Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Higher Good than the Law

Greater minds than mine agree that the gospel is about more than morality. However, we are entering the part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-48) in which Jesus weighs in on the norms by which the Jewish people—his people, lest we forget—were bound.

In six instances, Jesus rabbinically adjudicates moral quandaries posed by the Torah or law. We might rightly ask what the significance of these ancient rules is to the Western Gentile Christian today. Before attempting an answer, I must offer a caution.

The speaker sets up a dichotomy. On one hand stand “the law and the prophets.” This was understood by first century Palestinian Jews before the year 70 to mean what we now call the Old Testament. On the other hand, are the teachings of “the scribes and Pharisees.” This means the commentary of a particular sect or “party,” of which there were many in Jesus’ day, many more than in modern Judaism.

A common Western, second millennium mistake is to read the text as a sample of Jesus’ quarrels with Pharisees around the years 28 to 35.

In fact, some scholars believe that Jesus himself may have belonged to or been close to the party of the Pharisees. In this interpretation, the original oral sources recounting such disputations were little more than intramural rhetorical fencing such as might occur at a modern yeshiva, or Jewish academy of Torah study, among even like-minded rabbis.

There is more. The gospel text is not quite the same as the oral source. We know it to be edited and written for and by the community at Antioch (located in modern Turkey), where Matthew held sway, some 30 to 40 years after Jesus’ death. The gospel does not offer a transcript of a speech, but a heavily edited set of sayings that were put there to address the concerns of the community from which the gospel of Matthew emerged.

What were those concerns? They were those of the overwhelmingly Jewish early Christian community led by Matthew, probably located in Antioch, (ancient) Syria. The text is playing out a posthumous intramural argument about Jesus’ supposed opinions — call it a “What Would Jesus Say” for the Jewish Christians of decade of the first-century 40s or 50s.

Keep in mind that these Christians were still going to the synagogue on the Sabbath, in addition to their Eucharistic “agape suppers” on Sunday to commemorate the resurrection and their Synaxis gatherings to study the holy books and new good news.

These were the original Christians, the ones the Antiochenes pejoratively nicknamed Kristianoi, which was an equivalent of referring to members of the Unification Church “Moonies.” Christian originally meant something like “Christies,” and in “Oh, here come these Christies, preaching again with their stupid beatific smiles!”

They were also Jews. There is compelling evidence that in ancient Syria Jewish Christians continued going to the synagogue until as late as the 6th century of our era!

OK, back to the gospel text.The gospel of Matthew is really comparing and contrasting two readings of the Torah.

One is Pharisaic—and normative to Judaism since the year 70, we’ll see how and why later—presented as what “you have heard.” The other is grounded in what the community understood to be the real, full, more demanding meaning attributed to Jesus, introduced as “I say.”

Note that, contrary to the often wrongly-used (with veiled antisemitism) terms “Phariseism” and “Pharisaic,” the Pharisees come out looking like pretty good guys.

The Jesus of the gospel of Matthew, speaking on the Mount, calls for the fulfillment of the law, just like the Pharisees. Indeed, there is considerable praise in the speaker’s warning that “unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (5:20).

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Salt of the Earth

After the Beatitudes, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Jesus offers a series of comments on a variety of topics, beginning with his view of who and what his disciples are and are supposed to be. In brief, they are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” whose light shines and deeds inspire.

Salt was of inestimable value in a climate in which intense heat spoiled food rapidly. Its grains were valued throughout the Greco-Roman world so much that Roman soldiers were paid in packets of salt, their salarium, from which we get the word “salary.”

Similarly, in the typical first-century Palestinian village, the one-room home in which most people lived had a single lamp. This provided the only household light, even during the day, since windows were small and usually kept covered to keep out the sun and its searing heat.

In verse 5:16, the salt and light are the “good deeds” of the disciples, to be given as signs so that others can see and glorify “your Father who is in heaven.”

Compare this to Christian people and institutions through the modern age.
The false and bland message of Christian respectability, social manners and adherence to civil laws – even when they are unjust – is the sort of salt that long ago lost its savor. The teachings of guilt, prejudice and conflict cast a pall on the gospel’s light, leaving humanity in greater fear, confusion and suffering than before.

No one can savor the salt and see the light, thus many (most?) people disbelieve there even is a Father in heaven. How could there be? Why believe when even the believers have no salt to offer and no light to show the way?

According to the gospel, evangelism is something quite different from marketing campaigns to fill churches and collection baskets for buildings and clerics, incense and chalices, false promises and prophets.

Jesus only speaks of providing an example of faith in action, in other words, good deeds. Do what is good, then shut up; people will get the message.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Blessed are the People

The mystery of Jesus’ fame begins to lift when we first come across the opening of his core message, a series of statements that begin “blessed are,” known as the beatitudes.

They are part of a larger discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, which in the Gospel According to Matthew runs from chapter 5 to 7, and is an attempt to present the essential teaching of Jesus in one fell swoop. The discourse touches on a variety of issues that I will deal with in the next few posts: evangelism, or spreading the message; Jesus attitudes toward Jewish Law; several moral or behavior questions.

The beatitudes alone cover only a few verses, Matthew 5:3-11. They also appear in the shorter Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6). Their original Aramaic text was likely translated by both evangelists/authors and adapted by each to his own purpose.

Matthew has Jesus taking select disciples up the mountain to offer the kerygma (Greek for “preaching” or, theologically, the essential proclamation of the good news); the evangelist has in mind as his audience the core Jewish leadership of the early Jesus Movement.

Luke, on the other hand, has Jesus coming down to the plain to speak to the broader group of all Jesus’ followers, with special reference to Gentiles, even though as a matter of historical fact the audience, whether movement leadership or just plain folks, was unlikely to have included Gentiles.

In each case, the text points to the beatitudes as a unit, crafted with internal rhymes that would make them easy to remember. This was not a literate society, so any preacher had, above all, to be memorable.

There are eight blessings in Matthew and in Luke four, with four corresponding woes. In Matthew, Jesus states that the poor and people who mourn, are meek, hungry for justice, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted or reviled on Jesus’ account are blessed. In Luke (6:20–26), the poor, the hungry, those in mourning and those reviled are blessed, while Jesus issues warning “woes to you” at the rich, people who now laugh, who now are full and of whom men speak highly.


Matthew’s version is almost certainly the more complete, even though he spiritualizes poverty (“poor in spirit”) the first beatitude.

This is often misunderstood as meaning that “poor” includes wealthy people who spiritually detach from what they possess (or members of religious orders who take a vow of “poverty,” but ratchet up frequent flyer miles nonetheless). Such a reading does violence to the text, which refers to those whose dispossession has put them in a position of servility, as the people mentioned in Isaiah 61:1.


Most importantly, the beatitudes are not imperatives. No demand is made that anyone become poor, hungry, justice-seeking and thus hated, even though the consequences of being blessed or cursed are clear.

Rather, the blessings and woes describe the world under the basileia theou (the Greek often translated as “Kingdom of God,” but it more likely meant “rule [or reign] of God”). The beatitudes are God’s “constitution,” if you will, of the divine kingdom.


The striking and, to my mind, appealing character of the blessings is that they describe nothing less than a total subversion, or up-ending, a revolution in the human order.

Put yourself among those who first heard such words. To them, the world was ruled by an Emperor who was worshiped as a son of the gods, whose power over the known world was near-absolute and terrifying.

Within the land of the Jews, the Emperor imposed his power and might through either a procurator (Judea) or a vassal king (Galilee). Under them were tax collectors, who were essentially ruthless thugs who grabbed what they liked. The tax collectors were allowed to keep a part of what they collected, pass on an allotted quota to the local rulers, who in turn paid off Rome. The Roman Empire was nothing less than a ruthless Mafia protection system.

Our world is somewhat gentler, but not by much, as any day's newspaper will show.

Yet in a few masterful and kindly phrases, Jesus announces that this society we humans have built is not at all what God has in mind. No wonder the tidings of Jesus' teachings caught on as a wildfire that the Romans tried to put out!

Jesus offered revolution.

The revolutionary rule of God is not what Christians over the course of history have worked particularly hard to bring about. The churches have become the servants of money while attempting to make “sacred” the human order, instead of become the epicenters of struggle and dissent to usher in the rule of God.

Churches postpone change to the afterlife. But that's not what the gospel says!

In the gospels, we read “blessed are,” not “blessed will be.” The order is supposed to have started then and there; it was merely announced at the mount or the plain.

The German theologian Romano Guardini spoke for me when he wrote, “Our natural reaction to the Sermon on the Mount is distaste.” He counsels, nevertheless, “it is much better to try and overcome it, than to unthinkingly accept Jesus' words as pious platitudes ... they shake, palpably, the foundations of the earth.”

Jesus has thrown down the gauntlet.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Who was Jesus?

We don't actually know very much factually about Jesus, the Galilean who came out of nowhere to stun the world, puzzle emperors and become the (often misused) emblem of millions. As I have already said, the most widely accepted fact is that he was executed sometime between the years 26 and 36, probably the year 30.

Jesus was a Jew from a small village in Galilee, likely Nazareth. We don't know exactly whether he was born in Nazareth or Bethlehem. His father, Joseph, taught him the woodworking trade, meaning something akin to today's cabinetmaking; he was not a carpenter in the construction trades sense.

He spoke Aramaic as a native language, could probably recite enough biblical Hebrew for his bar-mitzvah, and he likely knew a smattering of pedestrian Greek, used for business.

Very likely he was functionally illiterate. He may have been able to “read” biblical texts from memory but not likely actually read them, nor much less write.

Although he grew up with several siblings, we don’t know whether they were full, half or adopted kin.

He was baptized by John the Baptizer, a somewhat better attested historical figure, who may have been his first cousin. Both may have been associated with a devout Jewish community known as the Essenes. Some time after the encounter, he became known as an itinerant preacher.

The attention he garnered gave rise to some popularity in Galilee and Judea and ultimately his execution.

After his death, his followers said he rose from the dead and remains alive to this day.

These followers, most of whom were also functional illiterates, dictated or recounted accounts of what Jesus did and said, which found their way into a number of written works called gospels, roughly 20 to 40 years after the events.

Rudolf Bultmann was fond of remarking that the only actual word we have something close to complete assurance Jesus uttered was “Abba” (Hebrew for Daddy).

Jesus was until about 1836, when David Strauss’ Life of Jesus was published, the figure depicted by the evangelists, chronologically Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Since then, even his very historical existence has been questioned.

A more modern scholar in the search for the historical Jesus, John Meier, has offered a fair compromise portrait that he believes would satisfy Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and agnostic scholars as to "who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended."

At volume 4, his work A Marginal Jew has yet to tackle the crucifixion and resurrection, the trickiest parts for a Catholic theologian laboring under the last two popes. Indeed, it has always been far safer to engage in “Jesusology” than Christology. Ask Leonardo Boff, whose Christological work Jesus the Liberator got him drummed out of religious life as a friar and theologian, which the the wags say made him a real believer.

Yeshua bar Yosif must have been in some way remarkable to have drawn all that attention from such unexceptional beginnings. Jesus called the Christ, or Messiah, is distinctively the central figure of faith in the good news, or gospel, told about him by believers.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Christmas in August

Enter one Yeshua or Yehoshua bar Yosif, also known by his Latin name, Jesus. If we had lived in the Rome of his day, most likely we would have first heard about his execution, accompanied by the strange rumor that he rose from the dead.

The execution by order of the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, appointed by Emperor Tiberius in the year 26 then removed in 36, is the most universally accepted historical fact about Jesus.

If we had been Palestinian Jews in Jerusalem we might have heard somewhat more about this Joshua from the hinterlands of Galilee, a woodworker turned preacher. The priests might have said he was a troublemaker, less exalted and poorer people might have been in awe of his oratory or the wonders he performed. But it all would have been in retrospect.

The first thing the people of his time who had not known him ever heard was, “He is risen!”

This startling assertion of faith was how an insignificant craftsman from a small village in a distant region at the edges of the Greco-Roman world came to the attention of the high and mighty, enough to make an emperor ask, “Who is this Chrestus [sic] people are talking about?”

What a startling claim these followers of Jesus made!

Jesus had been killed stone dead in a world dominated brutally by effectively universal one-man rule. The emperor spoke and you obeyed. He had your life and limb in his hands.

Only the citizens born in, or lawfully adopted by, one shining city of marble and stone had a measure of freedom to possess and dispose of the riches of the Earth in the relatively short span of life allotted them. The rest were conquered subjects, servants and slaves, who owed taxes, labor and submission to Rome and its emperor.

And here comes some obscure little country-bumpkin Jew and defies the emperor by rising from the dead? By Jupiter!

That is the essence of the earliest statement of faith:
“Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words ... Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know -- this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men  ... God has made him both Lord and Christ ...” (Acts 2:14-36)
That was the first Christian creed: Jesus is Lord. (Not the emperor.) That's where the good story (which is English for the Anglo-Saxon gospel) about Jesus, the Christ, begins.

We usually begin with a stable in Bethlehem, but that's debatable. According to Eusebius, the earliest Christian historiographer, Jesus was believed by some to have been born in the summer. After much doubting, scholars now lean toward the December birth. Still, in honor of a little boy whose birthday occurs this week, let's have a little Christmas in August.