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FRIENDS, FOES AND FAMILIES: Lenten meditations on Bible characters and relationships – Judith Dimond

June 17, 2017

Some may find this book helpful, though I found it to be trite, though anyone who quotes J. Neville Ward has something going for them.

And there are some homely sermon illustrations.

If she thinks that Isaac was a vulnerable child (p. 31) on Mount Moriah then she clearly hasn’t read any Jewish commentaries.

But it’s good to have so many Old Testament characters, particularly women.

And why “may our churches be welcoming and sensitive to those who live alone not by choice but by force of circumstance.“? What about monks? Jesus?

She can’t bring herself to quote scripture on the love between David and Jonathan ‘surpassing that of women.’


We never know what the weather will be like each day when we wake up — clear skies or drizzle, light breeze or storms? In the UK we moan and mutter about trivial blips in summer sunshine, so who knows how we would cope with earthquakes and tsunamis. Yet, despite this, we all grow up with an irrational expectation that life is predictable and benign — the sun will come out tomorrow, won’t it? If we are lucky, life is gentle with us and we receive only minor knocks when we are young, which educate and strengthen us to sustain the harsher realities that accumulate with age.

The usual experience of bereavement is to lose first a grandparent, an elderly neighbour or even ‘just’ a pet. But if, while we are still young, we lose someone of our own generation — a sibling, a school friend, a lover — the shock is terrifying. Our world disintegrates and we are cast out into a parallel universe where nothing is stable and life is malign, our heart torn up and flung to the winds.

This is what must have happened to Anna — seven years only with her husband, then widowed till she was 84. There’s no mention of how her husband died — perhaps he was a lot older than her, or perhaps it was a sudden illness or accident. Nor is there any mention of children and no account that she found ‘happiness’ again. She endured over 70 years alone, and we can only presume that, at least in the begin­ning, she was very lonely indeed.

God of the lonely, may I become a channel of your consolation

to those who grieve,

and an affectionate companion to people alone.

`All suffering is change that is felt simply to be loss’ (J. Neville Ward, Friday Afternoon, p. 78), and of course death of a loved one is the greatest loss of all; no benefit can be put in the scales to outweigh the pain. The darkness blots out all sense of God’s presence, all his impulse of love and all the vitality, curiosity and belongingness that is his will for us. Only in time, though the ache never quite goes away, are we led, through grace, to a new reality where we can begin to experience life in its fullness. The cycle of bereavement must be lived through before we can reconstruct a different life, but one that does have value. We come through the ‘valley of the shadow of death, follow­ing a different map to a different destination, with fresh scenery and other companions; no longer leading the life we expected to, but finding that after the upheaval, though the landscape will always be different, beauty returns. And after the depression and discontinuity, a new identity can be forged.

We all need a purpose, a home, and a hope in life, and in time, Anna found all three. Her new purpose and identity was as a prophet; her new home was the Temple, where she worshipped ‘night and day’; her new hope was in ‘looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem’ (v. 38). Anna is proof that God has more than one possibility in store for our lives. For when Mary brought Jesus into the Temple in her arms, she didn’t think bitterly ‘that could have been me’. God had honoured her and kept his promises, and her anguish was replaced by joy. That’s why we are told ‘she gave thanks to God, for she had long been released from the chains of grief, free to embrace the goodness of life again.

Thank you, God, that you release, rescue and heal us from loss.

Out of the greatness of your love, renew us, and grant us in time a new purpose, a welcoming home, and hope once again.


We know nothing of this woman’s history. We don’t know if she was a young girl desperately in love with someone her parents dis­approved of, or whether she’d been coerced, or raped. Is she a victim, or a brazen whore? We don’t know, and probably neither did the crowd. Jesus chose not to condemn her, without caring whether or not she’d repented, or even would repent. His great love compelled him to set her free, regardless of her response.

It’s easy to blame Jacob for everything that went wrong between the sisters, but that is probably unfair. Leah held the power of being the eldest, but Rachel’s power was in her beauty. And then the tables turned, for Leah discovered another power – her fertility, and Rachel discovered that all the beauty in the world couldn’t bring her the one thing she wanted most – a child. The dramatic balance in these Genesis stories is exquisite and heartbreaking.

When did these two women first begin to grow apart? Possibly when they realized how different they were. Even among young children, you’ll hear one say, ‘Oh, she’s the brainy one or ‘It’s not fair, I wish I had her lovely blond hair… Leah had son after son after son, and with each birth her hopes rose that, this time, Jacob would grow to love her. But each time her hopes were dashed. Imagine the tension in the family, with Leah and Rachel glaring at each other across the compound, grinding their teeth as they ground the flour for bread. Rachel; who had never previously had cause to resent her sister, settled for second best — Jacob’s child through her servant. ‘I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won,’ she crowed, but her triumph did not last long. We are back in the realm of TV soap. Though the rivalry of Leah and Rachel is not as well known as that between Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel’s bile was inherited by their many sons, and erupted in the plot against Joseph. We can’t isolate hatred. Unloving is not neutral; it is always destructive.

… Rachel was pregnant again, for only the second time in her life. But Jacob’s return was to be blighted when Rachel died in childbirth and was buried in Bethlehem. Leah’s death was not recorded, and her grave is unknown. It was Rachel’s son Joseph who was to save the family from famine in Egypt; but it was Leah’s son Judah from whom the great King David was descended.

We might compare the papyrus basket that the mother prepared for Moses to the Kinder-transport trains that brought Jewish children away from certain danger in Hitler’s Reich to an uncertain future here in Britain

Ask me for whatever you want me to give you, said God to the new king, Solomon. How trusting to issue such a blank cheque! This is like the opening of a fairy story, when the fairy godmother or the genie offers the hero three wishes, and we see his foolish choices end in disaster when he learns too late how he’s wasted the great chance of a lifetime on hollow desires.


nightmare can still happen and our newspapers report such horrors not infrequently — babies mixed up in hospital cots

Most Reverend Paul,

We are so distressed to hear you are still in prison, and will pray for your release, as will Apphia and Archippus, and I will insist the whole household does too; I won’t let anyone shirk this duty.

And of course, when the glad day arrives and you are set free, I would count it an honour for so great a man as you to stay in my humble home.

As for the small matter you raise in your letter, there are some difficulties in what you ask. Once Onesimus ran away, I replaced him quite quickly. My neighbour had a young slave that he no longer required and he recommended him to me as a hard worker, so I took him on for a trial period. He’s proved excellent, he’s never sleepy in the morning, is strong in muscle and quick in wit. So I would feel it unfair to dismiss him, and I really don’t need an extra pair of hands or mouth to feed.

Of course, all the other slaves know of Onesimus’ absconding, and the unfortunate circumstances, and I fear it would be a very bad judgement to have him back. I would lose respect, and discipline would collapse, I’m sure.

Much as I personally may be able to forgive him in time, I’m certain my wife could not; after all, it was her brooch he took and she was very fond of it — it was her grandmother’s. She wept copious tears at its loss. I do feel that in this life we must suffer the consequences of our actions, surely? I gave him one chance, treated him well, and look how he repaid me. How many more chances can he expect?

I know what a quick thinker you are, but I confess I found your sentence a bit jumbled, the one that starts ‘Perhaps the reason he was separated from you . . : for I was very surprised by the way you seem to suggest he return not as a slave at all, but as a — brother? Did you really mean that or was it the scribe’s bad handwriting? I can’t really understand how you would expect that — I already have two brothers,

very dear to me, but they have their own households, and I wouldn’t expect them to share my home, so what would I do with Onesimus?

I really couldn’t face him strutting around as if he was my equal; that would never do. Society needs some rules, Paul, or everything would collapse. Don’t you agree?

No, no, it’s all too complicated, I’m afraid. Of course I wish him well, and hope it works out for him. But another thing, Paul, if you don’t mind me saying so, don’t you think you’re being a little naïve? How do you know he’s to be trusted? Just because you had such an amazing transformation, you think others can too, but you’re the exception that proves the rule; leopards rarely change their spots.

To bring you up to date with the church here, we’ve begun planning the new worship room and have a contractor who’ll do it for a good price and not cheat us, as that last scoundrel did. I think he’d heard our Lord’s story, the one about the workers in the vineyard who get paid a full day’s wage for only one hour’s work, and thought Jesus meant it to be taken literally!

I send you my greetings and consolation while you are in prison, and pray that the kingdom will come one day soon.

Yours respectfully, Philemon

Brother Jesus, give me insight into my motives, so that I know what it is I am defending, what it is I am ignoring, and what I am guarding myself against today. Amen.

When our hearts say one thing, but our mind tells us another; when our upbringing insists on one point of view but our conscience points us in another direction; when our thoughts keep us awake at night, it’s probably because we’re ‘in two minds’ about some issue or another. Often it’s an old mindset that we know we must shed, as a snake sheds its skin, making way for new growth, and different behaviour.

Joseph of Arimathea went through just this upheaval in the last week of Jesus’ life. He straddled two worlds — the Jewish priestly hierarchy and the fresh radical community of the man Jesus. For a while he tried sitting on the fence, in fear of ridicule and loss of status if he came out publicly for Jesus. He was understandably anxious and insecure about the future. As a prominent member of the Council which had manoeuvred for Jesus’ death, he had argued against it, but kept secret that he was in fact a disciple of the condemned man (John 19.38). Sometimes the time to act or speak out is given us just once, and if the opportunity is lost, we must live with the consequences for ever. Perhaps Joseph lived the rest of his life regretting that he hadn’t argued harder or sooner to save Jesus.

When I’m faced with a choice between acting honourably or saving my reputation, help me take the hard decision.

Joseph wasn’t in the inner circle of disciples, and certainly wasn’t one of the Twelve. He was one of the larger group who carried on with their own lives but followed Jesus when they could. He certainly wasn’t with him at the Last Supper. Would he have presumed to call himself a friend of Jesus? Probably not; friend and disciple are not interchange­able terms. The key disciples did relate to Jesus with a degree of ease and equality that might earn the title friend. But in Gethsemane, even

these men didn’t act as true friends should.

Though my eyes are heavy and I need to rest, help me keep watch with my friend in need.

(You may want to name a particular person here . . .)

Who was it that did behave as closest friend to Jesus after his death? Joseph of Arimathea did not run away with the others. He displayed four signs of being a friend: he was determined when he went ‘boldly’ to Pilate to beg for Jesus’ body; he was generous when he gave his own tomb for the burial; he was practical in making all the arrangements, and intimate in wrapping Jesus in the linen before laying him to rest ­not a duty a prominent man would expect to perform, but he didn’t flinch from touching the wounds or fear contamination through contact with a dead body. From being marginal — would Jesus even have known him by name? — he became the closest companion Jesus had. No longer in two minds, Joseph’s understanding was entirely focused on his dead Master and so he grew in stature throughout this dreadful experience. His compassion had been awoken by the suffer­ing of Jesus, and he proved a depth of character in the service he gave. He truly earned himself the right to call himself a friend of Jesus.

Crucified Jesus, unite my scattered thoughts

and untangle my confused ideas;

help me direct all my attention to you

and be- known as your friend.


If you’ve ever walked around the British Museum, you’ll have seen the giant statues of the kings, emperors and pharaohs of earlier civilizations, looming like giants at the end of a gallery, towering over everything and dwarfing all the spectators. Their very size was an attempt to stamp awe and fear in their subjects, and to maintain power over the beholder even after death. But we know they are now in the side room of history, relegated to a gallery of failed empires. ……You don’t have to be a historian to know that similar follies continue today. The twentieth century was a time of violence, war and revolution. Tsarist Russia fell first; then Germany — twice, and the British Empire faded away. Hopes of peace were dashed by a cold war which arose between Soviet Russia and the new great power, the USA. Now China is rivalling America as the new ‘super’ power……. He had a vision of an ‘enormous dazzling statue, awesome in appearance’ (Daniel 2.31) — his head of gold, his chest of silver, belly of bronze, legs of iron and feet of clay. Daniel knew this hybrid monster was the personification of all the worst empires of his world, and knew that the statue would crumble to dust.

There is a better way, but not one to be inaugurated by any earthly emperor. This is the way set out for us very clearly in the list of bless­ings called the Beatitudes. Some of them are quiet, almost passive, and relate to our ‘being, not our doing: we must be meek, poor in spirit, pure in heart. Without these qualities in our heart, we will not become actively merciful, or search with passion for righteousness (that unique combination of justice and mercy), or withstand the persecution this quest is bound to excite. We usually think of these blessings as being personal qualities to be prayed for as a guide to deepening our faith. But unless we require them of people with power, the dislocation of this world will never be healed. They should be foundational to the behaviour of any leader.

If in one moment on earth, in every time zone, from the rising sun in Tokyo to the sunset in San Francisco, each one of us aligned ourselves utterly to God’s will, there would be a flash of insight and an explosion of love. This would be the beginning of Daniel’s ‘fifth kingdom, a kingdom of peace on earth and good will to all. At present we are like a broken engine, with our cogs rusty and wheels lacking synchronization, all grinding against each other. In the fifth kingdom everything will be oiled by God’s love and achieve perfect harmony.

We’ve seen glimpses of the possibility in the great leaders of the twentieth century — they weren’t all bad. We’ve seen the inspiration of Martin Luther King, the peacefulness of Gandhi, the generosity of Mandela, the joy of Archbishop Tutu, the eloquence of Churchill, and the faithful­ness of Queen Elizabeth II. But no mortal man or woman has ever been able to combine all these qualities and virtues. Jesus alone does that.

We should not look back on Holy Saturday with hindsight — it is not the day when the world held its breath. It is the day when all hope was destroyed and all relationships shattered. The disciples had fled at Gethsemane. From now onwards they would exist but would not truly live. Some gathered together for safety, but they were not waiting for anything. Others scattered further afield, like stragglers from a defeated army, crushed and disheartened.

But Jesus looks at it differently, and so can we. What was it Peter did when he first realized the stranger was the Lord? He jumped into the water, rushing to meet him. The character of impetuous Peter leaps off the page just as he leapt out of the boat and plunged into the sea — a baptism by total immersion through which Peter’s sins were washed away, and Jesus didn’t have to rebuke him or even insist that Peter spoke the words. Before the resurrection, Jesus had had the power to heal the sick and turn water into wine, to still the storm and drive out demons, but he’d never been allowed to change Peter. But now, Peter’s born again, as through baptism.

Just think how amazing the eye is, and how extraordinary a thing sight is. I remember being fascinated by the biology lessons that taught me the complexities of cornea, iris, pupil and lens. Do you know that there actually is such a thing as a ‘blind spot’? Then I learnt, more amazing still, of the refraction of rays of light, the inverted picture at the back of the eye, the nerve fibres that carry the messages, and the brain which finally prints the picture the right way up! For it is the brain that does the seeing; it is only once the light reaches the brain that the proper meaning is interpreted in our consciousness, and reality revealed.

I thank you for the extraordinary beauty of your world and pray for the blind and partially sighted, that they may experience your riches in other ways.

Saul saw everything upside down, too. He couldn’t see past his blind spot — his hatred, fear and persecution of the followers of `the Way. So he set out on a journey from Jerusalem to Damascus, `still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples’ (Acts 9.1). No travel in those days was risk free, but he had almost arrived without incident before his whole world came crashing down. In a flash he was blinded — for three days. He had to be led along the road called ‘Straight Street’ to sanctuary. It was his new Lord Jesus who had preached ‘strait is the gate, and narrow is the way’ which leads to life (Matthew 7.14, icJv), and Paul’s steps actually traced this truth…. Paul didn’t know what lay ahead; none of us do: ‘Faith enlightens the path behind you but as a rule the front of you is still in darkness, but not so threatening’

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