In temporary accommodation

In temporary accommodation
An address delivered by Professor John Toye (Chair of the MCO Chapel Society) to the Manchester College Chapel Society in Oxford on Sunday 30th September 2007

Thursday of last week was the start of the Jewish festival of Sukkoth. Have you ever heard of it? This is the occasion known variously as ‘the festival of tabernacles’, ‘festival of booths’ and ‘festival of arbours’. Now you may be none the wiser! None of these words is particularly illuminating, so let me explain what happens in an observing Jewish household at this time. Many Jews build a ‘sukkah’, which is a small, temporary shelter outside (but sometimes adjacent to) their main permanent house. It can be an entire room built of pieces of wood, or it can be nothing more than a flimsy canopy erected on poles. Jews are supposed to use this structure for eating and sleeping during the days that the festival lasts.

At Sukkoth, there is a strong emphasis on hospitality, and entertaining family and friends and stangers. This is the obligation of Jews at this time, as set out in Deuteronomy (Chapter 16, v. 13-15).

“You shall keep the pilgrim-feast of Tabernacles for seven days, when you shall bring in the produce from your threshing floor and winepress. You shall rejoice in your feast, with your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites, aliens, orphans and widows who live in your settlements…you shall keep this feast joyfully.”

The religious significance of this annual celebration is to recall and re-enact the Israelites’ life in temporary shelters during their flight from Egypt under Moses’s leadership. This was the time when God parted the Dead Sea to allow the Israelites to escape and then let the waters fall back to drown the pursuing Egyptians. Today we may believe that these events are best described as mythical rather than historical, but their re-enactment still serves to give meaning to many contemporary Jewish lives and to connect the Jews of today to their enduring realm of sacred time.

I find the image of a flimsy, tent-like structure next to a solidly built house to be in many ways emblematic of the very nature of Judaism. I would suggest that Judaism is a religion that sits “on the edge”. It sits at the boundary between the nomadic way of life of the early patriarchs and their tribes, and the religious customs and practices of societies that are based on settled agriculture. The patriarchal religion worshipped a god that was the guide and protector of the tribe in its wanderings, a god that related to the tribe and was an active guardian of its welfare. Shepherds found it very natural to believe: “I am a shepherd of sheep; the Lord is my shepherd and therefore God is the Shepherd of the shepherds”. This patriarchal religion was not yet strict monotheism, however. Although each tribe worshipped only one god, each tribe had a “god of our fathers” of its own.

In the settled agricultural societies of the ancient Near East, as in ancient Greece, the religious norm was by contrast polytheism, the worship of a pantheon of gods. These gods lived their lives apart from humanity, and their main function was to guarantee the recurrence, stability and fertility of the agricultural cycle.

When nomadic groups finally settled on the land to become farmers rather than shepherds, they adopted the polytheism of the society in which they settled. But the Jews were different, they were the one exception. When finally they reached and settled in the Promised Land of Canaan, they did not simply abandon their nomadic religious heritage and take up polytheism. Rather they adapted their original, nomadic heritage in a highly creative way. They did so, one can only suppose, because of the deep imprint left on their collective mind by their experience of the Exodus from Egypt under Moses. That was the formative event in the forging of Judaism.

Judaism united the early tribal history of the Israelites with the idea of the God of all creation, a creator God whose power extended to the ends of the universe and affected everyone and every thing that was contained within it.

This was when strict monotheism emerged, and the many “gods of our fathers” merged into the One God.

Once this jealous God had outlawed polytheism, the absolute gap between the divine realm and its fate, and the fate of mere mortals had to be bridged. The gods, in love with, and at war with each other, disappear. The divine relationship, if it is to exist at all, henceforth must be with humanity. And so it is in Judaism, beginning with God talking to Adam and Eve in the Garden and continuing to the flight from Egypt, which the festival of Sukkoth celebrates. The result was a monotheism that was human-centred as well as all-inclusive.

This God was not only a creator of all things, he was also their moral judge. The law given to Moses had to be obeyed. The God of the Jews was not there just to sustain the status quo of kingly rule or to underpin the regularities of the agricultural world. Humanity had been shown a right way of living, and this made the relation between God and humanity an uncomfortable one, as the human-divine covenant was, in the history of the Jewish nation, again and again broken by humanity. The Old Testament has often been described as the story of a dysfunctional marriage, as God chides and threatens the people of Israel for their faults, and they complain unhappily of broken promises and mistreatment.

This subtle, complex and highly idiosyncratic religion faced two major sources of tension. One was internal, between the religious establishment represented by the Temple, bolstering kingly rule but guilty of many lapses from the strict Mosaic law, and the critical blasts of prophets upholding the nomadic tradition. The other tension was external, between the aspirations of the Jewish nation or people and the aspirations of all other people whom God had created but with whom he not entered into a special covenant.

These tensions, I suggest, can be seen playing out in the ministry of Jesus. His mission exemplifies much of the nomadic tradition within Judaism. It begins with the forty days in the wilderness, enduring hardship, privation and temptation. It moves on to the recruitment of a band of disciples, with no fixed abode and willing to wander with their master wherever he should lead. Their wanderings include episodes of healing and teaching, but these episodes are framed as a direct challenge both to the high priests and to the Pharisees (who actually represented a reformed Temple culture). Part of this Jesus’ challenge was – most shockingly to Jews – to represent non-Jews – like the Samaritans – as less self-seeking and hypocritical than the denizens of the Temple.

Jesus’ ministry culminates in the entry to Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple.
As Mark’s tells us:

“He went into the Temple and began driving out those who bought and sold in the temple. He upset the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of the dealers in pigeons; and he would not allow anyone to use the temple court as a thoroughfare for carrying goods. Then he began to teach them and said: ‘Does not Scripture say, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it into a robbers’ cave.’ The chief priests and the doctors of the law heard of this and sought some means of making away with him. They were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.

Is this all just ancient Hebrew history, or does this mean anything for Unitarians today? I suggest that that it carries four very important messages for us.

The first message is that God is One. When asked by the religious lawyers of his day what is the first commandment, Jesus answered: “the Lord our God is the only Lord”. He did not see himself as part of any heavenly power-sharing executive, and all subsequent attempts to portray him in that way have produced only misunderstanding and muddle.

The second is that God is universal. His house is a house of prayer for all the nations. Just as the gods of the Jewish tribes became recognised as the One God of the Jewish nation, so many Unitarians believe that the Gods of all the Nations must eventually become recognised as the One God of All People and All Beings. The God of Creation cannot be less than the God of All his creatures.

The third message from Judaism is that God is engaged with the world, through the gift of the spirit of love. Under divine providence, we have learned that our love for each other must be genuine, that we must have for each other the sincere affection of brothers and sisters. We must show each other honour and respect, must be hospitable and must live in harmony with each other. And the spirit of love must extend ever more widely – not just to family and friends, but to neighbours, to those who have fallen on hard times – and to strangers, like the destitute asylum seekers in Oxford, for whom we collect food and toiletries each week. The joy of living in this way is what the Festival of Sukkoth celebrates.

Finally, and perhaps the most important message of all, God’s powers of creation in us are not exhausted. We know all too well that, in real life, things fall apart, solemn covenants are broken, and great prophets are crucified, dead and buried. And yet, and yet, . . . the divine spark that each one of us carries in our heart is the potential for an entire new creation, the potential for a transformation of the worst possible human disaster into a whole new world of human achievement and hope.

Building makeshift wooden rooms or putting up special canopies is just a way of reminding ourselves that we are in fact always living in temporary accommodation. However solid-seeming the houses we have built for ourselves, they are only settings for our lives that do not endure. As we move on from one setting to the next, what ultimately matters the spiritual gifts that we carry with us – and the lasting power of our faith, our hope and our charity.