The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 7 of 9

 Part 7 of 9

by Herb Montgomery

I Am Thirsty

Wooden Rosary

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” (John 19.28)

As we continue in John’s telling of the Jesus story, I want to remind you that what makes his telling unique is that he is writing in conversation with early Gnostics.  A dialectic relationship exists between John’s gospel and the dualism of Gnosticism.  An oversimplified explanation of the Gnostics’ dualism is that they first believed that all matter was evil.  Secondly, they believed that humans possessed an immortal soul which was good.  Thus humanity had a dualistic nature of being simultaneously good and evil.  It is this element of “matter being evil” that John is meeting head on.

Because the Gnostics believed all matter was evil, they taught that the Divine could never become entangled with embodiment (having a body, i.e. “matter”).  Divinity was not dualistic in the fashion that humanity is.  (Their dualism ran deep, dividing humanity and Divinity as well, as contrasted with humanity being fashioned in the image of Divinity and being the very offspring of Divinity.  But we’ll have to save that conversation for later.)  The Gnostics would have taken issue with John’s “incarnation” that the Logos (the Divine) was “made flesh” (matter).  The Divine could not be identified with the flesh. [1]  Gnosticism, as some scholars have pointed out, would have taught that “Jesus walked on the beach but left no footprints.”  The Gnostics’ version of the Jesus story taught that Jesus’ Spirit (the holy part) departed from him prior to him being crucified, because the Divine could not participate with the material human flesh on that level of physical suffering.  This is why John’s Jesus, on the Cross, is not a human victim, but Divinity embodied, as the revelation of the Divine suffering in solidarity with all who have ever been oppressed, or who have suffered injustice at the hands of dominant systems in every age.  John’s telling of the crucifixion is his way of saying “no” to early Gnosticism.  Jesus in John’s Gospel is fully Divine while fully embodied; he is fully human and his physical suffering at the hands of the injustice of his day is not to be dismissed or devalued.

Yet the question that we must ask is why is John pushing back so hard against Gnosticism?

Simply put, because the belief in the dualistic nature of humanity, specifically that all matter was evil, was causing a shift among the early Christians.  Toward the close of the first century, they were focusing more on liberating their souls from their physical bodies in some far distant “heaven.”  They were abandoning the core principle of what John felt it meant to follow Jesus—which was the “healing of the world” here and now.  John’s Jesus states unequivocally that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world [matter is evil] but that the world through Him might be healed*.” (John 3.17, emphasis added.  *Sozo can be translated as heal as well as save.  Jesus was the great healer.)  The goal of the ancient Hebrews was not to one day become some disembodied soul on some far distant cloud, but to see a time when the Messiah would come and end all the injustice, oppression, and violence here on earth.  A Hebrew telling of the Jesus story did not have at the end, as its goal, “getting to heaven”; on the contrary, the goal of Jesus’ coming would have been “the healing of the world” (“tikkun olam”).

I cannot pass up this opportunity to point out that most Christians today (although certainly not all) are more concerned with escaping this world, for which they believe there is no hope, and making it to heaven, than in healing this world and bringing an end to the present order of domination, oppression, injustice, and violence.  Jesus’ “Kingdom” was a new social order here and now!  It was the subversive “mustard seed” planted in the “soil” of this world that was to grow (like leaven in dough) until the old order was choked out and Jesus’ new social order of restorative justice, transformative mercy, and redeeming LOVE was all that remained.

Gnosticism, at the turn of the first century, was transforming Jesus’ followers into “escapists” rather than the subversive force for dismantling privileged pyramids and exclusive circles in the here and now.  Today it matters not whether those pyramids and circles are economic, religious, political, or social.  Wherever we find domination (pyramids) and exclusion (circles), whether in matters of race, gender, wealth or orientation, as a Jesus follower, we are to be more concerned with bringing a healing revolution than reaching some far distant “heaven.”

This may come as a shock to some, but Christianity today is more Gnostic than Christian, if we allow the historical Jesus to be that which defines Christianity.

John foresaw this result in the beginning of what he was witnessing around him in his day.  John’s entire telling of the Jesus story is a retelling of Genesis chapter 1, which was the Hebrews’ origin story.  Genesis chapter one (as contrasted with Genesis 2 [2]) reminded the Hebrews that this earth is good, very good.  That we are all (male, female and any combination of those two book ends that nature may produce) made in the image of God and that none are to be the subject of domination or exclusion by another.  We are all children of the same Divine Parents.  And we are all going to have to learn to sit around the same family table once again.  I’m not saying that the Hebrew people always rightly perceived these insights within the narrative of their origin story in Genesis 1.  What I’m putting forth is that this was Jesus’ subversive interpretation and application of the Hebrew origin story of Genesis 1.  I hope to write on this more at length in a future eSight.

John takes Genesis chapter 1 and frames the entire Jesus story, using Jesus as the Christian origin story.  Genesis 1 begins with the phrase, “in the beginning . . .”  So does John: “In the beginning . . .” (John 1.1)  In Genesis 1 there are seven days of creation.  In John’s version Jesus’ life is divided up and told with seven “signs.”  Genesis 1’s narrative of the physical creation of the world climaxes with Elohim saying, “It is Finished.”  So John’s telling of the Jesus story climaxes as Jesus cries out over his restored (new) creation with the words, “It is Finished.” (We’ll cover this at more depth next week.)  As Genesis 1 has Elohim resting on the Sabbath day, so Jesus rests from his work of restoration in the tomb on the seventh day.[3]  As the narrative of Genesis then moves quickly into a garden with a woman being the first to be deceived, John’s gospel moves quickly into another garden [4] with a woman being the first to be enlightened, becoming an apostle to the apostles.  (I’ll say more about this next week as well.)

In John’s telling of the Jesus story, it is no accident that John focuses our attention on three things:

1.  The very human, physical relationship between Jesus and his mother. (Last week’s eSight.)

2.  The very human, physical sensation of having “thirst.” (This week’s eSight.)

3.  The deep connection between the Hebrews’ human origin story and Elohim’s creation of the physical world by Jesus’ dying cry of restoration, “It is Finished!” (Next week’s eSight.)

What is John saying by all of this focus on the humanity and physicality of Jesus?

John is saying to Jesus’ followers of his day (as well as Jesus’ followers today), “STOP FOCUSSING ON ESCAPING THIS WORLD AND GETTING TO HEAVEN!  GET BACK TO WORK RESTORING, HEALING, TRANSFORMING, AND REDEEMING THE WORLD AROUND YOU!”

The Jesus of John is not an itinerant teacher traveling the countryside offering people an easy way to get to heaven!  John’s Jesus is proclaiming a frequently dangerous, and difficult at times, of healing the world!

The Jesus in John’s gospel isn’t trying to get people to heaven.  He is bringing heaven to the people who live here today!

Current statistics show that 70% of all theists (including Christians), when confronted with injustice, will do nothing.  If this offends you, then this merely shows that you happen to belong to the 30% who actually do something about it.  But that is still a horrible percentage.  Don’t you agree?

As a Jesus follower, I must confess that I have wasted too many years trying to sell a post-mortem insurance policy and arguing with other Christians over what the premium should be.

I’m done.  If John were alive today, I’d tell him, “I hear you!”  I want to follow Jesus.  I, too, want to be a conduit for dismantling systems of dominance and exclusivity.  I, too, want to turn pyramids of privilege upside down. [5]  I, too, want to be an agent of healing change, tearing down walls of marginalization that confine fellow humans to being “others” or “outsiders.”

I know I will do poorly.  I’m not claiming that I ever have, or ever will follow Jesus well.  Yet my heart is captivated by the values of the Jesus story, the ethics of that itinerant Rabbi, the non-homogenous, shared table where all (regardless of race, gender, wealth, or orientation) are invited to take a seat, alongside each other, and share their stories.  This is a table where we are all welcome, and where we, by virtue of valuing each other as fellow Divine image bearers, learn to integrate the many and diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole.

I’m done being a Christian Houdini.  I’m done being a feel-good escape artist.  I’m choosing to be a mustard seed, a WEED, nurtured in the soil of this good earth, subversively growing, little by little, toward a safe and compassionate world for all.  I’m choosing a life of restorative justice, transformative mercy, here and now, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

And I’d absolutely love it if you will go on this journey with me.

HeartGroup Application

The time is fast approaching when many in Western Christianity will celebrate the resurrection.  Next week we will be addressing the seventh of the last sayings of Jesus in the gospels.  After that we will look at the vindication of Jesus and his teachings through the resurrection.

But before we get into all of that, this week I’m asking you to do the following three things in preparation for this series end.

 

1.  Spend some time in contemplation (“sitting with Jesus” is what I call it), reading through John’s gospel with the goal of noticing where John is focusing on Jesus’ body, Jesus’ humanity, Jesus’ physicality, and Jesus’ message of healing this world rather than abandoning it.  Start in John 1 and just read.  I’ll give a few examples to start with.  The first example you’ll encounter is where logos (a gnostic term) becomes “flesh.”  In John 2 you’ll find Jesus making water into wine!  A scandal for those who believed we should deny any pleasure to our physical bodies as a means of liberating our sacred, immortal souls.  And then you’ll encounter Jesus speaking of the temple, the dwelling place of the Divine Presence, but referring specifically to his body.  In John 3, you’ll read of how Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Son’s purpose is not to condemn this world but rather to save or heal it.

That should get you started.

2.  Journal what you discover.  Don’t get distracted.  There are many rabbit holes in John you could go down.  Step back and keep your focus on the forest, not the individual trees.  Remember, you are looking for where John gave us subtle hints that matter is not evil, but the good creation of the Divine, worthy of our efforts in shaping it to be a safer, more compassionate home. [6]

3.  Share with your upcoming HeartGroup what you discover.

As I shared last week, our narrative is one of hope.  A new day has dawned.  A light is shining from an “empty tomb.”  If any are in Christ, “New Creation has come!” [7]

Remember, this week you’re a mustard seed!

Therefore, keep living in love, loving like Jesus, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

One shared table, many voices, one new world.

I’m still praying for your heart.  I’m praying for it to be enlarged and liberated as you move more deeply into the contemplation of the great healer and liberator, Jesus of Nazareth.

I love each of you deeply.

I’ll see you next week.


 

1. 1 John 4.2—This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.
2 John 7—Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.

2. Jesus contrasts the ethics of Genesis 1 with the ethics of Genesis 2 in Matthew 19.4 and Mark 10.6. I plan to say more on this in an upcoming eSight.

3. This is actually in Genesis 2 but the chapter division is misplaced. The first three verses of Genesis 2 actually belong to the narrative of Genesis 1.

4. John 20.15—Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

5. See the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6.

6. Remember the form of the New Testament we have today ends with our home being here, a new heaven and new earth, reunited. The Greek word for new, used by the New Testament when referencing the New Earth, is not neos, meaning a second earth, but kainos, meaning a restored, healed, and redeemed first.

7. 2 Corinthians 5.17 (NIV)—Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

 

 

The  Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 4 of 9

Part 4 of 9

You Will Be with Me in Paradise

Wooden Rosaryby Herb Montgomery

 

He replied, “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43

Today, much is lost when one reads these words in Luke’s gospel. Partly because we read them from our context, or in the way a Greek would have read them, rather than the way a first century, Second Temple, Jew would have heard this statement.

Paradise, within the cultural context of Luke’s Gospel, did not mean some far-distant “heaven” (Christians today). It did not refer to a place of post-mortem bliss (Greek-Hellenists of the first century). To a first century Jew, living in the wake of the Maccabees, and longing for a deliverance from Roman oppression, Paradise was a restored earth, where injustice, oppression, and violence were no more. Remember, the great hope of the Hebrew people was in a Messiah who would come and set the world right.

The Greek word used in Luke’s gospel for “Paradise” is paradeisos. A brief look at the way paradiesos was used in the Septuagint will pull back the veil for us. Paradeisos was the world used to refer to Eden, both past and future.

You were in Eden, the paradise [paradeisos] of God. (Ezekiel 28:13, LXX) And God planted a garden [paradeisos] eastward in Eden. (Genesis 2:8)

Paradeisos, in the Septuagint, referred not only to the Eden of the past, but it also came to be associated, in Jewish thinking, with the restoration of Israel in the future.

For the LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden [paradeisos] of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isaiah 51:3)

The Orthodox Jewish Bible translates Luke 23:43 as “I say to you, hayom (today) with me you will be in Gan Eden.”

However, the Hebrew prophets must also be held in tension with Jesus. The prophets are filled with depictions of God as a warrior who would liberate Israel through slaughtering Israel’s enemies, unlike Jesus’ nonviolent direct action, which would seek to win over one’s enemies. [1] The prophets speak of a restoration of the monarchy (albeit a monarchy built on justice). Jesus sought to redefine the Kingdom (the Monarchy) away from hierarchical authority to a social order built upon mutual love, mutual submission, and mutual respect. [2] The prophets also contain, at times, national exceptionalism, which is the dangerous idea that one group of people or one nation was or is more favored by a Divine being than others. Jesus would challenge this idea, too, putting forth that his liberation was not only for Israel but for the whole world, including those whom Israel hated. [3] What the prophets got right was that there was coming a time when injustice, oppression, and violence would be made right. Jesus simply enlarged this vision to include all types of oppression, injustice, and violence, not simply that which affected the privileged class within Israel.

The evidence shows that the early Jesus community did not interpret paradeisos as post- mortem bliss either. They, in following Jesus, enlarged this word to refer to the liberation and restoration of all things here, now! Growing out of their own cultural context, discovering over time how Jesus’ liberation impacted their own social constructs of oppression, we are to do the same today. The early Jesus community believed that the work of liberating the world from injustice had been initiated by their Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. They were discovering how this liberation would eventually permeate all forms of oppression, privilege, and marginalization. That process is not finished. It was not completed in the days of the Apostles. Nor in the generation that followed them. The history of Christianity reveals that Christianity as a whole (although there have been and are exceptions) has taken a long detour away from this work of restoring paradise. The work of justice and liberation from all oppression has gone on, for many, outside of and in many cases, in spite of, what is today referred to as Christianity. But as many have shown throughout history, the ethical teachings of the Jesus of the very early Jesus community still possess value today in approaching paradise. [4]

What makes Jesus’ statement in Luke’s gospel even more astounding is the realization of to whom it is addressed. This was one of the kakourgos [criminals] crucified with him. Remember, this is not a kleptes [thief] but a kakourgos. A kakourgos in Roman times was an enemy of the state. Crucifixion was not a capital punishment for just any crime. This was a punishment reserved for those Rome deemed a threat to the “national interests” of the Roman Empire. This was a Jewish zealot who had sought to overthrow Rome’s presence in Jerusalem through violent, terrorist-like methods. What this political criminal is discovering is that Jesus’ way is the better way. His own violent way had failed. Many times an oppressed group simply does not have the force of arms or numbers to overthrow their oppressors through violent means. This option is simply not at their disposal. Jesus was offering the long, and difficult path of defeating injustice through the nonviolent, direct action of enemy-confrontation and love. [5] And this zealot was discovering, much like many in India did through Gandhi and others here in the U.S. did through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that there was hope to be found in the methods of this Jesus who was being lynched beside him. For this political criminal, this was the end of his endeavors. For Jesus, this was only the beginning! This was the beginning of a whole new world. What this criminal is verbalizing is an admission that his way had not worked. He is stating a newly realized discovery that Jesus’ way did offer hope. He is admitting that Jesus’ way would work in the end, and he simply wanted Jesus, when Jesus’ “Kingdom” was eventually established, in some far-distant future, he wanted Jesus to simply remember him. Jesus turns and whispers to this last-minute, new disciple “Today, you will be with me in the liberated and restored world. Today, you will be with me in the paradeisos.”

This is what many scholars refer to when they use the phrase “already, but not yet.” As followers of Jesus, the disciples were to go forth proclaiming that Jesus’ new social order had arrived. It was already here! [6] And although its presence was obstructed, it would continue to subversively grow, like the mustard seed, until it had permeated the entire “garden.” What Jesus is whispering to this one beside him is that Paradise has arrived, here, now! And that he was privileged to see it beginning. With the overthrow and undoing of the crucifixion of Jesus (at the hands of the domination system of his day) through the resurrection the new world had begun!

There is debate over whether Jesus was “telling” the political criminal beside him “today” or whether Jesus was saying they would be together in Paradise “today.” [7] In Acts 20:26, Luke does place in the mouth of Paul these words, “Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you.” Yet, I favor Luke’s theme of Jesus’ continuous use of the present tense of “Today” such as in Luke 4:18–21:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Where does this leave us right now?

Jesus’ words were not telling the one beside him that he and Jesus would spend the afternoon in some far-distant, post-mortem bliss. This was one last and final announcement by Luke’s Jesus that in Jesus’ Kingdom, the hope of the Hebrew people, the long-awaited “paradeisos” had come. The Jewish hope of a restored world, a restored Paradise, where all injustice, oppression, and violence are made right, had come. And what that fellow, also crucified, would look back on at some point in the future and see is that he was given the privilege of being at Jesus’ side to witness its beginning.

HeartGroup Application

  • Very rarely do I recommend books to HeartGroups. This week I want to recommend Saving Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker. James H. Cone said of this volume, “Every Christian theologian and preacher should read this book and be profoundly challenged.” Even if you can’t afford to purchase it, you can read the prologue and the first chapter here and here. This week, I simply would like you to read the prologue and Chapter 1.
  • Journal your thoughts as you contemplatively read.
  • Share what you discover with your upcoming HeartGroup.

In the beginning period of Christian history, Paradise was the dominant image of early Christian art. Christian art was saturated with a living Jesus, as a living presence in a vibrant world pictured as a restored “paradise.” Christianity over time has turned from the teachings of this Jesus of the early Jesus community to such things as escapism, redemptive violence, conquest, and colonization, holy war, support of oppressive Empires and their national interests, and support of countless other socially oppressive ideologies. Yes there are exceptions, but to a large degree, Christianity made a departure from the early Jesus-movements’ definitions of and ethics of Jesus’ “paradise.” It’s time for a return to the way of the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It’s time to pick back up the work of liberation he began, and to flesh it out even further in our day.

Again, the early church was a group of people endeavoring to follow the teachings of Jesus into this new world, this new social order. The old order of things [8] was passing away. They were embarking on a journey of following Jesus and discovering what social constructs of their present world were old order things that must give way to new order things, and which parts were not. (One such example is the transition from the national exceptionalism of Judaism to including the uncircumcised Gentiles. This was the earliest, and most difficult transition for Jesus followers coming out of Judaism.) The Apostles and early Jesus followers did not finish this journey. They didn’t always get it right. They went as far as they could, given their own context. It’s up to us, standing in their lineage, to continue the work of liberation that Jesus began. [9] It’s up to us to continue the work of liberation from domination systems in our day. Whether it’s systemic racial superiority, national superiority, religious superiority, gender superiority, cisgender superiority, superiority of a particular sexual orientation, educational superiority, or economic superiority, as a Jesus follower, we are called to carry forward the work that Jesus began. Every time our stories align with the Jesus story, it can be said, “today,” we are with Jesus . . . “in paradise.”

Jesus is still out there recruiting.

Some know him by name, others only by spirit.

I close this week with my own modern adaptation of the words of third Isaiah:

Do you think that is the way I want you to fast?
Is it only a time for people to make themselves suffer?
Is it only for people to bow their heads like tall grass bent by the wind?
Is it only for people to lie down in ashes and clothes of mourning? Is that what you call a fast?
Do you think I can accept that?
Here is the way I want you to fast.
Set free those who are held by chains of injustice. Untie the ropes that hold people in subordination. Set free those who are oppressed.
Break every evil chain.
Give away your privilege to the disadvantaged.
Provide the marginalized with a world that is safe.
When you see someone denied what is right, give what you have to them, that there may be equality.
Do not turn away from others who are in all actuality “your own flesh” for they too are “the image of God.”
Then light will break forth like the dawn, and YOUR healing will spring up quickly.

(Adapted from Isaiah 58 by Herb Montgomery)

Till 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 Luke 6:27–36—But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

2 Luke 22:24–27—But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

3 Luke 4.25–29—“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

4 For an excellent, and more detailed discussion on this topic, please see Saving Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker.

5 See last week’s eSight here.

6 Luke 10:9—Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Luke 10:11—Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in

protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near. Luke 11:20—But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.

7 The Curetonian Gospels read “Today I tell you that you will be with me in paradise.” By

contrast, the Sinaitic Palimpsest reads “I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

8 Revelation 21:4—“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the old order of things has passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

9 Luke 4.18–21—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

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?