The Lost Coin

by Herb Montgomery | November 3, 2017

“Jesus willfully and intentionally transgressed the community boundaries of his day. We should too. Keep in mind, the more ritually pure you were, the more clean you were, the more included, centered and privileged you would be in Jesus’ larger culture. Those who were deemed unclean were labeled “sinners.” And it was these “sinners,” these outsiders, who were embracing Jesus’s teachings.  It was these “sinners,” these outsiders whom Jesus embraced and was living in solidarity with. These were the ones Jesus was always seen with and it was these outsiders who were often seen with Jesus.”

Featured Text:

“Or what woman who has ten coins, if she were to lose o ne coin, would not light a lamp and sweep the house and hunt until she finds? And on finding she calls the friends and neighbors, saying: Rejoice with me, for I found the coin which I lost. Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels over one repenting sinner.” (Q 15:·8-10)

Companion Text:

Luke 15:8-10: “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The term “sinner” is used in the gospels in a very particular sense. It’s not used in the universal “everyone’s a sinner” sense. We see this in Jesus’ socio-political context. Imagine a circle. Those at the center controlled and made the decisions for the circle while those pushed from the center toward the edges had less and less say the further away from the center they found themselves. What determined how close to the center someone operated was an idea that we  now have a difficult time understanding: this was the idea of purity. Those on the edges were pushed there by labelling them “sinners.” Those on the edges of the circle had no power, privilege, or voice. 

Cultural or ritual purity codes in any society are used to bring order to the chaos of our world. Ritual Purity codes are a way of organizing our communities.  What purity cultures are concerned about is found in Bruce Malina’s, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, describes 

“Specifically about the general cultural map of social time and space, about arrangement within the space thus defined, and especially about the boundaries separating the inside from the outside. The unclean or impure is something that does not fit the space in which it is found, that belongs elsewhere, that causes confusion in the arrangement of the generally accepted social map because it overturns boundaries.” (p. 125)

This way of ordering societies was not just practiced back then. We practice examples of this today. We manage purity in society and smaller communities within society, too! We misuse a person’s gender, race, orientation, gender expression, and gender identity to draw boundary lines in society. Examples might be the transgression of a community defined boundary within some religious groups by having a woman pastor. Or in larger society, examples might be found in how a community responds to the marriage of people from two different races, two men holding hands in public, or how a man in drag is interpreted in certain communities as transgressing or overturning “boundaries,” not fitting the “space in which it is found,” “belonging elsewhere,” or causing “confusion in the arrangement” of a “generally accepted social map.” 

Today we may or may not use the ancient language of “purity” to name something as clean or unclean, but we still in many social settings push those who transgress community boundaries from the center of that community to its edges. We marginalize them because we perceive them as not belonging.

In Jesus’ culture this was done primarily with various interpretations of the Torah. Those whose lives aligned with the community’s interpretation of the Torah were more clean or pure than others; they belonged. Those whose lives did not align were marginalized (pushed to the edges) and labeled “sinners.” The community looked upon them as outsiders even though they were Jewish. Again, in this use of the term “sinner,” not everyone was a sinner. Only those who did not measure up to the community’s definition of “clean” or “pure.” 

First let’s consider the Torah’s rituals about cleansing, and then we’ll consider the various interpretations of the Torah competing for control in Jesus’ day. 

Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo helps us to understand how the Torah’s occupation with purity operated:

“Dirt is the by-product of a systemic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements. This idea of dirt takes us straight into the field of symbolism and promises a link-up with more obviously symbolic systems of purity. We can recognize in our own notions of dirt that we are using a kind of omnibus compendium which includes all the rejected elements of ordered systems. It is a relative idea. Shoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on a dining room table; food is not dirty in itself, but it is dirty to leave cooking utensils in the bedroom, or food bespattered on clothing; similarly, bathroom equipment in the drawing room . . . out of door things in doors . . . underclothing appearing where over-clothing should be, and so one. In short, our pollution behavior is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications.” (p. 35)

The Torah’s concept of “clean and unclean” (or think order versus chaos) was not just about individuals but also applied to the community, the body politic, and so created and maintained community boundaries and therefore community identity as well. 

Two contemporary examples of this would be here in the United States during the Jim Crow era. All of life was once segregated based on race. Race separation is still the norm in many parts of the country today, even in the absence of explicit state enforcement. 

Another example could be how elite sectors of society still use etiquette rules today as their own purity code that maintains class separation. 

Purity Cultures historically have also resulted in exceptionalism. The pure community begins to also believe they are the “chosen” or “exceptional” or “superior” ones. Evidence of this today lies in the United States’ patriotic ideologies of global capitalism. We also witnessed it this fall in Charlottesville with white supremacists chanting “blood and soil.” We may not organize our societies around an ancient purity code, but we do follow unspoken community boundaries and practices regarding what belongs and what does not. Mary Douglas also writes, “There are no special distinctions between primitives and moderns: we are all subject to the same rules” (p. 40). As she explains, we need to begin perceiving and naming this destructive way of ordering society and become “aware of the seeds of alienation it contains.” (p. 190) 

In Jesus’s time, the society’s purity codes functioned politically and economically as well as socially. An example was given by William Herzog in 1982 and quoted in Ched Myers’ book Binding the Strong Man:

“According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. The passage, however, does not distinguish between seed planted in the soil and seed detached from the soil . . . In years of poor harvests, a frequent occurrence owing to the poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plaques and poor methods of farming, this text was a source of dispute. Why? During such lean years, grain was imported from Egypt. But the Egyptians irrigated their fields (putting water on seed) so their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also become unclean. They were quite willing to pay sky rocketing prices commanded by the scarce domestic grain because they could afford it . . . One senses economic advantage being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued the the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from soil [before being planted]; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.”

You can see from this example that the Sadducees’ position was not only financially advantageous to them but it also kept them centered in their community as more pure than others. 

By contrast, the Pharisees’ position would have been more liberal and been more popular among the middle and working classes. 

The dispute would have been lost on the poor who had no money to buy either the cheaper Egyptian grain or the more expensive domestic grain of Sadducee land owners. (A similar example can be seen today in how political parties “hire” unpaid interns to work for them. This fills their ranks with young people who come from wealthy families and can afford not to work for wages just to survive. Over time, the worldview supported and promoted by these parties is going to tend toward the interests of the wealthy rather than those of the poor and working classes.)

Jesus, came teaching a preferential option for the poor; a partiality and solidarity with those on the margins.  These would have been those in society who did not resonate with either the teachings of the more liberal Pharisees or the more conservative interpretations of the Sadducee elites. They were marginalized by both of these. I share all of this background to help us understand how the term “sinner” would have been used in Jesus culture by both the Sadducees and Pharisees, and how Jesus willfully and intentionally violated these boundaries. Keep in mind, the more ritually pure you were, the more clean you were, the more included, centered and privileged you would be in Jesus’ larger culture. Those who were deemed unclean were labeled “sinners.” And it was these “sinners,” these outsiders, who were embracing Jesus’s teachings.  It was these “sinners,” these outsiders whom Jesus embraced and was living in solidarity with. These were the ones Jesus was always seen with and it was these outsiders who were often seen with Jesus.

Repent

In Luke, those labeled as “sinners,” included not just the poor but the wealthy tax collectors. They, too, had been marginalized, but for them, their marginalization was based on their collusion with Rome. In Luke, these were the sector of the wealthy that responded to Jesus teachings and changed the course they were on. Jesus’ gospel was good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). Jesus called the rich into a community of shared resources with the poor. His community was a community of distributive justice. No one was to have too much while others had too little. He called the wealthy, who had more than they needed, to share with or give to those exploited by the economics of the temple and whose basic daily needs were unmet.  Jesus called the wealthy to sell their surplus land and give it to the poor from whom they had been stolen. Those who responded to Jesus weren’t those the Sadducees and Pharisees labeled as clean or pure. It was those who were wealthy “sinners,” i.e. the tax collectors, who began heeding Jesus’ call to repent. One example is the story of a tax collector named Zacchaeus:

Luke 19:8-10: “But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.’”

Wealthy “sinners” like Zacchaeus gravitated toward Jesus’s call of wealth redistribution:

Luke 7:29: “All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right.”

Luke 15:1: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.” 

The question was raised why Jesus was sharing table fellowship with sinners and wealthy tax collectors, these “sinners,” these outsiders. These people were repenting of their participation in the systematic social, economic, and political exploitation of the poor, they were rejecting that system, and they were choosing to walk a radically different, more communal, path of taking responsibility of the care of those being exploited by the wealthy. 

There is a beautiful story truth here. Those who had been pushed to the margins and edges of society and labeled unclean were proving to be more righteous in relation to the poor and exploited than those around whom their society was centered. It’s even possible that the tax collectors sensed a connection between their own marginalization and the marginalization of the poor; that this shared experience of being excluded prepared them to respond compassionately to Jesus’ message and his call to inclusive, distributive justice. 

A Woman

Lastly this week, I love the fact that Jesus uses the story of a woman; a member of another marginalized group in his culture. Jesus lifts up the example of a woman to exemplify a more evolved kind of social righteousness then his male critics were living.  Just as a woman knows the value of rejoicing when that which was “lost” is “found,” Jesus says through this saying, so too you men should be rejoicing right now in the wealthy sinners’ change of direction. Instead, Jesus’ critics were well centered and wealthy themselves, and could not identify with either the marginalized wealthy or the marginalized poor. I think calling Jesus a feminist is anachronistic.  But given his space and time, his treatment of women and the equity of value he saw in them is noteworthy. He lived and taught within a deeply Roman and Jewish patriarchal world, but in holding up this women as an example who was exhibiting qualities that the men he was critiquing should have been more like, we also we catch glimpses of how his valuation of women was progressive for his culture.

What’s the take away this week?

Jesus transgressed the societal rules and boundaries of his day that pushed some people to the edges and excluded them. And we are called to, too! In this inclusion, he also taught a distributive justice for the needs of the poor. Justice is not giving people who have been marginalized or discriminated against simply an equal opportunity to compete in a system that still economically exploits a certain class.  Equity isn’t giving people equal opportunity to climb a ladder that’s leaning up against the wrong wall to begin with. Jesus’ vision for a compassionate society was one where BOTH exclusionary and marginalizing practices and economic exploitation are rejected in favor of including everyone at a shared table. His vision was heterogeneous: everyone’s voice mattered and everyone’s experience was valued. It was also communal: no one had too much while there were those who didn’t have enough.  It was a community of shared values, shared production, and shared consumption.

I’ll close this week with a passage from renowned liberation scholar and theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez:

“But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition)

There’s a lot in this week’s saying:

Or what woman who has ten coins, if she were to lose one coin, would not light a lamp and sweep the house and hunt until she finds? And on finding she calls the friends and neighbors, saying: Rejoice with me, for I found the coin which I lost. Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels over one repenting sinner.” (Q 15:·8-10)

HeartGroup Application

I referenced the work of Mary Douglass in this week’s article above. Mary explains that the problem with communities rooted in ritual purity is not the ritual part. The solution is not that we should become anti-ritual. The problem is how the purity part functions to marginalize, discriminate against, and exclude. She goes on to say that we must create rituals in our communities that do the opposite. These would be rituals that organize community on something better than other-ing those who are different.These would be rituals that emphasize our interconnectedness where there is no more insider and outsider; rituals that shape us into being people who cooperate and share with one another rather than competing and striving against one another.  

The early Jesus community practices the ritual of a shared meal as the centerpiece of their gatherings together. Today it’s called communion by some and Eucharist by others, but the lessons of this ritual that shapes us into a community of both shared production and shared consumption can be (and has been) lost with all the theology that has come to surround this ritual meal. 

  1. This week I want you to plan a shared meal with your HeartGroup.
  2. During the meal, discuss together how this shared meal is an expression of shared production and shared consumption.
  3. Take some time as a group to dream how you could be a community where everyone’s voice is valued AND where everyone practices the principles of shared production and shared consumption in other areas of their life. 

Keep doing potluck meals together. They can become a ritual for you and your group that over time will shape us into people who practice this shared table philosophy in other areas of our life, too.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Thanks for supporting our work here at RHM. 

I’m just getting back from a month of being on the road, teaching at different events. And now we are entering our year-end season of donor support and this year we need your help. 

You can support our work by going to renewedheartministries.com/donate/

or by mailing your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Keep living in love, engaging the work of Luke 4:18-19 one day at a time. 

We are making a difference!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Woes against the Pharisees

Making 2017 a year of compassion and justice. 

black and white image of hands unitedby Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Woe for you, Pharisees, for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and give up justice and mercy and faithfulness. But these one had to do, without giving up those. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you purify the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and dissipation. Purify the inside of the cup, its outside pure. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you love the place of honor at banquets and the front seat in the synagogues and accolades in the markets. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you are like indistinct tombs, and people walking on top are unaware.” (Q 11:39a, 42, 39b, 41, 43-44)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:23, 25–27, 6–7: “‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former . . . Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self–indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean . . . [The Pharisees] love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’”

Luke 11:42, 39, 41, 43–44: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone . . . Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness . . . But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you . . . Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces . . . Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

Gospel of Thomas 89:1-2: “Jesus says: ’Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Do you not understand that the one who created the inside is also the one who created the outside?’”

What a zinger to start off the new year with!

This saying in Sayings Q is Jesus’ rant against some of the Pharisees. I do not believe this rant to be against all the Pharisees. Many of those who comprised the teaching Pharisees were wise, honest, good people, including the apostle Paul who joined the followers of Jesus later, and perhaps also Jesus himself. The Pharisees were made up of two groups: those of the school of Hillel and those of the school of Shammai. I believe it was the school of Shammai, which Judaism ultimately rejected too, that Jesus is railing against in this saying. Jesus taught much of what the school of Hillel taught (except Hillel’s economic protections of the rich and his socially unjust teachings on divorce for women). As Jesus was raised as a poor, working class Jew, he may also have been raised by parents who resonated deeply with the school of Hillel interpreting the Torah through the lens of the golden rule.

Also, there is nothing anti-Jewish in this week’s saying. Jesus is standing in the very long tradition of the Hebrew prophets in calling religious and political leaders to justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Consider the following from Isaiah:

“Stop bringing meaningless offerings!

Your incense is detestable to me.

New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—

I cannot bear your evil assemblies.

Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals

I hate with all my being.

They have become a burden to me;

I am weary of bearing them.

When you spread out your hands in prayer,

I will hide my eyes from you;

even if you offer many prayers,

I will not listen.

Your hands are full of blood;

wash and make yourselves clean.

Take your evil deeds

out of my sight!

Stop doing wrong,

learn to do right!

Seek justice,

liberate the oppressed.

Defend the cause of the fatherless,

plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:13-14)

 

There are also these words from the book of Amos:

 

“Hear this, you who trample the needy

and do away with the poor of the land,

saying,

‘When will the New Moon be over

that we may sell grain,

and the Sabbath be ended

that we may market wheat?’—

skimping on the measure,

boosting the price

and cheating with dishonest scales,

buying the poor with silver

and the needy for a pair of sandals,

selling even the sweepings with the wheat.” (Amos 8:4-6)

In the same book, the prophet speaks for God when he says:

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;

I cannot stand your assemblies.

Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them.

Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,

I will have no regard for them.

Away with the noise of your songs!

I will not listen to the music of your harps.

But let justice roll on like a river,

righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)

Jesus, like the Jewish prophets before him in Judaism, is prioritizing and centering justice for the oppressed, mercy for the less fortunate and disinherited, and faithfulness to the marginalized and downtrodden over and above religious ritual, worship, and festivals.

Ritual can be done in such a way that shapes us into people who actively work toward justice and compassion for the oppressed of our world. But if it doesn’t shape us into active agents of liberation for the oppressed (see Luke 4:18-19), ritual has very little meaning. I resonate deeply with the priorities found in Isaiah, Amos, and this week’s saying from Jesus.

In these gospels, Jesus contrasts conscientious tithing of the most minute items in the market with neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness toward the poor. He contrasts the external ritual purity rituals (washing hands, etc.) with being generous toward the poor. He then calls to account those who love making a show, receiving accolades, but being inwardly “dead bones.” Remember as we have seen over and over again this year, the reign of Jesus’ God looked like people taking responsibility for taking care of other people.

The Jewish Jesus-followers in the early church preserved a similar statement rooted in Jesus’ teachings:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” (James 1:27)

As someone who doesn’t have much taste for most things “religious” but who resonates with the values of Jesus, I love this statement. I shared this quotation from Marcus Borg two weeks ago, but it bears repeating here as we begin our new year.

“For Jesus, compassion had a radical sociopolitical meaning. In his teaching and table fellowship, and in the shape of his movement, the purity system was subverted and an alternative social vision affirmed. The politics of purity was replaced by a politics of compassion.” (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 58)

Jesus, much like the Pharisee Hillel a generation before him, taught a politics of compassion, and he taught it very specifically in terms of compassion and justice for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

What If We Did What Jesus Taught?

What would Christianity look like today if we began to filter every religious thing we do, even our ritual and liturgies, through the filter of justice and compassion?

Consider the following from the book of James:

“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world . . .” (James 2:5)

“If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:16-17)

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2:18)

I love the book of James because it is the only New Testament commentary we have on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Rather than following Paul’s more cosmic Christ, the author expounds on Jesus’ actual teachings and helps other Jewish Jesus followers to practice them.

An experiment that I have engaged in over the last two years is a practice of making central in my teaching the golden rule, the Sermon on the Mount, and how we relate to one another. I have placed matters of dogma, worship, and less practical theology on the periphery. I firmly believe that you and I are made in the image of the divine. That means that, in this life, the closest I will ever come to the Divine, is YOU! This is what I believe the author of 1 John is trying to get at in this verse:

“If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love a fellow believer, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)

This means that my actions toward others is my faith and don’t just reflect it. My actions are what I believe. God-talk can become very theoretical and pointlessly argumentative as well! It is only when we acknowledge that each of us has a piece of the puzzle and we need to respect each person’s piece that God-talk can bear any good fruit. I want my faith to bear fruit and my focus to be right here on Planet Earth with you.

What would happen if we began to prioritize our religious practices according to how those practices express compassion and justice in the lives of others?

As this year begins, let’s contemplate prioritizing matters of justice, compassion, and faithfulness to our fellow humans above all else:

Woe for you, Pharisees, for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and give up justice and mercy and faithfulness. But these one had to do, without giving up those. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you purify the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and dissipation. Purify the inside of the cup, its outside pure. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you love the place of honor at banquets and the front seat in the synagogues and accolades in the markets. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you are like indistinct tombs, and people walking on top are unaware.” (Q 11:39a, 42, 39b, 41, 43-44)

HeartGroup Application

  1. As we begin a new year, sit down with your HeartGroup and talk about whether your group needs to start centralizing justice and compassion or can simply reaffirm that you are already practicing it.
  2. Discuss what it would look like to make justice and compassion more central for your group and what it looks like to grow your focus on compassion and justice.
  3. Map out a few things you can do this week, to kick off 2017: actions you can take as a group that emphasize and affirm your focus as Jesus followers on justice, compassion, and making our world a safer home for us all.

Happy New Year to each of you.

I’m glad you’re here journeying alongside us.

Let’s make 2017 the year for living in love, resistance, survival, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

We are in this together.

I’ll see you next week.

For and Against John

Wall Street street sign“For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him.” (Q 7:29-30)

Companion Texts:

Luke 7:29-30: “(All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.)”

Matthew 21:32: “For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

An Appeal to John’s Followers 

Let’s step back and look at what’s taken place in Sayings Gospel Q so far. We’ve ended the core of Q’s teaching section. Next was the story of the Centurion that set us up for Jesus’ interaction with John’s disciples. This focus on John’s followers can be further subdivided into four parts:

  1. John’s Inquiry  Q 7:18-23
  2. More than a Prophet (last week) Q 7:24-28
  3. For and Against John (this week) Q 7:·29-30
  4. This Generation and the Children of Wisdom (next week) Q 7:31-35

(see Sayings Gospel Q)

I believe the Q community used this section of the writings to reach out to John’s former followers and welcome them into the Jesus community. These two communities overlapped, and this part of the Sayings Gospel Q attempts to combine the communities into one. In both Judea and Galilee, these followers would have been minorities within the larger Jewish population. It’s not hard to imagine them pressing together to find community and support.

What can we learn today from this week’s saying?

Tax Collectors and Pharisees

Today, we often contrast tax collectors and Pharisees in terms of the Jewish Torah tradition. The Pharisees are presented as strict adherents of Jewish purity codes whereas tax collectors are assumed to have colluded with Rome and lived disregarding the Torah.

But this contrast is a great oversimplification, and fails to challenge the status quo in our own thinking.

There was a cultural contrast between the 1st Century tax collectors and Pharisees. To see it, let’s go to a story that only appears in Luke’s gospel. We’ll come right back to Q, but first consider the story of the rich man and Lazarus that Jesus told in Luke 16:19-21.

The story begins this way: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.”

This introduction includes background references that the first audience would have recognized. J.Jeremias shares that background in his book Parables:

“In order to understand the parable in detail and as a whole, it is essential to recognize the first part derives from a well-known folk- material . . . This is the Egyptian folk-tale of the journey of Osiris, the son of Setme Chamois to the under-world . . . Alexandrian Jews brought this story to Palestine, where it became very popular as the story of the poor scholar and the rich publican Bar Ma’Jan.” (p.183)

This story was typical told as an afterlife reversal-of-fortunes tale involving a tax collector and a Torah scholar. The scholar character alluded to the Pharisees. The common way to tell the story contrasted the characters’ regard or disregard of the Torah’s purity codes. Yet Jesus does something more economically subversive than religiously subversive. His version changes the story in a way that the audience couldn’t miss.

Jesus’s version of the story did not emphasize the tax collectors’ disregard for the Pharisees’ interpretation of Torah but instead contrasted those who were wealthy and those who were poor. An economic contrast made no distinction between wealthy Pharisees and wealthy tax collectors. The immediate context of the story in Luke is Luke 16:14: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.”

Remember that even the Pharisees of the school of Hillel, who practiced a much more progressive spirituality than the school of Shammai, nonetheless practiced and taught Hillel’s Prozbul in the area of economics. (We explored what the Prozbul meant in Renouncing One’s Rights.)

Jesus was a Jew, and not opposed to Judaism. When we understand how much the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Hillel’s Pharisaical school agreed, we begin to see that what brought Jesus into conflict with the religious elite of his day wasn’t so much his religious teachings as much as his economic teachings. The Luke story shows that Jesus faced rejection from the Jewish elite, not the Jewish people themselves, and not for religious reasons but for economic ones. This is a very human dynamic between calls for mutual aid and resource-sharing and our universal greed and selfishness.

So back to our saying this week.

I challenge you this week to look at our saying in economic terms. We usually see the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees as belonging to two separate camps, but that is not what the narrative describes. In this part of the text, the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees both belonged to the same economic class, and they both opposed the poor. They both belonged to the wealthy elite. But at this point in Sayings Gospel Q, the writer wants us to know that the tax collectors that religious leaders viewed as “sinners” embraced the teachings of John and Jesus whereas the religious, wealthy elite simply did not.

We see this dynamic today among the secular and religious populations in America. There are exceptions to what I am about to say. Yet I see large numbers of secular people who in social and economic matters embrace the teachings of Jesus while large swathes of religiously conservative people who show ignorance of or even disregard for Jesus’s social and economic teachings. Religiously they worship Jesus, and may have incredibly high notions of him. At the same time they are passive about following what Jesus taught about the social and economic matters that are still relevant today.

In the teachings of Jesus that we’re looking at this week, we learn that the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees were the same in economic terms, and so the tax collectors cease being just “sinners” who Jesus ate with. Though the religious elite called them sinners, Jesus described the tax collectors as the people who actually responded to him and followed his economic teachings.

What does this mean for us today? Responding to Jesus may not seem very religious, and it might not gain us the approval of the religious elite. The tax collectors in Jesus’s day didn’t respond to him by becoming more faithful to the purity codes. But their lives did radically change in economic terms as they joined the followers of Jesus in indiscriminate care for the poor.

This saying might also mean that we find some people outside of the Church universal living lives more in harmony with the teachings of the historical Jesus even as they are in deep disharmony with the religious culture of Christianity. And we might find large numbers of those who proudly carry the title of “Christian” who are further away from following the teachings of the historical Jesus than their more secular human siblings are.

The community of Sayings Gospel Q calls us to remember Q 6:46.

Sayings Gospel Q 6:46: “Why do you call me: Master, Master, and do not do what I say?” (Q 6:46)

Luke 6:46, 47: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like.”

Matthew 7:21-24: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock . . . ”

(For more commentary on these passages please see Not Just Saying Master, Master and Houses Built on Rock or Sand)

Again, I want to emphasize that we’re not putting Jesus in competition with the Torah. Sayings Gospel Q isn’t about Torah observance. It is simply interesting that the people in Jesus’s culture who were labeled “sinners” (that is, not observing the Torah) were the ones who embraced John’s and Jesus’s economic teachings, while those who thought themselves to be very strict about the purity codes of the law did not embrace those teachings. Yet Jesus’s teaching was more in harmony with the Torah’s economic teachings than Hillel’s teachings were. Who really observed the Torah? The people who complied with the Schools of Hillel and the Prozbul? Or those who did what Jesus taught?

If this is true. Jesus didn’t threaten the religious leaders because he taught a radical new religion (Christianity). Jesus was crucified because his economic teaching was gaining momentum. The Temple Protest narrative in the synoptic gospels was less religious and more about a system of exploitation that the Temple aristocracy had become the center of. Hillel had taught that people could make atonement with deeds of lovingkindness rather than animal sacrifice—“I desire love not sacrifice”—and he wasn’t crucified for this religious teaching but was instead regarded as one of the most progressive and enlightened rabbis in all Jewish history. So it’s important to see that Jesus’s rejection was limited to the the privileged elite and was not primarily religious but economic.

If today you find yourself resonating with Jesus’s socio-political-economic teachings, but out of step with most things Christian or religious, you are not alone. You’re in the right story.

Remember what Sayings Gospel Q states:

For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him. (Q 7:·29-30)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, go through the gospels and make a list of all the changes that you see Jesus teaching. Note the chapter and verse references where this teaching is taught.
  2. Next, make a separate list of the changes that you’ve noticed contemporary Christianity expecting people to make when they choose to become a Christian.
  3. Sit down with your HeartGroup and discuss what your two lists have in common and where they differ.

It’s healthy to recognize when the changes we expect a new Jesus follower to make have nothing whatsoever to do with what Jesus of Nazareth actually taught. Some big ticket items to Christians today were never mentioned by Jesus, not even once, and some large elements of Jesus’s teachings aren’t highly prioritized today.

Discuss with your group what you’re learning about how to follow the teachings of Jesus more deeply.

Thank you, again, for joining us this week and for journeying with us through this series. I’m so glad you are here.

Keep living in love till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Golden Rule 

by Herb Montgomery

Confucius, Hillel, and Jesus

Left to right: Confucius, Hillel, Jesus of Nazareth

“And the way you want people to treat you, that is how you treat them.” (Q 6:31)

Luke 6:31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Gospel of Thomas 6:3: “And do not do what you hate.”

This week, our focus in Sayings Gospel Q is almost universally referred to as the “the Golden Rule.” The Golden Rule has a broad and lengthy history, beginning, to our best understanding, in 5th Century BCE China.

Karen Armstrong writes in The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions that “Confucius was the first to promulgate the Golden Rule. For Confucius [the rule] had transcendent value” (p. 248). Armstrong explains, “Confucius saw the ‘ego principle’ as the source of human pettiness and cruelty. If people could lose their selfishness and submit to the altruistic demands of the li [courtly rites similar to medieval European etiquette and courtesy] at every moment of their lives, they would be transformed by the beauty of holiness. They would conform to the archetypal ideal of the junzi, the superior human being.” Unlike isolated monks who seek virtue by separating from all of society including family, Confucius also saw “family” differently:

“Instead of seeing family life as an impediment to enlightenment, like the renouncers of India, Confucius saw it as the theater of the religious quest, because it taught every family member to live for others. This altruism was essential to the self-cultivation of a junzi: ‘In order to establish oneself, one should try to establish others,’ Confucius explained. ‘In order to enlarge oneself, one should try to enlarge others.’ . . . Confucius saw each person as the center of a constantly growing series of concentric circles, to which he or she must relate . . .The lessons he had learned by caring for his parents, spouse, and siblings made his heart larger, so that he felt empathy with more and more people: first with his immediate community, then with the state in which he lived, and finally with the entire world (Armstrong, p. 207).

Mozi, in the fourth century BCE, extended the Golden Rule in China. Isocrates promoted the Golden Rule in Greece in the 3rd Century BCE, and it appeared in India and Persia as well.

These centuries are what Karl Jaspers and Karen Armstrong describe as the Axial Age, the beginning of an awakening among several human cultures when most of them (except for Greece) moved away from the violence and tribalism that had characterized them before. This somewhat simultaneous transition among these cultures is fascinating.

Due to the diaspora and the continual upheaval within Judea during this time (which was not in the least conducive to the quietness that, Armstrong argues, often yields spiritual awakenings, though some would disagree), the Golden Rule does not appear clearly in Judaism until the late first century BCE. The first clear record we have of it in Judaism is the teaching of the Pharisee rabbi Hillel in the 1st Century BCE. Last week we told the story of Hillel summarizing the Torah with the line: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go and learn it.” [1] For Hillel, the Torah was best expressed not in the legal letter, but in the law’s spirit—the Golden Rule.

For the 1st Century Jewish Christians to include the Golden Rule among their record of Jesus’s teachings indicates that this early, original Jesus community believed Jesus’s teachings represented a more compassionate, inclusive interpretation of the Torah. Let’s look at the history around Hillel and that early community.

Hillel, in the later years of his life, served as president of the Jewish Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin handled both the legislative and judicial functions of Jewish government. When Hillel died, Shammai, then vice-president, became president and passed eighteen ordinances that reflected his own ideas more than Hillel’s. The Talmud’s redactors describe this act “as grievous to Israel as the day when the calf was made” by Aaron at the base of Mt. Sinai (See Shabbat, 17a). Shammai’s ordinances, believed to have been intended to build up Jewish identity, included harsh, divisive, antisocial separation between Jews and Gentiles. As such, a folk story developed that mimicked the story of Hillel summarizing the law for a would-be convert. When someone promised to convert to Judaism if Shammai could teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Shammai rebuked him and sent him away, believing this to be impossible. Hillel’s grandson Gamaliel became president of the Sanhedrin after Shammai (30 CE), but those who subscribed to Shammai’s interpretation of Torah remained the dominant Sanhedrin party until about 70 CE. Today, Rabbinical Judaism follows Hillel’s interpretations, believing that a “Voice from Heaven” made the rulings of the house of Shammai null and void.

It is in the context of this conflict between the compassionate school of Hillel and the strict school of Shammai that Jesus’s teachings were given.

By including the Golden Rule in the teachings of Jesus, the early Jewish community believed to have been the source of Sayings Gospel Q place Jesus alongside Hillel’s more inclusive, more compassionate interpretation of the Torah and in contrast to the school of Shammai. There are only two exceptions: the prozbul that we talked about last week and divorce.

We discussed last week how Jesus parted ways with Hillel on economics and the prozbul that carved out exceptions for lenders against the interests of the poor. And he parted ways with Hillel on the subject of divorce as well. The school of Hillel believed that a man could send his wife away for almost any displeasure. Jesus’s teachings on divorce in the gospel of Matthew and Luke are more in harmony with the more stringent school of Shammai who taught that one could only send one’s wife away for infidelity.

This is not the case in Mark’s gospel, where Jesus’ teachings on divorce are even more stringent than Shammai’s and give no justification for divorce. However, I would argue that whereas Shammai’s teaching on divorce was more stringent, Jesus’ teachings were more centered in concerns of social justice for subjugated women in a patriarchal society. They increased justice in that society, as did the Deuteronomy instruction about remarriage in its era. (See Deuteronomy 24.1-4)

But please notice the political effect of Jesus’s mixed alignment with the schools of his time. The members of the Sanhedrin and Pharisees who subscribed to the school of Shammai, would have seen Jesus as a glutton and a drunkard who violated the standards they believed would strengthen their culture. There would have also been members of the Sanhedrin and Pharisees of the school of Hillel who would have loved much of what Jesus taught, yet because of his teachings on the prozbul and divorce, would have simply been “on the fence” about him. They would not have been able to fully embrace the teachings of Jesus. They would have been able to embrace Jesus on some matters, but not for everything. With the school of Shammai in the influential majority during Jesus’s teaching ministry, this would’ve been a dangerous political position. Any allies he would have had on the Sanhedrin would have been in the minority.

I believe the gospels tell a historically incomplete picture of the Pharisees. Certainly Jesus would have run into problems with the Pharisees of the school of Shammai. But I think it’s important to note that Matthew uses the phrase “some Pharisees,” and not “[all] the Pharisees” (Matthew 19:1). This is a subtle but important difference. The School of Hillel won out, eventually, over the school of Shammai within Rabbinic Judaism.

Armstrong, in the same book, backs this up. She writes:

“But the most progressive Jews in Palestine were the Pharisees [of the school of Hillel], who developed some of the most inclusive and advanced spiritualities of the Jewish Axial Age. They believed that the whole of Israel was called to be a holy nation of priests and that God could be experienced in the humblest home as well as in the temple. He [sic] was present in the smallest details of daily life, and Jews could approach him [sic] without elaborate ritual. They could atone for their sins by acts of loving-kindness rather than animal sacrifice. Charity was the most important commandment of the law . . . The Pharisees [of the school of Hillel] wanted no part in the violence that was erupting destructively around them. At the time of the rebellion against Rome [65-70], their leader was Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, Hillel’s greatest student. He realized that the Jews could not possibly defeat the Roman empire, and argued against the war, because the preservation of religion was more important than national independence. When his advice was rejected, he had himself smuggled out of Jerusalem hidden in a coffin in order to get past the Jewish Zealots who were guarding the city gates. He then made his way to the Roman camp and asked Vespasian for permission to live with his scholars in Javne, on the coast of southern Palestine. After the destruction of the temple, Javne became the new capital of Jewish religion. In Rabbinic Judaism, the Jewish Axial Age came of age. The Golden Rule, compassion, and loving-kindness were central to this new Judaism; by the time the temple had been destroyed, some of the Pharisees already understood that they did not need a temple to worship God, as this Talmudic story makes clear:

It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem, and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: ‘Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.’ Then said R. Johanan, “Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, ‘I desire love and not sacrifice.’’ 

Kindness was the key to the future; Jews must turn away from the violence and divisiveness of the war years and create a united community with “one body and one soul.” When the community was integrated in love and mutual respect, God was with them, but when they quarreled with one another, he [sic] returned to heaven, where the angels chanted with “one voice and one melody.” When two or three Jews sat and studied harmoniously together, the divine presence sat in their midst. Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 132 CE, taught that the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” was “the great principle of the Torah.” To show disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image was seen by the rabbis as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism. Murder was a sacrilege: “Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.” God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world, while to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was equivalent to murder, a sacrilegious defacing of God’s image. To spread a scandalous, lying story about another person was to deny the existence of God. Religion was inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You could not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.”

(Armstrong, Karen; The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (Kindle Locations 7507-7540). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

What does all of this mean for the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q? It means several things.

  1. It means that the early Jewish followers of Jesus perceived Jesus and his teachings to be a part of this compassionate stream of thought represented by Hillel. That stream eventually won out in Rabbinic Judaism.
  2. Jesus’s execution was more politico-economic than religious. It was not Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence, inclusivity, and the golden rule that got him crucified. The school of Hillel was already teaching these values and Jesus came alongside of that stream and taught them as well. What created the greatest difficulty for Jesus was his solidarity with the poor and his critique of the wealthy elite and their exploitative economic system that centered in Temple and its aristocracy. In our time, it wasn’t Dr. Martin Luther King’s teachings on racial integration and inclusion that inspired his assassination. King was assassinated when he began to threaten the military and economic system of America.
  3. The anti-Semitism created by Christianity and that produced the Holocaust is based on a deeply flawed interpretation of the history of Jesus and the Jewish people. Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew. And to a large degree he was a Jew who subscribed in most things to the school of the greatest Jewish rabbi of all time, Rabbi Hillel.
  4. There is much about Rabbinic Judaism that flows from Hillel’s teachings and is in perfect harmony with the ethical teachings of Jesus in Sayings Gospel Q. And this harmony provides much common ground for a healthy and positive interfaith discussion that needs to continue.

To believe that Jesus taught the Golden Rule is to harmonize us with the transition away from violence, tribalism, and oppression toward peace, justice, inclusivity, and egalitarianism within all of the major faith traditions. There are exceptions, but Christianity is still moving toward this transition. Just as Hillel influenced Rabbinic Judaism, it is my prayer that the Jesus revealed in Sayings Gospel Q can also influence modern Christianity.

Whether we attribute the Golden Rule to Confucius, Hillel, or the sayings of Jesus, it’s a better way than the eye-for-an-eye principle of treating people the way they have treated you. With the Golden Rule, we have the power to not only be the change we want to see but to also set those changes in motion with the principle of reciprocity. For all those who are striving toward a safer, more compassionate world for us all, in the words of the Jesus in Sayings Gospel Q:

“The way you want people to treat you, that is how you treat them.” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:31)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, set aside ten minutes every day for quiet contemplation. I want you to contemplate only one thing for these ten minutes—the principle of the Golden Rule. Meditate on the interconnectedness of us all, and what it looks like to live this principle in your daily life.
  2. At the end of the ten minutes each day I want you to write down the key insights you gained from the experience.
  3. Share what you discovered this week with your HeartGroup for discussion and action.

Thanks, once again, for joining us this week. I’m so glad you did.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


 

1. Shabbat 31a, in A. Cohen, ed., Everyman’s Talmud (New York, 1975), p. 65.

The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 1 of 9

Part 1 of 9

Two Definitions of Holiness

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Wooden Rosary

This week I want to begin a nine-part series leading up to this year’s Easter season. Beginning next week, we will take a look at each of the last sayings we are given in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We will begin with Mark and Matthew and progress from there. We will finally take a look at what relevance the narrative element of the Resurrection may have for us in our world today in the week leading up to Easter.

In the interest of being transparent, this series has come out of an exercise I was engaged in personally throughout 2014. As each week is composed of seven days, I took one of the last sayings of Jesus each day as the subject of contemplation—one saying, every day, for the whole year. What I’m about to share, very humbly, is simply the fruit of that year-long contemplation.

I want to begin this week by taking a look at what actually put Jesus on the cross.

Jesus’ crucifixion (and resurrection) in the gospels comes at the end of a long history of contention that began between the privileged/oppressive priesthood (Levitical) and prophets who spoke up as advocates for those the priests were oppressing. For dominating priests, holiness was defined by the purity codes attributed to Moses (sometimes referred to as holiness codes). For the prophets, holiness was defined not by ritualistic or religious “purity” but justice for the oppressed; mercy for the poor, fatherless children, and widows (within a patriarchal culture); and humility. [1]

The struggle between these two groups began, by most scholars’ reckoning, with Amos and Isaiah (Isaiah Chapters 1–39) in the eighth century BCE.

Here is just a sampling:

Amos

This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name.” (Amos 2.6–7)

There are those who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground. (Amos 5.7)

You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. (Amos 5.11–12)

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5.21–24)

Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”— skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat. (Amos 8.4–6)

Notice the meticulous keeping of the New Moon and Sabbath (ritual purity codes) but utter disregard for justice toward the poor and oppressed.

Isaiah

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! [2] “The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1.10–17)

She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—but now murderers! (Isaiah 1.21)

Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them. (Isaiah 1.23)

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. (Isaiah 10.1–2)

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with justice he will govern the needy, with equity he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Justice will be his belt and integrity the sash around his waist. (Isaiah 11.1-5) [3]

LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you and praise your name . . . You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress . . . (Isaiah 25.1-4)

The Maccabean Revolt

During the time of the Maccabean Revolt, there was a revival in fidelity to the purity codes and the definition of holiness as fidelity to those codes. It was during this time that we see the birth of the Pharisees. This group was more liberal in their theology (angels, resurrection, etc.) yet more strict in their adherence to the purity codes. They stood in alliance with the privileged class of priests, placing the blame for their captivity and foreign oppression on ritual or religious impurity in not keeping the purity codes of Moses. Yet it must be remembered that the prophets stood in direct conflict with this explanation of Israel’s history, expressing that the captivity was rather a result of the abuses of the priestly domination culture over the poor, fatherless, and widowed—of the privileged over the oppressed.

Jesus

By the time Jesus comes on the scene, the priests (along with the Pharisees) are well entrenched again within a politically and economically oppressive system consisting of the temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, and Jerusalem/Judea at its heart. Jesus comes not as a teacher out of Judea, or the priesthood, but was rather from the northern region of Galilee, far removed. Galileans, according to the Pharisees and priestly class of Judea, were considered less faithful to the ritual purity/holiness codes as a result, not only because of their proximity to their surrounding Hellenistic culture, but also their distance from Jerusalem, the temple, and the theological leadership of the Pharisees and priestly class themselves.

When one understands this history, along with the political and economic privileges of the priestly class in Judea in the first century, the fact that Jesus takes up the heritage of the prophets in advocating for the oppressed is breathtaking.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” (Luke 4.18)

Just like the prophets before him, in response to the privileged, priestly ruling class of his day, Jesus denounces economic oppression. [4] Just like the prophets before him, in response to the Pharisees defining of holiness as strict adherence to the ritual purity codes of Moses, Jesus stands in solidarity with those the Pharisees label as unclean and defines holiness rather as justice/mercy for those the Pharisees are marginalizing. [5] Remember, the Pharisees defined a “sinner” as a Jew who was not observing the ritual purity codes. That Jesus embraced and ate with these “sinners” infuriated the Pharisees. Holiness to a Pharisee was exclusive and punitive. Holiness to Jesus was inclusive and restorative. Holiness to a Pharisee was defined as strict adherence to ritual purity codes including the Sabbath, the New Moon, the sacrifices, etc. [6] Holiness to Jesus was justice for those the priestly class, along with the Pharisees, were oppressing based on their non-adherence to the purity codes. Jesus would offer a way of worshiping their God that completely bypassed the temple, the sacrifices, and the purity codes. [7]

If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. (Matthew 12.7)

But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9.13) [8]

Jesus would take his final stand against the political and economic oppression of the priests, temple tax and its rituals. His effort was not to “cleanse” the temple but to dismantle the entire system.

For those who believed that holiness was defined as adherence to the ritual purity codes, with the temple and sacrifices at its heart, Jesus’ acts would invite greater foreign oppression. In their opinion, contrary to the prophets, it was laxness in adherence to the purity codes that had caused foreign captivity originally. Jesus’ opposition to the Pharisees and priests, along with his doing away with the temple and its rituals would surely bring the destruction of the nation at the hands of foreign enemies once again.

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin . . . “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11.47–50, emphasis added)

It was the priests, along with the temple police, who arrested Jesus. [9] Their privileged way of life was at risk. And yet how twisted it was.

Their perception was thus:

  1. They defined holiness as adherence to ritual purity.
  2. The stricter the people were in following the purity codes, the more privileged their political and economic place in their society became.
  3. Failure to follow strict ritual purity would invite the punishment of their God.

Jesus proclaimed the very opposite:

  1. Holiness, like previous prophets proclaimed, is justice and equity for the marginalized,   oppressed, subordinated, and disadvantaged.
  2. The dominance system of the present social order, where some are privileged at the subordination and oppression of others, must be abandoned.
  3. Failure to advocate for the marginalized and the oppressed would be at the heart of all that would eventually result in the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Rome.

How did the ruling class of priests along with the political party of the Pharisees respond to Jesus’ teachings?

Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death. (Matthew 27.1, emphasis added)

I’ll close this week with a small insight we get from John’s version of the story of Jesus.

Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. (John 19.31)

It’s as if, right here, we step all the way back into the days of Amos and Isaiah. Once again, there are those who are more concerned with strict adherence to the ritual purity and holiness codes of Moses than this gross act of injustice against one they had just lynched. The story does not end with the success of the Pharisees and the priests in murdering Jesus. In the narrative element of the Resurrection, Jesus’ God stands victoriously against the God of the oppressors. Jesus’ God stands in solidarity with Jesus, as well as the prophets of old, bringing him back to life and overturning and undoing the lynching of Jesus over and against the political and economic oppression of Jesus’ day. The resurrection is God’s “yes” to Jesus and God’s “no” to the established authority. But we will get there. I’ll save that part for Part 9. First, let’s take a look at each of the seven last sayings of Jesus on the cross and see what those statements are whispering to us today.

Marcus Borg once stated, “”Christianity is the only major religion whose central figure was executed by established authority.” As we begin, it would be good to remember that our society today holds, in principle, the same dynamics that existed in Jesus’ day. Whether we are talking about the rich subordinating the poor, the educated subordinating the uneducated, whites subordinating nonwhites, men subordinating women, white women subordinating nonwhite women, straight people subordinating and/or extirpating those who are LGBQ, or cisgender extirpating those who self-identify as transgender, we are living in the Jesus narrative every day. Therefore, if you are a theist, you have to ask yourself how your God defines holiness. Does your God look like Jesus’ God, or does your God look like the God of the priests and Pharisees?

Jesus had a definition of holiness that radically attracted and was embraced by those who were repelled by or steered clear of the definition of holiness put forth by the priestly ruling class of Jesus’ day.

I guess what I’m asking is this: If you are a theist, does your God look like Jesus?

The answer to this question is at the heart of everything. Is your theism destructive or restorative? Inclusive or exclusive? Attractive and inspiring or repulsive? One leads to annihilation and the other to a whole new world.

HeartGroup Application

1. I’d like you to go back and reread all four Gospels. They won’t take you that long. They are shorter than you think. Watch for the dynamics I’ve put forth this week and see if you see them at work in the narrative as well. Look for why the narratives themselves tell us that Jesus’ ministry ended up on a Roman cross. Then we’ll go from there next week.

2. Journal what you discover.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what you write down this upcoming week.

Until the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. Many voices, one new world.

I love each of you.
I’ll see you next week.


1. Micah 6.8—He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

2. Two centuries later, Ezekiel would define the sins of Sodom (and Gomorrah) as violations of social justice. Ezekiel 16.49—“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”

3. It is most interesting to read the rest of Isaiah 11 as a metaphorical description of a new social order where the present dominance order is replaced with a world where oppressors no longer oppress and victims are no longer victimized, but both, transformed, peacefully coexist.

4. Luke 6.20, 24—Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Mark 12.40—They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely. Mark 12.43—Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. Luke 18.3—And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

5. Matthew 9.11—When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Matthew 11.19—The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions.” Luke 15.1–2—Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

6. John 9.16—Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” It is interesting to read the whole of chapter 9 with the redefinition of “holiness” and “sinner” away from the ritual purity codes to the restoration of justice and mercy toward the oppressed.

7. Mark 7.19—“For it doesn’t go into your heart but into your stomach, and then out of your body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

8. Remember, Jesus is using the Pharisee’s definition of sinner here as someone who was living outside the ritual purity codes of Moses. Jesus defined holiness and the term “sinner” much more like the prophets of old did, which was radically different than the Pharisees, priests, and experts in the purity codes (“experts in the law”).

9. Luke 22.52—Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?