Sunday, September 21, 2008

St Matthew's Day

From a sermon given at St Stephen's, Richmond.

The Collect for today in A Prayer Book for Australia offers a fairly unsubtle interpretation of Matthew’s call by Jesus. While the old Book of Common Prayer (1549 onwards) version of the prayer for the day said that God called Matthew “from the receipt of custom” – referring simply to the way tax collectors of that era collected tolls at bridges and city gates, like modern customs officers - this modern version translates the old words by laying it on thick: Matthew was called supposedly “from the selfish pursuit of gain”. [The old book also had us praying for grace to forsake “all covetous desires, and inordinate love of riches”, where now Australian Anglicans find ourselves more ambitiously praying to be free from "all greed and love of riches" !]

If you go back and check the Gospel story, we don’t actually know anything about Matthew’s character or his motives for being a tax collector. We do know that this occupation was despised by religious and other worthy people in first-century Palestine, and that part of this negative attitude was a justified reputation for greed and violence. Taxes are rarely popular, but the ancient tax collector was not merely a bureaucrat; he (sic) was a sort of stand-over merchant, often extracting more than the notionally-legal amount.

A pause for thought should remind us that people who are the front line of systems of oppression, corruption and violence are often victims themselves. Bouncers, prostitutes and drug pushers have rarely indulged in a distasteful career choice solely for “selfish greed of gain”. They have often been victims of violence and abuse themselves, and are often in the service of others, more respectable people with far greater resources, who benefit from dubious enterprise without suffering the stigma or risk connected with its public practice.

Matthew was no Mr Big. At his table or booth out in the sticks in Galilee, he is small fry at best, as likely driven by necessity as by greed. If we were looking for a player driven by “selfish pursuit of gain” in the Gospels we might consider Zacchaeus, described as a “chief tax collector” in Jericho. People like Zacchaeus employed people like Matthew actually to sit at the toll booths and do the dirty work.

Jesus is not condemned for eating with former tax collectors. His approach was to associate with such people – the Matthews and the Zacchaeuses alike - rather than moralize about them or condemn them. He associates with wealthy and poor, respectable and outrageous, pious and problematic. All are called to change, but this is the result of following not its precondition.

The Gospel illustrates for us the scope of God’s grace. But the Gospel does not intend us just to marvel at how Jesus somehow deigns to associate with people unlike us. Rather it seeks to reveal to us that he deals with people just like us – as well as others quite unlike us – and that we ourselves have remarkably, graciously, been called to follow him too.

[US Readers won't have used this Collect, but a new one written by Massey Shepherd for the 1979 Book]

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Doing the Truth

This is an extract from my article Truth and Reconciliation in the Church, published in the most recent number of St Mark's Review (205), 125-36 which contains essays from the Doctrine Commission of the Australian Anglican Church on Sexual Abuse and the Church. The article involves reflections on 'restorative justice' as evidenced in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and on the notion of truth as it is presented in the Gospel of John.

The Word (John 1), who dwells among us and is seen “full of grace and truth” is not only a revelation of God’s truth but God’s effective re-narration of the story of human origin and destiny. As Irenaeus puts it, this is a new version of that ancient history, not only a narrative but a re-enactment: “God recapitulated in himself the ancient formation of humanity, that he might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify humankind” (Adv. Haer. 3.18.7). The nexus between truth and reconciliation lies both in the recognition of original relationship and the overcoming of ignorance, but also in the new creation of a relationship that fulfils and goes beyond what was past.

The truth of the Gospel reveals and effects this change, but not as an immediate or instant process, historically speaking. The work of the “Spirit of Truth” is the continued performance of the truth announced and embodied by Jesus, made known particularly in the Church, the community of those being reconciled by the truth to their own truth.

A Christian understanding of truth – the Truth underlying other forms and performances of truth – is central for the ways in which the Church is to “do the truth”, and may also have some significance for processes beyond the practice of the Church such as those of restorative justice.

The telling of truth, in the senses presented by restorative justice, may not be a substitute for the broader reality of “doing the truth”, as John’s Gospel puts it, or the wider ethical imperative that comes from deciding to seek and live truth. Truth may be found when cases of abuse and violence are uncovered, but its pursuit is not merely a fact-finding matter – it must be sought, as a matter of choice and not only of external act.

For the Church, acknowledging that God’s performance of the truth continues through the Spirit of Truth is crucial, both as an affirmation of hope but also as a theologically-informed guard against unrealistic or misplaced expectations for immediate resolution of broken relationship. Contemporary examples of restorative justice and the theology of truth in John’s Gospel both suggest that the doing of truth is a profound and at times painful thing, which cannot be equated with mere statements of fact, or with easy answers to difficult questions.

The revealing of hidden (if at times horrific) truths, kept secret because of oppressive or abusive systems or of the vested interests of perpetrators, has been a prominent feature in instances of restorative justice. Oppression, it has been argued, depends on forgetfulness or on the suppression of truth. Telling the truth in these cases means establishing knowledge where there had been ignorance (enforced, accidental or wilful), and the learning that comes from these revelations may bring with itself an opportunity for re-establishing relationships or at least moving past old hurts.