E116 – December 2006
Jesus in the Epistles
Sheep and Goats
A Prayer for the Idealist
Grief and Bereavement
Ever Learning: A Problem solved
The Angel in Gethsemane
A Family Concern
The Agenda of Genesis 1
Can we construct a Theodicy?
A Brief Encounter
Does God Have Favourites?
At the heart of the Christian faith is the threefold command to love God, our neighbour and ourself. In Mat 5:43-48, Jesus teaches his disciples that they need to learn to love not only their neighbour but also their enemies. He does so by pointing out how God behaves in this respect and says that we should do likewise. Now we often feel distant from God and unable to understand him, but frequently this is because we cherish unworthy conceptions of God and need to learn that he is not quite like what we may have thought him to be. Jesus is here challenging what he considers to be an unworthy conception of God and wants his disciples to adjust their ideas about Him. If God sends rain on both the upright and the unjust, and causes the sun to rise on bad and good alike then that should make us want to imitate Him in our human lives. The message would seem to be that if God in His love does not discriminate then neither should we. Love embraces both the lovely and the unlovely, the saint and the sinner, the good and the evil. We have to learn to love as our Father loves, without discrimination.
Here is Tom Wright’s comment on this passage:
The shocking thing about this passage in the Sermon on the Mount is that we are told to watch what our heavenly father is doing and then do the same ourselves. Here is the puzzle: Israel, the chosen people, are challenged to realize that God doesn’t have favourites! What sense can we make of that? If they are chosen, doesn’t that mean they are God’s favourites?
The answer to the puzzle is found earlier in the Sermon. Israel isn’t chosen in order to be God’s special people while the rest of the world remains in outer darkness. Israel is chosen to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. Israel is chosen so that, through Israel, God can bless all people. And now Jesus is calling Israel to be the light of the world at last. He is opening the way, carving a path through the jungle towards that vocation, urging his followers to come with him on the dangerous road.
And dangerous it is. Not only has Israel in Jesus’ day got many enemies, pagan nations who have overrun the land and made the people subject to harsh rules and taxes. There are just as many dangers within, as movements of national resistance spring up, fuelled by anger at the increasing injustice and wickedness. And, within that again, the divisions within Jewish society are becoming more marked, with a few becoming very rich and the majority being poor, some very poor. These were all pressing issues for the people listening to Jesus. How did his kingdom message apply to them? How can it then apply to us today? (Matthew for Everyone, Part 1, p. 50, SPCK 2002)
Well then, does God have favourites? We might get some help with this question by exploring some NT passages which, in the AV, speak of ‘respecting persons’ and at times of God being ‘no respecter of persons’. To respect someone is to look up to them, take them seriously, listen to them etc. However, in the NT, respecting persons does not have quite that meaning as we shall soon see.
Let’s begin in Acts 10 where a meeting between Peter and Cornelius is set to change life in the church forever. Peter has a vision in verses 9-16 which was to change his understanding of God and so change what he expected from would-be converts to the Christian faith. In v.15 he is told not to call anything impure that God has made clean. This had such an impact on him that he was prepared to go to the house of Cornelius against his previous understanding of the Law (v.28) and there confesses that he has learnt from God not to call any man impure or unclean. When Peter begins to speak to Cornelius and his family, relatives and friends, he says:
AV I perceive that God is no respecter of persons (v 34).
Other versions refer to favouritism as not being characteristic of God in his dealings with his human creatures; rather he is impartial, treating everyone on the same basis:
NIV I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.
NEB I now see how true it is that God has no favourites
GNB I now realize that it is true that God treats everyone on the same basis
Peter then has just had a forceful lesson in the need to adjust his understanding of God. He has been living for a long time with an unworthy conception of God and now openly recognizes that God shows no partiality.
In Acts 11 Peter reports back to the Jerusalem church and, in v.12, explains that the Spirit had told him to have no hesitation. (Why he might have hesitated is more than obvious.) They all then affirm in v.18 that for them too it has now become clear that God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life. Even the Gentiles!
Taken together, it seems to me that Acts 10 gives us the theoretical principle, ‘no favouritism’, and Acts 11 gives us what for Peter was the practical outcome, ‘God has granted even Gentiles repentance unto life.’
In Rom 2:9-11, Paul reaffirms Peter’s conclusion in respect of Jew and Gentile, that there is no respect of persons with God (AV). And once again the NIV chooses to use the word favouritism when it speaks of trouble for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favouritism.
In Eph 6:5-9, Paul applies the same principle to the case of slaves and masters saying: ‘The Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. Masters must do likewise with their slaves and not threaten them since he who is Master of both slave and free, [Jesus], is in heaven and there is no favouritism with him.’
The principle seems to be applied more widely still in Col 3:18 – 4:1 where reference is made to wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves and masters, all of whom have to reckon with knowing that ‘he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons (AV v.25)’. The NIV renders the verse: ‘Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favouritism.’
Chapter 2 in this letter bears the heading ‘Warning against prejudice’ in the GNB and ‘Favouritism Forbidden’ in the NIV. Verse 1 in the AV warns against having the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . with respect of persons, whereas the NIV warns against favouritism and the GNB asks us never to treat people in different ways according to their outward appearance.
Continuing in the NIV, at verse 8 we are told that if we really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, we will be doing right. But if we show favouritism, we sin and are convicted by the law as law-breakers. Verse 12 then encourages us to speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. And, by the way, don’t let’s forget that mercy triumphs over judgment!
1 Peter 1
Verses 13-21 in this chapter focus on holy living and stress that we have to learn to be holy as God is holy, for our own standards of holiness may not be those of God. In what way then is God holy? Verse 17 tells us that He judges every man’s work without respect of persons (AV) and the NIV says that He does so impartially and for that reason we should live our lives as strangers here in reverent fear – not cringing fear, but reverent fear.
Taken together, the passages we have looked at, all of which recommend that we should be wary of showing what the AV calls respect of persons and the NIV in particular calls favouritism, refer to relations between Jew and Gentile, master and slave, between the various members of a household or family and between members of the Church. All contain warnings about these relationships being susceptible to bias and prejudice, which will tend to sour the relationships and produce ill-feeling and hostility. It is easy for the privileged, those in charge, those who consider that God has chosen them, to yield to pride and boasting and being prejudiced against those they consider unworthy to share their privileges. Favouring those in the ’in’ group is likely to encourage jealousy in those who feel pushed out and demeaned.
Peter to some extent sums up what he sees as applying to all these situations when he reminds us all that God wants us to be holy because He is holy and wants us to be holy in the way that He is holy, which is without partiality, without showing favouritism. He says: ‘Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.’ In other words we are not to let our prejudices run away with us. We are often too much at home in our man-made cliques where it is easy to show partiality and so demean others. We need to live more as strangers, foreigners, seeing ourselves as outsiders in order to appreciate how our prejudices and partiality make others feel unwanted. Reverent fear, showing humility and respect to all those whose paths we cross, is what is called for.
Now let’s look at a passage, 3:26-29, which doesn’t refer explicitly to having respect of persons or showing favouritism, but nevertheless has an important input to this subject. Paul argues that we are all one in Christ, that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. If ‘not discriminating’ applies to Jew and Greek then surely it must also apply to slave and free, and to male and female.
The Christian Church had to come to terms quickly with the Jew/Gentile issue otherwise the early church would have split in two. Note Rom 10:12 where Paul reaffirms that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek: the same Lord is Lord of all, he says, and bestows riches upon all who call upon Him.
The slave/master issue took much longer. Thanks to William Wilberforce, and others, most Christians have come to terms with that too. Next year, 2007, is the bicentenary of the Wilberforce antislavery legislation. Shouldn’t we join in the celebrations and the continued work of trying to outlaw still existing forms of slavery?
The male/female issue has taken longer still and remains an ongoing battle in some churches. But aren’t Jesus, Peter, Paul and James all nudging us in the direction of ceasing all such forms of discrimination because God himself does not discriminate? I hope then that I may have said enough to convince you that as followers of Christ we must give up any us/them ways of thinking and behaving. We should accept and live out in our lives that God has no favourites and wants us to give up favouritism. Isn’t it now clear that to suggest that God has favourites is an unworthy conception of God?
If we do give it up, what are the implications for us? in our own church, in our families, in our locality etc.? What difference would it make in say Northern Ireland, Iraq, Israel/Palestine? What difference should it make to what we preach and to how we present God to others? Are there residual prejudices in our lives, in our beliefs and practices, that still need to be faced and dealt with in the light of our Master’s teaching?
It would seem to me that what we have been exploring was of vital importance to Jesus and the early Church and applied, not in any narrow sense, but widely, across all aspects of the life of the Church involving relations between one another and between God and all mankind. When I come to examine what is often said and written in our community about the present and future significance of the Jews and Israel, I find it very difficult not to conclude that we seem to be allowing discrimination and partiality, favouritism if you will, to show its ugly head again. To my mind this does not help Jews today to learn what Paul had to learn and hoped that other Jews and Jewish Christians would learn, that they are not as special to God as is sometimes maintained. God is not just the God of the Jews but of all mankind. Jesus is not just the Jewish Messiah but Lord of all. The Jews have no more claim on God than anyone else. If they had, then why the Holocaust?
In the NT I find little or no emphasis on the Jews, whether as individuals or as a nation, of the kind that would suggest that they are the key to the future, that the return of Jesus will be tied particularly to what happens to them and to Jerusalem, the land and the modern state of Israel. What I do find, is a clear warning from Paul that Gentiles should beware of making the mistake that was made by at least many Jews, to the effect that God would write off the Gentiles in favour of the Jews. Jesus refused to go down that road and Paul soon recognised the error of his ways in that respect. Gentiles must not show that same sort of bias, prejudice and partiality in relation to the Jews. Paul makes it clear that in his eyes God has not written off the Jews; it remains open for them to accept Jesus as Messiah and join the New Covenant People of God on equal terms with Gentiles. Within the church, they should not continue to claim priority and special nation status other than in the fact that historically, as Paul says in Rom 1:16, ‘ . . . the Gospel . . . is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.’ Follow through the references to Jew and Gentile in Romans and I believe it becomes clear that as Paul says in 10:12 ‘. . . there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, . . .’
There is virtually nothing said about the land, about Jerusalem, about unbelieving Jews, that would lead us to expect the sort of scenario that is generally envisaged by our community in the present/future ‘last days’. Of course, some would want to maintain that the OT makes up for the silence of the NT but to my mind this firmly puts the cart before the horse and fails to take into account the change of key involved in the NT teaching of Jesus and the apostles. Where, for example, does Jesus or Paul encourage Jews to expect special blessings for themselves as though their ‘special nation status’ would continue to be part of God’s future? It seems to me that Jesus made it his business, following John the Baptist, to correct some common misconceptions that were generally held among the Jews about their God and what he might do for them. The evidence is writ large across the four Gospels.
As far as the argument about the OT making up for the silence of the NT is concerned, – and most of our so-called kingdom teaching is based solidly on the OT – no account seems to be taken of the fact that the OT itself says that the promises to the fathers about the land and other blessings were fulfilled, as was clearly argued by Ruth McHaffie in Timewatching (Vol 2 p. 120).
I would wish to argue that just as I am sure that we are all agreed that we should show no partiality in our dealings with one another, so we should not present a message about the future which is riddled with partiality. It seems to me that some effort needs to be put into re-examining first our own ideas on this and then adjusting our presentation of God and the future in the light of it.
In many and varied ways God spoke to our fathers
He spoke with his breath, ruach, pneuma, spirit, in creation, in signs and miracles, through prophets and kings, in fire and storm and ‘in a still, small voice!’ ‘But now He has spoken in a Son’, through whom He speaks in us and who promised to abide, to dwell in his people through the breath of his spirit.
Spirit is breath – the outward expression of the inner life force – the power to move, to create, to transform, yet infused with the character, the will, the disposition of its source. It was this breath of God which brooded over the waters at creation, inspired prophets, moved through and guided the history of Israel until its consummation in the birth of Jesus, the life force of God through Mary. Jesus’ whole life was so infused by this breath of God that death could not hold him, and so he rose, a spiritual body, no longer limited in space and time. From then the breath of God flowed out through him, imbued with his whole character and personality, through those who would receive him; and so the risen Lord is the spirit which is accessible and available to dwell in and through his people.
The spirit is the vehicle, the channel through which God communicates with the world now through Jesus who is for us the true paraclete, the comforter which is Jesus himself as he was and is and always will be. He speaks to us through the written word and also through nature, through other people, through problems and difficulties, circumstances and situations, through prayer and intercession and through the cries for help in a world of need, in the loneliness of a neighbour or the sickness of a friend.
As Paul shows, it is the power
to humble us ‘For it is God who works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure’ (Phil 2:13);
to unite us ‘By one spirit we are all baptised into one body’ (1 Cor 12:13),
‘to be built together for a habitation of God through the spirit’ (Eph 2:22);
to change us ‘from glory unto glory by the spirit of the Lord’ (2 Cor 3.18); and ‘to raise us up to heavenly places in Christ Jesus’ (Eph 2:6) ‘strengthened with might by his spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith’ (Eph 3:16).
Any reading of the Gospels will soon reveal the emphasis placed by the Lord Jesus upon the final day of human history, when ‘the Son of man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done’ (Mat 16:27, ESV). Matthew 25 records the very last parable that Jesus spoke, and in which he brings together and elaborates upon his earlier teaching on the subject of final judgement:
When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left (25:31-33).
Although this is sometimes called the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, it is, strictly speaking, not a parable at all. The imagery of sheep and goats is not sustained after verse 33. The Lord mentions them only to compare the division of humanity into two groups to the action of a shepherd dividing his animals. After the introduction to the story, it is clear that those whom the Judge addresses are humans, not sheep and goats. It is therefore, not a parable but a simile.
There is a grandeur, a majesty about the picture he describes. In v.31 it is the ‘Son of man’ who presides over this great assize of the Last Day. In verse 34, however, it is ‘the King’ who invites the righteous into the ‘kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world’. Jesus never referred to himself by that title throughout his earthly ministry, and was reluctant to accept it from others, perhaps because ‘king’ had political connotations which did not fit in with the character of his ministry. But now, in his prediction of the future, ‘the King’ is the most appropriate title for him who determines the eternal destiny of those before him.
There are a number of questions that must occur to us when we read this description. Before him stand ‘all the nations’. Does this mean the whole of humanity, every individual who has ever lived – even those who have never heard his Gospel? Or are they a limited group from among all nations, those who have heard his Gospel and are ‘responsible’? We can only speculate. We are told very clearly on what basis they will be judged:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me (v.35,36).
The depth of their compassion for the afflicted is the yardstick by which the Judge will assess those gathered before him. Moreover, the treatment they gave to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger and so on, was in effect, an action done to the Lord himself. Again, questions arise. Firstly, who are these victims of sickness, poverty and imprisonment and with whom the Lord identifies himself? In verse 40 he refers to them as ‘these my brothers’. If they represent his disciples or missionaries of his Gospel, then why commend the ‘sheep’ for actions done to them alone? Christ urged his disciples to love all men, to see all men as neighbours, and to show benevolence even to their enemies. Or are ‘these my brothers’ the wretched of the earth in general? And for those who are commended for acts of benevolence toward them, is this the only basis on which they are judged? Where are faith, repentance and baptism? A devout Buddhist or even a secular humanist with no belief in God can perform acts of charity toward their fellow men.
And so the questions multiply. I would suggest however, that we miss the central point of the parable when we start asking about who was doing good to whom. The parables and sayings of Jesus are like gemstones that reveal one segment of the spectrum at a time as they are held up to the light. Each parable conveys one small aspect of the truth. The parable of the Last Judgment does not tell us that faith and repentance are of no account. But it does tell us two very important aspects of the Christian life, and of our relationship to our Lord.
Firstly, we notice the surprise of those who were commended for their benevolence: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and take you in?’ It is instructive to compare their response with another saying about judgement in Matthew 7:21, in which Jesus describes men presenting themselves before his throne and reciting the good works they have performed: ‘On that day many will say to me, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ (Mat 7:20). The works these people claim to have performed are the same works which the Lord Jesus himself performed during his earthly ministry. Yet their Judge rejects their service as defective: ‘And then will I declare to them, I never knew you, depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’ (v.23). These people boasted about having excelled in the more spectacular and impressive aspects of religious endeavour. Yet there was not an atom of humility in their attitude. They had performed good works with no other motive than to win the admiration of men. It was all outward show.
What a contrast with those who are commended by the Lord in chapter 25. Here are people who had done nothing spectacular; no mighty works, no prophesying or casting out of demons. They had performed simple acts of kindness, reaching out to those in need, not because such actions were a grim duty or because it made them look good, but because compassion was ingrained in their nature. They were completely unselfconscious in their benevolence. Perhaps their works went unnoticed by those around them, but they were noticed by him who sits in heaven.
Secondly, and perhaps this was the main source of their surprise, Jesus identified himself with the hungry, the poor, the afflicted. This is a theme which is found elsewhere in the New Testament. In Matthew 10:42 Jesus tells his disciples: ‘Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward’. Again, questions could be asked of this saying, about the other qualifications required to gain a reward. But the point is that even the most basic act of charity is in effect done to him who identified himself with the poor, the needy and the humble: ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me’ (18:5).
There is another side to this, for the New Testament is equally insistent that the opposite is true; acts of cruelty and oppression committed against men are committed against the Lord. That was the first great truth that Saul of Tarsus learned when he was stopped in his tracks on the road to Damascus. The voice he heard did not introduce itself as ‘Jesus, whose disciples you are persecuting’, but as ‘Jesus, whom you are persecuting’ (Acts 9:5). The Risen Lord thus identified himself with his people in their suffering. During his earthly ministry, Jesus himself must often have experienced hunger and thirst. He often relied on the generosity and good will of ordinary people. He was sent to prison before he was taken out to suffer the cruel death of a criminal. He knew first hand, the callousness and cruelty of which human nature is capable. And his words tell us that he still identifies himself with those who suffer.
In Matthew 25:41, the goats had to learn that the Risen Lord himself was the object of their callous indifference to suffering. As such they were a mirror image of the sheep: ‘Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’. And the reason for their condemnation was not because they had inflicted suffering, but because they had done nothing to alleviate it when they had the opportunity to do so. Compassion was simply not part of their nature. ‘As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did it not to me’ (v.45).
This parable, as with many others, describes a future which already has an application in the present. We decide even now, by how we live our lives and how we relate to our fellow men whether we are sheep or goats. Our whole lives are already subject to the scrutiny of him who sits on the throne of judgment. The lake of fire, ‘prepared for the devil and his angels’, is in one sense a symbol of eternal annihilation, in another sense it is, like all the visions of hellfire in the Gospels, a picture of the kind of life we make for ourselves now, when we turn our backs on the love of God and fill our hearts not with love for others, but love of self and indifference to the suffering of others.
There is an obvious exhortation from this parable. And that is to try harder to show compassion, to force ourselves to help others, to strain every nerve to become like the sheep at the Lord’s right hand. But it goes without saying that if we draw that lesson from it then we miss the point. The sheep were taken by surprise when the Lord commended them for their good works. In contrast, it was the people described at the end of the Sermon on the Mount who tried too hard to make themselves worthy of his commendation.
Rather, we become better people when we forget ourselves, when we empty our hearts of any preoccupation with our own righteousness. We do not need to force ourselves to be something we are not. On the other hand, if we truly follow Christ, if we constantly allow our hearts to dwell on his example, if we love him for all that he has done for us, then we will grow like him, and become the channels through which his love flows so that his compassion and kindness for others will become an integral part of our nature. And then, on his return, he will see in us a reflection of himself and will speak to us those words of welcome and consolation: ‘Come you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’.
Everyone is different and finds different ways to talk to the Lord. If you are a scatterbrain such as myself, you may sometimes find it difficult to concentrate if you are trying to pray. The following anonymous prayer illustrates just what I mean.
A Prayer for the Idealist
Lord help me
not to be
Did I spell that correctly?
help me to do
only what I can
and trust you for the rest.
Do you mind putting that in writing?
help me keep
my mind on
on one th-
Look! A bird!
at a time.
help me to
Fortunately, especially for beginners at prayer, Jesus has left us the perfect model, which can suit everyone if it is repeated slowly and given some thought as it goes along.
Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our faults as we forgive the faults of others. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
In March 1993 Christine and Alan Witcutt drove in a relief convoy, organised by Edinburgh Direct Aid, to deliver food and medicine to victims of the war in the former Yugoslavia. The suffering and need moved them to return there at the end of June. After delivering more aid, Christine was tragically shot and killed by a sniper while leaving Sarajevo.
When Alan was interviewed by press and television reporters on his return to Britain after Christine’s death, he nobly and bravely said:
‘I believe I can forgive my wife’s killer.
I believe my religious convictions will overcome my feelings.’
He has continued to work positively with Edinburgh Direct Aid, helping in the return of refugees and in the rebuilding of their homes. In 2001 The Christine Witcutt Centre, for children with special needs, was established in Sarajevo. This is the positive outcome to the tragedy of Christine’s death, but it comes at great personal cost.
Alan has several times been invited to speak on the subject of grief and how he has coped, and this article reproduces the basic text of his talks.
I would like to explore with you the effects of bereavement that lead to the numbing emotion of grief and devastating loss. It may be that some of you have been fortunate enough to have been spared having to cope with this very personal kind of sadness in your life. If so, anyone who has not experienced this form of grief through losing a loved one will be unable to offer the balm of personal sympathy in any depth to others, for the grief of bereavement is totally personal, as I have learned from bitter experience.
You may be one of the fortunate ones for whom life is good, fairly enjoyable, despite its ups and downs, and worth living. But none of us knows when happiness will give way to numbing grief, contentment to emptiness or to bewildering, shocking dismay. Grief is one of life and death’s great mysteries. Despite the time, money and effort expended in a search for answers to soften the blow, we seem unable to find any solutions that could help us cope.
Bereavement takes various forms. Death of parents can leave us sad. It helps a little if they have enjoyed full lives into old age and we are not taken by surprise at their passing. It is when death is premature that it can be devastating. The loss of children is a particularly devastating emotion to bear for parents, grandparents and to a slightly lesser degree, close friends, including their childhood friends, who are thrust into this bereavement for the first time when it can be very difficult to handle. Some form of counselling may be necessary.
The tragedy of Dunblane affected the whole nation and our grief was mixed with much helpless anger for the perpetration of such evil against innocent children, their teacher and their families and friends. In the depths of such grief we might ask ‘Why has God done this to me? What have I done to deserve this loss? Why doesn’t God do something about it?’
It is not God who has done this to us. It came about as a result of our earthly condition. True, God permitted it to happen but He did not cause it. The saints of the Bible and elsewhere could tell us that sorrow and grief are sometimes the only thing that can shape us into the wonderful person that God intended us to be.
My own experience and introduction to numbing grief was brutal and violent in the extreme. It came suddenly after my wife and I had been working in war-torn Bosnia travelling back and forth for months delivering aid to the victims of that dreadful genocide. We witnessed much suffering and bereavement personally and were deeply affected. In an instant, I was also numbered among the victims coping with grief.
From the moment my wife, Christine, was killed by a sniper’s bullet in the streets of Sarajevo, my world of normality was permanently destroyed. I realised immediately that life would never be the same again as long as I lived. The pain and suffering has been of an intensity that I never thought possible. I would wish it on no one, yet millions are suffering it, including the many victims of war. It has given me the ability to sympathise with others in a way I had never been able to do before, especially with those who, like myself, have lost a loved one, in the case of my wife, in a shockingly violent manner, in my presence.
Married couples often discuss the possibility of premature death, as we did, leaving the other to cope alone. In our case, working in Bosnia, it was a constantly recurring theme, being involved in so many life-threatening and frightening situations. I have been fortunate having a Christian faith, which helped, although it was some time before its influence began to help me. The knowledge that, if Christine was to lose her life, this was one way that she was prepared to risk losing it, helping others who were in desperate need, and doing unto others as she would have liked done for her. She was prepared to face dangers, and refused to walk on the other side to avoid injury or death. Even in my grief, keeping involved in Bosnia, by helping the people there in their desperate need, gave me the strength to cope during that initial period of shock and grief. This gave me a goal to pursue and continue in keeping my wife’s memory and achievements alive. My religion would not allow me to quit. It would have been a grievous insult to her memory and what she believed in. I have been tearful often, angry often, having been repaid for our caring efforts to help, by being shot at. This has raised other Biblical issues: ‘How do you forgive?’ But that is another subject. I have thought long and hard about it and the commands of Christ regarding this very difficult subject.
We all have faith in varying degrees, and strengths. We, of the Christian faith, try to be strong and let it rule our lives. We try to appreciate that our Heavenly Father loves us with a love that we cannot even imagine. If we can have a priceless gift that can heal us, then we try to believe that He won’t let anything happen to each of us that is not for our own good. Sometimes He can even bring good out of evil acts. When grief afflicts non-believers it sometimes can make things even more difficult for them.
Suffering can be so numbing that for a period of a month or two, I did not care if I lived or died. I found myself identifying with Job, when he said in his afflictions, ‘Let me alone, my days have no meaning.’ It would have been easy to cast aside and abandon my beliefs, and to curse God, as Job’s friends urged him to do, when God tested him during a difficult period of his life. My second option, which seemed an impossibility at the time, considering my state of mind, was to keep going, and not let self-pity conquer, keep working to relieve the plight of others who were suffering as I was, and even more so.
As I think of it now, I would never claim that, if I can cope, then so can you. We are all different in our nature and make-up. I have discussed this problem of suffering bereavement with others similarly afflicted, and a common factor emerges. It is like an amputation that never heals.
When talking about grief, I had often heard it said that ‘Time is a great healer.’ Having not experienced a numbing bereavement, I had no reason to disagree with that statement. Now, I am not sure. How long is that time? For me, the clock of time stopped when the sniper’s bullet struck and killed my wife. Talking to others in similar circumstances, who have lost sons, daughters, husbands and wives, indicates that, for many, the pain is still as acute many years after, as mine is. One lady, whose aid-worker son was killed in Bosnia three months after my wife, wrote to me. Her second letter opened with words that stayed with me. They echoed exactly my feelings. ‘Dear Alan,’ she wrote, ‘It doesn’t get any better, does it?’
How different from some other hurtful statements, ‘Things could be worse.’ Could they? By no stretch of the imagination, could I accept that comment. ‘Other people have it worse than you.’ How do they know? And should it make me feel better to know others hurt more than I do? ‘Just think of the wonderful memories you have.’ Memories only make it worse for me. Past joys only magnify my present pain. Another remark I find puzzling: ‘Are you getting back to normal?’ As though I could return to any semblance of the life that I enjoyed with my wife and partner of 27 years!
Some of the greatest humanitarian services have been accomplished through stormy experiences of life. If we can hold fast to our faith and trust God, then times of suffering can deepen our faith and draw us closer to our Lord Jesus. No matter what our human nature may say, God is worthy of our worship and service. His purposes are often hidden from us. We owe Him complete love and trust, but we often find it impossible to give when we are in the depths of despair through grief.
Can suffering be one of the tools God uses to develop a mature use of freedom? Puppets and robots don’t suffer. Humans, in God’s image, do. We are free to submit or to rebel. How we respond will determine if suffering will tear us down or build us up. If I give up, suffering becomes my master, and my freedom is lost. If I can trust in God, suffering becomes my servant, and I will grow in strength and freedom.
But failure is always near. Just when I think that I have won, new problems arise. If we can remember our faith in Christ, we can have access to and peace with God, and hope for the future. If we can remember what God did for us while we were sinners, think what He will do for us as His children. It was encouraging to see that after the London terrorist bombings of 2005, several families responded in their grief by establishing charitable foundations in memory of the loved one they lost. Their response to evil has been, not evil for evil, as was the plan of the bombers. They have sought to overcome evil by good.
While preparing this article about suffering, I read a question that a crippled person once asked. ‘Why has God made me like this?’ She was given the reply: ‘God has not made you like this, He is making you.’ The craftsman is our Heavenly Father. We are His raw material. Suffering is a tool, character is the end product. Paul tells us in Romans 8:28, ‘We know that in everything, God works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.’
Suffering either involves us with others or isolates us. We will either build bridges or walls. The manner in which a person reacts to loss and grief depends somewhat on his or her basic temperament and depth of faith, or lack of it. Some, over time, will react more quickly and make a return to apparent adjustment and normality, and an ability to cope with everyday living. Sadly, some will never recover. I have seen people lost in self-pity, resentment, bitterness and self-inflicted loneliness. If no one can help to bring them out of it, they will be condemned to living a sad existence.
Others, who are mature, and are strengthened by their faith, would be encouraged because they are thinking of others and avoiding wallowing in self-pity. Help is available. There are things that can be done. First talk, then act. Talk to someone, your doctor or others who also have been through similar situations. Don’t feel guilty about grief. It is a natural consequence of bereavement. We mustn’t feel that we are unique, and that no one else suffers these emotions, or that there is something wrong with us.
Helen Keller, the blind/deaf lady, wrote: ‘We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in all the world.’ We must pray for strength, not only to cope with our own grief, but also to do our part in bringing the bereaved back to a good and productive worthwhile lifestyle. If we can succeed in helping others to cope with this devastating emotion of grief, we will have achieved a valuable service for them, enabling them to survive and gain peace of mind.
We asked, at the beginning, ‘Why doesn’t God DO something about it?’ Surely, in Christian understanding and doctrine, He has. He has opened for us the way to immortality in the New Age when all physical disabilities, pain, suffering and death will be gone forever.
‘Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable,
always abounding in the work of the Lord,
knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’
(1 Corinthians 15:58)
When this hit me, only very recently, it hit me hard. And I was so grateful! Yet for all I know I’m the only Christadelphian who has discovered the joyous facts of the case by means of a computer program. Many of you may well have been aware of it for years.
Let me explain. For many years I have been uneasy about certain parts of scripture dealing with the basis on which one’s eternal destiny will be – or perhaps has already been – decided. Throughout those years, I’ve tended to shelve the problem – file it away in an archive labelled ‘Bring forward some time’– and there it has stayed, gathering metaphoric dust on my hard drive. If you want a passage to identify the central object of my dilemma, it’s John 5:28, 29:
Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.
Now you might think I ought to have sorted this simple text out years ago; maybe I should have done. After all, I’ve used it enough times in lectures to support the resurrections of the saints etc. Recently, however, I was given time, when I was enforcedly idle, to bring it into sharp enough focus to see what the core of the problem was. Really, it’s so simple..… I am in BOTH CAMPS!
That’s what hit me hardest of all. I had to admit that once in a while, now and then, I surprise myself – and for all I know, everyone who knows me – by doing something that’s actually reasonably good. But my ‘feel-good factor’ lasts like butter in a frying pan, because it’s not long before Adam takes over and I’m being me again. I sometimes get the feeling, too, that I’m not alone in this respect. Is it possible that you too can recall times when you’ve felt that Jesus could well be excused for not quite knowing which resurrection you belong in? I mean, isn’t there some truth in the old saying, ‘There’s good in the worst of us and bad in the best’?
It was at this stage that I went to Romans 7 where even our beloved apostle was forced to cry out ‘O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ I saw him put down his stylus, unable to continue, until – maybe after a memorial service; I don’t know – back he comes, looks at the papyrus and says to himself, ‘Oh dear! Did I really write that?’ and, spiritually refreshed, quickly writes ‘I thank my God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ But surely, Paul was admitting, wasn’t he, that HE was in both camps, too? So how did he reconcile what had obviously hit him hard, too?
Maybe he was able to read John 5:28,29 for himself, and in Greek, too, for he would have known, as clearly as I have been able to discover, that not only does the passage pose the question – it answers it, too. One of my Bible Study programs has the facility to examine the NT in Greek, in a transliteration (word for word from Greek into English) and as a translation, in more flowing English. Here is verse 29 in the Greek, but using English characters, and also in an English transliteration:
kai ekporeusontai ; hoi ta agatha poieesantes eis anastasin
And shall come forth; they that good have done unto the resurrection of
zooees; hoi de ta faula praxantes eis anastasin kriseoos.
life; and they that evil have done unto the resurrection of damnation.
The above is what John either wrote or dictated and what he or his scribe expressed in Greek. The great surprise is that he used two different Greek words for ‘have done’, and the great joy comes from what each word means in English. The word used in connection with ‘good’ is poiesantes, defined by Strong as ‘have done occasionally’, in the sense of ‘now and then, when they could’. However, the word used in connection with ‘evil’ is not poiesantes but praxantes, defined by Strong as ‘have practised’, in the sense of ‘as their way of life’.
What a gulf of difference there is between the two! And how much more inspiring and comforting might the KJV have been had it not had to be translated into English via the Latin of the Romish clergy! There are numerous other examples of their legalistic tone overlaid upon joyful thoughts in a circuitous linguistic journey from Greek to Latin to English.
Not only does the direct Greek-English impart the uplifting emphasis which the writers intended to convey, but there is a far clearer picture painted of life in the 1st century ecclesias. And life in the 21st century ecclesias might well be influenced thereby to enjoy somewhat more the Word of Life.
Very few writers have given much thought to the terse statement that Luke makes in his account of the trial of Jesus in the garden called Gethsemane (the ‘oil press’ – how appropriate for the pressures on Jesus’ spirit at this time!): he just mentions in passing, as he records the desperate terror of Jesus in his prayers that dark night, that an angel from heaven strengthened him. Certainly, if we take the record simply as it is currently translated, this strengthener was successful in putting Jesus in command again – from then on his Father’s will was to prevail.
In this meditation we are, as my son John would say, ‘on holy ground’: this is really holy ground! We approach it, therefore, with great reverence and a little trepidation. We get – if I have seen this by the help of God – a glimpse into the very soul of Jesus, a place that must not only be really holy, but the holiest of all holies. I see the encounter in the garden as having its roots some way back in the ministry of Jesus.
We warm to the two sisters and their brother who, in the house at Bethany, provided our Lord with a sanctuary, time after time during his ministry. They didn’t fully understand him, of course, but then, who did? Even as the end approached, only one of them did. In this meditation I am going to assume that the ‘Mary’ at Bethany was also the ‘Mary of Magdala’ or ‘Mary Magdalene’. I don’t find the two women, ‘Mary of Bethany’ and ‘Mary Magdalene’ written of as both being present at any one time in any episode in the gospels. Anything further on evidence for this linkage is for another time.
My attention was focussed on this final phase of Jesus’ life on earth by the words he spoke after being anointed with a costly, fragrant, spikenard perfume just a few days before his death. We all recall his robust defence of the woman when his disciples turned on her in contempt and self-righteous indignation. He laid it on pretty heavily: ‘Leave her alone!’ ‘She has done a beautiful thing to me!’ ‘She has done what she could!’ ‘Wherever in the whole world the gospel will be preached, people will remember this in praise of her!’ And finally, as a coup de grâce: ‘This perfume was intended to be kept until it could be used to prepare my body for burial!’
Prepare him for burial?! The disciples didn’t want to hear that. They were still playing politics as to which of them would be greatest in the kingdom Jesus would rule over, and were jostling and posturing to gain as high a place as possible. Yet here was Jesus, telling them that he had been thus anointed to prepare him for burial! Perfumes, especially when in oils and applied to hair as this was, hold their fragrance for up to several days – so Jesus was talking of ‘being buried’ only a few days later?! Even John, who in most other respects was, as the ‘beloved disciple,’ more in tune with his Master than most, did not yet understand.
Yet, clearly, Mary had understood. She understood that the world had to be made to recognise that any perfectly godly life would so shame the world around it that the only consequence could be the brutal snuffing out of that perfect life. In the light of this insight and, characteristically, seeking to ‘do what she could’ to be involved, she and Jesus had marked out that jar of perfume for her to pour it on him at what seemed like the last opportunity before he could be snatched from her by the arresting squad from Caiaphas. When and how did she come by this understanding? The answer, at least in part, must lie in the little domestic misunderstanding which occurred when Jesus called in at Bethany and Martha asked Jesus to tell Mary to help her get the food and room ready. Mary was ‘sitting at the feet of’ Jesus. This term, ‘sitting at the feet of’ was a technical one describing the relationship between teacher and student. Paul uses it to describe the way he learned the Law, ‘sitting at the feet of Gamaliel’. No wonder Jesus declined to ask Mary to go and help Martha! She was the only one who wanted to know the real purpose of Jesus’ ministry, what his repeated references to his impending death meant. She soaked up his explanations and recoiled in horror at the thought of what her beloved Lord was about to suffer and why. Was there anything she could do, she must have wondered. She seems not to have tried to deflect Jesus from his purpose, unlike Peter in the heights north of the Galil, but, was there anything she could do, something to help him through the horror of scourging and the torment of death by crucifixion? There, I believe, lies the background to the anointing of Jesus by Mary, during what was probably his last meal with all of them in Bethany. Then to Jerusalem and Gethsemane…
After the Last Supper in the ‘large upper room’ the party of men left, Judas having already gone to alert the authorities as to Jesus’ movements. I think it probable that in that upper room there was more than the one table mentioned in the gospel accounts, or that there were more than the twelve at the table with Jesus who are not mentioned. A room for a meal for just thirteen people doesn’t really qualify as a ‘large’ room. In the gospel records, it often appears that only Jesus and the twelve were present at the incidents reported; then a casual aside tells us of many more – most of them women – who played invaluable support roles. In any case, at the time of the Last Supper, Mary would have been close, as would many of the other women disciples. She would know that the men had left and know that Jesus was heading, irrevocably, to false trial and hideous death. That very night, his torment would begin, probably in no more than a couple of hours.
What would any woman do in those circumstances? A woman watching the man she loved and honoured going, with almost unbelievable bravery, to a felon’s death without having committed any wrong whatsoever – what could she do now? Was there anything she could possibly do, knowing what was coming? She would remember the hours alone with Jesus and how her admiration of him had grown as she came to understand something of his dedication and determination to do whatever was his Father’s will. With that admiration grew love. He had opened his mind to her and she opened her mind to him. As the enormity of his mission to save the world dawned on her and she contrasted the mighty battle this would entail with the gentle humility of the man who must win it, admiration grew into love. She had to be at his side, to support him whenever he was troubled – and to make up for the blindness of the self-serving disciples which otherwise made Jesus so lonely.
As the men left for Gethsemane, Mary just knew that Jesus needed her. As time passed, something told her that his disciples had failed to support him, again, that they slept as Jesus agonised in prayer. She knew how terrified he was of what was coming; he was one of us in feeling so frightened before such a dreadful battle. She must go to him.
She couldn’t have gone along with the twelve; it was not proper for a woman to go into the darkness of Gethsemane with a group of men. But she knew the place. She could slip unnoticed into the darkness and make her way to the garden. She could enter by the same way as Jesus and the disciples had, but very likely there were other ways into the grove of olives. She knew just where in the garden Jesus had been in the habit of leaving the main body of his disciples, where he left Peter, James and John, and she knew precisely where her Lord would pray by himself.
She stole into the garden and worked her way among the trees until she came within earshot of Jesus. She heard the desperate tone in his voice as he pleaded with his Father. Had he not done enough already? He had given up everything a man usually looks for in life: work, prestige, wife, a house and land – his life had been totally devoted to God. And, after the years of his ministry, even his strength was almost spent. He had, years ago, been given full authority to forgive sins – wasn’t all that enough?
All that had passed between them flooded back to her as she heard him. She came up quietly and put her hand in his. Gently and quietly she comforted and encouraged him. ‘Do you remember what you told me when I asked what our Father said when you asked him about what you had to do? He was very gentle and said that, sadly, many of his children had already died deaths at least as hideous as the one awaiting you, son, and many more will go that way yet.’ Perhaps she also put an arm round him at this point: ‘Jesus, you can’t let them down! You must go through that dark valley to show us all that the way through it is passable! And to show us the glorious life beyond!’ ‘Besides’, perhaps she added, ‘how would you be able to say that you have shared the whole of human experience if you haven’t been through what so many of our people have already endured?’ Perhaps she even expressed an appeal to his heart: ‘Jesus, I need you! How else could you save me! I anointed you for this! You stood up for me! You’ll be able to remember me and my love for you in the perfume of the spikenard even till your death.’
However she phrased her grief and love, her support in his hour of need, that’s what I think is concealed in that simple sentence: ‘A messenger from heaven strengthened him.’ Mary! From heaven?! She was every bit as much ‘from heaven’ as was John the Baptist, of whom John the Apostle wrote that he was ‘sent from God’. Were her words from heaven, too? Surely, the God who gave words to Balaam’s ass and to that brute, Caiaphas, would also give words to the one soul on earth who had troubled to find out properly what he had sent his Son to accomplish, and how, to the one heart which had reached out to support his Son in his times of need. If ever there were a time of desperate need, Gethsemane provided it. And God sent that beloved soul, as his ‘messenger from heaven’, to strengthen Jesus just one more time.
But even such a heart was broken as she still ‘did what she could’, keeping vigil by his cross. The sight was dreadful. The soldiers had had a few bones to pick with Jesus. They had been sent to quell uproars around him time and again and every time he came into Judea their leave was cancelled. They had used their scourge to make him pay for it. His flesh was in ribbons and he was covered in blood. On the way to Golgotha, his arms tied to the crossbar of the cross, he had fallen and, unable to move his head, had broken his nose; his beard was black with clotted blood. And when, finally, to ensure that he really was dead, the soldier drove his pilum into the side of Jesus, right up into his chest, the bright pink fluid, so characteristic of those who had died in extreme respiratory distress, flooded out. Mary could think only of these dreadful pictures that tormented her mind and deadened her heart night and day. Any thought of resurrection was swamped by sorrow.
She is, therefore, hardly to be criticised when, on that resurrection day, she could only think of making that body as ready and dignified as possible for its residence in the tomb. It is hardly to be wondered at that in her grief, floods of tears blinding her, that she didn’t recognise him when he first spoke to her. It was a beautiful touch by our Lord when, again, he came to her when she was alone, where no mortal eye could dampen her expressions of joy at his victory – for he was alive! – and the Saviour of the world had come first to her!
(I am indebted to Sister Margery McGregor for pointing out that, whether or not the above depicts what actually happened in Gethsemane, the picture is a powerful illustration of the meaning of agape, Christian love.)
(The following notes have been culled from websites and a biography of Wilberforce.)
There may be readers who are not as yet aware that March 25, 2007, has been labelled Freedom Day. Plans have already been drawn up to celebrate on that day the bicentenary of the Anti-Slavery Legislation so dear to the heart of William Wilberforce. March 25 is a Sunday and so anyone speaking on that day has a ready-made theme if they care to take it up.
Wilberforce was born on Aug 24, 1759, at 27 High Street, Hull, and died on Monday July 29, 1833, not quite 74 years old. After the death of his father Robert in 1768, he was sent to stay with an uncle and aunt in London. The aunt was a fervent follower of George Whitfield, Wesley’s companion, and William became a devout Methodist. This did not please his paternal grandfather, also called William, who made his grandson return to Yorkshire to finish his schooling. He was therefore rescued from Methodism before, at the age of 17, he went to St John’s Cambridge in 1776. He then became a Parliamentarian at 21, in 1780, as Member for Hull and 1784 saw him elected as Member for Yorkshire.
Towards the end of 1784, William accompanied his mother and sister on a trip to France and invited a close friend, Isaac Milner, to join him. This was to be a life-changing journey for William. Just before returning to England in Feb 1785, he borrowed a copy of Philip Dodderidge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul which he and his friend Isaac studied avidly. It all led to William questioning his own lifestyle and he became obsessed with his past failings and with the need to serve his Maker .
Contact with John Newton (author of Amazing Grace) in London and then at Olney in Bucks confirmed him in his new-found Christian faith. It was Newton who persuaded Wilberforce to continue his political life and to seek to use it to do good. He left Methodism behind and aligned himself with the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church that had been influenced by the Wesleys. His two great passions in life became the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners in general. In all of this he never allied himself to any political faction.
March 25, 2007 will be the bicentenary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in British ships. Wilberforce retired from Parliament eight years before his death but was still alive when, on Friday July 26, 1833, the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery in the colonies was approved by the Commons and its passing into law was assured. He died just three days later.
A film entitled Amazing Grace is being made by Walden Media to tell of William Wilberforce’s bitter struggle to end slavery. The Premiere is to be held at The Clapham Holy Trinity church, the spiritual home of the Clapham Sect, the group of influential evangelical Anglicans who helped Wilberforce to promote the Bill from 1787 until it was finally passed in 1807. Slavery in the colonies was not abolished until 1833 as noted above
Events leading up to Freedom Day have already taken place. On September 26, the City of Hull, where Wilberforce was born, started a countdown of 200 days to March 25, shown on a big screen in Queen Victoria Square. On Thursday, October 19, the city hosted a concert at which the bass-baritone Sir Willard White was the principal guest. A further three concerts have already been organised. Earlier in the year, Nobel Prize winner, internationally respected cleric and human rights campaigner Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu became Patron of the newly opened Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, WISE, located in a listed Victorian building in the historic Old Town in Hull’s city centre. It is next to Wilberforce House, Wilberforce’s birthplace, and itself the subject of a forthcoming World Heritage Site application.
It needs to be understood that the intention of this bicentenary is not just to celebrate a historical occasion but also to draw inspiration from the champions of the past for the challenge of the future, as the fight to free modern men, women and children from the bondage of trafficking continues.
The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights says, ‘The word ‘slavery’ today covers a variety of human rights violations. In addition to traditional slavery and the slave trade, these abuses include the sale of children, child prostitution, child pornography, the exploitation of child labour, the sexual mutilation of female children, the use of children in armed conflicts, debt bondage, the traffic in persons and in the sale of human organs, the exploitation of prostitution and certain practices under apartheid and colonial regimes.’ For example, on May 7 of this year, 28 people were arrested in Kent after a series of raids in brothels across the county. Seven suspected victims of sex trafficking were found. Two Britons were given police bail on human trafficking and prostitution charges, while five Thais and two Malaysians were served with extradition papers. Officers in Kent now believe that at least £1.5 million is spent each week in the county’s brothels, and that every year almost 1,500 women are brought into the UK and forced into prostitution.
Plans are underway to hold music festivals in London and New York on Freedom Day next year, but it is hoped that thousands of local churches and schools will run their own special days, showing that opposition to slavery has not wavered in the last 200 years, and that some are ready to fight for its abolition in all its forms. Further events in Hull include a conference on Slavery – Unfinished Business on May 16-19, 2007. A ‘reconciliation walk’, March of the Abolitionists, will take place from Hull to Westminster by a human chain in yokes. Many other events are being organised elsewhere.
The Methodist Church Women’s Network is publishing a book on the theme of Amazing Grace – words by John Newton, skipper of a slaving ship who experienced a spiritual change of heart, set to a traditional Scottish tune.
Baroness Caroline Cox and Dr John Marks have recently published their book Slavery: This Immoral Trade. Monarch £8.99.
The Society of Friends, the Quakers, trace the anti-slavery movement back to discussions between the Germantown Quakers in the US in 1688 and the censuring by British Quakers of the importation of slaves in 1727. This led to the formation of the Quaker anti-slavery committee which later transformed itself into the national movement inspired by the likes of Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp.
For more information, to sign the Stop the Traffik Declaration, or to download an action pack full of practical ideas visit:
www.hullcc.gov.uk ( See Wilberforce 2007)
Stop The Traffik has received the backing of other Christian groups including Tearfund, Christian Aid, World Vision, Spring Harvest and the Church of England. Celebrities are also backing the cause, including Richard Branson, Daniel Bedingfield, Anita Roddick and William Hague, who is writing a biography of Wilberforce.
Merodach-baladan, king of Babylon, is mentioned in one chapter of the Bible only, II Kings 20, where he is recorded as having sent envoys to Hezekiah with a present to congratulate him on his recovery from a serious illness. Hezekiah received them cordially and showed them his treasure and armoury. Isaiah, however, was unhappy with what happened and demanded to know what had been said, and on getting an evasive response he prophesied that all the wealth displayed and some of Hezekiah’ s sons would in due course be carted off to Babylon as booty.
II Chronicles 32:30-31 alludes briefly to this episode but adds nothing not in Kings. It mentions the king of Babylon, but gives no name.
Merodach-baladan is well known in Assyrian and Babylonian records, and the picture they present explains the diplomatic mission recorded in Kings, but not explained. This man, Marduk-apla-iddina, ‘Marduk [city god of Babylon] has given an heir,’ in Babylonian, came to power at a difficult time for Babylon. The problems go back to the end of the Second Millennium BC, c. 1100-900 BC, when, apparently as a result of climate change, a major migration of Arameans took place from the Syrian desert into Meso.potamia. For roughly these two centuries the whole area of Mesopotamia was disrupted and both Assyrians and Babylonians had the greatest difficulty in maintaining any semblance of government and power. By c. 900 the Arameans had begun to settle down and the Assyrians recovered quite quickly. They occupied a very small homeland on the Tigris in the area of the modern Mosul, and being a military state soon established firm control of their own territory and then proceeded to expend militarily, first within the Tigris-Euphrates plain, then in areas to the West, towards the Mediterranean. Here they met Damascus, then Israel and Judah in the course of their empire building. This is how Judah under Hezekiah was invaded by Sennacherib.
The Babylonians recovered from the Aramean influx much more slowly. Their homeland was much larger than Assyria and more spread out, and they were not a military state. The Arameans spread through the whole area of Babylonia as far as the head of the Persian Gulf and for a couple of centuries the whole area contained two confronting groups: the long-established city dwelling Babylonians, living within the relative safety of their city walls, and the not yet firmly settled Arameans who often controlled the countryside between the cities. The situation can be illustrated from the kings of Babylon at this time. There were kings of Babylon in theory ruling the whole country, but from c. 950-800 BC their names are almost all we know of them: proof of their influence did not exist outside a very limited area around the city of Babylon itself. As the Arameans settled they organized themselves by their tribal groupings into self-governing groups, three in particular: the Bit-Yakin, the Bit-Amukani, and the Bit-Dakkuri. Gradually the city-dwelling Babylonians and the Arameans became reconciled to each other and the Arameans often held great power as the country became one nation, because they had learned how to organize their own protection while living a somewhat nomadic life outside the cities. About 770 BC, indeed, one Eriba-Marduk of the Bit-Yakin tribe was king of Babylon for an unknown period, and Merodach-baladan was his grandson. Both, significantly, bore Babylonian, not Aramaic names.
The problems confronting Merodach-baladan when he became king of Babylon in 722 BC were very considerable. The Assyrians were the great military power of the time, and while they treated Babylon with some respect for cultural reasons, they considered it within their sphere of influence. The Assyrian kings involved can be listed with secure dating, and are the following:
· Tiglath-pileser III (also called Pul): 744-727
· Shalmaneser V: 727-722
· Sargon II: 722-705
· Sennacherib: 705-681
Tiglath-pileser III became involved when Mukin-zeri, a chieftain of the Bit-Amukani tribe, imposed himself as king of Babylon. The Assyrian king campaigned successfully in Babylonia and the plight of Mukin-zeri became so obvious that the other Aramean tribal leaders, including Merodach-baladan, hastened to offer their submission to Tigleth-pileser, who, followed by his son Shalmaneser, himself assumed the kingship of Babylon. But when Shalmaneser died at the end of his short reign internal problems over the succession in Assyria resulted in lack of attention to the succession in Babylon. Sargon in fact followed Shalmaneser as king of Assyria, but he was apparently not in line of succession: contrary to otherwise universal custom, he does not record his father’s name in his royal inscriptions. It appears that Assyria’s enemies knew of these problems and they seized the opportunity. The Elamites, from south-west Iran, invaded in 720 what was long considered Assyrian territory, and Sargon had to respond. He claims victory, but a Babylonian chronicle states that he was defeated. Merodach-baladan was also involved, having apparently got himself accepted as de facto king of Babylon. He marched out to help the Elamites, but arrived when the battle was over! This episode reveals the two traits of Merodach-baladan which always recur. First, he was an able diplomat: he had persuaded the Elamites to join his cause, though they had not been threatened by Assyria previously. Secondly, his potential as a military leader was in doubt. In diplomatic terms Merodach-baladan was entirely correct. Assyrian armies were so well organized and powerful that no other state at the time could hope to beat them regularly. But alliances and organized revolts of more than one state together might succeed. In this case Merodach-baladan’s involvement of the Elamites had worked, and for a decade Sargon left Babylonia alone and Merodach-baladan ruled it as king, apparently to the satisfaction of its people. But in 710 BC Sargon marched into Babylonia to suppress this prolonged rebellion, defeated such resistance as Merodach-baladan was able to muster, and then made himself king of Babylon, an office he mostly performed in his absence, and until his death in fact.
The succession in Assyria went smoothly this time, to Sargon’s son, Sennacherib, who nominally became king of Babylon in 705. But the Babylonians and Merodach-ba1adan had other ideas, and a certain Marduk-zakir-shumi somehow became king of Babylon in 703, but only for one month, when Merodach-baladan turned up from somewhere and became king, but only for nine months!
This time the Assyrians reacted with speed, and, knowing what was going to happen, Merodach-baladan called up troops from every possible Babylonian tribe and town, also Elamites (whether as allies or hired mercenaries we do not know), and met Sennacnerib’s men on the battlefield. Probably this Babylonian army had never been trained as a unit or fought together previously, but whatever the explanation, it was resoundingly defeated by the Assyrians, and Merodach-baladan had to flee for his life. For a few years he tried to rustle up support for his cause in the far south of Babylonia, but even this became too dangerous a life, so in 700 he crossed some part of the Persian Gulf and settled on the Elamite coast, after which nothing more is known of him. No doubt he died or was murdered there.
Seen against this background II Kings 20:12-13 has one simple explanation, and one problematical issue. The latter is of chronology. In Kings the episode follows on the record of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah (chs. 13-19). This took place in Sennacherib’s third campaign, which took place either in 702 or 701, in either case before Merodach-baladan quit Babylonia in 700. However, the various narratives in Kings do not have to be in chronological order, and it is possible that the mission to Hezekiah took place during the 9-year rule under the earlier part of Sargon’s kingship of Assyria. The simple explanation offered is the now obvious motivation of the mission, and the implications of the record. The congratulations on recovery from illness were merely a foil to cover the real purpose: to persuade Hezekiah to take part in a revolt against Assyria. The character of Merodach-ba1adan was of course no secret: Isaiah would have known of his diplomatic skills and would easily have guessed the truth. Thus his first question was ‘What did these men say?’ and only the second: ‘Where did they come from?’ Hezekiah’s answer ignored the first, and answered the second only generally: ‘They came from a distant country.’ Grasping the devious answer, Isaiah immediately gave his prophecy that before long all the treasures shown to the visitors and some of Hezekiah’s sons would be taken as booty to Babylon. Hezekiah had trusted in human diplomacy, not in God.
Apologies to Wilfred for the error on p.42 of E115 where, on the bottom line, the word ‘poor’ should have been ‘good’!
No hawkers, no circulars, read the notice on the gate. Deciding that I was neither a hawker nor a circular I went up the garden path. But, no, the lady opening the door would not like to make a contribution to Oxfam. Back down the path, resisting the temptation to add a sticker on the gate, ‘Oxfam is a family concern. Share in it.’, I tried next door. There I was greeted by a charming young man, wrapped only in a bath towel. Undaunted by his damp and chilly condition he retreated briefly, returning to add his bit of weight to my plastic ‘tin’.
Going from door to door asking for donations during Christian Aid and Oxfam weeks is not the most entertaining nor pleasurable way of spending an afternoon. The uncertainty as to one’s reception, when, after many an odd noise, the doors are cautiously opened, is disconcerting. But the misery of deprivation in the Third World stands as a challenge. And, as I shiver in Edinburgh’s keen wind, the coldness brings to mind the misery of those in other countries who, less well equipped, inadequately clothed and fed, have to face far harsher elements.
Usually householders give a kindly reception, and donations are gladly made. Some who refuse are themselves having genuine difficulty in coping with their meagre resources. Some others are blunt and rebuffing with their refusals. How to reply to these I am never sure. No doubt they have their reasons for not wishing to help, and maybe I should ask what they are. Perhaps I should try to explain more about my mission. To say, ‘Thank you’ is inappropriate, and merely to say ‘Oh’ seems inadequate. At least I am now convinced that I should not feel personally rejected but that I should feel rejected on behalf of those who cannot ask help for themselves.
Apart from the purpose of the collection, the work is not altogether dull nor without interest. At the quieter doors, where there is no large dog eager to meet or eat me, no small child delighted to receive a sticker (blissfully unaware of his good fortune to be born in the affluent part of the world), then, while the household purse is found, I study the entrance and garden.
There is the variety of home decoration, the exotic colour scheme and the quality of workmanship. ‘Do-it-yourself’ is often evident. I note that, in spite of my husband’s criticism of my handling a paint brush, other amateur efforts are not necessarily better than mine and some are decidedly worse. That lovely run down the door is a rival to any of mine.
I observe that the occupiers of well furnished homes and well groomed gardens are not necessarily the most generous subscribers, and they sometimes refuse altogether. A frayed carpet and shabby furniture can be regarded as good signs, for the owner may well contribute one of those much coveted pound notes, or even a fiver. A lesson, perhaps, in having the right priorities.
With a gardener’s eye I regard the mass of weeds in the rose bed. But my feelings are mixed and not altogether disapproving. I remember the uninvited ground cover surrounding my own roses – and am glad that the inability to control the natural unruliness is not mine alone.
In one garden, a favourite but rather rare perennial thrived luxuriously. I paused to admire the vivid beauty of its flowering. The lady of the house assured me that many neighbours had been given roots but none had succeeded in establishing it. If only I could try! If only I dared to ask for just a tiny piece! After all, a fellow collector had been given a rose which she had admired. But, come, Madam, you are collecting for Oxfam, not for the herbaceous border.
How different one’s own locality looks from an unaccustomed angle! Sheltering from the rain in the new neighbouring flats, I glanced admiringly from a landing window at the flower bed beyond. Whose should it be but my own! – with distance lending enchantment to the view, and not a weed (in sight). Another lesson here? Do we become so familiar and even discontented with our own possessions that we fail to realise that we have it so good? While we groan about inflation and the cost of living, finding it difficult to maintain our houses, cars or what have you, perhaps we fail to realise how fortunate we are to have even so much as a roof over our heads?
One lady making a donation seemed to apologise for not giving more. ‘I go to Oxfam’, she said. Puzzled at first by her meaning, I afterwards presumed that she meant she frequented an Oxfam shop – perhaps to assist, perhaps to buy, perhaps to give. With Christmas coming near, that festive bonanza when we exchange with our friends cards, and gifts that we do not need and probably do not like, perhaps more of us could ‘go to Oxfam’: before Christmas to make our purchases, after Christmas to deposit our unwanted gifts.
Finally, the afternoon’s collecting is over, and it is home for tea. It will be scrambled egg – but who in the family minds? There is plenty and enough to satisfy our needs. For us, the ‘haves’, there is not only jam for tomorrow, but also jam for today. But for the ‘have-nots’ there is no jam at all.
Ruth McHaffie (Early 1980s.)
The first chapter of the Bible is still, and often, involved in controversial discussions, not to say arguments, that can sometimes become quite heated. Does it have to be this way? Is there any way forward that might at least take some of the heat out of such arguments and that would perhaps also suggest that some of the arguments are unproductive, if not pointless? It seems to me that trying to focus on the agenda of Genesis 1 may well provide us with such a way forward. I am by no means the first in this field, and certainly not the best, being greatly indebted to the authors listed in the Bibliography, but I would like to share some thoughts with readers which have been helpful to me.
Talk of agendas these days always raises the spectre of hidden agendas and some readers might want to spend some time trying to discover mine! However, the phrase ‘hidden agenda’ has at least one merit, that it suggests that some purpose lies behind what is being said, even if, for the time being, the author does not wish to explicitly reveal it.
It seems to me that it might be helpful to suppose that the author of Genesis 1 almost certainly had an agenda (See Bailey sections IV & V) that perhaps we have difficulty recognising or have lost sight of. Wenham says, for example: ‘Modern man makes assumptions about the world that are completely different from those of the second millennium BC. Consequently when we read Genesis, we tend to grab hold of points that were of quite peripheral interest to the author of Genesis and we overlook points that are fundamental. . . . My overriding goal, like that of most academic commentators, is thus to discover the original meaning of Genesis, what it meant to its final editor and its first readers.’ (p. xlv) Speaking of Gen 1-11 as a whole, he says: ‘Though Genesis shares many of the theological presuppositions of the ancient world, most of the stories in these chapters are best read as presenting an alternative world-view to those generally accepted in the ancient Near East. Gen 1-11 is a tract for the times, challenging ancient assumptions about the nature of God, the world and mankind.’ (p. xlv)
Tracts usually have a very clear agenda, but may also have a hidden agenda, depending on how safe the author feels about declaring the views being published. For that reason, tracts often do not bear the name of the author. It is part of Jewish tradition, which has passed into some Christian traditions, that Moses was the author of the whole of the Pentateuch, but this view has its problems. The simplest and most reasonable assumption we can make about Gen 1 is that the author was not God, but an Israelite inspired by God, (although nevertheless a human being with limited vision and understanding), and had a clear agenda which addressed queries, problems and issues concerning the lives of his contemporaries. In trying to discover what that agenda was, we can only start with the text itself and then compare our findings with other knowledge of life in the ancient Middle East.
Here are some facts about the Hebrew text of Gen 1, (see Wenham p. 6). Firstly, the word that occurs most frequently in this section (1:1 to 2:3) is God, and so, if it was needed, here is an indication that the subject matter concerns God, and the nature of the section is therefore theological (theology being the study of God) and not, in particular, scientific. Knight (on p.ix) says that since the chief topic is God, the writer by sheer necessity has to express himself in picture language.
The Hebrew for God is elohim and, although it is in plural form, Wilfred Lambert has shown, in his article in E 103, p. 41, that the correct translation is generally God, or gods in some instances. In particular, the verb ‘said’ in Gen 1:26 is in the singular and the verb ‘create’ in the next verse is also in the singular, giving no grounds for saying, for example, that Gen 1 teaches that the angels actually carried out the work of creation, as though it was beneath God to get His hands dirty. The subject is God, the one God worshipped by the Jews.
Furthermore this word God occurs 35 times in this section. Is this a coincidence? Does it just happen to be a multiple of seven? Well, as Wenham says on p. 6, ‘The number seven dominates this opening chapter in a strange way . . .’, and in some ways which would not be too clear to those of us reading Gen 1 in an English version. For example, the first verse of Gen 1 has 10 words in the AV, 8 in the GNB but 7 in the Hebrew. On its own this could just be a matter of coincidence. However, 1:2 has 14 words, making 21 in the first paragraph, 1:1-2, and chapter 2:1-3 has 35 words. As well as ‘God’ being there 35 times, ‘earth’ is there 21 times, ‘heaven/firmament’ 21 times, ‘and it was so’ 7 times, ‘God saw that it was good’ 7 times, ‘and God made’ 7 times. And of course there are the seven days, the whole section being built round the regular week of six working days and a day of rest.
To my mind, all of this cannot be sensibly explained by coincidence or the direct hand of God, but betrays behind the scenes a man with an agenda, a man with a message. Clearly the Jews are being called on to worship the one God and structure their lives round the seven-day week, setting aside one day in seven to leave work behind and meditate on the one God they worship. The whole chapter is intended to encourage continued loyalty to Sabbath observance when the surrounding nations had other priorities (See Bailey p. 96).
This would have been particularly appropriate when Israel was taken into captivity in Babylon, where they would have been tempted to follow other gods and rituals. Wenham, on p. xlix, notes that ‘. . . according to one Babylonian tradition, the seventh, fourteenth, nineteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-eighth days of each month were regarded as unlucky: Genesis however, declares the seventh day of every week to be holy, a day of rest consecrated to God (2:1-3).’ Some writers do suggest that Gen 1 may have reached its present form at about the time of the captivity in Babylon. It was a call to remain loyal to Jewish traditions in adverse circumstances, hence the marked emphasis on the number seven.
All this is no doubt behind the decision of the writer to present eight works of creation and ten divine commands, strangely perhaps, within a period of six working days followed by a day of rest. Seeing their God as following the Sabbath principle would more likely help Jews to remain faithful to it themselves.
There were some natural reasons that would encourage observance of a seven-day week. Firstly, observations of the heavens showed that there were seven objects visible to the naked eye that wandered about against the background of the fixed constellations of the stars. These were the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the seven ‘planets’ or wanderers. Equally the phases of the moon involved roughly 28 days, four times seven, the time from new moon to half-moon being 7 days to the nearest day.
There are some obvious natural reasons too that could account for the choice of six days in which to describe the creative works of God. Our own experience of the world, and particularly observations of it, say from a mountain top near a sea or large lake, make us aware of the earth, the sky and the sea, three arenas in which different forms of life abound. It is hardly surprising then, to find that the six days of Genesis 1 follow roughly that pattern, being a description of God bringing into being the world as our simple observations suggest it to be, three arenas then filled with various forms of life.
As well as stressing belief in one God and observation of the Sabbath, Gen I challenges the many false gods worshipped by the nations surrounding Israel. The sun, the moon and the stars were all worshipped as gods in the Middle East but in Genesis 1 they are simply creatures made by God. The stars in particular were thought to be in control of human destiny but there is no such suggestion here. Wenham (p.21) notes that the sun and moon are not given their usual Hebrew names in Gen 1:14-19 and suggests that this might be deliberate, because to have done so would have invited an identification with Shamash the sun god or Yarih the moon god. Contrasting with other neighbouring religions, Genesis assigns to sun, moon and stars relatively lowly roles in the lives of men, lighting the earth and ruling the day and night. Other creatures, some living, like the sea monsters of v.21 for example, were of course worshipped too, but uniformly Genesis simply refers to them as creatures of God.
Wenham notes that the creation of the sun, moon and stars is described at much greater length than anything else other than the creation of man, showing that they had special significance for him. We don’t have to look far for that. The lights were to be for signs, for fixed times (seasons AV), for days and for years. Knight (p.13) says that ‘. . . the word for ‘seasons’ has nothing to do with the climate or the weather. It is the word used for the religious festivals which God had by now given to Israel, and through which Israel was to serve God.’ Once again it becomes clear that the writer is focussing on religious belief and practice. This is all theology and there is no modern science agenda.
This is no doubt why it does not seem to be a problem to the author that there is light before the creation of the sun, moon and stars. He was not trying to answer the questions that we might have about the matter and we must therefore simply take what he says at face value and try to see what questions did really concern him. I would hope that by now some of what was likely to be part of his agenda is beginning to become more clear.
The agenda of the writer of Genesis 1 was to commend the worship of one God in contrast to polytheism and idolatry. It equally makes a clear distinction between God and creatures which would be at odds with pantheism, the belief that God is identifiable with the forces of nature and with natural substances. In contrast with Near Eastern mythology, which had men as the lackeys of the gods to keep them supplied with food, the God of Genesis makes man and woman in his own image and gives them responsibility for His creation. The chapter is far more concerned with countering atheism, polytheism and pantheism than with countering anything like evolution. It has nothing whatever to say about evolution and shouldn’t be used either to support or condemn evolution. That question was not under consideration when it was written.
The problem for us today is that, in the minds of many, atheism and evolution have to some degree become synonymous. The strident voices of certain evolutionists who are also atheists make it difficult to separate the two issues, but they are two separate issues. Sadly the matter is made worse by certain Christians arguing strongly for Creation as opposed to atheistic evolution and doing so by arguing that Genesis 1 gives a definitive answer to both problems. The (atheistic) evolutionists see through that and are confirmed in their atheism. The effort is often therefore counter-productive.
We certainly need to engage with atheists to try to encourage them to see something of God in this present evil world. Genesis 1, understood along the lines that I have been suggesting, may be of some help with that problem. It is an antidote to false faith but not a lesson in biological origins. Trying to persuade an atheistic evolutionist to abandon both his atheism and his commitment to evolution on the basis of the Gen 1 creation story is a non-starter. It was never written for that purpose and should not be used for that purpose. Neither Gen 1 nor the Bible as a whole can decide the issue and so perhaps it is best left alone.
That is not to say that we should not discuss or argue about evolution but not on the basis of the Bible and of Genesis 1 in particular. The jury is still out on many aspects of evolution, but there is no biblical reason to condemn anyone prepared to say that God might well have used evolutionary processes to bring the world to its present state and prepare to take it on into the future. There are many eminent scientists who are also Christians and who certainly believe that at the very least.
W. G. Lambert, Creation, 1998, Booklet currently out of print.
W. G. Lambert, Does Elohim mean ‘Mighty Ones’? End. 103 p.41.
Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary Genesis 1-15, Word Books ISBN 0-8499-0200-2 (vol.1).
George A. F. Knight, Theology in Pictures Genesis 1-11, R & R Clark, Edinburgh, 1981 ISBN 0 905312 06 6.
Lloyd R. Bailey Genesis, Creation and Creationism, Paulist Press, NY, 1993, ISBN 0-8091-3255-9 (pbk).
Keith Ward, What the Bible really teaches – A challenge for Fundamentalists, SPCK, 2004 ISBN 0-281-05680-3.
R. J. Berry, God & Evolution – Creation, Evolution and the Bible, Hodder & Stoughton 1988 ISBN 0 340 34249 8.
Most of us count amongst our friends sincere people, such as agnostics, who would dearly love to discover a satisfactory religion. However, such people are, understandably, frustrated in their search when they are faced by the following anomaly:
On the one hand, here is a God who (by definition) must be all powerful and yet, He was driven to sacrificing His own Son – evidently because anything less, would not penetrate the hardness of our hearts! This fact, surely, must ‘stop us in our tracks’! It brings home to me the appalling hardness of my heart on the one hand, and the ‘mind-blowing’ compassion shown to us by God, on the other hand! Here is a God of infinite compassion, a God who calls forth our gratitude!
On the other hand, there are two very disturbing facts which frustrate my attempts to construct a theodicy:
1. The Holocaust: How are we to deal with the fact that God stood aside when more than one million children of that nation, for whom He claimed to have an eternal love, perished? An all-powerful God could have prevented such an appalling disaster by merely ‘lifting his little finger’, as it were, to put those children out of reach of the Nazis.
2. God’s own words describing His actions:
a. Amos 3:6 ‘Is there evil (calamity) in a city and the LORD has not done it?’
b. Isa 45:7 ‘I make peace and create evil (calamity).’
c. Deut 32:24,25 ‘I will destroy…. the suckling also.’
d. 1 Sam 15:3 ‘Go and slay…. infant and suckling.’
e. Jer. 44:7,8 In punishing the adults of His people, God was also quite prepared to kill ‘child and suckling’!
Readers’ comments please! How can we help our agnostic friends?
Loosely based on Proverbs chapters 6 and 7.
Life does not change and the lessons still apply.
This story is entirely fictitious. It never happened, but it could have. The firm for whom I work occasionally send me off on short business trips to other parts of the U.K., to contact clients. My wife, Mary, was used to this and did not mind.
On this occasion I had visited a Midland town and had put up overnight at a decent hotel. At breakfast I noticed a beautiful young lady sitting at an adjacent table. She was stunningly beautiful, such as I had seldom seen in my entire life, and exceedingly attractive! Having finished my meal, I picked up my coffee and sauntered across to her table.
May I join you for a short time?’ (I had an hour to spare before my first business call.)
‘If you wish, you may’, she replied in cultured tones.
After a few desultory remarks about the weather I tentatively began, ‘You are a very attractive young lady, could we go out together somewhere this evening?’
She raised her eyebrows and with a half smile said, ‘I’m rather particular who I go out with – you might be a rapist in disguise.’
‘Oh no, no!’, I spluttered.
‘Well then, do you mind if I ask you a few questions? Are you married?’
‘Er, yes’, I admitted.
‘Yes, two, a boy and a girl.’
‘Do you love your wife and your children?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Why then do you want to go out with me? Are you hoping to get me into bed?’
‘Well, that thought may have occurred to me. You are very attractive and very beautiful.’
‘Well then, would you like a relationship with me or is it just a quick fling? You know, I take a pill, you a condom, we have our fling and trust that there will be no unfortunate consequences, like me getting pregnant. Has it struck you that I might not find that very satisfying? What if I wanted a proper relationship and demanded that you come and visit me and stay overnight once a week? Could you explain that to your wife, whatever her name is?’
‘Mary’, I mumbled.
‘You would have to concoct a story about a change of schedule in your firm’s operations. And then, after a while I might get more demanding and pester you to get a divorce and marry me, if you really love me, although I should hate to be the ‘other woman’ who is responsible for a marriage break-up! Think about it.’
By now the lady was in full flow. ‘I would be a very expensive wife to satisfy. I would need to visit a beauty salon every week. My beauty is my only asset and I would need to preserve it. Can you afford to support two households? There’s all this business of the Child Support Agency these days. All for the sake of a pill, a condom, and a romp, just a bit of fun. Don’t you think Sex is more important than that?’
I squirmed in my seat. My coffee had gone cold. The lady then looked at me again. ‘You’re quite good looking, about thirty, I guess?’
‘I’m almost’, I agreed.
‘Well’, she continued, ‘after about ten years, when you were getting bald and going grey, I might decide to divorce you while I was still beautiful. It is my only asset, you know, and I would then like to marry a millionaire, while the going was good! So my advice to you’, she concluded, ‘is do your work here today, then go home to Mary and give her a big hug.
I never did find out her name. At this juncture I hastily withdrew, breathing a sigh of relief. That night as I kissed my wife in bed, she was surprised and delighted by the ardour of our love-making.
As I counted my blessings, I thanked God for my escape. I was glad that I had encountered a lady who was not only beautiful, but wise – wise in the ways of men. She was a virtuous woman who gave me good advice when it might have all been so different. I might have been enticed by the ‘strange woman’ described in the book of Proverbs, and ensnared by her beauty to my own ruination.