Jane Williams, a well-known theologian who teaches at St Mellitus, has another Lent book out, and it is written with her customary insight and clarity. The Merciful Humility of God is quite short at 30,000 words, but delivers a lot of insight, and will no doubt sell well and be read widely. (The cover picture is by Giacomo Parolini and, curiously, is not actually available online; I have taken this image from the book cover.) The overall theme arises from an observation of St Augustine, that it is ‘only the merciful humility of God that can penetrate our armoured pride’, and Augustine features again within the text. The book is quite unusual in two respects. First, the five chapters focus on five aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry: his baptism and temptation; his birth and origins; aspects of his life and ministry; his crucifixion; and his resurrection. It is quite refreshing to read a Lent book which does not just focus in on either the temptations or the passion, but takes a broader review of the gospel narratives (and, appropriately, Luke’s gospel features prominently). It is slightly odd that Jesus’ baptism comes before the discussion of the birth narratives; it didn’t grate at the time of reading, but on reflection it looks unusual, and I am not sure what the final rationale for that is.
The other striking thing about this short book is the way that the chapters themselves are structured. About the first two-thirds of each chapter offers a close reading of some selected biblical texts, one of which is then offered for further reflection, with questions, at the end of each chapter. But the last one-third changes register completely, and looks at the way a key issue from the textual study is expressed in the life of a famous Christian from history. The first is Augustine, and Williams traces his journey from competence to vulnerability; the second is Julian of Norwich, and her visions of the tender (even erotic?) love of God for his world; the third is Francis of Assisi and his embrace of poverty; the fourth is Teresa of Avila, and her insight into suffering; and the last is Jean Vanier with his radical commitment to an all-embracing practice of community. The whistle-stop tours of these significant figures will, no doubt, be of interest and enlightenment to many readers.
The textual studies are, in many ways, masterly; Williams has a knack for including a wealth of detail in quite a small space, paying careful attention to the details of the text, but at the same time including insights from wider themes in the gospel (most obviously, when she mentions the Fourth Gospel, the theme of glory which develops in its second half). And she does this with a deft turn of phrase; I think my favourite was her summary of Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the opening sections of Mark and Matthew: the proclamation that ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’ means that God is ‘too close for comfort’ and ‘decisions about the direction of our lives can be put off no longer’. But there were a number of places where I found her reading of the texts quite surprising.
In the final chapter, her reading of the parable of the sheep and the goats teaches us a lesson (through the actions of the sheep) of the ‘equal value of all human beings’ (p 138), which draws on a reading of the parable which is recent, doesn’t make sense, and dislocates the parable from its context in Matthew. In her discussion of the foot washing in John 13 (which is illustrated on the cover of the book), she wrestles with the challenge of the unmerited grace of God.
The Reformers called it ‘justification by grace through faith’ and even the faith is not ours, but Christ’s. (p 77)
This is quite a startling claim, based as it is on one answer to the complex debate about the phrase ‘faith of Christ’ (pistis Christou) which grammatically could mean either ‘our faith in Christ’ (a so-called objective genitive) or ‘Christ’s faith[fulness]’ (a subjective genitive), much as ‘the love of God’ can mean either our love for God or God’s love for us. In stating this so categorically, Williams appears to be claiming that nothing is required for us to experience the grace of God—God does it all, and there is nothing for us to do, not even by way of response or receipt.
There are pointers to this kind of position earlier on in the book as well. Just a few pages previously, she reads Jesus’ radical reinterpretation of the law as teaching us that ‘there is nothing that can make God unholy’ (p 72) and that ‘there is no reliable way of determining who is ‘in’ with God and who is ‘out” (p 73). These observations are faithful to the surprising re-drawing of boundaries evident in Jesus’ ministry—but they struggle to account for Jesus’ language of radical division all through the gospels, defined in relation to people’s response to his ministry and his teaching. Williams seems to display a discomfort with the language of power in the gospels, and this is noticeable as she draws quite often on Luke’s gospel, which has power as a major theme. She is quite right to observe that the resurrected Jesus doesn’t ‘come to his enemies and force them to admit they were wrong and and kneel before his transcendent aliveness’ (p 114), and there is some significant theological work to be done to make sense of that. But no-one appears to have informed Peter about this in his Pentecost speech of Acts 2, where he uses some uncompromising language to make just this kind of move—and is clear that the day will come when this will indeed happen. In the opening chapter on Jesus’ baptism and temptation, Williams observes the two-fold dynamic of Jesus engaging and identifying with the ‘force and reality of sin’ (p 12) and being empowered for ministry by his affirmation by God in the voice from heaven. But the thing the reader takes away from this is the unconditional affirmation (‘Start each morning of Lent by hearing God say to you “You are my beloved”‘, p 31), rather than starting each morning by saying ‘I repent of my sins’!
For me, the most startling reading of Luke’s gospel comes in the introductory chapter. Over three pages, Williams explores aspects of the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15.11–32) and consistently contrasts the life, ministry and message of Jesus with the narrative shape of the parable.
The infinite patience of God is more active than that of the father of the Prodigal, because God does more than wait; in Jesus Christ, God enters into the way of the Prodigal so that even here, while the Prodigal is still assuming that he is fine on his own, the love of the father is present…The life of Jesus means that we can turn and find God beside us, everywhere.
Now, there are some interesting questions to ask here, both about the shape of the story itself (what happened to the central turning point [pun intended] when the son ‘comes to himself’ and changes the direction of his journey?) and its location in Luke (how does the waiting of the father relate to the immediately preceding search of the shepherd for his sheep and the woman for her coin?) and these will in due course merit an article of their own. But again notice the theological and pastoral point: there is no need for repentance or turning for the love of God to be present. In this way, Williams is offering a universalising kind of reading in which faith does not seem to be necessary as an active part of receiving the love of God.
This kind of partial reading seems to be to be quite common in the way that biblical texts are handled in contemporary reading and preaching. When preachers and teachers cite the example of John 13 and the foot washing, the focus is rightly on Jesus’ service and humility, but the complementary aspects are often passed over. These are actually made very clear in the text: Jesus is free to serve because (the writer tells us up front) ‘Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father’ (John 13.1). It is Jesus’ power and authority, indeed as this gospel sets it out, his clear conviction of his own pre-existence and transcendent destiny, which frees him to serve. This is not simply an example of human humility; Jesus concludes:
“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. (John 13.13–14)
Jesus’ power and service are intimately intertwined. Similarly, in Paul’s great ‘Christ hymn’ in Phil 2, it begins and ends with Jesus exalted as part of the very nature of God, and it is this which makes his service and sacrifice so remarkable. The incarnation is not about just anyone coming to us in the flesh, but the very presence and power of God himself coming. This is not to say that Jane Williams missed this or fails to understand it, but it is interesting to note how one side of the equation gets more emphasis than the other, and that leads to the danger of misreading.
I am conscious that Williams has been influenced very much by the theology of Jurgen Moltmann, and this might explain the tendency to lean in the direction of a universal reading and one that avoids the more challenging aspects of power and judgement. This raises interesting questions about how our own theological agendas shape the way we read texts—but there are also questions here about the specific ways in which texts are presented. I had the immense privilege of attending the ordination of Emma Ineson and Sarah Clark as suffragan bishops in York Minster yesterday, and the readings for the service were Malachi 2.5–6, Matt 11.25–29, and Rev 19.1–9. These readings all have something in common; before reading any further, turn to them and see if you can spot what it is?
The answer is that each of these readings (of which some phrases are very well known) function to lift a text of blessing out of its surrounding context of texts of judgement. Malachi (‘my messenger’) offers a startling rebuke to the priests in Israel who have failed to be faithful to God’s covenant. Here is the section of Mal 2, with the reading highlighted:
“And now, you priests, this warning is for you. If you do not listen, and if you do not resolve to honor my name,” says the LORD Almighty, “I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honor me.
“Because of you I will rebuke your descendants; I will smear on your faces the dung from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it. And you will know that I have sent you this warning so that my covenant with Levi may continue,” says the LORD Almighty. “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.
“For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the LORD Almighty. “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.”
(It is also worth noting that, when the highlighted verses are lifted out of context, it is not clear who is the person with whom the covenant was made; many readers will assume it is a messianic figure, but in fact it is with Levi.) Similarly, Jesus has just rebuked the villages who did not receive his teaching, comparing them unfavourably with Sodom and Gomorrah; and the heavenly praise of Rev 19 is rejoicing in the justice of God displayed in the destruction of ‘Babylon’, which links to the coming of the Rider on the White Horse.
Detaching these texts of blessing from the darker ground of the context of judgement not only makes them shine less brightly; it also distorts their meaning, as when the gracious invitation of God is detached from the call to repent.
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