Tag Archives: Faithfulness

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 3 (Cont)

Despite a number of scholars suggesting that Zadok is the “faithful priest” (2:35) who will replace Eli, the author or editors of 1 Samuel have placed the call of Samuel immediately after this prophecy. This shows that in the present narrative at least, Samuel is seen as the successor of Eli and his sons, in terms of national leadership if not as high priest. Once more, as Evans suggests (p. 39), the story highlights “the power of God and his empowering of the powerless: The inexperienced youth, the decrepit priest and the barren woman are all presented as significant tools in the outworking of God’s purposes.”

In her exposition of this chapter, Francesca Aran Murphy meditates on the idea of calling or vocation: “a vocation is not a project I make for myself, but a call to me, from someone else, to which I hear and respond. Vocation results from calling” (27). Samuel begins to be the person God intends him to be only because he hears God’s call and responds obediently to it.

Murphy insists that the story of Samuel indicates the importance of the individual in the making of history. This runs counter to much social-scientific philosophy which would lodge the rationale for historic change in mass movements, social dynamics and environmental features. Murphy demurs: “it is characters, not conditions and contexts, that make history” (28). This, perhaps, is a “both-and” question. The sixteenth-century Reformations were no doubt assisted because of the social, political, religious, and economic factors in play at the time, but whether they would have occurred without the catalytic character of Martin Luther is indeed questionable. History, in this sense, is not inevitable, but “the one God guides history by calling out unique actors to stage a providential history” (28). While the study of such historical factors is not unimportant, biography is more so.

Most ancient New Eastern cultures created national records and lists of their kings with their purported achievements. Israel surpassed them in history writing and created, in Regum [i.e. the books of Samuel and Kings], the first real long-range historical work because it grasped more deeply than these collectivist cultures the principle that “men are free and responsible moral agents is the fundamental principle of historical thinking: no free will, no history—no history in our sense of history” (28, citing John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness, 252, original emphasis).

But Murphy goes further: God does not simply call individuals, he creates them by his call. God’s call separates the one called from the collectives to which they belong (in Samuel’s case, family and tribe) into a direct relationship with himself. The divine call constitutes the moral individual as they respond in obedience to that call, answering God and becoming a responsible participant in what God is doing. Such persons not only act in history, but in partnership with God they become co-creators of it (29).

God’s call separates a person his or her culture, and this break with the internal social dynamic of a culture gives them the spiritual wherewithal to found a genuine community, spreading from and embedded in the work or task that is named in the divine call. Such characters are made individuals in order to give their lives to their community (30).

The divine call is not to privilege and status but to service. Samuel is to serve the word which has been addressed to him, and this is neither easy nor comfortable. His call is not to lead “his best life now,” but to hear the word of God and declare it, in spite of his discomfort in doing so. He must announce judgement to Eli, and later to Saul. He would mourn over his task, yet he proved faithful in its execution.

God’s call is the foundation of personal identity and mission. Our identity is not self-grounded, not established in anything within ourselves, but is a gift received when the personal God calls us by name to bind him to himself. In this call is given a task or a mission issuing in a life of self-dispossession that a community might be founded and gathered, which in turn will hear the divine voice and call. Here the call of Samuel becomes our call, and his story ours. Will we hear as he heard, and respond as he did?

The boy-priest in his little ephod became a prophet declaring the message of God, and if not a king, still a national leader and king-maker, a precursor of kings, the last and greatest of the judges, though still an isolated and lonely figure. As such, “Samuel is a living analogy to the prophet, priest, and king that Christ will be in the fullest sense. Of none of Israel’s kings can it be said with historical plausibility that he was prophet, priest, and king. It can credibly be said of only Samuel” (Murphy, 18).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:21

JamesJames 2:21
Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?

With this second rhetorical question James introduces his first biblical illustration to demonstrate that faith without works is fruitless. The grammar of the sentence (ouk) indicates that a positive answer is anticipated to this question, that is, that “our ancestor Abraham” (Abraam ho pater) was indeed “justified by works” (ex ergōn edikaiōthē). That James refers to Abraham as “our father” indicates the Jewish heritage of his readers, and of the interlocutor, and calls to the evidence stand the progenitor of the whole race. If this was the case with Abraham, why would it be any different for his descendants?

James asserts that Abraham was justified by works when or because or as “he offered his son Isaac on the altar” (anenegkas Isaak ton huion autou epi to thusiastērion). The participle anenegkas has been translated in each of the ways suggested in the various English versions of the New Testament. While the translation when may be the best (Vlachos, 96), each is possible, and perhaps in the end it makes little difference: it was because and as Abraham offered his son to God that he was justified. This, at least, seems to be James’s intent.

The event to which James refers is described in Genesis 22:1-6 where God tests Abraham and Abraham obeys God’s voice. Abraham’s obedience results in the confirmation of the blessing promised by God to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, and the reiteration of the blessing pronounced in Genesis 15:1-6. We have already seen in the first chapter of this letter that the themes of testing, and of hearing and doing are prominent for James. It may be that these elements in the Abraham story drew him to use Genesis 22.

In verse 23 James will support his contention that Abraham was justified by this act of obedience by referring back to Genesis 15:6. James does not read the text in Genesis 15 in a chronological sense as though Abraham was first justified and then later obeyed. Rather, he reads the story as a whole in which Abraham’s trust in God (Genesis 15) and his obedience to God (Genesis 22) are all of apiece. Abraham’s actions of obedience were not simply a demonstration of his faith but were the expression of his faith.

Two aspects of James’s teaching in this verse are worth considering. First, Abraham’s “works” in this illustration are not those of care and compassion toward the poor, but of devotion and faithful obedience to God. This suggests, perhaps, that the works that James has in view in the entire passage are not simply works of mercy, but all those works which issue from a genuine faith in God.

Second, we must consider what James means by the term “justify.” It is very easy to read James through a Pauline lens and suggest that the term is identical in both New Testament authors. Such a move is problematic since it would then mean that James and Paul stand in stark contradiction to one another with Paul arguing that “a person is justified by faith apart from works” and James arguing the opposite (cf. Romans 3:28). A number of commentators, however, note that whereas Paul uses the term to speak of the initial work whereby sinners are brought into right relationship with God on the basis of faith, James uses the term to speak of the ultimate declaration of God in the last judgement on the basis of a whole life lived. The matter, therefore, is between initial and final justification (see, e.g. Moo, 110).

I will take this matter up further once the whole passage has been studied.

Tales of Infidelity (1): Hugh Mackay

Hugh Mackay, Infidelity: A Novel 
(Sydney: Pan MacMillan Australia, 2013) 
ISBN: 978-1-74261-248-5

Infidelity, MackayHugh Mackay is a well-known Australian social commentator and author of both non-fiction and fiction works. Several of Mackay’s non-fiction works—Right and Wrong and The Good Life—demonstrate his interest in moral questions, an interest also finding expression in his opinion pieces in Australian newspapers. His most recent novel Infidelity develops this interest. A brief statement at the close of the book says,

I first encountered the central moral dilemma faced by Sarah and Tom in an article published in The Psychologist, the monthly magazine of The British Psychological Society. It was presented as part of a series of complex moral questions that might be raised by clients receiving psychotherapy. When I read it, I could imagine how that dilemma, somewhat nuanced, could form the ‘hinge’ of a plot for a novel.

The story is told from Tom’s perspective. Tom is a forty-three Australian psychologist ‘exiled’ temporarily in London who falls deeply in love with Sarah. The attachment very quickly turns into an affair and before long he has moved in. But things are complicated: Sarah is still married to someone else in what is portrayed as a loveless but nevertheless mutually convenient relationship.

As the book unfolds and the affair deepens, various kinds and levels of infidelity are noticed as Mackay weaves a range of moral questions, scenarios and dilemmas into the narrative. These are such a subtle  part of the story that it is only upon subsequent reflection that I became conscious of the extent of everyday moral issues that Mackay has canvassed. The core matter though concerns what the object of fidelity truly is. Early on Sarah, a popular university lecturer, notes that “once you’ve stopped being true to yourself, other infidelities come more easily” (44). Later, in a reflection on his own loss of religious faith, Tom ponders:

Unfaithfulness. Was that, I wondered, one of the infidelities that could lead on to others? Was that what Sarah had meant when she said being corrupted by Perry’s wealth made other infidelities easier? Was one kind of faithfulness a bastion against other lapses?

Sitting in that magnificent setting, surrounded by all the panoply of religious practice, I wasn’t sure. Not sure at all. I could be true to myself, I thought, and faithful to a partner, without needing religious faith to shore me up. Yet I saw how the reverse process might work: one kind of infidelity could make others easier. If a man betrayed his wife, or his friends, or his colleagues – or even his country – perhaps that would lower the moral barrier to other betrayals. But I couldn’t see why steadfast religious belief should be the core fidelity. Wasn’t the core fidelity being true to yourself, to your own scruples? And wouldn’t other fidelities be more likely to flow from that one than from any others? That was an idea that had been with us for thousands of years. Shakespeare, as usual, put it best: this above all – to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man. (178-179, original emphasis)

Although Mackay portrays religious faith in quite positive terms, this is as close as he comes to preaching. In an interview/review in the Sydney Morning Herald, he described himself as a Christian agnostic, by which he means to convey the idea that he is broadly in sympathy with the Christian position on many issues, having been steeped in Christian culture and tradition. “But I am not currently the kind of believer I once was,” he says. “More pilgrim than committed. Neither atheist nor theist. Full of doubt, as I suspect many Christian believers also are. Very wary of the fundamentalist, having been one in my youth.”

In his interview Mackay indicates that he is arguing with Shakespeare that “fidelity is about being true to yourself and your own convictions.” Certainly Sarah’s initial observation, together with Tom’s reflection, suggests that the primary fidelity involves being true to oneself.

Yet does the story subvert this observation and undermine Shakespeare’s wisdom? Perhaps Sarah’s initial compromise with respect to her husband was an initial infidelity. Arguably, however, the infidelities of her life are the symptoms of a deeper fidelity to self-above-all. Sarah’s infidelities arise precisely because she is so committed to herself and what she perceives to be in her own best interests. If the theological dictum homo incurvatus in se has credence, this (inherent) self-fidelity will be overcome only by a more fundamental fidelity to that which is not our self, to that which is external to ourselves in such a way that the self becomes decentred—though not lost. That there are secular ways of framing this external reality is undoubted; nonetheless, the very act of establishing such an external reference is inherently religious, whether that external reference is God or an abstract value such as justice, or dare I say it, the “golden rule.” Thus, the question persists, perhaps even in spite of Mackay’s intent. Might religious faith be that core of fidelity which supports and enables other kinds of fidelity?

Mackay is doing here in fiction what he does more straight-forwardly in The Good Life. That is, he argues that true satisfaction is found not in serving one’s own (selfish) interests, but in our capacity for selflessness, for relationship, for hospitality toward others. He has written a credible and thoughtful story in a very readable form. I recommend it.