The Reverend Robert Reiss Canon of Westminster
Sunday, 21st October 2007
Most biblical scholars believe the author was probably not Paul himself, but a follower of his, so the book may not have been written until the middle of the 80s of the first century or even later, but it was still written well before what we now know as the New Testament had come to any sort of formal recognition. The ‘scripture’ referred to in the verse I quoted would probably have meant to the author the Old Testament and possibly some of the books that we now call the Apocrypha, although of course we cannot be sure whether he may not have had other writings in mind as well. What is clear is that the attempt to use that text to ascribe some exclusive position for what we now call our Bible is not wholly justified, even though the attempt is certainly made in some Christian circles.
And I could not help but reflect on that when I thought about the key verse in the middle of this morning’s gospel passage. The story from Luke is an almost amusing one of a judge finally giving in to the demands of some petitioner because of her persistence, but then comes the crunch verse ‘Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones, who cry to him night and day?’
As we must all know many of those who have felt themselves to have some relationship with God have had reason to ‘cry to God night and day’ in all sorts of periods of the life of our world. Anyone facing a debilitating or life-threatening disease may have had that experience, and then think of those brave Christians who have faced torture and persecution at various stages of the church’s history, or indeed of peoples of all faiths and none who endured such terrible events as the tsunami a few years ago, or of those 6 million Jewish people who died in the Holocaust. One Jewish writer, Eliezer Berkovits, collected together some of the reported writings and words of those who died in that period in a remarkable book called ‘With God in Hell’ and he said that maybe one day their words would be recognised as a new edition of what he said we can properly call ‘holy scripture’.
It may well be that scripture which is inspired by God is not just texts given some formal authority ecclesiastical or otherwise, although of course they have a proper role in any formal theology, but in texts that have emerged and possibly reflect a genuine struggling with God. We do not go deeper into any truly religious response to the world easily or lightly, and a second-hand purchase of some insight will never be as effective as one arrived at personally through a sustained struggle to make sense of things, especially when the sense has been far from obvious at the time. It is, I suggest, no accident that in the Genesis story we heard for the Old Testament lesson this morning Jacob wrestled with God before he became Israel. Perhaps most genuine developments of our understanding that lead to real change within ourselves come through some such wrestling with God.
And in our own day that wrestling must include, I believe, thinking carefully about the claim in the gospel passage in answer to the question about God granting justice to his chosen ones that ‘he will quickly grant justice to them’. The commentators think that refers to the expected return of Jesus in glory, and Luke’s purpose was to encourage his readers to continue to hope for that and to behave accordingly, hence that final question in the gospel passage ‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ We now have a rather longer timescale in which to reflect on that, and no such public returning in glory quite as was envisaged has happened, although I suppose we should never underestimate the real returning of Christ in glory that takes place in this and in every Eucharist. But maybe the real question we should ask is not ‘why has it not happened?’ but ‘what constitutes justice?’ or to use the translation that in found in the Revised Standard Version ‘what constitutes vindication’. Certainly not, I would suggest, public vengeance and retribution. But maybe again Eleizer Berkovits can help.
In his book he tells the story of Rabbi Shalom Eliezer Halberstam. As he was being led to be killed, an SS officer approached him and said: ‘I see your lips moving in prayer. Do you still believe that your God will help you? Don’t you realise in what situation the Jews find themselves? They are all being led to die and no one helps them. Do you still believe in divine providence?’ To which the Rabbi replied: ‘With all my heart and with all my soul I believe that there is a Creator and that there is a Supreme Providence.’
How one makes sense of that will perhaps vary with different people, but the ways in which the Jewish conviction of a God who continues to be involved in the destiny of his creatures was maintained by some in the camps is a testimony to the trust in God that Berkovits sees as central to authentic Judaism. The chapter concludes with a report of a note left in a bottle by one of the last survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto as it was burning. It ends: ‘And these are my last words to You, my God of anger: nothing will avail You! You have done everything that I deny You, that I shall not trust You. Yet, I die as I lived – with rock-like trust.’
Who, I wonder, do we think was vindicated: the SS officer or the rabbi and the victim in the ghetto? Whose integrity as a human being comes through as the stronger and more resilient?
Perhaps we can understand why Berkovits ends the chapter with the following words: ‘May he be praised for ever, the God of the dead, …the God of truth and justice, who will yet let his countenance shine upon the world and shake its foundations by the power of his voice… Shema Yisra’el! Hear, O Israel! The Eternal is our God, the eternal is One. Into Thy hands I entrust my spirit.’
Holy scripture is not just in the ownership of the church.