The Righteousness of the Pharisees

In Matthew 5:20, Jesus makes the statement that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven”.

It’s difficult sometimes for us 2000 years in the future to grasp how shocking this was.

The Pharisees were the strictest division of the Jewish faith, famous for their piety. This was the group that produced those who, walking down the street, would close their eyes when a woman walked past, lest they be tempted to lust. The resultant bodily injuries as they crashed into walls and things earned them the nickname “bleeding Pharisees”. These were the people who tithed not only their flocks, herds and fields, but their kitchen herbs and spices. These were the people who were known by the unwieldy length of the tassels required by the Mosaic Law to be on their garments. These were the people who were known for long, showy prayers in public, of the sort that made everyone take notice and think “wow, this person can really pray”.

And Jesus says that we have to be more righteous than that? Impossible! It’s like being more conservative than Glenn Beck.

With 2000 years of historic Christianity and Jesus’ teaching about praying and fasting in secret, not announcing your giving, focusing on the inward and not the outward, it’s sometimes hard for us to identify the Pharisees’ outward expressions as righteous, but by the standards of the day, this was what righteousness was considered to be. Doing what the Law required. Even going beyond, just to make sure you had it covered. This is rounding up the amount of tax you owe, and paying it. This is down-to-the-letter adherence to the Law God gave His people.

And Jesus says we have to do more even than that.

Or does he?

The immediate context of the passage is “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”. But then He goes on to start with the Law – “You have heard it said…” – and then say “But I say to you…”

The Law says one thing. And Jesus overturns it or modifies it so radically as to result in a new commandment.

Was the Law somehow imperfect? Were the commandments God gave His people not, then, what He actually meant? If what God always intended was what Jesus said, why not say that in the first place?

God isn’t a liar, nor does He change His mind. Nor does He change His standards.

Something else must be going on here.

What Jesus is doing in this block of teaching, of course, is relocating the issue of sin and righteousness from the actions to the heart. The Pharisees saw sin and righteousness purely in terms of what you do: obey the whole Law and you’re righteous and God will accept you; fail to keep the whole Law and you’re a sinner.

Jesus is basically saying “no; your actions show what’s in your heart”. If you’re a sinner, you will commit sins. If you’re righteous, you won’t. Adultery is not merely the physical act; it begins with the choice of the heart to lust. Murder begins with the choice of the heart to entertain hatred. “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off…” But is it your right hand that causes you to sin, or does sin reside somewhere else? If all it took to be rid of sin was maiming yourself, those who have lost limbs would be completely righteous from that point on.

No; sin resides in the heart. God’s remedy is not an amputation but a transplant: “I will take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh”. This is accomplished when we agree with God about the problem and its solution, trust Him, and follow His Son.

Or, as we like to say, when we repent, confess our sins, have faith in Him and become His people.

Jesus, then, isn’t calling us to do more in order to be righteous, but to appropriate the remedy He died to provide! To be rid of sin, we must get our hearts changed. The work of Christ on the Cross was once for all. Doing more has never equalled righteousness.

When I Survey

When I survey the wondrous cross

On which the Prince of Glory died,

My richest gain I count but loss

And pour contempt on all my pride.

We’re familiar with the hymn. But it’s easy to mouth words without thinking about them.

I was personally struck by the words while at work the other day, because I got to play at being a surveyor.

I work in construction, but on the survey type end of things. However, most of the time I don’t get to go off and measure and store point locations for stuff like property corners, and it’s kind of fun.

Now, I know this isn’t technically what it means by “when I survey”, but bear with me.

Surveying is a profession that depends absolutely on precise and accurate measurement and precise and accurate record-keeping.

If you’re a surveyor, it’s in no wise good enough to say “the property line runs along the treeline”. Nor even “the centre of the road”. A line of trees may be planted along the property line, but the actual line is defined not by tree lines, but by the relationship of an absolute boundary to the iron rods or posts or markers that are used to delineate it.

Because money is often involved with precisely where the boundary runs, you have to measure accurately.

Once, the centre-line of the road may have defined the boundary. But the off-the-beaten-track asphalt roads that are often meant can shift over time, pressed by the wheels of countless vehicles. I’ve seen “centre-line of road” buried iron rods three quarters of the way to the outside edge.

Precise observations and precise records are vital. The records tell you where to look and what you ought to find; the observations tell you what’s there.

It occurs to me that this might be an interesting metaphor for gazing upon the cross, like in the words of the song.

It may not be enough to just glance at the cross. To vaguely say that Jesus died for our sins.

Sometimes, we need to be more detailed in our examination. To really look at the cross, take in its detail, imprint its wonder and mercy on our hearts.

We have the record. The Bible accounts written by those who were there; who saw with their own eyes. People have repeatedly challenged the authenticity and accuracy of these accounts and come up short. People have claimed that the record has been altered, or that it was made up. But if you want to claim that, you have to deal with the amount of attested, accurate historical detail that the Bible records, and the sheer volume of manuscript evidence. We’re not looking at a situation like with the Qur’an, in which the fourth Caliph decided what the authentic Qur’an should look like and burned all deviant manuscripts. We have the scribal errors; the transposition of letters and misspellings. 99.9% of the errors do not affect meaning one way or the other; the few remaining do not materially affect the overall message.

We can say with a high level of confidence that we have accurate records.

But all the records in the world won’t tell you where your property line runs in the actual world of fields and forests.

In order to do that, you have to take your records and study them, and then go out into the real world and see if what actually exists matches the records.

Again, this is something which we can have a fairly high level of confidence in. Giving proper regard to genre – not trying to treat a poetic passage of Scripture as accurate history, for instance – and with due regard to the limitations of understanding in the times in which it was written, the Bible record matches a lot of what we know about the world.

We observe that people do bad things. Even the best of us make mistakes. No-one acts with perfect love all the time. This accords with what the Bible says that we ought to see.

When faced with the cross, we don’t have a reason for pride before God. The highest expressions of human justice, philosophy and religion all conspiring to take the life of the sinless Son of Man.

Jesus was without sin. He always acted in perfect love. If we’re going to do it ourselves, that’s what a holy God requires. Sin hurts people that God loves; He’s not willing to stand by and just overlook it.

But the cross isn’t just a miscarriage of justice; it’s an act of salvation. He died for us; an atoning sacrifice for sins.

And God is pleased to look on Jesus’ sacrifice and declare me righteous.

Where is pride? I don’t deserve it. I don’t act with perfect love all the time. No; but God is “the Lord, the Lord, the gracious and compassionate God; slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness and faithfulness; maintaining love to thousands and forgiving rebellion, iniquity and sin“.

Even if I’m a pretty good person by human standards, I have no cause for pride. I’m not doing anything extra; I’m not even doing all that God really wants. It’s like a pickpocket demanding to be let off because when they picked a man’s pockets they didn’t also knife him.

But the wonder of the cross is that God in His justice and mercy toward those that sin is hurting is willing to die to make an end of it and release those held captive by it.

That’s worth a closer examination.

Ashes and Grace

Just past Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season, John 8:1-11 seems somehow both unusual and apt as a choice of reading.

I’ve been using the daily readings of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and for the Thursday following Ash Wednesday, this is the New Testament reading.

It’s a fascinating and wonderful story. It appears between the Pharisees’ sending of the Temple guards to arrest Jesus, and Jesus’ “I am the light of the world” statement and teaching, and it’s framed with a sort of parenthesis and a note saying that the earliest and most reliable Scripture manuscripts lack the passage from John 7:53 to 8:11.

Yet it remains in the Bible. It rings true with the rest of the Gospel accounts of the Jesus we know and love. Even if it’s technically a section added later, this seems, in fact, very much how the Jesus shown by the Gospels would behave in these circumstances.

But the questions over its authenticity are only part of what makes it intriguing. There’s also Jesus’ mysterious writing in the ground, which we aren’t told anything about apart from that it happened.

The situation itself, too, is fascinating. Jesus, having flummoxed the Temple guards sent to arrest him, is back in the Temple, teaching the people.

In walks a gang of Pharisees, dragging a woman with them. She’s probably done up like a harlot, and just as probably not properly dressed. She’d been caught in the act of adultery. She’s been dragged, shame-faced and probably weeping, through who knows how many crowded market streets, up to the house of God. Through all the crowds of worshippers, to the feet of the One they call Jesus.

A Rabbi. Supposed to have miraculous or magical powers. Having a reputation for compassion, but what could even He do? She’d been caught in the act, her sin paraded before the world. If they’d stoned her immediately it would have been a mercy.

But no. She’s going to be used as a pawn in some dispute between the Pharisees and this young Rabbi Jesus.

“Tell us, Rabbi,” the angry mob begin, positioning themselves to trap their adversary. “This woman was caught in the act of adultery.”

Those in the crowd around draw back from her, as if her very touch might contaminate them.

“The Law commands us to stone such people,” the Pharisees continue sententiously, “but what do You say?”

The young Rabbi doesn’t answer. He bends over and begins to write in the dust. The Phariseesv questioning becomes insistent, and still He just keeps writing.

Then suddenly, He straightens up. “If any one of you is without sin,” He says, “let him cast the first stone”. And back to writing in the dust.

There’s a pause. A silence. The thud of a stone hitting the ground. Another. The Pharisees, one by one, slink away, unable to stand before the young Rabbi’s astonishing turning of the tables. Then it’s just him and the woman.

“Where are they?” Jesus asks. “Has no-one condemned you?”

The shake of a head, the woman’s emotions still too wrought for speech.

“Neither do I condemn you,” the Rabbi declares. “Go, and sin no more”.

Much has been said already about this passage, and I doubt I will add anything new. It’s a study in contrasts: the Pharisees’ attitude of complete indifference to the woman’s fate; Jesus’ compassion and mercy. The trickery of the accusers; Jesus’ radical raising of the game to a new level.

One of the first things we have to say, and it’s been said before, is “where was the man?” The Old Testament Law on the subject of people caught in the act of adultery was brutally clear: stone both of them, immediately.

Yet here are the Pharisees, selecting the woman as a suitable object lesson and dragging her off through the streets of Jerusalem to use as a pawn in their complicated trap for Jesus. What happened to the man?

There has even been speculation that the man was one of them; that they engineered the whole thing as a trap for the Son of Man. Scripture doesn’t say either way, but one way or another, their callous misogyny is on display for all the world to see.

They quite simply don’t seem to give a flying crap what happens to her. They don’t even care overly about her sin, except insofar as they can use it to set a trap. She doesn’t matter; she’s just a tool they can use.

It’s rather like what CS Lewis often says about the witches in his books: “they’re very practical people. They don’t care about people or things unless they can make use of them”.

Smugly, they throw her down at Jesus’ feet and bait their trap. On the one hand, Jesus’ history of demonstrating compassion. On the other, the Law of Moses. If Jesus forgave her, they could accuse him of breaking the Law and justifying adultery. If He condemned her, they could accuse Him of being harsh, unreasonable, callous.

And in response to their loaded questioning, Jesus does something that is on the face of it so weird that the whole kangaroo court proceedings grind to a halt.

He writes on the ground.

What did He write?

Scripture gives us no clues at all, but most scholars seem to think He was writing a list of the Pharisees’ own sins.

It’s possible. Even likely, given the situation.

My own read on what happened is slightly more subtle. I think He was writing a pointed list of the other commandments, the ones the Pharisees were breaking. “Have no other gods before Me”. “Do not commit murder”. “Do not bear false witness against your neighbour”. And so on. A little more subtle than the direct writing of their sins, but I have my reasons.

After all, there was another time that God used His finger to write with. When Moses carved out the tablets of the Law on Sinai, it was God who wrote the Law on them, with His finger.

It’s entirely possible that Jesus wasn’t just writing to make a point, but was remembering. The Law which was not intended to bring death, but life. The Law that revealed the compassionate and just heart of the Father.

Either way, it has the desired effect. The Pharisees can’t condemn her. They know as well as Jesus does that you can’t claim to be righteous because you don’t commit adultery if you bear false witness and are full of covetousness. They aren’t the one sinned against. It’s not their Law which she has transgressed. It’s God’s. And God stands before them, ready to forgive.

Not the most comfortable of situations to find oneself in.

Jesus, on the other hand, can condemn her, if He wants. He was the One who wrote the Law to start with. He owns it; it’s His Law. More, He’s sinless. He’s not a Law-breaker in any of it.

And Jesus refuses to condemn. He won’t tolerate her continuing in her adultery, that much is clear. “Go, and leave your life of sin”, as the NIV puts it. But neither will He condemn her. Forgiveness and grace are extended; the character of the Good God upheld. Not willing that any should perish.

It’s no wonder there’s little debate over whether this actually belongs in Scripture. The passage looks like it belongs. This is Jesus, acting like Jesus.

The Lenten season is traditionally a time of penitence. Awareness of sin, sorrow and grief over it, awareness once again of the terrible price the Lord paid to make an end of it.

We don’t always think about forgiveness and grace in connection with the time of Lent. Our focus is typically more on sorrow, repentance and the price that was paid for us.

But I can’t actually think of a better way to begin a time of penitence than in the affirmation of God’s gracious and compassionate character. “With You there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared” (Ps 130:4)

We’re entering the time of ashes and sorrow over sin. But if we do so without that affirmation of God’s forgiveness, it will be a heavy thing, an attempt to atone by the very depth of our own grief, if such a thing was possible. There are ashes in this season, yes. But there is also grace. We still call it Good Friday.

A Reason For The Hope

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” I Peter 3:15.

As Christians, we often think we’re pretty good at this. We have our answers, our “reasons for hope”. We’re more or less prepared to give those whenever anyone asks. But they never do, for which we’re both disappointed and relieved.

Or we’re prepared to give them whether anyone is asking or not. Blam! Another drive-by witnessing.

But on coming to this verse in my regular Bible reading, I was struck by how the context isn’t quite what I had thought it ought to be based on the spin I’d normally heard given to this verse.

The wider context is about social relationships. Slaves and masters, husbands and wives, how to relate to society at large. The particulars may vary, but the general message is to be eager to do good in order to show to the world that those who want to portray Christianity as harmful do not have a leg to stand on.

In the contemporary master/slave relationship, that meant masters being considerate and good to their slaves, and slaves being eager to obey even a harsh unbeliever. It’s not a justification of slavery, but advice on how to live like a Christian in an anti-God social system.

In the contemporary patriarchal family structure, it meant husbands behaving considerately towards their wives, and wives behaving submissively towards their husbands. Again, not a justification of patriarchy but advice on how to live like a Christian in it.

In the wider social context it meant being eager to do good. And by doing good to silence those who viewed Christians as opposed to the social order, kin to terrorists, Bad People.

The immediate context is about suffering for doing good. The bridge is “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for doing what is right, it is commendable”.

Because there are people out there who are going to persecute and oppose, even if Christians are doing good. The point is to show those who are less inherently opposed and more open to reason that followers of Jesus are people who do good. In other words, to do what Gandhi did to the British Empire: yank the moral high ground right out from underneath.

Into this context comes the instruction to “in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. To not let persecution and opposition drive you away from your relationship with God in Jesus the Messiah. And only then follows Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have”.

In this context, it makes sense of something that’s always puzzled me: why do so few ask?

But in the context of a church being persecuted, harmed and killed, that responds by doing good…

Yeah. I can see how that would provoke people to ask why.

“But do this with gentleness and respect”, the verse finishes. The bit we often leave out when we quote. There should be no place in our faith for behaving like gits when we tell the truth and stand up for the Gospel. Consideration, gentleness and respect, not demonising our opponents or making gratuitous personal attacks.

Showing grace by the way we tell the truth, in other words.

The Seat of Mockers

Yesterday at work I got within ten feet of a mockingbird. He just sat there in his bush, looking at me as I got closer; totally unfazed. It was only when I got to about 8ft away that he flew off a little.

For my British readers, the mockingbird is a mostly grey-and-tan bird about the size of a blackbird. They are incredibly clever with their songs, and will string together bits and pieces of other birds’ songs, as well as other sounds like car alarms, mobile phone ringtones and mechanical noises.

This ability is how it got its name, I guess. Though whether “mocking” is the right word for this kind of imitation I’m not sure.

I started to think about it. “Mocking” is not really a word we use all that much. The idea is a staple of our humour, though; a puncturing of the serious self-importance of those we deem have too much by means of unflattering, exaggerated imitation. Most of the time, we treat it as hilarious. Even if we’re the butt of it, when it’s done gently we don’t really mind. We mock our politicians, our leaders, our religion, our sportspeople, our celebrities. We even mock ourselves. I do it myself. It’s funny.

So when you open up the Bible to the book of Proverbs and see some of what Scripture appears to say about “the Mocker”, it’s a little uncomfortable.

The Mocker is described as behaving with overweening pride. He’s a drunkard, a braggart, insensate and indisciplined. He’s related to that other character from Proverbs, the Fool, but he’s worse even than that one.

The Fool not only doesn’t know, but doesn’t want to, and will not be brought to knowledge. The Mocker not only refuses to learn, but runs in the opposite direction, belittling those who want to learn and hindering their access to knowledge. The Mocker honours nothing, reveres only themselves, treats nothing as sacred. No power in heaven or earth can compel them to do something they don’t want to.

The Mocker isn’t a nice person at all.

And yet mockery is a staple of our humour.

Is the Bible talking about the same thing as we generally mean by “mocking”?

Well, I’m not sure.

On the one hand, there’s certainly some overlap in terms of irreverence. There are times when what is intended as humour steps across the line and becomes hurtful, belittling, tearing down just for the sake of tearing down. The racist or misogynistic joke. The crass, insensitive comment. The attitude of treating something that’s important to someone else with contempt.

But on the other hand, the Biblical “Mocker” is not merely someone who delights in irreverent humour. His central characteristic is contempt – contempt for knowledge, contempt for authority, contempt for that which is sacred, contempt for others.

I sometimes wonder whether some of our lobbyists and activists aren’t in danger of becoming this sort of mocker. Sometimes it seems as though we’re only interested in the “facts” that support our case; we cherry-pick the data looking for that which agrees with what we already “know” to be true, rather than letting the whole truth speak. You can be biased without necessarily being a mocker, but if you give your biases free rein I suspect you’re not far from that unhappy character.

Strangely, most of our mocking humour probably isn’t “being a mocker” in the Biblical sense. There’s usually a difference between the humorous and the contemptuous, and we can generally tell when something is stepping over that line. It’s possible to do, but at least in the West we recognise a distinction.

Islam, particularly in its more fundamentalist expressions, doesn’t seem to have this distinction. To a lot of Muslims, things that we would consider amusing are actually perceived as insulting something sacred.

And this brings up an important issue. Offendedness is in the eye of the beholder. It’s easy to claim “I’m offended” when what we mean is “I don’t like this”. But the potential for offence is real, and I don’t have the right to tell you that you shouldn’t be offended by something. Making joking references to a white person “slaving away” at something may not be the same as making the same references to a black person, because the history is different. If something is really offending you, you didn’t choose to be offended, so I don’t get to tell you you shouldn’t be. That is in danger of the contemptuous attitude of the mocker.

I think generally, though, we can tell when someone is being humorous and when they are being contemptuous. And humour – even mocking humour – can serve a useful purpose. Elijah mocked the prophets of Ba’al. David taunted Saul’s guards after he cut off the corner of the king’s robe. Ezekiel and other prophets mocked the false prophets who presumed to speak in God’s name. Some of Jesus’ answers to the Pharisees’ trick questions almost have a sardonic or mocking quality to them.

Rightly used, mocking humour is for bringing down those things we are exalting overmuch, and for cutting our fears down to size. It’s the cure for hubris on the part of the one being exalted, and for idolatry on the part of the exalter. That which we cannot make jokes about is in danger of becoming an idol.

If there’s any doubt, it’s probably safest to assume that it’s mockery if we’re the speaker, and to give people the benefit of the doubt if we’re not. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t challenge the attitudes of racism, misogyny and prejudice when we find them, but neither should we automatically assume that the other person is making a conscious effort to offend, either.

Though We Do Not See

Having finished the book of Colossians, my regular Bible readings take up with the book of I Peter.

Growing up, I always found Peter’s writings a bit more abstruse than Paul’s. Not unclear or difficult, exactly, but written in a very different style and seeming to assume a frame of reference I didn’t always entirely grasp.

More Jewish, perhaps. This would make sense, given Paul’s testimony in Galatians that he was the Apostle to the Gentiles just as Peter was to the Jews.

Be that as it may, I’m somewhat older now, and I’ve been around the things of God for that much more time. More time to get familiar with them. In addition, I married a woman with a deep sense of the love of God expressed in the Law He gave to His people, and I’ve learned from her some of that frame of reference that usually eluded me as a youth.

I was particularly struck the other day by verse 8 of chapter 1 of Peter’s first letter:

“Though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls”.

It puts me in mind of the Apostle Thomas, possibly my favourite of the Twelve. You remember: the guy who would not dare to hope unless he could see the risen Christ. Yet the same guy who, when he sees, immediately makes the leap to “My Lord and my God!”

Peter was there; he remembers. No doubt he’s deliberately referencing these events, and Jesus’ words to Thomas that “because you have seen Me, you believe. Blessed are those who do not see, and yet believe”.

If any of the disciples knows about faith, it’s Peter. He’s the one that by faith first made the confession that “You are the Christ; the Son of the Living God”. He’s the one that by faith stepped out of the boat to go to Jesus on the water.

He kind of ought to know a little of what he’s talking about when he broaches the subject of faith.

So what does he say here about faith?

The first thing we can draw out of these particular verses is the unseen dimension of faith.

Faith doesn’t depend on what you can perceive with your five senses. It’s part of a whole cluster of things that are immaterial but important. The Bible lists faith, hope and love; we might add to that other things like goodness, mercy, inner peace. You can’t perceive it directly, but you can see its effects. In this, it’s a bit like light. You can’t see a beam of light (sci-fi ray guns notwithstanding); but by it you see everything else. A shaft of sunlight is visible because it strikes particles of dust and water vapour in the air. You don’t really see the light as such.

Because of this unseen dimension, and the fact that faith sometimes works in spite of physical evidence, sceptics sometimes dismiss the idea as ridiculous. “Believing something you know isn’t true”, or any other kind of wilful blindness to facts.

Certainly people have this capacity (Holocaust deniers are a case-in-point), but this is not faith.

Faith is taking the evidence that something is so and applying it where you can’t see directly. Rather like a scientist applying the knowledge that germs cause disease to a new type of infection. We haven’t isolated the particular causative organism, but we can be reasonably sure there is one, and that the syndrome doesn’t arise because of the witches.

In spiritual terms, this is taking the evidence that Jesus rose from the dead and is who He said He is – the eyewitness testimony, the fact that these people were willing to die for their conviction that Jesus is alive, the reliability of the Biblical accounts – and, though you do not personally see Jesus, believing and loving anyway.

The second thing I want to draw out is the joy. Throughout the documented history of the church, people of faith have been people of joy. Paul and Silas were singing hymns in the middle of a Roman jail cell, with chains on their hands and feet. The early martyrs of the church stared death in the face at the hands of their persecutors and tormentors, and prayed God’s forgiveness on their killers. James could honestly write to the church to “consider it pure joy whenever you face trials”. The Protestant martyrs who first took the Bible out of Latin and into the language of the people are recorded as singing the praise of God even while the flames licked around their feet.

What unifies these accounts? Faith in Jesus.

If the material world is all there is, it’s not rational; a skipping-out of the brain. How on earth can someone being killed in one of the most painful ways imaginable have such joy as to sing?

Yet the historical record is pretty clear that they can.

Why? Because we are receiving the goal of our faith. Not suffering and a painful death, but the salvation of our souls, of all that makes us who we are. It seems to be something special that God the Holy Spirit does in and for those who are facing persecutions for the sake of the Name. The decision and moral responsibility to stand firm are ours, but the strength and the joy come from Him. That’s the deal.

And if this is true in special measure for those facing the worst kinds of trials and persecutions, it’s true in all circumstances. Followers of Jesus shouldn’t have any cause for grumbling or whingeing, because His Spirit at work in us springs up an inexpressible joy that fills us without regard to circumstances.

It’s part of faith.

Barbarian Scythians

In the last few days my regular Bible reading has taken me through Colossians 3:11. “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all”.

The verse follows on from instruction to set our minds on things above rather than on earthly things, to put to death those behaviours which are part of our old earthly nature and to put on the new heavenly self which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. And here, in this new heavenly self, there is no Greek, Jew, or barbarian Scythian.

We’re familiar with the distinction between Jews and Greeks. Jews tended to look down on Gentiles like the Greeks, with their not having the Law and their many gods. Greeks were not the only Gentile people – the word means “not a Jew” or “one of the nations” – but thanks to Alexander the Great it was Greek language and culture which served as a common frame of reference for the entire eastern part of the Mediterranean, and in the New Testament the words “Greek” and “Gentile” were used more or less interchangeably.

As I said, we’re somewhat familiar with the cultural distinction between Jews and Greeks. But there were other cultural distinctions as well, and one of the important ones involves “barbarians” and “Scythians”.

The word “barbarian” originally comes from the Greek language. It originally meant “someone who couldn’t speak civilised Greek and just kept making bar-bar-bar sounds”. It was applied particularly to the non-Greek tribes of the northeast, living in what is now Bulgaria and Romania and the Ukraine. In other words, it was a derogatory term for a foreigner.

The perceived worst of these “barbarian savages” were the Scythians.

The Scythians were a nomadic people from the Eurasian steppes that stretch from Ukraine away eastward to Central Asia. They didn’t build towns to live in, nor did they till the soil and plant crops.

Their lives were bound up with livestock, hunting, trading and raiding, and they have been widely credited with the invention of the stirrup,and perhaps also the recurved compound bow.

Civilised (ie city-dwelling) peoples have feared and despised nomads since at least Sumerian times, and I personally wonder whether it could be traced back to the enmity of Cain and Abel. Cain, after all, was a farmer, while Abel kept flocks, and it was Cain that built the first city.

Still, it was from Cain’s descendent Jabal that the first nomadic herders came, too.

In any case, civilised peoples, and especially their governments, have always despised nomads. They are all too often a threat to the settled peoples’ way of life (with their raiding and warfare), and worse, they aren’t readily taxable. If you sent your soldiers out to collect the people’s taxes, the nomad would see you coming and either fight you or move away from you. They had nothing invested in remaining where they were; they needed to move around so that their pastureland didn’t become overgrazed.

The history of civilisation has almost always been written by settled peoples. Indeed, the very term “civilisation” refers to those who build cities; the nomads around the periphery are at best unimportant and have nothing to contribute; at worst they are an active threat.

We can see the same dynamic in play, very often, in the treatment of Native Americans by the European colonials. Not that all Native nations were nomads, by any means, but even settled Native polities with highly sophisticated governments, like the Haudenosaunee and the Tsalagi (better known as the Iroquois and the Cherokee), were so often “uncouth savages” or “little better than animals”. They were there, they were in the way, and the entire history of civilisation said that their way of life was lesser.

We can also, perhaps, see the same dynamic in play in the hostility between most European peoples and the Romany. Nomads and settled peoples, still locked in that ancient struggle.

The Scythians were considered the lowest of the low, despised by both Jews and Greeks. They built no cities and by and large couldn’t speak Greek. They were polytheistic spirit-worshippers who had neither Law nor prophets. They were largely illiterates. They were warlike and dangerous. And their culture was so alien that they let women fight and be leaders.

It’s an interesting thing, but quite a few despised nomadic cultures have been far more advanced than their settled rivals in terms of women’s rights and the equality of the sexes. When your whole nation – men, women and children – needs to know how to ride in order to maintain their way of life, and when your main weapon of war is the bow, there’s a lot less conceptual distance between the abilities of the sexes, and a woman who can ride better than the men and shoot a bow accurately at a full gallop is something praiseworthy, not a shocking dissolution of The World As We Know It.

To us, here on the far side of the Second Millennium AD, the egalitarianism of Scythian culture is amazingly modern. To the Greeks, the prominent role played by Scythian women was, more than anything else, a “proof” of their savagery.

The Greek cultural prejudice against nomads has carried down the centuries. Look at our cultural associations with such terms as “Gypsies”, “Huns”, “Tartars”, “Goths”, “Vandals”.

And in this passage Paul says that even this ancient enmity comes to an end in Christ. There is no more “barbarian”, or even “Scythian”. Jesus makes the civilised Jewish patriarch brother to the Scythian “savage”. He brings the wild Scythian warrior-woman into the same household of faith as the good Jewish or Greek housewife.

And not once does He tell her to cease being who she is, either.

The lesson is one that goes beyond just “Scythians”, whether actual or metaphorical, and it’s one we could all do with bearing in mind on occasion.