Our first reading came from one of those less visited and obscure corners of the Bible. It was The Prayer of Manasseh, which hides in the Apocrypha, a collection of books which many Bibles don’t include. The story of how the Bible came to look like it does today is a long one and for many centuries various texts circulated, were read and became valued by the Hebrew people. Because Christianity grew out of Judaism, it was schooled and shaped by these texts. When the New Testament writers refer to the scriptures, it is these texts, often in their Greek version, and not the ones we call the New Testament. The Apocryphal ones are more of an appendix of extra writings, and they have value in broadening our understanding of the various strands.
The contents list of the Bible was not largely settled until around the 3rd and 4th centuries AD and even then some of it was still in the ‘we’ll see how it goes’ pile. This is another of those reasons why the Bible being viewed as the ‘inerrant word of God’, as though it landed as a complete package, is just far too simplistic and will not do. We have to read it as ancient texts which can help us think about God and how we relate to God and one another.
The Prayer of Manasseh is an interesting text. It was circulating around Christian circles in the second century AD, but no one really knows when it was written. It refers to Manasseh, who became King of Judah in 696 BC at the age of 12. He is given very bad press in 2 Chronicles (33) for doing such evils as building altars to dodgy gods, setting up sacred poles to be worshipped, practising sorcery, and dealing with mediums and wizards. Prophets were sent to tick him off, whom he ignored, so he was taken out by an invading army from Assyria.
He is taken off captive and repents. He decides his previous evil ways were wrong and he is very, very sorry. This book, the Prayer of Manasseh, is some later writer’s imagined attempt to set out the kind of imploring to God for forgiveness that he might have said. It’s a bit longwinded, but a summary might be:
O God, infinite in power (1-5), but also in mercy (6-8), my sins are innumerable and I am justly punished (9-10). I repent (11-12). Spare and save me now (13-14) and I will glorify you for ever (15).
(J C Dancy ‘The shorter books of the Apocrypha’, Cambridge University Press, 1972)
If it had been that concise, the first reading would have been considerably shorter. It worked and he was restored to power and set about restoring and reforming the religious practice of the land. He reigned in total for 55 years – not bad in an age of extreme regime change.
Things go downhill after him under his son Amon, with everything Manasseh had done before his repentance being brought back, which makes you wonder if the reforms were only on the surface.
What this strange book from the bit between what we call the Old Testament and the New Testament highlights, is people who get it spectacularly wrong but then repent and change their ways. And we have so many people who fall into this category, and probably most of us here recognise it within ourselves to some extent. We get somethings very wrong, may have led a life before which has not been entirely pure and holy, and have come to see things differently. People really can change and they do. We may well be in the midst of the struggle at the moment.
This capacity for change is being explored in the current season of ‘Killing Eve’. Is Villanelle, the young assassin, really wanting to be different? Is there a heart inside her killer training and instincts that would like to be a nicer person? The battle seems to be between what’s in her nature and what is acquired by nurture, by what has happened to her and those who continue to have a grip on her and meddle in her life, wanting to exploit her skills, exploit her. Is this going to be a story of redemption or one of, as a psychologist character said, people who reinvent themselves are often avoiding facing the darkness that lurks inside, and of how other influences can refuse to let us go, be hard to shake off?
That seems to be crucial in this. Words are easy to say, but they need to touch the sides. Our repentance, however brief or stretched out it is expressed, needs to connect with the behaviours, the responses that have become natural, the ways we have learnt how to be, for it effect change within us. And new surroundings free of those who bring out the worst in us until we have the strength to avoid being led into temptation. But it can happen.
The Prayer of Manasseh invites us to ask what we need to change. Where are the dark crevices in our character and behaviours that needs the healing grace of God to get to work? What are the structural changes that are needed to create the right environment for flourishing? And do we need help for that to happen? Where will we find the model of what it means to be a better version of ourselves than we sometimes allow out? And in turn, how can we be a better model of ourselves to provide that example for others to grow in the grace of God, to be a place where it is different? In the words of an internet meme: if you want the world to be nicer, start by being nicer.
Sermon for Evensong, Lent 4, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 27th March 2022