by Richard Bending
from Signs of the Times No. 58 - Jul 2015
A comment on Merryn Hellier's article, 'Are we asking the right questions', April 2015
To say that I enjoyed Merryn Hellier's article would be true, but less than the whole truth.
I agreed with it; I found her quotations from Voices from the Margin (ed R. S. Sugirtharajah) moving; I was angry with the western Church (including myself as an Anglican priest) for so distorting Jesus' message to the world. I was also grateful for the freshness of vision of the people she quoted.
When I was training for the ministry in the late 1980s, liberation theology was something we found very interesting. Of course those who saw themselves as oppressed by the rich and powerful could see an analogy with the Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt. However, I do not recall hearing, in the story of liberation theology, a criticism of traditional western interpretations of the Bible and formulations of Christian doctrine. I now find myself questioning many of those traditions, and it is a delight to hear others, from very different backgrounds, doing the same.
The fact is that in the Old Testament, 'salvation' rarely if ever means heavenly life after death but, instead, rescuing people from physical oppression, whether by their own or foreign governments or by the powerful within their own communities. In Jesus' time there was a hope that the righteous, denied justice in this life, might one day rise again to enjoy their reward, but the main longing of ordinary people was for salvation in this life, of a very practical kind.
We are so used to seeing salvation as pardon for sins won for us through the death of Jesus (a concept fraught with problems) that we often miss the more obvious and everyday needs of ordinary people.
Take Jesus' parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matt 20.1-16). Thousands of preachers have begun their sermons by saying, 'Of course, that's no way to run a business, but that's not what the story is about...', and gone on to spiritualise the whole thing.
But I wonder. We could start by saying that the position of the workers in the marketplace is not unlike those who today are on zero-hour contracts; they have to turn up but they only expect to be paid for the amount of work they do, if any. And who is it who is left in the marketplace as the day wears on?
It is the old, whose feeble efforts will no longer justify their wages. It is the young, who do not yet have the necessary skills. It is the disabled, whose ability to earn a living and support their families has been cut short by illness or accident. No doubt some of them, at the end of the day, would have gone home and, seeing the poor offering of food, said, 'Oh no, I'm not really hungry', just so that their children could eat.
Why, in thinking about this parable, do we not begin by reading it at face value, and seeing in it Jesus' concern for those who are poor and marginalised? Of course its spiritual meaning is valid enough – probably a rebuke to the religious people who resent the easy way Jesus accepts followers from 'low down' in society, and an encouragement to all to see Jesus' words as good news for themselves – but why do we not also see the practical, compassionate message? It has taken us the best part of two thousand years to even begin to catch up with Jesus' concern for the poor and disadvantaged.
I believe that the message which Jesus lived and taught is thoroughly relevant today, everywhere. All too often the message we in the church proclaim on his behalf is in language which no-one properly understands, and does not answer the questions people are asking