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Faith >

Next Sunday's readings: 20th Sunday after Trinity

by Martin Warner

Proper 24: Jeremiah 31.27-34;
2 Timothy 3.14-4.5;
Luke 18.1-8

DO YOU remember the Hitler diaries? In 1983 the German magazine Stern claimed to have possession of his diaries and other documents covering the period 1932-1945.

It was soon clear that the whole thing was a hoax, but not before a number of reputations had been damaged and a great deal of money lost. The documents were forged by Konrad Kujau. On close inspection, they proved to be inaccurate, poor imitations, and revealing nothing of significance.

In recent weeks, our Sunday readings have taken us through the letters of St Paul to Timothy. They have resonated with the Gospel readings in profound ways, rehearsing familiar phrases that are important to us. Today’s reading is a good example. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching” (2 Timothy 3.16) is an oft-quoted text.

But these letters, which, with the letter to Titus, are sometimes known as the Pastoral Epistles, also present a challenge to us. New Testament scholars generally now believe that they were not written by St Paul. The argument goes like this.

There is no document before the second century that attributes the Pastoral Epistles to St Paul. The early Christian heretic, Marcion, who wanted to exclude Paul’s writing from Christian usage altogether, did not know of their existence. They also lack themes, such as Christians living life “in Christ” and Christ’s imminent return in judgement, that are central to the letters we are certain Paul did write.

So does this mean that they are forgeries, like the Hitler diaries? The comparison is worth making in order to illustrate the difference between the ancient Pastoral Epistles that form part of our sacred scriptures, and documents that we would describe as a forgery.

First, the motive in forging the Hitler diaries was financial self-interest. Stern paid ten million marks for them. Kujau and his accomplice, Gerd Heidermann, were both sent to prison. Whoever wrote the Pastoral Epistles, some time in the early second century, adopted the then-common practice of attributing authorship to a famous person in order to indicate the importance of the content. It was not about personal gain.

Secondly, when we look at the content, we see that the Hitler diaries were as thin as they were false. However, the content of the Pastoral Epistles has been valued by the Church from the time of their writing. Respected second-century theologians such as St Irenaeus, St Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian all acclaim their merits. As we shall see when we look more closely at today’s reading from 2 Timothy, it continues to speak authoritatively about how we should live the Christian faith.

Thirdly, the application of critical examination to the Hitler diaries resulted in their reduction to worthlessness. As Christians, we should not be afraid that rigorous critical examination of the texts of Old and New Testaments would diminish their value.

What biblical scholars reveal to us is an amazingly complex collection of documents that authentically bear all the marks of their antiquity and sacred status. These often include mistakes that occur in the process of copying or translation, but also indications of how an author has used original material to create a text that exudes a distinctive character, culture, or purpose.

One indication of the location of 2 Timothy in a very specific historical context is the knowledge of Timothy’s family background: “from childhood you have known the sacred writings” (2 Timothy 3.15). When we look back through this epistle, we see that the people who taught Timothy to love the documents that convey the message of salvation were his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.

So perhaps the first thing we might take to heart from 2 Timothy is the importance of the home and family — especially mothers and grandmothers — as the context in which we can foster a love of scripture and a fascination with its mystery and meaning.

In many monastic communities, the daily Gospel reading used in the eucharist becomes a kind of theme for the day. We have probably long since discounted the notion of domestic family prayers and scripture reading as “old fashioned”. But I suspect Muslims, for example, would regard us as odd in this respect, since in their religion — as in many others — the home is the obvious place where faith is nurtured and practised. Why should this not be so for Christians in Britain today?

Secondly, the author of 2 Timothy speaks of scripture as “inspired”. That was a distinctive and unusual word, more commonly associated with pre-Christian literature. The literal meaning of the word is “breathed into by God”. This suggests something akin to the creation of the human person in whom the breath of God brings about life and imagination.

The Judaeo-Christian scriptures are works of art, not simply books of rules. They need to be read with an informed imagination which is animated by the breath of the Spirit of truth. Read them with wonder and care. Read them often. Read them to each other. Read them at home, not just in church. Interrogate them, and let their words release the knowledge of God.

Jeremiah 31:27-34
 27 "The days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will plant the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the offspring of men and of animals. 28 Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down, and to overthrow, destroy and bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant," declares the LORD. 29 "In those days people will no longer say, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.' 30 Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—his own teeth will be set on edge.  31"The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the LORD. 33 "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."

2 Timothy 3.14-4.5

14But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

1In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

Luke 18.1-8

1Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. 3And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'  4"For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!' " 6And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"

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