Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Bible study meeting: Matthew 25

I belong to a bible study group connected with a local Catholic church. We meet every fortnight to discuss a particular chapter in the bible. We are currently making our way through the Gospel of Matthew. Yesterday evening we met to discuss Matthew 25.

In this chapter Jesus explains what God expects from us and the final judgement using simple parables. Jesus is such a master storyteller. I love the way He explains difficult, obscure concepts in a simple way so that the lay people around Him understand.

The first parable in Matthew 25 involves ten bridesmaids, five of whom are wise and five of whom are foolish. The wise bridesmaids took oil for their lamps while the foolish ones did not. It was a custom in ancient Israel for the groom to come to get his bride at a time of his choosing. All the bridesmaids fell asleep because the groom was delayed, but when he did turn up the foolish bridesmaids were forced to go away and buy oil, only to return and find they had been locked out of the marriage feast. The lesson here is that we should never be complacent in our spiritual life; we must be vigilant and strive to grow in faith always, so that when the final judgement comes we prove worthy of being admitted to the heavenly banquet.

The second parable is about talents. A businessman leaves town and entrusts his money with his three workers. To each worker he gives different amounts depending on their ability. There are no strings attached, but this is clearly a test to see how well the workers use their master's money. Two of the workers, by industrious trading, doubled the amounts they each received. The third, a man who was very prudent, carefully hid his money and made no gain. When the master returns he rewards the first two for their enterprise, but the third is condemned for doing nothing. In a similar fashion, God gives us different talents and abilities that He expects us to make use of. Some people are obviously more gifted than others, but that is not important. We have all been given sufficient talents from God by which we can work together for our common good. The emphasis here is clearly on community.

Finally, the third parable is about helping others and the final judgement. When the time comes, the goat (the bad) will be separated from the sheep (the good). The good will be are richly rewarded while the bad will be punished for their misdeeds. God will judge us not only for the wrong we have done but also for what we have failed to do. It is important that we help others who are not so fortunate as us because that demonstrates real compassion.

We had a good discussion ably aided by Fr John who is a priest from Nigeria. It was my turn to moderate this time, which meant I had to select the opening hymn, the prayers and control the flow of the meeting. I finished with a closing prayer, which drew upon Matthew 25 as well as my own personal experiences. Here is my prayer:

Dear Lord,

Thank you for giving us this opportunity to meet today and reflect on the Word of God. Let your Word always be the guiding light in our lives. Help us to grow in faith, using the trials and tribulations that come our way to turn to God instead of turning away from Him. Thank you for the many talents you have given us Lord; let us make use of them wisely. Help us to lead holy lives, always striving to do good and helping others.


Friday, 6 May 2011

Arab spring or Christian autumn?

The dominant reaction in the West to the spread of revolution was one of enthusiasm; some commentators even spoke of an “Arab spring” in North Africa and the Middle East. It was widely believed that the resulting political changes would be for the better, leading to the establishment of real freedom for the region’s peoples – including its Christian minorities – and of Western-style democracy. An important reason for this optimism was the apparently secular character of the revolts: they appeared to have little or no religious dimension, and certainly not to be Islamic revolutions on the Iranian model.

If this were so, the uprisings would indeed be good news for the Christians of these nations. For years they have suffered discrimination in many areas of life, restrictions on their freedoms by the authorities, and outright violence from the Muslim majorities. If the twilight of the old regimes really did herald the dawn of freedom, Christians could hope at last to take their place as equal members of society and to practise and share their faith in peace and safety.

Sadly, however, the widespread positive response to recent events in misplaced, even na├»ve. North African and Middle Eastern concepts of freedom and democracy, shaped by centuries of Islamic domination, are simply not the same as Western ones. So, for example, when political leaders commit themselves to “support freedom,” they do not intend to include religious freedom in this, and their Muslim audiences do not understand them to do so.

Nor can religion be separated from politics in any Muslim context, where the two are inseparably connected. For most of the people involved in them, the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings are not “secular” revolutions; they are profoundly religious events, waiting to be led by the strongest religious players.

The best organised and funded groups among the rebels in Tunisia and Egypt are the Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who are aiming to play a leading role in the future government of their countries. There is already significant evidence of their growing influence in the post-revolutionary fervour:

  • The return of Islamist leaders Rashid al-Ghannoushi and Yusuf al-Qaradawi to Tunisia and Egypt respectively, amidst great public enthusiasm; the latter led a million people in prayer in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

  • The appointment of an Islamist judge to head the committee drawing up Egypt’s new constitution.

  • The sudden and sharp upsurge in anti-Christian violence in Egypt, involving not only Islamist militants but also the Egyptian authorities.

  • The outcome of recent events in North Africa and the Middle East is impossible to predict with confidence at this stage. But the essentially religious character of political events in Tunisia and Egypt, and the presence there of powerful Islamist groups, raises grave concerns for the future of Christian communities in those countries. If Islamism does seize control of the various revolutions, whether slowly or suddenly, it will impose a much stricter Islamic character on politics and society, threatening the very survival of Christianity across the region.

    Please pray that the Arab spring does not become a Christian autumn.

    Source: Barnabus Fund