St Andrews Indooroopilly 30 June 2019
Offered by The Rev’d Dr. Mervyn Thomas
Today’s Gospel is the beginning of what scholars refer to as the Lukan Travel narrative. As our reading starts:
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
It is a journey which, as we have seen before, doesn’t make much sense geographically, rather it is a literary device for the Evangelist to structure his material. It goes on until Chapter 19, and forms the largest single section of the Gospel of Luke.
It really doesn’t have a very successful beginning. The Samaritans won’t listen to Jesus, because He is going to Jerusalem, and there is an ancient enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans. That is a bigoted and intolerant response, which is matched by an escalating intolerance from the disciples:
Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?
In the context of this Gospel, and the community of the Evangelist, that is an entirely plausible response. You can see their minds working. These Samaritans have rejected Jesus. Therefore they are wicked. Therefore they should be destroyed. Therefore we should call down fire from heaven. If they’d had drones and napalm they’d have used them. It’s the sort of response we see from Donald Trump.
The Samaritans and the disciples are operating in exactly the same way. Both are insisting on their own righteousness, both reject the other.
But Jesus rebukes the disciples. It isn’t their job to punish unbelief; it isn’t our job to punish unbelief.
The disciples are not outraged because of an insult to the God’s chosen one; they are outraged because the Samaritans’ rejection of Jesus threatens the disciples’ own certainties, their own sense of self-importance as bearers of the truth. At its heart, all religious intolerance displays a deep insecurity. Intolerant people have a neurotic need for others to believe to reassure them that their faith is true. When that need is denied, then they react with angry rejection.
The Church does not have a good history over tolerance. But I think we are pretty good about it now. We haven’t sentenced anyone to death for heresy in a long time. The worst we can manage these days seems to be a bad tempered motion at Synod – and even those get watered down swiftly.
Of course there are still harsh judgemental diatribes, and for some reason they seem to centre on the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. There are three passages in the new testament which have been taken to address sexual orientation. Each of those makes reference to the word arsenokoitais. It is a word used nowhere else in scripture, and which appears in only one ancient source outside the scriptures,
where it refers to sexual relations between men and women. Many scholars believe that the word should be translated as paedophiles, not homosexuals. That indeed is the translation Luther adopted, and which still dominates German Protestant bibles.
So there are three New Testament verses about sexual orientation, all of disputed meaning. All three are from the epistles, none are the words of Jesus. In contrast, there are 34 verses about the destitute, all with undisputed meaning, and nearly all of them words spoken by Jesus. The overwhelming moral and ethical message of the New Testament is about our treatment of the poor and the vulnerable.
Why then, does the Australian Christian Lobby spend so much of its time talking about sexual orientation, and so little of its time talking about poverty? Why did the Anglican Sydney Diocese donate $1Million to the No campaign on same sex marriage? It they were following scriptural priorities they should have matched that with $11Million to fight poverty.
This issue has come into popular focus with the Instagram post by Israel Folau. You remember that he posted that Drunks, Homosexuals, liars and other ‘sinners’ will go to Hell. At this time, and in this place I do have the right to comment on the theological and scriptural underpinnings of that post. I non apologetically claim that it is based on a naive, uneducated and simplistic reading of scripture. I non-apologetically deny that any of us has the right to make statements about an other’s eternal fate. We read in the Letter of James, Chapter 4:
Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters.
… There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbour?
Folau’s post is not orthodox Christian teaching, and it is in no meaningful sense scriptural. And in terms of effective evangelism, it’s a joke in poor taste.
As you know, as a consequence of this post, Rugby Australia has sacked Folau, arguably one of the world’s best players. He has suffered a very significant loss of income, and following a failure to reach agreement with the Fair Work Commission the matter of compensation or reinstatement will be decided in the courts.
I have neither the competence, authority nor inclination to comment on the legal issues around this situation. What I find interesting is that some commentators, and by no means only Christian ones have sought to interpret this as persecution of Christians. I quote from an Article in the Weekend Australian by Dr Jennifer Oriel:
The battle between Australia’s sporting codes and Israel Folau looks increasingly like cashed-up bullies hunting a Christian. He has been tried in the court of public opinion and endured false accusations, smears and mobbing by sports chiefs. Colleagues have denounced him. Christian sportsmen who support Folau have been subjected to public humiliation by rabid trolls and the media. It’s back into the closet for Christians as PC persecution goes transnational.
I think this article is wrong. Folau’s treatment is not an act of anti Christian persecution, because there is nothing particularly
Christian in his views. It is interesting that Anthony Mundine has suggested that Folau has been persecuted – but because he is black. It seems to me that in the west we all interpret perceived persecution in terms of our individual grievances.
I also worry that labelling episodes like this as `anti-christian persecution’ trivialises the deep and appalling persecution of Christians in Theocratic regimes throughout the Middle East.
In general, I think that the best way of responding to an idiotic public pronouncement is to calmly and carefully expose the idiocy, rather than to abuse the idiot and call for their punishment. Like Oriel, I do get anxious about erosion of our freedom of expression. Speaking as a liberal, it seems to me that there are few things more illiberal than an outraged liberal.
On the other hand, sexual orientation is a fundamental part of our human identity. The best science seems to suggest that it is pretty well fixed at birth. It is not something we can change. It is not a lifestyle choice. Telling someone that they are damned to Hell because of an innate characteristic at the very least flirts with the edges of hate speech. It is inherently abusive. That is a space no Christian has any right to occupy.
More importantly, many studies have compared suicidality in LGBT and heterosexual youth. The overwhelming evidence is that LGBT young people have a three to four fold increased risk of suicidal behaviour (see Suicidality and Depression Disparities between Sexual Minority and Heterosexual Youth: A Meta Analytic Review, Marshall et al, Journal of Adolescent Health, 2011). Public Christians must be sensitive to the risks to the health and to the life of LGBT young people when they make statements about biblical teaching.
Intolerance, rejection of the other and a tendency to abuse those whom we perceive as different are universal human failings. In today’s reading, Jesus rebukes our intolerance, and calls us to a better way.