Woes against the Exegetes of the Law

King monument in D.C.

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And woe to you exegetes of the Law for you bind burdens and load on the backs of people, but you yourselves do not want to lift your finger to move them. Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in, nor let in those trying to get in. Woe to you for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of your forefathers.” (Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:4: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

Matthew 23:29-32: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your ancestors!”

Luke 11:46: “Jesus replied, ‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.’”

Luke 11:52: “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

Luke 11:47-48: “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs.”

Gospel of Thomas 39:1-2: “Jesus says: The Pharisees and the scribes have received the keys of knowledge, but they have hidden them. Neither have they entered, nor have they allowed to enter those who wish to.’”

A century before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Hillel the Elder, a Pharisee, described the entire Torah in terms of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary” (Shab. 31a). Hillel’s contemporary, Shammai, sought to protect Jewish identity through strict interpretations of the Torah and its purity codes that shored up divisions between Jews and Gentiles.

After Hillel’s death and during the days when Jesus taught, the school of Shammai had the upper hand among the working class’s religious teachers in Galilee and Judea. Jesus’ teachings have few parallels with Shammai and have much in common with Hillel, but some elements, in solidarity with the poorer sectors of Jewish society, are unique to Jesus himself. The Pharisees resonated deeply with the working class in Jesus’ day. And I believe that much of Jesus’ critique of the teachers and leaders was directed toward the school of Shammai, not the school of Hillel. Jesus’ critique of the Shammai Pharisees in the saying we’re considering this week could just as easily have been made by Hillel a generation before.

This week, also keep in mind Matthew’s use of phrase “Kingdom of Heaven.” Luke prefers the phrase “keys to knowledge.” Either way, what we have witnessed from the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q is a focus on the here and now, not the hereafter. Matthew’s gospel is a very Jewish, Galilean telling of the Jesus story, and many today have noticed that rather than using the phrase “Kingdom of God”, Matthew’s gospel replaces the word “God” with “Heaven.” Remember this: the Jesus of Q is concerned much less with people gaining access to a post mortem cosmic heavenly realm that keeps them passive in the face of injustice now, and much more passionate about announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth today. This Jesus is less concerned with getting people to heaven at some point in the future and much more focused on bringing the liberation of heaven into people’s lives now.

We must critique versions of Christianity that are radically privatized and/or intentionally removed from all social politics, and we must also critique interpretations of Jesus’ teachings that are opiates for the oppressed and encourage them to be passive in the face of injustice.

The most striking potential connection between our sayings this week and the Pharisees’ view of the school of Shammai is the warning about “exegetes of the Law” who “bind burdens and load on the backs of people” and “do not want to lift your finger to move them.” The exegetes of the school of Shammai were meticulous in adhering to the purity codes (as we saw last week, cf. Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42), but not very concerned about the economic burdens facing the poor among their constituents. Actually, that’s a bit of a misnomer. They were very concerned about the poverty of the poor, but attached moral significance and value to it. If you were poor, you must have broken the purity codes somewhere and YHWH was punishing you. This was a way of interpreting Deuteronomy 28: if you were poor, you weren’t being exploited by the wealthy, you were morally inferior to those whom YHWH was blessing for adhering to the Torah.

This jumps out at me in three ways. First, it is blames people for their oppression. Second, as many today do in relation to America’s economic and military status on our globe, religious people often attribute wealth to being “blessed by God” rather than reaping the fruit of stolen or hoarded resources gained by exploiting others. Manifest destiny and the long continuing history of colonialism are examples. And third, Christianity has done both social good and social harm, like the school of Shammai. All religions can be a powerful force for good, survival, resistance, and liberation, or they can be used instead to oppress, marginalize, exclude, and extricate. The choice is ours.

I’m happy to be able to say that the Pharisees and rabbis later rejected the school of Shammai as harmful and chose Hillel’s golden-rule-based interpretation of the Torah instead. The internal struggle among the Pharisees that we glimpse in our saying this week was resolved on the side of compassion and love rather than sacrifice in the first century (cf. Hosea 6:6).

Jesus and the Pharisees of the school of Hillel had much in common. Consider the interaction between Jesus and a follower of Hillel in Mark’s gospel:

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:32-34 cf. Hosea 6:6 & Matthew 9:13; 12:7)

Those who subscribed to the school of Shammai’s Torah interpretations would have been very put off, and perhaps even angered, by some of Jesus’ more inclusive choices (such as Luke 15). They were refusing to enter into what Jesus called the reign of God and they did their best to use their influence to obstruct the way for everyone around them and call that way dangerous as well.

Jesus’ last rebuke about being the children of those who killed the prophets calls to mind the work of Vincent Harding about the national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Reagan Administration co-opting his memory. In Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, Vincent Harding uses Carl Wendell Hines, Jr.’s poem:

Now that he is safely dead

Let us praise him

build monuments to his glory

sing hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient heroes: They

cannot rise

to challenge the images

we would fashion from their lives

And besides,

it is easier to build monuments

than to make a better world.

So, now that he is safely dead

we, with eased consciences

will teach our children

that he was a great man… knowing

that the cause for which he lived

is still a cause

and the dream for which he died

is still a dream,

a dead man’s dream.

These words, first written about Malcolm X, and then applied to King, could also be applied to the Hebrew prophets and to Jesus as well.  And they offer much to consider in the context of Monday being Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day.

This year, let’s not simply build monuments for those whom the system has silenced and we have silenced too. Let’s instead make the choice to engage in the hard work of making a better world.

And woe to you exegetes of the Law for you bind burdens and load on the backs of people, but you yourselves do not want to lift your finger to move them. Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in, nor let in those trying to get in. Woe to you for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of your forefathers. (Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48)

HeartGroup Application

Last week, I asked your groups to re-center your focus on compassion and justice, and to pick a practice that would facilitate this refocusing. This week, lean further into that same exercise.

  1. Brainstorm another activity you can engage this week as a group in that promotes justice and compassion within your group and in your surrounding community.
  2. Map out what this will require of each of you and commit to action between this week and next.
  3. When you come back together, share with each other your experiences from following through.

This year, like every year, is packed with our potential to make our world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for all of us. Each of us can do something big or small in our circles of influence. Reach out this week and make action your choice.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, and in the words of our saying last week, a love that finds expression through living in justice, mercy and faithfulness to the marginalized and exploited, as well.

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.

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.

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.