Good Friday: The Seed, the Serpent and Chekhov’s Rifle

22 04 2011

Russian Playwright Anton Chekov famously wrote:

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The author of Scripture knew this well, and He never hung rifles He was not planning to fire…

Act I

‘Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD had made…  Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
(Genesis 3:1, 13-15)

Act II

‘And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.’
(Numbers 21:5-9)


‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’
(John 3:14-15)

Terry Jones: International Marketing Guru

4 04 2011

Well, Terry Jones, you have much to teach us about how to propel yourself to worldwide fame. Who knew that simply putting the word ‘International’ in front of a parochial, minority event, without backing from the government or religious communities, would raise your profile so immeasurably?! I would never have thought to publicise a localised mock trial by the Dove World Outreach Am-Dram Group as an international event, but your superior marketing skills have once again blown me away!

I am in awe of your selfless willingness to step, once more, into the limelight! I am amazed that you can sleep at night, whilst dozens die on the other side of the world as a result of your actions? It was truly sacrificial of you to give up your beauty-sleep in the cause of truth. If there’s any way I can support your campaign, perhaps by donating a packet of Nytol, do let me know.

And Terry, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to encourage you with a little verse from the Bible. Ok, I admit, I’ve added in a few words and twisted it a little, but that’s fine by you surely? I mean, I readily accept I won’t have mangled Scripture with quite the aplomb you have demonstrated, but after all, I am no International Superstar… just an amateur blogger in a backwater village on a small island. It comes from Matthew 7 (that’s in the New Testament, in case you haven’t yet read that far yet):

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not found churches that unwaveringly denounced Islam? Did we not burn their books in your name? Did we not clearly and aggressively stir up hatred against your bride (after all, we’re meant to be a persecuted people, right?!) Did we not withhold your grace from everyone, that they might see the error of their ways? And did we not do it all in your name?’ And then I will declare to them ‘…..’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

Fill in the blanks!

See also: ‘Book burners: Give Jesus back his coat’

Darkness = …?

18 02 2011

A little shameless self-promotion to cover up for my inability to blog regularly… check out an article of mine just published on the Newfrontiers Theology Forum blog:

Thirty Pieces: Throw it to the Potter

9 12 2010

‘Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”’
(Matthew 27:3-10)

This is a remarkable little incident where a band of conspirators unwittingly prophesy through their actions.  As we’ve seen previously, Zechariah 11 speaks of the shepherd being paid a paltry sum for his work, shepherding an unfaithful flock. The passage continues:

‘Then I said to them, “If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver. Then the LORD said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the LORD, to the potter.’
(Zechariah 11:12-14)

In Zechariah’s context, the Potter was probably a temple functionary who dealt with the incoming donations of precious metal. The point of Zechariah’s prophetic action is to symbolise the rejection of the Temple system. The thirty pieces, given as wages, are thrown back into the Temple, in great disgust. So too, Judas, grieved by what he had done, tried to give the money back to the Priests. When they refused to accept it, he threw the money back into the Temple.

As if that were not already enough of an allusion to Zechariah 11 – thirty pieces, thrown back into the temple – the chief priests then decide to literally give them to the potter, by purchasing his field as a burial place for strangers.

This, they may have thought, was a meaningless action; or perhaps a charitable one. But Matthew sees the ironic symbolism. Neither Judas nor the Priests are a true Zechariah figure; Jesus is the good shepherd. But as Judas stole the Christ’s priestly wages, so now Judas is the one to throw them back to the Potter; albeit by a circuitous, divinely orchestrated route.

God’s plans cannot be scuppered or thwarted by rebellious disciples or conniving priests. Even in murderous plotting, Jesus’ enemies work out God’s prophetic plan with remarkable accuracy.

Thirty Pieces: Blood Money

29 11 2010

‘Because money is paid to secure Jesus’ death, Matthew may also be suggesting what Matt 20:28 states more clearly: Jesus’ death is a ransom, the price paid to secure a slave’s freedom. That this “blood money” was subsequently used to buy a burial ground for foreigners may hint at what Matthew will explicitly highlight in his closing verses: Jesus’ death makes salvation possible for all the peoples of the world.’

(Craig Blomberg in Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament)

Thirty Pieces: Gored by an Ox

24 11 2010

‘Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray Jesus.’
(Matthew 26:14-16 ESV)

I don’t know about you, but I rarely barter with shekels. So to be honest, I don’t actually know how much they’re worth.

I can count to thirty, you’ll be pleased to know. So I am aware, for example, that thirty is significantly more than ten, but less than one hundred. But that doesn’t much help me understand the exact value of thirty pieces of silver.

I think I’ve always assumed that it was a large amount, that Judas was motivated by the desire for money. But actually, a quick look at the cross-references appears to suggest otherwise.

Thirty pieces of silver was the equivalent of about four months’ wages for a labourer. That equates to around £4,750. I don’t know if that sounds a lot to you. I would happily find a good use for £4,750, so it’s nothing to be sniffed at.

But is it much for a human life?

Exodus 25:32 says this:

‘If an ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.’ (Exodus 25:32)

30 pieces of silver. £4,750. Jesus’ life was valued the same as that of a slave, accidentally impaled by an animal.

This leads me to think that Judas wasn’t motivated by money, he surely would have settled on a higher figure. The thirty pieces represent the fact that both Judas and the Priests esteemed Jesus so little. Though Jesus was in the form of God, he made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave, and being obedient to the point of death (Phil 2:4-8). The death of a slave, gored by an ox.

Thirty Pieces: Sack the Shepherd

22 11 2010

‘Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray Jesus.’
(Matthew 26:14-16 ESV)

I’ve been thinking recently about this powerful episode in Matthew’s gospel. It’s such a pithy treatment of a giant ‘hinge’ of a moment, upon which the door of the gospel was swung wide open.

The language of Matthew 26:15, uniquely among the accounts, deliberately echoes Zechariah 11:12, using the word εστησαν, meaning ‘to establish’ or ‘to weigh out.’ When the Chief Priests ‘weigh out’ thirty pieces of silver, Matthew wants to draw our minds to this crucial passage in Zechariah, to which he will return again in the next chapter.

Matthew’s gospel relies a good deal on Zechariah, drawing regular, powerful allusions from his writing. Zechariah 11 is packed with evocative imagery of a shepherd who is tasked with caring for a flock doomed to death. He rescues them, only to be rejected by the sheep. He breaks his two staffs of ‘favour’ and ‘union’ and the sheep are left to the leadership of a worthless shepherd. I’m sure you hardly need a detailed commentary to begin to see the loaded prophetic metaphors. Jesus even quotes from Zechariah 13:7 in Mathew 26:31 – ‘It is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”’

But in Zechariah 11:12-13 we read: ‘And they weighed out (εστησαν) as my wages thirty pieces of silver […] the lordly price at which I was priced by them.

Zechariah’s words are dripping with irony. Thirty pieces of silver is a paltry amount; this ‘lordly price’ is an insultingly low wage for a spiritual leader. And such was the minute cost for which Judas was willing to sacrifice his master.

But leaving aside the similarities, note the differences:

  • Zechariah resigned his position. Jesus refused to.
    Standing in the garden at Gethsemane, he pleaded with his Father for the cup to pass. But he knew he couldn’t walk out on the sheep; he had to die for them.
  • Zechariah received wages for his work, insufficient as they were. Jesus received nothing.
    Another man took his wages and left him to complete the task in agony.

Still, for the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross (Heb 12:2). Truly, a hired hand would have fled, caring nothing for the sheep. But the good shepherd lays down his life willingly (John 10:11-13, 17-18).