Avoiding awkward questions

May 20th, 2012 | By | Category: Ministry

The editors had been at it again. This morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles had been edited. The compilers of the lectionary, the table of readings used by churches around the world, obviously decided that  centuries of reading certain verses was long enough and that they should no longer be read in church. Instead of reading Acts 1:15-26, we read verses 15-17 and 21-26.

Here are verses 18-20, those thought no longer suitable for public reading:

(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.  This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and ‘Let another take his position of overseer.’

Perhaps I should have taken more careful note of the lectionary, for three years ago Matthew Chapter 27, which includes an account of the death of Judas had  been the subject of discussion with a group of twelve year olds. Matthew’s account says:

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.

In the discussion that followed our reading of the chapter, the group seemed more prepared than the church to handle awkward material.

‘Would Judas have been allowed to be buried?’ came a question from the back of the classroom

‘He was buried.  That’s what we just read.  They bought the Potter’s Field.’

‘Yes, but if he had died and the church had to bury him; would they let him be buried?’

‘Oh, I understand now.  No.  They wouldn’t let suicides be buried in consecrated ground’.

‘Why not?’

‘I don’t know why not’.

‘Maybe they thought they were sinners.’

‘Maybe, but aren’t we all?’

‘Do they allow it now?’

‘Yes, but only for a the last century or so”.

Why were suicides barred from Christian burial? I could not remember.

The inquirer went home from another class with another to add to his list of unanswered questions.

There had been a temptation to answer that whether you were buried depended on your social standing.  Images of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet had come to mind.  The two gravediggers, cast as clowns, discuss the funeral rites for Ophelia, who has drowned herself

First Clown

Is she to be buried in Christian burial that wilfully seeks her own salvation?

Second Clown

I tell thee she is: and therefore make her grave straight: the crowner hath sat on her, and finds it Christian burial.

First Clown

How can that be, unless she drowned herself in her own defence?

Second Clown

Why, ’tis found so.

First Clown

It must be ‘se offendendo;’ it cannot be else. For here lies the point: if I drown myself wittingly, it argues an act: and an act hath three branches: it is, to act, to do, to perform: argal, she drowned herself wittingly.

Second Clown

Nay, but hear you, goodman delver,–

First Clown

Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here stands the man; good; if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,–mark you that; but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.

Second Clown

But is this law?

First Clown

Ay, marry, is’t; crowner’s quest law.

Second Clown

Will you ha’ the truth on’t? If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’ Christian burial.

Why were the verses excluded? They are unpleasant, but there is much in Scripture that is unpleasant. Is it more that they raise awkward questions? Questions like those raised by a twelve year old; questions about the church being wrong for centuries.



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  1. I always thought that the reason suicide was considered a sin was because it indicated the person had rejected the possibility of God’s grace (though also because killing is wrong, including killing yourself). In Cassian’s classification there are eight deadly sins, and the unfamiliar extra sin is dejection or depression (which, interestingly, he presents as a malady that needs to be healed: so in some ways not so very different from the modern conception of depression as an illness).

  2. Thanks, Dot, that sounds consistent with the Christendom approach to people that said they had to be compelled to believe.

    I didn’t realize until recently that suicide, and attempted suicide, were criminal offence in England until 1961.

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