Sunday 4th March - Lent 3 - Eucharist - Kenneth Boyd

ST JOHN, Lent 3, 10.30: Exodus 20.1-17; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22.

In 1797, the Scottish explorer Mungo Park stood on the banks of the Niger River and marvelled at the ‘civilization and magnificence’ of the city of Segu and ‘the cultivated state of the surrounding countryside’. Segu was the capital of the West African kingdom, then empire, of the Bambara people: situated in present day Mali, the Bambara Empire existed from the early 18th to the mid-19th centuries, and at its height extended as far north as Timbuktu and the trade routes across the Sahara. Segu’s victorious wars with neighbouring kingdoms were cruel to the defeated, often enslaving them, but in the end many of its own people were carried away by the European slave trade, while its empire and traditional religion succumbed to the expansion of militant Islam. A magnificent modern novel, Segu, by Maryse Condé, dedicated to the author’s ‘Bambara ancestress’, traces the Empire’s rise and fall through the lives of members of one of its families: Condé the novelist brings vividly to life the varied experiences and human feelings of her ancestral people, drawing out what Mungo Park, from Scotland with its no less violent history, described as ‘the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature’.

What the story of Segu also vividly illustrates, I think, is what the current BBC television series, Civilizations, seeks to draw to our attention: ‘civilization’ is not just what was created in Europe and a few other great centres, but what has arisen repeatedly, across all the continents, from the very earliest prehistoric times. Civilization is about the emergence, again and again, of human creativity, expressed especially in art, music, and architecture: wall paintings in caves, the first musical instruments, delicate sculptures, magnificent buildings – buildings such as those of the ancient city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert, all-too-recently recklessly vandalised and partially destroyed by ISIS. The prologue to the BBC series is a tribute to Khaled Al-Assad, Palmyra’s 83 year old head of antiquities, who refused to reveal the location of the ancient artefacts he had helped to hide, and so was cruelly beheaded. Who was Al-Assad, the programme seemed to be saying, but a true martyr, a martyr in the cause not of religion, but of humanity and human creativity? And who can disagree?

But perhaps there’s a problem. In our Old Testament reading today the second of the Ten Commandments states: ‘You shall not make yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…’ The point seems to be made even more clearly in the Authorized Version where what is forbidden is translated not as ‘an idol’ but as ‘a graven image’. Not just in Islam, but also in Judaism and Christianity, this commandment has been seen as a reason to destroy painting, sculpture, stained glass and other artefacts often beautifully created for religious purposes: some of the 16th century Protestant Reformers, for example, were just as wantonly destructive as ISIS today: but is that what the second commandment really intends?

To answer that question, we need to recall the original context of the Ten Commandments. Moses, a shadowy but nevertheless historical figure, was trying to create a community, even a nation, out of the ragged collection of former slaves he had led out of Egypt and across the desert. He was doing this in response to his overwhelming encounters with the mysterious but deeply personal presence he identified with the God of his ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob. What this God was, could not be described as anything or anyone else can be described. Who this God was could only be met with, encountered, as an invisible but nevertheless utterly real presence, who Moses heard telling him that his name was ‘I AM WHO I AM’, or ‘I will be what I will be’, or as a modern Jewish scholar put it, ‘‘I shall be present with you: in whatever form I shall be present, you will recognise me’.

Now if this sounds strange to us, we need to recall that it is essentially no different from what innumerable souls in every generation have encountered, when they called out in prayer to the unseen presence in whom so many have found peace, courage and meaning for their living: no unconsumed burning bush may have been seen by them, no smoke on a mountain top, but the presence nevertheless was and is real, and for many, more real than anything else. But the very reality of what Moses encountered, was precisely why his commandment prohibited worshipping God in the form of an idol or graven image. This was not condemnation of the creativity of the human imagination celebrated in the BBC’s Civilizations, the imaginative creativity expressed especially in art, music and architecture. God does not delight in the destruction of art because, as the 19th century religious writer George MacDonald so profoundly put it, ‘the imagination of man is made in the image of the imagination of God’. 

What the Second Commandment essentially is, rather, is a prohibition of creating an idol or graven image of God, for to do that is to reduce the mysterious presence of I AM WHO I AM to something less than God, something that can be definitively represented and even manipulated by human ritual or even by magic. But that no longer is I AM WHO I AM, the mysterious living presence who brings peace, courage and meaning to those who call out to the invisible, who brings peace, courage and meaning, as we can only say, ‘from above’.  The problem with those who interpret the commandment too literally, as an instruction to destroy what is created by human hands, is that they fail to see that the commandment also applies to what is created by human minds, including their own: making idols of the ideas, dogmas, doctrines of their own or of their particular sect, idols of the mind which imply that I AM WHO I AM can be definitively and even exclusively represented by what I or my sect say we believe about God

In their original context then, Moses’ Ten Commandments provided not information about what God is, what I AM WHO I AM is, but how, by following the commandments, the Israelites might learn who was this presence journeying with them, to be recognised as, when, and in whatever form I AM chose to be present. The Commandments themselves were just the beginning, a sketch of how to live in community with God and one another. They then required to be interpreted and adapted as circumstances changed, and new challenges arose, as they still do, especially to the inadequacies of the patriarchal and polygamous family structures within which the Commandments were originally understood.  

When Moses’ wandering community eventually settled down in cities where there were great inequalities of wealth and poverty, how to interpret ‘you shall not steal’, for example, would be a major concern of the later Jewish prophets. In our reading from John’s Gospel today, Jesus drives the money-changers from the temple, telling them to ‘stop making my Father’s house a marketplace’. This action is sometimes interpreted, again all too literally, as a prohibition of any commercial activity in churches. But as the other three gospels record, Jesus then also quotes the words of the prophet Jeremiah: ‘you have made [my] house…a den of robbers’. In saying this, Jeremiah was denouncing those religious people in his own time who were indifferent and acted unjustly to the poor, but believed that they were justified and kept safe by correctly performing their religious rituals.  Jesus here, similarly, is objecting not essentially to secular commerce in the temple, but to religion that paid no attention to God’s poor, and hence paid no attention to God, to I AM WHO I AM, who as Jesus himself, is to be encountered in those whom he called the least of his brothers and sisters. The lesson is still relevant today. If you seek his monument, look around you.