Category: Bible (Page 1 of 2)

the judgment of Jesus

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

—Jesus, according to Matthew

 

I have recently received feedback from people who feel I am judging and shaming those who hold political views that harm marginalized people in our society. Many people believe that Jesus taught only spiritual truths and did not care about the politics and economics of his day, even though they had a great impact on the poor peasants and fishermen who followed him. A close reading of the gospels tells a different story. Jesus was very concerned about oppressive political regimes and an economy of commercialized agriculture that was impoverishing the peasants of Palestine at an alarming rate, and he offered a contrasting vision of society—the kingdom of God.

moral choices

Throughout our lives we are faced with moral choices, both personally and politically. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will someday judge between those individuals who choose to practice compassionate action (the righteous) versus those whose indifferent inattention does nothing to help the conditions of poor and marginalized people. His judgement was not meant solely for interpersonal interactions, but also for the corporate actions of social groups—the “nations.” Surely no follower of Jesus believes that their personal charity and service can be separated from their social and political actions. You cannot serve two masters.

The word righteous in this text may need some clarification because the common understanding of righteousness is 1) being morally right, or 2) being right with God. But a more holistic biblical understanding of righteousness is standing up for what is right—doing what is right and just. Righteousness means seeking justice in human society. A righteous person is one who seeks economic and social justice for poor and marginalized people.

The terms righteousness and justice are often linked in biblical texts. That is because they are synonymous, redundant terms. In the original languages of the Bible, the word for justice also means righteousness. The Greek word dikaios (DIK-ah-yos) in the New Testament and the word tzedakah (tze-dah-KAH) in the Hebrew Bible have this dual meaning. Righteousness implies a personal and individual dimension, while justice implies a social dimension, but they both have the same objectives—acting on behalf of those suffering from hunger, poverty, sickness, injustice, discrimination, and imprisonment.

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Compassion in action: charity, service, and justice

Compassion is a feeling of empathy with the suffering of others, the capacity to feel how others feel. The Latin root of the word compassion is a compound of com (with) and passio (suffer), which gives us the meaning to suffer with. Compassion is entering into the pain of another. It is feeling the suffering of someone else—experiencing it, sharing it, tasting it. It is identifying with the sufferer, being in solidarity with the sufferer.

True compassion is being so moved at a gut level that we are moved to the point of action. Jesus was moved by compassion for the poor. We are told that, “He had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36) And in the parable of the Good Samaritan he demonstrated that the one who loves the neighbor is the one who shows compassion on the one who suffers, even if that person is culturally defined as the enemy.

Marcus Borg (1942–2015) has said that, “For Jesus, compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centered in God.” The Pharisees represented a theology of holiness, according to Borg, which was based on holiness as a defining characteristic of God: “Be holy for I, Yahweh, am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44) Jesus proclaimed a theology of compassion based on an alternative characterization of God’s essence: “Be compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36) These differing theologies led them to different ways of living.

compassionate action

Compassionate action usually takes three forms: charity, service, and justice. Although some would include service under the first category, charity more specifically involves gifts of money, clothing, food, or other material goods, but does not necessarily involve an investment of our time and talents. Charity is important, but writing a check to a worthy does not really change us in a fundamental way. Although charitable giving demonstrates a generous nature, we often remain distant from those we seek to help. Service, however, involves us face-to-face with those in need. It can be an immensely transformative experience that can change us from our natural state of self-centeredness into increasingly selfless people. Perhaps it is the only thing that will. Although generosity sometimes leads to self-satisfaction, service often becomes a very humbling experience.

Charity and service are both personal forms of compassionate action. Their objective is to alleviate the effects of suffering in the world. Justice, on the other hand, seeks to eliminate the root causes of suffering. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) said:

We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.

Justice is focused on transforming the social structures and systems that produce poverty and suffering. Justice is the social form of compassionate action. It is the political means of caring for the least of these. The difference between charity and service on the one hand and justice on the other is this: charity and service seek to heal wounds, while justice seeks to end the social structures that create wounded people in the first place. William Sloane Coffin (1924–2006) has said: “The bible is less concerned with alleviating the effects of injustice, than in eliminating the causes of it.” Still, all three of these are necessary components of what German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) described as righteous action in the world. Together, righteous action and contemplative prayer would form the essence of a  “religionless Christianity” in our day.

Our being Christian today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among [humanity]. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.

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the kingdom of God: an introduction

The time is fulfilled, the kingdom is at hand. (Mark 1:15)

The kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11:20)

The kingdom of God is among you. (Luke 17:21)

The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it. (Gospel of Thomas 11)

At the heart of the gospel of Jesus is the kingdom of God. This one phrase sums up the entire ministry of Jesus and his whole life’s work. Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the New Testament was written in Greek. The expression kingdom of Godbasileia tou theou (bas-il-EH-ah too THEH-oo) in Greek and malkutha d’elaha (mal-KOOTH-ah dehl-ah-HAH) in Aramaic—points to the ruling activity of God over human social relationships.

As we read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we see that every thought and saying of Jesus was directed and subordinated to one single thing: the realization of the reign of God’s love, compassion, justice, and peace within human society. Although Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God frequently, he never clearly defined it. Instead, he spoke of it in parables, comparing something familiar (mustard seed, leaven, lost coins, a man who sowed a field) with something unfamiliar.

Then he said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?” (Luke 13:18)

Therefore, we must always test any proposed definition or meaning of the kingdom against the parables. Over the centuries, a variety of interpretations of what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God have been put forth. We will briefly examine six of the most common explanations: the reign of God as 1) heaven, 2) an inner spiritual experience, 3) the church, 4) a separate society, 5) a new state, and 6) a new world. Continue reading

Jesus, Justice, and the Law

 Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.
Deuteronomy 16:20 (the Law)

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice?
— Micah 6:8 (the Prophets)

Strive first for the reign of God and God’s justice.
— Matthew 6:33 (the Gospels)

Was Jesus a law-abiding citizen? Or did he teach us to step outside the law when needed in the name of compassion and justice? Traditional orthodox Christianity claims that Jesus was perfect and sinless, fulfilling the Law of Moses and the Prophets of ancient Israel. Therefore, he obeyed the Hebrew Law completely. But the truth is more complex, illustrating the tension between written and oral laws and the biblical call to justice.

During his life, Jesus experienced three despotic structures of government organized for a privileged few at the expense of the common good of the majority. Upon the death of Herod the Great (73–4 BCE), his kingdom was divided among his three sons. Galilee was a monarchy ruled by his son Herod Antipas (born before 20 BCE – 39 CE). After the removal of his brother Herod Archelaus (23 BCE – 18 CE) by Rome in 6 CE, Judea was ruled directly by a Roman Procurator who reported to the governor of Syria. However, the day-to-day operations were entrusted to a wealthy oligarchy (meaning the ruling few) of the Sadducees, sometimes referred to in the gospels as “the leaders of the people,” or “the chief priests and the elders.” In conquered territories, it was always Rome’s practice to find indigenous collaborators to rule on their behalf. And they always chose people from the wealthy class who saw it in their personal interest to support power when it advantaged them. On top of these structures was an emperor in Rome—first Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE), and then Tiberius (42 BCE – 37 CE)—who was essentially a self-appointed dictator. So Jesus was confronted by a monarchy in Galilee, an oligarchy in Jerusalem, and a dictatorship in Rome.

There were obviously overlapping legal systems in place in this conquered nation, but the one that is usually discussed in regards to Jesus is the Hebrew Law found in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. At the time of Jesus, there were three levels of Hebrew Law. At the core were the Ten Commandments, which we are told were given on stone tablets to Moses by Yahweh.[1] Surrounding these were 316 laws (mitzvot) found in the Covenant Code[2] of Exodus, the Holiness Code[3] of Leviticus, and the Deuteronomic Code[4] of Deuteronomy that were written over hundreds of years. The three codes are significantly different in the range of social and religious issues they cover, the style in which they are written, and the fundamental rules they establish. They can broadly be conceived of as the law of the tribes, the law of the Temple, and the law of the royal court. They show a progression from a primitive tribal confederacy to a sophisticated temple-state ruled by a king. Debating specific interpretations of the Law was an ongoing activity, resulting in an oral law developed by the Rabbis and Pharisees. They viewed it as creating a ‘fence’ around the Law to keep its precepts from being violated.

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no longer male and female

I recently heard of a wedding ceremony in which the pastor charged the couple with two tasks—for the bride: to be submissive to her husband, and for the groom: to lead as the head of the family. These are not unusual expectations for couples in conservative Evangelical churches. In fact, they have been considered normal marital obligations for men and women for the past two thousand years.

We find biblical texts supporting this hierarchical relationship in early church letters attributed to both the New Testament figures of Paul and Peter.

First, there is this in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (3:18–4:1):

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord.

Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord . . .

Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

Second, there is a more elaborate version is found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:21–6:9):

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . .  In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right . . .

And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ . . .

And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.

Finally, a third version is represented in the first letter of Peter (2:13–3:7):

For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution . . .

Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives . . .

Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex.

In these instructions, the expected ethical behavior is listed in pairs reflecting typical social relationships of the first century, addressing first the person who plays  a subordinate role and then the person of superior standing .  These injunctions maintain the traditional social hierarchy. Those in the inferior position are always urged to be obedient to the one whom society gives the upper hand.

In the nineteenth century, German biblical scholars labeled these parallel moral injunctions as the Haustafeln (household tablets), which are New Testament laws for everyday domestic relations. They were intended to imitate the typical social behaviors of the Roman and Jewish traditions in which the early church developed. Some scholars contend that they reflect similar admonitions by Greek Stoic philosophers who shaped the predominant Roman culture. In the past, many traditional scholars have argued that although these hierarchical relationships seem inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus, they were simply an attempt to accommodate the radical new faith to the cultural norms of the empire of Rome in the first and second centuries, so that Christians could blend in with their neighbors. But the followers of Jesus were never meant to blend in. Rather, they were to present an alternative lifestyle to the world. Continue reading

nevertheless, she persisted

In a certain city there was a certain judge who did not fear God and who did not care about people. In that same city, there was a widow who kept coming to him and demanding, “Give me a ruling of vindication against my adversary.” For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care about people, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I’m going to give her a favorable ruling, or else she’ll keep coIming back until she wears me down!” ― Jesus (Luke 18: 1-8)
You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation. — Marian Wright Edelman (b. 1939)

In a late night session on February 7, 2017, during Jeff Session’s confirmation hearing for U.S. Attorney General, just weeks after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, the United States Senate voted to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren after she read comments made decades earlier by Edward Kennedy and Coretta Scott King that criticized the civil rights record of Senator Sessions. Warren was censured because Senate Rule XIX prohibits ascribing “to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.” To silence her, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell led a party-line vote that forced Senator Warren to take her seat and refrain from speaking. McConnell later said “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

That phrase, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” became a rallying cry for the women’s movement that had been ignited by the election of Donald Trump. Writer Valerie Schultz wrote in America: the Jesuit Review of Faith & Culture, “It is a phrase we women embrace because persistence is what we do.”

We women persist. Isn’t that our job? Throughout history, we have persisted in our quest for respect, for justice, for equal rights, for suffrage, for education, for enfranchisement, for recognition, for making our voices heard. In the face of violence, of opposition, of ridicule, of belittlement, even of jail time, nevertheless, we have persisted.

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the rich fool and the bigger barn economy

And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to myself Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ (Luke 12:15–21, NRSV)

In the Cotton Patch translation of verse 15, Clarence Jordan (1912–1969) brings out its original earthiness: “You all be careful and stay on your guard against all kinds of greediness. For a person’s life is not for the piling up of possessions.”

Jordan develops this parable in an interesting way in The Substance of Faith, a collection of his sermons. He elevates the parable to a broad social and political level.

“Jesus said, ‘There was a certain rich farmer.’ Now, he didn’t say what the man’s name was. Jesus left him rather impersonal. To make it a little bit more personal, let’s give the man a name. We’ll call him Sam. ‘Sam’s fields brought forth abundantly.’ Now, we might even want to call him uncle. That would be all right, too. ‘Uncle Sam’s fields brought forth abundantly.’” (Cotton Patch Sermons, pp 81–82)

And what did Uncle Sam do with his rich yield? He kept it all to himself and ignored the hungry of the world. So, although the parable may have been intended to be understood on a purely individual basis, we could legitimately expand the reading to include the entire nation and thereby entertain a new lesson. In either reading, the problem is greediness and self-interest, an unwillingness to share with those in need.

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the Easter uprising

Holy Week recounts the story of Jesus’ march to Jerusalem, his teachings and disruptive actions in the Temple, his arrest, trial, and execution. And on Easter Sunday, we hear of his resurrection from the dead as a vindication by God of his life and message. On Easter, we celebrate the uprising of Jesus, an uprising that has the power to transform lives and the course of history.

According to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), sometime in his third year of healing and teaching in Galilee, after building the core of his movement, Jesus set his sights on Jerusalem in Judea. He decided to go here to confront the Sadducees—the rich and powerful rulers of the people—at their symbolic seat of power. He entered the city in a noisy act of political street theater and then interrupted the operations of the Jerusalem Temple with a demonstration for economic justice.

Jesus clearly understood that imprisonment, torture, and death are always potential and likely consequences of the pursuit of justice in an unjust society. He cautioned his followers that in order to follow him, they must be willing to risk public execution on a cross—the Roman penalty for civil disobedience and insurrection by impoverished and dispossessed people. It was a time requiring courageous decision. Jesus was heading towards a confrontation with power that risked his life and the lives of his followers. Continue reading

the two gospels

Many Christians believe that Jesus was born primarily to die for the sinful nature of humanity. This is standard Christian theology that proclaims that a sacrificial death was the central purpose of Jesus’ life on earth—essentially thirty-three years of marking time until he could die on a cross—enabling us to join him and our loved ones in heaven. For these Christians, this is the essence of the gospel. In fact, the historic Apostles’ Creed takes us immediately from Jesus’ miraculous birth to his agonizing death with nothing in between:

He [Jesus] was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

This is sometimes referred to as the creed with the empty center. Nothing about the life and teachings of Jesus is considered consequential to Christian faith.

But there is another gospel message found in the writings of the New Testament.  As one reads the four gospels and the letters of Paul, it becomes evident that there are two distinctly different messages of good news proclaimed in those ancient writings—two contrasting narratives at the heart of Christianity. The first message of good news that we encounter in the New Testament is presented in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke: the good news announced by Jesus. The second and contrasting gospel is the good news announced by Paul in his letters or epistles, and in the gospel of John. To clarify the difference, we might say that the first is the gospel of Jesus, while the second is a gospel about Jesus. Continue reading

the church and LGBT justice

There is an old joke that asks, “What do you call a man who loves another man?” The answer: “a Christian.” It is ironic, isn’t it, that Christians are foremost among those who object to a man loving another man and a woman loving another woman?

By the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, deciding whether gay marriage should be legal across the country—a decision that will alter the social fabric of the nation. Such a decision will be a huge win for gay marriage advocates, but the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered community will continue to fight legal battles over equal rights for decades. And they will continue to struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the church.

A majority of American voters say they support a Supreme Court decision to allow same-sex couples the constitutional right to marry, but the issue remains far from settled among socially conservative religious communities that have repeatedly proclaimed biblical support for human injustice. Christine Smith writes:

Through its theologies, biblical interpretations, and sexual ethics, the Christian church is one of the primary institutions that provide a foundation for social and ecclesiastical oppression of lesbians and gay men.

(Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance)

Yet a growing number of other Christians are challenging traditional religious thinking, rejecting homophobia and heterosexism because of a different set of theological and biblical perspectives. The result has been enormous conflict in the church. Sexual issues are tearing churches apart today as never before. The issue of homosexuality threatens to fracture whole denominations, as the issue of slavery did a hundred and fifty years ago. Long after this matter is settled in secular society, churches will continue to argue over the struggle between ancient revealed truth and contemporary human justice. Continue reading

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