The text for today from Matthew’s gospel (9:35 – 10:1) of Jesus, motivated by compassion, sending out disciples to have authority over and cast out demons and to cure every disease, comes from the late 1st century and indicates how, in the decades following Jesus’ death, his followers saw their ministry and his.
Firstly, in our text, note the motivation: compassion. Compassion is the place, the actions, the home-ground where peace and justice kiss. Compassion is why Jesus did what he did. Compassion is both the ends and means of Christian ministry. It is how we ‘do God’. And there is no other way of ‘doing God’. To be clear, motivating people by threats, punishment, violence, manipulation, guilt, or rewards (all those things I experienced in my 1970s schooling and many experience/d in church) are not the ways of the upside down, outside in, Jesus’ queerdom. There is only compassion.
To digress a little, the lens through which Christians critique leadership, policies, and practices, in crisis and normal times, is not what’s good for me, my family, or my church, or even planetary or economic wellbeing. Those things at best are secondary. The lens for Christians is simply compassion. And the ways of compassion are found in the weave that brings people and holds people gently respectfully together.
Secondly, in our text, note the demonic - that which seeks to pull us apart, to fracture our minds, our connections with community, with other humans, other ethnicities, other genders, other religions, and the earth itself. If compassion is identifying with the other and coming together, the demonic is erecting barriers and pushing us apart.
Demons and disease, spirits and sickness were all much of a muchness in the ancient world, and indeed in many times and cultures. Although the demythologizing of illness and the use of scientific method is paramount in the Western model of medicine, we are becoming increasingly aware that demythologizing and Western science have their limitations. To minimize the power of myth, of the mind, and of macro synergetic forces limits our ability to effect healing and wellbeing for the individual, and the familial and tribal systems the individual is a part of; it limits our ability to effect the wellbeing of all.
To digress again, part of the fallacy of liberal Protestantism, which is part of our cultural heritage, is to elevate reason and rationality over experience and intuition, Western modernism and method over indigenous wisdom and stories, and individual prosperity and wellbeing over communal prosperity and wellbeing. So, for example liberal Protestantism (and Catholicism) in America, despite some outstanding individuals, has been seen by people of colour as largely part of the problem rather than part of the solution of racism.
To return to our text and demons and disease, the New Testament scholar Bill Loader says, “These days we mostly shy away from such commissions (to exorcise and heal). But… we need to live with the modern discomfort which such passages bring - until we can find our way back into them and get in touch with what powers are alive today.”
Lastly then, this Matthew text asks us to identify what the unknown author of Ephesians refers to when she[i] writes: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers[ii]”. What are these powers of chaos, of dysfunction, of separateness, of illness and death?
In August I will be leading a study group on Jack Spong’s influential 1990s book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. In the preamble Jack helpfully identifies some of the ‘principalities and powers’ that he is challenging – ‘principalities and powers’ that use the Bible to justify and fortify their positions.
As a child of the American South he begins with race and how the Bible has been used to justify slavery and then to justify separate schooling, and to condone policies of segregation and inequity. White tribalism continues to be a problem, and not just in America. And as we saw outside St John’s Episcopal Church in Washington DC the other week uncritical white tribalism still, particularly in America, wants to use the Bible as a prop to their authority rather than as a challenge to the absence of compassion.
The Ephesian phrase ‘principalities and powers’ I think is helpful because many individual white Americans and many American churches are compassionate, justice-committed followers of Jesus who are appalled by the death George Floyd. But as one writer, “cycling for a black person in America is like cycling into a headwind, and for a white person it’s like cycling with a tailwind”. Something unseen can push against you, whereas for a white colleague it seems to push in their favour. And in my ministry that analogy with the wind is what many Maori and Pacific people experience in this land.
In Spong’s preamble he segues from race into physical violence, where those who read the Bible with the blinkers of literalism have used our sacred texts to justify beating children (‘beating the devil out’), to justify ‘disciplining’ wives, and to justify the violence of war (‘killing the God-denying commies’, or Muslims, or whoever the current enemy is). While these examples of American fundamentalism are both real and to most of us extreme, violence unfortunately is deeply ingrained in the Christian religious psyche. Churches generally don’t have a good track record when it comes to bullying, verbal assaults, and misuse of power. Ask most women ministers.
Spong, as the Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, lived through a time when the worldwide Anglican Church wrestled with two issues: women in authority as ministers and bishops, and gay and lesbian ministers and bishops. I have been in Anglican Synods, and a number of you have been in General Assemblies, where we have witnessed some appalling behaviour and words said to and about women and LGBTI ministers and elders. Sometimes it is subtle, easily brushed off, and denied. Sometimes though the behaviour and words are very blatant; and not subject to legal constraints.
So Spong names in his preamble some of the ‘principalities and powers’, the demonic, that work against compassion – things, attitudes, myths, like race, violence, gender and sexual orientation, that pull us apart and separate us – and how these ‘principalities and powers’ then use the Bible.
I could talk about other things, attitudes, and actions that pull us apart and separate us – powers that operate for example in the areas of medicine, economics, technology, academia – powers that work against community and communal wellbeing, but I want to focus briefly now on our other biblical text for the day, the story of the annunciation of Isaac.
Genesis 18:1-12 can be read a number of ways. You could notice the unusual things. Like oak trees growing in Mamre (modern day Hebron in the southern West Bank)? Like making a few cakes for the 3 guests with 23 kilograms (3 measures) of flour!? Like the presence of Sarah (a woman and leader), not only in this story about throughout the Abrahamic saga, whereas in other Mediterranean cultures before 600 BCE very few stories of women were preserved at all.
Or you could begin and stay with the simple picture of the joy of a childless elderly woman finding she’s pregnant, miraculously blessed by her God.
Or you could begin with the more complex picture, that here is a story about the seeds of division and violence between Arab and Jew that reverberates down through the centuries to our day. Something one could blame Abraham for, or Sarah for, or some power/principality that incorporated and cultivated the worst against Abraham’s Sarah’s, Hagar’s and Ishmael’s, best.
Let’s think about Ishmael for a moment. He was Abraham’s first born son and heir. The reproductive wisdom of the day had the man’s semen containing both sperm and egg (called the seed) and the woman’s womb being the incubating garden for that seed. So regardless of the mother, the first male child born of the father’s sperm was the heir. Primogeniture. That was Ishmael. And his mother was the maid Hagar, whom Sarah had selected for this purpose.
And the scandal of story is that the patriarch Abraham rejected and sent his heir (and Hagar) into the desert to die. And then later interpreters and editors, not wishing to sully Abraham’s legacy too much, blamed Sarah. Ishmael miraculously survived and more miraculously did not seem to bear a grudge against his father for this violent rejection. Later in life Ishmael dutifully joined Isaac in burying his father. Ishmael’s descendants were seen as cousins of Israel and honorary members of the covenant. Not quite seen that way today.
So our story, the annunciation of Isaac, the future child of Abraham and Sarah, who would become the heir, and the father of Israel, is not just a mythical story about a postmenstrual woman and her elderly mate miraculously conceiving a child, a child who would be called ‘the child of promise’, and the firstborn of God’s ‘chosen people’. No, this is a story that has a backdrop of injustice and violent rejection, a backdrop of separating people and races into ‘chosen’ and ‘unchosen’ categories, and a backdrop of women surviving in a patriarchal and primogeniture culture.
This is not a story about Abraham at his best, for he exhibited extraordinary compassion towards Sodom and Gomorrah. But he also exhibited extraordinary violence, not just towards Ishmael, but Isaac too. In Abraham there were both the powers of healing and compassion and wellbeing, and the powers of violence and separation and destruction.
The gospel reading is simple: our vocation is to plant, build, and foster the former: compassion – where peace and justice kiss; and to exorcise, expunge, the powers/demons that destroy wellbeing, connection and community.
[i] Ephesians is a text that was not written by St Paul, but by one alleging to be. We don’t know who wrote it. I’ve used a feminine pronoun to refer to this anonymous author.
[ii] Ephesians 6:12