Monthly Archives: October 2023

Bible Sunday – 29th October – Penny Ashton

October 29th – Bible Sunday

I wonder what you first think when you hear the Bible being read in church Sunday by Sunday.  If we are honest, I suspect that our first thought is often not of the content, but of the delivery – we might wish that the reader had stood a little closer to the microphone or angled it better for their height.  We might also realise that – as we are all different, we all have different styles of reading – some faster, some slower.  Many people take the trouble to check through the different translations to see which one they feel brings out the meaning most clearly, others stick to their preferred translation or to the one from the lectionary that has been emailed out to them. 

These things can distract us a little from the content of the reading and we can miss a part of what is being read to us.  That can be a problem, since as Jesus pointed out in our gospel reading today, his words will not pass away until he comes again, and in the meantime, the guidance we have, and the only – fairly contemporary accounts of his actions and words can only be found in our Bibles, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help our understanding of them. 

It is interesting to note that we are not the only ones who have needed help in understanding what is in the Bible.  As Ezra the scribe read from the whole of the Hebrew scriptures – probably the books that we have as the first five books of our Bibles – there were people giving explanations as they went along.  If you have time, the book of Nehemiah is worth reading – it tells of how Nehemiah, who held a high position in the court, obtained permission from the king to return to Jerusalem and organise the rebuilding of the city walls after he had heard that the whole place was in ruins.  The book of Ezra, which is roughly contemporary is a more difficult read, and often seems to contain an official report of the rebuilding of the temple.  In both cases there was strong opposition to the work, but support from the Assyrian kings who provided supplies for the building work as well as soldiers to safeguard the journey back to Jerusalem.  All the precious objects from the sanctuary were recorded and weighed, and were also returned, although there is no mention of the books of the law in the list, so we can only assume that the priests had kept them safe.  The Assyrian kings probably didn’t consider the scrolls to be valuable in the same way that the gold and silver vessels were.  This would explain how Ezra is described as having studied the scriptures and knowing them well despite being held captive in exile – something he could not have done without ready access to them.

At the point where our reading today commences, the building work is pretty much completed – the temple has been rebuilt and regular sacrifices and festivals are being observed again, and the walls of the city have been rebuilt.  It is a good time to remind the people of their story back as far as Abraham or even further, and to remind them of the law that was given to Moses while they were in the desert after fleeing from Egypt.

Their reaction to hearing the scriptures again seems to have been one of extreme emotion.  They were being reminded once again of how they became a nation, of all that God had done for them over the centuries.  It seems that their first reaction was to weep – whether with joy or sorrow we do not know.  Whichever it was, they were encouraged by their leaders not to weep but to celebrate – the day was a holy one, and it was time for a party!  The instructions were clear – eat the best food, and make sure that everyone has plenty.  The ability to read and understand the Bible is to be celebrated.  It was a great joy to me when the Churches Together organised the funds to provide Bibles for our primary school in age-appropriate formats to support the teaching of RE in that school.  Many of you were very generous in supporting that effort.

As we are celebrating Bible Sunday, it seems appropriate to look at the work of the Bible Society.  Many of you will know the story of Mary Jones which I read as a child, who walked 26 miles to Bala where she had heard that a Bible in her native Welsh could be obtained.  Her determination inspired the work of translation so that everyone who wished should have access to the Bible in their native language.

Nowadays the work of the Bible Society continues, nearly 220 years after it was founded, and it now has the whole Bible translated into over 700 languages, making it accessible to 5.7 billion people, or over 80% of the world’s population.  This milestone was reached in 2020 and means that the number of languages has almost doubled since 1990 when it was 351.  In 50 of these languages the translations are the first ever made, meaning 57 million more people can access the whole of God’s word in their mother tongue for the first time.  One of the most recent translations to be completed is into the Mohawk language.  This is the fulfilment of a lifetime dream for Harvey Satewas Gabriel.  Harvey was a member of the translation team and is now 83.  He says ‘When I do something, I don’t give up easy,’ This full translation has come 219 years after the Gospel of John was first translated in 1804 and was the first scripture translated by the Bible Society!  Much of the early translation work was done by Harvey’s grandfather and great-grandfather as part of the team, but Harvey himself completed the 58 books that remained untranslated when he retired in 2005 and was able to work on them full time.  Canadian Bible Society’s president, Dr Rupen Das, said: ‘God speaks through his word, but how can people hear if it’s not in a language they value and appreciate?’  I wonder how we would feel if the only way we could read the Bible would be in a language that was not our own first language?[1]

In addition, the Digital Bible Library, set up to enable hundreds of millions of people to access Scripture through websites and apps, has recently reached the milestone of bringing together 2,500 texts in 1,622 languages used by over 5.7 billion people.[2]   It is the very useful way that I am able to carry an assortment of Bibles around in the pocket of my jeans!

Currently the work is focussing largely on the conflict in Israel, where teams are providing practical support in the form of items that may have been lost – often as basic as soap or socks, torches or blankets, but also emotional and spiritual help through the society’s trauma healing programme.  The Bible is at the heart of this work, and people are offered a whole or part Bible or a portion of scripture, depending upon their openness and readiness as a part of the work.

These are most definitely causes for celebration, until you realise that there are an estimated 7000 languages currently spoken in our world today, so there is quite a distance to go yet.  The work of translation is not easy, as translators must make the scripture not only readable, but to make sense to different cultures.  Translating to people who have never seen a sheep or kept livestock or grown crops, or who live nowhere near water, and have no use for boats and fishing are just some examples of the problems faced. 

The reaction of people who are given access to a Bible in their own language for the first time is often one of real joy, which makes me feel a little ashamed of the ease with which we can access the Bible today, and yet how little people in this country often know of it.

On this Bible Sunday, and always we need to treasure and regularly read the scriptures which are so easily available to us, and to support the work of organisations such as the Bible Society in our prayers as well as financially, as they continue to make it available to more people all the time.

[1] Bible Society website

[2] From the website of the Bible Society:

20th Sunday after Trinity – 22nd October 2023

Trinity 20 – October 22nd October

Isaiah 45:1-7, Matthew 22.15-22

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

It is not hard in the current situation in the world today, to imagine 2 different groups of people with different ideologies and backgrounds at loggerheads with each other. There are several examples playing out on the news day by day. Hamas, Gaza and Israel and the longer running Ukraine and Russia conflicts.

This is very much the position where we encounter Jesus in our gospel reading this morning/afternoon. In amongst 2 different groups of people who held wildly different ideologies and backgrounds… When they choose to ask him a very tricky question about taxes, which I think has been a pretty vexed subject for at least 2 thousand years!!

In fact, taxation has been one of the instruments of government in some form or another for as long as human beings have lived in communities. Examples of taxation are known to have existed in the third millennium BC  (over 4 thousand years ago). In Mesopotamia, one such tax was called ‘burden’, which suggests that taxes were no more popular then than now. In the absence of money that stands in the place of things of actual value, taxes in those days were paid in kind. Daniel Defoe wrote Taxes, like the poor, have always been with us. It was Benjamin Franklin another American president, who first captured the role of taxes in our lives ‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’

In our gospel reading – the two groups Jesus is with are disciples of the Pharisees and Herodians. First of all, neither of these groups were on Jesus’ side by this stage of the gospel story in Matthew. Anyone coming up to you starting Teacher, we know that you are sincere and then asking a tricky question about money and taxes is really showing they are NOT going to be on side. To complicate matters further these 2 groups, though united in questioning Jesus (and not liking him) did not agree with each other on this topic either!

The disciples of the Pharisees – who were religious zealots of the day didn’t like Jesus because he criticised them for talking the talk not walking the walk. It was all about carrying out the right ritual at the right time. Not doing things with good heart and for God. They would have been in favour of not paying the tax, as they wanted power and wanted rid of the Romans.

Whereas, the Herodians were supporters of Herod Antipas, the puppet King of the Jewish nation established by the Romans. They feared Jesus was going to try to take on his power or his authority with the Jewish people. They were running scared for different reasons. They would have been in favour of paying the tax, as that was keeping their man Herod Antipas in power and in with the Romans. This is really a bit of a hornet’s nest for Jesus as whichever way he answers someone won’t be happy.

I suspect in our hearts and lives we can identify time and places where we have had this kind of dilemma. Where those we are talking to have very opposed views as to what should  happen next. And there is no easy or obvious resolution in sight!

So they ask the question – 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? And Jesus spots their testing, hypocritical game and tells them so. That is a pretty brave thing to do – when someone is behaving like that do we normally call a spade a spade? Jesus final answer after they had examined the coin and found the emperor’s head on it – Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

The answer he does give is ambiguous, and has been interpreted in different ways.  For some it makes clear that we have dual loyalties, to God in spiritual matters and to the state in temporal ones. Probably from this answer what the Herodians will have heard is that paying tax is right, but faithful Jews will know that there is nothing that is not God’s, so the disciples of the Pharisees will have heard him as rejecting the tax to Rome.

Others again have suggested that the avoidance of a direct answer is the real point: Jesus doesn’t tell people what to think, but requires them to work things out for themselves. No doubt his answer on this occasion could have sustained a market-place argument for hours,  or been another complicated parable etc. as people tried to get to grips with what he was saying

Retuning to the world today – There really isn’t an easy answer to any of the questions  posed by the conflicts ongoing at the moment and there are many innocent bystanders being hurt and killed. Both through the situation in Israel and Gaza and Ukraine. There are different people interpreting what is going on in wildly differing ways. In this complexity I think it is important that  our first response is to pray for peace. We have been lighting a peace candle now for many months, and I found the prayer that had been produced by churches together in Great Britain and Ireland, which I found helpful. I put it in the newsletter and you should have a copy of it in your hands today.

Before we pray it together let me just explain how it starts with reference to  some old testament characters. These characters show the width of God’s love, mercy and inclusion in every division from the very start. They are all from the family of Abraham and some of the earliest of God’s promises to show the depth of this prayer.

  • Abraham is known for his faith and  hope (and willingness to follow God’s command). His name means the father of nations.
  • Sarah his wife is known for fear and doubt. She did not believe she would bear a child in old age to be the founder of a new nation. Yet Sarah’s name means chief or ruler.
  • Hagar is the slave girl, who Sarah gave to Abraham when she failed to conceive a child – Hagar is treated very harshly, running away and being exiled as she bore a child Ishmael. Hagar’s name means immigration or flight.
  • Isaac is the son of Sarah and Abraham who came along eventually – yet he is tricked by his younger son (Jacob) who takes the birthright of Esau his older son. Isaac’s name means laughter. This is the Jacob who goes on to have 12 sons!
  • And Ishmael is Hagar’s son – And he was promised to be the start of a great nation too. He lived in the wilderness but have 12 sons (as did Jacob). For Muslims, his family line is in the origins of the prophet Mohammed…Ishmael’s name means God hears – referring to how God helps Ishmael in his difficult early days!

The point being God is God of everything and everyone – the flawed and the faithful, those who are deceived and deceiving, and those who are honest. In our hearts – looking at the need for peace in seemingly  insurmountable circumstances and where we don’t know what to say – what is best is to cry out in prayer to God in the face of all these conflicts.

Let’s have some silence and then we will pray the CTBI prayer together.

O God of all of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael: Our hearts are broken in pieces at the suffering and murder of your people. Our voices cry for peace and for justice. Comfort those who grieve, console and heal the injured, be close to those in fear, restrain with your mighty hand those who perpetrate violence.  Send us your wisdom in all that we say and do, that our voice may always seek justice, peace and security for all. Amen.

The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible © 1989. 1995