Homily preached at St Mary’s Marlborough
Bible Sunday: Nehemiah 8.1-12 & Matthew 24.30-35
When looking at this morning’s Gospel reading, we seemed to be faced with a problem. Two problems, actually, if you ask theologians and believers throughout the centuries. The first one is a general difficulty for most Christians: in how far do we take seriously the images that are given of the day of judgement, the second coming? Not only here, but also, for example in the Book of Revelation.
The second problem, and the one I would like to look at in a bit more detail, is when this might happen. As some of you may remember, in Paul’s letters, there is a real sense of immediacy about when the Messiah will come again. And today we even hear Jesus himself saying that ‘this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.’
For centuries scholars have debated how to interpret this passage. One explanation has been that ‘all these things’ refers to the destruction of Jerusalem. However, this doesn’t seem to be very convincing given the image that is sketched in the preceding verses: “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven”. The other interpretation has been that the word ‘generation’ – in ‘this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened’ – is to be interpreted as either the Jewish people, the church, or the whole of humanity.
However, and fortunately, I would say, also this interpretation has been found unlikely by New Testament scholars. The consensus is that there is only one plausible conclusion, and that is that even Jesus did not know when the last day would happen. And even more so, that when he says that it would happen within this generation, he is actually wrong. Indeed, it seems that Jesus was wrong. And the question to us is: is that a problem?
At first, it seems so. Jesus, wrong, that can’t be true. Jesus, the Son of God: surely he must be right!? There are two reasons, I guess, to think this. Firstly: God knows everything, and if Jesus is God, how can it be that there are things he does not know? Well, that is a philosophical question, which we can debate at a later point. The other reason, and I suspect we feel more strongly about this, is that being wrong is somehow a sin. We feel it is wrong to be wrong: ignorance is a sin.
But here, this idea, this feeling that it is wrong to be wrong is challenged. Because whatever we may think about how the divine and human come together in Jesus, we do know that he was without sin. Yet, today we hear, it didn’t mean he was always right.
That is a really important message to take on board: there is nothing wrong with not always being right. So, we can stop judging ourselves and others for not being right, for being ignorant. I wonder, what would the world look like if we did that? If we could admit and accept that sometimes we are wrong, without feeling bad; and if we could do the same with others, without judging or blaming them?
This thought then brings us then back to today’s readings, and the fact that it is Bible Sunday today. What if we, as Christians, as people of faith, would dare to admit we get it wrong at times, that we don’t know everything? And that this is alright? Would the world look differently if after 500 years of Protestant versus Catholic, the Church would start from the premise that if Jesus could be wrong, certainly we can?