Thought for the Day by Malcolm Heath (St Michael’s)
The following images are strictly forbidden: humans; animals; birds; reptiles; fish (Deuteronomy 4.15-18).
Thus ‘Moses’: that is, an anonymous theologian of (perhaps) the sixth century BC, who is interpreting the heritage of Moses for a new generation.
The theologian’s list of forbidden images may seem arbitrary. What harm can there be in having a statuette of (say) a cat on your mantlepiece?
In principle, none.
But among the surrounding cultures all these images (including, for example, cats) were objects of religious reverence, as were the sun, moon and stars (4.19). In that cultural context, the porous boundary between ornament and cult-image had to be carefully monitored. Our theologian had good reason to warn against the tempting consequences of compromise: ‘the LORD your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God’ (4.24).
Yet that devouring, jealous fire is merciful. Though the people may forget their covenant with God, that covenant is ultimately grounded, not on human fickleness, but on the faithfulness of God: ‘because the LORD your God is a merciful God, He will neither abandon you nor destroy you. He will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that He swore to them’ (4.31).
Centuries later, in the crisis of Jesus’ arrest, Peter (whose name means ‘the Rock’!) repeatedly denied any allegiance to Jesus, and even any knowledge of him (John 15.17, 25, 27).
But God trumped Peter’s human fickleness. The risen Jesus invited seven of his followers to an impromptu fish breakfast on the shore of Galilee (21.1-14), and when they had finished their meal he subjected Peter to a painful challenge: his threefold denial was matched with a threefold test of his resolve (21.15-17). It is no surprise that ‘Peter felt hurt’ (21.17).
And then, a fourth, final and confirming test: would Peter’s resolve falter when faced with the prospect of crucifixion? He had seen with his own eyes what crucifixion meant. But Jesus did not need to wait for an answer: ‘follow me’ was his acknowledgement of Peter’s tacit assent (21.18). The fragility of Peter’s faith had been overcome by God’s steadfast faithfulness and mercy.