for another time). When the Emperor had coins minted their value was assured by the State, by the head of the Emperor being stamped on the coin and by the obverse of the coin having other official marks on it, e.g. an eagle. Its value was in the known wealth and authority of the maker of the coin. When England had the gold standard what this meant was that the bearer /owner of a note which had the sovereign’s head on it could be paid, on presentation of the note/coin to the Bank of England the equivalent sum in actual gold. Some older people will remember the phrase on the bank notes when the Treasurer of the Bank promised to pay the bearer on demand the sum of… This is true of currencies other than Pound Sterling. This imagery has percolated into out theology, taking the concept that underpins Jesus teaching here and expanding the imagery into the sacraments and salvation.

 

 

 

 

 

Thus, there are key words at play here. Image, type, font, stamp, sacrament, and character.

Image, we are made, we know, in the image of God. God’s image is on us in our ability to create and kill, to dream and love and sacrifice and be generous with grace. ‘Image’ is not only about looks, another word we often use is ‘likeness’ or as Shakespeare says in Macbeth ‘kindness’ when Lady Macbeth describes her husband as being too full of the milk of human-kindness. You are too human she is saying to him, you need to be more super-natural, more wicked. We re-present (i.e., we remind, we are the physical presence here and now – play  with these words!) God, when others sees us they see a form, a thing in the shape of or the likeness/kind of God. Whose image is on the coin and to whom does the coin belong? Is it of genuine mintage or counterfeit, does it add to the value of the kingdom or devalue the name of God?

‘Type’ has several uses but essentially one meaning. In the Old Testament figures such as Moses and Abraham are called a type of Christ, that is they are like but not the one, they are humans who re-present the image of God (who is Christ when seen in earthly form – listen to how the words and concepts are resonating with each other). They are of the same mould but not of the same substance. Remember the Creed, ‘…of one substance with the Father…’ refers to Christ’s nature and essence. Moses and Abraham were humans of the substance of a human, Christ is of God’s nature/ substance.

The Royal Mint makes billions of coins every year - BBC News ‘Type’ is also the name given by the early printers to the letters produced by being made in metal (usually lead) being poured into a shape. This gave rise to the word ‘font’ which means a shape of a letter  but also to the place where Christians are baptised. A foundry is a place where metal is  poured into a shape and this, in respect of letters being made, gives rise to the word ‘font’ which we use to describe the different shapes of letters we use in printing.

J. Herbin – Wax Seal Stamp – Fleur de Lys – TudosA stamp is akin to a seal in that, once upon a time, a seal was something made in mirror image (think about that in terms of reflected glory and how selfies are always back to front)) and then an imprint of the image was made in wax or metal. A signet ring carries an image that can be set into wax and the recipient of the letter/message would recognise the message as coming from the owner of the seal. Thus it became a type of signature – hence signet ring, a sign-ring.  A seal is put on official and legal documents to show their authenticity.

By being baptised in a font (once made of lead in England but now more usually made of stone)  we become ‘stamped’ and sealed by the sign of the cross and shaped in baptism for Christ’s use. We are ‘types’ of Christ, we re-present Him as surely as a coin carries the value stamped on it by its maker. In a font, our character as a Christian is determined in that our character is made, albeit in nascent form. Remember! A character is a name for a personality or persona (think character in a play) but also for a letter as in ‘a b c d e f’  etc., etc.

A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. Baptism and Communion  are sacraments and, in the Roman Catholic Church, so are Confirmation Ordination and Marriage (as also are penance/confession and unction/anointing). Of these Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders are held to be imprint an abiding mark or character on the soul and therefore cannot be repeated. The benefit of baptism and eucharist cannot be undone, their effect is permanent no matter that we may renounce them we cannot revoke them. Equally the Church generally refuses to baptise twice except in very exceptional circumstances. For this reason the Roman Catholic church will not allow remarriage unless there are reasons to annul the marriage (i.e., declare void which means empty, not full of promise or value).

 

Whilst it is obvious that when asking the Pharisees ‘whose head is on the coin?’ He cannot have been referring to all this word play, yet the Christian heritage that we live within references these matters and enriches our understanding of what it is to be a coin of God’s minting, to be spent in God’s service. Recall too the different financial imagery that is scattered throughout the New Testament, redeemed, bought at a price. The theology these concepts give rise to are interwoven with our salvation – but now is not the time!

Denarius - Tiberius (PONTIF MAXIM; Lugdunum) - Roman Empire – NumistaSo, in their bodies the Jews bore the marks of to whom they belonged. Christ too bore the marks of to whom He belonged. The gift of the Father to the world was the Son. He is marked out by the signs of the cross, not the shape a priest gives at a service but the marks of crucifixion. Even after the resurrection He carried them. But the marks of the resurrection, what might they be?  What marks or characters or types of imagery would show the resurrection? We are now the Body of Christ and that needs a lot of thinking through as both image and reality and value. What marks do we carry, whose head is on the coin of our hearts and minds and lives? By whom were you made and to whom do you belong?

 

And what happened to the coin at the end of the scene? Maybe Jesus flips the coin, it lands on heads and he throws  it over to Judas, ‘put it in the purse Judas, along with the other 29…’

 

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