1 Thessalonians 2.1-8

There have been some dubious winners of the Nobel Peace Prize over the years, just as there have been truly remarkable people. Those who have risked their own lives to challenge injustice and bring hope to others are counted amongst the very worthy.

The announcement that this year’s winners are Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai will bring much joy to many people and will be criticised or ignored in some quarters. Only those who have much to lose, and they should lose, will be in the latter camp.

Kailash and Malala are amongst the most outstanding people of our age and rightly deserve every award they receive for their respective extraordinary contributions to human society.
Religion continues to be seen to play a negative part in the suppression of women’s rights. Bigots play into the hands of bigots when scriptures, ancient texts and preaching that shouldn’t have even belonged to a past era let alone the present are used to uphold misogyny.

Today women are as unsafe as ever in parts of our world where rape is a weapon of war, where girls are carried off by terrorists who see them as spoils of their ‘success’ and where virgins are the reward for being a suicide bomber. But before the finger is pointed elsewhere we in the Christian Church have much to repent from. For generations women have been second class disciples in so many people’s eyes, and they often remain so.

‘How long must we sing this song?’ cried the psalmist long ago, so many continue to cry today at the gender injustice not only of society but the Church too. For sure strides have been taken over the past century but we are still nowhere near where we should be.

It has long been the claim of many within the church that Jesus came to set the prisoner free, including women from a patriarchal society. At intervals this has been an excuse to claim that Christianity is somehow superior to the Judaism from which it grew but a cursory glance at the teaching and practice of the Christian Church over two millennia will dent the confidence of anyone who seeks to uphold such a claim. The truth is that the Christian Church has often been no better than any other religious movement in its treatment of women.

It goes without saying that this should not be so, and yet we have to say it loud and clear, from the pulpit, the conference podium, the pew and in the church meetings.

So often Paul and his colleague apostles have had the blame laid squarely at their door for setting the agenda of the Christian Church. But we have had almost two thousand years to interpret their teaching in the light of subsequent knowledge and understanding. In any case I can’t help but feel the apostles were often misinterpreted by many over the centuries in order to protect the power of a male dominated society.

Take one of this Sunday’s readings for example. Tucked away in 1 Thessalonians 2 is verse 7 ‘We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children’. Now before anyone immediately jumps to attack me by claiming that a female nurse could be a gender-stereotypical image, and they may well be right in a certain context, in this instance Paul is seeking to express the femininity of ministry, it balances the preceding verse that appears to speak of a masculine approach ‘though we might make demands as apostle of Christ.’ The Jewish Annotated New Testament (every preacher should have a copy!) reminded me that Paul’s use of the term ‘nurse’ is to conjure up the image of a wet nurse, one who feeds infants from her breast. In the wilderness when things were going a little awry Moses had asked of God whether he should be a nurse to the infant people of Israel (Numbers 11.12); Paul acknowledges that such ministry is indeed the answer to the question posed by Moses, this time on route to the promised land that is the life found in Christ.

Of course there remain some very disturbing texts in the Christian scriptures that insist on women being subject to their husbands and these have been used all too often to oppress and abuse. But 1 Thessalonians is amongst the earliest in the Christian canon, indeed it may well be the very earliest and cannot be dismissed lightly. Here is Paul, early on in his days as an apostle, espousing the need for a ministry that is balanced, one that can only be truly effective when that balance is achieved. Later of course he will have developed his thinking and would write ‘There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal.3.28).

Matthew 22.15-22

At a hustings during the 2010 General Election I took some people by surprise when I declared that I would like a government to increase my taxes. So often we hear that we would like the NHS to be more efficient, the holes in the road to be properly repaired, the schools to be better resourced and so on. These things cannot be done without funding and funding should come from a fair and just taxation system. In my naïve mind-set simplifying the system would help so that those who can pay more should do so in order that the inequalities of today’s society are lessened.

Jesus was in an altogether different environment when he was asked about taxation. The system seemed anything but fair and just and the process was open to corruption. Taxation seems to be a source of discontent anywhere at any time but throughout the first century Roman Empire it was a particularly touchy subject.

The question put to Jesus has always been recognised as a tricky one to answer and preachers have often lauded the response as showing the superior wisdom of Jesus. But it has sometimes left the Church exposed to the charge of being ineffective in the face of injustice: ‘leave the politics to the politicians and religion to the Church’ has become for some a logical extension of rendering ‘unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’.

A better way of translating the response is to suggest that one should honour what is rightly someone else’s to possess. This is brought out in the version found in the Gospel of Thomas (100) where the response concludes ‘and give me what is mine.’ But take what is not yours well that is a serious matter.

In Khaled Husseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ Amir is taught by Baba his father that the greatest sin is theft, ‘There is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft….when you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness.’

At first glance then it would appear that Jesus is withdrawing from the possibility of challenging Caesar but in fact he is throwing down a challenge, ‘take what is rightly yours but do not overstep the mark for then you will be committing sin, an offence to God and you will be judged accordingly.’

When I recently saw in a local newspaper that a woman had been evicted from her council house after many years because of an unpaid £200 bedroom tax bill I couldn’t help but ask whether there had been some form of ‘theft’ on the part of the authorities; they may have acted correctly in the eyes of the law but what of the moral code that should undergird all law? She had been robbed of the roof over her head, rooms that contained the memories of anniversaries and birthdays.

Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s is not tantamount to letting a government conduct its business without criticism.

Matthew 21.33-46

We probably know the parable well.

God is the landowner, Israel is the vineyard,, the religious establishment the tenants, the prophets are the representatives of the landowner come to collect what is due, Jesus is the son who finally came to bring the tenants to account and who is killed for his pains, and the church is the group invited to work in the vineyard at the end of the episode.

That has been the traditional way of interpreting the parable.

It has been used in successive generations to blame Jews for rejecting Jesus and having him killed. It has also been used over that time to claim that the church has superseded Judaism.
The end result of this has been persecution, pogroms and ultimately the Holocaust.

It continues to this day with the church issuing platitudinal statements about the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK and the rest of Europe without really getting to grips with the obsession that has blighted the church for almost 2000 years.

Until we recognise what is going on the church will remain less effective than it could be. We know this to be so because our theology tells us that
• only the contrite will be forgiven
• only the willing will be transformed
• and only the redeemed will be effective in the kingdom.

The parable was included in Matthew’s account of the gospel just after the fall of Jerusalem, at a time when hostility between the followers of Jesus and their fellow Jews was beginning to break up.

The early church couldn’t blame Rome for the death of Jesus, even though it was a ruthless not a bumbling Pilate who ordered his death and Roman soldiers who mocked him, forced him through the streets and nailed him to a cross before raising his exposed body wracked to hang in excruciating pain prior to death.

The church couldn’t blame Rome for the death of Jesus as it was too dangerous to do so. It served the church’s purpose to placate the rulers for fear of being wiped out.

Instead it was easier to blame their closest rivals in order to win over the hearts and minds of the people.

An internal battle was taking place to become the dominant religion in the region. The Church finally won and the Jews got the blame. They have been paying the price ever since.

It is right and proper that we recognise this truth so that we can get to the heart of the message Jesus wished to convey.

Yes God is the landowner, yes those in authority fail to pay what is due because they are self-centred and have much to lose, if they can control their assets and make the most of what time they have on earth for their own selfish gain then they will. They are not interested in sharing what they have been temporarily given.

Even the message of Jesus which has stood the test of time is unacceptable to them because in their eyes it is not good news but bad.
The message of Jesus is that wealth has to be redistributed but in a fair and just manner. Those in charge have manipulated the system for their own gain. And they will have much to lose by that redistribution.

Last week the Chancellor George Osborne launched a blistering attack on charities.

I can’t help but wonder if he is not the tenant seeking to silence and kill off the messengers?
Charities such as Oxfam, the Trussel Trust and others have criticised Government policy. In the Chancellor’s eyes the charities have become too political.

How has he formed this opinion?

Well, those charities in his sights have been pointing out what they see to be the injustice of the government’s welfare reforms that
• leave people being evicted from their homes of many years because they cannot pay the bedroom tax,
• welfare reforms that block people’s benefits until an enquiry is held even though they may have been too ill to attend an appointment,
• welfare reforms that have caused fear, stress, illness and suicides.

– Is it political for a charity to stand up for those for whom they were founded?
– Is it political for a charity to fulfil the aims written into their constitutions?
– Is it political for a charity to satisfy the charity commissioners who must monitor their actions?

Governments have sought to silence charities and churches before.

Charities and churches are the messengers who urge the tenants, the Government in this instant, to pay what is due, to heed the truth, to recognise that they are only in charge for a while and that one day they will be judged by their actions and inaction.

The facts are clear, the wealthiest in our nation have done exceedingly well over the last four years.

Their income has risen way beyond inflation yet their taxes have been cut.
99% of the population have got poorer over that time.

True, there is a closing of the gap between the richest in the 99% and the poorest in that massive group, but the other group, the top 1%, is becoming wealthier than ever before, pulling away from the rest at an alarming rate.

This cannot be sustained.

It is the moral and legal duty of those charities set up to deal with poverty and the churches to question the policies that are creating the biggest divide in a century between the superrich and the rest.

And to now suggest that the Human Rights Act is to be repealed, well such a thought is beyond words.

Slowly but surely the clock of fairness, justice and equality is being turned back.

The gains those before us made through protest and cooperative movements are being lost.

The church of today has to raise its voice as it has done in the past
– for justice to be done,
– for the wealth of creation to be fairly distributed,
– for those who have no voice we have to speak out.

There have been attempts to silence us before and for a time the threats cowed us into submission. But disaster followed. History has shown time and again that when the church fails to stand up for the oppressed and poor in society breakdown in the moral and social fabric is the consequence.

The parable is quite clear, the kingdom will be taken away from those who squander it and given to those that produce the fruits of the kingdom.

If there was ever a time when the Church needs to be united and clear in its condemnation of what is happening to our nation and world then it is now.

We cannot serve both God and an economic system that leaves millions in our nation and billions in our world in poverty.
– It cannot be right that someone living in Kensington will live on average many years longer than someone on Glasgow.
– It cannot be right that much of our world starves while another great section of the population is obese.
– It cannot be right that the poor are having to pay for a deficit created by the wealthiest in our nation.

Elijah was one such messenger of God. He confronted the people in the presence of the priests of Baal and tells them they have to take a decision, to make up their minds. They cannot keep alternating between one and the other. The choice is clear If God is God, then the people should serve God. If Baal is God, then they should serve Baal. There has never been a time when this has not been more so.

We need to look again at our church programmes and ask where we can meet the needs of those about us whilst challenging the system that oppresses so many.

We need to look at our own discipleship and ask how we might challenge those in authority to stop punishing the poor and get the rich to take more responsibility for those who have helped create their wealth and privilege.

We need to say that we will be true to the gospel, be citizens of a kingdom that will never end and be the messengers who take on those who would seek to destroy it.

In all of this we will succeed for truth outlives all that would contradict it.