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 Non-normative Jesus

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His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:10-12)

This week I want to consider Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 19. But to understand why these words are relevant, we have to go all the way back to a seemingly bizarre statement Moses makes in the book of Deuteronomy. When you see the connection between Deuteronomy 23 and Matthew 19, you will be blown away, just as I was.

“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:1)

I’ll bet you didn’t think we would be looking at this verse in this week’s eSight! But this verse is not random, and it’s not marginal. When we explore this verse together with Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, a new and beautiful understanding of Jesus begins to emerge.

The “assembly of the Lord” refers to when Israel assembled for religious ceremonies. Eunuchs (men who had been castrated or were otherwise unable to reproduce) were considered non-normative within this society. Among the Hebrews, the carrying on of a man’s name through his male offspring was the only way to ensure that his name and nation would endure forever. Passing that name down through generations was the ancient Hebrews’ idea of eternal life.

What about the women? When it came to reproduction, ancient Hebrew culture considered the woman little more than an incubation chamber for the baby that was being passed down from the male. I know, I know, extremely patriarchal! At this stage they didn’t have the faintest idea about the zygote being the combination of the female ovum and the male sperm. For the Hebrew, the male seed contained everything needed for a human to be produced. All that was required was the fertile soil (the woman) for the seed to planted in and to grow. It’s no wonder that many women in this culture were treated like dirt!

Being a eunuch within Hebrew society, by birth or otherwise, placed a man in the “non-normative” category. “Normative” simply refers to that which has been established by the majority in a society as normal, or standard. The opposite of “normative,” academically speaking, is the word queer. Today, “queer” too often is used in an offensive and negative sense, typically as a slur toward someone who is non-normative in matters of sexuality or gender. But in an academic sense, the term “queer” carries no negative connotation. It simply refers to something that is non-normative or non-majoritive. For example, in a world designed for right-handed people, left-handedness (a trait my eldest daughter possesses) is non-normative. In matters of dexterity, left-handed people might labeled as dexterously queer. All of this is to say that eunuchs in Hebrew society during the time of Moses were considered non-normative, and therefore were not admitted to the assembly of the Lord. (Maybe my left-handed daughter would have been excluded from the assembly as well!)

Notice what Moses has to say about normativity in this passage from Leviticus.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles […] that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the LORD; I sanctify them. Thus Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel. (Leviticus 21:16-24)

What’s fascinating is to observe in the book of Isaiah how God begins to change everything, moving Israel further along a trajectory from where they have been toward what we are about to discover in Jesus.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. (Isaiah 56:3-8)

Here is the question I want you consider. How is God going to give the eunuchs an everlasting name when that, within a Hebrew context, can only be accomplished by producing a long line of male children?

Let’s listen in on a private conversation Jesus had with his disciples and see if we can find the answer.

His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:10-12)

Who is Jesus referring to when he says, “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven”? In this context, voluntarily becoming a eunuch did not refer to self-mutilation. Jesus is referring to young Hebrew males who chose to abandon the patriarchal expectations of their society — taking a wife, having children, and propagating the nation of Israel through male offspring — to embrace a life of celibacy instead. Who had done this? Who is Jesus referring to? He was standing right in front of them! Jesus is referring to HIMSELF! He included himself in the eunuchs’ “tribe,” saying, in effect, “I’m choosing to stand in solidarity with you, voluntarily becoming one of you!” The eunuchs would now have an everlasting name, a name that would never be cut off. Moses had excluded them, but now they were being made holy by Jesus’ solidarity with them.

Celibacy is still considered “non-normative” in many of today’s hetero-normative cultures. The cultural pressure for a single person to marry and have children is often immense. But according to Jesus, whether a person is a eunuch by birth, is made so by others, or has simply chosen to live a life of celibacy for the Kingdom’s sake, they have been made not merely acceptable, but holy, special, unique. They have been given a place at Jesus’ table alongside everyone else by virtue of Jesus’ embrace of them…by Jesus’ becoming one of them.

As a side note for those who are non-celibate, you’re included, too. No one is left out.  Jesus is quick to say that choosing a life of celibacy, while still non-normative, no longer holds negative connotations; after all, Jesus was celibate, too. Celibacy is to be strictly voluntary, according to Jesus. Further, only those who have been given the spiritual gift of celibacy are called to be celibate. For those who have not been given this gift, Paul would say, “if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (1 Corinthians 7:9)

But let’s get back to this non-normative eunuch, Jesus, who, standing in the prophetic lineage of Isaiah, calls for the radical inclusion of those once excluded under Moses.

Radical inclusion is a trend in Jesus’ ministry. Speaking to Israel, Jesus announces that the favor of God is now available for the Greeks as well. (Luke 4:25-29) Addressing the Jews, Jesus calls for the inclusion of the Romans. (Matthew 5:43-48) With the Pharisees, Jesus calls for the inclusion of Jews not living according to the Torah (i.e., “sinners,” Luke 19:7-9). Addressing the rich and healthy (wealth and health being socially constructed indications of “God’s favor” in Jesus’ day), Jesus calls for the inclusion of the poor, the blind, and the lame. (Luke 14:13-14; cf. Luke 6:20, 24) Addressing men within a patriarchal society (and women with a Stockholm-syndrome like support of partriarchy), Jesus calls for the inclusion of women. (Luke 10:39-41) Jesus calls to all who are benefiting from society’s arrangements to make room for those who are being oppressed. It was this radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ kingdom that led his early followers who were circumcised to begin including the uncircumcised among them as well. (Acts 10:47)

What I want you to ponder this week is what it must have meant for those non-normative eunuchs of Jesus’ day to be embraced by Jesus, to be called His new “tribe.” Just imagine it:  after years of being excluded from the “assembly of God,” they were not merely accepted by their long-awaited Messiah; he had actually chosen to live as one of them. This is the non-normative Jesus, choosing the life of a eunuch as a Hebrew male and Rabbi who refused to marry and have children. This non-normative Jesus chose to stand in solidarity with a group considered non-normative in his day. What did it mean to them that Jesus, through his identification with them, could give them a name that would now last forever?

It is no accident that the first individual conversion story Luke records in the Book of Acts is that of an Ethiopian eunuch. Luke purposely chooses to tell the conversion story of a person who, under Mosaic law, would have been excluded from the Hebrews’ religious assemblies. Luke knows exactly what he is communicating when he begins the many individual conversion narratives of Jesus’ Kingdom with Philip’s baptism of a eunuch.

He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. (Acts 8:38)

Societies today, ours included, can still be divided into the normative/majoritive and the non-normative/non-majoritive. There will always be a majority and a minority. (Again, think of my left-handed daughter.) But when those considered “normative” fail to recognize those considered “non-normative” as their brothers and sisters in Christ, every bit as deserving of a place at Jesus’ table, something monstrously un-Jesus-like is being perpetuated — something that looks very different from the example we are given in the non-normative Jesus. When normativity is wedded to exclusivity it produces hierarchical privilege for the normative and, by definition, an oppressed minority composed of anyone non-normative. When the preservation of normativity is the Moral concern, rather than the deeper non-objectification, non-dehumanization, and anti-degradation of those who are considered non-normative as the Ethical concern, in the name of “standing up for what is right,” the non-normative minority will always be objectified, dehumanized and degraded, becoming themselves the recipients of attempts at being purged from society by the normative majority. This is exactly the opposite of what we see the non-normative Jesus doing with the eunuchs of his day.

HeartGroup Application

1. The early followers of Jesus embraced the radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ kingdom.  I’d like you to spend time this week with Jesus, contemplating Paul’s words in Acts 17:24-31.

“The God who made the world and everything in it, this God who is sovereign of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is this God served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since this God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and God allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for this God and perhaps grope for this God and find this God—though indeed this God is not far from every one of us. For ‘In God we [all] live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are God’s offspring.’ Since we [all] are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now God commands all people everywhere to [rethink everything we have assumed about God, ourselves and the world around us], because this God has fixed a day on which [the injustice, oppression and violence of this world will be put to right] in justice by a man whom this God has appointed, and of this God has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

2. As you contemplate this passage, journal what Jesus reveals to you through these words.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what Jesus shows you this upcoming week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Jesus’ love reigns. Keep loving like the sun shines and the rain falls, restoring one human heart at a time.

I love each and every one of you. And remember, whether in today’s world you are considered normative or considered non-normative, God loves you, too.

I’ll see you next week.

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 3 of 3 – Jesus and the Living Water

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Jesus and the Living Water

Part 3 of 3

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” (John 4:16)

Stop, and consider.

A woman comes for water every day in the middle of the day, instead of the early morning when she would be with the rest of the women in her town.

Why?

In a society where women found their place beneath men, some women found themselves lower still. This woman was held in lower esteem than even her female peers. Why? This woman had a story.

She had been married five times. Try to consider this not from the perspective our gender-egalitarian culture today but from the patriarchal social constructs of her time. Remember that marriage then was in some regards similar to marriage today, but within first-century Judaism, the social construction of marriage was significantly different. Women belonged to their husbands as little more than property. This was most apparent in divorce. Women could not divorce a man, but men, in this male-dominated hierarchical construction of marriage, could divorce a woman, under the Torah for any reason they so choose. Granted, a woman could not be passed back and forth between husbands, but her present husband could pass her to another if for any reason he deemed her no longer desirable (for faults as simple as burning the food or being less desirable than younger options).

This woman whom we find this day at the well had been sent away by five men. She had been told five times, “You are not desirable. You are not wanted.” We are not told what her present arrangement was, but suffice it to say, she was with a man now simply so that she could have some type of existence in that culture that required her to be connected to a man.

Jesus does not hold her responsible for any of this. There is no “go and sin no more” talk between then. There is no “love the sinner hate the sin” mantra that Christians today are so famous for touting. There is simply the understanding that this woman has been the victim of a marriage institution gone completely wrong. Yes, it was monogamous, but it was no more than serial monogamy. The kind of marriage this woman had experienced only served to objectify, dehumanized, and degrade women to a status lower than men.

Next, we encounter Jesus’ offer to her of “living water.”

What Jesus offers this woman would answer her heart’s desperate cry to love and be loved: a water that would so satisfy her basic, inmost needs that it would not only fill the deep void insider her but overflow into a beautiful force toward others, flowing from her as a source of healing for others.

However, there was a catch. When she responds favorably and asks Jesus for this water, He cannot simply give it to her. No, the water Jesus offers this woman can be only experienced within the context of complete honesty and authenticity. She must come to a place where she is herself, regardless of what the other Torah–observing women might say. If she is going to truly experience what Jesus extends to her, she must be given a safe space with Him to be who and what she is, no longer hiding, even if that means facing her past of begin repeatedly told, time after time, there was something wrong with her.

Jesus draws her into this safe space.

“Go get your husband.”

The woman scrambles. ‘My husband?’ she thinks. ‘There’s something different about this man in front of me, yes, but the last thing I want this strange Jewish man to know is how many times I have been rejected, labeled as unwanted, sent away by one man after another. I know what I’ll say.’

“I have no husband,” she says.

Jesus, with a look that subtly tells her that she can trust Him, says, “I know. I know you’ve been married five times, and the man you’re with now is just keeping you around.”

There is something different that she sees in this man’s eyes.

She changes the subject, though. Jesus will bring it back around.

What is Jesus saying to this woman?

The same thing He is saying right now to you, too.

“My love is not blind. I know everything about you there is to know. My love is not diminished by this knowledge. I love you AND I already know everything there is to know about you. Honestly, I knew you before you even did—even the things you are still in denial about. I know everything there is to know about you, and My offer to you is still on the table.”

We do not need water that will leave us thirsty (conditional love). We need the living water for which we were made. We must not settle for less. We must have the water that satisfies the deepest human thirst. We need Jesus’ living water of unconditional love, a love in which we are simultaneously fully known and fully embraced, loved and accepted. A love that knows all there is to know about us and loves us all the more still.

Who are you reading this right now? What are you hiding? What are you not being honest about, not with others but with yourself and possibly with God? Would you like this living water, too? Then it is time to enter the dangerous honesty of this radically inclusive Kingdom Jesus came to bring. Whatever you are hiding, He won’t turn away from it, and He won’t turn you away, either. You might feel like you have to come to the well at midday to protect yourself from others’ opinions, but you don’t have to with Jesus. As a matter of fact, He is already at the well right now, waiting for you to arrive.

In the past two decades, I have met many people who have come to a place where they can be honest with God about who they are. Some I find to be still hiding. Others are very much on this journey of deep introspection. All these stages are okay. What Jesus would have us all know, first and foremost is that, regardless of who we are, we don’t have to hide from Him. His love is unconditional. He already knows, even before you do, and His offer is still on the table. His hand still extends to you a cup. Are you thirsty for this water? Come. Drink. You will never be the same again.

The lady at the well did not fit in well with the religiously valued, normative social constructs of her day, either. Look at how Jesus relates to her. If you hear nothing else, hear Jesus’ words to you right now:

“My dear daughter, my dear son, I already know everything about you there is to know. And I’m still here. I won’t abandon you. I love you. I’ve come to extend to you, too, the invitation to a world where worship on ‘this mountain’ or ‘that mountain’ is irrelevant. I’m offering you a way into a radically different world, with a river of living, wet, soul-thirst-satisfying, radically inclusive love, not just for you but also, through you, to all those around you who were made for this kind of water, too.”

Do you have the courage to be honest with Jesus?

The first step is to believe that Jesus really does give us space to be honest without the fear of losing Him. The next step is to believe what Jesus said to Philip: “If you have seen Me, you’ve also seen God” (cf. John 14:7–10).

HeartGroup Application

1. This week, I want you to spend some time in contemplation with Jesus. What might you be hiding? Consider if there remains in you a door to that most private room of your heart that you have kept locked.

2. Invite Jesus into this, whatever it is. Watch what He does next. Journal what He shows you.

3. In the context of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at Jacob’s well, share what Jesus shows you with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

Keep living in this love. Allow it to also flow out to others around you until the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns.

I love you guys.

See you next week.

Part 2 of 3 – Jesus and Women

womanatwell

“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

Jacob's_Well_1839

 

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.

Jesus Stops A Lynching and the LGBTQ Community

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery . . . (John 8.2-3)

This week I want to address a story from which most have only heard very conventional explanations and a traditional expounding. In my opinion, how this story is spoken of normally, does little more than allow us to continue on in our culturally conditioned lives unchanged. This story is most often used today (although there are exceptions) by one of two groups. It’s used by behaviorists, who say, “Yes, Jesus forgave, but he also said ‘go sin no more.’” And therefore this story serves to do little more than confirm them in their already-in-motion behaviorism. And this story is also used by those who have been deeply wounded by behaviorists as a treatise on how behaviorists are to not “judge,” reminding behaviorists that Jesus also said, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.” On this side, this story also serves little more than to simply confirm where someone already is.

I want to suggest this week that if these are our only two options in our search for understanding this story, then we miss the underlying point entirely. Something much deeper is going on in this story than what we see on the surface. This “something deeper” is what all of us (behaviorists as well as anti-judgmentalists alike) may be trying to avoid with our surface explanations, fearing that the deeper narrative could implicate us all.

Scapegoating

This story is neither about “anti-judgementalism,” nor is it about “loving the sinner, but hating the sin.” Instead, it’s about “scapegoating.” René Girard, whom some regard today as a veritable “Einstein” of sociology and theology, in his work on violence and the sacred, has discovered that societies, in times of crisis throughout human history, time and time again, are reunited by society unifying around a hatred for a common enemy. This enemy is selected as 1) different from “us,” 2) a minority whose absence would least affect the overall society, and 3) those upon whom the blame for society’s problems can be placed and whose presence must be removed. Various methods can be used (political, economic or religious) to characterize this minority as the “threat” to society. But they must be vilified. Scapegoating will not work to unify a society if that minority is seen as being victimized instead. Those being scapegoated must become villains or of moral disrepute. They must not be seen as victims, but as enemies of what is just and good and therefore they must be opposed. Thus, the society now possesses a common enemy. And the unity within that society, which was previously being threatened, is restored as they now rally together around this common enemy. (A great example of this is seen in Luke 23.12)

What led Girard to become a Christian was his discovery that the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is uniquely different. This Jesus uniquely sought to expose human society’s scapegoating mechanism. He sought to create a human community centered on love for our enemies (removing the exclusive lines of “us” and “them,”) rather than hatred for a common enemy. And finally, this Jesus became the ultimate scapegoat (politically, economically, and religiously) within the narratives of human history in order to, through his unjust death and then resurrection, put an end, once and for all, to our practice of “sacrificing scapegoats.” This is not only seen simply in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus spent His entire life pulling back the layers beneath which we hide the morally, monstrous ugliness of humanity’s continual sacrifice of innocent victims for the protection, advancement, and/or well being of the much larger population.

“The Gospels not only disclose the hidden scapegoat mechanism of human cultures, but witness to the God . . . who stands with the Innocent Victim and is revealed through him.” – René Girard, The Girard Reader

“The most important of these we find in the Gospel of Luke, the famous prayer of Jesus during the Crucifixion: ‘Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing’ (23:34) . . . Persecutors think they are doing good, the right thing; they believe they are working for justice and truth; they believe they are saving their community.” – René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning

Jesus called this the way of “sacrifice” rather than the way of “mercy.” It was to open our eyes and call us away from the way of sacrifice to the way of mercy that Jesus set all his energy in His teachings, His death, and His resurrection.

Jesus stops a lynching.

This is where we need to pick up our story in John 8.

The teachers of the Torah along with the Pharisees are feeling threatened by Jesus. Their place within their society is as risk. They must remove this threat (think Cain and Abel). But in order for it not to back fire, Jesus must not be seen as innocent. The sacrifice of Jesus must be justifiable. Jesus must been seen as a “sinner,” someone who disregards the “Law of Moses.” So they lay a trap—a woman caught in the very act of adultery.

What I find most appalling about adultery in the first century is that adultery laws did not apply to men unless the woman they were having an extramarital affair with was also married. The adultery laws of the Torah applied to both the man and the woman only if the woman involved was married. The culture was patriarchal, and the chief concern expressed in the underlying moral logic of their law was protecting the property rights of the man to whom the woman involved in the adultery “belonged.” We are not given the details of how this tragic mistake was made by the woman in this story. We are not told if she was lured by some pretense, or if this was rape. Either was possible within the patriarchal environment of first-century Palestine. Obviously, it was a trap set for Jesus, however the woman came to be there. She was now the chief, expendable pawn in their scheme.

The trap was then set: “In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” It is at this point the story takes an unexpected turn. Jesus bends down and begins writing on the ground.

I’ve heard (and read) so many try in one convoluted attempt after another to show what Jesus was actually writing on the ground that day. All are guesses at best. My favorite is Shane Claiborne’s: “If this doesn’t work . . . run, woman!” Claiming to know what Jesus wrote that day is to miss the point. To get caught up in trying to figure it out, though, is the point itself. Let me explain. Jesus must get their attention off of being centered on this woman. He must draw all attention to Himself. He comes along side this woman and draws the attention of everyone away from her to Him. You see, scapegoating only works if the scapegoat (in this case, the woman) is “the center” around which everyone else can unite. Jesus begins disrupting this mechanism by doing something brilliant. He bends down and begins writing mysteriously, drawing the attention of everyone away from this woman to Himself. He slowly trades places with her, placing Himself now at the center of their attention as they each, one by one, begin to look down and try to see what Jesus is writing. We must not miss this. Jesus begins by slowly drawing their attention away from her to Himself.

If John had wanted us to know what Jesus wrote, he would have told us. John purposefully leaves the words out for a dramatic reason. John, in beautiful form, preserves this action in the manner in which he records the story for future readers as well. By leaving what Jesus wrote unrecorded, your attention, even right now as you read this, if you can be self-aware for just a moment, is on trying to figure out what Jesus wrote rather than focusing on the woman. Jesus, that day and in the beautiful way John has preserved this story, comes alongside the woman and draws our attention off her and onto Himself. If you’ll notice, you weren’t thinking about that woman at all until I mentioned her again. You were trying desperately, especially if you are OCD like me, to figure out instead “What is He writing.” We can focus only on one or the other, and Jesus knows it.

Jesus then takes a chance. This could have gone the other way very quickly. They could have chosen to stone them both: She as an adulteress, and Jesus as a blasphemer. But Jesus took the risk and stood in solidarity with this woman who was being sacrificed, scapegoated, or in reality, victimized. With one contemplative statement to the oppressors, (“You who are without sin cast the first stone”) He not only saved this woman from what was about to happen, He also won what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called a “double victory.” Jesus not only saves the woman, but He saves the perpetrators too of this act of violence. Jesus saw two sets of victims present, the woman and her accusers. Two parties were held captive to whatever you want to label it, systemic injustice, systemic scapegoating, systemic violence, or systemic “sacrifice.” And He saved both! Scapegoating, or “sacrifice” is the way of the satan, the accuser; Mercy is the way of God, the God we see in Jesus. Jesus interrupted the proceedings of the path of the accuser and set the entire group on the path of God. This story calls us to look at “scapegoating” from the perspective of the victim and of Jesus. The story ends in redemption rather than victimization. “Mercy rather than sacrifice.”

Go And Sin No More

Last, I want to address the much-misunderstood statement by Jesus, “Go and Sin No More.”

The word for sin here that John uses is hamartano, which is the verb form of the noun hamartia. In the ancient Greek world, hamartia was the term Aristotle used in Poetics. One of the ancient Greek story genres was tragedy. In a story classified as tragedy, a mistake, or error in judgment is made by the main character (the hero’s “tragic flaw”). This error in judgment is what leads to the hero’s/heroine’s tragic downfall. This definition fits extremely well with our story. If it were not for Jesus, this story would have been classified as a “tragedy” with the woman as our central character.

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood, hamartia can refer specifically to the tragic mistake itself. BUT DON’T MISS THIS. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words states that hamartia can refer to the “guilt of wrong doing” as well as the wrong doing itself. Hamartia can go way beyond the behavioral aspect of an action to the guilt or stigma associated with that action as well. In these next passages, John’s use of hamartia, which is very unique to the way other authors of the New Testament, is not talking about a behavior but guilt for that behavior; not the committing of the wrongdoing itself, but the guilt for committing a wrongdoing. This distinction is important if we are going to see how it ties back into our story. All of these examples are from John, who is the only gospel writer to use the phrase “go and sin no more.”

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned [Harmatia] this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9.2-3)

It would make no sense to look at hamartia as purely “behavioral” in this passage, for how could this man commit “hamartia” as a behavior before he was even born? If we take Mounce’s definition of the word as also being able to refer to guilt for behavior and not merely the committing of certain behavior, the text makes more sense. The apostles are asking, “Rabbi, who is guilty of sin? This man or his parents since he was born blind?”

These passages are from John as well:

“Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they CANNOT sin, because they have been born of God.” (1 John 3.9, emphasis added)

“We know that those who are born of God do not sin.” (1 John 5.18, emphasis added)

No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. (1 John 3.6, emphasis added)

In 1 John 3.9, John says, “cannot sin?” Really? Paul would never have said that followers of Jesus are incapable of hamartia! Because Paul uses hamartia behaviorally. John goes much deeper, using hamartia to refer to the guilt that is associated with certain behaviors. I’ve seen this verse cause much heartache and damage when “hamartia,” here used by John, is defined behaviorally rather than as guilt over one’s behavior. I’ve seen it rob multitudes of any assurance every time they make a mistake, leaving them to wonder if they were ever genuinely born again at all. On the other side of the spectrum I’ve seen gross sins being perpetrated against others while those committing such actions say, “This can’t be sin because I’ve been born again!” Is John saying that if you abide in Jesus you no longer make moral mistakes? Not only that you don’t, but that you CAN’T? Is John really teaching that when you choose to follow Jesus you achieve over-night, undefeatable moral perfection?

These verses are dangerous if you interpret them as meaning that a Jesus follower cannot ever sin again. BUT, if what John is saying is that once you are born of God the accuser loses his ability to entrap you with overwhelming feelings of GUILT over your sins then this passage from John becomes blessed good news of freedom from guilt, shame, and stigma. John’s use of hamartia (and John’s use, again, is unique in the New Testament) goes way beyond the behavior of sinning. John is saying in all of these passages that if you have been born of God, if you know Him, if you’ve seen Him, you are no longer enslaved by feelings of GUILT over your behaviors, and you cannot be. If God looks like Jesus, guilt loses its power over us to control our futures. To the degree that we believe that God looks like Jesus, to that same degree we will be free from guilt, shame and stigma over our mistakes. Paul actually says the same exact thing in Romans 8.1, “There is therefore no more condemnation to those who are in Christ.” (emphasis added.)

Now let’s return to our story.

“Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from this point forward sin no more.’” (John 8.9-11, emphasis added)

Here is the million-dollar question. Is Jesus siding with the accusers now implying that this woman really is to blame for all that took place that day? Is Jesus saying, “Yes, I don’t condemn you, but they are right, don’t do this anymore?” Having barely escaped with her life, do you think she would even need to be told this? Or on another note, is Jesus telling her to never sin again, setting her up for questioning her sincerity as a Jesus follower every time she failed from that day forward? Is Jesus really expecting this woman to never sin again? From this point, this initial point forward? Don’t get me wrong; Jesus DOES radically change the direction of our lives! But which of us after meeting Jesus for the very first time “sinned no more?” Which of us never sinned again? Yes, the direction of our life dramatically changed when we met Jesus, but haven’t we all still made moral mistakes here and there, from time to time, after our first encounters with Jesus? Following Jesus is much like learning how to walk. Following Jesus is an adventure in learning how to live a radically different life. It’s about being mentored by Jesus, not being perfect from an initial moment onward. None of us become Olympic-gold-medalists in our behavior after our first encounter with Jesus. Which one of us achieved overnight, “sin-no-more” moral perfection after meeting Jesus the very first time?

What John is showing us here is that Jesus is saying something to this woman that is much, much deeper. Jesus is saying go and be guilty of this tragic mistake no more? Certainly her life direction was changed that day. But Jesus wasn’t siding with her accusers here and he wasn’t setting her up for continually doubting her own sincerity either. He was setting her free, free from the guilt, the shame, and the stigma of what she had been involved with that day. Jesus was saying, “Woman, from this point forward, go forth, be guilty of this mistake [John’s use of hamartia] no more. You are free. I don’t condemn you, and I don’t want you to condemn yourself either. Don’t define yourself by this mistake this day, go and be guilty of this tragic failure no more! You don’t have to define yourself the way these people have defined you here today. You are not what they call a ‘sinner.’ You are a daughter of Abraham too!” (cf. Luke 19.9) Jesus looked at this woman and gave her a fresh start; “Go and be guilty of this sin . . . no more.”

Far from looking at this story through the lens of behaviorism or anti-judgmentalism, this is a story that contrasts the way of sacrifice with the way of mercy, the way of scapegoating with the way of redemption. We see Jesus coming along side this woman about to be scapegoated/stoned by His own religious community and Jesus turns the tables on us all and calls all of us to two new realities:

1) If you have been religiously scapegoated, you no longer have to define yourself according to the moral inferiority of how the majority has made you feel.

2) If you have taken part in religiously scapegoating others, it’s time to humbly submit to Jesus’ radically different way of looking at those we are presently rallying together against, calling them “sinners,” using Torah, once again, as our justification.

This was what converted the early apostles, especially the apostle Paul. And it’s what converts each of us. It is at least one of the central points of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection if not the center itself. Jesus has revealed God as being with those whom we are politically, economically, or religiously scapegoating, and we must come to terms with the reality that we are with God, when we with them.

The Jesus story calls us to recognize where we are participating in the way of sacrifice rather than mercy, the way of scapegoating minorities, for the certitude of the greater populous. It calls us away from arranging our lives where a “common enemy” is always needed. And it beckons us to, from this point forward, stand in solidarity with those we once scapegoated. Jesus calls us to abandon whatever sacrificial system we’ve stood in solidarity with up to this point, and to now stand in solidarity with those who are being victimized by those systems instead. We are to be like Jesus, coming along side of those about to be stoned, saying, “If you’re going stone them, then you’re going to have to stone me, too. But know this, whoever among you who is truly innocent in all of this, let them cast the first stone.” As followers of Jesus, we follow Him into the hope of a new world where the continual tides of sacrifice can be turned, and waves of mercy, rather than sacrifice, can wash over our human societies as the waters cover the sea.

HeartGroup Application

Actually, more than an application, it’s time for some confession. I’ve been asking you to sit with Jesus over the past few weeks, asking Him to show you a people group that is on His heart. The reason I’ve asked you to do this is because this is what He has, inescapably, done to me.

For me, this is really where the rubber meets the road. If the story of the Resurrection teaches us anything, it teaches us that the way of sacrificial systems that justify scapegoating innocent victims has come to an end. The Resurrections puts on display that the Presence of God is no longer to be sought within the most exclusive, most holy places belonging to those systems. The true dwelling place of God is now to be found in the ones shamefully suspended on crosses at the demand of those religious sacrificial systems. The Resurrection is the start of a whole new world where we don’t need to fear the consequences our nonviolent engagement with those systems either. We stand in the Victory of the Christ over all injustice, a victory that has already been won. So here goes.

My Confession

I’ve taken a lot of heat over what I’m about to write here over the past few months. I’ve even had a few of my meetings cancel over this. I’ve had those who have been my friends for years now shun me as I begin to take my place alongside those I believe are being scapegoated today. Rather than perusing dialogue and discussion, I have simply been written off. Yet there is a beauty in the pain of rejection when you are now standing along side those you yourself used to reject. Being on the receiving end myself of religious scapegoating now, it’s my prayer that Jesus uses it deep inside me to change me first and foremost.

Here are the responses I’ve gotten so far:

“But I cannot endorse their choice of lifestyle.”

Justin Lee’s continued passion to define the terms we are using is much needed in our discussions. Justin asks the question, “Would you agree with me that sex outside of marriage is wrong?” His audience responds, “Yes.” Justin continues, “Then would you also agree that heterosexuality before marriage is also wrong?” The audience scratches their heads. Heterosexuality is not about whom one has sex with. It’s about whom one feels attracted to. And we don’t choose whom we are attracted to, we just are. Attraction is not something one chooses, it’s what someone experiences whether they want those attractions or not. In the same way, homosexuality cannot be reduced to a sexual act. Homosexuality is defined as feelings of attraction, whether those feelings are wanted or not, to the same gender. I don’t know one of my gay or lesbian friends who chose to feel attracted to their same gender. For them, this is not a lifestyle that they chose. It is something they experience inside of them for which they cannot find an explanation. It would be most helpful if we stopped referring to homosexuality as a “choice of lifestyle.” Just as with heterosexuality, there are expressions of sexuality (both hetero and homo) that are very unhealthy. But it is unjust to group all homosexuals under one sweeping characterization. (Or heterosexuals for that matter.) The struggle for my Christian LGBTQ friends is to find the difference between what is a healthy expression of these same gender attractions that they are feeling and what is an unhealthy expression. And there is just as much debate on this subject among them as there is among my straight friends. Yet my friends in the LGBTQ community are left to struggle with this alone, being shut out from the support of their Christian communities, for even having these un-chosen attractions to begin with.

I have to humbly confess that I think we are completely missing the point of the Jesus story. We claim that this story is the center of all we are about. Yet this story is about a Jesus who met scapegoating in His religious community head on, and it cost Him his life for it. This is the story of a Jesus who encountered those who were being labeled as “sinner” according to the Torah, marginalized, and in John 8 even lynched, by the religious community of His day. This is the story of how Jesus loved these people, how He stood in solidarity with them, and having called them His own, He stood in solidarity with them all the way to the end.

As Girard said, those who scapegoat others “think they are doing good, the right thing; they believe they are working for justice and truth; they believe they are saving their community.” Jesus prayed, “They don’t know what they are really doing.” Scapegoating in the Jesus story appears in the form of giving greater value to a definition of Torah observance (even if they had to sacrifice a few among their community for that observance) over and above the value of those who were being sacrificed. (Scapegoating always picks an individual or a group that is a minority whose absence would least diminish the overall whole. Their absence really won’t cost us a thing. Scapegoating then finds a justifiable reason to unite together in sacrificing them.)

Scapegoating in the Jesus story possessed an air of “holiness,” but it was a kind of holiness that caused those who were being sacrificed to steer clear, and to keep their distance. Jesus, on the other hand, stood in solidarity with those being sacrificed. He valued people and the way of mercy, over and above the way of sacrifice, EVEN WHEN IT WAS ENDORSED BY THE TORAH. Jesus possessed a kind of holiness that actually attracted those whom the religious culture of His day, with the Torah in their hands, were scapegoating.

“But the Bible clearly condemns Homosexuality.”

Again, homosexuality refers to whom you find yourself attracted to, not whom you are having sex with. Whether or not the Bible addresses same gender attraction at all, or what exactly was the moral logic that undergirded the Biblical statements concerning same-gender sexual acts are topics that are hotly debated among scholars today. (See The Bible, Gender and Sexuality by James V. Brownson) And although I believe we need more discussions about these topics given the onslaught of such massive misinformation that is being promoted, to stop here also misses the point of the Jesus story. Even IF one does deem the act of same-gender sex as condemned by the Bible, a grave reality is staring back at us in the face. Why are our reactions to those within LGBTQ community so governed by our amygdala (fight or flight) and not Jesus? Why are my friends in the LGBTQ community, not being strangely attracted to us as they were to Jesus? We may claim to be following Jesus, but then why are our results almost identical to the results of those who were doing the scapegoating in the Jesus story? Why are our results so similar to those who actually crucified Jesus too? Why do we find ourselves getting caught up senselessly with the crowd, crying, “Crucify them, and anyone who stands with them!” We must let this contradiction confront us. Deeming same-gender sex as contrary to the Bible may make us feel more secure as Biblicists, but it gets us nowhere as followers of Jesus. We still have to confront the life of Jesus and how he taught us to relate to those whom any religious community in our day deems as living contrary to their sacred texts. We must be suspicious of any activity that blanket labels a minority as “sinners,” and then unites to rally against them. Scapegoaters never realize they are actually scapegoating until it’s too late. (Acts 2.37)

We have to let the Jesus story confront us.

“Jesus said, ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin.’”

Actually, Jesus never said that. What He actually said was that we are to get the log out of own eye before we can even hope to help others as they are trying to see through the dust that is in theirs. Until someone feels that we truly are their brother, sister, friend, until we’ve stopped and actually listened to their stories, it’s not that we don’t have the right to speak into their lives (which we don’t); it’s that we don’t even have the ability. Without first entering into relationship with those from the LGBTQ community, without entering into their struggles, their stories, until we stop talking about them and start listening to them and along side with them, even when we mean no harm and our intentions are pure, we will continue to do damage that we don’t even realize we are doing.

Here in West Virginia, we used to use canaries in the coalmines to warn the coal miners when the air had become toxic. When the canary died, it was time to run to the surface for purer air. Walter Brueggemann, the world’s foremost Old Testament scholar, has gone on record saying that those from the LGBTQ community are the canaries in our religious coalmines today. The way we as Christians have historically treated even Christian young people who begin experiencing same gender attraction has created an eight times higher rate of suicide among them than any other category of Christian or LGBTQ youth. This screams to us that in all our piety and holiness we have to be open to the possibility that we might have imbibed more of the spirit of scapegoating than we have the spirit of Christ. Seeing this only as a matter of whether this is sin or not sin grossly misses the point entirely. If sin is supposed to produce death, and how we are relating to those involved IS producing higher rates of death, we have to ask, where is the greater death-producing sin in actuality? Where is the greater sin? Is it in an orientation we are so deathly afraid of, or the way we are relating to those who posses this orientation regardless of how they got it? First, we must get the log of scapegoating out of our own eye, and only then will we be able to see clearly to be a source of life, a source of hope, mercy and redemption rather than death and greater damage as we try and “fix” them. (The percentage of people who have been irreparably damaged by reorientation therapy is significantly greater than any percentage of those who, by their own admission, say they now live lives that, on the outside, match the lives of straight people, even though they still experience same gender attraction.)

For the sake of every young person who is struggling with this right now as I write, for the sake of every phone call I will receive at 3 a.m. to talk someone back down off the ledge, it is time for change. If we are following Jesus, WHY IS OUR STORY SO DIFFERENT THAN HIS? I wonder if this is why Jesus was crucified by the teachers of the Torah in His day. Was it because He chose to stand in solidarity with those who were being scapegoated around him, too?

Stanley Hauerwas, for me, summed up what may be the underlying basis of our scapegoating of the LGBTQ community today. Notice the part I’ve italicized: “As a society we have no general agreement about what constitutes marriage and/or what goods marriage ought to serve. We allegedly live in a monogamous culture, but we are at best in fact serially polygamous. We are confused about sex, why and with whom we have it, and about our reasons for having children. This moral confusion leads to a need for the illusion of certainty. If nothing is wrong with homosexuality then it seems everything is up for grabs. Of course, everything is already up for grabs, but the condemnation of gays hides that fact from our lives. So the moral ‘no’ to gays becomes the necessary symbolic commitment to show that we really do believe in something.

If this isn’t scapegoating (gaining security, certitude and unity about our own moral “okayness” by the way we justify treating a minority), then I have to confess I am at a loss to know what scapegoating even is.

I know we feel as if we are simply standing up for what is right. Remember, those unknowingly caught up in the wave of scapegoating always do (cf. Mark 15.15). But it’s really not much different from a modern day lynching. (Even if we do it socially instead of physically.) Jesus stood in solidarity with and defended those who were being damaged by those who were “standing up for what is right.” And the servant is not greater than the master.

I know this will be misunderstood by many. I will be accused of throwing out the Bible, as well as other accusations. But I’m actually taking the Bible seriously. I’m leaning into the narratives of the scriptures not further away from them. I’m taking a hard look at what the central story of our scriptures (the Jesus story) is saying, and making the decision to stand in solidarity with my Christian LGBTQ brothers, sisters and friends. What identifies us, defines us, and binds me to them is our mutual love for Jesus, and our desire, together, to follow Him (not which gender we find ourselves being attracted to.) Granted, that discussion is always on the table given the culture wars that are always just circling above our heads. But I, like so many others, are leaving the culture war behind to follow Jesus instead. I know I may lose support, for standing up for them, my brothers, sisters, and friends (especially the younger ones) in the LGBTQ community. And honestly, that part has caused me to lose more sleep than I’ve gotten over the past few months. I’m banking on the hope that somehow God will provide and that there will be more manna tomorrow for my family. But I cannot, in good conscience, remain silent any longer about the abuse I’ve watched my friends endure at the hands of those who carry the name “Christian.” Brian Zahnd wrote recently, “You can’t un-know what you now know and still be true to yourself.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also said, “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.” Dr. King also said, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I can’t stay silent any more. God please help me, “the servant is not greater than the Master.”

If you would like to further contemplate how, as a Jesus follower, we can learn to relate to those within the LGBTQ community, without throwing away our Bibles, the following resources are my top recommendations to aid you in helping you find your way. I cannot recommend these resources highly enough.

Seventh Gay Adventist, a documentary about faith on the margins by Daneen Akers and Stephen Eyer

Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee

Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community by Andrew Marin

God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines

Bible, Gender, Sexuality by James V. Brownson