Right reading of the Scriptures
Ordinary Sunday 31: 5 November, 2017
Fr Philip Gill
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill and Lazarus Centre Chaplain
This morning we heard in the Gospel of Matthew from chapter 23, that we are not to call anyone rabbi, teacher, father or instructor, and that the Pharisees were hypocrites. New Testament scholar Brendan Byrne reminds readers that when confronted with such texts we need to make 'responsible readings' of Holy Scriptures. The opposite, those irresponsible readings, are harmful to spiritual development and to relationships with those of other faiths. At one end of the spectrum irresponsible readings focus on details such as being careful not to call anyone rabbi, teacher, father, or instructor because 'that's what the text says'. While at the other end is the danger that that we might project the image of the Pharisees as hypocrites onto our understanding of contemporary Judaism, possibly colouring our relationships with people of the Jewish faith.
As much as we may want to open our New Testaments to gain quick and soothing balm for our battered souls it is clear from readings such as today's that in many ways we are dealing with dangerous texts. Dangerous texts that need to be handled with care — responsibly read indeed. For Byrne, in terms in this passage, a responsible reading leads us past the distractions of the details to Jesus' injunction that we, his followers, should guard against hypocrisy and be servants of others.
A responsible reading of this passage would note other uses of the term 'father' in Holy Scripture. For example, the commandment, 'Honour your father and your mother' is rendered meaningless if no earthly person can be called father. In terms of spiritual leadership St Paul writes in 1st Corinthians: 'For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.' I have always accepted the term 'father' as one of respect for the office and a term of endearment for its holder. What seems like a minor thing to some can cause great pain and anguish to others. 
As we attempt to read Holy Scripture responsibly we might take a guiding principle from those early medical codes of conduct exhorting practitioners 'first, do no harm' because harm has been done by certain irresponsible readings of Holy Scripture. Christians have a much more positive 'code'. Last week we heard Matthew's version of the two great commandments. We are to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and love our neighbours as our selves. Or in the updated version we heard from the children at the 9.30 service — we are to 'love our neighbours as we love our selfies'. These commandments point us in the right direction but a responsible reading of the Scriptures needs to include a responsible application of their words and meaning to our lives.
This was brought home to me recently in a story about the people of a small town — a town accessible only by a narrow winding road. There was one bend that was very sharp and caused a lot of drivers to lose control of their cars and crash. The village priest would often preach to the villagers that they were meant to be Good Samaritans and had to provide aid for injured travellers. And they did for they saw this as their Christian duty. One day someone suggested they provide an ambulance service. The priest preached that this would allow them to care better for the injured. And the villagers raised the money for an ambulance service because this was their Christian duty. Then someone suggested they build a bypass widening and straightening the offending stretch of road. Some villagers took the idea to the priest that he might preach to the people and money might be raised to undertake the construction needed to prevent injury to travellers — after all it seemed like their Christian duty. But the priest remembered that the mayor of the village owned the land through which the new road would go. The mayor was a powerful man, who contributed a great deal of money to the church. He would not like to have a new road right through the middle of his property. The priest thought he should keep out of politics. So the next Sunday he preached on the Good Samaritan and encouraged the villagers to continue to look after the injured travellers, for that was their Christian duty.
Responding to the call to ministry in the midst of political reality stretches our responsible reading and application of Holy Scripture. A headline on the front page of the Sunday Age on 29th October read: 'Bishop warns Trump on Iran deal danger'. When I first read it I though some courageous church leader had taken issue with the US president. However, the 'Bishop' of this article was our Foreign minister, Ms Julie Bishop!
More relevant to the work of our parish among the homeless was a talk by Tony Nicholson, former executive director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, on his research into rough sleeping. His report, a situation appraisal, was the first step in the formation of a state wide rough sleeping strategy. He concluded his appraisal with a list of principles including recognition that:
- ending rough sleeping is a whole of community responsibility,
- assertive outreach and rapid assessment of people sleeping rough is essential,
- the greatest potential in the short to medium term for securing housing for people sleeping rough is through the private rental market, requiring a combination of rental subsidies and forms of head leasing or co-leasing.
I hope the strategies will take into account that the underlying causes of homelessness and what a long path it can be for some people to recover from them. In his talk Tony noted the crucial part churches can play in providing community for those experiencing homelessness. As chaplain to the Lazarus Centre Breakfast Program I am often reminded of the importance of providing a place of acceptance, welcome and respite.
A little while ago I was talking with one of Lazarus Centre participants. I have known him for most of the time I have been chaplain to the Lazarus Centre. He has recently found part-time work in the warehouse of a courier service. Once he had a successful business, a family, a home, and several investment properties. Then his family life began to disintegrate. Business was neglected and began to unravel. He also lost his investment properties. Sometimes in his travels he passes those properties and has pangs of regret. But he also remembers how his focus on material wealth fuelled his spiral into poverty, depression, loneliness and eventual homelessness. He told me how good it makes him feel to be back at work again. It has taken him seven years to be able to say that! All that time, the Lazarus Centre with St Mark's Community Centre has been a haven and a lifeline.
Perhaps there are people and places that could have helped my friend sooner. Maybe the strategies that come from Tony Nicholson's appraisal will point to quicker interventions. Seeking the responsible application of our Christian faith demands we ask the questions, but not at the expense of faithful ministry that supports those who crash on the tight curves of life even as we await the building of that much vaunted wide, straight road!
I often reflect on the place of the Lazarus Centre within the complexities of caring for the homeless. The importance of the sense of community that the Lazarus Centre provides for the homeless, including rough sleepers, should not be overlooked. But I am acutely aware that the community we provide here is not to be an end in itself. Our vision and our aim is that those who come here to the Lazarus Centre will do so for a time but will eventually be comfortable in the wider community engaging confidently in the activities that make community life meaningful: relationships, work, and other social and personal interests.
May we always seek the responsible readings of Holy Scripture that will lead us to responsible application of them in our lives. May we allow ourselves to be led by God's Spirit beyond the temptation to turn scriptural details into dogma. In doing so we seek to go beyond the notion of doing no harm to loving God with our total being and loving our neighbour as ourselves.
- Brendan Byrrne, (2004), Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew's Gospel in the Church Today, Strathfield: St Paul's Press, p.169.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.