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.

Impartial Love 

by Herb Montgomery

Dominoes lined up and falling“If you love those loving you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what reward do you have? Do not even the Gentiles‚ do the same?” —(Q 6:32, 34)

Luke 6:32: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.”

Luke 6:34: “And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.”

Matthew 5:46-47: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”

Gospel of Thomas 95: “Jesus says, ‘If you have money, do not lend it out at interest. Rather, give it to the one from whom you will not get it back.’”

Our saying this week builds on the sayings we’ve discussed over the last three weeks: Loving Your Enemies, Renouncing One’s Rights, and The Golden Rule.

This week’s saying addresses those in Jesus’s audience who might have accepted his teaching on the Golden Rule, but only for those who would do the same for them.

These audience members would have reduced the Golden Rule to reciprocity: an exchange between equals for one’s own advancement and benefit. For them, the Golden Rule could have been co-opted to mean only “getting ahead” and not a way to make the world a safer, more compassionate world for us all.

James Robinson, in his book The Gospel of Jesus, describes what this limited interpretation could have looked like in the Roman patronage system and can look in our political systems today:

“In the Roman Empire, [self-interest] was called the patronage system and was even codified in the Latin expression Do ut des, “I give so that you give”; in the animal world, it is “I scratch your back so you scratch mine.” In modern politics, it is called euphemistically “special interests.” Lobbyists get elected officials to vote for the legislation that favors the firms whose “generous” campaign gifts made it possible for the officials to get elected in the first place. This is how elections are “bought”: our firm treated you well in your last election campaign, so you treat our firm well in the way you vote, and our firm will treat you equally well in your next election campaign. . . . Self-serving favoritism does not deserve the term “love,” for love shows itself to be real by being directed toward persons who have nothing they can do for us by way of return. So Jesus called for love to go far beyond one’s kinsfolk, neighbors, peer group, patron, and campaign contributors. As a result, his new love commandment is much less known, not to speak of being much less practiced.”

This quality of reciprocity is quite different from the ethic we are considering this week. The Sayings Gospel Q teaching is about loving those who cannot offer us anything in return. There is no quid pro quo here.

As we’ll see in the weeks to come, Jesus uses the Golden Rule to inspire a domino-effect in those who receive love to then turn and practice that love in their relations with others. The Golden Rule wasn’t designed to establish private relationships of mutual benefit between two individuals, but to produce a whole new world where everyone treats everyone as they’d like to be treated even when there’s nothing gained in return. Love was to be reciprocated, but more importantly, love was to be shared with other people.

This distinction is foundational to the rest of Jesus’s teachings in Sayings Gospel Q. The Golden Rule is not merely or exclusively between a loving person and a loved person. It’s between the loved person and another person in need of love, as well. The person who receives this kind of impartial love is called upon to reciprocate by indiscriminately loving a third person, and through their love, what Jesus calls “God’s reign” transforms the world and enlarges continuously from each person to the next.

In Sayings Gospel Q, the reign or kingdom of God begins with love even when we have nothing to gain.

Jewish Pride; Jewish Power

I need to say a word about the comparisons in this week’s texts and the text references to Gentiles, tax collectors, sinners, and pagans. As we covered last week, when these texts were written, the school of Shammai dominated both the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin. In an effort to strengthen Jewish identity and culture, the School of the Shammai drew a sharp line between Jews and Gentiles, and prohibited the people from crossing that line.

But it’s in the soil of human disconnectedness that the weeds of supremacy and superiority take root. It doesn’t matter whether a group is in the dominant position within a society, as the Romans were, or forced into a subordinate position, as the Jews were. Supremacist beliefs for those at the top of domination systems justify and protect their position of privilege, power and control, whereas supremacist beliefs for those at the bottom are, as Howard Thurman taught, a useful fiction that oppressed people use to survive domination. (For a discussion on techniques of survival used historically by oppressed peoples that end up being self-destructive in the long term, please see Thurman’s excellent volume Jesus and the Disinherited.)

In this 1st Century context, Hillel taught that every person bore the image of the Divine, and worshipping God was revealed in how one treated another regardless of whether they were Jew or Gentile. But Shammai sharply distinguished between Jew and Gentile—we could call it “Jewish pride” or “Jewish Power”—and his school framed it as a matter of Jewish survival while the Jewish self was being denied by Roman oppression.  In our time, James H. Cone in his book Black Theology and Black Power, within the context of his own experience, rightly rejects defining Black Power as an effort to “assert their right to dominance over others because of a belief in black superiority . . . Black Power is an affirmation of the humanity of blacks in spite of white racism.” (Black Theology and Black Power, p.14-16, emphasis added.) The same could be said regarding LGBTQ Pride as a necessary expression of affirming the humanity of those whose humanity has been denied by the dominant sector of society.  Protesting Jewish subjugation in the context of the Jesus story could very easily be seen as a Jewish Lives Matter movement within early first century Palestine.

Jesus does not condemn the School of Shammai’s survival technique in our saying this week. His Jewish listeners did not need to have their self further denied: their oppressors were already doing that. They needed their self affirmed and liberated from oppression. While supremacy anywhere in society opposes egalitarianism, feelings of supremacy in the hearts of oppressors are of a markedly different quality than claims of superiority oppressed people might make.

Jesus does push back on his audience’s claim to be superior while using the oppressor’s ethics. When they loved only those who loved them, Jesus said, their morality was no greater than their oppressors’ morality. For Jesus, failing to love people who might never give anything in return negated any claim to moral superiority.  If the “Jewish Pride” and “Jewish Power” movements of his day would enter into the new human society they were seeking to establish, it would not be through more disconnectedness, but through endeavoring to embrace humanity’s interconnectedness and interdependence.  In other words, in response to a “Jewish Lives Matter” statement, Jesus as a fellow Jew is not disregarding their daily struggle to survive by responding, “No, All Lives Matter.”  To the contrary, he is saying, “Yes, Jewish lives DO matter! And if our liberation is going to made a reality, we must live by set of ethical teachings greater than those presently adhered to by our oppressors!”  The teaching we are looking at this week asks us to live from the truth of interconnectedness by taking care of those from whom we will never receive anything in return.

As Howard Thurman also states in his book The Luminous Darkness, “[A] strange necessity has been laid upon me to devote my life to the central concern that transcends the walls that divide and would achieve in literal fact what is experienced as literal truth: human life is one and all [people] are members of one another.”

Remember: according to Jesus, the reign of God was shown in people taking care of people.

The Prozbul

We have spoken about Hillel’s prozbul enough over the last few weeks that I won’t detail it this week. Where Jesus mirrors the school of Hillel in their broader interpretation of Torah, Jesus pushes them even further on economics.

Jesus’s economics, in harmony with the Deuteronomic code (Deuteronomy 15:9), called the wealthy elite to lend even if the sabbatical year was approaching and to expect their loans not to be repaid.

To lend knowing that all debts would be cancelled in the Sabbatical year and your money would never repaid was a pathway toward wealth redistribution and a way to eliminate poverty among the Jewish people (see Deuteronomy 15:4). Today, some fear “socialism” or “communism” yet wealth redistribution from the wealthy to the poor was central to Jesus’s economic teachings in Sayings Gospel Q. He taught his followers to lend even if they would never get their capital back.

In Sayings Gospel Q, we are called to love indiscriminately and impartially. Jesus calls us to love in a way that mimics a God who “raises the sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:27-28, 35c-d). Any partiality perpetuates the disconnectedness that pervades our planet.

The answer is to see that we are all interconnected and to love based on that, even if there is no immediate return on our relational investment. The goal is what Jesus called “the reign of God” where people, rather than dominating one another, learn to take care of and provide for one another.

So for all those in whom this week’s saying resonates as true:

“If you love those loving you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what reward do you have? Do not even the Gentiles‚ do the same?” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:32, 34)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you to spend some time contemplating the nature of impartial love.

  1. What does it look like for you to love impartially? What does it look like to help others in need when there is no hope of them ever returning the favor? What does it look like to love in moments when the cost of that love will never be repaid?  And just because the love is not reciprocally repaid does that mean that the world created by the act has no overall reciprocal value in return?
  2. If you were part of the wealthy elite of Jesus’s day, how would you have felt about loaning your wealth even if your loan would be cancelled and never repaid?
  3. Discuss with your HeartGroup relational and economic ways to apply impartial love toward others. Choose to practice one of those applications.

Again, I’m so thankful that you are joining us for this series.

Until next week, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

See you next week.