Category: Bible (page 1 of 3)

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

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