Why Christians Should Be the Last People on Earth to Justify the Use of Torture for the Protection of National Security

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by Herb Montgomery

“You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”—Caiaphas (John 11.50)

Substitute the word “tortured” in place of the word “die” in the above passage and you’ve got quite a provocative story.

I’m presently alarmed at hearing how many Christians are justifying America’s use of torture, saying things like, “They did what they had to do to protect the American nation.”

The first time I heard those words, the words of Caiaphas rang in my ears. This mentality, this logic, this philosophy, this way of reasoning should be the last for any follower of Jesus, for it was this way of reasoning that led to the death of our Lord. It’s this reasoning that killed Jesus.

It’s this line of reasoning that led to the torturing of your Jesus. It’s this line of reasoning that led to your Jesus being bound and “blindfolded,” made to stand within a circle of men and guards who “spat in his face,” “slapped him” repeatedly, “struck” him, shouting “insults,” tauntingly endeavoring to intimidate him by asking him over and over to tell them, “Who struck you?”[1] And this was only by the ecclesiastical structure.

Jesus was charged with suspicion of insurrection[2] against the Roman Empire and then turned over to a group of Roman soldiers who had no knowledge of the preceding case. The soldiers didn’t know Pilate believed he was innocent. If Jesus was standing before them he must have been guilty, and they were required to follow orders. After all, the peace of Rome (the Pax Romana, Rome’s national interests) was at stake!

So the military soldiers of the Roman Empire did to Jesus what they did to all suspected insurgents. (Remember that torture and crucifixion was reserved for the political enemies of Rome.)

The whole cohort of military soldiers was gathered around Jesus. They “stripped” him and made him stand naked in front of them all. After they chained him to a post and tortured him, they dressed this insurgent in the royal garb of an opposing empire. Then they taunted him, spat in his face and struck him repeatedly upon his wounds. [3]

Then they led him away to be torturously executed.

Yes, it’s ugly to consider—but this, the torture of your Jesus, is where your philosophy that torture is necessary to protect national interests leads.

The resurrection of Jesus is God’s critique of Caiaphas’ justification of using violence, including torture, for the purpose of protecting national interests (“Better for one man to die than the whole nation destroyed”—John 11.50). When Jesus died as a result of Caiaphas’ methodology, the entire philosophy of justifying violence for national preservation was unmasked. By God resurrecting Jesus, God is, once and for all, unequivocally critiquing the way of the empire, torturing suspected threats included. The resurrection locates God within the narrative. God was not with Caiaphas, protecting Jewish national interests. God was not with Herod, protecting economic interests of the wealthy. God was not with Pilate, protecting Roman imperial interests. The resurrection reveals that God was in the one shamefully tortured and suspended on a tree at the orders of superiors and at the hands of those who were simply following the chain of command. The resurrection is God’s action over and against the torture and death of Jesus as a necessary evil for national security. In the resurrection, God undoes and reverses the torture and death of Jesus and makes known for all to acknowledge, “I’m in solidarity with this one whom you tortured.”[4]

The narrative of the death and resurrection of Jesus is saying to us that this entire philosophy is flawed, for if even God were to show up and be perceived as potential threat, a suspected insurgent, even with due process, the system would torture and murder God, too.

As Mark Van Steenwyk recently stated, “In case Christians need reminding, we worship a suspected Middle Eastern insurgent who was tortured.”

It is always the fear of a foreign threat that drives the methodology of violence, including torture. In the 16th century, it was fear of the Turks taking over Europe that led to the torture and murder of the Anabaptists who spoke out against violence in the name of national interest. In Jesus’ day, it was fear of the Romans that caused Jesus’ Jewish audience to reject his critique of violence. In our time, Martin Luther King Jr. was quickly assassinated when he added a critique of the use of violence for the protection of national interests in Vietnam to his platform of racial equality. Gandhi, too, was murdered when his nonviolence was seen as no longer a tool for national interest, but as a threat. It was this fear of foreign threat that has also radically changed the face of Christianity for the last 1,700 years.

Let me tell you a story. For the first 300 years of Christianity, Jesus’ followers were a nonviolent people who felt it was better to have their own blood shed than to have their hands stained with the blood of another. As Christianity began to exponentially grow, this became a problem to the Roman Empire in the fourth century—for if everyone became a Jesus follower and embraced Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence, who, then, would protect the national interests of Rome against foreign threats? Everyone would become a noncombatant.

Thus began the long and much disputed history of the Constantinian shift within Christianity, where Christianity simply became the tool of the empire.

But let’s imagine for a moment that the national interests of Rome in the fourth century had never compromised Christianity. As Christianity continued to grow, more and more Roman citizens would have embraced Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence.  Rome would have eventually fallen to foreign invaders. But the Christians would still have been present, and they would have continued to grow exponentially. Eventually, the new foreign empire would be facing the same challenges to its national interests that Rome had faced and would fall to its foreign threat. But, again, the Christians would still be present and still continue to grow. The third empire coming in contact with these Christians would eventually, too, be facing the same dilemmas.  This history would be repeated over and over, until, eventually, you would run out of empires, and Jesus’ new world would have been the last one standing.  All empires and national interests (beasts and dragons; see the book of Revelation) would have been overcome by a Lamb—not by a sword, but by a cross.

Would many Christians have died in the process? Absolutely. Yet they would have died with the hope of a resurrection into this new world once it became unobstructed. This is why Jesus emphatically said that the way we are going to change the world is through crosses not swords. Remember, crosses were only used by Rome for those suspected of being a threat to her nation interests.

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Matthew 16.24, emphasis added.)

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14.27, emphasis added.)

What does this all mean to American Christians today?

What if America, like Rome, has to fail for Jesus’ New World to succeed? Which allegiance would you choose? Would you remain a Jesus follower, or would your American patriotism and the protection of America’s national interests be of greater value? In other words, would you give up being an American to follow the ethical teachings of Jesus?

As Jesus followers, we are to call the nations to embrace the new world that has been founded by this Jesus.[5] When his followers historically have genuinely followed Jesus’ teachings, they have always been seen as a threat to the national interests of whichever empire they were living amidst. They were accused of turning society “upside down, ” as acting “contrary” to the interests of the Roman “empire.”[6] Rather than calling Caesar “Lord,” they proclaimed Jesus was “Lord.” (Acts 16.31.) Rather than calling Caesar “King” and “Son of God,” they proclaimed Jesus as “King” and “Son of God.” (Acts 17.5–7, 9.20.) Rather than justifying actions for the preservation of the “Pax Romana” (Peace through Rome), they proclaimed the “Pax Jesus Christo” (Peace through Jesus Christ). (Acts 10.36.) The refused to subscribe to Rome’s propaganda as being the “Savior of the World,” but instead proclaimed Jesus as the “Savior of the World.” (1 John 4.14.)

For all of these reasons, Jesus followers should be the last to justify the use of torture by any nation to protect that nation’s national interests. Not only was our Lord tortured and killed as a result of this way of reasoning, but Jesus also said we, as those who announce the new world founded by Jesus, we would also be seen as threats to our respective national interests, and tortured and killed as well.

“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.” (Matthew 24.9, emphasis added.)

Please, my fellow Christians here in America, stop justifying America’s use of torture.

“Love your enemies.”—Jesus, The Gospel of Matthew

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”—Jesus, The Gospel of Matthew

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns …

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

1. “Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?’” (Matthew 26. 67–68.)

“Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ The guards also took him over and beat him.” (Mark 14.64–65.)

“Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, ‘Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?’ They kept heaping many other insults on him.” (Luke 22.63–65.)

“When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’” (John 18.22.)

2. “But they were insistent and said, ‘He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.’” (Luke 23.5.)

3.  “Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.” (Matthew 27.27–31.)

“Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.” (Mark 15.16–20.)”

“And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face.” (John 19.2–3.)

4.  “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—this man, given to you according to the definite plan and purpose of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2.22–24.)

“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.” (Acts 2.32–33.)

“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2.36.)

“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors, has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, but God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.” (Acts 3.12–16.)

“Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’” (Acts 4.10–11.)

“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Founder and Savior.” (Acts 5.30–32.)

“You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10.36–43.)

“Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to

have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.” (Acts 13.23–38.)

5.  “Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.’” (Matthew 28.18–17, emphasis added.)

“That night the Lord stood near him and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.’” (Acts 23.11, emphasis added.)

“Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation and tribe and language and people.” (Revelation 14.6, emphasis added.)

“Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All the nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed.” (Revelation 15.3–4, emphasis added.)

“To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all the peoples, the nations, and the languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7.13–14, emphasis added.)

“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb … the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. … On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 21.22–22.2, emphasis added.)

6.  “While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’” (Acts 17.5–7, emphasis added.)

What does the Advent mean if not Liberation? By Herb Montgomery

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He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. – Mary; Luke 1.52–55

As the season of Advent has begun, I find myself, this year, not so much needing the story to be “true” as much as needing what the Jesus narrative promises to be possible. By this, I do not mean that I need heaven to be real. I do not mean that I need an afterlife to be possible to assure me that this is not all there is. I do not mean that I need even our origins to be explained. What I mean is that I need to know that a world where there is no oppression, injustice, and violence against an oppressed people by those who are advantaged and privileged is possible, here . . . now.

The Jesus narrative, with all its challenges to us today, is proclaiming that this new world has actually begun. I’m also well aware that when the Roman Empire coopted the Jesus movement in the fourth century, in what many scholars call “the Constantinian shift,” what the Jesus narrative says to those who are oppressed became eclipsed and largely lost as the church (those by whom the Jesus narrative was taught) would eventually become the Empire itself and almost irredeemably attach the name of Jesus to one of the most oppressive structures in the history of the Western world. Even with the protestant reformation, “Christianity” today continues to be one of the most oppressive voices in the West regarding issues of race, gender, sexuality, and economics. How has that which claimed the Jesus of the Jesus narrative to be its central object of reverence veered so far from what that Jesus taught in regards to liberation?

From all the pictures of God within the Jewish scriptures that this Jesus could have chosen to characterize his movement, he chose an advocate God who liberates the oppressed.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4.1819, emphasis added.)

When John’s disciples came asking Jesus if he was really the one they had been looking for, this Jesus offers his work of liberation for those socially oppressed as the conclusive evidence.

He answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7.22).

Remember, those who were blind, lame, and deaf were not considered objects of compassion, but “sinners” being punished by God and thus oppressed as well by those who were seeking this God’s favor. (We do this socially as well. One of the ways we become “friends” with someone is to show ourselves to be against those who they are against as well.) Jesus came, instead, announcing God’s favor for those who were being oppressed and calling for oppressors to embrace this radically new way of seeing God and to begin standing in solidarity with the oppressed as well.

Notwithstanding all of the challenges that the narrative of Jesus’ birth produces for us today, we can trace this picture of an advocate God of liberation all the way back to the words of Jesus’ mother Mary.

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1.5254).

Let’s unpack this.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly

Mary first portrays the work of her son to be subversive to monarchy. Her son’s work would decenter a world that functions hierarchically where humans “reign” over other humans. We can see this in Jesus’ words to his disciples in Luke 22. “He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus came announcing the possibility of a world that does not depend upon hierarchical structures for it to function. Hierarchy rules coercively; love inspires compellingly. Jesus came with the message that we can live together without being “ruled.” Jesus cast a vision of a world inspired by the beauty of egalitarian love (Matthew 23.8) where each person treats every other simply the way one would like to be treated (John 13.35; Matthew 7.12).

It might be said that today, at least here in America, we no longer practice monarchy but democracy. Nevertheless, even within democracy, hierarchy is still practiced. Privilege and advantage cause those of a different race, gender, orientation, or economic status to be “ruled over” by laws and policies written by white, wealthy, straight, cisgender males like myself. What does it mean, within a democracy, for the “powerful” to be pulled down “from their thrones?” Those who wear the name of this Jesus should not be supporting the status quo, but subverting it, pioneering a new way of “doing life,” calling those at “the top” of a nation founded on privilege to follow this “dethroning” Jesus as well. It is my belief that there is no better place for this to begin than within Ecclesiastical structures themselves. Until religious hierarchy ceases to be practiced and protected by those who say they are following Jesus, the church is betraying itself. Until those who claim the name of Jesus begin themselves to follow this “dethroning” Jesus, we cannot even begin to dream of (much less pioneer) a world that is truly different. New hierarchical structures will simply replace old ones. The names of the streets will be changed, yet the same old ways of mapping those streets will remain the same.

He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

It would be well to remember the words of Jesus in Luke’s version of the Jesus narrative in Luke 6.2026:

“Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.’”

Not as an outsider, but as one of us, Jesus had come to bring about a great reversal, a rearrangement, a redistribution of resources, here and now. Those who were presently poor, hungry, and weeping as a result of how the present society was arranged would be particularly blessed by the new world Jesus had come to found. Those who had been privileged, those who were rich, those who were well fed, those who rejoiced in the present structuring of resources would go hungry, would mourn, and weep.

Yes, Jesus came announcing good news to the disadvantaged, but it was not perceived to be good news by all. There were the few at the top of the political, economic, and ecclesiastical structures who viewed Jesus’ “good news” as a threat to be swiftly dealt with (see Mark 11.18 cf. John 11.4750).

As Peter Gomes in his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus writes, “Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesus’ preaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which ‘niceness’ is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the end of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed.”

And again,

“When the gospel says, ‘The last will be first, and the first will be last,’ despite the fact that it is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions, it is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first” (Ibid.).

Today wealth and prosperity is taken as evidence of God’s blessing. Jesus did not teach this. Jesus taught that wealth and prosperity reveal an inequality in foundational structures that left some hungry while others were well fed. This new world pioneered by this Jesus was a world where “the hungry would be filled with good things,” and the stockpile reserves of the “rich would be sent away empty.”

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

The great hope of the Hebrew people was not to die and go to heaven, but that some day, on earth, all oppression, violence, and injustice would be put right. This hope was held to be precious by a people whose history was one of being the sweatshop workers of Egypt, then the conquered natives of the Babylonian Empire, and presently the victims of Roman colonization.

What Mary is announcing is that her son would be the liberator of her people from the oppressive presence of the then present Superpower of the known world. What Mary as well as many of the others within the Jesus narrative do not perceive is that this Jesus, whenever followed, would be the liberator of all who are oppressed in every generation. One needs only think of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the evidence of this being true. What I find most ironic is that Gandhi, in being inspired to follow the teachings of Jesus in the “sermon on the mount,” found liberation from British Christians. And King, by doing the same, found liberation from white Christians in positions of privilege here in America.

What does this mean to us this Advent season?

For me, it means that as someone raised as Christian, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me first and foremost, seeing that Christians have been, historically, oppressive first and foremost. As someone who is mostly white, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of racism. As someone who is mostly male, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of male privilege. As someone who is mostly straight, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of LGBQ rights. As someone who is mostly cisgender, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in regards to the threatening reality that my transgender friends live within every day. As someone who is mostly wealthy by global standards, I need to allow the Jesus story to confront me in matters of economics, especially in regards to justice for the poor. As someone who is mostly privileged, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to wake me up to the degree to which I am participating in oppression, even unknowingly, and to allow the beauty of this Jesus to inspire me to compassion instead of fear, and love instead of self-protection, and a letting go, instead of the death-grip grasp on my life as it presently is.

Change doesn’t have to be scary. For those at the top, following Jesus will change everything. But the beauty of the world promised by the Jesus narrative, I choose to believe, is possible. And it’s the beauty of this new world that wins me, at a heart level, to allow my present world to be “turned upside down” (see Acts 17.6).

Will it be costly? Of course it will be. But it’s worth it.

“The kingdom of heaven [this new world] is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13.44).

HeartGroup Application

1. As we begin this Advent season, let’s spend some time sitting with the living Jesus allowing him to open our eyes. As Rabbi Tarfon so eloquently stated, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

2. As you contemplate the injustice of the present world as contrasted with the justice of the new world promised by the Jesus narrative (see Matthew 6.33), journal what Jesus inspires you with.

3. Share with your upcoming HeartGroup in what areas of the world around us that Jesus has inspired you to want to make a difference.

Until the only world that remains, is a world where love reigns, may this Advent season mark a furthering and deepening of the world that babe in Bethlehem came to found.

Together we can ensure a better world is yet to come.

I love each of you, and remember the advocating, liberating God we see in Jesus does too.

Happy Holidays and Tikkun Olam.

See you next week.

A Woman, a Ruler and Two Centers

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Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and to not get discouraged. (Luke 18.1)

This week we are looking at the parable referred to by many as the parable of the unjust ruler and the importunate woman. I want to make it clear from the beginning that we will not look at this parable through a domesticated or conventional “Empire Approved” lens. There are key phrases and clues that cannot be missed, and these phrases tell us explicitly that this is not a parable concerning prayer by those in places of privilege; rather, it is a parable for those who are not merely passively disadvantaged, but who are being actively oppressed in their state of being disadvantaged.

First, here are those phrases and clues:

“A judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” – Luke 18.2 (The word for “judge” here does not mean someone who tries a case, but rather a magistrate or “ruler” who presides over the affairs of government.)

“A widow” – Luke 18.3 (Widows in this first century, patriarchal culture were among those who were oppressed by those at the top of the economic privilege-pyramid.)

“I will grant her justice” – Luke 18.5 (What this widow was pleading for was equity and what today would be called social justice.)

“Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” – Luke 18.7 (This phrase, cry to him day and night, would have harkened Jesus’ listeners back to Israel’s slavery in Egypt, when they also “groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God” (Exodus 2.23, emphasis added). Within the narrative of Exodus, God is portrayed as saying to Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters” (Exodus 3.7, emphasis added).

This is not a parable about praying over “first world problems.” These are not prayers by rulers or judges or those who receive their preference. This is not a prayer to get a promotion in an already high-paying job, or an “A” at an ivy league school, or that your favorite sitcom won’t get canceled this season. These are prayers from those who cry out to the “Advocate God” of the oppressed and disadvantaged that we see in the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These are prayers for God to end oppression, violence and injustice against those who are marginalized, mistreated, stereotyped, mischaracterized, and whose plight is ignored. Jesus is saying to these people, keep crying out to God! Don’t give up! This is not a “pray only” parable either. This is a parable where the widow not only prays—she stands up to injustice with her continued prayers. Jesus is saying to the oppressed, “Keep pushing for justice, yes vertically, but also horizontally. And change will come! God is with you. Remember, God is an ‘Advocate God.’ And this God stands in solidarity with you.” Injustice, oppression and violence is a violation of everything that the God we see in Jesus is about. In Jesus we see this Advocate God engaged in a formidable struggle against all oppression, injustice, and violence. As I’ve said so many times before, yes, God loves even the perpetrators of oppression. Yet the God we see in Jesus seeks to overthrow injustice by winning over the perpetrators of injustice, by being the first to stand in solidarity with the oppressed. Yes, this God loves all, yet this God is also seeking to heal all, both oppressed and oppressor. This God is at work to heal the oppressors by setting them free from the systemic evil they themselves are victims of. And this God is seeking to heal those who are being oppressed by putting to right the very injustice that is crushing them.

The greatest proof I can give that the God we see in Jesus is an Advocate God for the oppressed, is the resurrection. Yes, I know that the historical reality of the resurrection is under fire from our scientifically naturalist worldview today. But stop for a moment, and catch the storied truth of the resurrection.

The good news that the early apostles proclaimed was not that someone had been crucified. That happened all the time to anyone who stood up to Roman oppression. Nor was it that someone who had died had come back to life. That, although strange to us today, would not have shocked anyone in the first century. They had all kinds of stories, both Jewish and Hellenistic, of people who had come back post-mortem. What shocked the Jewish and Roman world was that this Jesus, who was deemed a threat to the political, economic and religious privilege-pyramids, whom these systems had joined together in crushing/crucifying, had been chosen by God to stand in solidarity with him, and who had resurrected this same Jesus, and established this Jesus (along with his radical teachings about justice, equity, love, and mercy rather than sacrifice) as Lord. What had been prophesied by the prophets, that God would one day put to right all injustice, oppression, and violence, had now begun in the resurrection of Jesus the “Christ.”

It wasn’t about getting to heaven after one died. It was about turning the world “upside-down” (see Acts 17.6) and placing it right-side up once again.

The resurrection proves that God is not standing in solidarity with political super-powers (“manifest destiny”), nor is God standing within the most exclusive, most holy, central places of religious systems of sacrifice. Rather, the resurrection proves that God was standing with and revealed in the very one who had been crucified by these religious, economic, and political systems.

Yes, there is good in the world worth fighting for and worth saving (see John 3.17). And when we encounter sickness in this world, whether social, political, economic, or religious, the only remedy is to hear the gospel (good news) being proclaimed by the resurrection of this same Jesus who was crucified by these sicknesses.

In John’s gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be [healed] through him” (John 3.17).

The Two Centers

The cross is the center of appeasement-based theology in the hands of those at the top of privilege-pyramids to take the gospel of the oppressed out at the knees. There is a reason why the resurrection of Jesus was the center of the apostle’s gospel in the book of Acts. The resurrection undoes and reverses the unjust act of the cross by systems of oppression. It is this reason, understood by the apostles, that places the resurrection at the center of all rightly-understood systems of liberation theology. Make no mistake, making the cross the center of one’s theological understanding speaks volumes about the character of the God at the heart of that theology. Yet placing the resurrection as God’s response to the crucifixion of Jesus by human hands also speaks volumes about the character of God at the heart of that theology. And both “centers” place their adherents on a trajectory concerning how they treat the marginalized.

It offers much to ponder for this week, for sure.

It’s time to revisit the Jesus story of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as the preachings of those in the book of Acts, and abandon conventional, domesticated, “Empire-Approved” systems of interpretation.

The cross is the center of “how to get to heaven” gospels. The resurrection is the center of “how to bring heaven to earth once again” gospels.

May God guide us to hear what the story is really telling us, for the sake of our fellow humanity “crying out to God, day and night, for justice.”

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week I’d like you to go back and reread Matthew 5.1-11 and Luke 6.20-26. Contemplate which end of the privilege-pyramid (top or bottom) Jesus is saying the arrival of his Kingdom “blesses,” reversing their present state, and which end Jesus’ Kingdom will challenge. See if you can outline some of the changes Jesus is outlining for those at the top of our social constructs as well as those at the bottom.
  1. After you have made this outline, spend some time, sitting with Jesus, prayerfully contemplating these differences, and Journal what Jesus shares with you.
  1. Share what you discover with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns, keep living in love, loving like Jesus.

I love each and every one of you, and remember, God does too.

See you next week,

Herb

The Demoniac, the Crowd and the way of Mercy rather than Sacrifice.

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Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” (Mark 5:9)

I must confess that this is one of the most bizarre and difficult sections of the four Jesus narratives. In our naturalistic worldview, most of us struggle to entertain this story long enough to perceive and understand its point. The demonology framework prompts kneejerk reactions in those whose outlook is more scientific. But don’t chuck the story yet. Demonology certainly is present in this story. It points to this story having a very early origin in the Jesus revolution of the first century. When we understand the point of the story and its early dating, we gain a window into what the early Jesus community was really about. It calls us to rediscover this point again for ourselves today. Let’s jump in. This story is found in both Mark 5:1–20 and Luke 8:26–29. We’ll look at Mark’s version.

They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills, he would cry out and cut himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of Him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.”

We cannot miss three details if we are to understand what has taken hold of this man.

1. No one was strong enough to subdue him.
2. He cut himself with stones.
3. Its name was Legion.

Let’s start by putting the puzzle pieces on the table and turn to point number 2 first. This man cut himself with stones. Scholars have seen this as what they call auto-lapidation. Lapidating is the act of pelting or killing someone with stones. What cannot be missed is that the gospels always attribute this activity to a crowd stoning a victim (Matthew 21:35, 23:37; Luke 20:6; John 8:7, 59, 10:31–33, 1:8) What this man does to himself is auto-lapidation or self-lapidation. Self-stoning. Why would this man do this to himself? The answer is found in point number three. Whatever has taken over this man, its name is “Legion, for we are many.” This story fits perfectly with the pattern running through the gospels that it is always the many—always the majority, always the crowd—that engages in this form of capital punishment, in which a group throws stones at a person until the victim dies. This man embodies the crowd’s collective violence. The crowd, the many, is embodied in one person. And this story in front of us is how Jesus delivered this man from legion.

Before we can move on, we must understand point number 1, too. Legion, the crowd, the many within this man, cannot be subdued. It might help to realize that what is true of the crowd many times in the gospels is also true of this man right now. This man embodies the crowd or legion, so in order to understand what’s going on inside him, we have to pause and ask how crowds or the many actually work.

The Mechanics of the Crowd/Many/Legion 

Throughout history, societies have faced moments that threaten their coherence and unity. Scholars have observed that, to keep society from coming apart at the seams in the times of conflict, a strange phenomenon often takes place. A society will regain its unity and solidarity by finding a common enemy around which to unite in blaming for its struggles. The many historically have managed their societal rivalries, competition, and disunity, not by turning their violent tendencies on one another, but by coming together and transforming what would be their violence toward one another into collective violence against an Other. In short, a society finds unity in finding a common enemy.

Collective Violence

Violence in a society becomes collective when it chooses someone all its members can come together against. They find unity in agreeing on who they are against. If violence is not channeled together and directed toward a common enemy (which is the way of sacrifice), the violence will turn on the society itself and will destroy it. More on this in a moment.

The Demoniac 

This man is the embodiment of the crowd (i.e., legion/we are many). And whatever it is inside of this man cannot be subdued. It cannot be bound or chained. Yet again, this man simply contains “the crowd” within one individual. The violence of the crowd cannot be overcome. A crowd can never collectively free itself from its own violence. It can manage, or direct that violence, but it needs someone outside of that community to set it free.  A society, in all actuality, only has three options: a) The society can allow the violence to escalate until it tears apart the society; b) The society can unconsciously but collectively direct its violence against a minority whose absence would least diminish the overall whole, thus restoring unity in action against this minority; or c) Someone from the outside the society (in this story, Jesus) can intervene and remove the violence from the society one person at a time.  This makes perfect sense when laid along side of what we just said about number 2. While the crowd can collectively redirect its violence against an Other,this man is alone, there is no Other, so the crowd inside of him turns the violence on itself. (This is why we see this man cutting himself in auto-lapidation. We’ll see this more clearly in a moment when we get to the pigs.)

To illustrate how we, in following Jesus, become free of this mechanism within our society is exactly why we have this story. What many miss is that what is going on inside this man happens on a larger scale between this man and the society in this region. (Think of the medieval icons of angry mobs carrying pitch forks and flaming torches against a monster.) This region manages its societal rivalries, competition, and disunity (a) not by turning its violence on one another but by coming together and transforming its violence into collective violence against this man (b). Jesus came to create a new humanity (a new crowd, so to speak) that united around mercy (c) instead of sacrifice, mercy and love toward enemies (or Others) instead of common hatred. Jesus came to end humanity’s paradigm of us vs. them. And He began His work of saving this society, turning this region away from the way of sacrifice to the way of mercy, by first rehumanizing (I know that’s not a word; I just made it up) the one the crowd had sacrificed or purged. In this case, the demoniac. Jesus’s actions cause them to fundamentally reassess their entire way of life.

Let’s proceed through the rest of the story and see if we are on the right track.

And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.

In this mostly Greek region (Gentile with very few Jews), pigs were a farming commodity. But why do we have this bizarre detail about the pigs running off a cliff? The pigs (animals) become infected with the legion/crowd and the violence that had just been in this man, and with no one against whom to turn that violence (they are just pigs), the herd runs and hurls itself off a cliff. It is self-destruction. It is the crowd/legion that comes out of this man, and goes into these pigs, and throws itself off the cliff. The point? If people are not freed from that which lies at the heart of this demon, the crowd which temporarily finds peace and unity by purging a victim from its homogenous society eventually runs itself off a cliff, just like these pigs. The same demon that causes the crowd to throw stones at others stones/destroys itself if it does not find a victim for the crowd to come together against instead. If not remedied, that which drives the crowd to collective violence against a minority destroys that society in the long run.

Now let’s finish the story.

How did Jesus begin to turn things around in this story?  Jesus began with restoring the one within this narrative the crowd had been collectively against. When Jesus restores this man they had been sacrificing and reintegrates him into society, He threatens the unity and peace the society had found by coming together against this man. He, in effect, turns their way of life, their stability, their worldview, their “sacrifice” on its head. They are forced to see the one they had collectively been sacrificing as a fellow human being, like themselves. Jesus un-objectifies the man. Jesus de-dehumanizes him. Jesus de-degrades him. Jesus lifts this man up and returns him to a place of belonging within the very society that had found unity and coherence by purging him. Jesus challenges the entire arrangement of this society, calling its members to no longer find unity in the practice of societal sacrifice but in coming together in the way of mercy (cf. Matthew 9:13, 12:7; Hosea 6:6).

Do they follow this Jesus? Do they follow this radical social revolutionary?

Sadly, no. Now, they simply find a new sacrifice. They need a new person to purge. They need a new victim through which to find unity by being against. Whom do they choose? You guessed it. Jesus Himself. The way of sacrifice is so ingrained in them that they unconsciously, without missing a beat, simply switch victims, putting Jesus in the place of the man, and go on as if nothing ever changed. They purge Jesus now, instead.

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy [as opposed to sacrifice] on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

The man is sent back to teach this society about the way of mercy, rather than sacrifice. Set free from legion himself, perhaps he can help his society get free of the same demon.  It could be said that the only thing that was wrong with this man was that he had become infected with the crowd.  He had allowed how the crowd defined him to become the way he defined himself as well.  And when he, inside of himself, got free from what was also inside the crowd, he could now go back, “rehumanized,” to lead the community in a better way, the way of mercy.

When people get free of collective violence toward a non-normative minority, (whether in themselves toward others, or within themselves toward themselves) they are not becoming possessed by demons but, in a very real sense, they are being freed from them. THIS is the point of the story.  Embracing someone (or a group) that is accused by the crowd of being demon possessed isn’t to become possessed oneself. It’s called “following Jesus.”  And it is becoming free from the demon (the demon of scapegoating) that is actually possessing the crowd (legion) which was seeking to purge or sacrifice the minority to begin with.

This is my story. I am both the demoniac and the crowd, all in one. As the crowd, I have seen the humanity of the ones I once sacrificed, and it has turned my world upside down. As the demoniac, I have been set free from the legion, or rather, the crowd—the collective violence at the heart of the crowd’s unity—in order to follow the way of mercy instead. I wish I could claim some credit for this transformation, but I did not go looking for it. It was done to me, and for me, by others. Now, I, humbly and repentantly, simply want to bring others with me. The way of mercy truly is the better way. In fact, it’s the way of God.

What would happen if we saw the ones placed on society’s altars as our brothers and sisters? Maybe this is where Jesus starts with all societies that find unity in collective violence against minorities. If this is true, then Jesus’ work today is no different than it was in the gospels. Jesus today calls us to once again see those whom we have labeled indecent, different, other, non-normative, deserving of being purged from within our circles as . . . human. He calls us to embrace the reality that they are our brothers and sisters and have a place beside us at the table, too (cf. Luke 19:9).

“[In the story of the demoniac,] we’re witnessing the birth of an individual capable of escaping the fatal destiny of collective violence.” — Rene Girard, When These Things Begin, Conversations with Michel Treguer

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” — Jesus, Matthew 12:7

HeartGroup Application 

1. Where are you still participating with the crowd in sacrificing others? Spend some time this week with Jesus in contemplation of this question, and ask Him to show you if you are sacrificing or scapegoating someone. My 11 yr old daughter recently confessed to my wife Crystal, that she caught herself speaking poorly of a third person to become friends with another. “I think I might have been ‘scapegoating’ mom, and I don’t want to do that.”

Who might it be for us? Maybe it’s another family member we must join in and be against in order to fit in with the rest of the family. Maybe it’s someone at the office whom everyone hates, and we feel we must join in the collective disdain and ridicule. Maybe it’s at church where, in order to fit in, we feel pressured to label someone as less than a child of God, less than our fellow brother or sister. Or maybe it’s someone within society who we feel deserves retribution, not redemption. People we feel deserve punitive justice instead of justice that restores to them a humanity of which, in our hearts, they have been deprived. Whoever it is, ask Jesus to show you, and He will.

2. Ask Jesus to show you how He thinks and feels toward those being sacrificed. Invite Him to help you see them the same way He does, and then ask Him to give you the courage to follow the way of mercy, rather than sacrifice.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what you experience this week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns, where love is shed as indiscriminately as the sunshine and the rainfall. The new creation has come. Let us enlarge its radically inclusive and restorative perimeter one human heart at a time.

I love each and every one of you, and God does, too.

See you next week.

Part 2 of 3 – Jesus and Women

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“Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman” (John 4.27).

Last week we looked at Jesus and the “Us vs. Them” paradigm of the Jews and the Samaritans.  This week, I’d like to take a brief moment to notice the breathtaking way in which Jesus related to women, especially within a first century Palestinian patriarchal culture.

The disciples return and find Jesus speaking with a woman.  John tells us that the disciples were astonished at this.  The question I’d like you to ponder is why were they surprised?

Treatment of Women in the first century.

Last month in the eSight entitled Jesus Stops a Lynching, I made mention of the double standard that existed within the Torah concerning adultery.  Adultery was not defined as a male engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage, but as a married woman engaging in such.  In other words, if a married man had an affair with an unmarried woman it was not considered to be adultery because the woman did not belong to another man.  A man could only be committing adultery if the woman was married to another man.  The adultery laws of the Torah were not concerned with marital fidelity per se, as much as they were protecting the property rights of husbands to whom their wives belonged. Remember, women in this culture were looked upon as being the property of their husbands.  In John 8 we have a married woman about to be punitively punished for her unfaithfulness to her husband, and Jesus breathtakingly comes to her defense, disarms the crowd, siding with the woman about to be turned into a scapegoat, advocating for this woman against the religious male leadership.

The second example I’d like us to consider is the question about divorce put to Jesus in Matthew 5.  Remember, divorce laws in Jesus’ day were another example of male-dominance law.  Women could not divorce their husbands.  A woman was her husband’s property.  But, a man could divorce his wife.  What is remarkable is that under the Torah, a husband could divorce his wife for something as simple as burning his dinner, becoming less sexually attractive as she aged than the new younger options, or literally any reason for which the husband was no longer pleased with her.  This is how it was under Moses.  Jesus comes to women’s defense stating that, in the Kingdom, there is no reason for treating a woman unjustly.  You may be able to justify sending her away under Moses, but not so within the Kingdom that Jesus was coming to establish.  Let me say a word about Moses.  Moses was an improvement from where the Hebrews were in their unjust treatment of women (See Deuteronomy 24).  But, that was only as far as that culture could walk, at that time.  It wasn’t far enough. Jesus takes protecting women from injustice within marriages within a patriarchal culture to a whole new level by stating that the only reason a woman could be divorced was if she herself was martially unfaithful.  This was to protect men from being taken advantage of too, but notice that Jesus’ strict words about divorce arise from the backdrop of abuse of women in a marital context within a strictly patriarchal culture.  There was no egalitarian treatment of women within marriages during His day.

We could discuss the woman who was bent over that Jesus called forward into the males-only section of the synagogue to be healed on the Sabbath, or the woman, healed and then affirmed by Jesus, who violated the Torah and touches Jesus even though she has an issue of blood; but, what I want you to notice about all of the examples is the gender pyramid that existed in Jesus’ day and Jesus’ engagement with it.

I’ve spoken elsewhere about the economic pyramid structure that Jesus came to overthrow (see Luke 6.20-24).  I’d like you to consider the gender pyramid structures that existed in Jesus’s day as well.  Jesus had come to turn social pyramids upside down.  Those at the top of pyramids, in the places of privilege, would find themselves removed from these privileged positions.  While those at the bottom of these pyramid structures, who were slaving away to benefit those at the top of the pyramid, would find themselves liberated.  When it came to the gender pyramid in Jesus’ day, men were at the top and women were at the bottom.  In the Kingdom that Jesus came to establish, all of this was to be turned on its head, “upside down” as they said in Acts 17.6, where women and men would now be valued and treated equally.

Consider the story of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus.  Martha, who is slaving away at the bottom of the pyramid domestically that day, notices that she hasn’t seen Mary in quite a bit.  Wondering why Mary has left her to do all the “slaving” alone, she walks into the room to find Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus.  What makes this appalling for Martha is that this was a place reserved for men only.  Anyone could be in the room listening to Jesus, but women were typically at the back; then there were the men, and then, if you were a man who was aspiring to become a Rabbi, there was a special spot reserved for you.  Your place, as an aspiring Rabbi, was at the feet of the Rabbi who would be teaching that day.  Remember, being a Rabbi was a men’s only club and, therefore, the “feet of Jesus” was a place that would have been reserved only for men.  And yet, Martha finds Mary, abandoning her domestic place at the bottom of this social pyramid, and seated at the top, right there with Jesus.  What Martha is telling Jesus is that He should put Mary back in her place.  Jesus says, “Leave her alone.”  In Jesus’ Kingdom, women would no longer be relegated to a lower place than men.  Mary had chosen what was best, and she would not be denied based on her gender.

The parallels between the Genesis narrative of the fall and John’s narrative of the Resurrection also cannot be missed.  Both narratives take place in a garden.  Both narratives involve a woman.  But, where the Genesis narrative places the woman as the first to be deceived, the Resurrection narrative places the woman as the first to be enlightened.  She is then sent as an Apostle to the Apostles. She is the first person to proclaim the risen Lord; she is the first to proclaim that a whole new world has begun.  As followers of Jesus, we do not live in the narrative of an old fallen creation where the woman was the first to be deceived by the serpent.  Our story is the narrative of the Resurrection where the woman was the first to believe in the risen Lord.  The Female Narrative within the Hebrew culture has been redeemed through the Resurrection. Woman is now first into the new world!  Surely, the last (bottom of the pyramid) has become the first and the first (top of the pyramid) has become the last.

Some will try and use Paul to overthrow the Jesus story.  But, this is a misunderstanding of the subversive nature of Paul’s use of the word “submit.”  Paul told Jesus-following slaves to “submit” to their unbelieving masters, not because he believed in slavery, but as a subversive way to win over their masters so that they could become Jesus followers too, so that, once converted, the relationship between slave and master would be undone.  Paul uses this same word, “submit”, in relation to the kingdoms of this world as a subversive way to overthrow those same kingdoms, winning over the nations and the kings of the Earth so they would bow down as well to the King of kings and the Lord of lords.  And lastly, Paul speaks of women believers “submitting” to their unbelieving husbands (and vice versa) as the subversive way of winning unbelieving spouses to becoming followers of Jesus as well, where hierarchical authority structures even within marriage would be abolished for the egalitarianism of the Kingdom.

Now, let’s return to Jesus.  Jesus is not afraid to refer to the “maternal” nature of God, even within his own patriarchal culture. Yes, Jesus did speak of God as Father the majority of the time, speaking within His own male dominant culture, but at appropriately subversive and controversial times He also took care to speak about our Mother God as well. (Matthew 23.37; Luke 13.34)

There are undeniably two streams within the scriptures that Jesus followers hold in high regard.  While there is a clear patriarchal stream, there is another, very clear, egalitarian stream as well. (Galatians 3.28)  Jesus followers must discern whether Jesus is moving us away from the egalitarian stream to the patriarchal stream, or whether Jesus is moving us away from the patriarchal stream to the egalitarian one.  Which direction is the Jesus story moving us in?

Again, we can’t allow other sections of scripture to embolden us to ignore Jesus’ treatment of women.  Jesus simply stepped over the gender boundaries of his own day, ignoring them. For those who claim to be following this Jesus, the question we have to ask is are we following Him too?  This is not becoming more like the world.  It’s simply that the world has been listening, in this regard, to Jesus’ spirit, more than the church has.  If this is true, it would not be the first time.  And I’m sure, before the time of all things being restored, it won’t be the last.

“They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.”  Why? Because Jesus refused to place women beneath Him.  Instead, Jesus believed God viewed, as well as treated, women with egalitarianism and Jesus was going to do so as well.  After all, if you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen the Father. (John 14.7-10, cf. John 5.19)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to spend some quiet time with Jesus contemplating what a world would truly look like in which women were treated the same as men.  Where people are evaluated on the value God places on them.  Where voices are heard based on content, not gender.  And where service is based on giftedness rather than gender.  Remember, we are called to put on display what the world changed by Jesus looks like and to give witness to the Resurrection that this new world has begun.

2. Ask Jesus to show you how you can put this new world on display in your own life, within your own sphere of influence.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what Jesus shows you.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, loving like Christ, until the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns.

I love you guys,

See you next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 1 of 3 – Jesus and the Samaritans

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The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)  (John 4.9)

This week I want to begin a three part contemplation of the scene in John’s gospel that took place at “Jacob’s well.”  There are three ways we can approach this story.  The first thing to note is the cultural context and meaning within which Jesus was associating with the Samaritan. The second thing to note is that Jesus was speaking, not just to a Samaritan, but to a Samaritan woman.  The third thing is how Jesus relates to someone, regardless of who they are, someone who might have a sketchy past by which they define themselves and feel ashamed.  We’ll look at each of these over the next few weeks, but for now, let’s begin our contemplation with the first way to approach this story.

Who were the Samaritans in the First Century?

Original Split

The history of the Jews and Samaritans is a complex one, much like a divorced couple giving two different stories.  But one thing is for sure: their history is rooted in schism.  Samaritans claimed to be descendants of the tribe of Ephraim and Manasseh (as well as the tribe of Levi).  After the death of Solomon, the Kingdom split into two parts: the Northern tribes of Israel whose capital was Samaria, and the Southern tribe of Judah with its capital at Jerusalem.

Return From Exile

The schism continues within the narrative of the Jews returning to their land and being given permission to rebuild their temple.  When the Samaritans (remnants of the Northern Tribes after the dispersion of the Assyrians) heard that the temple was being rebuilt, they, as kinsmen, wanted to help.  “They approached Zerubbabel and the heads of families and said to them, ‘Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esar-haddon of Assyria who brought us here.’ But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of families in Israel said to them, ‘You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus of Persia has commanded us’” (Ezra 4.2-3). Zerubbabel, discerning that the Samaritans’ worship of Jehovah had, over time, become a syncretistic religion, worshiping Jehovah as well as other gods of the surrounding nations, considered these descendants of the Northern Tribes no longer “Israelites” and thus not “fit” for helping in rebuilding the temple.

Maccabean Revolt

The last straw was during the Maccabean Revolt, when under Antiochus Epiphanes a holocaust of the Hebrew people was attempted in an effort to Hellenize his entire kingdom.  During this time the Samaritans, desiring to be spared, repudiated all connections of kinship with the Jewish people.  They were spared and this, above all, was the source of hatred by the Jewish people in the days of Jesus.  Jesus over and over refers to this history within His ministry (see Luke 4).  Jesus not only wanted to teach the Jews to love their historical enemies the Seleucids (Sidon/Syria), He wanted the Jews to learn to forgive and embrace their Samaritan brothers and sisters as well.

Due to their rejection during the time of the temple’s reconstruction in Jerusalem, the Samaritans had built their own temple on Mount Gerizim.

Mount Gerizim was the original place of the binding of Isaac by Abraham, and possessed a rich tradition of worship within the history of the Hebrew people.

“When the LORD your God has brought you into the land that you are entering to occupy, you shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal.” (Deuteronomy 11.29)

The Samaritans, like the Jews, in the time of Jesus believed in One God, Yahweh, the same God recognized by the Hebrew prophets.  They taught the Torah as it was given by God to Moses.  Yet they worshiped on Mount Gerizim which they believed was the true sanctuary chosen by Israel’s God, rather than the sanctuary at Jerusalem which was associated with Judah’s God.  It is true that in Jesus’ day, the Samaritan religious belief systems had become a hybrid of the worship of Yahweh combined with beliefs associated with the worship of other Gods.

In the time of Jesus, both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter each other’s territories or even to speak to one another.  Josephus also reports numerous violent confrontations between Jews and Samaritans throughout the first half of the first century.

What we have to recognize and be confronted by is that Jesus ignores all of this.  He sees Samaritans as children of God just like Himself and treats them accordingly.  This is why the Samaritan woman was so shocked:

“The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)”  (John 4.9)

Jesus repeatedly confronted the tensions between the Jews and Samaritans.  He told the story of a good Samaritan, whose actions were so at variance with Jewish religious leaders.  Jesus’ story describes a Samaritan leper who is the only one of ten lepers (the other nine being Jews) to say “Thank you” and worship Jesus.  He rebukes James and John for wanting to call down fire on the Samaritans and destroy them.  Jesus did not relate to Samaritans according the script He had been handed by His Jewish culture. He rejected the rules He had been handed on how to play the game.

Notice, the woman reveals how the Samaritans still claim to be descendants of Abraham, still followers of Moses.

“‘Are you greater than OUR ancestor Jacob, who gave US the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’”  (John 4.12, emphasis added)

To continue the dialogue.

“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain [remember the Hebrew people originally worshiped on Mt. Gerizim before the temple was built in Jerusalem], but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know [Both the Jews and Samaritans had been influenced by Hellenization by this time, so this was not a jab at the “hybrid” nature of the Samaritan worship. The Jews too contained some level of “hybrid” from Greek influence.  Rather the Samaritans believed the Messiah would come from the lineage of one of the Northern Tribes of which they believed they were descended]; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews [the Messiah was to come through the lineage of Judah and thus the Jews, yet be for all people]. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  (John 4.20-24, emphasis added)

Let’s unpack this a bit.

First, Jesus says the hour “is coming.”  By is now here he is saying that shallow outward signs rooted in space-time debates such as which mountain they worship on would not distinguish true worshipers. True worshipers would, through Jesus, worship God in Spirit and Truth.

Let’s look at what Jesus meant by Spirit first.  Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ use of “Spirit” here in John 4 is seen in 2 Corinthians 3 where he distinguishes between the Spirit of the Law with the Letter of the Law.  The original Hebrew people formed a community, centered in the teachings of Moses, to which certain promises had been made.  One did not earn a position within that community by following all the teachings of Moses.  One simply had to demonstrate a desire to join the community by endeavoring to follow its teachings.  Jesus comes to create a new human community, rooted in the Jewish community, but now centered around His own teachings.  Today one does not earn a place in Jesus’ new human community by following His teachings, but we do demonstrate that we desire to be a part of this community, and a part of this new world Jesus is creating, by endeavoring to follow the teachings of this Jesus in whom this new world is centered.  Jesus’ teachings are found in the Sermon on the Mount.  And although they are of the same “Spirit” of the “Law and Prophets,” Jesus’ ethical teachings are deeper, broader, and even more demanding at times, than Moses’ ethical teachings ever were.  Jesus’ teachings are a fuller revelation.  At times, following the Spirit of the Law in Jesus will be a deeper expression of the Letter found in Moses (see Matthew 5:21-28). Sometimes following the Spirit will be a direct contradiction to the Letter found in Moses. (See Matthew 5.38-43, as well as the woman of Luke 8, the woman of John 8, and the accusation of the early Jesus followers as being “lawless” according to the book of James.)  Which leads me to the next identifier, Truth.

John too contrasts the law that came through Moses with the Truth that came through Jesus.  What are we to make of this? It is true that both Jesus and Moses belong to the same moral trajectory.  Yet God through Moses was leading them as far as they could possibly be led in that time.  The Torah of Moses still included nationalism, polygamy, slavery, lex talionis (eye for an eye), the way of sacrifice (Matthew 9.13; 12.7), and violence against one’s enemies.  Jesus moves us further toward an understanding of God and the truth about God that eliminates all of these.  John states that you can have the Torah, yet still not truly see God until you meet Jesus (John 1.17-18).

There are some things between Moses and Jesus that are the same.  Yet there are some things within their teachings that are radically different. (In much in the same way I am teaching my 6 year old not to talk to strangers while I am teaching my 17 year old how to talk to strangers effectively.  Am I the same parent?  Yes.  Are these contradictory rules?  Yes.  Are my children in different places in their development and thus need different rules at different stages?  Yes.)

What Jesus is telling this woman is that He has come to initiate a new human community which would no longer be distinguished by external arguments over the Torah or the teachings of Moses (Do we worship on this mountain or that one?), but rather that this community would be centered around Himself, His teachings, which are from the same Spirit of the Torah, but offer a much Truer revelation of God, how God sees ourselves and how we are to see everyone else around us.

The woman finishes with:

“‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to US.’  “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’” (John 4.25-26, emphasis added)

Jesus said the time is Now!  This new community would no longer be defined by arguments over how to observe the Torah.  This new humanity would be centered around a new way of seeing God, ourselves, and others who inspire us to live according to the ethical teachings of Jesus found in His Sermon on the Mount.

Time is coming and Now is!

Christians, Jews, Muslims and Samaritans have all fought over this well, historically dug by Jacob.  Each has taught that it is wrong to associate with the opposite group. They have continued in the worship, not of the God of Jesus, but of the God of “us vs. them.”

Today, we must squarely face this first revelation of Jesus talking to this Samaritan at Jacob’s well to confront us.  Today we have Christians with different theologies who all claim to follow the same Jesus. We are told many times that it is wrong and even dangerous to associate with the “them” instead of just our “us.” A list of doctrinal truths and lifestyle behaviors has become the test of which ones are truly following God and who are not.  Today Jesus would say to this: “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem, but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

Today we have multiple world religions.  Critics ask, “If all religions teach peace than why can’t they get along?”  They each teach, to varying degrees, that it is wrong or dangerous to associate with those who are of a different creed.  A creed has become the test of who are following God and who are not. To this Jesus would say again, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

Today, we practice dividing the world between Jews and Samaritans by nationality. Consider the West’s attitude toward the Taliban: anyone who disagrees with this view is “sympathizing with the enemy” and probably a terrorist. Such disagreement must be met with violence. Anything less is unpatriotic or treasonable.  Tribal loyalty has become the test of who are following God and who are not. To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

Today we practice dividing the world between Jews and Samaritans by economics.  Whether it is the refugee who appears at our border, or the foreign worker who threatens our jobs, we respond with territorialism rather than hospitality, self-interest instead of sharing.  Fidelity to capitalism has become the test of who are following God and who are not.  To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

Today we practice dividing the world by race. It is appalling that any group bearing the name of Jesus would still practice segregation. We all drink from the same “Cup.” But some denominations still say that it is best for everyone not to integrate. In some areas, the complexion of one’s congregation is still the test of who are following God and who are not.  To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

Today we practice the way of dividing the world between Jews and Samaritan in matters of gender. I know of religious communities that teach that women should not be permitted to be in a position to teach men.  They say it’s morally wrong to place women in an egalitarian position with men.  One’s position on gender in religious leadership has become the test of who are following God and who are not. To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

And lastly, we see this way of dividing the world between the heterosexual majority and the homosexual minority.  Protestors carry signs that proclaim “God Hates Fags!”  “Love the sinner Hate the Sin!”  “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”  It is argued that “they” must be opposed or “they” will corrupt “our” children. One’s position on gay marriage has become the test of who are following God and who are not.  To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

In all the ways that we divide each other, ways that cause us to see others as “the enemy,” ways that echo the First Century’s divisions of Jews and Samaritans, we have forgotten the first teaching of Jesus: We are all children of the same divine parents.  On the inside, we are all the same.  Jesus died and was resurrected to save us all from the ways of Cains against Abels.  These divisions will one day cease.  One day we will all, once again, sit at the same table.  It’s this table practice that Jesus put on display in His ministry, and it was this table practice that got Him killed.  I know we are addicted to our exclusive clubs, but Jesus is offering us the privilege, in our present age, of putting on display what the beautifully restored inclusive age to come will look like. We are called upon to show how the world will look when transformed and restored by Jesus.

If Jesus were alive today, He would tell the story of the good Catholic (if He were among protestants, or the good Protestant if he were among Catholics, or maybe the good “both” if he were among Eastern Orthodox). He would tell the story of the good Muslim, the good Hindu, or the good Buddhist.  He would tell the story of the good terrorist, the good immigrant, the good “welfare recipient”.  He would tell the story of the good ordained woman priest or female preacher, the good gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer.

I know what your thinking.  You’re thinking “But, but, but, but . . .” Whatever is wrong with the “other” group you are having a problem with, remember, the Jews had persuasive arguments, rooted in the Torah, against the Samaritans as well, and yet Jesus ignored all of that and extended His invitation to them as well.

Whomever our “them” is, whomever we have labeled as “the enemy,” we are going to have to confront Jesus going into Samaria, stopping by the well to talk with this Samaritan, and inviting her to embrace Him as her Messiah. He broke every “us and them” rule that existed that day, and the question we followers have to ask ourselves is, do we?

Jesus is seeking to create a new humanity, centered in Himself, comprised of people of all our present ways of dividing ourselves. Are we helping Him, or are we standing in His way?  It is Jesus and His new world rooted in His Sermon on the Mount by which this new humanity will be defined.  Nothing else, and nothing less.  I have a sneaking suspicion that we choose to dived ourselves by these periphery standards to give us a sense of assurance in the midst of the fact that we are all, to a large degree, hiding from the fact that we find Jesus ethical teachings too radical to follow.  We are not following the Sermon on the Mount, so we have to come up with lesser things to distinguish others as different than ourselves by.  The very first teaching of Jesus is that we are to stop this way of dividing ourselves. We are all in a process.  And as we are in this process, we must remember that we are all children of the same God and that Jesus is seeking to restore and reconcile us all to Himself and to each other.  It was Jesus’ radical inclusivity that got Him killed.  We must be careful or we may one day see that the hammer and the nails are once again being raised, and in hands that belong to us.

HeartGroup Application

1.  This week I want you to spend some time with Jesus. Ask Him to show you whom your own “Samaritan” is that you feel should be excluded, shunned or simply not associated with.

2. Ask Him to show you what these people look like through His eyes rather than your own.

3. Journal what He shows you and share what you discover with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

Next week we’ll look at the shocker: This wasn’t just a Samaritan, but it was a “woman” within the context of First Century, Palestinian, Jewish, patriarchal standards.

And the week after that we’ll look at Jesus’ relation to her, not as a Samaritan, nor as a woman, but as simply a human being with a past she felt ashamed of.

Stay with me over the next few weeks.

It’s a beautiful picture of God, a beautiful picture of how God sees each of us, and a beautiful picture of how we too are to see each other.  The picture will emerge, but we first have to fit together all the pieces of the puzzle.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, loving like Jesus, till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love you guys,

I’ll see you next week.

 

 

The Scapegoating/Betraying of Jesus at Bethesda

Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda

 

 

“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, ‘Do you want to get well?’ ‘Sir,’ the invalid replied, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.’” (John 5.1–8)

 

This week, I’d like to revisit the story of John 5. Even if you are familiar with this story, I want to encourage you to give it a fresh look and see if you don’t see what I’m seeing here.

Let’s dive right in.

At first, the story appears to recount another run-of-the-mill healing by Jesus on yet another Sabbath day. But there is something else going on that a surface reading won’t catch.

Follow the story carefully.

“At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.’ But he replied, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Pick up your mat and walk.”’ So they asked him, ‘Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?’ The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.” (John 5.9–13)

It should be remembered that in Jesus’ day, those who were crippled, blind, or lame were not looked upon with compassion or viewed simply as less fortunate than others. This was a culture built on the assumptions of Deuteronomy 28, which states clearly that if you obey, God will bless you, and if you disobey, God will curse you. So if you are crippled, if you are blind, if you are a paralytic, you must be a sinner! What else could explain your current condition?

It should also be remembered that in Jesus’ culture, “sinner” was a very different term than it is today. Today, Christians are taught that we’re all sinners. “All have sinned,” Paul says. But before Paul and the early Christian movement developed the view that everyone is a sinner, this was not the case. The Jews belonged to a community to which certain promises had been made. And although you did not follow Moses’ teachings in order to earn a place in that community, you did follow those teachings, as well as the rules of the community, in order to put on display your decision to be a part of that community.  The term “sinner” was a label used for Jews who, despite belonging by birth to the covenant community, lived contrary to the Torah and rejected their place in that community. In short, the term “sinner” was not applied universally.

If you were a paralytic, in addition to suffering from your condition, you bore the stigma of being a sinner, for why else would God be punishing you? Being a paralytic (or anyone with a disability) in the time of Jesus carried with it the stigma of moral inferiority, the stigma of being a “sinner” and all that included for a Jew.

This is why the first thing Jesus says to the paralytic in Matthew 9 is that his sins are forgiven. Jesus sought first to relieve the guilt/stigma that accompanied being defined as a “sinner” in contrast to everyone else.

In John 5, Jesus heals the man. He sets him free! This freedom involves more than just the ability to walk. It is simultaneously a liberation from the “sinner” label. And what happens next? The man bumps into some fellow Jews who question him regarding why he is carrying his “burden” on the Sabbath day. Do you see what’s happening? He had just become free of the “sinner” label, and his new status is immediately threatened! He is at risk of being classified once again as a “sinner,” and he panics. He throws Jesus under the bus, saying, “The man who healed me . . . it’s His fault!” But the man cannot give his accusers a name, so the matter is dropped.

This next part is where things get interesting.

“Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well again. Stop sinning [hamartia] or something worse may happen to you.’” (John 5.14)

What the Greek actually says here is, “Behold you have been made healthy! Be guilty of wrongdoing no more or you will become something worse than a paralytic!

I want to remind you of John’s “Sin no more,” which we covered in our study on John’s use of hamartia in the eSight/podcast just a couple weeks ago. You can find it here if you need to refresh your memory: https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/06-02-2014/

John uses hamartia differently than some of the other New Testament authors. He uses the term to refer not simply to the behavior associated with sin, but also to the guilt that comes from defining yourself as a sinner.

This man in John 5 had been a paralytic for 38 years. According to the Intervarsity Press New Testament Background Commentary, “The man had been sick there longer than many people in antiquity lived.” This means that although the man was not a paralytic from birth, he might as well have been. He had become a paralytic sometime during infancy—so there is no way this man’s own sin caused him to be a paralytic. Jesus isn’t saying, “Listen, last time you sinned, this is what happened. Now go and sin no more, or next time, something worse might happen to you.” It wasn’t the man’s personal behavior that brought about his disability. He was an infant, for crying out loud. What Jesus is doing for this paralytic is exactly what He did for the paralytic in Matthew 9. He is seeking to set him free from the moral stigma to which paralytics were subjected.

“Go and be guilty of wrong no more.” (John 5.14; Mounce’s Greek Dictionary)

Jesus is setting him free, asserting that he no longer has to define himself as a “sinner”! You don’t have to define yourself according to the way others have looked at you, Jesus is saying. But if you don’t stop defining yourself this way, if you don’t stop allowing others to determine how you see yourself, your fate will be worse than that of simply being a paralytic. What is that fate? What is that something worse? It’s in the very next verse.

“The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well.” (John 5.15)

Why would this man betray Jesus—the man who had just healed him—to the very people who had accused him of breaking the Sabbath?

The answer has to do with the nature of scapegoating. When a person is scapegoated the way this man was—both for being a paralytic and, afterward, for presumably breaking the Sabbath—that person becomes desperate. There are two ways enemies become friends. The first is to identify a mutual/common enemy (see Luke 23.12). The second is to cultivate forgiveness and reconciliation. The first is very similar to how scapegoats seek to escape being attacked by the crowd. When someone is being picked on, they will instinctively endeavor to deflect the negative attention onto someone weaker than themselves. The result is that now, rather than being picked on, they have gained their oppressors’ acceptance by joining them in picking on someone else.

This is the “something worse” about which Jesus was warning the paralytic. He could be free from the “sinner” stigma in two ways. He could embrace the new identity Jesus was giving him and no longer define himself the way his religious community had. Jesus would become that which defined this man and gave him a sense of worth. Alternatively, he could convince his community to scapegoat someone else—and join his community in the practice of scapegoating.  And who would this man choose to scapegoat? Who would he choose to throw under the bus? Who would he encourage his own oppressors to view as the real “sinner”?

He does exactly the opposite of the blind man in John 9, whom Jesus healed and whose story John is contrasting with this man’s. The man in John 5 chose the worse path. In an effort to be accepted by the crowd, he chose to betray, or scapegoat, the very Jesus who had just healed him.

“So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.’ For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5.16–18)

I want to draw attention to one more issue before we close this week. In response to the man’s attempt to divert the accusers’ scapegoating mechanism onto Jesus himself, Jesus does not refute the accusation, but embraces it. If he deflected the accusation, he would run the risk of turning the accusers’ attention back on the paralytic man. Jesus accepts the label of Sabbath breaker to save the man who had just betrayed him. He doesn’t deny that he broke the Sabbath. He doesn’t claim that “healing” is not a violation of Sabbath observance. On the contrary, Jesus quotes the Sabbath commandment of Exodus 20, in effect confessing that He was “working.”

In Jesus’ confession “I too am working,” the Greek word translated as “working” is ergazomai. It is the same word used in the Septuagint translation of Exodus 20.9: “Six days you labor [ergazomai] and do all your work.” Jesus is virtually saying, “Yes, I was working on the Sabbath, just as the commandment says not to.”

Just so you can get the truest sense of what Jesus is doing here, take a look at the way ergazomai is used in other New Testament passages.

Matthew 21.28: “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work [ergazomai] in the vineyard today.’”

Matthew 25.16: “The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded [ergazomai] with them, and made five more talents.”

John 6.27: “Do not work [ergazomai] for the food that perishes . . .”

Acts 18.3: “And, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked [ergazomai] together—by trade they were tentmakers.”

1Corinthians 9.6: “Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living [ergazomai]?”

2Thessalonians 3.8: “And we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked [ergazomai] night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.”

Revelation 18.17: “For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste! And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade [ergazomai] is on the sea, stood far off.”

And not only does Jesus embrace the role of scapegoat here, He actually drags God into it with Him.

“My Father is always at his work [ergazomai] to this very day, and I too am working [ergazomai].”

In John 5, God in Christ becomes the scapegoat to end all scapegoats. He, the innocent, embraces the label of “sinner,” of “Sabbath breaker.” Why?

The answer is found in the story of the unjust death and resurrection of God in Jesus. The resurrection proves that God is not to be found within the scapegoaters (whether political, economic, or religious). God is to found in the one hanging shamefully on the tree at the hands of those who put him there. This way of finding unity among ourselves by finding a common enemy and then justifying it by labeling them “sinners,” this way of organizing human societies around a common “evil,” this way of “making peace” among ourselves is capable of killing even God Himself.

We do it today. We do it economically with immigrants and foreigners. We do it politically with the Taliban. We do it religiously with the LGBTQ community. When are we going to stop? What we are doing led in the past to the unjust execution of God. We don’t see what we are doing. It is time for us to wake up.

When will we learn to abandon our preoccupation with “us” and “them”?

We are all children of the same Divine Parents. Jesus died for all of us. We are all God’s favorites. When will we learn that we don’t need to throw others under the bus to secure our place in this world?

 

HeartGroup Application

What does it mean to you that Jesus embraced the label of “Sabbath breaker” within a community that defined itself according to those who kept the Sabbath and those who didn’t?

In John’s contrasting story in John 9, the Pharisees say, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath” (9.16). When I was at the impressionable age of fourteen, I joined “God” in being “against” Sabbath breakers too. I was this paralytic, looking for the acceptance of God. And instead of receiving “acceptance” as a free gift, I found it in identifying a “common enemy.” God forgive me, not just for my gross ignorance of what God is like, but for my “baptizing” the way of the “accuser” rather than following the radically inclusive way of Jesus.

1. Sit with Jesus this week on the subject of scapegoating and defining others by their level of Torah observance. Jesus inaugurated a new community, centered on Himself. If there is any evaluation to be made, it is of one’s heart orientation toward Jesus. But what saves us from now  scapegoating others because we feel they lack a heart orientation toward Jesus? The answer is twofold: (1) only God really knows the heart, and (2) even if another person’s heart is not oriented toward Jesus, Jesus Himself commands us to love as indiscriminately as the sun shines and the rain falls (Matthew 5.45). And in so doing we will be like God. Yes, there are those whose hearts are turned toward Jesus, and there are those whose hearts are not. But we are called to love the latter just the same. No distinction. No scapegoating allowed. There is no us and them. The sunshine proves it. The falling rain testifies to the truth of it. We are all children of the same Divine Parents. And it’s time to learn the way of love once again. Defining others by “the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” produces violence, bloodshed, death. It’s time to find our way back to the tree of life, which, remember, is for the healing of nations (Genesis 3.6 cf. Revelation 22.2).

2. Journal about what Jesus shows you as you sit with Him on these themes during your time in contemplation.

3. This upcoming week, share with your HeartGroup what you discover.

 

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. I love you guys. See you next week.