John the Plagiarist?

Plagiarism is the act of taking another’s ideas and representing them as one’s own… Plagiarism includes… the unacknowledged presentation of ideas garnered from other sources as if they were original to the author or the assembling of pieces of the work of others into a new whole.

Before I am accused of, well, plagiarism, let me acknowledge that that quotation comes, as every student in Chapel knows, from the University Policy on Good Academic Practice, published on 4 June 2014 (and I can supply the website reference upon request).

This may be helpful to anybody with a final assignment or a take-home exam before Christmas – but that’s probably not why you came to Chapel.  What has this to do with faith, and in particular with John the Baptist whom we encountered in the reading from Luke, about whom we prayed in the Collect, whose father’s words were sung by the Choir?

I want to suggest that plagiarism, while bad academic practice, is not only good religious practice, but fundamental to the Christian faith.  Let me try to show why.

First of all, it is impossible to understand John the Baptist without grasping the ideas he inherited.

We heard words from Malachi earlier today, a prophet in the Hebrew Bible known to Christians as the Old Testament.  This is a message about a coming messenger:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.  The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 

The church has seen in John the Baptist a fulfilment of this prophecy, the coming messenger whose message will be purifying and refining – in other words, a tough message, without much urbane diplomacy.  Not urbane at all, in fact – leaving the urban, the city, and preaching in the wilderness by a river.

And what is this preaching, this purifying, this preparation to do?  According to Luke, it’s another Hebrew prophet who supplies the answer – Isaiah.  He quotes three verses of Isaiah chapter 40 to explain what John is doing (and note that in v. 4 he says it’s from Isaiah – Luke had clearly read the policy on academic misconduct)

Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth.

To our modern ears this sounds like a bit of environmental devastation – what’s wrong with hills and twisty roads, after all?  But the point is to imagine who is coming.  For Isaiah, and for Luke, the one coming is a king, a ruler and leader, one who will come to bring justice and blessing to the whole land.  I suppose a parallel last week would be the visit to St Andrews of Andrew Younger, the Director of MI6.  I am sure that there were plenty of visits beforehand by security personnel to ensure that his way was made smooth.

John understands his own life as a preparation for Jesus.  His ministry is a message that the Messiah is coming.  And so as John is a preparation for the coming of Christ, the Church has, not particularly imaginatively, encouraged us to encounter John as we prepare for the coming of Christ, or at least, for our annual celebration at Christmas.

All this expectation from the Hebrew, Jewish faith for Jesus Christ.  And yet my feeling is that the metaphor that better captures how Christians have thought of Jewish expectation is not road-building but scaffolding – essential for building but then taken down when the building is finished.  Many Christians rarely read the Old Testament, or think of it as their scripture.  Most sermons focus on the New Testament.  Jewish stories, themes and theology are often neglected, or contained in a pejorative accusation that the Old Testament God is vengeful.

This leaves Christianity impoverished at best, and murderously dangerous at worst, with anti-semitism, pogroms and the Holocaust the result, at least in part, of a Christian faith which had thrown away its scaffolding.  And there are nasty examples of anti-semitism in St Andrews today.

Yesterday, I attended a bar mitzvah, the first of my life.  The bar mitzvah boy was Joseph Michelson Shackman, the eldest child of the University’s lay Jewish chaplains, Emily and Bill.  It took place in the Chaplaincy, and was a profoundly moving and joyful occasion, two hours of prayers, hymns, songs (including one I swear which was the tune of All my Loving by the Beatles), and the reading of scripture.  Indeed the heart of the service was Joseph himself chanting a portion of the Torah, from the Book of Genesis about – who else? – Joseph – and then giving his own interpretation of it.

As I followed the printed out readings with my very rusty Hebrew, and tried to work out which page of the English translation corresponded to the prayers being said, I had an overwhelming sense that I was worshipping, that their God was my God, that I was witnessing, indeed, participating in an encounter with the God I try to honour.

Which brings us back to John the Baptist.  John is not a figure from the Hebrew Bible but he was a Jew, who, in some ways, summarises the whole of the Hebrew understanding of God and humanity, a relationship which has been so rich, so fruitful, so foundational for the history of the world.  John comes right at the start of the New Testament because, in some ways, he is not new at all.  His message, of baptism for the forgiveness of sins, is a bringing together in a beautiful, powerful symbolic act everything the Hebrews believed – that God had chosen them to live rightly, to witness to his goodness, and be a light to everyone else.  We call John a Baptist, but perhaps, with only a little irony, we could call him a plagiarist.  His sermons borrowed freely from his Library – which we call the Old Testament – and brought them into a new whole.

I know, you’re waiting for the gear change.  What about Jesus?  Didn’t he change everything?  Well, it depends what you understand by fulfilment.  I believe that Jesus was the fulfilment of Jewish hopes and expectations of a coming Messiah, one anointed by God to reign with justice and love.  But I don’t believe that in being that Messiah, he kicked the scaffolding away.  Jesus did not deny, or disparage or disdain his inheritance.

Do not think, he said, that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. [Matthew 5:17]

That fulfilment then is addition not destruction, the adding of a further layer of wisdom, a closer encounter with God’s life; a deeper vision of God’s truth.

Jesus, like John, was a Jew, circumcised when eight days old.  Yes, part of that fulfilment for me is that God was in Jesus, reconciling the world to himself, and yes, I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  But it matters deeply that God was in the Jewish Messiah, reconciling the world to himself.  Jesus was the Son of Mary, who knew her scriptures and taught him who he was, as a son of the Covenant, a bar mitzvah boy.

I was given a particular honour at Joseph’s bar mitzvah yesterday.  I was asked to read a prayer for the Queen and the Royal Family, that she and her counsellors would have a spirit of wisdom and understanding.  I was happy to do so, and can now truly say that I am available for christenings, weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs.

The final element to the prayer gave me pause:
may the Redeemer come to Zion.

It is a messianic prayer, a hope that God’s anointed one will come to his holy mountain, bringing justice, peace and prosperity to his people.  It is a prayer that may seem to Christians unnecessary in the wake of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And yet, in this season of Advent, do we not light candles because we are aware of darkness in the world?  Do we not hope that next year will be a better one for the refugees, the poor and the unloved of our world?  Do we not hope that God will come to our world in loving judgment, a refiner’s fire, purifying and saving?   And so I said that prayer as a Christian who acknowledges that I am a daughter!  I am a member of a faith which is the daughter of Judaism, and I believe that Christians are the daughters and sons of the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel.

May the redeemer come to Zion, and may we all be found guilty of plagiarising our rich, fruitful and foundational heritage.