Tag Archives: manipulation

Are you Religious? (Epiphany)

Are you “religious”? You may get asked if you go to Church. I struggle to answer – I’m happy to be a Christian, and freely choose that life daily, and I’m not shy of my work as a priest. But “religious”? It sounds a bit odd, a bit out of reality and life as we know it.

Of course, Matthew is religious. His gospel is full of links to religious practice, and quotes from the OT. Yet, strangely, only Matthew tells this story of the Wise Men, which drags Jesus into the real world. Does that sound odd? Perhaps. Let me try to justify it:

Herod the Great has visitors. Perhaps he welcomed the exotic, or hoped for profitable trade, perhaps he was just bored – but their question immediately dispels boredom. “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews?”  Alarm bells sound all through Herod’s brain. He was ruthless, and paranoid. He was King, and nothing would interfere with that – he killed one wife and three of his sons on suspicion of treachery.

“Where is the new King?” is not heard as a religious question (unlike where will he be born – for which you need to know the Old Testament prophecy of Micah). Herod sees it as about Power, politics, control. In his world, competition is to be crushed, violence used as a tool, and winner takes all. Matthew sets his religious story right in the struggle for power, with the bullies and the treachery and the bloody violence of that time (and other times!).

So, he acts: He tells the Wise Men he would like to “worship” the new King – do you fancy being “worshipped” like that? Perhaps not. The Wise Men are wise enough to get out, find Bethlehem, a house, a child.

And they worship him. Not as Herod would have done, with a dagger. Not “Hello, how nice to meet you, I’m a very important person too.” They bow, worship, recognise someone on a different level altogether. They give expensive presents (you’ll have heard of the significance of gold for a king, incense for a God, myrrh looking to death – if not, look at the hymn “We three Kings of Orient are.”)

And that’s it. Mission accomplished. Time for home  – but being wise men (and warned in a dream), they go by a different route.

Have you ever wondered what happened to those presents? We don’t know. My guess is that the gold financed the journey to Egypt, to escape Herod’s massacre of baby boys up to 2. (You know that story? It fits with Herod’s character, which knows only the importance of his own success). Maybe the frankincense was sold too, to some religious person. The myrrh may have soothed cuts and scrapes as the boy grew and learnt to use the sharp tools of a carpenter – it can be used as an antiseptic.

So, are you religious? I don’t really care, unless it annoys your friends, or keeps you in a fantasy. But in the real world, are you with Herod, or the Wise Men? Where do you think real power lies, and what is it for? You have to answer, but not on paper. In conversation, what you do, and what you don’t do, you will show your attitude to power, and the way you use power, and land on one side or the other . .

Lent (Lent 1c)

I enjoyed last night’s study group. We were looking at Luke 4:1-13 – Jesus’ temptation.

There is so much in that passage:

Jesus was sent into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, received at his baptism (no, hard times are not always a mistake), and is tempted (it is not the being tempted that is wrong . .).

Each of the temptations offers a diversion from the ministry that Jesus will have: turning stones to bread is about making comfort a primary requirement for our lives; the power of ruling the world is the temptation to have and use power over other people; jumping from the Temple suggests both forcing belief by using miracles to amaze, and misusing scripture to try and force God’s action.

What I realised more as our discussion went on was centred on two things. First, the Devil constantly tries to manipulate and force Jesus to comply, while Jesus chooses the actions which will preserve the freedom of choice for those he will meet and minister to. Jesus will not make disciples by offering comfort, power, or cheap thrills. While he acts in compassion and with clear purpose, he always leaves people free to follow or not, to believe or forget, or ask more questions.

The second thing that struck me was how Jesus struggles – and the Devil’s temptations – were linked to the question of identity. Twice comes “IF you are God’s son . .” All through is, “What sort of ministry? What sort of Minister?”

I wonder if the traditions associated with “Lent”, or other times and traditions of penitence and fasting, are so carefully linked to our identity as God’s people, responding to his love and invitation to serve? And do our traditions set out to prepare us for service, service in ways which bring life and blessing, but without trying to coerce, manipulate, or make people do what we want them to?