Thursday, 20 February 2014


[Jesus] opened the scroll and found the passage which says, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me; he has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’. Luke ch 4, vv 17-19 Whether or not Jesus announced his programme of preaching in the way our text describes, it is clear from the gospel accounts that he had in mind, or at least developed in the course of his preaching, a fairly clear programme. He did indeed proclaim release for those imprisoned, by organised religion; he tried to let people see clearly what their lives could and should be about; he offered some welcome and useful good news about how happiness might be attained. This programme is not merely a matter of antiquarian or sectarian interest; as we shall see, it raises at least one matter that continues to matter to society today: how we try to ensure that the lessons we have learned about how our lives may most happily be lived are not lost but are passed on to successive generations. Jesus was deeply aware of the dangers of organised religion. It’s not clear whether he had himself been given a particularly devout or orthodox upbringing, but he would certainly have been aware of the various pious movements that were influential in early first century Judaism. Some demanded strict observance of every detail of the ancient Jewish religious law; others went further and called on Jews to cut themselves off completely from ordinary life in Roman Judaea. Then there were those religious Jews whose convictions seemed limited to maintaining their social position through the exercise of their inherited religious functions. There was in short a lot of religion about in Jewish society, but it seemed to Jesus that it wasn’t doing much to help ordinary people to live full and happy – makarios – lives. Indeed it only too often seemed to give religious people, whether pious or cynical, a cover or even a justification for attitudes and behaviours that were at best unhelpful and at worst anti-social. We now know that these difficulties are not untypical of organised religion generally, not just a feature of contemporary Judaism, but as far as Jesus was concerned, the problem was a distinctively Jewish problem, and his preaching about it was naturally addressed only to his fellow Jews. That was his negative programme. His positive programme had to do with how people could develop within themselves dispositions that would enable them to live full and happy lives. They needed to notice how the world worked, both in nature and in society. They needed the conviction that they were blessed, though not uniquely blessed. They needed to understand that good relationships with other people were indispensable to happiness. They needed to feel that the happiness that comes from having a grounded understanding of how things are, a sense of being blessed, and good relationships was within their grasp; they had only to want it enough and it could be theirs. He did not demand obedience to rules as a means to happiness; he asked only that people should prioritise their own deepest happiness and understand how that might be achieved in the real world, the everyday world of personal relationships, society and work. I’ll leave it to you to recall the various parables and sayings through which Jesus promoted both his negative and his positive programmes. Then there was something that was emphatically not part of his programme. Suspicious as he was of Jewish organised religion in all its forms, he made no effort to found a new Jewish sect like the Essenes or the Pharisees. And although his positive programme was as applicable to Gentiles as to Jews, he had no plans to set up a new non-Jewish religion to promote it; he wasn’t much interested in Gentiles, and even if he had been, he would have doubted whether a new religion could be an effective way of promoting his teaching among them. So sacraments and liturgies, conversions and persecutions, doctrines and controversies, judgments and condemnations, orthodoxies and heresies, clergy and churches – things with which we are so familiar, and which claim connection with Jesus, derive from St Paul’s Christianity, not from what we know of Jesus’s teaching purged of Pauline influences. We can only – and perhaps we should – imagine what Jesus of Nazareth would make of the edifice that calls him its ‘Lord’. The problem for Jesus’s programme, and indeed for us too, is that while his positive programme sets out an effective basis for leading full and happy lives, it’s not-at-all clear that its precepts are so obvious or ingrained that they don’t need to be spelled out repeatedly, generation by generation. There’s a case for hoping that we could now safely leave this to parents, teachers and others who set the tone for each new generation, a kind of free market for ideological teaching. But you might not feel confident to do that, not least because the resulting institutional vacuum might be filled, perhaps by organisations with a very different agenda. But if an institution is to maintain, promote and develop precepts like the ones Jesus taught, how do we prevent it from falling foul of the critique of Judaism contained in Jesus’s negative programme? The church has succeeded in maintaining and promoting Jesus’s positive programme for nearly two millennia, but in the process it has certainly not avoided the worst features of organised religion, including quite a few that Jesus’s negative programme could not have imagined. It is not acceptable, either to excuse the church’s excesses and irrelevancies on account of its good works, or to condemn the church, and organised religion generally, without thinking hard about how its most useful functions might be carried out were it to collapse under the weight of those excesses and irrelevancies.

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